Il Castrato: Katarzyna Kozyra and the Open Wounds of Society

Stefano Pasquini

Katarzyna Kozyra, Il Castrato, 2006. Performance. Produced by Gender Bender. Photo Credit: M. Oliva Soto.

    Katarzyna Kozyra has made strong and provocative works that question the rules of our society: she forced the concept of privacy when she dressed up like a man and attended a men-only spa (Men’s Bathhouse); then, she participated in fake war actions, with a group of violent warlords and real weapons (Punishment and Crime). But, in the last few years, Katarzyna Kozyra has begun her most recent project, and one in which art and life are even more entangled. “Only In Art, Dreams Come True,” begun by Kozyra in 2003, is a series of performances (which also became videos) in which the artist experiments with personal transformation, a true metamorphosis, just like the caterpillar that becomes a butterfly, or the ugly duckling that becomes a beautiful swan.
    Do you remember when you were a kid and thought of yourself as a hero of fairytales, or as the princess waiting for the blue prince? Well, Katarzyna Kozyra still has these dreams, and she thinks that they can become reality through art. Of course, she’ll need the help of some magical beings capable of helping her, as our heroine, in this difficult transformation, just like the little mice in Cinderella or the dwarfs in Snow White. So, thanks to two “spiritual” guides—Gloria Viagra, a Berlin drag queen at six-foot-five tall who taught Kozyra the secrets of posture and feminine make-up, and the Maestro, a singing teacher who taught her the most famous arias—the artist began to walk through the scenes in order to become a star of the stage. From Teatro Sociale of Trento to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie International, from Vienna’s Kunsthalle to the Barbican of London, the artist is now staging actions in which she dances and sings, changing dresses and persona each time.
    In Bologna last October, during the festival Gender Bender—dedicated to transgender cultures—Katarzyna realized the performance Il Castrato, and the homonymous video, shown in worldwide premiere during Arte Fiera last January. If the relationship between masculine and feminine has been one of the favorite themes of Kozyra (and one of the recurring themes of metamorphic culture, from the prophet Tiresias, to the androgyne in alchemy), the issue is still on the front line in a country such as Italy, where catholic culture is strongly defensive of traditionalist views about family and sexuality. This, however, wasn’t always the case. One of the major symbols of “white voice” in lyric music, Farinelli, who died and was buried in Bologna, was the last and most famous representative of this cruel practice (in which young boys were castrated in order to keep their soprano voice timbre)—an operation that, today, could be compared to still-practiced infibulation (the removal of female genitalia). Prior to Farinelli’s time, however, the “white voice” procedure was a conventional one without any particular moral implication.
    In Il Castrato, Kozyra addresses this issue, recreating its full drama at the crucial moment of castration yet simultaneously rendering it in a comic light by surrounding it with transgender figures which move about the scene in a rhythmical coordination. The assisting public (in the video, projected in the back of the actual performance) was made up of sauna-boys, a male-only group citing Men’s Bathhouse, filmed in Budapest’s Gellért. Next, a catwalk of drag queens, wearing extravagant dresses and high wigs, parodying baroque style, slowly fills the stage. Gloria Viagra, taller than anyone else, enters, accompanied by the Maestro. The public is attentive, some applaud, some react with signs of disapproval. The inspection begins; the Maestro lifts up, one by one, each skirt for the verification.
    Behind them all, trying to hide, is Katarzyna, slightly rigid and embarrassed, powdered and meek, like Marie-Antoinette on the scaffold. The undressing begins, out goes the corset and we see a breastless torso. There goes the skirt and, to everyone’s dismay, we are in front of a penis. Kozyra is a fake woman; measures need to be taken immediately! Two drag queens enter, bringing operating tools. The Maestro and Gloria begin a long and difficult operation of castration, and at the end, penis and testicles drop on a metal plate, together with a few drops of blood. At this stage, the Castrato starts to sing Schubert’s Ave Maria, while his poor attributes ascend to the sky accompanied by two drag queens. The androgynous being, with mechanical movements provoked by the flash-colored armor that flattens her torso, leaves on a white horse from the stage of the performance (changed to a stretcher in the video).
    This would be the end if it wasn’t that, as in every fairy-tale, a moral is obligatory. The Maestro, Gloria Viagra and the Castrato return to the scene and intone one last Vivaldi aria, In cimentò verità (who knows why it’s in Polish). The subtitles in the video elucidate: “Towards victory marches steadily he who turns his gaze towards the eyes of the truth, only thus will he discover if it is good or evil.” So, with this call to stare into the eye of truth, not hiding behind fake morals, the performance ends.
    If someone thinks this is part of a “soft” phase for the Polish artist, who, in the past, used to be much more provocative (during her degree show in 1993, she shocked the Polish art world by displaying a pyramid of Taxidermic animals), in reality, it is just that the artist has found a lighter vein within which to work. Here, she uses the weapon of irony in an effort to turn the knife in some of the most open wounds of our society, the unresolved issues, the questions that—for modesty or morality—we prefer to leave unanswered.

Originally published in New York Arts, 2007.