Since the late 1960s, Emilio Prini has exerted a very strong influence on artists, critics and curators, yet he nonetheless remains an enigmatic figure in the pantheon of Arte Povera and early conceptual art practices. This is perhaps due to the fact that, more so than many other artists over the years, Prini has worked through the radical implications of dematerialization, keeping his involvement in exhibitions to a minimum in an apparent fulfilment of Duchamp’s prediction that ‘the great artist of tomorrow will go underground’. Indeed, building on Duchamp’s own seeming withdrawal from the scene of art, Prini really did not cultivate many relationships with the art world at large after 1971; that is, after the end of an initial very intense period of production which saw him participate in almost every founding or constituent exhibition of Arte Povera, as well as landmark art shows like Kynaston McShine’s Information, Harald Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form, and Wim Beeren and Edy de Wilde’s Op Losse Schroeven in Amsterdam, which opened one month before Szeemann’s show, and for which Prini undertook a legendary train journey.
Prini’s career has been marked by a consequent resistance to the overexposure of the art world; as he once stated, ‘I don’t create if it is possible’. The most radical gesture, he suggests, is simply to refuse to fulfil the demands of the art world for merchandisable product; to refuse to play a part in the reproduction of the market. He regards the only existent catalogue on his work, published on the occasion of a 1995 Strasbourg exhibition entitled Fermi in Dogana, as problematic and resisted many other attempts to publications.
Since I began to meet with Prini regularly on my visits to Rome during the 1990s, I have closely followed the trajectory of his practice, at Documenta X in 1997, as well as at shows in Frankfurt, Berlin and at the Villa Medici in Rome, where Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Laurence Bossé and myself invited Prini to measure the space. It is clear from these shows that Prini has never repeated an idea; that his practice is the opposite of routine, and that every exhibition he does is an invention. Prini resists capitalising on these inventions, and refuses to turn his ideas into a production line of artworks, to spin out an endless series of recognisable objects. There is no ‘Prini brand’. Though it might at first glance appear that Prini has not been a prolific artist, in fact his practice has been marked by a remarkable succession of truly original ideas, of genuine artistic inventions.
In any case, the relatively long gaps between these inventions – Prini’s charged moments of pauses, intervals and silences – are also very interesting, and his resistance to the commodification of the art object and to historicization, and especially his emphasis on the temporality and transience of exhibitions as artistic encounters, has clearly been of huge importance to the most exciting younger artists to have emerged during the as well as having been a key inspiration for my own efforts to consider, emphasise and extend the priority of time over space in the production of exhibitions, especially in my Do It project of repeatable instructions and recipes, which was initiated with Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, and Il Tempo del Postino, which I have curated with Philippe Parreno for the Manchester International Festival which toured to the theatre in Basel with Art Basel and the Beyeler Foundation.
Despite my prior familiarity with Prini’s work, his recent exhibition, La Pimpa il Vuoto, at Galleria Giorgio Persano in Torino during the autumn of 2008, was a complete revelation. For this show, Prini appropriated a series of still frames from the legendary Italian children’s cartoon Pimpa, created by Francesco Tullio Altan, and instructed that these similarly-sized, enlarged images be installed at the Gallery Giorgio Persano at eye level along the otherwise bare white walls of the empty gallery. Appropriation is not the correct word to describe Prini’s operation here, however, since, in opposition to the usual process of artistic appropriation, whereby elements of the appropriated original are amplified, exaggerated, enlarged or subjected to a subversion of some sort, where the slightest formal changes unlock the most divergent of readings, Prini’s Pimpa undergoes a strict and highly economical subtraction.
No new meaning is offered. Even in Situationist or Situationistderived acts of détournement, these parodic and ironic aspects are mobilised towards the production of some critical excess. Subversion is only subversion because, in some sense, it exceeds in significance that which is subverted. Subversion is, in essence, excessive. But here, as Prini revealed to me in our recent interview in Rome – our first in about ten years – ‘people don’t see (the gallery) as empty, but it is empty … cartoons mean nothing as art; Altan’s cartoons, as art, do not exist.’
La Pimpa il Vuoto is an artistic paradox, an act of addition in order to mark a subtraction. In effect, Prini’s Torino work is the opposite of our standard collective myths of artistic alchemy: he turns something into nothing.
The title of the exhibition inevitably invites associations with the great master of the void, Yves Klein, and Prini has told me that his intention with the work was to develop and go beyond Klein, who died prematurely. With Altan’s cartoon frames on the gallery walls, even the spiritual pregnancy of Klein’s loaded metaphysical gestures is erased. The spiritual is undercut by the empty thereness of the images. We are left with nothing, but only because something is unquestionably there. The show almost went untitled, but after many months of deliberation, Prini and Persano settled on La Pimpa il Vuoto, in order, perhaps, to both emphasise Prini’s historical engagement with Klein as well as to prepare visitors for the profound and unsettling emptiness at the heart of the work.
How does Prini subtract in this work? How are the elements arranged so as to effect their own cancellation? Most obviously, all traces of colour have been removed from Altan’s cartoon images, and we must not forget that a bold, almost overwhelming use of colour is one of the most memorable aspects of the Pimpa cartoon. Also, the individual frames differ from one another to only the slightest degree-engagement with the work begins as a matter of attending to the slightest differences amid the repetition. In every frame, the titular dog, Pimpa, appears in profile, invariably staring at his master Armando, who returns the gaze. Prini’s general pessimism is here underscored by humour: perhaps it has always been easier for human beings to talk to dogs than to talk to other people? Perhaps this even remains the case today, despite the opportunities that virtual exchange on the Web supposedly presents for avoiding the awkwardness and uncertainty of face-to-face interaction. Nevertheless, the exchanges here between Pimpa and Armando are unfathomable:
‘Pimpa: Today I windsurfed / Armando: But there was no wind’ Action, undercut by absence. Empty ciphers of conversational
exchange above two empty ciphers of character. Speech bubbles appear at the top of each frame, dominating each panel but nevertheless given over to nothingness. Prini even goes as far as to say that La Pimpa il Vuoto ‘is not really a ‘work’ of mine – it’s something artistic that I like’.
However, if the viewer here creates the work, it does not finally belong to him or her. Instead, it disappears. Like the architectural proposals of the great visionary Cedric Price, whose slow-burning but profound influence on a younger generation of architects and thinkers is comparable to Prini’s in the field of art, the work emphasises its own transience, harnessing uncertainty and conscious incompleteness. There is a potentiality in Prini’s practice, but it exists at the edges, rather than at the centre, of the work itself. It exists at the point where Prini’s production once again becomes dormant, at the point where it returns to, or rather re-traces, the possibilities of silence on the margins of the artistic field, where all that has been revealed in the artworks themselves is finally yet more silence. The transience of La Pimpa il Vuoto, its promise to disappear without having first fully revealed itself to us, is suggested by an explanation of sorts that Prini gave to me: ‘It’s like putting make-up on the emptiness of the gallery’.
An enigmatic artist, difficult and prickly. A highly sophisticated artist, as acute as he is unpredictable, as poetic as sarcastic, as melancholy as pungent. In Prini, opposites brush against each other and merge. Perhaps no other artist has succeeded in exerting this special fascination on me: my pursuit of his strange, different work provides me with a particular excitement. In front of a work by Prini, I can't resist: there is always inside (or behind) it a mystery that is concealed, a convoluted thought - convincing nevertheless in its logic - that grabs my mind and holds it prisoner. I exercise my intuition to the utmost, simply to arrive at some faint trace that he has left intentionally, to grasp what I refer to as "the vital breath of his things".
A great conceptual artist who also reveals himself in his small/ immense fragments and pushes you to go beyond, not along his path, but along that which you have succeeded in making your own. The album with three photographs is an extremely rare work, highly intriguing and documented. On the first two pages, inside the cover, a simple inscription written with "double" pencil, in other words two inscriptions that are the same, parallel, which follow each other, word for word. One written by Prini, in his contorted writing, all in capital letters, and the other that retraces the phrase in clear lower case letters, almost as if to facilitate the reading of the message (it is the writing of a third party, to whom Prini probably assigned the task in his presence). The writing, as concise as it is meaningful, sets out the artist's programme: "Con queste tre fotografie chiudo un mio periodo creativo e apro una mostra. Emilio Prini 1968 Genova" (With these three photographs I bring to a close a creative period of mine and open an exhibition.) (Galleria La Bertesca).
The three original vintage photos follow, and refer to specific works by Prini, reproduced in the first rare Catalogo di Arte Povera in 1969, curated by Germano Celant. The titles of the three photos certainly don't help to understand their meaning: Introduzione alle statue (Introduction to Statues); 79 Giorni alla statua (79 Days at the Statue); Fermacarte (Particolare) (Paperweight [detail]). Lead weights arranged on various large format photos, on which the lead ends up covering the subject portrayed and, at the same time, acts as a "paperweight" to hold the photo down. The shadow of Prini's body, or parts of his body, intervenes in the final photos, contained in the album.
Many of Prini's works/projects were conceived to be photographed. A method he finds congenial, focusing more on the image than the object, always revocable, casual, different, which becomes more meaningful, in the artist's eyes, when transformed in a photograph. Prini's works are not simply definable as abstract or unreal, they seem suspended somewhere between the symbolic and the real, between language and experience. With the notion of "subtraction" that is central to his work.
Apart from the three photos, the album is empty. Can the collector enter a work of this kind, and give it something of himself, of his own perceptive ability? I believe so. The transparent film that covers every page that is empty, waiting to receive other photos, is reflective: the images that we can glimpse there (if we wish) are those of ourselves, shadows projected into Prini's mysterious imaginary world, which propels us beyond the simple reality of things.