THE WAY TO THE AEOLIAN ISLAND OF STROMBOLI—little more than the cone of a volatile volcano emerging from the Sicilian sea—is fraught with uncertainty (and often nausea), and once there you feel tugged between extreme attraction and alienation. In this intimate and explosive context, Fiorucci Art Trust’s sixth Volcano Extravaganza, “I Will Go Where I Don’t Belong,” orchestrated by artist Camille Henrot and curator Milovan Farronato, offered a fertile framework for contemplating the depths of the soul (or at least a fun excuse to hang out in paradise).
The weeklong program of exhibitions, film screenings, participatory performances, and readings invoked a different theme every day, announced each morning by email to nurture an atmosphere of suspense and improvisation. The first communication read: “The naufrage is coming and the wild Aeolian seas are threatening chaos on Stromboli’s shores.” And so the theme of day one was “Naufrage” (“Shipwreck” in French).
Some of us played our parts even before arrival: I was stranded in Milazzo with newlyweds Ragnar Kjartansson and Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir due to high winds, surely the doing of Aeolus, adversary of Homer’s Ulysses, who was run aground in the very same place. We had woken up at the Hotel Garibaldi to news of an approaching storm in the Adriatic and the slaughter in Nice. With no Cyclops to outsmart, the Icelandic artists rehearsed a musical performance on the steps of a church and then we repaired to the Trattoria Casalinga for a leisurely lunch.
Fresh from opening a show at the Barbican, Kjartansson had not yet had time to take a honeymoon, but Henrot had requested his presence: “If another artist asks you to do something, you must,” he declared. They got news that Vinyl Factory was on a private boat nearby that was setting off for Stromboli and decided to take their chances with them on the high seas: “Maybe this will be our honeymoon!” I returned to the port to learn that a boat we missed had crashed and turned around.
Starting off on the wrong foot proved felicitous: Although we missed the inaugural dinner—served on Odyssey-themed plates designed by Henrot and fired on the island of the fabled sirens, Li Galli, owned by Nicoletta Fiorucci’s partner, hotelier Giovanni Russo—our circumstances seemed part of the program, ordained by the evening’s screening of Jean Epstein’s Le Tempestaire, in turn a reference to Homer’s tale. (At dinner a couple of Turkish guests learned of the failed coup and decided they would not return to their country, choosing exile over possible persecution.) The next morning I maneuvered a ticket to Stromboli and then ran like hell to get my valise. Scheduled to perform that night, Juliana Huxtable and the Tempers’ Jasmine Golestaneh and Eddie Cooper were on my ferry, but Kjartansson’s entourage was still missing at sea.
The theme of day two was “Isolation,” and on arrival I ascended the steep slope of the volcano to the Fiorucci Art Trust House, formerly owned by Marina Abramović, host of the title group exhibition, curated by Henrot. YouTube footage of “Crossing the Line Ceremonies,” for which sailors dress in drag and strut before Neptune’s court to commemorate their first Equator crossing, was accompanied by a jarring, repetitive sound track. Henrot had covered the walls with frescoes depicting animals and humans, and hybrids of both, carrying out transgressive acts on one another, recalling ancient erotic cave drawings. In other rooms, historic paintings of sunken ships and drawings of vaguely unsavory situations by Walter Sutin were accompanied by sculptures evoking instruments for survival, such as a campfire of wood and plastic, Diyagram (Amnesiac beach fire), by Mike Nelson, and Giulio Delvè’s Moonshining, a distillery made of plumbing pipes, plastic tubes, and bottles that resembled a hospital infusion stand. Identical twins Alberto and Francesco Zenere alternately manned the exhibition and booking office for nightly film screenings hosted by local residents, one embodying good and the other evil. Artist Maria Loboda’s spell of the day, plastered mysteriously on the exterior wall: “A person could become an animal if he or she wanted to and an animal could become a human being.” You understand that in the time of Ulysses one could change form and identity depending on circumstances and necessity.
“I’ve got to stop wearing high heels in Stromboli,” Farronato said as we groped our way along the unlit narrow lanes after imbibing dream-inducing infusions by artist David Horvitz and chanting to the waves lapping the giant black rocks of the beach next to Fiorucci’s villa La Lunatica. Finding the home of our host, former fisherman Giuseppe Sgroi, we feasted in his vast fruit and vegetable garden and then watched Ben Rivers’s There Is a Happy Land Further Away. The meandering documentary footage portrays the languid inhabitants and landscapes of the isolated volcanic islands of Vanuatu, since destroyed by Cyclone Pam, while a gentle, faltering female voice recites a poem by Henri Michaux: “I am writing to you from the end of the world. You have to realize this.” The camera lingers on a black sow feeding three greedy piglets. We were told to send Horvitz our dreams, and that night I dreamt of two writhing rats nibbling my toes.
“Milovan says all volcanoes are connected,” curator Diana Campbell Betancourt explained. Later everyone convened at the Club Megà for Kjartansson’s delayed performance: “We left from Messina last night, but the boat started taking on water, as they say, and people were getting sick. The descent into Iceland’s Snæfellsjökull and up through the Stromboli volcano would have been more direct!” Dressed in a seersucker suit, he proceeded to sing romantic and bitter songs, bantering in between and ending with the Louvin Brothers’ “While You’re Cheating on Me.”
On the third day, “Maison Absolue (Ideal Home),” we gathered on the stunning terrace of La Lunatica for sunset drinks, and poet Jacob Bromberg read incantations before leading everyone in a game of telephone haiku. I sat between Egyptian-Armenian artist Anna Boghiguian, who is at once inscrutable and delightfully ingenuous, and curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, making a sphinxlike pair. Inside, a pop-up exhibition displayed postcards Henrot had sent to Yona Friedman, who superimposed mythical dogs and unicorns on scenic Stromboli backdrops. “I’ve always tried to promote improvisation as something necessary because planning is impossible,” Friedman says in Henrot’s 2007 Spatial Film, screening in a corner. “In the long term it is an illusion.” And that was just as well here. “Milo likes to tread the line [in stilettos, naturally] between improvisation and structure, never letting things go into complete chaos,” Henrot explained. “He is a magician.” I could not agree more.
“Bring goggles, a flashlight, and jellyfish sting gel,” Linda Yablonsky had advised. “It is camp in every sense.” The film nights at local homes were a version of sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories, and after dark you needed a flashlight to find your way back in the pitch dark. One night we all took part in collective storytelling at an outdoor amphitheater, voting on alternative twists and turns in the tale “Buffalo Head,” adapted by Henrot, Farronato, Bromberg, Horvitz, and Loboda from a story by Italo Calvino and performed by Amira Ghazalla. The next evening we ascended the volcano guided by artist Joana Escoval and Stefano Oliva, a native Strombolian who runs up to the top and down every day. They had forged a wild descent for us through the bushes that we could choose to take once we had gathered metal energy conductors created by Escoval, but a few of us decided to head to a lookout point to watch lava sliding into the sea and decode the volcano’s smoke signals.
We want to stay away from the literal, if not the littoral. We were like strangers thrown together in an unpredictable plot against the stark, dramatic backdrop of bougainvillea, black sand, and shimmering white villas—a smoldering crater looming above. And we were implicated in the narrative. Detective Poirot would have loved it. Far from the relentless daily bad news, “moving to an active volcano feels like the safest place to be for a while,” curator Tim Goossens posted on Facebook one day. Yet as Abramović had put it: “I had to leave: 326 people and so much hate.” Ingrid Bergman’s desperate character in Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli: Land of God felt similarly, preferring to risk the wrath of the volcano than endure its society—finally recognizing, at the end of her rope, the light at the far side of darkness (with every hair in place): “Oh God, what mystery, how beautiful!”
The final day was “Exile,” and I saw my fellow campers off at the Scari dock, left to my own devices with the fuming volcano. The ferry headed straight into the bloodred moon toward Naples, leaving a luminous puddle on the serene surface of the sea. The party would throw Horvitz’s glass vessels, In the atmosphere where our mouths meet, 2016, each shaped by a breath of air, overboard to meet their destinies. And thus the denizens of the Volcano Extravaganza had encountered the fundamental beat of existence, the perfect chaos for a collective orgasmic dance—primeval and fatalistic, exhilarating and enervating all at once.