VESUVIUS WAS OFF-LIMITS.
Rival factions of the Camorra, the crime syndicate that rules sanitation and trade in the Gulf of Naples, had set waste dumps on the slopes ablaze and the town was heating up, in more ways than one. It wasn’t just the mercury that was sizzling. People were going around naked.
Cue Volcano Extravaganza 2017.
Fiorucci Art Trust director Milovan Farronato and founder Nicoletta Fiorucci annually import this summertime bonding-in-art experience from their base in London. The Vinyl Factory returned as producing partner for the Extravaganza’s seventh edition (July 13 to 16), an unbridled (and partly unclothed) festival of dance and sound conceived by British artist Eddie Peake to be, literally, transporting.
Past Extravaganzas have lasted ten days or more and taken place on the island of Stromboli. There, a guest artist-curator and collaborators produce events and exhibitions—including dances on the lip of Stromboli’s very active volcano, Iddu, scripted dramas, movement workshops, and a parasol parade—and even a perfume.
This year Farronato and Fiorucci made an inspired choice in Peake, whose selected title, I Polpi (The Octopuses), was as descriptive as it was symbolic.
Clocking in at an epic ninety-six hours, the festival requisitioned eight different sites on and between Naples and Stromboli. Conditions rivaled a Matthew Barney film shoot, minus the camera crew. Making a feast of it were 150 artists, dealers, curators, collectors, and photographers from Rome, Milan, Madrid, São Paulo, Brussels, Basel, Zurich, Los Angeles, and Naples, as well as London.
If these receptors exhibited vanguard tastes—Milanese stylist Giulio Ceruti designed and modeled a loud new outfit for each performance—Naples remained old school. Churches dated back centuries. In shops, cafés, and apartments, air-conditioning was optional. Cigarette butts outnumbered the tourists filling the cobblestone streets by day, while gangs communicated in coded bursts of fireworks by night.
Vesuvius had disappeared in the haze when I arrived a day early, but all was calm inside San Giuseppe delle Scalze a Pontecorvo, an abandoned seventeenth-century church in the city’s historic heart. Guided there by Farronato, Peake was rehearsing dancers Francesco Russo, Sara Lupoli, Valeria D’Antonio, Emma Fisher, and Kieram Corrin Mitchell; poet Holly Pester; and Gwilym Gold, one of two DJ/composers participating in I Polpi.
The performers were a pickup company of three preternaturally fit Neapolitans and two equally splendid Londoners who auditioned for the job. Their task was to perform Peake’s newest work, To Corpse, in five variations in as many settings, on rough, hard, filthy, steamy, or stony terrain, repeating the same six sequences in each location, but in different costumes and soundscapes.
We all got acquainted that evening at an impromptu pasta, buffalo mozzarella, and salad dinner hosted by architect Antonio Keller in his seemingly endless apartment, one floor of a shabby but grand palazzo. Though the evening was organized on short notice at Farronato’s request, Keller provided not just a meal but also a fab female DJ. Guests included MADRE director Andrea Viliani, dealer Lorenzo Xiques, and collector Giuseppe (“Beppe”) Morra, whose foundation would host the Extravaganza’s opener the following night.
While new arrivals checked into the Renaissance Mediterraneo Hotel, Naples was the lure, from the favela of the Spanish quarter to the Capodimonte Museum, high above the city, to the grand Excelsior Hotel on the bay.
One morning, when the sun was less likely to cause heatstroke, artist Mathilde Rosier (a veteran of previous Extravaganzas) guided Pester and this vacationing writer through the historic quarter, past churches, including the proto-Brutalist Gesù Nuovo, and over excavated streets built by the ancient Greeks in search of Seven Acts of Mercy, a masterpiece by the seventeenth-century fugitive Caravaggio.
None of this prepared us for the novel twist that Peake gave to Gli Animali (The Animals), beginning his Volcano at Archivo Casa Morra with a five-a-side soccer game—played entirely in the buff.
Just before dusk, spectators staked out viewing positions around the broad interior courtyard of the former Palazzo Cassano Ayerbo d’Aragona. Neapolitan kids play soccer in such places throughout their adolescence. But these players were clad only in shoes and socks.
I don’t think anyone closely followed the game, which was fought to a 7–7 draw. Let’s just say eyes were not on the ball. Yet both teams played with the seriousness of uniformed professionals. “I just told them to play as if it were a real game,” Peake said, “and not to think about what they weren’t wearing.”
The whole thing—the perspiring crowd in cocktail dress, the bare-assed athletes, the grungy courtyard—was comical. Yet the battle grew intense. One could pity the exploited players or cheer their bravado, though it was also interesting to see the tables turned on the male gaze. Ultimately, their nudity became a costume, and somehow that made the audience feel naked.
The athletes’ only pay was dinner (and dancing) on the rooftop of the Mediterraneo. Dealer Lorcan O’Neill, who hosted with White Cube director Mathieu Paris, gave the toast to Peake. “All of your work is about how we cover up who we really are,” he said. “And this performance made the point beautifully.”
The next day, collector Maurizio Morra Greco gave a small group of us a preview of his foundation’s expanding quarters in a thirteenth-century monastery. Moving through empty frescoed rooms, which had been in the possession of a single family for centuries, felt a lot like living a scene from Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard—or a hallucination unlikely to repeat come fall, when the revamped foundation opens to the public, and is filled with new art and new people.
Finally, at the hottest point of the afternoon, To Corpse, Variation One made its debut in the outdoor courtyard of the MADRE. (“To corpse” is slang in British theater for a moment when actors break character and collapse into unscripted laughter.) Again, the audience arranged itself around two sides of the courtyard, keeping well in the shade. The five dancers—two men and three women dressed in white unitards––went through their suggestive moves to music composed live by Darren Cunningham, the DJ known as Actress. Why Actress? “That’s a long story,” he said.
Afterward, Extravaganzinos had a couple of hours to see the three astonishing exhibitions on view—by Roberto Cuoghi, Stephen Prina, and Wade Guyton, who created his work on-site during a two-month residency, producing the most edifying show of his career to date.
That evening, back at Le Scalze, the dancers wore black unitards to perform To Corpse, Variation Two, with improvised music by Gwilym Gold, who accompanied his angelic singing with a keyboard tuned to sound like a church organ.
I don’t know what it was—the golden sunlight streaming through high windows, the ethereal music, the scraped walls and close air in the old church—but this variation was positively beatific.
I asked Peake, who is an obsessional Rubik’s Cube ace, how he designed the choreography. “I don’t use that word,” he huffed, rapidly turning the cube in his hands. “There’s dance, and there’s visual art. And I think of this as art. Not choreography.” It’s a shifting stage picture, is what it is, this Corpse. Out of Peake’s earshot, Cunningham whispered, “I really like the choreography.”
After a bit of hanging out and smoking on the church steps, everyone piled onto buses and headed out to suburban Pozzuoli and Vulcano Solfatara, an enormous, steaming, and sulfurous volcano, an apocalyptic landscape of its own creation.
By the way, this volcano is privately owned. (And they say art collectors are crazy.)
Solfatara was the stage for To Corpse, Variation Three. The dancers, who had changed into cherry-red unitards, paced within a fenced-in corral like restless horses, distracted by the sound of hissing fumaroles. “Apparently,” fashion writer Charlie Porter said, reading from a news clipping posted on a sign near a hissing vent, “the air here is good for sex.”
For sexy dancing, too. When the performers began leaping, rolling, and crunching through alternating currents of intense heat and cool air, Pester, in a long white dress, stepped up to a microphone to read “The Fishmonger’s Breath,” a poem she composed for the occasion.
Takeaway line: “I’m a prawn—and I love you as a prawn.”
The dance ended just as darkness fell. Said Peake, “This one made me cry.”
A waterside dinner that went late didn’t keep anyone from showing up the next afternoon in time to board the hydrofoil to Stromboli—a five-hour voyage. Among the boatload of people was a fox out of Disney—actually artist Rafaella Nalbi Rossano, who sat in her costume among the unsuspecting travelers as if dressed in perfectly normal cruise wear.
About forty-five minutes into the journey, Rossano moved to the on-board café at the center of the boat. Suddenly, Dr. Francesca Del Sorbo—introduced by Farronato the previous night as “my neurologist”—climbed into the back of the fox suit, with Rossano still in it. Fifteen minutes of struggle later, Rossano emerged from the costume in Del Sorbo’s clothes, and Del Sorbo had become the fox.
Each hour of the journey brought a different artist conscripted by Peake to perform the exchange, attracting priceless stares and offers of candy from transfixed children.
Fox originally was Peake’s thesis from 2005, when he was still a student at the Slade. The idea was to come up with an instruction with a built-in drama: Could two people wearing one costume exchange clothes without exposing their bodies?
“Of course, it’s impossible,” Peake conceded. Especially on a lurching boat.
In fact, every performance introduced new degrees of difficulty—for performers and the audience. After disembarking in Stromboli, Peake himself performed Megaphone Duet—a pas de deux of a tormented lovers’ quarrel with dancer Emma Fisher—right on the busy pier. (When it was over, Fisher was visibly scraped and scratched.)
Midnight brought To Corpse, Variation Four to Club Mega, a disco carved out of a cave above the Tyrrhenian Sea. Sexually suggestive spoken-word mixed with recorded music was the sound provided by artists Victoria Sin and Evan Ifekoya, dressed in white costumes of their own design that looked like wedding garments after a muscular roll in the hay. The dancers, however, were clad in glittering gold body paint, which camouflaged nothing, and moved through clear bubbles blown from a machine.
An all-night dance party followed, driven by two Vinyl Factory–sourced DJs, Leo Mas and Jonjo Jury. In the wee hours, some people slept on couches high above the dance floor. I went back to La Lunatica, one of two Trust properties on the island, to catch some shuteye. A golf-cart taxi—Stromboli does not have cars—took me back to the club just before dawn, daggers of lightning piercing the sky. By that time, everyone in the club was coated in glitter.
Cue the sunrise.
To Corpse, Variation Five was performed in silence on the rocky beach below the club. How the dancers managed on those stones I’ll never know, but out of either exhaustion or pain, or because two drunks from the club were partying in the sea, they forgot the final sequence, drifting into the water for a daybreak swim to cheers from the weary, giddy crowd following them into the water. The glitter did not wash off. “This one,” said Peake, “came closest to chaos. It could have fallen apart at any moment.” He sounded relieved.
A fierce waterspout appeared on the horizon, followed by cracks of thunder and a biblical rainstorm that drenched anyone attempting to beat it to shelter. Somehow it seemed a fitting finale.
But the festival wasn’t over yet.
After what became a sunny day at the beach, dinner was a buffet at La Tartana, a restaurant with a dance floor near the port. The music was from the 1970s; the playlist hadn’t changed in years. Nor had the menu. “No variation!” squealed Fiorucci, who couldn’t have been happier.
“It’s true I have a collection, but what should I do? Open a private museum? No!” she said. “Museums must be public. And museums have acquired some of the work made here. But I started the foundation to be different. Every program is unlike any other. We have no rules. No restrictions. No workshops. No sponsors to censor anyone. We’re not an institution. Artists must be free to experiment and we can provide opportunities for them and for the people who come. Sometimes they return. It’s like a family. They don’t come just for a party.”
“Of course,” she added, “there has to be a party. Parties are needed too.”