Fragments of an Archaeological Self-Portrait: Walking with Carlo Alfano
Flavia Alfano, Andrea Viliani
AV: Dear Flavia, I’d like to invite you to come for a walk with me today, along with your father… “Good morning Flavia. Good morning, Mr Alfano”. But I never met Carlo Alfano. Did he enjoy walking? He certainly enjoyed listening, reading, observing…
FA: Dear Andrea, walking, thinking… these are very similar activities. Both of them unfold their specific value in time and space. They help us, slowly, to construct what we wish to be, by allowing us to pass through, and observe, a captivating dimension, that leads us to become, step by step, different and more aware of our actions. Even this chat of ours, as we walk, retraces the footsteps of Carlo Alfano, perhaps it helps the two of us to listen to each other and to characterise the small perimeter of a silent yet possible existential and cultural background. Looking at the pictures of my father, a pilgrim in the classical settings most familiar to him – Pompeii, Paestum, Pozzuoli, Herculaneum – I rediscover the most intimate and true essence of a man, whom I remember immersed in the vital observation of classical reflections, in search of a non-contingent sense of belonging. I often think back to the words he said in 1978: “painting, by retracing its own steps, by reusing its old scenarios of representation, dissolves the unity of its previous categories and its ‘universals’. Like the event, it dissolves as it represents itself.”
AV: Carlo Alfano’s research seems, in my opinion, to condense quotations and presentiments, as if he were working on the project of a hypothetical time machine or on his own personal version of the Theatre of Memory 1. I have always thought of him, in fact, as an artist-philosopher intent on working not so much on works of art as on instruments of knowledge… like Newton’s “prism”, which transforms something as simple as a ray of light into something complex, or Leibniz’ or Deleuze’s “fold”, which creates a vertigo in which consciousness bends incessantly in the forms in which it manifests itself, or Husserl’s and Heidegger’s “threshold” which resides in the phenomenological contact between identity and otherness. Moreover, as Alfano himself declared, the thought of Michel Foucault, the “archaeologist of knowledge” par excellence, was a fundamental reference point for him in the development of his thoughts on art. What was Alfano’s relationship with knowledge and, in particular, with a branch of knowledge such as archaeology?
FA: I think that the singularity of Memory pertains to an individual “Room” that shelters our cognitive and emotional forms; within this inner place, aspects of History undergo deformations, empirical dilations and even disproportionate amplifications, but perhaps, thanks to these distortions, the long past still continues, parallel to our own time, not hampering crossings and allowing art to create narratives based on fragments as bright as they are intermittent.
With eyes closed we finger “ruins” like inevitable interrupted tales; desire prompts us to pick up the traces, the sides of the prism, and it seems to us that we can grasp the organicity between things and lost words. Alfano’s narrative or “knowledge” begins from that point, his work speaks behind that dense discontinuity, in those chinks between the ruins of a prolonged classicism. There, where the step between identity and otherness is short, time appears as a chronologically unquantifiable interval, a space-time that appears as a gaping black zone of deep, dense and unfathomable silence.
Once that ancient world has vanished, the representations have faded, the signs and clues remain before our eyes, like metamorphic substances, in Pompeii as in Angkor Wat, to reveal another facies, to trigger new scenarios. And it is Carlo Alfano who points this out: “It is a road already travelled, we retrace it and, sometimes, in addition to feeling the security of stepping into old footprints, we also feel happy that a particular relationship between chance and thought has brought us to the place of an event.”
I think that the meticulous and scrupulous activity of the archaeologist is a far cry from human bewilderment and forgetfulness… for this vehement perseverance, I see, effectively, an affinity with Alfano’s method, unwaveringly faithful to the analytical reading.
I do, however, believe that there is a substantial aspect that marks an insurmountable boundary between art and archaeology and sheds light on that detachment or discontinuity: the objective goal of archaeology as a branch of knowledge is to reconstruct, to recompose a system and this research is an act of faith connected to historical awareness… art is something else…
AV: Could we call the photographic records of his visits to Herculaneum, Paestum, Pompeii and Pozzuoli performative actions? What definition would you give of these ‘archaeological walks’? And who were his companions on those walks?
FA: Absolutely, but still in the virginal sense of the term. A performative action that was not derived so much from a planned purpose with outcomes to be disseminated, but rather from the simple need to find his own existential “centre of gravity”; to legitimise himself, to recognise (modestly) his own position in a geography that is not absolute but relative. I like to think of existential, transversal mementoes, experienced in the shadow cone of classicism, an inner human need rather than a declaration of future glory, a necessary act experienced each time with the happiness of a renewed discovery, the reserved epiphany of an Arcadia experienced at times with the complicity of close friends. Leftover scraps of those walks can be found in the form of freeze frames, in the cycle of Geographies of the 1970s; those discrete events are small time-spaces, microscopic coordinates suspended within the great archaeological space-time.
AV: Carlo Alfano seems to adopt, also during these walks as he does in his other works, a circular and cyclical conception of time of a Greco-Roman (and Persian, Indian-Buddhist, Mayan and Aztec…) matrix, as opposed to a linear and teleological matrix of the Biblical-Qur’anic type. The Greeks distinguished between time that could be measured (χρονος) and a concept of time that was characterised by its events (καιρος). Kairological time involves an experience of time (which has a singular and qualitative dimension), while chronological time corresponds to a sequence of time (quantitative standardising dimension).
The first case involves the adoption of criteria not simply of measurement but of reflection, evaluation, argumentation, interpretation and understanding. A time, therefore, that reflects on itself, that harks back to Carl Gustav Jung’s “synchronicity”, Henri Bergson’s “real duration” of consciousness, Einstein’s relativity and even to the theories of quantum physics – spirit levels, strings, conceptions of the multiverse and the Big Bounce which explore an “oscillating” or “pulsating” and infinitely multiple universe.
And I believe that this is precisely the time expressed by a site like Pompeii: a “perspective” time, as your father would have said. What was Alfano’s relationship with time? Would you tell me about the genesis, in this sense, of the ‘fountain’ Tempi prospettici (Perspective Times) (1970–72) that your father created for the Paestum site?
FA: In the figurative cycle Frammenti anonimi (Anonymous Fragments) time is described through brief events but also through the empty spaces of pauses and silences. This is a central theme in the poetics of Carlo Alfano and was admirably staged in 1969 with the work Stanza per voci, Archivio delle nominazioni, 1969,’70,’71,’72,’73,’74… (Room for Voices, Archive of Nominations 1969, ’70, ’71, ’72, ’73, ’74”). In this work a magnetic audio tape a few seconds long, containing a brief portrait-self-portrait, recorded earlier and therefore in another time, crosses the empty space of the frame with a circular motion, offering observers a concrete and sensitive experience of the incessant stratifying of time on our present. Time-space in its circular, imperishable meaning is also dominant in the work Delle distanze dalla rappresentazione (“Of the Distances from the Representation”), 1968, now at the MADRE in Naples, where, in a dimly lit setting, we witness the dripping of a drop in a basin that uninterruptedly creates concentric circles that are compelling and hypnotic, as only ideal and inexhaustible things can express. Every relationship of art with classicism contains both truth and falsehood, because the data is amended by human time, which nourishes it with personal memories, smoothing and dulling roughness and hollows, but above all distilling it.
In 1970 the great archaeologist Mario Napoli wanted to create a new wing in the Museo di Paestum, designed by the architect Giovanni De Franciscis and dedicated to the Tomba del Tuffatore (Diver’s Tomb): there he imagined, with Carlo Alfano, an ideal bridge between the archaeological view and contemporary artistic observation called upon to dialogue with a classical theme with a strong symbolic impact. The human enigma of the distance between life and death, but also between spatial and temporal planes, was rendered tangible in an installation in which the signs of aniconic classicism appear as thoughts ab origine of Euclidean shapes and columns. Tempi prospettici is Alfano’s tribute to the very concept of the Classic, as an ideal and inexhaustible mental representation, purified of any narrative reference, anonymous, configured to dialogue and modify itself thanks to the eternal reality of the place through the reflection of light and the movement of the wind on the water… simply…
AV: I am also thinking now of the squaring off that diagonally furrows the cobalt blue surface of a painting by him that recalls the movement of the Tuffatore of Paestum… practically nothing has come down to us of Greek painting, and the Tuffatore itself is one of the very few remains. And I also think back to the series Frammenti di un autoritratto anonimo (Fragments of an Anonymous Self-Portrait) (1969–75)… we often don’t even know the names of the ancient artists, due to that “shipwreck” of knowledge – not only limited to works of art – to which the archaeologist Salvatore Settis refers. What did it mean for Carlo Alfano to work on this dearth? And why did he use the words “fragment” and “anonymous” – basic terms in the archaeological vocabulary – associating them with the more analytical and objective idea of the “self-portrait”?
FA: In the living experience of present time, recollection and oblivion coexist in the form of Memory, just as the negative and the positive in a photograph are bound to share, in the same space, the fundamentals of a broken identity.
Thus, destruction and relics of the past are balanced by new signs, or perhaps I should say signals, of the possible. Birth is possible when the seductive fetishes of the past are erased or exist as fragments. By this I mean, when the vessel is adrift and we are, in a way, liberated and free to transform those shipwrecks into something else.
In the West, Alberti’s “window” theoretically designated a symbolic construct of knowledge, an expressive condition that was fruit of the rational need to organise an intentional harmonious vision; the Renaissance perspective created the conditions of a closed representation of the field of observation in an unlikely but possible form of truth.
In Carlo Alfano, this vision of hypothetical classical truth corresponds to that small intentional “gap” in art, the expression of a deliberate stumbling block in our lives which, opposing or rejecting origins, imposes the recombination of absences, silences and the many anonymous here and nows that stud the history of art in infinite combinatorial successions. Paraphrasing Foucault, perhaps for Alfano the essence of Art appears thanks to the disappearance of its assumptions.
AV: If identity is revealed in its disappearance, or mirroring, multiplication, expansion and proliferation, all that remains is for us too much to deny the principle of identity and Aristotle’s elements of drama which predetermine the unity and recognisability also of time, space and action and therefore of the actor, or actors, on the stage (precisely… Frammenti di un autoritratto anonimo – Fragments of an Anonymous Self-Portrait). I’d like to ask you why your father was so interested in the metaphor of theatre to describe his work, which he himself defined as the “theatrical space of the soul”. And there is no shortage of theatres, indeed among the ancient ruins he visited, they were the focus…
FA: Behind every form of theatre hides the double of the performance. The theatre stages the symbolic presence of the fracture, the contradiction that imposes acceptance outside of itself and the excruciating absence of a precise boundary of one’s own identity. The theatre for Alfano represents the threshold of broken subjectivity; perhaps the fear of losing the other of oneself without knowing who the other of oneself is (?)
His words, in this sense, are still enlightening: “The scenes, as in a distant mirror that erases features and details, show us figures and gestures in which we could recognise ourselves. Even if opaque, in this ‘theatrical mirror’ we can sometimes make out our own profile […]. We may be troubled by a doubt. That behind this space there is another in front: another stage on which the movements are the reverse of what we are looking at. Is there another profile behind the mirror? That of the inner self? This ambiguous relationship reduces our condition of extraneousness by immersing us in the internal reasons for the work.”
AV: So Alfano’s theatre is the work of an artist-researcher, who seeks – with each work of art, one by one, with a progression that calls each work into question – the fundamentals and consistency of the work itself. It is as though the work itself were not as important as the questions it raises. As though it were the void around which the Pompeian cast is created, an expression of the “vitality of the negative,” to quote the title of an exhibition in which Alfano took part in 1970. How did he relate to the impermanence and variation of his works? What relationship did he have with the concept of disappearance and, by extension, with the idea of destruction so intimately connected to the archaeological episteme?
FA: His was a possible way of sustaining the lightness of words and images that had once been ponderous and absolute; reworking places and memory to then capture a fundamental value in the concept of Distance. ‘Digging’: around events or memory, in his own personal geography of desire, allowed him to reveal to himself a web of impalpable shadows. The cast is, perhaps, the most evocative of allusions and at the same time the most exciting; it is the form of absence that best corresponds to his idea of the “vitality of the negative” and of ambiguity.
AV: Who would have been, in your father’s opinion, the ideal companions for this walk too?
FA: Definitely you, me and distance.
AV: This has been a fantastic walk, I’ve been wanting to do this with you for a long time… “Thank you Flavia. Thank you, Mr Alfano”.
FA: Thanks to both of you… I shall continue my walk…
Tempi prospettici, Paestum, 1970-72
Courtesy ARCHIVIO ALFANO
Courtesy ARCHIVIO ALFANO
© Archivio dell’Arte / Rocco e Luciano Pedicini