A conversation with Shoichi Aoki, FRUiTS
There are those who measure the passing of time by the distant ring of church-bells, or the call of a cuckoo, or the tick-tick-tick of a clock. For others a rumbling stomach or a gentle ebb and flow of tiredness signify the passing hours. In Rome, for the last year and a half, Nico Vascellari has had time marked for him by his neighbour, Alessio, a 26-year old in red trainers.
Alessio, who is Autistic and non-verbal, communicates in colours and through the syncopated exclamations and repetitive movements of his stimming. Vascellari heard him before their paths crossed, the rhythmic sounds of his belly-slaps, stomping chassés and melodic whistles drifting from the street to Vacarelli’s studio and providing a soundtrack to his workday.
The meter of these actions was the starting point for Vascellari’s latest performance piece – which took place amidst the frescoed walls of Florence’s Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio, and was named in honour of its focal character. Nearly two minutes of footage of Alessio stimming play on a loop, the rest of the space gradually filling with dancers who mimic his gestures and vocal outbursts in precisely choreographed time. Alessio and his imitators cup their faces, flick their fingers, shift their weight from foot to foot, click their tongues and make guttural, piercing squillos which echo through the palace like whale song. At one point a woman breezes past where Alessio stands, outside a nondescript bar selling fresh fruit juice. We don’t see her expression, only her back and her floral-patterned leggings, but she moves with purpose, not turning her head towards the young man, just walks right past and into the bar. She does not have a corresponding dancer copying her movement.
Alessio forces its audience to do exactly what we are not supposed to do when it comes to engaging with strangers, neuro-typical or not. We are forced to stare. 110 seconds of film repeated over 45 minutes, Alessio becomes a spectacle 25 times over, which he isn’t, he’s just managing his own sensory input, going about his day, navigating his experience of the world.
I can hear the reprimand of a million mothers going through my head as I watch.
Every time the troupe of dancers impersonate a vocal stim I cringe. It’s just noise, it’s just movement, the meaning isn’t there. The context of their sounds is offensive. The dancers have dancer’s bodies, dancer’s abs. Alessio is the only one with any expression, personality. He has smiling eyes and softness, at one point he seems to nod to someone off-camera. But we don’t know what he’s thinking, or what he thinks about all of this. The dancers are in a trance-like state, hard. The routine is an exercise in noticing, they have noticed every minuscule disjointed motion of Alessio’s and replicated it but it is only his exterior. Neuro-divergence was not a criteria in the casting. After the show they will go to a bar and drink wine together.
In this room, the Mannerist frescoes by Vasari and the marbles by Michelangelo are love-letters to muscular masculinity. There is violence, dominance, control, decision-making, war. There are no other Alessios here. The incongruity of the space was essential for Vascellari, who likes to place his performances in spaces which are ‘not ready’, not quite apt. His first performances took place outside of proper exhibition spaces, almost like guerrilla shows, or what Vascellari describes to me as ‘improvised spaces’.
Alessio himself is not here, but his mother is. Vascellari told me that she cried after watching the performance, and they spent a long time embracing each other – her consent and collaboration has been steadfast throughout. It is she who will decide whether Alessio will watch the video of the performance (which will become a part of the Museo Novocento’s permanent collection as well as travelling to other countries). Originally she had advised Vascellari to hide the camera and film Alessio clandestinely, but that’s not how it happened. Over seven days the camera was placed in front of Alessio in plain sight, so he always had the option to walk away. Alessio’s therapist was involved in the project too.
I asked Vascellari if he had an idea of what he wanted to people to feel when they encountered this work. ‘No,’ he said. ‘But what I want is for people to feel. But what that is is irrelevant to me.’
What did he feel when he took his bow?
‘Moved. Connected to the piece. Grateful that I was able to do it. Strong, strong gratitude.’
There is clearly a creative and sensory kinship between Alessio and Vascellari; the contemporary artist is attuned to spacial relationships, to movement, to colour and to sound (alongside his artistic practice Vascellari is in experimental music group LAVASCAR with Michèle Lamy and Scarlett Rouge). It’s no wonder he was drawn to Alessio, who will soon be doing a stage in Vascellari’s studio. But whether this performance was the right tactic to tell his friend’s story I don’t know. As an audience member I felt complicit in something I didn’t want to be involved in, however sensitive, respectful and kindly intentioned it might be. Tokenising and mimicking–– beautifully executed though it was––is still an ethical grey area that I’m anxious about straying into. The bar Alessio stands in front of is inelegant and uncomfortable looking, and on the wall there is a tacky, hun-coded mural that reads, in swirling green calligraphy, ‘seasoned with love’. It’s a perfect metaphor.
Right at the end of the performance the screen went black and the ambient sounds of Rome traffic were quieted – now only the noise of the dancers reverberated in the room. Then, somewhere outside in a Florentine square a church-bell rang. It was time to look away at last.
Site specific performance of Alessio by Nico Vascellari, Salone dei Cinquecento - Palazzo Vecchio, Florence (2023) Courtesy the artist.
With thanks to Sam Talbot.