He’s recognized for his top hats, known for his artwork, and adored for his lighthearted personality. Southampton’s Kevin Berlin is an undeniable force of creativity, both in craft and spirit. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, Berlin was enjoying time in Florence, Italy. Little did the artist know, at the time, that he’d be part of a country-wide lockdown, confined to his living quarters. As the rest of the world quarantines in isolation, Italy has inspired us through song and solidarity, and Berlin is at the heart of it all. The artist’s performance art video “Moonwalk” can be viewed on YouTube.
How did you end up in a lockdown in Italy during the COVID-19 health crisis?
I came to Florence to study the Italian language, visit the museums, and get a taste of la dolce vita. Of course, Florence is also a nice place to wake up in the morning. When the quarantine started, I didn’t feel safe traveling back to America, and I never would have guessed how serious the situation would become. So here I am. Just like Kevin McCallister in the movie, I find myself home alone.
Describe the historical significance to the area you’re in.
Almost every building in the historic center of the Renaissance capital is an art historian’s dream. Palazzi, with high ceilings, carved wood, and covered in paintings; ancient terracotta floors and stone walls as thick as your arm. My bedroom, for example, is more than 700 years old.
That must be inspiring.
As an artist, I’m always searching for inspiration. Sometimes the most challenging situations are also the most inspiring. More than 600 years ago in my very bedroom, in the mid 1300s, Florence was ravished by the plague. During that period Boccaccio was inspired to write his most famous book, a Renaissance masterpiece called “The Decameron.” He created over 100 marvelous stories told by a group of young men and women hiding in a villa outside of Florence, quarantined just like us, waiting for things to get better.
That must give you a strong sense of the city that has seen centuries of human history.
It’s true. During this time, I often feel that the stone streets of Florence still belong to Galileo and Machiavelli. Sometimes I think we’re just visiting here.
What inspired your new performance art video?
The video was shot in Piazza della Signoria, one of the most beautiful squares in the world, and I live nearby. I have been in this square a thousand times, attracted by the beauty of the outdoor sculptures in Loggia dei Lanzi. It is always a moving experience to stand in front of the marble and bronze figures of Giambologna, Cellini, and Donatello.
The enormous Fountain of Neptune was just re-lit and restored to its original beauty by the Ferragamo family. The square has the best cappuccino in Italy at Bar Perseo, and the best cioccolata calda (hot chocolate) on planet Earth at Rivoire, chocolatier to the King of Italy during the reign of Victor Emmanuel. I really like this square. It has always been crowded. Until now, it was impossible to imagine the square not packed with a sea of international tourists and local residents.
How did you come up with the title Moonwalk for the video?
The first time I went grocery shopping during the quarantine, I saw the square and I felt like I was on another planet. “Magnificent desolation,” as Buzz Aldrin would say. It was empty. I have never seen the square empty in my entire life. It was surreal. It was shocking. I felt like I was walking on the moon.
What does performance art mean to you?
It’s a way to communicate feelings and ideas that cannot be expressed any other way. I use performance art as a platform to open a conversation about important social issues. Past performance art pieces of mine have focused on the global financial crisis, the use and misuse of cellphones, and saving the tigers from extinction. Of course, the artist has a limited role, to start a conversation. The artist is not responsible to solve the problem or to tell anybody what to think, who’s right or wrong, or how to feel.
What’s unique about the video?
This is the first video where you can’t see my face. I did that on purpose because this is a time for “we,” not “I.” I hope everyone finds strength and healing during this challenging period.