In praise of fragility

In praise of fragility

For the “Fantasmagoria Callas” exhibition, artist Latifa Echakhch, one of the most important international figures, has created a curtain of white and red pearls to evoke the image of Maria Callas.

Latifa Echakhch

For the "Fantasmagoria Callas" exhibition curated by Francesco Stocchi with staging by Margherita Palli, Moroccan-French visual artist Latifa Echakhch created the installation Untitled (Tears). It is one of her typical ways of presenting a suspended moment. In this case, tiny white and red beads hand on threads to create a phantasmatic impression of Maria Callas. The Teatro alla Scala Museum decided to exhibit Echakhch’s work for the MuseoCity event, whose theme this year is “Mondi a Milano” (March 1-5).


MP Like in your other work, with this piece, you work on an economy of signs: the materials are simple and the manipulation of them is simple. Yet, this simplicity can generate radical transformation. What was the process going through your mind?

LE The piece I proposed for this very special exhibition project is simply a curtain of small glass beads that are cut like diamonds, which fall like a waterfall. These beads, left suspended, become the silhouette of a ghostly presence. They are mostly transparent, but there is also a small set of red beads that can be seen by encircling the piece, giving it as a whole a touch of colour. The strands are not transparent; they are like those of pearl necklaces. I didn't want a magical effect, rather I wanted a clear reference to a pearl necklace that might have fallen off as a result of an accident. Thus it gives the impression of a piece that is suspended because we cannot know whether it is something beautiful or dramatic, sad or happy.


MP How did you approach the figure of Maria Callas to arrive at this piece?

LE I was given free rein to design a piece that would speak, recall, or rather evoke the immense figure that is Maria Callas. And it was a true challenge for me. I told myself that I had to explore the essence of what Maria Callas represented and still represents. I didn’t want to do something too academic or too celebratory. It would have gone too far into the details of all the big and small stories that made up her life. Instead, I wanted to find that which speaks to us most directly of her still today, which is the very essence of tragedy; in other words, how someone can embody human tragedy through their voice, their body, their presence. It is a major theme that has been developed for centuries and will always be. There will always be a tragic side to humanity and there will always be figures who carry this tragic side in them. From these reflections, I thought about displaying the sensation of something that is about to collapse: immense beauty with very simple materiality that is suspended.


MP You visited the Scala archives for inspiration.

LE I was fascinated by the costumes Maria Callas wore, costumes that helped tell extraordinary stories, but they were also just fabric, objects, hats and necklaces that were made with simple materials. On the stage, however, they were somehow “vocal”.


MP In many of your pieces there are theatrical elements. What is your relationship with the theatre?

LE Theatricality spans the entire history of visual arts. I began working on sets in 2014, for an opera called La dépossession: a large collapsed curtain that represented the sky. Other jobs followed, but I only later understood what my intimate relationship with this way of display things was, during my show at Villa Sauber in Monaco, where I worked on the archives of the Opéra Garnier, rebuilding some sets that were in the archives. Once the show was set up, I recalled that as a girl I often attended performances of operettas at Aix-les-Bains, where I grew up. My father worked at the Grand Cercle casino and we could watch the shows they put on. After the shows, when my father went to say hello to his colleagues, I followed him on stage, and I remember vividly the feeling of walking on stage after the show, when you realize that up close it’s nothing special because you can see the fake plaster, the back of sets and everything becomes a bit… disappointing. Standing before the fragility of this image stuck with me. And suddenly, I realized I was just recreating a childhood memory! I always liked questioning everything, constantly, especially when we look at a piece of art, whether it’s a sculpture or play, opera or film. We know that it’s all fake; we know that it’s already artificially built, and yet it is able to communicate something else. And we want to believe in these very strong sentiments, these emotions that are conveyed but which also bring us back to the fragility of humanity.


MP Is this the paradox of art?

LE The paradox of beauty, when we find ourselves somewhere between the strength of the conveyed emotion and the weakness of the setting. We could build an entire world but also, as soon as the lights come on and we move from before the scene, we suddenly recognize something much more fragile. This, I believe, has a very strong connection to Maria Callas. The big question that I always asked myself about her was: “How did she manage to embody all this in the body of a simple woman?” Standing in the lights, being scrutinized, analysed, judged, while also being put on an enormous pedestal. This is something that really struck me, that it must have been hard for her, I can’t even imagine. My job allows me to convey my feelings, emotions and thoughts, but I can also allow myself to take a step back. It is my work, the plasticity of my work, that speaks.


MP For Maria Callas, the same can’t be said.

LE No, because she carried her work within, or rather, it coincided with her own physicality. Thus, every story of her life made it increasingly difficult for her to manage the personal aspects. Even on public occasions everyone wanted to see the private sphere of her life, and she became a body torn to pieces by others, because not even her feelings belonged to her any more. I won’t use the word martyr, but you can find something similar to this in the figure of Christ. There’s a painting in the Pinakothek in Munich that depicts a deposed Christ walking through the street as passers-by rip at his clothes. This small, rather rare scene fascinated me because it is minimalism at its core. When we lose possession of everything, what are we left with? It is this feeling of great emptiness as well as great fullness that allows me to ask questions.

Mattia Palma
Translation by Alexa Ahern