The Usual Suspicions

by Roberto Pinto

There are many people, even ones in possession of a high cultural level, who when confronted with contemporary art become suspicious and diffident. They are left somewhat unconvinced as to why the various Damien Hirsts or Maurizio Cattelans should be so famous (and well paid). Furthermore, I believe that for them, the word ‘art’ – especially if they are Italian – immediately evokes a series of memories – be they direct or indirect – bound up in articles of extremely refined production and closely linked to the past; works which, at least formally, often have little to do with more recent forms of experimentation. In other words, contemporary art is accused of following arbitrary principles, therefore observing rules based on norms which are anything but clear to those not in the know.

I have often had the suspicion that Anna Scalfi Eghenter is one of those who has little trust in contemporary art. I believe above all that she mistrusts the complex system that operates behind it, that network of power and contacts within which museums, curators, collectors, art fairs and galleries decide who and what may legitimately lay claim to being called art or an artist, establishing who to in/ exclude from the disciplinary confines, and what to accept as part of the fairytale world of art. If we move slightly more into the specific, I believe that she is not at all interested in being part of this club and that both her education — an interweaving series of academic, theatrical, sociological and management studies — and her career — which highlights an almost total lack of contact with private galleries — fully demonstrate this. Despite this, Anna continues to be interested in contemporary art, in making projects, in putting together complex works, in involving people, in trying to invest economic resources and in working in collaboration with institutions.

Probably those same characteristics of arbitrariness which stoke our doubts, observed from a different stance, may be looked upon as a resource, interesting if for no other reason than to re-absorb concepts, things or forms which would otherwise have no way of gaining official recognition if not through the ‘art’ label. Looked upon from this point of view, art may even be read as an easy way to normalise deviance and abnormalities, or at least to constitute a territory in which to put certain beliefs and habits to the test.

The work presented by Eghenter Scalfi on this occasion is as always mimetic and surprising at the same time. It is made up of two tennis courts, one of which is normal, standard, as may be found in any part of the world — in keeping with the conventional norms — and one decidedly unconventional, in which the usual playing space is deformed: the net is narrower and the line dividing the two opposing portions of the court no longer separates two rectangles but rather constitutes the short side of two symmetrical trapeziums. However bizarre this may seem, this second court designed by the artist is perfectly useable. We may thus play tennis, albeit not in exactly the same way as the court standing next to it, it is in many ways similar, using the same rules and scoring system. Probably the players in this case will be forced to change the angle of their shots, while moving up to the net may turn out to be much easier, but I’m sure that if a good tennis player were to use that court, he would not encounter insurmountable difficulties in adapting his game to these new conditions.

As mentioned before, Anna Scalfi’s challenge thus lies in a simple shift that appears anomalous if it is looked upon in terms of habit, yet which may be considered perfectly legitimate if it is seen through eyes independent of tradition. Naturally, Scalfi’s aim is not that of creating a movement for the reform of tennis courts, but rather of putting us to the test in order to understand the mechanisms that regulate our social relationships. In this case, art is used as a legitimising procedure, as a territory where reality may be pushed a little further. Thus it becomes a space in which we are no longer necessarily subject to the rules, which may therefore be reinvented. A space in which to try out new ways of seeing things, new ways of analysing reality and – why not – even inventing new forms of democracy in which the exclusive, personal aspects of each and every one of us intertwine with the power deriving from the definition of rules shared by the entire community. The artist ventures into the territory of art with all the passion of an anthropologist observing a society in a state of transformation, yet one also conditioned by the rules laid out by tradition. And conscientiously, as a participant observer, she does not shrink away from the inclusion of autobiographical aspects — the work is dedicated to her mother, Albertina Eghenter, herself a tennis champion — or even references to artistic procedures — the photos and technical drawings that accompany the project, but perhaps also the rules of perspective to which the oblique positioning of the white lines of the tennis court seem to allude.

Lastly, I would like to underline that the slight deformation of reality introduced by this strange playing space may also be read as a reflection on the inextricable intertwining that reality and fiction have brought about in our society. Things exist if they have been photographed or filmed. It doesn’t matter if we believe them to be out of place, deformed, or obviously unreal; once they have been threaded in the flow of information, they enter our world and become part of it. Initially they surprise us, and then they impose themselves as a rule unto themselves, and indeed art itself is not so far removed from such a procedure. That’s why Anna Scalfi Eghenter finds rules so fascinating, while at the same time they are looked upon with such suspicion.

Roberto Pinto