Paola Cabal, 2010
In our inventory of fragments, there is something about bees: or, not the bees themselves, but the bee-keeper’s container. There is also a word exchange (not to be confused with an exchange of words, nor with a conversation- at least, not in the conventional sense). There are six hand-carved bricks and a Holy Mountain; a heavy steel stand, a megaphone, and an inability to speak. With the exception of the mountain, these things are recursive; they fold back in on themselves and signal backward to a source outside of the present. Maybe these things are stars (except the mountain) (perhaps even that): moving in perfect concert, illuminating a reliable map, they imploded centuries ago. Maybe they’re not that kind of stars: maybe they’re still here.
To engage Raffaella Della Olga’s practice, you have to set aside what you know- the parameters along which you usually read things, and the speed, have to change. Is it a contradiction, to say that you have to know who you are? Because: there’s trust involved. You have to trust yourself. Specifically: you have to trust yourself enough to let go. Later on when you re-occupy the spaces you relinquished for these experiences, you can decide if they resonated with your own life. You can decide that later. Right now, set yourself aside. Raffaella is giving you permission not to know. She doesn’t know either: this is at the heart of what she is articulating in her work. She’s building a house of cards, at the base of which ‘conviction’ and ‘chance’ are supporting one another’s weight, and you: you have to be light, to come in.
Our first conversation set the tone for her time at the residency. Raffaella was talking about something else when I interrupted her to ask how she thought about her proposed projects as connecting to the idea of the transforming state. I was not in the right frame of mind for the conversation, as my interruption evidences. I was feeling impatient: I wanted Raffaella to get to the point, or, more specifically, I wanted Raffaella to get to my point, not hers.
Besides not being in the right frame of mind (and it should tell you something about Raffaella- a vital clue- that she would not herself consider the frame one of ‘mind’, so much as of ‘heart’ or perhaps, more accurately, of ‘spirit’), my impatience had another source in that first conversation. I was puzzling Raffaella out for myself. She seemed to me to have arrived from Paris armed inside a carapace of her previous references, and I had a hard time seeing these as anything but noise over the present moment and place: the bees were because she’d been reading the Rig-Veda, the words were inspired by a Théo Angelopoulos film, and there was not at that time any intimation of a Holy Mountain, nor of Bricks, nor a Megaphone, nor an Inability to Speak. If anything, my experience of Raffaella was that there was a surfeit of language.
Maybe she was relieved that I spoke French. It is a second language for her, and one she speaks with what to my ears sounds like native fluency; my Italian (her first language) is functionally nonexistent, and her English, though competent, is not something she is comfortable speaking. As her listener (interrupter), I felt she was overestimating my French- a third language for me, and not one I consider myself proficient in. And, to return to the outset, I wanted her to get to my point, which was New Delhi on Monday, July 5, 2010. As I only came to appreciate later on, Raffaella had her own points to get to. More importantly, she had her own way, often recursive, somewhat convoluted, shimmering and riverine, of getting to them.
“ ‘The Transforming State’, for me, is a constant, internal condition,” She told me. “I, myself, am in a constant state of transformation; metamorphosis…” her loquacity was undimmed, but at that point I entered a different space within it, a self-reflexive one, following the thought through its potential iterations. If one is in a moment of internal transformation, I wondered, how does one link that transformation to the actively transforming external space in which one finds oneself? Considered through the lens of an internal transformation process, Raffaella’s various ideas began to coalesce as efforts to forge precisely these sorts of links.
A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance
-[title of a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé]
To return to the house of cards, the artist’s practice balances two unknowables: herself, and her viewer. As detailed above, Raffaella requires, like a chef with a list of ingredients, that her viewers bring some space with them. All of her references are germane to the effort of linking the artist to her space; like a set of constellations, they’ve formed points of orientation for her own thinking, yet: considered only after the fact, if considered at all, where do these landmarks leave the viewer? Do they offer purchase into the unknowns of Raffaella’s ongoing transformation? Do they help to locate it here? Do they point outward to her practice? Do they enable our own transformation?
I give them to you just in case, an inclusive and undifferentiated list that needs must fail, nonetheless, to abolish what cannot be known: Mantramanjari, the first volume of the Vedas, the film “Eternity and a Day” by Théo Angelopoulos, the film “The Big Trail” by Raoul Walsh, India’s “Economic Times” newsdaily, London’s Speaker’s Corner, and six bricks. Also, fragments of Raffaella herself: her previous life as a criminal attorney, her identification with both idealism and absurdity and her ideas on the impossibility of justice.
Neither the bees nor their enclosure lasted the month, but, besides these, the remainder of our initial inventory stands. Feeling (rather than thinking) or maybe sensing my way through each element in a responsive act of emotional archeology, I intuit seismic reconfigurations of previously established terrain.
The hand-carved bricks read “tra nsf orm ing sta te”, about three letters per brick- significantly, in bauhaus font. The router buzzed for weeks; the tip became unusable and had to be replaced. She could have made her own bricks; she could have made a mould from a clay positive; she could have simply evoked the dimensional “brick” lexicon; she could have used papîer-maché. This? This speaks to a literalist fury, a committed insistence, a prolonged and possibly meditative process, if a difficult one. Insofar she envisions returning the bricks from whence they came, that they might at some point integrate seamlessly (carved on the tops rather than the sides of the bricks, her letters would disappear if used for building) into architecture, I read the piece as the artist’s wanting somehow to stay here in New Delhi.
What looks like a delicate contour line drawing from a distance turns out to be a collage when seen up close; Holy Mountain comes from various weeks worth of exactingly extracted economic indices.
For Impossible Speaker Corner, the artist had a megaphone and a steel stand she’d purchased from a reluctant vendor and reappropriated. It was initially meant to be an inclusive public platform- a response to the fact Connaught Place doesn’t have a Speaker’s Corner, and a sense the artist had the people here were not free, one she acknowledges as presumptuous, but which she nonetheless intuits as in some measure real. Over time, the project changed into a one-woman performance; in standing on the platform and, in an attitude of vivid protest, speaking through a megaphone, the artist would implement her body and voice in a parody of protest; she would assert the right to speak in public, and use that platform for absurdist pronouncements. I watched and took photos as, on the appointed day, Della Olga carried the stand about a half of a kilometer into Lodi Gardens. I think she thought she was going to say something; she had brought some notes with her, something from Kafka. (I’d tried to read it in the car on the way there, but between the handwriting and the Italian, failed.) All of us had been nervous about the stand; she made her way up and stood on it in her dark green stilettos before discarding the stilettos. She took the megaphone out of the bag she had been carrying it in and she put it to her mouth, but she never turned it on. After a few moments, she sat on her stand, megaphone in one hand. “It’s impossible,” she said first in French, then Italian, “this thing I have set out to do, it’s impossible”
As of this writing, only Raffaella’s word-exchange has yet to transpire: she plans to return to Tughlaquabad, a site we’d visited as a group, with her Veda text and in the company of someone who can write Sanskrit. Once there, she plans to choose words from the text- the artist’s version is in Italian- and have the person write their Sanskrit equivalents in a notebook. Afterward, she wants to stand at the bottom of the water reservoir at the site and record herself speaking the words into the space.
Even as the artist connects her own threads for me, linking her projects as a series of discontinuous fragments requiring an ongoing activity of modification on her part, I am formulating my own connections inside of the space I brought with me: there is something about the failure of language, and about being outside of a situation. Closing my eyes to engage her pieces inwardly, I sense a movement from thought to feeling, from reference to action, and see Raffaella herself transforming, only just now becoming the viewer she demands.