Ketty La Rocca. High Voltage Tightrope Walker
Talking hands, flowing texts, rushing calligraphies, screaming letters: the works of Florentine artist Ketty La Rocca offer a profound analysis of contemporary culture – an analysis reflecting the precarious existence of a woman and a mother in the (art) world, where the opposite sex prevails. Born in La Spezia in 1938, the artist moved to Florence at the age of 18, and created her first collages when she joined gruppo 70 (1), which was engaged in visual poetry. Associated with the images are impressively ironic phrases with striking erotic subtexts, as in the case of Top secret: unificazione rapida (1965), which shows a woman with sensual lips watching us from behind a black lattice. A woman prisoner, at the same time a secret seductress. Or more precisely, the female gender, defending itself with the weapons it has, even when imprisoned behind the bars imposed by society. Other photomontages attest to a truly surprising force of warning: Life-Threatening or I don’t want to get a bill for my life. Very sorry, but no self-criticism (2); titles cut from magazines are surrounded by closed mouths: a whole sea of them, flying around a burning candle, that most usual symbol of vanitas, the sign of time flowing without mercy. The lips pressed together (the silent majority) seem to bear their allotted fate without objection. And indeed, one year later the young mother learns that she has a tumour, leaving her only a decade of intensive, frenetic work.
The young woman’s works show the deep authenticity with which she faces life and her own grim, difficult situation, always being prepared for intensive and direct confrontation with all that surrounds her, applying a critical spirit and penetrating thought. La Rocca succeeds in tackling delicate subjects, never once succumbing to the temptation of simplifying her ideas or engaging in ideological primitivisation. She never takes shortcuts. Her activities move her along a precarious line, comparable with the tightrope walker’s rope, along which she proceeds step by step, risking at every moment that she may disrupt this transient, dangerous situation. When Ketty La Rocca talks about herself, she is talking about us all (that is, women). These works act in a way that is characteristic of outstanding literature: even though individual experience is taken as the starting point, the result obtains universal value and becomes so much more powerful. Beginning with the individual, the story is able to touch on principles important to us all – as human beings and as humanity.
The “I” as the initial point (of view) of our perception and the locus of our first interaction with the outside world, is materialised in a series of sculptures (from the late 1960s), in which certain letters are objectified in space: the three-dimensional “I” and “J”, made from black PVC, have the meaning of the English “I” and the French Je. Through the sense of touch, ego thus becomes tangible and gains a surprising physical presence. Proceeding from the consciousness of such an “I”, which senses and appropriates space in order to make it one’s own, the difficult attempt is made to establish contact with another, which will be allotted the function of a reflection: “you” repeatedly affirms the existence of “I”. Only when a child learns to recognise that the image in the mirror is not another child, but only the reflection of its own body, it starts to become aware of its own “I” and can develop an identity of its own, separate from that of its parents. Lacan considers the “mirror stage” as lasting approximately from the age of six to 18 months, this phase coinciding with the first timid retreat from symbiosis with the mother.
The establishment of contact with the world, and thus with someone different from oneself, one’s own existence being the starting point, is expressed in the work of Ketty La Rocca through ever-new forms and feverish, impetuous searchings. The artist has experimented with mirror effects at exhibition venues, creating a play of changing reflections between the reflective surfaces and the audience, which thus interacts with the work of art. The mirrors hence “become a frame” for everything located in front of them, namely the setting and the visitors. By this ruse of war, the artist turns the viewers into a part of the work of art. Just as in a gigantic ready-made – the real world, it turns out, engages in a continuous dialogue with the world of art, and accordingly obtains the status of art within this conversation.
The figure of the “other” appears not only as an onlooker reflected in the mirrors that the artist has arranged in space. With time, it takes over the artist’s works ever more insistently. In a solo exhibition currently being shown at the Carla Pellegrini Galleria Milano – one of the last remaining venues in Milan for artistic experimentation – we see a string of works revealing a tension between an acute “I” and some unreachable vis-à-vis. In the Riduzioni series of polyptychs created in the early 70s the word “you” is repeated with obsessive insistence, marking the outlines of works of art and photographs of famous places. The word “you” is written over and over again, unremittingly, as if passionate appeals had to be made to the “other”, since it is always evasive and lies elsewhere, and, were it quite fortuitously to be close by, there would always be the danger of it disappearing again at any moment. Such continually repeated invocations, with no possible answer, reveal a state of confusion and irrevocable estrangement, explained very well by the artist herself: “You, you seeks to cause the mental mechanism to jam, and to reveal clearly and immediately the asymptote of alienation.” (3) Having become a prisoner in this desperate, unstoppable circular motion, without mercy or respite, the artist sees hysteria as the only solution: “I’ve no alternative, I take refuge in my hysteria.” (4)
Otherness reappears more comprehensively and with an ironic element in the 1975 work You You, where we see the artist’s open palm, in which the life line and fate line are drawn by means of the eternal, monotonous singsong “you you”, repeated endlessly in fine handwriting. The “other” as different from the self, and the opportunity of meeting “you” is now dependent only on fate, which is entirely beyond our control and may perhaps only be revealed in the lines of the palm to those capable of reading such messages. You You can thus be regarded as “paradoxical”, since it invokes something that is non-existent, as “illegitimate”, because it cannot be approached, as “pathetic”, since it is a desire never to be fulfilled, and as “idiotic”, since it continually deludes itself with illusions of the opposite, “but breaks free in the end…”(5) However, at this point the artist does not clarify when, how and in what form the question of otherness should be resolved. Perhaps You You should be regarded as an initial action, or, even more precisely, as the germinal of language as such. In the end, the motivation behind every act of communication is to establish contact with another and to exchange thoughts, ideas, experience or stories. The first step after “I” is “you”. The original “I” is followed by “you”. But in contrast to “I”, about which we may be more or less convinced that it really does belong to us (at least partly), “you” is always running away from us, never to be caught. We can’t control it, and there’s no hope that we’ll ever be able to call it “our own”. This is the cause of the deep desperation expressed in the endless exhortation “you you you you…”, resembling an obsession, that we find in several works from later years and which are at the same time reminiscent of school exercises. Repetita juvant: it was clear already to the Ancient Romans how important repetition and relentless exercise is in the process of learning and mastering knowledge. The Florentine artist was not only a mother, but was also in constant contact with the world of education and childhood through her work as an infant school teacher. We can only imagine to what degree these choices influenced Ketty’s estrangement from the art world: according to US art critic and feminist Lucy Lippard, La Rocca was “unable to break into the male world with her art” (6).
One of the fields of Ketty’s studies was experimentation with parts of the body, hands in particular, which can be seen as a kind of physical extension of the word “you”. They are (apart from the face) not only the most communicative part of the human body, capable of expressing emotion and feeling, and of protecting us; the hands are also powerful tools, capable of “doing”, always in the vanguard of the body, ready for a quick movement to establish the first contact. Accordingly, the hands become the absolute main protagonists in one of the first videos in the history of contemporary art: Appendice per una supplica (‘Appen-dix to an Appeal’). Like strange animals, they stand out in grey against a black background and perform fairly experimental movements, as if one hand needed to investigate the whole topography of the other, following it with the tip of the index finger, walking up and down it, back and forth. As we have already seen, the studies undertaken by Ketty La Rocca are not limited to content – be it social, political or personal, – but take a broader look at the condition of our culture: she is interested in the instruments and structures of communication, in language and metalanguage. Through her Riduzioni the artist examines the status of images and the functions of language: “Truly, I’m not telling it, I’m just retracing it.”(7) In these polyptychs we initially see a photo reproduction of a famous work of art, followed by several sheets on which the artist recreates the shape of this image: first calligraphically, writing a nonsensical text in very fine handwriting, or the relentless “you you”, already familiar to us. On the next sheets, the calligraphically formed shapes are gradually replaced by black lines, and these, too, progressively disappear, being transformed into increasingly minimal strokes, which in the end just barely mark out the original form. In this way the Florentine artist seeks to “reduce language to a simple bit of information”(8), which means that language becomes a principle, or, more precisely, that it retreats and becomes a pure instrument, giving a hint about information as such, but ceasing to convey the precise meaning of specific content. Ketty expresses the concept in simple, but impressive words: “Language does not exist, everything is metalanguage.”(9) Thus, rather than naming an object, language is reduced to a sign and dissolves into a gesture, which explores the relief of a form, just like the hands of a blind person. Finally the image disappears altogether, it crumbles and becomes illegible. The handwriting liberated from meaning points to the possibility of the existence of language as such, and adopts a position parallel to the photographic image, which in its turn portraits masterpieces that form part of official culture and have been so overworked by the mass media that they risk becoming stereotypes, such as David, Pietà, the angel on the column, The Kid and finally a work by Urs Lüthi.
Writing has been reduced from an instrument of communication to calligraphy, presented through the minimal aesthetics of a purely formal gesture. Ketty La Rocca does not make use of writing to express the precise meaning of words and allow us to comprehend the overall meaning of a text. Instead, she uses writing as a gesture that reiterates pre-existing forms in our culture. In this way the hermeneutic process shifts by at least one level: from content chained together with language to the structure of metalanguage and, with reference to images, from the perception of a particular work of art to the idea itself of a work, representing our visual tradition as such. Ketty herself expands on this concept: “Once again I propose the destruction of articulate language, which in my latest works has been encapsulated in its metalanguage dimension and is masked behind the function of a constant reducer.”(10)
There is a text which can be seen in the Milan exhibition, and appears in almost all works of the Riduzioni as handwriting that traces the outlines of photographs and demonstrates this emptying of language: “Starting from the moment when any development proceeds from a practical point of view, setting up as a precondition a concrete demand that would be acceptable in the frame of a perspective free from unobjective judgment, into a field so broad that it unavoidably encounters the assertion that it is not quite applicable to …” and so forth. It seems that these words do mean something: viewed from a distance they really are reminiscent of one of those intellectual essays we all know so well. These are texts that stun us when we first attempt to become acquainted with them, since they are absolutely incomprehensible, and precisely for this reason we find them so baffling. How can we admit that we don’t understand them? However, the truth is that the text “Starting from the moment when…” really doesn’t mean anything, and the artist has placed it centre-stage in various forms and in various works, as if tireless repetition of this text could itself demonstrate that it has been robbed of all meaning.
Alongside the analysis of the functions of language, Ketty La Rocca studies the condition of art history: she views it as a monument providing a pedestal for our culture. The media so energetically disseminate famous works of art that they are transformed into hackneyed clichés of our culture and risk becoming lumbering stereotypes.
However, as we can see, the Tuscan artist is aware of one solution to this problem: “Not Michelangelo’s David, but the photograph is the real David. Such is the true significance of information, contrary to the nonsense of articulated language.”(11) In contemporary culture true value is no longer attached to the sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti, but rather to a photographic reproduction of it. The original work of art has shifted into the culture of the mass media and technical reproducibility. For Walter Benjamin a work of art had without doubt had already lost its aura of “originality”, but instead had gained the possibility of reaching each one of us, wherever we may be. Historical works become part of us. They belong to us. Physically, too. La Rocca has no doubts: “I take finished works, works that many have seen and have seen for a long time, images that have been rendered bland by the descriptions made by many, and I re-live them along with all the stereotypes of knowledge that have been imposed on me, until they become something completely different for me, become an image of “them” outside and beyond any kind of collective reading.”(12) In this way the young artist seeks to “re-make David all for myself”, namely to appropriate the foundations on which our culture, our way of thinking, our actions and in the end our identity are based.
If the reproduction of the work has prevailed over the original, then the two-dimensional world of paper has prevailed over the threedimensional world of sculpture and also over the world of reality. Truly, this postmodern concept, experienced so intensively in “reality shows”, a concept where the reproduction of an event has become more important than the experience itself, and moreover turns out to be the only reality that actually exists, has become “business as usual” in recent years. If Ketty asserts that “reality, here and now, is lived and spoken only photographically”, then this means not only that she was a woman ahead of her time, but also that the reality experienced in photographs and told in words already seems more real than reality. Only the event that is documented exists: pictures of newly-weds taken by whole armies of photographers no longer necessarily involve the actual moment of the marriage. This event should be unique in the couple’s life, but in order to manufacture memories of it, something resembling a theatre or film shoot is organised and staged. Such an act is entirely virtual and is unconnected with the event, which could as well be cancelled, or shifted in time or space. What remains is a document testifying to the event, which perhaps may have been fictional, staged for the benefit of the camera lens, in order to obtain a photographic memory that ends up on the dressing table in a silver-plated frame presented as a gift by friends.
Thus La Rocca sensed, in advance of her time, how mendacious this mechanism really is when she asserted: “If I photo-live, then I have dirty eyes, dirty hands and a dirty brain.”(13) Life has shifted from a lived reality to a photographic reproduction. The image has won out over real living. We have dirty eyes, because we’ve lost the innocent gaze with which children regard an authentic world. We’re no longer capable of looking without immediately thinking about how the things we see would be interpreted in media language, also integrating ourselves into it all. To be famous for 15 minutes. We live, because we know that some “you” sees us, someone who is now no longer a person opposite us, but a media audience that has taken the place of the mirror.
If it’s not possible to live real existence as a journey that corresponds to something truthful, and we are instead always being pushed back into the realm of appearances, reflections and illusions, or to put it simply, into the realm of images, then this applies all the more to a young mother whose days have been brutally cut short. “Women have no time for declarations: they have too much to do, and moreover they would then have to use language that is not their own, language that is both alien and hostile to them.”(14) Our time as women must be denser than the time of our male colleagues: we can’t afford to waste a minute, and, most importantly, we don’t wish to engage in something as vacuous as making speeches. We’re too busy organising our everyday lives, homes, children and husbands or partners. And most importantly, our declarations make use of language (mercilessly) suspected of not actually being our own, but always remaining an instrument of someone else.
Ketty La Rocca, like many other [female] artists, especially those who in addition to everything have been occupied with children, have concentrated on feverishly creating their own art, and have given priority to the process of work and contemplation, rather than selfpromotion. With absolute clarity she analysed her own situation in the final phases of her brief life. In Craniologie we see a fist and seemingly hear the obsessive shouts of “you you” in a collage based on an X-ray of the artist’s skull, under attack by an incurable pathology. Shortly before La Rocca left our planet, she gave a final public performance where several other performance participants forced her head onto a table, continuously repeating the text “Starting from the moment when…” and “you you”, and doing so arhythmically and chaotically, generating an ever more fearful noise. In this dramatic sequence, emphasised by increasingly chaotic and forceful sounds, the participants pressed the artist’s head against the table, thus as if succeeding in silencing her forever.
This performance, with the title My words – and you? (Le mie parole – e tu?), was held in 1975 at the Brescia gallery Nuovi Strumenti, in the same experimental gallery of Piero Cavellini that was subsequently to become my own as well. My solo exhibition Differenza in 1997 was one of the last exhibitions before the gallery closed. I could find many other similarities that unite me with Ketty La Rocca: we are both mothers, women artists, our art is characterised by a strong conceptual and serial component, and it’s expressed in video, drawing, photography and written texts. But the main thing is our iron will to concentrate our work on the authentic content of the searchings that are perpetually in motion.
What remains is
“the end of an image or the image of an end
the illusion of an image
or the image of an illusion
the end of the illusion of an image
or the end of the image of an illusion.”(15)
Translator into English: Valdis Bērziņš
(1) Together with Lamberto Pignotti, Lucia Marcucci, Eugenio Miccini and Luciano Ori.
(2) “Minaccia la nostra vita”, “Non voglio il conto della vita. Mi dispiace, niente autocritica”
(3) Saccà, Lucilla. Ketty La Rocca, i suoi scritti. Torino: Martano, 2005, p. 90.
(4) Ibid., p. 93.
(5) Ibid., p. 92.
(6) Lucy Lippard, From the center: feminist essays on women’s art. New York, Dutton and Co., 1976, p. 130.
(7) Saccà, Lucilla. Ketty La Rocca, i suoi scritti, p. 90.
(8) Ibid., p. 93.
(9) Ibid., p. 58.
(12) Ibid., p. 101.
(13) Ibid., p. 92.
(14) Ibid., p. 96.