Individualistic societies are driven by the belief that happiness is to be found by accessing our “best” and most “authentic” selves, and that this can be achieved by spending money. Therapeutic practices ranging from the seemingly benign to the dangerously experimental enforce the psychological norms that uphold that system. But what happens if we relinquish control of our drives and desires, rather than trying to make them cohere? And what happens if that process is presented as entertainment? Leila Hekmat’s carnivalesque exhibition—prematurely closed as people are forced into their houses by Covid-19—conducts a dangerous experiment of its own: can a family induce psychosis in one member by forcing that individual to bear the weight of their collective dysfunction?

Hekmat writes, directs, and creates costumes for highly aestheticized experimental theatre pieces performed in intimate spaces. Her previous exhibition, “I Was Not Invited” (2018, co-presented by Bortolozzi and Duddell’s Hong Kong), took inspiration from Franz Schubert’s Winterreisse (1828), the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, and Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse (1977), and—like this show—found humor in suffering. “CROCOPAZZO!” is split across three rooms, the first filled with eight mannequins posed as if interrupted mid-dialogue. One figure raises its palms in an attitude of surprise; another is slumped on the floor. They are bathed in lurid green light and each wears a handmade satin costume, a wig, and a grotesque mask with hollowed-out eyes, lips peeled back to reveal decaying teeth, a line of stitching scarring one cheek. A character named Mother sits at the center of the room, surrounded by Felvis, Lemon Drop, Aphasia, Tutte, Flip Flop, Harpy, and Toto. Lurking in an alcove in the next room, behind a day bed on which a printed figure reclines, is the ninth mannequin, Host. The room is draped from floor to ceiling in black velvet, onto which a sinister cast of similarly attired and similarly monstrous figures—composed through digital collages—have been printed (Curtain, 2020). Our journey through the two rooms is soundtracked by the noise of gunfire and honky-tonk piano, incoherent dialogue, and boisterous singing.

It is only in the third room that the plot is revealed. CROCOPAZZO! (2020), a video of a play by Hekmat that brings the mannequins to life, is projected onto one wall of a blacked-out screening room. Here, Host presents a talk show on which guests discuss their relationships to Mother, as well as subjects including constipation, farts, shit, and sex. Details come into view—the day bed, the alcove—and it soon becomes clear that the velvet chamber we’ve just passed through is the sound stage on which this TV show was recorded. The exhibition thus far has been a museum to the film we are now watching, a primer for this event.

Mother, we learn, “has a flair for publicity”; her advice is “to look out for number one and try not to step in number two.” Mother is often referenced but remains notably absent: in this theatre of the absurd, it’s tempting to wonder whether we’re fated to wait for a mother who never arrives. But appear she eventually does, the ultimate egomaniacal stage mother—Kris Jenner in a periwig—while her children perform musical numbers. The show, a vaudeville version of Jerry Springer with the high-camp hysteria of John Waters, only concludes when Mother shoots everyone dead before turning the gun on herself. It is never clear who is really the scapegoat in this family of psychotics. “Every family needs one member that everyone can shit on,” suggests Mother, and hers enacts this principle by transforming its suffering into commercial entertainment.

At the beginning of the film, Host quotes R.D. Laing: “Life is a sexually transmitted disease and the mortality rate is 100 per cent.” How can one know this and stay sane? Laing recognized his patients’ “pathologies” as expressions of human experience rather than as symptoms of mental illness, and was wary of essentialist diagnoses that played into binary views of what constitutes sanity and insanity. Too much is invested in the upkeep of a civilized veneer when the fact is that we are animals who shit and rut and fuck and die. Leila Hekmat’s work divests itself of any notion of propriety, politeness or self-betterment—this is life with the lid off—and acknowledges that the self is capable of doing or saying anything once we cease to edit the Babel of voices within. “CROCOPAZZO!” is glorious and riotous, but this is gallows humor, and there is only one logical outcome. The final shot is of a tangle of bodies strewn across the floor. Life is a farce. The best we can do is laugh.