Roberto Cuoghi

Roberto Cuoghi’s recent exhibition, “Šuillakku,” consisted of a large sculpture, Pazuzu (all works 2008), at the bottom of the museum’s seventeenth-century staircase and a complex sound installation, Šuillakku, that occupied the entire third floor of the building. “Šuillakku” designates a choral prayer position practiced among the ancient Assyrians, whose civilization Cuoghi has studied in depth. The Assyrians built the first great empire in ancient times, one that lasted for centuries but was destroyed quickly by the Median and Babylonian armies early in the seventh century BC. The vestiges of Nineveh, the empire’s capital, were not discovered until the nineteenth century, after being shrouded in silence for hundreds of years.

Perhaps drawn to this sudden disappearance and long oblivion, Cuoghi approached the Assyrians through study but also imagination. Knowing that music played an important role in their culture, for many months he reconstructed the instruments they might have used, basing his research in part on bas-reliefs brought to light by excavation. Cuoghi built instruments out of wood or animal horns; with the help of a luthier he created a large lyre out of cedar wood and sheep gut. For nearly a year, working every day, alone and without being a musicologist or a musician, he played these instruments and recorded and edited their sounds, creating a large-scale orchestration.

Since he had no historical documents, Cuoghi worked deductively. In order to write the music, he constructed a score similar to the lamentations of the ancient Hebrews, described in the Old Testament and probably based on Babylonian models, which in turn were influenced by the Assyrians. The artist focused on the end of the empire, imagining the Assyrians who had escaped their enemies and joined with a priest to implore the gods for help. Their voices, however, are neither mournful nor meek but rather furious and aggressive; the chanting and music are deafening. Šuillakku is a deliberately disturbing musical score that cannot help but make a profound impression on visitors, who are invited to move about in the space, continually assaulted by the barbaric sounds (instruments, voices, noises, even animal sounds: a strangely contemporary piece of music) that surround them. Cuoghi, whose earlier sound pieces were attempts at “remaking” African or Chinese songs, has reached a new level with this staggering experience. The artist modeled the accompanying nineteen-foot-tall sculpture of Pazuzu, a Mesopotamian demon also used as an amulet to ward off other demons, on a six-inch-high bronze statuette of this creature in the Louvre. Facing outward, Cuoghi’s statue reminds us that the antiquity he evokes is, in reality, an invitation to reflect on our own era and on the tragedies that fill our history right up to the present.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.