Interview by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev published in Flash art, n. 161, April-May 1991.

The Duty of Art: to Witness an Unreachable Alterity

Alfredo Pirri: My path as an artist has been very linear. I used to draw at middle school, paint at high school, I studied at Art School moving from Milan to Florence and to Rome; I was searching for doctrine, in the various art schools, but I couldn’t find it. I finished in 1978, just in time to warm up by the last fires of politics, which was turning Italy to cinders. Amongst the first paintings you saw at Palazzo Braschi in Rome, there are visionary works on the theme of light. Along with those paintings, in the margins, I was making some video works. I was interested in the “collective” aspect of video, made with actors and technicians: I made work with Giorgio Barberio Corsetti and Sandro Lombardi. I also made scenographies, made with multiple slide projections, for two productions by the group Krypton, L’Eneide and Angeli di Luce: we worked on immateriality with lighting and projection.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: Halfway through the 1980s you used graphite to make paintings which simulated metallic surfaces, such as those at the exhibition at the Planita Gallery in Rome in 1987.

A.P.: Graphite is the material found in pencils, the base material of drawing. Those works didn’t simulate metal, if anything they “represented” it in the simplest sense, the way colour in painting can represent something other than itself. The shapes were circular, absolute, lacked perspective; my pictorial interventions on the surface alluded to spatial breakthroughs, fissures in the totality. These were symbolic works, in as much as they underlined the necessity for sense rather than the simulation of a material. In the last circular works I painted the back of the paintings with a yellow that reverberated on the walls, to pick out even more the object as absolute form against the wall. Then the theme of distance became more and more important, leading me to make the first Squadre Plastiche, which annihilated the gap between the work and the wall. The first ones, from 1987, were black, then I made the white ones, and over time the others.

C.C.B.: Over the past few years you’ve participated in exhibitions at which critics spoke of a new “generation” of Italian art. Do you side with this point of view?

A.P.: After those collectives you speak of, I understood that the fact of belonging to a “new generation” able to replace the one before isn’t my problem. I was born in 1957, I’m 34 years old and I believe I belong to a “microgeneration” which runs the risk of being squashed by those collective generations, which are more powerful and more cohesive. Speaking of this “microgeneration” (and I’m not only talking about artists) and of its identity is a complex task, because we’d have to really take into consideration the question of the subject and of the subject in relation to everything and viceversa; this is the true problem of the people I’m thinking about, apart from the theme of morality, which is just a reverberation of what I was saying earlier. The conversation always shifts to generational identities, but I see my counterparts preoccupied mostly with the idea of not belonging: it’s as if we gave each other clandestine appointments in hidden places, away from the indiscreet gaze. The problem of the exhibitions remains: maybe it’s the fortuitous in life that has brought us to show at collectives. It’s strange, maybe at a certain point it was imagined that human relationships and the contingencies of the moment could replace ideology and sentiment. I no longer believe this. Many “young artists” see the work as a direct synthesis of experience, with a pragmatic cynicism which I just can’t partake in.

C.C.B.: You dedicated an piece to Yukio Mishima’s texts in 1988 in Taormina; when did you first encounter them?

A.P.: In 1968 I was 11 years old and I remember witnessing street riots, even in the building I was living in, between Right wing and Left wing extremists. Mishima was a patriot, and for this reason was beloved by the Right; but also by people in the extreme Left. So in Mishima there was something in which these factions met in a shared interest, the interest of violence. I only made sense of this when I read him, many years later. I love Mishima’s vital, existential and literary choices, the way I love Handke’s narrative quality, the way I love Blanchot’s literary and philosophical writings. Let’s say I tend to love those authors whose work shows a strong tension in the synthesis between their personal experience and their writing, or authors who write about that tension. In that piece in Taormina I used the text from one of Mishima’s speeches, a very aggressive and at the same time very sweet speech, “The Intellectual Effeminates”, which addresses intellectuals who don’t act. I don’t side with everything Mishima calls for: ignoring all poems and choosing direct action, after all even he was a man of letters all his life. But apart from this invitation of his, what interests me is the subjective aspect, the strength of Mishima as subject. I presented the work in Taormina in a building which used to be an association for veterans, and this lended the whole thing an ambiguity, a noisiness between Mishima’s speech, the images on video, and the “pathetic” place that hosted it. After all, Mishima’s final speech had something “pathetic” about it, too.

C.C.B.: After the Squadre Plastiche between 1987 and 1989, where the colour on the back of the pieces gives them an aura of reflected light on the wall, and after the frames presented at the Carini Gallery in Florence in the Spring of 1989 where the light was in the within the works themselves, you’re now working on new pieces shown at the Tucci Russo Gallery in Turin (April 1990), at Lia Rumma in Naples (April 1990) and at Studio Casoli in Milan (December 1990 and January 1991). These pieces enter spaces threedimensionally in a very invasive way, their presence is very distant from the rarefied quality of the first Squadre Plastiche.

A.P.: These spaces in three dimensions invade the space, but it isn’t really a corporeal space. It’s as if it was inhabited by ghosts. By using the instruments of painting, these works levitate and lose their physical attributes. They manage to disappear: and so in this sense there isn’t that big a difference between them and the Squadre Plastiche. In both cases, in fact, the technical apparatus is dematerialised through light and colour. The exhibition in Turin was called GAS, and the works displayed were in three groups and followed the narrative order of the transformation of (chormatic) material. At the lower level of the gallery, there were a series of oil frottages of large gas drains, and in the same environment, scattered round the space, were the horizontal (lying down) pieces in three dimensions you refer to. Upstairs, the space was modified by being cut into a zone for the spectator and a zone for the artwork, I displayed five “almost black” Squadre, chromatically saturated towards darkness. The thread of the exhibition, then, followed the transformation of a poison, which began underground and then found a series of obstacles, each one taking a different form: from the first frontal impact (the canvases), the material turned into white glacial structure (void of structure) destined to organisation and to rest. From this rest, the works upstairs took shape as clots of coloured material extended to the limits of perception, the limits of difference: there’s an almost black blue, and almost black purple etc. The colour is imprisoned, you can hear its lament. It’s a story about the provenance of colour: colour is a noble material stuck in a synthetic vehicle; in this sense it is captive, imprisoned, shackled. Again the idea of a condensed clot of nobility. It’s the completion of a tradition, not the symbolic or mythologic reunification of opposed entities.

C.C.B.: The environment at your recent Milanese exhibition at the Studio Casoli immediately brings to mind a library.

A.P.: In effect there’s an ordering of materials that makes you think of the pages of a book, of a unitary entity. But apart from a library, you could think of an ethnological or zoological museum (I’m thinking of a butterfly room): the spatial relation between the works on the walls and the wooden structures in the room brings to mind spaces destined to cataloguing, spaces where there’s an act of exchange between walls and tables. All the works on the walls are made on the invitations from Turin, on which it said “gas”. It’s an ecological attitude towards the work, not wanting to waste things once they’ve been made. I intervened on the typography of the invitations with colours made entirely by hand: they’re powders and mixed materials ground in linseed oil. Whereas the “tables” are made of wood “glazed” with chalk, but the underneath is painted like the Squadre Plastiche, so that the colour reflects on the white floor. There’s a form of cataloguing also in using all the traditional elements of art; the techniques with which I realised these pieces is a sort of archive of all the techniques I had used in the past.

C.C.B.: What are the ties that bind your abstract compositions and historical Abstractism?

A.P.: Every single painted work on the walls contains the idea of the series. Their positioning one next to the other gives a sense of flux and of pace, in which every work in itself aquires value by way of contributing in stopping that flux, creating a clot, something important. The paintings are like obstacles for the pace of the whole. In the exhibition as a whole there’s an evolution in styles which all touch upon Abstractism, but in effect some of the works, hung lower down on the walls, are closer to abstract decoration. While in the three larger frontal pieces I made for the external (focal) spaces of the gallery I developed the iconological material of the cross: you go from a decorative attitude, to a symbolic one, and then to a more abstract one. The event is a history of painting in which some of the founding elements of drawing and painting are considered. But really it’s the history of my work, of my painting: not a catalogue of the history of art, but a reflective and autobiographical exhibition, an archive of my feelings about art. There’s the history of wall decoration, that of iconology, that of abstract painting, the history of the materials of painting and, as a base to the whole operation, the wooden works in three dimensions, the tender relationship between cakes and drawing, which is the very, delicate, heart of painting. Paradoxically it’s those wooden pieces that constitute an hommage to drawing.

C.C.B.: But the chalky shapes on the “tables” look like patisserie cakes but they’re extremely compact and hard.

A.P.: It’s a tender and delicate image because those chalk cakes are juxtaposed with the blocks of drawing paper, and the reverberating pictorial material encompasses all of this while staying hidden, underneath the wood, as if the fundament of all conversations had to do with painting.

C.B.B.: In your most recent exhibitions you have very full, crowded spaces; yet at the same time your chalk structures look like ghosts.

A.P.: Exhibitions are often judgements on how to make a void: my idea is that it is always the result of an adding up, rather than of a subtraction. So really I’m emptying out the space by filling it until it becomes paradox, imposing it as apparition. But it’s important for me to say that the apparition isn’t merely the result ot an evocation; it can’t be said solely with a sentence: it’s always the result of work. Emptiness and dematerialisation are a making, not a renoucing. There’s always a material which must evaporate, and this should always be perceived.

C.B.B.: Should we see the environments you create in displaying your works as installations calling for active participation? Is the spectator invited to be an actor on the stage, or is it closer to the furnishings of a room, a library, or other spaces of real life?

A.P.: I don’t like the term “installation”. I don’t like its theatricality. Here there’s not a single work which the visitor can enter into. There’s a unitary environment of works in conversation with one another, and the spectator walks among them. But there’s always a frontality, a confrontation, between each of these works and the spectator. If you intend furnishing as reasoned configuring of things needed for life, then yes, that’s my intention; I want to predispose and organise the elements in underlining the usefulness of art, showing things for what they are.

C.C.B.: The environments you create seem tranquil, silent, places of study or work or reassembly, away from the chaos of reality. So what’s the connection between your work as an artist and life in a moment of huge political and even military upheaval? The Berlin wall has fallen, and the Gulf War is taking place…

A.P.: I’ve been very struck by the start of this war. Since it started I’ve hardly worked. I’ve found myself facing the impossibility of deciding on the work and impossibility of making my opinion count in general. Then I arrived at the conclusion that yes, the artists bears witness to this “tranquillity”, stillness against the tempestuous course of the world. Staying still is staying in tension. And although art isn’t a political tool, it does have the duty to impose itself instead of the ideology of war, which is much more powerful than we think, that isn’t the mere exploding of bombs. It’s an evil flux made not only of weapons, but also of an arrogant, pragmatic ideology which sees the world as its plaything, something you can afford to confront with stupidity. This is the duty of art: witnessing an unreachable alterity, constantly refounded everytime the enemy makes a conciliatory move. “Who’s the enemy? The public” (Godard, in Soft and Hard, 1985).