A stark-naked woman – except for a Darth Vader helmet – marches on a treadmill as the sound of the Dark Lord’s labored and mechanical breathing ebbs and flows over the scene … A similarly unclothed woman turns cartwheels as another screams bloody murder … Explosive micro-spectacles erupt in Florentina Holzinger’s Apollon like waves crashing relentlessly across the stage. The critic Róisín O’Brien has described the work of the Austrian-born Holzinger as “staunchly ripping into any notion of feminine delicacy and restraint.”
It is not entirely surprising that, among Holzinger’s heroes and inspirations, figures Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975): Italy’s most prominent post-war (counter-)cultural figure. Pasolini was by no means a feminist. Yet this is not to say that elements of his radical, scandalous, counter-hegemonic politics (including his opposition to both Communist orthodoxy and the New Left) might not be recruited to an aggressive and progressive feminism. By turns ironic and brutally literal, Holzinger’s work addresses contemporary “bodily cultivation,” and how its everyday routines and regimes are aimed at – and expected of – women. The “neoliberalist cult of the body” against which Holzinger pitches her withering performances forms the undeniable descendent of another set of corporeal concerns: namely, the neocapitalist-influenced notions of the body, against which Pasolini campaigned in journalism, poetry, cinema, and theater throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.
Pasolini experienced the unprecedented changes wrought upon Italy and other countries during this period – from the mass media to a glut of modern commodities – as tantamount to an “anthropological” mutation: a cultural catastrophe which found its most extreme manifestations in the body, in the body’s increasing subordination to packaged pleasures and transgressions stripped of any anti-conformist bite. The nudity and extreme interactions of Apollon – as well as its periodic invocations of bondage – recalls in several instances the morbid choreography of Pasolini’s last and most infamous film, Salò (1975). So too, does the work’s engagement with (even taunting of) the audience conjure up Salò’s confrontation with its viewers, rendering them complicit in the spectacle’s voyeurism and violence. Holzinger has even eaten a fellow performer’s “feces” onstage, in a plain allusion to Salò’s force-feeding of shit: a Pasolinian allegory for the new consumerism being shoved down Italian’s collective throats.
Pasolini took no interest in contemporary performance or dance. Indeed, he remained willfully insulated from the aesthetic trends of his day. Yet Salò, like other aspects of his work, responded obliquely to performance and body art – phenomena which reached their apogee in the early and mid-1970s, in Italy and elsewhere. His close friend Fabio Mauri staged a performance in 1971 titled What is Fascism, featuring various feats of physical fitness and competition recalling the corporeal obsessions of Mussolini’s regime. Echoing aspects of Mauri and contemporary body art practices – such as Gina Pane and Marina Abramović – Apollon evokes some similar obsessions by way of more contemporary anxieties, in a kaleidoscope of terrors and pleasures parading across the stage.
Ara H. Merjian is Professor and Acting Chair in the Department of Italian Studies at NYU, where he is an Affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History. He is the author, most recently, of “Against the Avant-Garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Contemporary Art, and Neocapitalism,” out with the University of Chicago Press in January 2020.