Impermanence and environs: Elena Scardanelli interviews Ferruccio Ascari August 12, 2015
I wanted to talk with you a bit about Impermanenza, the installation you made in 2013 for the exhibition curated by Asilo Bianco at Museo Tornielli in Ameno, and about the video that has come out of this work, which in turn is part of a larger, more complex project, namely Restless Matter, a work in progress you have created for the web. Before asking you more specific questions about the work, I’d like to make an observation of a more general character regarding the project, the thought that seems to permeate it, to see if you agree. This requires a preamble. “Impermanence,” besides being the title of one of your works, is also a category, a key concept of Buddhist philosophy based on the observation that what constitutes every existing thing is simply a set of elements in relation to each other, transient and subject to continuous change: everything has a beginning, and an end. I think I can say that Restless Matter, the thought and the creative working method of the whole project and each of its constituent videos, has come into being under the sign of impermanence. I would like to know if you agree with this interpretation.
There is no need to look to the Far East to discover that impermanence is the true nature of all things. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, to remain in our cultural zone, is already credited with the warning “everything flows,” the idea that “you cannot step twice into the same stream.” After all, reflection on the evanescence of things lies at the basis of much of Western thought and mysticism. I know little about Buddhism, but instead for some time now I have been interested in the philosophy behind yoga. In any case, I don’t believe that in an artistic work there has to necessarily be a concept that comes before, followed by an implementation. I much prefer to think of art as “thinking while doing” or “doing while thinking.” One day in the country I observe a pile of firewood and I “see” something I have never seen before: I still don’t know just what, but to give form to that initial intuition I start to take the pile apart. Taking things apart to figure out how they work is a child-like attitude I’ve never outgrown. Then I decide to put it back together, but instead of making a square base, with the logs at the bottom placed in one direction, those of the next layer placed crosswise, and so on in alternating layers, as woodpiles have always been made, I let myself by guided by the idea of the “triangle”: so I start to pile the logs on a triangular base, which is much less solid but turns out to be more and more fascinating, as the pile grows, precisely due to its precarious quality. Impermanenza is a work that starts like that, and then gets gradually refined in the months to follow. What I mean is that this, like almost all my other works, does not come from an abstract concept, but from a sudden “glimpse” of something I never saw before. The idea was already there in that form/woodpile, as if it was just waiting to be “seen” and trans/formed, to bring out a hidden aspect of its innermost nature.
The installation you did for Museo Tornielli is composed of architectural towers made with portions of branches, stripped of their bark and painted white. It conveys the sensation of something that almost through a miracle of statics, or in astonishing defiance of it, might remain standing for just a moment: the pieces of wood speak of a previous collapse and an inevitable coming collapse. What did you want to express through this work?
More than a desire to express, I think the attitude is one of listening, investigation, bringing what is hidden to light. Every form, every material contains its own secret. To interrogate a form, to torment a material, to push a tension to extremes, to take a structure to its limits: this is what I do when I work. In the case of Impermanenza what is taken to the limit is balance. If there is the desire to express something, that something lies precisely in “being at the limit.” On the verge of collapse. I believe the intention is not so different from that of the tightrope walker on his rope stretched across the void, or – less dangerously, but with a similar spirit – of a child building a house of cards. The gratuitous nature of play is essential, meaning not being subjected to utility. Play, like art, is a serious matter precisely because it eludes utility. Play is not useful, it is indispensable: which are two different things. Here the fall, the collapse, the ruin are indispensable, otherwise the game could not be played. The fall is intrinsic, though it can be hidden by appearances, in the balance itself. It is the true “repressed” part of the solid edifice everyone wants to display, rather than its ruin. Just the opposite of what is displayed by the towers of Impermanenza.
Is there any reference in this work to the myth of the Tower of Babel?
Who knows? I certainly do not have the ambition to “touch the sky” with a flimsy woodpile, but I can’t be held responsible for the interpretations of others…
The portions of branches stripped of bark and painted white, which serve as the construction material of the three towers, are strikingly similar to bones: animal bones, cleaned and polished by time. I won’t conceal the fact that when I saw this work I couldn’t help thinking about Capuchin crypts, the compositions of bones that adorn their chapels. But I don’t think that the theme here is that of the “memento mori” typical of the Catholic tradition. What do you think?
I think the theme of death is not completely absent in Impermanenza: while I was making it, the idea of the ‘”ossuary” did gradually take form, in effect, giving consistency to ancient fears and faraway fascinations. When I started to handle those sticks, in their raw state, with lichen all over them, with their smell, I sensed that they were elements that in spite of the fact that I liked them, might be overwhelming something essential I still was not fully aware of. It was as if they needed some kind of calcination process: hence the white, which clearly reveals the tendency of those sticks to become a sort of bone. Secondly, the white banishes the risk of a certain Arte Povera mannerism.
Inside Restless Matter, in a process of continuous transmutation I think is very consistent with the meaning I see in the whole project, Impermanenza is transformed into a video, or actually something more: a video that is also a game, a basic but not superficial game, transforming viewers into players by stimulating them to make the towers collapse by moving the mouse: what is at stake here?
I’d rather talk about the video game later, I’m still working on it. But I can tell you something about the video. Impermanenza-video starts with a temptation, that of getting away from the fixity of the environmental installation to enter a reality of images that is totally different, that of cinema. Though starting with an identical subject, the two paths diverge, speaking different languages. The installation with all its precariousness evokes an invisible time, that of the construction and the collapses of the towers in the past, made visible by the wood scattered on the ground; and the same time it conveys the anxiety of the “not yet,” of a possible ulterior collapse, an imminent ruin. It is as if the environmental installation were suspended between a past and a future, both invisible and yet precisely for this reason capable of being “’present.” The film, instead, displays a continuous present, utterly illusory but continuously reproducible. Let me explain: Impermanenza-video is composed of a number of photographs equal to the number of the sticks that make up the towers; each photograph records the gradual construction of the towers, piece by piece; the hands that place the sticks, however, as in all stop motion films, are never seen. Perhaps it is the animation of the photographs that gives the towers an independence they would never otherwise have attained: in the film the towers grow (and un-grow) as if driven by their own volition. I think the environmental installation, presenting itself in all its precarious balance, manages to suggest the illusory character of what we call “real,” while the film, announcing its deception from the first frame, invents – precisely through the illusion of movement – its own “reality” and asks the viewer for the complicity necessary to enter that second-degree illusion that is cinema. Personally I think of the animated film as the form most at the origin of cinema, the form that proves most able to represent what I care about.
I am getting very interested in the language of video games because it raises illusion and complicity to the highest levels. You ask me what is at stake: if the film illusion is at the second degree with respect to what we call “life” and if the illusion of “life” in the interaction of the video game is even higher than that of the illusion of cinema, then the video game player paradoxically risks more than life.
Sound is another important feature of this video. It is not something extraneous to the nature of the elements that make up the towers. In fact, precisely their voice provides the material for the composition: it is the voice of the individual pieces of wood, with their different weights, their different densities and the different impact on the ground when they fall. Would you tell me something about this?
As you know, from my earliest works sound has been one of the most important elements in my research. In this work, Nicola Ratti helped me to sample the “voice” of each single stick. Nicola made these recordings with the sensitivity only a musician of his caliber can have. Once each frame had been associated with the corresponding sound of each stick, editing the film was like playing an instrument, like composing sounds through the progressive composition of the visual sequences: a very captivating game I will show in an upcoming video, La freccia che colpisce il bersaglio vola per sempre (The Arrow That Hits the Target Flies Forever).