Throwing grenades at Jesus as a cry for love (Romeo Castellucci’s ‘On the concept of the face/Sur le concept du visage du fils de Dieu’

‘And you know what? He had kids throw grenades at the face of Jesus’, somebody was telling the shopkeeper just as I walked into a chocolate shop in Avignon. As I sat down for a coffee some fifteen minutes later, somebody was gesticulating and explaining, at a table next to me: ‘And then they were ripping apart this gigantic portrait of Christ.’  Did Romeo Castellucci leave an impression on Avignon or what? Clearly his beautifully constructed images once again didn’t miss their effect. But I would have been curious to know what all these people really thought of On the concept of the face, regarding the son of God/Sur le concept du visage du fils de Dieu.

As you take your seat he is already looking at you. It’s difficult not to be intrigued by these sad, compassionate eyes. One can easily understand why Romeo Castellucci became under the spell of this painting, Salvator Mundi by Antonello da Messina, the one he uses as a backdrop and the main visual element in On the concept of the face (interesting detail: the way Castellucci has cropped the image and has only kept the face, leaving out all other elements; check the original painting here) During the whole piece, you are looking at Jesus looking back at you. Or as Castellucci explains: ‘This gazing Christ is at the centre of this performance. His gaze meets every member of the audience individually. To show the face of the son of God is showing the face of mankind.’

As has been amply described elsewhere On the concept of the face consists of three parts, roughly speaking. During the first part (the longest one) you’ll see a son taking care of his incontinent father. He wants to go to work, but his father shits himself again and again. You see the brown stains on his diaper and that white sofa. You even smell the horrible stench. Patiently the son cleans the mess and changes his father’s clothes. It’s a slow, repetitive scene that takes its time, until at the end of it the son walks up to that face of Christ and seems to kiss his lips, while you hear a mysterious whispering: Jesu, Jesu, Jesu…

Then nine kids walk on stage. They take off their backpacks and start taking out grenades. They take out the pin and start throwing them at the face of Christ. Each time one of them hits the painting, you hear a loud bang. The last scene is entirely about that painting. It gets smeared by what looks like the same shit the father was dropping in his diaper, it gets covered by a black veil and it’s violently torn apart by three technicians. Behind that torn painting a couple of words appear: You are my shepherd. There’s one other word you can vaguely perceive as well: not. You are not my shepherd.

You see suffering, you see kids throwing grenades at Jesus, you see his face being torn apart. Of course one thinks that Castellucci is reproaching Christ for what he has done to us. For how we are left alone in this beautiful mess, living our difficult lives in this ever so cruel world. That he is accusing him. You are not my shepherd. If you perceive On the concept in that way the piece gets a certain (poetic) edginess. And I must admit that I was sure Castellucci had at least woven some criticism into this performance.

But I was wrong. Something I realized only later, while reading the brochure handed out at the performance. Yes, it’s about humiliation (the father shitting himself) but it’s also about unconditional love (the caring son). The kids throwing grenades? ‘It’s not my intention to desecrate the face of Jesus. On the contrary. This is a sort of prayer, by means of the innocent gestures of kids. It might look as if there’s some sort of violence attached to it, but that’s not the case. It’s a cry for love. They want to be listened to. If these toys bang into the face of Jesus, it’s to urge him to listen to them.’ Castellucci admits that a picture by Diane Arbus, of a kid with a hand grenade in Central Park, inspired him for this particular scene.

The face of Jesus being torn apart? Once again: no form of desecration intended. ‘It’s not an iconoclastic gesture. On the contrary. It is showing a path, a path through the membrane of an image, a pathway towards Christ. A complete identification with Christ.’

To me all of this sounds a bit weird. Why come up with these images of which you know that everyone will perceive them as edgy, and might even be a bit shocked by, and then afterwards take the sting out of it? To me it even feels a bit lame. If this performance is really some sort of prayer, a poetic ode to divinity, why disguise it, and opt for images that appear to say the opposite? Why even bother to put the word ‘not‘ in? If ‘You are my shepherd’ is what it’s all about, then why not just say it?









You’ll find three short YouTube-clips from the performance here, here and here.

‘On the concept of the face/Sur le concept du visage’ is touring and will be brought to Zürich, Wroclav, Venice, Paris, Rennes, Münich, Villeneuve d’Ascq, Milan, Breda, and in Antwerp (February 2012, at deSingel).

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