Beyond the view: rewilding the landscape
by Francesca Comisso and Luisa Perlo
by Francesca Comisso and Luisa Perlo
The landscape, meaning a cultural construction, a historically codified expression of the natural environment, has always been at the heart of Laura Pugno's artistic research. Born and raised in a small town at the foot of the Alps outside Biella, mountain environments are for her a familiar context, and so free from the exotic inflections of those who search for certificates of authenticity there.
Her artwork features mediums that range between photography, sculpture, installations, drawing, video, painting, starting from the perceptive and emotional dimension generated by an experience of the body and by its physical action in contact with the natural environment. In the wide variety of linguistic mediums in which her research develops, each one chosen for the conceptual, as well as expressive, value of the applied technique, an aspect emerges that we could define performative, in which the body in the fullness of its sensory faculties acquires special importance. This aspect introduces a first, significant reinterpretation of the notion of landscape, the meaning of which coincides with view, panorama, or with the act of seeing, exercised by separating from the continuum of reality what reflects specific aesthetic, symbolic, geographical values with which, from time to time, mankind has defined the idea of landscape through his own central and controlling position. By choosing in many of her works to omit the visual and instead favouring the tactile, Pugno evokes an experience of proximity that refers to the awareness of the profound interrelation between humans and the environment, be it natural or artificial, and among all manifestations, small and great, of the living and the non-living. Touch, a marginal sense in visual arts, offers the advantage of being able to recover the continuum between all real things that vision instead separates, and therefore is a vehicle for connection, contact, exchange, intertwining, promiscuity starting from which one can only learn how to inhabit this world in a better way or, as Donna Haraway would say, “staying with the trouble”, according to a practice of coexistence and a capacity to live responsibly.1
In an era marked by an alarming and progressive ecological collapse, by climatic crises, environmental disasters and global pandemics, art, together with other disciplines and practices of the imagination, has the ability and the responsibility to generate horizons from which to start thinking and gaining experience of a new position of humans on Earth. In many of her works, Laura Pugno began to do just this starting from a process of subtraction, which should not be perceived as a simple denial, as pointing the finger towards the humanity of the Anthropocene, but rather as a shift of attention towards the “surrounding”. In Landscape behind you (2011-2012), the artist carries black Plexiglas plaques on her shoulders and walks towards the top of a hill, which becomes an observation point. Having reached her destination, she begins to draw, with thin marks engraved on the plaques, the mountain landscape behind her that is reflected on the surface. The mediation of the reflection, which the hand follows while engraving the image of the landscape, makes the drawing similar to an imprint, like in photography, an indexical sign, one would say in semiological terms, the value of which is still a statement of presence through absence. In this dual condition, the work conveys an ambivalent feeling with an underlying unescapable sense of loss. The result is an unprecedented landscape, divided in two parts that stand out to the sides of a central void generated by the space occupied by the artist's own body. The body acts as an obstacle to the projection of the reflection, it interferes with the unity of the vision, but not to cancel it, rather to inscribe itself in it. The “landscape in the background” becomes both the subject and the object, just like the body of the artist who reveals it. It is a metaphorical and literal overturning of perspective, if we think of the famous iconic painting of Romanticism by Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). In this work, the human figure is “seen from behind” (the rückenfigur), a male figure in contemplation who stands out in heroic isolation before the power and vastness of the mountain landscape, in an act of defiance and domination, which still feeds much of the contemporary collective imagination.
From subtraction to cancellation: in some works, Pugno intervenes on the image by abrading the surfaces, like in the series of mountain views entitled Quel che Annibale non vide (What Hannibal did not see) of 2012, in which she recalls the passage of Hannibal and of his army of men and elephants through the Alps, photographing the Col de La Traversette at 2950 meters above sea level, probably the site of the legendary crossing. The cancellation of portions of this view makes us question how one can translate the experience of an unknown environment, for which there are no codes of representation, like the snowy mountain would have been for Hannibal, and at the same time it creates a degree zero, a new field of possibilities. In other cases, the cancellation of the landscape seems to acquire the meaning of its incorporation, again enacted through the experience of physical contact with the environment: in Moto per luogo (Movement to place) of 2018, five aluminium plates with as many images of mountain environments are carried by the artist back to the place they represent, positioned in the snowy ground, and used as sledges to cross the portrayed landscapes. The result of this action is the erosion of the image in the part occupied by the artist's body. Two ways of saying landscape, which lead to empirical consequences and give a symbolic value to the intuitions of physics that assign to the act of observing the effect of modifying the object of observation.
Inevitably, in her exploration of the concept of landscape, Pugno looked back through the history of art, at a season, such as the Renaissance, in which linear perspectives translated reality into mathematical measures and proportions. From the works by Albrecht Dürer and Andrea Mantegna, she drew the rocky glimpses similar to abstract plastic units, which she assembles in new configurations, evoking the processes of morphogenesis: with the intaglio technique she prints these landscape ensembles on gypsum tiles, a material of mineral origin that itself affects the image by corroding it, like rust on iron or vegetation on the ruins of abandoned buildings. The cancellation is here a passage in the vital and incessant rhythm of the transformation of matter, which leads to an ecocentric rereading of the Spinozian notion of natura naturans, nature as a totality of the existing, which is the principle of its very being and becoming.
It is in this perspective that we can perhaps interpret some of her recent works in which the natural element manifests itself, like in an action of autopoiesis: invited to intervene in the wood of the Oasi Zegna (the site of a historic and pioneering “rewilding” venture commissioned by the Biella-born industrialist to whom it owes its name), Laura Pugno chooses to work on some spruce trees attacked by a parasitic insect, the European spruce bark beetle, which by digging the bark interrupts the sap carrying-channels of the plant, causing its death. From this liminal condition, close to disappearance, the trees generate their own story of the forest in the Last image (2021) series, a chronicle that reflects their point of view, achieved by placing emulsified paper in the cavity of the trunks, which are transformed into a dark room. In collaboration with the sound artist Magda Drozd, who was also entrusted with the soundtrack of Over Time, Pugno records the sound produced by graphite to retrace the complex and suggestive patterns engraved by the insect on the plant, in Tracks (2021), with an action that documents and welcomes change.2
The same operating mode characterizes a set of works that reflect the artist's recurring handling of a specific element of the natural landscape: snow. Winter at high altitudes is in fact a context in which she has often ventured, and which becomes, as Pietro Gaglianò observes, “a somewhat subversive concept: the invisibility of winter is an extension of the imaginative faculty, which the artist uses (and which everyone should use) to reflect on her own position in the world”.3
Snow envelopes the landscape in a rarefied and immersive scenario, which evokes the meditative concentration of a mental space and at the same time the alarm caused by the awareness of its disappearance due to global warming and the progressive and inevitable melting of glaciers. This feeling led to the creation of works such as the series of drawings on paper and canvas Omaggio a Wilson Bentley (Homage to Wilson Bentley) of 2018, dedicated to the American photographer who first looked at the image of snow crystals, “tiny miracles of beauty”, as he defined them, influencing the rise of a collective imagination surrounding snow, to the point of making it one of the icons of Christmas across the world. What Pugno tries instead to seize is the shape of snow captured in its living and ephemeral reality, resorting once again to the imprint that, having been coloured with a spray pigment, it leaves on the surface of the canvas on which it is placed. These works produce objects that have the value of a relic, elements for an ideal Wunderkammer in which nature and artifice, instead of fighting each other in their respective magnificence of forms, help each other, “for future memory”, as reads the title of a series of splendid sculptures that are actually the cast of snow in jesmonite, a ceramic plaster. The result of this experiment are shapes similar to corals, with mineral crystals, each one different, which capture temporary states of matter, between solid and liquid, and which the unstoppable phenomenon of melting glaciers translates into awareness of their vulnerability and imminent disappearance. Placed on iridescent surfaces, these white imprints of snow acquire multicoloured reflections that make them already come across as relics from the near future. Finally, also dedicated to snow and its beauty and fragility, we reach Over Time (2021), a project that thematizes the notion of time by placing in the present, marked by the slow rhythm of careful and sometimes enchanted observation, a series of gestures and actions in which the near future is already anticipated. The three videos projected simultaneously contribute to dilating the flow of time in the here and now of a contemplative space. It is thus possible to immerse yourself in the sequence of actions carried out by a snow specialist, who is digging a hole at high altitude to check the “state of health” of the snow, in a condition in which the observation acquires an affective tone. The same commitment accompanies the procedures of those who are verifying the quality of artificial snow produced in a factory, where human movements go hand in hand with the orderly sliding of cans on the conveyor belts. The circularity of time evoked by the movement of the rollers and the hypnotic cadence of the sound is reaffirmed once again by the endless pacing, without an apparent direction, of a person immersed in a snowy forest. A human torso is tied on his shoulders, an enigmatic burden, turned to look backwards, like an overturned banner. This suggestion to a sign linked to the pride of conquest was conceived bearing in mind another work, the public artwork Primati (Primates) of 2018, created at 2175 meters above sea level, in a botanical garden on Mont Blanc. This place is dedicated to a rare plant, the Saussurea alpina, the name of which recalls the Geneva-born scientist Horace Bénédict De Saussure, and was created to protect and raise awareness about over one hundred species of native alpine flora, together with plants that came from other continents, or the result of cross breeding. The artist has ideally enriched the garden with six new special of plants: what makes them unique is that they manage to grow on the peaks of the Himalayas, at over 6000 meters above sea level, at height believed to be too great for this to happen. To each of them, Pugno has dedicated a flag that bears their name and effigy, drawn from the first images available in 2016 when, due to global warming, the melting of the ice allowed these species to grow at higher and higher altitudes. At the first stop of the new Skyway cable car, a true marvel of engineering that reaches a height of 3466 meters, the six flags make the banners of a record-breaking garden bloom, reminding us at the same time of the ambivalence of every record. If gardens are the place where human beings have always exercised the possibility of creating worlds, places governed by beauty, harmony and, we might add, coexistence between different species, the banners raised by the artist do not celebrate goals but raise questions, and with them the need to cultivate with obstinacy, resistance and poetry, new imaginaries, new gardens, and new answers.
1. I am referring to the book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, Durham, 2016, published in Italian with the title Chthulucene. Sopravvivere su un pianeta infetto, NERO Edizioni, Roma, 2019.
2. Cecilia Canziani, Fading loss – Tales from the Forest, text for the presentation of the project, Fondazione Zegna, Trivero Valdilana, 15 May - 31 October 2021.
3. Pietro Gaglianò, Laura Pugno - a parole, in L’attesa, catalogue of the exhibition, curated by Collettivo Fare Mente Locale, Spazio Instabile, Colle Val d’Elsa, 25 September - 31 October 2021.