Marco Papa

History is strewn with talents who emerge and then recede into the shadows. Marco Papa has chosen the story of Gene Anthony Ray to exemplify this phenomenon. After being selected to portray the character Leroy in the film Fame (1980), the talented young African-American dancer became a star and traveled the world. Indeed, there was real overlap between the identities of the character in the film and the person who played the role—a story typical of the creative desire for expression that in the ’80s seemed like a powerful antidote to the political and social critiques of the previous decade. Many personalities emerged, in art, literature, and film, but Ray, like so many others, did not keep pace and eventually returned to the shadows. Papa, who was a child in the ’80s, decided to go in search of Ray—and found him. A work in progress was born, and it has developed in various stages, the first of which (curated by Milovan Farronato) was presented in Milan.

This installation, Dancing on the Verge, 2003, was the result of many contacts, interrupted by Ray’s recent death, at age forty-one. A video projection showed a landscape with a group of palm trees, the words SWEET GENE, a child watching television, and glimpses of Papa and his collaborators’ search for the forgotten performer. In the middle of the room the project’s title was displayed in the form of a neon sign splashed with fuchsia pink paint that had dripped to the floor, covering a variety of objects meant to symbolize the values that Ray needed: a ring, representing a pledge of faith; a T-shirt with his recent portrait, symbolizing the courage to look failure in the face; gym shoes, evoking the security of standing on his own two feet; an energy drink and some cosmetics, connected to body treatment and personal care.

Papa has attempted to restore the loss that Gene Anthony Ray came up against. What is original about Papa’s approach is that he has done so through an actual dialogue. One feels the influence of the oral-history projects that were so popular in the ’80s. Papa’s search for the outcast who lives nearby becomes the interpretive key for describing an icon, which responds not to the romantic myth of the intemperate genius but to the process of construction of an identity. Ray told Papa about the obsession that chained him to the TV: as a young boy, to learn how to dance; later, to look for traces of his lost success. The words dancing on the verge, reflected in the video projection of Ray’s biography, allude to his individual experience but remind us of the risks that all people take, every day. Art goes from being a synonym for excellence to being a symptom of the unease that we all feel when we fail to keep desire and awareness in balance.

Francesca Pasini

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.