Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol. 11, 2011. Accompanying a page project by Damiano Bertoli.
During the winter of 1941, in occupied Paris, Pablo Picasso took a few days out to write a play. Le Désir Attrapé par la Queue (Desire Caught by the Tail) is anarchic, excessive, and incomprehensible—the prose is purple and there is no plot to speak of. It features absurd characters (the protagonist Big Foot and his love interest Tart, plus Onion, Round End, the Cousin, Silence, Fat Anxiety, Thin Anxiety, Curtains, and the two Bow-wows) and impractical stage directions (‘the transparent doors light up and the dancing shadows of five monkeys eating carrots appear’). Themes of mastication and micturition loom large. Unimpressed, Gertrude Stein suggested Picasso stick to painting.
It was not until 1944 that Le Désir was performed, with readings in Michel Leiris’s living room. Parts were read by key Parisian cultural figures, including Leiris, Raymond Queneau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Dora Maar. Albert Camus directed. Henri Michaux, Georges Bataille, Jean Cocteau, and Jacques Lacan were among those who attended. The play was not theatrically staged until 1967, when French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel directed it as a ‘happening’ for the Fourth Festival of Free Expression in Saint Tropez. Featuring lots of nudity, Lebel’s production was initially shut down by the authorities. Again, the cast included famous people: Warhol superstars Taylor Mead and Ultra Violet, and French character actor Jacques Seiler. Soft Machine provided the music and Glasgow’s Boyle Family the psychedelic projections.
Continuous Moment: Le Désir . . . developed out of Damiano Bertoli’s research into the play and these two presentations of it. Drawing on the script and archival material, Bertoli created sculptures, photographic works, and videos of the characters and props, which he has presented in a series of theatrical installations. Bertoli wanted to suggest a ‘continuous moment’, as if the play were a kind of temporal wormhole linking different historical moments: wartime privation, counterculture excess, and today (the sober-suited cast of 1944 contrasting with Lebel’s hipsters twenty-plus years later). It isn’t clear whether Bertoli is hoping to reconcile these three heterogeneous moments or is pointing to the hubris in even trying.
Picasso’s play is an obscure topic, and Bertoli cannot expect even his most committed viewer to be able to distinguish which aspects of his work come from Picasso’s text, from the two performances, and from himself. As much as it is grounded in research, Bertoli’s project does little to explain the play or recover its history. Rather, he riffs on his sources in a series of digressions that only add to the delirious confusion. For instance, lacking footage of the two performances, he created videos using related material. In one video, he superimposes clips from forgotten counterculture movies featuring figures from the 1967 performance (Seiler in Conrad Rooks’s Chappaqua, 1966, Ultra Violet in Norman Mailer’s Maidstone, 1970, and Mead in Warhol’s The Nude Restaurant, 1967, and Lonesome Cowboys, 1968). Another video overlays footage of Soft Machine, Boyle Family lights, and a bare-chested 1950s Picasso doing his thing.
The archive Bertoli presents, here in the Journal, includes photos of the cast of the 1944 reading, of the 1967 performance (which Bertoli has handcoloured), and of Bertoli’s 2011 installation at Sydney’s Artspace. There are covers of various editions of the script, in different languages (one of which Bertoli has adjusted, smuggling in an image of Soft Machine); contrasting headshots of de Beauvoir (who was in the 1944 performance) and Bernadette Lafont (who was in the 1967 one); and video-stills. Plus, there’s an array of shots by different photographers of Picasso’s 1944 sculpture Death’s Head, suggesting the erasure of an authentic original through endless reiterations and ‘interpretations’.
Picasso’s play is as historically fascinating as it is bad. It’s hard to know if Bertoli is a devoted believer, obsessing over its details fetishistically, or if he engages with it as an entirely arbitrary conceit through which to explore his own themes of translation, reiteration, digression, and time travel.