Until that moment in my life, peeing on the street had always gone well. I selected the right place, I pulled my jeans down and I liked the atmosphere of suspension whilst I was there, hastily squatting to listen to the faint sound of trickling while I looked into the darkness in front of me.
I’ve always preferred peeing alone rather than in company because I’m able to preserve the moment better. Everyone knows that one of the greatest pleasures of women is going to the toilet together and, in the absence of a toilet, doing it together, laughing and passing each other the tissues.
This is something that I’ve never really understood. Sometimes I smile, but to myself. Anyway, it has always gone well. I’ve always managed to pull up my jeans just before a group of drunk boys or a bus full of tourists pass by.
Peeing on the street that friday was the first time it went badly. I was on my third hot beer, I wasn’t drunk. The public toilet was in the middle of the open space in which we were gathered, crammed on the cement structure where we smoked and drank beers that even though they had been put in the fridge, hadn’t been there long enough to get cold.
The exhibition was installed inside a concrete skeleton, an unfinished house. A harsh and clear piece of land surrounded it, while a thick khaki bush had grown on its sides. In the middle, immediately in front of the house, clearly loomed the deep blue silhouette of the chemical toilet.
Everyone would have seen me go. I might’ve had difficulty opening the door. Maybe even worse. So I crossed the crowd of people and the clearing and I came out onto a dark street, lined with cars. I walked a bit and I set myself up in the farthest point from the street lights.
Shortly after I had crouched down I saw an elegant black car turn the corner and drive down the street where I was hiding. I immediately turned my head away and remained still, waiting for it to pass. I didn’t want to give those in the car the satisfaction of seeing me quickly and embarrassedly pull up my pants. By the way, those jeans were high rise and a size too small, so I never would’ve been fast enough. I decided to stay there – icy and arrogant – my head turned away, endlessly waiting for the car to pass by. But the car did not pass. It stopped directly behind me, with the headlights pointed at my body, and remained there, with the engine running.
I stood motionless, with my head turned away. Seconds passed. Then, as the car surprisingly still didn’t show any sign of moving and remained there with its engine running and the headlights pointed at me a, in the middle of the road. Given that it didn’t get in the way of the path, I decided that I could do nothing else but simply pull up my jeans and leave. I was faster than I thought and as I closed the zipper just above my navel, I was already near the entrance. After a few steps, I heard the car start. I didn’t look back.
Two glasses of beer later – drunk alone, leaning against the entrance gate – I decided to go inside and take a look at the exhibition. Luigi Ontani was climbing the concrete stairs in front of me (“they are already a work of art,” explained a boy with a beard, round glasses and red hair to his girlfriend who was dressed in a beige cotton dress – a sack.) Ontani was dressed in white, his grey hair impeccably tied back in a ponytail. I became emotional and I looked at him smiling, yet still distracted by the girl with the sack dress, who was almost as beautiful as the actress from the film L’amante – an adaption of a book by Marguerite Duras. Why was she with that red head who was ugly and half her height? While I turned to look at the couple, in an attempt to analyse the situation, Ontani stopped suddenly in order to let a blonde with a leopard print silk tunic pass, and I bumped into him, planting a slap on his back. Ontani turned around to look at me, then his gaze lowered to my red t-shirt, and he winced as if he recognised someone or something, and before turning around again and continuing to climb the stairs he winked at me.
I remembered passing a morning in london, in room 287C, Aisle House, Docklands Campus, looking at all of his works and interviews, eating cold leftover Indian food. Then the technician arrived to test the suitability of my electronic devices with the voltage of The University of East London. I continued eating rolls whilst standing and, Ontani, in the video, continued speaking. Crouched in front of the power outlet, the technician seemed not to notice my odd breakfast, Ontani speaking in Italian, standing behind him – watching the video even though I couldn’t focus on it anymore as I was now terrorised by the prospect of having to have a conversation in English.
Seeing the elegant Ontani in real life filled me with joy. “There’s Luigi Ontani, did you see him?” I said a little while later to a guy with round glasses, a tattoo on his neck and a long beard. And he replied with disdain: “Of course, he’s always around, at all the openings, small or large. He never fails.” I wondered what Luigi Ontani thought of us. Why did he go to all the openings? I wanted to ask him what he thought of the concrete stairs that were already an artwork, but I’ve never been able to approach those who I respect. In such moments, fear always paralyses me.
For example, two days earlier at HM on Via del Corso, I’d seen Elisabetta Rocchetti – the actress from L’imbalsamatore by Matteo Garrone. She was looking at jeans for 19,90. I heard her attacking the sales assistant: “Where are these jeans at 19,90?” The sales assistant replied: “They’re upstairs, on the first floor.” She said, “Oh yeah? Your colleague made me come down. Coordinate yourselves better.” Then she bothered another sales assistant to ask for advice on her size. “The smallest!” Exclaimed the sales assistant, staring at her withered legs. She was just like in the movie: pale, with a soft nose, as if made of fresh clay, cross-eyed and wavy dark hair framing her face. I wandered around the room, trembling, thinking about how to approach her. What could I ask her could her? An autograph? A selfie?
The only autograph that I’ve ever really wanted in my life is Minnie’s and, when I was twelve. I was at Disneyland in Paris. I searched for Minnie all week and I never found her. I got an autograph from Pluto, which I didn’t give a damn about and gave to my brother straight away. While we waited for the bus to the airport, Minnie suddenly appeared. I pretended not to see her, paralysed by fear. My mother pointed her out to me. “I saw her, mum, I saw her!” The children crowded around Minnie but I couldn’t move. “Why don’t you go to her?” My mother asked gently. Wasn’t it something I had wanted to do for the whole week? What could Minnie do to me? I didn’t know how to respond. Eventually my mum went and spoke at length with Minnie, whose signature – beautiful and, in italics – horizontally occupied a full page of my diary. Minnie, and the dot on the "i" was shaped like a heart.
“I'm not a frightened child anymore,” I repeated to myself as I wandered randomly around the HM in Via Del Corso. I would’ve spoken with Elisabetta Rocchetti. I would have told her that she was beautiful, that her performance in Garrone’s film was unforgettable. While I was planning my approach I decided to try on a basic black miniskirt marked at 4,90 as well as a blue skirt with white flowers, marked at 14,90. I decided that the blue skirt was too expensive and that the black one was too short. It took me a while to convince myself. When I came out of the dressing room she was there, Elisabetta Rocchetti, and she set upon me: “Are you done?” “Yes!” I exclaimed firmly, and dashed for the stairs.
Having spotted Luigi Ontani and speaking with the tattooed guy with a long beard, I was confronted by an extremely short boy with round glasses and a beard. His work, he told me, was a fountain (i.e. a tube that sprayed water) built into a corner of the basement of the building-site. Suddenly the short boy left and, in his place, his girlfriend appeared, who said she had a Project Space in Vienna and before going away she encouraged me to go visit her one day: she would host me at her place. She seemed much older than the short guy, but more beautiful, with gray eyes surrounded by little wrinkles and a beige trench coat.
Then I spoke to a girl who would have worn at least a size 6 bra and who was a curator in Berlin. Her boyfriend, who stood next to her, and wore round glasses and had a long beard, was a German artist. While listening to her talk about Berlin and the imminent transfer of the couple to Los Angeles, I forced myself to think that I preferred to be just as I was, that is, peeing in front of people and doing a shitty job and writing naïve bullshit, rather than having two heavy tits to carry around and a boyfriend with round glasses and a long beard.
Then the very short guy and the tattooed guy began to talk about Pynchon and his latest book. “Have you read it?” They asked each other. They asked me too. Pynchon, Pynchon. I had only heard of it. I knew nothing about his latest book. I hesitated. “Yes, I've read it, but not ...". My indecision made them suspicious and so they continued to talk to each other. “It’s complex, very difficult, but worth it,” they said. Pynchon. Pynchon, Pynchon, I heard repeated by the two while I stared at them without really listening anymore.
The conversation with the curator died out at the moment when she asked me what I did and I told her the truth. And so, with the excuse of having to find a friend, she hastily walked away. I crossed the yard again. I wanted to reach a kind of black cabin with a transparent dome on top of it that I hadn’t seen yet and to close myself inside it for a few minutes.
But the cabin was occupied. Nearby, there was a lawn that gradually became more wild, then turning into a tangled bush a few more metres ahead. I felt something strange calling me and I took a few steps on the dry grass. Close to the first bushes, in an area that was mysteriously isolated from the construction overflowing with people, sounds reverberated in the air. A guy with a worn face, evidently the artist, began to tell me about the sound work with a slightly uncertain voice. The only thing I understood was Kepler and something about the planets. My favorite poem by Sylvia Plath came to mind, but I could only remember the beginning, not even the title:
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
That set of sounds, heard on that patch of dry grass, seemed able to get me closer to a kind of music of the mind. But a blonde I had spoken to a little while earlier started yelling out to me, already remembering my name (I had never understood hers) and warmly inviting me to enter the black cylinder. One sat there inside, assaulted by one of those white/black lights that slow down gestures. “Fantastic, don’t you think!” said the blonde, who had been waiting for me outside.
I had come alone, to see the exhibition and hoping to meet somebody new. I had seen the show and met someone. I could go. There was only one obstacle: to get to my house, on the opposite side of the city. The blonde had told me that she would take a taxi along with other two, and that if I wanted I could join them. For half an hour she had been saying that she wanted to go and drink somewhere else, but she didn't move and kept talking and inviting people to enter the black cylinder, which turned out to be her work.
Embarrassed and not knowing what to do or who to talk to, I had smoked at least nineteen cigarettes. I selected the name of my boyfriend in the address book of my phone but I didn’t call him. I wanted to pretend to talk to him, simulating a phone call in order to appear as though I was doing something while I waited for the blonde. But in the end I said “hello” too loudly and then I couldn’t go on. I held the phone to my for a few minutes, as if you I was listening. Then I dropped it back into my bag and went to call the taxi outside on the bare and gloomy Aurelia Antica.
The taxi was a big jeep with leather seats. I pressed myself up against the window; the driver was silent. Outside, Rome flowed by: elusive, with a beauty so vast and disjointed that it left me completely indifferent and therefore uncomfortable. Pine trees, illuminated by street lamps, drew dark curves on the ochre surfaces of the gigantic rudimentary buildings in the suburbs. Lofty palm trees swayed in the fragrant air. The streets were bare. The sky was dark yet in a strange sort of way, it seemed impenetrable, as if it were made of mists and nebulae: purple and reddish.
I did what I always do when I go home on the bus or metro (I never take a taxi): an evaluation of the day. At work everything had gone as usual, but that night there had been two signs:
- Sign no. 1: before going to the opening. Hungry, I walk into a takeaway pizza place, and say to the Moroccan guy that I’ll have a slice of plain pizza and a Ceres. With a discouraged air about him, he takes the top off the beer and puts the slice of pizza in the oven. 6 euro and 90, he says. I realise that other than a prepaid card, I only have a few coins which are not enough to pay. I count the coins: 3 euros and 10 all up. Embarrassed, I ask him if I can pay by card. He says no. I ask where I can withdraw. He says, “there,” pointing with his hand and then, listless, while I remain standing there with the focaccia and beer, he says: “well…at least eat.” But I can’t sit down, I'm too agitated, so I leave. The ATM is not “there,” but much further away. However, it is one of those ATMs that are inside, accessed by swiping a bank card, and mine never opens the door. I look for another. After half an hour I find one, but it doesn’t accept my card. I'm tired. I feel lonely. I want to cry. Where the fuck can I find another ATM? I take the the escalator down to the metro without looking back.
Back in highschool, I used to steal quite often. Once, just after I’d turned eighteen, they caught me and took me to the police station in one of their cars. They interrogated me and took fingerprints. I had stolen lipsticks and mascara from Upim to the value of around one hundred euro.
For a while I didn’t steal; and that evening, not taking the money to the unpleasant Moroccan guy seemed like an absurd gesture. I had to take it. Not doing it cast through a bitter and disturbing greenish light on everything I was going through in that period.
- Sign no. 2: the piss.
Whilst in the taxi I remembered when, in 2011, I promised my classmates a performance that was supposed to consist in going to the Venice Biennale, whose Italian pavilion would be curated by Sgarbi that year and, wandering the halls, pee myself, as a signal of dismay when faced with the ugliness of the selected works and the way in which Sgarbi had chose them and the fact that the pavilion had been assigned to him. In short, a gesture of protest.
“We will have to drink a lot of beer,” I said and, already drunk, surprised by the early evenings of spring, I encouraged my friends to imagine the scene. The spreading stain on our pants, the liquid that slowly dripped on the floor, the footsteps that we would have left. Would they notice during or after? Would they have ordered us to leave or simply ignored it? Maybe they would call the police. Still drunk, we conspired: “But we say to the police that we didn’t do it on purpose, that urinating is a uncontrollable physiological act, that we don’t even know each other. We felt a sense of fear for the future of art and we couldn’t do anything to stop ourselves.”
I didn’t gain widespread support, I didn’t know the rest, and three trusted friends, maybe two, were willing to accompany me. When the Biennale began I invented an excuse for not doing it – that I didn’t want to pay for the train ticket, let alone the entrance and, that shit deserved neither the attention nor the money, not to mention the performance.
Several years had passed since the idea of pissing against Sgarbi. I was no longer a naïve and easily enthused student. Now, I was just a hostess. And yet, I still knew how to get angry. This time though, it was different – inadequate, strange, hopelessly excluded and now, out of the game. In addition to the stupid hurry to get there in time, I had robbed the unpleasant Pizza al taglio guy. And I was going to spend a shameful amount of money on taxis. I had peed in front of the black car, in which, it was highly probable that Luigi Ontani had been. Protected by the majesty of the jeep with leather seats, I was unhappy but full of hope, and I seemed to understand, in depth, that everything that had happened had a morality, a conclusion. It was my job to solve this equation. But maybe it was an indeterminate or impossible equation.
And just as I was racking my brains to simplify, divide and get a result, two other signs arrived, making my calculations even more complicated. Two songs – both important for me, one after another – served as the background to my trip.
- Tiromancino, Due destini (Two destinies): at home, alone, at thirteen, I listened to it in loop, painting pictures in oil that resembled Beckett’s desolate landscapes. In fact, at that time, my favourite book was Waiting for Godot. Why was I so sad? I try to remember, but I can’t. What were Luigi Ontani, the really short boy, the tattooed guy, the fat girl and the blonde doing at thirteen?
- Alicia Keys, No one: I listened to it on the train, on my way to visit my ex-boyfriend, in prison for armed robbery. It was the first time I went to see him and at the time, I couldn’t have known – that it would be my only visit. I cried on the empty train while the voice of Alicia Keys drilled in my ears. I was twenty. What were Luigi Ontani, the really short boy, the tattooed guy, the fat girl and the blonde doing at twenty?
Escaping from the attempt to solve the equation, an artwork by Alberto Garutti came to mind: Tutti i passi che ho fatto nella mia vita mi hanno portato qui, ora. (All the steps I have taken in my life have led me here, now.) A phrase engraved on the floor of the Milan Malpensa airport. Remembering it in that moment meant to me that no matter how slippery and discomforting the result was, now I was in a taxi with leather seats and this was the only thing I wanted and I could know about me and life.
After work, the next day, I withdrew and walked to Termini. I went to Pizza al Taglio and saw a tall Italian man behind the counter with white hair. The unpleasant boy came out of the kitchen. From the way he looked at me it seemed that he didn’t remember me at all. I thought that he had spent the evening waiting for me to come. I thought that he’d interpreted my little scene as a plan to get a free meal at his expense; and I thought that my actions could’ve been the tip of the iceberg; the story to tell when he explained why he had lost the little confidence he had left in people.
I thought that he was imagining: “Everything is uncomfortable, dirty, greasy and difficult. I'm tired and women don’t look at me, my wife is sick of me and she’s pregnant, and this girl here with almost black lipstick that makes her more scary than ugly, is staging this ridiculous scene to steal 6,90 euro. But what’s the point? The situation looks set to worsen or at best to remain as it is. How will my life ever get better?”
But instead, he looked at me bewildered. Maybe he was afraid that his boss would scold him because he had allowed such a thing to happen, and so he was pretending not to remember. But now I was there, with the money in my hand, and after a moment of panic in which I remained staring at him paralysed, I chucked the 10 euro banknote down on the counter and quickly dashed out of the store.