The Emancipated Artist

by Roberto Pinto

Anna Scalfi Eghenter comes from a generation of artists that has contended with those “masters” who invented and used project design, the analysis of language, and the most meticulous study of space and context in order to create their works. She has thus introjected the potential they offer for expanding her field of research, while also tackling the problem of liberating these processes from any need to refer them exclusively to the world of art. Throughout her career we find her intent on applying artistic methodologies to a far more complex and less constrained system. It might (also) be worth interpreting from this point of view the proliferation of relational art (1) on the international scene, especially since the Nineties. In her particular case, when she was at the Accademia di Brera in Milan, Scalfi Eghenter had direct dealings with Luciano Fabro, a master who was as brilliant, internationally acknowledged, liberal with his thought-provoking ideas, and capable of providing a formal solution for any work, as he was awkward and oedipally difficult to surpass. It is a fact that an entire generation of Milanese artists (2) studied under him at Brera and, possibly, as always happens in such cases (3), the most interesting artists are those who managed to shake off the heavy burden of this inheritance in order to branch out in different directions and move along new paths.

As in the work of Anna Scalfi Eghenter, much of the artistic research that has come about in recent years has focused on the mechanisms that regulate our lives – the relationships we build up, social rules and conventions, and prejudices that may be more or less concealed. By doing so, artists have introduced into their activity a realm that was originally that of anthropologists and ethnographers (4). By observing and interacting with the everyday world, they started broadening out the confines of the aesthetic realm which, ever since the avant-gardes, has been a characteristic of artistic experimentation. This could be summed up by stating that what all these studies have in common could be their ability to adopt procedures that are generally attributed to other disciplines, bringing them into a context in which it is also possible to perceive their artistic value. The inevitable superficiality, vagueness and, often, the arbitrariness that these operations come up against offsets the potential for creating a critical discourse that is not based on ideological premises but rather on the potential for involvement and on a transversal and multi-centred analysis of the various situations. What really matters is of course not the search for a critical distance – which would be impracticable (though also never sought) since one would be directly involved – for its mythical dimension disappears from view in the process of involvement.

So one interesting aspect of this approach is the possibility it offers to create a discourse that attempts to demolish the hierarchical relationships which are implicit in all artistic work. What changes quite unmistakably is the relationship with the viewer, who is no longer called upon to compensate for any aesthetic or cultural inadequacies, nor to interact as an actor entrusted with a particular task. On the contrary, the viewer is asked to make use of his or her faculties as a translator of experiences. The key aspect of Anna Scalfi Eghenter’s approach is therefore that it does not resort (at least as a priority) to the symbolic value of art in order to give dignity to objects and situations with a view to transforming them into special commodities. Rather, her strategy is to use the respect and authority of art to open doors that would otherwise remain closed, and to create new contexts by placing the viewer at the centre, while leaving the distances of comprehension and expectations exactly the same. Her works thus become simple, because the mechanisms of involvement are absolutely mimetic with regard to reality, even though they may appear to be incomprehensible since they address viewers who feel not the slightest confidence when it comes to recent forms of art. However, the viewer does know the context in which Anna Scalfi Eghenter’s works take shape. These considerations by Jacques Rancière are extremely significant as a comment on these processes:

"This poetic labour of translation is the heart of all learning. It is at the heart of the emancipatory practice of the ignorant schoolmaster. What he does not know is stupefying distance, distance transformed into a radical gulf that can be ‘bridged’ by an expert. Distance is not the evil to be abolished, but the normal condition of any communication. Human animals are distant animals who communicate through the forest of sign. [...] (we) can learn not in order to occupy the position of the scholar, but so as better to practise the art of translating.(5)"

In other words, art is a passe-partout that gives one credibility in the eyes of institutions or individuals who, thanks to the aura of art, become involved in improper, unusual operations, and who often tend to pinpoint the weak points in the rituals and conventions of the very structures that are concerned. I also believe that the hackneyed cliché, which may not convince everyone, that contemporary art cannot be understood, is something that Anna Scalfi Eghenter finds useful: all too often people tend to put up less resistance when accepting these projects, precisely because they have difficulty in mastering the disciplinary intricacies of art. In addition, the viewers are in no way called upon to think that what is shown to them forms part of some aesthetic category, because everything they see around them is familiar and mundane, except for the order in which it is shown. And this is how the distance between acting and seeing is broken down:

"Emancipation begins when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting; when we understand that the self-evident facts that structure the relations between saying, seeing and doing themselves belong to the structure of domination and subjection. [...] This is the crucial point: spectators see, feel and understand something in as much as they compose their own poem, as, in their way, do actors or playwrights, directors, dancers or performers. (6)"

Anna Scalfi Eghenter is not a lone figure in this approach: we could give the example of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s convivial manner, and it would be easy (and useful) to examine in greater depth her relationship with an artist like Marcel Duchamp or, at the very least, with the possibilities that the French artist in any case suggested in some of his works.

It is however necessary to clarify that, through her work, Anna Scalfi Eghenter does not just aim to embark on “institutional criticism”, for on countless occasions her works draw from her own existential journey (in a certain sense recovering also the inner monologue she used in her work in the dramatic arts). Here Tennnis. Homage to Albertina Eghenter immediately springs to mind, with its explicit references to the artist’s mother. But there are many other works which, in a subtler though certainly no less effective manner, refer more general issues to her own personal existence. The rules, their legitimacy, and the need for them to be written for everyone (meaning they are not truly suitable for anyone) are recalled, used, and tested in a way that is absolutely normal and yet also paradoxical. Quite probably her works could also be viewed as the affection of her meandering through art, theatre, and social analysis in her search for a mobile Self which is constantly being redefined. This is probably why we could say these investigations examine not so much (or at least not only) the rules as the way we relate to them: do we endure them and feel their weight? are we comforted and reassured by them? – and our reaction to the pressures put on the limits of their application. Quite apart from any contextual references, arranging washing machines in a city square (7) involves a manifest intention to replace some habits of coexistence with other, less common ones – though in this case, it might paradoxically be said, with more ancient ones: washing one’s dirty linen in public (as used to be the case in that particular part of the square) was indeed the custom in times gone by. This aspect is alienating and the public probably views the strange situation as yet another ploy for advertising a household appliance. It is only when the passer-bys realise that this is not some promotional operation that they are confronted with the rift between what is shown and the explanation they had given themselves. Actually, the public function of the square is exactly what we are least used to, for it has indeed been lost, while the privatisation of the space shared with advertising (even though we put up with it rather unwillingly) is considered to be absolutely legitimate. And it is the forcing of this mechanism that produces the rift we mentioned.

It seems entirely legitimate to wonder about which spaces are granted, through exhibitions or events, to artistic operations that actually tend to undermine these fragile equilibriums and bring them into conflict. If we start from the strengths of the Italian art scene, we can see that there is not much room for manoeuvre for those who, over the years, have worked with methods similar to those adopted by Anna Scalfi Eghenter. In view of the lack of institutions and spaces for discussion that can be used to examine the critical issues in Italy, it seems it has been left to the market also to establish the quality of individual works.

Quite dispassionately, we might be led to believe that the interest of the market and of museums (which often support and promote the economic system that sustains them) is simply the way things are. And it is important, because no professionals in the world of contemporary art is going to put their own reputation at risk by making decisions that are not based on the criterion of quality. At the same time, very few gallery owners and curators are prepared to step out of line to maintain positions that are less acceptable and less expedient for the system itself. It should also be borne in mind that much artistic research – at least from the avant-gardes onwards – works through innovation and transgression (8), which are some of the main instruments at its disposal. Commercial galleries often compete with each other as they contend for the most provocative artists those who personify the cliché of the nonconformist, innovative, transgressive, or at least ironic creators. Giving wholehearted support to a position of refusal or of acceptance of the market is just a rhetorical exercise and yet, when we take a closer look at the situation in Italy, with all its anomalies, we can hardly fail to notice how the almost total lack of a subdivision of the system which levels down to the (often admirable) work carried out by Italian galleries (9) – leads us to reflect on how much all this has led to the uniformity of the system. At the curatorial level, the mainstream approach in Italy over the past decades has been represented mainly by curators like Achille Bonito Oliva and Germano Celant, who are associated with the success of movements such as Transavanguardia and Arte Povera, though more recently there has also been Francesco Bonami. This has in effect excluded those artists whose art is more narrative, and linked to politics and the media, as well as those who have taken the ephemeral aspects of their work to the extreme, and even those who are explicitly realist. This has virtually closed the doors to much artistic work that has not yet been put either into museums or into a historical context, and it is destined to be lost if no one is prepared to look after it. At both the exhibition and curatorial/critical level, the widespread homogenisation of this system has led to the invisibility of artists whose critical methods are not in line with the “official” interpretations, and even those whose “style” does not comply with a standard way of producing objects or images. It is thus no coincidence that works like Anna Scalfi Eghenter’s have not gained much space in Italy. And, amongst other things, it is particularly significant that it is another artist, Cesare Pietroiusti – who has naturally never wanted to become a gallerist himself – who looks after the sale of her works.

Pietroiusti, whose research is very close to Scalfi Eghenter’s practices, has been one of the most important figures on the Italian art scene in recent decades but, for the reasons mentioned above, his presence on the market and in the institutions has been, and still is, sporadic.

The two artists formed their bond through the indeposito platform and through Scalfi Eghenter’s cooperation in Pietroiusti’s Museo dell’arte italiana in esilio project, which was presented by Fondazione Galleria Civica di Trento in 2009. This initiative is part of an analysis of those Italian artistic personalities in the Sixties and Seventies (10) whose works had considerable political, institutional and linguistic impact, and it revolves around the possibility of conceptually organising and focusing on the various aspects that concern the rise, development and activities of a possible alternative platform that can be used to investigate the history of contemporary art in Italy. Starting out from a series of reconnaissance missions in various geographical areas, the project aims to identify forms of artistic expression outside the normal circuits of media communication and outside the art system as we generally know it. Examples include forms of art in areas of psychological deprivation and social marginalisation, and extra-artistic activities such as university research in the realm of politics, sociology, philosophy, history, and science, or those linked to activism and voluntary work. Significantly, Pietroiusti has named this research platform set up to study Italian art outside of the mainstream Museo dell’arte italiana in esilio (the “Museum of Italian art in exile”). The works collected during the preparatory stages, which have found no place in museum or institutional collections, will be kept in indeposito, the storage space for works of art earmarked for destruction which was opened by Anna Scalfi Eghenter in Trento (and later in various other towns).

The fact that they also accepted the deliberate provocation of one being the other’s gallerist meant that this collaboration is an authentic duet, in which the studies of both artists interact effortlessly and consistently. The fact is that it is the artists themselves who have to reinvent the rules of a system that, historically, does not call for them and does not even know what to do with them. This is certainly food for thought.

Roberto Pinto


(1) Here I do not refer solely to the artists who appear in Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics but rather to a work method that might take inspiration from the concepts expressed in his book.

(2) A complete list would be really rather long but it would include, for example, Mario Airò, Liliana Moro, Luca Quartana, and Bernard Rüdiger.

(3) The words that Brancusi is said to have pronounced when he left Rodin’s circle were sensational: “nothing grows under big trees”.

(4) As early as 1996 Hal Foster devoted a chapter to the “Artist as Ethnographer” in his The Return of the Real. The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, MIT 1996.

(5) Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, Verso, London 2009, pp. 10-11.

(6) Ibid., p.13.

(7) For a more detailed interpretation of the works, see the individual entries in this book.

(8) Cf. Julius, Trasgressioni. I colpi proibiti dell’arte, Bruno Mondadori, Milan 2003.

(9) This may not be the place to emphasise how the role of art-museum institutions and the contribution of universities and research centres in terms of criticism and theory has been virtually non-existent, at least as regards matters concerning the very latest re search. Nor how few cases (and with what little support) there have been of artist-run spaces and not-for-profit associations (a very common phenomenon elsewhere), which might have made the contemporary-art scene in Italy so much more open, democratic, and dynamic.

(10) These include Vincenzo Agnetti, Gianfranco Baruchello, Giuseppe Chiari, Ettore Innocente, Ketty La Rocca, Sergio Lombardo, Francesco Matarrese, Fabio Mauri, Franco Vaccari, and the Ufficio per l’Immaginazione Preventiva.

(2011, Anna Scalfi Eghenter. Katalogos, edited by Andrea Viliani, Fondazione Galleria Civica - Centro di ricerca sulla Contemporaneità di Trento, Silvana Editoriale, Milano, 2011)