How to do things with words. The MUSEUM of Paolo Parisi
In 1955, in the halls of Harvard, the philosopher and linguist John L Austin held a series of 12 lessons entitled How to do things with words, in which he introduced the concept of action into linguistic theory. According to Austin, language isn’t simply used to describe the world: everything we say, in reality, is also an action, in the sense that we complete a series of actions and produce a series of effects that go beyond the limits of a simple linguistic act. Austin was among the first to demonstrate the performance capacity of language. According to his theories, signs can produce reality, that is, we can do things with words.
The capacity of words and language to go beyond their simple indicative function and encroach on the world seems to be the key to reading much of the artistic and literary experimentation of the 20th century. The word, represented, narrated, shouted, but also negated and cancelled, travels through the entire brief century, from the historic avant-gardes to contemporary art, emerging from the confines of the written page and coming face to face with reality. The relationship between image and word becomes an experimental field that interests the poets as much as the artists.
The former seek new modes of expression and approaches to the visual, trying to free themselves from the horizontality of writing and from lyrical tradition, playing with typographic tools. The second – from Futurism to Dadaism, from Surrealism to Fluxus to Visual Poetry (of which Florence was an illustrious protagonist) or Environmental Art – begin to consider language as a visual material, with its own conceptual and physical depth. Thus, there is a convergence of writing and representation. The word overcomes the limit of its abstraction, becomes tactile, becomes sculpture and allows itself to be admired.
Paolo Parisi’s installation MUSEO, created in collaboration with the students of the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, and placed on the Renaissance façade of the Museo Novecento is, in this sense, a homage to the last century and to all of its verbo-visual experimentation.
In 1912, at the same time as the first assemblages of Picasso and Braque, in which the written word begins to emerge, the Futurists published their Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature, where they invoked the abolition of traditional syntax, the autonomy of words and their free placement on the page (elements that would also be found in Cubist editing and Dadaist research). The canvases are filled with painted words, but also with pieces of newspaper, typefaces and photocollages. The very birth of Futurism was given over to the verb and was announced by the pages of «Le Figaro» in 1909 with the publication of the first futurist manifesto.
Over the years the word, independent of its semantic value, took further form, halfway between the figure, the icon and the letter of the alphabet, and found a place within Dadaist slogans and in Surrealist paintings, and amongst the experiments of the Russian avant-gardes. The book and the magazine became instruments in the hands of the artists, just like canvases and brushes. Over time the examples multiplied and the more revolutionary and subversive aspects, which were typical of the early avant-gardes, left space for a rediscovery of the political, social, communicative and commutative value of language. In Duchamp’s works the play on words helped to semantically define the “ready-made” and appeared in the form of inscriptions placed directly on the objects. In the 1950s and 1960s, while referring to Concrete Poetry, for the artists of Conceptual and Process Art, the word was a basic element of artistic production and played a fundamental role, both with the use of written instructions to be followed and in oral form. The texts invaded galleries, museums and art spaces. Typewriters, printers, dictionaries all became instruments of the creation of a dematerialised art that focuses on the idea. Shortly afterwards, Pop artists and Visual Poets looked at mass media and its linguistic tools – the consummate iconography of advertising and its slogans – with a spirit of protest, playing with the free association of images and texts in their works. Especially for Visual Poets, Florentine and non, poetry could influence reality, sending political and social messages. The contemporary world was full of artistic experiences that continued to draw on language as a material to be modelled, from Narrative Art that made use of the written word, to large environmental installations that played on the relationship between space, architecture and language: from Christian Boltanski to Sophie Calle, from Bruce Nauman to Jenny Holzer, to name only a few.
Paolo Parisi’s MUSEO comes together in the wake of this tradition and once again transforms the word into an object with aesthetic value, like an image, of a pictorial or sculptural work. Parisi has taken samples from a dictionary of potentially infinite letters, styles and forms, creating a tribute to the last century. Each letter of his MUSEO in fact traces in character and style, a verbal emblem that has been extrapolated from the work of either another artist or another movement of the 20th century. In a play of association – historical-artistic, graphic and aesthetic – in which the leitmotiv seems to be Florence, the first letter, the M, comes from a collage by Luciano Ori, Tutto il meglio (All the best), from 1965 (Carlo Palli collection); the letter U from the frontispiece of the magazine «Firenze Futurista» from 1921 (year I, num. 2); the S from the work, in this case almost tautological, of Giuseppe Chiari Art is to say from 1964 (also in the Palli collection); the E from a canvas by Corrado Cagli of 1952, At the foot of Parnassus (Baloyannis), and finally the O from the work of Paolo Scheggi Inter-Ena Cubo from 1969.
Parisi’s installation is not only a denotive symbol, but also a connotative one, and last but not least, it is a tribute to the word MUSEO (MUSEUM) – the house of muses – with all the atmosphere that this definition brings, and a key to understanding the poetics and the works of many 20th century artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Broodthaers, Giulio Paolini and many others.
© 2019 The author, Carlo Cambi Publisher, Museo Novecento, Florence. Sergio Risaliti, curated by, Paolo Parisi, MUSEO, with texts by Sergio Risaliti, Giacinto Di Pietrantonio, Helga Marsala, Marco Senaldi, Paolo Parisi, Stefania Rispoli, Poggibonsi, 2019.