The Influence

Melbourne artist Lisa Radford, a friend and colleague of Damiano Bertoli’s, remembers his major work Le Désir, a series of performances of a little-known play by Picasso.

By Kate Holden.

Damiano Bertoli (1969–2021)

Damiano Bertoli’s 2018 staging of Picasso’s Le Désir, curated by John Nixon, at the Melbourne Art Theatre, and Bertoli (inset).
Credit: Yanni Florence

Damiano Bertoli (1969-2021) was a highly regarded Melbourne artist whose work, over three decades, encompassed prints, drawing, happenings, theatre, video, installation, sculpture, teaching and collage. He was invested for many years in what he called “the Continuous Moment”, which was expressed in various exhibitions using diverse media, in both solo and group exhibitions in Australia and overseas. A characteristic work was his sculpture Continuous Moment 2003-05, evoking a Casper David Friedrich painting of an iceberg, home renovation, Minimalist art and the Baroque.

A major project was an ongoing series of stagings of Le Désir Attrapé par la Queue (Desire Caught by the Tail), an absurd short play written by Pablo Picasso during the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1941. It was previously performed by Picasso’s friends, including Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre in an apartment in 1944, and as a psychedelic “happening” in 1967 in Saint-Tropez. Bertoli saw his events, which took place intermittently and in different locations and included exhibitions of their documentation, as a wormhole linking previous historical moments and cultures, either celebrating or mocking the idea of such synchronicity.

Bertoli died earlier this month, and his friend and fellow artist Lisa Radford agreed to speak about his work and significance as an artist. She herself works across multiple media, tweeting, painting, teaching and performing, and appeared in one of Bertoli’s stagings of Le Désir.

This must be a difficult time for you.

Yeah. It’s just weird. I’ve been communicating with all of his friends and it’s important to note that there can’t really be a singular voice on Damiano and his work. It’s a nice parallel to Le Désir in a weird way, because it was about the multiplicity of voices, the impossibility of there being a coherent narrative.

You can be one of the voices.

He was an incredible talker, but not indulgent or excessive. Temporal but diverse. The more I talk to people, the more I realise the distinct parallels between the work and him as a person. I texted someone last night: in an amorphous web we’ve been sending pictures of his work and pictures he’d sent us over the years, and I was like, “Oh my god, he’s fucking tricked us into speaking in images only”, and it’s this net, or web, or puzzle that keeps on unfolding in this beautiful, funny and sad way.

He would gather you in: you were let in and then he’d never really let you go. There were 40-year friendships he maintained – whether it was football or film or art or music or literature, architecture – he had friends across all of it and he sustained those connections. And when Picasso was writing the play that’s what he was doing, because it was the middle of the occupation, they had curfews – there are so many parallels. He didn’t have any materials to make art, which is why he was making the play; he was riffing off his friends. It was a tribute to Apollinaire, who had died during the Spanish flu [pandemic of 1918]. There was no real order, no real beginning. And that’s the way Damiano has conducted his versions: they started in 2010 and were by no means finished. He was working closely with Jack Willet to do another one, which was to happen at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in April next year.

Damiano came across the Picasso play because he was obsessed with the band Soft Machine, and they had performed in it. The play was only performed a few times, once – and no one really saw it – in Picasso’s apartment, and another time in 1967. Soft Machine played some music for it then. So the connections would start off-point in some way. It’s the off-point that would lead, as he researched, to all these networks of connections and coincidences. Damiano said coincidence was important to artists because you trust the subjective recognition of an incident. An incidence is when things align and then they spawn new directions and ways to move, and that then gets turned into aesthetic, material observations.

Similarly the linearity of any kind of narrative or comprehensible meaning was not the point of the work. The point was this strange collection of materialities that were referential but also personal: autobiographical and social; political and aesthetic; funny and serious; morbid and life-affirming. Like an image soup.

And then there’s a limiting factor: there’s a gallery, there are four walls, “I’m going to make sculpture”, “it’s going to be a performance”, “I’m going to work in three dimensions” – and you use those boundaries in order to frame moments.

Can you describe the Bertoli manifestation of Le Désir and how it fits in his Continuous Moment project?

Lots of Damiano’s work stemmed from the year of his birth, 1969. That’s where the Manson stuff comes in, the Superstudio, Soft Machine, which leads to Le Désir. The depth of his research meant that nothing was really disparate, but particular and methodical even in its reduction to aesthetics or the absurd. The simple accident of the date of the year of his birth is the fake origin for the continuous moment.

Le Désir is like an iceberg: the play is the tip bit and underneath there’s this crazy massive tumour, like those rhizomic tentacles all networked together. At different moments Damiano would materialise parts of those and they would take the form of some of the exhibitions.

I think he’s done five versions of the play based on five of its six parts. I was in one in 2018 at the Melbourne Art Theatre, which was run by John Nixon, who was a dear friend to Damiano. He would interpret the main characters – there’s Big Foot, who people say is Picasso; there’s Thin Anxiety, Fat Anxiety, Tart, Onion. He’d researched all those characters and the other ways they’ve manifested in the world, and attached them to characters or people of significance in his life or who he admired.

There’s only a very sketchy script provided. There’s virtually no rehearsals. It becomes a means for him to build a relationship with you through conversation. I played a character based on Jean-Luc Godard, so we talked a lot about what kind of visor I might wear. Damiano was dressed as combination of David Hockney and Simone de Beauvoir. It wasn’t about perfection of performance or the correct representation of this play. It had been funnelled through him and was coming out with us. Ours was on a stage at RMIT which would have been the worker’s theatre, which is another nice coincidence: the play was based on the studio that Dora Maar had suggested Picasso take, and they were part of the anti-fascists.

You can see this connection in Damiano’s other work, with Italian political history. He backends political slogans with Memphis designs; he turns things around, pulls them apart, so you can see them in a different way. The performances were very much like “happenings”, they were performed on the gallery floor or on a stage. I know he was looking for an amphitheatre...

Le Désir was generative of all the others. The iceberg [referenced in the Friedrich sculpture] is a moment in time, an image of the sublime that is impossible to comprehend, and it’s continually changing and moving. Damiano kind of solidified it for a moment.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 18, 2021 as "Damiano Bertoli (1969–2021)".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.