This interview was first published in Cape Times on 25 June 2015.
Anyone familiar with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom will tell you that there’s no going back from watching its contents.
Similarly, reading through Dante’s Divine Comedy, or experiencing the depraved writings of literary scoundrel Marquis de Sade, are feats not advised on a full stomach.
Inspired by the above-mentioned references, German artist Manfred Zylla’s 120 Days of Sodom is a series of images born out of the painter’s lifelong kinship with the work produced by their creators.
Produced by Zylla alongside the Erdmann Contemporary in Cape Town, a new 177-page book featuring the entire collection will be launched at this year’s National Arts Festival (NAF) in Grahamstown.
Featuring a lead essay written by writer, filmmaker and NAF film programme curator Trevor Steele Taylor, among the book’s more than 30 other contributors are Ivor Powell, James Matthews, Niklas Zimmer, Aryan Kaganof as well as Artscape’s Marlene le Roux.
“We asked Trevor to write a leading essay which contextualises the series in terms of its influences,” says Heidi Erdmann.
“Titled A Saint in the city of Pandemonium: Pier Paolo Pasolini, a revolutionary thinker in a time of consumption, through the piece Taylor explores the contemporaneity of the three main influences behind Zylla’s work.”
When it came to approaching the rest of the book’s contributors, Erdmann recalls, both she and Zylla were set on having non-art industry voices.
“We preferred drawing on the thread of cinema for the text, and mother tongue submissions were also preferred. Finally it was necessary for the text to equal the transgressive nature of the series; which I think we have achieved.”
Referring to Zylla as “an extraordinary artist”, Taylor, who has known him for nearly forty years, describes his work as confronting inequality and hypocrisy on a cultural and political level.
“He does so, however, in a manner that is both humble and unswervingly direct,” Taylor observes.
“The first Zylla exhibition I remember seeing was a series of distorted images of young white conscripts. This was during the mid-70s, and the purpose of the exhibition was confrontational. He succeeded on that level causing a good deal of official reaction.
“The visceral nature of the images resonated with the mood of the time and the complexity and artistic skill of the pieces were unforgettable. He further confronted the system by living openly with his coloured wife and children in the midst of apartheid society.”
Describing 120 Days of Sodom as “an incomplete, but mind-bending, meditation on power”, Taylor goes on to say that the Marquis de Sade is often misrepresented as a pornographer.
“There is nothing pornographic is his work. His meditations – in which the human body is abused in pursuit of power, not sexuality – is a nexus between power and its attempts at control.
“Ultimately power can, to quote Adrian Mitchell, take the human body and twist it all about. One’s soul, however, is out of bounds to wielders of power.”
In presenting his vision of the Marquis de Sade’s seminal work, Taylor goes on to explain, Zylla comes to Sade through a relationship with the lens of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.
“Pasolini is probably the most directly political of filmmakers. That said, he is also the most spiritual; a Marxist with deep understanding of the message and the journey of Christ, and a homosexual who glorified the natural energy and innocence of sexuality in its widest meaning.”
Taylor considers Pasolini’s final film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, to be “cinema on the very edge of the abyss.”
“Sade’s book concerns a group of libertines (representing power in the form of religion, politics, finances and and governance) who, through their wealth, manages to kidnap a group of the children of the rich to fulfil, through a series of ritualistic orgies, their depraved desires.
“Pasolini reset the events in fascist Italy in the last months of the war, with the same pantheon of power brokers now gorging their cruelty and lust for power on the kidnapped children of the proletariat.
“Zylla’s series of paintings vary between direct representations of frames from Pasolini’s film as well as side references to modern consumerism, nuclear immolation, the rape of Gaia (fracking) and militarism (the military-industrial complex).”
While not individually titled, among the collection’s images resonating strongest with Taylor are a group of MBA-clutching, Wolf of Wall Street-impersonating sinners on “the rack of punishment”; an image of two lovers naked and alone in “the Hall of Power”; a pair of skeletons dancing above a nuclear power plant like “the horseman of the apocalypse”, as well as an image he refers to as “sodomy, X-ray skeletons and the power of Red Bull.”
Along with the book’s launch all images from 120 Days of Sodom will be exhibited digitally during NAF, together with a new series of paintings by Zylla in which Pasolini can be seen at work. Several of the director’s films – including Salò, The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights – will be screened as part of the festival’s film programme as well.
“In addition, Zylla will be in attendance and will take part in discussion called Art and Resistance. In it the panel will look at a myriad of issues that were intrinsic to Zylla, Sade, Pasolini, Dante, Milton and perhaps even St Paul and Christ.”
Steyn du Toit is a Cape Town-based freelance arts journalist. For any questions please e-mail steyndutoit (at) gmail (dot) com.