I’m continuing here a dialogue that I have been carrying on for a few years with Alfredo Pirri, whom I met in some public events. However, being the first time I write about it, I cannot avoid the preliminary effort of clarifying, first of all to myself, the modalities and the sense of this experience. Therefore, of course, it will be a dialogue and not an exercise in hermeneutics, and a reflection about art produced by a friend.
I believe it is right to begin with a decisive distinction: the considerations I will introduce hereafter do not pertain so much to Pirri’s work of art, as to his working process. This is the difference: Pirri’s work reaches some full textual result now and then, that requires to be interpreted and discussed in its wholeness as a text. His way of sensing and thinking the art experience, of understanding and questioning its sense, is based—I believe—on a different unity, that does not have and could not have textual rules because it is, rather, a process in act, a complex and mobile tension, both aesthetic and ethical. This unity holds and motivates the texts, the creations, but it’s not exhausted in them and does not even fully identify with them. Furthermore, we must venture to say that the texts cannot supply more than an incomplete testimony, necessarily always provisional. Better: a witnessing that instructs and causes the encounter with other texts; a witnessing that does not cease to be pressure toward dialogue with the other and the different—and, for example, with the work of someone who deals with philosophy.
I wish to say that in the completeness, in the sometimes exceptional closure of Pirri’s works there is always—enforced by the unity of sense that upholds them and that can never become the direct object of representation—an instance of expropriation indicating the opening of a dialogue: as if one asked time after time that philosophy, for instance, made the effort to speak, in the appropriate ways, about the same thing of which the work speaks.
In any genuine dialogue, besides, what counts in the first place is not the opposition of the points of view but the desire to let the sense of what we are talking of come out. This means that the interlocutors, whether they know it or not, put themselves at the service of something that, strictly speaking, cannot coincide with their starting point. They wish to speak about the same thing, but do not have a full command of this “thing”: indeed, they do not know if it’s true that this “thing” does not pre-exist the dialogue, as if it were a timeless idea, but it is shaped and modified during the course of the dialogue, as the interlocutors themselves are modified by it. Thus, a decisive nexus links the dialogue to time: the space of the sense that takes shape during the dialogue, indeed, is a productive space, or even better, a space in continuous need of elaboration. On parallel lines, the interlocutors are never in the condition of admitting that they have said all.


I would like to introduce and argument the—only apparently—provocative hypothesis, according to which the “thing” around which the dialogue takes place could be defined as a recalling, made urgent by the times we live in, of the classic notion of mimesis.
To get rid of any possible misunderstanding the following point must be immediately made clear: mimesis does not mean that there is an “outside reality”, a world of things and facts represented by painting; it means, on the contrary, that the genuine representations of painting have never ceased to enlighten and reorder the complexities of the real, the tight and at the same time differentiated plot of the world. A genuine mimetic movement does not go from reality to forms but, on the contrary, from forms to the real. And yet—here is the totally decisive point—this formative action does not dispossess the real, does not take away its autonomy taking possession of it as form and sense, but returns it always and again to its inexhaustible otherness, it reconstructs it indefinitely as a territory for ever-new explorations. Stated otherwise, there is a circularity between forms and the world, but this circle does not humiliate the world absorbing all of it into forms: on the contrary, it regenerates it as world, as “other” in respect to forms.
I will give only one example of this mimetic principle before spending a few words about how urgent it is for us, today, to protect it and to consider it. There is a wonderful essay by Ernst Gombrich about the Form of the movement in water and in air in the hydraulic drawings by Leonardo in which the astonishing productivity of the circle form-reality of which we just said, is pointed out: Leonardo creates finer and finer graphic patterns of the whirling movement of waters and relates them to an apparatus of verbal descriptions stunningly diversified (in one manuscript we count about one hundred such as: risaltazione, circolazione, rivoluzione, ravvoltamento, raggiramento, sommergimento, surgimento, declinazione, elevazione, cavamento, consumamento, percussione…).2 The productive dialogue between the two elements—the graphic and the verbal one—is absolutely evident and spectacular, but the fact that the sense of this dialogue consists in a process of inexhaustible regeneration of the complexity of the empirical fact is also evident and spectacular. It is the world that results enriched by this, not the capacity of the language and the image to dominate it.
To let things as they are (Leonardo’s vortexes, and everything else: in a while I’ll give some examples referring to Pirri’s work) we need a huge effort of formal elaboration. But we also need an ethics of form. That is, we need to give up any naive rather than arrogant desire of control. The true mimesis is nothing but this laborious sacrifice. Art has been celebrating it for a long time. But why today is keeping and reconsidering this modality of experience so urgent? The answer is before everyone’s eyes. We must protect it because we are losing it: we do not elaborate the world, its otherness, its contingency, anymore, because in an ever more pervasive way the world is presented as a form already completely elaborated. We do not need to spend words to remember that the technologies of image and information have almost accomplished this obscene event. It results in a generally regressive—that is, anaesthetic and servile—condition of experience: in a word, a disfigured world inhabited by a desperate and unconscious humanity.
We must reconsider it because the essence of mimesis, as I present it here, is indeed a continual reconsidering, a re-elaboration that cannot and must not end, in a debt that does not stop generating ever new forms of payment. But then: if the world—its otherness, its contingency—is on the verge of continual colonisation by the technologies of image and information, if it is going to coincide point by point, as the map of Borges’s empire, with its simulation, where and how trace out the space for this restitution of otherness? Can art still satisfy this fundamental localisation? Can it present us once again an exemplary experience? The answer is obviously to the artists. But they should not be docile, i.e instead of embracing the snobbish and conniving denial that characterises certain bad postmodern philosophy, they should have the courage to keep the question, to continue feeling it and making us feel it, as a meaningful question.


I have said before that to let things be we need a big effort of formal elaboration. The artist’s work must conform to a hard “discipline”—this term often occurs in Pirri’s work—to an infinite passion-patience: his task is to mediate the perception of the world staying aside as much as possible. This subtraction of subjectivity is, undoubtedly, an “ethical” trait quite widespread in the best contemporary art. And indeed it is a constant—however not the only one and not without contrasts—in Alfredo Pirri’s latest production. I’m thinking of the amount of works on colour, on the free emergence of colour from a constructive activity—as for example in the Squadre plastiche (Plastic Squares)—where, instead, it seems to obey an altogether different projectual logic. Or also, in a very exemplary manner, in a work as Gas, in which we see how the presence of the element giving the title to the “assemblage” is obtained through the most original means—iron, wood, light, canvas, printing ink, word…—consisting in nothing else than this assemblage and this crossing. Here the artist’s subjectivity disappears, there is no doubt: his complex and patient activity intends to leave no trace but that of being subordinated to the appearance of a hidden essence of things, so much richer, sudden and regenerating. In close-up that element of the work that Heidegger defined as “terrestrial” breaks through: what can never be saturated by form, but that only form can show; not “formed matter”, thus, but “earth”, radical and irreducible, though genuinely present in its integrity, in its intractability, in its refusal to be metabolised.
But in Pirri’s work—in a very peculiar way starting from Facce di gomma (Rubber Faces)—an urgency at first perfectly opposed to this burdensome passivity of the craftsman is pointed out: this craftsman powerfully announces he’s there, energetically claiming the singularity of the experience that has been put to work; in a word, he declares himself responsible, he is ready to acknowledge it.
This contradiction requires to be understood. We said before that the artist means to leave no trace of himself in his work, which would aim only to renew the sacrifice of mimesis: let things be, allow the presence of the “earth”; now we are saying that the artist means to be involved in this sacrifice, certifying, in the work, that the fact of declaring to be responsible is an element of the work itself, an essential trait. So how can we correlate the mimetic instance to the instance of singularity and responsibility of doing? I see emerge here a process that Facce di gomma institutes and the last “assemblage” displays in an ampler way. In describing the essential terms of this process—with which I will conclude—I suggest to create the proper dialogic moment of this note. Thus, it is not necessary for the author to entirely agree with it, nor that the interpretation that will be put forward be conform to the work: it is important that the dialogue—about which one never ceases to elaborate proposals—results illustrated exactly for its impossibility of coincidence with the discourses that explore it step by step, in its moving always beyond such discourses.


Let’s start from Facce di gomma. The inner tension of this work is entrusted to a simple and yet not immediately explicit relation between the proper nature of the mask and the colour of which it is the support or, rather, the place of manifestation. The mask attests a past presence, a monument to future memory: its recall to mortality is evident. Reformulating in its own way a very strong theme of contemporary philosophy, the work establishes a nexus between sense (the face of the author acting as a cast) and its withering: what remains, what is entrusted to time is not full presence but residue, trace. The dissonance between the absolute individuality of the face (the cast is always the same) and the seriality of the masks (all slightly different, yet being in other ways the same mask, the same “person”), reinforces and specifies the residual character of this trace: the witnessing, here, is at the same time an erasure (the individuality, the presence, the certainty of sense). It is as if the face, asserting its presence as mortal remains, withdrew transforming itself on the surface for a different inscription: that of colour. But this transformation that is certainly an offering, but also a sacrificial offering, makes the colour appear in the form of tears. In other words, colour appears only when it assumes on itself the force of a sense—that same force in which a withdrawing of the face, the erasure denounced by the mask, shows the decay, the return to earth. Here is a meaningful overturning between the “terrestrial” element of the work assumed by the retreat of the face, and the explicit thematic element assumed by the colour. In such way, with a strong effect of distancing, the colour, so to speak, is initiated into an incongruent and sudden meaning—the tears, the weeping, the more “internal” performance of the eye—for this reason, without squandering the mirth that properly defines it.
In this overturning we catch two relevant aspects: one, reflexive, the other producing experience, “mimetic”. The reflexive aspect consists in the gesture of the artist of stepping aside to let things be (the tears of colour, the eye renouncing sight) and is put to work, becoming itself a work. But not as empty and self-indulgent mirroring. On the contrary: as an active decision, as taking of responsibility, as ethical involvement. The work does not say that one can still leave things be, rather, that it must, and adds that this debt can cause a denial of the most prestigious function of the eye.
The productive aspect of experience is tightly linked to this ethical trait, moreover, in some ways it is its affirmation and, at the same time, the risk of it. Indeed, in this withdrawing-asserting of the face—which is also modesty of the eye, turning of the sight toward the earth—a space opened up that must be further elaborated: also and mostly at the optical level, if it is true that the eye has been able to renounce its will of dominating. This is what happens, in effect, in the last “assemblage” that presents itself as an expansion of the thematic nucleus of Facce di gomma, an ample orchestration of that initial melodic theme. I will point out only a very plain trait: the withdrawing of the face-mask has materially become a bending back, a whirlpool, an entrance into a sheath or case that maintains it in a condition of semivisibility. In the same way, the space that becomes achievable starting from this more marked retreating, in the crypt containing it, in another work, has enormously unfolded, detached itself from the face that held it back in Facce di gomma. Here the space emerges as an ample geometric surface capable of accepting the inscription of the colour tears, according to multiform serial dispositions and configurations and of allowing the very colour to irradiate in autonomous manner, terse and serene. This change, however, was made possible only by the more energetic and dramatic erasure of the face-trace and eye-domination.
I have not described Alfredo Pirri’s latest work. I have attempted to indicate the sense to which the working process has conformed (at least in part) to make Facce di gomma grow in this more complex device. If the discourse holds, what it is about is something like a possible and necessary regeneration of the eye towards things, the earthliness or otherness of the world, or rather, perhaps, the tonality of this gaze, of its humor. Such regeneration implies, in an intimate and ineluctable way, a sacrifice of the eye, master/servant of the visible world and an admonition about mortality. A spreading of visible surfaces, an orderly and at the same time light, proliferation, joyful and austere, is its fragile—but cohesive and in sympathy—counter-part. Perhaps still (or necessarily?) this emerging of a surface which can be written on, of a tame visibility, composed, not-menacing and not seductive, is a way of answering, letting it be, the question of finding a place to consider mimesis today.

Pietro Montani

Translated from Italian by Gianfranco Mantegna
Edited by Valentina Ajmone Marsan

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