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Constantly bocoming
by Giangavino Pazzola

Trying to define the landscape is an age-old problem because the very topic offers us a constantly changing focus of analysis. As fascinating as it is ambiguous, describing the landscape has over the years generated discussions not only within the history of art but in other spheres too – and continues to do so. In painting, for example, spatial investigation had already started to play a key role in the work of Renaissance artists such as Piero della Francesca and Pollaiolo before evolving in the painting initiated by Jan Brueghel and the Flemish painters, and continuing on via the Veduta painting of the Grand Tour period to early twentieth-century English landscape painting. In all these cases, the landscape “triggered” an aesthetic participation that transcended formal configuration of the environment and shaped the physiognomy of the portrayal. As well as being morphological, the landscape can therefore be scrutinised to examine single spheres, be they social, cultural or economic. Another discipline that raises many questions on the landscape is, of course, geography. More than others (and often in close association with the history of art), it has revealed the extreme instability, difficulty and vulnerability of the landscape. The English-speaking world’s debate, for example, offers an interesting separation between the concepts of space and place. The former definition conceptually links space to something natural, geometrically organised, given and essential in which spatial processes are traced back to the teleological and measurable.1 In the latter case, however, the environment is associated with a sense of becoming; it classifies the union between an absolute, pre-existing and undifferentiated point in space
and a transformation driven by humans that usually stands out for its constituent cultural or subjective connotations. We could almost say that it becomes artificial and differentiated, the where and the how fuse, encompassing within a single sphere both the visible and tangible characteristics of a place and its innermost subjective meanings.2 In this sense, aspects of the mediation and representation of the experience become crucial to the transmission of meanings that shift from being personal to become universal.

We find a mix of form, substance and experience in the concept of landscape in Laura Pugno’s research, in which landscape in the sense of place occupies a central position, and not by chance. Born in Trivero, a small mountain town in the Biellese Alps, she finds familiarity in seating her artistic exploration in the specific mountain landscape. On this path, an inborn curiosity and fascination for discovery have driven her to engage with this subject matter with method and perseverance for more than twenty years, in an attempt to discover and learn about new places – linked clearly to the cognitive sphere – in which to “settle”. In her works, the landscape is never an accessory to the representation but explored as a topic in its own right, the starting point of a criticism of the vision and the “reality”. A spatial analysis conducted via the figuration of the mountain is therefore elevated to a topic of investigation and adopted as a figure, a dimension in which to retrace material and immaterial signs that unite past and present. Approaching the shifting
nature of the landscape and the way it establishes itself as an active subject determines a constant exchange between subjective instances that are not pre-established but develop dynamically as they inscribe themselves one within the other – reading after reading and experience after experience of the place.

In this sense and indeed from the project phase of a work, Pugno embarks on a process of engagement with the notion of landscape, which often then changes in the production phase leading to results as unexpected as they are astonishing and poetic. In Lorenzo Giusti’s “Altri Sensi” essay for the catalogue of Laura Pugno’s solo exhibition at the MAN museum in Nuoro, we read of the Piedmontese artist’s creative research: “At its basis lies the difficulty of outlining a definite idea of the landscape [...]. It is not a research into the essence [...] but rather the opposite: an attempt to read all of reality in the form of landscape, the effort to observe the world in an unfolded manner, adopting not one but multiple points of view. This is an idea in which questions of physical nature, anthropic factors and cultural reasons converge, and which, as such, concentrates in itself all the complexity of systemic thought, without wallowing in it. An idea that, in its figurative expressions, is nonetheless also abstract”.3

For her Museomontagna exhibition project, the artist produced several bodies of works that, as is her custom, encompass all the languages of art, investing photography, sculpture and installation. Gradi di empatia stemmed from the artist’s desire to pay symbolic homage to photography and printing techniques. The artist started by examining the Mario Fantin and Lino Marini archives and selecting several large-format photographic prints (38 x 47 cm) from the production portraying Mont Blanc and performed an action that would blur part of the picture. Unlike works created in the past using a similar practice, however, in this case the artist used photographs that were not her own to achieve a different photographic image that includes both the landscape fixed by the other person’s gaze and the result of her body movements. The initial intent of her action was not to destroy the image but to simulate the movement of dark-room masking – a technique that corrects or modifies an image to produce a different result from that of the print process. The movement of the artist’s body – which also invades the edges and margins of the image underscoring its nature as a single and unrepeatable action – declares a doubling of the time and space. Entering into a conflictual relationship with the sedimented vision of these documents, Pugno overtly re-appropriated the image which – via the act of masking – was selectively resignified and freed.

At the origin of another three works is the artist’s previous interest in exploring how the image of the Matterhorn has been employed in advertising and communication in general. The cultural factor in Pugno’s research is of crucial importance and, in this case, a hegemony of the vision is found in the picture of the Swiss mountain, aesthetically perfect in its elegant pyramidal form. Pugno realised that the image of the Matterhorn is so iconic as to prompt “undue appropriations” that communicate not only its mountainside and locations but also values, products and proposals regarding the Italian side – Cervino, which has a totally different morphology. Hence the artist’s need to verify what materials and depictions of the mountain landscape were to be found in the archives (and more specifically in the sections containing adverts of the two sides of the mountain) and analyse the relationship between  two very different forms – those of each side. The Italian place-name, moreover, originated both from a linguistic corruption linked to the translation from the Latin and from a transcription error made by Horace- Bénédict de Saussure – one of the first cartographers of the Kingdom of Sardinia – who erroneously alluded to the mountain’s resemblance to a deer. This generated a number of works exploring a grammar of resemblance and the peculiarities of the image itself and its potential for perception in several possible interpretations: mirror, manipulated, hidden and three- dimensional images.
Essere due is an installation featuring two mirrors facing each other and depicting the Swiss side (Matterhorn) and the Italian one (Cervino). As well as showing the true identity of each part, it reverberates the images, in seemingly endless repetition. One inside the other, the two forms determine a cultural pretence that occurs in a mise en abyme, the process of engulfing an image that conceptually allows it to contain a small copy of itself. As in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Essere due makes us question the complexity and elusiveness of the concept of (identity) of the landscape. What the mirror shows us is a type of image that is seemingly inoffensive because it does not interpret fact and does not configure a translation of perceptible elements: the mirror records what strikes it in the precise way it strikes it, referring us to the “truth” and responding to the aesthetic principle of resemblance. In this case, the Matterhorn and Cervino (the same mountain) are united in a two-dimensional vision – superimposing themselves on each other in the reflection. Equally, the form exposes its eternal solitude and impossible “cultural” adhesion, only possible in the deception and ambiguity of the expanded representation produced by the mirror.

Exploration of the archive documents and materials revealed to the artist that the representations employed predominantly by the advertising world avail to a
large degree of shots taken on the Swiss side of the mountain. This is reinforced both via the specular installation of a sample of said archive materials regarding Cervino and the Matterhorn (wherein, as we have said, the latter is represented by a vaster number and variety of materials than its Italian “counterpart”), and by Perdita di stato, two sculptural portrayals that highlight the volumes of each face but through the collapsing of their mass. In fact, in creating them, the “real” forms impressed into a rubber cast – negative imprint of the model – were reproduced without the aid of the support found in sculptural practice that offers dimensional rigidity to the mould. Borrowing the technique of mountain casts – dating back to the early twentieth century – Pugno first constructed the portrait of the mountain’s sides through observing hundreds of images and then purposefully directed the subsidence of their forms.

The notion of a collapse in the hegemony of mainstream representation – based on canons of easy communication, immediacy, impact – is also present in Abused. Here, the image of the Matterhorn is almost entirely negated via the superimposition of a knife-spread of melted chocolate, which, as well as being one of the consumer products most commonly associated with the mountain landscape, also symbolises a communicational voracity for the iconic image. This strong and intentionally ironic gesture is reinforced by a Toblerone placed outside the picture frame, yet again symbolising the negation of the form. In this sense, Laura Pugno’s work occupies not so much a physical landscape but a (mountain) space mentally construed to operate in everyday life and offers complex suggestions that prompt a rethinking of the relations between humans and the environment – or at least its portrayal.

1. ROB KITCHIN, Space II”, in ROB KITCHIN, NIGEL THRIFT (eds.) International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, Elsevier, Oxford, 2009.
2. TIM CRESSWELL, “Place: Encountering Geography as Philosophy”, in Geography, Geographical Association, 2008, vol. 93, pp. 132–139.
3. LORENZO GIUSTI, Laura Pugno. Altri Sensi, NERO Publishing, Rome, 2013, p. 14.