By Franco Campegiani – 2011
I think it is a legend to be debunked that would like reality and fantasy, or body and soul, irreconcilable with each other.
This is a gloomy and funereal commonplace that we would do well to dissolve once and for all in order to return to a healthier and more balanced concept of reality, and also of fantasy.
Native cultures all indiscriminately cultivate an animistic idea of the living, according to which there is nothing inanimate and everything that is alive is intelligent.
Life, at all levels, is synonymous with intelligence, and to break this balance means to become unbalanced, either in the direction of a bleak and mechanistic worldview, or in the opposite direction, dreamlike, solipsistic, of a mind madly detached from reality.
It must be admitted that cultural and technological evolution has, on the one hand, dried up the world, depriving it of this vital breath, and on the other hand, it has made imagination crazy, pushing it towards arbitrary and deceptive excesses: the so-called poetic licenses, to which every absurdity is forgiven.
The greek-roman culture, to which we are still indebted, basically did not try to free man from the natural context, separating him from the communion and the conversation with all living things, in order to grant him a domain over nature itself, or at least an autonomous destiny.
In order to do so, he had to kill the numinous aspect of creation, the intelligent voices of nature, suffering all the tragic consequences of this choice.
The course of Western culture up to our days has been affected by this approach of thought, this diabolical division of Reason, or Logos, from Phisis, with the most varied motivations: from metaphysical ones to those of the subjugation of matter itself.
As far as the arts are concerned, the opposition itself-World has given rise first to an objectivist figuration, exalting the formal sides of artistic reproduction, and later, in the climate of contemporary art, to the nihilistic fusion, glorifying and tragic at the same time, of the Subject with the Object, of Man with the World.
If this can be very briefly the history of philosophies and poetics succeeded in Western culture to the present day, we must take note that we are now laying the foundations for a truly epochal turning point, since it is exhausting every triumphalist-nihilistic perspective, linked to the absurd, secular desire to free man from the natural order, from the intelligence of the planet that hosts him and in whose embrace he is called to carry out his journey.
Shyly, but with great tenacity, a rethinking is taking place, due to the obvious failure of these perspectives. Our cultural roots need to be reconsidered and corrected. Thus it will become very opportune to push our gaze towards deeper roots, towards more archaic cultural substrata, where the collaboration of man with nature was established.
In other words, it is necessary to overcome the obstacle of the rationalistic split and the nihilistic fusion of man with the world, in order to restore the sacred ties and the equal relationships of man with all living things.
After this necessary preamble, it is time to enter into the heart of the discourse that must be made here.
Among the recent poetics, which have risen to the forefront of the artistic scene in the last part of the last century, there are a couple on which it is worthwhile to focus our attention: the Informal, situated in the furrow of the extroversive avant-garde, and the New Figuration, in the furrow of the introversive one.
It is well known that the Informal one is a poetic of incommunicability that unmasks the crisis of the language set by a long cultural tradition in formalistic terms; and it is also well known that the New Figuration proposes an objectuality caught outside the intellectual filter (and therefore exempt from formalistic intentions), which, even though it makes use of photography, it would be improper to define “photographic” in the documentative or interpretative sense of the term, since it is by itself that it imposes itself on the scene, catapulting itself into the artist’s lens as if the objects were wreckage adrift.
The innovation proposed by Piero Leonardi is extremely significant. Objects, which in Ready Made and Conceptual Art, but also in Bricolage and even in Pop Art, take the upper hand, imposing themselves clamorously on the scene, begin here to be taken into consideration, to be listened to carefully, with curiosity and great emotional participation.
Leonardi asks himself: “What do objects want to communicate to us?”. He does not ask what the objects awaken in us.
Don’t miss the difference. Everything converses and dialogues, the artist wants to tell us. There is a communication in all living things, a confidential contact with Phisis. And this listening to the internal and arcane beat of creation disintegrates the prejudices about the unknowability of the itself, the undisputed cornerstone of Kantian criticism.
Inseity does not exist, if it is true that everything is related. Unless you mean that the itself is in relation with itself.
There are abysses, hidden recesses, but there is no depth that is not in relation with the surface.
The Perceptive Art of which Leonardi speaks, distinguishing it from the Documentary and Interpretive Art of the past, alludes to the osmotic capacity of a virgin and creative mind, open to the mysterious flow of life. And this is concreteness. It is not mysticism, if with this term we mean a state of mental exaltation.
There is nothing more concrete and balanced than transcendence, if overcoming limits means going beyond the field of prejudices and illusions. The mental rigor to which Kantianism rightly aspires is actually accessible only by making mental emptiness. And it is the typical attitude of every animism, of every culture that feeds on the listening of the Being, instead of the masturbations of a mind at the mercy of itself.
I repeat that the atmospheres are not mysterious, unless we reinterpret the term in more appropriate ways. Moreover, we are talking about an artist who does not disdain a playful tone, as shown by the ironic cycle of Pepperlife, which means that feeling friends with nature, or with each other, also means knowing how to laugh together.
We cannot call Structuralism into question, although this current of thought gives great importance to relationships. However, it limits them to the horizon of man, while the animistic vision of the world that we are considering here claims that all living things are in relationship.
Who authorizes us to believe that the faculty of placing or placing oneself in relation is the exclusive prerogative of human nature? Our mind, as far as it can, has the ability to know the existing connections, but that these exist even apart from human awareness is an elementary observation.
It will be said – and it is true – that to put to relate is a quality of intelligence, but can we be sure that only human beings are intelligent? What arrogance and presumption! There are different types of intelligence. Instinct is also intelligent and there is not only rational intelligence. Out of the gloomy solipsism we are invested by the fresh and vivid winds of universal communion. It is therefore on Animism that Piero Leonardi’s aesthetic proposal is modulated, as well as his model of Perceptive Art. Prudently, with great balance and sagacity, he warns that “these fantasies… have nothing scientific about them”, but this does not mean that they are chimeras.
Man has many faculties and all of them are equal in their right to grasp the truth. The scientific one is only one of the many ways. And it is, by chance, just the one from which today come the most amazing and disorienting revelations for the rational intellect.
There is no more need of artists or poets (of the so-called dreamers) to destabilize reason. All that is needed is science, which has long since set out on the paths of the impalpable, the invisible, subatomic energy, quantum, and immaterial physics.
To come back to us, it is extraordinary to observe how the innovation we are dealing with comes from that field of art (photography) traditionally considered closer to objective documentary art. All this confirms, on the one hand, the extreme realism of the animistic approach, and on the other hand, the impossibility for the photographer to access the planes of the soul by evading the objective reality in which he is immersed and by which he is surrounded. He does not create, nor does he shape the forms, as the painter or the sculptor does, but he is forced to penetrate them, to go through them, to investigate them in order to bring out their arcane message.
Before Daguerre, in 1839, succeeded in fixing images in the darkroom by means of a photochemical process, it was in some way painting that had to take on the documentary, didactic-divulgative and technical functions entrusted to images.
The birth of photography determined a real earthquake in the psychology of vision. From that moment on, painting was released from its traditional role of reproducing reality, so that the painter could begin to face things no longer driven by the desire to portray them in their formalistic qualities, but with more complex and increasingly mental aims. So much so that Baudelaire, with his symbolism strongly imbued with psychic connotations, came to revolt, disgusted and scandalized, against the technicality of the photographers.
However, it must be considered that beyond the poetics that departed from Symbolism, later embracing Surrealism, dechirican Metaphysics and part of Dadaism, it was photography that strongly influenced artistic avant-gardism. I’m thinking of the more properly dynamic aspects of contemporary art, a bit all connected with the realistic experience coming from the impressionist-expressionist area.
In that area, the close contact between the two visual disciplines must be noted. Notorious is, for example, the stimulus produced on impressionist painters by photographic images no longer linked to drawing and supported by a purer vision, made up of simple light and dark spots. But in addition to this influence, so to speak indirectly, inspired by the camera obscura, there was an artistic revolution directly brought about by photography. Photography, as Leonardi rightly points out, while continuing to carry out its documentary role, began in fact a path of interpretation of reality where the Ego and the World are no longer distinct, but merged together.
The result was an expressive form of equal dignity to other forms of visual art. Let’s think, for example, of the discovery of the “dynamic sequence” and the impulse that derived from it for Kinetic Art, Op Art and Cinematography.
There can be no doubt, in short, that the extroversive avant-gardes of contemporary art have developed a strong relationship with photography, as more generally with the techniques of the industrial world, while retaining, with respect to it, their creative autonomy. Interpretive Photography, says Leonardi, is no longer Documentary Photography linked to the figure, but is an exquisitely artistic expression, where, however, the object is still recognizable, transfigured instead by Perceptual Photography.
It is paradoxical that, in order to understand the historical genesis of Perceptual Photography, it is necessary to refer to that introverted strand of contemporary art, of which Baudelaire is a tutelary deity, which has opposed photography from the very beginning.
Due to one of those not rare ironies in the history of art and thought that displace all schematism, one of the current currents descending from Symbolism has ended up rediscovering the value of photography, assigning it an irreplaceable role of critical counterpoint and social reflection. I am referring to Pop Art, which descended from New Dada, and to the bitterly ironic climate it put into play with regard to consumerist civilization and technological-industrial culture.
The optimism for scientific culture and technological progress, experienced with great utopian impetus by the extroversive avant-gardes of the early twentieth century (first and foremost Futurism), but almost ignored by their introverted side, was thus overturned into a sort of radical pessimism about the destiny of a world dehumanized by machines.
Already in Dadaism we can observe the start of this countertendency, through the overturning of the surrealist glorification of the object and the caricature of the physical preponderance of objects themselves in today’s world. But it was especially Pop Art that, in the postmodern climate, unhinged futurist mythologies and mechanistic dreams, initiating a rich and stimulating reflection on the limits of consumer progress. And not in utopian antithesis, but in a self-critical way, from within the same technological processes, accepting every contamination.
In the 1960s, in the wake of American Pop Art, Novorealism (Nouveau Réalisme) was born in Europe, hailed by Pierre Restany as “the exciting adventure of reality perceived in itself and not through the prism of conceptual or imaginative transcription”.
To overcome every interpretative filter in order to acquire consciousness of objects as they are, in themselves. And this is, without any doubt, the first step towards the perception of which Leonardi wants to inform us.
Unlike American realism, which was all about criticizing the models and material structures of collective life, European realism, which was more sensitive to humanistic themes, nevertheless conducted an excavation into sociological reality, revealing its internal contradictions, its dramas and existential problems, its ethical implications and psychological states. A merciless vision of the world, with the accent placed on the uncomfortable inner conditions of being, on the sense of loneliness of men, no longer comparable to the anguish of classical Existentialism, where man “thrown into the world” could still feel manager of his own destiny.
In today’s reality we must record the shipwreck of the ego among the waves of the dazzling objective world, among the tangles and tentacles of the disarming megalopolitan condition. And it is this moral unease that the New Figuration wanted to highlight, penetrating into the objective reality of phenomena, into the delirious and deafening alienation of our times, which amplifies the sense of exile and nostalgia of the ego towards itself. It is here that the new course that the photographic poetics of Piero Leonardi proposes intervenes.
In order for objects not to “attack us”, it is necessary to listen to them, to let them speak. Only in this way can they not turn into hideous and ravenous monsters. Only in this way can we defend ourselves from metropolitan chaos. Leonardi says, recalling the first steps he took in the poetics of perception: “I looked at the world trying to overcome the visual impact in order to enter an essence more hidden to the superficiality of the gaze… My subject was no longer made of matter, but of sensations”.
A sort of transference, of mutual identification.
Reacting with an enrichment to the impoverishment of the spirit produced by the technological-industrial babel. Matter is only a shell; and if it is an empty shell, then it must be filled with soul. It is necessary to fill the dumb megalopolitan delirium with speaking silences.
This is how, through photography, linked by its nature to the existing (even in this perceptive phase), one can follow and pursue the soul of things.
The painter can work of pure fantasy, even prescinding from the real world. The photographer cannot: he must find the soul within things. That soul that can converse with his soul and not with his reason, with his rational ego. The more man is himself, master of his own ego, the more he acquires universal values. He can converse with the whole universe, but he cannot do so except by conversing with himself. And this is the inner awakening of his own Muse. A search that gives life -as Leonardi says- to his personal Style of View. And, as far as the photographer is concerned, to the elaboration of his unmistakable Photographic Calligraphy.
One may rightly ask how this unmistakable personality can develop in the era of the massification of images and digital photography. It seems impossible, yet -says Leonardi- the problem does not arise. Or rather, it is the problem that has always arisen with any technology. The evolution of technology does not automatically destroy the spirit, but, on the contrary, demands ever greater spiritual refinement.
“Technique alone has never been sufficient,” says Leonardi. And “the widespread diffusion of automatisms makes photographic style even more decisive in contributing to the definition of individual quality”. To this end, it may be useful to recall the critical theories of society elaborated by the philosophers of Frankfurt, with Adorno in the front row. According to him, works of art make use, in their process of formation, of those same techniques from which they are independent, since “art mobilizes the technique from the opposite line of tendency to that on which the technique is put by the domain”.
In this way, although art is influenced by the technological world, it separates itself from it and rises above the situation.
Perceptual Photography is nothing more, then and ultimately, than the search for, or revelation of, the meaning of life.