The first leg of this three-part article explores the question of how artists can contest a received cultural narrative or artistic convention by using fragmentary, or vestigial components as visual proxies for disruption, fracture and protest. I have chosen to present this argument by looking at three latter 20th century artists whose works might be said to imply a greater imaginative totality for us to construe from the partial. I am particularly interested in how the synecdoche of the fragment can be applied to visual arts, both as a creative device for artists, but also as an interpretive trigger to empower audiences in the reading of works. So this is also an investigation into how fragments have been used as ‘props’ to provoke our ability to complete perceptual patterns and understand their wider critical implications.
I have chosen to look at the re-deployment of classical statuary, in particular, focussing on the context of history and place. I also make no apology for using philosophical or historical references in preference to art historical ones. I say this being of the opinion that the canon of art history, where all roads in contemporary art interpretation lead back to arte povera or conceptual art, is absolutely threadbare. The two movements and their key texts have been the default, first resort explanations for any and all antecedents of contemporary art since 1966. Lippard’s ‘Six Years…’ and Celant’s ‘Arte Povera’ are of their time and for me, well-past their use-by date as contemporary references.
The first leg of this paper takes as its inspiration the works of Claudio Parmiggiani, (1943 - ) who originates from Italy. At this point, I also feel I need to explain my choice of artist given that each one in the three respective legs of the article might be described as male, pale and stale – though they are hopefully none of those. In my defence, my sample was not intended to exclude women artists or artists from more diverse backgrounds, but, as a pragmatist who believes in primary research, I have worked with all three of the individuals I cite today, in either a curatorial or collaborative capacity over an extended period. So I feel I speak with the balance of personal insight tempered by critical distance.
I also believe that between them, they offer an important insight into art at the cusp of the 20th and 21st centuries. All have in common that they are outsiders that have challenged the cultural establishment and all have met with censure at various times in their careers. In addition, I would say that all three were profoundly and personally affected by the Second world war. Further to this, I believe that their works characterise the tensions that continue to exist between cultural heritage in theory, and artistic innovation in practice. This tension applies particularly in the working context for artists in modern-day Europe, where the combined weight of empires, the Renaissance and Religion have coalesced into a significant, lumpen burden of evidence.
In other words, three other males, Otto von Bismarck, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Pope Innocent III all have a lot to answer for in terms of contemporary art.
My first subject is the Italian sculptor Claudio Parmiggiani. Parmiggiani was born in Luzzara, Emilia-Romagna in Northern Italy in 1943. He studied at the Istituto di Belle Arti di Modena between 1958-1960. During this time he frequented the studio of Giorgio Morandi in Bologna, whose work and mentorship were to have a profound impact on him. The influences of Marcel Duchamp and Piero Manzoni were also apparent early on in his objects, writings and performances.
Parmiggiani is included here as, for me, he embodies the ability of the artist to challenge the museological tokens of cultural authority. In the untitled Teste series, he plays the iconoclast, violating the purity of replicated classical casts with what I can only describe as a strange combination of violence and sensuousness. The works simultaneously jar the senses and disrupt legibility. In staging these mini-tableaux, Parmiggiani creates unlikely and irreverent material collisions between the idealised ‘purity’ of classical aesthetics, the found object and real-time processing.
In doing so he throws down a challenge to the unassailability of any art form, such as classicism, that can apparently achieve completeness without an audience. I would refer you at this point to Renaissance and Conceptual Art as two examples of movements with what I would describe as similarly rarefied ideological aesthetics. Works based on fragments and partial information openly provoke the viewer to make risky aesthetic prognoses based on the visual symptoms.
Further to the Teste series, I would offer you the following snippets of insight into these aspects of his practice and how these are manifest: disembodied heads are blackened with soot or defaced by pigment; glass is shattered on an architectural scale; abandoned church bells are inverted and hung like heretics by their clappers; a ship runs aground (or is it adrift?), on a sea of 60,000 works of literature. Books and other artifacts are burned to create ghostly, silhouetted libraries, devoid of content. And it is with this latter example I would like to remain with for a few moments: The Delocazione series: never fail to inspire awe, their eerie, residual presence haunting the canvas or space respectively. To decipher these, we arc instantly to a number of references: We recall the National Socialist Student Union book burnings in Germany and Austria in the 1930’s1, that have become synonymous with the conflagration of the second world war and its associated genocide. There are also further visual and emotional resonances for me with images of the atomic aftermath in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For children of the 1960’s like myself, who grew up with classic documentary series such as The World at War, the symbolic burning of books was to the Holocaust as the broken glass was to Kristallnacht; The images of totalitarian, totemic acts of destruction stand as monuments to intolerance and persecution on an unimaginable scale. But before we get too carried away, the reality is that Parmiggiani does not confront us with the randomly strewn or charred remains of treasonous volumes, rather he presents the shadowy carbon residue of (what appears to have been), the highly controlled combustion of an organised collection of books - or put another way, a library.
In this light, the obvious stereotype of the zealous (fascistic) book burner gives way to the more calculated, but even more disturbing, concept of ‘cultural cleansing’. More accurately then, we should construe the methodical or systematic destruction of collections of books or artifacts (representing the destruction of bodies of knowledge or culture).
The respective histories of library and book burnings in situ are also very different from the history of spontaneous street bonfires made up of individual books gathered from one or more venues. Sadly, and perhaps surprisingly, the history of fire-setting in libraries is extensive2. For example, the burning of the Library of Antioch in 364 AD or Julius Caesar’s accidental incineration of the renowned Library at Alexandria in 48 BC.
Here as in much of Parmiggiani’s oeuvre, the synecdoche is hard at work, as are we, given that we are required to involuntarily bear witness to a thinly-veiled catastrophe offering episodic views into a much darker world.
1 Birchall, Frederick T. “Burning of the Books, May 10, 1933.” In National Socialist Germany: Twelve Years that Shook the World, edited by Louis L. Snyder, 101-104. Malabor, FL: Krieger, 1984. (DD 256.5 .S575 1984).
2 World at War’ 1973 episode 01: ‘A new Germany’ 1933-1939 (SUB ROMANA). Granada Television, UK. Narr. Lawrence Olivier.