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Form, in the Meantime

 1. The issues I will deal with are general, but the occasion that made them spring, and that keeps them open, is a dialogue with Alfredo Pirri, that has been going on for a long time and that I deem far from concluded. Indeed, it is a dialogue that shares nothing but a horizon with a very ample sense—not a poetics or an aesthetics ad hoc. However, I don’t think that so far the attempt to think or question an idea of figurative art with different means is sufficiently defined to be considered a common question. I will also add, still as a completely preliminary way, that the attempt to question an idea of figurative art pertains to time and form… Of course, time and form remain empty words until we try to redefine them. To synthetise, I shall begin by pointing out the reflections I have formulated so far about time, form and their relation, spurred by Alfredo Pirri’s work. Here, they shall be gathered under the following three propositions, that I shall examine again later with additions and corrections:

a. so that things may appear, work and imagination are needed;
b. between form and things, a virtuous circle of mimesis is established;
c. form is an ethics of composition.

2. With the first proposition I intend to stress a state of tension—typical of most contemporary art—between an instance of “de-subjectification” (letting things appear) and the need to re-think in a more original manner the personal investment (much work) and the role taken by creativity (much imagination). This tension can be solved in different ways: to me the most significant one seems to proceed in the direction of a certain erosion of the expressive attitude for the sake of an outlook that more directly stimulates the imaginative activity as such (what we mean with this last expression will be made clear by what follows). This phenomenon is motivated by the background of an epoch. We have never had so many forms of expression as today; we’ve never had such easy access to forms, as easy as those offered by the electronic production and reproduction of images and text. For instance, the Internet risks becoming such a monstrous archive of this not-elaborate or, more precisely, discomposed expressionism: indeed, anyone with a modest expense can open a site and publish anything that crosses his/her mind. Well, at times, art seems to want to reply with a complex gesture consisting in re-establishing the modesty of things, but also, and at the same time, their exceptional appearance: this is obtained only by claiming the unavoidable difficulty of the access to form. I’m thinking, in the case of Alfredo Pirri, of the extreme concern about materials, the preparatory techniques, the laborious cycles and the long times of composition, the different handicraft tasks that end up in the completed product, and so on. Such art is at the service of things, at the same time displaying the specific creativity of this sacrifice. Thus, simplicity and complexity are bound in a rapport of reciprocal debt. With the second proposition—the virtuous circle of mimesis is established between form and things—I mean to stress the peculiar temporariness of this service bestowed to things. Letting things appear does not mean imitating something already given: it means, as I have just said, composing complex format conditions for the appearance of things. This work has a primary spatial characterisation: “to form” here, means mainly preparing spaces—that, however, are never given—such as allowing things to emerge and to connect one another. But it happens that these spaces, indeed for their being spaces of manifestation, are never completed in a single work, rather they perform the function of figures that hint to the possibility and desire of expansion. I am not saying that the figures behave as “symbolic forms”, within which to organise, restrict and dominate the visible: exactly the opposite. They are figures that regenerate the sense of the visible and, just when they give in a measure and a scansion, they restore it to its essential inexhaustibility. For instance Facce di gomma (Rubber Faces) by Alfredo Pirri have been part of different compositions (the latest of which so far in May 1996, filled the large wall of the entrance hall of the Faculty of Engineering in Cassino) in which the space—originally conceived as a condition for the appearance of a face furrowed with colour tears—becomes re-articulated and re-composed, generating new compositions. But this space, that proved to be a production space, is not a symbolic form at all. Its productivity moves in a completely different direction—as can be seen in the large and differentiated compositions presented respectively at the Nuova Pesa in the Fall of 1994 and in the spaces of Tucci Russo in Torre Pellice, two years later. Space becomes intelligible precisely in this direction only in a particular diachronism: that of a space that takes upon itself, so to speak, autonomous temporal responsibilities. The new compositions deriving from the original rubber faces are, at the same time, figures which cover the former and make them partially explicit, and figures which reactivate or provoke the mimetic relation autonomously. I mean that it’s always the “other one” of the forms (or “things” as they were also called) that, thanks to their physiological energy, results unexpected and yet orderly regenerated. This is what I mean as virtuous circle of mimesis. The debt is reciprocal, as I said before: form comes back to the world of things and gives them the capacity to surprise us. But this return—as the word itself means—has an almost temporal nature: it is open to the happening of unforeseeable encounters and, at the same time, is a plot to provide some encounters. The guest, in short, is expected, but when it arrives we are filled with surprise. The third proposition—form is an ethics of composition—indeed, draws its consequences from the previous two. The work I have described is in all respects a commitment of productive imagination, but does not have anything subjectivistic nor anything arbitrary. It does not aim to express internal feelings, rather it aims to make the expected guest emerge, composing and recomposing the space for his manifestation. However, only in this way what is already here can appear to us not only surprising and extraordinary, but also inexhaustible and incalculable, eluding any anticipation. It can appear to us, on the whole, in the paradoxical cipher of something which is at the same time contingent in the sense of not due, free, and contingent in the etymological sense of the word: something that touches us, that regards us, that invests us—ethically, indeed—making us feel in debt of form but also creditors of surprise and wonder.

3. I would like to make a brief pause before starting to expose the new problems which have to be reconsidered and which find a formulation in the question that is the title of this text. You have certainly noticed my frequent use of the word “composition”, in some crucial sentences. This choice has a theoretical-philosophical sense that requires an explanation. The word composition has the same meaning as that which Pavel Florensky gave it in his admirable reflection on icons. Florensky opposed composition to construction as activity and passivity. But beware! We have to drop our linguistic habits if we don’t want to misunderstand this opposition that may be confusing. The passivity of the constructive, indeed, is an empty activism, a “being busy” that one would like to concentrate on objects, leaving aside the horizon of their own giving themselves, or considering it indifferent. For Florensky this horizon punished by the constructive attitude is space: but a space conceived in a not-Euclidian manner. It’s a non isotropic space but furrowed with differences and drops of tension really requiring to be composed, never given as a unity. Construction is passivity since it suffers a spatiality of a technical kind; it is a space-function of which we ignore the rule even if we have honoured and strengthened it. For this the result-limit of the construction is the machine—the machine not only in a material sense: for Florensky machines were also works—figurative or not—by the contemporary avant-garde, even some works by Kandinsky or the “transmental” language of the Futurists. In short, the constructive—which also has its rights—is always caught in a technical drift, from which it risks being overturned. On the contrary, at the side of composition Florensky puts the representing intended as a connection of etherogeneous forces, as genuine activity (here we keep aloof from the mystics like Malevicch, who are indeed composers, but not to the point of restoring to space the boldness of representation). We have to consider this genuine activity—opposed to constructivist activism—as the setting of the horizon for the appearance of things, as the energy that gives the thing and their horizon, the visible and the invisible together (if you allow me a reference to Merleau-Ponty). This is the genuine creation: in this sense space is not given, it requires a great skill and a peculiar imaginative ability having nothing of subjectivistic or expressive, rather, consisting of sewing, connecting, unifying the forces that have to be composed and the heterogeneity of the spatial regions in which each force takes place, until an active representation is made possible. Florensky conceived the icon as a space elevated to represent the unrepresentable: the divinity, but the theoretical device he offers is extraordinarily useful for the understanding of Western figurative tradition. Mainly, as I wish to show, for the understanding of a directive of contemporary art, which is the one I am interested in showing and that I find exemplary in Alfredo Pirri’s work. Being things as they are, it will be better understood why I used to keep distant from the concept of “symbolic form” stated by Cassirer. This concept is alien to the idea of formativity conceived by Florensky. In Cassirer the energy of forms takes place on an unqualified matter, “Cartesian”: something humanity encounters only by moulding it according to different modalities. Florensky’s position is much more radical: the activity of composing shows the offering together—literally, com-pose—of matter and form, of figure and background, or even, further radicalising, of sensitive and intelligible (this is the exemplary case of the icon). What sense does it have today to re-examine this concept going back to the 1920s, primarily referring to a tradition very far from ours? The sense is this: I am convinced that Florensky’s iconic tradition proves to be an indispensable instrument if we want to understand the non-expressive character of most contemporary art—even to single out an “iconic” line of art in general. More or less in the same years Benjamin, too, proposed a notion which goes in the same direction speaking of Ausdrukslose, that is a destructuring task of critique aimed at recognising in the wholeness of the work a paradoxal heteronym, an “expressionless”. There is more: precisely the conviction—that I cannot argue at this time, but just to repropose to attention an issue hinted at the beginning—that the universe of electronic and digital production and reproduction of images—that, like it or not, has been already established as the background of your reflections on figurative art—is a universe in which today a formidable activity of construction (that is, a spectral passivity presented as an unrestrainable activism) is taking place, which hints to wanting to become exclusive, that is, to make any new comprehension of compositive character extremely problematic or even vain. However, this does not mean that this universe is in any sense a decomposed or non-elaborated universe, a world machine even more insidious because highly immaterial: it means that this universe aims at reducing or eliminating the spaces of composition. And that probably it will continue to do it with growing authority until the time when art will not be able to absorb it in the virtuous circle of mimesis, i.e. in an ethics of form.

4. I said “until the time” since I am convinced that not only something of this kind has not happened yet, but that it gets more and more tricky as the constructive activity of electronic imaginary deeply involves us (I am thinking of the introduction of more and more “friendly” technologies). In the meanwhile we find ourselves in an embarrassing situation: it is as if we were lacking the forms to give sense to an experience that involves us, which however, in order to be a true experience, needs the forms that we lack. Thus, meanwhile, what has happened to form? If this question is a real question, it does not only voice an embarrassment, it also contains a suggestion, and even opens a perspective which perhaps we did not pay  enough attention to. Does form not pertain—or may pertain—precisely to this being time? And art’s specific task to supply us with examples of composition? I would like to discuss the sense of this proposal, that can originate different interpretations, and also misunderstandings, such as the one that art should give us comfort in the poor state we are in. Indeed, we can conceive form as a sanction: that is, as a figure having the retrospective effect of bringing order and intelligibility where there was disorder and confusion. When we say that a great work of art finally makes us see how things really were, we think of form in such a way. However, it is evident that the sanction-form is the corresponding lot of the project-form: starting from a form-sanction past becomes intelligible and future projectable. This interpretation is legitimate, relevant and somehow even inevitable—and actually I made it mine when I said that we do not have forms: it is also a comforting interpretation, because it leads to conceive time starting from form: that is to think of it a posteriori, as the time of something that prepared itself for a form, a teleological time. It also leads to conceive form as something due to this time, that is, indeed, as a sanction necessary and fraught with consequences to come. But to take away from art its contingency means depriving it of the essential trait of its freedom. It means assimilating it with acritical fashion to scientific rationality—which is predictive—or to the organicity of natural processes—which conforms to rules. We will make a step forward if we return this relation time-form its intrinsic paradox: a time manifests itself starting from the totally contingent point of a form. Thus, without form, which could as well not have happened, we would not have time either. The step forward we have made at this point consists in having taken away from time the premise of a hidden teleology and, from form, the requisite of necessity. This emended interpretation of the idea of form as sanction, however, continues to conceal the tension of the interval: indeed, its fault is to legitimise the arbitrary character of the artistic form, that is to erase that oscillation—which is the characteristic I already hinted at—between necessity and contingency, between freedom and debt. Let’s change the frame of reference. Let’s try to place ourselves, if possible, smack into the middle of an interval. Let’s think of a chess game, searching for the brilliant move. While looking for the move I must deconstruct the present situation on the board—or I will be conditioned by it and I’ll probably lose—not having composed the new one yet—it will be clear only after the move I’m looking for; but in this necessary state of uncertainty and void, I must be able to maintain a certain control, a certain “image” of the overall situation. This control is the most mysterious and tricky: it is a capacity to reflect—or also, to “imagine”—in absence of rules, but not arbitrarily. It’s the capacity to keep together the no-longer structured and the not-yet structured in a problematic unit which could fall apart any moment and that indeed decomposes itself continually, but not to the point of making us lose our bearings. If the example was clear, I deem that it is right here that we have to go back and ask our question again: is imagining this “between” composing and recomposing a figure, a credible task of figurative art in general? Does it make sense that there could be circumstances in which figurative art can be summoned with particular urgency to imagine—in the active sense: to compose in-image—this interval? It’s about time we concluded our discourse. We spoke earlier of a compositive moment, opposing it, with Florensky, to the constructive moment. We spoke of a deconstruction on which the project of a reorganisation is grafted of which we still have not found the rule. Moreover, we have spoken of an imaginative activity occupying laceration, keeping the edges together, hindering their getting so far as to break up. Finally, we have suggested that painting has often dealt with this modality of composing and that probably today such a direction has gained an urgency and a primacy that can be justified only on the background of the immeasurable growth of a decomposed imaginary, of a huge immaterial machine. This machine has never ceased reassuring us that we will be exempted from any quest for compositive spaces and kept to practise the easiest accesses and to form already ready forms. If such conclusions are correct we should at this point be able to formulate the three propositions discussed at the beginning in an ampler and more precise way. Let me limit our survey to a general hint. In order to make things appear, much work and imagination are needed: I think that now we are beginning to see that this work is one of deconstruction—a draining, up to impoverishment and also the restoration of the essential structures of active imagination. We must avoid the oppressive regime of images—which is the constructive regime, the “machination”, in Florensky’s sense—and reinstate the compositive essence of imagination, its substantial inexpression, its work of continual re-weaving of a laceration that could become an abyss and make us lose our mind. The virtuous circle of mimesis between things and form is born. The sense of this proposition is concentrated on the particle “fra” [between]. We might now re-formulate this same proposition in a slightly different way: the virtuous circle of mimesis comes into being if—and only if—the “between” of objects and form is perceived as a composable space-time unity, and maintained by all means in a condition of composability. Here invention advances, creativity advances, in their not-subjectivistic meaning made clear before. In conclusion, more than ever form is an ethics of composition: to the point that it is clear that the task of form is that of making the interval—the time between the no-more and the not-yet—simply livable, and how this task is nothing but imagination in the most active sense of the word, imagination of a composed space, taut between sanction and project. This space is not properly able of being either a sanction nor a project yet, but it must aspire to set the conditions for a hospitality to an expected but not present host. But it can suddenly happen—and often does—that in this taut space we have to regain the ever-new hospitality with an ethical act, not guaranteed by anything but perseverant attention, a form that would surprise us not because unpredictable but because it shows something: if this happens it means that the virtuous circle of mimesis has been reactivated. And that this apparition deserved that very ancient name ‘beauty’ once more.

Pietro Montani

Translated from Italian by Gianfranco Mantegna
Edited by Valentina Ajmone Marsan

writings.

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