The voice that flirted with the desert

Michelangelo Corsaro
Mar 17, 2014 10:54AM

It seems to hear Wagner's Walkürenritt when the helicopter appears from nowhere, flying a few meters above the ground. As it approaches the crest of the dune where the big bamboo sculpture lies, spectators stares at the protruding pole that has been fixed at the nose of the chopper. A few spectators hazard a guess on what's going to happen next: "They'll set it on fire" someone says, while somebody else pushes it even further:"They're going to blow it up".

It's a one-hour car ride from Marrakech before arriving to the desert. The caravan of minibuses branded "Tourism" is immediately welcomed by a four-year old kid aggressively asking for money; "Dirham!" he yells. After a couple of kilometres the vehicles stop and the guests continue on foot. The snowy peaks of the Atlas Mountains are the perfect background for Alexander Ponomarev's big bamboo-replica of the Costa Concordia, the infamous cruise liner that sank in 2012 on the shores of the Isola del Giglio. The big sculpture is visible from far away like a post-deluge abandoned toy, winking at the iconic scenes of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo in a fierce competition with the grandeur of the landscape. For the inauguration of his work, the artist invited a bunch of guests to a performance-cum-cocktail in the desert with the intention to send a message to all "captains", be they presidents, kings, queens, or big bosses of other kinds. The performance is as simple as spectacular: the artists-captain climbs on top of the hill and waits for the arrival of a helicopter, which sprays a jet of gas from a pole fixed on its nose and reveals some buried aluminium letters composing the sentence "VADA A BORDO CAZZO". The catchphrase, meaning "Get the fuck back on board!", is part of the story of the Costa Concordia. A radio conversation that took place during the sinkage of the Costa Concordia between the captain, Francesco Schettino, and the head of operations at the Port Authority, Gregorio Maria De Falco, revealed that the captain abandoned the ship way before the evacuation was completed. Was it a good example of cowardice, of long-forgotten sense of duty, or rather of uncapability? From Ponomarev's point of view, the psychological implications of the event probably felt redundant and possibly appeared in conflict with the role of captain that he took for himself: after all he is the only one wearing a Go Pro in this tamed patch of desert. However the original audio recording of the conversation hits at some points a register worthy of a Hollywood action-drama, especially when De Falco threatens his wrath, ordering Schettino to go back on board and coordinate the evacuation: "Schettino, maybe you saved yourself from the sea, but I'll make you pay for sure. Go aboard." Ponomarev's work is then a quite general and abstract call to get back in control of the situation. It is in fact for a display of courage and resolve that the performance begins with the artist-captain climbing on top of the hill to stand by the bamboo wreck. In order to claim that he did give the good example and got back on board of his boat, he has to gain the position of highest visibility. For indeed he is brave and, Go Pro aside, he is possibly braver that the bravest of the attendants. And in the end, once the helicopter has safely landed, nothing is better than the applause of the spectators. 

It was 2001 when Maurizio Cattelan invited one hundred and fifty guests on a Venice-Palermo flight to visit his installation of a huge HOLLYWOOD sign on the hills surrounding the Sicilian city. At a time when big money started to flow into the art world, Cattelan promptly understood that the creation of value could revolve around the management of spectacle and exclusivity. He understood, in other words, what his public wanted and he delivered it with a brilliant solution: they wanted Hollywood and that's what he gave them. Likewise, Ponomarev took his audience in an exotic place to read a big sign on the crest of a hill. Beside this, Hollywood was present too, as a language, to a point where cinematographic infiltrations threaten to overshadow the artist's adventurous invitation to go back on board. As a matter of fact, spectators of the performance didn't enjoy either fire or explosions. It is nevertheless true that the sudden appearance of the helicopter from behind the hill is a spectacle that seems to be born from an overt flirt with cinematic sequences of napalm bombings. Not to speak of when, mainly recalled by the call to get back on board, it seems to hear the farewell chant of the Titanic's orchestra—those who reportedly kept playing even after first-class passengers left the sinking boat. Was it the result of the inbreeding between collective imagination and Hollywood industry? Whether Herzog can be listed among the Ponomarev's references or not, the inspiring vision of Fitzcarraldo's boat is a sort of mirage, in front of this majestic choreography: Apocalypse Now's chopper raid with a twist of emotional involvement "made in Titanic". A Voice in the Wilderness is the title of Ponomarev's artistic project. But if a voice can be heard in this beautiful landscape, it is not the voice of Caruso that Herzog brought to the jungle, enduring terrible efforts to play opera music in front of the inexpressive eyes of Peruvian indigenous tribes. It is rather the sound of high life, of carefree exoticism, and of an art-plated mundanity. 

For in fact, in the setting of the guest's base-camp, the image of the stranded bamboo-boat retreats on the background of a sophisticated space with tents for shade, beach loungers for comfort, mint tea for the throat, and trays full of strawberries for the belly. Everyone seems to feel at home, while mingling and enjoying the reception, and everyone is in the right place: the lady with a pair of boots that don't fit for the desert, the nordic guy in moroccan traditional clothing, the press attaché in search for good footage to sell for a few euros. And yet everything—the desert, the elegant ladies, their neckerchiefs fluttering in the wind, the refined food, the boat irreparably stranded on the hill, the chattering and the noise—everything inevitably reminds of Federico Fellini's movies. Because when Fellini portrayed the passions, the virtues and the vices of mundane society, he did it with a subtle irony that revealed how vulnerable that society was to the seduction of Spectacle, be it the propaganda of the Fascist regime or the paparazzi's representation of high life. From this perspective, Ponomarev's performance rather looks like a literary pretext where joy and trepidation anticipate the arrival of two fellinian apparitions in this rented outpost in the desert. The first one, the helicopter, is reminiscent of the opening scene of La dolce vita, where a statue of Christ glides over the city of Rome. The big Jesus with his open arms is transported by an helicopter, closely followed by a second one with on board the news reporter Marcello Rubini—who doesn't miss the chance to flirt with some good-looking ladies sunbathing in a terrace-roof. The second is the Rex Transatlantic, the big cruise liner dominating the poster of Amarcord: in the film the ship monopolises the attention of the inhabitants of Rimini, who welcome its passage as "the greatest naval realization of the regime" in a vivid portrait of Fascist propaganda of the 1930s. And in fact the Rex for sixty years held the record for the biggest transatlantic ever built in Italy, until the inauguration in 1991 of the Costa Classica, the small cousin of the Costa Concordia. Slightly different from the one of the Concordia was in fact the destiny of the Rex, which was bombed by the Royal Air Force in 1944, while stranded in the same Adriatic Sea where Fellini staged its passage. Fortunately, in that case the cruise liner had already been abandoned and there was no captain to send back on board. 

If from Fellini we go back to our times, in case somebody wanted to see the real Costa Concordia on the big screen, the best option so far would be to see the Oscar-winning La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), by Paolo Sorrentino. Sharing with Fellini the accurate curiosity for the grotesque features of mundanity, Sorrentino produced one of the most affectionate and at the same time merciless caricatures of the vanity, the wretch and the cynicism of an exquisitely Italian decadence. In the film the Concordia appears in a short sequence when the main character, Jep Gambardella, a journalist with a penchant for parties, pays a visit to the wreck to write a piece on it. Many have welcomed La Grande Bellezza as the celebration of the beauties of Italy, while others have stressed how the film renders the disgrace and the void affecting Italian culture in these difficult times. Probably both perspectives are meaningful and yet not exhaustive. It is however relevant that in this context the Costa Concordia earned at least a small cameo, because in the end of the day, even a wreck can make it to the first page of the news.

Michelangelo Corsaro