BY Isabel Parkes in Profiles | 24 NOV 21

Michele Rizzo Stages Acts of ‘Communal Becoming’

As a new series of Covid-19 lockdowns hit Europe, the Amsterdam-based choreographers club inspired performances are more relevant than ever

BY Isabel Parkes in Profiles | 24 NOV 21

In 2019, Michele Rizzo’s HIGHER xtn. – a techno-infused testament to the euphoria of clubbing – was brought to life at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam by a group of dancers, including the artist himself, after being chosen from an open call in 2018 that received nearly 400 entries. Thanks to fans who shared footage of it online, HIGHER xtn. has been seen by many more thousands of people than those who witnessed its early performances. No thanks to COVID-19, much of the artist’s subsequent work has been near-impossible to experience, due to necessary cancellations or restrictions. This combination of hyped and hemmed in has placed Rizzo in the exhilarating, if at times frustrating, category of an artist with a trademark.

While he readily acknowledges how his practice might be understood as an homage to the club, Rizzo is more broadly fascinated by what he calls acts of ‘communal becoming’, as he told me in a recent phone interview. Trained as both a choreographer and a visual artist, Rizzo explores the affective crescendo and decrescendo of collaborative making. He is drawn to moments of ‘shape shifting’, of transference and transformation – touch, for example, which he explained can be experienced emotionally as well as physically.

Michele Rizzo, Higher xtn., 2018, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; photograph: Maarten Nauw

When we spoke, he started to explain what he’s currently working on by describing the similarities between dancing and sculpting, a connection he first made while completing his MA at the The Sandberg Institute in 2015, but that he has developed further in the last year: ‘In both, you lose yourself in time,’ he said, ‘in a process that is bodily and intuitive. The eroticism of moving with another person becomes clear in sculpture, too, as clay bodies emerge under wet hands.’

Rizzo’s recent foray into sculpture with REST (2020) – a group of glazed terracotta figures in various states of repose shown at last year’s Rome Quadriennale – elucidates both the sensuality and the connections between disparate media that the artist describes. In positions redolent of the Barberini Faun (c.220 BCE) – a remarkably expressive, sleeping satyr that is said to have resided in a sanctuary to Dionysus in Ancient Greece – Rizzo’s slender, classically sculpted characters recline in states of undress, ecstasy and exhaustion. If HIGHER xtn. can be said to invoke the transcendence of lifting fellow ravers up and into one’s own euphoria on a dance floor, then REST might be said to carry forth a more fragile form of elation that accompanies physical presence and, with that, an awareness of death.

Michele Rizzo, REST, 2020, installation view, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Courtesy: the artist, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Quadriennale di Roma; photograph: DSL Studio 

Originally conceived as a mixture of installation and performance that might link rituals of clubbing with those related to the Catholicism that Rizzo grew up with in southern Italy, REST, like everything, was transformed by events of the past eighteen months. The work’s opening procession – whereby dancers carried sculptures atop steel-frame stretchers into the exhibition hall – was largely curtailed, and the main performance delayed until the final month of the exhibition, when it was presented to a small audience. Deferrals and changes, however, meant that Rizzo remained immersed in the work’s unfolding narrative in a way that is often lost in the hustle of producing one piece immediately after the next. REST also evolved into Rizzo’s first film, which this summer was commissioned and acquired by the Stedelijk – an institution that has proved nimble in redirecting its generous performance funding to time-based media during the pandemic.

Michele Rizzo REST 2021
Michele Rizzo, REST, 2021, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Although the past two years have allowed Rizzo to explore plastic arts, his recent experience with film, he tells me, has re-emphasized the fact that he is a time-based artist. In autumn, ahead of the recent upward infection curve currently gripping Europe, Rizzo presented REACHING (2021), his largest choreographed work to date. Produced in collaboration with the Julia Stoschek Collection, the premiere took place at Kunst Werke in Berlin, out of order in what he considers the trilogy of HIGHER, REACHING and REST, due to pandemic-related restrictions. ‘In the end, it worked out as it should, with REST shown earlier and REACHING later,’ he explained, ‘Because REACHING is about transition between phases, which feels appropriate for this moment.’

Michele Rizzo, REACHING, 2021, performance at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, in collaboration with Julia Stoschek Collection. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Frank Sperling 

REACHING begins when the audience enters a darkened space and encounters two dancers, one moving alongside the other and touching his chest in a manner that seems, by turns, tender then controlling. The pair sways from side to side, creating a repeating, looped motion that slowly arrives at a point of unison, then catapults viewers into an otherworldly experience of unified dance between 14 people. As the title suggests, this combination of lull and buoyance, atomization and accord, feels like a yearning or grasping for things we can’t quite pin down. Maybe this is why it appealed so strongly to the show’s applauding audiences: we are witnessing an artist reaching for something and – as we once again face a moment of tightening pandemic restrictions – cannot wait to see what, ultimately, he will find.

HIGHER xtn was originally due to be performed at Haus der Kunst, Munich, on 25 November but was cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. REST is currently on view at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, as part of the exhibition Tomorrow is a Different Day’.

Main image: Michele Rizzo, REACHING, 2021, performance at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, in collaboration with Julia Stoschek Collection. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Frank Sperling 

Isabel Parkes is a writer and the deputy director of Callie's. She is based in Berlin.