Roman Holiday


Left: A view of the Largo Argentina. Right: assume vivid astro focus's Eli Sudbrack. (Photo: Cathryn Drake)

As soon as I arrived at the Area Sacra di Largo Argentina in the sultry Roman evening and looked down into the ancient ruins, I experienced something like an LSD-induced time warp: Bedouin transvestites had taken over four ancient temples dating from the fourth century BC. “It is a discotheque!” exclaimed an Italian passerby as he looked upon the colorful, pulsating encampment below. His female companion said, “It is not possible!” But there it was: Eli Sudbrack’s assume vivid astro focus collective was making its debut in Rome. Flashing neon hieroglyphs adorned the walls of the Temple of Juturna, and a multicolor projection bathed the columns of the oldest temple, devoted to fertility goddess Feronia.

As I descended the steps into the sacred psychedelic ruins, Roman artist Ra Di Martino said, “Strangely enough, this is the first time I’ve been inside these temples.” Wearing a kitschy crucifix adorned with images of the Madonna, the Italian journalist and provocateur Roberto D’Agostino seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, joking around with curator Francesco Bonami in a streamer-lined corridor. Standing before a giant poster of a woman in red who was too-much-woman-to-be-a-woman—like a transgender Jocelyn Wildenstein with exaggerated red lips and formidable cleavage to match—Bonami later commented that it took more than a month to get permission to invade the archaeological site with contemporary art, which seemed fairly expeditious considering the nature of the intervention and the bureaucratic rigmarole typically required to get authorization for anything in Italy. However, it seemed particularly ironic that this exhibition would be permitted today, given the condemnations of gay culture by Gianni Alemanno, the recently elected neofascist mayor, along with his dismantling of the previous administration’s extensive cultural initiatives. But perhaps the key here was the influence of the exhibition’s corporate sponsor: Enel, Italy’s largest power company.

Left: Curator Francesco Bonami. Right: Artist Christophe Hamaide-Pierson. (Photos: Cathryn Drake)

Once I arrived in the center of the pulsating wooden construction and donned my tribal gorilla mask, I caught the carnival spirit and abandoned myself to the sacrilege of it all. Wafting about like a butterfly in a long black-and-white caftan, Sudbrack mentioned that he “hoped people would start dancing soon.” The debauched squat was plastered with blowups of cross-dressers and decorated with bunches of balloons inscribed with the names of Italian women and transvestites. One of avaf’s partners in crime, French multimedia artist Christophe Hamaide-Pierson, described a visit by Enel’s representatives the day before: “It was weird, they had no problem with displaying the naked breasts; it was the fetishistic features of the transvestites’ faces they didn’t like. But since then, I have seen lots of women walking around here in Rome with badly done work!” He said that members of avaf had been living a nomadic life, traveling constantly for the past two years to set up their campy road show around the world.

The ruins of Largo Argentina were excavated in the 1930s thanks to Mussolini’s desire to revive the symbols of Rome’s status as caput mundi, but somehow that dream was never quite realized. Although it contains some of the oldest relics in Rome and was the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination (in 44 BC), the sunken piazza is now essentially a cat sanctuary, and literally hundreds of the feral creatures run free among the stubs of columns and sacrificial altars. But not one of them was in sight during last Thursday’s opening.

According to the curatorial statement, the artistic intention was to “respect the archaeological site but at the same time revitalize it by dragging it into the present”—no pun apparently intended. Speaking of which, the dearth of drag queens was curious; the attendees of the opening party, feeding enthusiastically from an incredibly long table running the entire length of the piazza, were less art world than young professionals of the Roman haute bourgeoisie. Given the storied comportment of the ancient Romans, who reportedly partook in frequent orgiastic bacchanalia, the Largo Argentina may be the most appropriate venue for an avaf installation yet. The place even features remnants of public toilets from the Roman Republic, in case anyone decided to take it that far. But alas, no one danced. And the only hallucinogenic vision was an optical illusion: the signature avaf light prisms made by the lenses in our masks.

Left: A view of the Largo Argentina. Right: Francesco Bonami with journalist Roberto D’Agostino. (Photo: Cathryn Drake)