In conjunction with the opening of the December Mostra, we are taking a closer look at the individual practices of our resident artists. The sixth interview is of Max Fletcher, our Sainsbury Scholar.
How did you become interested in the play El Nost Milan by Carlo Bertolazzi?
I had been reading William Morris’s play The Tables Turned; or, Nupkins Awakened which was written in the 1890s in London. At the same time, I was also reading a Louis Althusser essay, The ‘Piccolo Teatro’: Bertolazzi and Brecht. Carlo Bertolazzi, the subject of Althusser’s text, was an Italian contemporary of Morris, and while the themes that they explore are similar, the form that each’s writing takes could not be more different.
Morris’s play has a clear narrative and deals in no uncertain terms with the prison system, police corruption, wealth inequality, and protest. After Judge Nupkins dishes out heavy sentences to the poor, and lets the wealthy go free, a tipping point is reached when the court room is stormed by Morris’s comrades. The result is a socialist utopia, blighted only by the lone figure of Nupkins who wonders through the countryside, unsure of his place in this new society. Bertolazzi, on the other hand, has a more nuanced understanding of form. El Nost Milan’s setting is a funfair and consists of the unemployed in 1890s Milan walking the stage and waiting for something, anything. Food, perhaps, if they’re lucky. The play ends with Nina, the daughter of a fire-eater, leaving world of the fair and poverty in exchange for the other side, where in Althusser’s words ‘pleasure and money reign.’ It is a world of exploitation and corruption but at least there is truth. Each act follows the same structure: nothing much happens as some forty characters come and go, yet there is a sudden flash of action, a conflict, before the act closes. This radically changes the course of the play. The gap between non-dialectical time (waiting) and dialectical time (sudden action/ conflict) is what so excites Althusser and makes Bertolazzi’s play so radical.
In short, Bertolazzi’s play is highly eccentric, and as a result only achieved limited popular success. Yet it is the oddness of the play and its unconventional form that lead Althusser to suggest that it possesses a sort of alienation effect that goes beyond simply actor/ audience relations and manifests itself in the structure of the play, as with Brecht’s best plays. It is something that occurs between the ‘latent’ action of those passing time and the ‘manifest’ action that shapes each act. I found this account of the play compelling and wanted to research further into Carlo Bertolazzi. Yet, the play was written in Milanese dialect and has never been translated. It experienced a revival between 1955 and 1980 with Giorgio Strehler putting on several performances at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, and the play even travelled to Paris, where Althusser was in the audience. The combination of an exemplary form and lack of an English translation drew me to research the play further and use it as a base for my time in Rome.
In your opinion is there a connection between painting and theatre?
Painting and theatre have always overlapped, and it is not uncommon to hear painting being described either positively or negatively as ‘theatrical.’ I am interested in how a relationship with painting can be maintained, while also incorporating a wider set of interests, theatre included.
Rosalind Krauss is adamant that medium cannot be abandoned, but nor can it retreat into itself. Instead it must be seen as a layering of conventions, in constant need of re-articulation. For Krauss, Marcel Broodthaers’s work could easily be characterised a part of a ‘post-medium condition’ but instead she suggests that medium is integral to Broodthaers. In his film A Voyage on the North Sea, we see a number of still images including: a painting of a ship at sea, the sails of the ship, the painted waves, and weave of the canvas. Each image is attributed a page number, but the sequence is muddled, indicating an incomplete history. Broodthaers states the film deals with ‘painting as subject,’ which Krauss suggests refers to medium rather than content.
In using Bertolazzi’s El Nost Milan as source material, I am interested in the written form of the play, but also how it becomes a device for structuring a series of paintings. Page number, act, scene, the use of dialect, and translation, are all variables in a sequence of paintings. These variables become part of the apparatus of painting. The paintings themselves can use theatre to imply a narrative, but at the same time eschew that narrative. They are capable of operating in isolation, but also as the backdrop to performance, to theatre.
Max’s work is exhibited alongside other resident artists in the December Mostra. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 14 December 2019, closed Sundays.
Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).