At a superficial glance, Laura Pugno’s research might appear limited in genre and in subject matter. In reality, what we have is a rather complex system, open to a multiplicity of developments and possibilities. At its basis lies the difficulty of outlining a definite idea of the landscape – a limitless idea, which the artist has been obstinately pursuing for years, with method and perseverance. The crack is that of painting – to which, historically, the origins of the concept of landscape tend to be traced – but the rivulets, deviations and ramifications are the most varied, and extend outwards in a plurality of fields of research. It is not a research into the essence, into that which can be said in nuce at every manifestation of the landscape, but rather the opposite: an attempt to read all of reality in the form of landscape, an 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.
After an initial phase, linked to problems of image more than of concept – for example, the series KWh (2008) deals with the representation of the weight of certain artefacts, specifically dams, in relation to the various components of the landscape – the work of Laura Pugno reaches a turning point with Percorrenze (Traversals, 2008-2010), a group of collages made with various types of paper, spray-paint and brushes, in which color escapes the confines of the image in order to invade the frame and, at times, even the wall. It is in these works that the investigation of the landscape, previously triggered by attempts at identification, begins to question its own motivations. What emerges as deceitful – in the artist’s own words – is “the reversibility of contemplated landscape and internal landscape; the illusion of identifying with the landscape.” To the problems of vision and description, others, of preliminary character, are added: to what extent is it possible to restrict the concept of landscape? What are the minimal elements that attest to its existence? The very idea of the landscape as the subject of the work is deconstructed and reconstructed on the basis of basic principles. The result of this new self-interrogation is a radical synthesis, a stratification of lines and colors obtained by relinquishing the representation of complex elements, such as morphology, mass, tonality. The known constructs demolished, a certain idea of the landscape seems to emerge out of its very negation.
The experience of the collage inaugurates a new stage, founded on few but significant principles: no attachment to prefabricated definitions, but rather an effort to reformulate one’s own idea day by day, with variations that are sometimes minimal, sometimes radical; no verification of major hypotheses, but a continuous re-questioning of theories and presuppositions, following variable paths; no predetermined strategy, but the freedom of changing tools and methods, techniques and processes, in relation to different contexts. It is with these dis-orientations that the series Esitando (Hesitating, 2011) is born, a group of abrasions on photographic paper conceived as “direct attempts to attenuate the integrative cogency of the landscape.” The collage’s work of construction by way of minimal layers is replaced, here, with a process of deconstruction of the landscape as a given element, effected through the erosion of parts of the printed paper support and the simultaneous redistribution of the extracted pigment over its surface. Though the works are still photographic, both the technique utilized and the results are pictorial. The visual evidence is blurred, rendered indefinite; more dense in certain places, almost invisible in others. What emerges is an element that moves from photography to painting, from instantaneousness to memory. A pictorial memory of the landscape – pictorial and “sublime,” as in the best romantic tradition.1
Esitando (2011) is the first in a group of works distinguished by the use of the abrasion technique. Included in this group are also Cosa in sé (Thing in itself, 2012) and Quel che Annibale non vide (What Hannibal Didn’t See, 2012), two series that exploit the potential of the photograph’s edges – while only a minimal trace of the photograph itself remains, corroded as it is by the process of scraping and erasure – in order to reflect on the limits of vision. Breaking the frame, demolishing the margin that frames the view of the landscape, exceeding: there is no other way to catch the sense of the beyond within a single limit. Every idea of landscape brings with it contours that are like the confines of a painting. As in Magritte’s famous La condition humaine (1933), the landscape is nothing other than a play of frames. One frame surpassed, another one immediately presents itself. It is we ourselves who create it actively each time. Limits, frames and contours have in common the property of giving us a distinct vision of an inside and an outside. To say it with Bateson: staying within the frame means developing “a certain type of reasoning”; exceeding, going beyond the frame of the picture, the limit of the landscape, means experimenting the “indistinct continuity of all things,” of the objects we perceive, the social contexts in which we live, our very thoughts. It is a vertiginous experience. The paradox is that, just as the frame protects us from vertigo, so it also allows us to experience it.2
Sulla via della forma (On the Road of Form) is the title of a new series of abrasions created in 2013 for the exhibition at the MAN Museum – a series born from visiting inland Sardinia. It is not a coincidence that, when invited to realize a project on this island, Laura Pugno chose, among all the possible landscapes, the Corrasi range, the tallest peaks of the Supramonte. The reason for this does not lie so much in the artist’s familiarity with mountains, in her frequentation of crossings and slopes, as in the desire to show the other face of Sardinia. The great stony bastions of the mountains of Oliena, alternating with the deep canyons, the rocky summits looming against the sky, the naked ambient, the karts plateaus, the craters, the strangely-shaped pinnacles, constitute an alternative to the most diffused image of the island – that sold to tourists by tour operators, constructed around a limited and conventional portion of the island’s natural and social elements: the sea, the beach, the sun, the peace, the wellness, the fun. In these works, general motivations are supplemented with specific reasons which aim to evidence the cultural bases that constitute every possible idea of landscape, and to mark the untrustworthiness of every acquired imaginary. Given images, assimilated images and new perceived images always cohabit within the landscape. To see a landscape means to imagine it always anew.
According to common sense, perception of the landscape always passes through vision. But what kind of vision is it necessary to activate in order to know the landscape? It is on this question that the most recent works are based. These works are born from the study of the theories of Empedocles, according to whom there were no compact bodies at the origins of the world, but only scattered members, each one endowed with life and in continuous movement. A wandering eye capable of constantly changing position and perspective, is not simply a seeing organ – this is the insinuation – but a perceptive element, which works in a tactile rather than a visual way. After all, Aristotle too claimed that, at the beginning, it was touch that was the dominant character, the basic element of knowledge, and not vision. Thus in Taccuini di viaggio (Travel Notebooks, 2013), the decomposition of the various components of the landscape is subjected – here again starting from a photographic print – to the underlying presence of a breille text. In the moment that the protrusions of a writing decipherable only to touch are given to vision, the elements of the landscape back away. It is a system that lives on contradictions, as mysterious to the non-seer as to the seer. It is the paradox of education, which, like nature in its evolution, possesses both a selective, conservative element, and a casual, creative element that points to change and renders every type of knowledge unstable.
In Didascalie n. 5 (Captions n. 5, 2013), the paradox of tactile vision is taken to its extreme conclusion. If the Taccuini di viaggio render an experience of it, these latest works enucleate its theory. Two open sheets of paper, written in braille, are shown one on top of the other. The first of these features highlighted portions, while the second features undefined stains, obtained by rolling a sphere imbued with color across the paper’s surface. The highlighting of the braille is a senseless, inefficient operation, a search for a point of conjunction between vision and physical contact that is utterly devoid of coordinates, lost in an immaterial time and space. On the other hand, the sphere’s wandering along the surface replicates the movement of the primordial eye, its scouting of the environment in an accidental, indefinite manner. It is a form of seeing, of reading of the landscape, which simultaneously constitutes a mode of writing. It is to see by touching, to touch by seeing, to read and write at the same time – in other words, to “hear,” not with hearing, but with all the senses, with the “other senses,” which, together with vision, create and interpret the landscape. The works of Laura Pugno stand as tools for interrogating ourselves about the infinite truths that our “industrious blindness” tends to discard. How many industrious blindnesses are our images of the world kneaded with? Those images that make us hear and feel in one way rather than another? That make us understand or misunderstand that which surrounds us? The research continues.
1. A trace of the sublime – literally, “that which rises obliquely,” from the union of sub, “up to,” and limus, “oblique,”– is discernible in the video Meccanismi di difesa (Defense Mechanisms, 2012). Shadows of a cloudy sky pass swiftly over the reliefs of a mountain, creating a surprising play of lights apparently independent of the granitic presence of the landscape. The video is the first of a fixed-camera trilogy, completed by Livello di soglia (Threshold Level, 2012) and Sillogismo (Syllogism, 2013).
2. A notion of exceeding can also be seen in the project Paesaggio alle spalle (2012), a work of graphic transcription of the lines of the landscape captured through their reflections onto a surface engraved by the artist. In this case, the exceeding refers to frontal vision, which, in the final image, is substituted by an imperfect, lateral vision no less ambiguous than its canonical counterpart.
3. The concepts of “vertigo” and “industrious blindness,” as well as several other issues, more or less literally transferred to this text, are borrowed from Sergio Manghi, La conoscenza ecologica. Attualità di Gregory Bateson (Milan: Raffaello Cortina Editore, 2004). The references to the theories of Empedocles and Aristotle are derived from the essay by Gian Antonio Gilli, “L'occhio delle origini,” extracted from the forthcoming publication Membra vagavano and reprinted in this catalog. The statements attributed to Laura Pugno are taken both from published texts and from private conversations with the artist.3