Yesterday, prompted by the advice of a colleague I’ll always heed when it comes to culture and art, we organized an impromptu expedition to the theatre to see a play that’s been acclaimed by both the public and critics, a Latvian 4-hours piéce called Rohtko (anagram intended, and I wonder how many people noticed the […]

Yesterday, prompted by the advice of a colleague I’ll always heed when it comes to culture and art, we organized an impromptu expedition to the theatre to see a play that’s been acclaimed by both the public and critics, a Latvian 4-hours piéce called Rohtko (anagram intended, and I wonder how many people noticed the name it’s spelt wrong).

Written by Anka Herbut and magically directed by Łukasz Twarkowski, the play founds itself on an episodic event: the astonishing discovery, back in 2004, that a beloved, 8,3 million dollars worthy painting believed to be by Rothko turned out to be a forgery. If you’re not familiar with the event, you can either read about it here or you can let the show tell you all about it because, with its avant-garden setting and its multiple storylines, they will make a point that you understand both what happened and the point of the discovery.

The point isn’t, as Time puts it in the linked article, “the rise of modern forgery.” The point is:

How is it possible to love a painting right until the discovery that it’s a fake? Why was it beautiful as a Rothko and stopped being beautiful when it turned out to be painted by a Chinese mathematician living in Queens?

Picture by Gianni Fiore

Backwards into the 1960s, Rothko himself is struggling: he just finished painting a series of murals for the most lucrative commission of his life, murals which I believe are the Seagram Murals, but he’s profoundly disgusted by the world of collectors and curators and, regardless of having done all the work, is about to give the money back and he’ll eventually donate the paintings to the Tate Gallery.
Rothko’s temper is short, the proposed setting for the murals is the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York and this prompts him to compare art consumers with food consumers, and wealthy food consumers in particular, who pay a fortune for food just for the sake of paying a fortune, and wouldn’t understand what they’re eating especially when it comes to art. Played by Juris Bartkevičs with incredible intensity, Rothko is talking to his wife Mell (Vita Vārpiņa), who can’t stand his bullshit anymore.

PIcture by Artūrs Pavlovs

We’ll meet them again in their bedroom, Mell tired and drunk, Mark (who’s never called by name) trying and failing to compliment her on a dress she isn’t wearing and eventually turning out to make everything about himself. He’s been diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm and, with his lifestyle, he takes it as a death sentence: he can’t drink anymore, he can’t smoke anymore, he’s impotent and the doctor forbids him to paint large paintings. As he puts it, he’s forbidden life.
He will soon leave his wife to go live in his studio, where he’ll be found dead in a pool of blood as large as his paintings.

The Seagram Murals arrived in London for display at the Tate Gallery on the day of his suicide.

Picture by Pinelopi Gerasimou

Rothko’s suicide is linked to the suicide of another artist, a performer who’s never seen on stage if not through the meta-interpretation of Katažina Osipuka, who plays a performer named Destiny Hope. Her live performance was supposed to be a collection of tears: she would stand in front of paintings by Rothko, and the performer makes assumptions on how close she would have chosen to be, and she would collect in vials the tears flowing from her eyes, until the relationship between she and the painting would have ceased to communicate her any emotion, and she would move on to another painting.

This performance never happened: the artist took her own life before the scheduled date.

A shot taken from the trailer.

And again the idea of performance, originally born as a way to free an artist from the logic of capitalism and the market, comes back through the intertwined stories of two more characters, a homeless man and a lady, who just auditioned to perform Rothko and Mell for a movie. Andžejs Jakubčiks and Ērika Eglija-Grāvele play their role with mirrored intensity to their counterpart and this mirror is literal because many of these stories happen on stage at the same fucking time, through a clever stage rearranging that splits into two parts and two screens the Chinese restaurant where all conversations happen.

More on that later.

Picture by Artūrs Pavlovs

Rothko obviously never meets neither with Ann Freedman (the art dealer from the Knoedler Gallery who sold the fake painting) nor with Domenico de Sole (the collector who will sue her). It’s left to the character of Destiny Hope to unravel the relationship between artists and dealers: after we have seen her as the waitress in the Chinese restaurant of the setting, we meet her sitting at one of the same restaurant’s tables, having a weird meeting with the character played by Mārtiņš Upenieks, the same character who expressed the concept of “radical care” at the very beginning of the play.

RADICAL CARE is an intentional process of producing relationships between humans and non-humans or artificial intelligence that increases compassion and encourages sharing social capital (and any other capital) and a level of intersectional awareness. It seeks to empathically demonstrate experiences, needs, and desires in order to build a community based on mutual caring. It aims to raise awareness of the interdependence of all of us; it means to care about those who are not us.

We already knew how hypocritical this was, but we needed a reminder: Jack Smith, as his character is called in this timeline, offers Destiny the “possibility” of performing in his museum for an amount of money that’s evidently unsatisfactory, and he goes full in with every trick any freelancer knows. It’s about visibility. It’s an investment in the future. It’s about boosting your career.

And we’re still talking about a collection of tears, from a performer who will take her own life, in front of the paintings of an artist who took his own life in turn.

Fuck your visibility.

PIcture by Artūrs Pavlovs

Eventually, the obsession with the concept of originality is aided by the digital, and we’re thrown right into the jaws of blockchain-aided NFTs, where art can be made by anyone, even a technician who was hanging Rothkos upside-down in the houses of rich people. Is this wrong? If you answer a straight “yes”, you might want to think again.

The ultimate thesis of the show is that art is about the relationship. The relationship between the artist and the spectator through the art piece. If a piece moved you to tears, if it managed to evoke emotions, does it matter if it’s authentic or not? And what happens when the emotion can only arise through the reassurance of authenticity? Did we even notice it every time the Wolt Rider changed his face and switched places with another of the actors on stage?

Fundamental questions, woven by the show through a groundbreaking mix of performances that sees multiple timelines and conversations happening on stage at the same time, paced by the relentless dance of cameramen who will offer you the different stories on the two large screens at the top of the movable Chinese Restaurant. A single space at first, it splits into two portions to host two timelines and we can see both of them in parallel. It waits for us to catch up, and then one portion is behind the other, a visible one and one we can only see through the technological lenses of the camera and screen. Eventually, the two spaces are placed diagonally, both dissolving into the whiteness of a space that’s only meant as a showcase for the digital, as a natural consequence of everything we’ve seen so far.

Mind: officially blown.

Picture by Gianni Fiore.

PS: I should probably mention that the show is in Latvian, with portions in Chinese and some in English: subtitles in both English and the Country language are provided on additional screens at the top. If you’re in Milan, go see the last performance this evening. You can’t miss this.

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