The story of an Art without borders: exchanges of glances and gestures beyond the frame

Breezy Art
Jun 15, 2021 9:55PM

In a traditional Art fruition system, we are naturally and conventionally led to relate with the artist through his works, to which he delivers historical facts, ideas and inner motions, so that they are transmitted and celebrated by the present and future collective memory.

In this sense, it is evident that the fundamental cornerstone of the communicative relationship between the artist and the observer is constituted by the artwork, which can provide multiple interpretations and be susceptible to different interpretations, depending on the audience, on the historical moment and on the cultural and experiential background of the single individual. The artists, who by definition are visionaries able to grasp in advance the political-social problems of their time and beyond, are well aware of it and whom that best manage the expressive and technical tools at their disposal, can bring whom recognize themselves into the emotional and cultural dynamics that the author most wants to bring out.

The artist launches his appeal to the mass, holds out his hand and waits for his audience to respond, because without an audience, it is evident, Art loses its social function and with it the ability to communicate.

How this attention seeking manifests itself within the work, is something that we can only try to come close, without any pretense of categorizing it, as this aspect is only one of the infinite reflections of the intimate artistic expressiveness.

What is certain is that the results of these reflections that we could trace in the Art History are innumerable and here we will think about a selection that helps us to retrace the role of the audience and its relationship with artworks, opening the narration beyond the physical boundary of the support.

It is no coincidence that it was a painter, Leonardo, who returned several times, in his Treatise on Painting, to the theme of the horizon and the mutability of the border between earth and sky, which varies not only according to our geographical position, but also in relation to our way of perceiving the changeability and contingency of the physical world.

The reflections that Leonardo gives us are the first attempt to open the discussion on a non-astronomical-scientific horizon, but on a perceptive one, shifting the focus on the role of the observer, raising his point of view to "privileged".

We will see, in fact, as opening a window in the scene of the painting, suspending a veil or a curtain between us and the pictorial image - as Man smoking a pipe by the Dutch Gerrit Dou, in which the painter emerges beyond a painted curtain that looks like belong more to the dimension of the viewer than of the painting - that is, by painting a fake frame within the physical one, so the clear distinction between fiction and reality may waver - this is the case of the Girl in a Frame by Rembrandt, whose hands, with an incredible trompe-l'oeil effect, seem to cross the threshold to reach out towards the observer, beyond the painting.

Gerrit Dou, Uomo che fuma una pipa, around 1650, oil on panel, 48 × 37 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Rembrandt, Ragazza in una cornice, 1641, oil on canvas, 105.5 x 76 cm, Royal Castle in Warsaw

The engagement does not occur only through optical illusions and perspective games, but is also manifested - and above all - in looks and gestures, as in Venus, Mars and Love, a painting by Guercino dated 1633 and preserved in the Estensi Galleries of Modena. It doesn’t matter that the original emissary and recipient was the Duke of Este: anyone who places himself in front of the painting immediately becomes an accomplice of the betrayal that is about to take place behind Mars, between Venus and the observer himself, which the goddess indicates to Love as favorite choice, passing from "observer" to "observed".

In the same way, the role of the audience is also often profoundly distorted: from passive spectator to actor catapulted into the dimension of the artwork. A process that also has its origins in historicized art and the results are largely reflected in painting between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

«If the threshold of the painted space is a place of transition and transaction, the real space of the viewer is not radically alien to that of the image. Indeed, more and more often in painting, and sometimes in very sophisticated forms, the observer in front of the painting ends up interfering with what is represented there. Although passing through, he does not go unnoticed, the characters depicted notice him and react.

Even a “blind man” - in Bartolomeo Schedoni's evocative painting - "feels" the motionless and silent presence of someone standing in front of him and stares at him awaiting: the observer, paradoxically, becomes observed. The image takes advantage of it and speaks".

Roberto Schedoni, La Carità, 1611, oil on canvas, 180cm x 128 cm, Capodimonte Gallery, Naples

In the History of art it was the Baroque that marked a fundamental turning point: the emotional involvement of the spectator and his active participation are a symptom of a work that is transformed into an all-round theatrical show, taking care of the details of presentation, light , staging, surprise effect and fades. The driving force of this revolution is the Catholic Church - healed with the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the bloody fracture opened by the Protestant reform, which needs to get back to its worshipper and to do so, it tries the path of an emotional approach, with telling a new story of doctrine, in a more intimate and engaging way, often resorting to living representations and spectacular apparati effimeri. What began as a religious struggle actually extends to human conduct and politics: the relationship between the Individual and the State reflects what is between Man and God. For Protestants, in fact, the only link between the divine and worldly is Grace, but nobody can achieve that. Catholics, in the other hand, affirm that God contemplates the role of man and weighs his choices, trying to orient them in a salvific perspective. Nevertheless, the religious question also has a social implication: the dispute is between the idea of having an individual faith - proper to the Protestant Credo - and a collective faith, of sharing the Word of God. Culture, in this sense, acts as an instrument of knowledge and awareness, which opens the way to Salvation. For this reason the Church, starting from the seventeenth century, will embrace the idea of ​​communicating the saving message of God in an immediate and understandable language to every social category, from the scholar to the illiterate people.

And to do this, what better way than Art? So Art reinvents itself, setting itself up as a model of behavior, with results that often degenerate towards persuasion. All this has a substantial consequence: the work becomes the means of communication and rhetoric - par excellence.

The artist is aware of the role to which he is called, and accepts it: "someone to be able to effectively persuade, must be persuaded: even more than the truth or the goodness of things that are affirmed and to which one wants to persuade, than the possibility and usefulness of human communication" - writes Argan. And so in Pietro da Cortona, for example, "decoration is no longer a fairy tale, but prayer and spectacle: artifice, no longer disguised, shows that for Cortona art is the specific means of allegorical celebration".

Here the Baroque performance goes on stage with the great names of the History of Art, such as the aforementioned Guercino and Rembrandt, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Caravaggio, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, Pieter Paul Rubens, Annibale Carracci, Johannes Vermeer, Antoon Van Dyck, Nicolas Poussin, just to name a few.

The results of this artistic current are absolutely new and destined to write a new chapter in the relationship between the artwork and its user - which, right from the advent of the Baroque, we can fully begin to define "spectator".

In painting, the canvases become theatrical backdrops, framed by heavy draperies of an intense red color, as in Caravaggio's interpretation of the episode of Judith and Holofernes, in which the scene is offered to the spectator who finds himself an accomplice of the crime, an inappropriate intruder. Therefore the participation of the observer can also hide a disturbing interpretation and instill a sense of unease, as in the case of Salomè by Guido Reni, in which the spectator is dressed in the role of Herod who receives the head of Baptist as an offering; or Mattia Preti’s Cristo e l’adultera, in which Jesus invites us to be the first to throw the stone.

Mattia Preti, Cristo e l’adultera, around 1630-1650, oil on canvas, 106 × 133 cm, Galleria Spada, Rome

But beyond the frame you can take a look to the most famous bedrooms in the History of Art and hope to meet the gaze of an impertinent young man or a woman with persuasive curves, as in the most famous paintings by Rubens.

Still, the art of the seventeenth century has experimented not only with painting, as a means of communication and narrative involvement. The reference, in this sense, is to the apparati effimeri which, especially in moments of celebration, have given a new face to the urban landscape.

The occasions were the most disparate, both of a sacred and profane nature: from "commanded" religious holidays to the canonization of saints and the election of new popes; from the celebration of episodes taken from the life of the rulers, to the political events of the allied states, to the popular festivals of ancient tradition, such as the Carnival.

Some recurring characteristics brought together events of such a different nature and among all, the preference for urban space as an almost exclusive setting emerged. Here processions and triumphs unfolded, triumphal arches were placed along the streets, decorative devices and mobile lighting on the facades of houses, palaces and churches; the city with its spaces and its architecture was the protagonist of the event.

The work was almost always coordinated by an architect, chosen from among those most in vogue at the court. And in the seventeenth century, very few architects were able to compete with the respect and esteem enjoyed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Bernini's “regie” are famous both at the court of Pope Urban VIII and, after his transfer to France at the French one. Of incredible magnificence, in particular, was the ephemeral theater built in San Pietro, in Rome, on the occasion of the canonization of Elizabeth of Portugal: at the intersection of the arms, under the dome, the architect created a wooden structure, decorated with fake marble, stucco and gilding, embellished with 24 columns interspersed with statues of 14 Portuguese rulers, painted with the miracles of the saint and banners.

Bernini also applied so much mastery in the spectacularization of art to the sculptural technique, of which he was the undisputed master. We think of Apollo and Daphne, a work with a Baroque flavor not only for the magnificence of the technical rendering and the exasperation of emotions, but also - and this is the point that most interests us for the purposes of our reflections - for the physical involvement of the user – spectator, that moves around the space of the work to grasp its narration.

The work, in fact, must be studied starting from a specific point of observation, that is, the one in which Daphne still has human features. The interesting thing is that the viewer, at first glance, only catches a young man intent on chasing a woman, who tries, in vain, to escape; only by looking for Daphne's gaze, the spectator realizes that the human features are already abandoning the nymph, and are about to transform into something different. In what exactly, the observer discovers it only by ending the exploration of the work, from a perspective in which Daphne is now unrecognizable: the left leg has given way to the bark of a tree, the hair has become fronds and from the fingertips, like branches, bay leaves sprout.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-1625, marble, 243 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Here too, the invitation is to take an active part in connecting with the story told by the artist. Beyond the passive enjoyment, beyond the first impression and beyond what we are convinced we know and master, there is a world that is still inaccessible, which can lead us to the extreme consequence of feeling excluded precisely because they are placed on the same level as the narrative. This is the case of the incredible invention of Giandomenico Tiepolo, who in the painting Il Mondo Novo, with witty irony, knows how to surprise the viewer. What we see is many people, who flock to wait for their turn to be able to attend the show of the Mondo Novo, in fact, a sort of small walking theater that in the Venice of the eighteenth century - on the occasion of the Carnival - was put to disposition of the people in squares, to be able to observe plays of light and color and images often with an exotic flavor. What interests Tiepolo - beyond the painting - is that the true protagonists of the image are the spectators, painted from their back so their position reflects ours. "Public" in the modern meaning of the term, as an aggregation of users who share the convergence of the observation point in an object of interest that is the same for everyone.

The idea of ​​establishing contact beyond the physical limit of the work persists in the History of Art, bringing out a continuity between historicized masterpieces and new technologies which, as we will deepen in subsequent reflections, moves precisely on the profound relationship that binds the images to the viewer, all the more so if these images are born with the specific intent of establishing a dialogic relationship with their interlocutors.

Giandomenico Tiepolo, Il Mondo Novo, 1791, detached fresco from the Villa Tiepolo in Zianigo (Venice), 205 x 525 cm. Venice, Museo del Settecento Veneziano Ca 'Rezzonico.

In the first part of this column our reflections focused on the period of the seventeenth-eighteenth century, precisely because in the previous discussion we spoke of the decisive role assumed by the Counter-Reformation Church in the elaboration of new strategies for the communication and involvement of the worshippers.

History teaches us, therefore, that it is the great social, political and religious changes that convert what Walter Benjamin defines "the aura of the artwork" into a more narrative and inclusive dimension for the viewer.

In general, for Benjamin the term "aura" is associated with two peculiar characteristics of the work: "uniqueness and remoteness", that is, distance and unapproachability to man. In this sense, defining the aura «however close it may be, a single appearance of a distance means nothing more than formulating [...] the cultural value of the artwork. Distance is the opposite of closeness. What is substantially distant is the unapproachable. In fact, unapproachability is one of the main qualities of the cult image. It remains, by its nature, as far away as it is close ».

The spiritual and religious legacy inherent in this idea of ​​remoteness and intangibility, whose subversion we want to testify in this writing, will be evident to the reader, starting from two presuppositions or "circumstances, both connected with the increasing importance of the masses in current life." In other words: making things, spatially and humanly closer, is a very lively need for the present masses, as much as the tendency to overcome the uniqueness of any data through the reception of its reproduction".

Cesare Brandi in his review of the Italian publication of the essay Little history of photography, in 1966, will reproach him with a "more political than aesthetic" interpretation. According to Brandi, Benjamin intended "to save that much or little from the artwork that passes through even in reproduction, to definitively extinguish the" cultic " or religious character that he still felt was at the base". But for Brandi "in the secularization induced by reproduction, the artwork not only loses its cultic value, it loses itself. An imprint remains, like a footprint on the sand".

Keeping Benjamin's reflections as a privileged observation point from which to move further considerations, the moment of rupture and destruction of the aura would be placed in the affirmation of the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century. According to Benjamin, it was the Dadaists who were the first to have wanted "a ruthless annihilation of the aura of their products, on which, with the means of production, they imposed the trademark of reproduction", simultaneously undermining both the concept of originality and creativity of an artwork to the supremacy of the idea (or, as historical reminders of the "concept") over the artifact. This attitude has evidently created a not indifferent impasse in the Art System: on one hand, the drive towards expressive emancipation from nineteenth-century (it was Courbet who inaugurated the era of independent exhibitions with a staff organized entirely at his expense), on the another, the need to reconcile the new expressive language with the Art Market and the audience, given that the true - and declared - objective of this movement was to arouse public indignation: «the artwork became a bullet. It was projected against the observer. It took on a tactile quality ».

The further leap that Benjamin fails to grasp, also in the light of the artistic results following the publication of his volume, is that the aura has not dissolved, but rather has shifted from the artwork to the artist, in his incessant effort to deny the "object" in its aesthetic fruition, to raise the idea.

A reversal of perspective started from Realism, is when Art takes on a new function, no longer celebratory and tautological, and characters and scenes from everyday life are introduced into the paintings. With the Avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, these fragments of reality take on a material connotation: it is the era of Cubist and Dadaist collages. This tactile sensitivity will affect the whole of the twentieth century, as the need to guide art towards the re-appropriation of life and reality, overcoming those now obsolete values ​​linked to abstraction and late surrealism. The twenty years between the fifties and sixties will be marked by a breach of cultural frontiers and the introduction of a new idea of ​​a collective dimension, unhinged from the old moral legacies.

In fact, the economic and social conditions linked to the consequences of the last Great War converge in the identification of different priorities between Europe and the United States of America: the latter, in particular, work on building a strong national identity, which can compete with the long cultural tradition of the Old Continent. However, the progress of the consumer society will allow the leveling and unification of the cultural language which, reinterpreted in a "domestic" key, enters into the consumer’s homes through advertising and new forms of popular expression 2.0.

Allan Kaprow, 18 Happening in 6 Parts1959

In the following years, the artist has woven several collaborations, among with the theater director Augusto Boal, among other things creator - at the beginning of the seventies - of the Theater of the Oppressed, an artistic form created with the aim to transform the figure of the paying public from a mere passive user to an active part, directly involved in the representation: a “spect - actor”, a spectator-actor who watches and stages at the same time, intervening in real time on the work.

It is in this wake that relational aesthetics developed in the 1990s, an art current theorized by the French critic Nicolas Bourriaud in 1996. In relational art, the observer is part of a community and precisely as a community - not as an individual - interacts with the work and becomes part of it: the artist, in these terms, transforms himself from creator to facilitator, offering the audience the tools to intervene in the space of dialogue, comparison and relationship opened by the artwork. An example of this is the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, an artist of Thai origin who reinterprets the social moment par excellence, the meal, in an artistic key. With its Temporary Kitchens, improvised in the most famous museums in the world, it welcomes and delights visitors with traditional dishes of its culture, in a perfect setting for discussion and dialogue, beyond the museum - something very similar to what has been experienced, already in 1970 by the Fluxus artist Daniel Spoerry, who, inviting the guests of his exhibition to dinner and immortalizing the remains of the meal in plexiglass cases attached to the wall, had eliminated any distance between artist-work-audience.

In a climate of constant attention seeking among the audience, with the aim of surprising and triggering reactions, Art has instilled ever-increasing expectations in the common observer, which it shows no sign of disregarding. These hype standards have now reached incredible levels of involvement thanks to the help of new technologies, the expressive mediums of the artist of the 21st century. In fact, it is precisely digital technologies that have assumed a decisive role in the development of the spectator-artwork interaction, opening the way to infinite expressive possibilities hitherto unthinkable.

In this sense, the introduction, in the creative process, of software and hardware capable of implementing 2D and 3D images in the dimension of the artwork, not only in terms of execution, but also of fruition, was crucial: in a interconnected world, Art travels at incredible speeds on the web and can reach a significantly wider audience. Digital art is, in some ways, more inclusive and communicative, both for its agile availability and accessibility, and for the language itself, as a mirror of the present time.

It is the birth of Net.Art, which is fully affirmed with the democratization and liberalization of the IT tool, passed from the hands of engineers only to the domain of the indistinct audience. The Net dematerializes the artistic object, which rather becomes a moment of reflection on relationships and a communicative tool beyond space-time limits.

In fact, Net.Art has an obvious added value: in terms of audience participation, if it is true that happenings and performances have greatly contributed to changing the viewer into an actor, physical presence or a video recording is still necessary to be able to enjoy them; by introducing the computer medium, however, it is possible to make the fruition always current and present.

Kit Galloway & Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole In Space, 1980

In 1980 the artists Kit Galloway and Sharrie Robinowitz created Hole in Space, an installation consisting of a satellite link between New York and Los Angeles lasting three consecutive nights, during which passers-by could spy and listen to one and the other city. The astonishment of the first day gave way, in the following evenings, to real improvised performances by passers-by, in this suspended and shared urban dimension: the Net behaves like a public and shared stage simultaneously.

However, Net.Art has also known another reading key, focused on the computer programming code, rather than on the relational potential of the Net. This is Software Art, to which we owe the merit of having opened reflection to the many ways to write and elaborate an instruction, according to processes inaccessible to the public. An example of this is the project entitled Web Stalking, created in 1997 by the London group I/O/D. It is a "conceptual" browser based on the interpretation of the HTML which, instead of presenting a traditionally formatted web page as a result of the search on the Net, reveals the system architecture to the user, showing the internal control codes in the form of "constellation". A constantly changing map, in which the single elements are visually returned with circles and the links that connect them with lines. The goal of the project is to overcome the inability to communicate between computer and human language, making the user able to grasp the complexity of the former in a more accessible key. Software has its own creative role, it is a bearer of meaning and not simply an executive medium of functions. Hence the need to try to investigate the procedural modalities, also to reveal its "physical" consistency. Thus Tomás Maldonado, among others, reasoned about software in the mid-nineties: «It is debatable, for example, to define software as immaterial. On closer inspection, Software is a technology, that is, a cognitive tool that, directly or indirectly, contributes to material changes in the final analysis ».

These changes, which until the last century were intended to open the frontiers towards innovative channels of interconnection, today take the form of the possibility of creating new worlds and spaces in which to meet and live one's experiences. Thanks to hardware and software interface systems such as gloves, helmets, glasses and three-dimensional graphics and processing programs, the user is catapulted into artificial environments that he can inhabit and live through his own movement; environments capable of giving him absolutely credible sensations. It is the triumph of the Platonic idea of​​"Art as mimesis of nature": from modern devices to photography; from the introduction of real-sized objects into the painted space, to the active participation of the viewer as an actor in the artwork; from the global interconnection offered by the Internet, to immersion in fantastic, credible realities but the result of the creative flair of artists-designers.

With the application of virtual reality to the world of art, artists create entirely in the digital dimension worlds governed by their own laws, which materialize before the eyes of the observer, who can access the mind of their creator.

Artist Giant Swan sculpting in VR

- Serena Nardoni -

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