Ketty La Rocca:
The Language of Hands

Ketty La Rocca’s performances and photographic works involve a search for a new, more authentic language. Currently, the Italian conceptual artist can be rediscovered at the Hamburg Kunsthalle, where the Deutsche Bank-sponsored exhibition “Feminist Avant-garde of the 1970s” honors a generation of women artists whose works are as relevant to today as they’ve ever been.
Galleria Tartaruga, Rome, April 1975. It’s Ketty La Rocca’s last performance. She’s sitting at a table, surrounded by her fellow players, who are loudly reading from a manifesto the artist has written, the elaborate formulations of which carry absolutely no meaning. Again and again, La Rocca interrupts the absurd event: together with the audience, she continuously repeats the word YOU. Then her fellow players close in on the artist, pointing their fingers at her, finally pressing her head down on the tabletop to silence her. The work addresses themes that have played a central role in La Rocca’s work from the very beginning: power, communication, and, as she formulates it, the “complete subjugation to language.” The performance is even more unsettling when one learns that the artist is gravely ill at this point in time. She is suffering from a brain tumor; she will die less than a year later in her native city of Florence.

This is where her artistic career began in 1964, a career that only lasted around ten years. At first, La Rocca attended a class in electronic music at the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory. She quickly became part of a progressive scene consisting of musicians, writers, and artists, and she began studying the media and communication theories of Barthes, Eco, and McLuhan. In her first collages, she merged Pop Art strategies with the caustic social criticism of the Dadaists. La Rocca combined motifs from glossy magazines with short texts in order to reveal hidden ideological messages imbedded in mass media. In the process, she also poked fun at stereotypical images of women and the influence of the Catholic Church. And she also took these works out into the public sphere: during an art festival, La Rocca distributed copies of her collages to passers-by, like pamphlets.

In what is perhaps an autobiographical allusion, one of her street posters reads “Vita fu crudelmente breve” (Life was cruelly short). The artist already learned of her illness in 1965. During the years that followed, her works became cooler, more minimalist. Along with objects made from mirror and metal, she created text paintings and finally individual letters made of black plastic that are either glued to the wall or freely arranged in space, like sculptures. The “I” and the “J” stand for the English and French words for “I.” In their isolation, these letters become “metaphors for the isolated subject, which can only exist in language and through language,” as Silvia Eiblmayr, who curated a La Rocca exhibition in 2003 at the Galerie im Taxispalais, Innsbruck, observes.

Yet it is precisely this language that the artist deeply mistrusts—because of the very clichés and male-dominated power structures it transports. Women, according to La Rocca, only have access to a “language that is both alien and hostile to them.” She sought alternatives, and in 1970 she began with performance works in which gestures were to become a more authentic form of communication. Among these are her video Appendice per una supplica (Appendix to an Appeal), her 1972 contribution to the Venice Biennale, as well as the works from the photo series Le mie parole, e tu? (My Words, and You?), each of which is comprised of six parts. In these works, the artist concentrates entirely on the hands. Photographed against a black background, they perform a variety of gestures: fingers point, count, and make a fist. A pair of hands, a woman’s and a man’s, communicate in a kind of sign language—the battle of the sexes as an existential ballet poised between attraction and repulsion, affection and aggression. This involvement with the communicative potential of gestures also led to her collaboration with Nuovo Alfabeti, an experimental television program for the hearing-impaired that was broadcast in sign language.

A work from La Rocca’s photo series can now be seen in the exhibition Feminist Avant-garde of the 1970s at the Hamburg Kunsthalle. With more than 150 works from the Verbund Collection, the Deutsche Bank-sponsored show documents the radicalism with which feminist women artists of the time rebelled against traditional gender roles. When La Rocca is compared to the other women artists in the show such as Valie Export, Ana Mendieta, and Cindy Sherman, one notices that her work is characterized by a “minimalist discretion” that entirely dispenses with a deliberate inclusion of physical exertion, nakedness, or any form of costuming. Of all these pioneers of feminist art, La Rocca is perhaps the one most closely connected to conceptual positions. Schematization and serialism are some of her artistic strategies, as are her usage of language and writing.

YOU—like a mantra, this word turns up again and again in La Rocca’s late performances and photographic works, as it does in Le mie parole, e tu? Here, for instance, it can be read on the hands, like a tattoo. “To my mind, the YOU means the essence of life,” explains Gabriele Schor, the director of the Verbund Collection who curated the Hamburg exhibition. “YOU, the other person, is the basis for every type of togetherness. It’s remarkable how Ketty La Rocca transforms the YOU into an aesthetic symbol.” This YOU even inscribed itself into the X-rays of her skull, which La Rocca superimposed with images of her hand or fist in the series Craniologia (1973). It is a moving memento mori in which, as Gabriele Schor expresses it, “the sign of the illness merges with the gesture of rebellious action.”

One also encounters this YOU, as well as short excerpts from La Rocca’s nonsense manifesto, in her last group of works, titled Riduzioni (Reductions). These are based on widely reproduced movie photos and works of art such as Michelangelo’s Pietà. La Rocca’s reworked version of this Renaissance icon can be seen in Deutsche Bank’s main Milan branch. Next to a black and white reproduction of the sculpture, La Rocca placed four variations on the motif on which she drew the contours of the Pietà in her own handwriting, with the image and text progressively dissolving. Writing becomes calligraphy, pure gesture, while the image is reduced to abstract lines. La Rocca’s Riduzioni are also on view in the Hamburg Kunsthalle. In the work Pandora, she appropriates a showcase still from the British movie Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, in which Ava Gardner embodies the mythological figure. Just as in her Pietà, in which La Rocca picks up on the cliché of the suffering mother, in this work she deconstructs another feminine stereotype, that of the man-murdering femme fatale. Her Riduzioni are based on “works that many have seen and have seen for a long time, images that have been rendered bland by the descriptions made by many,” as she explained in 1975. La Rocca places these images in a nervous suspension, making them vibrate and opening up new, highly personal possibilities of interpretation.

La Rocca was “unable to break into the male art world with her art or her writings,” the renowned critic Lucy Lippard observed in a 1976 essay for the magazine Art in America. Yet exhibitions such as WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution and DONNA. Avanguardia femminista negli anni ’70 have finally made her—as well as many other forgotten women artists of the seventies—visible to a larger public. The show at the Hamburg Kunsthalle also underscores just how pioneering the works of these women really were, and what the younger generation has to thank them for: the joining of the private and the political, art and activism, an exploration of the body, sex, and identity—the themes women artists dedicated themselves to at the time have lost nothing of their relevance.
Achim Drucks

Feminist Avant-garde of the 1970s
Works from the VERBUND COLLECTION, Vienna

3/13 – 5/31 2015
Kunsthalle Hamburg