Roberto Paci Dalò’s film Ye Shanghai (2012) is a hauntingly vivid work. Its subject is the Shanghai ghetto: during the Japanese occupation of the city (1937–45), no visa was required to enter its harbour; as a result, it attracted around 20,000 Jewish refugees, all of whom were forced to live in Hongkou, one of the city’s poorest districts. The film’s soundtrack – performed live by the artist on the closing night of this show at Marsèlleria – is a mix of urban soundscapes, voices in English, Yiddish, Chinese and German, as well as music samples, which are only revealed as part of the melody of a popular Chinese song from 1949, ‘Ye Shanghai’ at the end. In grainy black and white, we see men laughing, children at school, artisans manufacturing rice-paper lamps at prodigious speed, the funeral of a dignitary, friends having tea, beggars, military parades and crowds in the street. The amateur footage was shot by tourists in Shanghai during the 1930s, and was discovered in the archives of the British Film Institute by the artist, who lightly edited it to focus on scenes in which people – many of whom would now be dead – look directly at the camera and come back to life across time and space ‘like the delayed rays of a star’, as Roland Barthes wrote about photography in Camera Lucida (1980).
The image of a galaxy of invisible sound and light waves floating in space is an apt one to describe the immersive works of Paci Dalò, who defines his multifarious output as a ‘theatre of listening’. The exhibition’s title, ‘Time Line’, was meant to be understood both literally – as an overview of Paci Dalò’s recent production (drawings, sculptures, soundworks, videos) – and metaphorically, as an individual experience of duration. An artist, composer, director of the performing arts ensemble Giardini Pensili, filmmaker and experimental musician, Paci Dalò has collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, Terry Riley, David Moss and Scanner, among others. Despite his early involvement with digital media (his first website, Radio Lada, was launched in 1995), the show made clear that the Italian artist’s greatest love is radio, for its ability to materialize past and present words, sounds and spaces, and to produce unexpected encounters between analogue and digital worlds.
One of the first works in the exhibition was the dreamy Smallville #2 (2011), a miniature landscape created inside a short-wave transistor radio, turned on at low volume, that transmitted fragments of radio programmes, buzzes and glitches. In the downstairs gallery, Radioscape (2012) – which looks like a small piano keyboard, with a desk lamp and an old radio placed on one corner of it – was, in fact, a computer-generated ‘juke-box’ which allowed the public to play all 37 radio-based projects created by Paci Dalò from 1989 to 2009, often for ORF/Kunstradio, in Vienna. Even the 80 ink drawings that comprise the series ‘Storie di lupi e di lepri’ (Tales of Wolves and Hares, 2009) were accompanied by a CD which collected the distant voices of real wolves.
The exhibition was accompanied by Radio Cage (2012), a micro FM radio station that transmitted an audio work based on John Cage’s voice, which could be listened to via mobiles and iPhones while walking around the gallery. Cage (who in 1958 was invited to Milan by avant-garde composer Luciano Berio to work for the Phonology Studio of RAI, the Italian state radio, and in the following decades performed extensively in Italy) is an obvious point of reference, and Paci Dalò pays homage to his legacy by dedicating ‘Time Line’ to the American master, on the occasion of the centenary of his birth. The artist also has a personal connection to Cage, who composed a mesostic for Paci Dalò in 1990, which was included in the show: ‘In two worlDs Roberto / the one of nAture and the other / the musicaL / One’.
In one of his Radio Happenings with Morton Feldman, recorded in July 1966 at WBAI radio station in New York, Cage explains that he ended up making works that included transistor radios in order to come to terms with the so-called problem of intrusions and ‘interferences’ within the artist’s environment. One of the Cage’s utterances from that conversation sums up ‘Time Line’ perfectly: ‘Now whenever I hear radios, I listen to it with pleasure,’ he says, ‘and by pleasure I mean I notice what happens […] The radio simply makes audible what was not.’