Volume! Pirri-Lissoni

Interview by Andrea Lissoni

A.L. First of all, I’d like to ask you for a description of your contribution to ‘Volume!’, a description of its various phases, which I think is necessary to understand what you did…

A.P. There are two phases. Or rather, there are more, but two phases which are visible. I started the very day I set foot in the space, and began with a pictorial, visual exercise on the outline of the space; from here, I followed a chromatic evolution which, in turn, became physical. What initially interested me was the transformation of a pictorial fact into a sculptural one; and along with this, the possibility of working on chromatic contexts which range from black to white with the panorama of the floor: the black is the digging and the white is what emerges. This digging let me give an almost physical presence to painting, it allowed me to confront the body directly with the earth as a physical and chromatic fact. I think the spectator’s perception was that of walking in a pictorial event… this digging, this building, are elements of this sheer pictorial fact. At the start, the first room was supposed to let you enter into the earth, then in the way I realised the work I made some sculptures on the left and on the right of this hole I had dug with the result – and this is something I only comprehended in hindsight – of performing a very classically sculptural gesture by obliging the spectator to descend; as you descend physically, you have the feeling that by walking you’re giving the sculpture its base. It was a bit like returning to the base of the sculpture, one of its lost elements… it was like giving back to sculpture its elevation…

A.L. So when you say base you mean pedestal…

A.P. Yes, the pedestal. The floor became a pedestal, the way the white walls became frames. The two moments happen one after the other, but I actually think the second moment is mostly impregnated with these sculptural ideas. Initially, in the middle room, there was a work featuring speakers which played sounds of falling objects: this room was a zip between the two rooms, between the white and the black. It was the siren of the first room and the comment / abandonment of the second. Then I dismantled the two works and returned them to the white of the second room, whereas the first room was fitted with an older work, ‘Facce di Gomma’, in which the allusion to the pictorial was much stronger, a piece which features a variety of chromatic facts which sank into blackness awaiting its purification by light.

A.L. Volume! Has two evident aspects: the first is that you’re working on time, on layering, on the superimposition of interventions in space and time. But also, what I want to understand is how, both sculpturally and pictorially, you put yourself in relation with a space which is neither pictorial nor performative; at the same time I’d like to know what it’s like to work on a space on which other artists have already worked, what that changes compared to traditional site specific work…

A.P. I had more time than anybody else in the space, so for me, for a year, it was a studio. Which is why I allowed myself to change the work… It was a studio in the sense that the studio is the place where the work is continuously modified, where it searches for its form. I don’t mean this as a general condition, I don’t think this is how we work these days; for example if I had been in a gallery I wouldn’t have changed my work so radically… the change was intrinsic in the way the piece travelled, it’s as if by changing it I was lengthening the path, changing landscape. On the note of the other artists I have to say that a lot has to do with how the work as a whole was made; although we didn’t make it together, we gave each other a kind of trust… something more than trust. From another point of view, we assembled a sort of attraction, a magnetic force, an automatic relation: this wasn’t the result of formalities or of conversations, it was that we shared a preoccupation which is what took us to that place to make that work. We touched on a nerve of doing something, a work made in full freedom, without worries.

A.L. Going back to the piece… the path you were describing, from black to white, from shadow to light, for the spectator this also has an equivalent in the passage from stability to fragility, from earth to air…

A.P. Of course, there was a physical, sensible perception… the same difference between feeling a fullness and feeling an emptiness. It really was a passage from sculpture to painting. I was interested in the possibility of walking and feeling different kinds of perception, and in the final point of this walking being something fragile. This walking is like going in and out of a dream and in the moment the veil opens you return to something solid, because the first space was only solid in appearance, since it lost weight as the spectator walked. The central room prepared you for the jump, it was a decompression room. The final room was the jump, lightness, the lightness of a room filled with history, with chromatic data, with what remained of a process of digging, a room dense with things but which was nonetheless airy, light. In this last room I confronted the tradition of the white room, Fontana, Castellani, the rooms which created the space of representation the way we intend the gallery now.

A.L. The white cube…

A.P. Precisely, these days we think art should express itself in purified, timeless spaces, without decoration or architectural flair. It’s as if I wanted to take on the challenge of the white cube, but in a situation which wasn’t one of purification; in fact I had purified the space with lime, with elements which truly belong to ritual, like when you throw lime on the bodies of the dead. And this purification was a hygienic more than an artistic operation. I wanted to return this room with other, impossible presuppositions, to the dimension of the white cube…

A.L. It seems to me that the question is again the question of the atelier, of the studio, of the space made of remains; I’m thinking of Bacon’s studio, full of cutoffs, bits of paint…

A.P. Yes, which is why I’m talking of this impure space; having inhabited that space like the studio, it was a question of dirtying and then cleaning up, beginning with something impure and ending up again in the impure. In the space I’m describing all I did was clean up a portion of wall, I made it completely white and hence it became the exhibition space of the whole pathway, the only representative, frontal space.

A.L. One of the key junctures of sculpture in the 20th Century, or at least in neoavantgarde American sculpture, was theatricality, by which the spectator participated in the work as if the work were an event. I’m interested in how this category was meaningful to you in making these two works, and in how the sonic environment contributed to this idea…

A.P. Theatricality was given first of all by the fact that there are two acts. This is the most theatrical thing to me, more than the fact that you actively travel through the space, because although it’s true that you walked across the space, that still didn’t mean that you were integrated in the work of art. The impression of finding yourself in front of something which is live but which still isn’t necessarily comprehensible is a theatrical fact. When I say comprehensible I don’t mean mentally, but physically, what you can encompass. This is why I think of this work as traditional, because although you could walk through it you couldn’t performatively interact with it. The distance in representation remained, which is the most important thing to me. And apart from this, the other theatrical fact was that there was a change in characters: something intervened and changed the story and the position of the characters. It’s as if in the second act the human appears, the human element which had been responsible of everything in the first room too, but which wasn’t visible there.

A.L. And another question in sculpture that interests me here is the question of the monument. Is this a monument?

A.P. I don’t know if it is or it isn’t, all I know is that every time I make something I would really want it to be a monument… because of the authenticity of what it means, dignity, historical possibility, civic possibility of being understood and appreciated by a number of people. This dignity is the dignity of being in a central space like a square, the dignity of verticality, the dignity of the vertical gaze, from the bottom to the top. These are of course the very notions which have led to the decay of the monument and the affirmation of horizontal sculpture, and I know how dangerous these notions are when they crash into authoritarianism, but I still would like to achieve this verticality. I’m thinking of examples like Brancusi’s Infinite Column, which is vertical by choice and which shakes off any kind of historical or artistic residue; or Giacometti’s figurines, so straight and almost corroded by the air that surrounds them. Classic examples to say that verticality and monumentality aren’t negative things, but things we should consider in re-founding the idea of sculpture.

A.L. Besides, when sculpture begins to expand into space it does so beginning with a monument which puts into crisis the idea of verticality, Rodin’s monument to Voltaire… But another thing also seems important to me on the subject of the monument: the monument is always publicly commissioned, but in the end it becomes invisible, people don’t look at it… I’m thinking here about a provocation by Christian Boltanski who said that monuments were commissioned by power in order to cancel out memory. What do you think of all of this in relation to Volume!?…

A.P. Memory is paramount in this work, because the space doesn’t allow you to not consider memory, it gushes out of every fissure of the space. I think it’s interesting that the work in there speaks about how memory isn’t something stable, something you do once and for all and which then you decide to use or not use. Memory can’t be used, because it’s a constant force in the field. The last sentence in Mishima’s ‘Sea of Fertility’ is dedicated to memory and it says that memory is the mirror of deceit. Memory is a series of impressions, and they are anchored to places that shift over time. So the work I made here didn’t refer to memory but it did intervene in the dynamism of memory, enriching its movement. It isn’t a work of authority, but a work of complicity with memory. The monument… every work of art absorbs somehow, it calls things to itself; it’s natural for it to cancel out memory, but it do so enriching it, adding to its dynamism; in a sense it’s a sponge, and if it’s well executed it puts into question its own legitimisation. So it problematises, asks us if what we’re watching is true or false and indeed if memory is true or false, it’s something which generates new thought, new judgement around itself. I don’t see it in political terms, only in representational and formal terms. So a monument like the Rodin’s Burghers of Calais works because it’s more than an act of memory, although it represents a past event.

A.L. Volume! Made me think about something Valéry said regarding how painting and sculpture are orphans because their mother, architecture, is dead. How did the three work together here?

A.P. For me this was an architectural operation, in the sense that architecture should let all human beings not only construct the world but also live it; so that space was completely architectural in nature because it was measured according to the body, to each and every individuality, also because it could be visited alone. It showed a solitary relationship with respect to one’s own proportions. This brings to mind a quote from Steiner, in which he said that architecture begins with funerary spaces, that homes come from tombs…and here I’m also thinking about how in the space you had to be quiet…

A.L. After all the cemetery is such an important space for 20th century sculpture…

A.P. In fact they’re the only places where you can enjoy sculpture, again Brancusi, his Kiss…

A.L. So on this note, returning to the idea of death, of the passage from light to darkness, of the dreamlike dimension, to the idea of representation and purification, there’s a metaphor beginning to appear, that of Dante’s travelling, which is also a knowing, a ritualised knowing…

A.P. I think of Volume! truly as a passage into knowledge, and it has all the spatial attributes of the exploratory path, it starts with a question and ends in reflection, like Kounellis’ first work, which was this wonderful pregnant woman around which you could move, seeing her from various places. I don’t know about its ritual aspects, but it is indeed a rite of passage if we intend it as passage to form, to vision; in this case, for me, it was a formal and formative lesson about painting, about sculpture: making an image, showing it to others, and hence proving that we can still make images. The work contains all the typical strategies you employ to make an image: finding a centre, and then moving it out just enough to dynamise it, creating vanishing points, full areas, empty areas, all of the attributes of the image. I know that all this talk about image seems to point to something obsolete, obliterated, but for me it’s not like that. I like to think of this piece as something graspable in an eyeful but which at the same time is a path upon which you travel, a drawn out and synthetic image at the same time.

A.L. Another question regards materials… the materials you use here are both traditional art historical ones and new, modern materials… you use readymade, you use these speakers, this sonorous dimension as well as the spatial one… I’d like to know if these materials are allusive, by which I mean if they point outwards, to something else, or whether they’re expressive, which is another great problem of 20th century sculpture…

A.P. Again I think my main interest was form, in the sense that it’s true that the metal rods holding up the faces out of which the colour gushes look like something heavy and strong that penetrates into the ground, but for me they’re above all lines, they remind me of the spine, they hold a formal balance which makes these allusions possible. I use a lot of materials in my work, I’m very interested in materials, but I want them to be visible, to speak for themselves. I start there, and then I combine them and work on them, as in classical painting, until they become narrative entities. For example most of the speakers are generic new speakers, but then there are three shiny blue 1940s speakers which give another sense to the group. It’s always the group as a whole that takes on meaning. I could have used so many different kinds of speakers, including invisible ones, but those seemed extremely dynamic to me, they reminded me of the birth of mass media, of the first big music festivals after the war. There’s a lot of art that insists on the materials, but I think the most interesting examples are in artists who have used a certain material instead of another, like in painting you can say Klein blue, Veronese green, perhaps you can say Judd iron… (he laughs). I’m saying that materials are more important than the final figure you obtain. I like juxtaposing them so that one is more absorbent, or one refracts more light… so in this specific case for me it was important to work between the white and the white of the lime. I wanted the two to feel very close yet I didn’t want them to pour into one another, so I had to make the pictorial decision of how white the white needed to be… I could have done it another way, for example I could have used concrete, but concrete is so concrete that it wouldn’t have allowed me to make this kind of truly pictorial intervention…

Valentina. Apart from the work you made, there’s another specificity, the fact that you wanted to draw attention to a space, that you wanted this space to be “alternative”, and this has to do with spaces to make work in, and with what it means to work outside the system. Why, and where would you like all of this to lead…

A.P. When you enter a space of exhibition, the artist’s will is to influence that space powerfully, be the space an alternative space or a sanctioned one, a gallery or a home, even if it’s a tiny space above a sofa, as has happened to me with a little painting a designer bought from me purely because the colour worked with his interiors. If nothing else, this is the performative value of the work: this being in oneself, and from there, modifying one’s surroundings. Here the case is deeply, and in every way, a spatialist one: it’s about giving birth to a space for art which is already imbued with artistic experience; a sort of magical thinking. There are moments when you think we’re tired of showing work in the same old places, but the problem isn’t the mere hunt for the new, but the fact that if art is allowed to operate on and modify other spaces then the work itself grows. This is a political idea, but there’s no strategy within it, it’s just something that, when it happens, happens by chance. This project is the product of a private stimulus but the desire that animates it isn’t institutional (I wouldn’t know what that means), but it is civic, there’s no doubt about it. The desire to create a form is tied not only to form in itself, but to the desire to create as a foundational gesture, it means that society stays open rather than considering it done, closed. The answer this work can give is to continue to live in a society in which we think of civic acts as possible; and that we think of these acts at having form at the centre of their being.

9.7.1998

to see the images of the show Volume click here

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