During the last week of the Venice Biennale 2019, Roberto, Daniel and I spent a week preparing and performing Lövaman, in the streets of Venice, Italy. It was my first experience as Lövaman, an ongoing performance piece conceived by Swedish artist Roberto N Peyre, drawing on notions of folklore and ancient practices. Robert describes Lövaman as a ‘performative ritualism, social sculptural object, and a psychogeographic procession.’
I was dressed in a costume made of laurel leaves. There were thousands of them glued to an inner layer of a modified Halloween outfit, and I was covered from head to toe in green leaves. The only parts of my body still exposed to the elements were my hands and feet. A renovated townhouse in the Giardini area was our temporary home for the week. Our host was Love Enqvist, a Swedish artist residing in Berlin. He had converted an old butcher ́s shop to a stylish combined live / work / gallery space. The building had suffered some damage from the flooding but most of the water had been kept out by stainless floodgates installed around doors and windows.
The effects of the flood were all too apparent in the neighbourhood where we set up our base. Crumbling piles of discarded household items were stacked in alleys and street corners. Furniture, carpets and a multitude of washing machines, refrigerators and dishwashers – often brand new appliances that had been rendered useless by the saltwater. There was not a single piece of fresh cheese, meat or milk to be had at the supermarket. All the freezers had been ruined. I had a humbling feeling of entering a city in the wake of doom – humbling, not so much because we could not procure ham and cheese, but because this was the aftermath of a natural disaster in an urban environment that felt close to home. Until recently, climate related emergency situations rarely translated into street-level reality in my part of the world. Scant pickings at the grocery store was something I associated with Soviet-era Russia; with present day war zones or unstable regimes in a comfortably faraway elsewhere. Not here. Not in the middle of Europe.
We gathered leaves from stands of laurel in the general neighbourhood of the Arsenale. Roberto had primarily used aspen leaves for his Lövaman costumes, but this was late November in northern Italy and the suit had to be made from fresh local leaves. Laurel is an evergreen with a distinct aroma that added to the sensation of being inside the outfit. It is also a traditional symbol of victory.
Which way to go when faced with a choice – which instincts might guide a figure with no visible eyes, nose or mouth whose primary sensory experience is relayed through naked feet on the cold and wet streets
After some research Roberto concluded that we should be able to find enough laurel in the area. On the first day we found a small park at the north entrance to the fairgrounds with plenty of laurel. We came equipped with scissors, mat cutters and large plastic bags and set to work in a manner that we hoped would be inconspicuous yet highly efficient in terms of harvest volume.
Back at the studio in the Giardini we got to work with glue guns and scissors. The floor of the studio turned into a green carpet of cuttings and rejected leaves. Our makeshift studio smelled of laurel and molten glue. I got blisters on my fingers. Curious passersby glanced through the storefront windows. We made early evening raids to get more supplies, more leaves. We discovered a nearby hedge across two bridges in a park that looked promising but it turned out to be difficult to harvest in peace. There were too many curious tourists, too many locals with dogs and strollers and a general feeling that our activities would attract unwanted attention. Later that night we found a perfect spot in front of a church in the Sant ́ Elena neighbourhood. A secluded laurel hedge along a wall between a soccer field and the church ́s premises. The leaves were green and heady. We went back several times to replenish our stocks. After a couple of days of frantic work we had gone through ten large plastic bags of laurel leaves, just enough to complete two Lövaman costumes. We were ready to hit the streets.
Getting into character: – Which way to go when faced with a choice – which instincts might guide a figure with no visible eyes, nose or mouth whose primary sensory experience is relayed through naked feet on the cold and wet streets of November? How do you navigate through crowds of people when all you can make out through the curtain of green before your human eyes is the tip of your toes?
Overlapping layers of leaf upon leaf reduced my sight to a flickering minimum. I wanted sight desperately during the first hour in costume. Then I let it go. After our first walk Roberto told me of an encounter with another Swedish artist at the gates of the Biennale. Lövaman flogged him and his son with his bundle of twigs in a wordless attempt to communicate; a mild violence to establish a connection between species.
Other cognitive faculties also changed. The sensation of naked feet on stone became enhanced. Subtle shifts in pavement texture proved essential for orientation, as did a change of pitch in the rustle of leaves. Within the costume I was acutely aware of being Lövaman – a Lövaman with an acute awareness of his own weight and smells. The processing of external stimuli felt slower than normal. My human self seemed to wind down and make sudden stops much like an animal will stop in its tracks to pick up a downwind scent. In the flows and eddies of pedestrian traffic, Lövaman ́s movements were somewhat erratic. Everything was new. Everything was filtered through aromatic layers of green laurel that relayed information about the surroundings. Lövaman stumbled with awkward dignity along pathways and streets, along quays and over bridges. Still, I felt a grace accompanying Lövaman’s attempts to interpret a surface underfoot, a shift of elevation and a change of ambient sound. It was a process of learning as I went along. Lövaman made no haste. It was just not possible. Macbeth ́s trees might have rushed towards the castle of Dunsinane, but Lövaman moved as nature moves; without hurry or pause.
We entered the fairgrounds of the Biennale in our costumes. We had no tickets or credentials on smart badges to dangle from our necks and it did not take long before the guards were alerted to our presence. Two officers of la Guardia di Finanza cornered us and demanded that we take our masks off. Daniel did not want to take his mask off. And how could he? He was deep in character and did not wish to dispel the magic at that point. The younger of the two officers was getting increasingly agitated. His right hand hovered by his service gun. ‘Take it off !’ he demanded in Italian. Daniel refused. The crowd was getting bigger and people were snapping away with their phones. ‘Here is no spectaculo!’ the older officer barked at the spectators and shooed them away from us. Take it off. Passport. Identification. We did not bring any. A laurel man has no ID, only a presence of being.
At this point I took off my mask in a slow peeling motion. I gestured at Daniel to do the same. Our host Love stepped in and addressed the senior officer in Italian. He explained that we were artists, that this was a performance piece and that we meant no harm. That we were part of the Biennale, which was true to some extent. Alloro ! Alloro! The crowd pushed closer again. More photos were taken. The mounting tension was defused by excited children that pointed to our dresses and laughed. Sensing that there would be no dignified win against two barefoot, leaf-clad characters, the officers walked us a few meters off the Biennale grounds and warned Love and Roberto to keep the Lövamen out of their sight.
We shouldered a certain otherness as we slipped into costume. Mute otherness, because our language was that of a thousand leafy tongues fluent in none of the human idioms.
We walked the streets, striding along with tourists and locals. People would ask us to stop and talk. We would respond by touching our audience with a bundle of twigs – sometimes lightly, other times less so. This was the privilege of Lövaman. A sacrament doled with one swift lash of laurel. Lövaman made his mark but would not linger. People wanted Lövaman to stay. To join a table, to be a conversation piece in an evening of temporary relief from catastrophic tides and broken refrigerators. Lövaman had no manners. He went over to a table guided by voices and merriment and made a clumsy effort to socialize, only to send beers and wine glasses crashing to the ground. Lövaman was not made for crowded situations. But Lövaman was attractive, with his aromatic presence and awkward manners. He met with the indignation of local police and snarling dogs, but also with the embrace of open arms and encouraging shouts of Alloro! Alloro!
Lövaman was neither benign nor malevolent. We shouldered a certain otherness as we slipped into costume. Mute otherness, because our language was that of a thousand leafy tongues fluent in none of the human idioms. We moved faster than a tree but slower than the wind. We appeared at the crest of medieval bridges and stood motionless at the edge of the Adriatic, a heave of tide at our naked feet. The curiosity of strangers filled us with a need to communicate and reach out. Our vision faltered with the onset of night. At the end of the day it was enough to just stand there, swaying gently in the breeze.
After performing on the streets and in the gallery space we looked for a suitable place for the Lövaman costumes. It seemed appropriate to return the material to the place where it had been gathered. We found a marble statue of the hunting goddess Diana in a park close by. I fetched a ladder from the gallery and climbed up to gauge a possible fit for the Lövaman costume. Roberto knelt down in front of her marble feet, said a prayer, and proceeded to unfold the laurel and drape it over her head. We left the deity carefully wrapped in a rustle of glamorous evergreen, a fragrant sheath to see her through the cold months ahead.
The events here took place almost exactly two years ago, in early winter of 2019. Since then, the world has suffered through an ongoing global pandemic and a relentless succession of earthquakes, heatwaves, mudslides and hurricanes. I think it ́s fair to say that we live in a time of climate hyperbole. The worst-case scenarios of scientific models are surpassed almost daily, making the extreme and extraordinary commonplace occurrences. There is nothing moderate or conservative about the climate anymore. Perhaps there never was.
On a personal level, I feel at a loss of what to do. I am disoriented by how fast the world is changing. One strategy – or coping mechanism if you like – has been to address these issues in my work as an artist. It ́s a strategy, one of many possible ways to deal with ‘the mess we’re in’. Some days it works, and on other days it fails. There are days when I feel OK with the prospect of living in a world that is changing rapidly and irrevocably – as long as I can ward off the temptation to contentedly normalise these changes. Getting my feet wet in Venice helped in this respect and made it easier to relate to the climate crisis on an emotional, rather than intellectual, level.
Lövaman was performed on the streets of Venice on 23-24th November, 2019 with Roberto N Peyre, Daniel Cabral de Quieroz and Boris Godot.