Šuillakku | Interview by Andrea Viliani
“Šuillakku”. What does it mean?
It is the Akkadian name for prayers of purification in Assyro-Babylonian rituals. It comes from a much more ancient compound word, shu-il-la, meaning “raised hand”. It is an imperative, like vade retro, to cure or to protect oneself.
Are you really sure about that?
Trust me, it’s easier.
When (and why) did you start thinking about this project?
Two years ago, for a solo show at the museum of Castello di Rivoli. I was invited by Marcella Beccaria, who proved her recklessness by granting the third floor of the museum for a project that didn’t seem very promising, at least in words. All I had told her was that I wanted to represent the lamentations for the fall of Nineveh. I may have added that Nineveh was destroyed in the month of July of 612 BC, to make it sound more scientific, but I also clarified that I would do it all by myself.
Have you made trips to see the places to which your project refers (ancient Assyria/contemporary Iraq)?
That area has been occupied by the Arabs for 1400 years. The reconstructions of Babylonia by Saddam Hussein are the expression of a fascist style. I would have been wasting my time. There are no descendants to carry on the traditions of those ancient peoples, it is easier to find continuity among the Ethiopians, the Hamites, the Israelis. Instead, it is reasonable to make nice bourgeois visits to museums in Paris, London and Berlin.
How did you get your documentation?
By doubting, by being suspicious, I am endlessly disappointed by everything. I’m not satisfied with one text, I look for a second opinion and then a third, and at that point it becomes provocation. Alessandra can be even more stubborn, and together we have become a research team.
Were you interested in religion or esotericism before working on this project?
This project was an appointment for all the ideas I had always postponed, and the definitions gathered around it. The nature of the project makes you rethink everything in terms of origins. The people of Nineveh did not yet know about separating magic from religion.
Were you ever interested in science fiction before this project?
I have a problem with science fiction, and the same is true for esotericism. But I have read Ballard, who has always seemed like a very acute man. He lived in the provinces, so he could be certain that everything had already been “chewed” for him.
Do you see a relationship in this project between antiquity and the contemporary age?
Working on the people of Nineveh means going beyond the question of Judeo-Christian roots, through the centuries of intertwining between different religions and mythologies, all the way to the source of the religious idea that has structured occidental thought. History, instead, takes on the appearance of what we require right now. This would not be a problem if we could be certain that we knew what we require right now. I see a relationship outside this project, we live in a past that doesn’t pass. We have grown up in a country of pious unbelievers or non-practicing worshippers, baptized and married in church, buried according to Catholic rites. Our good common sense gets mixed up between the ten commandments and the constitution and dwells on sexual ethics, as if that were a decisive problem. It’s a past that doesn’t pass.
What relationship does Šuillakku have with earlier projects, especially the “songs”?
The procedure, an improvisation stretched out in time. I use an ability I don’t have, I don’t know how to do any of the things I do, so I am forced to do them hundreds of times to get it right. When I am starting to learn my work is done. It is a kind of privilege not to have any specific training, it’s a method that forces you to imagine everything. It would be more complicated to have to constantly remind yourself to avoid the styles of harmonic structure. I have used sloping melodies or melodies using a single interval, without knowing that they were primitive, universal models. I modified my voice, without realizing that vocal mannerisms are the rule in every culture. The style of singing with a “natural” voice is a modern invention. I interpreted a Zulu song and a Chinese song, betraying the originals, but of course Šuillakku is not my version of an original. The idea of a lament arose due to the impossibility of having a reference, and if there ever was a mourning chant for the ruins of Nineveh it has been lost forever, it was a case of genocide.
What criteria did you use to choose the “songs” to reproduce?
Mbube and Mei Gui were originally songs composed with a pop approach. They were not yet integrated in occidental systems, but they were no longer traditional either. This impulse, in a certain sense, has been punished, like a crime. The authors of these songs have been erased from history. I wanted to do a sort of rhapsody of injustice. Mei Gui, in particular, is a story few people know about: it was a big hit in Shanghai in the 1940s, when China seemed ready for a more liberal regime. The original of Mei Gui is swing, arranged by a Russian orchestra that imitated American standards. When the People’s Republic was formed the song was banned as a prototype of pornographic music. It was said to flatter the enemy, without providing instruction on social concepts. The lyrics praise the beauty of roses, and the author, Chen Gexin, was sentenced to do hard labor under the government of Mao Tse-Tung, and passed away while still in prison. The young singer, Hue Lee, lived her whole life in exile. Yet this song became an international hit in the 1950s, Rose, Rose I Love You, a sort of two-minute Madame Butterfly. My version is the caricature of the story of the song, a nonsense version of traditional Chinese music, a con.
As in a recording studio, the technical equipment (speakers, amps, wires, soundproofing panels, etc.) are left visible in these installations. Does this particular set-up have some aesthetic function?
A minimum criterion of good taste.
Are these works primarily conceived for a viewer or a listener?
I want a listener. It’s annoying to think about the color of the carpeting with respect to that of the walls, or to know that people have mistaken the soundproofing panels for monochromes. When I showed Mei Gui in Milan, my gallerist put a tray of apples I had given him at the entrance; one lady thought she was supposed to throw the apples at the polyester fiber panels. My dream is an audience of blind people.
What relationship do sound installations have with exhibition space? In Vilnius, for BMW-Black Market Worlds, for example, Mbube was installed on the staircase leading to the Baltic Triennial; Šuillakku, on the other hand, entirely occupies the rooms of the third floor of Castello di Rivoli (about 900 sq meters) or the Lower Gallery of the ICA (about 120 sq meters).
It is indispensable to raise a general alarm among those who install the show. That’s what I learned in Vilnius. In any case, Mbube and Mei Gui are songs, stereo tracks, you can listen to them in a car. But the lament is a grouping of tracks, it calls for organization. It is much more complex. In London, Šuillakku was compressed into a much smaller space than the one at the Castello di Rivoli. It became a different work, but the sound was excellent. The problem was how to contain it: we couldn’t, so we played music outside the Lower Gallery, like audio make-up.
Did you work with a sound engineer to set up the shows at Castello di Rivoli and ICA?
We invented a little team: a sound engineer, a sound programmer and an architect. We were almost relatives.
How did you “reconstruct” or “recover” the sounds you used in Šuillakku?
I started with images. I reconstructed what I could, using materials that would have been available at the end of the Bronze Age. Above all, rattles, sistrums and flutes with bamboo reeds. I found horns of antelopes and rams, and an Ethiopian stringed instrument that I used for some spells, together with a Tibetan drum used for exorcisms. To reproduce the sound of the Lilissu, an enormous temple drum, I found one of those red drums they use for celebrations in the Far East, and used two microphones at different distances, with a contact mike attached with gum. I changed the pitch with a harmonizer, then recorded the accompanying sounds, including the movements of the air. The result is a sound of a gigantic ritual drum that is not used rhythmically, but marks the pauses in the ceremony. Since I had to overdub my voice dozens of times, I ordered one of those exercise machines they sell on television, it is used to relax the spinal column, but I used it to tire out my voice, so I spent a lot of time upside-down. When I heard myself repeating the same word, more and more slowly, I realized I had spent too much time upside-down, and for a few days my face had a different color than usual.
What do these recorded tracks “mean”?
I recited different spells, based on the incantations contained in the Utukki Limnuti. They keep evil spirits away. Evidently the idea is to call them by name, or to pronounce the name of the category of spirits, ordering them to keep their distance. I used a text like a paranoid sing-song that senses the presence of an enemy concealed amidst people. The central part of the lament starts with a question asked of the Gods: “Who am I, if I no longer have my city, my house, my chair?” This is the start of a call-and-response chant, with the priest, the Kalutu, who says “Lord, the people weep”, and a very noisy chorus repeats the phrase. The chorus always repeats only the first phrase of the priest, in a pattern of A-A, B-A, C-A. Alessandra deduced this scheme by comparing texts. The lamentation finishes in a chorus for the memory of Nineveh, with the grieving women who act out the spirit of the city that dies, weeping.
In what language are these tracks recorded?
The spells are in the Akkadian language, the people’s language, which I mixed with the sounds of animals. But the solemn moment of the lamentation is in Sumerian, the sacred language according to the tradition, like liturgical Latin. In this phase the animals are excluded. It is the choral chant aimed at the Gods and led by the Kalutu, dressed in red. In Nineveh there was no Vatican Council, the liturgy could not depart from the great formal precision of the most ancient rites. Experimenting with other modes would only have been desecration, it would have been paradoxical. The success of an invocation depends on the care with which the ceremony is conducted. This resistance to change is fundamental, in this field there is no progress.
In relation to Šuillakku, in what sense can we talk about “supposition”?
Šuillakku is a supposition, a conjecture. Even the pronunciation of the words is based on convention, deduced from Hebrew and ancient Arabic.
So can we call it a “hypothesis”?
I prefer conjecture. It can’t be tested.
In relation to Šuillakku, can we talk about “error”, or a “margin of error”?
When there are not enough data to test things, the data required to disprove them are also lacking.
How many tracks did you produce?
I never thought about counting. I recorded each sound individually. This is the only reason why the lamentation sounds like it was recorded properly. I concentrated on every little noise. A vase breaking is actually the combination of many recordings. You feel responsibility for every broken vase, if you consider the value of an omen in the 7th century BC.
Would you call Šuillakku a site-specific installation?
Šuillakku is condemned to being site-specific.
Does a partial version of Šuillakku exist? Can it be conceived of in terms of “partiality”?
No, a lamentation must remain intact, whole. A piece of a mass is not a mass. For the exhibition The Great Transformation curated by Chus Martinez, I wanted to isolate the spell of a character of Šuillakku, the Ukh-Dugga, or he who murmurs and produces saliva, a folk wizard, not a true priest. The idea comes from the belief that reciting a spell transforms the saliva into poison. The word for wizard, Uh-Zu, means “saliva expert”, and the word for saliva in the first Sumerian pictograms is a mouth that contains a body. All the oriental traditions attribute a magical meaning to saliva. The laws of Mesopotamia prohibited spitting in a river. My Ukh-Dugga is a desperate man, seated on the ground, who nervously strums his harp and spits after every phrase of his formula, to create a barrier around himself. The sound of the spitting becomes the rhythmic component of a prayer.
How did you assemble the tracks? With what criterion?
For the start of the most solemn part of the lamentation I got a suggestion. It is a combination, which may just have survived in the Book of Daniel. The original text is in Aramaic, it dates back to a period in which the Greek language was being mixed with Hebrew dialects. It is the description of a ceremony for the inauguration of a new idol. The sequence and category of instruments used for the ceremony terminate with the word “sumponiah”, which comes from the Greek symphonia, i.e. the harmonized grouping of these instruments: an orchestra. This list is obsessively repeated in the form of a warning to slaves, who had to prostrate themselves at the sound of horns, trumpets, reed flutes, etc. Considering the Middle Eastern tradition, besides being the description of an orchestra, this might also be a sort of score, indicating a solo for each instrument and then the sound of all the instruments together. Based on this interpretation, the result is the best that can be achieved with instruments that have a small melodic range. It is a cinematic crescendo. An excellent suggestion.
What will you do with the tracks you have not used?
I remembered a cartoon where the characters were so lazy that in order not to have to chew bread, they swallowed flour and drank water, and then placed themselves in front of a fire so the bread would cook in their stomachs. I have destructured certain test edits of the lamentation for a beat exhibition in Miami, like a chef. In this way the lamentation is no longer anything, it occupies space, as it might occupy the stomach.
Do you see a similarity between the intention of reconstructing, by yourself, in the studio, all the musical instruments for Šuillakku, and playing them yourself, as well as doing all the lamentations and prayers, and certain actions of yours in the past, like writing with long fingernails or drawing your self-portrait while wearing eyeglasses that made you see everything upside-down (Coccodeista, 1997), or living for years as if you were your father?
There is something possessive abut everything I do. I think it might be better not to find the answer. For example, I cannot say that I love my work, because it isn’t that kind of emotion. It’s like raising an animal that could eat you. I wouldn’t know what to call that kind of affection.
Why associate the need for direct experience with the collaboration of a specialist?
To begin to imagine something, to have a track, resolving the problem, for example, of the choice of original sources and texts, of more recent transcriptions and their pronunciation. The real obstacle has always been the confusion that surrounds these subjects. We have also reconstructed the Great Lyre of Ur of Princess Pu-Abi’s death pit, the Sumerian element that accompanies the call and response part of Šuillakku. The original was conserved at the museum of Bagh-Dad. It was smashed during the war in 2003. The sounding box of this type of instrument has the form of the body of a bull and terminates with the head of the animal as decoration. The gold head of the original was saved, because it was in a restoration workshop. In any case, this instrument was almost 5000 years old, and could never have been played. But we had its measurements and some X-ray images. Here the specialist was Dario Pontiggia, a luthier who normally works on baroque harps. We purchased cedar wood and sheep-gut strings with a diameter comparable to that of handmade strings. The tuning follows the Greek system, which undoubtedly came from that of Mesopotamia. The tension of the strings is dictated by the load-bearing capacity of the instrument’s structure. Dario was perplexed right up until the end, because the sounding box has no openings, so he thought the lyre would not resonate at all. But this instrument has a double bridge that interferes with the vibration of the strings, sustaining the sound, a sound that is very different from what you might expect from an instrument that is similar to a harp. A lamentation demands that you acquire a taste for certain sounds that are more suitable for rhythmic ostinato than for true melody, but when our lyre emitted an energetic bellow we understood that we had done an excellent job.
What is the emotion that comes from this collaboration, and that we can mainly associate with Šuillakku?
Šuillakku is a flow of sentiments in four phases, isolation, rage, negotiation and depression. Having to structure the lamentation, I used the phases of psychological adaptation to the experience of death. Šuillakku is a people faced by its fate, caught between the death sentence and its execution. Its structure comes from the manuals for the care of the terminally ill. In thanatology they describe a model in five phases, ending with acceptance. I have eliminated the last phase. Our idea of submission comes from the Israelite tradition, while Šuillakku has the arrogance of a battle chant, of a people accustomed to using its God. So I eliminated the solution. Everything stays suspended, for a work that technically should have been a loop.
Do you see a similarity between the image of your studio published in several magazines, in which your work chair is surrounded by the instruments constructed to produce Šuillakku, and the self-portrait (Untitled, 2005) formed by many objects, which are probably also found in your studio?
I have a tendency to bury myself, for self-defense. It’s my right, if you consider the whole range of phobic behaviors.
What function does your studio have in relation to your projects?
The function you might imagine, but I live there.
What is the role of the objects or sets you produce, that never become works themselves though they have a decisive role in the conception and production of a work?
The work is always the one with the caption, otherwise I have to provide explanations, and I have a terrible memory. I’ve found myself having to explain things that date back to over ten years ago. If that didn’t happen periodically, I would forget them completely.
For the film program that accompanies the exhibition at the ICA you have selected some of your favorite films – The Exterminating Angel and Simon of the Desert by Buñuel, The Prince of Egypt, Three Ages by Buster Keaton, and Legacy: The Origins of Civilization. What connection do they have with the exhibition?
I chose the two Buñuel films, I’ve never seen the others, but they were perfect for the film program, which is an initiative aimed at families. I had prepared a very long list with things that unfortunately were impossible to find, like the English version of Le Sacre de l’Homme by Jacques Malaterre, which was made for France 2. I saw the Buñuel films more than twenty years ago. I am proud because I moved an old technician to tears, at the film library in Bologna, who transferred them to VHS for me. They are part of the educational program I set for myself, and more than a connection it seems like a curse. Today these films are distributed in Italy by the publisher San Paolo… doesn’t that seem like a bizarre urge to stay in the spotlight?
An archaeologist inevitably makes mistakes (hypotheses that are disproved, etc.) in order to discover something, but we cannot say that he “invents”. You, on the other hand, have granted yourself the freedom of inventing many things in this project, granting the concrete experience of something that, for an archaeologist, would remain pure guesswork – for example, by playing instruments whose sound has been lost to us. What is the difference between the approach of the archaeologist and yours, in the Šuillakku project?
An archaeologist has a scientific approach, but every hypothesis is the result of a fantasy. For me everything had to remain connected to imagination, and erroneous hypotheses or the scientific method are tools for the imagination. The first problem was to start to imagine something, at that point I did not separate the possibilities, I dragged them together until the end. Choosing is not always a duty. In this case, had I chosen I would have had to stop.
What is the relationship between reality and invention in a project like Šuillakku?
Any possible relationship, or no relationship, because they blend and no longer want to separate. Šuillakku is also deeply absurd, but as soon as you try to convince yourself that it is just a parody, something happens, and you have to think again.
Who or what is Pazuzu?
He is the lord of evil spirits of the frosty wind that comes down from the Zagros, the Iranian mountain chain, and blows along the Tigris and Euphrates as far as the Persian Gulf, bringing blight and famine. Pazuzu is the only spirit capable of controlling the triad of demons of the tempest, Lilu, Lilitu and Ardat-Lili. He is undoubtedly the son of Hanpà or Hambu, but no one knows precisely who this Hanpà is. Pazuzu is certainly a demon, but he is also a God. When depicted and named he becomes a magical tool, and this was his work for 500 years. Pazuzu has almost always been a talisman, a small portable talisman for protection against illness. In a certain period he was always represented in opposition to Lamashtu, the only demon uglier than he is, who poisoned swamps with typhus or malaria. Pazuzu was the only defense, besides never drinking swamp water. When the symptoms of Lamashtu appeared, a specialist would intervene, carefully using the sacred language to invoke Pazuzu, who would be able to push Lamashtu into hell, freeing the victim.
What is the relationship between Šuillakku and Pazuzu?
The word Šuillakku. I presume that Pazuzu was a silent alarm, controlled by an inscription and deployed precisely from the position I told you about, the Shu-il-la. This hypothesis is not mentioned in archaeology. Pazuzu remains a very aggressive demon, depicted in an aggressive position. But the same position is used to represent the guardian spirits of African origin, which are much more ancient than Pazuzu. It is the same position as that of Humbaba, who guarded the cedar forest of Lebanon. More than an aggression, it seems like a “stop”, a signal compatible with the position that has taken on a liturgical meaning, more precisely as an exorcism. The two archaeologists who took part in our encounter at Artissima, Carlo Lippolis and Roberta Menegazzi, pointed out that Pazuzu’s legs are not aligned, so he is advancing; this is inconsistent with a solemn gesture. I believe it is simply a way of reinforcing the same meaning of intimidation, and in any case I remember representations of the demon seated or even kneeling, but always with a raised hand.
Why was the sculpture of Pazuzu made by scanning the original (a statuette at the Louvre), instead of simply reproducing it from existing photographic documentation?
I did not want to make the statue of Pazuzu and I did not make it. A device produced by Leica reconstructed the 3D model in the form of a cloud of points. Giugiaro Design continued with the rapid prototyping system, using gigantic milling machines that normally shape auto bodywork. My Pazuzu is an arithmetic enlargement of a talisman, because Pazuzu is the lord of the demons of the wind, but also a talisman against illnesses. It seems like a monument, but it is a small pendant, conserved in a museum. It was built in the Giugiaro Design workshops, but its author is a Semitic craftsman from the first millennium BC. I am not superstitious, but Pazuzu is a pagan idol and his spirit dwells in every one of his representations.
Are you a precise person?
I am a very severe naïve person, I have symphonic contradictions.
Does the change of scale (monumental) with respect to the original (fits in the hand) have a meaning?
It is a protection in proportion to the scale of the Savoy castle of the museum of Rivoli. Pazuzu was a magical object for personal use. Mine is a communitarian, institutional fetish.
Does the change of position (outdoors) with respect to the original (in a display case inside the museum) mean something?
The locations I have chosen are consistent with the original use, in front of the entrance, above the access. Pazuzu is a watchdog. The display case in the museum makes him fall asleep.
Give me an example of a detail that is important to you, in relation to the project.
The day when Pazuzu was taken down from the Castello di Rivoli to bring it to London a small metal pendant was found, a litany to the Virgin: REGINA SINE LABE ORIGINALI CONCEPTA ORA PRO NOBIS, Queen conceived without original sin pray for us. Some devotee tried to slide it into the crack between the resting point of the statue and its base, thus triggering the second talisman, which is now mine. Had I been looking for a test, a reaction, I could never have dreamed of such an inspired response. Whoever did it felt the lure of a Babylonian demon and responded to a pagan expression with another pagan expression. Theirs validates mine, but with a bit of confusion, because theirs is a devotional image and mine is a pre-Christian idol. A heresy. Then Chiara found another Queen without sin behind a sound-absorbing panel. I don’t know if this is an important detail, I think it is encouraging, in any case someone believed me, completely.
And an example of a detail that is not important to you in relation to the project?
There is one detail I never thought about, until the moment came to bring Pazuzu to London. The Institute of Contemporary Art is inside the Nash House, owned by the royal family, on the avenue used for public ceremonies, so the demon from Mesopotamia had to wait for the permission of the Westminster Council, Royal Parks and Crown Estate, the office of the Queen. After a week of silence an objection arrived: “obscene”. They requested crotch photos and the measurements of the demon’s penis, and everything had to wait three more weeks. No one had heeded one obvious particular: Pazuzu is not a classical nude, Pazuzu is a rapist, and the Devil has never been a Devil without a brash erection.
What is Pazuzu’s function when he takes the form of the “Project for Castello di Rivoli” (the digital drawing that accompanied the invitation and other promotional materials for the exhibition at Rivoli)? In this drawing Pazuzu seems like a manga freak, he is very different from the sculpture, and reminds me of the imagery of earlier works, like the comics of Andy Warhol as a superhero (Friendly Neighborhood, 2001) or the cartoons of The Goodgriefies (2000).
It is a Pazuzu for kids, because idolatry is a practice permitted to all children: talking to dolls, giving them names, offering them food and inventing strange powers for them. The funerary practices of Homo Sapiens are the same ones used to bear the loss of a hamster. There are aspects of archaeology that seem like those of pedagogy, but played backwards. It is an educational effort, not by accumulation but by subtraction, to reach the original model.
What is the best way to document this project?
We will discover that by making mistakes. The lamentation eludes any proposal, while Pazuzu is ideal for tourist photographs. In London some tourists looked for him, in vain, in their City Guides.
Could you give me your definition of “documentation”?
The set of data required to fool yourself that you can conserve something for eternity. Documentation is the sarcophagus of facts.
Speaking of documentation, would you do an exhibition without documenting it (a trick question, because that is just what we’re doing)? Is that what we’re doing?
I do lots of exhibitions without even going to see them. It is not my duty because it is not my wish to do them. Most of the exhibitions I do are someone else’s wish.
Do you think that today it is possible to lose track (documentation) of something?
If it’s not a matter of evidence against you, if you don’t want to dig a hole in the sand, it’s problematic even if you lose what is certainly useless. Somehow we are expected not only to conserve, but even to protect smallpox. It is a precious enemy, under lock and key for thirty years, but never really eliminated. I was vaccinated, and you certainly were too. Alessandra wasn’t, because she’s four years younger than me. The defeat of smallpox was announced, after a prevention campaign, but no cure has ever been found. The last specimens of smallpox are conserved in a laboratory in Atlanta and another in Siberia. The idea was to destroy that last trace of smallpox before the start of the third millennium. This was not done, and when they say they’ve done it it will probably be a lie. Smallpox is the documentation needed to create the specific vaccine, which is the only possible measure that can be taken. Without a smallpox culture of reference, were a new epidemic to break out the world would not be ready to react. After the terrorism alarm millions of vaccine doses were prepared, but as a defensive measure it could turn out to be an illusion, because the world population has never been so immunosuppressed as it is right now. The immunized might get sick, or they might become immune carriers, multiplying the infection. Due to a series of illnesses and new illnesses, for nutritional and therapeutic issues, above all due to the spread of anti-cancer therapies, we are an immunologically embarrassed population.
If you could or had to choose, would you prefer to make a book without images or a book without words?
Without images. I would like to construct a regular text, but one that is linguistically problematic, and then put it through a series of translations, in a chain. Round trip, to guarantee that the translation would be wrong. The book would end with the initial text, but with renewed meanings, acquired during the translations. It would be a different text, a gift.
You have done some things without the objective of making them works. Yet people talk about them ‘almost’ as if they were. What is your definition of a work?
The work is the one with a caption.
What work would you like to do know, after Šuillakku?
My book without images. The text is constructed on the basis of philological deceptions, and a path of translations must be established. I don’t think I know how to do it. A lot of time is required, or I will have to disturb a certain number of people before starting to construct the text.
Would you be interested in starting a new language?
Not really. A new language is nothing without a political act. I am not accustomed to advertising differences or situations of belonging. Founding a new language is like practicing clandestinity or political homicide.
What is your ideal museum?
The most complete, the most free, the closest.
With what criterion have you visited archaeological museums, in recent months, like the Louvre, for example? In the brochure of the show at the ICA there is a picture of you as you visit precisely the Louvre, I think, during the trips for the preparation of the exhibition.
It is the Louvre, and I have no criterion, I get lost and distracted continuously. That picture was not from a trip for the preparation of the exhibition, it is older, which is why I too seem older. I was in Paris to accompany Alessandra to the MAC theater of Créteil for a series on Merce Cunningham. Alessandra used very sensitive film and the next day, at the department of Oriental Art, she ran down the roll film taking some photos of me and Pazuzu. Luca Cerizza saw these photos and thought they were full of nostalgia, so we decided to use them.
It almost looks like a daguerreotype… that’s you in the picture, isn’t it?
It’s me with the wrong film.
What made you choose a demon as the only visual element in the show?
Pazuzu is the past that doesn’t pass. A demon as a talisman is an excellent example of the animist religious idea, as opposed to monotheism, to the religions of transcendence that have taken form from the rejection of such practices. The foundation of the three religions of Abraham lies in the meaning of the tablets of the covenant, mostly regarding regulation of community life. The first original commandments, however, order the worship of one sole God, forbid the use of his name and any representation of him. In this way, through prohibitions, they confirm precisely the substance of the religious idea of immanence of pagan peoples, i.e. that Pazuzu lives in each of his images. This is why it is prohibited. The Judaic intuition is an intellectual approach to the religious idea, it is a more demanding discipline that grew stronger by resisting Assyro-Babylonian tortures, but through pragmatic prohibitions. In spite of all this, talismans of Pazuzu have also been found in Palestine, dating back to the fourth century BC. Clandestine talismans, little heads, seals, pins in the form of Pazuzu, long after the fall of Nineveh and after the last Babylonian revival. Pazuzu survived his owners, hidden, demonstrating an insurmountable limit: the tendency toward behavior that is not culturally determined, the basis of the religious idea, of superstition.
What is your definition of “superstition”?
Superstition is the unconditional need for a meaning. It is a precise characteristic, no animal other than man feels the need to celebrate supernatural forces. The religious idea is an exclusive, precise vice, but so precise that there must be a neurobiological basis for the complex of behaviors that are usually considered irrational. I want to call it a vice, because it must be linked to the fact that the thickness of the cerebral cortex of man is unprecedented. The gray matter is the area of the brain that determines abstract thought, the association cortex, a layer of cells that prompts the need to attribute order to random events. In the same way, disorderly impulses during slumber reach the cortex and are connected together to resemble a story, to make sense and be managed. It is the natural disposition toward narrative language, representation, fables and music. Every animal survives by adapting to unexpected events, but man also wants to know why, why him, he can’t stand the idea that the natural order is a meaningless set of events. This is why, if he does not have an answer, he invents one, saying that it is a matter of punishment. Finding a reason behind the punishment, he finds the way to avoid it in the future. In this sense the religious idea is the symptom of a case of hypertrophy among mammals, an advantageous disproportion. Like the neck of a giraffe. The surface area of the brain is an accumulation of cells that are specialized in finding explanations, but also in finding them in any case, even if they don’t have sufficient information. The association cortex is a system that forces us to distinguish between right and wrong just to give meaning to circumstances, which otherwise would seem like a chaotic flux. Even worse, because the result is inconsistent with the rules of adaptability of biological selection. This excess of gray matter generates an ethical tendency, a taking of position that is utterly inappropriate with respect to the laws of nature. The artificial concept of injustice winds up considering the structural elements of life immoral, like wind, rain, sickness, death. In this sense, Pazuzu is not a product of the irrational, just the opposite.
Why has religion (let’s leave out archaeology and science fiction) become the focus of many works of contemporary art?
I don’t think it is because of bad faith or some form of distraction. I’m not a big observer of contemporary artworks, but I recall having seen the Atlas of Creation by the creationist Harun Yahya, because Castello di Rivoli got a free copy as a cultural institution. It seemed like a book for children, made by children. The global village is in outrageous disorder. On the Italian TV show “Striscia la Notizia” a healer, the magician Adelia, explained that in front of the altar every priest raises the consecrated host, made of flour and water, and declares “this is the body of Christ”. Then Adelia took her amulet and said “if that is false then this too is false, but if that is true, so is this”.
What expression should be assumed in the presence of Pazuzu?
In London some Japanese tourists had their pictures taken under Pazuzu, with their hands raised. It seemed like they had misunderstood the position as a wave of the hand. A monster that waves is very “Japanese”, but Ronald Van de Sompel, whose wife is Japanese, explained to me that in Japan everyone has a Maneki Neko, a ceramic cat with its paw raised, to attract good luck at the entrance to a space. But the gesture of the Maneki Neko is one that calls; so I think back on my smiling tourists who called fortune by imitating a demon from Babylonia, and what they were doing seemed like a salutation.
No one knew the truth.
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You’re currently reading “Šuillakku | Interview by Andrea Viliani,” an entry on Šuillakku by Roberto Cuoghi
- 16/10/2009 / 5:14 pm
- English Version