Parallelo 42, number 03, volume 42_10
Empty for Full
Encounter between Alfredo Pirri and Giorgio Barberio Corsetti
Rome 02 December 2010, at Alfredo Pirri’s house
This meeting between myself and Giorgio Barberio Corsetti happens today after many years of knowing each other. We decided to have this conversation in public, although we’re at my house and although the people around us are all friends. We thought it’d be best to not be just us and a tape recorder, but that we’d surround ourselves with people we trust, the same trust with which you confess something to someone you love, counting first and foremost on love, and then on verbal exchange.
We found a title for this meeting, ‘empty for full’, a title which poses the question of the void, which is present in both my work and Giorgio’s work, who was telling me the other day that at the moment this problem is particularly pressing for him.
The use of the expression ‘empty for full’ though, allows us to not think the void only as something higher or indefinite, but also as something simple, practical. It’s a term used by surveyors to measure space, and has something to do with artisanal contact with space: builders or painters will base their quotes on a calculation of empty surfaces, like doors or windows, and ‘full’ surfaces, by which they mean that they are built, continuous wall. With this calculation, they create an equivalence between empty and full. At a first glance it looks like a scam, like they’re applying the cost to the full also to the cost of the empty, of surfaces they won’t have to paint. But the calculation isn’t based on measurements but on the surplus of work or of concentration needed to work on the empty spaces (on the void) compared to the ‘full’. They calculate, in effect, that the difficulty and the work necessary makes the void more precious than the full, so the calculation is based on a concession of the void to the full, a sort of gift, given that the void is more costly. In a certain sense, then, the void gives value to the full.
As I was saying earlier, Giorgio and I found the cue for this conversation in our work; in how in what we do there’s an equivalence of full and empty which almost confuses the two. And in effect, this is the case with every work of art, the balance of the two is at the heart of art. But the fact that these two entities find their delicate balances in the work shouldn’t make us forget that they are contrasting forces, strengths in constant struggle with one another inside the work and also in the eyes and minds of those who observe, those who try to understand the work’s identification, comprehension, co-division… Full and empty are both background and figurine, they push and pull against each other attempting to annihilate one another… or at least that’s how I see it… their dialogue, their harmony, is only a moment, a moment produced by the work of art, in which the two are in captivity and obliged to coexist…
Giorgio Barberio Corsetti:
Alfredo’s initial mention of artisanal practices has so much to do with the theatre, which is imbued with artisanal practices in many ways, it relies upon them for scenography, for costume, for the devising of character, for the definition of text… At the theatre, you work in layers, you work in passages, one after the other; even improvisation exists in this logic, it situates itself amongst these layers and contributes to the growth of a piece, day after day. The content of my new piece, in which after a long time I’ll be back on stage, is the void; and as an actor, I’ll have to interpret the silent shout, a feeling to transmit via physical force which is why my voice is so husky now…
Speaking about physicality and reality of the work, of how the void acts upon the full concretely, I’d like to underline something which again has to do with the work of the artisan; it has to do with quantity, something which rarely comes to mind when we talk about the empty, because we imagine it as subtraction and never as addition. But I think the void, its action, is the result of a huge amount of work; in order to define it and display it there’s a surplus of effort that goes into it that almost reifies it, a tension much stronger than simple representation of that which isn’t there… that which is no longer there… or not yet there… for me the void involves more work and thought than the full, so I see it as something ‘present’. Although we tend to intend it as a negation rather than an affirmation, it isn’t negation, it isn’t renouncement: it’s the result of work, of an action which creates a field of feelings which we define as vacant. A desired, pretended, deserved, happy vacancy, never forever; a momentary vacancy, a flash, consumed in a second, the moment you perceive it. The more work, effort, time has gone into it, the longer this vacancy will reside within us.
Giorgio Barberio Corsetti:
This relationship between the void and space is something that has to do with being in the present, in the instant of representation. Sometimes presence is constant, sometimes we follow it desperately and it never takes place; sometimes presence is a blessing, when it happens, and sometimes the text becomes an inhabitable space. The question, the bottom line, is what is the actor thinking: does he think of himself as an actor or does he think of himself in the empty space?
The work you’re describing, the actor’s work in emptying out his head of his thoughts, shifting himself into the head of the character, makes me think about my extremely western difficulty… although I’m in love with the void… that doesn’t let me understand the oriental attitude to the void as internal purification, absence of tension, relaxation… I have tried to do this, tried to shift into an oriental mode of thinking, and I failed. I can’t achieve the oriental perception of the void as eternal permanence, although I know it’s profoundly rich and spiritually beautiful. I asked myself why I couldn’t do it, and I thought it could have to do with the perception of light: the sun always rises in the East… both for me, in the West, and for those in the East. Light begins in the East and disappears in the West… in interviews and conferences, I often get the question of why in my work there’s always the presence of red reflecting on white. And I always answer like this: you know the way the sunset evolves, you especially see this if you’re on a flight, and the red light penetrates the light blue through a haze of violet? That colour which gets more and more intense as the sun sets is, as we know, the action of the light of the sun which, although we can’t see it, bounces against the earth and then bounces up again, or rather all around again, so the light no longer comes directly from above, white, but from below, coloured by the contact with the earth, and bounces against the horizon once again until it disappears, when the sun and the earth are perfectly aligned. My interest for red comes from here. I’m a Westerner, and I perceive and understand this fading to darkness. I don’t feel at ease when I’m illuminated, when I feel I am part of the sun, when the sun scorches me. I feel like I exist in an infinite sunset, the perception, the vision of the end. I’m the one who watches the world from the darkness of the world as it moves towards the end. This is my observatory, this is where what I do has its genesis.
Giorgio Barberio Corsetti:
Now you’re making me think about that film by Nanni Moretti in which they all go and watch the sunrise…
It would have been better if they’d gone to watch the sunset. If Moretti had had the courage to look the end in the eye, rather than obsessing about a constantly beginning ‘beginning’, we may have some sort of Italian cinema today… but on the question of light in relation to the full and the empty I’d like to hear what Luigi has to say, since he’s an astrophysicist…
If we think of the relationship between full and empty as one between presence and absence of materiality, then the space we inhabit and consider full is actually empty, unless we consider the exchange, or rather the equivalence, between mass and energy. If we look at our solar system, we realise that all the mass is in the Sun, that the Earth only has a one hundred thousandth of the mass of the Sun and so on: Jupiter has three-hundred terrestrial masses, which is still an infinitesimal (millesimal, to be exact) amount of the mass of the Sun. If you look at the universe as a whole, you discover that the average density of the universe is very low, we’re talking about 10-30g/cm3, whereas if you consider the density of water, that works out at 1 g/cm3 and air is 0.0013 g/cm3. 10-30g is a tiny little number with thirty zeroes after the comma, and it contains a truly tiny amount of mass the way we see it, although of course what there is is different from what we can have experience of.
Albert Einstein said that E=Mc², but the truth is that every form of energy is the equivalent of a mass, because in effect all matter is hidden in the shape of energy, the two concepts are interchangeable in physics; and so all the light you were describing is all energy and is also all mass. If you make a bomb explode you’re pulling this energy out; an atomic bomb transforms a few hundred grams of mass into a terrifying amount of energy…
… Terrifying because it’s lethal but also unimaginable, unformed, because we can never imagine its shape…
… The relationship between the full and the empty in astrophysics is really a problem of missing mass, so-called ‘dark matter’ which we are immersed in and which weighs at least 5 times more than the mass we know; it is matter we have never seen, but we see its effects on other bodies in the universe. When the Greeks saw the world as made of water, earth, air and fire, they had simplified things enormously because they only dealt with the local, and not with larger distances. These are certainties we can no longer have.
How did we discover dark matter: in 1933 Fritz Zwicky, a Swiss astronomer naturalised in the States, noticed that in certain local galaxies, notably in the Coma Berenices constellation, galaxies moved at a speed which was not explainable according to the gravitation of visible mass. According, that is, to Newton’s law, which allows us to know the dynamic and hence the total mass of a system from the observation of orbits. At the same time, total mass can’t be calculated from the light of stars, because stars are blocked systems with very precise relations between mass and luminosity. So Zwicky verified that the total mass measured from the stars was 100 times smaller than the one measured from the gravitation of celestial bodies. And that’s when the idea appeared that there must be some sort of missing mass, and this hypothesis was confirmed by the measurement of many other galaxies. Even in the Milky Way stars move in a way which isn’t compatible with the mass of the galaxy: they’re much faster, at least 3 or 4 times faster. Also, since mass moves towards the centre, stellar orbits should diminish as you move outwards, but the rotation curves of galaxies are flat. So stars move at three-hundred kilometres per hour both in the centre of the orbit and on its peripheries, and this doesn’t make sense with gravitational law. Why not? Because, as we found out, what we see is only 5% of visible matter. Apart from dark matter, research over the past 10 years on the expanding and accelerating universe has introduced the concept of ‘dark energy’, which most probably accounts for 70% of total energy, 25% of it is dark matter and 5% is what we can measure. Stars are 1%, and black holes, galactic clouds, interstellar matter make up another 5% or so until we get to the visible 5%. We can’t see anything else. For now, the only certainties we have regarding dark matter are that is doesn’t have the same shape as ours, made of atoms, nuclei, electrons, protons etc. It’s a kind of matter which escapes, and the great accelerators, LHC (Large Hadron Collider) and CERN, are looking for this matter in the shape of WIMP (Weakly Interacting Massive particles) particles, particles with weak interactions with normal matter, and with enough mass to be charged with the problem of missing mass, which is 25% compared to the visible 5%. The remaining 70% of matter is ‘dark energy’, and we don’t even know what it is in terms of substance, although experts think, from watching the behaviour of supernovas of the Ia type, that it is necessary for the acceleration of the expansion of the universe, and that it is linked to a gravitation of the opposite sign, repulsive rather than attractive; as if gravitation had a negative and a positive, which we don’t yet know, but which in theory could be possible.
Again I’m struck by how you speak of quantity. Or rather, as far as I understand, quality is given by the quantities of things present in the sky and in the forces they hold and express. Real or perceived forces like what you call ‘dark matter’, and as you spoke, I though of all the efforts made in arts, be it painting or cinema or poetry, to give an image to this matter which is everywhere and which we call dark because we don’t know it, but which also sounds somehow like a threat. I thought about the science fiction films which have tried to give it an alien image, or about the dark and evil images of the past in moral Christian tradition, or about Philip K. Dick’s literature and his talk of a dark kind of watching at the service of a power that sees what is invisible… but especially you made me think of mimesis, of how art can reconsider mimesis as one of its instruments. Not the way the Greeks did it, as imitation, but as a way to make evident all that dark matter (or light matter, for the two are one and the same) that we don’t know, or that we don’t know exists, or what form it has if indeed it has a form. I’m thinking about a mimesis able to drag us into darkness, able to let us love and understand the dark. What’s extraordinary about art is its effort to imitate what it doesn’t even know. The poet Milo De Angelis always talks about the importance of returning… returning to places we have already been… and I think that these places can be the places of our childhood or of language but also places we didn’t know we knew. Art attempts to represent places we don’t know, places whose shape we cannot guess.
Giorgio Barberio Corsetti:
On of Benjamin’s theses of the philosophy of history says that the automaton playing chess is history but that the hidden spectre moving it is metaphysics, theology, the invisible. We know very well what we are able to know both scientifically and psychically, and in life it’s a very small part of all that is. So what is this ‘other’ which is nonetheless sensorially perceivable? For the East, as you were saying, there isn’t only air, water, earth, fire as for the Greeks, but also space which is fundamental and which is represented as blue and which has a lot to do with the void. Space is where all the other elements happen. But they also speak of a mental void, which isn’t the absence of thought, but a way of thinking which doesn’t think as mere observation of our own being. We are not our thought. Our interior monologue is not us, but that part of us that expresses itself in the everyday, beyond being, what in the East is called Samsara, the world of incarnations we are enclosed within. As such, the invisible can appear in the work of art, in the theatrical text. Finally the ghost of the father appears and says all the unsayable secrets; and poor old Hamlet has to deal with this, and then, unhappy, he keeps mumbling on stage. The invisible which cannot be experienced through the senses but which belongs to us comes from the same flux of tradition as the symbolic, a tradition which works on a transmission.
I think this discussion could avoid the risk of moving too far out if we made a distinction between procedural void and metaphysical void. By procedural, I mean the void necessary for communication: intervals in musical composition, pauses in cinema, demarcation in grammar, etc. Metaphysical void is the void of negative theology, the allusion to the invisible, Wittgenstein’s paradox according to which ‘of that which cannot be said we must not say’, which is precisely about what shouldn’t be said… I think the procedural void is more interesting because we need it to say, to speak, to represent, to make music, and also make historiography. Benjamin’s historiography is the discontinuous par excellence: a procedural void, a sudden gap opening up between the present and the past and from which the past reemerges in a new form. In a revolutionary form, Benjamin says.
Yes, not moving too far out, and in particular considering the work of art as a barrier against which captive prisoners push in order to escape. The need for barriers is also a question of void; after all what is the work of art is not a barrier to struggle against, or to found a dialogue with. Not barriers against the outside, barriers of protection, but barriers that draw out an imaginary line between the work and the rest, a thin but visible line, mobile and poisonous like a snake, a place for alliance and for struggle at the same time. I think this boundary is language, the place where battles happen; the work of art wants to be a battlefield.
Giorgio Barberio Corsetti:
I think the definitive boundary is death. I think every work of art is a point of passage, a bridge between a beginning of a place and the end of a place.
Every single gesture of art is a concluded, perfect, definitive one, and it happens within a spatial or temporal boundary. In every work of art the void is at the service of fullness, of its representation. The void is like a huge base supporting a tiny portion of fullness, it presents that little fullness like a gift.
Alfredo has homaged finitude, the work that comes out of the studio isn’t accomplished but it is concluded; art is an experience which obliges us to distinguish between finitude and accomplishment, and yes it has to do with mortality. Here the empty, the gap between the finished and the accomplished, shows is those procedural aspects that art is able to explore. For example it is thanks to the procedural void that we can exchange between registers of sensibility, something I have often noticed in Alfredo’s work. I’m thinking of a piece of his from a few years ago, Gas, which astounded me because it made the idea of gas emerge from something which at a first glance has nothing to do with it: the saturation of colour, the layering of space, the relations between states of solidity… here is a whole of procedural emptinesses which have philosophical value, which make us think of concepts linked to sensibility. In fact I’m quite surprised that Giorgio feels so represented by the Oriental and mystical idea of the void, by what I referred to earlier as negative theology. I find it strange because I think this mystical tone penalizes the constant dislocation he operates in his performances. And here, again, I see the constructive importance of procedural voids.
Ph. Daniela Pellegrini