Few people understand better than Angelo Musco just how weak and insignificant the human body can be. The Naples-born artist was wrecked by birth complications in 1973, following an eleven month pregnancy. When the baby became stuck within the birth canal and began to turn blue, the midwife panicked and extracted the child with such force that Angelo would suffer the effects of Erb’s Palsy, a tearing of the neck and shoulder muscles. His right side would be completely paralysed for the first few years of his life.
“When you grow up with a physical issue and every movement that you do is a constant reminder of your condition, in some way, it becomes the way you are. You have to adapt to it and recognise that it will always be this constant reminder. It’s not a decision – it’s not something you decide like, “this is what I’m going to do”.”
Today Angelo, now 40, prepares for a shoot tomorrow in which he will face six assistants, a documentary crew and fifty nude models. The artist can spend six to eighteen months on each individual piece of work he produces. One of his recent pieces, TEHOM, required 500,000 bodies and was presented on a canvas which measured 20 by 3 metres. Although Angelo is no longer fully paralysed, he will suffer from extreme arthritis and nerve discomfort caused by calcification complications for the rest of his life. “Within my work the human body became a constant element, it is a daily struggle of my life.”
Musco’s interest in photography and the body as a photographic subject began in the early 90’s during an Erasmus scheme when he began to feel artistically restrained by his lack of financial funds. “I remember I was in this class with this incredible art professor and I wanted to do great things and use great materials but my parents couldn’t help, I was trying to do so many little jobs but it was kind of hard.”
“I need to be part of this”.
Eventually, Musco was encouraged by one of his professors to begin searching for materials which were available to him. Angelo’s ambitious dreams of what he could achieve with expensive oils and paints were reassessed as he began to look at the human body in its bare form. “I was producing these compositions and designing forms and shapes on the floor with the bodies. I always ended up photographing very relaxed positions. The final product was a liquid movement, almost like an amniotic landscape. Before, there was always something lacking in what I wanted to achieve and I found that in photography.”
We live in an era where nudity no longer offers the same shock factor as it would have for our Victorian ancestors. When a student signs up for a university sports club, they arguably simultaneously contract themselves into the naked calendar shoot which will inevitably follow within the next three years. Although these are often generically “tongue in cheek”, the calendars sell because they celebrate sexuality or at the very least, mock it. Musco’s digitally enhanced photographs contain thousands of naked bodies which so often lie in a tessellating fashion. I wanted to know if there was any kind of sexual element within his work, however far below the surface it may lie.
“I don’t see nudity in my work for some weird reason, I just don’t see it. When I create these enormous pieces, people always say to me, “You know Angelo, I completely forget to go and look for the handsome man or the handsome woman and look at genitals.” What I actually really want to express is something that doesn’t really relate to just the element of nudity.”
The individual body, for Angelo is of little significance, what he aims to do rather, is to celebrate the collective whole. “I am going for the power of aggregation. If there is a big force I’m the first one that jumps towards it headfirst. I believe in the power of community and I don’t think we are super humans, I don’t think one person can do it all. So this is a concept that I usually apply to life, to religion, to relationships and to everything else.”
But did Angelo always yearn to partake in the process of aggregation? His own recognition, of its power came in an epiphany-like manner at one of the first shoots he staged with a significantly larger number of models. “There was this incredible energy and I realised that it was the room full of people which was producing it. I decided to explore this concept more and by adding more and more people. I just realised that the shots were incredible, the events were fantastic and I recognised that there was this incredible harmony between the models.”
Growing up in Naples had never offered Angelo the harmony which he would find within his work. He admits that he grew up with “three eyes” – two on his face and one on the back of his head. He attributes this paranoia to a childhood spent alongside an ever-present criminal organisation, the Camorra. “I come from a reality where it was very poor, I saw people die, you had to close your eyes and pretend you hadn’t seen it.”
Angelo talked about his own personal experiences with the Camorra. “My friend had a delicatessen and people would come into the stall with guns. That was very much the norm. So we did grow up with this fear, paranoia and this awareness that something could happen. That kind of thing invades your daily life you know. You had to give money to the criminal organisation every month and you had to do that to do that to be safe. Having a store in Naples meant paying the Camorra in order to stay safe. There were also counter families who would protect you. So there were all of these weird dynamics in the society. We grew up with all of these sets of rules in accordance with the criminal organisation. It became part of your life and you lived with it.”
It is the memory of such communal insecurity which existed in Angelo’s childhood that calls him to create the harmonious community which exists within his work. He describes his art as a “collaborative effort” and often, while shining projecting beams onto the ceiling in order to direct the models into shapes and formations, Angelo will often be open to suggestions from his nude subjects. “I’m the producer, I’m the one who puts them together, but in the end the magic comes from what the harmony will achieve. Without them I would be nobody so it’s incredible what they can do.”
An outsider in these shoots can find themselves drawn into the situation, Angelo presented his partner, who he has been with for ten years, as a prime example. “He always begins the day by saying, “You have me as an assistant to put together the composition.” Later, in the middle of the day, he always takes his clothes off and jumps in because he is like, “I need to be part of this”. I asked him once, “Ok, tell me what’s so exciting about being naked with other people?” He told me, “It’s so liberating and free and engaging because you have the power to involve people in your work. You are not celebrating yourself, you are celebrating us.” One thing that I think is that I’m probably doing the right thing when I see models coming over and over and again, and then bringing more people. For them something is happening, for them something good is coming out of this experience.”
Although it took him five years, Angelo admits that his “third eye” has finally closed and that his paranoia has subsided after settling into New York. “It’s interesting because people say, “Do you represent a society in which we are liberated?” I always say, “I go to work on the subway and I don’t go to work with a horse,” this means that my life is the typical representation of the society I live in. Whatever anybody says, I don’t believe in the concept of artists who close themselves in the studio.”
Angelo tells me that he does not want to give “any fixed statement” on the “meaning of his work”. He believes any such “truth” would “diminish the power of the work”. It is hardly surprising that the individual opinion would be disregarded in favour of a seemingly infinite number of interpretations, when the foundational part of the process asks for thousands of strangers who are willing to disrobe for several hours and lie together on the floor.
“Angelo Musco: Conception” is due to be released on October 13 2013
Angelo’s facebook page offers updates on his work and modelling opportunities – www.facebook.com/pages/ANGELO-MUSCO/214462229125?fref=ts