Oh, Stromboli!

Text and photos by Linda Yablonsky

This year Iddu got the message. The name is Sicilian for “he”. It’s what people on Stromboli call the Aeolian island’s live volcano. Not “Stromboli”. Just “Him”. The two-word message, sent by the artists of Volcano Extravaganza 2014, was deep bass.

Iddu couldn’t have been more accommodating. Last year he barely made a peep. This time, He rumbled morning, noon and night, propelling enormous plumes of fire and smoke into the air from the belly of the earth and burning lava into the Tyrrhenian Sea. He was awesome.

If only art could be like that.

But art colonies are. Whenever artists are in residence en mass, it almost guarantees wildness. And on fertile Stromboli, summer camp for the London-based Fiorucci Art Trust, anything can happen.

For example, in 1950, when the married filmmaker Roberto Rossellini shot “Stromboli” on location there, his torrid affair with the young Ingrid Bergman so scandalized the outside world that it nearly ruined their careers. For a long time, just about the only place you could see the film was on Stromboli itself. Today, there are weekly screenings and a museum of cinema dedicated to it, while the red stucco house where Rossellini and Bergman trysted is a tourist attraction, even though there’s nothing much in it. Such is the power of legend. It’s a boon to the island economy.

So, every summer since 2011, the foundation established by the art collector Nicoletta Fiorucci has sponsored a Volcano Extravaganza – a festival of music and dance performance, film screenings and exhibitions – by a rotating crew of international artists. This year, they came from London, New York, Cairo, Cyprus, Brazil and beyond, invited by Extravaganza director Milovan Farronato and his guest curator, the English installation artist Haroon Mirza. For a theme, they chose “Forget Amnesia”.

There’s no use taking that phrase literally. Stromboli is not a place one can easily forget. “Amnesia”, on the other hand, is seasonal.

That’s the name of a mighty disco on Ibiza, another island resort with a dance floor instead of a volcano. In the 1960s, when hippies roamed the earth, Ibiza was the one place they went to seek the sublime – to forget themselves and take the sun with sex and drugs. A decade later, they were still doing it, but at Amnesia, still one of the most popular nightspots in the world.

Mirza builds kinetic sculpture out of obsolete electronics and junked furniture. At unexpected moments, it will produce sound waves – sometimes piercing, sometimes throbbing – that trigger blinking patterns of LED lights, temporarily destabilizing the surrounding environment. In other words, his work behaves a lot like Stromboli.

Stromboli has two nightclubs. La Tartana is a restaurant with a dance pavilion overlooking the sea. MEGA, a larger nightclub built into the side of a cliff, is an open-air disco. Both became venues for “Forget Amnesia.”

The idea was to displace the legend of that storied club by mixing art and music with island life – swimming, boating, eating pasta and pizza, diving for sea urchins, walking the volcano, dancing and drinking.

I arrived on 19 July, twenty hours after leaving New York and forty-eight hours before the Extravaganza’s start on the 21. Associate curator Stella Bottai met me at the port just before sundown. Small boats were parked on the black sand beach, yachts were anchored in the sleepy harbor. “Come to the house for dinner tonight”, she said, speaking of La Lunatica, the poetically named artists’ residence in the hilly village of Piscitá. “Milovan is preparing a surprise. Well,” she said then, “It’s a fashion shoot. And you’re going to be in it”.

As darkness fell and a billion stars became visible in the moonless sky, the shuddering volcano sounded like artillery fire. La Lunatica was also abuzz. Josefine Reisch was in the kitchen making pasta. Farronato was applying makeup to one of the artists modeling new fashions by Osman, the English fashion designer. And outside, on the rocky ground beyond the colonnaded terrace above the sea, the shoot was in progress – an otherworldly scene if ever one was.

Posing in a bright red cocktail dress was Gaia Fugazza, Mirza’s pregnant artist wife, attended by their two-year-old son, Xiaano. They had company, witnesses to the Extravaganza who may never have met anywhere else: from Paris, art dealer Jerome Poggi and Le Monde reporter Thomas Doustaly; from Bangladesh, the American-born artistic director of the Samdani Art Foundation, Diana Campbell Betancourt; from Los Angeles, the documentary television producer Miggi Hood, and from London, Chisenhale Gallery director Polly Staple and NTS internet radio producer, Alec Curtis.

Conscripted as assistants, they trained the silvery beams of LED headlamps – standard issue for climbing the volcano at night – on the models for photographer Lewis Ronald, though he introduced himself as “Lewis Carroll”, after the creator of Alice in Wonderland, whose sartorial style he has appropriated.

NTS radio’s Tabitha Thorlu-Bangura, on board to record eruptions from both the volcano and the Extravaganza with Curtis, was in a black leather dress. A peekaboo black number went to Jessie Stead, who was on the island with New York artist Trisha Baga to make a 3-D film inspired by spaghetti westerns. Bottai looked smashing in a sexy black party dress. I had a white outfit, flowing pants and a halter top with exaggerated tassels that dropped from the bust nearly to the ground.

Not the usual garb for Stromboli, perhaps, but it set a tone. Yet fashion took a back seat the following afternoon during lunch on the terrace. Baga went topless, for one thing. The artist Celia Hempton wore attire appropriate for hiking up the volcano, the subject of a series of small, semi-abstract paintings that she would show at the House of Extravaganza, the Trust’s exhibition venue on the island. Hempton took off with her musician brother Sam to rehearse their opening-night performance on guitars and the rest of us boarded a speedboat driven by our unofficial mascot, a young Strombolian boy named Matteo.

We cruised to Strombolicchio, a craggy cartoon island of lava rock with a lighthouse on top and one formation that looks exactly like the black knight of a chess game. Actually, the tiny island is the mother ship – the miles-deep, long-dead volcano that created the seven Aeolian Islands during a cosmic eruption thousands of years ago.

After a jellyfish-dodging swim, diving for sea urchins, and spending a riveting half-hour watching Iddu roll smoking lava down the ages-old Sciara del Fuoco – the blackened chute on the northwest slope – we were ready to hike. You can hear the hollow rumbling at all times but the fireworks aren’t visible in sunlight. Volcano-watching here is best after dark.

The evening was warm and the sea like glass when we packed up our headlamps and water bottles, and headed up the mountain. The idea, usually, is to climb to a point overlooking the central crater, but because the volcano had been so explosive, the authorities closed off the trail about halfway up.

The massive, pyramid-shaped mountain has been active for more than a thousand years. It stands at least 1,000 meters tall and plunges another 2,000 meters beneath the surface of the sea. The hike takes five hours. We did it in three, stopping now and then to watch the frequent, increasingly spectacular, eruptions. If it hadn’t been so beautiful it would have been terrifying. On the way down, we stopped for dinner at Osservatorio a restaurant situated at an elevation that offers clear views of the explosions from its outdoor tables.

The fireworks were spectacular that night. Enormous jets of fire shot up like reverse waterfalls to whoops and hollers from the restaurant’s patrons. At times, the action looked like a giant iron-smelting operation, like Vulcan at work. Great mushroom clouds of glowing lava hung in the air after each eruption, as if it were weightless, as if the sparks were fireflies, or stars. The sound was that of muffled cannon, rolling thunder, or the crack of lightning. Closer to the source, it must have been atomic. Last year, Matteo said, Iddu had three craters. This year, there were thirteen. What can I say? He was hot. Incredibly, the Extravaganza hadn’t even yet begun.

The next morning brought the arrival of Nicoletta Fiorucci on a very pleasant yacht, the Happyissima, on loan from her boyfriend. Traveling with her was Martin Hatebur, a lawyer and President of the Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland with a summer home on Stromboli, the historic Casa Falk. (Its curving staircase plays a significant role in the Rossellini movie.) On the island, where streets are steep, narrow and forbidden to cars, he rides a bicycle. Everyone else walks, has a Vespa or takes taxis – electric golf carts.

By this time, the volcano’s rumble was coming at such close intervals that its longer rests felt strange – portentous – like something was wrong. But its extended silence that morning was just the ticket for the “Record, Replay, React Workshop”, a two-day immersion in the vocal and movement techniques of Cypriot dancer/choreographer Lia Haraki and her composer-collaborator, Christos Hadjichristou.

We gathered under the trees in the garden outside the House of Extravaganza, at one time the vacation home of performance artist Marina Abramović. Our tools were our bodies, our voices and, forgetting amnesia, our memories. The idea was to make sound visual and movement audible through linked vocal and physical exercises.

It’s a good thing Iddu was sleeping, so we could hear ourselves think out loud – a requirement. We made nonsense sounds and played a kind of telephone game with a microphone, making animal noises and also confessing to things we like or really don’t. Hadjichristou edited, layered and looped the sounds and words to a beat, and pretty soon we were in a groove, swinging our arms and shouting, feeling free.

That night, after Baga and Stead’s hilarious 3-D film debuted in an interior room of the Extravaganza house, the Hempton siblings played their guitar duet in the garden, before an audience that included the volcano, which listened, spellbound, with the rest of us. Still in a dream state, we walked to the port for the opening-night seafood dinner at Ristorante Zurro, which has the most stylish chef I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t wear kitchen whites but an orange hat, flower-print shirt and red pants, but obviously cares about the food just as much as his look. It was wonderful, as was the company, which had grown larger with more new arrivals: the artists Prem Sahib and George Henry Longly (two-thirds of the party-giving dj trio, Anal House Meltdown); Fiorucci’s son Andrea di Biagio and his friend food philosopher Sofia Villa, London dealer Silvia Sgualdini. And they kept coming, particularly artists, curators or dealers of international repute, like Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Chus Martinez, Sarah McCrory, Aaron Cezar, Andrew Bonacina, Rodrigo Editore – and more.

And so it went, a new presentation and a different dinner each night, following daily preparations. Celia Hempton, for example, was brilliantly capturing the volcano’s many moods in her paintings. Hassan Khan arrived from Cairo and went out to persuade local craftsmen to make glass, wood and iron objects for a closing night performance that he hoped would take place on a hired boat. He settled for the terrace at Casa Falk. Fabulous.

There was a seated dinner for Mirza at Tartana hosted by Lisson Gallery, which represents him in London – but he dj’ed the after-dinner dancing. The party went late. People were just recovering when, the following evening, Richard Sides created a cocktail-hour soundscape with paintings to warm us up for Anal House Meltdown’s party at MEGA, now with the third member, Eddie Peake, on the decks with Sahib and Longly. Despite heavy downpours, it went even later. And on 23 July, as a farewell to the departing Staple, Sgualdini and Betancourt, Fiorucci took a small group out for a sunset cruise on the Happyissima. Iddu’s peak was shrouded in ominous clouds. We couldn’t see a thing, but it didn’t matter. Watching the sun make its slow, almost lecherous descent to the sea was spectacle enough.

And then, as darkness fell and pasta was served, the fog lifted and the volcano rumbled to life, shooting up lava sprays so much higher and more powerful than before that we were hypnotized. “I’m so happy”, Fiorucci said. “Iddu did not disappoint.”

We returned to the House of Extravaganza, feeling weak, just in time for Haraki’s 11pm performance of her own “Record Replay React” in the garden. With Hadjichristou at his loop station, she executed a number of quick movements – running, jumping, turning –becoming increasingly breathless and more intense as she spoke repeated phrases into a mic. “Wait. Wait a sec,” she said. “You are here now. Wait. Wait a sec. Stay. Here? Or here? Maybe here. Like this? Or this?” Somehow, it was scary. And different.

Way different from what happened the following night, when “Forget Amnesia” took an unexpected, not entirely unwelcome, turn to the pornographic. That was Sahib’s doing. First, he screened an onanistic film completed only hours earlier, with Matteo playing the role of a wet dream. Then he gave us Boys in the Sand, a gay male sex film shot on another island playground – Fire Island, New York – in the 1970s.

Though Sahib’s live soundtrack was very now, and the popcorn very crunchy, the action seemed quaint in the age of internet porn. It didn’t hold a candle to the gyrations of the volcano, that’s for sure. Nonetheless, it was yet another unusual thread in the weave of “Forget Amnesia”. In days to come, there was more: epic performances and parties. More eruptions. More Stromboli.

It was a blast.