Preface (to the Rules of Art) Anna Scalfi Eghenter, Interpreter of Opera Civica (TN)

by Andrea Viliani   

Through its Opera Civica (TN) programme, Fondazione Galleria Civica di Trento is launching a unique platform for the exploration of contemporary art in Trento. Its aim is to focus on, strengthen, and promote new professional skills within the territory in the cultural sector which, by its very nature, is an agent and driving force of constant development. It intends to offer active, integrated support for the creation of new projects which will bring together artists and the public in wide-ranging joint ventures that contribute to the promotion of creativity among young people throughout Trentino, thereby promoting the region itself. Opera Civica (TN) is designed to give new life to the very concept and function of a “civic gallery” by working on and bringing together artistic practices, training, innovation, humanistic and scientific research, and networking in a global society in the digital-age.

An unprecedented institutional platform, Opera Civica (TN) is specially designed to suit the format of a municipal gallery, taking responsibility for the development and success not just of individuals but of the entire territorial art scene. As an essential instrument for analysing and promoting artistic research, one of the actions planned for this project is the publication of the first retrospective monographs on young, mid-career artists whose work has had a particular influence on the younger generations, and who have helped reshape the arts scene of an entire territory, capturing and conveying its potential and ongoing changes. Through the dynamic relationships they have managed to detect, and also bring about with the public and with local institutions, the works of these artists reveal the existence of a vibrant scene, and acquire the status of “civic works” – in other words, works created by artists in close synergy with the public and local institutions, which are open to an active and all-embracing dialogue with the community in which and for which these artists and these institutions all work.

Anna Scalfi Eghenter (Trento, 1965) – to whom the first monographic volume in this cycle is devoted – has always sought this interaction as a form of active involvement of the artist with her context. She does so in order to go beyond the limitations of art viewed as no more than aesthetic research (however socially oriented it may be), and instead to introduce an idea – or rather a practice – of art as a permanent laboratory for reflecting on its own instruments and innovation, making known its  results, initiating forms of participation that extend outside of purely artistic circles, and using the  particular qualities of art as “a subversive frame with regard to the confines of permitted action”. Her projects are often very long, and this catalogue records them together with part of the documentation  (argumenta) required for the initiation and creation of her individual works. The entire organisational process forms part of an analytical view of the complex, ever-changing mechanisms of negotiation between art and civil society which are at the heart of all Scalfi Eghenter’s artistic work.

“What are the space and time, and the role and rules of art?”

An independent artist, in the most authentic sense, Scalfi Eghenter’s projects are always “specific” (or  “customised”, to use a marketing term) to the space-time she investigates. This is because she always has a profound desire to understand, and to share her understanding with others, even if this understanding is only partial or temporary, and subject to further, equally ephemeral forms of investigation. The cooperation that has been under way over the past two years between the artist and Fondazione Galleria Civica is one example of this modus operandi: in the case of her Traccia 0_via Belenzani 46_Trento, Scalfi Eghenter contacted a number of people whose lives were linked to the premises that now house the Foundation, and to its immediate surroundings. She then asked them to tell her of their memories of these places: of the UFO discotheque, the 3Di pizzeria, the Spirk hairdressers salon, the Las Vegas billiard hall, the Marlena shoe shop, a printing shop… All of these places were arenas of everyday life, and have become stories poised between an intimate world and a community dimension, as places that were shared and yet strictly autobiographical. Scalfi Eghenter then gave visitors the chance to listen to these stories through audio guides, and to share the emotions but also to gauge the distance and differences that separate us from what happened in the past. And she investigates the mechanisms that link the institution to everyday life, and the relationship between spaces and words. She does so in order to build up a new local “history”, which she unearths along the borderline that separates and brings together artists and others, here and elsewhere, now and then, as well as in the institution and its public. This is a mobile, community (relational?) narrative art that leads us through to a story, and yet it is also strict and hermeneutical. It is a form of art that appears as the exploration and crossing of a frontier, taking us to the absolute limit of identifying the work with a pure and simple experience of the world. 

Scalfi Eghenter’s work, the city of Trento and the entire region of Trentino become her recurrent and also preferred material, subject, and topic, making the artist a sort of sub-species “historian” of these places, and of the relationships that they have built up, altered, reorganised, and developed over the years. The very diverse contexts of a social, cultural, economic, and regulatory landscape are explored as a large, inextricably  interconnected, ever-evolving set of ubiquitous and shared works and projects. Digging deep into her territory, Scalfi Eghenter tackles the themes of the identity and legitimisation of contemporary artistic languages with the greatest realism and analytical meticulousness, representing them, telling us about them, and sharing her thoughts with others: Scalfi Eghenter is the prototype of what I would call – not without some Renaissance reminiscences – an “artist-citizen”.

The interdisciplinary background we find at the heart of the work of this artist (who graduated from the Faculty of Sociology in Trento, and then from the Accademia d’Arte Drammatica Silvio D’Amico in Rome and from the Accademia di Brera in Milan) had a great influence on her malleable approach to art and to the interrelationships between things, places, and people. In a unique though entirely natural manner, she applied her theatre education, for example, to her sociology studies and to her approach to structured organisations and their functions. Scalfi Eghenter views “performance” more as something to measure herself against and as an ongoing phenomenon than as something to be staged. “Acting”, in her view, is not so much the physical work of an actor as an operation of translation and transfer.

In a certain paradigmatic way, this is also Scalfi Eghenter’s subversive “reaction” to the teachings of Luciano Fabro at the Accademia di Brera in Milan, for it is by at least partly betraying what she learnt that she realises the ultimate significance of his lessons, making herself possibly the ideal pupil of this great “plastic” artist, who was one of the greatest exponents of Arte Povera. It would be tempting to say that, by interpreting Fabro’s “Rules of Art”, Scalfi Eghenter has abandoned her ability to create works, in order to sculpt rules and to become a “sculptress of rules”. But what are these “rules” that art gives itself and that, through the artist’s (conscious) misinterpretation of them, art betrays? I go back over Fabro’s Regole d’Arte, the book of the “rules of art” that Scalfi Eghenter studied during her firts year at the Accademia di Brera, and need do no more than quote the sentences she underlined at the time:

✦ “I have noticed that all new thoughts emerge from dialogue” (p. 5)

✦ “do not just worry about the quality and the value of the results, but about the value of the process” (ibid.)

✦ “art is doing – not just knowing, not just thinking, not just using. It is doing: building up consciousness  through things” (p. 8)

✦ “the work is not an enlightening message but a representation of the coincidence of consciousness between people” (p. 9)

✦ “enunciation of the rules helps move towards this consciousness. Not as the technology of art, but as the orientation of consciousness” (p. 11)

✦ “where the artist lacks precision, it is the viewer who tends to go and look, and who needs to work out the imprecision that you left, using his imagination” (p. 16)

✦ “you start appreciating your work when your work is closest to the work of nature. Then you can make all your transitions – even the most uncertain, exhausting, and those with the worst results – and you can devote yourself to them, because you are waiting for the moment when you will be able to find that thing, that way of working which will compensate you for all you have had to do so laboriously” (p. 19)

✦ “the work of art seems highly mobile, because it is like something that you see change as you turn it in your hands. It is there, immobile, yet it seems you can look at it from various points of view, and every time you look at it you discover new things. […] When continuing with the work, even when it appears perfect, your problem will always be that of adding a new point of view […] there must always be something in your work that allows you to notice things, even if you have made it yourself: unexpected results, combinations […] with confusion and   approximation” (pp. 20-21)

✦ “you must set yourself limited objectives, for then you will realise that it is through this series of limited objectives that the entire discourse unravels…” (pp. 58-59)

✦ “you do not need to demonstrate anything to anyone” (p. 83)

✦ “what can give you confidence is the care with which you observe things” (p. 92)

✦ “though the thing remains still if your hand does not touch it, it can nevertheless not remain indifferent. Your hand must stroke and feel it, until this thing starts interacting and opening up, revealing itself and sharing its interest – the thing’s interest in you – while if you show interest in the thing, the thing will always be deaf, for you have the means to converse whereas she, in front of you, has no ability to show herself. So you must perform this work of courting her, trying and trying again, almost enticing her to open herself up to you” (pp. 92-93)

✦ “the responsibility of the mediocre […] that of the artist who, at a certain point, experiences the way of doing, rather than the result; so it is humanly respectable […] the problem is that of not confusing the human quality that the person expresses, and that we respect, with the actual achievement of this quality in the work […] live serenely, for your conscience is untroubled, and yet your conscience must also remain alert; you must be careful not to become one of those people yourself” (pp. 94-97)

✦ “when we see things sinking into a work of art, the sight is truly impressive” (p. 113)

✦ “the artist only does what he knows how to do, what he knows. He does not seek the artifice and simulation of a thing that is alien to him, about which he is not aware. He does only what he is conscious of” (pp. 114-115)

✦ “one may aspire to the most excellent results, but then one is content when one sees relative results. A substantial difference […] is that you first work with a conceptual plan […] at first it looked like a page of algebra, but here this algebra is applied […] This is the quantum leap: it does not lead you to do what you wanted, but it leads you to know what you have done” (p. 121)

✦ “You must have the flexibility to overturn situations, you need a sympathetic relationship with things […] giving meaning, transforming matter into something with boundless softness” (pp. 122-123)

✦ “That is an issue we must never touch upon, we are always first, we shall never remark on the fact that ‘This is already a work of art, or it isn’t’. We never touch on that problem because we are modest, not because of a complex” (p. 124)

✦ “Here is the ability to metabolise things, in other words to transform substance. The artist performs this metabolism, but by doing so he can become a tightrope walker. In other words, he may represent the external image of things, but not consciousness. On the contrary, the artist is someone who goes through these things and represents consciousness with things […] restoring dignity to the quality of the material […] the artist uses a material and shapes it […] dealing with the immaterial as though it were material, and with material as though it were immaterial” (pp. 130-131)

✦ “the artist must get used to looking at things through” (p. 135)

✦ “work carefully, calmly, without worrying about the image that emerges […] you must look underneath, and this will tire you out completely. Your work will be precisely that of remaining concentrated inside the plaster, because you will not even see what you are doing […] your work is just one of excavation: the entire work may crumble to dust or allow you to discover Atreus’ treasure. Go ahead as though you did not need to work a shape, but just to learn how to move your hands” (pp. 141-142)1

The search for the affirmation of expression suggested by Fabro through a sculpture or drawing is constantly thematised, rather than applied, by Scalfi Eghenter in her projects. This means it is left open and never explicitly achieved in the individual work (which, according to Fabro’s Rules, is always a “relative result”), but constantly sought in the ongoing process of research. What Scalfi Eghenter appears to have drawn from Fabro’s teachings is not so much the meaning of the lesson as the fact of going to the lesson every day. She thus personally adopts, if one may put it like this, what Fabro refers to as the “responsibility of the mediocre” – which is the responsibility of not being entirely an auteur, or even entirely conscious or vigilant with regard to the outcome of the work, sharing its destiny through dialogue (which is left to flow like the very substance of the work) with the “other”, losing it in the process, and considering individual works as being permanently in progress. It is the inclusive and extended process of research (the formulation of which is influenced by her sociology studies,  interacting with her academic education), rather than the essentials of the work, that becomes what Fabro  suggests is the “truly impressive sight” of the work. So it is no coincidence that this book too has been devised by the artist not as a retrospective catalogue but rather as a “methodological chapter” in her PhD dissertation at the University of Essex. In it, she focuses on her own work and artistic research, which is in progress and based on a series of premises that illustrate the principles and instruments she has adopted while planning her research (ratio).

Scalfi Eghenter provides the clearest interpretation, which is at once adventurous and responsible, of Opera Civica (TN) as a means for bringing about cooperation and mutual involvement between the public and the private realm, and one that gives real substance to the work of a territorial museum and a “gallery” that is truly “civic”. One that does not remain closed up in the appointed places of art (as a “museum”) but that takes the risk and opens up to the outside world. Having approached this publishing project not as mere documentation of other works, but rather as an authentic work in itself and one that is both partial and temporary – like all her works, and like her way of working itself – Scalfi Eghenter does not even terminate the book. On the contrary, she continues it and offers yet another work that emerges from the pages of the catalogue, and from her ongoing research, reverberating through works already made and those yet to come, through the future of a research that is always in progress.

But as a consequence of the friendly, collective approach to this research, we need to remember and thank all those who have been brought into it by Scalfi Eghenter, and who have been its authentic co-authors. These people are an extended civic and civil family who, throughout this process, have created the various steps that the book documents, brings together, and launches anew. Their names and their contributions are an integral part of the pages you are about to read. Our gratitude also goes to the four authors of the critical essays in the catalogue, who are the latest members of this family and who document and analyse Scalfi Eghenter’s artistic practice from various, integrated points of view: Cecilia Canziani, Heather Höpfl, Roberto Pinto, and Antonio Strati. Thanks are also due to Angelika Burtscher and Daniele Lupo, who have devised a publishing project which, while reflecting the methodological and procedural approach of the artist’s research, reinterprets and gives new meaning to the traditional format of catalogues – though it still proudly bears the name “catalogue” in the title. Organised in a series of chapters, or “places” (more theoretical than physical, for they are actually loci), the works come one after the other in the catalogue in a non-linear, non-chronological manner, for their order is based on the affinities that emerge from the research that underlies them.

Fondazione Galleria Civica di Trento would like to offer its special thanks to those who have made the Opera Civica (TN) project possible, and of which this book is the first result. First and foremost we should like to thank Lorenzo Dellai who, together with the commission for youth policies of the Provincia Autonoma di Trento, and in particular the chief of youth policies, Francesco Pancheri, has firmly believed in the Opera Civica (TN) project, considering that its desire to inspire research and the production of knowledge, and of young people to create their future, is an essential means for transforming this land into a laboratory of permanent innovation, capable of influencing its dialogue with other lands in the future; Franco Panizza, the councillor for culture, European relationships and cooperation for the Provincia Autonoma di Trento, and Claudio Martinelli, the director of the cultural activities service, who have both supported and followed the project and its commitment to bring together the cultural distinctiveness of the territory (including the many institutions with which Scalfi Eghenter has worked) with the experimentation of contemporary forms of art; and also Giorgia Floriani, for her passionate love of art and her constant attention as much to the needs of the artists as to their doubts, enthusiasms, and dreams. One last thank-you, the greatest of all, and also the most personal, goes to the artist herself, for sharing with us her interpretation of what Opera Civica (TN) really is, and for giving mind, body, and voice to this project and to its present and future objectives. “Thank you, Anna”.

Andrea Viliani

Director, Fondazione Galleria Civica-Centro di Ricerca sulla Contemporaneità di Trento

1 L. Fabro, Regole d’Arte, Casa degli Artisti, Milano 1980.

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