An interview with Alfredo Pirri by Gilles Tiberghien for the show Mots, MEP, Paris, 2006
Gilles Tiberghien: How did you arrive at the idea of this work?
Alfredo Pirri: It is one step ahead of a work I did in Rome and Rijeka some years ago. It is not exactly the same work, indeed it is a process I am carrying on and I hope to continue also after Paris. It is a portrait of a city seen from above. An aerial view, not figurative but visionary, where luminous and chromatic phenomena mix with space, giving life to new feelings: energy, melancholy, fear, spontaneity…. I am more and more interested in a kind of art that, even if generated by an abstract matrix, is able to face the problem of similarity, what is defined in philosophy as mimesis, the resemblance with things which are not a copy. In a few words, I am interested in a kind of art that comes from abstraction but is able to give us something recognizable, something involved with the narrative dimension. Here in Paris, I have inserted an important new element, a particular and dynamic light that changes continually as a consequence of stimulations, coming at the same time from the external world.
I wanted to give my personal tribute to photography. Not to the so-called ‘art photography’, but to the idea of photography intended as a view on the world and from the world. I would say that it is a tribute to the specific photographic sector of ‘photo-journalism’.
Gilles Tiberghien: By looking at the first version of this work, and at other, less recent works of yours, we can understand that the theatre is important for you. I would like to know how important it is. ‘Theatricality’ can also be a negative feature. This was true for the American critics in the ‘60s which you know all about. What is it then for you?
Alfredo Pirri: In my opinion, art is representation in the first place. It is true that this term reminds us of theatre. Art is the inclination to represent, to stage through images. This is why I am so interested in the theatrical form. This is what moves the feelings of people who are watching something live, that does not necessarily have anything to do with the performance or with the presence of actors or the artist as a ‘performer’. It concerns the capacity of creating strong feelings and to link these feelings to something imaginary. In this work, for instance, the theatrical representation is evident. First of all, because the pieces of glass are put vertically like theatre wings …
Gilles Tiberghien: It makes me think of two things. The first is obviously Friedrich, the painter, the ship on the frozen sea…
Alfredo Pirri: …the name of that painting is The wreck of the ship Hope…
Gilles Tiberghien: The second thing is also linked to this painting. In the ‘80s, Hengel put on stage a theatrical piece in Chaillot. It was called the Pentesilea of Kleist. The scene-painting was clearly inspired from this painting by Friedrich. It was made up of a sort of hilly ice-pack, with broken and irregular blocks. When I saw your installation, it reminded me of all this.
Alfredo Pirri: This is true. The photograph I asked to do in Rijeka, over the shoulder of a person who was looking at the work, was inspired by one of Friedrich’s paintings. More than the painting with the frozen sea, it was maybe the one with the character who is looking at the mountains. There is a really strong theatrical idea: the man looking out is, without any doubt, the spectator. I am very interested in this personal confrontation between spectator and art work. It is not a coincidence that, in that painting, there is only one spectator….not two, three, four, five people, they are not an audience… It is one person, alone, before the immensity of the landscape he is looking at. He is stating the solitary aspect of his personal relationship with, in this case, the work of God and of Nature.
Gilles Tiberghien: It is quite strange. When you say that there is not an audience but one single person before the work, before the landscape, it seems that you are talking about abstract and not about personal consciousness. Besides, it is a person, a sensible person, who feels physically at risk faced with this aggressive work, with pointed spears, as red as blood. According to you, how are these two apparently contradictory things linked?
Alfredo Pirri: We can put on one side the objective references, for example the landscape seen from a hill… on the other hand, instead, there are feelings, perceived in a personal way.
Gilles Tiberghien: Like body and soul…
Alfredo Pirri: Exactly. This is very beautiful, to say ‘like body and soul’, because what a person does when he is looking at a work of art is exactly to get out of his body and to look for a meeting with the work in a different place. The work and the spectator look at each other without understanding each other. They meet in a third place, a place which is neither the space occupied by the person nor the objective place of the work.
Gilles Tiberghien: This is true, and it is exactly the idea of Simmel who in a brief text called The Philosophy of Landscape described the term Stimmung as a sort of affective relationship between the spectator and the landscape, something that is, for the spectator, a way of being in the landscape, and for the landscape, a way of being in the consciousness of the spectator. In the end, it is something near to what you have just said.
Alfredo Pirri: This consciousness, as you call it, could be the image we all carry inside us which allows us to know and love the world through it. We are coming from a period in which it was considered necessary to abolish the use and practice of image in favour of a more direct participation of the spectator, who would have a more active role towards the work. Through this ‘activism of the spectator’ it was believed that the presence of art in the world was assured. I think, instead, that we need to have the capacity of creating an art that leaves the spectator’ alone, that brings him towards itself, that welcomes him with images, but that does not entirely involve him. It has to leave him on the threshold, as Friedrich did by putting the spectator before the landscape. It is like saying that art brings you towards it but then does not tell you anything. It is you, as an individual, that has to take the risk. If we think of the position of Friedrich’s spectator, it would need just one step to fall into the crevasse. I am very interested in equilibrium… I am not interested in the risk itself, or in the performing and attractive strategies between work and spectator… What I am interested in is equilibrium…
Gilles Tiberghien: This would be a little like Bed of spikes, produced by Walter de Walter in 1968, a very aggressive work…
Alfredo Pirri: …steel spears, weren’t they?
Gilles Tiberghien: Yes, the artist asked the visitors of the exhibition to sign a personal declaration of responsibility.
Alfredo Pirri: In this work, the feeling of danger is very strong… it is a sweet sensation, though… not aggressive, in that there is nothing dangerous that attacks you. It is the opposite. It is something attractive, hidden in the beauty of the shape whose colour attracts you towards it and whose moving light influences your perception…
Gilles Tiberghien: That would be the sublime.
Alfredo Pirri: The sublime, according to me and to classic culture, is represented as a luminous event, and on this occasion (in order to talk more deeply about my presence at this exhibition about photography, and I am not a photographer, or an artist who uses photography) it is shown as half-way to the luminous event and the diffusion of information… Better still, as the transformation of a source of news in a luminous phenomenon, changing in quality and strength, which leaps from darkness to light and from hot to cold… It’s like when we watch a spring flowing up from underground. It is always the same water but always different… The work on the ground is illuminated against the light by a source of light, controlled by information flowing from the whole world. The control system accesses about 2000 pieces of information per day, every day is different. According to the incoming news, there is a changing of light in real time. The spectator ignores all this, and he just watches the changing light as if he was watching the rise and fall of the sun.
Gilles Tiberghien: About this fact, you have written that the number of pieces of information makes the light change and the work react differently according to the way it is illuminated, as with the sun at dawn or dusk. The information would then be comparable to a variation of the landscape; we can look at the landscape and find it pleasurable only because we know something without really understanding it.
Alfredo Pirri: This is very important, because it happens and we don’t know…what we know, or what continuously tries to be part of our knowledge, puts us under endless, continuous pressure, so effective as to build in us a very strong tension between all we know of the world and the desire to ignore it, the attraction towards danger and the instinct of survival… This has something to do with the sublime, that is, something hidden, that comes from the dark… The enormous quantity of ‘descriptive headings’ that surround us is a part of the landscape. I am not interested in judging or in separating good and evil. I’d rather imagine all this as the manifestation of nature.
Gilles Tiberghien: It seems to me that this is a way of presenting what is evident in the landscape. Infinity, I would say, the poem by Leopardi has this title, is the description of a landscape. Information is infinite, because it gradually brings us to the stars. Your work would be a way of presenting this situation, of saying how we are anyway related to the stars.
Alfredo Pirri: It is exactly like this…I really like what you are saying…stars, which are, for us, only luminous points, are changed into words in my work. They have a key role. I have chosen eighty of them from among the agency news. These eighty words control the change of light in an ‘infinite’ way. They are words that, even if present in everyday news, appear to us mysterious in their solitude. Words that touch something we know and that distress us at the same time. They appear mysterious to us, like stars shining in the dark. We can know everything about these stars, but the way we relate to them is absolutely mysterious.
Gilles Tiberghien: It is a mystery that is tangible in some of the works you produced with masks, in which the reference to theatre is evident. Because some of these masks seem on the point of reading books of which they can’t see anything except the cover. They cannot see what they are reading.
Alfredo Pirri: They represent desires… Even there, what can be seen is the luminous effect of words. In the work we are talking about, entitled Parole, the glass ‘scenes’ are like a sort of series of masks, hiding each other. All of my work deals with hiding, obscuring what is revealed of the dark side. What we can see is only a small part, how can I say… it is potentially the search for that place we were talking about, that can be the place in which work and spectator meet. In this meeting place, you start from a ‘plus’ to arrive at a ‘minus’. The path you take is not a fulfilling one, the final destination of this path is solitude.
Gilles Tiberghien: There is also in you, it seems to me, a sort of resistance to the way of looking at art…
Alfredo Pirri: …altogether…
Gilles Tiberghien: This is the opposite of art, from a certain point of view. Art does not give itself easily. It makes you long for it. It takes time to appreciate it. It shares itself with you in the end, but at the same time you feel a certain loneliness before it. The work hides itself at the same time it is given to you: “The more it tells you, the less you know”, said Diane Arbous about photography. It is this togetherness of tensions between the spectator and the work that is central to this work.
Alfredo Pirri: …I have recently produced a work… a large work, made for a hospital in Rome. It is to be placed in a very particular location, in intensive-care, where there are people in a coma or who have just come back to life… It is a monumental work, destined for a few people, in a place where the access of the general public is denied… It is a strange dimension, outside the territory of art, outside of everything we know that refers to the relationship between the spectator and the work. At the end of a brief introduction, I wrote that, on this occasion, that the work is like the consecrated host we receive during Holy Communion refusing to melt in the mouth… Yes, the work is a host that does not melt, that does not put us ‘in communion’. It stays where it is, like a foreign body that refuse to mix with us… This is what I mean when I think of art as something disturbing…
Gilles Tiberghien: Another thing… at the beginning of this interview, why did you start by saying that this work is a tribute to ‘photo-journalism’, and why, in your opinion, is it closely linked to photography?
Alfredo Pirri: It is a metaphor of photography which comes back to its innermost essence, that primitive act which desires a direct view of reality and is absorbed in it until it becomes an important part of it. In this sense, I would say, it is something much closer to ‘photo-journalism’ than to the so-called ‘artistic photography’. I really like the photos made by photographers, as well as the attempt of photo-reporters to report on the world. In my opinion, the mystery of photography truly consists in the ancient gesture that scared the Native Americans for instance. They were sure that the photographic image took something from them. In this sense, photography is represented as a luminous power that continuously influences our perception, forcing it to look at other frames and to give different chromatic values to the world. This ‘giving gesture’ is constantly taken back, we never know if it means something true or false.
Gilles Tiberghien: This is your idea of a story. A bit like theatre… It seems to me that photography and ‘photo-journalism’ are, for you, a way of reporting the world.
Alfredo Pirri: They tell us about the world in a theatrical way, because that ‘stage representation’ has a human inspiration that is the background upon which theatrical tragedy is created.
Gilles Tiberghien: In fact, it is pretty evident that some kinds of famous images, for instance, Hocine’s photo of an Algerian woman in tears (1997) make you think of a ‘pieta’… They are photographs half way between painting and theatre, sort of ‘theatrical paintings’ which are at the same time documents.
Alfredo Pirri: Often, in the works of ‘photo-reporters’ , we are talking of a theatre which is unaware, as was the traditional theatre, not for the cultured few but of the people, as in the time of Shakespeare.
Gilles Tiberghien: At the same time we can assert that there are ‘families’ of theatrical genres. We could define the theatrical production from Kantor to Joseph Nadj as a new kind of Comédie Francaise. In the same way, we can say that there are several ‘families of photo-journalism’, even if they all tell us something about the world…
Alfredo Pirri: …exactly. Something that deals with human nature… I am very interested in this… In this work, as in others, there is the representation of a human feeling, the staging of the interior soul of the work. A life that springs from what is human without exhausting itself in anthropology, in its prejudices…
Gilles Tiberghien: In what sense?
Alfredo Pirri: In the sense of art trying to be the mirror of society and of all that is human.
Gilles Tiberghien: That is rather sociology.
Alfredo Pirri: Of course, I didn’t say sociology because it is far too evident.
Gilles Tiberghien: It seems to me that in your work there is something ‘haunting’, something… how can I say… you talk like Steiner who thought that art originated from the first graves. I have the impression that this dream-like sensation, a way of being before or after life, is at the basis of your work.
Alfredo Pirri: You see… The way you and I are talking now… We are having a little adventure, without a safety net…without anything to protect us… This is what I like to do with art. Maybe it is this that makes you talk about something ‘haunting’, with the meaning of moving stealthily, like a ghost that, without a body, does not need protection. It knows, as probably all ghosts know, that living beings cannot fully understand them because they don’t speak the same language. I am really interested in this ghost-like lightness indeed…
Gilles Tiberghien: Actually, it feels like it.
Alfredo Pirri: …I really like the way you use words, the way you and I are trying to use words, with a certain freedom. They are all words that have an origin, of course. The word ‘ghost’, for example, has got a strong theatrical past. You were talking about Shakespeare, for instance. As an Italian, I could speak better and more ironically about Eduardo De Filippo and the tradition of ghosts in southern Italy. They are not tragic but ‘domestic’ spooks that make you laugh and tease you. Anyway, if we put together northern, mournful ghosts and southern, playful spooks, we would create some ethereal beings, not belonging to the existence we share, unidentifiable, indefinable. I am interested in a kind of art that has these features but that shows itself, exactly like a ghost. I am interested in the art that does not tell. “I have to disappear in the abyss of popular aestheticism or in the indifference of society and in everything that surrounds it.” I am interested in art that chooses to take risks with formality, to take risks with images. Within formality and images, it is mobile and unidentifiable, as light that surrounds us… What I am most interested in though, is the effect of light on objects… Practically, I am more interested in the shadow than in the light.