Art, University of Siena

Text published in response to a survey published on behalf of the school of history of modern and contemporary art, University of Siena, 2006.

1) Ethics / Aesthetics

I would like to start by saying that the practice of art is not a moral practice, nor is it philosophical, nor is it political. Like other ‘disciplines’ (these days, all of them), art defines itself by way of the adverb ‘not’, which serves the purpose of protecting them from insufficient definitions; of showing us these forms in a state of permanent fugue, and in an equally progressive solitude. For this now seems to be the destiny of all human behaviour since when, in times so ancient they are now impossible to remember, things were governed by a general harmony which made imaginable an identification between ‘the beautiful and the fair’, ‘the individual and the collective’, ‘the dream and the real’. The truth is that the wider the distance between the entities we want to keep together, the further back we have to imaginarily travel, to a time in which everything appeared to be in unison: all the way back to the bible, where the wolf and the lamb are one. So of course there is a relationship between art and ethics; but it belongs to the realm of nostalgia, to an often heartbreaking sentiment which manifests itself as a longing. Once again then, not an active desire, an act of the will, but an almost erotic necessity, a desire to escape that powerful solitude which has indeed generated new ways of seeing and living art, but which at the same time has condemned art to the ‘leash’ of aesthetics. Art, then, is an act of fugue and permanent escape from itself; it is a disorientated escape, because it confuses the behind with the in front, the past with the future. It knows that after this escape it’ll have to return to that solitary place which qualifies it, which gives it its dignity to exist.

2) Masters and travelling companions

If art defines itself mostly as solitary place, as I described it above, then we can’t think of it as place of exchange, as public square where we can infinitely converse about what we’re doing, or about what we want to do in the future. If art lives alone, it means it founds itself in an intransmittable experience. Art, perhaps, can only impose itself rather than ‘teach itself’; onto the artist, firstly, and then to everybody else. But this is not a barter: the Master gives and the learner receives offering himself completely. Teachers and pupils are equivalent in art, two forces which reciprocally produce victories and failures, which, at most, nod to each other when they meet at the crossroads of existence. Same thing goes for ‘travelling companions’. I look at them with interest, amongst us there are silences and reciprocal gazes: artists who are also animated by that desire for a permanent escape, although the ones I like best are those who have a clear need to return. I don’t like the ‘non return’, but I also don’t like those movements borne out of slogans such as: the return to painting, the return to the specific… the artists who inhabit these movements return unchanged from the escape, they return to wear clothes still warm from those who had worn them earlier. For me the return is a narrative pathway: the place you return to has nothing to do with what you knew before, it’s cold and dark and has to be filled with new stories and forms. And this is why I have loved (and love) all of those artists (from any era) who have shifted their gaze from the wall of painting to the open space, to architecture for example, to the spaces where the everyday life of men unfolds, spaces which celebrate human and civic being. I have envied (and envy) all of those artists (from any era) who have been able to dematerialise the opaque body of sculpture and have awoken its luminous vitality, transforming it almost into an infinite landscape. I insist on the ‘any era’ because there’s no difference between ancient art and the art of today, because all art (as many have asserted before me) is contemporary, because it shows itself as living, problematic, present being. Works that don’t have this vital power disappear from view, because they stop being interesting to us.

3) Commissions: “The Great Opportunity?”

So returning to this idea of art existing on a background of solitude, we could think that self-commission is by far the only kind of commission possible. I step outside of myself, become a public entity, and the work that I make will be public, not ‘private’ in spirit. This happens also when the commission is truly ‘public’. I have just completed a piece commissioned by the S. Spirito in Sassia hospital in Rome and the Adriano Olivetti Foundation; the work was made to be installed in the reanimation unit, where the in patients are mostly people in a coma: so the only people who witness the work, apart from the medical and paramedical staff, will be people who are ‘returning’ to life, because the ward is sealed to the public. Here the main question for me was: what do people see when they return to life after having travelled to the confines of death? What can we return to their gaze, to their view, at the threshold of this return? These questions cluster into a huge question mark on the power of representation. That power, here, is the power to offer something to hold on to, a rock to grip on to during the storm, a rock which in itself fluctuates and which does not give the (figurative) idea of a stable arrival, but rather of a transit before the shore, still unstable, still unsure. This particular case, of course, is at the limits, but still it contains all the questions about commission in general: is it a great opportunity to escape the private sphere within which art is prepared, the chance to make its collective traits emerge? Or do we find ourselves having to face too large a question with our intuitive, solitary, even emotional instruments? Does working for the public have the power to generate different meaning? Can it be a celebratory meaning? Or has the last holy wafer, like the last image, stuck in our throat and refused to melt, refused to let us feel that we are in communion?

4) Dimension of time: duration and memory

I said it earlier: the work of art is like a holy wafer. It can’t be violently chewed: it must be given the time to melt under the tongue, in that secret mostly unused space, the part of the mouth most sensitive to subtle contact. That contact survives in our minds, its memory becomes the gesture of a mystery taking place within us. Finally something which intimately belongs to us aspires also to putting us in contact with one another. The extremely short time the wafer takes to melt feels infinitely long, because it opens us to infinity. It offers us a corporeal perception, the effective sense of duration, of permanence within us, of something which happens without us. This ‘assumption’ opens us up to a different sense of time, more similar perhaps to the sense of time of the great philosophers and scientists: time becomes a function of space, not vice-versa. ‘Memory’ does not exist, only ‘Memories’: they tend to accumulate, meshing into one another. Maybe the author Yukio Mishima was right, when at the end of his (monumental) trilogy he gives one of his characters the following line: “… memory is the mirror of deceit…”. Memory transmits itself with the same infidelity of a heap of broken mirrors: each one of these mirrors was, in the past, truthful, each piece offered us a piece of world in its whole, and perhaps also a piece of truth; but once it has joined the heap in that space we call memory, it becomes just one of many reflective fragments, sparkling in the shattered light, deceitful. So we won’t find ‘duration’ in memory, if not in the shape of fragments: what lasts is the duration of the perception of a moment of infinity, which is what gifts us the vision of a work of art.

Alfredo Pirri
Rome, February 2006


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