“Sometimes I have to ask myself, what am I really, a conservative or what? Am I a rebel, someone who destroys and doesn’t look anybody in the eye? I really don’t know. Sudden swings occur within me, that have nothing to do one with the other, and hence they can’t join up. I can’t decide whether to see myself as a conservative, because even then I wouldn’t live in the society I wish for. I also can’t decide whether I should be a true social-democrat, as much as the socialist ideal is the only social idea I have ever had experience of and as much as I think that as an ideal it’ll live forever. But if I were I’d feel so trapped, and then there wouldn’t be a language for me to understand, nothing artistic, in the noble sense of the term, and not even love for art – it seems strange, yet… And nor can I, after all, see myself as ‘alternative’, because in that field there’s a complete lack of tradition and, as the years go by, for me tradition has become the most important thing – certainly also because of all my experiences with ancient languages as a student and because of my huge dedication, yes, an almost filial sentiment, towards all of those old epic poems (deep breath). Well the only thing that I know for sure, is that I would like to study tradition, obviously as an enthusiast, and that I’d like to bring it forward, or at least sustain it. In that sense I’m probably… a conservative, or what?… I still wouldn’t be able to say.”
Peter Handke, from ‘Interview on writing’
Lucilla Meloni: This recent work of yours, The Rape of Europa, exhibited for the first time in Turin at the Tucci Russo Gallery, then in Venice at Minimalia curated by Achille Bonito Oliva, marks yet another exit from the memory of ‘sharp edges’, of the ‘sour and surly’ shapes which used to characterise your works. For the first time there’s a curved, knotted shape that seems to grow upon itself, as if it were almost compassable. It raises the problem of sculpture as form which high–handedly occupies space, form that is open and closed at the same time.
Alfredo Pirri: This work is composed of a diverse set of curves. The rays, the height of the portions of circle change, also the thickness of each component is different, so it appears as a shape that grows from below up to the top according to an internal life animating it. I say this because when you speak of ‘composible’, it is more the aspect of ‘composition’ that interested me. When we speak of ‘composible’, we normally refer to a form which has its origin in a sum of identical units and which, hence, can be manipulated in an infinite number of ways. But here, although I’m not negating this concrete possibility, the meaning (if we can call it meaning) isn’t really obtained from this modular perspective, but from the form in itself, the form obtained. Which makes this piece a work of sculpture in the classical sense of the term, that is it is a flexible form which orients itself in space, and as it does so, it offers different fugues and different point of view. It’s the first time I make a true work of sculpture, if we intend sculpture as something autonomous from the wall, which no longer recognises its dependence on the wall. In fact, sculpture in our day and age is made too often as if it was a layer, an offshoot of the wall. Like a peninsula stretching out of the mother continent. And I’m not referring to banal terminology, mere techniques like ‘painting sculpture’ with which we define something which protrudes from the wall, I refer to deeper things, both physically and in terms of perspective. I’ve noticed a certain tendency within myself to consider the wall as a backdrop, as a theatrical scene filled with narrative allusions, something upon which characters can, more or less decidedly, stand out. This created a dependence of the three dimensional on the two dimensional: the former is the main actor, so that the latter can play its own 19th century role of window onto the world, generative space for the tridimensionality it stands behind.
L.M. In effect, from the 1980s onwards, a lot of sculpture has dealt with objectuality, and found a prevailing principle in set up, rather than in installation.
A.P. The most common model for sculpture is the shop window. An anti-monumental model, finalised mostly to the conservation of remains, of traces of reality shown as fragments of a larger experience which takes place elsewhere. I’m thinking of Beuys and his ‘Palazzo Regale’ (Capodimonte 1985) as the pinnacle of this tendency. Here he created a dialogue between tridimensionality and bidimensionality in which the ‘pictures’ on the wall represented deactivated mirrors, mute entities unable to reproduce images. And at the centre of the room, a towering display cabinet, containing the symbols of the life of an artist-king who lays down his arms and gives himself to the people. From this (still tragic) anti-monumental monument, we got the postmodern shop windows, bidimensional objects multiplied by four (or by five if the window also has a lid, or sometimes only by three, if one of the glass sheets is played by the wall itself). These container-objects have a shape which doesn’t allow for a truly spherical, vivacious gaze, rather the gaze is obliged to slide down the real or imaginary planes which make up the (slippery) sides of the structure; a gaze which has to halt at the corners where dead ends happen, and which then continues to slide until the lack of hold creates disappointment and boredom. And boredom and disappointment are the traits of most of our visual experiences, and hence also of our human experiences. Sometimes you get this feeling even in the presence of figuration, it’s as if we went back to an ‘Egyptian’ figuration: symbolic, flat, where shape is important only as a form of scripture. What I’m describing seems closer to me to writing than to visual arts. For this piece I wanted to offer a point of view for every single possible movement of the spectating body in the space; and I wanted to do so without hierarchies, each one evoking different reactions and states of mind. The sculpture represents the cohabitation between all these states of mind. While I was making it, I often thought about Rodin’s Hostages of Calais, with its continuous chase of lines, each one representing a feeling, a rhythm, a phrase.
L.M. So this work also has its genesis in the need to redefine the boundaries of sculpture. Also, the curved line takes us back to nature, but to the baroque too, with its abundance of rationalising principles of space, divided in vertical and horizontal lines. The resulting ‘knots’ are charged with symbolic meaning; I would even say that this sculpture is the image of this end of century, in which everything still appears in knots.
A.P. In his book The Fold, Deleuze describes the baroque as an active function which is different from the use of the fold as it appeared previously (the Gothic fold, for example), because the baroque fold is infinite and it constitutes two planes: a low one which is the material one, and a high one which is the plane of the soul. I called this piece The Rape of Europe thinking about a double dynamic: one which sinks and one which emerges, in which what emerges is the visible manifestation of everything which is sinking. In the myth of the rape of Europa there’s an animal force (Zeus transformed into bull) which drags with it a young girl (Europa) who he has fallen in love with. The piece alludes to this sinking force, it’s as if you caught a moment of stasis in the movement of sinking in which the force underneath, interred, manifests itself on the outside, on the above, in the form of a graceful dynamic which in a sense hides the brutality of the rape, of this dragging. The floor the sculpture stands on is like a point of difficulty in which you register a moment of tension between the soaring and the sinking, between what penetrates and what resists. As I worked on the sculpture, I also made a series of watercolours which I then showed at Serre di Rapolano (in the context of the exhibition “Luoghi ritrovati: 6 artisti europei”, curated by Zerynthia, at the Centro civico per l’arte contemporanea “La Grangia”, 1997), entitled The Sleep of Europa, made up of approximately 150 sheets of 50 x35 cm each; some of these sheets have a metallic etching in the centre of them on which it says ‘here lies’, translated into the 13 most common european languages. The words are in negative, one after the other going downwards, surrounded by a dark indigo, almost black frame. The image is immersed in colour (different on each sheet) which is liquid, aquatic, emanating colour and light. The ‘here lies’ of cemeteries becomes something dreamy and evanescent once it is translated, iterated, immersed in colours. Form rests in a dreamy silence, still in equilibrium between the low of the grave and the high of the dream. These watercolours display a relationality between word and colour which is similar to that which exists between straight line and curved line in sculpture. As I worked on them, I better understood the origin of the curve as the trauma of the straight line, as broken line: the more often the line is broken, the more harmonious the curve.
L.M. The curve, in itself, contains the idea of dynamism, of ascensional energy; yet, it becomes disorderly when it becomes serpentine, and loses the rigour of verticality. Still, you say you get to the curve from the straight line.
A.P. The curve maintains the memory of the straight line: I would say that between the two, a homeopathic relation takes hold. In real terms, in order to curve metal, you inflict an infinite number of traumas upon it, until its fibre loses its shape. But the most interesting way of thinking about it is ‘pneumatically’, describing the internal mutations of pressure, the air which circulates and seems to keep everything together. That’s where the real curvature happens, that’s where we oblige all other movements to declare themselves as part of a divided atmosphere (I speak here of the pressure of the atmosphere, of compressed air), the movement of the pressure takes us back to some sort of external source of life, a machine that keeps on going, which keeps supplying us with air, hidden somewhere where we cannot see it. That air which is strangled at the top, where the metal closes (almost).
L.M. Is this sculpture a single form?
A.P. It is single, because although it’s composed of fragments, these are all completely sympathetic. It’s made of seventyseven fragments of curves which are ordered from the bottom to the top, starting with the largest diameter and working up to the smallest. The first ones, on the bottom, are very short. The bottom ones are only inklings of a curve which begins on a straight line; as you follow the work upwards, the portions of curve become longer, long enough to almost close into circles, but the diametre of the metal decreases, as does the curvature’s ray. So from a squat shape, only hinted at, we move up to a developed, harmonic shape; the bottom part (which touches on the floor) is made to look like something which hardens because it encounters a resistance, or rather because the floor is a plane, and so it obliges the form into a rectilineous rigidity, from which, as it travels upwards, the piece progressively frees itself of. It’s a sort of visual strategy (but as I was saying earlier, also real, pneumatic) which alludes to a subterranean presence, larger and especially, more dynamically powerful. The resulting form represents an inertia, the form obtained through the resistance of the metal. In all my works forms are resolved in themselves; but at the same time, they always point to the existence of an external mechanism which keeps them alive. What we see is the silent result (silent because it is completed) of a larger force which the result itself refuses to describe.
L.M. You’re speaking of silent, failed form… work which leaves a whole series of things in darkness, which positions itself between visibility and invisibility. The emergence of a declaredly symbolic form asserts the complexity of perception, which goes beyond the sense of sight and which, as such, is able to generate something akin to a state of suspension in the observer, an extreme interpretative freedom.
A.P. The interpretative freedom is given in the multiplicity of points of view, as if moving around the work generated not only an array of sights, but also an array of meanings. Every sculptural pose corresponds to a different interpretations, an ascending or descending which taint the vision in its whole with a different feeling. I think artistic experience (both as a spectator and as an author) should serve the purpose of opening up, of opening up one’s perception, putting one’s perception to the service of the Open which, as the modern thinkers have taught us, is a luminous and spatial phenomenon (Heidegger speaks of the Open in Off the Beaten Track). But above and beyond this, the Open is the plane upon which the image is created by the combination of light and space. The fact that image realises itself thanks to the experience of the Open, or even that it installs itself in the Open, taking its place, annihilates the dialogue between light and space and subtracts the grounds upon which the two could meet. As such, the finite quality of the work manifests itself as aggressive instrument: it divides, and at the same time it inhabits the Open, as its representant.
L.M. Does this openness come from a ‘finite’ idea rather than from an idea in becoming, from a concluded structure?
A.P. To explain myself better, let me use a literary example. Some critics have accused Peter Handke of sacrificing experimentation, in his most recent novels, in favour of a need to tell stories. These recent novels, with their closed form, make the Open more perceptible, more perceptible than it appeared in the more ‘radically’ experimental novels in which the Open couldn’t find expression, due to its evidential excess in a field of tension: it was so close that it was rendered invisible. Naturally the second part of this movement maintains a relationship of memory with the first, and the novels are sometimes disorientated, moved by a painful, yet familiar, recollection. Still, I have no doubts that the second moment in Handke’s literary production is the result of the first, of a moving on from the first, and, for me, it is ‘revolutionary’ compared to the first which I’m not afraid of calling ‘academic’. The way art can be academic, art which denies form or the necessity form exercises on its duty to represent the Open, art which obsessively proposes ‘closeness’, with a tone so authoritative is makes way for a moral revolt. I think that now we should fight the academy wherever it may be hiding, be it in the a nineteenthcenturyism which hasn’t known the Open and that keeps looking at the world from a forest-room, or be it in a mass-experience which believes it can exist at the centre of the Open, substituting itself to the work of art, driving the work of art away with the only result of looking around lost and alone. Uselessly lost and alone. This is the background to me affection for ‘consolidated’ languages.
L.M. You’ve always spoken of a reference to tradition. In a previous interview, quoting Peter Handke, I noticed you spoke of tradition as a ‘handing down’: “It is form that’s handed down, not historical reality”.
A.P. I understand that these answers of mine can be interpreted differently, depending on what needs to be underlined. It can be seen as a closing, something which wants to slow down the movement of the new as it moves towards us. But I think attempting to establish a relationship with a consolidated ‘genre’, be it, even, through dissipation, creates a better storytelling perspective, more possible here than it is in the operation of grabbing suggestions from the huge offer of styles and expressive forms available on the market of reality. This offer, which many see as freedom, seems to me to blackmail art in exchange for a more and more miserable state of survival, certainly not guaranteed by the the freedom and power we imagine is contained in this variety of expressive forms. For example, art weakens itself when it imitates cinema, television, information systems; it produces a sub-product which hopes to find its place in the empty spaces or the folds left by these ‘major systems’ (?). And like this, art fools itself into thinking it has found some sort of lost aesthetic or social position. But art as hybrid does nothing other than augment said major systems, feeding their very myths. In this picture art is obliged to exist amongst the ‘remnants’, amongst the clearance stock of these genres. The closer art gets to them, in an effort to look like them, the more isolated it finds itself, it loses its ‘creative’ aspects and it reduces itself to supplying the grounds for the experimentation of more evolved forms which then end up in these ‘major systems’. This doesn’t at all mean art should live in isolation (although maybe the artist should). On the contrary, art is a place of ‘reunion’, a fire around which tired people should find be able to find comfort. The responsibility of the artists is to blow delicately on the ashes so that something may still keep us warm, or to sell this precious dust for cheap to whoever will use it to fertilise other flowers.
Meloni Lucilla (ed), “Sulla scultura”, Ora Locale. Lettere dal sud n.2, May/June 1998