1999 – “Lavori in Corso” Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Roma
cm 330 x 483

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di Gabriele Perretta

Within the field of sculpture and “installation” activity carried forward by the most recent generations it is very difficult to find a work structured in the manner done by Fiorenzo Zaffina. With the years his activity has become almost an artistic case which not only has tried to affirm and structure a singular language in the manner of an ad hoc work but also follow a style which has from time to time provoked resounding journalistic scoops. In paging through the portfolio of the images produced by Zaffina’s “installations” (and we are calling them this improperly) it is easy to come across a heap of rubble which is then magically transformed into a singular reconstruction. Let us remember that in the entire course of his art one has a desire for work and an intentionality that are accompanied by the choice of the place, by the occasional search for the sight and by the form of the application of the general idea of his gesture in relation to the social and historical environment in which the intervention is collocated.
Zaffina is an artist who was born in Calabria but who has lived for many years in Rome, carrying on his two-fold activity as an art director and as a worker in communication. Paradoxically let us say that in order to begin his actions he starts out from the concept of breakage or, to be more precise, from ‘breaking through’, laceration and incision of space to then arrive at a different reconsideration of the reconstructive form. Let us also give as being established that where a reconstruction follows this is never a “restoration” which returns to the eye all of the space as it was but is a new guise of the environment, of the matter and of the site chosen. This is the reason why the specificity of the execution of the incision work should be considered as a complex operation. Let us try to propose some premises in order to analyze this work. Let us start out from the suggestions of some critical considerations. If one carefully reads the literature which has so far been produced regarding Zaffina’s work one tends to say that this type of operation is to be inserted beyond painting and therefore beyond the image because the violent engraving on the wall carried out by Zaffina is objectual, having nothing to do with the more awkward and confused expression of the brush on the canvas. As if painting were not endowed with the power of the image and did not have the ability to illustrate what the symbolic mystery hides that it often offers. In my opinion, instead, painting and more generally the image, while not being the fundamental work faced by Zaffina, is nevertheless part of the course which in various contexts he tries to realize. I should like to remind the reader that in order to embark upon a course of superseding painting the contemporary artist – and as early as the beginning of the twentieth century – had to negate its specific object and turn to another series of materials which, with time, have rendered certain operations available, to the point of arriving at those by Zaffina. Furthermore, when he has completed the working of the wall chosen for the occasion (and in order to do this the artist almost always sets about carrying out a drawing, indifferently abstract or figurative), he completes the marking of the place with a very strong spray colour, chroming the general geography of the fissures and jagged cuttings carried out by the incised mural operation. This imprimatur definitively gives the public his procedure, on the one hand leaving open the possibility of following the clearest traits of the grid he has structured while, on the other, the overall image which also appears as a form of effect, as a surprising stigmatization which in the spectator tries to provoke the reactive ritual that for a century now has been followed by all the artists with
avant-garde approaches. From these considerations one evinces that to Zaffina the collocation of the wall site can appear as the transposition of a large surface which instead of being painted is incised and hollowed out with the forceful line/characteristics of the pneumatic hammer.
At the end of the 1980’s Emilio Fantin had already transported pieces of wall from one place to another, uniting them with an exhibition context and ‘frame’ that was different from the one from which he had taken them, subjecting them to his philosophy of “the using and subjecting”. In Zaffina’s case the discussion grants some analogies as regards the search for the materials and the place although it then shifts to a greater degree into the dimension of space, giving a different environmental outcome to its cipher. Although now let us see why for the avant-gardes breaking, the breaking through and using other and similar concepts meant something else with respect to what these activities presuppose today. Let us all remember that for the avant-gardes breaking meant something quite different. The modern artist did not consider it the case to break down the walls of a room, a public house, a building or an old villa. He did not think that this could be such a direct element of surprise and breakage. Both the futurists and dadaists used these techniques, although always filtering the apology of the breaking through/down by way of linguistic occasions which recycled retrieved objects. The historical avant-gardes in general, up until the advent of Situationism and Fluxus, broke in a way that was to too little a degree an end in itself. From the impressionists onwards (and perhaps even before) in most cases the modern artist approached the breaking of the object by making use of metaphorical articulations. He even founded a new rhetorical dictionary that ‘cuffed’ the good sense of bourgeois taste and aesthetics, simulating a continuous breakage of the languages of representation. The greatest breakage he accentuated – and here we are talking about two centuries – was the definitive ocular cut introduced between the predisposition of the naturalistic image of the nineteenth century and the metamorphosis of the image enacted with an abundant use of “dotted” colours and conceptual forms in the pictorial space of Georges Seurat. In his analysis of visual thought Rudolf Arnheim wrote as follows: “The deviation from symmetry in the form of a tree may not be considered simply as a casual imperfection but as an intelligible effect of the surrounding…; the ostentation of symmetry is visually read as the work of an extraneous and intrusive force, and the evident regularity of the imposition facilitates its distinction with respect to symmetry.1 Let us say that modern art in its own right offers itself as being asymmetrical, tending towards imperfection, generally modelled on the ugly and that in this search for the ugly is spurred on towards a sequence of anti-gracious, disturbing and ruinous possibilities. It is therefore insidious for the critical dictionary treating beauty which it had itself acquired and absorbed starting from the nineteenth century. This philosophy is in its own right bearer of a profound transparency of what breaks, of what breaks through. If modern art has conquered a place of honour in the chronological sequence of the last four or five centuries then this certainly regards the explosive peculiarity of its imaginary which has known how to found and flank the matrix of breakage and the mark of the revolutionary with the proposal of novitas and the impetuous.
Also in the field of epistemological reflection in 1962 that √©minence grise, Thomas Kuhn, introduced the concept of breakage as a quite preponderant and intelligent element in order to justify the teleological perspective of a paradigm within the field of scientific revolutions. In effect, he maintained how the progress of the paradigm is almost always accompanied by a dose of breakage. According to Kuhn the person who manages in the normal scientific undertaking demonstrates that he is a beneficial expert of puzzles and problems. And the puzzle generally urges the researcher to keep going on. He who breaks progresses. The breaking through is the breakage of a paradigm aimed at its own supersession and Kuhn defines it as “blurring”, the inversion of a new candidate which leaves a propaedeutic sign of breakage of itself. According to Kuhn from among the experimental practices of science there is one that is called “revolutionary breakage” which is capable of showing itself when the flow of the growing anomalies of both an empirical and conceptual type – met with by the commonly accepted paradigm – is questioned in order to open the way for a new system of assumptions.2 It seems strange but in following Kuhn’s discussion there emerges a vision in which the scientist is like an artist: a man who does not fight to obtain a prestigious page in the manuals of success but who behaves like the gold prospector who has forced himself to contribute… “to that particular constellation with another element. In this way scientific development becomes the fragmentary process…”.3
This sort of universe in pieces is the classical image one perceives when one sees the heap of rubble/debris which Fiorenzo Zaffina excavates from walls in order to bring out, to evidence their structural grid, in order to the eyes of everyone to bring out the stones that support the buildings. And effectively speaking (even if perhaps it does not allude directly to the image Kuhn gives us of the researcher), when one sees that the Calabrian artist with his point of the pneumatic hammer digs out the smooth and polished structure of a building, a house or an internal part of a space, provoking rubble, we are nevertheless stimulated to think of the plaster flakes as a new medium for inhabiting/living the space. What immediately comes away here are the bondstones, the structures and the interspaces/cavities of a perimetrical place of ours. If Luca Vitone tends to retrieve the fate of the place, forcing himself to bring back our surrounding perimetrical external place to light, then with a spirit that blows in the direction of demolition Zaffina with an electrical nail tends towards excavating any corner of the ” district” which Heidegger aimed at defending.4 Let us say that the art of the last seven/eight hundred years, metaphorically speaking and in an almost imperceptible crown of traits, has on various occasions seen the absorption of a new paradigm of “linguistic breaking through” with the assimilation of always new breakages and always new breaks. From Duchamp onwards, this De Revolutionibus has almost become a legitimate act, experimenting the most unusual traits of the unreliableness, unusualness and moquerie of a sign that has spread to the point of no longer breathing in the context of a definite space. Suffice to recall what Tristan Tzara wrote in 1957: “Dada has not wanted to destroy art and literature but rather the idea that one had produced of them. […] It’s destructive will was much more an aspiration to purity and sincerity than the desire for a sort of sonorous or plastic vanity, to satisfy with immobility and with absence”.5
This breaking the place is however the bearer of a cipher of spatiality, environmentalness and conception of sculpture as the empty – to once again refer to Heidegger – and not as the full. Although an empty that does not aim at constructing as it does at excavating, at digging, in order to create a form of metamorphosis of the site. Zaffina’s gesture gives rise to anger, disagreements and provocations because it tends to give the traits of that “empty” as a rehabilitated and re-environed full. Unfortunately Martin Heidegger never understood anything about the relationship between sculpture, space and the environment. Throughout his life he allowed his great passion for poetry to grow. He ‘brushed by’ Van Gogh’s “broken shoes” although thinking he was talking about something quite different. In following Zaffina’s approach sculpture excavates, digs away, demolishes, needing the pretext in order to erode the plaster of the wall, in the living wall of the construction planting and stuffing printed circuits and other fluorescent coloured matters which bring about the metamorphosis of the archaic environment in a site that is given back to the sources of electronic primordiality – almost as if in a sort of paradoxical return to the future. In the dug out wall, in the whale-mouth reconstructed depths, Zaffina introduces microchips, monitors, internal parts of computers made up of the screen, printer and keyboard, covered with a fluorescent verdigris. In his Inondazioni [Floods] at the Galleria Comunale in Rome is was necessary to create a surface ex novo to then let it be excavated and ‘embellished” with a spectacular set in which one had the vibrant and crystalline light of a monitor. In this case it seemed that the screen acted as a pendant between the structure of the contrived wall and the immaterial light source body, of shadows and digital sound images.
From that context one could deduce strong analogies between the constitutive data of these materials. The perforated card was used for inserting the information in the computers. It had a series of holes in code corresponding to the data in digital form which were decoded by the reader of the card: a device which with a mechanical sensor ‘probed’ its surface and emitted a signal in the zones where the hole was found. Ernesto Jannini has used them as the profiles of his Cartesiane [Descartes]. Instead, and paradoxically, Zaffina holes the stone wall and inserts chips inside, in this way creating a kind of conceptual correspondence between the riddle of holes of the stone and the completely sophisticated and micromodular ones of the circuit. The insertion carried out by Zaffina plays on a two-fold valence: on the one hand it alludes to electronic archaeology (holed walls) while, on the other, it underlines the possibility of sounding the old memories of the walls in order to profile others – those which ought to be erected within the body of the new volumes (electronic building). In continuing along the lines of analogies, we again find them between the excavated splinters (chips) brought to light and the chips added between one wall and the other (where ‘chip’ in English means ‘scheggia’ in Italian, and vice versa, and where chip means a semiconductor fragment of incredibly small size on which many connections have been obtained that are equivalent to the holes of the card). Moreover, the fact that Zaffina uses the silicon wafers inserted into the cavities obtained by the breaking through leads one to think of the very nature itself of stones in relation to the substances which animate the technologies of electronic production. All of us know by now that silicon – that substance which accompanies the micro-geographies of printed circuits – is a widely diffused chemical element in nature, even if not in the free state. It is a brown metalloid which acts as a semiconductor and is extensively used in alloys and electronic components. Another element which is always used in the branch of semiconductors is germanium which, however, is white-greyish in colour, very fragile and quite rare. Symbolically speaking, these two elements in Zaffina’s interventions could constitute the “infinitely small” that tends to unite or join up with the stones and which tends to integrate with the context of the buildable factor that is added following the breaking through. Here we have small connecting openings which take back the natural substances towards their original nature, giving us the most matteric and structural affinities of this mystery.
Also the attempt at placing one’s eyes on these unusual traits of the stone and of the materials that support the “printed circuit” is the singular effect of an exploration which plays upon the ambiguity of the visible and the invisible. The new “district” lies in this infinitesimal acceptance of technology in contact with stone. In some cases Zaffina uses the ‘hot’ zones of the district for breaking, leaving speechless those who think that it is possible to reconstruct the place exactly as it once was. In other cases, instead, he constructs the same place from scratch in order to have the freedom of using a wall like a sheet of paper, capable of being ripped (open) and penetrated in whatever faceting. In short, the Calabrian artist challenges good sense in order to be able to use the wall like the flat surface penetrated by one of Lucio Fontana’s cuts. However, his neo-Duchampian play is not served by the single cut but by the radical breaking through. The idea is certainly that of ripping open/ disembowelling the surface, although also of working the cleavage and fissure with the hammer, making the place as an other “spatiality” and an other “environment”. The model reproduced by Zaffina follows hard on an old find, the image of an old ruin which torments the castrating laws of conservation and the safeguarding of the environment. He excavates in the wall in order to excavate within the same philosophical dimension of the idea of breaking. He shows the most fervid and contemporaneously most off-putting part of this radicalness, he tries to expound a concrete idea of “excavating” which is that of recreating the space of sculpture from the tabula rasa of the inherited environment, of the wall surface introduced into the Gegenden of our day-to-day life.
Land Art has often measured itself with surfaces, environmental spaces and real spaces, showing a certain interest for the reconstruction of sites, mounts, slopes, hills and green stretches of land. Robert Smithson with his philosophy of Earth Art/Earth Works, and with his fascinating Spiral Jetty of 1970, reconstructed entire watercourses, he changed topographical microstructures and the banks of the circular lidos of a lake, almost as if he wanted to add a subjective tract to nature without causing harm but stratifying natural effects upon natural effects. The Non-Sites were containers of form, accumulators of minimal matter which served to show stones, gravel and minerals. Here one establishes a field of connection between some geological finds and the space appointed to the gallery. Zaffina, instead, son of the technological age, does not observe the phenomenon of the river which causes the breaking of the banks, he does not aspire to a Zen predisposition of the natural environment. Rather, he breaks in order to reconstruct and he does this in a zone that is typically unsettling or artificial. Or in another in which there is the obligation of developing an entire series of preparatory institutional relationships in order to intervene on the site. Here we are not in a region of the world in which it is possible to make use of large spaces and stretches of land, as was the case of the experience of Walter De Maria who with Lighting Field of 1973-1979 used a locality in New Mexico. Italy is a small country, one too rich in history to be able to develop projects of this type and where it is not possible to offer large geographical stretches of land that are free from archaeological and historical sites. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the challenge for the environmental intervention here becomes more dense in meaning, more ambiguous and dangerous. The evident example of this risk for Zaffina were the vicissitudes of Bomarzo for which he had to undergo a trial in court which has had somewhat indicative results for his work. The documents of the trial could be used as a sort of paraliterature regarding the problems created by his interventions. Here is reflected with considerable clarity the extent to which his provocations are ‘bothersome’

by Giabriele Perretta