Text by Daria Filardo for the book Alfredo Pirri, Steps 2003 – 2012, Gli Ori Editore
Now-time and mirroring
Now-time is an expression coined by Walter Benjamin, in which the distillation of history and of the present, the tangle of every heterogeneous time, blends into a single, all-encompassing expression: the art work.
Now-time is also what we experience when walking over Alfredo Pirri’s Passi [Steps], a reflecting terrain, an active space we are invited/forced to walk on with care, a gesture of great generosity, an invitation to a use at once aesthetic and political, which places us in the middle of a whirl, an explosion of points of view and of overturnings.
Passi is a broken floor that continues to break. Since 2003 Passi has been realized a number of times in places with great historic, religious, political – in a word, public – value. The latest is the one in the Accademia Gallery in Florence, in the room housing fourteenth-century Florentine paintings. The religious stories, the enormous crucifix and the gold grounds pervading this work acquire another intensity. The medieval vision is broken up, while maintaining the same magical sense of colour. Through this device, Pirri disrupts the space, giving rise to new geometries.
The elements present in Passi – stories, images, architecture, everyday objects – are encompassed by the mirroring surface, plunging the viewer into an endless play of references. Passi forces us to look down, offering us a down-to-up view that is destabilizing, because it breaks with the frontal one and with the relations we entertain with the latter, constraining us to start looking from our feet and from what is unfolding around them. It is a vision that draws our gaze down to the ground before lifting it, and which is a little frightening because there is the sensation that we might plunge into the cracks.
Passi is a now-time experience, and Benjamin provides us with the tool to grasp concepts that are “instantly” evident in Pirri, from construction by way of matching to the functioning of a certain involuntary memory.
“It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill.”
The life of the image is therefore “instant”, and Benjamin talks in terms of now-time, a movement focused on itself that illuminates what is now. Surfacing memory redeems the present, offering it the ethical chance to save us through pathos and its form. For Benjamin this process takes place through the practice of montage, of brushing history “against the grain”, revealing that there is no history without all the encounters of contradictory times, the stratifications and the discrepancies.
Besides Benjamin, Warburg also used critical and interpretative categories that shed light on Pirri’s work, for example, a certain conception of memory as a combination of fragments and an interesting idea of the artist/historian as “seismograph”, namely, someone who vibrates and allows subterranean movements to surface, making evident their form and splits. In the opening decades of the twentieth century, Warburg and Benjamin made fundamental contributions to the debate on the art work, their aim being to reconsider the relationship between memory and its realization in form over the course of the centuries. Their thinking is a very interesting field for investigation that fuels and stimulates contemporary debate.
Their reflections still raise questions about the elusive, never closed nature of the art work, its timelessness yet at the same time its great specificity. The two thinkers dwelt on the process of construction of the work as a set of non-linear, non-sequential relations that include the observer; they reflected on the topical – for Benjamin, political – nature of the art work, which involves the taking of a stance by the artist in history, and consciousness of an aesthetic dimension as a new and indispensable dimension belonging to the public sphere. They also reflected on a memory of history as a process consisting of fractures, leaps, sudden illuminations, crises and participation.
Memory is not the sequential recording of passing time; rather, it is a subterranean energy that comes to the surface precisely in the combining of heterogeneous fragments that stir its depths, grasp the unsaid, that meaning which is not visible in a purely sequential gaze, rendering visible a “dizzying dialecticity”.
The work of art is the elected place where history is rendered evident in a single gaze, the “place” where a full and profound experience of reality is possible. Passi is all of this as well.
In Passi past time and memory become entangled and unfold, becoming fathomable. Warburg’s historic time (like that of Pirri) is made up of holes, of latencies, and becomes evident through mishaps and “symptoms”. In his writings and in the Mnemosyne Atlas, Warburg decided to make history a “symptomology” and the historian of images a “seismograph”. “Warburg insists that the system of time instils the same device in the writer: when the wave of time arrives, the “highly sensitive seismograph” trembles at its very base. It transmits the quake externally as knowledge of the symptom, as “pathology of time” made legible to others. But it also transmits it inside itself as experience of the symptom, as “empathy of time”, in which there is the risk of losing oneself.”
Benjamin, like Warburg, firmly believed in the possibility of images to take root in us, see us and save us. The aesthetic experience thus becomes a space we are invited to participate in and cross in order to build awareness of our own belongingness.
In the Passi series, Pirri places us at the centre of the sometimes overly self-referential discourse of the history of art, creating a formal and discursive space in which the critical gaze moves, walks and reformulates.
Through the breaking of the glass we can dwell on the interruption of a sequential, hierarchical vision of official history, marked by fracture lines that are the proof of profound movements recorded on the surface, movements that redraw a new map, consisting of delimited areas, continuous lines, interrupted lines, a metaphor of the leaping movement of history, which puts the artist and the viewer in the position of the receiver/seismograph of memory, understood as a new explosion that skips sequence-time.
This mobile “pattern”, open to transformations, breaks – physically and metaphorically – the analogy of mirroring as narcissistic closure and expands out to the sphere of life and to the civil and political dimension of those who cross this space/mirror.
The mirror is closely tied to art history, which, from the myth of Narcissus onwards, has explored the possibility of exact reproduction as a discourse on representation. The investigation of the splitting of the image has led, on many occasions, to discourse about self-referential art.
Passi is not of course the first installation to use the mirror to engage with the participatory, inclusive and public dimension of the visitor. Indeed, Pirri’s own intention has always been to sustain and to continue working the material without rejecting historical roots both far off and much closer to home. But the Passi series carries an urgency and at the same time a tension born of balances (to be found in all of Pirri’s work), which concerns the “necessity” of the object to come into the world. It is precisely this contrast between “Narcissism” as bulimic, self-referential production and “Necessity” that makes Passi an epiphany that constantly amazes us, that makes this experience unique every time we have it, because it is capable of making us the receiving organ of such a necessity – a need for knowledge.
Why does mirroring ourselves give us knowledge?
The mechanism of mirroring is, according to recent neuroscientific research (relating to mirror neurons) and psychoanalytic studies (especially Lacan), at the basis of our capacity for an immediate, empathic knowledge of the world. Through mirroring we are able to recognize ourselves, simulating the other-than-self and perceiving its difference from ourselves.
The mirror neurons supply us with the perception of the other through a mechanism of internal simulation of the emotions and of the forms that are presented to us. These forms, perceived “by way of difference”, generate empathy with the other-than-self, knowledge not mediated by reasoning. Psychoanalysis also (even before recent neuroscientific discoveries), with Lacan, dealt with the theme of the mirror as the first step in perception of self, which takes place in children from six months of age, through recognition of one’s own reflected image as an autonomous being different from the mother.
Passi, which mirrors us, and together with us the whole environment, is an experience of empathy that makes us participatory cognoscenti.
Pirri works on the constituent elements of artistic language – light, colour, space, form – which live “naturally” in the space of the work. The fractured mirror is a minimal surface that exalts and deconstructs the architectural volumes reflecting and multiplying the colours and their refractions, breaks down forms and renders visible in a “natural” manner the complex reasoning on the nature of the contemporary art work. The artist positions himself as an observer in continual movement within the work. Moreover, in Passi the expanded architectural dimension puts us in a favourable position, because we are not forced to concentrate on a specific aspect. Instead, we are an integral part of the experience that broadens the aesthetic dimension to a civil dimension.
Pirri has affirmed on various occasions that his work is performative, and I believe that this performativity is a temporal condition that includes all the elements: the form that opens up to the measurement of spaces as it does to that of our steps, which cross it in various directions. Performativity is the life that flows above the mirroring floor, making even more evident the contingent element, as, for example, all the shades of light that the space reflects back to us in any moment of the day and night, the present time that blends in with past time, breaking given balances in order to establish other ones, the layers of history experienced as a tensional rather than a resolving process.
Passi is a measurement, an individual experience of marvel that we are able to share with others, a movement that upsets and recomposes, a “doing and redoing”.