Ilaria Sponda: Marilisa, can you tell us how you arrived at your ongoing project Try? What motivated you? What were your expectations?
Marilisa Cosello: Try is quite a complex body of work. First of all, I had to visualise the body within definite spaces. I had to think about how they manage to interact and perform something that is completely entangled with rules, timing and orders and how this physical experience manifests as a symbol of the human condition, both individually and collectively. Indeed, the title itself of this long-term project is something that has to do with the acts that the athletes have to perform all the time. They try, they continuously try. It’s exhausting. I can relate to this with our experience in life, our everyday condition and also in the long run. At the same time, Try was conceived as a message to myself to be bold, to try and create something big and meaningful. It was important for me to have something to observe and to add, a different meaning other than the immediate idea of perfection or ambition to perfection. This quest for perfection, this aesthetic ambition so present in our society, is also a vital issue for me.Even the youngest kid on Instagram or wherever is looking to produce the best image of the perceived self. This really struck me as something I wanted to quest: this continuous battle between my ambition, my aesthetic ambition, athletes’ aesthetic ambition, and my ceaseless attempt to destroy that beauty and put it in a dangerous situation, to battle this condition.
Also, I wanted to engage deeper with the idea of what is the female mythology around the body. Everything in our society has its own mythology: it’s a starting point for our perspective on things, investigations and the acceptance of them. At the beginning of the century, women couldn’t participate in the Olympic Games and some sports weren’t accepted to be performed by female athletes. Therefore, I wanted to create a historical landscape. History serves me as a background, a scenario in which it’s not just what happened in the past that interests me but also the way that history connects to the present time and how it’s etched in our collective memory. Within the Olympic Games’ scenario, I wanted to perform a different mythology of the feminine and set it in an abstract time. At the same time, I wanted to explore, or better, to exploit this determined act that is the sport act. Nothing in sport is improvisation: sport is made up of rules from the first moment of action to the last. How are these rules performed in a decontextualised atmosphere? It all has to do with what an image means to us. When you see something you anchor yourself to that image. I needed to nurture disorienting and unstable feelings for the performer, the viewer and myself.
The starting point of my research is anchored to female mythology and the idea of rules and how they sustain our society, which is something that I question. I wanted this body of work to be something not intended for a specific place because it stands as an atmosphere and a condition, the human condition. This doesn’t only regard Try, as it’s an instability that I want to produce every time I set up a performance piece or anything. In itself is questioning how we live.
IS: What kind of process lies in the making of Try performances? How did the first one go in particular?
MC: Try requires a different process than my other performances because it’s collaborative at its core. Indeed, every time I have to merge with a constellation of different characters and people such as the athletes, their trainers, and the viewers. The first performance took place in Milan in full lockdown. At that time we were forbidden to get out of the house but I had to do it, as I researched and worked on it for over a year. The performance was done by two fencers at Teatro Continuo in Parco Sempione, a public theatre designed by Alberto Burri. It was just me, the fencers, their trainer, my video operator and photographer, and the few people that saw it were walking by in the park. In the video of Try #0, you can see in the background all the people passing by, they seem movie extras. Some of them didn’t even notice the performance that was happening right next to them, which is very symbolic.We staged the performance early in the morning and it was public. The thing that really touched me that day was that the performance in itself was lived by the performers at full. They engaged with that feeling of estrangement, boundaries and freedom, ambition and failure, the timing defined by their actions and a judge.
When I talk to the athletes and trainers it’s always fascinating to see how they react to the idea of Try, of exhibiting them in what, for me, is a very violent way. I don’t know if they perceive it as violent. They all have a kind of anxiety before performing. Even Giorgia Bordignon, olympic weightlifter who performed in Galleria Studio G7 for Try #5 was anxious. She felt the pressure of people being really close to her. Also in Venice when I staged Try #1, a big performance at Museo M9, the athletes had people all around them. They were kind of unstable, generating beauty within constraints and the abstraction of their movements.
IS: Could your piece of work Esercizi obbligatori be considered a starting point of Try?
MC: When you’re obsessed with something, everything leads to something else, everything you do leads to the next thing. In my projects, there are always hints of the previous work. For example, some images from my work Compleanno (2015) are present in Paesaggio (2016) or some of the experiences I had while making Compleanno were transformed in some of the performances in Esercizi obbligatori (2016), as the Polaroids of Atto II. Esercizi obbligatori deals with the body and the politicization of aesthetics. There’s an aesthetic of power and the way it’s represented via the body, as there’s an aesthetic of Fascism (intended both as an attitude and a political belief) this perfect image of the human body that has to be efficient, recognisable, beautiful and able to perform most perfectly.
The aesthetic of power is a seminal superimposition over the possibilities of the human being, mass culture, fascism and the way such aesthetic has persisted into the present. In Atto I, part of Esercizi obbligatori, there was a set of compulsory exercises the performer had to reproduce from the “Fascist Saturday” and I wanted a kind of mistake in those performances. Indeed, in Act I a beautiful non-perfect body creates a visual friction between the sequence of exercises and the meaning of .the sequence in itself. Act II was an investigation over acceptance, and the difficulty of living. The performers didn’t know what they were going to do, like standing with a leg tied with a rope or smoking with the face covered. They stand in a kind of humiliating position meant to reproduce the social self referencing condition, the appropriation of identity, and the impossibility for the individual itself to react. In Act III I drew all the images that were going to be performed. Every position had a meaning. These are images of family pictures, that resonate in our collective image as in Teorema (1968) by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Some of the images are very ambiguous, and at the same time everything is revealed because you see the set in the photographs. Try is different because it has a lot to do with training. The athletes would never do anything without knowing what would happen after. The way they walk, the sequence, the choreography, where they have to look, everything is premeditated, they seem posthuman in they’re incarnation as performers.
IS: Going back to what you defined the historical scenario of Try, could you elaborate on how the Olympic Games relates to themythology of womanness in Italy? And how does Try tell of the contemporary condition of women specifically in Italian society?
MC: If you look at the images from the times of Fascism in Italy, you can see there are images of women doing sports in skirts. They look good but they don’t really perform a sport. It wasn’t what they were supposed to do.
Starting from this consideration, when I began working on Try I knew I wanted to create a different narrative of these images over history, to distort them. Even if it sounds arrogant to create my own Olympic Games, this was what I wanted to do, in order to abuse these images that abused women for many years. I’d call it a violent re-appropriation.This idea of violence is always present in my practice. It’s subtle violence as it’s never explicit or declared. In most of my works you get this sensation that something is going to happen as there’s a tension building up but that never leads to anything. And this tension keeps on going.
What I want to investigate and observe is the feminine in contemporary society. Being Italian I face every day a stereotyped image of the female in society. There’s patriarchy everywhere. Along the lines with the punk culture, which always wanted to destroy the iconic images in society, I do the same. I want to condemn, destroy and transform this idea of the female, but first observe it.It’s extremely important to observe what you have in front of you and question it, in order to find other meanings and other ways of interpretation. This is what the relationship to history is about. A kind of transformation, another possibility, a connection with something that could have happened.
As for the construction of the image, costumes are vital in my works, as they support the definition of ourselves, how we are perceived by society. Costumes have always been important throughout my career, it’s something that I constructed over.
In all Try performances, there are white, sports uniforms that I intervene on. It’s a beautiful, abstract moment for me. I feel completely drawn to the act. I spray the outfits of different colors. The colors constitute an archive, a kind of encyclopaedia of my and the athletes’ Olympic Games. The thing with the sprays has also to do with the fact that as women we produce “our” colour when we have our period. I wanted to visualize this as differently and in abstract, while creating pictorial images of these bodies in the space. I feel my act of spraying is a kind of revenge over time, history, social, circumstances and acceptance of what we should and are supposed to be.
IS: Before you defined your athletes as posthumans, which I believe they are, as we all do think of them as perfect and unattainable. How do you connect with them?
MC: Athletes are aspirational. In my performances, I always put a kind of a scratch in the image. For example, in the first performance, one of the fencers is an amputee. In the artistic gymnastics performance, I had a really tall athlete, which is unacceptable in high-level competitions. They are national athletes but still, they are kind of different in the displayed context. I position a rebellion in the image itself.
I fight with this idea of beauty all the time. The athletes look like perfect figures when they perform, they are beautiful, and their bodies are beautiful. What they do is incredible. What is the perfection that human beings can reach? How much can we achieve? The way that my athletes are connected to this idea of posthuman is also connected to the fact that they are capable of doing something that thirty, fifty, or hundreds of years ago was impossible. Every time an athlete hits a record, then somebody else is expected to break it.
These human figures that I engage with are not identifiable as themselves. They’re portraying something else. It is about an image that has already been imagined and re-imaged. They devote all their life to their ambition. I think there’s a very perverse thing about how we choose heroes in our societies. They look like saints because they devote themselves to just one thing. If you think about what we perceive as myths nd heroes, they have the characteristics of saints. They display no human emotions in a way. I think about Nadia Comaneci, she perfectly embodied the idea of the Soviet power. She was the Soviet image of power and perfection. She wasn’t supposed to have any emotion. Instead, Simone Biles did something very controversial by saying that she’s human and therefore suffers. Our myths, saints, or at least what we produce as saints in our society, have no fears in our imagination. The construction of this image is emptied of everything human. There’s no fear, there’s no pain, no desire. They are what I think our society is trying to produce: a perfect human image. I find it horrifying and at the same time I’m attracted to it.
IS: In Try #5 you worked with the Olympic athlete Giorgia Bordignon and she has recently performed in Galleria Studio 7, in Bologna (Italy) in the context of your personal exhibition hosted until April, 3rd. How was the experience of working with an individual athlete of this calibre?
MC: Working with Georgia Bordignon for Try #5 was very interesting. I wanted to observe a sport that was a confrontation with the self. Even Try #2 was individual, but it was performed collectively by artistic gymnasts. I decided to work with a weightlifter because of the explicit violent act in their action. She also embodies the idea of a completely different body from what we are used to thinking and imagining. While performing in the gallery she produced an abstract image. The way she occupied the space emanated power, strength and imagery connected to her discipline. I wanted to observe this image from close and see what happened. Also, this performance took place in a gallery space, much more abstract than the rest of the spaces I used before. While performing, Bordignon and the judge came from the gallery black door and stairs which seemed as if an empty world was behind them.
It was intense to see her all dressed up in the sport suit. She was a perfect posthuman. She was extremely fierce. The interesting thing was that when she lifted the weight I could see her suffering. She was in pain but there was a kind of beauty in that. Athletes always suffer, it’s part of what they’re supposed to do. They endure pain, fatigue, mental stress to produce the perfect image required by society and by themselves too. Indeed, is there something that is just what we want? It’s impossible.
IS: I’ve been following your work for a few years now, and what I see in it, in a very coherent way, is a persistent revolutionary force that shakes the loose relationship between the aesthetic and the political. From my perspective, contemporary art is mined by the surplus of images, beautiful images, which, as the philosopher Susan Buck-Moss (1992) puts it, “end[s] up denoting an anaesthetics, or the alienating, sensual numbness that emerges as a defensive mechanism to negotiate overwhelming stimulation”. As she continues, the anaesthetic subject is political irresponsive. Could you relate to this? How do you think your performances can disrupt this irresponsiveness of the contemporary spectator?
MC: It’s a very important concept the one you expressed. I’ve been thinking about this idea of how society is getting used to the aestheticisation of everything. I think is connected to AI and how we are preparing for the entanglement with it. If you drink an energy drink or take any kind of medicine , we have inserts in our bodies for different reasons..we are already posthuman. This idea of “post” is connected to issue of the best version of ourselves. How far can human beings go, produce and create? We unconsciously know that perfection is a possibility now, and we’ve experienced that through filters for example. In my work, I try not to make the body, the physical body, completely graspable, leaving an emptiness that doesn’t allow for stable identification. This is the main thing, this impossibility to completely grasp and identify the body. I call it just body but it’s the political body that is specifically represented. There’s a fleeting sensation of abstraction because where our society is going is towards the definition and identification of everything, so you can place it somewhere. I want to create an emptiness in the definition. It’s vital for me. Sometimes I look at the sequences in Try and I just see abstract forms in the space. Especially when the athletes are more than one or two, they merge and create abstractions with their bodies. The colours on their uniforms are also an attempt of reaching an abstract image, a sort of pictorial and unstable identification.
IS: Is there anything you can reveal about your next steps?
MC:In the next months, I’ll do some more performances of Try in a more engaging context. I’m also already working on a new project that deals with the relationship between the human body and machines. The ambiguity between freedom and control will always battle in my research.
Marilisa Cosello, born in Eboli (Salerno, IT) in 1978. Works and lives in Milan, IT.
After graduating in Visual Arts in the UK, a University Degree in Cinema History in Milan, IT, and a Master in Photography at Noorderlicht School NL, she studied with François Cheval in Paris. She worked for 5 years as news photographer, focusing on political and social issues and publishing on the main national newspapers and magazines, before understanding that reality does not exist and engaging in a conceptual approach in her research. Her practice is deeply contemporary, characterized by body participation and performance construction, merging different forms of investigation concerning power, overlapping public and private, family rituals and collective archetypes. The subject of her research is the political body and the impact of power dynamics on personal and communities’ history. Her photographs, performances, videos stage the body and society’s archetypes to articulate political ideas, personal struggles, women’s conditions, society’s expectations. The costumes and props of Marilisa Cosello’s works are a vital element in her artistic research: through the customization of each item of clothing worn and used by the performers in photos, videos and performances, she adds another semantic element to her narrative.
Her works have been exhibited in Italy and abroad at important institutions and events, including Fotografie Forum Frankfurt; Mediterranean Biennial of Contemporary Art, Sarajevo; Circulations Festival, Paris; Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome; Museum of Santa Giulia, Brescia; European Photography, Reggio Emilia; Fondazione Francesco Fabbri, Treviso; Kunstalle West, Lana; Centrale Festival, Fano. She’s won twice the European Photography Award (Fotografia Europea) and the Lugano Photo Festival; she received honorable mention at PhotoEspagna, Descubrimientos Braga, and Berlin Photo Festival. Her works are in the Collezione Donata Pizzi and Collezione Castelli.