The Emperor’s Old Clothes

Hamza Walker, 1997

The twentieth century has certainly paid its dues art historically. In all likelihood, this century will be remembered as having been stricken with manifesto mania. One of the blessings of historical hindsight, however, is its ability to compress a series of oscillating revolts into a smoother, broader, more comprehensible, causal scope. With respect to reconciling the journey from cubism to conceptual art, this hindsight is indispensable in describing how art became less accountable to the representation of reality and more accountable to the representation of ideas. But the problem with ideas is that they are invisible. They are formed behind the eyes and one is left to speculate what an idea actually looks like. To ask what an idea looks like is to question whether it can exist independent of its representation. While in theory, this dilemma belongs to philosophy, in practice, an inquiry into the form we give to thought, belongs to artists. Born in Borgofranco d’Ivrea, a town just outside of Turin, Italy, in 1934, Giovanni Anselmo hails from a generation of artists preoccupied with the relationship between ideas and their representation. Although his work often takes the form of sculpture, Anselmo’s true medium is thought.

Toward this end, Anselmo has placed a large portion of The Society’s gallery at the service of contemplation. Although his installation is sparse, its elements represent a vocabulary that has evolved over three decades. The shopping list of materials for Anselmo’s exhibition reads: one head of lettuce, two blocks of granite, a compass, 80 lbs of dirt, some blue paint (ultramarine), three slide projectors, and two words - invisible and particolare, both of which are projected within a focal range of roughly three feet from the two projectors facing the entrance. Some of the elements in the installation made their appearance as recently as 1994 while others date as far back as 1968. Even if they are not considered separately, the various elements of the installation - the paint, the earth, the projectors, the blocks of stone, the use of text — appear disparate, the sign of an artistic restlessness. But Anselmo’s restlessness is the product of an integrity to the initial tenets of conceptual art which maintained that a work of art should be at the service of ideas regardless of the discipline or whether the work takes the form of a performance, a discreet object or a temporary site-specific installation.

The exhibition’s title, Lungo il Sentiero Verso Oltremare, which translates as “Along the Path Towards Beyond the Sea,” would lead one to believe that its components are to be read as a metaphor, a figure of speech that involves substituting one idea or object for another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them. But in a metaphor there is no real relationship between the ideas or objects being substituted. For example, in the sentence, John felt out of place like a fish out of water, there is no relationship between John and the fish. It is their conditions which are being likened by means of a figure of speech. Anselmo’s practice as a conceptual artist, however, dictates that the components be read more as poetic metonym. A metonym is a substitution in which there is a relationship of attributes or association between the ideas or objects being equated. For example, the way in which a leader is equated with his country or the more basic metonyms in which a part of something can be taken for the whole; a car for traffic, a soldier for the troops, or an unexpected drop of water for rain. Needless to say, these two forms of representation produce very different results. For Anselmo, conceptual art is a literal art, a transparent art. The relationship of the components in Anselmo’s exhibition to the ideas they represent is not abstract as it would be if it were metaphorical. The relationship of the components to the ideas is metonymic, one of direct attribution in which the parts signify the whole. Dirt and stone are the earth, the lettuce is a fragile form of life, and the needle of the compass is being acted upon by a force which is present.

Anselmo’s relationship to conceptual art comes by way of his association with a movement known as Arte Povera, one of the key developments in European conceptual art. “What has happened is that the commonplace has entered the sphere of art.” This statement was made in 1967 by Germano Celant, the curator and critic who first used the name Arte Povera in reference to a group of artists that in addition to Anselmo included a couple dozen others, the most famous of which are Mario & Marisa Merz, Jannis Kounellis, Luciano Fabro, Giuseppe Penone, Alighiero Boetti, and Michelangelo Pistolleto. Arte Povera translates as “poor art,” and at face value, Povera refers to these artists’ use of everyday materials. The use of such materials, however, extends back to Duchamp’s ready-mades, which made their debut in 1917. In his three essays on Arte Povera written in 1967 and 1968, Celant appears to have been bent on reading the movement in an ahistorical manner. Although his arguments regarding Arte Povera’s anti-establishment posture read as dated rhetoric, his understanding of the philosophical significance behind the movement’s formal aesthetic remains extremely relevant to a discussion of conceptual art in general and is central to a discussion of Anselmo’s work in particular.

“Given that telepathy is not yet an established system of communication, everything hinges on constructing the imagined idea.” This statement, also made by Celant in 1967, represents his efforts to ALIGN Arte Povera with conceptual art. Celant, however, did this at a material rather than a linguistic level. This is in contrast to artists such as Sol LeWitt who in that same year stated, “materials are the greatest affliction to contemporary art.” For the most part, the differences shared by LeWitt and Celant regarding conceptual art are few, particularly in light of the fact that both sought to dismantle the notion of distinct genres in art in favor of an art that was strictly at the service of ideas. But despite their shared interested in an art that was indistinguishable from idea, it was in their method of approach toward making art more true to an idea that their views diverged. Arte Povera was not simply a poor art; it was also a pure art. For Arte Povera, purity of ideas was not preserved in language or adherence to a set of instructions but was maintained through greater integrity to materials. Representation was not to be imposed upon materials, materials were allowed to present themselves. This is what Celant meant when he described Arte Povera as an art of “pure presentation,” or later when he stated, “Physical presence dissimulates itself and makes its importance known merely by being.”

But the distinction, between things being present as opposed to things representing, or things being represented, is of the utmost importance when brought to bear upon the realm of the idea. Since ideas do not have form, their purest state is often thought to be language. But language is a form of representation, not presentation. It functions in something’s absence, when the thing itself is not present. The transparency of language, however, should not be mistaken for purity of idea. Ideas can only achieve “pure presence” as material entities that manifest themselves before us. Anselmo’s slabs of stone, mounds of earth, beams of light, and blue paint do not represent or refer to anything other than themselves. His materials are not synonymous with an idea. They are the idea. The self-referentiality of materials, however, should not be mistaken for the absence of narrative or poetry. If anything, Arte Povera distinguishes itself as the most poignant of all minimal and conceptual art movements and Anselmo is no exception.

When left to fester in the imagination, concepts such as space, place, time and being take on dimensions so large that they are no longer of this world. Anselmo’s work, however, insists that these concepts depend on this world because these concepts are this world. Space for Anselmo means this Particolare space with its neo-gothic ceiling, 29 windows, four turrets, three doors, two offices and one entrance. To approach or avoid the two shining lights which either beckon like stars or startle like headlights is to choose a path. To come towards them is to follow the northern star, a fate similar to the needle of a compass. Energy is the word Anselmo uses most frequently when describing his work. Whether the gesture is grand, such as hanging large chunks of rough hewn granite from a gallery’s columns or as simple as incorporating a compass into one of his works, Anselmo is exploiting the invisible yet ever present magnetic and gravitational forces of the earth. On your journey toward the light is a head of lettuce wedged between two pieces of granite, held together with copper wire. This rather unpoetic description stands in stark contrast to the visceral response solicited upon viewing the work. Words fail and as language is suspended, one is brought to a literal, as opposed to a literary, understanding of the work. To characterize this appropriately untitled work as “pure poetry” is perhaps the only way to do it justice. The cycle of life; being as caring; the inevitability of death; from salad days to old cold stone — these ideas are not being represented in this untitled work, they are being played out with a daily changing of the greens.

But the failure of language is not to say that Anselmo avoids the use of text or language in his work. For him, the challenge is to find a way of making language concrete. Lungo il Sentiero Verso Oltremare, (Along the Path Towards Beyond the Sea) could also be translated as Along the Path Towards Ultramarine in which case Anselmo has managed to be literally literal. He chose the color because of its name, out of a curiosity to see what “Beyond the Sea,” a literal translation of Oltremare, looked like. But it is the two projector works, Invisible and Particolare, that most successfully render language real. Both images are written in light that reveals and clarifies whatever comes into the scope of projection. Particolare, functions like an index finger, it points, it specifies, it distinguishes, as if to say this not that or that not this. When considered together, the two projectors casting particolare establish a discreet place similar to a map’s red dot declaring YOU ARE HERE. The use of light also functions in relationship to the meaning of the words themselves. To take the word invisible at face value, Anselmo painted directly on the slide, over the in portion of the word. The invisible remains just that and all we are left with is the visible. As Anselmo is quick to point out, “It is only through the visible that we can understand the invisible.”

It has been three decades since minimalist and conceptualist practices were at the forefront of the visual arts. Integrity to such rigorous practices, ones which Anselmo declared a “degree zero,” is hard to find. Anselmo and his contemporaries understood that there were consequences to purging the re from presentation. For Arte Povera artists, conceptual art was not the dematerialization of art, but the rematerialization of art with life. But our familiarity with the consequences of this gesture is not to say that conceptual art has become obsolete. Instead, it has become part of the grand wardrobe of art history. Given the advent of the information age, there is certainly more need for spaces given over to contemplating the how, why and where of things. While bringing the distant provinces of the imagination seemingly within reach, television, phones, faxes, and the worldwide web have frayed the edges of here and now. That much more to know also means that much more to forget. Never has the difference between responding and reflecting been so pronounced. If art has forsaken representation in favor of presentation it is because reality has become more elusive. Inviting it to gently and poetically fill the gallery could come as a refreshing surprise if not a shock, still making relevant what were once the emperor’s new clothes.