The Light of Things

1. Let me immediately state my thesis: Alfredo Pirri’s work obliges philosophy to rethink art outside of aesthetics, in the modern sense of the word. I’ll put it more accurately: Pirri’s painting doesn’t let itself be understood, not completely, in the context of a poetics, but should be taken in the context of an ethics. I will make my argument in three movements, which build upon and radicalise things I have already written and said about Pirri’s work. In a first instance, I will look at how he conceives of the image. Then, I will look at how the image, in Pirri’s work, autonomously dispenses its author with instructions regarding its future (and hence also its past), and here we will see a stark independence from what aesthetics refers to as intentionality, Kunstwollen, expressivity or innovation. Finally, I will attempt to sketch out some conclusions regarding the relationship between philosophy and painting and on how we should understand it, given that the canonic structures it has taken on in modernity appear nonsensical now. I want to add that I will have to stay in the sphere of the very general, and that within what I am writing today we would have to go much deeper. There are texts I won’t even have time to mention here; but I have attempted to be more exhaustive on other occasions.

2. How does Pirri conceive of the image? The first, immediate sense – something anybody can witness – is that his image is a self-legitimising one, an image that founds itself. What I have just said might be seen as a classic trait of modern aesthetics – precisely its non-mimetic, non-reproductive, non-representative function. What we hear these days is that the image no longer reproduces the visible world but its visibility; that it does not represent but that its presents, that it places into presence – and this is one of the discourses through which modern philosophy has attempted to relate to painting. Now, undoubtedly both of these discourses rationally fit Pirri’s work; at the same time, I think they offer no help in understanding his art in its peculiarity. It is true that Pirri introduces visibility into the world; it is also true that it is a world that takes its distances from visibility. It even excludes it, like a sort of monad: his art is an autonomous event. As I have previously stated, it is capable of self-legitimisation. Secondly: white it is true that this autonomy coincides with a making-present, it is equally true that it is a making-present that doesn’t at all exhaust itself in the marvel of its appearance, in the gift of itself. Rather, it opens up onto everywhere, it makes tracks, draws lines, it moves, it takes and gives time. So while it is a sort of monad, it is also a paradoxical space of hospitality, an enclave and a state at the same time; an autonomous image which is nonetheless not self-referential. This is without a doubt the most difficult aspect of Alfredo’s painting, but naturally it is also its most qualifying. The idea of figuring it out in the theoretical seems disingenuous and presumptuous to me. So what I’ll try to do is to describe what strikes me as the most singular effect of this doubleness of the image, of its closeness which nevertheless projects its boundaries outside of itself.

3. This effect – which, I repeat, is one amongst many but which is also powerfully given in Alfredo’s latest exhibition – relates to the ability of this image to elongate itself through time, to be its own cause and its own result. Or rather, more than an ability, it is this image’s duty to do so, as if it were an image bound to a resolution through evolution, bound to losing its individuality by becoming a community of images. This is clearly in line with the principle stated often by the author, according to which production is always re-production, it is repetition, it is a return to what has already been made. Still, it can be further radicalised: because it isn’t the artist, here, who chooses what and when to return, what to transform, how to evolve, but the it is the image itself that makes such demands. But this is not because the image carries some sort of self-poeitic force, as if it were some sort of living, growing organism and not the completely artificial entity it effectively is. Rather – and this is where the distance from modern theory becomes unbridgeable – because the image’s most authentic, most proper, most real identity consists not in producing (or in making possible a production of ideas, pleasures, awe in those who watch), but in witnessing. In witnessing what, you may ask. In witnessing the act of trespass that the image itself has introduced into the world. In witnessing that that autonomous, self-sufficient image is still dependent on a past (on the other images before it) and still opens up onto a future (a new image which will recategorise it, together with the image of the past). Here too, we could say that I am once again reiterating the self-referentiality oft-quoted in modern aesthetics. But the opposite is true: while it is true that this unfoundable and paradoxical diachronic nature of the image is unfoundable, because self-sufficiency would dicate no future nor past and paradoxical because the taking and giving of time remains nonetheless closed in on itself, it is this very unfound able paradox that creates the open space of Pirri’s art, the space of witnessing that makes it hospitable and permeable, the space that makes it look outwards, that makes it – as Pirri says – ‘bang’ onto what lies beyond. It is this ‘banging’ that makes it appear. As we all know, the metaphor of light obsessively traverses western ways of thinking about art (not only in the modern), but it does so in a typically ‘donative’ way: light makes things visible and stays invisible itself. Here, the metaphor of light alludes to the possibility of moving the other war round: it is the object that gives light its being, and not viceversa.

4. Like light, then, this self-sufficient, self-founding image isn’t enough to itself at least in one aspect: it needs the artist to elongate its ray, to be stretched by the artist in order to exercise its paradoxical and diachronic capacity to regard the other, to encounter the other, to ‘bang’ against the other. What is it, in this, that exceeds modern aesthetics obliging philosophy to rethink the enigma of the image? First of all, this image subtracts itself from that subjective faculty that modern aesthetics calls ‘imagination’ as a realizing device. Here, in fact, thanks to its diachronic paradoxical qualities, the image says it depends on other past images and that it prospects future images to follow. By appearing, then, this image determines a debt and a promise at the same time – I would say that amongst the great modern interpreters of the image, only Aby Warburg has thought about the image this way. But Warburg’s limit, unextendable to Pirri’s work, is that his tendency was to link the image to the representation of passions: as such, he deprived it of a great deal of its ability to witness. Said otherwise, Warburg places all the activity of the image on the elaboration of pain it depends upon. A second aspect of this image, dependent on the first, is that although this image constantly acknowledges its debt towards other images that have preceded it, it still doesn’t renounce an unpredictable exhibition of its autonomous activity. And this is due to the fact that here the image doesn’t seek to be productive (as modern aesthetics has deemed), but, as I have stated previously, it seeks to be testimonial: it doesn’t wish to introduce something new into the world in order to enrich it; it wishes to introduce the new in order for this new to be put in communication, touch upon, bang against what is already there. Finally – and here I return to my very first point – here the image demonstrates its reference not to a poetics nor to an ontology but to an ethics of form. It demonstrates, in other words, that the marvel it provokes is a marvel that has to be pushed outside of the closed confines of the image itself: it has to pushed to the origin and to the outcome of itself (to its promise and to its debt) and to the other it seeks to encounter – an encounter, this, which offers no guarantee, because if it happens, it happens in this banging, in this clashing together. And this, I believe, explains the powerfully depathetised aspect of Pirri’s painting: depathetised not in the sense that it lacks pathos, but in the sense that the pathos is always decentred. It is painting that never lets the image be consumed by itself but that rather – and here are the ethics – always seeks to be recognized in an elsewhere. Only later, as an action of return, does it proudly recognize that without its existence that elsewhere wouldn’t have been possible, wouldn’t have been made available. If, as I believe and as I have oft-declared in less radical ways, Pirri’s work exists first and foremost in the context of an ethics of form, then this is how and why it can also ‘bang’ against philosophy, and ask new thoughts of it.

Pietro Montani


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