Giovanni Anselmo's Poetry of Energy and Space
A key exponent of Arte Povera when it first emerged in Italy in the late 1960s, Giovanni Anselmo’s work functions on a fascinating borderline between the visible and the invisible - between the world of our day-to-day reality and that of the ever-present but unseen elemental forces and energies that determine this reality and hold it in their sway. Both invoking and making use of unseen and universal energies such as torsion, gravity, magnetism and perhaps most of all, time - often in the sense of what physicists refer to as ‘deep time’- Anselmo creates works of art that both reflect and operate within this universal context, acting as a kind of bridge between our understanding of an infinite cosmos and our daily, individual, human experience of the specific and the here and now. In this way, Anselmo’s work presents both a poetic and enlightening view of the human experience of the world as a unique, tense and febrile balance constantly being renegotiated between these two differing poles of understanding, between the detail and the whole, the finite and the infinite, the visible and the invisible.
It is therefore fitting of this consistent characteristic of all Anselmo’s creations, that the origins of his entire aesthetic practice over the last half century lie in a similarly simultaneously ‘specific and universal’ event that took place on the slopes of the volcano Mount Stromboli at dawn on the 16th August 1965. It was at this precise moment in space and time that Anselmo, who had been climbing the volcano, stopped to have his photograph taken. Standing in a place on the Earth that is itself a rare meeting point of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, and at a time when the rising sun on the horizon was lower in the sky than where he, Giovanni Anselmo, was standing on the steaming volcanic island, Anselmo found that he had no shadow. His shadow was, he soon realized, effectively being projected by the rising sun into the sky, thereby rendering it both invisible and infinite. Suddenly, in a moment of revelation, Anselmo saw that his shadow - the thing that he normally recognized as evidence of his existence and identity on the surface of the earth - was now actively connecting him to the infinity of space. ‘My own person,’ he noted ‘via the invisible shadow, came into contact with the light, the infinite.’ (Giovanni Anselmo, quoted in Giovanni Anselmo, exh. cat., Basel, 1979, p. 15).
This sudden, unexpected feeling of cosmic integration led Anslemo, as Tacita Dean has written, to understand his position in the universe and the future nature and function of his art. ‘As an artist,’ Dean has written, ‘he knew he could no longer represent it by standing a little way back and looking at it head-on, but would henceforth work from within, as an integrant in the invisible storm of connective energies that was raging above and below him on the tarry slopes of Stromboli.’ (Tacita Dean, Giovanni Anselmo, exh. cat., Bologna 2006, p.193).
Anselmo’s first creative response to this transforming epiphany on Stromboli was to make, between 1965 and 1969, a series of works in which materials and objects were set into a specific state of tension that reflected their existence as an activation of unseen energies. The first of these, made in 1966 comprised solely of wooden blocks into which he screwed long, thin metal rods. These rods were cut to the maximum possible length to still be able to remain upright in the small blocks. Hovering on the edge of stability in a way that infused these usually static forms with an animated, almost human sense of life and singularity, any disturbance in the air around these rods - caused by the presence of a viewer for example - would make them tremble. The traditional sculptural object had here been ‘reduced to a minimum’, Anselmo asserted, existing now, ‘only as a function of tension, of energy.’ (Anselmo quoted in R. Lumley, Arte Povera, London, 2004, p. 50).
Anselmo followed these works in 1967 with his Direzione (‘Directions’). This ongoing series of works comprised essentially of singular rough-hewn granite blocks that are aligned in whatever space they are set with the direction of the needle of a compass that the artist had inserted into them. Once again uniting the specific and the universal, these works, Anselmo said, begin where they stand and ‘end where the earth’s magnetic fields begin, in the centre of the earth...that in turn link us to other poles and centres of the universe. He used stone he said, because ‘the universe is not only bulk but also weight.’ (Giovanni Anselmo, quoted in Data, no. 2, Milan, 1972, pp. 54-61) Anselmo also uses granite because it is among the oldest and most durable of materials, indicative of deep time and also of the impermanence of even the most solid of materials.
In this way, as Daniel Soutif has written of such works, ‘Anselmo’s space’ becomes a ‘space in which directions and forces are sensitized. Whether it is a matter of torsion, magnetism or gravity, Anselmo produces situations in which energy literally becomes the organizer of the space in which it is stored.’ (Daniel Soutif, The Act of Power or Suspended Time, 1985 in Carolyn Christov Bakargiev ed., Arte Povera, London 1999, p. 235) Indeed, for Anselmo everything is energy. Matter, and thought are energy and even space is defined by the tension between the energies taking place within it. In consideration of this, his works are essentially interventions or stagings made with the simplest, most elemental and basic of materials. Recognizing this fact, in the early 1970s, Anselmo began a series of works that openly acknowledged their function in interacting between the seen and unseen worlds of our reality. ‘Perhaps, simply because I am an earthling and for this reason limited in time, space and specifics’, he told Mirella Bandini in an interview in 1973, ‘I have (recently) been making works using the idea that they are either time, in a broad sense, or infinity, or the invisible, or everything.’ (Giovanni Anselmo, Interview with Mirella Bandini, NAC no 3, Bari, March 1973, p. 4).
Anselmo’s signature series of works from this period is that known under the title ‘The Invisible Shows Itself’. Invisible in this collection is the very first of a series of a landmark works in which Anselmo made use of slide projectors to broach the borderlines between the unseen world of energy and the visible world of ‘poor’, static, material. It comprises simply of a slide projector with one slide in it that projects the word ‘visible’ in light at a specific focal length. This word, and therefore, the artwork itself, is, to all intent and purpose, invisible until an object or a person from the material world interacts with it at the right point in space. Then, as if out of nowhere, the word ‘visible’ manifests itself as a legible and intelligible entity on the body of the person or thing in its path.
Anselmo followed this work with another which, again using a slide projector, he entitled Infinity and in which, as he explained, ‘the projector is focused in infinity and ...projects the word “infinity” on to a surface where it cannot be read: therefore, to read “infinity” one must go to a point that is infinite.’ (Giovanni Anselmo, quoted in Data no. 2. Milan, 1972, pp. 54-61) In these and other works like them from the early 1970s, the relationship between the viewer and the artwork itself becomes once again, key to an appreciation of the work. Anslemo effectively sets his audience into a series of situations that, like him standing on Stromboli in the summer of 1965, involve them in a similar position and hopefully feeling of cosmic integration. ‘I find it necessary to work with this approach’ Anselmo has said, ‘because I haven’t seen anything coming out of any other systems which means staying in the quick of reality. In my works, this approach has, in fact, become for me the extension of a way of living, thinking and behaving.’ (Giovanni Anselmo quoted in Arte Povera in Castello, exh. cat., Vence, 2004, p. 35) It is an approach that, both understandably and inevitably, Anselmo continues to practice, to this day.
"Invisible" by Anselmo is a work that we searched hard for, after having seen an exhibition n the artist in a museum: it is an important work for us, characterising one of the many connotations in Anselmo's work. In this piece, the viewer, the active subject in the observation of the work, is himself transformed into the object, when his body is hit by the light of the projector which identifies him as "visible". A deep connection develops between the observer and the object (work) observed, in Anselmo's art, which is thus integrated into the notion of "panorama globale" (overall panorama) that always characterises his creative approach.
For us, the underlying concept of the work develops further: what is invisible can become visible, if one only wishes to search for it, through a mental effort to "see". In art as in life, the invisible can become visible: this is a conviction that we have carried with us for a long time, and we apply it to our observation/perception of art, to see beyond outward appearance. This is the personal reason for so much interest in this rare work by the artist – one immediately recognisable to devotees.
But what happens at home, with this magnificent work? The projector (original) is started up at the end of a room, facing anyone who enters: for us, the best position is on a piece of furniture at about the height of a person's chest. Coming into the room, people will ask themselves what the lit up machine might be projecting, so they look repeatedly behind them and see absolutely nothing. Intimidated, they ask for an explanation: we tell them that it is Anselmo's Invisibile (Invisible) work, and that they can examine it close up. Intrigued, the guest moves towards the projector and, about a metre away from it, on his jacket, on his sweater, in other words, on his body, he can clearly read the word "visibile" written in white light. There is always astonishment, but also an immediate "recognition" of the meaning, as soon as we repeat the title "invisible".
Instinctively, someone holds out the palm of his hand to trap the writing there. It is a gesture that we like: almost as if wanting to capture the inherent concept of the work and take it away with him.
‘I, the world, things, life, we are situations of energy and the important thing is not to crystallize these situations, but keep them open and alive – like life processes…My works are really the physification (sic) of the force behind an action, of the energy of a situation or event etc. and not its experience in terms of annotated signs, or just still life...I believe it is vital that there exist the most absolute freedom of choice or of use of materials; it thus becomes nonsense to talk of styles, form or antiform’
(Giovanni Anselmo, ‘I, The World, Things, Life’ in G. Celant, Arte Povera, New York, 1969, p. 109).