Roberta Mazzola


If there is something that might be useful to describe the present relations between art and photography, it is the unreleased tension that has been formed between the two by the photography of artworks (Walter Benjamin, Piccola storia della fotografia).

If we approach the painting of Felice Varini with the aim of describing it, in its fundamental components, the most productive concepts - in particular those of "vantage point", "focus" and "framing" - all closely related to the vocabulary of photography. If we begin with the device Varini employs in each of his artworks, the differences between painting and photography are, effectively, reduced to a minimum. The artist's work, concentrating on the problem of falsehood of images in relation to the truth of perception, makes use of photography, going so far as to equate it with painting in the strategies of constitution and unmasking of iconic status. The roots of photography - the "machine à dessiner" and the camera obscura - closely connect it to the tools of the painter. Photography demonstrates the functioning of perspective as a construct based on the fixed gaze and monocular vision, thus radicalizing the theme of painting as illusion: "in the window and in the photograph the framed world seems to inscribe and represent itself in an immediate manner" (1). In Réversible, made in 1986 at the Musée d'art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, photographic reproduction is placed in relation to painted reproduction, visualizing the portion of space covered by a panel which is also the surface for the painted image, i.e. of the design of the concealed architecture. As Johannes Meinhardt has remarked in his essay on the artist, from the end of the 1970s to the present, "the basic principle consists in juxtaposing two incompatible modes of perception or interpretation, stimulated by the arrangement in space of paintings or photographs, and at the same time in the demonstration that both these modes are merely different visual effects, depending upon the viewpoint of the observer" (2). In the shift between viewing the figurative plane and the space always seen only partially in the minimalist, interpretation involving the painted marking of architectural elements, Varini confronts the relations between aesthetic reality and perceived reality, with all the difficulties involved, relations that were central to the interests of the artists of the early Renaissance, are particularly important in contemporary art, in keeping with an analytical and phenomenological approach focused on perception. In particular, the experience of a doubling generated by the movements of the observer between a purely visual, aesthetic plane and a material plane that no longer subordinates itself to image, brings the device employed by the artist closer to certain strategies found in the field of analytical painting influenced by Minimal Art (3).

Another aspect considered by Meinhardt is that of the inscription of the pictorial form by means of light. Varini utilizes light projection of a drawing in space, which is then "pictorially" retraced, like a copy, a print of a slide, reversing the illusionistic import of the projection and giving space the role of a "screen", a place where a certain visibility is offered. The invisibility of the support makes it possible to again bring photography closer to the model of painted imagery: "photographic film is also a transparent surface of this type, though it objectively retains traces of the inscription made by energy " (4). On this topic Adachiara Zevi has written that the artist acts like a painter in three-dimensional space that violates the spatial essence of the architecture to which the painting is anchored, causing a reversal of the perspective logic through reduction of the space to its two-dimensional image. But, "as in an anamorphosis that is deformed and becomes unrecognizable with distancing of the fixed viewpoint, so in a work by Varini a minimum shift in focus reveals fragmented, discontinuous images, conforming to the enclosure, respecting the quality of the space" (5). In this reversal of three-dimensionality and two-dimensionality, the artist gives up the convenient plane of the painting to come to grips, like the photography, with the rebellious and heterogeneous three-dimensional material of reality. Inevitably the question of the "affinities" between painting and photography leads to a movement of attention away from single media to a general, implicit model of artistic activity, bringing out as Claudio Marra suggests one of the key questions of the entire 20th century, with its focus on "the painting, on the one hand, and everything else on the other" (6). "As it is no longer the sole means of reproduction - Pierre Francastel has written, on the mutual influences of the two media - painting has increasingly turned to analysis of processes of perception" (7). The "maieutic" role played by photography is also mentioned by Meinhardt in relation to the breakdown of the absolute hegemony of projective consciousness: with its appearance, the causal nature of the inscription is turned upside-down, and "doubt is cast regarding the dominion of the gaze over space and objects" (8).
We should not overlook the function of photography, for Varini, as a document, undoubtedly a partial, illusory one, but capable of being available even after the event it documents is over. Collaboration with photographers allows the images of the artist's work to circulate, through publications. These are souvenir photos, as Daniel Buren would say, bearing witness to the appearance of the work in a given situation. These photos, especially in the case of temporary works, are comparable to other forms of certification that establish the coordinates for possible implementation in other contexts: "certificates, titles, technical explanations, diagrams and schemes on the installation constitute - writes Maddalena Disch - a whole series of secondary products and devices that accompany the work, elements unknown until a few decades ago in the field of study, documentation and conservation of artworks. The site-specific work, which makes the time and the place of its display part of its very reason for being, also involves this type of discourse, related to the status and the existence of the work" (9). To capture the three circle fragments freely floating in the space of the view of Bellinzona and its vicinity, the observer has to find the correct vantage point, looking toward Castelgrande, amidst the crenellations of the Castle of Montebello (10 ). This is the point from which the artist projected his drawing, the tracing already familiar to the observer thanks to the surfaces in red, accidental, without any apparent coordination, that have marked the city and its buildings in a signifying but arbitrary manner for several months, to celebrate the inclusion of the castles and the walls in the list of Unesco heritage sites. Just one moment earlier the image of the three arcs of the circle seemed divided on different planes, ready to spread out and dissipate in the changing space of our everyday movements; only from this immobilizing "window" can the resemblance of color of the fragments, the continuity of direction of the lines and the "good form" of the circle contribute to put things into focus, moving toward a necessary, overwhelmingly evident solution.

The experience of a constellation of painted surfaces positioned for no apparent reason, dissonant with one another, that suddenly converge in an image plane and a defined geometric figure is central to the project entitled Signs. For Varini this represents another possibility to investigate vision and, with it, painting. With Maurice Merleau-Ponty, we know that "from Lascaux to our time, from whatever civilization, faith, motivation or thought it springs, surrounded by whatever ceremony, pure or impure, figurative or not, painting, even when it appears to be made for other purposes, celebrates no other enigma than that of visibility" (11). The painterly device staged conserves certain premises of the artifice of perspective, calling for an external observer, immobile in front of the image plane. But at the same time it also confirms our participation in the sense of what is manifested, through movements in the given space, and in this diversity of viewpoints: "in short, I'd say one viewpoint, a hundred thousand viewpoints", says the artist, with reference to a viewpoint that is above all strategic and pragmatic, as the place of conditions of visibility of one corner of the world (12). In a phenomenological perspective, perception is not simply the mirror image of things, but an active, forging vision, a process, because "the world is made of the same stuff as the body" and "vision is suspended from movement" (13). Therefore we are not only dealing with given space (the existing architectural context) or represented space (through the iconic illusion of a "figurative plane" perpendicular to the visual axis of the viewer), but with the very capacity to explore the spatial as an experience of perception, in the "here and now" of the event, through the active participation of the spectator (14).

How does space make itself visible to someone in a given context, from a particular vantage point? In the latest work by Felice Varini the questions that lead to the manifestation of the work, its occurrence and appearance to the viewer, remain the same. The situation in which the artist has worked, however, is quite unusual, and in a certain sense this is therefore an "extreme" case. The exceptional character of the situation is due to the great distances involved and the variety of the surfaces to be concretely marked, in an extreme test of techniques of projection and realization of the image, composed of monochromatic strips that can be fastened to different surfaces. This is fundamentally an "extreme" work also because of the urban dimension involved, which shifts the emphasis to the perception of individual fragments, the partial view, in the spatial dilation and temporal discontinuity of the perception experience. Another contributing factor is the nature of the image the place has suggested to the artist, because this time the image does not match a completed pictorial gestalt, a simple, geometric figure like those we are accustomed to seeing. Even from the "correct" vantage point the image maintains its multi-centered, fragmentary character, completed by induction on the part of the observer. The center of the image is composed of a geometric void and the interruptions in the bordering line give the three circles a virtual aspect, a connotation as fragment that might suggest a relationship of similarity to the fragmented, multi-centered character of the contemporary city. We should also note that this temporary work is aimed at a vast, heterogeneous audience, which must be addressed with the right instructions and the right questions, putting the space of habit, the space of the event, of discontinuity, and the qualitative space of the possible, into circulation. The route that connects the castle to Piazza del Sole and to the street, but also to its horizons composed of the mountains and the sky, must come to terms with certain dangers, including that of indicating rather unproductive or even misleading frames of interpretation.

"While the site influences the type of intervention, the intervention, in turn, influences our perception of the site" (15). Customary perception of space is challenged by the inclusion of "pictorial" signs in the everyday city, but also by the image that presents itself to the observer when he takes aim from the favored vantage point. The figure-ground relationships are not fully ranked in hierarchical terms, and the gaze is anything but immobilized. The view of Bellinzona does not passively allow itself to be replaced by the floating image, disconnected from things. The viewer is left with a different vision of the city and its buildings. Those red signs make us see another image of the castle, reducing it to a two-dimensional design with its vectors and discontinuities, its lights and shadows generating spatial sense. And a car crossing one of the circles is sufficient to shift the gaze toward another type of segmentation. In its context, in the encounter with the observer and the place, the painted intervention aims at bringing out a precisely aesthetic dimension, inscribing, above all, "a project approach designed to not immediately reduce the world to stereotypical figures, to not transform it into pure vocabulary... seeking, instead, to cause perception of a dimension of what can be sensed, another interpretation, simultaneous impact of a setting inhabited by figuratively recognizable objects and the minimum features, motivated by perception, of those same objects" (16). In many ways the work for Castelgrande is comparable to a series of temporary artistic experiences for which photography has represented a true condition for existence. We have already discussed the modes of certification of site-specific works. More generally, at this point we can also make reference to many artistic phenomena connected to an event or characterized by an unstable situation in time and space, to emphasize a true dependence on photography as a means of immortalizing works, presenting them from different viewpoints that might also be inaccessible to direct observers, increasing the potential impact and visibility of the work. In many cases - above all in Land Art and Body Art - what is shown in an exhibition is precisely the photographic documentation of the work, and the photography relies on a spark of authenticity, an "aura" that makes it attractive. The analytical possibilities of the lens make it a precious tool in strategies of selective description, aimed at capturing, in a single fragment, the vital spirit of the work (17). In his “Small History of Photography”, Walter Benjamin defines it as a veritable "technique of reduction" that makes large-scale works of sculpture or architecture more accessible: "the effect of photographic reproduction of artworks has much greater importance for the function of art than the more or less artistic manipulation of a photograph" (18).

"Photography - Rudolf Arnheim states - springs in a primary way from the environment in which it finds itself so inextricably immersed ": "it is the absolute necessity of the pragmatic viewpoint", according to Philippe Dubois, considering the photographic act from the point of the specificity of the luminous imprint as a trace that does not correspond to the logic of other systems of representation such as painting or drawing (19). Charles Sanders Peirce informs us that photography belongs to the category of indices rather than icons, because its way of being is not only a "standing for", a simple relationship of atemporal resemblance, but is triggered by an existential relationship with things: "photographs, especially snapshots - we read in Speculative Grammar - are in certain aspects exactly equal to the objects they represent. But this resemblance is due to the fact that they were produced in such conditions that they were physically forced to correspond, point by point, to the object in nature. In this perspective, therefore, they belong to the second category of signs, those based on physical connection" (20 ). Photography can only attest to the existence of what it shows, and lends itself to the function of a "certificate of presence", according to the well-known definition of Roland Barthes (21). As an "index" it is also, at the same time, a tool of designation, and here lies its force of metonymic expansion, its "irradiating virtuality" (22).

The idea of leaving evidence of Varini's intervention through images made by four photographers - Pino Brioschi, Jordi Bernadó, André Morin and Pino Musi - calls into play the non-painted identity of photography while, at the same time, re-positing the difficult challenge photography sets for itself in its relationship with artworks. An exhibition of these photographs offers the possibility for a critical interpretation of the work, an interpretation that can "give voice" to the work in relation to its appearance in the urban context, and through the activity of the observer, in the continuous "interference of concrete, even extra-aesthetic values" (23). Connected by its genesis to the uniqueness of the situation of reference, photography brings out the close link between the work and the context, while reflecting, not in an impartial way, a concept of temporal experience of the work. The arbitrary succession of images reflects multiple vantage points and the discontinuous, contradictory nature of the perceptive and cognitive experiences involved. It becomes evident that through the specificity of the photograph the exhibition can center precisely on the possibility of contamination, the character of tension, "at the limits of the possible", which the artistic intervention at Castelgrande, due to its extreme openness to the context and the great size of the territory addressed, produces in the device that forms the basis for all the work of this artist. Pino Musi approaches Varini's project as a photographer of architecture. Avoiding the use of color, he makes use of luminous contrasts, leaps of scale and the directional potential of architectural glimpses, capturing the pictorial sign inside the rectangular photo frame as a further structuring element. The sign becomes independent of the figure that generated it, establishes relations with all the other signs that function as force lines, interacting with the shadows generated by architecture, echoing them with its geometric logic and becoming an instrument of breakdown and recomposition of spatial essence. Often a clean break or a deformed surface permits deeper study of the method of reversal of the three-dimensional into the two-dimensional, and more in general of the processes of assimilation between space and its representation. Seen up close the painted fragment and the architectural detail loom like extraneous presences, prompting the gaze to linger over the material differentiations of the surfaces, the texture variations. The work done by Varini in relation to architecture offers the photographer the possibility of heightening its image values, in keeping with a pursuit of the form and minimum connotations of expression that is not without concerns of an aesthetic order.
A photographer of the works of many artists who operate in close contact with architecture and the city, André Morin has already collaborated with Felice Varini on other projects. In his photos the painted elements occupy a minimum of space and tend to vanish in the wings composed of buildings, narrow streets and buildings of a village that just barely preserves something of its specific identity. Castelgrande, with its arbitrary markings, appears against the backdrop of a stratified city, and makes the views of Bellinzona unusual. The optical distance apparently remains that of a normal postcard, but the observer explores the photographs recognizing the clues of artistic expression in the red features, in their distance from the places of everyday life, in their lack of import with respect to the movements that take place there. Where are the places of experience of the work? What force in those apparently meaningless signs triggers the gaze to experience iconic illusion, bringing the observer closer to knowledge of the device in its inseparable duplicity? What is the relationship between the work and its audience? In the hic et nunc of the shot, in the capacity to capture that "fraction of a second in which the pace quickens" and to be open to the intrusion of chance, the unexpected, Morin shows us Varini's project in its most open, and yet at the same time most closed, dimension of interaction with the urban context and the dynamics of the city (24).

Pino Brioschi offers us a series of images closely linked to the castle, taking advantage of the opportunity to utilize unusual vantage points, moving inside and outside, approaching and retreating, observing from above and below. Bridging distances he lets us perceive, almost beyond the visible evidence, the hardness of the rock on which Castelgrande stands and, at the same time, as in the case of Musi, the capacity of the colored film to adhere to the architecture. Brioschi lives the work as a note of color, far from everyday life, a moment of collective reception, in the city he knows so well and in the dimension connected with the festive event that favors encounter, the capacity to spend time together, as happened in the past, before art got separated from every other function, before historical centers lost their capacity to be a fulcrum for social life.

We are reminded that Bellinzona is in Switzerland by the little flag in the photograph of the dwarves, recognized in the images by Jordi Bernadó that lead us to the Castle of Montebello. Approaching the vantage point selected by Varini for viewing of the configuration entitled Signs, we cross the empty streets of a place that hardly manages to avoid the globalized taste of any and every urban periphery. A photographer of suburban landscapes, Bernadó concentrates on the architectural typologies that survive in a situation of uprooting. But above all he shows us the interactions among signs - from shop names to street signage - through which the city narrates its story. The present in which the work is inserted must come to terms with these temporal instabilities and intersections that belong to the reality of the place, and to the time of the experience of the work, adapting to the urban context and assuming the observer has a motor vehicle. The design of the timing, the process of the observation are conveyed in all their subjectivity through the movements of the photographer, in the sequence of images that suggest unexpected, even digressive focal points, reminding us that every visual path is also a path of meaning. The photographer's gaze thus plays the role of attention orientation center, fundamental in the construction of a spectatorly viewpoint that lays claim to margins of autonomy and participates, with its own découpage, in the attribution of values and pertinence, through predictable configurations and legitimate "oversights" (26). Isolating little segments in the perception continuum, Bernadó takes us toward our destination, without sacrificing a lightning bolt of irony about the "voyeuristic gaze" that reduces our relationship with space mere seeing things in terms of framings, of shots. In the image that closes the sequence the vantage point of the photographer becomes a viewpoint of a viewpoint, by the place from which one can have the experience of the iconic illusion is already occupied by not one but two observers. In the friction that surfaces in the viewfinder due to these ulterior doublings photography collaborates with painting to unmask the "visual trap".

1 ) Johannes Meinhardt, La realtà dell'illusione estetica. Le "trappole visive" di Felice Varini, Lugano, Edizioni Studio Dabbeni, 1999, p. 29. The definition machine à dessiner dates back to France in the 17th century. On the forerunners of the camera, see: Heinrich Schwarz, Arte e fotografia, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 1991.
2) Johannes Meinhardt, op.cit., p.13.
3) For comparison of the work of Varini with that of other artists in the sphere of European postminimalist painting, apart from the essay by Meinhardt readers can turn to the lecture given by Maddalena Disch at the Architecture Academy of Mendrisio on 27 November 1999: Maddalena Disch, "Felice Varini", Temporale , 50-51, 2000, p.16-22.
4) Johannes Meinhardt, op.cit., p.109.
5) Adachiara Zevi, "Felice Varini: artificio antiprospettico", L'architettura , 427, 1991, p.476.
6) Claudio Marra, Le idee della fotografia. La riflessione teorica dagli anni Sessanta a oggi, Milano, Mondadori, 2001, p.185. The book contains an anthology of critical texts on the relationships between photography and other visual arts.
7) Pierre Francastel, Lo spazio figurativo dal rinascimento al cubismo , Torino, Einaudi, 1957, p.125.
8) Johannes Meinhardt, op.cit., p.113.
9) Maddalena Disch, op.cit., p.20.
10) This second part, focusing on the work of Varini at Castelgrande, includes certain considerations found in my recent article in Rivista tecnica, and develops them in terms of the relations between the project and the photography exhibition. Roberta Mazzola, "Segni. Un intervento artistico a Castelgrande di Bellinzona", Rivista tecnica , 13, 2001, p. 94-100.
11) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, L'occhio e lo spirito, Milano, SE, 1989, p.23.
12) Felice Varini quoted in Johannes Meinhardt, op.cit., p. 19.
13) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, op.cit. , p.19 and p.17.
14) On the contribution of phenomenology to the study of problems linked to concepts of space and point of view: Sandra Cavicchioli (ed.), Versus. Quaderni di studi semiotici, 73/74, 1996 (monographic issue entitled La spazialità: valori, strutture, testi ).
15) Maddalena Disch, op.cit., p. 18.
16) Sandra Cavicchioli, "Spazialità e semiotica: percorsi per una mappa", Versus, op.cit., p.33.
17) Emphasizing that photography would not have been useful of the Renaissance art of composition, Peter Galassi discusses strategies of analytical description in painting and photography: Peter Galassi, Prima della fotografia, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 1989.
18) Walter Benjamin, "Breve storia della fotografia", in L'opera d'arte nell'epoca della sua riproducibilità tecnica, Torino, Einaudi, 1966, p.73.
19) Rudolf Arnheim, Intuizione e intelletto, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1987, p.140. Philippe Dubois, L'atto fotografico, in Claudio Marra, op.cit., p.177.
20) Charles Sanders Peirce, Semiotica, Torino, Einaudi, 1980, p. 158. A questo proposito si veda anche Rosalind Krauss, Teoria e storia della fotografia, Milano, Mondadori, 1996.
21) Roland Barthes, La camera chiara, Torino, Einaudi, 1980
22) Philippe Dubois, op.cit., in Claudio Marra, op.cit., p.322.
23) Valentina de Angelis, Arte e linguaggio nell'era elettronica, in Claudio Marra, op.cit., p.223.
24) Walter Benjamin, op.cit., p.62.
25) The theme of the "oversight" is prompted by a contibution of Giulia Ceriani on the focusing of the theater spectator: Giulia Ceriani, "Vista, montaggio, svista: a proposito di ricezione teatrale", Carte semiotiche , 4-5, 1988, p. 292-295. The text is part of a monographic issue of Carte semiotiche on a conference on the subject of the vantage point, organized by the Associazione Italiana di Studi Semiotici.