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THE WATER OF LIFE
by Donald Kuspit
 
Fabrizio Plessi is one of the pioneers of video art, but, just as importantly, he is a master of water -- the mythical stream of water Heracleitus said one could not step in twice, the water that is one of the four primary elements, the wetness that tradition thought the melancholiac lacked, the water that poured forth from a desert stone when Moses struck it -- the water without which there is no universe and life. Like a dolphin, or the boy who was rescued by one in Greek mythology, and was triumphantly carried on its back as it swam the seven seas, Plessi is astonishingly at ease with water. He never surrenders to its treachery, never submits to the siren song of its surface beauty, inviting one to plunge into its depths. Water, which hides death in its depths, and is traditionally a seductive feminine element -- tempting but deceptive -- has a certain masculine potency for Plessi. Waterfall (1976) suggests as much: one need not be overwhelmed by water to identify with its rushing power.

Every other material that Plessi uses, however equally elemental -- coal, iron, marble, sand, wood, wool -- is a foil for water. Whether organic or inorganic, it is at odds with the protean fluidity of water, which is able to change form -- seemingly unpredictably -- while maintaining rhythmic stability. The wind-generating machines Plessi constructs and the bright fire he digitally generates lack the self-transformative power of water. The machines are closed systems compared to the "open system" of water, shaped by technology rather than naturally and spontaneously given, like Plessiís water -- even when it is a mirage in a video monitor, a sort of hallucination or haunting dream, as in Water Wind (1981). Plessi lives in Venice, but his water is not that of its canals and lagoon -- water that is implicitly as stagnant as the city, which however full of artistic wonders is a vast graveyard, a memento mori of past glory, a city that became petrified by its elegant past when history left it behind. It is the perpetually moving water of restless life. Plessiís free-spirited water has a much more vital presence than the subtly dispirited water on which Venice is built.

Artistically speaking, Plessi is a technocratic minimalist, but he is a technocrat and minimalist with a difference. Color and texture are crucially important to him, subjective elements that contradict the objectivity of his materials and machines, as Armadio Rosso (1990) makes clear -- his texturally nuanced iron, with its sensually brooding rust, makes the point clearly -- and technology is naturalized by being enlisted in the service of ecstatic perception of water. In Water Circles (1982), the minimalist geometry of the iron circle frames the illusion of water that luminously appears in the video monitor that is its center, concentrating and intensifying our perception of its constant motion. It is as though the circle is a camera lens focusing our consciousness of the movement of the water -- indeed, altering our consciousness of movement so that we magically experience water as the core of our being. The video monitor is the hypnotic center of the circle: peering into it, we gaze into the depths of the self, which seems like an abyss, but at bottom is pure impulse, as unrestrained water appears to be. It is a dizzying and death-defying experience, but also a sublime and intimate one. Indeed, Plessiís video monitor has become the site of the inner sublime. Dare one say that Plessiís water -- seen through an artistic glass darkly, as it were -- is sublimated id?

The static, axiomatically unchanging circle and the dynamic, rhythmically moving, luminous water -- it always seems to elude focus, however hard we try to bring it into focus -- seem irreconcilable, but the former ecstatically heightens our consciousness of the latter. The circle has its kind of inevitability, and the water has its kind of inevitability. The circle is a sort of unmoved cosmic mover, the water is cosmic movement. Water is an age-old symbol of becoming and change, and the circle is an age-old symbol of unchanging being. With deceptive elegance, Plessi ingeniously integrates them, disclosing their secret inextricability, indeed, strange reciprocity. Phenomenologically bracketed by the iron circle, and once again by the video monitor -- a sort of inner sanctum -- the moving water is thematized into pure presence: a ghostly revelation, freshening consciousness by restoring our sense of inner aliveness. Thus, to esthetically enjoy Plessiís Water Circles is to have a consummate transcendental experience. The circle is a sort of sacred space -- a perfectly abstract Tempietto, as it were -- in which we are allowed to perceive, in a visionary flash, the water of eternal life. In short, the circle is a spiritually facilitating environment -- a transformational space -- a space in which our consciousness of water radically changes. It is no longer the ordinary water which we drink and in which we bathe but the elemental water of life. Plessi performs an esthetic and spiritual miracle: he turns water into a revelation of primary creativity. †

Similarly, the austere modernist grid construction of Stanza del Mare, Armadio Nero, Armadio Rosso, and Armadio Bianco (all 1990) becomes a quasi-functional container for colorful, water-like material -- textile soft to the touch like water and that flows and ripples like water (it is in principle a metaphor for water) -- that contradicts the hardness of the iron material and the inflexibility or fixedness of the construction. What is especially interesting about the Armadio series, and also the Water Circles and the funnel-like circular structures in Videoland (1987), is that they suggest Plessiís fascination with inner space. Inserting warm (even homey) materials into the stark grid, suggesting that it has an inner life, or that life can grow and flourish in it (where there is water, there is life), he undermines the anonymity and neutrality -- the aura of indifference -- geometry has in minimalism. He takes what is essentially a mechanical structure and turns it into organic poetry.

Even more brilliantly and subtly, Plessi treats the video monitor as inner space. He makes it clear that the image of water -- or the watery image that is Art (1990) -- exists inside the video monitor. The video monitor seems to generate it from its own inner space. That is, the rigid box contains the video tube the way the body contains the psyche that creates fluid art. Or, if one wants, the mirage of water is the creative genii in the video monitor. It is the light in the darkness of the self. Thus the video monitor is the mirror expression of narcissistic interiority, as Narciso (1985) suggests. Framed by a minimalist triangle truncated at the top, with a fluorescent bulb as a vertical axis or linear center, the video monitor is displaced to the side and embedded in the triangleís flat base, as though it was of marginal significance -- a distracting secondary feature of the sculpture. But the monitor asserts its narcissistic presence -- and primacy -- by drawing us away from the stark fluorescent light, which seems to dominate it, toward its more differentiated, unstable luminosity, a luminosity tainted with shadow.

I think the use of the video monitor as inner space is particularly clear in Cristallo Liquido (1992). Staring into one of the pails, one is in effect staring into oneself, where one has a glimpse of oneís fluid inner life in the monitor. If each pail is a digital island, then it is an island of digitalized inner space -- a safe harbor for inner life in an indifferent world. Of course, someone can kick the pail over and spill out its contents. To me, Cristallo Liquido subtly suggests the vulnerability of the self -- the same vulnerability or "sensitivity" symbolized by the soft materials in the Armadio series -- that is the subtext of all of Plessiís video installations. The self has to be sequestered in the inner space of the video monitor, through which it makes its presence felt in the distorting mirror of the screen -- a sort of ironical self-reflection in the passing stream of life -- even though the fragile screen can easily be broken. The sense of self-confrontation and exposure to dangerously prying eyes seem most evident in Altalena (1981). Seated on the bench and facing the screen -- Altalena is a participatory or interactive work, if only implicitly -- one can look into oneself, but so can any passing stranger. For some, the video monitor is an all-seeing, Cyclopean eye that must be put out, whatever beautiful, haunting visions -- interior landscapes (fluid fantasies) -- are reflected in it.††

Perhaps Plessiís most dramatic work is the "intervention" in the video monitor that occurs in Bronx (1985). It is reminiscent of his youthful, seemingly Dadaist -- absurdist -- attempt to saw water and cut it with shears. Those attempts were literal -- the water and the instruments were actual. In Bronx the shovel is actual, the water is a mirage in the video monitor. The series of repeated monitors, with the row of long shovels sticking straight out of them (Is the upright shovel a sort of stick figure, a metaphor for hard-working modern man and instrumental reason? It is used to dig the earth, thus evoking another primary element.) suggests Plessiís determination to penetrate the mystery of water and break its spell over him. But the video screen does not break under the assault of the shovel, however much its vulnerability is implied.

Interestingly, the shovel is not reflected in the water. It remains imperturbable -- undisturbed by the shovel. (Unlike the knife in the water of film fame.) The shovel causes no ripples in the water and has no impact on the screen: inner space, with its memorable visions of luminous water, remains intact. All is calm, despite the violence of the shovel, which becomes an empty gesture of contradiction. Plessiís video monitor remains virginal -- hermetically sealed and innocent. The hymen of the screen is unbroken by the phallic shovel that penetrates it: It remains a miracle of purity. As always, the music of water, with its rhythmic movement, is reassuring and soothing. For Plessi, the proverbial still water that runs deep and the intense surface of constantly running water form a simultaneous whole in the microcosm of the video monitor. In a sense, Plessiís water installations are about the universality of energy, whether in invisible electronic form or in the material form of visible water. They seamlessly merge in the abstract image Plessi "paints" on the video screen (sometimes resembling a color field geometrical painting, sometimes an abstract expressionist gestural painting): waves and particles of light, each a sort of petite perception on a continuum of microscopic vision, meet and harmonize like two parallel lines in infinity. The universal water of vibrant life reigns supreme in Plessiís art, untouchable and insulated from intrusive reality -- represented by the brutal shovel, with its practical power -- in the absolute security of the video monitor.††

This essay was written on the occasion of "Fabrizio Plessi: 1970-2005," June 28-Aug. 26, 2007, organized by Consuelo CŪscar, at the IVAM Institut Valencià díArt Modern in Valencià, Spain.


DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.† †



 



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