Prefigure – round table

Saturday 14th January at 5.00 pm
WunderkammernVia Gabrio Serbelloni, 124 - Rome

On the occasion of the finissage of Prefigurea major exhibition dedicated to two historic figures from the Italian art world: Tomaso Binga and Guglielmo Achille Cavellini (GAC), a conference about the work of the both artists will be held at Wunderkammern, with the contribution of the following art historian and art critics: Mirella Bentivoglio, Giorgio Bonomi, Enrico Crispolti, Lorenzo Mango, Francesco Muzzioli, Cristiana Perrella.

Tomaso Binga and Guglielmo Achille Cavellini both belong to that generation of artists who had a great flair for surprise, recounting with subtle irony the changes in Italy during the Seventies and Eighties, anticipating the methods of communicating and interpreting society that are peculiar to our times. Tomaso Binga was one of the leading figures in visual poetry, a performer and multifaceted artist, and was presented by Wunderkammern at Artissima 18 in the section, Back to the future, after being selected by a scientific committee composed of Massimiliano Gioni (New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and Fondazione Nicola Trussardi in Milan), Christine Macel (Centre Pompidou, Paris), and Jessica Morgan (Tate Modern, London). Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, born in Brescia in 1914 (died 1990), came into contact with the art world in the Forties when he collected abstract works. Portrayed by the greatest artists of the age, including Rotella, Warhol and Ceroli, Cavellini began his multidimensional career as an artist by taking everyday objects, and also works of his own or by other artists, and then transforming or destroying them. One date is common to the paths of both artists: 1971, a year that would mark a turning-point, with both artists playing on the concept of identity. One (Bianca Menna) adopted the male name of Tomaso Bingo in reference to the ambiguity of social roles based on gender; and the other, Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, began to promote himself as an artist in the future with the famous project Autostoricizzazione (Selfhistorification), which would celebrate his centenary and will be promoted in Rome by Wunderkammern. During the Prefigure exhibition, their most significant works from the Seventies will be shown: for Binga, the Alfabetiere murale (Mural Alphabet) of 1976, which has never previously been exhibited; the Dattilocodice (Typedcode), the result of overlaying type-written signs which thus become new images; the 1976 installation, Mater-Litanie Lauretane, in which, like a litany, the term MATER is flaunted and repeated obsessively by means of a woman’s body. For Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, there will be i Carboni (Coals), works burnt as an act of purification; Cassette che contengono opere distrutte (Crates Containing Destroyed Works); the valuable Vestito scritto, Tight azzurro (Written suit, Blue morning-coat) of 1974 which he wore during his famous performance activities throughout the world.

Here is a text by Lorenzo Mango about the exhibition.


Two transversality hypotheses

The play on identity, the transversal approach to language codes, the irony, the relationship between writing and vision are just some of the elements that form a bridge between the work of Guglielmo Achille Cavellini and that of Tomaso Binga. Elements that should not be seen as merely recurrent presences, nor even as simply concurrent or coincidental, but rather as an interweaving of motifs that idea-wise link the two artists in a mutual discourse on art. A mutual discourse, but individual, too, since it is tackled from different standpoints and with very different ways of proceeding, which find a moment of synthesis (this indeed unquestionably in common) in the idea of a joyful, destructuring and explosive journey through the artistic code.

Both Cavellini and Binga, in fact, operate on the plane of the specific in art, goading it and, to some measure, ironically scratching at it. It is a linguistic game which aims to strike a blow at the institution of the work: on the one hand deploying the very procedures of language (the attempt to define language and, at the same time, the constant betrayal of that attempt); and on the other establishing the presence of the artist within the work, as physical body and life experience.

A transversal approach, that of the two artists, for it literally crosses the field of art without actually stopping there, even, in fact, throwing it open to discussion and doubt. Art, in the way it is presented to us, is an open territory where language repudiates specificity and technique in order to reassume its vocation as a primary communication tool. Except that even this natural tendency is affectionately overturned, and the language of art ends up being translated into a mocking game, a cheerfully mocking play on its instability, evanescence, inability to be recognised.

A particularly emblematic example of this approach is Cavellini’s Pagina dell’Enciclopedia, a work dating back to the seventies, whose starting point is the draft page of a fantasy-filled encyclopaedia entry: beginning with the artist’s biography, it expands from there to take in different realms of thought and personhood. When described like this, the working process loses much of its impact and seems above all to be fenced in by a “serious” picture frame that aims to produce a disquisition on the self and the world. But that is not so, for through this virtual encyclopaedia Cavellini creates a conceptual sign, and not a discourse. Firstly, it is written by hand, in a dense script that tends to discourage readers from concentrating on themselves as intermediaries in a discourse; and then, above all, after opening at a “page to be seen”, the work plunges below the surface, moving on to absorb everything it comes across: other surfaces, objects, bodies and, in particular, clothes. The page thus clearly loses even what little reference it previously had with the word-discourse and is totally transmuted into a writing-sign. This is a semantic shift: writing is a sign that is wholly and solely iconic, that conceals the discursive meaning – conceals but does not deny it, for it is still hypothetically legible. But the sign, as well as being a visual betrayal of the discursive vocation of writing, is also an event. It is the outcome of an action which is either expressed as such, or even when not in fact seen, is anyway extremely powerful. To give an example that is more specific to Cavellini, when he himself or others wear his ‘written clothing’, it is clearly writing itself which becomes the event. An event that brings the artist into play both as an actant of the performative action and, prior to this, as a biographical and poetic subject. The work, in other words, is part of him.

The Pagina dell’Enciclopedia harks back to a more extensive project known as Autostoricizzazione (Self-historification), Cavellini’s idea of building his own art identity as an object of history, as though it had already happened, as a projection forward in time. The idea of the “centenary”, which recurs as a virtual date (1914-2014) in many of his works, is precisely this. His birth, 1914, and then a rebirth in history one hundred years later. But there in the present, in life experience: a total setback to the logical notion of time. But also to the logical notion of self. The I am, which is the historical and cultural foundation of our thought, is transformed from affirmation into question, and Guglielmo Achille Cavellini from being a single name, sole heritage of one subject, becomes a sort of productive signature. The stamps and stickers that he uses are a physical extension of his I beyond himself. An autonomous entity, a subject of art. It is as though art were intervening in order to render manifold the subjective identity, forcing the I out of itself in a fit of paroxysmal and paradoxical self-exposure. This apparently narcissistic vocation is, however, wedded to the negation of the work as a lasting entity, and the idea that art is communication, networking, the web of relationships which put the artist and the observer on the same plane.

Overturning identity is the very premise of Tomaso Binga’s work. The raiding of a male identity to mask her own, which began as a challenge to the role system in the art world, is seen as an opportunity to play the language, and play with language, inside and outside oneself. From many points of view, in fact, Tomaso Binga’s art is female, for it is there that she goes in search of her deepest motivations, her interrogations but also her linguistic games which she uses to estrange and wrong-foot all forms of ideology. The male I is, however, not a mere mask but serves in relation to the female I as an opportunity for creating a breach in identity and language, which coincides perfectly with the space of the artistic and, more generally, of poetry.

The ideal place for this poetic space is expressed in two different components, which are synthesised in Scrittura vivente (Living writing) from the Seventies: the body and the word. In that work, in fact, with its differing editions and outcomes that eventually translated into a full-blown project, Binga  used her body (the body of a woman who takes off her mask) to form different letters of the alphabet. The word is phonematically traced back to the primary formation of the letter, and the letter itself, in a sort of paradoxical solution which, however, corresponds to its original structural vocation, goes back to being form, visual sign. But the alphabet sign is also a body, and so writing and the self affect one another, and eventually blend, one with the other.

This interplay between body and writing is very much alive in Tomaso Binga, both when the body acts as a photographic subject in her works, and when the artist performs in live poetic actions. The body is presence, it indicates being there. In the case of poetic actions, this means giving the consistency of a person to the word, physically, carnally binding it to the person who wrote it.  Whereas in the photographic actions, there emerges an endless play on doubling up and transformation, a working process which is symbolically synthesised in Oggi spose (Newly-wed brides) where Tomaso is the groom together with a very young Bianca on the day of her real wedding.

After all, the theme of the double is one of Binga’s  favourites, starting from her own dual identity, obviously. But it does not end there, becoming one of her favoured tools when addressing the practice of art, and writing in particular. Tomaso Binga, especially from a certain moment of her output onwards,  showed special attention to poetry and in particular to the practice of writing, which she subjected most incisively to the dynamics of doubling.  Its very structure suffers the consequences, split as it is between sound and image: firstly when Binga plays with the sound of the word in her live performances; secondly when she translates the word into an image. The word which, according to the distinction developed by structuralism between signifier and signified, is in itself double, loses its gift of healing the breach, for Tomaso Binga proffers it to us on the demarcation line that detaches it from discourse and leads it towards form (be it visual or resonant).

These two samples of Cavellini and Binga’s artistic output which, even though just particular moments, show an emblematic side of their work,reveal with great clarity, I believe, the interweaving of motifs that I started with, and to which I would like to return in conclusion. What in fact emerges from the above is  a relationship with language – and particularly verbal language based on paradox. A paradoxical relationship that is laid out along a line of modern art that we can define as Duchampian, since its source lies in the both scathing and playful way that the  French artist  broke through the institutional boundaries of art and its language. The paradox is the rhetorical place in which the full meaning of a discourse becomes extreme and overturns: not to become lack of meaning but as though tripping up the meaning.  This paradoxical spirit strongly characterises the transversal journey through the artistic code put forward by both Cavellini and Binga, thanks to a playful scheme that deconstructs formal codes through the intervention of life experience. Art and life, then, as has so often been said about the art of these years, but with uncommon life experience. A ” transfigured life “, that of Guglielmo Achille Cavellini and Tomaso Binga or, as Marcel Schwob would have said, an imaginary life. The life of the artist’s body of art which is translated into living writing, wrong-footing its logical order, and forcing it out of itself.  (Lorenzo Mango).

Images by Tomaso Binga













Images by Guglielmo Achille Cavellini