The optics of the infinity

Curated by Marco Meneguzzo

28 May 2009

Marco Menguzzo and "The theatre and its double", Thiene, Vicenza, Italy, 2009

It may seem strange that an artist such as Paolo Scirpa, so uncompromising in defining the area of his work, so active at the heart of one of the great centres of the art system, and so closely allied to some of the most significant trends in contemporary art, in fact developed his creative career from totally individual and independent positions.

Of course, there was a personal factor, linked to the artist’s discreet and at the same time strong character, which played an important role in this regard. Those who know Scirpa are conscious that this aspect of his personality has had a considerable effect on his industrious isolation (even though he is no stranger to all aspects of society and socialization, as demonstrated by his teaching role at the prestigious Brera art academy). But on the other hand, the solitary image of his work cannot be attributed solely to questions of personality, because in any case, Scirpa had the courage and foresight to leave his native Sicily and move to Milan, where contemporary art was livelier and in closer contact with what was happening elsewhere in the world. Likewise, it would be erroneous to say that he has been ignored by art criticism: one just has to look through the very long list of scholars – of by no means secondary stature – who have written about his work over the years. The area in which the artist has received insufficient attention is the market, the circulation of his work through art galleries. The latter have taken less risks than they could and should have done, just because, in the period of the artist’s maturity – from the early 1970s – the type of work that he was producing may have seemed rather isolated with respect to contemporary trends. At this point, the reader may feel puzzled, because the opening lines of this essay stated that Scirpa’s work was in line with some of the most important contemporary currents, which seems to contradict the idea of isolation. But this is not actually the case. The market’s focus is always on a given moment in time, and it tends to reject any form of temporal or cultural prolongation. Often this trait of “seizing the moment” is in evident contrast with artists’ work on themes which may actually require a considerable amount of time for their development, and which may be nurtured by the gradual metabolic transformation of inner needs. These needs sometimes correspond to collective needs, therefore the “Zeitgeist”, or the “spirit of the age,” and this results in an area of research being developed contemporaneously by several artists – or scientists, or philosophers – or groups that coalesced around that core theme. This is a mechanism that leads to the theme being revealed and highlighted precisely due to the plurality of individuals involved, with a collective capacity for identifying a problem and suggesting, or imposing, their respective individual solutions. However it may also happen – as occurs in the majority of cases – that single personalities choose to work in a given area of expression because they find it impossible to abandon their inner needs and aspirations. Such individuals thus help define and further enrich areas of expression that have already been identified but that have not yet been entirely formulated, and their work is performed without taking into consideration what is happening in terms of trends or fashion.

Therefore, if we consider Paolo Scirpa’s earliest works made using light – and more in general, all those works that earned him his reputation as an “artist of light” – we could say that his area of expression can be located in the field of optical-kinetic art. This area achieved greatest success in Italy and internationally between 1959 and 1965/66, and it then slowly declined, contemporaneously with the abandonment of any belief in a “perceptively” better society. At the same time other currents were in an ascending phase, such as Pop Art – with its diametrically opposing position with respect to optical-kinetic art – and Arte Povera, which was closer to a position of directly challenging the global society of the day. The first impression is that Scirpa’s work belongs to optical-kinetic art, but not to that season: in other words, the optical-kinetic characteristics of his production did not coincide with the period in which Italy’s kinetic artists and groups rightly achieved greatest recognition and development. Examples include the T group, the Enne group, and the MID group, who in fact succeeded in focusing attention on the theme of man’s perception of the world and the mechanisms involved in the spectator’s view of reality. In actual fact, Scirpa began working in this area a few years later. In 1972, when he had moved to Milan, he almost definitively abandoned the initial abstract-geometric style that had hallmarked his long Sicilian apprenticeship, and he decided to concentrate not so much on the representation of light, but rather on light itself.

A short step backwards enables us to review the period of the Sicilian artist’s creative training. He first exhibited at a group show as early as 1953, when he was just nineteen. However, these exhibitions, though important, were rather local in character. It should be remembered that at that time, a young artist’s career was cadenced by more definite and slower stages of development than is the case today. His participation in the 9th National Quadrennial Art Exhibition in Rome, at Palazzo delle Esposizioni, in 1965, marked a significant step forwards. In this case his abstract language, already reinforced by consolidated printmaking skills, had reached evident maturity, though it was not yet totally independent. The artist swung between a lyric current close to the Informale style and a more clear-cut form of abstraction, though there were also references to certain reminiscences of naturalism. The technique of etching – which at that time was his preferred medium – in a way forced him to draw and then to delineate, marking shapes and perimeters. This is how the idea of a circular motif – a “sun,” a “habitat” – first appeared, a motif enclosing the magma of life, in that period expressed by the metaphor of a sort of meeting between natural form and artificial human constructions. Scirpa began to exhibit this circular habitat, this sun, regularly, giving increasingly precise definition to his language, when he moved to Milan, where he taught at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts with Luciano Fabro (he was professor of Painting from 1992 to 2001). In fact his first solo show was held in 1967, while his debut in Milan dates to 1969. In those years, just before the new departure that he would implement with his “ludoscopes,” his work proceeded in dual directions, demonstrating the range of his interests. On one hand, he was increasingly concerned with the language of perception, developed in increasingly rarefied and minimalist forms. On the other, he could not fail to be affected by a world that was increasingly captive to the urge for productivity, amongst induced demand and consumerist delirium. His attention to this social condition led him to create the first works that were entirely his “own” (not that the previous works were not, but just that these revealed a highly personal and unmistakable code): large “objects,” almost kaleidoscopes, with a myriad of boxes for products, empty packaging, assembled on mirror surfaces to form a sort of miniature city or contemporary skyline. It is no coincidence that the first of these works, made in 1972, is named “Consumerist megapolis.” The message is obvious: the city of man has become the city of consumerism, in which man’s identity is expressed by means of consumption, or rather by consumerism which is the former’s degenerative derivative. Scirpa would continue to work on this theme, even many years later, with a small number of carefully-targeted works which, from the early 1990s, would become installations, with dimensions such as to occupy and identify a significant portion of space.

However, Paolo Scirpa’s personality is revealed by the origin of these works, or rather by their initial motivation. Of course, it is true that the years in which Scirpa developed his anti-consumerist stance coincided with the period hallmarked by the most radical and violent protests against capitalist society in the West, but in actual fact the artist’s motivations run deeper and have more distant origins. Into all his works, Scirpa injects a powerful ethical tension, a “doit être” of almost religious intensity. He himself remembers that he met, when he was very young, Chiara Lubich, founder of the ecumenical Focolare movement, ascetic and energetic instigator of the idea of “unity” in human spirituality. We will see how the artist later transfigured and metaphorized this concept into his “poetry of light,” and also into his perception of the error of man in his abandonment to the inequitable voracity of consumerism. In actual fact, this moral significance is far more direct and declared in this cycle of works than in the other, in which the prevalent theme seems to be the analysis of language. However, in all probability – this is my opinion – the “ludoscopes” and the related works are those that best express the transformation of Scirpa’s ethical motivation into physical form.

“Ludoscopes” are three-dimensional works with geometrical neon light sources, built from 1972, and therefore they were contemporary with Scirpa’s work on consumerism. Over the course of the years, they were accompanied by a series of paintings – oils and acrylics on canvas – that seem to be their two-dimensional portraits or depictions. From the very earliest “ludoscopes”, the artist consciously restricted his alphabet to three geometrical forms, square, circle and triangle. He put these forms into movement, with infinite repetition in space, by means of mirrors: a real space, because the work is three-dimensional and the light is generated by a bulb, but at the same time it is a simulated, depicted space, almost a two-dimensional surface. Substantially illusory. Scirpa himself pointed out to me, as if surprised by this realization (renewing one’s understanding, seeing something that had already been seen before), how in the concentric neon circles one finds the forms of the “scalea,” the seating steps of ancient theatres, Ancient Greek theatres, the theatre that he himself had seen, or rather experienced, in his native Syracuse, as if this were a sort of indelible imprinting, culture becoming part of biology, of his DNA… His chosen form is multiplied by means of a series of translations and intersections that suggests the work’s potentially infinite propagation in space, far beyond its actual physical dimensions. In this sense, the decision to use a light-emitting source, such as a neon tube, is only natural, because it is justified by an inner, idealistic need. It denotes the artist’s real and profound adherence to his deepest motivations for the chosen direction of artistic research: for Paolo Scirpa, the quest for light as unifying element of reality (or, in more religious terms, “of creation,” as perhaps he himself would say).

However it is significant that the artist did not abandon painting once he had adopted the “real” medium of neon bulbs. He continued painting, above all in the 1980s, and right up until today. These works resemble “portraits” of his “ludoscopes,” translated into paint and light effects. While for some artists, the transition from the depiction of an object to a material used as it is, with its intrinsic characteristics, is irreversible, not only was it reversible for Scirpa, but in fact he used two techniques contemporaneously without any problems. In other words, Scirpa is unique in that his theme was not so much involved with whether to depict or to “present” the object, but rather with the more general, more universal, and perhaps more traditional, theme of light itself.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why his position in the area of optical-kinetic art is in part anomalous – and not just for merely chronological reasons – though admittedly inevitable. The factors that place him squarely within this current are the media used, the way they are used, and the results desired and attained. On the other hand, his position is anomalous, because his intentions are wholly metaphorical, and can in no way be reduced to the effectual reality of perception. Optical-kinetic artists of strict observance, so to speak, showed only minimal interest in any aspects transcending the problems of human perception. At most, they extended their interest to the “historical-social” questions of perception, thus including not only the analysis of all types of physiological perception, but also an exploration of the relationship between the production and fruition of vision, with occasional forays into the field of sociology (not to mention the relationship between art and industry, or between the auratic and serial characteristics of art, which were also important corollaries). Paolo Scirpa on the other hand studies the wholly transcendental question of “light”, in the sense of that idea of which real light – produced by media that he also uses – is nothing but a reflection. This means that what he is truly interested in is ideal light. In order to express this interest, and the importance of that light for himself and for the interpretation of the world mediated by an artist, he is willing to utilize the inadequate physical means available in the real world, though in the conviction that such media are nothing but the shadow, a depiction, an imitation, a reflection, of that much greater meaning.

In this sense, Scirpa wholly belongs to the tradition, even the mediaeval tradition, according to which light is not just an optical-perceptual phenomenon, but above all a mystical experience. We could say that Scirpa is far closer to Beato Angelico than to Lazlo Moholy-Nagy! If we adopt this point of view, Scirpa’s entire work can be located at different points along the same axis (and we should not forget the artist’s adherence to that concept of “unity”, discovered for the first time during his contact with Lubich). This fully explains, for example, the peaceful coexistence of painting and neon lights, because in this case, the question is not one of replacing the “object depicted” (painting that imitates light) with the “real object” (neon, which could be considered as real light), because both these situations just remind us of that transcendental light which is uppermost in Scirpa’s thoughts. In fact both media, namely painting, and the technological medium of an excited gas that produces physical light, are nothing more than a visible, or depictable, phantom.

On the subject of Scirpa’s theme of interest, we could go so far as to suggest that his ultimate goal is not in fact light, but rather something that is hidden “behind” light, in other words the concept of infinity. This would explain, for example, the artist’s natural preference for mirror surfaces, both in the “consumerism” cycle, and in the long series of “ludoscopes”, and again in another of his earlier experiments, made in the early 1970s, when he painted on sheets of mirror steel. After all, the artist himself has suggested this interpretation on many occasions. For example, he stated, in a brief text explaining his “ludoscopes”, that the “infinity of simulated space is an idea that has long stimulated my thoughts and my inner dimension.” Without doubt, mankind, with the human eye and mind, is constantly fascinated by references to infinity, and this is why our thoughts often linger in that area, and in that immediately preceding it, namely that of light. Of course, the multiplication of a light source created using parallel mirrors – which unfortunately can generate only a limited number of reflections of the original source, before physical light dwindles and disappears into the inevitably dark background – is nothing but an impoverished – human – depiction of an infinity that can only be simulated and suggested. The Byzantine civilization used gold-leaf backgrounds to express the infinity of transcendent light, and Humanism translated this metaphor into something closer to everyday reality, something more physical, by replacing gold leaf with blue skies, as in Giotto. In our epoch, in order to bring the concept even closer to us, making it even more human and less absolute, the idea has been developed even further, searching for this infinity in the realm of technology. As an artist, Paolo Scirpa followed suit, but he never forgot the starting point which, in the case of infinity, could also be the final destination.

Lastly, it is important to consider Scirpa’s constant and considerable production of works in a series that the artist himself catalogues using the general term “projects.” They are in actual fact “fantasies” (though today, a magnate or an institution aiming at something spectacular could succeed in their implementation, challenging a few laws of physics and a lot of laws regulating the ancient heritage…), or “caprices” in the 18th century style: fantasy views in which the painter juxtaposed recognisable features with unrelated landscapes, such as Ancient Roman ruins on the Venetian lagoon. In Scirpa’s case, he constructs urban or natural landscapes, and inserts luminous “ludoscopes” into them, on a scale which in reality would be gigantic. Scirpa chooses the places dearest to him, or famous locations, such as Renaissance churches, ancient necropolises and famous piazzas, and at the centre of these locations, he positions the devastating geometry of his triangles, squares and circles. The result creates a remarkable sense of distance. He achieves it by means of the “modern” montage technique, which gives each of these projects that totally artificial flavour common to all photographic montage works, from Dada to Surrealism, in which the cut-out components are clearly visible, and likewise the anomalies of scale amongst the individual components (the same result is not achieved using sophisticated electronic procedures such as Photoshop, which are paradoxically more “natural”). The sense of distance is created by the obvious artifice of inserting a visibly small object at a gigantic scale. The alienating effect is also the result of a higher and different degree of artifice, as could be the case, for example, of Étienne-Louis Boullée’s “extreme” architecture in his Bibliothèque du Roi, or to an even greater degree, his famous Cénotaphe à Newton. At this point, a brief digression on the artist’s most recent work could help provide a complete understanding of his entire model of thought and sentiment. The work in question is a large model in wood based on a doubled Greek theatre, complete with theatron and orchestra, but in which the theatron – stepped seating – both looks inwards, towards the skené, and outwards, towards the exterior world. The result is a strange, geometrical ring-shape, a sort of regular, man-made volcanic crater, in which interior and exterior have the same significance and value. There is a clear reference to the Ancient Greek theatre, recalling archaic memories, the foundation of a culture and of a person (it is impossible not to think of Scirpa’s Syracuse origins). But apart from this, the effect of the work oscillates between perfect geometrical forms and the metaphorical meaning of “looking” inside and outside, towards oneself and towards the world, producing a beneficial alienation, which in this case seems to be subtly even more strongly highlighted than in the projects mentioned earlier. In this case, the alienation is not due so much to the artifice of the procedure, but to the artificiality and duplicity of the result, which compares the purity of forms with the randomness of the world. When the pure forms of geometry meet the history of a location, or, to put it another way, when infinity, in this case represented by the artist’s geometrically perfect forms, or again, by light, meets the stratified layers of form, time and events that accumulate in an inhabited place, the result is that dialectic interchange between the ideas of things and the reality of things. Plato had understood this, and Scirpa has put it on stage.