The form of light, the light of form

Curated by Marco Meneguzzo

01 April 2017

The are many reasons of a historical kind for appreciating the work of Paolo Scirpa, but the characteristic that makes his work eminent – today as in the past – goes beyond any historical aspect and, instead, concerns only the field of art. In other words, today we look at his work not so much as an important “document” of a particular moment in art history, but as genuine “work”, even after more than forty years since he made his debut as an artist.
In fact his first “Ludoscopi” date from 1972, and with them this Sicilian artist presented himself to the public; the two-dimensional works which he had shown in the preceding decade had now been transformed into three dimensions but, above all, he had transformed what had been his way of representing light – something common to all artists and that is the basis of all art – into a “presentation” of light. He did this with the technological element that is closest to the luminous essence, one, what is more, that is available to everyone and is almost humble: fluorescent neon tubes. The passage from a symbolic representation to a kind of ontological presence of the thing itself had, perhaps, been the main linguistic problem of the preceding decade, and had led to a series of extremely varied solutions. In this way there was demonstrated how this linguistic taboo could be resolved not only without eroding the traditional statute of art but, instead, by actually increasing its expressive possibilities. Such experiences ranged from kinetic ones – which in Italy became the highly modern and theoretically illuminating variant of Arte Programmata – to Minimal Art and Arte Povera, with a range of experiences where the “thing” represented was also the real “thing”. In many of these trends, and even in the 1960s, there was the presence of neon light – though perhaps it would be better to say “neon tubes”… -, so it could be objected that the use Scirpa made of it in the following decade, was not an absolute first, an exclusive trademark; and yet his use of it was highly personal, so much so as to merit a direct comparison with those artists who – even for reasons of age – had made use of it shortly before him. In the works of Arte Programmata neon was highly visible, but as a purely instrumental use: it had to illuminate; in other words, it was used for back-lighting and thus supplied a real and uniform light – and, I would add, a new one – according to the work’s needs. In the Minimalist works by Dan Flavin, on the contrary, the objectual presence of neon tubes as though they were the basic element of a simple assemblage is absolutely manifest, and almost absolute: a luminous object as an element of a minimal alphabet, arbitrary but essential. In Arte Povera, there was a widespread use of neon light as a symbolic form: it symbolised – though we could also say “it represented” – energy, and when a neon tube formed a written word (in the work of Mario Merz or Pier Paolo Calzolari, for example) this increased its rhetorically symbolic value. So we are dealing with a series of different usages with a different signifier and significance, perhaps even united to the “technologically evident” presence of the neon tubes that, at the time, were still an unusual element and certainly an anti-traditional one. In the following decade experimentation had become accepted and the “new” had become “tradition” only for being new (this happened with neon lights just as it did with video, even though based on very different theoretical supports…): Scirpa was tangential to this attitude, and he certainly never became a champion of experimental adventures, and it is due to this very fact that his own experimentation has lasted: because it is not “experimental” but is the very substance of the work.
And so, even before discussing the merits of Scirpa’s work, it has been necessary to clear away the misinterpretation of “novelty” at all costs, and to concentrate on the quality, on his ways of using the new, without being clouded by a category that is historically important, but artistically neutral (though this does not mean that we must stay quiet in the presence of works that are formally identical and that are passed off as original and new when, in fact, they are not, as has happened with Scirpa himself with works identical to his but made some thirty-five years later!…). I said earlier that Scirpa’s “newness” does not stop being new with the passing of time, simply because it was not born as a “novelty” but as a “necessity” inherent in the work: in fact Scirpa uses neon tubes as light and form and, even though staging a kind of perceptive and sensorial illusion, in no way does he hide the elements he uses. He exhibits them for what they are, and the strong expressive and symbolic charge that they gain is not the result of an a priori declaration of a neo-avant-garde attitude but is the outcome of a successful formal and conceptual combination that never stops being effective and renews itself each time it is looked at. Scirpa’s works create the illusion of depth through a skilful use of mirrors that greatly multiply the neon tubes, so much so as to make what is physically contained in a moderate (and visible) thickness seems to be bottomless pools, but the construction is visible, there is no trick – which would consist of concealing the elements in play in order to obtain a misleading result -, though the effect is the consequent result. The illusion that is created for the viewer and that constitutes a continuous perceptive pleasure because it is physiologically repeated, even once there is revealed – or simply seen – the construction of the work, is however only a part, and the most superficial part, of the work; this should be considered even more in depth, starting from the very form that captures the light. In Scirpa’s case, light can have a precise form thanks to the ductility of neon tubes, which are like a mark of light that obeys the artist’s desire for form: a circumference, a square, a triangle… these are the forms that Scirpa brings to light, and it is natural to associate the purity of the forms and the glare of the light to the “idea”, to that first driving force from which all things derive. This is not an intellectual question , it is not necessary to know Plato in order to associate form with light, even these forms with light, and to transform physical luminosity into a symbolic splendour: the form of light, the mechanical act of bending the glass tube filled with neon to create the wished-for form, transcends this physicality and becomes an immaterial substance, it becomes the light of form: the universal “brightness” of the geometrical forms joins with the luminosity that they emanate. Brightness, luminosity, and splendour are only apparently vague terms – or else they are vague for those who think of light only as electromagnetic frequencies – because in fact they speak of the transcendental aspect of light, just as Plato spoke of ideas or medieval philosophers and theologians (which at the time were the same thing) spoke of “optics”: how and why we physically see the world is only a reflection of how the Creation is manifested, and in its manifestation we know and recognise the Creator. And so optics – in that context – was the science of God, because it analysed the essence of His first act towards the world: the separation of darkness from light… With greater modesty than those philosophers, Scirpa does not perhaps wish to aim so high, but the transcendental component of his work is very important, even though, as an artist, he cannot and does not want to eliminate the material aspect of the work: so what to do then, unless try to reconcile the two aspects and suggest transcendence through the material?
This was once a common practice for artists, so much so that interpretative codes were based almost completely on the metaphorical or symbolic meaning of the things and people represented, but after one hundred and fifty years of “bourgeois realism” proposed in every possible way (some, to tell the truth, really marvellous) this precise aim of art has lessened and is the prerogative of just a few artists who, in fact, follow paths different from those of the past to speak to us about a “beyond” that is not physical. Perhaps in Scirpa’s case a noble analogy might help this interpretation. In the Orthodox Christian world icons were – and still are – sacred objects because they did not represent a “window” onto the divine, but they “were” a genuine opening onto a further world. Now, with all the necessary caution, whoever places a work by Scirpa in their own particular space – on the wall, a pedestal, or the floor – “breaks through” that space and transforms it into an opening, a metaphorical bridge, even an indefinite and infinite passage to a world that is now unknown. Perhaps it is not the same thing, but it certainly functions as a simile, while the comparison paradoxically reinforces the question of the physicality of contemporary work – at least, that by Scirpa – with respect to the codes of transcendence that are so deeply rooted in the collective imagination. Because the difference from the icon tradition – and the difference between contemporary art and antique art – is the very fact that today we are no longer succoured by the familiar apparatus – of saints, symbols, and codes – that accompanies us across the threshold, and comforts us with its tranquilising nearness. Today we are more alone, and from those depths that we contemplate, perhaps even the abyss might in turn look at us.