As a young boy, Antonio Marras confesses at the end of our interview, he dreamed of being a dancer. It was then that I understood why he never sits still. “I have a childhood memory: When I got home from school, there was a show on TV called Maratona d’estate (Summer Marathon). Vittoria Ottolenghi, the dance critic, journalist, and writer, would show performance clips and comment on them. That’s where I saw Nureyev for the first time, and then Lindsay Kemp and Pina Bausch’s ‘Café Müller.’ That was where I understood that there was another dimension, another room.”
When I open the door, I find him in front of me, seated at a wooden table among trees, plants and garden gnomes. He is scribbling something on a page that has the outline of our interview.
“There you are. I was just looking over your questions,” he says, shaking my hand. “I want to thank you. I hope I’ll be able to respond. You know a lot of things that I don’t.” I soon discover that he never lets a day pass without picking up a pencil. He refers to the clothes that have made him famous as ‘rags’, the ceramics he presented at Fuorisalone 2010 are ‘trinkets’. From 4 September, his totems will be displayed in Venice, in dialogue with ceramics by Gio Ponti. “I’m embarrassed to say it,” he remarks. With self-deprecation he christened his boutique space NonostanteMarras (Despite Marras) – as though that green nook, a parallel dimension in Milan, were a product that had escaped sabotage by its creator.
“My process is unusual. I’m not afraid. I immerse myself. I encounter and confront anything that crosses my path with a hefty dose of recklessness. I move things from one container to another, I mix things together. Looking at fabric might give me an idea for a painting, and vice versa.” He opens a diary and leafs through it, looking for a blank page. It is full of sketches and watercolors among the appointments. “Do you mind if I draw while we chat?” He dips his pencil in his coffee in order to draw with a watercolor effect, and sets pencil to paper with a halting, twisting motion.
Marras’s theater/dance performance in fifteen scenes, entitled Mio cuore io sto soffrendo, cosa posso fare per te? (My love I am suffering, what can I do for you?), which premiered at the former Folonari warehouse space in Brescia, will open at the Teatro Massimo in Cagliari, the PAC in Milan, and at the Elfo Puccini in Milan on 19 and 20 September. “Each time it has been staged, I’ve changed it. Unlike a runway show, theater is replicable, and can be seen again.” In May 2020, Marras will reach La MaMa Theatre in New York, with his show, “Io non ci penso, è una follia” (I can’t even think about it, it’s madness).
It all began with his first solo exhibition at the Triennale di Milano in 2016. “[The show] highlighted a moment of my existence. It wasn’t an exhibition of clothing. I found the courage to reveal a part of myself that had been unknown until that moment – the most intimate, private part. It was years of work, and an exhibit space that was more than 1200 square meters in size. The curator, Francesca Alfano Miglietti, scolded me, because the majority of the work was undated. I called it, Nulla dies sine linea – not day must pass without a line drawn, from the line by Pliny the Elder… It’s also the title of the lecture I gave at the Accademia di Brera when they conferred an honorary degree on me,” he adds, with some hesitation.
He shows me the exhibition catalog, with watercolors, sketches, works on boxing – his father’s favorite sport (“I can still hear the sounds in my head, the ringing of the bell”) – and the installations made from reclaimed materials: prisoners’ jackets, traditional skirts from Sardinia, women’s slips sewn together with old muslins, gauzes. There are his wife Patrizia’s stitches from when she had surgery, and stuffed animals discarded by his son Efisio when he was young, used to reproduce a school classroom in the installation Chi ha paura della maestra? (Who’s Afraid of Teacher?).
And there’s more, old frames and Russian icon boxes: “There’s something even more perverse happening here. Usually you have a work and you put a frame around it. I’ve done the opposite: I took these frames, unwanted things that didn’t have a function, and I turned my work inside out to revive them.” From a net used for sifting by construction workers he created La trappola dei sogni (The Dream Catcher) with the Sardinian artist, Maria Lai. “If I’ve had the courage to not be embarrassed by the messes I’ve made, I owe that to her. She took me by the hand and brought me into this universe. One day she said to me, ‘I left you a child and when I found you again, you were an artist.’ This is a phrase that has become my shield.”
In 2008, Luca Ronconi chose him as costume designer for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Marras meets theatre people, including Marco Angelilli. “Calling him a choreographer is reductive. He is a person who works with movement and manages to stage my angst.” Marras brings dance with him to the catwalk: In the runway show for the Autumn 2017 collection, he pays tribute to Eva Mameli and Pina Bausch. “A runway show lets me bring together every thing that moves and inspires me. When we needed to reinvent the concept, I staged a show inspired by Pina Bausch. On the stage were performers, dancers, and models, moving in a way that evoked her style. I did the same for the exhibition – I sprinkled it with characters who wore the collections, moving among the installations and the artwork. I love to graft things – that’s my favorite verb.”
Thanks to the Triennale exhibition, Marras meets gallery owner Massimo Minini. Marras’s works invade his gallery in Brescia. At the opening, Minini referred to their first encounter, when Marras was thronged by journalists who were interviewing him for Japanese television. They didn’t recognize Minimi and brushed him off by asking him to leave a business card.
“The exhibition was ready earlier than anticipated, so Minimi asked me what else I’d like to do. I told him that I’d always had it in mind to create a performance entitled, ‘Mio cuore, io sto soffrendo’ (My love, I am suffering). He replied, ‘Cosa posso fare per te? (What can I do for you?) The song by Rita Pavone.’ And that was that.” The show involved dancers and actors — Ferdinando Bruni, Mauro Cardinali, Federica Fracassi, Giovanni Franzoni, Francesco Marilungo, Marco Vergani. He included top model Simonetta Gianfelici, Sardinian singer songwriter Elena Ledda, and Vincenzo Puxeddu – a dancer and dance therapist at the Sorbonne who had undergone the amputation of one leg, whom he had met by chance at a party in Sardinia. The producer, Valeria Orani, decided to take the show to New York.
The show deals with childhood, school, adolescence, love, work, and aging. “Songs that seem simple can express true feeling. I chose to use the song by Rita Pavone played live in an orchestral arrangement. There’s this beat, like a heartbeat, a mitral valve marking the filling and emptying. It’s a song of pain.” Every moment tells fragments of existence that has been lived, or stolen from others. Vintage wedding gowns lean against the bodies of the dancers instead of being worn. “A cast-off wedding gown tells infinite stories. It could be adapted to another physique, but never entirely. I tried to do what Maria Lai taught me, to listen to the silence of things. I asked myself what would prompt those brides to give away their dresses. Were they out of space? Were they out of love?” In the finale, the performers dance in twitching movements and pulses that are out of sync, they sing, they drown out Pavone’s notes, and they grasp hearts in their hands. “A scream symbolizes a rupture, the impossibility of making contact with other people. In that moment the clothes are ripped off, cast away. Love is a force that you can’t control – that’s what the heart is. You can decide to move a leg, a hand, an arm, but you can’t control your heart. A person who manages to channel their feelings, to redirect them, is not really feeling them.”
He calls Pier, his dog, who has been barking up a tree. He laughs, “He’s barking because there’s a blackbird up there, and he hates them.” When he speaks about himself, just as in his work, Antonio Marras mixes past and present – you can never tell what came first and what came later. “I have a need to fill spaces, to make a mess, to soil things – I never get tired of that. I have no concept of time. I never look at the time, I don’t even own a watch. I remember a song by Ornella Vanoni that went, “I think I am immortal and I can still do everything, the years have been nothing at all, just a trick of the mind.” Marras has the ability to commit to memory entire songs and poems, without ever remembering anything else.
“The thing I always wanted to do was dance, but I didn’t have the courage to tell my parents. I remember a Pina Bausch show that was made entirely with dancers over age 70. There’s still time. I don’t know what I’ll do when I grow up.” I asked him how everything began: With fashion. He replied that it was all thanks to chance encounters. “My father had a fabric store, which then turned into the very first Fiorucci store in Sardinia. I started working for him, and an entrepreneur asked me to design their first collection. I named it Piano piano dolce Carlotta (Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte), as an homage to the cinema and to the Robert Aldrich film starring Bette Davis. I thought it would be a one-shot deal, and instead, it continues.” It continues, as though it were just a coincidence, an inexplicable event which, despite Marras and despite everything, still endures.
Translated from the original Italian by Deborah Wassertzug