To vanish, to perish and yet to abide
It is not immediately easy to decide who should accompany us to an exhibition of works by Gianna Bentivenga: our first instinct is that we should enter in relation to them while alone. Only later-quite some time later, in fact-will we discover how this artist’s work is inscribed in a deep, time-honoured tradition of thought providing reflections and models that walk side by side with her practice, and that we should do well to take as our starting point.
‘[…] there are what we call simulacra of things; which like films stripped from the outermost body of things, fly forward and backward through the air; lest by chance we should think […] that something of us can be left after death, when body alike and the nature of mind have perished and parted asunder into their several first-beginnings. I say then that likenesses of things and their shapes are given off by things from the outermost body of things, which may be called, as it were, films or even rind…
This might seem the bizarre association of a critic, but I think bearing in mind the words written on simulacra in Lucretius’ astonishing masterpiece may be helpful in our attempt to understand the meaning of Bentivenga’s research.
Her work is a constant striving to give a shape to the simulacrum: nothing to do with immanence, less still with a thought. Thought is always most visible in her work, and the more it seems to elude us, the more it finds its place in each mark, in each line, always unmistakably made matter. The simulacra in the prints we are viewing are, in a very real sense, aggregates of atoms flying free of any metaphysical meaning, establishing a relationship with natural transformation of such strength as has the viewer feel as if almost entwined in compositions that nonetheless always work by subtraction. As the artist puts it, ?Surface is a battlefield that wants to be used and at the same time opposes me, as if putting up resistance. It stands up to me.’
It starts from a shape, but when the creative process is accomplished, not much of the shape is left: all that is visible is the substance. We could immediately object that such difference between form and substance is internal to a metaphysics we have just discarded as unhelpful. Yet this is not the case, because in Gianna Bentivenga’s work substance truly has a Democritean character: it is matter, as anyone will see when looking at her monad-cocoons, and it is also a most visible trace of two matters facing up to each other and impressing surfaces with a relentless interplay of advancing and retreating. The sign as protagonist, and then either light or the organic material as apparent deuteragonists. But what is always there is matter-or rather, matters.
Lucretius speaks of ‘films’, of the ‘bark’ of things: Bentivenga strives to detach the ‘filmì from the thing, the res, the object in its reality-not to search for a soul that could never be found, but to follow and transmit to us a process, a progressive subtraction of body which is not a lessening of visibility but the very sense of her work. There exists in nature a time whose task it is to alter, deconstruct, deplete objects, subjecting each to the same process, now long, sometimes extremely long, now almost sudden. Such a process knows no hierarchy, no different values: it knows nothing but time.
And such time is what Bentivenga’s work appropriates and shortens, accelerates, speeds up. But this is the appearance, or rather the simulation, on which she operates: for in reality, the work of building the engraved ‘object’ is as long and meticulous as a natural process. The perimeter of a sheet encloses a vital movement starting from a primal, young, full-bodied shape that is gradually lightened, deconstructed, made into a filament and turned into a rarefaction. As Galileo writes: ‘Continual rarefaction of substances, which by dilating, and therefore seeking increasingly larger spaces, force the limits of their containers.’ That is, not an immediate ending, but rather the start of a process by which the plane of representation shows the sign voluntarily turning into translucence, forcefully spreading light-and such spreading turns into narrative in the artist’s Modules. A tale of form in which each module is subtracted on the path to a pristine solitude, a thread that is the thread of the story but won’t let the viewer ‘lose the thread’: each subtracted module leaves a sign of light and the narrative turns into metamorphosis, for the shape Bentivenga had us start from is almost gone, and the tale, from a texture of signs, has turned into a texture of light. The relationship between space and sign will change with each module; yet we are never faced with making space for the void: rather, the signs that have apparently disappeared cannot be thought of outside the perimeter of the engraved surface, and become a visible ‘other’.
Yet in the tight-woven dialogues of Bentivenga’s work there is more than light vs. sign. Her research has admitted an element that, while undermining the work’s persistence, also destabilizes common appraisal of a work of art. The artist aids and abets the assault of an element hostile to paper: namely, mould. A visible decomposition that-we’ll say it again-should not be seen as a vanishing of souls, but as clearing the ground of any illusory notion of giving a sense to the end or rationally directing the unpredictable. These not-too-visible shadows, these undefined and yet irrepressibly strong colours are acting in accord with nature, and with their own nature: they appear to tolerate cohabitation, but in fact interfere with the sign, intercept it and attempt to cause its death in a normal vital process.
We know that when writing his Philosophia botanica, Linneus chose to use not drawings but engravings serially printed on the books’ pages: images that tended to be unchangeable and equal to one another, published as much as the words were and thus accessible to the scholarly community, since engravings had the power to exclude any sensation associated with the play aroused in the senses by proximity to a plant. Bentivenga constantly brings us back to a natural fact escaping any oral conditioning, and further flouts this botanical principle while introducing subversion precisely into the technique considered-and not only by Linneus-the most unassailable. She uses mould like Timothy Leary used LSD. Turn on, tune in, drop out, open the doors of perception, get on the universe’s wavelength. As Leary noted in his autobiography, Flashbacks, ‘Drop out suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments’. No, it was not a question of drugging the consciousness, but of widening its area, the angle of vision. That spreading out of mould on the sheet is the widening of the consciousness of our finiteness, that sheet might become air or space but never absence, just like light is not absence but the protagonist of other series of Bentivenga’s works. The finiteness of the sheet as the finiteness of existence that she cuts through with filaments she seems to be striving to use as in the ancient lecanomanctic practices, in which the sometimes imperceptible ripplings of water and liquids would predict a future ready to vanish at a stroke.
If Spinoza uses one of his most celebrated statements, ‘we nonetheless can feel and experience our own being eternal’, to close his lengthy demonstration of how nothing remains of any individual at the time of its perishing and of the destruction of what makes it alive, i.e. of the specific relationship of movement and quiet characterizing each body, Gianna Bentivenga follows the same process, actualizing it by visibility: she will cut into a device that starts a process once the work appears to be finished, she will become the author not of an object but of a process, so as to reminds us that nothing of us will abide, nothing may abide of her sheets appropriated and conquered by light or by mould. Yet in that long work, that long battle, resides the pure eternity of making art.