by Amy Bell
photos by Bárbara Velasco
During the research week at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía, Italian choreographer Giorgia Nardin talked tattoos, vulnerability and taking a non-literal approach to the Performing Gender project.
Amy Bell: You are one of only two people in the Performing Gender project so far who, at least at this point in your research, have decided to not to perform in your own piece. And I think that gives a very different way of working and a different way of exploring the topics of the project in particular. Why did you decide to approach it this way?
Giorgia Nardin: I think at first my idea was to work with a specific type of body, which is not my body. I want to work with tattooed people so I was looking for people other than me and in general in my research at this moment I’m interested in how I can craft or try to give my feeling or my intention not through my own body but through other people. I’ve been used for a long time to work on my own body which I find interesting and just as valuable but I think to work on other people allows me to really see the work from outside, to really see it from a different perspective whereas when I work on my own body it’s more about the feeling that I have and my internal process. So to see it on other people, on other bodies allows me to take some distance from my own feeling and my own practice and somehow to translate it somewhere else. In this specific instance with this project because I am trying to move away from the literal addressing of gender, I looked for people that are specific in another way, or maybe that the first thing that is visible is the specificity of their body and maybe not so much the bigger topic that we’re trying to deal with or that we’re addressing.
AB: So you don’t want to put gender and sexual identity as the most obvious feature of what you’re working on, or the first thing that you’re looking at but you’d rather come at it a bit sideways. Why this approach?
GN: Yes, I think in general I think I’m interested in open interpretations or in multiple readings somehow and I am very occupied with, or I feel very responsible for not slapping people in the face with my reading somehow. So in a way I would like the gender issue to be in the background, to be present but not the first thing or not the main concern.
AB: Why don’t you want to slap people in the face? Maybe it’s a very obvious question, but for some people it’s very important to be direct, combative almost about these issues.
GN: No, it’s not obvious at all. I think because my general tendency is to work in between things more, to not be direct or specific and this is the difficulty that I find in my work but also the thing that interests me the most. I don’t want people to go and see my work because it deals with a certain topic. Maybe people come for different reasons, maybe they take from it different things. I’m really interested in a dialogue with the audience that can be varied on different elements. Also I feel really, I don’t have examples of this, but as a viewer when I go and watch work and I feel that I’m being directed towards one message or thought or I feel almost forced to see something, it really troubles me.
GN: Because I really enjoy having to work a little bit as an audience member, to find different aspects to dig into what I see and not to be so much like, ‘OK, this is about that’ and then sit back and just take it.
AB: Yeah. This week we’ve been talking a lot about the power of language to bring ideas into existence but from what I know about you, it’s almost the reverse, like an idea almost stops existing when declare or name it.
GN: Yes, this is very true. But why I’m really interested in this project and why I chose to address it this way is that because it’s such a given that this is what we’re doing and because gender is such a wide subject and it’s so monumental somehow, I’m really interested in seeing how I can relate to it, to see if I can come at it from a different direction. And I think my work deals with gender in any case somehow. Not every work is related to gender but because it’s such a big part of identity of individuality and I think identity and individuality are such a big part of performance it’ll be there, it’ll be present anyway.
AB: In some ways you can let the title do some work for you.
GN: Yes, which is fine.
AB: It seems to me that in your process you’re quite interested in peeling back layers of your performers, sometimes literally with nakedness, but more importantly in terms of exposing vulnerability in a very conscious way. So it seems interesting to me that you’ve decided to work with tattooed people because I wonder what you’re peeling away at in somebody who already has a layer on their skin.
GN: Yes, and they cannot remove it…
AB: But I wonder if tattoos are a kind of defensive layer. Do you think this is true and how does this speak to your general interest in vulnerability?
GN: In the workshop I did yesterday with a group of tattooed people we had this really animated discussion concerning whether you can consider tatooing body modification or not. And some people were like, ‘Yes, of course. You deliberately change your body from how it is when you’re born’ and some other people were like, ‘Not at all. It’s not a modification at all for me because I’m already like this. This is who I am even before I chose to show it, it’s just more evident. I just chose to put it on the surface instead of to deal with it in another way.’ So I think in a way this conversation is already peeling off some layers in a sense that I feel when you choose to modify your body so specifically you are already exposing yourself, who you are, your identity in a way and this can be argued whether it’s true or not, but from my personal experience I think so.
AB: That’s really interesting because in a very clichéd, obvious way tattoos are often used denote toughness, not vulnerability or exposure of someone’s inner self.
GN: Yeah, yeah. This is also what came out yesterday. It was really interesting for me that the people I spoke to yesterday, all of them in different ways, feel like they have to really defend their body or defend their choice and this creates this sort of tough shell that they build. I was speaking to this one guy and he was like, ‘Because it’s a permanent decision you feel like you don’t want to be either proven wrong or be questioned on it because this is what you did and it’s permanent and it’s a choice.’ It’s a really monumental choice somehow. So this is why they feel so defensive about it, this is his opinion anyway. But I find it really interesting because there is this extreme duality in being very defensive or tough as you say and at the same time, quite vulnerable because you put yourself in an exposed position somehow, which I think creates this interesting dialogue between these two things and I’m anyway interested in that in my work beyond this project.
AB: So we’ve been talking about the different ways in which identity is always in flux and is continuously constructed, socially constructed. It’s interesting for me to think about tattooing because it works both ways; it seems that you’re saying it is an expression of somebody’s identity, how they feel inside themselves but it is also sort of an explicit way of creating an identity for yourself, a fixed, external identity which aligns you with certain visual or cultural traditions or groups.
GN: Like a category somehow?
AB: Yeah, people will read you in a certain way because you have a tattoo and then of course the type of tattoo you have will make you be read in a different way, but I wondered how much room there is to have fluidity, the flux involved in creating and recreating identity on a daily basis.
GN: What I find interesting about this particular form of body modification is that as opposed to, for instance, plastic surgery there is not one ideal body that you try to create or represent or that you aspire to somehow. Yes, you are put in this category of being tattooed but at the same time it’s so personal and it’s so individual that I think it has these two strands. I don’t know if this was your question.
AB: Partly, but it’s also it’s a fixing thing. Did some of the older people in the workshop, for instance, feel differently over time about their tattoos and therefore their identities and how those are read?
GN: It’s an interesting question. We didn’t really touch this so much. Because really the only person who was there who had been in this process for a long time was this one tattoo artist in his late 40s so I don’t really know how they feel about it. He was telling me about his experience when he started, how difficult it was to be accepted as a tattooed person like 20, 30 years ago or whatever, how difficult it was to learn this art as well and now it’s so simple it’s a given almost. I think on one hand it’s a good thing for him but also it’s very… it kind of loses the preciousness of it, no? When it becomes just something that you do, that lots of people do, no?
AB: The other thing that it seems you’re very aware of is the fact that you yourself are not part of this social group, this tradition or culture of tattooing and that it’s a delicate thing to be outside of a group but then want to want to explore it artistically.
AB: So for instance, the author Lawrence Schimel was talking about the difficulty of being a man and wanting to write through a woman’s voice or for a female audience. He was saying there’s often a resistance to that from women, that there’s a feeling of male colonisation which gives his work no credibility in that situation and he is accused of trying to enforce the power of the patriarchy over women. I also remembered what you were saying about a controversial Jérôme Bel piece you’d seen called Disabled Theater (2012) with a group of mentally disabled people. I was wondering how you felt about the dangers of being perceived to be exploiting or exoticizing a group of people of which you are not part.
GN: I think this has been my biggest concern from the very beginning because on one hand I feel really responsible for the people that I chose to work with because my biggest worry would be that it becomes like a circus act or to expose them because of the specificity of their bodies and not because of their own individuality, and that’s not something I’m interested. So in these days before meeting all of them I was really aware of how to formulate the questions and to state the fact that I am aware that I start from a point of not knowing at all what this means, what it means to be in such a body, what the history of it is, the reasons, all of this. This is also what interests me a lot, to really start from a point of not knowing and to be helped by them and by their own experience more than trying to find my personal take on this. I think also it’s very important for me, and this happened a lot yesterday, that they were extremely generous in participating and in giving their opinions and this really created an interesting dialogue. We could go into a more vulnerable place because I gave them an exercise to do and I asked them, ‘Is it ok for you to be unclothed?’ and they said yes. Even when we took it to that point it really opened so many possibilities and so many interpretations also for them and it has a lot to do with my respect for their choice but also me stating that I don’t know a lot about it and I would like to learn more through them.
AB: And what does it open for you to think about tattooed skin within an art gallery space?
GN: Yeah, so my initial idea for this piece was that they would be in the space just as the paintings or the sculptures were, so to really treat their bodies as a form of art in way because I believe and I respect that it is a form of art. At the same time I’m aware that I do not want to objectify these bodies and treat them as things. So this will be a really important challenge for me to put specific bodies like this in a museum where they could be seen just as a piece of art without becoming things somehow.
AB: I guess it’s to do with what kind of presence they have possibly and that’s not just to be considered in a gallery. I mean I think escaping objectification was something you were exploring in your solo Dolly, right?
GN: Yes, I’m generally interested in working more on the state and the presence and allowing that to open readings or to show, as you say, to pull off all the layers and show really what the essence of this person is, even though the shell of the body is very specific. I think this will be a challenge with these types of bodies because they’re so connotated, so the room for interpretation is quite small. I mean the first thing you see is not the person, it’s the skin that’s modified, for me at least, this is my experience. So it would be my challenge to take it further and to see if through working with their presence and their state, obviously in dialogue with them, we can go beyond that and access something else which I don’t know what it is yet.
AB: Is there anything particularly that you take from this space or this week that has changed your thinking or has given you pause for thought?
GN: Well, we’ve been fed with so much information I’ve felt there are so many things I really don’t know or maybe I take for granted and maybe they’re much more complex than I think. Overall what’s been enforced is my sense of responsibility for what we’re doing in this project and I think with time I’ll go back and think about this week and see how it has informed me or how it has changed my original ideas. Right now I’m not sure yet.
AB: What do you mean by a sense of responsibility?
GN: Well, I feel like we’re dealing with really big topics that are actual, present and important today and they’re very urgent and they’re close to my own experience as well. I really want to take care of this project. I like this feeling of being responsible for something I’m really interested in, that I feel really close to and I think as artists we have the responsibility to address these topics in a way that, I don’t know, somehow feeds into them as well, or we can create a more open dialogue which is also maybe why I’ve chosen not to address them so directly. We’ve been talking to different people from different fields as well and I’m really interested in seeing how maybe some of the things they say are similar but they just come from a very different point of view and I would like this to happen also with the works that we create here, which I think will happen anyway, that there are different access points to talk about these issues. I don’t know exactly…
AB: But there are also many things you can’t be responsible for. You can’t be entirely responsible for how people read your work, neither would you want to be.
GN: No of course, I wouldn’t want to do that. I just feel like, to remind myself that I have a responsibility also gives me a necessity or an urgency to do this somehow.
Performing Gender, Madrid, November 2013