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Art : essay

The Inventory Game (Art Without Fear or Theme)

by Lucio Pozzi

Lucio Pozzi discusses his multifaceted, multifarious solution to the problems of orthodoxies and rules that limit the artistic process.

Detail of Lucio Pozzi: Angelus—20 Installations in an Abandoned Factory, Marone, Italy. For "Meccaniche della Meraviglia," a series of decentralized one-person exhibitions curated by Albano Morandi. All photos courtesy of Lucio Pozzi. ID 1, 2008, earthenware and white string, 14 ¼ x 13 ¼ inches. ID 2, 2008, earthenware and white string, 14 ¼ x 13 7/8 inches.

Schools—or, for those who do not attend school, magazines, museums and galleries—teach us about the discoveries of the twentieth century. To “Discover” ought to mean that something was once covered, and then someone took off the shroud that concealed it to unveil a hitherto unacknowledged essence. However, many of the matrices “discovered” over the last century already existed as part of a larger whole in the artistic practices of various past cultures, such as geometric images or dream imagery, but because they had not been identified as separate linguistic entities, as such they were discovered by us.

When discoveries start to be taught in schools, it means that we have managed to extract some rules than can be explained. The moment this happens, they cease to be discoveries and become canons from which one can depart on new explorations. Canons can be used as open departure platforms or be guarded as closed criteria out of which one should not stray, confines a serious artist is expected not to trespass. The latter is an option that leads to artistic red tape. Today’s artists take the plunge, full of anticipation only to find themselves bogged down in a Byzantine labyrinth of reckoning and precaution, imposed by the bureaucratization of culture.

Even the true innovation of the twentieth century, the concept of collage (juxtaposing unusual visual information), has found its way into the academy, despite its vast ramifications. The practice of flat collage was then extended to include three-dimensional bricolage. Collage, understood as the putting together of distinct parts to make up a whole that transcends them, is similar to mosaic, however, while mosaic was a tool used to produce preordained images and symbols, in collage the artist initially glued together whatever was at hand and suited his/her taste, not knowing beforehand what the final result of the operation would be. Now, once the underlying reasons have been explained, it closes in on itself. Today, we find that many of the mind dimensions that had, in the twentieth century, opened the way to new unexpected and flexible aesthetic directions, have become fixed and unyielding. My Inventory Game, more below, is an attempt at unblocking the flow, by including some concepts and practices that had been excluded in the early days of the avant-garde.

How does this new rigidity manifest itself, rigor mortis rather than rigorous research? It is expressed in a series of orthodoxies. The majority of diligent art practitioners are engaged in exploration within the canons they have been taught, therefore, they do not explore. They are not capable of transforming those canons. The desire to explore should not be chained to the territories from which one wants to take flight, it should, instead, set out from these fearlessly, far beyond the acquired precepts, accepting what emerges from the artist’s sensitivity. For example, modern art is obsessed with novelty. This is a notion from which we need to break free.

Moreover, young artists feel compelled to decipher their art with words for viewers who are disoriented by the absence of conventions in art. The artist strives to demonstrate how his/her work fits into an established context, legitimized a priori by some trend of the moment while excluding some others, thus playing along with a fashion or fad manipulated by a handful of power-hungry parasites. They produce a package of explanations for their work designed to assist its speedy consumption. By doing so, they chasten their creative impulse, which by nature would proceed in a contradictory fashion, leading to unforeseeable results. Indeed, it is impossible to predict that part of the artwork which is initially incomprehensible even to the author. It will reveal itself only later, when facing the unfathomable features encountered during the creative process.

At a certain point, I realized that I had become dissatisfied with the terms used in modern artistic discourse, based on the idea of progress and rooted in competitive and accusatory stances. Were we not losing the ultimate meaning of existence—what Walter Gropius (1883-1969) described as “ . . . to seek and understand the deeper potentiality of life?” I asked myself why it should be that one who was attracted to dreams, for example, needed to oppose the validity of another who liked creating geometric structures; why one who was devoted to pantomime felt a duty to imply that painting had run its course and that only ephemeral actions were of any worth? Looking back, I see how I rebelled against this competitive attitude and its no-holds-barred hostility to others, perpetuated by groups or individuals who systematically de-legitimize any approach that does not fit in with their dictates. I understood that I was interested in an inclusive rather than an exclusive approach. Later, I found parallels to my practice in some ideas by Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) and his “Ecology of Mind” (1972). If I was attracted by the meditative moments of my sensitivity, precisely because I had engaged myself there, I saw that immediately afterward I could be drawn instead to sounding the turmoil that coexists within my preconscious. Whereas I might be intensely moved by a self-referential anti-iconic gesture in a painting, the very next day I could be equally touched by a recognizably iconic image, precisely because it interacted with the former. Such discoveries led me to understand that it would be quite unlikely for me to rest on my laurels, complacently repeating a sterile repertoire. Using doubt as a fundamental resource, I keep myself on my toes.

Uneasy Moon, 2012, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 × 37 3/8 × 1 9/16 inches and The Third Window, 2012, oil on acrylic on canvas, 48 × 64 × 2 inches.

To carry such intuitions through, I realized my artistic practice could be divided into three distinct phases. An initial analytical phase lists the starting premises for any project on which I intend to embark. This becomes a platform prompting the second phase, where I launch intuitively into the creation of something. The third phase consists of a descriptive observation of work done, an analytical response to the first phase. It is important for me not to become weighed down by judgements in this third phase, I need to be concerned with description alone. Judgement in art is a deeply unsettled issue in my opinion. In the past, every society provided standards for judgement based on widely accepted beliefs within that society. Today, however, as art is not founded on collective conventions, no guidelines of any sort are available.

These three phases are certainly nothing new: they can be identified, more or less, in artistic processes down through the history of art. However, while in pre-modern times, there were fundamentals that were shared by the members of each society, premises on which artistic practices could be based, these no longer exist today because art is not focused on commonly agreed objectives. Whether in the animist, Buddhist or Christian age, the analytical phase was provided by the very society in which the artist operated. Even when undertaking the second phase, the methodological tools used in intuitive flights where corroborated by the community, and in the third phase judgement was no mere description resulting in today’s autonomous individual opinions, it was based on coordinates supported by prior consensus.

The models on offer today are usually well-reasoned opinions, based, however, on foundations that lack general accord. Still, we believe that we can somehow recognize quality when we see it, more or less. We know we cannot rely on the criteria presented. They are untrustworthy because they lack consensus; nevertheless, we judge, confiding in our simple individual intuition, backing it up with temporary support from a few acquaintances. We oppose unjustifiable orthodoxies by sustaining personal taste. Philosophers have written a lot about these issues, but I do not remember ever reading any adequate answers. It is better to trust the uncertain flows of artistic doing than arguments which convey the illusion of certainty but turn out to be sterile. As far as I am concerned, I prefer issues related to free will than those related to rules. Between the two illnesses—an obsessive psychosis that strives to perfect definitive conclusions and ultimately produces paralysis, due to the impossibility of following them through, and a schizoid neurosis that tends to seek a growing multiplicity of options and ends up paralysed because of the inability to select the best—I prefer the latter. However, I do hope not to fall victim of either. Putting my faith in an articulated structure like The Inventory Game, I hope to avoid both of these prisons into which so many artists fall.

Detail from the one-person exhibition Cumuli❠in which one room exhibited four large paintings representing crowded human and flower biomorphic forms and a second room was crowded with a mass of disused mannequin parts, some of which were painted.

Around 1967/68, to put these observations into practice, I invented a grid listing the elements that could be mixed together in the artworks I make, something like Mendeleieff’s table. I called it The Inventory Game. (In 1970 I gave it to my Cooper Union Students as a year-long assignment, and the John Weber Gallery published it in 1974). But, whereas Mendeleieff numbered a closed list of the objective elements of nature, as art lacks objectivity, I felt free to include anything in my inventory. Almost haphazardly, I shoved all sorts of things into it, every sort of idea, technique and material, even absurd ones, whatever happened to come into sight. My interest was not so much in the actual ingredients themselves, as in the idea that the artwork might be created and viewed in a context of the most varied ecology of artistic research—in hindsight I define it as such—and not in the shadow of restrictive theories. The artwork is a cocktail of ingredients. I had moved from authoritarian generalizations such as personal style, novelty, or product recognizability, to a manner of conceiving art which I realized was, following William James, truly pluralistic and egalitarian.

The Inventory Game obliges one not to fall into routine, not to take any guarantee of artistic practice for granted. Instead, each time and in each specific project, we must demonstrate the maximum intellectual and emotional commitment, from the micro to the macro level, from a single nail to an entire building, a region, a planet. It compels us be aware of every moment of the creative process. It is not that sort of pedantic awareness which is gratified by merely cataloging the contents and forms used. It is a concentrated raising of consciousness of ourselves, of culture, of nature, relentlessly fresh, profound and curious, onto which passion can be grafted and also all the various ideas implied therein. The Inventory Game is my philosopher’s stone, allowing me to translate and transform with open coherence. It recalls Giulio Camillo’s Theatre of Memory. The difference between those ancient instruments and my Game lies in the fact that while they were aimed at a precise objective, mine is unfettered, its paradigm is the absence of a paradigm, and it is aimed at something elusive, which has not been defined by any consensus and is in continuous evolution. Trusting in intuitive acts, each time I hope to achieve the elusive through my art, that which cannot be explained with words, though I know well it is unreachable.

The Inventory Game, 1969. Courtesy of the artist. Click to expand.

I have been accused of solipsism, but I think that critical focus on my personal universe cannot but include my relationship with society. It is absurd to believe that the individual practice of my art does not reflect collective factors encountered in the cultural community. Understanding of the world passes through the awareness of the self. In parallel, my spectators are invited to project their universe into my works rather than try to understand mine. I am also accused of manufacturing risk, that the Game could provide opportunities for malicious applications. My answer is that it is an instrument, and as such it cannot be blamed for the manner in which artists use it. We need to realize that a sickle may be used both to reap wheat that will provide bread and to kill.

The Inventory Game was conceived as a secular model to demystify orthodoxies and false myths. It is a tool that nourishes a critical and creative receptiveness rooted in reality.

The Game‘s implications are too numerous to list here, but it is worthwhile to examine a few that come to mind a little more in depth. Except for purely discursive reasons, artworks are no longer distinguished according to classes such as painting, sculpture, drawing, performance, installation, figurative, or abstract, etc., where the implication would be that each one is subject to given rules. Instead they are called situations. Each situation is a cocktail composed (com-pose indeed means to put together, to combine) of the ingredients that were mixed together when it was made. Different dosages of ingredients produce different situations, even when the ingredients are the same. The ingredients and their combinations come with their specific histories, but this is not a restriction for us as it was in the past because we no longer have a commonly-held agreement on the objective of art. It is now infinitely open in the artist’s intention and in the spectator’s interpretation. It is also worth noting that the creative and critical artist uses the analytical phase merely as a point of departure and does not necessarily feel obliged to stick with his/her first choice of ingredients. In the process of doing, these can weaken, even disappear completely, or be transformed or substituted by other ingredients.

Through The Inventory Game, I understood that caution would hold me back, that analysis gives me a base to start from but does not guarantee anything, that starting out from it I need to take risks fearlessly and to have faith in the impulse that occurs to me because that impulse is inevitably a stratified reflection, rooted in the moment in which it occurs, both of me and of my culture. Furthermore, I have also understood that to commit myself to one specific, preordained theme would reduce the discoveries that await me at the threshold of doing.

Originally published in 2008 in Meta Magazine, in Italy. Translated from Italian by Liam Mac Gabhann.