Italians speak of beautiful minds; in so doing they acknowledge and appreciate the delights and achievements of intellect and imagination. They respect the world of concept and idea.
A beautiful Italian mind was deployed in the making of a striking and luminous installation entitled ‘Between the glimpse and the gaze’. The artist and maker, Giusy Pirrotta had constructed a meticulous transcendent environment, an engaging aesthetic space that suggested new horizons both in terms of how we are contained (or liberated) in place and how we, through the cultivation of appreciative modes of perception, view the world. And for this she deserves the highest praise.
Her installation was presented in the James Hockey gallery situated at the University for the Creative Arts. The space itself was relatively large and curiously ‘total’ in the perceptual experiences that it yielded. It was ‘total’ in the sense that it reprised the early sociologies of total institutions. But in this case the space was alive with intriguing possibilities.
First, though, a partial description will help to ground the work and establish a context for identifying some of the experiential phenomena that it generated: In the first ‘phase’ of her installation large panels clothed in richly patterned botanical motifs framed the initial space. A number of ceramic objects – some as organic forms, some akin to technological artefacts, some as projectors – were placed near to or adjoining the ‘wallpaper’ panels. Beautiful discreet coloured lights animated the ceramic objects – as if they housed chromatic spirits. The objects eluded any form of fetishisation.
The initial space led on to another in which screens and sheen-laden surfaces received projections of moving and mildly hypnotic image-patterns. Again, in this ‘second’ space the intriguing ceramic objects worked as a counterpoint to the massive sensory power of the moving images.
Overall the physical structures worked like a ‘gestalt’; the whole vibrated between figure and ground. Within the enveloping, often intense, stimulation of light, space and meaning, it seemed as if a fusion of old and new was occurring: the ancient traditions of the artisan and of craft were conjoined with the genius of digitisation and the new magics of techno-power.
So, what is going on in ‘Between the glimpse and the gaze’? Well, decidely, the viewer/participant is cast into an esoteric aesthetic space. It is an aesthetic space that lies on the boundaries of both art, design, and craft, and, of cinema, colour, pattern and form; there is also the temporal dimensions of past, present and future. It integrates product design, interior design and the moving image. It’s really rather gorgeous. Sometimes, too, it impresses as a Baudrillardian simulacrum – a ‘likeness’ – a likeness to contemporary design spaces – as well as a kind of hyper-real zone privileging vision, concept and impression. But what is the emotional charge attaching to the installation event? Is it cool detachment? Is it the poetic pleasure of image/text? Is it an insouciant sense of play with the new technologies? Is it the seduction of the dreamscape? I don’t know: it’s puzzling, elusive and challenging; it’s rhythmic but sometimes empty of feeling. I’m reminded of the snazzy boutiques in the shopping malls or the coloured lights that flicker on and off in the new fitness centres – but without the music. I’m reminded, too, of the sounds of silence in which words are written on subway walls …
The title of the installation betrays the artist’s deep interest in the phenomena of perception. (I agree with Aldrich in his ‘philosophy of art’ and his emphasis on the significance of the title). She invites whoever it is that experiences her installation to pause and reflect on the relationship between time, motive, interest and the contents of consciousness. She encourages us to ask basic questions such as: ‘What do we look at?’ ‘How long do we look?’ ‘What guides our attention?’ ‘What holds our attention?’ and so on; more profoundly she invites us to ask something far more demanding: ‘What is the nature of ordinary everyday perception in contrast to appreciative aesthetic perception?’ And in this latter respect she engages with enduring questions at the heart of the philosophy of art. Inescapably her work reflects Heidegger’s insight that works of art are intrinsically intriguing and revealing because, simultaneously, they are of the earth (in their materiality) and of the world (in their rich cultural meanings).
In a less abstract sense the installation was (for me) manifestly of the now. It served as a key to the realms of Baudrillard but it also drew from the wonderful traditions of Italian cinema: light and colour were everywhere, everywhere dancing, moving, playing …
However, despite the delightful aspects of her work something disturbed me: the unsettling character of Giusy Pirrotta’s installation partly lies in the way it re-surfaces some of the critical concerns raised by writers such as Huxley and Orwell – as well as those of the first generation of radical psychologists who railed against the emerging techniques of mind and behaviour control. Huxley, for example, foresaw a world in which advances in biology, physiology, pharmacology and psychology would create societies of determined, programmed, un-free human beings, beings not even conscious that their autonomy and self-determination had been expunged. Although Huxley’s vision only partially materialised, the emergence of our contemporary techno-saturated milieu along with the astonishing reach of communications media is now so profound, it even reinforces Baudrillard’s contention that: “The human species is currently domesticating itself … by means of its technologies. It is submitting collectively to the same rituals as certain invertebrates.”
We are, bit by bit, losing our minds. Guisy Pirrotta intimates a world where we can find ourselves isolated, overwhelmed, overshadowed and distracted – left oscillating between the glimpse and the gaze.
This excellent project benefited from the masterly curation of Richard Hylton, ‘Cultural Programme’ Curator at the University for the Creative Arts, in Surrey.
I had the good fortune to attend a short talk given by the artist in the space of her installation. In fact, because the acoustics were unhelpful I had difficulties in hearing and making intelligible whatever it was that was being said. However one thing fascinated me: Giusy Pirrotta, a relatively slight and finely-cut person, was dressed in a jacket worn over what looked like a large shirt. She had long dark beautiful hair which matched her tights (or whatever it was that covered her legs). She spoke confidently and referred to many of her likes; she also referenced her original passion for cinema. But as she spoke she held in her hand – throughout – a small, almost empty, plastic bottle of water: How strange, how fascinating! I could scarcely imagine a more banal and incongruous contrast to the elaborate psycho-synthesis of her art work.