Vincenzo Agnetti’s Assioma in principio era la tesi (1969) is a work from his series of Assiomi (‘Axioms,’ 1968-1974). These absurd, paradoxical or tautological statements engraved on Bakelite panels sought, through a technique of defamiliarisation that the artist called Azzeramento (‘zeroing’), to entirely recalibrate the viewer’s approach to language and art. Staring starkly from what looks like an anodyne black plaque are the words Assioma in principio era la tesi: the phrase translates as ‘In the beginning was the theory,’ a backwards declaration that has particular relevance to Agnetti’s project. The Milanese conceptualist began his career as a poet before becoming associated with Piero Manzoni’s Azimuth group in the 1960s. The Italian avant-garde, including theorists such as Umberto Eco, were concerned during this period with the idea of ‘alienation’ in modern life. In a consumer culture, perceptual habits become mechanical: machines, disciplines and institutions are assembled in order to make behaviour routine, and genuine experience is stifled. Through his Azzeramento techniques, Agnetti aimed to upset how such systems usually function, exposing their constructed nature and intervening in their passive reception.
Agnetti’s 1967 novel Obsoleto (‘Obsolete’), whose frontispiece was designed by Enrico Castellani, made radically experimental use of textual syntax, logic, punctuation, narrative, content and form. In his seminal 1968 work La macchina drogata (‘The drugged machine’), the artist interfered in the workings of an Olivetti calculator in order to make it type letters, rather than numbers; through this strategy of interrupted process, he returned the viewer to a conscious and deliberate state of awareness, resetting expectations about the calculator’s function. With the Assiomi he sought a similar estrangement. In a state of paradox, the purpose of language is foregrounded for critique and reassessment as an instrument of power. Rather than theorising after the fact, with Assioma in principio era la tesi Agnetti puts theory first, a disorienting semiotic intervention that wryly undermines the fixity of the words he has engraved. Indeed, the work’s undulating surface and two metal eyelets also lend it the appearance of a curtain – no solid monument, but a veil to be swept aside, awakening us to a world of possibilities beyond the illusory systems that we rely on so blindly.