Notes on KS, the man who smiled too much.
by Arianna Desideri
KS, the man who smiled too much, a project conceived by artist Pasquale Polidori, which focuses on the figure of Kurt Schwitters, took place in May 2019, at MACRO Asilo in Rome. The programme was divided into two moments, which eventually intersected and became mutually functional: the first one, Progressive materials for KS’s dramaturgy (May 1-31 2019), is a reading and conversation workshop in which you could discuss and operationally explore, in a collective dimension, the guiding themes of the project; the second one, entitled KS, the man who smiled too much, was a lesson-concert which took place on June 2nd at Salone dei Forum, with the participation of Steve Natterstad (piano), Pasquale Polidori (narration) and Tianyi Xu (stage action), together with a choir composed of four members of the workshop: Luigi Battisti, Simone Compagno, Claudia Melica, Jacopo Natoli. On that occasion, a booklet with a presentation written by Francesca Gallo was also presented.
The workshop, open to a limited number of participants, had an extensive nature in terms of both time and space, since it took place three times a week and, as we were progressing through the programme, the documentary materials multiplied, increasingly occupying the exhibition area, through discussions among the participants. The installation, defined by Polidori as “progressive”, was modulated through the composition of the project, reflecting the dynamic and interactive nature of the workshop activity.
My participation in both acts, as well as the assistance to the artist through the process, are at the origin of my desire to write some Notes, commentaries organized into three chapters (Lab #1, Lab #2-3, Lesson-concert: KS the man who smiled too much), the object of a twofold processing: they oscillate between written fragments in construction and material for a further critical reflection. The title, indeed, refers to the brief declarative sentences written down on a notebook during the workshop – featured at the beginning of each article – that emerge as flashing lights to remind themes, sensations and extracts of experience in relation to the observations on Kurt Schwitters and the issues addressed.
May 7th, 8th and 9th 2019
/ Ready-made / Religious attention / Phantom of the Urinal / Giving again substance to / Eroticism as lack / Eroticism as melancholy / The rosary and the fly / Encirclement of the void / Ghost deity / Material element facing death / Automatic translator / Taking the poison out of things / Abstraction of the minimum sentence / Stairway to Paradise / Fusion work of art-ghost / Surrounding the ghost with love / Retrieve the foolish things of life / Smile as openness to the world / ‘Touching’ the history of art and turning away from it / Sentimental-historical bond / Intimate construction of meanings / Moving backwards / Fragment of rosary / Tying threads / Weaving threads / Creating a weave / Litanies / Melancholy / Allegory /
After the first week of the workshop, before anything else we had to make an introduction on the theoretical and operational premises of the experience, both to allow for a better comprehension of the fil rouge which guided its activities and to start thinking about the focal point of the project, that is to say the echo of Kurt Schwitters’ smile within Pasquale Polidori’s poetics.
The input that originated the whole reflection is indeed the magnetism that emanates from Kurt Schwitters’ face in the series of photographs taken by Genia Jonas, in which the artist assumes a spontaneous and natural posture that makes him look like a “sales representative” with a clean face and a calm expression, projecting him beyond the orthodoxy of Avant-Garde. The erotic attraction – meant as symbiotic, emphatic, all-embracing – and the falling in love triggered by the interest in Schwitters brings about the hypothesis of a history of art interspersed with associations and reinterpretations on an intimate and romantic level. The modus operandi of the historian, that is to say the critical analysis of the documents and the archive material, appears as a necessary but not sufficient method: Polidori, by investigating its limits, indeed wonders whether it, too, originated from some sort of infatuation on the part of the scholar and if it is possibile to build a historical-artistic narration which takes into account this fact as well, letting oneself be changed through subjective and affective meanings.
The desire to reach and possess the longed for image inevitably clashes with the discovery of the void, meaning the impossibility of establishing an effective contact with the source and, at the same time, of comprehending the intrinsic meaning of the work of art. Polidori rereads in this way the theories that Boris Groys in turn transposes and adapts from Ernst Kantorowicz, with regard to the splitting of the body of the post-Duchampian artist, divided between the historical one – biographical, mortal, destined to the dissolution and the unknowableness – and the linguistic one – trans-historical and immortal, that presents itself as a ready-made open to endless re-elaborations and discourse about it. The need for an internalization at the historical-sentimental level, then, would aim at making up for the subtraction and the absence, evoking also a ghost made of suspended, almost sacral, features, meanings and connotations.
Groys’ theoretical dichotomy is then translated by Polidori on a personal level, through the account of an autobiographical episode in which his grandmother, during the recitation of the rosary, was holding a flyswatter. The scene triggers a conceptual suggestion destined to enlarge the discourse: the liturgical singsong, played in a rhythmic and circular way, is interpreted by the artist as the practice of “encirclement of the void” around the divinity – clear from the etymology of religio – in order to surround the phantasmatic body and to look for a connection with it; moreover, the fly in the room represents the material element bound to meet death, that is to say the historical body.
On the basis of these premises Lab #1 of Progressive materials for KS’s dramaturgy, in which Pasquale Polidori proposes the construction of a Rosary to evoke the idol of Kurt Schwitters, is articulated. In the first two meetings a choice of texts about the artist has been given to the participants, for them to analyze on the lexical-syntactic level according to the methods of the generative-transformational grammars on which the programs of automatic translation are based. By identifying the clauses which have ‘Kurt Schwitters’ as subject or object of the verb and reducing them in short sentences, we have obtained a list of actions and ways of being referred to the artist, meaning a verbal and symbolic route through which trying to cure the absence of the concrete subject. For example:
he understands something
he begs for redemption
he drags the listeners out (of their skin)
he teaches us something
The result achieved has been then the potentially infinite singsong of Rosario-Schwitters, in which the group acting aims at inducing a state of suspension and meditation on the ghost-divinity of the artist, creating a “stairway to Heaven” to join with it.
The performance developed within Ambiente #2 at the MACRO Asilo (Rome), as part of Conversazione I [Conversation I] (May 16th 2019) and Conversazione II [Conversation II] (May 23rd 2019), the two days open to the public and aimed at the restitution of Progressive materials for KS’s dramaturgy. Divided into five moments, Rosario-Schwitters involves the interaction of the six performers in the framework of a rhythmic back and forth, composed of the list mentioned above: the first mode is punctuated by the alternation of a solo voice which declaims the verbs while the group concludes with the object, overlapping sometimes where the utterance consists of three lines (ex. drags / the listeners / out of their skin); during the second act, the complete reading of Polidori is accompanied by the participation of the people who, having selected some sentences by different criteria, strengthen the melody and create an unexpected and changing choir; the third phase then goes on with an arrangement in couples and a progressive dialogue that, starting every time from the beginning, chaotically overlaps to finish at the same point; the fourth disposition, on the contrary, is intended to recreate a hypnotic atmosphere, cadenced by a background (the singsong “oooh, oooh”) on which the two timbres of Luigi Battisti and Jacopo Natoli recite the final part of the Rosary. The last step to reach Heaven – the body of the artist – are the litanies, a moment of circular repetition of the words “melancholy”, “allegory”, alternated with the selection of nouns evocative of the universe of Schwitters. The different moments are accompanied by some spatial indications that involve both the performers and the props – in particular, two parallelepipeds made of wood as mobile sculptures and a metronome, an essential element within the rhythmic and cyclical cadence of the Rosary.
The author of this piece and Pasquale Polidori, Luigi Battisti, Simone Compagno, Claudia Melica, Jacopo Natoli, Gianluca Sensale, Tianyi Xu have taken part in the recital.
May 14th -15th/21st-22nd 2019
/ Marx d’après Duchamp / Encirclement / The ghost on the surface of the painting / Vision, suspicion, death / Vampirism / Dante Alighieri sucks the blood / Patti Smith / The accident of Jackson Pollock / Rimbaud is too smart to be good / Reflection of the images / Body-corpus / Seduction of the Avant-Garde / The monocle of Tristan Tzara / Dressed time / Hugo Ball Anglican priest / The protruding veins of George Grosz / Max Ernst androgynous / Salvador Dalì Casanova of himself / Photography kills / The slippers of Vassilij Kandinskij / Abduction / Swoon / Loosing the resistance / What stops us from crying? / The Man I Love / The museum as cooling /
The activities completed during the first and the second week of Progressive materials for KS’s dramaturgy revolved around one of the main themes of the project KS the man who smiled too much, meaning the aesthetic falling in love and the hypothesis of a total erotic fusion between the artist and the public – or better, within this framework, between the beloved and the lover. This line of thought builds upon the reflections of Lab #1, during which Pasquale Polidori reinterpreted Boris Groys’ theories concerning the two bodies of the post-Duchampian artist, reaching the conclusion that the only relation truly accomplishable is the one with the linguistic phantom, which has become a ready-made that grows and modifies itself in time thanks to open narrations, built by posterity as compensation for the absence of the historical body.
In an attempt to recover and with the aim of keeping experimenting the hypothesis of a history of art rewritten also in affective terms, Polidori has suggested the vision and the analysis of more than one hundred vintage photographs, depicting the representatives of the historical Avant-Gardes in the time frame that goes from the 1910s to the 1940s – therefore coeval to the photos that Genia Jones took of Schwitters. During Lab #2 (May 14th-15th) details and seductive parts of the portrayed subjects, of their faces, bodies and clothing, were identified, drawing up a list of types and building a texture of collective likings and inclinations which ended up giving substance and vitality to their static gazes. If we can get lost in Kurt Schwitters’ smile, why not save a little space for Vassilij Kandinskij’s ankle? The result was a list of seductive parts titled Seduction of the Avant-Garde, which reads as follows:
The monocle of Tristan Tzara
The strabismus of Tristan Tzara
The protruding ears of Tristan Tzara
The alluring lips of Tristan Tzara
The hands of Hugo Ball
The dark circles of Hugo Ball
The look that gives and the look that takes away of Hugo Ball
Besides, the only way in to give substance to the linguistic phantom, Polidori goes on, is to go through its corpus, that is to say its entire artistic production, which becomes a pretext to keep imagining a context and a world to associate to a visible but elusive face. The corpus is therefore functional to the reiteration of the feeling, takes the form of an excuse, a bequest, a trace, not as the final aim of research: the desire is still rather that of a complete fusion with the body, occasionally possible thanks to its oneiric apparition. Polidori’s discourse is in fact accompanied by the reading of some poems taken from Babel (1980) in which Patti Smith dreams about making love, for example, to Arthur Rimbaud, until recreating his death and the imaginary linked to the period in which the poet was a slave trader in Abyssinia. The surreal – yet sensorial, therefore corporeal –abduction, linked to the erotic experience is associated by Polidori to the iconography of the vampire, interpreted as a metaphor of the symbiotic relation between the ghost and the lover: the fatal act of the bite would seal the apex of aesthetic enjoyment but, at the same time, the eternal theft of the victim’s soul. If on one hand, in fact, the artist-vampire is obliged to suck the blood in order to feed his linguistic body and to survive, on the other hand, the lover, to enjoy a fragment of immortality and ecstatic fusion, is willing to be “vampirized”, that is to irreversibly turn into a creature thirsty for blood, which will roam over and over in search for such a sensation.
I fuck a saint who is made of water.
When we reappear, the birds are chirping.
(Patty Smith, The Night, 1976)
In conformity with the activities of the second week of Progressive materials for KS’s dramaturgy, Lab #3 (May 21st, 22nd) delved further into the matter, translating the theme on the affective and subjective level of memory, asking the participants to re-evoke a particular love at first sight with a work of art, trying to outline a general map of the symptoms and consequences linked to falling in love. Some of them talked about their experiences, recalling an exhibition (the Venice Biennale and the Plurimi installation by Emilio Vedova), or an artist (Félix González-Torres), quoting a movie (Le Quattro giornate di Napoli, ‘The Four Days of Naples’, 1962) or literary texts (H. Ibsen, The Lady from the Sea). The field of investigation, in fact, was not restricted to visual arts, but aimed at considering a wider range of disciplines, including for example cinema, music and literature. Many accounts have revealed a common phenomenology of the post-falling in love, that is the beginning of a research and imitation process which employs a large amount of energy, differently directed and diverted depending on the inclinations – for instance, painting for six months like Vedova, or studying and exploring different documentary sources – in order to fill the melancholy due to the separation. Polidori then asks himself which is the real function of the museum – cooling? Inhibiting? – and about the possible instruments for a total devotion and fusion with art, which nevertheless turns us away and excludes us from its meaning as in a one-sided relationship. In accordance with such perspective, more than forty anonymous love letters were chosen and taken from the web; on these letters Polidori intervened with programmatic inserts, that is empty talks about a slippery love story with the work of art and the artists of the Avant-Gardes.
Lettere d’amore per ogni occasione (leggermente modificate) [Love letters for every occasion (slightly modified)] were the focus of Conversazione (II) (May 23rd 2019, Ambiente #2, MACRO Asilo, Rome), the second open meeting of restitution of the workshop. The uninterrupted reading took place within the installation, partially transformed for the occasion, according to the progressive character of the exhibition: on two monitors two videos were projected, one with the physical details of the pictures viewed during Lab #2 and edited by Tianji Xu, and the other with Seduction of the Avant-Garde, the list resulted from the analysis; the working table, lying on the ground like a support platform for the image on the wall, had a projector with a video (Il sipario fa sì che io possa toccarti, 26’15’’) made by Polidori and dedicated to Schwitters’ body. Eventually, a setting, specific for the performance, was prepared; during the performance several readers took turns, holding a big bouquet of white roses.
Concert-lecture: KS the man who smiled too much
KS, the man who smiled too much, a lesson/concert particularly centered on Kurt Schwitters, by Pasquale Polidori, was held on June 2nd at Salone dei Forum of MACRO Asilo (Rome). The performance was thought and structured within the first moment of the projects, meaning Progressive materials for KS’s dramaturgy, a workshop during which the artist proposed activities and themes which, collectively shared and developed, built the scheme and the object of the final act. The focus of the reflection – already explored by by the author in the two previous Notes – now interacts with the shape of the lesson/concert, with the intent of investigating and combining the two terms of this definition. The first one refers to the possibility of testing the limits of the history of art, since Polidori moves within the modalities of the academic lesson but overturning the contextual results: indeed, the artist replaces the seemingly objective discussion about the artistic biography of Kurt Schwitters with the narration of a love story, with the love at first sight which occurred with the postcard that portrays him and the iter which led him to reason about the nature of the work of art as unfulfilled desire and intimate re-elaboration. The idea of the concert, the second factor on which the performance is built, joins in the track of such hypothesis, accompanying the development of the discourse and strengthening its motivations with love songs taken from the repertory of Broadway, played on the piano by Steve Natterstad. The lineup, especially drafted, is functional to illustrate the main points of the lesson, constituting an interlude among the different phases, but at the same time it presents itself as an independent contribution, accessible regardless of them: the texts and the melodies of the standards of Broadway, are in fact the core from which Polidori’s narration takes a leaf, starts or to which is opposed, scanning the rhythm in seven steps, that is:
Prologue: Rosario-Schwitters. The performance, the result of the first week of workshop, has been conceived as the moment of invocation of Kurt Schwitters’ ghost.
- The Man I Love: prefiguration of the meeting, waiting as poietic moment in which the object is defined and, at the same time, the desire towards which one strives. The work of art as absence which is nevertheless imagined. Genia Jones’ photographs, Schwitters’ face.
- Stairway to Heaven: building of a stairway to Heaven through language and allegory, identified as the only ways to reify the ghost of the artist, now a linguistic body. The modus operandi for the creation of Rosario-Schwitters.
- I’ve Got a Crush on You: falling in love, fusion. Patti Smith and Rimbaud. Seduction of the Avant-Gardes, the ankle of Vassilij Kandinskij.
- I’ve Got Rhythm: to get the poison out of things and the search for harmony with the work of art. Art as rhythm and consequentiality, as musical and linguistic rhythm.
- Do, do, do: repetition of the feeling. To redo, to repeat. Imitation as love feast. Demeanor vs Wiggling in front of the Water Lilies by Monet. The prohibition of fusion with the work of art, the cooling of the museum.
- Send in the Clowns: to position oneself in relation to the work of art, following a script. Playing the part, being a clown. Letting the blood be sucked out; Dracula, vampirism.
Exodus: recital of the Litanies from Rosario-Schwitters with the succession of the combination “Melancholy-Allegory”. Rituality and cyclicity as encirclement and raising to the work of art.
- Over the Rainbow: to reach the symbolic space, liquefaction and detachment. Ethereal dimension, intangibility and utopy.
The space of the performance KS the man who smiled too much is conceived as a traversable field of action, within which Polidori has a great range of movement and many objects to interact with, catalyzing non-programmed situations that function as a frame to the story. The area is simultaneously modeled also by the performer Tianyi Xu, who goes up and down a staircase, compulsively picks on two bouquet of gerberas creating a carpet of petals on the floor, grabs and shows to the public some signs bearing theoretical statements of an aesthetic nature, written in big and bold letters – like «Make the ghost coincide with the breath of the gaze» or «We take part in the work of art and the work of art excludes us from its meaning». His presence is perceived as external, misleading, in relation the progress of the discourse, and it constitutes a nuisance which is at the same time magnetic, since it attracts the attention of the public by using unsettling flashes, absorbing and disorienting it with regard to the discussion in progress. Moreover, a choir composed of Luigi Battisti, Simone Compagno, Claudia Melica and Jacopo Natoli is defined as another overlapping element, since it casually intervenes within the lesson with questions and persistent affirmations, interrupting the fluidity and disputing the themes – like the function that the choir had within the dramaturgy of the Greek tragedy. Therefore, within the scene two vectors of opposite direction begin to intertwine: one consists of the dissertation by Polidori, with the music accompanying him and projections in itinere – edited by the author – which support the arguments and contribute to the success of the operation; the other one is articulated in the opposite direction, clashing and interposing to it as pars destruens.
 I’d like to highlight that the discussion that follows about the project and the reflections made by Polidori were stimulated by some articles (cfr. the following notes) and the conversations with the artist, as well as the texts he produced as workshop material and collected then in a catalogue raisonné, edited and printed at the end of the project.
 The clear dichotomy between the self-representation of Kurt Schwitters and the portraits of the contemporaries constitutes the guiding theme of the second week of the workshop. For further information, see P. Polidori, KS the man who smiled too much #02 Genja Jonas, in «Spazio cosmico», May 2019 <http://www.pasqualepolidori.com/spaziocosmico.html> (July 2019), here in English.
 However, as Polidori underlines, even the most rigorous art historian falls in love, since his own interest towards a specific thematic, period, movement and artist implies a lightning strike and an imprinting. Eroticism as spiritual symbiosis represents one of the thematic cores of the project and it will be specifically investigated during the second open day of restitution of the workshop, entitled Conversazione (II), Soggettività e oggettività fittizie. La storia dell’arte come (intima) illusione narrativa [Conversation (II), Fictitious subjectivity and objectivity. History of art as (intimate) narrative illusion] (MACRO Asilo, Ambiente #2, May 23rd 2019). Regarding the topic of falling in love, see also P. Polidori, Leggendo Boris Groys (#1): con Patti Smith, Arthur Rimbaud e alcuni altri fantasmi [Reading Borys Groys (#1): with Patti Smith, Arthur Rimbaud and some other ghosts], in «Spazio cosmico», October 2018, <http://www.pasqualepolidori.com/sc/index.php/2018/10/03/leggendo-boris-groys-1-con-patti-smith-arthur-rimbaud-e-alcuni-altri-fantasmi/> (July 2019).
 To read more, see P. Polidori, Leggendo Boris Groys (#2): con Marco al museo [Reading Borys Groys (#2): with Marco at the museum], in «Spazio cosmico», October 2018 <http://www.pasqualepolidori.com/sc/index.php/2018/10/18/leggendo-boris-groys-2-con-marco-al-museo/> (July 2019).
 To read more, see P. Polidori, Leggendo Boris Groys (#3-fine): con mia nonna in cucina. Note sul corpo a corpo con l’opera e significazione del readymade [Reading Borys Groys (#3-end): with my grandmother in the kitchen. Notes on the close encounter with the work of art and the meaning of the readymade], in «Spazio cosmico», November 2018
<http://www.pasqualepolidori.com/sc/index.php/2018/11/11/leggendo-boris-groys-3-fine-con-mia-nonna-note-sul-corpo-a-corpo-con-lopera-e-significazione-del-readymade/> (luglio 2019)
 In particular, the two texts analysed are: A. Desideri (edited by), Citazioni, frammenti e testimonianze di, su e intorno a Kurt Schwitters (available among the materials of Lab #1) and S. Wilson, Kurt Schwitters in Inghilterra, in E. Grazioli (edited by), Kurt Schwitters, in «Riga» n. 29, Marcos y Marcos, Milan 2009, pp. 227-254
 This type of analysis is recurrent within Polidori’s work, used since the end of the 1990s from the L’idea che mi sta a cuore (1997) until today, via works such as Lettere dei condannati a morte (2002) and Innamorata (2015). Cfr. <http://www.pasqualepolidori.com/> (July 2019)
 The project is accompanied by some soundtracks from the repertory of Broadway, conceived as a further act of love and emotional impulse towards the absent body of Kurt Schwitters. The songs in fact express feelings, intimacy, sometimes melancholy, sometimes pure joy of falling in love. Stairway to Paradise (1922) by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and Buddy DeSylva aims to contribute, together with the recital of the Rosary, to the construction of the “stairway to Heaven” which takes one to the ghost of the artist. Furthermore, the sequence of the songs is the scheme from which the discourse of Polidori started, during the lesson-concert of June 2nd 2019 at the Salone dei Forum of MACRO Asilo (Rome) .
 For a daily report of the Lab Progressive materials for KS’s dramaturgy, see the page on Facebook used during the whole month as a space for the narration and re-elaboration of the activities <https://www.facebook.com/ksthemanwhosmiledtoomuch/> (July 2019)
 See P. Polidori, Leggendo Boris Groys (#1): con Patti Smith, Arthur Rimbaud e alcuni altri fantasmi [Reading Borys Groys (#1): with Patti Smith, Arthur Rimbaud and some other ghosts], in «Spazio cosmico», October 2018 <http://www.pasqualepolidori.com/sc/index.php/2018/10/03/leggendo-boris-groys-1-con-patti-smith-arthur-rimbaud-e-alcuni-altri-fantasmi/> (July 2019)
 P. Smith, Dream of Rimbaud, in P. Smith, Babel, edited by P. Zaccagnini, Newton Compton, Rome 1980, pp. 69-71
 To read more, see P. Polidori, Leggendo Boris Groys (#1): con Patti Smith…[Reading Boris Groys (#1): with Patti Smith…] cit.
 To read more, see P. Polidori, Leggendo Boris Groys (#2): con Marco al museo [Reading Boris Groys (#2): with Marco at the museum], in «Spazio cosmico», October 2018 <http://www.pasqualepolidori.com/sc/index.php/2018/10/18/leggendo-boris-groys-2-con-marco-al-museo/> (July 2019).
 To read more, see P. Polidori, Leggendo Boris Groys (#3-fine): con mia nonna in cucina. Note sul corpo a corpo con l’opera e significazione del readymade [Reading Borys Groys (#3-end): with my grandmother in the kitchen. Notes on the close encounter with the work of art and the meaning of the readymade], in «Spazio cosmico», November 2018 <http://www.pasqualepolidori.com/sc/index.php/2018/11/11/leggendo-boris-groys-3-fine-con-mia-nonna-note-sul-corpo-a-corpo-con-lopera-e-significazione-del-readymade/> (July 2019)
 This reflection will be one of the common threads of the lesson-concert of June 2nd 2019, held at the Salone dei Forum (MACRO Asilo, Rome), object of analysis in Notes #3.
 P. Polidori (edited by), KS the man who smiled too much, una lezione/concerto, specialmente su Kurt Schwitters, catalogue of the activities, p.n.n.
 Cfr. P. Polidori (edited by), booklet as conclusive catalogue of the activities,Rome, May 2019