A Clearer Vision Elsewhere

by Cecilia Canziani

Facing an apparently fixed video camera, Gilles Deleuze composes a dictionary – “Abécédaire” is the more enticing term in French, and the title of the documentary. We can follow the words or even be distracted from the text and observe how, on some occasions, the camera imperceptibly slips away and, though only in the mirror, shows Claire Parnet interviewing him. It should however be pointed out that it frames her only briefly, and the shots are always (distractedly?) unfocused. A close-up of a face speaking always puts us in the position of the interlocutor: the face talks to us and for us. This fiction is suspended when a body moves between us and the speaker. It is interrupted, but only just, because Claire Parnet’s facial features are so out of focus that we could almost superimpose our own on them. More than bringing about a reflection on the identical and on otherness, the body that comes between our own and that of the philosopher acts as a diversion that leads our eyes from the text to the context, from what is being said to the situation that makes the dialogue possible. Our vision is taken from the meaning of the words to the rules that allow this linguistic play to come about. It is this movement, which takes us in and out of the conversation, that remains impressed on my retina. And it comes to my mind when I write about Anna Scalfi Eghenter, because her work similarly obliges my eyes to constantly adjust between analysing the work in terms of its presence and the conditions that have led to its presentation.

Here, where the work has its raison d’être, we find ourselves in the umbra shadow cast by Institutional Critique, from which the artist borrows her approach and which her work partly reflects. Even so, it appears in a form that has more to do with Mierle Laderman Ukeles than with Andrea Fraser, and with the Artist Placement Group than with Michael Asher. It is a dimension in which the work needs to be considered within its context as a service, and where the idea of service is seen as something that has a duration in time and a precise purpose, and as an assignment that should ideally be accomplished. In other words, Anna Scalfi Eghenter’s work is not just an opportunity for bringing together the viewer’s and the artist’s visions, nor does it simply aim to indicate the workings of the mechanisms that allow it to be seen. It contains both these aspects but it also aspires, paradoxically, to operate within a particular system, or to solve a problem as though this were its task. What happens in most of Anna Scalfi Eghenter’s works is that they constitute an aporia, which means that they maintain as much their aesthetic value – which is what defines a work of art – as their utilitarian value which, on the contrary, takes the work into an entirely different system. These two aspects coexist, and it is only our position with regard to the work (the place where our encounter takes place) that, for the space of a frame, determines the (temporary) dominance of either one or the other.

This diversion of our perception, which makes us look at the context, is almost always brought about by the work itself, and it paradoxically makes us bring it into clearer focus: after all, in military parlance, a “diversion” is a way of luring the enemy into a place which is not where one wants to attack, in order to weaken their ranks. This initial meaning of “diversion” is something that all Anna Scalfi Eghenter’s works have in common. It is a way of enticing us, making us abandon our own convictions, and making us go through the work unarmed. The setting and the conditions that allow the work to reveal itself thus acquire more clearly defined outlines and it becomes clear how much the artist’s investigations concentrate on an analysis of the economic system of which the work – and thus also the creative action and the object – is a part, as something to be consumed both for itself and for what it can do. Like when she installs an automatic dispenser in the hall of the Bourse in Paris, where she inserts not croissants but their equivalent cost, so one actually receives their monetary value. Except that this comes in the currency of the poorest countries in the world.

In other cases, the work is something that acts upon and affects the level of reality. More precisely, the work exists within a particular system and, by altering one of its variables, it becomes an opportunity for solving a problem. It does not just create an image of it but actually tackles it, and indeed goes one step further by breaking down the natural order we consider to be inescapable. An example is when she put only half-filled wine bottles on sale in Guarene at the same price as full bottles, though the wine lasted much less since the oxygen rapidly spoilt it. The same number of bottles went on show in the exhibition at Castello Re Rebaudengo, but this time in a cage, so they could not be enjoyed or used other than aesthetically. Or like when she showed a row of washing machines along the line of an ancient, but now forgotten, irrigation ditch which used to go across the cathedral square in Trento. While dirty linen is washed at home, in accordance with the middle-class ethic, it was once washed in public. And washing machines really do work: they are used by immigrants, backpackers, and the homeless – precisely those communities that are hardest to bring into focus. Or in the indeposito franchise, in which a two-figure sum can amazingly give a figure in the black, turning an unused space and works for which storage space cannot be found into a service for the community of artists, but also for the population, because every indeposito is also a museum as potency.

So we have both text and context, but also “I”, who am not entirely a viewer or a user, for I help bring about a constant shift in my perception of the work I have in front of me. But also “I” – viewer or user – for whom the work is really made, and “I”, whose vocation is to perform a service I find in Anna Scalfi Eghenter’s work, am also consumed by moving away from those practices of International Critique with which she has greatest affinity. The Artist Placement Group recommended that local administrations should employ an artist for a year as a consultant in order, one might say, to solve certain business or municipal problems through their work. In other words, through the practice of art, and thus through a work that would be consumed in a particular place and at a particular time. With a series of maintenance works, Mierle L. Ukeles helped keep up the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, quite literally exhibiting all those works that make the public dimension of a museum possible, and which offer a metaphor for care but which are normally invisible – in other words cleaning, which is so often entrusted to companies that use the most invisible of all workers: women, ethnic minorities, and immigrants. In both cases the work provides an opportunity to reflect on the setting it appears in: the public administration or museum – in other words, the Institution. The work does its duty, though this is mainly on a symbolic level (which in part led to the closure of the APG, upon verification of the communities with which the artists came into contact). In both cases, the artist’s body acts as a place that ensures continuity between the two levels – the symbolic and the real – and it is in this body that the work is consumed. On the contrary – and here we return to the distraction from the camera that appears to me to show the possibility of shifting our vision from text to context in Abécédaire – for Anna Scalfi Eghenter the body in which the work is produced is actually that of the user who experiences it. By their own discretion, viewers give visibility to Differenze di classe (Class Differences) when they decide to take part in a “first-class” or a “second-class” party at the Faculty of Sociology of the University of Trento, or when they take part in a conference at the École du Commerce in Paris, in which the established ritual of a conference is subverted by increasingly implausible incursions until it ends up as a party. And it is again the spectator who confers upon the row of washing machines along the former ditch its status as a work of art. This acknowledges that there is a code in this display which makes us consume an object as an aesthetic product or, on the contrary, interpret it in a purely functional manner. By choosing one of these two ways of relating to the work and showing this through their own bodies, the public constantly shift their point of view onto the object itself.

The parameters change, as do the proportions, the rules, and the game. The alteration of just a single element thus alters the way a place, an object, and a setting are used, so for the opening of the Fondazione Galleria Civica di Trento in 2009, the artist temporarily placed the entrance at the back of the building, thus giving it its original orientation. This was because the museum premises had previously been used by a discotheque, and we are told about this in an audio guide by those who still remember it. Another example is that of the flags of the countries of the world, set up in the entrance courtyard of Mart in Rovereto. They are cut down to the percentage of female representation in their governments, so they no longer convey the identity of a place, but rather the place through its differences, pace any codes and geography. And again, we see an autobiographical element in the tennis game, that played by the whole family, with the sole exception of Anna, becomes an opportunity for her to recover possession of it through her own attitude, with a work (by Anna, the artist) which undermines its premises. The centre court of the Centro Tennis in Merano is redesigned, altering just one aspect, which is that of the length of the net. But this apparently minimal change radically transforms the design of the court, obliging the players to adapt the rules of the game to this new context. Like when a law office is used for a professional internship (a perfectly legal operation even for those who do not intend to embark upon a legal profession – one just needs to know), altering the confines of the place simply by her own presence. After all, is not the entire office occupied by Anna Scalfi Eghenter, an artist by profession, and transformed – even though only for a moment, thanks to the brief, distracted deviation of the video camera – into an artist’s studio? Or in the Frazioni multiple (Multiple Fractions) project, in which a shutter found at the indeposito premises in Trento was cut into pieces and sold as fractions of a work, the total of which is the sum of its parts and thus needs to be reassembled in order to be shown in a public place. This gives visibility to the mechanisms of both the economic and the aesthetic relationships involved in any transaction concerning the purchase of a work of art, just as it reveals the conditions that make this possible, and the conditions that lead to it being put on show in a public institution.

While acting on the “symbolic” level, Scalfi Eghenter also constantly seeks (and finds) a constructive confrontation with and impact on “reality”. Since the artist allows us to move our eyes away from the work, we once again have the opportunity to focus on it in its relationship with the economic and social mechanisms we use to regulate our lives. In other words, we can produce both within and through ourselves the ability to subvert the order of things by entering and leaving a code, a habit, and a rule, in order to see them better and, possibly, to regain possession of them. Reinventing them, so that the public realm can once again become a continuously (re)produced space. Reinvented so that it can be seen better. And so that it can be inhabited more effectively.

Cecilia Canziani

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