Light is the Motor of very form
“Light is the motor of every form.” With these words, Alfredo Pirri elaborated on and circumscribed the fundamental nature of his work, stemming from the relationship between light and space, which generates form. But in his Passi – a series of site-specific installations that Pirri began in 2003, when he realized the first one at the Charterhouse of Padula (Salerno) – it is in reality space itself that is transformed into the work. Through the play of reflections created by the shattered mirror surfaces, every place that housed or houses one of these installations does not simply host it but is transformed into the work itself. The refraction effects seem to fragment its spatial coordinates, but in actual fact enhances its identity. Pirri’s work has helped each site, whether it is a religious building (Charterhouse of Padula; Abbey of Novalesa), exhibition space (Pescheria), museum (Marino Marini Foundation; Gallery of National Art), archaeological site (Forum of Caesar) or an ordinary, derelict building like the farmhouse on the Scompiglio estate, to rediscover its own essence, inextricably linked to a collective function, and to recreate what the artist describes as “a living unity”. A charterhouse and an abbey once again suggested, but in a secular, non-dogmatic fashion, the symbolic union between light, the holy and truth (it is no accident that Rumi describes truth as “a mirror that has fallen from the hands of God and shattered into pieces”); and even the former church of the Suffragio, now part of the Centro Arti Visive Pescheria in Pesaro, connected once again with its ancient religious function. The nymphaeum of Villa Guastavillani in Bologna evoked the festive nature of a place of idleness and delight, the Forum of Caesar returned to being an open air agora, conjuring up shades of public assemblies and private transactions, while the installation at the National Gallery of Modern Art prompts reflection on the evolving notion of the museum and the arrangement of works in it: artefacts to be preserved, or rather to activate through a rereading determined by a contemporary artist? To conclude, I would like to stress that Passi reaffirms the ethical and moral quality of all the work produced by Pirri, one of the few civil artists still operating in Italy today. For how long?
Interview by Ludovico Pratesi to Alfredo Pirri on the occasion of the exhibition “As on earth so in heaven”, Pescheria Visual Arts Center, Pesaro, 2007
How did you conceive your installation at the Centro Arti Visive Pescheria in Pesaro?
The Pescheria complex is made up of two spaces, one with sacred, ascensional features, the other with civic characteristics, more similar to a road than to a square. In fact, one was a church, the other a loggia later turned into a market. And if I have understood correctly, even when the whole premises became the fish market, the first space remained the more secret one, where there was the fish exchange, while the second was the area for sales to the general public. I say this because I wanted to maintain this difference. For me the first one is the space of the vertical, non-temporal, involving, mute work. The second is that of the horizontal, chronological, project-based and discursive path. The first one houses the central work entitled Passi [Steps], surrounded by watercolours called Acque [Waters], in the second there is a sequence of pieces beginning with the installation entitled La stanza di Penna [Penna’s Room] and ending with the designs-works realized for this show, plus documents, in the form of photos, drawings, and so on, relating to two other large-scale installations. The two “sites” are on a totally equal footing and interact with each other. The very title of the exhibition, In cielo come in terra [In Heaven as on Earth], alludes to a duality, the high coexisting with the low, and consequently the vertical with the horizontal. The first is the space of poetry, the second that of the story. I like the fact that these two spaces are connected by a small door totally without rhetoric. Not a big doorway that would have given symbolic priority to one or other of the spaces depending on the direction of entrance, but little more than a passageway, a delicate membrane that speaks to us of how, ultimately, things are bound together. My presence at the Pescheria is intended to be both new and historic, and to have neither the characteristics of a “site-specific” exhibition nor of a “retrospective”. Even the temporal extremes of before and after end up coinciding, give rise to a flux in which everything is contemporary, living, topical.
How does the installation in the former Church of the Suffragio fit in with your work?
The installation in the former church is part of a strand of work I have been pursuing for several years in holy places or at least ones relating to the sacred. It started in 2003, at the Charterhouse of Padula near Salerno, and then, in the same year, at the Abbey of Novalesa in the Alps, on the border between Italy and France. It continued in 2005, in the nymphaeum of Villa Guastavillani in Bologna, which, like all nymphaeums, is a place associated with the sacred, though it is not actually a place of worship; and, in 2006, at the Marino Marini Foundation in Florence, also housed in an old religious building. The idea is to interact with the holy architectural space in such a way that the exhibition and the space are a living whole. The mirror on which visitors walk, contributing to its demolition, reflects a deformed, fragmented image of the ambience, impeding a unitary, composed view of it. Everyone who enters the space performs, merely by walking, a subjective act that ruins more and more the unitary vision of themselves and of the environment in general. Every viewer acts as an “unconscious wrecker” of the consoling mechanism of vision represented by a holy place. At the same time, however, this mechanism is amplified to the point of paroxysm, to the point that it becomes enveloping. And so the architectural details, the decorative features, and so on, are reflected in the details of the shattered mirror, resulting in a multifaceted, kaleidoscopic tale in which all the symbolic values are amplified and upset at the same time. In all the stages of this series of works I have added a focal point, something that remains perceptually fixed and stable. At Padula it was a raised plane, in the monk’s cell at the end of a corridor. The plane was painted red, and the colour echoed within the cell, colouring it all. At Novalesa it was the stone face of a small altar that was coloured with powdered pigment, which reflected in the Byzantine ambience. In the nymphaeum it was the altar I had originally made for some scenes in Roberto Benigni’s The Tiger and the Snow. Here it is the watercolours that recall the shape of large windows, through which it is possible (at an imaginary level) to glimpse the flow of rain. These fixed points become a compass point around which everything spins in a whirl till it disappears from sight. The space thus becomes like a fog in which one loses oneself. Standing out from it is something we recognize, with clear-cut edges, something perceptible towards which we are inclined to move. In this case, the watercolours create a kind of musical motif, which is tied to the other, concrete one, of the continual sound of glass broken by viewers’ steps; the watercolours are ascensional, as is the sound of the organ in a church. The mirror, on the other hand, is horizontal, like the murmuring of worshippers before a function or like collective prayer.
On the basis of what criteria did you select the works making up the various sections of the Rooms of Memory?
The section housed in the colonnade (once outdoors), entitled Rooms of Memory, consists of four rooms lying along a rectilinear path. On display in each of these are earlier works that I have chosen because they are significant in terms of my development as an artist. The first room houses a work from 1999, entitled La stanza di Penna; this is the only room where a whole work is on show. In the others, there are photographs and designs that give an idea of the original installations: it is like standing amidst the pages of an enormous book. The first realization of La stanza di Penna was for the inaugural exhibition of the Centro d’arte Palazzo delle Papesse in Siena. The second room is occupied by large photographs and small project works relating to a large permanent piece I did in 2005 for the resuscitation room in the Santo Spirito Hospital in Rome. Entitled Dove, Come, Quando, Perché [Where, How, When, Why], this work is dedicated to the coma patients who are cared for and treated here; it is in a room off-limits to the general public, and so can be viewed exclusively by means of documents. The third room is given over to a kind of photographic narrative that renders visible the changes in light in Parole [Words], a work I did in 2006 at the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie in Paris. On this occasion, I produced, with the help of two study centres (Guzzini and that of the ADN Kronos press agency), a particular kind of light that changed in relation to the arrival, in real time, of news items from around the world. The last room houses a series of watercolours relating to the Pescheria space, and to the sense of the exhibition; together with the watercolours I did a model that is half way between architecture and sculpture, between the real and the imaginary of the space and of the exhibition. The idea was to show works hard to present outside their original context, both for organizational and poetic reasons, with the exception of La stanza di Penna, which I am very attached to because it captures the spirit of my work – a kind of trail within personal memory, with the hope that it may also represent something for viewers as well.
What value does light have in your work?
Light is everywhere, it is like air and sound. But the light that interests me most is the western light. Not the light that rises in the East, filling the landscape and entering violently into people’s homes… I’m interested in the light towards sunset, its action on things and the shadows it creates. I am more passionate about the shadow created by light than by its direct action. Shadow is the consequence of light, it is the form it acquires due to the momentary interposition of an opaque body. In fact, as I just said, light is everywhere, and so shadow is one of its perceptible aspects, that which renders evident things that would otherwise appear to be bodiless spectres. These considerations relate to my work, because it is based on a dialogue between something that circulates everywhere, something atmospheric and aerial, and something fixed, which recalls a body. This dialogue is expressed through form, without which the aerial would be dispersed in the environment, becoming impalpable, and the corporeal would be a massive, heavy presence. Form, for me, is a kind of catalyst of light energy, something that permits its crystalline condensation. Light is the engine of every form, and is often at the origin of great narrations. Prophets have an “illumination”, followed by a reflection; it is no accident that they “reflect” something (not on something) – in other words, they are a kind of divine mirror. But their action is important because they give a form to this reflection, not because they become lost in the light. Poetry does the same thing, and, ultimately, I believe all art does. It reflects and radiates an energy that is everywhere, in things, in actions, in the social sphere, and so on, making a story of it. It is just that the mirror used by art to reflect its image of the world has always been shattered; indeed, art comes into being to break that flat, obliging, gratifying surface with which everyone can identify, thereby moving towards a condition of solitude.