Displaced Translations (2000)

The brief text that follows should be read in conjunction with the images of two works, one of which has been made (The Blue Shield, also titled Personal Monuments) and one that has been imagined but never realized (The Lifetube).
It should be taken, rather than simply a comment, as an allegorical writing referring to my activity at the Jan Van Eyck Academie and related places during the last year. This activity has been moving around the concepts of translation and transparency, their multiple relations, and the image of the artist as a translator.


The Blue Shield
(displaced symbols)

The language of symbols should be understood by everybody—it is assumed by the illiterate as well as the one who speaks a foreign language. This is why road signals and naval ones have been invented, along with symbolic tools, among which I am most interested in the ones that indicate the individuals or the objects that, following international conventions, should consider themselves protected.
This is the case with the Red Cross, that is universally recognized as the symbol under whose protection find place field hospitals, ambulances, stretchers, doctors and nurses.
It is a given that such places and individuals should not be involved in war—since we are supposed to have a shared respect for the wounded and to their possibility of care and recovery.

Since 1954, an analogous symbol exists for artistic monuments and the cultural patrimony in general: the Blue Shield. In 1954, a list of sites to be protected was compiled at the Hague Convention, and then improved in a second protocol in May 1999. Such a list also comprehends, beyond works of art, libraries, archives, churches, and mosques.
The most famous example of a cultural site protected by UNESCO is the old city of Dubrovnik, which was copiously bombed by the Serbs during the war in ex-Yugoslavia. It is said that Serbs were particularly interested in destroying the cultural symbols of their adversaries; on the other hand, it is also said that the Croatian army sheltered its weapons and ammunitions in the sites marked by the Blue Shield.
Consequently, the 1999 protocol corrected that of 1954, establishing the conditions under which “imperative military necessities” could justify attacks against cultural sites, regulating the behaviour of the occupying troops, and foreseeing extradition for the most serious crimes committed against the monuments.

The issue of the protection of monuments has always interested me. I have wanted to study the way in which, during moments of fascism (and, to be sure, under every regime that makes monuments into the icons of nationality) historical monuments are taken out of their urban context, polished up from every successive side, and made integrally visible, –since, according to Mussolini, they were meant to “gigantify in their necessary solitude.”
As we know, the war came and with it the necessity of hiding monuments from view and from the risks of bombing; they were hidden under scaffoldings, concrete and brick walls, sand bags and stuffed mattresses. For five years, from 1940 to 1945, the Italian landscape was disseminated with such mysterious and incongruous forms; the art was there, but not to be seen.
From this point of view, the 1954 Hague Convention has led to significant progress: instead of sandbags—after all, a poor means of protecting monuments from modern armaments—a simple shield painted in white and blue.

.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

In May 2000, I was in Copenhagen, the capital of one of those northern nations in which protection is a kind of ideology; social protection, the protection of infancy, of the natural environment, of young artists. The protective role of the State there appears like the realization of the socialist ideals of the beginning of the Century, but can be so overwhelming that some artists—maybe because of their own dependence on their relationship with the institutions—wonder how such a system could be resisted (whereas in a country like Italy, where family networks and good relations occupy the role that, in the northern countries, belongs to the State, the more valid forms of resistance are—to my mind—the ones that are practised inside institutions, because those are the places of chaos).
But, as I was saying, I was in Copenhagen, having been invited to participate in a show on the theme: Models of resistance.
To put in practice my solidarity and participation I took part in the setting up of the show, transporting heavy glass plates and painting the walls of the stands. But, more than simply a labourer, which I am not, I found myself more useful –like the Italian that I am—as a cook. It was more useful for the real workers to be fed properly and to abdicate, at least for a couple of days, their frankfurters in favour of a good hot dish.

However, before the show opened, I also wanted to do my part for art. I had already spent a short period in Copenhagen five years earlier; I had lived there a brief and intense personal story. Therefore, I reproduced on adhesive plastics the symbol of the aforementioned UNESCO program, the Blue Shield, and one morning at dawn I went out, in the still deserted city, in search of the places where I had lived some events. Among these places were the Royal Theatre Opera, an antiquarian bookstore, a coffee shop, a hot-dog kiosk, a bridge, a filthy hotel. I applied twelve of these symbols on the façades or walls of these personal “places of memory.”
Once I had compiled an inventory of such work of marking and accompanied it with adequate photographic documentation, I showed it at the Overgaden gallery. A copy of the dossier, with an enclosed letter, was sent to Icomos, the international organization based in Paris that manages the Blue Shield program.
In this letter I explained how, believing that historical memory is made of an endless sum of individual knowledges and memories, I wished to add to this sum at least a part of mine, and I asked, correctly, I believe, that my memories be considered a cultural patrimony of humanity and—in case of war or any other natural catastrophe—would be protected by the Hague Convention.
I also asked about the question of “hierarchisation” in the concept of cultural heritage. Why, I asked, should the medieval cathedral be protected more than the Souvenir Shop that stands in front of it? Why, if it is true that the Souvenir Shop could not exist without the cathedral, should it be true that the cathedral would survive without its postcards? Not longing for a critical-philosophical discussion, I did not dwell further (but I would have been able to) on the matters of the original and the copy, of real art and kitsch, or popular and elite culture, et cetera.

I did not receive any answer from Icomos. On the contrary, the inhabitants of Copenhagen seem to have been more understanding. Of the twelve symbols placed alongside my personal monuments, only a few of them have been removed. It happened also that one of them was displaced and put again at a little distance, because the wall on which it stayed had to be repainted. My supposition is that they have taken the symbol for a sign of the gas pipeline, which would demonstrate the imperfection of the international system of signs.
But it would demonstrate also the creative side of the misunderstanding. In a system of signalisation—like this one experimented in the Danish capital—one that is neither logical nor systematic, the symbol is presented as a sign, but it is not the evidence of its possible prolongation: it does not have a recognizable relationship with the symbolized object, it does not indicate anything reducible to an original and reconstructible path. It rather points out an autonomous track, with, if one wishes, references to be interpreted, or, if one prefers, just read.
This would be a form of displaced translation.  Such a translation is permitted by an originary vulnerability of its subject. Generally speaking, translation is permitted by an originary transparency that carries in itself its own possibilities of translation.
Transparency goes only to one direction. One cannot make transparent something that originally is opaque, but one can multiply and open further a transparency which is already in the original object.
Transparency is perhaps the first quality of a work of art; such a work is a work of translation. If the kitsch (like we will see further on) -in its lack of distance from its object- only allows a movement between A and B and back from B to A and so on, transparency is what allows to translation its successive passages from A to B and from B to C and so on.
Such a movement of passage is doomed -clearly- to be interrupted somewhere. In the following chapter I will try to explain how one cannot give a supplementary transparency to something that has already undergone a radical transformation.

Spuglia BLUE SHIELD 03


The Lifetube
(displaced people)

During the entirety of the summer of 2000, as it had happened for all of 1999, thousands of illegal immigrants continued to disembark on the Italian coasts. They came mainly from the Albanian harbours, just a few hours of navigation away. They came in large inflatable boats driven by cynical sailors, who did not hesitate to throw their human load off board, if they felt sighted or pursued by the Italian coast guard.
The image of these boats and rafts could be seen everyday in the television news. Maybe these images inspired a new attitude of the demonstrators against the detention centres where the illegal immigrants were kept. Beginning in January 2000, the policemen found themselves facing crowds that demonstrated before such centres, clamouring for them to be closed down, and whose components were dressed in the following way: three or four layers of heavy sweaters, life vests, foam stuffings fixed to the shoulders with package ribbon, football pads to protect the legs, plastic helmets or pasta drippers to protect the head. Besides, the first lines of the demonstrators pushed a strange supply before them: a kind of big snake made of truck tubes bent together two by two, packed in plastic sheets and fixed to polystyrene panels, against which the clubs and the tear gas candles bounced. The name of the utensil emerged almost spontaneously: the Big Rubber (Il Gommone). (1)
Many demonstrators advanced toward the police with their arms lifted in a sign of peace. “Nobody must get hurt” was their intention. They cried out for both the right to occupy the public space and to protect themselves. They did not manifest violence, but they opposed to the violence a claim of legitimate defence.
They wore, to the letter, a life belt; the supply meant to save the life of whoever would fall into the sea became at the same time a symbolic image and tool of defence. With this simple opposition of the body, protected by an individual and a collective stuffing, the right of resistance was identified with the right to existence.
I find that this invention has a great iconic strength: an elastic matter, a rubber wall on which the kicks of the rifle can bounce and behind which bodies take refuge.
In those first occasions, the police, unprepared for this new tactic, gave up and the demonstrators, after many hours of confrontation, were admitted inside the centres of detention which they wanted to see close (namely: Milan, January 29). It is no surprise that, for the following demonstration, the police officers arrived armed with cutters.

What I will say here is perhaps a banality: a protection understood as “resistance” goes along with a recognition of brittleness and inadequacy. A total and absolute protection is not only impossible but would coincide with the suffocation of the same resistance and of its dialectics. An allegorical side is always necessary to the action of resistance, to keep such an action from both an undesirable literacy and the affirmation of a dull antagonism.
The use of the big truck tubes by the demonstrators was born by a significant image and bore a semantic shift: the device that transports the clandestine immigration becomes the symbol (and the defence tool) of whoever works against the understanding of this immigration as a crime (it should be said as well that, on an institutional level, the Italian detention centres are illegal, since immigration is not a crime contemplated by the penal code).

I think that the Big Rubber is both an art’s work and a work of art. I see such qualities not just in its practice of re-appropriation, but also in its affirmation of autonomy and of a kind of disinvestment toward its source.
If I instead lingered on the idea of making art out of the Big Rubber (or, as well, out of the immigrants’ inflatable boats), I would seriously risk falling into kitsch. My work would probably just remain a description, an allusion or an illustration. And kitsch always remains interested, involved; it always stays subordinate to its model: to the call to an original function, if it is an object; or to the intention, if it intends to be a work of art. When the intention remains translucent in the work, then the work fails. When the original is so determined in its significance, it should be left to itself.
If I would make art out of the image of this “life tube”, I would apply what, according to Gillo Dorfles (2), is the distinctive sign of the kitsch mentality, and that is the simple shift, in scale or of context, of the original work (for instance: the Eiffel tower transformed into a knickknack and standing on a television set; a Roman amphora used as a lamp; but also, I would add, the effect of an easy association: the sticker, with the name of a restaurant that casually is that of a friend, that we leave on his fridge). It is certain that -in a way or in the other- kitsch, in its work of de-contextualisation and transformation, has to do with mechanical or digital reproduction.
Does it, then, also have to do with translation? Partly, and up to a certain point. My attempt to make a work of art out of the Big Rubber would be an attempt of translation, a movement toward translation, but not a finished translation. Mine would be just an illustration, because it would not create any semantic estrangement. If it did not practise a deep alteration of the original language itself and if, together with the estrangement, it did not introduce a radical difference, the translation would be the supreme form of kitsch. (3)

It remains, however, the awareness of a contiguity between translation and kitsch. In other words: in its dependence on an original (however real or ideal that would be), in its quality of prolongation (with all the inevitable denaturalisations and misunderstandings), in its inevitable imitative character, and also in its certain monstrous character, kitsch appears like an aborted form of translation. That we practise it all day long, in a more or less wide measure and in a more or less aware way, only confirms its multi- and incomplete- form of the translation.
While kitsch represents, translation re-presents; this is why the Big Rubber is both a translation and a work of art. The forms of the translation are multiple, and they sometimes take the quality of art. This happens when, of a subject already alienated, already displaced and stolen from its world, already “kitschified”, a subject is created again—as autonomous, as a “pure sign of itself” (Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus). The loss of an acquired originality becomes, in this translation, an other originality, an other possible. This “resumption” would be the displacement of a displacement, the unveiling of a hidden originality that does not have to wait the de-kitschifying effect of the time that passes or of historical catastrophes.
I think of an other possible rescue of kitsch, one that comes from its very historical de-contextualisation; this is the case of some works that remain as testimonies of an ancient art: those that probably were provincial and imitative episodes, which a contemporary critic would have certainly considered “kitsch,” like the mural paintings of Pompei or the funeral portraits of El Fayum, and which are seen by us as mere works of art (4). The action of time has conferred on them a singularity that they did not possess and a quality that has become absolute.
It is the time that—in these cases—operates the semantic transformation of an object that becomes, according to a worn-out expression, “other from itself”; that becomes therefore projected into the world of difference, the same world that kitsch tends to ignore.

It would be difficult to deny that first postmodernism in architecture and then the artistic practices of the Eighties have led to a conceptual revaluation of kitsch, and precisely in those aspects that, in the years around World War II, were still considered to be at the best expression of aesthetic insensibility (see: Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” written in 1939) and at the worst of ethical evil (Hermann Broch, “Notes on the problem of kitsch,” lecture delivered at Yale university in 1950): the inspiration, the impression, the imitation, the reproduction, the call to the tradition.
And if there is a “sin” of kitsch, it is precisely that of supposing that a tradition exists, that there are references and models to be faithful to, that forms are endlessly multipliable, that there is a possibility of aesthetic reassurance and emotional protection.
Kitsch, which in his substitutive practice represents a continuous affirmation of loss, never lingers in mourning; even less does it mourn what is stranger. Inside it, apparently, there is space only for the familiar and the identifiable.
To mourn the stranger, to regret the one whom we will never meet, this is the opposite of kitsch: it means to perform an act of recognition and to go beyond the recognition, to perform an act of memory and to go beyond the memory, to depart from the tradition without adopting a borrowed one, to remain in the kingdom of the possible.

From the other “sin” of kitsch, the one stigmatised by Broch and recalled in the Eighties by authors like Lyotard and Vattimo (5) -that is, the tension toward the beautiful- contemporary art has somehow saved us. To tell to an artist that his work is beautiful is today a way of insulting him. And the reason for this is the fact that today’s art does not intend to make “work” but, rather, “to make world” (6).
And here is where the Big Rubber returns, and the fact that it is a matter of art, an “art’s work”. This status is given to it precisely by the abdication of the art to its iconicity and to its uniqueness. Art is not a gesture, but rather a repeated gesture. And the repetition, as Aristotle once said, “gives birth to a nature.”


(1) For an accurate description of this demonstrative tool  see: Ludovic Prieur, Brigitte Tijou, ”Il Gommone. Un dispositif de désobéissance civile”, Vacarme, n. 12,

(2) See his introduction to: Kitsch. An Anthology of Bad Taste, New York, 1969.

(3)   “The translator is a writer of a rare singularity, precisely where he seems not to claim any. He is the secret master of the difference of languages, not to abolish it, but to use it…” Maurice Blanchot  “Sulla traduzione”, Aut Aut, n. 189-190, Milano 1982, pp. 98-101 (Originally: “Reprises”, Nouvelle Revue Française, n. 93, Paris 1960).

(4)   I find this example in Hermann Broch, “Das Böse im Wertsystem der Kunst”, Schriften zur Literatur, vol. II, Frankfurt am Main 1975 (first published in Die Neue Rundschau, August 1933), p. 155.

(5)   “.. that to make beautiful art today is to make kitsch; that even authenticity is precluded… “, Jean-François Lyotard, Heidegger and “the jews”, Minneapolis-London 1997 (Paris 1988), p. 45.

(6)  See Gianni Vattimo, “L’impossible oubli”, in Usages de l’oubli, Paris 1988, pp. 77-89.

Digressions of the Resistance (2000)

At this moment I am in the vanguard.
The letters that had to be written have been written, the housework is done, I have only to concentrate on my subject. I have only one aim and it is before me: I‘ve got to start and reach the conclusion of a text on the notion of resistance.
The field is clear, unobstructed; only the open landscape is before me. I am the vanguard of myself.
I am followed at the distance of a few centimetres –twenty, maybe- by the rearguard of myself. I cannot go without it. Only a thickness of flesh separates that part of me which is in an advanced position from what simply follows. These few centimetres make a significant difference.
I remember that, in the war-stories that I read as a teenager, being shot in the back was the greatest dishonour: it meant that one was fleeing the enemy. Similarly the traitor was condemned to be shot in the back. And in fascist propaganda, the partisan was represented in the gesture of stabbing in the darkness and in the back.
But the opposing rethorics of collaboration and resistance1 as well as those of vanguard and rearguard seem today emptied of their original meaning. This is precisely because the signs of a frontal opposition aren’t visible anymore. It is the very thinness of the sheet, its third dimension between recto and verso that seems enormously enlarged. It remains, though, only conceptually visible.
If resistance looks today like an almost decayed notion, this is because we experience a fragmentation and dispersion of social rules; we all work, in the western societies, a similar matter, we mould the same clay. How can you resist the one who pays you? How can an artist resist those who grant him his living?
But, without comparing welfare societies to the Nazi invader (what Paul Virilio does, in relation to technological progress)2, it’s unavoidable to see how the space between collaboration and resistance is at the same time conceptually enormous and physically thin, like a line that we cross ten times a day.
The reason is partially in the very notion of resistance. Resistance –here the example of World War II, if extreme, is also eloquent- is to move by definition in the same space as the adversary, to share the same physical space and similar symbolic weapons (“taken from the enemy”)3. “All resistance is ambiguous, as its name indicates”4; it implies participation in an imposed system, an understanding of the adversary’s mentality, a constant sequence of compromises, a guerrilla war where there are no frontal attacks or defences but instead displacements, deviations, encirclings, ambushes.
In this regard resistance appears to be a disturbance activity, comparable to that of a guard that operates in the rear to slow the enemy’s advance. The meaning of rearguard lies in this après-coup: in action that follows observation and reflection, in reaction to a stimulation or an attack (or an excitation like the Freudian Reiz). This is where rearguard seems to be in a more interesting position than vanguard; to be in the vanguard is –for an artist- pure creation, advancing in an unexplored land, researching new formal fields. But technology will always be faster than any artistic avant-garde; to rush after it doesn’t make much sense. Maybe today’s artistic avant-garde are the creators of computer programs, and the artists who use such programs are a mere para-avant-garde.
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”.

Slowing down and disturbing the enemy’s action are duties common to rearguard and resistance. If we wish to consider the artist as a resister, we need to indicate his enemy. Once the artist was a client of a noble man or a confraternity; then he became an entrepreneur in a world of entrepreneurs; he is today an application-form filler and a grant-dependent; such grants are given by institutions. Is the institution the artist’s enemy?
Artists exist to disturb; this is their most widely accepted function5; this is why the relationship between artist and institution can only be based on misunderstanding; constant misunderstanding, mutual exploitation, space sharing, interchangeability of roles: there is no alternative to such an intercourse when we see how even art which has institutional critique at its core is re-absorbed in the institution. The interlacing is such, actually, that every artist is as institutional as a museum director, and every museum director as oppositional as an artist6. This is a relatively recent phenomenon; a post-68 effect, I would say.
The institution needs its opposite: in its constant work of self-legitimisation it needs people who disturb; it needs, particularly, to select and protect those who disturb with aesthetic, not aimless or chaotic means. In this regard art is a form of re-composition; it is not by chance that we have art-therapy, along with horse-therapy; it is not by chance that graffiti and rap music are preferable to riots and broken-in shop windows, and find, therefore, broad ways of distribution and support, both institutional and commercial7.
But to see things from another point of view, how does one loosen the contradiction of carrying on resistance towards what one materially depends on: ministries of culture, foundations, academies, collectors, galleries, museums?
Most artists resolve it by competing in the same space and under the same conditions, that are given to the artistic scene: which means making war to each other. Why not? Why not make, also, war with each other; why not make contacts and create a network of relations and alliances and seek protection? But the error would be, I think, to lose one’s autonomy, to identify oneself as a participant in a “scene”, moving one’s pawns on a chessboard already sketched.
The only form of artistic resistance I can imagine today is this one of dis-institutionalising it, taking part in other spaces of discourse and relation that cannot be defined as art specific. Like political utopia, resistance no longer has its traditional place; it must constantly occupy new places.

I will remain in an allegorical mode, recalling my personal experience of heterotopia. It was around the first months of 1977 in Italy. The era of the post-68 “institutional” leftist groups was over, but it wasn’t yet the moment when the groups organised in the Autonomia8 would kidnap a mass movement that still existed, still searched for new forms of presence. Already, in the winter of 1976-1977, there were those who broke into expensive shops to “expropriate” not bread but smoked salmon and caviar, demonstrating their subordination to the clichés of bourgeois luxury. Meanwhile there was still a great desire for a new conviviality in new spaces. In these months many condemned buildings in the city centres were occupied by groups of young leftists or low-income families.
At that time people also went out to demonstrate for cheaper cinema tickets. In retrospect this seems a ridiculous demand; it is ridiculous to think of invading public squares and streets just to pay a few liras less to see a Hollywood movie in a cinema hall belonging to a multinational, in the almost complete lack of alternative spaces. But the alternative space, in those days, were the same streets and squares; you would arrange an appointment with a few individuals, you would go there some days later. Finding yourself surrounded by dozens, you would start walking and would have ten thousand behind you. We would go from one movie theatre to the next; a delegation would go in, turn the lights on, make a short speech to the audience, go back to the waiting crowd, move on.
All that did not, strictly speaking, make any sense. Or, rather, the sense of all that was: I) to constitute a community, absolutely imaginary, utopian if you wish, lacking its own office and its own scene, doomed to appropriate only momentarily a set of public spaces meant for a different use: the squares, the streets, the movie theatres; II) through a pretentious and oblique objective (nobody was really interested, not even for free, in watching an Italian B-movie or an American comedy) to show the existence of a public authority and a resistance to this authority, and to do it in ways that were not necessarily those of a confrontation between workers and capitalist in the factory. It showed that resistance can inhere in claiming a simple pleasure, a simple right to choose that has been taken away.
The aim was not directly to change society or to express an individual right. It was to claim as “public” the entertainment spaces; to take entertainment out of its private sphere and confound the boundaries between entertainment, pleasure and public right. To claim a right to the spectacle without really caring about the spectacle, was a way of widening the boundaries of the political itself; it was a way of demonstrating the existence of a collective presence that, by avoiding being targeted as an organic “political” counterpart, also eluded politics as a matter of professionalism and seriousness. In such a situation you are not there “as” an artist or “as” a worker, you are not representing yourself if not in the part of yourself which, in that particular moment, is claiming a particular collective right, temporarily occupying and transforming a public space.
This is why I can only believe in necessarily temporary and provisional places, places that would be made “other”, places of exchange, encounter and exposition. Places that would be designated as such and that are by definition open, but not outside the relation. I was once in a squat in Rome when somebody who wasn’t known to us arrived, asking for hospitality: “All right, but let us know each other”, he was told.
Was that a new form of public space? I think it was, precisely because of its being a temporary place. In fact those occupied houses were somebody’s property, and sooner or later the police would come to evacuate them (like it happens today to the Centri sociali in Italy). A space that would be both public and alternative can only be temporary. It is in its being “possible” and “passed” at the same time that it finds its meaning: container of an imaginary community and receptacle of a community that would have been possible; of a community that exists only in the tension toward it, only in the longing for what it could have been but has not and cannot be.
Reinventing places; re-naming them, catching sight of other, hypothetical uses of a space; practising a diverting of signs; confounding one’s artistic gesture with the scattered gestures of urban communication; diluting, dissipating, spreading the gesture; leaving signs that may or may not be seen, that may or may not be “artistic”9; eluding but not refusing the official sites of communication and exposition: maybe, they are possible models of resistance. I will linger on that further on.
Another way of resisting could be to renounce a constant artist’s attitude, a wishful being always and everywhere an artist. I think of a paradigmatic situation: two painters who were living in the same city occupied by the enemy in wartime; one, Picasso, doesn’t stop painting and receiving visitors in his studio; the other, van Velde, who survives thanks to the charity canteen, doesn’t touch the paintbrush for five years. When asked about the reason of his inactivity he can only answer that one cannot work when such things happen around him 10. This seems to me an implicit criticism of “engaged” art: when such things happen you might rather stop underlining them with your artistic signature, wishing to be “helpful”, and simply take a practical form of commitment to the state of emergency you are living in. You will maybe help to create a time, later on, for the “peinture d’histoire”, or art of history, which politicises art.11

Let us go back to the resistance. I think after this digression that it could be defined as a movement of reaction, response and retaliation that shares the physical and linguistic space of its adversary; meanwhile it creates, in this same space, its own places and idioms. It creates a space of the rear, a maquis which has a scale and forms of diffusion different from the dominant ones. I think of all the graphic media, more or less skilful, more or less improvised but always necessarily autonomous, invented by the Resistance: fake documents, leaflets, newsletters, hand-printed newspapers, graffiti12; they can be compared, in another context, to the fanzines, the privately printed poems, and the photocopied magazines of the pre-internet era (it would be interesting to compile a collection of such means of communication, from Mexican Calaveras to Russian “Music on bones”13).
In retrospect it is evident that the “privately printed” was anything but a mere expression of a private sphere; since it was dependent on manual technique and materials, it implied a sequence of personal interconnections that the internet eludes, and was grounded in a “hand to hand” distribution; there was though, in this limitation of scale, the idea of a circulation both hazardous and personal, but always locally, topographically rooted. The one who today has a website speaks to everybody and to nobody; he stays finally in the representation of himself. This form of communication is often without any object other than the communication itself; in that sense it creates an illusory community. Distances are not abolished by the internet because nothing can replace physical presence, contact and touch (saying that, I do not fail to recognise the role the internet and mobile phones have played in organising resistance to Haider’s party in Austria).
If the internet seems to be above all an open and common space, this is because resisters, dominators and collaborators all navigate it and this is where the roles are most easily and rapidly interchangeable. This is the syntopia we live in. In such a context we can say that every resister is part collaborator and every collaborator part resister. In that sense our turn of the century cannot be compared to World War II. But I cannot resist trying a last allegory.
If an “above” and an “under” on the power ladder still exist, the variations and intersections of it are infinite, even in the most oppressive situations.
In reading Robert Antelme’s work on deportation14, we follow the multiple variations of signs that progressively differentiate the prisoners’ body, differentiating them from top to bottom in relationship to those who exercise over them the power of life and death. This articulation is both an instrument of domination and an affirmation of singularities that escape this domination.15
In such a differentiation new dominators and new resisters were created; in the multiplication of levels of power originated a chaos that was above all a further form of oppression to which the resisters opposed a struggle for legality.
Force is something that has variable and diverse intensities; the colour of force is also subject to variability; the mastering of language for example is a force whose colour varies. Several times in the only book he wrote, Antelme analyses the crucial role of translation16. The translator’s power can in such extreme situations either contribute to growing chaos or to affirming legality. Legality seen in such situation, is situated in the diversion of law17; the one who defends it doesn’t hear, hears badly, “turns a deaf ear”, cultivates the misunderstanding in the vertical transmission of control. In translating in “his own way” the translator has the power to enlarge or to narrow the spaces for communication and survival. His work of resistance is, therefore, an “art’s work”.
In an infinitely less oppressive reality like our western societies, the power of translation is that of a re-appropriation of official language, and of its misappropriation which consists in differently pointing out the places of social exchange. Resistance could be simply in a different name: an unused building becomes a “Squat”; a photocopied paper is a “Journal”; a private collection is made a “Museum”.
Resistance for an artist might be in dis-identifying with prevailing notions of artistic identity; in refusing for example to be “professional”. I am aware that such a position can be considered a residual “avant-gardism” or a form of voluntarism; but I doubt that models of resistance can be indicated without such voluntarism.

Before World War II, when it wasn’t taken as a physical quality of matters, by resistance one understood only “resistance to authority”, punished by article 337 of the Italian penal code and equivalent to the crime of “public violence” (art. 336). According to the law, only a private person could be guilty of such a crime: in opposing representatives of the State he would place himself outside the law and the public sphere.
With the war and the consequent opposition to German occupation in Europe (and Nazi domination in Germany) there was both an enlargement and a diversion of this notion. Those who “resisted” opposed a different concept of legality and a different idea of public representation. This is why fascists had to find another signifier that would symbolically exclude them: partisans could be named, on the radio and in the newspapers, only as “bandits” (etymologically: banished, exiled, outlaws).
These fluctuations in the meaning of words are paradigmatic: in the second half of the XIX century a resister was somebody who, by definition, was against progress; in the second half of the XX century a State like the Italian republic finds its legitimacy in the Resistance as a constitutive value.18
This is why today nobody would refuse to call himself a “resister”. Maybe the most difficult thing remains to indicate what, in every different situation, we intend to resist.

Spring 2000

Thanks to Robert Garnett and Vania Del Borgo

Emergency of the Proxenos (2000)

On the 21st of April 753 BC. Romulus drew with a plough the furrow that would delimit and ground the city of Rome. The walls of the town were raised along the lines of the furrow. The line demarcated an inviolable space; Remus, Romulus’ twin brother, jumped over it as a challenge and was immediately killed.
In the places where Romulus had lifted the plough -interrupting the continuity of the line- the doors of the city were set; through these openings things -both pure and impure- were allowed to pass. Once this rite was accomplished Romulus declared: “Mundus patet”: the world is open.
This happened on the Palatine hill. Under the same circumstances, an asylum was created in a holy thicket by the Capitol. Ancient historians say that this area was created in order to gather all those isolated and disbanded men who could contribute to the demographic growth of Rome.
But the presence of such a safe haven -where pursued criminals, fugitive slaves, outlaws of every kind could find shelter without being questioned about their origin or past- was a common fact in ancient times. It is documented by the Greeks, the Jews, the Germans.
The asylum was a holy place, within whose borders dogs did not hunt their prey and wolves lived in peace and good harmony with deer. At the origin of such a belief was the conviction that the sanctity of a place (or an object) would be communicated by contact.
Whoever would have put his hands on a fugitive inside such a space would have committed a sacrilegious gesture. It is told how, in 7th or 6th Century Athens, the survivors of Cylon’s conspiracy found shelter in Athena’s temple. Eventually deciding to leave the shelter they unrolled a thread that kept them in contact with the goddess’s statue; but the thread -by accident or malignity, we don’t know- broke and the conspirators were slaughtered.
The right of asylum’s main function seems to have been the mitigating of such a bloody revenge. This institution offered -to the murderer who flew from his victim’s relatives or to the slave who escaped his master’s mistreatments- a reconsideration of his case, or at least a delayed punishment.

2. Hospitium

By hospitium (for the Greeks: xenia) Latin meant the ensemble of rituals that ruled the relations between two foreigners who would make a pact. Such relations of mutual obligation and courtesy drew, before the foundation of stronger state-controlled institutions, a generalised net of alliances. Those who would participate in them were all of a similarly superior social status. The Oxford Classical Dictionary states that ”Throughout antiquity, such people lent each other powerful support, often at the expenses of their inferiors, so frequently that ritualised friendship may justly be regarded as a tool for perpetuating class distinction”.
Among the hospites, obligations were those of mutual reception and assistance, as well as of standing godfather to each other’s sons.
An object, the symbolon, indicated the effectiveness of such a friendship. Made out of bronze or clay, bearing a few words written on it, it was often a plaque broken into two correspondent parts. It functioned also as an identification that would protect the traveller in foreign territories.
There was an institution -particularly in Greece- that introduced this private pact between strangers into the public domain: proxeny.
Proxenia was a contract between a State and the citizen of a polis. The latter, chosen among the most influential and wealthy personalities of his city, was a sort of godfather of a foreign State and its citizens. He would welcome, at his own expense, the travellers or the ambassadors who would arrive from the other country; he would sponsor them and represent them in the circumstances of religious ceremonies and commercial intercourses. In exchange, he would benefit of honours and privileges, mostly symbolical, from the nation with which he would have signed the pact. Being a citizen of the State in which he served, and not of the State he represented, more than an official he was considered a benefactor.
The title of proxenos (pro-xenos: the one who receives the stranger) was lifelong and hereditary, as was the private relation between the xenoi we mentioned before.
As a “public host” -and surely because of his proved capacities of mediation- the proxenos was often called to arbitrate in conflicts between rival cities or parties.

3. Proxenia

From these brief notes, we can see how large the difference between asylum and hospitium is. If we intend to respect the meaning of these words in their use today, we should not speak indifferently of shelter and hospitality. Because, if the latter is a fact of alliances and expresses relations of power (the politics), the first is designed by forms of sovereignty which decide matters of life and death (the political).
There is a sort of asylia, though, whose borders overlap with the practice of hospitality: this is the privilege given to individuals rather than to places. The stranger who would have been declared asylos could consider himself safe from hostility or vexations, even in a state of war with the country to which he belonged. Ambassadors -for instance- were protected by the asylia, as were athletes going to Olympia and some categories of workers. We would like today’s refugees to be considered messengers -which they are- and to be sheltered because of this.
We would like, on the other end, to take a figure of hospitium and move it into the field of asylum. Why couldn’t it be a guarantor and representative of the State of the fugitives and supplicants? Why couldn’t it be somebody who -without being an official- would be implicitly recognised by both sides as a mediator?
In regard to the right of asylum the State is not an arbitrator but a party, precisely because refugees are foreigners. In some sense, it is not its task to welcome the stranger; this is the task of the citizens, either in association or as individuals. A more formal recognition of such figures of mediation and tutelage would not bring about any harm.


Translator’s scratching (2000)


In his last book, The drowned and the saved, Primo Levi tells how, in occasion of the German edition of If this is a man, he had to face a problem regarding its translation.
Gounan, a French Jew of Polish origin, addressed Kraus, an Hungarian, with an expression that sounded strange and unacceptable to the German translator: “Langsam, du blöder Einer, langsam, verstanden?”. Primo Levi, who had written down the sentence as he thought he had heard it, after a long correspondence with the translator accepted his suggestion: “Langsam, du blöder Heini, …”, Heini being the diminutive of Heinrich.
Only twenty years later, whilst reading a book on Yiddish language, Levi found out that an expression such as: “Khamoyer du eyner!”, “Dunce you one!” existed in that language. “Mechanical memory had functioned correctly”, comments the writer.
In 1959 the Fischer Bücherei publisher had bought the copyright for the German translation of Levi’s book on Auschwitz (which first came out in 1947, although it was widely read only in the 1958 Einaudi’s edition). Levi expressed a feeling of triumph which helped him to understand “the true public” he had in mind when he wrote Se questo e`un uomo. Written in Italian and for Italian readers the book was actually addressed to “those” against whom it was aimed like a gun.
“Now the gun was loaded”, and Levi was ready to supervise closely the German publisher and his translator’s work. He demands a constant check over the editorial process and warns them not to change a single word of his original text: “I wanted to check on not merely its lexical but also its inner faithfulness ”3. It was only on receiving a long letter from the translator that he decided that he could trust him; deserting the Nazi army in September 1943, Heinz Riedt (strangely enough never mentioned by Levi) joined the Italian partisan troops and fought against his fellow-countrymen. Having settled in Berlin after the war, he made a living as a translator, because of his love for independence and because it was difficult to find a job as a deserter; as an Italianist, Riedt was an expert in Veneto dialects, the region where he had fought with the partisans. For him translating If this is a man was a way to continue his political battle4. There was no reason to be suspicious of his political opinions, but there was still the linguistic suspicion.
Levi’s German, learned first from chemical treatises and then in concentration camps, was a primitive and a brutalised language, a “degenerated jargon” which had been a mere and essential means of survival (more than once Levi tells how he owed his life to his timely intuition of the necessity of translation, when during his first days at Auschwitz, he exchanged bread for language lessons); on the other end, Riedt being “a man of letters and refined education”, ignored the linguistic peculiarities of the German spoken in the concentration camp, which only partly came from the barrack-room language.
As we already have seen, the linguistic alienation was to be found not only between different national languages but also within the same language, precisely in its varieties: besides ignoring the concentration camp variety of the Lingua Tertii Imperii, the translator also ignored a German dialect as Yiddish.
The cooperation between author and translator was long and wearing: both perfectionists, they spent months in exchanging letters with linguistic suggestions and objections.
“The pattern was general: I indicated a thesis to him, the one suggested to me by the acoustic memory to which I referred before; he presented me with an antithesis, ‘this is not good German, today’s readers would not understand it’; I retorted that ‘down there we said exactly this’; finally we arrived at the synthesis, that is, a compromise. Experience then taught me that translation and compromise are synonymous… ”5.
This statement seems to me full of Levi’s usual secular wisdom, which is likely to have saved his life. We can agree with his Hegelian schematism only if we assume the translation is a means of crossing-over, a thin bridge across two different languages. I think, all the same, that in a couple of passages Levi perhaps unconsciously leaves an open way, at least on one side, to his synthesis; he offers therefore a footbridge leading to a path that I would like to follow.
I would like to draw attention to two issues. The first one lies in the specificity of this translation: this book, written in Italian, actually ‘takes place’ in German; its primary language, so to speak, is German – moreover, the German spoken in concentration camps – a language foreign even to the German intellectuals about whom Améry speaks; only reluctantly did they succeed, if they succeeded at all, in pronouncing it6. All the same, the concept of authenticity and originality remains essential to Levi: “In a certain sense, it was not a matter of translation but rather of a restoration: his [translator’s] was, or wanted to be, a restitutio in pristinum, a retroversion to the language in which events had taken place and to which they belonged. More than a book, it should be a tape recording”7. According to Levi it had to be voice, sound, as if recording it was the fittest way to get close to the experience itself. Levi considered himself an ear-witness (remember in the page above his statement about the accuracy of his acoustic memory); but there is more here, when he says that in translation he looks for a “retroversion”, a return to the event that cannot otherwise be represented. A book becomes a paper object after many following passages, an object whose nature is too far from the event that originated it. He didn’t want his book to be a movie, neither an editing nor a sequence of images, it had to be a tape recording. It was through that method of technical reproduction that it was possible to be most faithful. When Levi talks of his own automatic memory he means it as a non-subjective instrument, almost independent from his self and surely more reliable than his own will to bear witness. The only way of representing the experience would be to reproduce it, and this is clearly impossible; not even a mechanical recording is available and there is no choice but to be the first translator – in the most accessible language, the written one – of the sounds recorded by memory.
This remind us how the need to ‘go back’ to a language in which Levi did not write contradicts the concept of translation as a process of conveying linguistic matter, a process that need a “compromise”. Levi is aware that this is not a matter of a mere conveyance, as is suggested by the Italian word traduzione, which is the word used to describe the transfer of a prisoner from one jail to another, or by tradotta, which refers to the train that carries the troops in wartime.
The second issue regarding Levi’s text to which I would like to draw attention, arises from the passage in which he quotes the letter he wrote to the German translator, in May 1960, to thank him for his work; here we find a contradiction also with the idea of “retroversion” to the original. Levi adopts another medical expression in the letter: “You understand, it is the only book I have written, and now that we are finished transplanting it into German… ”8. In “transplanting” there is everything but the parallelism of a simple linguistic conveyance. It suggests instead something related with surgery, to the graft of an alien organ in one’s body; it is impossible not to think of a transplant without imagining a traumatic and dangerous operation that always threatens rejection. This book is a “loaded gun”, of course, and Levi wants it to be an explosive for the soul of his German readers, and, significantly, through the exact reproduction of a language that used Fressen (to devour) instead of Essen (to eat), Stücke (pieces) instead of Männern (men) or Leiche (corpses). But to transplant a text that is by definition foreigner in the body of a language implies that this language will undergo a mutation, and contributes towards its transformation into something different. Here again we are distant from the idea of translation as inevitable compromise. The intruder forces the bounds of the language, although Levi declared that he was only interested in “making my voice heard to the Germans”.
The subversive side of the transplant lies precisely in the fact that, starting from unavoidable compatibilities – such as the blood group of the donor and host – it introduces a ‘specific’ human factor where certain differences no longer matter: not only those of ‘facies’, but also the most radical: race and gender. Once its immunological defences have been lowered, for example, an European male body might accept an African woman’s heart9.
To pursue the same metaphor, let’s say that compatibilities are themselves the linguistic boundaries of translatability, since they allow the intrusion of an alien organ, without being assimilated, to ‘combine’ within the hosting body, testing its limits and endangering the body itself. This is perhaps what Primo Levi’s translator has realised – an application of what Benjamin said was the task of the translator: to widen up, that is, the borders of his own language. To “restore” the language in which the things had happened, that was simply impossible: Levi’s book was not a recording, but an art work. It could be translated only into another work of art; it could be only mutated.


Die wahre Übersetzung ist durchscheinend. “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully”10.
How can a translation be transparent?
As we have seen it in Primo Levi’s case, written language is, by itself, a translation. It is, therefore, the means for expressing the necessary testimony; it is a mediation that is there in order to represent the authenticity of the experience.
If transparency can be a translation’s attribute, it also belongs to the process of mediation. Transparency does not render an object visible, it allows instead its visibility. As a medium, it puts two terms into relationship. But it is not synonymous with fidelity to one of the two; it is not reproduction. On the contrary, a concept of deformation, or contamination, is always present in the idea of transparency. The transparent matter is not looked at, because it is looked through. Still, it is there, and the vision or the sensation cannot not to be modified. In computer science, the expression “transparent for the customer” indicates an operation that, while it is carried out, is unknown to him, is not made perceivable. What one sees is only the effect. Something that is looked at in transparency is something that can be only seen “transversally”.
On the other end, especially in the Anglo-Saxon languages, transparency can imply the superimposition of various elements, whether they are matters, signs, or tracings; this superimposition gives place to interlacings that are by definition modifications of matters, signs and original tracings, and a variety of elements that arrange themselves together. Understood in such a way, transparency appears therefore in contradiction with the idea of visibility. From the coexistence of disparate texts – that are, in a certain sense, mutilated and reduced to traces – emerges a new matter, initially obscure both to the sight and to its legibility. It can be said that it is in a certain ‘covering’ that the transparency discovers its possibilities. These possibilities are given, more than from a linguistically common ‘light’, from the superimpositions between the edges of the dissimilar elements. The vanishing of the margins in the interlacing of the texts, the tangling of the distinguished shapes, is what opens to a new shape.
If there is a metaphor for this concept of transparency, it is that of mixing. In music, mixing is technically the recording on a single band of elements, sounds (instrumental, vocal) previously recorded, pertaining to the same piece. But with hip-hop and, then, techno music, mixing has become, in a expansion and upheaval of sense, the form of a text opened to the infinite, and not limited by linear time or by choice in the sampling.
The DJ, the craftsman of this process, has a position that does not coincide with that of the author: the aesthetic material exists already, and it is a matter of combining it together: to choose citations, sequences, times, caesuras, layerings. About a DJ we often only know the pseudonym, and we nearly never see his face. The trace of his work remains nearly always anonymous, deprived of copyright. It seems to me that these are all analogies with the figure of the translator, and in particular with that one of a “transparent” one, the one who, without being seen, lets others see through himself. It could be said, though, that a translator is a DJ without a public: this one, instead of assisting in the performance of the mixing, will only enjoy the finished product.
Since what is transparent is what lets itself be passed through: a matter penetrated by light, that lets what is beyond be seen; a body transpierced by x- rays, that reveals, in signs that should all be deciphered, what is within. This condition of the passing through is therefore a form of resistance; in both a literal sense and a symbolic one, the transparent body is an obstacle.
What appears is something that is behind, under or within a body, it is not the body itself, which remains by definition hidden to the type of sight, or experience, that allows; at the same time it is perceivable, instead, to the type of sight or experience to which it is an obstacle (the hardness of the glass, the surface of the human body). A transparent translation therefore would be an invisible one, that, instead of projecting its shadow on its subject, opens, in the combinations of new texts, the readings that, already in the original language, were contained in the latent state.
Let’s go back to musical metaphors. The interpreter (a word that in Latin indicated the broker, the intermediary of cattle or real estate) is the one who, possessing anything but his qualities of interpretation, unfold, untangle, carries out, resolves a material with which he has been entrusted. Whether this material becomes a work of art or, instead, mere communication, depends on the quality of his performance.
In a dialogue about techno music11, Jean-Luc Nancy seems to establish a difference of quality between a work that would be a mere overlapping of various musical elements, a kind of collage, able only to express the instability, the aging of a given shape, and, on the other hand, a mixing able to produce, beginning from heterogeneous identities, a new form. In doing so, he widens the concept of mixing to its extremes, by conceiving the form as something that is both permanent and changing: “This can require a long time, in the same way that the various Latin languages – such as French, Spanish, Rumanian and Italian – spring forth from long operations of the decomposition of Latin, by mixing with other languages, in processes that have taken centuries. Then the forms appear…What I mean to say is that it exists a true issue of the form, as well as it exists a true issue of the work. Not for mere taste of the forms, not in order to say: ‘we need a new form’, but because, in spite of everything, the form, it can be said in the style of Nietzsche, is also what protects us from the abyss of the bottom, from the ‘bottomless bottom’”12.
The new form is a form of the translation. It offers a larger conception than the one of interpretation; differently from this one, that remains a prolongation of its subject, the translational practice catches from its subject the elements of a form that escapes recognizability.
The last page of Benjamin’s text reminds me of the image of the abyss. There, regarding Hölderlin’s translations of Sophokles, it is said as “in them meaning plunges from abyss to abyss until it threatens to become lost in the bottomless dephts of language”13. And about this same subject that George Steiner speaks, in Antigones, of translation in terms of appropriation and metamorphosis14.
Appropriation and metamorphosis are attributes of the mixing: a question of choosing pre-existent pieces (and it would be worth here to open the issue of the criteria of choice and sampling), subtracting them from their context, superimposing them to other pieces equally reduced to fragments, decomposing them in limbs, recomposing the scattered limbs in other temporary orders, changing their lenght, their volume, their sonorous mass . In this practice, that can be called of ‘re-presentation’, what is represented is the loss of originality and autonomy of a work that is reduced to objectify to manipulate, to produce a simulacrum of itself.
It can be said that it is precisely in the lack of respect for the original that lies the conditions of the metamorphosis. This is the case in Hölderlin’s translations, in which the understanding of the original text is not necessarily the key to the great level of transfiguration caught up by the German poet. It can happen that a grammatical error, occurring “out of ignorance, carelessness, or haste”15 leads to luminous linguistic solutions. In this respect, translation is not less metamorphic than mixing. In such a re-presentation we find an other originality, an other authenticity. Similarly, the repeated and multiple alienation of a work appears like a refounding, a restitution or a “retroversion, to use Primo Levi’s word, to an original previous to the work itself, to a field of the possible.
This movement towards the past, a movement of “resumption”, is particularly obvious in hip-hop music, but also in an other of its characters, the anachronism. In the moment in which the digital technique, in the mid-eighties, has produced the laser-discs that have quickly occupied the musical market, rendering the vinyls obsolete as instruments of reproduction, these have been resumed like mere sonorous material, like primary matter of ephemeral and changing works. The vinyl recording is exalted exactly because of its defects, such as its submission to the impression of the needle; the same disused character of the instrument, that now return as a kind of ‘gramophone’, becomes a quality. The scratching technique – surely related to that of contemporary graffiti16 – expresses acoustically, with its tremblings, its stoppings, its creakings, its accelerated or slowed down tempos, this movement of contrattempo.
The transparency, understood as stratification and compenetration, is the method itself of this graphical music. The Italian graffio indicates, in a nearly etymological way, its expressive instrument. The analogy with graffiti, in particular with prehistoric ones, is obvious: there, too, the images’ outlines were overlap, coexist simultaneously, not hidden but interlaced with others, in drawings made of tiny details or lines summarily traced17.
What in mixing seems inaccessible or difficult to perception is the very identity of the original material. Its recognizability is that of the single elements that emerge – by choice or by chance – from the new form that adopts them.
These recognizable elements appear isolated from what they previously had around them and are introduced like autonomous texts. Their relationship with the contiguous elements is an aesthetic intensification of the ‘appoggiatura’: an element leans over the subsequent one, occupying a part of its duration or its space. In classical music the ‘appoggiatura’ was an embellishment, in which a note was enhanced by the one that preceded it, at a particular interval, superior or inferior. The mixing is articulated in the resumption and manipulation of this interval.
In the interstices of the superimpositions between the notes (or the propositions, or the images) lies the difficulty of perception. In this is the interest about transparency; it resides in its relationship with the ‘ill-visible’; in the effort that we demand of the senses and in the relinquishments of sight and hearing is the key of a knowledge that is neither immediate nor intentional. This also concerns another type of mixing, such as the one between different linguistic structures: writing and the image. Whilst leaning over to the others, superimposing themselves while remaining distinct, the various elements enable both the distance-taking from themselves and of the others from themselves. This is the case of every kind of written text, whether descriptive or not, supported by or to an image. Put simply, they cannot be read together18.
Some inadequacy of the senses, the impossibility of picking, seizing, selecting, accompanies a work that goes in the sense of complexity rather than in that of simplification. This complexity has the figure of a stratigraphy, whose members are not discernible on first sight. An ulterior mediation of sight and a deepened time of listening become necessary.
The penetrability of such a work, whether visual, literary, or musical, demands an analogous attitude from the spectator, the reader, the listener; it is not a matter of ‘focusing’ on a subject, or of a diffused brightening up of perception; rather it is a matter of the variable intensity of the attention, of the interruptions and intervals of the presence, of revealing distractions, of discontinuous listenings, of the shiftings of sight, of slanting and oblique looks. As we have seen, transparency is what ensures that things only appear ‘crosswise’.


“It is this reflective sorrow I now propose to draw out and render visible, so far as that is possible, in some pictures. I call them ‘shadowgraphs’, partly to remind the reader by the very designation that I am summoning them from the dark side of life, partly because, just like shadowgraphs, they are not visible straightaway. If I take a shadowgraph in my hand, I gain no impression from it, can form no real idea of it; it is only when I hold it up to the wall and look not at the immediate image but at what appears on the wall, it is only then that I see it”19.
In order to follow up with this image, it is necessary to remember that the literal translation of the Danish skyggerids would be rather ‘shadowy contour’ or, even better, ‘patterns of shadows’. It is indeed necessary to know that the silhouettes about which Kierkegaard writes were not only the cut out profiles of black paper then glued on a white sheet, especially fashionable during the second half of the eighteenth century. The image, then, could have been cut out or perforated on paper. What was looked at was therefore the projection, on the wall or on the screen, of the cut out or perforated outlines. What was read was the shadow. It was the creation of the shadow through the light that, in a sort of skia-graphia, allowed a vision otherwise impossible, if it had remained “immediate”.
But we will follow the trail of these shadows in another passage. We will linger on an other meaning of the transparency, to which Kierkegaard’s text introduces us.
“If I look at a sheet of paper, to outward observation there may be nothing remarkable about it; it is only when I hold it up to the light of day and see through it that I discover the delicate inner picture which is as though too insubstantial to be seen immediately”20.
Kierkegaard’s whole metaphor is tied to the relationship between doubt and the reflective sorrow that does not let itself be represented because is turned inward – even as it is constantly becoming and in discord with itself. “Only a careful observer foresee its disappearance”; the reflective sorrow, that is, lets itself be perceived only in the moment and the movement of its passing away.
“Thus the fisherman sits and directs his attention unwaveringly on the float, yet the float does not interest him at all, only the movements down on the sea-bed. So the outer does indeed have significance for us, yet not as an expression of the inner but like a telegram telling of something hidden deep within. When you look long and attentively at a face, you sometimes discover that is as if there were another face within the one you see”21.
What the fisherman happens to discover here is more than a objective truth: it is
something truer than an immediate truth, the uncanny reflection of an image inside the observer himself. Similarly, what is revealed to the translator are the new forms of his own language.
Let us go back to the term skyggerids. To record, to trace with the shadow. The verb ridse means in English to scratch, which maintains all the valences of the Greek graphein. And the original concept of this verb was that of a common tool to various linguistic expressions: “During the so called Dark Ages, that is, broadly speaking, from the twelfth to the eight centuries before our era, Greece, which as you know has no knowledge of imagery in the proper sense of the term, nor does it use systems of figural representation. The same word, graphein, it should be noted, is used for writing, drawing, and painting”22.
To this citation I would like to add another one from Rudolf Pannowitz, in Benjamin’s essay: “… The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own he must go back to the primal elements of language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image and tone converge”23.
If one gets near to this, in some way ‘primitive’, meaning of graphein, it is difficult not to think how the issue of translation from one written language to an other follows the same path of the translation between various forms of perception and acoustic, iconic, graphic experiences, all tied to the historical and biographical background of the translator. He must graft onto these the intrusive elements introduced to him, transforming them, and transforming with them his own language.
“To receive the alien, it means also to endure its intrusion. Very rarely it is admitted: the subject of the intruder is by itself an intrusion in our moral correction (and is also a remarkable example of the political correctness). And however it is indissociable from the truth of the alien”24. A work in which the truth of extraneity remains preserved can be only a mixing, since only there can a transformation take place that goes behind the simple testimony of diversity.
I offer the example of an ancient figure of mixing, the cento, that has often been considered a second rate artistic form. A cento was a text composed by putting together verses and phrases pertaining to other’s texts; extracted from their original body, those were denaturated in the same moment in which their were put to use.
The cento (from the Latin, cento-centonis, a patchwork garment) is a typical literary composition during periods of decay, historical moments in which there has been a breach in tradition, and when values before considered obvious have lost their meaning. It was frequent during the late Roman Empire, although there are known homeric or virgilian centos from the second century after Christ. But this technique also was used in the figurative art that today, as profanes, we would call ‘classic’, was used this technique. Constantine’s arch in Rome is a meaningful example of it. The entire monument is a recycling of architectonic elements (frames, capitals, columns), but also of reliefs and sculptures coming from older monuments. For scholars, it is today difficult to reconstruct, even if that would make sense, what is of Constantinian age and what is instead of the time of Adrian or Traian. In some bas-reliefs the heads of the emperors of the II century had been carved out and replaced with portraits of Constantine; whether this happened for ideological reasons or economical is not clear, but what is of interest here is the process of a displacement and shifting of an iconography that eventually changes its very meaning. The misunderstanding, intentional or not, therefore seems to be at the very heart of this procedure.
Misunderstanding seems to be unavoidable because of the method of constructing a work that is made out of fragments taken from preexisting works. The method is that of testing, perforating, withdrawing, juxtaposing. It expresses itself in its freedom towards its subject, independently from tradition and against tradition. It does not cover the original material with a veil of contemporaneity, as an aestheticizing procedure might do. The sampling, the piercing, the extraction of single elements – all these are a prelude to the creation of a new work. This can pass only through a change in the meaning of the previous one. It is an expression of violence; a violence of the extraction, a violence of the transplantation. Therefore, as in musical mixing, with the cento the quotation is at the same time a transformation of what is quoted.
The cento is and is not a translation at the same time. Or, if it is, it is only in its lack of respect for its subject, that it is also compassion for this same subject. In revealing the features of the subject, it disguises them; in reducing the statue to a trunk it develops the latent images of it; in laying one over the other the distinct forms, it reopens them to the reign of possibilities.

In conclusion: starting from a contradiction between mechanical memory and translatability, we have seen that it is possible to conceive translation as a transplant; we also have seen how transplanting is a method applicable not only to the musical practice of mixing but also to the artistic one of centonism. Furthermore, translation as transplant is a concept, and is the only one that allows us to face and experiment the irreducibility of linguistic and aesthetic differences. If transparency can be a translation’s attribute, it is because they both belong to the process of mediation and combination of alterities.

As an example, in music, of a translation/transplant/transparency see, in the Theory Department Web site (…), Philippe Poirier’s 5×78 Sample and Rodolphe Burger’s Monteverdi/Unlimited lament. Both were performed in the context of the show Leaving Pictures. Towards an art of history, Rome, March 1999.


PS: this texts presents 24 footnotes. When I’ll find time, I will copy them from the original Word document.

Communication IRWIP (2005)

Communication: “Le test pseudo-isochromatique d’Ishihara et sa variante Puglia”

En 1917, le professeur Shibaru Ishihara (1879-1963), médecin militaire et futur doyen de l’Université Impériale de Tokyo, qui avait été l’élève de Stock à Jena, d’Axenfeld à Fribourg-sur-Breisgau et de von Hess à Munich avant d’être contraint de regagner sa patrie suite au déclenchement de la Première Guerre Mondiale, mit au point un système de détection du daltonisme (1) qui est encore pratiqué aujourd’hui, et dont se souviennent tous ceux qui ont fait leurs trois jours en vue du service militaire.
Il s’agit de disques colorés avec des encres différentes (jusqu’à neuf), constitués de points de dimension et de tonalité variables, ce qui rend indistinct, si ce n’est pour le type de couleurs, un signe déterminé qui se cacherait au milieu de cet ensemble. Par exemple, un daltonien deutan distinguera difficilement un signe rouge sur un fond à dominante verte.
Le test dénommé “pseudo-isochromatique” d’Ishihara – dont la version complète est constituée de 38 tables – est particulièrement performant (à 98%) dans l’individuation des dyschromatopsies héréditaires de type protan et deutan.
Les tables de 1 à 25 présentent des nombres arabes. Les nombres sont les signes dont la lecture est commune aussi bien aux occidentaux qu’aux orientaux, et c’est la raison pour laquelle – vraisemblablement – ils ont été employés dans la version internationale du test: ni les lettres de l’alphabet latin, ni les pictogrammes chinois, ni les hiéroglyphes égyptiens n’auraient – en effet – été lisibles par tous.
Les tables qui vont de 26 à 38 sont conçues pour les illettrés et les enfants: y sont tracés des parcours sinueux, que le sujet examiné doit suivre avec la pointe d’un crayon ou de son propre doigt.

La série de travaux que je propose ici, modestement, représente une variante culturelle du test d’Ishihara. Elle est applicable aussi bien aux illettrés qu’aux personnes alphabétisées de toute race ou couleur : il faut seulement que l’examinateur et l’examiné se mettent d’accord sur le nom à donner aux choses.

Pour mettre au point mon humble proposition, j’ai adapté un test pour les enfants malvoyants, qui est utilisé de nos jours dans les services ophtalmologiques des hôpitaux français: il s’agit du test optométrique de R. Rossano et J-B. Weiss-Inserm, qui prévoit l’identification de quelques icônes familières de notre enfance: voiture, landau, chien, poule, fleur, et ainsi de suite. (2)
Et ce n’est pas sans un soupçon de fierté que je propose l’adoption de mon test pour les déficiences chromatiques. En tant que peintre et – bien entendu – spécialiste de la perception, de la vision et – par conséquent – de la couleur, je ne pouvais pas ne pas m’adresser avec empathie à ce 8% de la population qui ne perçoit pas comme il se doit toute la palette du monde qui nous entoure, et je suis confiant dans le fait que cette simple synthèse Ishihara-Rossano-Weiss-Inserm-Puglia l’aidera à mieux se rendre compte de ce qu’il est en train de perdre.

(1). La “cécité aux couleurs “, dont l’origine est génétique et qui est deux fois plus présente chez les hommes que chez les femmes, doit son nom au chimiste anglais John Dalton (1766-1844), qui publia en 1794 la première contribution scientifique sur ce sujet. “Extraordinary facts relating to the vision of colours”.

(2).  Si la dimension des icônes est constante (environ 10 cm de hauteur pour une table de 15×29 cm), la précaution de les peindre sur un écran en plexiglas transparent et détaché du mur permet de les éclairer de manière appropriée, en produisant une multiplication de points lumineux qui augmente ad libitum le coefficient de difficulté de l’examen.

Leaving Pictures (1999)

Leaving Pictures: Towards an Art of History

Far from the Pictures was the title of an album by Kat Onoma, a French band whose musical offerings range from  Monteverdi’s  madrigals to Kraftwerk’s radioactive litanies.  Of course, there the thing was music, sound;  and those sounds, and that music, had a certain sobriety.  Therefore, the invitation to distance oneself from the pictures appeared justified and not, as it might seem, contrived.  I repeat this invitation here.  Although in this text we will be concerned mostly with visual arts and visions, we will see how an invitation to go through and beyond and away from pictures is not unjustified. In a parody of the Platonic affirmation that we can conduct politics only by rejecting politics, let us say that we can – and must- work with images only by experiencing discouragement in the face of the image. Having taken over the weapons of representation, we will have to attack representation.
The relationship between art and history is at stake in the kind of work I am presenting here. It may be viewed from many different perspectives.  I will list here, very briefly, at least three ways in which an artist may look at history.
1.  As presence, persistence, and continuity of the past, at whose extreme end we find ourselves:  hence an art of quotation, of representation.
2.  As context, as a temporally defined ambience in which one lives and functions:  hence political, or at least engaged art.
3.  As recognized heritage, as an object of reflection and re-presentation:  hence an art of history.
All these ways are necessarily intertwined, but I would isolate the one which I find most interesting and fertile: the last, the one that appears as the current form of ‘history painting’, and that does more than the others to bring artistic practice closer to the role of interpreting the world, of ‘saying the unsaid.’
As a point of departure, this hermeneutic view of art of course has its own limits, which can be found in the very possibility of interpreting what is around and within us.  But if we call ourselves ‘artists,’ or if we have chosen art as a mode of living, it is because at the very outset we were confronted precisely with the question of meaning, and the only answer we could give was this:  neither to simply register, nor to simply express, but to transform what is given.  In other words, to go through and beyond interpretation and turn the work of art into a work of translation, a work of appropriation that, according to George Steiner, ‘transforms.’
A transformative practice of artistic work is at least interesting because it does not reduce the work to mere self-affirmation.  It gives form to the attempt — an attempt to which we are condemned by ethics — to reweave, re-stitch, and glue the pieces together without stopping, and without end, into weaves and patterns that are different from those that we involuntarily inherited and to which we bear witness.  And this without any pretense of being able to recreate something, but only with the pretense of saying what remains, which is to say, what is lost.
Such a work of appropriation and translation can, and even must, remain obscure and even unconscious in its development, since, in transcending the chosen object, a certain loss of memory on the part of whoever chose the object is necessary.

The kind of art that is interested in historical heritage is not necessarily an art of memory, much less political art.  If it possesses the quality of art, then it is political.  How easy it is to conceal aesthetic insufficiency behind an appeal to memory as a positive value in itself (or at least as a consolation), behind the appeal to principles and good intentions!  But the issue remains – and it is a decisive one – of the quality of artistic work, which alone justifies the renewal and transformation of images-history, and returns the artist to the condition of a creator.  Otherwise, kitsch — which does not transform but merely displaces — is around the corner.
If it is art, then it is not historiography.  Art is not there to say, ‘Look, I’ll tell you how things went.’  It is not even there to say, ‘they could have gone differently,’ or to offer lessons on how they could have gone.  Fortunately, today even historians think in different terms.  Would art’s role then be that of transmitting a truth more truthful than the one that other disciplines might claim to have?  It is not even this.  But, perhaps, an art of history might be more able than others to say the possible, and this because of its ‘parasitical’ nature, which we will try to elucidate in this slender volume.
An art of history is indeed parasitic, as it depends directly on its documents.  A historical source is generally viewed in two ways: either as a mere and truthful testimony, or as a ‘suggestive,’ ‘evocative’ text.  The attempt here is to find a different way of treating it, one that would put the emphasis on its possible transformation.  This transformation can only take place by a process which is at the same time interpretative and metamorphic.
Let history then be subjected to art, as long as the respective boundaries are traced;  and it is with this in view that our discourse revolves around the role of the document.  The waste, the remains, the findings, on one side;  attention, choice, and metamorphosis, on the other.
The question of inclusion and exclusion, the question of choice, is primary when it concerns-as it does here – the reworking of a given material. In fact, we return to the first question of this collection: what is it that comes to be designated as a document, why is it chosen and through what processes does it become the material of a possible work ? In the choice, in the reworking, there is evidently the reduction of what is possible into a design formed by all of the conditions of a given subjectivity and a given historical moment. However, in some cases, the choice and reworking range through the field of infinite possibilities.
And, in fact, we are not looking for an improbable re-construction of history;  rather, we are attempting a multiform re-exposition.  History is neither progressive nor circular.  It is eternally fragmented and interrupted, resumed and distorted like a record on the mixing console of an improvising disc-jockey. Rather than something that develops or that returns, we are faced with a jumble of ruins out of which we have to extract the pieces of new assemblages, of new, polymorphous Frankensteins of art and history.


Glances across Europe (2003-2005)

Glances across Europe: a historical heritage project

In one of his most compelling books, Le 20 janvier (Paris, Christian Bourgois, 1980), the French writer, art critic and poet Jean-Christophe Bailly tells how, during a stay in Berlin,Un alignement de 105 stèles en médium de bois pour rappeler les 209 enseignants et élèves du lycée Daudet morts à la première guerre mondiale, years before the fall of the Wall, he visited the Ägyptisches Museum in Charlottenburg on the west side of the city, where he admired Nefertiti’s celebrated bust. A few days later, as he wandered through the Bode Museum in East Berlin, he chanced upon another bust, representing Nefertiti’s daughter. The tragic irony of the situation was not lost on Bailly: the portraits, after so many centuries, found themselves lost in a foreign land, close enough to be seen on the same day, yet kept apart by the Wall – and only the traveler’s gaze could connect them. Bailly wondered whether mother and daughter were secretly facing each other – and if not, in which point, in or out of the divided capital, their gazes would intersect.

Bailly’s musings have been my inspiration for the following project. As I visit museums and historical sites in several European towns, I plan to discover or to establish analogies between things that are not supposed to relate in any obvious way. A process of “signalization” will take place as follows. (1) A copper or Plexiglas plaque will be set beside several objects (selected in different museums) according to their historical signification and their geographical orientation. (2) Each of these objects (e.g. statues, or museum specimens) look along a certain line, in a certain direction, which is to be determined with a compass. (3) Two such given lines intersect at a certain point; some of these cross-points will be marked by a third plaque, fixed on a pole.

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.

By all means, it is certainly no coincidence that the other writer whom I consider my project’s spiritual father is W. G. Sebald, the nomadic German scholar and novelist, who was recently killed in an accident. In his novels, Sebald 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. In fact, the subject of the work I wish to undertake is European historical heritage itself.

September 2002

Plaques texts (examples)

ANACAPRI (Italy, 40N55 e 12E29)

As you read this plaque, you are facing north. Your glance will encounter an axis extending from the seismograph known as ’19 tonnes’, conserved in the Seismological Museum in Strasbourg (France).
Both the seismograph and the fortified observatory at Anacapri are the results of involuntary collaboration between enemy forces. Initiated by the Germans in 1910, the seismograph in Strasbourg was finished in the wake of World War I by the French, who used pieces of weapons and decommissioned military material to attain the total weight of 19 tons required to balance the seismograph’s small needle.
Designed to protect the access to the Gulf of Naples, the fortifications of Anacapri were begun by the French in the course of the Napoleonic wars. The English, allies of the Bourbons, seized the complex in 1806 and used it as a stronghold in their attempt to transform Capri into a ‘little Gibraltar’. In 1808 Joachim Murat led the attack of the island; the reoccupied fortress was enlarged and consolidated, but it was never again used for military purposes.
The meeting of your glance and the axis extending east from the seismograph will take place in a mountain pasture located at latitude 48° 58’ N, longitude 14° 20’ E in the vicinity of the Austrian village of Hinterweißenbach. A plaque has been placed on the site to mark this encounter.

Glances across Europe: a project conceived by Salvatore Puglia
and supported by the Gunk Foundation for Public Art in 2003.









Un panneau pour l’imaginaire

La plaque que j’ai placé, avec l’accord et le soutien des responsables du Jardin Georges Delaselle, à proximité du calvaire situé à son sommet est la neuvième de mon projet nommé Glances across Europe (Regards à travers l’Europe).
Ce projet consiste à créer des liens idéaux entre des lieux et des monuments historiques du continent européen, par un processus de signalisation. Au cours de mes voyages, intentionnels ou hasardeux, j’ai remarqué certains objets et lieux, à mon sens singuliers. J’ai d’emblée fait une petite investigation sur leur histoire, aux fins d’imaginer une connexion possible avec d’autres objets ou lieux que j’ai répertoriés.
C’est une manière d’affirmer que les choses aussi regardent – et ne sont pas seulement regardées – au delà de l’emplacement où les hommes et l’histoire les ont situées. Et pour finir j’ai établi ma liaison idéale, autour d’un sujet thématique décidé de manière peut-être arbitraire et sans aucun doute très subjective.
Le thème du « retour à la mère-patrie », par exemple, m’a permis de mettre en relation la fresque médiévale représentant le retour des reliques de Sainte Agathe, à Acicastello, en Sicile, et la statue d’un soldat soviétique qui, dans le cimetière militaire de Potsdam, se tient en position de garde-à-vous dans la direction de la Russie.
En utilisant une boussole et une carte géographique détaillée, j’ai marqué la direction exacte vers laquelle se tournent ces deux objets, et en prolongeant l’axe de leur « regard », j’ai déterminé leur point de rencontre virtuel. Là où ces axes se croisent, j’ai placé une plaque dont le texte décrit la rencontre qui a lieu dans ce site précis.
La rencontre de la fresque sicilienne et de la statue soviétique à lieu dans une plaine polonaise, devant une vieille ferme en vente.
Le texte de la plaque est à chaque fois écrit dans la langue du lieu. J’espère, à la fin de ce travail, pouvoir publier un recueil de l’ensemble de ces textes traduits dans chaque langue concernée, ainsi qu’une carte géographique où ces rencontres seraient inscrites, de manière à permettre aux éventuels visiteurs de repérer tous les panneaux. Ce recueil serait disponible à proximité de chacun des lieux signalisés.

Venant à l’installation de Batz. Je souhaitais qu’un visiteur du Museo campano de Capoue, près de Naples, en Italie, trouve, à côté de la statue d’une déesse italique, un panneau lui indiquant la direction de son regard et le fait que la trajectoire de ce regard croise celui d’un monument situé en Bretagne, celui du calvaire du jardin G. Delaselle de l’île de Batz.
Je souhaitais aussi que le promeneur qui traverse un haut plateau à proximité de la petite ville de Carrascal del Rio, en Espagne, découvre le signe-témoin de cette rencontre. Chaque lien que j’établis nécessite donc d’être signalé par trois panneaux.
Celui de Capoue et de Carrascal étaient déjà placés, il ne me restait plus, pour documenter cette subjective rencontre, qu’à installer celui-ci.
Le sujet qui relie Capoue et Batz est celui de la continuité d’un culte, sur un même lieu, pendant des milliers d’années. A peu près à l’époque où l’on installait le calvaire sur le dolmen de l’île, au XIXe siècle, on découvrait dans la localité dite «Petrara», près de Capoue, des dizaines de statues de femmes assises, portant dans leurs bras des corps d’enfants emmaillotés. Il s’agissait des Matres Matutae, représentations sacrées de l’aurore et de la fertilité.
Pendant plus d’un millénaire et jusqu’en plein empire romain, les habitants de la ville se sont succédés sur ce site, et à chaque époque, pour remercier d’une grâce ou pour en demander une, ils ont déposé ces statues. Les styles de ces icônes sont donc des plus variés, trace des influences culturelles et des invasions qui ont façonné l’histoire de ce territoire.
La plus ancienne de ces sculptures a été surnommée par les gardiens «la picassienne», à cause de ses traits sommaires et «difformes». C’est celle que j’ai choisie pour la relier au calvaire du XVIe siècle placé sur le dolmen mégalithique .
À Batz, on assiste en effet aussi à une sacralisation continue, mais sous le signe de la re-appropriation et de la juxtaposition plus que du changement des formes.
Il s’agit donc de souligner ici à la fois une analogie et une contradiction.
J’espère qu’une telle connexion idéale pourra alimenter l’imagination d’infinies connexions possibles des choses entre elles et des hommes entre eux.


Six leçons de drapé (2003)

Entre Uranie et Madeleine

De tous les sujets de l’enseignement artistique, la draperie est peut être l’exercice didactique par excellence. Il s’agit – en reprenant et en reproduisant les plis d’un beau tissu façonné avec adresse et goût – d’en retrouver le volume et la consistance, ainsi que de saisir la lumière qui s’y  pose.

Si l’on reste dans le cadre du dessin, qui est le thème de ce bref essai, on peut dire que, si la reproduction du corps humain est une question de proportions et de mesures, « rendre » le drapé est autant un fait d’ombre et de lumière que de gravité et de chute.

Parmi les dessins anciens de la collection Del Borgo, j’ai choisi deux pièces qui, bien qu’étant de bonne qualité, ne sont pas simplement des morceaux de bravoure, mais expriment des préoccupations typiques de leur temps. Je les ai choisies aussi en fonction de la posture de leurs sujets: il s’agit d’emblèmes très subjectifs, celui de la tension vers la lumière pour l’un et de l’attraction vers l’ombre pour l’autre.

Voici une femme qui tient sur son ventre une sphère et regarde vers le haut, dans une attitude, semble-t-il, d’attente et de demande. Attend-elle un ordre, un conseil, une illumination ? Ne sait-elle que faire de ce globe qui, en y regardant mieux, s’avère être la Terre elle-même ? Et sa main droite qui, au lieu d’aider à maintenir le ballon terrestre, pend  inanimée le long des plis du vêtement, ne devait-elle pas, à l’origine, tenir un instrument de mesure ou de jugement ? Mais il n’y a pas trace d’instruments avec lesquels mesurer ou compter et le monde, sur ses genoux, n’est qu’un poids dont elle ne sait que faire, attendant qu’une lumière lui vienne de là-haut. Les plis de sa robe ont l’air de tenir tout seuls, à peine retenus par une ceinture qui – je lis dans un catalogue – l’identifie comme représentation d’Uranie, muse de l’astronomie.

L’autre femme, tracée à la sanguine, tient elle aussi quelque chose de sphérique sur ses genoux. On dirait presque qu’elle vient à peine de mettre au monde) cet objet  qui se révèle être un crâne humain. La jeune femme contemple cette tête d’un air absorbé et songeur. Ses cheveux sont dénoués et ébouriffés; c’est le signe du deuil et de l’expiation que les femmes du sud de l’Italie affichaient encore il y a une dizaine d’années, à la mort d’un être cher. Sans aucun doute, il s’agit là d’une Madeleine pénitente. Et dans cette version-ci, elle scrute le globe osseux comme si c’était un miroir; c’est l’image synthétique d’une Vanité à peine voilée de rhétorique religieuse. Et si sa tête est penchée, si son regard est tourné vers le bas, c’est qu’il y a un poids qui la tire vers l’obscurité. La pesanteur du drapé a l’air d’accompagner cette chute immobile.

L’art de ces deux peintres baroques de qualité, auteurs d’Uranie et de Madeleine, m’incite, moi qui ne suis ni bon peintre ni dessinateur, à occuper une position analogue à la leur, à me placer face à un modèle drapé d’un tissu dont on ne sait que faire et à voir ce que ma main, chargée de tous les évènements de l’histoire et du monde, peut tirer de toutes ces incommunicables tensions et attractions, vers le haut, vers le bas, en travers.









Fra Urania e Maddalena

Di tutti i soggetti dell’insegnamento artistico, il panneggio è forse l’esercizio didattico per eccellenza. Trattasi, nel riprendere e riprodurre le pieghe di un bel tessuto ad arte sistemato, di ritrovarne il volume e la consistenza, di afferrare la luce che vi si posa.

Se rimaniamo nella cornice del disegno, che è qui il tema delle nostre brevi lezioni, possiamo dire che, se riprodurre il corpo umano è una questione di proporzioni e di misure, “rendere” il panneggio è un fatto di ombra e di luce, nonché di gravità, di “caduta”.

Fra i disegni conservati nella collezione di Guido Del Borgo – che fu un grande esperto, oltre che la personificazione vivente del gusto – ho scelto due pezzi che, pur nella loro alta qualità, non sono semplicemente due pezzi di bravura. Li ho scelti a causa della postura dei loro soggetti, che vedo – più che come illustrazioni dell’arte del segno – come emblemi tutti soggettivi: l’uno della tensione verso la luce e l’altro dell’attrazione per l’ombra.

Ecco una donna che tiene in grembo una sfera e guarda verso l’alto, in un atteggiamento che pare di domanda e di attesa. Attende un ordine, un consiglio, un’illuminazione? Non sa cosa fare di quel globo che, a guardar meglio, si rivela essere la Terra stessa? E la mano destra che, invece di aiutare a tenere ferma la palla terrestre, le cade come inanimata lungo le pieghe dell’abito, non doveva forse tenere in origine un qualche strumento di misura o di giudizio? Ma di utensili che potrebbero aiutarla a misurare o a calibrare non c’è traccia, il mondo è giusto un peso sulle sue ginocchia, un peso di cui non sa cosa fare, nell’attesa di una luce che le venga di lassù.

Anche l’altra donna, tracciata alla sanguigna, porta qualcosa di sferico sulle ginocchia. Si direbbe quasi che di quest’oggetto – che è poi un cranio umano – si sia appena sgravata. La giovane donna fissa il suo teschio con aria intenta e sognante; ha i capelli sciolti, arruffati. E’ il segno del lutto e dell’espiazione che, ancora qualche decina di anni fa, le donne dell’Italia meridionale ostentavano alla morte di un caro. Non c’è dubbio, si tratta di una Maddalena penitente. Questa fanciulla che contempla il piccolo globo osseo come se fosse uno specchio è l’immagine sintetica di una Vanitas appena appena retorica. E se il suo capo è chino e se il suo sguardo è rivolto verso il basso è perché c’è un peso che verso l’ombra la tira. La pesantezza del panneggio sembra accompagnare questa ferma caduta. Le pieghe della prima, invece, che – leggo in un catalogo – rappresenta un’allegoria dell’Astronomia o la musa Urania, sembrano tenersi su da sole.

L’arte dei due pittori barocchi, i due buoni artefici dell’Urania e della Maddalena, provoca me, che non sono né pittore né buon artefice, a occupare una posizione analoga alle loro, a pormi di fronte a una modella che tiene sul ventre una forma sferica e a vedere cosa la mia mano, carica di tutti gli eventi della storia e del mondo, possa tirar fuori da queste incomunicabili tensioni e attrazioni, verso l’alto, verso il basso, di traverso.

Ciò che qui viene presentato è il risultato di tale immodesto esercizio.


1930 circa (2002-2003)

Saverio Marra (1894-1978) est un photographe provincial et autodidacte. Il s’est acheté son premier appareil à l’âge de seize ans, avec l’argent mis de côté en travaillant comme apprenti menuisier et, s’aidant d’un manuel, a commencé à photographier les gens de sa famille, ses amis, les paysages de la région calabraise.
En 1912 il était en Libye, employé comme charpentier pour l’édification de la colonie nouvellement conquise par l’Italie. Il s’y lia d’amitié avec un militaire, peintre du dimanche, qui lui offrit une toile de grand format, représentant une plage exotique avec palmiers, un bateau à voile et une mosquée en arrière plan. Celle-ci sera la toile de fond que Marra, rentré au pays, utilisera régulièrement pour les portraits de ses concitoyens.
En 1914 il fut appelé sous les drapeaux. La première guerre mondiale était imminente. Pacifiste convaincu, Marra aurait préféré se soustraire au service militaire. Il eut la chance de rencontrer un capitaine du service sanitaire, photographe amateur, qui le prit comme ordonnance et lui transmit des notions de technique aussi bien médicale que photographique. Comme infirmier, Marra participa à plusieurs opérations de secours et de récupération de soldats blessés sur le front des Dolomites.
A son retour à San Giovanni in Fiore, en 1919, il travailla pour une exploitation agricole, avant d’être en mesure d’ouvrir sa propre boutique de charpentier. Il se maria et eut, entre 1921 et 1931, quatre enfants.
Il commença à exécuter des portraits et des photos d’identité. Il s’acheta une motocyclette, se construisit une remorque dans laquelle il entassait ses instruments et ses outils, et il sillonnait toute la région, pour vendre ses services de photographe à l’occasion de foires champêtres, de fêtes religieuses, de mariages, d’enterrements. Il s’abonna à Il Progresso fotografico, se procura d’autres manuels techniques. Il développait et tirait jusqu’à tard dans la nuit, après le travail.
Il se mit à l’apiculture; il s’acheta un petit lot de terrain, où il planta des oliviers et des vignes et où il bâtit une petite maison. Il agrandit son studio photographique, qui était à côté de son logement. Il ne faisait de prises de vue que à la lumière du jour; dans la salle de pose, éclairée par une fenêtre latérale, traça au sol un diagramme de points qui marquaient, suivant le parcours du soleil, des secteurs d’exposition optimale.
Dans les années Trente il s’intéressa aussi aux progrès des sciences occultes. En 1935 il se fit, avec un associé, le représentant locale des motos Benelli et des phonographes Phonola et Radiomarelli. Il s’occupait pour l’essentiel des réparations et de l’entretien des appareils.
Saverio Marra était un antifasciste connu. Son studio devint un lieu de rencontre des opposants au régime, ce qui lui valut des fréquentes perquisitions et des mises en garde policières. Il est probable qu’il fut en contact avec les exilés politiques, les confinati, assignés à résidence dans les villages les plus reculés du Sud.
A la fin de la deuxième guerre mondiale Marra abandonna progressivement son métier de photographe, entre autres, à cause de problèmes de vue. Il s’acheta trente hectares de terrain pierreux dans la province de Cosenza; il les rendit cultivables, y édifia une maison, un four, une étable. Il se fit, comme dans sa jeunesse, agriculteur. Seulement quand des circonstances familiales l’y obligeaient, il acceptait, avec réticence et de manière ponctuelle, de prendre à nouveau des photographies. (1)
Les archives de Saverio Marra ont été conservées et constituent l’un des fonds du Museo demologico de San Giovanni in Fiore.

Je suis convaincu que les lecteurs avertis auront entendu, dans les brèves notes biographiques qui précèdent, comme un écho d’une autre biographie, celle du bien plus célèbre photographe allemand August Sander. Le destin de Saverio Marra semble être celui d’un « August Sander de province ». Il est difficile de dire si ses milliers de clichés, tous pris sur commande, supposaient, comme dans le cas de Sander, un projet anthropologique conscient. Ce qui est sûr c’est que le résultat n’en est pas éloigné: nous nous trouvons ici face à toute une histoire sociale de la province calabraise dans la période du Ventennio fasciste. A travers ces visages auxquels on ne demandait pas de sourire, dans ces postures statuaires, dans ces accoutrements archaïques, devant cette toile de jute qui cache mal le sol caillouteux et les bouses de vache sur la chaussée, défilent tous les acteurs de la scène villageoise. Il s’agit de gens qui, pour la plupart, auront posé une seule fois dans leur vie: l’épouse paysanne qui veut envoyer le portrait des enfants grandissant au mari émigré en Amérique; les nouveaux mariés; les notables et les fils de notable; un couple d’amis, pour s’amuser; une famille qui entoure le cercueil d’un nourrisson, placé à la verticale devant l’objectif. De tous ces sujets on aura gardé les noms, les occupations et, quand c’était le cas, les sobriquets: voici Antonio Spadafora, dit Capucáura (« Tête brûlée ») et son fils Salvatore, paysans, qui se firent photographier devant la scène des Mille et une nuits de Marra, en 1930, circa.
Devant ces images, j’aimerais pouvoir utiliser d’autres catégories que celle d’« anatomie sociale ». J’aimerais y percevoir une aura que je ne ressens pas, j’aimerais y dénicher un punctum que je ne saisis pas; mais non, ici je ne vois qu’une « anatomie comparée », qui est le terme employé par Alfred Döblin pour décrire le travail de Sander.
Aucun regret, aucune nostalgie, aucune résurgence de spectres devant ces kouroï prolétaires. Pourtant, c’est précisément d’une image similaire – un portrait anonyme de groupe à l’occasion d’une « noce provinciale » – que Bataille a pu dire, en ces année-là (2), que les sujets de telles photographies (de la photographie, traduirais-je) sont « monstrueux sans démence ». Il voulait dire par là que la photographie, dans sa prétention à faire resurgir le passé, est en réalité une piètre tueuse de spectres véritables. Cela suppose, à mon sens, une conception finalement très baudelairienne, voire romantique, du médium photographique comme document objectif .

En cette même année 1929, tandis que Saverio Marra, dans sa petite ville des Calabres, statufiait des enfants de notable habillés en petits fascistes ou des ouvriers aux souliers boueux qui s’apprêtaient à émigrer en Libye, Alfred Döblin, dans sa préface à la Summa de Sander (3), approchait la photographie et le masque mortuaire, dans une comparaison dont on ne sait pas qui sortirait gagnant en termes de « vérité »: la pure reproduction de traits lissés par la mort (le moulage de « L’inconnue de la Seine ») ou bien la reproduction (photographique) de la reproduction.
On sait qu’autour de 1930, Saverio Marra, par l’intermédiaire d’un ami agronome, fut en contact avec un savant occultiste de Venise. Sans doute peut-on y voir l’héritage d’un positivisme progressiste et laïque un peu fin de siècle. Mais dans ses images, que je ne peux qualifier autrement que de « fidèles », je ne vois aucune autre intention que celle d’une honnêteté devant ses sujets, d’une rectitude dans le croisement des regards entre opérateur et « opéré ». Et ce que nous savons de ses lectures et de ses recherches techniques nous le fait imaginer comme un pratiquant de la chose « bonne », bien faite, en deçà peut-être de celle qui était l’ambition de Sander, « fournir, à travers la photographie, une chronique de notre temps, avec une vraisemblance absolue ». (4)
Je ne sais pas si Marra a pu avoir connaissance du travail de son illustre contemporain. Je doute qu’il ait profité de l’abondance extrême des publications allemandes autour du médium photographique, en ces années-là (1927: Siegfried Kracauer, Die Photographie; 1928: Karl Blossfeldt, Urformen der Kunst; 1929: Franz Roh et Jan Tschichold, Foto-Auge, et les grandes expositions Film und Foto à Stuttgart et Fotografie der Gegenwart à Essen; 1931: Walter Benjamin, Eine kleine Geschichte der Photographie). Je crois, toutefois, qu’il participait d’un « esprit du temps » qui, par ses mille ramifications, l’atteignait dans son San Giovanni in Fiore le plaçant tout naturellement à l’opposé d’une esthétique pictorialiste ou esthétisante. L’artifice pictural, pour lui, n’était qu’une toile de fond destinée à cacher l’irrégularité des murs et à tempérer les aléas de la lumière naturelle. Le photographe calabrais n’était pas non plus un Moholy-Nagy; pour autant que je sache, son travail ne contient aucune recherche d’abstraction.

1931-1932: Marra prend en photo, entre autres: Antonio Sirianni et son frère Salvatore, cultivateurs, dits tous les deux Ciciariellu; Francesco Lopez, dit Ciccillo ‘e don Páulu, garde municipale, et Maria De Simone, sa femme.
Avril 1931-mai 1932: Walter Benjamin publie, avec vingt-quatre autres, les lettres de Zelter à Goethe, de Hölderlin à Böhlendorf, de Overbeck à Nietzsche. En publiant cette série épistolaire Benjamin voulait – comme il l’écrit dans une introduction dactylographiée, en 1933 – montrer « le visage d’une Allemagne cachée, qu’aujourd’hui nous cherchons derrière un brouillard trouble » et racheter l’adjectif « allemand » même – dont le signifiant avait été confisqué par le nazis – en indiquant un autre chemin possible pour la citoyenneté germanique. Ce chemin, telle était sa conviction, était bouché déjà au moment de la Gründerzeit, le temps bismarckien des « fondateurs ». Et ce n’est pas un hasard si, sur les vingt-sept lettres d’allemands, célèbres ou inconnus, recueillies par Benjamin, cinq seulement datent d’après 1850.
Chaque lettre, dans le « feuilleton » de la Frankfurter Zeitung, était précédée d’une courte introduction. Les articles, non signés, portaient simplement les titres « Briefe », « Briefe I », « Briefe II », etc. Déjà en 1932 l’écrivain avait l’intention de publier la série en volume, mais ce n’est qu’en 1936, par l’intermédiaire de Karl Thieme, qu’une publication en Suisse devint possible. Thieme lui propose – les national-socialistes sont au pouvoir depuis trois ans déjà – de donner au recueil un titre anodin, par exemple « Lettres d’hommes », pour ne pas entraver son éventuelle diffusion en Allemagne. Finalement le livre fut publié par la Vita Nova Verlag de Zurich, avec le titre Deutsche Menschen. Eine Folge von Briefen, et sous le pseudonyme de Detlef Holz. Les lettres y étaient présentées par ordre chronologique et introduites par une préface générale. On ne vendit guère plus de 200 exemplaires, et le reste, oublié dans une cave de Luzerne, fut perdu. Ce n’est qu’en 1962, grâce à Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, que le recueil fut publié à Francfort, sous le nom de son auteur. (5)
Dans ce volume, Walter Benjamin s’abstient de toute polémique, de toute tentative de convaincre ou d’interpréter, de tout prolongement de soi-même dans l’œuvre. Simplement, au moyen de cette technique qu’on peut appeler d’échantillonnage ou de montage ou de sampling, il montre, indique, il laisse à la force même du texte la tâche de prendre par la main le lecteur. Il s’agit aussi d’une technique plastique, d’une sorte de sculpture a levare. Il s’agit, enfin, d’art qui se fait politique.
Je n’ai pas d’autres raisons, pour mettre en relation l’homme de lettres Walter Benjamin et le charpentier-photographe Saverio Marra, que celles qui me viennent de ma propre biographie et du caractère arbitraire et de-responsabilisé de toute entreprise artistique. Dans tout cela, le choix est celui de re-présenter, au lieu de représenter, les choses du passé, en suggérant non pas une interprétation, mais des chemins à la sensibilité.

Janvier 2003


(1) Les informations biographiques sur Marra sont extraites de: Marina Malabotti, “Biografia”, in Saverio Marra fotografo. Immagini del mondo popolare silano nei primi decenni del secolo, a cura di Francesco Faeta, [Milano], [1984], pp. 235-239.
(2) “Figure humaine”, Oeuvres complètes, vol. I, Paris 1970, pp. 181-185 (Documents 4, 1929).
(3) „Von Gesichtern, Bildern und ihrer Wahrheit“, préface à August Sander, Antlitz der Zeit, Frankfurt 1929.
(4) “Nichts schien mir geeigneter zu sein, als durch die Photographie in absoluter Naturtreue ein Zeitbild unserer Zeit zu Geben“ (A. Sander, préface à Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts. Ein Kulturwerk in Lichtbildern, Frankfurt 1928.
(5) Edition française: Allemands. Lettres, Hachette 1979.







Les errances tressées (2002)

Feuilleton 01





20 novembre 2002. Je suis retourné au cimetière des chiens. Avec ma boussole, achetée la veille au bazar pakistanais, j’ai défini la direction visée par les yeux d’émail de Kiki, petite guenon apprivoisée à laquelle son anonyme et tendre propriétaire donna une sépulture à une date non précisée entre 1890 (fondation du cimetière d’Asnières) et 1996 (année de ma première visite, au cours de laquelle je photographiai cette pierre qui plus que les autres m’avait ému).
105 degrés E-SE : tel est l’axe du regard de Kiki. Il m’a paru opportun de lui trouver au plus vite un honorable correspondant, peut-être en arrêt, lui aussi, dans le fleuve du temps, un compagnon capable de nouer avec elle un contact muet et peut-être inconscient à ce jour. Quittant Asnières, je suis donc remonté en selle sur la bicyclette légère, à sept vitesses, que Sylvie m’a offerte il y a trois semaines (les réparations étant à ma charge), pour me rendre à Maisons-Alfort, au delà de Charenton, de l’autre côté du Bois de Vincennes. C’est une de ces journées parisiennes qui donnent le sentiment, au cycliste aventureux, de se débattre dans des coulisses de poussière, vaporeuses, noirâtres, qui font obstacle, toutefois, au froid extrême, puis se condensent, dès la première montée, et forment ainsi, autour du corps, une couche d’humidité, laquelle fait contrepoids, sur l’épiderme déjà imprégné, à la transpiration poisseuse, transformant ainsi la bicyclette en sauna à deux roues.
Si je suis allé au Musée de Médecine Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort, je le dois à W. G. Sebald. Dans les dernières pages d’Austerlitz, c’est dans ce secteur de Paris et de ses banlieues que Sebald erre à l’aventure, par les quartiers du Sud et du Sud-Est où de grands travaux immobiliers anéantissent ce qui perdurait d’une enclave proto-industrielle au bord de la Seine. C’est dans ces pages que la furie intellectuelle de Sebald place son morceau de bravoure, c’est ici qu’elle invective – non sans les meilleurs arguments du monde – la nouvelle Très Grande Bibliothèque.


J’ai pédalé le long du fleuve devant les quatre tours mortes de la Bibliothèque Nationale, détournant les yeux pour les laisser s’attarder sur les sobres arcades du pont de Tolbiac, sur les deux silos encore debout sur la berge de la Seine, sur les rares tas de galets que bientôt nulle péniche ne viendra plus charger.

A l’Ecole Nationale de Médecine Vétérinaire, une fois passées les écuries disposées en fer à cheval, ce n’est pas sur le vieux gardien au fez décrit par Jacques Austerlitz que je suis tombé, et le billet d’entrée ne ressemblait pas à celui que ce dernier (selon le récit de Sebald à la page 312 de la traduction française) lui tendit “ au-dessus de la table de bistrot où nous étions assis, comme s’il s’agissait d’une chose tout à fait particulière ”, et que l’écrivain reproduit en arrière-fond de la page 311. (1)

Mon gardien à moi était un Noir corpulent, absorbé dans une conversation téléphonique de nature intime, qui se leva pour me donner de la lumière puis me laissa seul, non sans m’avoir remis une notice dactylographiée, graisseuse et délabrée, où je lus qu’Honoré Fragonard, après avoir réalisé entre 1766 et 1771 avec l’aide de ses élèves les chefs-d’œuvre de préparation anatomique que je m’apprêtais à voir, fut chassé de l’école (soit qu’on le prît pour un fou, soit, plus vraisemblablement, à la suite d’une lutte entre clans rivaux), pour refaire surface plus de vingt ans après aux côtés de son cousin germain, le peintre Jean-Honoré Fragonard, et du célèbre David, en qualité de membre de la commission artistique de la Révolution.
Et c’est ainsi qu’après avoir examiné de nombreux exemples de monstruosités zoologiques comprimées dans des bocaux de formol ou entassées dans des vitrines – notamment plusieurs spécimens de veaux et de singes à deux têtes et un phoque à deux queues – je me suis trouvé dans la dernière pièce face à un cadavre momifié selon les procédés les plus modernes du XVIIIème siècle (entre autres l’injection de brandy dans le système vasculaire), qui figure un Samson armé d’une mâchoire d’âne et se jetant sur les Philistins ;


personnage vraiment impressionnant, grâce à l’imagination artistique et scientifique de Fragonard, qui pour le rendre plus impressionnant encore alla non seulement jusqu’à lui ouvrir les fosses nasales, mais aussi jusqu’à couler de la cire liquide dans son pénis, lui conférant ainsi une horrible turgescence. Mais voici, dans la vitrine opposée, le fameux Cavalier de l’Apocalypse. Il ne contrôle plus le mors de sa monture – en elle-même un admirable modèle de dissection et de dessiccation – au moyen de ses rênes de velours bleu, et n’agite plus le fouet que l’anatomiste avait prévu pour lui et un méchant échafaudage de métal couvert d’un vernis blanc maintient ensemble le cavalier et son cheval, mais malgré tout la composition paraît vraiment menaçante. J’ai tiré de ma poche la boussole, et tournant le dos au cavalier, j’ai réglé mon regard sur le sien: 300° W-NW. J’ai noté ce chiffre dans mon carnet puis j’ai quitté le musée.


Je suis retourné à mon atelier, qui se trouve de l’autre côté de la ville, près de la place Clichy et face au cimetière de Montmartre. J’ai bien dû pédaler une heure, et les pensées qui me venaient pouvaient compter sur le glissement lubrifié de la chaîne contre la roue dentée et sur le délicat passage des vitesses. Si j’avais jamais eu la chance de rencontrer W. G. Sebald, ce grand marcheur, je me serais permis de lui vanter l’utilité de la bicyclette pour la gymnastique mentale. Les dix kilomètres qu’il fit à pied (et qu’il raconte dans les dernières pages d’Austerlitz) pour rallier, depuis la ville belge de Mechelen, la forteresse de Willebroek – où Jean Améry fut emprisonné et torturé avec tant d’autres résistants – ne lui auraient coûté que le quart de son temps, sans qu’il eût à renoncer pour autant à la dimension contemplative que produit le mouvement des jambes. J’aurais pu, en outre, lui parler du rapport sororal qu’ont toujours entretenu la bicyclette et la Résistance.


Je suis retourné à mon atelier, au dernier étage de la Villa des Arts, 15 rue Hégésippe Moreau mais avec un accès depuis le 17 depuis l’époque, il y a trente ans, où les héritiers de son constructeur, Guéret, dissocièrent les appartements des ateliers qui leur étaient annexés – fermant des portes, élevant des cloisons, séparant des accès – et vendirent une bonne partie des lots ainsi obtenus.
Le complexe immobilier de la Villa des Arts est un véritable labyrinthe d’escaliers qui se recroisent eux-mêmes, de corridors sans fin donnant sur des portes murées, de vastes cavernes n’abritant plus dans leurs ténèbres que de vieux meubles désarticulés, et d’une douzaine d’ateliers de peintres dont les hauts vitrages s’élèvent sur six niveaux, pareils à une cascade de verre et de zinc, jusqu’à la limite méridionale du cimetière de Montmartre – ce qui fait qu’une fois remonté à son propre atelier au sixième et dernier étage, on est vraiment en présence de l’absolu : vers le haut, le regard ne rencontre plus que le ciel ; vers le bas, la terre et l’outre-terre, les tombes jonchées de feuilles mortes et les branches, actuellement dépouillées, du vieux marronnier qui s’appuie au mur d’enceinte. – Ce complexe, donc, fut construit par Guéret, ainsi que le quartier alentour, vers le temps où se bâtissait la tour Eiffel, et selon la légende, il emprunta sur son chantier des matériaux de rebut ou de réserve.
C’est dans l’un de ces ateliers des étages supérieurs que Paul Signac, qui habita la Villa de 1892 à 1897, acheva son plus grand tableau, Au temps d’harmonie (l’âge d’or n’est pas dans le passé, mais dans l’avenir), ambitieux manifeste anarchiste de trois mètres sur quatre proposé à Horta pour la Maison du Peuple que l’architecte achevait à Bruxelles, mais refusé implicitement par celui-ci (Signac, le 11 novembre 1900 : “Le tirelignard de la Maison du Peuple, Horta, n’ayant pas daigné, en six mois, trouver le temps de faire installer les quatre planches qui devaient servir de cadre à ma décoration, je retire purement et simplement mon offre”) et finalement donné par la veuve du peintre (en 1938, en plein Front Populaire) à la mairie communiste de Montreuil, où il se trouve aujourd’hui.
Au temps d’harmonie a posé à Signac des problèmes cruciaux d’ordre esthétique, mais aussi conceptuel et éthique. Etant donné son grand format, la conception même de la division des couleurs pures était mise en péril. De fait, pour pouvoir apprécier, conformément au principe divisionniste, le tableau en son entier, il fallait se tenir à une distance que le peintre évaluait entre 12 et 14 mètres, ce qui l’amena en cours d’exécution à le faire descendre dans l’atelier plus spacieux de son voisin Eugène Carrière ; là, après l’avoir contemplé à une distance appropriée, il se trouva contraint de superposer les uns aux autres les bords de ses touches colorées tout en s’exclamant : ”Comme c’est difficile d’être honnête!” (2)


Pendant que Paul Signac était engagé dans les difficiles tractations relatives à la destination de son œuvre imposante, un autre illustre occupant de la Villa, Paul Cézanne, convoquait son marchand, Ambroise Vollard, chaque matin ou presque de l’hiver 1899, pour des séances de trois heures à trois heures et demie, cent quinze en tout, en vue de peindre son portrait. Aux yeux du peintre dont il était le commanditaire, Vollard, durant toute cette période, ne se sentit jamais plus important qu’une pomme. Il lui arrivait parfois – au cours de ces séances interminables où Cézanne se bornait à déposer sur la toile deux ou trois touches de couleur, passant le reste de son temps à scruter les traits de son visage – il lui arrivait parfois de dodeliner de la tête, et aussitôt le peintre de s’échauffer : “ Malheureux ! Vous dérangez la pose ! Je vous le dis, en vérité, il faut vous tenir comme une pomme ! Est-ce que cela remue, une pomme ? ” (3)Mon voisin d’atelier, Pierre, excellent peintre d’obédience post-expressionniste, soutient que ce portrait aurait pu être exécuté chez lui. C’est en effet à la hauteur de sa verrière que les yeux d’une personne assise aperçoivent sous un certain angle les cheminées de terre cuite figurant sur le tableau. Et les deux étranges formes circulaires visibles au-dessus d’elles, dont il ne reste rien aujourd’hui, étaient vraisemblablement deux chapeaux de cheminée, remplacés depuis par des aérateurs en Eternit.


Autre fait à considérer : si l’on gratte, justement dans ce coin-là, la peinture blanche de l’atelier de Pierre, on y découvre la teinte originale de la paroi, un ocre rougeâtre qui correspond parfaitement à celui du tableau. D’un autre côté, il faut bien admettre qu’à l’époque de telles colorations murales étaient extrêmement courantes et habituelles, de même que les intérieurs étaient plus obscurs, encombrés qu’ils étaient de meubles volumineux, de tapisseries, de bibelots en tous genres, d’estampes japonaises et de fleurs d’étoffe, sans parler d’un éclairage au gaz dont il reste d’ailleurs des traces dans l’atelier voisin. Je me trompe peut-être, mais je n’ai pas souvenir d’un portrait datant du XIXème qui soit peint sur fond blanc.
Blanc – comme ce qu’on voit de la chemise de Vollard, qui rapporte dans ses Mémoires que Cézanne n’en fut pas tout à fait mécontent. Laissant le portrait inachevé après cent quinze séances pour repartir à Aix-en-Provence, le peintre aurait conclu : “Je ne suis pas mécontent du devant de la chemise.”
Les corbeaux planent en croassant au-dessus de la lucarne de l’atelier et leur voix, je ne sais pourquoi, me ramène à la plaque de la rue, au triste destin d’Hégésippe Moreau. Est-ce que les corbeaux portent malheur ? Je n’en sais rien, mais le fait est qu’il fut un malchanceux, Hégésippe – l’un de ces artistes infortunés, artisans de leur propre malheur, que son siècle a produits avec une incontestable prodigalité.

Il y a deux ou trois jours – j’étais au beau milieu d’une période de résignation obtuse : personne ne voulait de moi, personne ne me demandait et je ne me sentais motivé par rien – Daniel m’avait tiré de la solitude blanche de mon atelier pour m’emmener déjeuner au bistrot du coin, le café des Arts.
Au cours de ce mémorable repas, Daniel, devant ma visible confusion quant à l’éventualité même lointaine d’un projet à venir, quel qu’il fût, me parla d’un texte de Jean-Christophe Bailly publié il y a vingt-deux ans par un éditeur parisien. La XVIIIe dynastie à Berlin raconte un des séjours de l’auteur dans la capitale allemande d’avant la réunification, alors qu’elle était encore coupée en deux par un mur long et haut. Dans ce qui était alors le musée égyptien de Berlin-Ouest, une demeure patricienne située exactement devant le château de Charlottenburg, Bailly contemple le buste de Nefertiti, reine d’Egypte : “ Sa beauté, mais aussi le persistant sourire de toute l’Egypte ancienne m’ayant poussé à ne plus me contenter de la seule vue des objets, c’est muni d’une connaissance un peu moins vague que je retournai à Berlin, moins de deux ans plus tard, d’ailleurs pour d’autres raisons. ”
Pendant ce second séjour, Bailly va de l’autre côté de la ville, dans la capitale de la République Démocratique Allemande, et là, visitant les collections égyptiennes de Berlin-Est qu’abritait le beau pavillon du Bode Museum, à l’extrémité de l’Ile des Musées, il se retrouve devant le visage emprisonné dans un écrin d’Ankhesenpaaton, la fille de Nefertiti. Or il se trouve que ces deux visages “ exilés d’Egypte pour se retrouver de part et d’autre du mur de Berlin ” se regardaient, dit Bailly, de part et d’autre du mur. Telle était du moins sa supposition, qu’il décide de vérifier au cours d’un troisième séjour berlinois. En fait, les lignes des deux regards ne font que se couper en un point. « Je notai alors ceci », écrit-il : « Les regards ne se croisent donc pas, et il s’en faut de peu. Il me reste […] une histoire à raconter. Tout est bien ainsi ». (4)


Voilà d’où me vient la petite illumination qui m’arracha, il y a quelques jours, au matelas sur lequel je venais à peine de m’effondrer, et qui me tint éveillé, dans l’attente impatiente du matin et de l’heure d’ouverture du cimetière des chiens.
Je déplie sur la table la carte de Paris. A l’aide d’un crayon et d’une règle, je trace la ligne qui, partant approximativement du point où se trouve la sépulture de Kiki la guenon, est orientée 105° Sud-Sud Est, traversant ainsi, à ce que je constate, le périphérique à la hauteur de la Porte de Clichy, coupant l’avenue des Batignolles, effleurant la gare Saint-Lazare et les grands magasins du Printemps, touchant les jardins du Luxembourg et l’avenue Auguste Blanqui (lieu de l’une des dernières rencontres entre W. G. Sebald et Jacques Austerlitz) avant de se perdre au delà du Kremlin-Bicêtre et de l’hôpital de Villejuif, où tant d’Italiens du Sud viennent se faire soigner leur cancer faute de trouver au pays une assistance médicale adéquate.
Le cavalier de Maisons-Alfort, quant à lui, traverse d’un regard orienté 300° Ouest-Nord Ouest tous les lieux-dits situés entre la ville et sa banlieue est : Vincennes, la Porte Dorée et celle de Saint-Mandé, Montreuil – où la grande Harmonie de Signac a mis pied à terre – le canal de l’Ourcq, Pantin – où se trouve l’atelier de Grégoire, peintre des prairies délaissées et des rivières oubliées – puis s’éloigne par le Val d’Oise de Gérard de Nerval.

Et plus loin encore, les globes oculaires de verre soufflé du Cavalier de Fragonard, à tout jamais pointés vers Calais et ses revêches douaniers, labourent la Manche, puis, avant de se perdre dans les brumes des mers nordiques, passent par le Norfolk, où pendant trente ans W. G. Sebald enseigna la littérature allemande.
Depuis sa pierre, Kiki est condamnée à fixer pour l’éternité son regard de céramique par-delà Villejuif et son hôpital à la signalétique bilingue italien-français, par-delà l’Essonne et la Bourgogne et la Côte-d’Or et le Jura, vers la plaine du Pô et San Benedetto del Tronto, au delà de la Mer Adriatique, au delà du détroit d’Otrante tombe de centaines d’immigrés clandestins, à travers l’archaïque Péloponnèse, rasant l’extrémité occidentale de la Crète, jusqu’aux déserts d’Egypte, où ni Nefertiti ni sa fille Ankhesanpaaton ne retourneront plus.
Kiki la guenon apprivoisée et le Cavalier de l’Apocalypse ne se rencontreront jamais – ou si jamais leur rencontre a lieu, ce sera aux Antipodes, en un point quelconque de l’immensité marine entre la Nouvelle Zélande et la Tasmanie – et moi, je n’y serai pas pour la raconter.




(1) W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, Arles 2002 (Francfort, 2001), pp. 311-313.
(2) Signac 1863-1935, catalogue de l’exposition du Grand Palais, Paris, 2001, pp. 241-245.
(3) Cézanne, catalogue de l’exposition du Grand Palais, Paris, 1995, pp. 178-179.
(4) J.-C. Bailly, Le 20 janvier, Paris, 1980, pp. 129 et 134.

Novembre 2002

Traduit de l’italien par Daniel Loayza

Sur ses propres pas (Paris 2002, Lisbonne 1992-2007)




SP, Lisbonne 2002





Sur les pas de SP, 2007
Photographies de Sacha Mitrofanoff



Lisbonne, début juin 2002. J’avais été ici il y a dix ans, m’étant échappé d’un Paris ingrat et distrait. C’était à un moment où j’étais pris d’une sorte de trop plein d’écriture, c’était une histoire thérapeutique certes, et je me souviens comment, en marchant sans but dans la ville, je m’arrêtais aux coins des rues, dans les jardins publics, sur le murets, pour noter sur un cahier les quelques phrases qui se pressaient dans ma petite tête.
Une reconnaissance se fait immédiatement; il me vient à l’esprit de retrouver tous ces lieux. J’ai avec moi un petit appareil photographique, je passe trois journées en parcourant les quartiers du centre et la zone portuaire, je m’arrête là où le souvenir du lieu me revient, ou bien le souvenir d’une phrase. J’ai un feutre sur moi, je le sors et j’écris sur le banc, sur le trottoir, sur le parapet un bout de phrase, je la prends en photo. Je suis mes propres pas.
C’est au cours de ces flâneries injustifiées que j’ai l’idée de reprendre mon travail d’il y a dix ans, quand j’allais dans les bibliothèques parisiennes à la recherche des sujets de l’imagerie positiviste. Je m’intéressais, en effet, en ce début des années ’90, à l’iconographie médicale et anthropologique de la fin du XIXème siècle; je suivais les traces de l’obsession scientiste qui visait à définir des «types», qu’ils soient raciaux, sociaux, psychiatriques ou criminels.
En travaillant sur les collections photographiques de l’époque, je m’étais borné à utiliser les images des aliénés telles qu’elles avaient été présentées par leurs docteurs, c’est à dire, anonymes et hors contexte. En les soumettant à une transformation, je me proposais de re-présenter une individualité que la prise photographique leur avait soustraite. Je travaillais, il y a dix ans, par abandons successifs d’originalité, par reproductions répétées qui auraient amené, voulais-je, à l’icône, au «monogramme» du sujet en question: partant de la photographie, passant par la photocopie, brouillant l’image sous des couches d’écriture différentes, multipliant l’image par des projections, mettant l’image en mouvement par le biais de cadres mobiles, qu’on pouvait toucher ad libitum. Ce fut la série Über die Schädelnerven (1993), dont le titre -en une sorte de parodie d’un autre regard scientifique- répète celui de la dissertation de Georg Büchner sur les nerfs du crâne des poissons.
Je n’avais pas considéré la possibilité de sauver ces figures-là de leur anonymat; je pensais qu’à travers leur manque d’identité même je serais parvenu à les toucher. Je pensais aussi qu’en traversant et en transperçant leur image, j’aurais pu trouver la face sacrifiée de ces personnes. Ne pas respecter les versions données par les interprètes (les fondateurs de la neurologie, les inventeurs de l’identification judiciaire), était une tâche qui me rapprochait des méthodes –tant méprisées par moi- des historiens, que je voyais presque toujours enfermés dans de rassurantes entreprises de «reconstruction». Toutefois, aux soucis d’objectivité et de démonstration j’opposais une pratique performative que l’historiographie peut rarement se permettre.
Dix ans après, je me dis qu’accepter le caractère anonyme de mes sujets signifie ne pas assumer sa propre responsabilité d’individu qui fait face à d’autres individus. Je décide, en ce début de juin lisbonnais, de partir à la recherche de ces gens. Et il s’agit-là, à proprement parler, de «types». Non seulement ils avaient étés privés de leur propre figure pour servir de dépotoir de signes propres à définir des ensembles, des «groupes» de cas, mais il sont doublement aliénés: ils ont étés sauvés de l’oubli pour revenir à nous simplement en tant que sujets d’un certain regard posé sur eux. En fin des comptes ils ont été déjà «typographiés». Mes reproductions à moi représentent leur troisième mort.



Pour une raison quelconque, de format ou de circonstance, six photographies étaient restées en marge de celles que j’avais recueilli dans mes recherches iconographiques d’il y a dix ans. Je les avais retrouvées en défaisant mes cartons, l’été 1999, à l’arrivée à Dalsåsen, dans la province de Sogn og Fjordane, en Norvège, où j’étais censé passer trois mois dans une résidence d’artiste.
Après pas moins de trois semaines d’inactivité et de désorientation, un jour, feuilletant paresseusement mes papiers, j’ai eu l’idée de reproduire ces photographies sur bois et en faire des xylographies. Ne m’étais-je pas toujours intéressé aux formes de divulgation des images, dans leur rapport avec l’art populaire d’un côté et avec le kitsch de l’autre? La gravure sur bois n‘étais-t-elle pas la première forme de reproduction mécanique de l’image? N’étais-je pas entouré de bois feuillu de toutes sortes, à perte de vue et sans pitié? Ne devais-je, enfin, faire avec ce que j’avais sous les mains et sous les yeux? Et cette énième, première, technique artistique, juste un bout de fer appliqué sur un bout de bois, n’aurait-t-elle pas permis d’extraire le «monogramme» de l’image que j’avais vainement recherché en la torturant avec des transparences, des projections et des radiographies?
Je remis la main sur ces anonymes «administrés» de la division des maladies mentales de la Salpetrière. Reprendre le portrait photographié, l’agrandir à la photocopieuse, transférer l’image sur la plaque de bois de peuplier avec du trichlore éthylène, graver la plaque, encrer, poser la feuille de papier japonais, presser et frotter. En voici le résultat.
Revenu «en Europe» je n’ai pas eu, pendant trois ans, l’occasion de revoir et encore moins celle de montrer ces gravures. Plusieurs déménagements, fuites, prises et reprises, installations et désinstallations ont fait que mes travaux et mes archives ont été dispersés entre plusieurs caves, greniers, granges, garages, cabinets et, finalement, ateliers, dans plus d’un pays. Je me souviens d’avoir offert à mon ami Rodolphe les matrices de ces six types. Cela se passait en Alsace, où il m’avait invité à un festival, l’an dernier; je lui en étais reconnaissant et je voulais le signifier. Quelques mois plus tard, je revis ces plaques dans son studio parisien. Ce fut comme une découverte, ces types m’étaient vraiment inconnus. Je fis en toute hâte des nouvelles gravures -puisque je ne savais plus où se trouvaient les norvégiennes- en utilisant du papier kraft et des couleurs acryliques achetés au magasin d’à côté.
Et voilà que, rentré de Lisbonne, en aménageant rue Hégésippe Moreau (j’aime beaucoup prononcer ce nom; il s’agit d’un poète vagabond de l’époque romantique, mort dans un asile à l’âge de vingt-huit ans, et auteur d’une Ode à la faim qu’il me faudra lire un jour), je redécouvre, en récupérant des affaires chez mon amie Ariane, les xylographies de 1999, que je vous présente ici.
L’histoire peut alors redémarrer. Voyons.
Je décide de retrouver ces noms, ces histoires. Je vais boucler la boucle et unifier, vingt ans après, ma méthode d’historien et ma pratique d’artiste.
18 juin. Je retourne à la bibliothèque de l’Ecole de Médecine, où j’avais trouvé ces images, il y a dix ans. Je déclare que je suis un chercheur universitaire, il serait trop compliqué d’expliquer tout ça. Je feuillète la collection de la Revue Photographique des Hôpitaux de Paris (parue entre 1869 et 1872); j’y trouve une belle «Etude photographique sur la rétine des sujets assassinés», avec description de l’énucléation de l’œil de son orbite et du traitement en laboratoire de la rétine, afin d’y trouver l’image impressionné de l’assassin, mais je n’y trouve pas mes images.
20 juin. On m’a conseillé d’aller directement à la Salpetrière. Là il y aurait, m’a-t-on dit, les archives du professeur Charcot. Mais je n’y trouve que la collection de l’Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière (1877-1880); il y a beaucoup de représentations de toutes sortes de maladies, là-dedans, mais pas les miennes.
21 juin. Je retourne à la bibliothèque de Médecine. Je me fais apporter toute la Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpêtrière (1888-1918) et je repère, assez éparpillées, les photographies que j’ai utilisées à l’époque pour Über die Schädelnerven (c’est curieux, je n’ai aucun souvenir de toutes ces recherches, je ne sais même pas si c’est moi qui ait vécu tout cela). Il y a là des cas cliniques de toutes sortes, des hémiplégies hystériques, des ataxies statiques, des acromégalies et des scléroses en série, mais pas mes six anonymes. Et bien que j’examine tous ces visages et que je commence à avoir de l’expérience, je n’arrive pas à déterminer de quelle affection peuvent être atteints mes inconnus.
24 juin. On m’a conseillé d’aller aux Archives historiques de l’Assistance publique, rue des Minimes. J’y passe toute la journée, secondé par un employé passablement jovial et désœuvré. On sort tous les registres des entrées des aliénés, toutes les observations médicales déposés chez eux. Aucune trace de «mes» six.
25 juin. On ne peut se rendre que sur rendez-vous à la photothèque de l’Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris, rue des Fossés Saint Marcel. J’ai pris rendez-vous; une employée passablement catatonique me remet plusieurs documents versés par les services du feu docteur Charcot. Rien à faire. Je ne sais plus où aller. Les anonymes sont destinés à rester tels. Mais elles me viennent d’où, ces six images?
29 juin. J’ai décidé de montrer ces visages gravés, sans noms et hors contexte. Je les accompagnerai de mon nom et de mon contexte, j’y apposerai une petite histoire personnelle. Cela devrait passer.

SP 2002





SP Les inconnus de la Salpetrière


Topographie (2002)

Le 7 juin 1802 Friedrich Hölderlin quitte Strasbourg et entre en Allemagne par le pont de Kehl. Il est parti presque un mois auparavant de Bordeaux, où il était précepteur chez le consul Meyer. Quatre jours plus tard, d’après Pierre Bertaux (Hölderlin ou le temps d’un poète, Paris 1983, pp. 244-255), il est à Francfort et a le temps de voir une dernière fois sa bien-aimée, Suzette Gontard, avant qu’elle ne meurt, le 22 juin. A ce moment-là il était déjà complètement fou, presque fou, fou à moitié; sur ce point ses exégètes se disputent encore. Ce qui est sûr, c’est que ce voyage à travers la France marque un tournant dans l’état mental du poète allemand. En témoigne la célèbre lettre à son ami Böhlendorf du 2 décembre 1802, considérée à tour de rôle comme la première de sa folie ou la dernière de sa santé. C’est là où Hölderlin prend les paysans bordelais pour d’anciens Grecs: «La vue des Antiques m’a fait mieux comprendre non seulement les Grecs, mais plus généralement les sommets de l’art…». C’est à cette superposition d’une vision et d’une réalité que fait allusion ce travail, Topographie, dont le titre se lit de la même manière en français et en allemand; il y est question de méandres mentaux – voir les micro-photographies de l’intérieur du cerveau – et de paysages parcourus, interprétables – voir les macro-photographies de la terre vue du ciel. Il relate, à travers la transparence colorée du verre, d’espaces traversés, qu’ils soient physiques ou mentaux.





Abstracts of Anamnesis (1995)

Et tout ce qui tremble
et tout ce qui s’agite
aux confins de l’image.
Jean-Luc Nancy

There are memories. There are images and signs. There are works. These could be the last sentences of a talk. They could also be the only ones.
In the following I will briefly sail between two or three couples of Scylla and Charybdis that could take the name of painting and history, or image and memory, or body and sign.
First if all, let me affirm that without any doubts, as a painter, a European painter living in the twentieth-century I am a Greek. I am Greek, Latin, and also German. This is the problem: the legacy the images, the transmission.


We cannot think without images”, says Aristotle in his text On Memory and Recollection, and again: ‘memory, even the memory of concepts, cannot exist apart from imagery.”
Memory for the past, he suggests, perception for the present, hope for the future. We will say that none of the first terms of these pairs of words is independent from the other. They are, in their inadequateness, almost interchangeable. Or; at least, they live together; as in Augustine’s “I want to sing a song that I know already.” The object of memory is the absent one, is what no longer shares space with us, and is what is just an image. Memory is indeed the slave of the image; recollection, on the contrary, is precisely the activity of going behind images, of eliminating our dependence on them. Anamnesis, coming after and behind Mneme, sets together; in new orders, within “a sort of syllogistic process”, parts of the material that the latter is merely doomed to preserve. There is, indeed, the requirement of preserving and filing, and the imperative of attacking and questioning the inherited images. To accept the legacy and to let it fade away, leaving us scattered pieces of knowledge and consciousness.
It is clear, then, that for the advent of Anamnesis, a certain gap in time, a certain caesura or even obscurity is required: remembrance cannot happen without oblivion, and even without some unfaithfulness to one’s own past; and there is neither openness nor hope without betrayal. Even betrayal of the most beloved one, the absent one, the mere image.


Behind the picture, there is an absent body; behind the vision, there is the indistinguishable.
In an article published in 1932 in the French Révue de philologie (“Le sens du mot KOLOSSOS et les noms grecs de la statue”), Emile Benveniste quotes a text from the sacred laws of Cyrene: ‘A suppliant stranger. If he has been sent into a home, if the master of the home knows who has sent him, he will at first call the sender, by name, for three days. But if this one is dead in the region or has perished elsewhere… he will make two kolossoi, one male, the other female, of wood or of earth, and he will offer to them, in his home, a part of everything. The rite being accomplished, he will bring the kolossoi (the statues) and the offerings into a wild forest, to fix them there.”
Here then: there is an absent one; the “suppliant stranger” is the one who creates a relation between this absent one and the receiver. The absent one is either evoked by his name, if this name is known, or if it is unknown, the statue will take the place of the name, of what calls: what gives him his existence.
The kolossos is a double; it takes the place and continues the existence of the one who has disappeared. It literally re-presents, presents again, the absent one, either dead or distant.
Benveniste eventually suggests a near eastern etymology for his word that associates it with an “erected object”, a “standing image”. It is this thing, then, the statue or the stele, that is meant to establish a relation between this world and the beyond, between a self and the otherness. This thing-double is called photography.
Thirty years after Benveniste, Jean-Pierre Vernant struggles again with this word:
in “The Representation of the Invisible and the Psychological Category of the Double: The Colossos” (in Myth and Thought Among the Greeks, London 1983) he points out how “the Greeks gave a visible form to certain powers of the beyond belonging to the sphere of the invisible.”
Either buried in an empty tomb, at a place of an absent corpse, or stuck into the ground in some desert spot, the kolossos was not meant to be an image (in the sense of “reproduction”): “What is embodied in permanent form in stone is not the image of the dead man but his life in the beyond, the life that is opposed to that of living men as the world of night is opposed to the world of light.”
Let’s roughly say: the camera obscura is our metaphorical tomb: the photograph will survive us, as the gravestones or the steles survive the bodies they recall.
Photographs, then, are more than pictures: as doubles, they re-present. They present, again and again. They present us to others, others present them to us, and they are the other’s presents. More than images, they are calls. They recall, as Anamnesis does.


Roughly stated, the most evident analogy between photography and memory is the fact that both of them are originally mere reproduction machines; both of them are “receptive surfaces”, where some kinds of excitations remain, “for an unlimited time”, impressed, like a stick does on a wax tablet, for instance, or on a sheet of malleable lead, as in the tabulae defixionum (the lead rolls, etched with magic words and then transfixed with bronze nails, before being thrown in the tombs, that were used in ancient Greece and Rome to cast spells against one’s enemies or rivals).
We have to linger for a moment on this notion of written images, in this strait between grammata and phantasia. In another essay, “From the “presentification” of the invisible to the imitation of appearance” (Paris, 1985; English translation in Mortals and Immortals, Princeton, 1991), Vernant returns to the themes of the text I cited above. In particular, he stresses how “during the so-called Dark Ages, that is, broadly speaking, from the twelfth to the eighth centuries before our era, Greece, which as you know has no knowledge of writing, also has no knowledge of imagery in the proper sense of the term, nor does it use systems of figural representation. The same word, graphein, it should be noted, is used for writing, drawing and painting.”
Only later, and under the influence of the Eastern civilization, the Greeks will start both to organize the anthropomorphic canons of plastic art, and to fix the written records of history and thought.
But, for now, let’s cast a relation between this primitive sense of the word graphein – one that welcomes and comprehends “writing, drawing and painting” – and the gestures of a hand that traces signs, indicating the living together of different means of expression.
We know well how reproduced images and written words belong to irreducibly distinct system of language, and can never be read together – they can only be juxtaposed or superimposed. There will always be, between them, a lapse, a providential and fertile one, both in space or in time.
What is interesting is to respect this distance, without looking forward to fusional relations, to literal images or imagistic letters. I would like to imagine this lapse as a sort of petit mal, what the dictionaries define as “a brief blackout of consciousness without tonic or clonic movements”; this means, let’s say, a caesura. One could imagine a sort of piercing of visible space by the needles of time and language (this would be the contrary of what the photograph does to history, that is, piercing, fragmenting time with space).
But we can establish bridges, relations. We can exploit repetition itself (repetition that, as Aristotle says, “generates a nature”).
I will just take what I need from a text, in order to offer a sort of model of work: in this early treatise on aphasia (1891), Freud points out a few relations between words and things; it is, once again, a story of reproduction. “We learn to spell”, he says, “by linking the visual images of the letters with new sound-images, which, for their part, must remind us of verbal sounds which we already know. We at once ‘repeat’ the sound-image that denotes the letter,” etcetera, etcetera.


Our vision of History, if not its very nature, has changed. The writing of History has, consequently, and in a parallel way, also changed. The grammata is now no more than a fraction of the photogrammata. “History”, it has been said (E.Cadava, “Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History”, diacritics, fall-winter 1992), “happens with photography.” And the photograph, more than the trace of history is, to this day, a sort of double (psyche?) of history itself. Then, if I can stretch forward my previous metaphor; the absent one represented by the kolossos is nothing but “our” History.
What we hang on the walls, then, and exhibit, is nothing but hung and exhibited history. It is possible to hang history on walls, because it is no longer “ours”, it is no longer, I quite Jean-Luc Nancy, “the general program of a certain Humanity, a Subject, a Progress” (‘Our History,” diacritics, fall 1990). We all know this too well for me to linger on this issue. But what remains is a sort of heritage with no senders, or anonymous ones, a sort of “suppliant stranger” who knocks insistently and noisily at our door. What remains is a mass of noisy material, a saturated, excessive and obsessive memory. And, I quote G. Vattimo (“L’impossible oubli”, in Usages de l’oubli, Colloque de Royaumont, Paris 1988), we cannot deny that “this condition characterized by an excess of history, by the difficulty, even the impossibility, of forgetfulness, has become, in a very large sense, also ours.”
In this regard, every art that is meant to represent only itself, or even only itself within some tradition, is an expression of kitsch.
In fact, every self-recognized or self-affirming form of art, every form of art that -forgets for a moment the uncanny character of our present, is an art of forgetting, is the offspring of Amnesia. There is, I believe, even for those who work with, through and behind the picture, an “anamnestic and anesthetic responsibility”, which is neither the flat exaltation of memory, nor the pathos surrounding historical horror.
This responsibility begins in the saturation of the image, in the contaminated field where the distinction between apology and denegation, commemoration and refusal is unclear and undetermined.
What remains to be done is to collect and recollect the blurred noises around us, the sounds of what has disappeared, and to represent them. What remains is to collect the floating fragments of this history, to dig bones, documents, and to signal, to transmit them. What remains is the possibility of a gesture: to hand, to hold out, in the scattered testimony to which we are doomed, some vestigia, some expressions of a multiple Anamnesis.

New York 1995

Filmini (Rome 2004)











Museum d’histoire industrielle (Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines 2001)

At the beginning of the twentieth Century a Society of Industrials was a place for the organisation of the production and the control of the working class, but it was also a kind of club for wealthy and enlightened individuals who, before their death, would bequeath their mineralogical, botanical, naturalistic or archaeological collections.
In an installation at the Société Industrielle of Sainte Marie aux Mines, in Alsace, I did set up three parallel disposals, according to a simple principle of displacement. Having had free access to the whole building, which, following the industrial crisis and the obsolete role of the Société, was undergoing partial demolition and reconstruction, I found under the roof and in cellars a large quantity of left over material: herbaria, archive files, fabric patterns and samples, fragments of statues, old portraits.
I displaced these various objects from one space to the other. I gathered portraits of the old Society presidents in the former meeting room – each one on his own chair. In a second meeting room, which is currently being used, I composed a circle of stuffed animals (somehow recalling a La Fontaine’s story). On the ground floor, in a space which is being demolished I reconstructed a modern meeting room furnished with iron and plastic tables and chairs – clean and ready to use.
In this way I experimented with different approaches to the question of creative displacement: I tried variations of it that would not be just simulative or utilitarian – as in the two previous examples of the vagabond’s shelter and the statues in storage- but, rather, estranging.







The Conqueror Worm (Parma, 2001)





Personal Monuments (Copenhagen 2000)

(See, also, in the Texts section: Displaced Translations)

Subject: Personal Monuments

A documentation and a site work

by Salvatore Puglia

Copenhagen, May 2000

To ……………………..

Blue Shield Coordinator


75004 Paris, France

Copenhagen, 14/V/2000

Subject: Personal monuments

According to the 1954 Hague Convention and its passages concerning the protection of cultural monuments in the circumstances of armed conflicts (and, since 1986, also of major natural disasters) Salvatore Puglia, born in Rome, Italy, 26/IX/1953, resident in 28 rue Jean Moinon, 75010 Paris, France, requests that the following sites, located in Copenhagen, Denmark, that have been clearly marked by the United Nations Blue Shield emblem (see documentation), would be considered protected monuments, not to be destroyed in case of warfare or other catastrophe.

1.   Antique’s Bookshop

Studiestræde 28

2.   Kanal Cafeen


3.   Mail boxes

Ny Vestergade 2

4.   Huset Restaurant

Corner Rådhusstræde-Magstræde

5.   Søstrene Grenes Store

Strøget 29

6.   Post Office


7.   Illum Warehouse


8.   Royal Theatre

Kongens Nytorv

9.   Hotel Opera

Tordenskjoldsgade 15

10. Lyntryx and Kopi Center

Peder Skramsgade

11. Knippels Bridge

(as a whole)

12. Hot Dog stand

Christianshavn square

(various locations)

With my kindest regards,

Salvatore Puglia

A l’attention de


Blue Shield Program


Copenhague, le 14 mai 2000


une documentation sur le Blue Shield, rassemblé sur Internet, a été le sujet de mon intervention à l’exposition Models of Resistance qui a lieu en ce moment et jusqu’à début juin à la galerie Overgaden, à Copenhague.

En parallèle avec mon installation, j’ai placé une douzaine d’emblèmes, en petit format, sur des sites de la ville qui sont significatifs pour mon histoire personnelle.

Je suis conscient du caractère provocateur de cette initiative, qui tend a questionner la hiérarchisation du concept de héritage culturel. Un patrimoine collectif est fait, vous le savez bien, d’une somme de savoirs et de mémoires personnelles, aussi méritoires d’être protégées dans leurs singularités que les pierres taillées de Dubrovnik. Certes, il faut protéger la façade de la cathédrale plutôt que le magasin de souvenirs d’en face, puisque le second ne pourrait pas survivre sans la première. Mais la cathédrale pourrait vraiment survivre, sans son Souvenir’s Shop?

En vous remerciant de votre attention, je vous prie, Monsieur **, d’agréer l’expression de mes sentiments respectueux.







Jean-Louis Poitevin, Identifications, 2009

Les oeuvres de Salvatore Puglia se déploient à partir du vaste domaine de la mémoire. Les photographies qu’il prend et les oeuvres qu’il présente à partir d’images d’archives ayant servi à identifier des individus, ne ressemblent en rien aux photographies que l’on s’attendrait à trouver chez un photographe enregistrant le passé. Car son véritable sujet ce n’est pas le souvenir, mais la mémoire en tant que faculté et que mécanisme psychique nous permettant de nous orienter dans notre relation au présent.
Ses œuvres fouillent dans les marges de l’histoire, dans ces zones où précisément c’est l’oubli qui est au travail. Des traces apparemment anodines sont associées à d’autres éléments récents ou plus anciens encore, picturaux, textuels ou plastiques. Ainsi, au lieu de projeter en pleine lumière un aspect oublié du passé, il l’utilise pour le révéler en montrant métaphoriquement comment cette occultation a pu se produire.
À partir d’image provenant des archives de la police des mœurs du Gard, de Rome ou de Calabre, (*) Salvatore Puglia articule trois plans qui ne cessent de se croiser dans l’œuvre. L’image originelle peut être posée sur un fond ou recouverte par une coulée rouge tandis que des mots gravés attirent notre attention sur ce qu’aucune image ne peut dire et qui pourrait être le récit de la vie de la personne représentée.
En mettant en scène dans chacune de ses œuvres ces niveaux d’identification différents, Salvatore Puglia nous plonge au cœur d’un des mystère de notre psychisme, celui qui nous permet d’identifier une personne lors même que nous pouvons finalement ignorer tout d’elle. Il y a dans ce double aspect de la mémoire une violence à laquelle nous ne pensons guère et que ces images nous font vivre « en direct » faisant passer l’identification du jeu formel de la reconnaissance au jeu profond de l’appréhension de ce qui nous relie à l’autre.

Jean Louis Poitevin

(*) La série d’images provenant du Gard est basée sur des carnets d’anthropométrie.
La série d’images provenant de de Rome, années 60 est issue d’archives de la Police des moeurs (La Buoncostume / Wallflowers).
La série d’images provenant de Calabre est due à un photographe de village des années 30, Saverio Marra ( Time-drip Suite).
Les autres photographies “ethnologiques” ont été prises dans les colonies italiennes des années 30 ( L’Illustrazione Italiana.)

Zoran Janic, Shadows and Ruins, 2009

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


Telegrams (1993)

On Painting as Translation

The stories that I am going to lay out are not meant to constitute a whole picture or organic tableau. On the contrary, my stories will be disjointed ; they will be examples, sometimes oblique examples, of a discourse on the way in which certain literary texts can exercise their influence on a person’s attempts to practice, or practice in, the visual arts. These stories, I present them to you as splinters of experience and as fragments of a reflection that has marked the work that I will show you after my short talk. I hope that the processing of images that you will see will be like the thread sewing together the scattered moments of this experience.

I will discuss four topics :

1. Stendhal’s Pictograms
2. Artaud’s Cryptograms
3. Bataille´s Photograms
4. Benjamin’s Topograms

Stendhal’s pictograms

I want to say words about Henri Beyle, who used the name Stendhal, or Henry Brulard, and about the circumstances that led him to write the story of his life.
In the morning of October 16, 1832, Henri Beyle (who was, then, French Consul in the coastal town of Civitavecchia in the Papal States) found himself in Rome on the Janiculum Hill in front of the church San Pietro in Montorio. Instead of putting my words in his mouth, I will quote the very first lines of his book, the Life of Henry Brulard.

I was standing this morning, October sixteenth, eighteen thirty-two, by San Pietro in  Montorio, on the Janiculum Hill in Rome, in magnificent sunshine. A few small clouds, borne on a barely perceptible sirocco wind, were floating above Monte Albano, a delicious warmth filled the air and I was happy to be alive.

All of Rome, both ancient and modern, unfolds under Stendhal’s eyes from this location, the square before the church, which forms a terrace overlooking the city, which is a place unique in the world, where Raphael’s Transfiguration had been the object of admiration during two and a half centuries, or two hundred and fifty years.

Ah! (Stendhal writes) in three months I shall be fifty; can that really be so ! Seventeen eighty-three (1783), ninety-three (’93), eighteen hundred and three (1803) — I’m reckoning on my fingers – and eighteen thirty-three (1833) make fifty. Is it really possible ? Fifty !

This unexpected discovery did not vex me ; He says I had been thinking about Hannibal and the Romans.

In Stendhal’s reconstruction in words, there is a double layering or stratification of reflection and memory. Under his eyes lies Rome: like an open archaeological excavation site, it exhibits history’s layers one on top of the other, from antiquity until now, when Stendhal beholds it. These are the first layers or strata; the second set of strata or layers consists of the movement of time coming toward him, all of time leading up to this October 16, 1832. Stendhal notices that Raphael’s painting have hung there for two hundred and fifty years, that is to say five times fifty; he remarks: “and I am fifty years old !”.
“I shall soon be fifty, it’s high time I got to know myself. I should really find it very hard to say what I have been and what I am”.

The project he undertakes is devoted to establishing a line of continuity. A continuity of self-knowledge, but also a continuity in relation to a future reader, the intelligent interlocutor Stendhal lacks in his present.

You can see a straight line in the time scheme (from Hannibal and the Romans all the way to the future reader), but this line breaks at some point. This point is a moment when the pleasure of anamnesis, the pleasure of bringing in and bringing up the past, is the strongest, and this is when an exclusive and strong connection is made between the act of remembering and the actual past. This is a point in time when something unusual happens.

In a text, such as the one from which I have been risking, that is remarkable already because there is such a short distance between itself and its object, it seems as if even this small gap automatically created by the writing gesture has become unbearable, insufferable. There thus comes a moment when one must look for, and find, a better way to immerse oneself in the past, or literally to bring the past toward oneself. This is a need, and it requires another means, different from the alphabetic one, of making inscriptions. We are going to see exactly how Stendhal is moving to a different graphic medium.

He recalls his ancient loves and feels an urge to trace on a dusty trail the names or initials of the women he loved. He takes a walk on a solitary trail overlooking Lake Albano, he stops and, with his walking stick, writes those initials on the ground, in the dust, “as did Zadig,” he notes. Later he tackles the Life of Henry Brulard again.
(Here I should at least allude to the layering of the various names, and how in Stendhal there is no identity or identification without this disguise of names or pseudonyms.)

As he resumes writing Henry Brulard, he thinks again about the women he has loved and he thinks about himself in the act of writing their names in the dusty trail. And now, suddenly, he switches media: he interrupts the written manuscript with a sketch. The sketch of himself, on the trail by Lake Albano, in the act of tracing women’s names on the dusty ground.

From that moment on, and each time something particular in his work of rememoration triggers an emotion (it could also be an intense pleasure, naturally), he replaces the description in words with one in images. In this way now, his manuscript is interrupted on almost every page, is stuffed with sketches, maps, figures with legends, or abbreviations that lead to notes of explanation.

I can summarise where the drawing fits in, in the book, by saying that the drawings complete or replace the writing in words with another writing that one can perceive as more precise, more immediate and truer, perhaps more efficient when it comes to reconstituting or resurrecting the past, to reducing the distance from himself.

I can’t help but wonder what method or means Stendhal would have chosen if, instead of writing his life just a few years before the official invention of photography, he had found himself delving in his past and beholding Rome at the same time, at a moment when cameras were available. In any case he probably would have turned into a passionate amateur photographer, given his obsession with precise recalling. (He said: “I cannot render facts in their reality; I can only give their shadows”). It occurs to him that memory deals with fragments; he says: “Next to the brightest faces, I find missing parts in my memory, like a fresco from which large sections have dropped away.”

Whatever the case may be, I am confident that Stendhal would have still done his sketches and drawings, what we can call his pictograms, which come to his emotional rescue.

Artaud’s cryptograms

Let us step back a little bit and suppose that instead of using a language that describes things while keeping at a safe and steady distance from those things, one handled words that resemble the objects in question or the circumstances they aim to express; that we had a “resembling” language that was disjointed, that precede syntax; that the words pronounced did barely more than dress things up, the written words remaining barely shaped and still isolated from one another. Such a language that does not distance itself from things, which is a language of the guts, both a particular and a universal language, was the one employed by Antonin Artaud.

For years I have had an idea of the consumption, the internal consummation  of language by the unearthing of all manner of torpid and filthy necessity. And, in nineteen thirty-four, I wrote a whole book with this intention, in a language which was not French but which everyone in the world could read, no matter what their nationality. (From Artaud’s Letter to Henri Parisot).

Among many other texts, I should refer to Artaud’s text on Van Gogh, and to its organic, volcanic, intolerably passionate language, to its untiring and breathless rhythm.

Antonin Artaud wrote this text on Van Gogh in 1947, after he saw a large Van Gogh exhibition in Paris. His title is Van Gogh, The Man Suicided by Society. Here, as in Stendhal, there is a remarkable passage, a sort of jump both in the emotions and in the language, a jump resulting from the identifying character of these writings. In Artaud’s text, the reader passes several times and quite suddenly from a regular sentence to a sort of encoded sound or cryptogram.

It is literally true that I saw the face of Van Gogh, red with blood in the explosion of his landscapes, coming toward me
in a conflagration
in a bombardment
in an explosion

These expressions really have no meaning; they simply evoke something that comes from elsewhere and an ancient time, something from time immemorial. Here the reader finds him -or herself- grappling with questions surrounding the origin of language or rather, to be more precise, with the tension towards an origin.

Empedocles, in one of his fragments, places man’s birth in a sort of generalised disjointed state :

On it (the earth), many heads sprung up without necks and arms wandered bare and bereft of shoulders. Eyes wandered up and down in want of foreheads. (Fragment 57)

Solitary limbs wandered seeking for union. (Fragment 58)

These are, then, organs that are lost, gone astray, trying to unite with a body or to find a body that would link them in one way or another. This actually foreshadows Georges Bataille and his “disorder of the human body, work of a violent disagreement of its organs” (“Le gros orteil,” in Documents 1929).

Often artists feel that their paintings are like bodies with which they need to wrestle, in face-to-face confrontations, and there is no telling who will win the fight. Let us try to imagine such a fight against such a body as Empedocles describes it, a body that is not a body, a body, dislocated, exploded, an organic entity yet disorganised and incoherent.

Shambling creatures with countless hands. (Fragments 60)

Clearly there can be no face-to-face encounter or fight with such an entity, nonetheless it is
necessary and cannot be avoided. Let us consider the artist and the painting as body and soul, as Aristotle depicts them in his text on Etruscan torture. Cicero reports that Aristotle stated that man’s condition is as follow:

We live through tortures like the ones suffered by those who, in an earlier time, were killed in a very refined manner by Etruscan pirates who captured them: the live bodies of prisoners were tied very precisely to the bodies of dead ones in such a way that the front part of each living one was fit to the front of a dead one. That is how these living ones were linked to the dead ones as our souls are tightly linked to our bodies.

I imagine that one of these inseparable parts is the shadow. The shadow could be the memory; indeed, memory holds us tightly, it keeps us from becoming severed from ourselves ; it ties us to our own history in a loyal, sometimes too loyal, relationship to our identity: “he who cannot forget will achieve nothing”, said Kierkegaard.

Georges Bataille’s photograms

If we speak of bodies and signs, we speak of anatomy, we speak of the body opening to allow the retrieval of signs. These signs can speak of themselves or they can speak of the body that contains them, but above all these can, for the anatomist, speak of other bodies. Therefore such signs will make it possible to open up to the experience of other bodies and other things.

I have mentioned body organs, torture, severed limbs, and cut-up tongues. This brings to mind the most intense photographic picture, next to which any other photographic image becomes an act of torture because of its kinship with this particular image. I am speaking of the Chinese torture image, that appears in Bataille’s book The Tears of Eros (1961).

“Since 1925”, Bataille says, “I have owned one of these pictures. It was given to me by Doctor Borel, one of the first French psychoanalysts. This photograph had a decisive role in my life. I have never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at once ecstatic and intolerable”.

Bataille in fact presents four images in a row. A fifth one exists, which is the last one and the most terrifying ; Bataille did not include it in his book. These images were readily available and could be bought as stereograms, with the brand name Veroscope. The word “veroscope” points to the trustworthiness of the three-dimensional, stereoscopic images in their capacity to restore the presence of the thing.

It is well known that Bataille is interested in the ravished and ecstatic expression of the young Chinese man who is being tortured. Bataille says also, however, that the young man’s expression could be caused by a large dose of opium given to this patient who is being subjected to a live anatomical dissection.

The point here is that Bataille is interpreting physiognomy instead of taking the photo as the simple capture of a moment of affective violence.

I will come back to the question of physiognomy in a moment. For now, I want to discuss the parallel I make between the anatomy of language and the language of the body. Let me tell a bit more on what I am calling “somatograms”.

The gesture that consists in copying, in transcribing, in reproducing is most closely related to the work of interpreting or translating of which it constitutes the sine qua non.

The technical reproduction of the inside of the human body is, of course, known as radiography or X-ray photography (not to mention more recent imaging and scanning techniques). X-ray imaging makes use of the principles of photography (by making an image on a chemically treated plate) and the principles of radioactivity (by penetrating the resistance, that is to say the unity of bodies, with rays).

Therefore radiography is a photocopy of what is hidden ; it is a “radiocopy”.

The spectral image we see offers alternate patterns of shade and light. This image possesses the characteristics of a double and a negative; it constitutes a kind of representation of the aura (I will speak imminently of the “aura” in Walter Benjamin’s writing), or, if you prefer, this image is a soul-guard of the body, or a bodyguard of the soul.

I just want to quote briefly a well-known text, which is very evocative in this context. Is Kafka’s comment on photography, in which he seems to oppose interior vision and bird’s-eye vision:

Photography concentrates one’s eye on the superficial. For that reason it obscures the hidden life which glimmers through the outlines of things like a play of light and shade. One can’t catch that even with the sharpest lens. One has to grope for it by feeling… This automatic camera doesn’t multiply men’s eyes but only gives a fantastically simplified fly’s-eye view.

Walter Benjamin’s topograms

In speaking of reproduction, I want to push further the metaphoric relation between written text and bodily texture. This leads me to Walter Benjamin, the famous German critic and philosopher.

In his books, he comes back several times to questions having to do with copying, transcribing texts manually. There is one such passage, for example, in which he tells of having to stay in school and copy texts as punishment (in Berliner Kindheit, written toward the end of the Thirties; the passage is entitled Strafe des Nachsitzens). Elsewhere he compares the reader’s activity with that of a scribe or transcriber: the former is like a passenger in an aeroplane who would decipher a landscape that he sees as a whole, in its entirety, but without seeing the ups and the downs, the roughness, the unevenness, while the latter would be like the driver of an automobile, well aware of the roughness of the terrain, who would travel through the same landscape.

In these images given by Benjamin, there is a sort of truth of contact, of slowness, whether the transcribing is done voluntarily or not. Can there be any greater fidelity to the text than to walk and proceed through it step by step by transcribing it letter by letter?

(Remember now Stendhal’s fidelity or loyalty to his memory, his ancient loves, his names and the names of his women, and think of the mapping out, the  topograms resulting from this; think of the topographical image of written reproduction found in Benjamin; think also of the structure of Benjamin’s work, Einbahnstrasse (One-way Street), of 1928).

To reproduce is to repeat. Photography, like memory, reproduces, reproduces itself, and repeats itself. The illusion that one relives something comes with repetition. One is fooled by a reality of which there is a photographic double.

There is a text on photography by Georges Bataille. It was published in the journal Documents in 1929 and it was called Figure humaine, “The Human Figure”. As he comments one of the most banal pictures that exists, that is to say a group photograph taken at a wedding somewhere in France in 1905, Bataille attacks the paltry and misleading nature of photographic portraits in general.

Photography is too easy, he implies.

Now, unlike in other places and times, and because of photography, we have stopped being haunted by spectres or ghosts who, having “the miserable aspect of half-decomposed bodies,” might be feared as man-eaters. Photography proposes us, instead, a laughable ersatz of our spectres.

Photography covers and dresses wounds, it mitigates, it takes the edge off things, it consoles, it claims to preserve. It is guilty since it furnishes us with a small and misleading part of reality. Photography feeds the illusion that we  are in touch with what has been, while masking the actual truth of what has preceded us, namely the dissolution and disappearance of things, and cancelling instants themselves by its own instantaneous action, cancels our right to the instant to the unknown.

Bataille’s critique of photography is close to Kafka’s; photography does not leave us in peace with our own spectres.

I quote Bataille again:“The very fact that one is haunted by such benign apparitions gives fear and anger a pathetic or laughable value”.

It is the pretension to truth-telling itself that Bataille is aiming at here.
Bataille attacks photography’s pretence to reach the truth. The human figure reproduced by photographic means claims to reconstitute a human nature.
To such a pretence, Bataille opposes, I quote, “a presence as irreducible as that of the ego.”

I want to simplify things a little here and say that we are dealing here with a criminality of photography, which consists in endangering the individual; it is, though, a crime of lèse-individualité.

Bataille is not far from the views that stretch from Baudelaire to Valéry and others, and which underscore essentially the documentary role of this means of technical reproduction, photography, in opposition to the subjective freedom on which rests the work of art. Bataille sees photography as participating fully in the movement that began in the early years of the nineteenth century, the movement that strove to recover (and recognise?) the human figure by any means.

Photography is the expression of an “intellectual voracity,” which goes from Lavater’s work in physiognomy (in the second half of the eighteenth century) to Gall’s phrenology, Broca’s craniology, and Lombroso’s criminal anthropology, followed by Charcot’s photographic iconography, as well as Bertillon’s metric anthropology, all the way (perhaps a little arbitrarily) to a number of scientific publications, such as (I translate the French titles):
Nineteen Visible Physical Defects to Recognise a Jew, published in Paris in 1903, and How to Recognise and Explain a Jew : With Ten Plates, Followed by a Moral Portrait of Jews, Paris, 1940.

Only one thing links the names and texts I just listed: it is an obsession to recognise and identify. Even the language used legally to describe such identifications and classifications exhibits the optimistic and procedural character of this obsession; it is always something that has to do with a process, with a trial, in a sense, a procedure, in which you can read an inexorable movement to pin the other down.

Instead of that, I think it is preferable to subscribe to the notion that knowledge of the other, becoming acquainted with the other (instead of recognition, which brings everything back to pre-existing schemes) occurs in an almost static way, beyond all expectation.

The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction, published by Benjamin in 1936, is too well known for me to dwell on it here. I will limit myself to one aspect I am particularly interested in today and which I referred to earlier, the discussion of aura.

With mechanical or technical reproduction of images, you lose what is authentic, you lose the connection to a particular time and place. The photographed or filmed object is abstracted from tradition, it moves closer to the viewer, and by doing so it loses it sacred character and its aura. “We define the aura as the unique phenomenon of distance, however close it may be…Whether we are talking of works of art or natural objects”. Photography removes from objects their cult value or cultural function. But, Benjamin adds,

…cult value does not give way without resistance. It retires into an ultimate entrenchment: the human countenance. It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time, the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty.

If I follow him, I see that photography stands out in a special way. While separating the object from its cult value, photography also furnishes a cult object, which is the human figure. It gives us visual traces and signs, optical hooks, so to speak, which allow our “cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead”, to expand. (I don’t subscribe here to the Benjamin’s distinction between “early” and “modern” photographic images. I guess that it depends on his need of being faithful to his idea of the aura as “glance of the obsolete”).

However, this cult is embedded in the very notion of resemblance and proximity to the object that has moved away from us. Aura, then, is what is absent from the image but what inhabits the space between us and the reproduction, and therefore aura is what allows the relation and not what keeps the object unique and distant from us. So, the photography can be holder of an hidden content. We are able to catch “also, through the reproduction, what is unique” (A short History of photography, 1931).

Following Bataille, photography’s crime is the visibility itself, is verisimilitude, resemblance, excessive closeness, contamination by kinship; all these things dictate the banality of photography’s evil, its monstrosity (“monstrosity without madness”).

For Benjamin, the aura is lost and found again in the fleeting expression of a human face; it is found in the instant of taking the picture, in a moment of social identification given by this image, and in which the light arrests the time.

It is easy to see, then, that a similar photographic document can be monstrous for one person and “incomparably” beautiful for another. The former rejects it in the name of the “irreducible ego”, and the latter admires it because of the short-circuit in distance and kinship, in loss and identification. He doesn’t ask it to be “true”.

Benjamin says that these images are beautiful because they are melancholic. Beauty here is a matter of emotion. this emotion has to do with mourning. In the age of photography, mourning and the cult of the dead have replaced the cult of gods. Bataille rejects the cult of the dead and he rejects any pious image that pretends to represent the dead. There isn’t any sacredness in the technical image.

In the name of the identification with the past, the distant past in some other place, Benjamin finds an aura in photographic reproduction. To copy, to transcribe, to translate, to adhere to a distant object, to tradition, those are his joys. To draw, to map out the places, to trace in the dusty ground the names of old loves, rewrite the story of one’s childhood, retrieve past times, also.

I see the snapshot, in this context, as the point in the telegraphic communication; it is necessary to the comprehension of the text, which is a line in time. For Bataille, the flash cannot be followed by any trace; it is just an instant. No past, no future. Just acceptance.

Fall 1993

Daniel Loayza, S. P., 2005

Pour aborder le travail si actuel d’un artiste tel que Salvatore Puglia, certains très vieux mots, grecs ou latins, font très bien l’affaire, pour peu qu’on les prenne – ainsi qu’il nous y invite lui-même – suffisamment au sérieux. En voici trois.

“Photographie”. A l’ “écriture de/par la lumière”, où un réel rayonnant engendrerait de lui-même une image dont l’évidence glorieuse ne demanderait plus qu’à être captée, Puglia a toujours opposé une certaine méfiance, étayée sur une autre lecture du mot. Car il sait bien que la “graphie” dissimule ici un peu trop innocemment, et fait passer en contrebande, une écriture qui se donnerait pour allant de soi et comme imprégnant la fibre même du monde – une écriture, mais aussi bien (puisque c’est là ce que signifie le verbe graphein en grec), une gravure ou un dessin qui seraient donc naturels, d’où toute dimension subjective, culturelle, interprétative serait exclue. Aussi Puglia aime-t-il à rendre coup pour coup à la photographie. Tantôt, il retourne en quelque sorte l’un contre l’autre les deux termes qui la composent. Ainsi, la lumière voit souvent sa clarté voilée, grisée, éteinte ou noyée dans le grain du papier à force d’être diluée par (photo-)copie, quand elle n’est pas dénoncée ou attaquée à même son champ par des inscriptions, des incisions, des surimpressions qui lui contestent son statut privilégié de medium omniprésent et translucide. Tantôt, c’est à l’ensemble photographique que s’en prend l’artiste, soulignant, accusant, aggravant son caractère d’artefact ou de matériau, soit (par exemple) qu’il lui superpose d’autres images dissonantes, soit qu’il l’imprime sur un support transparent, restituant ainsi au regard, par-delà l’opacité fermée de la surface originale, une nouvelle profondeur à explorer. (Profondeur dont il faut souligner qu’elle n’est pas seulement perspective, mais également temporelle et personnelle. Le fond de certains travaux présentés ici est en effet constitué de fragments d’oeuvres anciennes, désormais remployées exactement selon les mêmes processus que n’importe quel autre élément constitutif. Le corpus de l’artiste n’est donc plus une archive personnelle intangible : il devient désormais une mine de matériaux susceptibles d’être recyclés. Si l’on ne peut que s’incliner devant le détachement et l’impartialité sereine avec lesquels Salvatore Puglia traite ou retraite ainsi son oeuvre passée, il n’en voudra pas à certains de ses admirateurs d’espérer qu’il ne poursuivra pas trop loin dans cette voie).

“Monument”. Le monumentum latin est d’abord un avertissement, une admonition, et le moyen dont on use pour les signifier. Pour que l’avertissement soit durable, il convient que le signe le soit : le monumentum est donc fait d’un matériau pérenne, et ses dimensions mêmes confirment qu’il est fait pour résister à l’usure du temps, et s’opposer immobile à son passage, depuis la place qui lui est solennellement assignée une fois pour toutes. Le monument, si l’on veut, est une machine (ou un piège) à mémoire, et sa présence est avant tout témoignage. Mais pour peu que cette présence soit moins comprise comme signe d’une mémoire à préserver que comme simple caractère monumental – comme affirmation emphatique d’une grandeur : qu’arrive-t-il alors ? D’une certaine façon, Puglia a effectué sur la monumentalité un travail critique analogue à celui qu’il a conduit sur la photographie. Il a disséminé, et ce à travers toute l’Europe, des sculptures fugitives, temporaires, délibérément abandonnées aux éléments ou au vandalisme. Il a aussi travaillé sur la récupération et la mise en scène mussoliniennes du passé monumental de l’Italie. Or il se trouve que le fascisme, en dévastant le tissu urbain autour des vestiges antiques au nom de leur “nécessaire solitude” de géants, les laissa du même coup à découvert et comme à nu, d’autant plus vulnérables aux bombardements. (De quoi donc témoignent désormais ces étranges silhouettes dissimulées sous des sacs de sable, qu’ont-elles à dire sur le sens de leur survie, maintenant qu’elles sont imprimées et reportées sur des substances aussi délicates et fragiles que le silicone, le rhodoïd ou l’organza ?)

“Inventaire”. En latin juridique, inventarium – terme que Salvatore Puglia a choisi pour intituler la présente exposition. Au sens strict, l’opération qui porte ce nom consiste à établir la liste descriptive et estimative des éléments d’une communauté (lorsque vient l’heure où cette communauté doit être liquidée) ou d’une succession (quand une mort impose de régler les questions d’héritage). Un inventaire n’intervient qu’après coup, une fois que tout est consommé ; relevant des traces, opérant des partages d’actifs et de passifs, il fixe un état des lieux en attendant qu’advienne peut-être une distribution nouvelle. Inventarium : un tel titre laisse donc déjà entrevoir que le travail de Puglia, minutieux, réfléchi, attentif aux moindres détails, inséparable d’une activité classificatrice ou sérielle, tient du procès-verbal. Car sa recherche, elle aussi, n’intervient qu’après coup. Après décès, serait-on presque tenté de dire, puisque cette recherche semble ne commencer que là où tout paraît avoir fini à tout jamais, sans retour possible (pour être plus exact, les figures si fréquentes de la ruine et du ravage paraissent toujours constituer chez lui des abords ou des approches de la déflagration majeure qui a troué le XXème siècle). Et par là, ce travail tient aussi du rapport – historique ou d’autopsie. Les oeuvres de Puglia paraissent à peu près toutes se détacher sur un fond discrètement endeuillé. Le sens presque douloureusement aigu de la fin révolue dont ces oeuvres témoignent, et l’attention que l’artiste porte à la scruter afin de déchiffrer sur ses vestiges le sens de ce qui s’est produit, expliquent sans doute en partie que depuis des années, l’une des nappes résurgentes de son travail s’alimente aux sources de la médecine et puise dans ses documents (gravures d’écorchés, anatomies, radiographies, planches anthropométriques reviennent régulièrement hanter la surface de ses images).

Est-ce à dire que l’art lui-même, en ces temps d’après la catastrophe, se réduit à n’être qu’une survivance, une enquête funèbre, une pratique aussi vestigiale, périssable et obsolète que les matériaux sur lesquels elle porte ? Le verbe latin dont dérive le mot inventarium inviterait d’abord à le penser : invenire, littéralement “venir (ou tomber) sur”, signifie en effet “trouver, découvrir” quelque chose de préexistant, plutôt qu'”inventer”. Ainsi, l’artiste aurait moins à produire de la pure nouveauté qu’à recueillir et interroger des données. Sans doute. Reste alors à savoir comment les choisir, où les chercher, comment les combiner ou les mettre en rapport. Et à quelle fin. Si donc Puglia ne se soucie pas trop de paraître original, c’est tout simplement au nom d’une certaine éthique, qu’il tient sans doute de sa formation d’historien. C’est en effet dans la pratique de l’investigation historique que sa vocation d’artiste s’est déterminée, au contact des documents et de leur charge d’opacité temporelle. Histoire, historia : sans doute est-ce par ce très vieux mot grec qu’il aurait fallu commencer. Il signifia d’abord quelque chose comme “enquête” ou “investigation”. Il finit par être le nom de cette pratique (de ce désir) de savoir qui amena il y a vingt-cinq siècles un certain Hérodote à voyager pendant des années pour accumuler les faits et les versions que les hommes en donnent, à les superposer, à les soumettre à examen, à les mettre en lumière, à en surprendre les discordances, et puis à en écrire un inventaire destiné à durer – tout cela pour tenter de comprendre de quoi son présent était fait.

Daniel Loayza
24. XII. 2004


Benedetta Cestelli-Guidi, Sei lezioni di drappeggio, 2004

Come per i suoi lavori precedenti, anche in questi ultimi SP pone il dato storico all’inizio della sua elaborazione artistica, e concettuale. Si conoscono i suoi interventi di critico, e le sue opere di artista. Il serbatoio da cui SP attinge sono i materiali della storia, nella certezza che si possa fare ‘un’arte della storia’ e non solo l’opposto, come sappiamo si fa; e lui ne ha le carte, storico di formazione e artista per passione.
Ma questa volta il lavoro nasce da una suggestione specifica e, aggiungerei, dalla volontà di confrontarsi con l’arte e le sue pratiche accademiche piuttosto che con l’ingombrante Storia portatrice anche di profonde delusioni, personali e non. SP si misura qui con uno dei più antichi e consolidati esercizi del pittore: il panneggio. Ha lavorato per mesi con una modella sulle possibili aperture che un piccolo straccio poteva consentire – e di queste aperture ci ha insegnato George Didi-Hubermann nella Ninfa – provando il movimento, la luce, l’intensità: le sue teorie di pose richiamano questo esercizio, questo lavoro sul corpo dello stile, e sulle sue intensificazioni possibili.  Ma laddove è vero che la riflessione critica ed artistica sull’antico ne provochi una ineluttabile rinascita, e Warburg docet, che possiamo definire in molti modi –attualizzazione, traduzione, rinnovamento – anche in questi panneggi troviamo una novità accecante, percepibile come colore. Abituati al bianco e nero, spesso xerigrafato se non fotocopiato, delle opere di SP, questo colore colpisce innanzitutto per la sua sostanza: è un materiale più che un tono, è denso e morbido, traslucido e tridimensionale, che sa più di plastica che di tempera, E’ un materiale da lavoro: è colore da vetro. Questo colore, così originale, e talmente inusuale è segno di ben altro che qui ci interesse molto di più: è segno di un rinnovamento radicale nell’opera di SP che lascia che lo storico faccia posto all’artista e che quest’ultimo addirittura, alzi la voce così che ci giunga la sua grana, la sua grassa sonorità. Salvatore è qui all’inizio dell’avanguardia di se stesso.

Nicoletta Cardano, La philosophie dans le boudoir, 2003

Quello che vedete davanti a voi, o meglio vicino ai vostri piedi, accomodato in un improvvisato e impreciso ordine della bottega-laboratorio antiquario di Daniel Gregory Di Domenico, mi dispiace dirlo, non è un pavimento. Non potete calpestarlo, non tanto perché potreste danneggiarlo, ma perché si presuppone che siate accorsi in tal numero a questa presentazione romana del lavoro di Salvatore Puglia che, se ci state sopra tutti, quanti siete, non potrete leggerlo.
Non è un pavimento questa griglia di maiolica di Vietri, ma piuttosto l’insieme di improbabili, incerti fogli quadrati di appunti, di tremolanti trascrizioni da La philosophie dans le boudoir di Sade. Trascrizioni, copiature mal riuscite, frammenti di conoscenza del male che casualmente sono stati tirati fuori da una tasca in una giornata di estate, all’interno di una bottega di Vietri, dove invano maestria artigiana e creazione d’artista cercano di coniugarsi, come ci spiega Puglia.
L’artista ricopia con esitante calligrafia davanti agli occhi incuriositi e poi disincantati dei maestri artigiani esperti nell’arte della maiolica, le prime sei pagine de La philosophie dans le boudoir, testo ampiamente noto e per la cui pubblicazione qualche decennio fa in Francia e in Italia alcuni editori furono coinvolti in vicende giudiziarie.
Saltando la prefazione, Puglia inizia a ricopiare il primo dialogo, sperimentando con una scelta cromatica essenziale del blu di Delft sul bianco del fondo, una grafia dipinta, insicura per l’uso di un mezzo improprio, di una tecnica non padroneggiata.
La grafia infatti è adoperata in modo ricorrente nei suoi lavori, per incidere la materia, per graffiare vetro o intonaco, e non come il risultato della pratica attenta e disciplinata, con colore e pennello, richiesta ad un calligrafo. Malgrado il colore scivoli sul supporto, il segno mantiene il medesimo aspetto confuso, le stesse angolosità e asprezze incisorie, questa volta inquadrate a fatica nella geometria delle piastrelle. Nonostante Puglia intenda assumere l’attitudine del copista, il risultato è soltanto una brutta copia dalla variegata e fluttuante veste grafica, incompleta, perché limitata alle prime pagine del testo. In realtà più che di una “copia” da Sade, di un amanuense contemporaneo, sembra trattarsi di una “citazione” da Sade. Il linguaggio di Sade come Barthes ha dimostrato non è linguaggio referenziale, ma piuttosto costruzione/ricostruzione della dimensione mentale del male. Sotto questo profilo Puglia trascrive sui “notes” bianchi delle piastrelle citazioni, ossia frammenti di linguaggio, nella convinzione novecentesca di essere sollevato dalle spiegazioni e di esortare le domande. I vari pezzi dove sono dipinte le parole secondo una trasposizione estraniante, ma di estrema precisione che intenderebbe riproporre cambi di carattere e andamento della pagina, possono essere letti a sé, come brani frammentari e/o ricomposti nella lettura dell’insieme del pavimento assieme a quadrati vuoti, senza testo, posizionati casualmente come cesure bianche. Sospeso tra la funzione di pavimento dipinto con parole, e di testo riprodotto con mezzi pittorici, La philosophie dans le boudoir di Puglia è un oggetto plastico che ammicca all’oggetto linguistico volutamente confondendo il ruolo del trascrittore e quello dell’artista, in modo che un artista con non determinate velleità calligrafiche si ponga come copista.
Esattezza e indeterminatezza  sono i termini che caratterizzano questo lavoro, dal suo iniziale e ironico presupposto progettuale di trascrizione, alla sua contraddittoria realizzazione dentro e fuori le regole: dell’artigianato e della creazione, della geometria simmetrica e ripetitiva della griglia compositiva, delle possibili ordinate varianti della copia e della versione grafica.
A noi che restiamo ai margini per guardarlo come un testo dipinto non resta che leggerlo, rassicurati dal fatto che in ogni caso il prototipo resta sempre disponibile per un riscontro di conformità.

Rubén De la Nuez, Radiograms for an impure clinic, 2001

The 20th Century extended the legitimization discourse of History, from the written to the iconic. The invention of photography seemed to give an infallible recourse of truth. The aesthetic quality of truth was no longer represented as solid but as transparent. Celluloid substituted stone; solid truth was replaced by the photographic instant. For this reason clinical radiography can be understood as a symbol of a new concept of representation; the possibility of representing the essence of a thing instead of its mere appearance; the common place of the human instead of the distinctive.

Within the new dynamic established by rapid technological innovation the last century saw an overwhelming proliferation of signifiers, which have remained suspended as quotations; a photo, or an object within a museum. The gap between these instants of history, and historical conscience itself, is the space in which the art of Salvatore Puglia is inscribed. His work consists in developing a syntax for a poetics of history, starting from the alienation of the referent –turned into image or text- from his own generic environment. The recognition of history as a consensual representation of reality is the platform that provides the moment of conversion from document to poetry.

Therefore, History of Art itself – the history of a kind of allegorical event- has had a parallel Art of History; this is to say the mental representation – mediated and induced – of reality itself. The inclusion of references to avant-garde art highlights the crisis of representation of these historical models. History when seen as an attempt to engage ethically with reality, has become an aesthetic engagement with representation.

In this sense the artist grants a value of social conservation and circulation, to a certain kind of phenomena –social incidents, scientific discoveries, artistic movements- that are the result of a process of selection from subjective experience itself. The artist becomes the index finger of history.

Perhaps the installation Topography (1997-2001) could be seen as a metaphor for the interrelation between two levels of history, the psychological and the socio-cultural. This piece is illustrative of the language of association established by Puglia for a metaphysic of the historical residue. It establishes an analogical discourse that uses graphic elements as a form of syntax; the red color, vital flow, aged gold, color of the photo studio, dark chamber, the prosthesis of memory where the instances of reality are caught. The document, converted into a groundless sign, becomes a repertory for the poetic; what Puglia himself denominates as an “icono-gramma” of history.

Puglia’s discourse has developed a sort of “encyclopedic trope” in which a variety of layers should be uncovered in order to reach the core, a monadic element, indivisible through his entire work. These layers engage the levels of access to the isolated historical reference; the possibility of recognizing an unlimited series of connections among historical signs of different natures.

These signs can appear in a transparent or masked way. Lights and shadows, revelations and concealments, build a dramatic system that serves as a space for the convergence for History and Art. Puglia’s work is an implicit drama, a staging where the mirror games transform the spectator in the fourth wall. The practice of social research has demonstrated that in certain circumstances, the elliptic power of art (its associative capability and liberty) offers the only possibility of conceptualizing an event, when socio-historical methods of verification, face just limits and nowhere places. As it has been said, art is always a question. In that sense, art would be closer to paradoxes of reality than to an historical narrative that aims to speak in terms of a clear answer.

Puglia’s fabularium is mainly occupied by figures who had a vital presence in the course of history, those who unconsciously attempted to offer a turning point to history. It establishes an intellectual engagement with a particular kind of historical legacy. Those who once had a place in a press photo, a foot-note in a book on national events, a chair and a voice in any one of the events that constitute “the thresholds of an epoch”. Figures that created such a useful and omnipresent object that their own name was eclipsed Puglia’s cabinet archives this internal memory; radiographic, within resin and acetate inscription, urns which perpetuate, the silence, a sequence of endless death, the void. What is otherwise a museum, a glass cemetery.

Rubén de la Nuez
May 2001

From Translation to Imitation (1990)

In 1835, at the age of fifty-two, the French consul in Civitavecchia decided to devote himself to the written reconstruction of his life, in order to fight, in his own words, the idleness and the boredom which overwhelmed him and to “allow myself the pleasure of looking back for a while.” This work of excavation into memory – so accurate that the three thick volumes Stendhal was able to fill barely cover the first seventeen years of his life – he obviously enjoyed very much, as any reader will acknowledge when he discovers the scribbles and scrawls which from the very first pages interrupt the narration, crammed into the manuscript as Stendhal cheerfully revisits the places and landscapes of his childhood.

The work was never finished, but its author meant it to be published. We don’t know whether the sketches would have been kept in the final text. Such a publication would not have been unprecedented, for there was a model, which Stendhal knew well and loved: Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, published seventy-five years earlier. As we know, Shandy’s fictitious autobiography digs so deep into the past that we never get to witness the hero’s birth. Symbols, sketches, graphic schemes are interspersed in the written narration, bearing witness to Sterne’s audacious inventiveness, which led him to allow the intrusion of improper codes into the text, and their integration therein.

These two books could be seen as a challenge, from a painter’s point of view: how should one use the “anamnestic” procedures introduced by Stendhal and Sterne, while inverting the terms – i. e., allowing the incursion of writing into the pictorial mean (the visual presentation) so as to distort it? Thus defined, this challenge appears to be a problem of translation, if by translation one is to understand the rejection of any specialized or specialists’ approach.

Contaminating forms, setting oneself as a translator (the translator being by definition the person who moves through or “goes between”, without crossing the border which leads to originality), means to adopt the attitude of an amateur. One the one hand, this implies an opposition, a resistance not only against the supremacy of technique and mere ability, but also against a certain levelling of the individual which any specialization involves. On the other hand, this “amateurness” means that one may choose, along with the lightness, the continuous possibility of choice that such an attitude allows. Besides, one must take into account the following conclusive consideration: there is little left to say, today, in art, and even if one could go on speaking forever and endlessly representing oneself, one wouldn’t have, as Fitzgerald says, more than one or two original ideas to express, a couple of personal obsessions. There is therefore no need to pile up talk on talk, show on show. But rather to give time to expectation – to load expectation, with experience and the awareness of experience – to be able to translate them, if it so happens, into a work.

One must add, however, that such an “amateur” practise entails a risk of its own – not the kind of risk to be confronted in a totalising, promethean commitment, but the one which arises in void and expectation. Emptiness, delaying do not necessarily imply concentration or contemplation. They might be embodied, rather, in a kind of distracted attention, in a looking or staring askance.

Neither intention nor its fulfilment (the execution) is interesting. What’s interesting is the surprise. It is not the artist who surprises the work but quite the contrary: the work surprises and changes the artist, taking him in his moments of negligence, from his blind side; arriving, when it does, as a gift.
Looking askance, speaking askance. Not naming, not taking possession; calling the thing and leaving it to itself.

(I must confess, here between two chapters, a simulation: namely, that one never saw a painting of this century; that one stands with virgin eyes before books, and that, therefore, translation is a one-way process, going from the writers so to say to the paintings).

2. Aurora
The pictures must be silent. But all silences are not equal. The difficulty is to find a right quality, a good tone of silence. The tone of silence is important: it is the restitution of possibility.
The deeper silence is not that of void but of fullness; it is not to be found in absence but in presence. The past contains the deepest silence.
How to sink into time within a painting: through movement, which connects space and time: looking for movement, which is the only thing that is worth seeking. The difficulty is to find it with colours, which are the amateur’s medium in painting. Green and red for instance, that uneasily fit together: the slowness of a green and the speed of a red.
One will have to trust forgetfulness. The picture will be the sea of forgetfulness, from whose depth the “anamnestic” fragments will resurface. As the artist, the amateur, is a translator, or a grinder, or a still and a retort, or a crucible, the fragments will come back floating in an arbitrary way, at random. One can only hope that some “iron hand of necessity shakes the begging bowl of chance” (Deleuze).
The artist would be a nomad, gleaning here and there, confident that he is the tool of something. An assembler, but incomplete, for he works in silence and silence, as we are in a world of human beings, far from presenting itself, presents the unsaid. Omission is therefore unavoidable, and frustration. Certainly happiness is not that of forgetfulness but that of being able of remembering it all, of possessing, therefore, at least one’s own memories, even though memories seldom tell: “we do need you.”
One is always drawn towards some origin, in this backward walk, perhaps towards the time when “on the earth numerous grew the heads without neck, and on their own wandered the arms deprived of shoulders, and the eyes roamed just as they were, which no forehead adorned” (Hempedocles).
Among the rights that our artist claims is the right to force into coexistence the surviving remains and leftovers of different semantic fields or time periods. As if he were a poor man he takes interest in the details and the refuse of social exchange.

I want to point out a path between the sea of forgetfulness and the wall of historical time. More than the scene of memory, we said, or the dawn of the big bang, what is of interest is something that turns around the origin, from some place that is not prehistory anymore nor yet history or bureaucracy. It would be a break at some undefined point of circular time, on the circle of time. It is taken for granted that the time of the artist is anti-modern. It is taken for granted that the artist mixes past and future; he is the one who acts under this crest: Strach and touha, fear and desire-nostalgia.
Fear, i. e. the feeling that dominates the most decisive and risky moments in operating and in staying, those moments when, out of distraction and carelessness, the clear presence takes shape, and during which a suspension of being opens the way that leads to conscience and commotion.
Desire-nostalgia, the aching tension towards something that is no more or not yet, that is, in several languages, expressed by the same word, like touha in Czech; one is drawn towards to the past with the same word with which one strains towards the future. Anything does, except the present. After all, any true and irremediable feeling of something originates in its loss. And also, perhaps, in its not being yet, when its whole treasure consists in a mere image: to give birth, to change continents, thus accomplishing a gesture no different from the one “that keeps tempting us: to bring some animal home, dog, cat, bird, turtle or hamster, under the attraction of a deep impulse, which immediately distracts us” (Ramondino).

4. Bodies
The walls are to be incised, the bodies too.
With pictures one fights bodily, hand-to-hand, one gives and receives painful hits. As Nietzsche says, almost anybody can bear pain, for there is little choice; arduous is to find the strength to inflict pain. But it is a matter of restitution, because we write or paint in order to pay our own due; and as the artists are revengeful, theirs are poisoned reimbursements. They bite the work with poisoned teeth.
There is no body without soul, it can’t be helped. The soul is the sign, probably, and what at the same time carries the weight. The body is the body and in the sign it disintegrates. This is made apparent in the Etruscan torture described by Aristotle (as quoted by Cicero): “We suffer a torture similar to that of those people who, in other times, when they fell into the hands of the Etruscan pirates, were put to death with refined cruelty: each live body was bound with painstaking precision to a corpse, in such a way that every anterior part of the live body was adjusted to its dead counterpart. As those living victims were tied to corpses, so our souls are tightly tied together with our bodies.”

Little remains to be said but the supremacy of language. Signs and figures are its calls, its witnesses. They are not to be distinguished from the picture: they sink into it. To paint would just be to make up into pages.
But such writing, that of a picture – itself loaded with figures either afloat on the sea of forgetfulness or carved on the walls of its maze – should imitate that of an orchestra. An orchestra, however, that wouldn’t express anything harmonic, or if so, only at random; not going beyond the “misleadingly banal, often troubling” moment, “that precedes the concert, during which it tunes up, that is, assembles itself” (Burger).
The figures are witnesses, not symbols; they are like natural elements, sticks or stones, almost -but not yet – letters of an alphabet, because they don’t mean anything; they are therefore cocoons of language, lingering in the antechamber of grammar and syntax, without ever crossing the threshold of articulation. They court the utopia of inarticulate language, that of the wind breathing in the desert, they say: “if the world has a future, it is an ascetic future” (Chatwin). In the end remains the image of geological immobility, of identity with nature in its mineral state, the field clear from all residues of desire.


The Parachute (Maastricht 2000)

Construction of a parachute

Assembly manual

Take a second hand parachute, either green or white, measuring eleven meters in diameter. Hang it between trees in a park or between walls in a courtyard or even in a public square. Apply rings to the junctions of the fabric and stretch nylon threads between such rings and the surrounding branches or walls. It will be displayed in such a way as to recall the umbrella shape of a falling parachute.
Suspend this structure at the height of half a meter from the ground. Lift up a point at its extremity to sketch the lines of an entrance.
Find two couches, three arm-chairs, a small table, a chair, a fridge. Cover them with the off-cuts of the emergency parachute.
Place a potted palm tree between the fridge and the table. Place a bookshelf between a couch and an arm-chair, and a reading lamp beside the bookshelf.
All this furniture should be set in a circle over a large oriental carpet, leaving empty the central space. Do not be afraid of creating a luxurious, calm, voluptuous place.
Choose twelve or fifteen books, following your own taste and opinions; they will constitute an ideal and universal library. Cover each with an identical white paper, identify it with a Latin number.
Pick up the best white wines from Italy, France, and Spain, fill the fridge with them, and with every kind of beverage that can satisfy any particular liking.
Hire for the duration of the event an experienced hostess, dress her (or him) with an uniform sewn with the remains of the emergency parachute.
Instruct the host(ess) not only to invite and welcome all the passers by, but furthermore to fulfill –within the limit of the possible and the decent- their desires.
Finally, take care that the interior of the dome is sufficiently ventilated and of a pleasant temperature.

Rules: a host will constantly be present in the space. He will not impose any speech nor will he ask the guests who they are or who has sent them. However, he should always be ready for the possibility of conversation, which will probably be encouraged by the comfortable standing of the environment. The circular disposition of couches and chairs is likely to create a verbal exchange between conversation and chatter, confidence and speech, in a floating mood between private expression and public extension.
Some performances, readings, unplugged concerts will be executed following a program posted every morning. Other events will be improvised according to the encounters and exchanges that will occur day by day.

Note: as a parachute is mobile by definition, it will not remain in the same place in excess of three days.

User’s instructions

Our parachute is a demonstrative space. It is a manifesto for the free circulation of individuals.
What is a parachute, if not a tool meant to slow down a fall?
If such a tool is being put to use, it is because there is a fall; there is a threat to life, there is emergency.
A parachute is not a tent, is not anchored to the ground; it floats in a space between sky and earth–even the precise spot of its landing is uncertain. Once on land, it no longer has a further function. Its quality is lightness and lightness is not required whilst one has his feet on the ground.

To find oneself under a parachute is not a matter of hospitality; it is a matter of shelter.
If a tent is the symbolic space for hospitality, a parachute is the symbolic space of refuge and sheltering.
To offer somebody shelter is not the same as to offer hospitality. Hospitality is something that is exchanged in a community of peers, is a matter of politeness. In our time, sheltering has nothing to do with politeness. Today the only situations where hospitality and refuge coincide are those of an environmental danger: only Bedouins or Inuit can greet the stranger as Alcinous in the island of Scheria or Lot in the outskirts of the town of Sodom.
An effective welcoming in the Western world is to give shelter: it implies that the giver is in a position of power, and the receiver is in a state of weakness. The power that is exercised there does not answer to the codified rules of genteel behaviour. The fact is that recognition, which is the dialectical condition of hospitality, does not play such a basic role in the decision of giving shelter.

But the evidence of the need is already a recognisable form; such a basic recognition is what makes an unquestioning and unconditioned asylum almost impossible.
This is why not to ask “who are you?” is but an exercise: such a question can be unexpressed but it remains implicit in the acknowledgement of a request. There is no situation of request which does not introduce itself with a sign: such a sign says where the one who is knocking at the door comes from, from whom he is sent, which danger he represents.
The call to give shelter implies a call from a point of danger; the guest is in danger and he carries this danger with him to the house of the host. Who really feels like opening his arms to the danger and the unknown? Only somebody who already lives as precarious a condition as the one who has and can; somebody who already takes his own life as an excess and indeed confounds what is necessary and what is superfluous.
The parachute exists to measure our ability to receive: we propose the exercise of turning generosity toward immoderation and transfiguring etiquette into unmotivated and uninterested pomp. Anybody who presents himself at the threshold of the parachute will be given not only a favourable reception (in another idiom, we might refer to the anti-psychiatric effort “to bracket the disease”) but will also be offered the best of our belongings. The reception will be transformed into a luxurious hospitality lacking any purpose except the pleasure and the difficulty of sharing another’s presence, good wines, good books and conversation.

The host is the recipient. He is the dweller and the owner of a space which is forcefully delimited. Such spatial delimitation can be effective in the same way as the door of a house; or symbolically, as a curtain or the steps of a church.
One cannot –normally- offer to others what is not his own. There is no protection without the exercise of a sovereignty: To receive indeed means to make public, for the time and in the space of the opening, an exclusive and private place.
The guest is made inside: a new, larger space of conviviality is created. Such transformation of the private into the shared is made on the threshold; it is there where the owner invites, gives way or decides to resist the intrusion.
One cannot open what is not his own; he can, though, open up a door that would already be ajar. This is why the welcoming of the stranger would be easier to a dweller who would be partly a stranger, partly an intruder.
This half stranger would be a kind of guarantor, somebody who would answer for the other, the newly arrived–even if he does not know him.

Imagine an open parachute, suspended at a few feet from the ground, accessible from every side and impossible to close: it would be the emblem of an invitation without identification and without judgement, a space where what is proper and what is common would be confused.
Such indeterminacy would be possible only if the host would not master a real power but would be himself an abusive occupier: his place would be precarious and could effectively protect nobody. But it would protect symbolically: it would be something similar to antiquity’s Asylum (from the Greek a-sylon: out of violence) or the children’s games where one cannot be touched as long as he stays in a magic circle. That would be a matter of fact, neither within nor outside the law.
An absolute and unconditioned hosting could be based only on a misunderstanding or on a re-appropriation: the host should not own any space and, being himself a temporary guest, would place himself in a chain of invitation. Not being asked “who are you?” he would not have to ask “who sent you?”  Only in such a way–by dispossessing himself of any power that would not be occasionally borrowed—could one be host and guest at the same time, recipient and contained, not really powerful nor absolutely weak. Only in such a way could one, at the same time, be responsible in two directions: toward the sovereigns–-the authority–and the visitors-–the intruders.
And only an abusive guest introduced by a less abusive one can take the invitation without being doomed to show a sign that would certify his legitimacy, which is his coming from somewhere. Not being identified, he could not represent any danger.
Only an anonymous and abusive guest-–that is to say: a parasite–can play on the same level with the host in the social game: he would have nothing to ask, but he would take the risk of being kicked out of the mansion. But then a violence against him would be a violence against every other guest. Since, following the medieval principle quoted by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Quid est in territorio est de territorio”, the justification of his presence would be the mere fact of his presence.

Note: a first Parachute was experimented in Maastricht in May 2000, in the protective environment of the backyard of the Jan Van Eyck Academie.

Note: while I was writing this text (August 2000) I knew that an association Foreigner for foreigners had just been constituted in Rome, with the purpose of “examining the irregularities practised by the institutions of the Italian State against strangers”.

Note: The tents that have been raised in the last years by the “sans papiers” under the aisles of the churches were neither metaphorical nor allegorical. I am thinking about those in the church of Saint Ambroise, whose doors were pulled down with axes by the French police in August 1996; or to the beautiful white tents still standing (November 2000) inside the church of the Béguinage in Brussels.
Evidently, whoever finds himself in the extreme situation of seeking shelter in a sacred space appeals less to the protection of a divinity that perhaps he doesn’t recognize than to the residues of an ecclesiastic right that is no longer accepted by national legislations, and to the fact that the breaking-in of public officers in such places is still perceived by public opinion like a sort of sacrilege.

Appendix: a short list of recent books on the issues of hospitality and refuge

J. Derrida, „Le mot d’accueil“, in Adieu à Emmanuel Lévinas, Paris 1997.

J. Derrida, De l’hospitalité, Paris 1997.

J. Derrida, Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort!, Paris 1997.

K. Heilbronner, Immigration and asylum law and policy of the European Union, The Hague London Boston 2000

E. Jabès, Le livre de l’hospitalité, Paris 1991.

D. Joly, Haven or hell? Asylum policies and refugees in Europe, Warwick 1996

E. Lévinas, „Les villes-refuges“, in L’Au-delà du verset, Paris 1982.

F. Nicholson, Refugee rights and realities: evolving international concepts and regimes, Cambridge UK 1999

C. Pohl, Making room: recovering hospitality as a Christian tradition, Grand Rapids-Cambridge 1999.

S. Reece, The stranger’s welcome: oral theory and the aesthetics of the Homeric hospitality scene, Ann Arbor 1993.

R. Scherer, Zeus hospitalier: éloge de l’hospitalité. Essai philosophique, Paris 1993.

P. Ségur, J.L. Gazzaniga, La crise du droit d’asile, Paris 1998




Nicole Lapierre, La transparence des traces, 1999

Été 1999, à Paris. Salvatore Puglia n’est pas là. De lui, je ne connais qu’un texte sur “l’art de la radiographie” et deux œuvres vues chez une amie. Assez pour m’attirer dans son petit atelier momentanément déserté, où s’entassent, au risque de se briser, des montages photographiques énigmatiques, sur des plaques de verre superposées, cernées de fer ou de plomb. Coïncidence: l’artiste qui travaille sur l’absence, la trace, le fragment, est parti quelque temps et laisse derrière lui des restes d’expositions, des strates d’inspiration, des socles en vrac et des œuvres en piles.
Il faut sortir ces dernières une à une et les lever dans la lumière. Se révèlent alors des images trouées comme la mémoire et troublantes comme des confidences, des images sans fond et donc sans fin pour l’imagination. Visages graves et postures figées de sujets non identifiés, pages de manuscrits ou feuillets de partition détachés d’on ne sait quelle liasse, clichés radiographiques ou planches anatomiques, les lignes et les signes se chevauchent et se métamorphosent. Salvatore Puglia n’accumule pas, il trie, transforme, et invente un art qui magnifie la fragile transparence des traces. Au trompe l’œil d’un passé trop plein, il préfère les déliés d’une réminiscence menacée, le “souvenir tel qu’il brille à l’instant d’un péril” dont parlait Walter Benjamin.
La découverte de son œuvre ressemble à une reconnaissance. J’y retrouve des thèmes, des matériaux, des motifs familiers, des obsessions tenaces, des impressions anciennes aussi. Ces clichés, par exemple, qui m’ont toujours fascinée. Dans mon enfance et mon adolescence, l’appartement familial était aussi le cabinet radiologique de mon père. Les patients (on avait moins le souci de l’euphémisme alors et l’on parlait plutôt de “malades”), étaient des hommes et des femmes en pièces détachées: ma mère ou les secrétaires disaient “l’estomac attend dans le salon, le poumon est en retard” et c’était si banal que cela n’amusait personne… Les mots, comme les “radios”, évoquaient des corps fragmentés et sans véritable densité. Les images radiographiques sont de fantomatiques ébauches, ce qui est le plus dur y apparaît en clair, les os sont des formes blêmes, les tissus des masses plus sombres. Pour qui sait les interpréter, ici une ligne, ailleurs une tache, sont le signe d’une fracture ou d’une tumeur. Le mal est révélé et, en même temps, déréalisé. Cette plongée dans le corps n’atteint pas le vif du sujet.
J’ai pensé, plus tard (mais avant que l’on en face du cinéma), qu’il en allait un peu de même des représentations de la Shoah : ces images insistantes, qui toutes se ressemblent, de spectres inconnus, de corps décharnés, de squelettes ambulants. Une série de clichés ternes du malheur, tirés de cet univers gris de la mort en série, où la famille de mon père, comme tant d’autres, a péri. C’est pour cela, peut-être, qu’après avoir, toute l’année, fait de la radiologie, il passait ses étés à photographier ses filles sur fond de décor touristique ensoleillé. D’un côté l’invisible de corps souffrants et morcelés, de l’autre la continuité obstinée de la vie, des deux il constituait le témoignage en image, en ne racontant rien, ni de la mort des siens, ni de leur vie avant.
Ombre portée d’un passé plombé, héritage lacunaire, silence de la mémoire, il me semble que c’est aussi cela dont parle Salvatore Puglia. Plus qu’une résonance, une connivence, je crois. Cet “ art de l’histoire ” qu’il réalise et défend, n’a rien de commun avec la sauvegarde étouffante, le culte de ce que Nietzsche appelait “l’histoire antiquaire”, la sacralisation du passé, la  ritualisation glacée des commémorations. Il a, littéralement, tout à voir avec le sauve-qui-peut d’une création libre, capable de se jouer de la disparition, de la montrer à l’œuvre et, en même temps, de la tenir en suspend. C’est un art du passage.
Cet été 1999, Salvatore Puglia est parti ériger, dans la montagne norvégienne, une œuvre périssable: de hautes stèles de bois rouge, évidées pour que s’y découpe les silhouettes d’ancêtres du lieu, retracées à partir d’anciennes photos. Il ne sait pas combien de temps elles résisteront à l’érosion. L’idée est belle, séduisante, subversive. Contre l’illusion monumentale des fondations identitaires, elle dit le devenir, entre la présence et l’absence, le souvenir et l’oubli.

Nicole Lapierre

Christopher Fynsk, Anonymous Figures, 1995

[“Abstracts of Anamnesis”]

The exhibition greets us with a row of anonymous faces and speaks of memory. For whom are these faces recorded? The question would press if we knew nothing of the artist, for these figures require something of us. But if we happen to know something of Salvatore Puglia’s attitudes regarding the social bases of his practice and his commitment to community (reflected already in the role friendship has played in his itinerary as an artist), then we may well take this question, in all its ethical and political reach, as the question of the exhibition. It is a question about the conditions for participation in the acts of memory presented here; or, more simply, a question about the conditions for engaging these works. To what mode of aesthetic and social relation do these works invite us? Who can engage them and “who” might leave them? These should be the first questions for an introduction, in any case, for the images invite caution: the traditional approach to the aesthetic object and the traditional notion of the exhibition may occlude their most fundamental dimensions ‑it may be that a manual of usage is required here, not a “catalogue.”
Puglia has described his project in this exhibition as one of memory. An abstraction proper to memory as it has been conceived since antiquity (an abstraction that is irreducibly graphic) will provide the grounds for a practice of recollection that engages what the Greeks understood of the relation between memory and thought, even while questioning these grounds of intelligibility, or pointing beyond them. (And let us follow Puglia in underscoring the word “thought”‑for it is a matter always of “a possible world” beyond any “specific instance” that might find its meaning there.) Is this foregrounding and superimposition of the forms of inscription Aristotle described in his account of memory (with the indelible image of a wax tablet that has provided a constant reference for Puglia over the years and is perhaps repeated in these works in the etchings he practices on glass) still in fact a form of anamnesis? There is, to be sure, reproduction here, and re‑collection of a kind: the legein of careful transcription and spatial articulation. But it is a recollection of schemas, images, text and traces that never gathers contextual or historical meaning. These abstracts of anamnesis seem assembled by no more than the passive synthesis of a haunted psyche vainly interpreting the inscriptions it has suffered and unable to resist a crowding of associations without contextual or analogical justification. They remain signs (or text), and present themselves as such. But they form no historical record and give no coherent image of the past. The human figures that appear here remain anonymous, suspended in the notation, documentation, or graphic analysis (the reproduction of outline or the internal exposition by x-ray) that overlays them or forms their background. They remain souls in a kind of graphic purgatory -a purgatory nowhere better illustrated than in Űber die Schädelnerven, where the figure, hovering between type and individual (the images are from clinical studies), barely more than a sign and yet almost a portrait, seems imprisoned in an apparatus that multiplies its form by exposing it to a shadowplay that redoubles the absence. These souls are refugees of the historiographic/ethnographic/scientific imaginary, with no escape from the image.
But the fact that these figures almost emerge from their sign-character as icons of themselves should not be lost here. It is true that Puglia is subverting the specular satisfactions of historiography and refusing any humanistic pathos as he critically transcribes some of the acts of disappropriation to which photography has lent itself in this age of mechanical reproduction. Further, his practice of abstraction and juxtaposition fragments the grounds of historical identification and prohibits any construction of these figures as representatives of a group, a class, or even humankind (“Man”) in general -no ideology has a hold here. Yet the figures that appear in works like Über die Schädelnerven nevertheless lend themselves to a form of recognition. They do so, paradoxically, by virtue of their very anonymity and the work of “abstraction” that produces it. A segment from Puglia’s own series of remarks on Über die Schädelnerven will serve as a guide here:

To the pathos of intact memory, we will oppose a will to save the unsaved, the unidentifiable.
“Looking at things from the proper level, however, everything in police affairs is a matter of identification” (Alphonse Bertillon, Identification anthropométrique, instruction signalétique, 1893).
The obsession with identity and with identification transforms individuals into cases, into types, emblems. We shall restore to faces their veils.
The uncanny should occur more in the sudden familiarity of the unknown than in the surprise. of the familiar. Before the composite image, I experience the revelation of finding myself in the place of the described man. This authorizes me to look at his portrait, which is my own.
It is a question of taking the head of the image and twisting its neck. (From “A travers l’image, contre l’image”)

Almost everything we need lies in these juxtaposed statements. But let us concentrate on the penultimate. An unanticipated identification before the eminently recognizable character of the composite image (there is perhaps no better exemplar of reproducibility itself) is opposed to a no less sudden experience of familiarity before the unknown. Against an experience of substitutability at the level of the type (a revelation because always forgotten -the image itself is complicitous here), Puglia posits as a kind of imperative for his art the production of the event of the uncanny -the latter involving an unknown, but presupposing at least the minimal intelligibility required for an experience of repetition.
How does Puglia seek such an event? It is not by attempting images of the unknown, or heretofore unknown images. Instead, it is through an aesthetic process that does not negate, but rather suspends the abstraction proper to all photographic documentation of the human form (or what Bataille refers to as “la figure humaine,” in an essay of 1929 by that name -all of the group portraits employed by Puglia cite this text), an abstraction particularly apparent in the photograph of the case or type. Puglia takes his point of departure from precisely the reproducibility of the human form given by photography and exploited by what Bataille termed the “intellectual voracity” of modern science. He foregrounds this reproducibility, and “backgrounds” with the generalization of internal structure enabled by the x-ray (Katherine Rudolph has compared Puglia’s work in this latter respect with Descartes’ recourse to dissection).

Occasionally, a kind of analysis of abstraction by hand and eye (as in La figure humaine) seems Puglia’s primary concern. But in every case, the citation or “staging” of the anonymous figure in a complex play of framing, the remarking of its generality by the x-ray (offering also a rich play of light and shadow), and then the work of inscription and textual overlay, render the human figure a sign -a sign with no meaning beyond the vague temporal marker it bears. The effect is not easy to describe; we are dealing with art. But in the estrangement produced by this becoming‑sign of the human image, its becoming figure, we have a kind of offering of intelligibility without signification. A figure emerges from the veil of inscription and the play of light and shadow that might recall Hölderlin’s famous line from “Mnemosyne”: “A sign we are, without meaning.”

“Just as there is comparative anatomy, which helps us to understand the nature and history of organs, so this photographer is doing comparative photography, adopting a scientific standpoint superior to the photographer of detail.”
-Döblin’s remarks concerning the “physiognomic gallery” found in the photographic works of August Sander, cited by Benjamin in “A Small History of Photography”

“If we speak of bodies and signs, we speak of anatomy, we speak of the body opening to allow the retrieval of signs. These signs can speak of themselves, or they can speak of the body that contains them, but above all these can, for the anatomist, speak of other bodies. Therefore such signs will make it possible to open up to the experience of other bodies and other things.”
-Salvatore Puglia, “Telegrams” (unpublished)

We are a sign because we trace signs, Heidegger said, evoking with his reading of this line a work of the hand that would draw out the human essence and allow it to emerge in its fundamentally historical character in the time of Technik. It is hardly clear that Puglia would subscribe to Heidegger’s own understanding of the human essence, despite their shared reference to the Greek legacy. But his way of practicing the image engages the “usage” of the human (Heidegger’s “Brauch”) by which something like history or historical meaning is possible -a becoming sign of the human that is irreducible to any signification and, in its historicity, the ground of any historical recognition. Here are the grounds for the uncanny recognition lie seeks. His abstraction produces an anonymous figure that is not an individual representation of “humanity” but a figure of historical intelligibility at a kind of O-degree of signification. But, once again, there is nothing “abstract” here. Puglia’s aesthetic work has also restored to most of these human images a density that renders them singular, producing thereby a figure that gives us the “whatever” of a singularity in the age of reproduction, and hence the possibility for a quite different experience of substitutability than the one he evokes in relation to the composite image. The “substitutability” suggested by these figures is that of Giorgio Agamben’s “coming community.”
So do we find an affirmation of community, despite everything, or some sort of positive invitation, some ethical appeal? There is no question that this work engages the ethical, but we must not hasten to give the ethics here any substance, nor fail to recognize that it entails a knowledge of a transgression that is essential to it. lt is ethical, first, in the sense of this term that Wittgenstein sketched when he suggested that the only possible “ethical” language would be one that presents the existence of language (Pierre Alferi alluded to such a notion in an early statement on Puglia’s work). Beyond Puglia’s constant recollection of the basic constituents of the photographic or x-ray reproduction, there is an effort to produce the equivalent of the phrase from his introductory statement: “What would a painting look like if the presence of painting were precisely the quality it aimed to convey?”
Puglia’s aesthetic remarking of the “parting” that is proper to the becoming‑sign of the imaged being, his “ex-scription” -or “x-scription,” to transform Nancy’s concept in the tight of Les âmes du purgatoire -realizes precisely such a movement in all its import. Puglia’s presentation of the fact of language is moreover a presentation of the fact of history, and to mark the historicity of a “possible world” in presenting the (non)grounds of its intelligibility is to mark the possibility of a futurity, or to mark at least the claim of history on a possible present, as Benjamin saw. But there is an ethical dimension to this work too in that its recognition of an historical exigency (issuing from the O-degree of recognizability Puglia produces) is not without an acute awareness of what is given up in the becoming-sign of the human. Les larmes d’Eros is a disquieting reminder if we allow ourselves to recall the image of torture to which Bataille alludes in referring to a photograph he has received from a certain Borel, an image, Puglia asserts in “Telegrams,” with which every photograph shares kinship. What appeal is contained in the “Please,” “Please don’t” of this work? What transgression is being marked? This is not just the image’s attempt to hold us at the surface, its request that we not touch (a prohibition Puglia constantly violates). Rather, it is a remarking of the transgression proper to language itself (“language” in its broadest sense), a reminder of the death it brings in its murderous abstraction. Puglia is always testifying to the body of this death (the phrase is from Bill Haver: Puglia’s “Telegrams” is in fact a long meditation on his tormented struggle with this body). Of course, there is no witness for such testimony (as Puglia reminds us by taking Celan’s title, Aschenglorie, as one of his own), no legitimation for it. And this is part of what makes the testimony ethical. But there would be no “history” if there were not the trace of this body‑there would be only abstraction. The sign without meaning is not abstract; its opacity derives from the fact that it is a trace of the moment and the materiality that is lost to it. In re‑marking this trace, Puglia calls us to the real grounds of community as given by language.
Meditating on observances of Kristalnacht and on displays of the AIDS Quilt, Bill Haver has argued that the recitation of proper names in these ceremonies is a recitation of anonyms that lends not to identification (in sympathy or empathy) but to a knowledge of community based on the substitutability of “whatever” singularity. Of course, these instances of mourning the stranger engage other and more immediate (though not unrelated) experiences of our finitude. And we must not forget that Puglia’s exhibition is offered as art and is partially about representation in figural equivalents of such anonyms. But are we not called to a similar relationality by his gestures of commemorating “the unsaved, the unidentified”? If we glimpse what Puglia has exposed of the conditions of recognition, we will grasp the ethics of this gesture and know what these acts of anamnesis offer and require in their unforgettable presence.

Christopher Fynsk

Nicoletta Cardano, A futura memoria …., 1995

Ferro e vetro sono i materiali che Salvatore Puglia usa per racchiudere e delimitare le sue immagini pittoriche.
Cornici in ferro e, nel suo lavoro precedente in piombo, con vetri che contengono -quasi come un reliquiario, é stato già osservato, un reliquiario laico e domestico- materiali modesti che sottolineano a volte la labilità delle immagini: fotografie, fotocopie su carta e su acetato, radiografie, elementi di colore ottenuti con pigmenti o gelatine.
Il vetro non serve soltanto a racchiudere, ma spesso integra in un gioco di sovrapposizioni l’immagine, ricoprendola con la trasparenza di segni incisi sulla stessa superficie, formulazioni di un testo scritto. E’ l’ultimo -o il primo- di una serie di fogli sparsi, proposti alla nostra attenzione dall’artista, e da lui raccolti nella dispersione che ci e’ intorno; da noi leggibili secondo sequenze diverse, altre sovrapposizioni, o anche uno ad uno, leggibili come scrittura e come immagini, come suggerimenti di segni.
Il ferro poi non e’ limitato alla sola cornice ma diventa elemento costitutivo di un supporto che permette all’immagine di ruotare sulla parete fino a raggiungere la giusta inclinazione, fino a consentire grazie ad una apposita illuminazione lo sconfinamento sul muro, la proiezione della sua ombra ingrandita e/o deformata.
Il lavoro di Salvatore Puglia si muove sul terreno della memoria, terreno di particolare complessità indagato e penetrato dalla cultura del Novecento. Gli approfondimenti da lui suggeriti sono di notevole interesse in un momento in cui il progresso tecnologico e le innovazioni dell’elettronica permettono di classificare ogni forma di ricordo del passato, di archiviare sin nei dettagli storie personali e collettive. Oscilliamo così tra l’onnipotenza di chi tutto sembra possedere in un’ordinata e irreversibile sistematizzazione delle cose, e l’angoscia della conservazione.
Conservare tutto ciò che appartiene al passato, nella consapevolezza che i segni della nostra storia non sono sempre evidenti e manifesti. Conservare e trasmettere la conoscenza del nostro passato con la consapevolezza che i supporti su cui trasferiamo il nostro sapere, su cui archiviamo dati, notizie e immagini, hanno comunque vita limitata, sono in continua evoluzione e destinati a deperire rapidamente o comunque ad essere sostituiti in breve tempo. All’estensione del concetto di memoria, e al conseguente sconfinato allargamento delle ‘capacita’ di gestione del patrimonio del passato, corrisponde il timore dell’alterabilità della memoria, il terrore dell’annientamento, della sparizione nell’oblio.
Ossessionati dal non poter/dover dimenticare, siamo per altri versi inondati da una serie di banalità sulla memoria, consumata come argomento di discorsi convenzionali, trito rimescolamento di ben altre intuizioni e percorsi, e risucchiata nel generale appiattimento del nostro vivere odierno. Accade così spesso che il nostro passato più recente sia letto sotto la lente nostalgica del ricordo, divenendo oggetto di superficiali e nostalgiche rivisitazioni, offrendosi per insulsi remake.
Drammaticamente contraddittorio poi l’imperativo etico del “non dimenticare”, riferito agli orrori perpetrati nel nostro passato più recente, quando si assiste impotenti allo svolgersi quotidiano di eventi pari per atrocità e ferocia, ineguali forse solo per quantità ed estensione. Sembra dilagare nella nostra società un diffuso “disturbo di evocazione”, una morbosa patologia che non consente di riportare alla coscienza le esperienze memorizzate. Soltanto la nostra personale e totale adesione ai valori umani compromessi nel passato ci permette di avere.ancora fiducia nelle possibilità di trasmissione di quel patrimonio pregresso di tragiche esperienze, tenendo sempre vivo il ricordo così che sia ancora possibile offrire, nella negazione dell’ orrore, generazione dopo generazione un contributo all’opera comune, e in tal modo farla progredire.
L’operazione artistica di Salvatore Puglia ci mette innanzitutto in contatto con una serie di segni sparsi della memoria, foto, documenti, frammenti di scrittura. La sua frequentazione di studi storici, la consuetudine con gli archivi, una naturale attrazione per il dato materiale, per la storia espressa nella sua forma più frammentaria e marginale lo porta a selezionare un insieme di dati, a correlare tra loro frammenti diversi, scritture di segni. Una vivace curiosità intellettuale, contagiosa e dilagante, propria del suo modo d’essere assieme ad una inquietudine tipicamente novecentesca di continua messa in discussione, di continuo ribaltamento di tutto ciò che è ancora in via di acquisizione, lo ha portato da sempre a percorrere molteplici itinerari personali e culturali, secondo un andamento puntiforme, in cui si può ritrovare, e la sua pittura lo dimostra, la continuità della ricerca.
Ogni elemento visivo dei suoi oggetti artistici, ogni frammento, è frutto di un percorso, di uno studio mosso da una irrequieta sollecitudine di approfondimento. Nella fase iniziale, quando la sua memoria personale sembrava essersi quasi saturata di tracce e impronte del passato ritenute durante un rapporto di studio con il dato d’archivio, Salvatore Puglia lavorava a superfici monocrome, tele di grandi dimensioni prive di telaio, in cui comparivano, come sulla superficie di un muro dipinto, grafemi, brani di scrittura, segni elementari secondo una ricerca influenzata dai rapporti tra segno, linguaggio e pittura indagati da Novelli e Twombly. Era già evidente una grande attenzione al dato materiale nell’individuazione di tecniche, supporti e procedimenti di manipolazione con una predilezione per la densità e la corposità della materia. E’ questa una costante nel lavoro di Puglia, caratterizzato anche da una certa ingegnosità manuale nel combinare tecniche e materiali per le sue creazioni. Successivamente la scrittura e’ stata affiancata da reperti di vario genere, parti di pagine, stampe, fotografie. Già in questo primo periodo Puglia giungeva alla formulazione di un suo linguaggio con alcune figure ‑ il “mamozio”, il geco ‑generate dall’affinamento delle sperimentazioni segniche e dall’approfondimento sulle strutture elementari del linguaggio. Si delinea progressivamente una personale genealogia di figure archetipe, suggerita dall’indagine insieme dotta e fantastica dei miti del patrimonio popolare e antropologico della cultura mediterranea.
Aschenglorie (presentato a Roma nel 1993 nella mostra che ha inaugurato l’ attività espositiva de Lo Studio) appartiene ad una nuova fase di ricerca. “Si mostra -ci avverte Puglia- quello che resta per dire quello e’ perduto”. Dopo l’interesse per la scrittura Puglia arriva ad un “catalogo di cose perdute”, realizza una propria sala del museo, di novelliana memoria, riportando in una sorta di gioco ironico i frammenti sparsi dell’ archivio del mondo. La presentazione dei segni, il sistema dei frammenti viene organizzato al di fuori dello spazio propriamente pittorico della tela, con una serie di quadri con cornici di piombo montati gli uni accanto agli altri in modo da definire un tutto unico, una sorta di “vetrata” con schegge o brandelli di segni, un insolito casellario che invece di ordinare e tenere distinti i pezzi diventa lo spazio di una mappa mutante, con infinite possibilità di percorso. All’interno dei quadri la sovrapposizione di pezzi e materiali: scritture, immagini riprodotte su carta o fotocopiate su acetato, segni di inchiostro appaiono e si celano, si mostrano nella loro identità di parti decontestualizzate confondendosi al tempo stesso nel gioco di frammistione di segni. Alla esigenza di concretezza materica si oppone, quasi un ossimoro, il gioco delle trasparenze, il sovrammettere lasciando intravedere quel che si modifica, il penetrare in profondità lo spessore opaco della materia stessa. E’ di questo momento della ricerca la comparsa, nella varietà infinita di documenti, anche delle radiografie.
In questi ultimi lavori qui presentati, dopo le recenti esposizioni di Strasburgo e New York, Salvatore Puglia approfondisce il senso della sua operazione nell’ambito della distinzione memoria/ricordo. E’ essenzialmente la fotografia ad interessare la sua ricerca, com’e’ naturale per un mezzo di conoscenza che e’ diventato immagine della storia, scrittura della storia, conoscenza esso stesso. La fotografia con la sua pretesa di una oggettività più o meno fredda evoca l’ immagine di ciò che non e’ più, ci restituisce nient’altro che fantasmi, ombre, figure incerte, impenetrabili, irriconoscibili.
Come in una sorta di personale “teatro delle ombre” Salvatore Puglia riconduce a noi i fantasmi. Sceglie e ritaglia le silhouette a lui congeniali, le studia, le compone per presentarle (o proiettarle) a noi che guardiamo. La sua operazione ci aiuta a liberarci dall’affastellamento delle immagini della memoria, dal peso dell’evocazione e ci invita all’esercizio del ricordo.
I suoi oggetti artistici -le fotografie segnaletiche di Bertillon, Charcot, Lombroso frammiste a testi incisi su vetro e a segni, scritture varie su fogli di acetato, in Ũber die Schádelnerven; o ancora i relitti della storia de Les ames du purgatoire o la storia privata di Ninnananna in rosso, presentati con stesure di colore rosso bruno di gelatina e a volte affioranti da una griglia geometrica sovrapposta, sagomata come le bandierine delle segnalazioni navali- hanno la funzione di reagenti, attivano in chi guarda la possibilità di richiamare la conoscenza passata e di renderla attuale o presente, suscitano il corto circuito della coscienza tra il percorso interiore di Salvatore Puglia e i possibili imprevedibili percorsi di noi, che guardiamo ciò che lui mostra.

Staffan Bengtsson, Vanitas, Aschenglorie, 1994

The two works presented here by Salvatore Puglia -Vanitas and Aschengloire- have separate origins and were never conceived to be assembled in this way. Nevertheless, it is inviting to consider them as a constellation. The row of vertical lines of small panes joins with the grouping of squares expanding on the floor. It stands like a construction in front of you. Vanitas with its panes in leaded frames reminds you of a stained glass window. On the floor -like an aisle to the past- the 10 x 10 cm squares reappear as the basic unit for the rectangles of different sizes that make up Aschengloire. The imperceptible check pattern -like a grid at the site of an archeological excavation- seems to structure the interior organization of this work and the appearance of its representations.

The basic 10 x 10 unit inscribes the two pieces in a three-dimensional system of co-ordinates, with its obvious associations to identity and signification. The vertical movement of a construction raising upwards –Vanitas- letting in light, is set against a horizontal sinking downwards in the dark, in the past -Aschengloire. The unearthing of memory in Aschengloire as well as the mapping of experience in Vanitas are situated in a dialectic of day and night, conscious and unconscious, identity and difference, subsuming the latter under the former in the name of knowledge, truth and comprehension.

Vanitas consist of a series of x-rays of skulls double-exposured with various types of signs, symbols and notations. The glass-plates are furthermore engraved on both sides with fragments of a discontinuous text in different languages. The merging of x-rays and signs substantialize a powerful strand in modern science and thought in favour of totalization as correlation and manifestation. No ghost in the machine! But the Puglia experience draws upon its own resources. Without dismissing the discriminating reality of referentiality and intentionality, this work opens up to a tacit dimension: experience as communication.

The x-rays represent the historical endeavour, using increasingly powerful tools, to make manifest and identify human experience. On the other hand, indirectly, they also bear witness of pain, suffering, and the vulnerability of the human body invaded by unseen forces. It is true that the lead frames are a guarantee for permanence and protection, but they are simultaneously a poisonous and alterating contact. The x-ray pictures -intended to visualize the invisible- are not transparent. They do not show their own dissembling force. Upon closer inspection the windows are opaque; as if blinds were shutting out the light but letting through an incessant murmur or noise without interruption. The details of each frame with its heterogeneous sides are incompatible with a distancing and totalizing gaze from a fixed perspective that is always too near or too remote. Instead, the observer
Is drawn to and fro and around.
The project to totalize experience as correlation and manifestation seems constantly to be threatened by an excess of determination, and yet a determination that is not enough. The superposition of different signs, symbols and images displays a fragmentary and heteronymous object, contaminated by its own density.

If Vanitas can be read as an ironic allusion to the capacity and ambition of negation and intentionality to totalize human experience, then Aschengloire rings as a commemoration of a memory that escapes manifestation. In this piece it is less the punctuality of an event, than a heterogeneous entirety that resists totalization. Portraits, passports, bones, maps, buildings, landscapes, cityscapes abundantly testify to a forgotten memory. The exact fixation of each remnant is made possible by the implied grid. But the relation between the represented object and its context cannot be determined by the units themselves. Again, it is impossible to arrest the whole work in one scan. The spectator is obliged both to bend down and move around the ‘site’ in a circular movement to be able to take in the scene appropriately. The secret of the objects does not remain hidden because of the incompleteness of the finds. It is not the forgetting of a missing bone. The overdetermined and yet incomplete manifestation of this memory is necessarily a function of the interchangeability of the units and the open boundaries of the work. Instead, it is the fragmentary and repetitive urgency of a lost familiarity that insists in a dormant experience. Not the incompleteness or the malfunction of a mind or a society that has lost its memory, but blindness to a form of communication in which seeing is also touching and reading is also listening, a dimension without manifestation and power.

Staffan Bengtsson

August 1994