For a whole week, entering Assab One at any hour of the day or night, one finds oneself immersed in a darkness dotted with small points of light that make one think of a starry sky, the kind that one cannot see during the day and, at night in Milan, neither.
Uninterrupted openness and visibility are the protagonists of this operation by Federico Pietrella: they interweave time and space, place and signs, light and darkness. The ‘work’ is the exhibition itself, that is, the week in which Pietrella’s scene – we are purposely trying to avoid the term ‘installation’ – welcomes the visible even when no one is there, at the most unlikely hours of the day or night, when the space is usually closed.
A starry sky: nothing could be simpler and more continuous, more fascinating and original. Immanuel Kant brings forth from there the question of what beauty is. How can we not think back, immersed in this recreated sky?
Disinterested pleasure, the sublime, reflective judgement resonate with new meaning in the context of pretentious relationalism and public engagement in art in which we move today. Is not an exhibition that opens a space to encounter at any time of the day or night relational? Is not disinterestedness relational? Is not such an availability that offers itself without interfering, and that at the appointed time ends, is not public, stops and disappears to move on to something else? Is not the sublime public? Kant defined it as a pleasure connected to pure representation – we would refer to it as pure exposition, in the sense mentioned above – where pure, Kant says exactly, stands for without concept, conceptually indemonstrable, beyond any supposed definitive demonstration. Without concept is a fine problem today, again topical: not in the sense of the visual, against or beyond the verbal, but about doing and being, beyond the sayable.
In Pietrella there is action and at the same time there is the calmness of being: many holes made in the slides with silent insistence, without the vexatious neurosis of those who existentially recharge repetition; holes that, projected, generate the points of light that we take for stars; then there is the affirmation of the pleasure of being in them, of a presence that fears neither passivity nor disengagement.
(This “scene” is the other side of the one Pietrella had created three years ago entitled Dal 25 febbraio all’11 marzo 2003. On that occasion he had hammered thousands of nails into the white walls of the gallery: there the nails pierced the walls, protruded, cast their little dark shadow, proliferated, were the active doing and the work of the day. Rightly, Roberto Pinto wrote of it as an ‘environment created to receive but which at the same time can be seen as repelling’, emphasising the threatening and dangerous aspect of the nail. Here it is night that takes its place, the holes create light, we stroll or pause meditatively).
Kant writes that the beautiful resides in the contemplation of form and that the sublime is encountered in the face of the formless, the limitless, the incomprehensible. It is here that the transition to morality – and politics – takes place, because it is here that what he calls subjective universality is founded and spreads, a universality that starts from the subjective, the paradox that brings into play the foundation of the reasons for action and the social.
In Assab One from March 27 to April 3 2006, this is manifested in Pietrella’s meditative attitude, which is rare and – it must be emphasised – so Italian, so elegant and bordering on the abstract, so attentive to the whole and also to detail, so balanced, but also expansive to the limit of excess, capable of enhancing the empty spaces and silences. An attitude that this scene implies and relays to the spectator who is welcomed and enveloped; and that reverberates in the game of reciprocity that is triggered there in at least two ways. The first is that the spectator, upon entering the scene prepared by the artist, literally enters it, that is, he interferes with the luminous beams of the projectors, interrupts them and projects his shadow, effectively redesigning the projections themselves and revealing the play of reversals between light and shadow, hole and fullness, inside and outside: his shadow makes a hole in the continuity of the projected sky. The second seems to us to suggest another projection, that of the spectator who, as in the real starry sky so also in this one, cannot help but look for his figures, constellations or abstractions that they may be, to give peace to his own universality, to verify it and not subjectively block the sublime sensation.
Pietrella seems to be saying that one cannot but start from here to move on elsewhere, that one cannot but verify what the subject’s attitude is towards the public realm, and that this must be verified with action, not with words; that one thing gives value to the other, roots it and does not disperse it in intentions and occasionality; this is what the round-the-clock, non-stop opening speaks to us about.
Then, let’s go into detail, let’s get closer to what constitutes the work, because Pietrella has always based his works on a double vision according to distance, from his paintings of signs that only when looked at from afar make it possible to identify the figure they represent, to his self-portraits made directly on the wall with stamps. Where, really, is the figure? Where and what to really look at? Is not the material sign on the canvas or the stamp on the wall also the figure? Indeed, is this not precisely the modern vision, the one educated by abstractionism, conceptualism, photography, now ingrained in our very gaze, which sees one and the other together, what is and what appears? No longer self-referential, but literally double and sensitive?
Here we have points of light that from close up trigger the double game: blurred or in focus – like photography, and they are in fact slides, albeit sui generis, in any case photo-graphs, sign-writings of light – they transfigure themselves into points of light or clearly show their edges, thus revealing themselves to be holes in the support – the slide in fact – through which the light that is projected onto the dark background passes. They are holes that we see, not bodies that emanate light, like the stars they depict; holes also in the sense that what they illuminate is the white of the wall that lies underneath and that re-emerges in the foreground thanks to the black that surrounds it (that is projected: the slide is black). Sublime vertigo also this of the ‘stardust’, which, as we have already written, mobilises the infinite both at the level of the limitlessness of the whole – the sky without limits – and at the level of detail – the single point that constitutes it.
And then: if we look even closer at the projection of the holes that are in focus, we can say that we see the shadow of its edges, necessarily jagged, three-dimensional. It is at this point that the inevitable reference to Lucio Fontana emerges, to his holes, to the spectacular photographs of their shadows on the canvas, to the very practice of piercing and finally to its expansion into the environment. We will not go down this path, but the juxtaposition comes in handy for a final observation, on technology, on the means used by Pietrella for this exhibition. While Fontana took advantage of the exit from the painting to experiment with new technologies, neon and Wood’s light, launching himself into the future as he had launched himself into conceptual space, Pietrella does somewhat the opposite, opting for means that I would not define as regressive, but still simple and low-profile: slide projectors now downgraded by the digital counterparts that have replaced them everywhere. Simplicity is an integral part of Pietrella’s work, of his basic attitude, indistricable from the effect he wants to achieve and which he achieves: just think what a scene it would have been with the use of special effects. Is there something here of that reference to obsolescence, according to Walter Benjamin’s term recently taken up by Rosalind Krauss in her texts on artists such as James Coleman and William Kentridge, that is, to the recovery of an unfashionable instrument and its reinvention as a medium, that is, as a language capable of bypassing the mirroring of the present and formally prefiguring the future? The question is posed – think also of Pietrella’s ‘painting’ and its conceptual timbre – but beyond or within this scope, in Pietrella’s work, a further coherent way of remembering what the ‘work’ is, where to really look, what to pay attention to. When the exhibition is over, everything will be (more) clear.