ON THE INEFFABILITY OF EMILIO PRINI’S ART
by Luca Lo Pinto
Amongst the protagonists of Arte Povera, Emilio Prini certainly was the most enigmatic and elusive figure. Few are the traces that the artist has left behind. In this text, originally published in “Flash Art International” in 2016, The Artistic Director of MACRO, Luca Lo Pinto, follows some of these clues and tries to retrace, through the subtle scraps amongst Prini’s works, the traits of an intellectual stance which was also rigorous and difficult to catch.
Emilio Prini is one of the most complex and enigmatic figures of his time. He is the Giorgione of the twentyfirst century. Like the great Venetian artist, his appearance in the world of art was astounding. He made his debut in 1967, contributing to the birth of one of the most influential art movements of the second half of the twentieth century, Arte Povera. Germano Celant invited him to participate in the exhibition Arte Povera–Im Spazio at Galleria La Bertesca, in Genoa, although his art had never been shown before. Until 1974 he participated in the most significant exhibitions of the period (Op Losse Schroeven, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1969; When Attitudes Become Form, Kunsthalle Bern, 1969; Konzeption/Conception, Stadtisches Museum, Leverkusen, 1969; Information, MoMA, New York, 1970; Contemporanea, Villa Borghese, Rome, 1973), but subsequently he reduced his exhibitions to a minimum. Documentation of his work is scarce. There is no catalogue raisonné or even an interview. Prini is a precious but evasive asset. A grandiose artist who never adapted to the codes of the art system, forcing it to adapt to him with a tenacity that is unparalleled. Prini is truly a warrior of Time and History.
.Like Caravaggio, he works without a preliminary sketch, but with the manic intensity of Poussin. Nothing is casual. The title, the caption, the lettering, the placement, the architecture, the light, the color of the space where the work is placed, the size and type of paper upon which the work is reproduced in the catalogue. Each element has a value because it exists, consequently nothing can be considered irrelevant. Everything contributes to creating an equilibrium.
.Like poetry, Prini’s art cannot be explained. It is ineffable. He introduced a limited number of ideas and works which that he continued and still continues to develop, re-elaborate and modify, remodelling them like a living material that has not yet become fixed. At times this takes the form of minimal gestures, such as revising a date, changing a title, isolating a detail of an image, photographing a finished work or rebuilding it. Consequently, the authorship, originality and uniqueness of the work are all questioned. It is a method of working comparable to that of a composer who incessantly rewrites the same score with subtle variations, well aware that even a simple repetition implicates the idea of a difference. Prini’s works are artist’s proofs that aspire to never become finalized — they are works in which, as Piero Manzoni claimed, time is the only dimension.
.Prini was very prolific between the years of 1967 and 1972, though most of the works he conceived he would not exhibit until later (those of partial disappearance), while others would remain hypotheses on paper (those of total disappearance).
.There were notes, instructions, formulas and nursery rhymes (some published in Pallone magazine, some in the book Arte Povera and some on sheets of notebook paper at his Galleria La Bertesca solo exhibition in 1968) that expressed central concepts such as the idea of the void, of duration, of space/image relationships and the notion of variability within a given absolute.
.Some annotations were pressed into a sheet of lead that weighed as much as his arm. Some of these phrases included: «I read Alice in Wonderland»; «I’ve laid a trap for Alice»; «I walked a long way on the road. My body was photographed at five fixed points»; «I walked up a hilly street»; «I daubed the pavement with brown aniline. It wore off»; «I obtained a movement»; «Another hypothesis on the void.»
.It was a retrospective in advance. Prini wrote his own History before he lived it. A corollary that condensed the works of a lifetime. A fascinating scientific experiment in which various elements appear and disappear in different states, changing, cancelling and recreating themselves in a continuous flow. A good example is Fermacarte [Paperweight] (1968): a stacked group of black-and-white photographs (portraying the artist in “typical everyday actions” such as jumping, walking, going down stairs, etc.) with a piece of lead on top as a paperweight. The weight of the lead matched his own weight. A conceptual piece, but with a pictorial quality that recalled Boccioni and Bacon. After being exhibited at Galleria La Bertesca, the work was proposed again in many variants: with a different combination of photographs; with total or partial coverage of the silhouette with the lead; as a photograph of the same.
.In another note, Prini referred to «the idea of a plaster cast as the dimension of what is not represented» and further observed that «the size of the body is proportional to all/the sizes/the distances.» In Passi [Steps] (1967) he reproduced his own steps with geometric wooden elements. Other explorations of the idea of volume and void include an occasion when he signed the white floor of an empty room in a gallery with a blue felt-tipped marker. He cited Klein (the blue) and Manzoni (the signature) together to surpass them. In 2007, he presented an empty room in Rome. If Klein made the void into a work of art, Prini exhibited it and accepted it for what it was. A void is a physical condition. It is not art. It is authentic and cannot be copied. In 1971, in the catalogue of the Arte Povera exhibition at Kunstverein München, he left the pages dedicated to him blank. Four years later, Michael Asher did the opposite by gluing in two blank pages as his contribution to Vision magazine.
.Projects for possible films to shoot also appear among the written forms of communication. In the Bolaffi Arte ’70 catalogue, on one of the two pages dedicated to him, he published an image of two photos that reproduced the nape of a person along with this caption: «Shoot a close-up of the nape and the open world for one hour, following the direction of the wind as it changes. Add a soundtrack about energy. Add a fixed subtitle. Shoot different napes in different wind conditions.»
.In another catalogue, he published the project for an eight-minute TV film with the following indications:
Shoot a sunny day darkened by the close-up finger and the surrounding open void, following the rotation of the earth/of the sun/Move the camera generally/Shoot 12 hours to show in four minutes/Invisibility of the duration/Light thickness/Eclipse of the source/Shadow on the eye of the man.
Shoot a night the moon obscured by the closeup finger and the surrounding open void, following the rotation of the earth/of the moon/ of the sun/Move the camera/Shoot 12 hours to show in four minutes/Invisibility of the duration/Light thickness/Eclipse of the source and the reflecter/Shadow on the eye of the man.
.Prini adds nothing, he subtracts on the scale of Michelangelo. He works with a limited, almost invisible, perfectly calibrated intent that completely eliminates the “actions of an artist.”
.In 1970, his contribution to the Processi di pensiero visualizzati [Visualized thought processes] exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Luzern consisted of a telegram reading, «Confermo partecipazione mostra» [Confirm participation in the exhibition].
.In the same year, in a special issue of the British magazine Studio International, edited by Seth Siegelaub, the artist published an exchange of telegrams between himself, Jean Christophe Ammann (curator of the exhibition in Lucerne), Kynaston McShine (curator of MoMA’s Information exhibition) and Tucci Russo (at the time an assistant at Gian Enzo Sperone’s gallery), presenting it as a comedy for four actors. The telegrams sent by Prini again declaimed «Confermo partecipazione mostra».
.All that remains of a book project entitled Confermazione Partecipazione Edizione [Confirmation Participation Edition], which was to be edited by Germano Celant and published by Gian Enzo Sperone in 1971 (it was never realized), is a draft for the cover.
.Many of Prini’s works defy perception. They suggest a vision of reality that is simultaneously analytical and highly imaginative, obtaining the greatest result with the least effort.
.In 1975, for example, he produced an extraordinarily lifelike portrait of Napoleon using only the O and comma keys of a typewriter. Earlier, he had made hundreds of drawings using an Olivetti 22 typewriter and standard A4 sheets of paper. These small masterpieces appear to be the outcome of a sensual combination of mathematical formulas, architectural designs, visual poetry and musical scores.
.Such means of working and living resisted methods of historicization and the tools of interpretation; they also made commercialization and distribution of his output very difficult.
.A path suspended between the laws of physics and the singularity of vision, between the standard and the variable, in which the work is conceived as an empirical verification, and aesthetics are developed through the relations of a series of data extracted from reality.
.In September 2009, invited to participate in an international conference on Documenta organized by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev at Castello di Rivoli (Turin), Prini sent his friend Anna Butticci to represent him, giving her the task of presenting a reading of all the information contained in the letter of invitation (including the letterhead, sender, recipient, address, postal code, etc.). It was an even more radical form of tautology than that adopted by Joseph Kosuth. In fact, Prini pushes such gestures so far that they are difficult to categorize as artwork, performance or lecture. If Kosuth reflected on the definition of an artistic object, Prini redefined the role of art and the artist in an almost alchemical fashion.
.Years ago he declared, «I have no program, I grope my way, I see no trace of the birth of Art (nor of Tragedy) because the C.S. is not the fruit of pure human work (because I did not make the chair, the table, the sheet of paper, the pen I use to write). I create nothing, if possible.»
.His fascination with the concept of “standard” is thus hardly surprising. Standard (1967) is a 6.5 meter bar of aluminum profile for variable placement, the configuration being dependent on the space in which it is situated. In 1967, it was placed in Galleria La Bertesca to be photographed. In 1973, it was installed in Galleria Toselli. A conventional tool of measurement that contradicts itself because it changes depending on the space.
.The artist’s attitude to consider every work openended is evident in every exhibition or catalogue in which he has participated, including the most recent. In the Arte Povera 2011 exhibition curated by Germano Celant across several Italian institutions, Prini was one of the few Arte Povera participants to present a previously unexhibited work. Both at Castello di Rivoli (Turin) and at MAMbo in Bologna, he displayed the exhibition catalogue of the event itself, placed on the floor, opened to the pages about himself; the public was invited to browse through the publication and wear it out. The title of this work is Arte Povera 2011, Electa, Milan 2011, pp. 554–557. Again in this case, it was a variant of an earlier project proposed to curator Rolf Wedewer for the exhibition Konzeption/Conception in 1969. As he had written in a letter, «For the exhibition, open the catalogue to the pages of the project/put it on a transparent base of the right height for reading and the right dimension for the catalogue/allow people to leaf through it entirely.»
.In this case, the artifact being worn out is a book, but on other occasions there have been other technological devices such as a camera (Magnete [Magnet], 1968) and a tape recorder (STANDARD, 1969). Continuous use of these objects leads to their self-destruction. The mechanical repetition of every gesture (including artistic), image, word or object leads to disappearance, to annulment. The work ethic produces its negation.
.At the present, in a world dominated by the hyperproduction and consumption of images and objects, Prini’s artistic and intellectual position, based on continuously interrogating the need for production, has thus become indispensible.
Prini is still on the move, erasing his points of passage on the map, meanwhile presenting himself like a mocking clown hidden in the shadow of art. The mask to hide another self, both identical and alien.
.Lisa Ponti, daughter of the great Giò, who shared the adventures of many artists, once said to me regarding Emilio: «When I met him, above all I was amazed by his severity and absolutism. The point is that he must be and not be at the same time. Another would have said, “I want to be in a visible position.” He, on the other hand, wanted to be almost invisible but definitely present.»
Text originally published in “Flash Art International”, n. 306.