One refrigerator, one parachute, a carpet, one small table and a palm tree. Add to it two couches, two arm chairs and a book shelf. What might this strange arrangement represent, this Lautreamont-like assembly of non-congruent objects on the altar of his delirious art (in spirit of his famous “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table”)? These objects, however, unlike Lautreamont’s assemblages that come from the feverish depths of a poetic imagination, are a part of an installation by the Italian artist Salvatore Puglia, whose goal was diametrically opposite to that of the above mentioned avant-garde poet: not to shock and offer a novelty, but rather to escape into a small isolated oasis of peace, into a shelter from throng and noise of the outside world, a kind of an asylum, or, in author’s own words, into “a low-technological and nonetheless welcoming space”, which “is conceived as a rest and conviviality space amidst the noise of both the symposium and the open nights”. The empty space under the cupola of the open parachute is decorated like a resting nook: comfortably seated in the armchair, visitor can, if he pleases, take a book from the shelf. They all have the same cover and a hand-written title, which changes daily, according to the guests’ affinities and hostess’ mood: they have a symbolic role of a book from the imaginary shelf of an ideal and universal library.
Project “Parachute” is just one of many philosophical stratagems with which Puglia is testing the monolithic unambiguity of the world; it’s up to the observer to re-think and follow the offered stratagem, to tread, along with the author, the same path from scepticism to knowledge, from doubt to liberation. The Talmud proverbial wisdom, according to which “a dream uninterpreted is like a letter unread” would perhaps apply better to the world that surrounds us – the world is the one that requires an interpretation (and the possibilities of interpretation are endless) in the name of whatever categories, ideals or phantasms, be it progress, God, history, truth or beauty (what matters is to give our existence some meaning), because the world is a letter written with secret ink, and all those codes in which it appears, its countless configurations, forms and combinations seek some explanation from us.
The modern artist in our digitalized-mechanical world is lonelier than ever before, since he is left without the audience (just like the art patron figure had disappeared long time ago, so is the uninformed, simple-hearted audience, willing to admire a piece of artwork without questioning, also long gone, and the artist’s co-travellers today are his doppelgangers and counterparts, confidants in his secrets, often potential artists themselves, or in worst case, critics and dilettants), and hence, he is faced with a double choice: a lonely distancing himself from the world, withdrawing to the ebony tower, or advancing into an open attack.
Salvatore Puglia opted for the later, but as if from some kind of underground, mostly using detours and diversions, attacking from some new and unexpected angles, much like in the vein of the great modernism teacher Walter Benjamin, whose theoretical views are the cornerstones of Puglia’s oeuvre.
Why is there a renewed interest in Benjamin today, and why is he so important in interdisciplinary and very different fields, such as philosophy, literature, linguistics, history, film, photography and experimental art? The philosopher of the visual, or perhaps rather a mystic of the visual, Benjamin took the interpretation of the modern times from the vantage point of the observer, and not just any observer, but from the point of view of a motion feature viewer (for Benjamin, rhythm of the movie-projector is also the rhythm of the ever moving factory line that carries our civilization into the future). And just like “film burst our prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of the second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go travelling”, the history for Benjamin is an all-encompassing phantasmagoria, a monster movie much like Joyce’s nightmare in which the main hero is trying unsuccessfully to wake up. It is impossible to convey the narrative of that movie in plain and comprehensive terms not only because of the too many main characters and walk-on actors, but also because of the plentitude of too many interfering episodes, broken plot with juxtapositions and flashbacks – in other words, here, we are dealing with history perceived not as the rankean old fashioned omniscient narrative (that boring lullaby of the XIX century historians), but as a constellation of the ever moving dialectic images and visual fragments, like an open system that is looking for its meaning. In that “Benjamin space” between history and art forms of visual presentations Salvatore Puglia found fertile grounds for his investigative venture: “My artistic activity over the last 15 years has focused on our common historic heritage . (…) The work I have undertaken in recent years involving collages created from original documents mixed with painting naturally led me to attempt to develop a ‘photograph of history’.”
Problem Puglia faced in his artwork can be summarized in the question of finding a way to record the imago of history, of visually representing historicity in form of the “photograph of history”, as opposed to the standard historical photograph. “That history is to be read in its transience means that its truth comes in the forms of ruins,” said Eduardo Cadava. The words of Maurice Blanchot could easily follow that thought (or perhaps they precede it): “We are never contemporaries of the disaster.” History is a ruin of time which is constantly falling into some irretrievable depth, casting a beam of diffuse shadows from all possible sides and angles. These shadows must be uncovered and given new dimensions, represented in a new, stereoscopic depth, and then, with some luck, we may be able to get an authentic image of history in the flash of an illumination: as the image of shadows in ruins.
Shadows in ruins: that dimension of reality which is connected with the liberations and is visible only conceptually, through the magnifying glass of art. And that is exactly where the impetus of Puglia’s estetic projects (1) lies, in search of the essential dimension, the one with which we discover the original status of humans in history. Materials Puglia uses are various, used mostly fragmentary and iconographically, primarily as a sign or a signal, and they consist of archival documents, scientific diagrams, anthropological illustrations, post cards, mug shots of criminals, old magnified photographs over which x-ray film is placed like some kind of a filter, with fragments of text written on it; photographs are placed in metal or lead frames, on carriers that moves them away from the wall and allow the changeable play of shadows which the panels create on white background of the wall, depending on time of the day and the angle of light.
Puglia usually displays his graphic materials in rows, in symetrical groups, which create different figures, such as circles, elypse, tetraprych, and hexagon, and the materials are organized like archives or catalogues, but in a manner that suggests some unknown cataclism; something happened, although we cannot tell exactly what: an earthquake, a disaster on a massive scale, extermination, a holocaust – and perhaps those secretive visual signs are actually codes of some fatal prophecy that is yet to come. Those rudimentary graphic signs and the faded, crippled photographic images are used here as de-contextualised quotes, whose correlation in a lucky moment of a clash and translucency should create a spark of new meaning (invertly to Benjamin’s notion of a dialectic presentation as an idea expressed by image, here, liberating concepts and ideas come from the depth of the photographic emulsion), because that is what the starting premise states: that the whole, the figure outlined as a whole, always speaks more than its parts, and not only that, but also, that the same unity has a different meaning in different arrangements, because contrary to mathematics, in arts, the sum of the same factors always give different results if placed in different order.
Insisting upon shadows is Puglia’s trademark: his photographs cast shadows and shadows rule them, and that constant play of the darkness has twofold origin. The photographs create natural shadows that are changeable, depending on angle of light, while other shadows are permanent, produced by x-ray films he used to cover the pictures, and those shadows are technological. Framed with led, the alchemical metal in gloomy, melancholic sign of Saturn, shadow of alchemy puts limits onto the shadow of technology; as the X-rays couldn’t penetrate the lead, therefore the lead frame becomes a barrier between a natural and an artificial shadow, between the nature and the technology, between the past and the present. But at the same time, there is something of the art’s magical origin in Puglia’s insisting on shadows, something of the first Paleolithic drawings made in deep, dark caves by the shimmering light of torch and shadows.
And while the Paleolithic artist, lying at the bottom of some cliff, painted stylized scenes from everyday life (bison, mammoths, details from hunting or palm prints on stone wall) on the ceiling above him with pigmented colors, working under the light of the torch dipped in animal fat, held by his aides, the first apprentices and aspiring artists, sat or squatted next to the master, mixing colors he asked, handing the brush made of a stick covered with feathers, animal hair and leaves; – or while he stood, like Michelangelo on scaffold attached to the hard rocky wall, painting the figures of gigantic bison on the cave ceiling five or six meters high – what else did that artist do but the same (thing) that the countless generations of artists after him: he illuminated the darkness of the world with the torch of art. There was something magnificent about that first prehistoric gesture, that first announcement of art, so confident, so out of any utilitarian and concrete purpose, even out of magical and religious, without any reasons so to speak, simply leaving the imprint of a human hand on a charred wall. The world is therefore nothing, fog, smoke, and that’s why it should be covered with darkness like shadow, annihilated in a way, so that the pale, clumsy imprint of a small human palm would stick out against that dark background – that human palm print is everything. With Columbus’s discovery, shadow of the Old World fell onto the New World. And Internet, what is Internet but a digital shadow of Alexandria library?
Shadows carry the traces of the origin of the art and its subversive potential: the testimony of the origin from the mythical, diluvial pre-darkness, and promethean defiance of human, who provocatively says ‘no’ to the world and gods. The x-rays Puglia uses as filters, or rather as a dimmed, monochromatic veil, represent a materialized shadow of the invisible (the inside of the human body on the surface of the photograph). Through that veil, with the changeable movement of shadows from the framed photographs, in volumes of the dark and the transparent that mutually overflow and merge, it is suggested to the observer how illusionary any fixated and stable meaning would be. Just the opposite of that, the play of shadows points to the complex game of an open interpretation, destabilization of the ground on which the observer stands (destabilization of the world), to the history as a ruin of the contemporary, which is constantly falling apart. It is not our memories, which experience an aestheticization through those nameless faces that are observing us behind the thick layers of shadows, and from the enlarged, old photographs(2). It is history that becomes humanized through melancholy – shadows falling from Puglia’s photographs actually are the shadows of the melancholy (don’t they have that coloratura so typical of pale shades around Proust’s eyes?) and speak the eternal melancholic truth that, living in this concrete historical present, now and here, we will never be able to understand “life as it really was”, nor the way it was eventually remembered, but that we are left, like Proust, with the uninvestigated complexes of the “forgotten” time and search for it, search for the forgotten and silent history(3). And that was Puglia’s intent: photographs he uses as fragmentary ‘proof’ within a wider art project never had the role to, as the artist himself said, “propose new meanings but rather to call into question our manner of regarding the past”. The immaterial remains, ghostly remnants behind all these countless faces, graphical symbols and mysterious visual codes with which Puglia operates are the spirit of History, in apocalyptic sign of destruction and punishment.
According to Giorgio Agamben, our aesthetic judgement about the artwork born in de-sacralised, technological world is inseparably present in shadow of the modern art:”We did not notice that art has become a planet of which we see only the dark side, and that aesthetic judgement is then nothing other than logos, the reunion of art and its shadow.” Unlike the artists in ancient Greece, where creation of artwork was always one with the being, and the artwork itself in harmony with the world, society and people, in light of Zaratustra’s “afternoon moment of the shortest shadow”, today’s artist, must use a detour to arrive to the absolute to which it naturally strives. That absolute, however, does not exist (it used to, but it withdrew from the world), just like there is no God, nor is there that ecstatic feeling of beauty connected with godliness, and therefore that gap necessarily transfers to the artist’s internal being. Again, let’s quote Agamben: “Gone is the time when the artist was bound in immediate identity, to faith and to the conceptions of his world; no longer is the work of art founded in the unity of the artist’s subjectivity with the work’s content in such a way that the spectator may immediately find in it the highest truth of his consciousness, that is, the divine.” (Note: Agamben’s postulates about certain “oblivion of the art” as they are in these lines, are, of course, in tradition of Heidegger’s teachings about the place and status of poetry in world marked as “oblivion of the being”.)
That strong presence of shadows in Puglia’s work bears witness to a high level of critical awareness about the position of art in the modern world. Puglia is actually a philosopher who thinks as an artist, or, if you wish, an artist who philosophizes through visual concepts; his conceptual philosophemes require thinking and analyzing “in the moment in which they are happening” (and that is what Puglia anticipates from the public, of whom his expectations are sometimes too high: some of his installations require explanation), his art is, therefore, self-reflective, with the accentuated critical awareness of itself. Since he is fighting on several fronts at the same time, let us list just some of his most important battlefields: questioning of the position of art in modern world, relation between memories and past, destruction of the photography’s representive potential, artwork as a non-museum production, incorporation of shadow into artwork, installation as an “epistemological metaphor”. All in all, it’s pretty hard to define Salvatore Puglia’s art unambiguously, but if we wanted to determine a common principle of his works, the source and confluence of his complete undertaking, we would probably define it as a search for man’s authentic dimension in the world. That dimension (which can be described only metaphorically) is temporal, although Puglia is not bothered to represent it spatially when he speaks of it: he compares it with “the third dimension between ‘recto’ and ‘verso’ (‘recto’ and ‘verso’ are the terms used in printing for left and right side of the book), dimension that boils down to the thickness of the paper. In Puglia’s view, to get to that dimension, art has to reject the desire to represent only a stimulus for an aesthetic experience, a formal game brought to perfection or cultural value in itself. Instead, it has to be, first of all a call to questioning man’s status in the world (and that status is connected with history and with temporal); and that is why Puglia does not ask for the ecstasy from his audiences, but for gnosis, knowledge. He asks them not to enjoy, but to think; his goal is to make the observer view the artwork with the author’s eyes (the spectator should repeat the creative processes in his own spirit), to step over the boundaries of safety, and to dive from the comfortable place of a connoisseur and a consumer into that “third dimension”.
The regular temporality is departed during one’s delving in aesthetic dimension of artwork, which sometimes leads to self-oblivion. An artwork has the ability to stop the course of the profane, mundane time, it disturbs its homogeneity and brings caesura in; it throws a man to a higher level of existence, with a completely different time, a primordial time, outside of the history and the pure, a time when Gods only begun to create the world. In that sense, art comes close to the religion, throwing a bridge to the other bank over the deep abyss of esoteric, where the time is not necessarily homogenous and linear. According to Mircea Eliade, there is a regular, profane time and a religious, hierophanic time, during which rituals and ceremonies are held. That second time, the time of hierophany, refers to the cyclic rhythm of the universe, to archetypical and mythical, and to the announcement of sacral forces. The dimension of liberation Puglia searches, however, is historical, connected with the immediate past: ” I find it more interesting to linger in the space of the “just passed” than to run after a passing fashion, or to be a fashion. This attitude of attention and reflection defines the rearguard. To this attitude corresponds a predilection for those moments in history just after the event: a stasis in time that prefigures the knowledge that nothing will be the same as “before”, even as we are still present in the echo of this very “before”.
That is exactly why we see images of Goethe, Bach, Holderlin in Puglia’s art, as recognizable cultural icons and emblematic signs of history. Position of the rearguard, “guard in the background” is consciously selected and it corresponds to the modern art’s position: today’s situation is ‘post-‘, there is no more ‘-isms’. That is where Puglia’s removal of every form of avant-gardism comes from (after all, avant guard is not so young any more, it exists for over hundred fifty years now, just like bohemia). For the project of conquest of man’s authentic dimension of freedom – which, let’s repeat it, is primarily historical – the one that sheds light on authentic man’s position in the world (temporal now becomes spatial, it becomes “human destiny”), it is necessary not to just succumb to the aesthetic enjoyment in front of a work of art, but rather to try to approach it from another side, to follow the leadership of knowledge and imagination (in that order), without which it’s impossible to break through the outside sphere of aesthetic and arrive the above mentioned “third dimension”. On that path, our imagination must allow itself to be lead by knowledge, and not the other way around (“lazy vanity of imagination”, as Montale said once).
The goal of one of the installations in the open air, which Puglia called “Glances across Europe”, is to connect a number of museums and historical locations in an analogical and symbolic plan. In it, he puts a kind of a signalization in action, using plexiglass or copper plaques placed in several museum locations across Europe. Those plaques are set beside an exhibit piece, from where an imagined line follows a direction determined by compass toward another artefact. An intersection where two of those imaginary lines cross can be determined on a map, and another plaque would be placed on a pole in that spot. Puglia gives the following explanation:”My intention is to create signalizations which, taken individually, would seem incoherent and senseless. However, if one studies the overall map that I will provide at the end of the project (that will be placed beside the objects), one will realize how threads of European history are intertwined, how various types of mutual dependence is demonstrated by the strange, “unjustified” choice of each and every meeting – as if my plaques (which I like to think of as my “samples”) were pieces of a secret, untold puzzle, scattered across the continent. The sites themselves, being affected by the plaques’ presence, will undergo a symbolical transformation, thus acquiring new, estranged, significations.”
Puglia mentions German writer W.G. Sebald as one of a spiritus movens of this project, as Sebald’s literary work “has an unmistakable way of connecting geographical points and the events of our recent past with the wanderings of the witnesses who reflect upon them”. The essence of Sebald’s poetics lies in belief that the Gordian Knot of the world cannot be cut with a single swing of a sword, as warriors and fanatics do; instead we have to start from the thread of either end of the rope and follow where it takes us. In a similar manner, the central figure in Sebald’s second poem in his book “After Nature” is a polar explorer Steller (1709-1746), an authentic historical figure. Their only connection was that they shared the same initials: W. G. Sebald, and Georg Wilhelm Steller, and that single thread of coincidence was enough to move the mechanism of associations and analogies, and give birth to poetry.
Puglia is also inclined to that: to establish new correlations and analogies, reaching liberation. When asked:”To liberate what?”. Puglia replies:”The possible. The possible of a world, which I can only think in the plural. Not another possible world, in other words, but the multiplicity of the possible.”
Liberation is reached through the shadows; they are the tickets to the “third dimension”. “In order to reopen the communication one must restore the shadow, and with it the possible”. What must be the subject’s state of mind in that process of liberation? What sensorium do we need in order to notice that shadow, and find the entrance into the liberating dimension? The one that stands closest to the nature of the observed, which means that it is the one most similar to the shadow. And what is closer to the shadow than the clouds?
According to Neo-Platonists and their teachings, this earthly world mirrors the heavenly world, and shadows would in that case be conceptual reflexions of the clouds. They share the same dematerialised essence; both are the visual markers of instability and subject to transformation, one in the sky, another one on the Earth. A cloud in an allegorical (and religious) sense would symbolize the ascension, vision of something above the earthly, a passage to the godly, while in psychological sense, it would represent a wide margin of desire, fantasy and hallucination. Heavenly, conceptual and graphical unite in Puglia’s work, only the heavenly is replaced with historical, and instead of the exhilaration and hallucination, the emphasis is on the knowledge and imagination. A liberating dimension of an artwork liberates the possibilities in the world, and man is given the liberty of measuring the level of his conscious freedom, in spirit of Derrida’s maxim:” For some of us the principle of indeterminism is what makes the conscious freedom of man fathomable.” Art finds its purpose and justification in pointing to that indeterminism and trying to find a more authentic place for a human being in the world and in history.
Salvatore Puglia is a philosopher-artist in Hellenic sense, who deals with the elements and Furies (and history is one of them), and his art cannot be viewed as dry, abstract conceptualism, because behind his dark shadows there is an echo of a sensual epicurean Sun.
The visitors in the shelter of his “Parachute” should have everything they wish for available, says Puglia, from books, comfortable chairs and couches, to the fine wines, the space itself must be ventilated, with just right temperature – and the kind hostess is there to greet the visitor and offer everything to make him feel comfortable.
Which should be enough for gods and for common humans.
(1) Instead of the term “aesthetic project”, we could also use the term “conceptual essay”, because that is what Puglia’s artwork actually is: a collection of essays in Musil’s sense of the word. A form in transition between the art and the science, equally connected with the ethic and the aesthetic, essay as such does not offer one generalized solution, but a series of smaller, individual insights, with human metamorphosis as a goal.
(2). This is not the author’s footnote, but the comment made by subject of the text, that is, by Puglia himself: “In fact, what I try, digging-up and transpiercing these forgotten and useless images, is to avoid the “mass effect” which is the best way to a pathos I am not looking for. I try to dwell in History, rather than in Memory, precisely because I wish to find again an imaginative identity (which is the opposite as the “identification”). This is why I don’t feel close to the artists who show entire walls full of anonymous photographs, with no intervention that is not this same “mass effect”. Same problem I have with the Holocaust museums curators who think that presenting a lot of images means recovering somehow the past.”
(3) Visiting museum in his native Leningrad as a boy, Joseph Brodsky noticed that the Greek and Roman sculptures suddenly become alive under the play of shadows: “One day, staring at the little white face of some early Roman fanciulla, I lifted my hand, presumably to smooth my hair, and thus obstructed the single source of light coming to her from the ceiling. At once her facial expression changed. I moved my hand a bit to the side: it changed again. I begin moving both my arms rather frantically, casting each time a different shadow upon her features: the face came to life.” (“Hommage to Marcus Aurelius”)
Zoran Janic, November 2009
Translated from the Serbian by Merima Hopkins