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It is a frequently cited fact that the best way to articulate a sentiment about the present is to borrow from the vocabulary of the past. We constantly see this happen in the media, in politics and, not least, in art where, since at least the early-1990s, the trope of the remake or the re-enactment has been employed as a critical means for comparing historical moments, political regimes or more abstracted, intra-artistic concerns. One important aspect of Damiano Bertoli’s practice is the gesture of forming a dialogue with art history: in ‘revisiting historical works and extending them’ into the present day.1 Typically when such trans-temporal comparisons are levelled, the former image or concept is used to historically frame the latter, with the slippages that occur between the two consequently being brought into focus. But what if, in the act of staging this type of remake, Bertoli was not so interested in the slippages but in honing the sense of continuity instead? Drawing an imaginary web, for instance, between the 1980s American TV show Miami Vice and its 2006 film remake (both written, directed and produced by Michael Mann) creates what the artist refers to as a ‘continuous moment’, where the time that has elapsed between the two temporal points is not counterposed but suspended.
Bertoli’s exhibition, ‘Continuous Moment: Le Désir…’, plots the trajectory of Pablo Picasso’s play ‘Le Désir Attrapé Par La Queue’ (written 1941). It was performed once as a reading in 1944 in a Paris atelier, and for a second time in 1967 as a production organised by the French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel and musically accompanied by Soft Machine near St Tropez as part of the 4th Festival de la Libre Expression. Extending this theatre piece into the present day, Bertoli has created a provisional third performance. His stage is black, overlaid and perspectivally divided by a grid mapping a Euclidean recession into space (also a reference to the Superstudio architectural design group) so characteristic of the artist’s collages. The stage is flanked by the two previous temporal signifiers: a photograph of the group of Parisian intellectuals who were present at the original reading in 1944, and a video montage comprising psychedelic projections, reminiscent of those used in Lebel’s 1967 performance, spliced with archival footage of Picasso executing a painting and Soft Machine performing live. Bertoli’s stage, populated by various speculative interpretations of Picasso’s original characters (including ‘Thin Anxiety’, ‘Curtains’, ‘Silence’, ‘The Onion’, ‘The Tart’ and ‘Her Cousin’), functions like a spatio-temporal collage, incorporating references to both variations of the play.
The temporal net that Bertoli casts with this installation, however, is more strange and curious than either a cumulative or comparative historical analysis. Perhaps the key to the artist’s approach lies in looking at his point of departure for the piece: not the 1944 reading, nor the 1967 production, but the simultaneous existence of the two interpretations in the present (in various archives, the internet or in memory). That is to say that in this work, Bertoli suspends a diachronic progression of time in lieu of a synchronic temporal framework. Due to the Nazi occupation of Paris when Picasso originally composed ‘Le Désir’, the play was never fully realised by the artist; it was only ever performed as a reading. Bertoli’s rendition—as with Lebel’s—thus engages with the process of ‘activating a never realised possibility’ and a notion of ‘what may have been’.2 In this way, Continuous Moment: Le Désir… can be perceived as forming an allegorical paradigm with the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment known as ‘Schrödinger’s cat’, where a cat placed in a box with a flask of poison and a radioactive source can exist in a state of quantum superposition as both alive and dead at the same time—but only to the world outside. Since the original Picasso play was not officially produced in the 1940s when it was written, Lebel’s and Bertoli’s later versions of it are imagined as inhabiting parallel, non-hierarchical worlds: dual and co-existing outcomes of a singular gesture.
As Edward Colless has said previously, all of Bertoli’s artworks are ‘implicated in each other’.3 They are like fractals or holographs: identical at the level of the individual image as to the whole. As such, the individual artworks cannot be read as forming a linear progression but must instead be duly envisaged as fractals—something that is repeated, doubled or looped—infinitely recurring as if a mathematical point in a Mandelbrot set.
But why the sixties? This is a decade that pops up with metronomic regularity in Bertoli’s work—from the myriad references to counterculture, like the Manson Family, to the utopian and radical urban architectural movements such as Superstudio, from whom the artist derives the overriding title for his practice—‘Continuous Moment’, a deviation of Superstudio’s ‘Continuous Monument’. Besides the explosion of collage in the sixties, when artists could create aesthetically, ideologically and temporally conflicting compositions to reflect their similarly fragmented experience of reality, perhaps the reason why Bertoli keeps coming back to the 1960s is because this is the decade that time changed; when it was alternately compressed, expanded and accelerated via technology.
In her book Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, Pamela M. Lee analyses the shifting temporal construct of the decade—from the supposed waning of the ‘Machine Age’ following the Second World War to a fear of time and its measure in the 1960s, when there existed ‘no clear perspective on the social and technological horizon to come’.4 Central to this shift, Lee argues, was the pairing of time and technology, describing the two as ‘twinned phenomena’.5 The 1960s were radical for the modes by which technology suddenly infiltrated the cultural and economic lives of developed Western populations, thus generating a deeply unstable image of the present as inextricably bound to the future, based on principles such as ‘Moore’s Law’. This still echoes today, at a time when technology and its potential to further destabilise and transform time looms like an omnipresent Damoclean sword—in the form of predictions such as technological singularity, where it is anticipated that, in just a few decades, it may be possible to build a computer more powerful, capable and intelligent than humanity itself. The ‘chronophobic impulse’ in Bertoli’s work articulates this repeating pattern: not by highlighting the differences, but by emphasising the continuity. To borrow from Lee a final time, Bertoli’s imbrication of different temporal spheres, regularly punctuated by references to the sixties, reveals the temporal orientation of this world and ‘how its implications get played back—like a tape-loop—between our contemporary moment and that of the recent past’.6
1. Artist statement, 2010.
2. Ibid, 2010.
3. Ted Colless, ‘Momentum’, in New07, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2007, pp.26-27.
4. Pamela M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in Art of the 1960s, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 2004, p.xii.
5. Lee, ibid, p.7.
6. Lee, ibid, p.xvi.