Laura Grisi: The Measuring of Time

In this essay, excerpted from the volume Laura Grisi. The Measuring of Time, the first retrospective monograph dedicated to the artist, critic and curator Marco Scotini traces the work and innovative vision of Laura Grisi, the protagonist of the exhibition Cosmogonie, on view through August 25, 2024. 

Make 100 different people say the same 4 words. [1] 

1969. Laura Grisi creates a cubic room that is completely white[2]. In theory, this is nothing more than the pure encirclement of a space. On the walls, a white fluorescence reflects the luminous radiations on an increased wave length, while a thin neon tube – with an even more intense light – runs around the entire perimeter of the room, highlighting the joints of walls, ceiling and floor. There is no desire to give any form to the space and, even less, to define any image inside it. 

The glimmer of light in the environment is anything but the sign of something. As the artist says: “it modifies its volume only by one cubic centimeter less” [3]. In reality, the effect it produces is the dematerialization of the walls, transforming the space into an undefined and limitless site: in other words, deprived of a frame. No images, nor any other thing, appears to those who cross the room, so much so that one might think that there is nothing – here – other than an absence. Nonetheless, thanks to the neon light, a sort of whitish (diaphanous and transparent) dust permeates the environment defining a body that is both dense and elusive. Anything but a sign of emptiness, this aerial matter, that eludes appearance, is rather a condition (the medium) thorough which everything can be made visible, tangible, audible – except itself. And possibly, by being too evident, this invisible support of everything that appears is always disregarded, omitted, removed from our thoughts. What is so enigmatic, in this place, that makes its foundations disappear from view? 

The element that can be perceived without manifesting itself is nothing other than air – this unapparent resource, that we can take as the latest given by Laura Grisi’s artistic research, of her cosmology. It is a subject which the artist approaches, between the 1960s and 70s, through successive approximations, asymptotic progressions, imperfect translations of the original: without ever providing a material mold or duplicate.  The artist is well aware that air (its uninterrupted becoming) is not objectivable, locatable, cannot be reduced to a presence: if not at the cost of it passing into oblivion. In this sense, the entirety of her work appears as a gargantuan effort to account for the breadth, the unlimited nature, the imperceptible, as well as the endless proliferation of all “the possible”. Nonetheless, her practice departs from precise constraints, paradoxical gaps, different linguistic and semiotic limitations: from all that knowledge that has led the male and western theoretical presidium to the domination of nature and the oblivion of air. 

Far from the mystical nature of Yves Klein’s Immaterieller Raum (made in Krefeld in 1961), and equally from the psychologism of the Californian Light & Space movement’s contemporary environments (Doug Weeler, Robert Irwin and James Turrell, amongst others), Laura Grisi’s Volume of Air is an environment at degree zero of life. Air is present as a limitlessly available medium, everywhere. But, above all, as the basic element of organic existence and sensorial experience that we pass through and by which, analogously, we are passed through. In this way, a dynamic system of flows and forces becomes the site of all the events that, uninterruptedly, feed and define the world in which we live, in contrast to the solid and inert terrain on which classic, western thought locates the materiality of things.  

It is no surprise, therefore, that this environment only represents a phase – however paradigmatic – in the cycle of metamorphosis through which Laura Grisi gives space to the atmosphere, to its changes of pressure, temperature, evaporation, condensation, etc. Or, rather, it represents only one out of all the instances where the artist uses the atmosphere as the generator of spaces, giving rise to a series of environments in which natural phenomena are artificially reproduced and transposed from outside to inside exhibition spaces – all responses to the different impacts of the climatic conditions she encountered at diverse latitudes. The wind is central to her intervention for the Teatro delle mostre at the La Tartaruga gallery in 1968 and to a 16 mm black and white film made in the same year. Fog appears, together with luminous columns, in 1969 in the courtyard of the Marlborough Gallery in Rome; rain is presented in Grisi’s solo exhibition at the Galerie E. M. Thelen in Cologne in 1970. On the other hand, the whirlpool is the subject of a 16mm color film projected onto the floor inside a circular space [4]. But, once again, it is the medial nature of air that Grisi visualizes in the optical, auditory and sensorial effects to which it gives rise. The rainbow recreates, inside a room, “all the colors of the spectrum that the air, which is colorless, lets pass through” [5]. In her 1970 solo exhibition at the Galerie E. M. Thelen, refraction is obtained using light and the insertion of aluminum tubes into circular, transparent and opaque, basins of water. Lastly, stars are the effect of diffraction when high intensity sources of light encounter and perforate a lead plate. The theater of this event was the environment Luce + Calore = Tempo di Fusione that Grisi created in 1970 at the Milan Galleria del Naviglio. These are all chapters from a broader, yet incomplete, project, given that the artist promised, but unfortunately never produced, further stages – “there will also be hail, and the condensation and cooling of air”[6]. “I didn’t want a painting or a sculpture containing air, earth, or water.”  – the artist commented in differentiating her work from Arte Povera – “I didn’t want air, earth, or water to become objects. I wanted to recreate the experience of natural phenomena”[7].  Neither reifying it as an artistic object, nor as the exclusive subject of scientific knowledge, for Grisi, air is more broadly a vital, shared medium. It is the invisible dense space between two subjects, that relates the whole with itself. It is the fluid casing (the virtual) that keeps things alive and makes them recognizable, that allows them to be perceived each time as different and singular, evading the unequivocal meanings or codifications attributed to them. The feminist theorist, Luce Irigaray, speaks explicitly on this subject: “Is not the air the whole of our habitation as mortals? Is there a dwelling more vast, more spacious, or even more generally peaceful than that of air? Can man live elsewhere than in air?”[8].  However, here the question doubles up. For what reason should the vital function of breathing remain outside Grisi’s encounter with air, given that it is the unequivocal condition of existence? And, is there any other sign that, more than the voice, is the direct emanation of breath? Of its urgency? 

When Grisi began to record the micro-sounds of nature in 1971, she wrote the following instructions for the execution of her piece in one of her type-written texts: Make 100 different people say the same 4 words and record them. Listen at reduced speed. With every enunciation, the voice always surpasses the word. The immaterial caliber of the voice keeps the semiotic equivocality of what is said alive, it singularizes and renews it, it makes it exist. It nullifies its univocal nature and opens up an unforeseen field of possibilities.  

Thus, beginning with Volume of Air, a rereading of Laura Grisi’s artistic and cultural profile provides us with a two-fold opportunity. On the one hand, it allows us to perceive the more conceptual turn of her work not as a bifurcation (the infamous eclecticism) but as continuity with respect to her previous activity, liberating us from all those normative canons that have made her placing (when she hasn’t been excluded) so difficult within the hegemonic and universalizing narrative of a modernist and male-oriented historiography. On the other hand, it forces us to recognize air (and its forms) as a typical trait (a paradigmatic shift?) of the inscription of the artistic activity in the feminine, that escapes the normative assumptions of visual identification.  

There is no wish to bridge any gaps with the return of a female artist to the official history that decreed her exclusion. The purpose is the deconstruction of the Art History parameters in order to pluralize the narratives, the representations, the differences. This then permits a whole genealogy of works in which Grisi’s research appears as pioneering to emerge: the Atmospheres (1968-1971) series by Judy Chicago, City of Clouds (1968) by Maria Nordman, Structures of Air (1970) by Teresa Burga, Rhythm 4 (1974) by Marina Abramovic through Be Careful With What You Wish For (1998) by Monica Bonvicini, A Wind Woman (2003) or To Breathe – A Mirror Woman (2006) by Kimsooja, Structure for Communicating with Wind (2012) by Celine Condorelli. And the list could probably go on. However, is Laura Grisi herself (like all the female artists of her generation) not ultimately proof of an absence within history of art, despite being part of it?   There are many aspects in her work that undoubtedly define an alternative to the patriarchal order, and a rejection of a solid and measurable cognitive basis, the decentralization of the creator subject, an opposition to chrononormativity and privileging listening over enunciation[9]. Within a multiplicity of activities that take the “journey” (from remote locations crossed to the variety of media used) as their fundamental condition, Laura Grisi embodies a sort of stateless and nomadic female subject who defies the politics of identity, the univocal nature of representation and the unidirectionality of time. It is the urgency of themes such as gender, ecology and inter-culturalism that currently determines the contemporary nature of her rediscovery that goes far beyond the conceptual nature of her work. In Grisi, the tension between the macro and the micro-scale, between the given and the possible, (the law and chance, the universal and the particular, the past and the future) is presented each time by means of a radical policy of paying attention to the minimal, the marginal, the zero degrees: four pebbles, the sound of drops of water, the color of mango leaves, the direction of the wind, the perceptive passage between sensations, the sounds produced by the movement of ants on the earth. Such extreme attention is always the subject of an anthropological ritual whose cultural coordinates escape us: counting grains of sand, measuring the strength of the wind, distilling sensorial perceptions, re-photographing with a different lens pictures already taken, switching things and objects, listening to the inaudible. It’s as if the incommensurable is always the latest given (the unforeseen outcome) of a tireless measuring process where signs and languages are nothing more than the initial limits of the possible. “Her work – as Lucy Lippard wrote in 1979 – is poised between possible alternatives and the lack of alternatives. She usually choses the permutational system and then accepts the consequences”[10].  

If it is true that Laura Grisi’s work exposes us to an ecology of the virtual[11], this is not because it contains an aspiration to abstraction but, on the contrary, due to an adherence to the physicality of the experience that calls representation into question. Is Volume of’Air not something that requires the sensorial participation of the observer? Is it not proposing a presence that, as such, balks at being photographed?[12] 



[1] The titles of the five sections of the essay are quotes from a textual work by Laura Grisi on display in the Rome exhibition, Mappa 72, curated by Incontri Internazionali d’Arte, Palazzo Taverna, Rome 20 November – 18 December 1972.  The title of the third section is the only exception and is taken from the artist book Distillations: Three Months of Looking, Edizioni Artestudio Macerata, 1970.. 

[2] Volume d’Aria was created for the exhibition Nuovi Materiali, Nuove Tecniche, Caorle 1969. The only time it was reconstructed was for the exhibition Artificial Nature, curated by Jeffrey Deitch and produced by the Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, The House of Cyprus, Athens 1990. 

[3] Laura Grisi, L’aria è la certezza visiva di uno spazio, in Qui – Arte Contemporanea 6, Rome, September 1969. The text was previously published in the catalogue of the Nuovi Materiali, Nuove Tecniche exhibition.  

[4] The film, Whirlpool, was shown with the title Gorgo at the Rome Quadriennale 1973 and re-shown at the exhibition The Measuring of Time, Muzeum Susch 2021. It is a video projection onto the floor of a 16mm color film that covers the entire surface of the environment and reproduces a circular whirlpool into which the public is invited to enter. Once in the center of this virtual, atmospheric condition (with changing color and concentric speed), totally sucked into the vertiginous depth of the vortex, the spectators cease to perceive themselves as outside the phenomenon.  They begin to feel themselves as part of a process that it is difficult to stop, to bring back to meters and measurements. This permanent flow does not simply alter the conditions of perceptive stability of the environment, disenchanting our sense of orientation. Neither does it limit itself to contrasting the spatial limits of the exhibition room with the limitless transformation of natural phenomena. The fundamental aspect of this work lies in placing us face to face with a basic dilemma: that thought, per se, is movement, the inexhaustible equipment of a nomadic being.  

[5] Laura Grisi in Essay-Interview by Germano Celant in Laura Grisi. A Selection of Works with Notes by the Artist, Rizzoli International Publications, New York 1990, p.31 

[6] Laura Grisi, L’aria è la certezza visiva di uno spazio, op.cit. 

[7] Laura Grisi, Essay-Interview by Germano Celant, op. cit., p. 24 

[8] Luce Irigaray, The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger, trans. Mary Beth Mader (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 8. The text was originally published in 1983 in French. Irigaray’s text is liberally used here.  

[9] This is not to judge Laura Grisi’s adhesion or otherwise to the feminist movement but to highlight the inherency of orientations and practices of subjugation to the frameworks of epistemological gender reference in the 1970s. The politics of listening as a moment privileged over enunciation, is not only the subject of the feminism of difference but also and principally of Carla Lonzi. On chrononormativity, see, however, Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds. Queer temporalities, queer histories, Duke University Press, Durham 2010, p. 3. 

[10] Lucy R. Lippard, Intricate Structure/Repeated Image, Philadelphia: Tyler School of Art, Temple University 1979 

[11] It is Felix Guattari who talks of an ‘ecology of the virtual’ in L’oralità macchinica e l’ecologia del virtuale, Caosmosi (1992), Costa & Nolan, Genova 1996, pp. 88-97. 

[12] Robert Barry had created photographs of his Inert Gas Series (1969) in the Mohave Desert but precisely to demonstrate that they would not provide any visual evidence. Nonetheless, in contrast to Grisi’s work, the Inert Gas Series does not provide for any physical presence or interaction with the spectator.