Remembering the avant-garde filmmaker whose work, with her partner Yervant Gianikian, demonstrated an active and precious form of resistance
Angela Ricci Lucchi passed away on 28 February and I'm still struggling with the news. I met Angela on the same day I met Yervant Gianikian, her partner in life and work since 1974, the year they moved in together in Milan and started their joint career of avant-garde film-making.
I had asked to interview them just before the opening of ‘NON NON NON’ (2012), their first Italian retrospective at HangarBicocca in Milan, curated by Andrea Lissoni with Chiara Bertola. Until then, to me they had been almost legendary artist’s artists, whose works I had seen often quoted in books and essays but never in real life. Underground cinema, not video, was their background and main field of operation, and although Harald Szeemann had invited them to exhibit their films as cinematic video installations at the Venice Biennale in 2001, their works circulated mostly in festivals or were broadcast on late night cable TV. Or they were exhibited outside of Italy – unsurprisingly, given their constant reflection upon Italy’s (and Western culture’s) darkest skeletons, such as Fascism, colonialism, racism and poverty. Retrospectives of their work had been already held at the Jeu de Paume in Paris (2006), at MoMA in New York (2009), at Tate Modern (2011, accompanied by the release of the monograph Entering the Frame by Robert Lumley), while more recently it was Centre Pompidou, in 2015, that hosted a retrospective of their entire production (with a new publication edited by the artists, Notre Caméra Analytique, Post-Editions, 2015).
So there I was, sitting alone in their quiet living room, finally watching their films, one after the other, eyes wide open, uncontrollably moved. A discovery. Their beautiful images – coloured in vivid hues, slowed down, iterated – embodied so many things one would rather avoid seeing, if at all noticing: violence, individual pain and feelings, the devastations of war, the objectification of female and black bodies, the ideological construction of the ‘Other’, human fragility. Although a significant turning point in Angela and Yervant’s practice had been marked by the acquisition of the archive of Luca Comerio, a pioneer of Italian cinema who documented all the main historical and cultural events of early 20th-century Italy, including the First World War, they were not interested in the archival turn per se. Their goal was looking at the present by means of readymade sources from the past. Found images were only their starting point: with the help of their self-constructed ‘analytical camera’ they re-filmed the footage frame by frame, even when too old and falling apart, dotted and disfigured by the passage of time, in order to zoom in on small details, a look on a girl’s face, the gesture of a hand, the shooting of an animal, the killing of a soldier. They also coloured their films – early films are often hand-toned – to add another layer of détournement. It was a long and meticulous process: to create their 101-minute-long Dal polo all'Equatore (From the Pole to the Equator, 1986), which is based on Comerio's documentaries, they shot around 347,000 photograms.
We became friends, and I, a fan, was glad to spend time with them, celebrating the UK premiere of Pays Barbare (Barbaric Land, 2013) at the BFI London Film Festival, their winning of the Golden Lion for the Armenian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015 – where they screened Retour à Khodorciur (Return to Khodorciur, 1986) – and, again in Venice, in 2017, for the publication of their last book, The Arrow of Time (Humboldt Books, 2017), containing a selection of the notes and sketches drafted during their travel to the USSR in 1989–90, to meet the last living members of the Russian avant-garde of the ’20s and ’30s. A few weeks later the six-channel video and sound installation Journey to Russia (1989–2017) premiered at documenta 14, in the underground floor of Kassel's Neue Galerie, where it was coupled with Journey to Russia (2017), a 10-metre-long watercolour scroll painted by Angela, who in her youth had studied with Oscar Kokoshka in Austria. Both works had taken many years to complete.
Drawing, sketching, diary-keeping of every day of work or travel – in the USA, Sarajevo, Vienna, Turkey, Armenia, Jerusalem, Paris, Moscow, and many others places – reading piles of books and studying the context of the material they unearthed was Angela’s role, although it's impossible to establish borders, within Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi’s practice. As their friend, the film critic Morando Morandini, wrote: ‘They do everything together, with two pairs of hands – from the conception of the project to the selection of materials, from mise-en-scène to editing, from music to post-synchronization. Those who know them well might hazard a conjecture or hypothesis. Between the two, Yervant is East and Angela is West. He is Platonic, she is Aristotelian. He is the eye, she is the ear.’
Angela, who had greeted me with a big smile on their doorstep, on that first day, was a sharp, lively, open and elegant lady, an intellectual, a non-violent dissident and, put simply, a real badass – always speaking her mind, cracking jokes, passionately discussing articles, books, and politics. Food was always on the table, in their kitchen (the same one where they always asked to be interviewed and photographed); cakes for my son made their way back home with me, as an act of kindness. Conversations take time and I'm grateful for all of them and for all I've learned.
If Peter Sloterdijk sees the imperative of modernity in its kinetic impulse, in the impellent need for more motion, more acceleration (and how rooted, from an Italian standpoint, all this clearly is in futurism and Fascism), then Angela’s and Yervant’s insistence on slowing down, looking harder, studying the context, refusing to march on, forget and bypass at the same collective pace, is an active and precious form of resistance. It is also a reflection on the role of the spectator, and on what sort of spectators we wish to be: how ready we are to look away or ‘smile for the camera’, despite the horror of our times and the seduction of the spectacle. Let's keep their example in mind.
Watch our film, ‘Stop Forgetting’, that Barbara Casavecchia made with Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian here.
Main image: Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian, ‘NON NON NON’, 2012, installation view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Courtesy: the artists and Pirelli HangarBicocca; photograph: Agostino Osio