On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God – Romeo Castellucci

Written for Exeunt Magazine

A man soils himself on stage and the sweet tang of excrement fills the polished Barbican auditorium as brown begins to smudge the pristine white set. A son wipes his father clean as Jesus smiles his Mona Lisa smile on the pair of them, an observer like us, and also the creator of creatures with bodies that bleed and shit, or people who love and despair.

It is a surprisingly intimate beginning for a practitioner known for his iconoclastic visual extravaganzas. Watching a son look after his sobbing incontinent father is as bizarrely sweet as the stench Romeo Castellucci sprays out into the audience. This smell, as with much of Castellucci’s work, could be seen as simply a shock tactic, the best way to horrify a predominantly middle class SPILL audience, but instead it grounds the imagery on stage, making it more tangible, all the more real. We become very aware of our own bodies and of the social embarrassment this shattered old man is feeling; we also become aware of how voyeuristic our viewing of this intimate degradation is.

It is astonishing how quickly it slips into the banality of everyday ritual; you get used to it very quickly. As your discomfort settles into resignation at the questionable imagery in front of you, so intrigue slips into idle interest. At one point of frozen Gestus, when the son leans one hand (almost as in prayer) on the bent body of the father, a lifetime’s love and responsibility is signalled powerfully in a moment. But this revelation is fleeting and for the most part not enough is exchanged between the father and son apart from the constant flow of excrement.

For all this Jesus watches impassively on, and then the spectacle begins. As the father and son reach the pinnacle of their tragic bodily merry-go-round and leave the stage Castellucci the visionary comes out to play. This image of a man/god’s face is pulled and pushed, squeezed and teased against a wall of deafening sound. Slowly it is not enough to just push the fabric of this man’s face and tears begin to fall from his eyes (the texture of which resembles the excrement from before). More slices are made and this icon is ripped down to reveal the words You Are My Shepherd baldly lit in neon on the back wall as the stage is cleared. A cheeky unlit ‘not’ peeks out at us from the side; just what side is Castellucci on?

It’s undeniably a riveting display to watch, pinning you to your chair. Loud sounds and bright flashes always have the power to fascinate. But what does it leave behind? The answer is nothing; it adds nothing to the delicate, if slight, relationship and philosophy of the first section of this work and, after the initial thrill of something truly raw and fragile, it is hard not to feel like this is a case of Castellucci by numbers.

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