Alfredo Aceto / My Italian is a Little Rusty
February 12 - March 20, 2021
Lange + Pult
Port de la côte, 1
2012 Auvernier, Switzerland
Photography: Julien Gremaud
Back in the days, in a world still inhabited by chimaeras and dragons, a chthonic creature made of fire and water was said to be rampaging across the countryside of Normandy. Their name was Gargouille and they resided on their own, in the vast swamplands extending across the Seine river’s left bank. Despite their withdrawn life and usual discretion, being omnivorous in their feeding habits they occasionally roamed the valley in search of food and happened to devour cattle and people on their way. At times, the meals resulted indigestible and Gargouille suffered from terrible heartburns. Their aerodigestive function was then disturbed by a peculiar form of rumination syndrome, a chronic regurgitation that had them breathing fire from their mouth. This physiological disorder resulted in farms and warehouses being burnt down, and entire fields and crops being reduced to ashes. The other inhabitants of the valley deemed those behaviors dangerous and obscene, to say the least, and Gargouille soon became unpopular among the villagers, who decided to hunt them down and kill them. A bishop and a man condemned to death, together, succeeded in the mission, resorting to the sign of the cross as their lethal weapon. The lifeless body of the dragon was then carried in front of the church of Rouen and burnt to cinders before the fanatic eyes of a silent crowd―proper ending of a story forged by fire, or cruel anticipation of the fate of Joan of Arc, who will burn on the same soil a few centuries later. Yet, the legend has it that the neck and head of Gargouille would not catch fire, being tempered by the immanence of their own incendiary breath. Hence, the majestic head of the chthonic creature was rather mounted on the wall of the church instead, as a reminder of the horrors and torments one could experience in hell, but also―and more importantly―to scare off evil spirits and protect the site and its people. Paramount to this end was the position of the dragon’s tongue, which needed to protrude from the mouth for Gargouille to look mean and ugly, and therefore more terrifying to the demons they were meant to keep away. The defensive stratagem seemed to work out, and the rumor quickly spread all across Northern Europe. Soon, the region’s churches and cathedrals summoned plenty of Gargoyles―Gargouille’s progeny, or their ubiquitous reincarnations―who took the form of hybrid apotropaic figures making the tongue to drive the evil away. Yet, to stand guard against the darkness wasn’t the only purpose of those fantastic creatures emerging from stone and marble, at the encounter between mythology, sculpture, and architecture. They served a second purpose indeed. Their very name originating from Latin gurgulio for “throat”―an onomatopoeic expression evoking the gurgling sound of water flowing through the throat and emphasized in the melodic exercise of gargling―reveals the second function attributed to the creatures, as well as the tight relationship they held with water. If the earthly life of Gargouille was lived under the banner of fire, their afterlife returned them to water, through their sculptural reincarnations. And the name also indicates the way in which this relation with water was to be performed: “Gargoyle” contains indeed the root gar, which in Sanskrit refers to the verb “to swallow”. Thus, if externally the anatomy of the monstruous custodians was sculpted so to cast a protective spell on its surroundings, internally it was structured for them to function as gutters: architectural elements conceived in order to swallow and convey rainwater from the roof and away from the side of the building the Gargoyles were sitting on. Therefore, by gobbling water through their throats and ejecting it from their open mouths, Gargoyles prevented the erosion of the masonry walls, protecting the building from atmospheric agents as much as from evil spirits. In short, those apotropaic architectural devices were meant to perform a double protective function.
What if a Gargoyle, deprived of its tongue, suffered from some form of dysphagia―or difficulty in swallowing―and was therefore hindered in both its primary functions? What if, instead of grimacing and swallowing water, the Gargoyle would vomit pop corns on the floor? Dysphagia produces a short-circuit. It troubles the hermeneutic process one could embark on following the path laid by Gargouille and their progeny, and transposes the interpretative act on another plane. There, what is at stake is a speech and language pathology and the attempt to cure it. Onomatopoeic expressions and the exercise of protruding the tongue are once again core operations, this time in the attempt of taking a mother tongue that is a little rusty―its words encrusted, its letters clotted together―and enabling it to flow again and resound like water through a well-functioning aerodigestive apparatus. It is all about fixing a mechanical failure in the hydraulic system, which will not only enable the deglutition and digestive function to perform properly, but also allow a correct articulation of speech, a good modulation of the voice, and, ultimately, a clear expression of one’s thoughts. This because the organs and muscles producing speech are the same performing mastication and deglutition, the tongue and mouth and throat working as common tools―or common denominators―in both processes. Or, put differently, speech uses the same neuromuscular structures as deglutition, the actions of breaking down food, repasting it together with saliva, and swallowing occurring in the very same space where thoughts are articulated into words and are allowed to sound. This conflation of functions and events is inscribed within a fascinating semantic connection: the verb “to swallow”―as a few others linked to the semantic sphere of mastication, deglutition and digestion, such as “to suck up” or “to stomach”―recalls a mental take, as much as a bodily process. To swallow is to tolerate, to accept something. It requires consensus, sometimes obedience: an ethical posture to be assumed. When the bolus can’t get through, though, this ethical posture is compromised and begins to morph. When Italo Calvino’s Baron in the Trees, categorically refusing to ingest his sadist sister’s escargots for lunch, jumps from the open window on the branch of a nearby holm oak and decides to never get off the ground again, in one gesture he rejects not only a meal, but an entire set of rules and norms tediously shaping the decadent aristocratic lifestyle of his kin. The Baron’s state of unease and his dissatisfaction with life―a form of dysphoria, manifested as dysphagia―rather leads him to withdraw from society and sit high atop a tree, radically changing his position within and towards the world, his posture, his status, his privilege. This extreme manifestation of dysphoria/dysphagia, resulting in the impossibility to swallow at all, produces a sudden moment of un-learning and requires a subsequent endeavor of re-learning, in order to embrace a different way of living. Re-learning, just like in speech therapy, requires postural training and psychosomatic mutation. Yet, sometimes one is impeded from changing position and gets stuck, the mind trapped in so-called “ruminative thoughts”. In its darkest psychological connotations, the verb “to ruminate” refers indeed to a form of obsessive self-reflection elicited by mental distress forcing one to a prolonged dwelling on sadness (dysphoria, again). But “to ruminate”―and synonyms, such as “to chew over”―also means to think over again, to ponder. Not only ruminants are herbivorous mammals whose digestion requires the fermented ingesta, or cud, to be regurgitated and chewed over again, but they also are individuals sad and blue, ruminating on sorrow. Last but not the least, ruminants are great thinkers and equilibrated judges. Following the same train of thoughts, one could argue that snakes, thinking over things even longer than ruminants before making a decision, might be particularly wise. A grass snake digesting Bertrand Lavier, for instance, or a common boa metabolizing Carla Accardi, might take their time in pondering very carefully the best solution to build and furnish their home, or what piece of art could better fit their collection. And while doing so, their stomachs and guts turn into the wrapping architectural structure itself: the apartment, the gallery, the auction house. An analogy one might find familiar: as Beatriz Colomina points out, metaphors of this kind and comparisons between homes and bodies punctate the history of architecture (Colomina 2019). The home, just like a living organism, breaths through its aeration system, is wrapped into the impermeable skin of the covering, and is pervaded by both a nervous and a circulatory system, respectively the electrical system and plumbing. In 1930, Frederick Kiesler wrote a book on this very analogy, where he compared stairs to feet, the ventilation system to a nose, and even the whole structure as a digestive apparatus the inhabitants of the place being bites of food―just like Bertrand and Carla in the snakes’ bellies. According to this logic, the unraveled carpet crossing the gallery space could be a tongue, licking and tasting the sole of your shoes as you walk in and make your visit. All that said, we hope you did not step in dog doo before entering the gallery space and wish you good luck anyways.
Camilla Paolino was born in 1991 near Milano, Italy. She lives and works in Geneva, where she has co-founded and run the independent art space TOPIC (2015/2017), the artist-run space One gee in fog (2017/ongoing) and the practice-based research project B-side feminism: a transcription marathon (One gee in fog, Geneva/2018; Bern Kunstmuseum/2018; Sonnenstube, Lugano/2019). After having worked for four years as assistant and researcher at the CCC Research-based Master Program (HEAD-Genève), where she graduated in 2016, she currently operates as independent curator and writer, as well as a member of Plattform (Alumni), and as assistant and researcher Overheads at the University of Geneva, where in 2019 she has obtained a MA in art history with a research on the intersections between neo-feminism and art in 1970s Italy.