The images on which we have recently been nourished all hark back to the demise of certain, apparently inviolable, symbols that indistinctly conveyed to us a sense of stability and permanence and the loss of which has undermined a pervasive sense of protection against transience.
The century opens with a cheering crowd applauding the toppling of a statue, that is monument and celebration, what art in a strict sense would call sculpture. The function of monuments – and here I refer to civilisations such as the Etruscan or Babylonian, but the list is endless – has always been in a sense to fuel the placebo effect of the attempt to overcome death. Funerary monuments have always existed: signs of something that has been and symbols of something that will be forever. Hence the aesthetic attempt to make them of great impact, of great environmental impact, frequently of impressive size and always exploiting materials such as marble or bronze destined to withstand the passage of time or at least, in the short term, to convey a sense of potency and resistance.
Contemporary sculpture has probed the disappearance of the monument, creating a lay poetics based on the very concepts of integrity, unity and solidity: Land Art assumes responsibility for being colossal in the invasion of the environment and founds its poetic on an attitude that appears to be grounded on archetypes of millennial monumentality such as Stonehenge or the Pyramids.
Moreover, the reference to something other to which to sacrifice time and belief has always been inherent to human nature: according to William Stukeley the Druids used Stonehenge as a place of worship, but in general it is by now fairly clear that beyond religion it served as an immense calendar.
The megalithic complex of Stonehenge was erected on Salisbury Plain in Great Britain around 3200 BC, that is around the same time that the great pyramids were constructed in Egypt.
The construction is circular in form, of a diameter of a few dozen metres; it is composed of several rings of tall, narrow stones, some of them surmounted by other slabs of stone. A series of holes in the ground, arranged in circles, can also be observed.
As we mentioned, Stonehenge is also coeval with the construction of the pyramids, around 3200 BC. Religion, cult of death, the quest for knowledge and funerary monumentality are therefore elements that link up, emerging at distances that are immense at the least.
Minimalism itself takes the same rigour from Land Art, albeit maintaining a more assertive and vaguely emphatic attitude: It is founded on a poetics in which the rigidity verges on being austere and icy, capable of retrieving signifiers through motifs that are of the same scope but opposing results, consequent on waiver of the overload of formal outcomes.
Dry prose, inevitable, immovable, makes it into a monument where the figure vanishes to leave room for the pedestal, itself morphed into sculpture, an abstract sarcophagus.
More recently the installations have created surroundings to sink into, offspring of the consumer society, shattering the sense of unity and generating the immoderate sense of connections born of mass communication and the society of increasingly enticing luxury goods fuelled by consumerism. Relationships, rearing up with no apparent means of control, make the space of the work overflow: the art of the installation starts from the assumption of being a thread in the fabric of the incessant flow of global connections.
And hence another monument founded on the celebration of the instant.
Today’s sculpture, on the contrary, offspring of our own fragility, is in itself promiscuous, no longer lives elsewhere, no longer sets a distance, but abandons the pedestal and comes to dwell among us, annihilating the space that reciprocally isolated us. Brancusi had already anicipated this sense of the postmodern, with no apparent way out, devoid of a line from a to b that can be followed confidently. First conceptually and then formally abandoning the pedestal of his works, he came to produce a sculpture consisting of serial bases, the Endless Column, almost positing a seamless continuity between earth and heaven.
Not to mention Manzoni, who to restore the sense of the coincidence between art and life set a pedestal upside down in a park as a stand for the greatest and most vital sculpture in the world: the world itself.
The ecstasy of communication has triggered indiscriminate attitudes among contemporary artists that can be traced to the pervasive need to restore the precariousness of unstable relations and the desire to tackle space.
In the general flow addressed, it is useful to see how the approaches of figures such as Ernesto Neto or Thomas Saraceno, at their best, dictate a sort of direction in which we must perforce look.
According to Neto the work of art is a place rife with sensations, exchange, continuity, and the work only becomes complete when it meets the spectator; he himself claims that “everything happens on the skin, through the skin”.
Neto creates installations that involve the spectator in a play of interactions and relations, just like Thomas Saraceno whose poetics is similarly linked not only to an interaction with space but also, and even more importantly, to the suspension of the creations themselves in the formal epilogue.
Enzo Cucchi presented Costume Interiore at the Macro in Rome: forms more than things, biomorphic elements suspended at eye level upon which Cucchi has painted with energetic freshness much of the iconology dear to the artist.
For years, Daniela De Lorenzo has been pursuing research that leads to the decomposition of rigid forms, making way for a more organic dimension. Evidence of this evolution is the use of felt as the chosen material for her entire production, linked to the fact that it retains the memory of the gesture performed upon it. Proposing a reflection on the value of suspension, on temporality and identity, oscillating between Robert Morris and Joseph Beuys, who in 1974 at the René Block Gallery in New York staged his Coyote performance, I like America and America likes me, wrapped in a blanket of grey felt. De Lorenzo proposes the felt like grammar, in the same way as Filippo Sciascia does, establishing the use of the chalk and enamel, or Roberto Coda Zabetta the chromolux, the gesture on the porcelain or, more recently, the liquid chrome bath of what we might call the aerial sculptures, for which form is determined by the very swiftest gesture.
Chalk is chosen in Sciascia’s paintings, although it could be any other art object instead of a painting, because like felt it is a dynamic material, it is connected with the rhythm of the unspent temporality of a process that proceeds in stages: qualifying the conceptual nature of painting through materials and narrative choices is a “coincident parallelism”, a challenge that is cast down. The suspension of the installations that we find in this show, the temporality marked out by light determined by frequency and wavelength, which is the passage of atoms in a period of time, the unresolved identity and the lesson of Beuys, whom Sciascia for example adores, depict part of the ring, linked to the chain of the contemporary flow, to which this Como two man show refers.
The instability that we have arrived at, the fragility of the human being, the shapes that it has given over time to elements that could safeguard the precariousness of earthly life – as we have seen starting from the funerary monuments through to following a chain that brings us face to face with the installation medium – defines the space in which this show is to be placed.
Both artists implement practices that define their relations with the contemporary debate through intersecting planes of reading: they appear to be interested in the way the work pursues itself through space, starting from a profane sacredness to arrive at one in the true sense, which finds a point of encounter in the very title: Ex Voto.
Ex Voto is the grace received: patients suffering from cancer, but alive; the light is focal to Sciascia’s poetics as the very embodiment of salvation.
But they go beyond this: Coda Zabetta presents sculptural works that have lost their customary availability, they are set within bell jars and the pedestal is no longer a necessary means for enjoying the work but is raised to the function of religious icon, a sort of temple, an altar. This is why the work is only complete when it meets the spectator; this is why everything has to happen on the skin, through the skin, like the light which for Sciascia is paramount.
This is why we cannot help but refer to religious monumentality for an exhibition inside a church, to how this has evolved in relation to sculpture and the sense of installation that we refer to today, in the presence of an association linked to the theme of the Ex Voto, and to how it is vitally relevant to the current debate on the relations between art and Church.
In effect, faith asks to be rendered perceptible not only through listening to the word of God, but also through the other senses, above all sight. Apropos the attempt to improve and update the tenuous relations underscored by Paul VI in his letter to the artists as far back as 1964, we can mention Pope Benedict XVI’s meeting with the artists on 29 November 2009 when he expressed his hopes for a strengthening of the bonds, and above all the news that at the 2011 Venice Biennale, for the first time, there will be a pavilion of the Holy See.
Particularly relevant in the light of this updating is to connect the selection of the former Church of San Francesco to that made in Bergamo by the priest and theologian Giuliano Zanchi in the former Oratory of San Lupo, where site specific projects are hosted in which each artist is called upon to interpret passages from the scriptures or significant issues between man and God. The artists invited to date are Jannis Kounellis and Giovanni Frangi. Luca Pignatelli presented the monumental painting La Madonna della Neve, BM07, in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, in one of the most suggestive examples of Lombard Renaissance architecture, famous the world over for housing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper on one of the walls of the Refectory.
This exhibition, Ex Voto, offers a further encounter and exchange between Roberto Coda Zabetta and Filippo Sciascia following the earlier occasion of their highly successful joint show at the National Gallery of Jakarta.
Due credit must go to the Como City Council which, through its culture department, maintains a programme of exhibitions that insists upon meditation on contemporary art through events that dwell on artistic production as a territory of insight. In effect, this two-man show comes after that devoted to Hans Haacke, one of the greatest living exponents of the neo avant-garde season, who has had numerous solo and group shows in some of the most prestigious locations of Europe and North America. The winner of the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Biennale in 1993 chose this very site of the former Church of San Francesco for his first one man show in Italy.
Ex Voto offers another opportunity to compare the language of the two artists whose work, despite being different in approach, encapsulates the principal characteristic elements of this project: sickness and “divine” healing. On display are ten paintings and an installation with an igloo tent and plasma screens, conceived and produced in Italy by Filippo Sciascia, and a painting of almost 4 metres and eleven ceramic sculptures, with one of bronze in the centre, which Roberto Coda Zabetta made in Indonesia two years ago.
Ex Voto, understood as thanks for grace received, represents for the two artists an opportunity for comparison: on the one hand sickness in the work of Coda Zabetta, with his lacerated countenances of men, who are nonetheless survivors and hence reprieved, and on the other the light, it too the bearer of the concept of grace or reprieve in the work of Filippo Sciascia.
The works of Coda Zabetta are the result of his time spent with the cancer patients at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London in an attempt to discern whether there is any possibility of at least a psychic recovery from this disease. Following this experience, in Indonesia, on the island of Bali, the artist painted faces distorted by cancer. They are the faces of courageous men, who prefer divine providence to medicine, and celebrate the time spent with other benefits: wit and wisdom. Filippo Sciascia instead explores the more conceptual aspect of his own work, analysing the very function of light: what has it represented for man? How has man represented and used it in history? Starting from documents and scientific studies dealing with the functioning of the pineal gland and melatonin, which regulates cerebral activities during the daytime and night-time hours, Sciascia represents “grace”, conceived as a source of divine, inspiring light.
Ex Voto hence offers the chance to see painting as a means rather than an end, a sort of liberation for both artists, and to explore a direction that can be discerned in the mutual approach for appraising the expressive options through which the work of the two artists can be understood within the context of contemporary production.
Harald Szeemann, a key figure on the critical and theoretical scene of the late twentieth century, an outlaw thinker, independent art historian and director, who coined a term – Ausstellungsmancher, that is curator – paved the way to a vitally topical debate. He embodies a type of criticism liberated from the rude control of time, shifting the theoretical debate towards the notion of the exhibition, an inalienable creative moment, a critical space in which the conditions of the work are not only displayed but verified. A passionate lover of the exhibition in its role as a visual happening, Szeemann’s voyage through art was charted by landmark discussions about the approaches underlying the creation and the display of art.
The question of the exhibition as a flow of ideas and opinions had already been addressed by Coda Zabetta, for example, at the Teatro India in Rome, where he abandoned the classic exhibition in favour of a more conceptual choice. At this show in Como too, not only are the canvases on display standing on the floor, but the sculptures are under glass bell-jars, set in turn upon what we would once have called pedestals but which are now part of the work, completing a circuit taking in bell-jar and element beneath. In addition to the paintings – the conceptual genesis of which we will look at in further detail below – an environmental installation of large dimensions as a visual-environmental synthesis of his research.
The result, therefore, is that of linking this propensity to the general tendency to refer contemporary production to an interchange that invades the surroundings and, far from being limited to a mere aesthetic complacency, actually evades this at first impact.
In Sciascia there is no aestheic satisfaction; he uses painting like Beuys uses words, Kounellis iron and Zorio powder or tar. It is merely a means and not an end: that’s why the conceptual dimension of his work is of predominant importance, what we see is exactly the way the artist expresses his exploration.
Shunning all collusion with visual enjoyment, Sciascia remains poised between the practice of a conceptual art and a gestural dynamism to which he wants to feel parallel, drawing from it, as from Alberti’s window, improper combinations and articulations as precarious as they are solid.
Sciascia explores the socio-cultural aspect of perception: through his head, his eyes, man perceives: this is a primary function, it has always existed as has the need for shelter, and it is itself a primordial need.
The need to know, that is the learning, is what interests Sciascia: he’s been devoting himself to it for years; he has carried out scientific studies on light which – not coincidentally – scientists represent with graphs that in formal terms look exactly like a dome, a shelter.
This shape recurs precisely in the organ, the pineal gland located inside the brain, responsible for the production of the hormone melatonin which regulates the sleeping-waking heartbeat, reacting to darkness or lack of light, the starting-point for the work of Filippo Sciascia.
In oriental medicine, the information received from subtle energy fields through the pineal gland is decoded and transmitted along the vertebral column as a resonant vibration. The information travels to other parts of the body through energy channels, bio-electrical fields, nerve fibres and systems of circulation. We must not overlook the importance the pineal gland has for the Indians and the Egyptians, who consider it as the third eye.
For Descartes, instead, the pineal gland is the focal crucial point at which the mind (res cogitans) and the body (res extensa) interact, distinguished as he sees it by the fact that it is the only cerebral organ to be single and not double.
During the night the pineal gland is 100% reactivated, it is as if the eye moved, restoring light where the darkness of the night reigns, and so the alternation of darkness and light returns. And the very eye that is responsible for the acquisition of light, if graphically overlaid on the pineal gland and the illustrations of the scientists, proves to be a perfect match.
Literary impressions, the relations with philosophic thought, the myths and the archetypes recur, not as mere citations or poetic evocations, but rather as elements on a conceptual map that entwine the history of man, art, science and the sacred.
Hence what Sciascia achieves is a conceptual process: for him painting is not an end but a means to address all these elements and the strength of synthesis, practiced through painting, makes it into a work of a conceptual character sustained by the investigation of science, philosophy, poetry and the sacred.
“The artist must see his work as a photograph, an open, unfinished image.” (Joseph Beuys)
Like all Sciascia’s works, those on show here in Como in the former Church of San Francesco at the Fondazione Ratti, have all been created in the aftermath of the production of a video, Lux Lumina, that began many years ago and that Sciascia updates from time to time. It is the illustration of a practice never finished, or rather of an ongoing process, since each work is a step forward in the research. No concession to decoration is allowed, because there is no end to evolution, each work is a passage. The very use of chalk, by its nature an unstable material subject to change, which he controls in its dual solid and liquid form, is intended as a conceptual reference to a research, and hence a work, that is not designed to find an end in the shelter of the self-satisfaction of either artist or spectator. Rather it is a sort of magma that proceeds through various stages on both the semiotic plane of container – the videos, the canvases and their consequences – and that of contents: the updating of an unspent scientific-philosophic insight.
He loves philosophy and science. The choice of painting is determined as a consequence of the inclination that he feels morbidly his own and from which he derives particularly felicitous results. What he aspires to is to explore an intense conceptual dynamism before which he can genuflect like a well-trained monk and adore the epiphany of thought revealed in the form of painting.
The emotive matrix at the level of content gradually excludes the insistence of the formally impeccable datum, mastery of which he has amply proved, suffice it to think of Lux 2 and the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa of 2008, published here. It is as if he has shown his mettle as a capable and refined painter, and now wishes to shift the emphasis to an evaporation of figuration, to tip his quest still further towards the immediate manifestation of a thought rather than a datum.
He stakes on thought to unleash a conscious materiality; this is the path Sciascia has always followed. “We are always trying to make or become something or someone, and that’s how we create all our problems, all our difficulties … because that’s exactly where the Ego pops out, and if someone doesn’t agree with our way of understanding or share our opinion we are disappointed.” The mystical, religious concept that appears in For Your consideration only, where men read passages from the Bible and the Koran marking a time of action that is repetitive, mystical and alienating, is a 2005 video from which, as is his practice, he derives paintings with the same title, numbering them starting from one in chronological order. It is a sort of visual poem and an allegory of life, since as the readings continue the video shows sections of road, by association inviting the observer to find his own path through life.
Fall/Rising and Sophia, two videos that complete the triptych between 2004 and 2006, probe the relations between the life, freedom and conscience of the artist in relation to his own sub-conscious as an updating of Sciascia’s conceptual research: the videos maintain a visionary relationship with the representation and the protagonists are never didactic , but through unpredictable attitudes hark back to the parody of the artist’s practice, especially in Sophia, and to the approach to existence in Fall/Rising.
These videos too – which are preliminary in terms of research to that of Como, Lux Lumina, a ten-minute video specially produced in its complete version for this show at the former Church of San Francesco – had their customary aftermath in a series of paintings yielded by the exploration of the video.
Begun in 2001, Lux Lumina was shot between Bali and Como.
It was produced without any particular interest in technology, since Sciascia prefers to generate an artistic conditioning in the video, modelling by hand with a general-purpose programme as if he were painting.
The formal outcomes of the installation at the show illustrate the synthesis of Sciascia’s work: the dome shape confirms the sense of protection linked to primordial images of shelter and home, experienced by man contemporaneously with the light, and the known shape of the pineal gland and the images offered of light by the scientists. Then, inside the tent, we find canvases representing the support that Sciascia has chosen. In terms of contents, the presence of the pliers with three legs is associated with the video-camera that is used on a tripod. Like all the other elements, there is nothing accidental about the fact that they create tension, in this case a tension precisely between light and darkness. The clay and the glass phial are materials whose solidity passes through a fluid state, they are not merely matter recurring in the paintings, but also significant witness of a magma that apparently proceeds by means of stages of temporary equilibrium.
Already displayed in a smaller version with a diameter of two metres at the National Museum of Singapore, one of the most prestigious art venues in Asia, the tent presented in Como is no less than nine metres wide and three high, and is the result of months of work that brings together technical and conceptual refinements, the evolving expressions of which were noted also in the Trinacria show in New York. Similarly, in that show there were paintings and installations that referred to Fall/Rising, the famous image of the bullfighter, and to Sophia addressing the quest of the artist – with Mr Artist in a dark suit and trendy glasses chatting with his Conscience, interpreted by a young, bald actor in a white suit, and Freedom in the guise of a young Asian woman.
Even the tripods hark back to previous projects, and more specifically Trinacria: there are three sides and three panels on the tent on which the light – who else – produces unexpected hues depending on the absorption of the light, despite the fact that it is always the same colour, black: Trinacria, symbol of Sicily, his homeland.
The tripod that recurs as a symbol of Sciascia’s work, each time in different formal conditionings, maintains the underlying concept, raising it to the rank of icon as demonstrated by other conceptual interpreters such as Kounellis, Zorio, Merz or Beuys. This need for exploration confirms that the work is an open work, that the reactions and connections do not end with the end of the video or still less with the completion of a painting.
Sciascia’s icons mingle but are never absent: the light is what the video camera captures, what men see immediately and what plays an essential role in arriving at knowledge.
“The interaction between the artist, the video-camera and the audience evokes the relativity of the roles and shows the analogies between man and the technology created by man,” says Filippo Sciascia.
So much so that the paintings indiscriminately bring together the fundamental aspects that Sciascia is tackling: the works may represent, for example, three figures interacting with the external environment in which we can make out a circle of light, which has a clear geometrical and symbolic reference, in terms of contents, to the pineal gland, the conformation of the eye, the representation of light and to the very means through which all this is accomplished, namely the head itself, here represented by extension of the figures, a magnificent visual synecdoche.
All the works on show derive from the Lux Lumina video, a copy of which is projected on a loop inside the installation. In other words they are an extract of it, a sort of still: an expressive mode of strengthening the concept while substantially ignoring the well-wrought painting, since Sciascia can rely on a technical mastery of such calibre that he can even allow himself, every so often, to tone it down.
This is so in the case of the girl going into the shrubbery as an expedient for representing the passage from darkness to light, who in the video goes through a dome with a hole at the top that recalls the shape of an eye, or the deer whose horns started off as mere weak skin and grow stronger and stronger over the years, illustrated purely on account of providing such a cogent metaphor of evolution.
We said that the whole work started with a video, why? Because it is the most effective way of capturing the light, which is life, the essence of which is the subject of philosophical debate.
Lorenzo Poggiali 2011