PRINT Summer 2005


“BUT YOU LOOK SO YOUNG!” might seem an incredibly rude thing to say—if said to a thirty-one-year-old. Yet upon meeting Roberto Cuoghi for the first time last February, this apparent faux pas was forgivable. After all, I was expecting to meet the artist who, as a student at Milan’s Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in 1998, decided that he would “become” his father. During the next seven years, Cuoghi embarked on a radical quest to accelerate his age, assuming the elderly man’s physical appearance, mannerisms, and dress. His weight swelled to 308 pounds, he grew a beard, dyed his hair grey, and developed chronic bags under his eyes, not to mention attendant health problems. Without the help of make-up or Orlan-esque surgical intervention, Cuoghi—to borrow a term from queer discourse—convincingly “passed” as a man in his mid-sixties. (Only very recently has he begun to reverse this aging process; hence my surprise at his “younger” look.) When stopping for breakfast in a Milanese café or running errands in local shops, he received the kind of cortesia reserved for a grandparent. His actions amounted to a strange retelling of Oedipus Rex. Instead of killing his father, Cuoghi appropriated his identity.

The artist’s refusal to frame his undertaking as a work of art is as provocative as his willingness to abandon his youth. Established paradigms, as the artist asserts, undermine the full extent of his endeavor: “Performance” insinuates too many theatrical associations. “Body art” is far too narrow; it excludes the psychological and sociological dimensions of Cuoghi’s metamorphosis. The dated term “living sculpture” is too fetishistic; Cuoghi never put himself on a Gilbert & George–style pedestal. In the absence of a preexisting category to define this episode of his life (and work), then, the artist characterizes it as a “transformation.” It might even be said that “transformation” is Cuoghi’s preferred medium. While his eclectic practice involves digital animation, comic-book illustration, drawing, painting, photography, and text, Cuoghi’s primary activity is the alteration of the experiences, representations, and expectations of daily life. Accordingly, disregarding the art world’s current taste for all things performative, Cuoghi never produced any commodifiable relics or exhibitable documentation of his experience, save a few snapshots.

Yet unlike current biennial darlings Tino Sehgal and Superflex, Cuoghi’s refusal to produce material artifacts has nothing to do with challenging the art economy or institutional systems. His reasoning is much more specific; this resistance is not a general, driving principle of his oeuvre or about staking out an ideological position. The process of becoming his father involved such extreme adjustments to both his psyche and physique that merely recording these complex changes through visual or textual modes would ultimately have been reductive. In this way, Cuoghi extends the legacy of ’70s artists who assumed alternative identities, like Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershman, Cosey Fanni Tutti, and Adrian Piper. His “transformation” was not done for a specific audience or to prove a single point (about age, gender, class, or race). Only by living with Cuoghi during the seven years could one grasp the full extent of his radical metamorphosis. Rumors and anecdotes—as opposed to photographs and relics—are almost all that remain from his identity switch.

Before fully articulating his notion of transformation, Cuoghi’s earliest works often took the form of “endurance pieces,” which involved more temporary conditions. One such work, 1997’s Il coccodeista—a nonsensical term that rhymes with “cubista” or “futurista”—entailed his wearing a pair of goggles that severely distorted his vision for five consecutive days. Replacing the normal lenses with Pechan prisms—an optical device used to invert and reverse images—Cuoghi was barely able to walk, let alone function normally. To “record” the effects of his self-imposed handicap, he drew a series of self-portraits and wrote anecdotal poems in an Antonin Artaud–like scrawl. Cuoghi’s taste for reality-shifting experimentation might claim its paternity in the activities of Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Villeglé. In the early 1950s, this Nouveaux Réalistes duo began making photographs, films, and text pieces by replacing either the camera lens (Hypnagoscope, 1952) or their own spectacles (Lunettes en verre cannelé, 1957) with ribbed glass. Like Hains and Villeglé, Cuoghi seeks to deform his experience of reality as well as disturb the mimetic representation of the “real.” Cuoghi seems to incarnate Hains’s revolutionary declaration: “Artists are leaving the creation of art to become abstractions personified.”

The Goodgriefies, 2000, a five-minute film, relocates the notion of “personified abstraction” from the artist’s own body to the cartoon world. In an animated version of cadavre exquis, Cuoghi dissected, shuffled, and recomposed characters from Peanuts, Scooby-Doo, South Park, Popeye, The Simpsons, The Smurfs, and The Flintstones to create a cast of disturbing hybrids. Synched to a catchy jazz sound track, Cuoghi’s creatures at first humorously parade across the screen as if to flaunt their aberrance. Quickly progressing from the innocuous to the horrific, the film crescendos as Cuoghi’s animated monstrosities begin to decay—they fart, belch, bleed, piss themselves, and decompose. The moral: Not all transformative experiments have happy endings.

Even when his work takes a form that is less narrative driven, Cuoghi’s quest for other realities prevails. For his first solo exhibition at Galleria Massimo de Carlo in 2003, Cuoghi invented an unusual pictorial technique to make a series of exquisite drawings. Combining pencil, ink, charcoal, pastel, marker, spray paint, and varnish, each of Cuoghi’s chiaroscuro drawings “emerge” from the layering of numerous semitransparent sheets of acetate and tracing paper that are framed behind glass. Fragments of an image progressively build up to form a whole. The interplay of opaque and transparent materials produces an eerie optical effect, imitating the spectral qualities of a daguerrotype.

Paradoxically, Cuoghi applied his fetishistic method to the most generic subjects, such as an old-fashioned record player and a tree trunk. Two untitled portraits featured in the show depict an older man and woman. Despite the incredible amount of detail, it is impossible to decipher anything about the identity of either sitter or about the era in which they live. While the medium of drawing might seem disconnected from the rest of his practice, there is a metaphorical connection between Cuoghi’s real-life transformation and the peculiar visual effects produced by his drawing technique. His unique layering process transforms the depicted object or person by stripping the subject of its individual attributes while simultaneously giving it an auratic glow. The preciousness of Cuoghi’s technique lends the subject a presence that is both haunting and somewhat unsettling. If Cuoghi realized he could not visually represent his own transformation, he found a means to metaphorically suggest its force through his drawings.

Just like with his art, Cuoghi’s personal transformation is ongoing. His most recent self-portrait, Untitled, 2005, takes the form of a 3-D image—made using a technique called lenticular imaging. Displayed on the door of the Wrong Gallery in New York City this past March, the work still portrays Cuoghi as an old man. His portly face, seen in relief, is composed of an Arcimboldo-like assemblage of toys, dolls, and tchotchkes. For Cuoghi, his American debut was an opportunity to formally say goodbye to his old self. “What are you going to do now?” I asked him. “Surely you can’t go back to who you were before.” “No, you’re right,” he deadpanned. “I’m transforming into something else: a young, international artist.”

Alison M. Gingeras is an independent curator living in Paris and New York.