"I’m gonna live forever. ... Baby remember my name." Irene Caras infectious anthem to fame — the theme song for both the eponymous 1980 Alan Parker film and the television series and musical that followed — seemed mirrored nowhere more vividly than in the smile of Leroy, the young African-American dancer played by Gene Anthony Ray. He attended the actual New York High School of the Performing Arts as a teenager before being expelled, and his breakaway performance updated the American dream into the stuff of reality, even as the cogs of Reaganomics began to quash the upward mobility of precisely his Harlem demographic. By the time Gene Anthony Ray died, in 2003 from a stroke complicated by his illness from AIDS (an acronym that Reagan himself failed to utter publicly in eight years of office), hardly anyone in America appeared to remember his name.
That a young artist on the other side of the Atlantic found in Ray’s misfortune an allegory of celebrity and its vicissitudes would seem, at best, fodder for a tale of ingenuous empathy, or, at worst, the facile patronization of a fallen star by a rising one. Instead, Marco Papas (born 1973) multimedia, multiyear project Dancing on the Verge (2001-2006), which involved Ray himself before his untimely demise, combined ambition and self-consciousness in a mix worthy of its subject. Following the decline of his career, Ray moved to Italy, drifting between various cities in a state of destitution, stirring up a buzz with his appearances in the most unlikely places. Here was the incarnation of fabled (and distinctively American) success, turning up like a latter-day Wandering Jew in real time, exiled from the stardom he had so charismatically personified. Ray’s intermittent residence in Papa’s native Milan, Naples, and even a small village in Calabria reduced — for Papa and his Italian contemporaries — the epic magnitude of "fame" (in all its senses) to more mundane dimensions. Papa embarked on a quest to find Ray and engage him in a series of works that would thematize his fitful trajectory as an artist and individual. What began as an aesthetic experiment led to a close friendship, as well as a kind of social intervention, as Papa used the project to raise awareness and money for Ray’s increasingly abject predicament. At no point, however, did Papa’s venture exploit the bathos of Ray’s tribulations, nor indulge in blind hero worship.
Evolving in time, space, and concept, Dancing on the Verge (for which Papa won the Casoli Prize for Contemporary Art in 2007) involved meticulous drawings, written documentation, and site- specific installations, including a requiem mass held in Trapani, Sicily, using a sculptured chalice-trophy designed by Papa. The project culminated in a synergy of sculpture, performance, and collective labor titled Black Gene Performance (2006), in which numerous individuals pulled together on a rope — passed through a mirrored wall — to hoist up a black granite sculpture of Gene/Leroy. Comprising 11 separate blocks of black granite threaded by a steel cable, the sculpture figured the dancer in the legendary Fame split when pulled taut. As the crowd pulled the rope, they could not see the sculpture as it ascended, but rather only their own reflection in the mirror. The effigy of success and failure rising and falling on the other side remained out of sight. Once the act of collective suspension concluded, the sculpture crumpled to the warehouse floor, its limbs disarticulated. Though its developments have been recorded in an absorbing book-journal (Charta, Milan; 2006), Dancing on the Verge is more than the sum of its (organizational, formal, and temporal) parts. In its revisitation and attempted resuscitation of Ray’s livelihood, the project unfurls an attendant commentary on the art market, its mercurial and mercenary addiction to celebrity, and Papa’s (and our) own implication in this system of unrelenting codependencies.
Building on similar themes, Papa’s next project, Ring of Fire (Cerchio di Fuoco, 2007-present), takes as its touchstone an artistic personality closer to home — in this case that of Pino Pascali, the arte povera sculptor and performance artist who died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 33. After a series of preparatory drawings, interviews with Pascali’s contemporaries, and a video documenting his research, Papa re-created Pascali’s Guzzi motorcycle out of sealing wax, piece by piece. The first part of the project — in the form of a literal ring of fire, evocative of motorcycle stunt rallies — was realized in November of 2007. The next stage will entail the melting of the bike’s pieces, which will drip into a mold of its original components, thus reconstituting the bike with a phoenix-like circularity. As with Dancing on the Verge, Ring of Fire transforms, through a kind of material and conceptual alchemy, facets of its subject’s remarkable biography into a work by turns concrete and playfully ineffable, anecdotal and elliptical.
Papa’s contiguity with arte povera is further reflected in his gallery representation by Matteo Boetti, son of Alighiero Boetti, one of the group’s original figures. Significantly, Papa was born one year after Germano Celant — arte poveras founder — repudiated the "repetitive stereotypes" to which the movement’s influences were being increasingly reduced. A generation later, Papa has absorbed the lessons of postwar Italian practices while carving out his own trajectory. His uses of sculpture conjure up those of Pascali himself, who, following his training in set design, often deployed his objects (notably Blue Widow, 1968) in ritual-like performances, and who filtered his social criticism through an alembic of conceptual poetics. Conversely, for Papa, sculpture also rescues his own increasingly theoretical work from the rarefaction of pure intellect. This dialectic seems to have informed Papa’s work from his earliest efforts — elegiac objects sculpted from soap, licorice, bread, and graphite. For his 1993 piece Alle venere, Papa sculpted a small unicorn out of soap, as a fragile symbol of purity and innocence; as the soap dissolved in a sink over the course of several days, all that remained of its existence was the faint, disembodied whiff of its former incorporation.
Perhaps it is only the presence of the sink that links them, but Papa’s work seems to evince something of Robert Gobers practice, in which seemingly straightforward objects are often the product of intricate preparation, handwrought fabrication, and quite lyrical derivation. Papa’s involuted conceptual ventures belie a frank concern for design, form, and materials. It suffices to look at his pencil studies for the sculpture-installation You Cannot Forget (No puoi dimenticare, 2005), or his suite of dazzling drawings in graphite for Dancing on the Verge (Silver Gene, 2004), to get a sense of the scrupulous — even academic — compositions that subtend his projects. But it is often the disjunction between these clear-cut images and the real-time unfolding of his installations that is most striking and compelling in Papa’s work. For Look at the side you don't know (2003), he mounted the chassis of a car in the wall separating two rooms of London’s Union Gallery, inviting visitors to cross the space and enter the work itself. A hint of Joseph Beuyss notion of "social sculpture" perhaps echoes in Papa’s interdisciplinary, participatory affinities, as well as his investment in a kind of collective, symbolic catharsis around specific objects. But Papa steers clear of the specious naïveté that marked Beuys’s self-styled shamanism, with its quixotic faith in the autonomy of artworks. "I begin," Papa has remarked elsewhere, "from the assumption that all art has always been a commercial matter. If part of my research could be consumed by the masses, instead of remaining elitist, it could really be meaningful."
Papa has put those refreshingly candid words into practice, serving, as of this past year, as the artistic director of Adele-C, an exhibition space in Milan and Rome funded by Adele Cassina, daughter of the legendary Italian designer Cesare Cassina. "Design," Papa insists, "is in crisis" — a crisis rooted in depersonalized seriality. Adele-C aims to involve various contemporary artists in rethinking the future of design, issuing limited-edition artworks created in light of that concern, produced on an industrial scale. Exhibitions thus far have involved collaborations between Luigi Ontani and Gioacchino Pontrelli, Enzo Cucchi, and Papa himself. For his inaugural exhibition in the Roman venue, Papa created a tricolor sculpture based on the armchair that Cesare designed for his young daughter (Zarina Year Zero (Zarina anno zero, 2008). Its velvet fabric is painted vivid green and red, and the back of the chair-sculpture served as a screen for the projection of a video recording daily events in and around the studio — at once a relic of Italy’s modernist history and a blank slate for its future; an artifact of familial sentiment, and an appeal for a more humanist design practice at large. Once again, a biographical penchant forms the kernel of Papa’s sculptural object here. Sentiment does not bleed into sentimentality, however. The object in Papa’s oeuvre consistently reins in its affective, narrative, and intellectual strains. These remain present, palpable, somehow on the verge.
"Live Forever" originally appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' Summer 2009 Table of Contents.