Letter to Paolo Parisi on Sicily, Architecture and Art (in three stages)
by Salvatore Lacagnina
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.
T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets”
When you rang and asked me to write something for you I was coming into Catania, driving past the marine arches, towards the station. You know how important the arches are in Catania? Nobody knows the street names, they all go by the bars, shops and churches, the processions and the squares, the avenues, the cinemas and the road works. Catania is explosive, fast. People in Catania don’t waste time with names, they are frenetic. Maybe it’s something to do with that long drawn out accent on the last syllable?
Since you asked me to write this text I haven’t been able to concentrate on the work in hand, I haven’t followed the healthy methodology of a reader – critic. Instead of looking for inter-textual references, reoccurring images, leading metaphors, distinguishing signs, the workings of the gaze or directions for thought, continuous images of Sicily have flashed by, fitful beatings of the heart pointing to another journey. As if that happy Mediterranean island was to be our real meeting place, the place for my words and your images. One needs a real place to trigger the imagination; a solid object for it to become productive and overcome abstraction and virtuality (as you say today). One needs a place in order to build up a point of view. Yet Sicily, so old but so static today, is an island on a journey, an island of journeys, an island of escape and return.
And so, that is why I’m writing to you on the train now. The countryside is moving fast, but not too fast, like a quick moving image slowed down. I’m coming back from Venice to Milan. The XI Architecture Biennale opened a few days ago and there have been a lot of conferences, debates and presentations.
The Swiss architect, Marc Angelil, talked about study workshops in Addis Abeba and the casual development of urban agglomerations; the uncontrolled growth of the city and the way in which every kind of building has been appropriated, like the enormous abandoned containers in the port. At the end the architect showed a graph that summarized the possibilities of developing a socially sustainable system. It is admirable that an architect is so committed to social sustainability when thinking about the third world in the third millennium.
I’m telling you this because while I was listening, I thought about your house and your smallest unit of sense, your machine for seeing and hearing; that small, almost ancestral construction. I realized that any commitment to postcolonial theories is really quite absurd. They seem to me so hypocritical, so racist and products of a catholic culture made of blame and forgiveness. Having been born in Sicily, I’m sure you might share my irritation with the kind of attitude that denies the possibility of any real empathy or understanding. Perhaps that is partly why you built your house, a place where you can choose whether to see or not to see, whether to listen or not to listen?
Maybe it is a way of keeping curiosity alive, so that we are not reduced to taking on the stance of “the rich man, who travels in order to see how the poor man lives”. With the help of a few friends this same curiosity keeps the only space managed by artists in Italy running. Or is it that in your pictures you are waiting for the moment in which your certainties are thrown into doubt?
Western hypocrisy continues to attribute to the value of art (or architecture) the simple task of analyzing a sociological (not social) problem; a problem appears to be worthy of interest and then turns out to be predictably fashionable. Beuys was talking about the environment forty years ago, and now architects are filling my eyes and head with theoretical studies when what I want is practical solutions, intellectual efforts that pose problems, offer meaningful possibilities and take the community into account, rather than privileging individual narcissism.
They’re always in time to save the world; they write about it, theorize it, declare it, but then they’re all ready to build yet another useless skyscraper that satisfies their egos and wallets. As Ettore Sottass said though, a pacifist film is not simply the umpteenth film on the horrors of the war.
The autonomy of art justified the poetic greatness of Ezra Pound for example, but it can no longer justify the poetic poverty of our architects, artists, politicians, writers and so on. And so, I say to myself, now is the time to be consistent, to go back to looking at the effects that our actions, images and words produce (I’ll send you a really interesting text on this argument by a Polish artist I think you would be interested in, Artur Zmijewski).
When I first saw your cardboard house – observatory, hollowed out like a cave, built layer upon layer, solid but so fragile, easy to carry but heavy, through its windows you could see your pictures on the walls. The alchemy between architecture – intended as the construction of a space, the art of building of the ancient tribes, layer upon layer – sculpture – the observatory is a sculpture, isn’t it?, a sculpture without a pedestal – and painting – like your pictures that time. You were paying homage to art; to it’s essential structure, its minimal alphabet, a clear statement about the centrality of the image, capable of triggering prospects and thought processes. The image is already so strong in Italian culture. Our visual vocabulary, just as our language, was born into the world of art before becoming part of daily life. This is such an extraordinarily unique fact that it has always represented a huge issue for artists, an obsession that it is not easy, and maybe not even necessary, to free oneself from.
Those industrial tubes, red, blue, green and orange, inserted in the house when I saw it again, amplified the sensory range of the communication between inside and outside. Painting is quoted through the simple use of colour; it has come out of its canvas and has stuck to the world-house. Was it an attempt to escape from the “anxiety of the image”, escape the unrelenting frame? But is not a window or a peep hole still a frame, a point of view?
You can observe the outside from the inside, you can even talk to it. Today it’s called interactive or multisensory, as if it were a modern invention. But it’s the house again, metaphor for I and We, metaphor for a possible human condition, a hypothesis for a new community that offers to I and We still further possibilities for coexistence.
Even that wasn’t enough for you. It was that so very fragile relationship between the self and the world that needed depth and volatility, which at the same time means an infinity of nuances, infinite possible explosions.
Somewhere in this book there will certainly be a description of your work, a critical, internal, linear or emotional account. I am sure of this, even though I don’t know what the book will be like. For a while now I often find myself part of processes whose content I perceive unconsciously first and later voluntarily. All I need is a foothold. It isn’t egotism, it is the wish to have faith in the work of others, a hard felt attempt to acquire a sense of solidarity, to fight against the sense of unsatisfied, negative energy that surrounds us. And then again it is a way of overcoming the fear of the uselessness of our work.
At Siracusa we rebuilt your house-observatory and at last we released the underground vestiges of the volcano, I really did see the formidable, “Montalian” room from Notizie dall’Amiata (I quote Montale to you as if we were spoiling ourselves): “e ti scrivo di qui, da questo tavolo / remoto, dalla cellula di miele / di una sfera lanciata nello spazio” (“ and yet I write to you here, from such a distant / table, from the cell of a honey comb / a globe launched into space”). For me your Observatorium is a political work, an intimate work, a work that goes beyond all this dull, Twentieth Century dualism. There’ll be a chance to talk about it again. From your Observatorium I would have written a more precise, more solid letter, I would have followed your point of view and interweaved it with my own.
But this train is not a honey comb, nor has it been launched into space.
See you soon,
P.S. Some people have slept in your house, some have just rested, some have played and some have hidden there, some have talked and someone, so I have been told, has travelled.
This letter was written while travelling between Venice, Milan and Rome on the 15th September 2008
© 2008, Salvatore Lacagnina, in “Paolo Parisi. Observatorium (Museum)”, Center for Contemporary Art Luigi Pecci, Prato