PRINT October 1989


Einstein’s discovery of the cosmos is the infinite dimension, without end. . . . What must I do to go further? . . . I make a hole, infinity passes through it, light passes, there’s no need to paint . . . everyone thought that I wanted to destroy, but it’s not true: I have built, not destroyed, that’s the point.
—Lucio Fontana

MAURIZIO MOCHETTI’S WORK BEGINS where Lucio Fontana’s left off: at the cut Fontana made in the canvas, the gateway to another space. Mochetti acknowledges this in his Fontana - Fontana, 1987, the title of which is almost a dry declaration of his poetics. At first the work seems to be a large sphere, its surface broken by an equator of regularly spaced holes. But that is only part of the piece; there is also what you see when you look inside, into a play of light and dark, inner and outer, open and contained. The outer skin of the sphere is rough, like a Fontana sphere, but the inner space is smooth and finite. The piece both relates to Fontana’s an and goes beyond it. It is not a passive homage but a reflection, a question, or better, the delimitation of a boundary—the boundary between the material and the space of thought that Fontana had so dramatically marked m his slashed canvases.

Fontana’s cuts open onto a new experiential territory, onto what the artist himself called the field of infinity and possibility. And Mochetti, as early as his Progetto nove (Project nine, 1965)—in which a sunbeam penetrated a dark gallery through an inch-wide hole, measuring and defining the room1—was setting the stage for this same immaterial space. Fontana’s cut pieces, despite their great advances, were still forced to hide that space, precisely because they were, in the end, canvases. The mental and sensorial perception that Mochetti has inherited from them, however, he has liberated from the visual issues the canvas imposes.

Mochetti’s connection with Fontana is anything but acritical. (The Fontana-Fontana title may also be a cry of warning.) Sensing the fragility of art in the face of modern science, the older artist had appealed to that branch of knowledge for help, asking "all men of science . . . to orient part of their investigations toward . . . tools that . . . allow the development of four-dimensional art.”2 From Fontana’s idea of a scientific utopia there emerged a kinetic visual art informed by technology. But Mochetti almost reverses Fontana’s course: instead of believing in science as art’s future, he turns it into art’s tool. He is an artist experimenter in the Renaissance sense, and his concept of art, as he himself has said, is profoundly humanistic. 3 The true object of all Mochetti’s art is indeed the human—human intelligence, human perception, the human as the criterion by which to measure the world. This has long been the task of art and its reproductions, and though the old means of reproducing reality are no longer feasible, for Mochetti the investigation remains the same.

Since his earliest pieces, in fact, Mochetti has “drawn” reality, as when, in 1968, he set an aluminum axis against a wall so that it slowly turned in an arc. Many critics interpreted Genera trice di cono (Cone generator) in the context of American Minimalism, but it is a Minimalism of its own kind, quite different from what was developing at the same time on the other side of the Atlantic. The reality of these early objects by Mochetti is purely virtual: Generatrice di cono is not a cone but describes one, projecting the form in one’s perception, in one’s mind. Likewise the black rubber band of Elastica nero, 1968, stretches outward from a light bulb as if to mark the ideal line of one of its rays; the elastic is a kind of negative materialization of light, and if we mentally project as much black rubber as the bulb emits luminescence, we find ourselves imagining a physical realization of light that necessarily forces it into its opposite: absolute, material darkness. Elastica nero might suggest an American pragmatism, but actually Mochetti was reinventing a sort of perspectival system right in the infinite space whose boundaries had been revealed by Fontana. The vanishing points of this perspective are the very functions of art, dissected, analyzed, and finally re-presented with renewed signifying force. And to the extent that Mochetti frees these meanings from the visual conditioning imposed by traditional techniques, he allows our perception to wander freely in the field of possibilities, to the point where our a priori concepts of space and time are overturned.

In Mochetti’s Colpo di balestra (Crossbow shot), which he showed at the 1970 Venice Biennale, the visual has disappeared entirely. There is only sound, the flight of a crossbow bolt, or, rather, the two sounds produced by the release and by the impact of the arrow crossing a space. To make the work, however, Mochetti did not shoot an arrow across a twenty-yard-long room. Instead he built an imaginary space by inserting several seconds of void into a tape recording of an arrow’s flight. To prolong the thought process of following that flight, he found, was to expand the physical space. The only truth here is in trompe l’oeil (or, better, in trompe l’oreille), in phenomena striking our perception and establishing a new value of experience.

If art is first of all the act of becoming aware of reality on its most mutable, ungraspable phenomenal level, the artist may want the greatest possible freedom of movement to deal with the task, may use both the slipperiest paradoxes and the most rigid (though also paradoxical) definitions. Thus in a 1971 show at the Heiner Friedrich gallery, Cologne, Mochetti began by imagining the space as a solid; then, with the help of a computer, he found its exact center of gravity, which was inside a wall. Excavating a niche there, he placed in it a brilliant I ,000-watt quartz lamp. Here, instead of trompe l’oeil, Mochetti realized an absolute scientific principle, the kind of axiom considered as unquestionable in our culture as religious dogma was in the past. It is such scientific “truths” as this that seem to have bested art in the task of describing the world, and that make it impossible for art to sustain representation. And in fact Mochetti neither represents nor symbolizes. On the contrary: with the blinding light, he even makes any sort of contemplation impossible.

This mental play of paradox and this move into metaphysics grant Mochetti’s work a position among the metalinguistic analyses particular to Conceptualism. They also attest to his remoteness from the kind of kinetic art that seems to exist mainly to demonstrate advanced technology. Mochetti’s work pertains to a dimension apart from the scientific world, a dimension parallel to it, noncoincident with it. For him, art’s field is a different space, a different time—a field so vast as to embrace both human memory and “official” written history. Thus the logic by which we have seen Mochetti remeasuring the perception of what is present can also address the even greater arc of reality that curves through the folds of the past, and can recover from them actual objects and symbols. The Natter rocket aircraft, for example, a secret project of the German air force during World War II, stands in military history as a disastrous, delirious experiment. Mochetti has recovered it, tracking down the plans, gathering documentation; and beginning in the late ’70s this ghost from the past became a new body of work. Similarly, a 1977 installation comprised a Lotus racing car, the Super Seven Model Series Three, and a miniature, ten-inch-long version of it that stood on the floor twenty feet or so behind it. Someone sitting in the driver’s seat of the Lotus would see the tiny car in the rear-view mirror, and could lose sense of its scale, imagining that the two automobiles were really speeding along, one far behind the other. In an acceleration of doubling, time and space, proximity and distance, stasis and motion, history and memory, all interwove in a deceptive play of meaning that reinvented the actual situation.

This same kind of provocation had earlier dictated the concept and construction of various hermetic objects by Mochetti. In a 1970 work, two small ceramic-and-plastic cubes stand one meter apart. Though not physically connected, they are electronically related to each other, so that should the distance between them be altered, they will shatter. If one’s interest in the piece demands a demonstration of its mechanism, if one obeys the impulse toward scientific verification, the form of the work (the art) is destroyed. A series of projects based on rocketry, 1969–79, is even more emblematic: the cycle’s most important work, Razzo (Rocket, 1969–70), was an actual rocket ready for liftoff. One had only to press a button to ignite its engines and blow it into the sky. Again, art is posited here as a way of knowing reality. And again, science—the verification of knowledge that would come from launching the rocket—shatters the rationale of art.

Thus the work rests on the edge of an abyss. Everything is radicalized, particularly the incompatibility between reality and representation. Mochetti’s art is balanced between opposite worlds ready to be destroyed and transformed, but the decisive role is left to the spectator, who has the responsibility of the gesture. If we obey our impulse to verify—if we decide, in other words, to take the object beyond the hypothetical boundary marked by Fontana’s slashed canvas—we destroy not only the work, but our critical consciousness. For in destroying art we would annihilate the perspectival framework by which we perceive reality. Without that structure, the phenomenal force of the world inevitably deactivates our critical ability and erases our individuality. But beyond this boundary (beyond the “canvas”), the individual gesture can achieve unforeseen power.

Mochetti describes Specchio elettronico (Electronic mirror, 1970) as “a work that consists of two identical objects (transmitter-receiver), both endowed with a movable axis. Every movement of the transmitter corresponds to a simultaneous, identical movement of the receiver.”4 The spectator is free to move the lever of the transmitter and to observe the cause-and-effect movements of the corresponding lever on the other device. Mochetti has recently redesigned the piece for a permanent installation on an as-yet-undetermined site in California. The lever of the transmitter box is to be about a foot high; the lever of the receiver will be over 14 feet high, and the two boxes will be several miles apart, but the movements of the one lever will still be duplicated exactly on the other, though magnified by its size. A video link will enable viewers to see the large-scale, remote consequences of their actions. And if this California project monumentalizes the human gesture, the piece Mochetti plans for the 1990 Venice Biennale vastly expands it: by a complex system of electronic linkages between Italy and California, two transmitters and two receivers will be coordinated to simultaneous movement, eliminating the distance be- tween the two continents and uniting the different time zones (uniting day and night). Spectacular as they are, these works of Mochetti’s do not focus on their technological accomplishment. Rather, they emphasize the opportunity they offer their viewers to go beyond the traditionally passive role of the spectator. The audience becomes powerful and responsible, not because technology and telecommunications have allowed it to overcome great distances with a minimal, almost effort less gesture, but because it is ”only" the gesture that makes the work significant, and that allows it to exert its full ability to amaze.

With the expansion of his tools to the point where they can operate on a vast scale, Mochetti’s art begins to express new fruitions and understandings. The wonder aroused by the infinitely large coincides (even if critically) with the wonder and the power of the imagination. In the early ’80s Mochetti began to explore the use of lasers, the most effective tools with which to further the investigation of light that had characterized his work since 1965. The laser also allowed him to broaden his overall field of inquiry, and to achieve greater emotional and sensory effects. Thus color emerges from Mochetti’s recent work in all its evocative and symbolic force, and the harmony of form is freshly generous. This trend in the work coincides, of course, with developments elsewhere in ’80s art - with the liberating breadth of the post-Modern esthetic palette, and with the reproposal of painting.

In Arco laser (Laser arch, 1983), the narrow red beam of a laser swings around the circumference of a tall tubular-steel arch. Then the beam disappears into the floor, outlining an imaginary underground arch, before reappearing to repeat the movement as if to infinity. The installation’s beautiful formal neatness is not its primary goal. Rather, the work poses a question about perception. Though the laser’s rotation is perfectly steady, it seems to the viewer that the beam takes more time to follow the hidden, virtual arch than the actual one; thus Mochetti sets in play both the completeness of the round form and the short circuit between reason and perception. He pursues the same path in Laser, shown at the 1988 Venice Biennale, in which the beam again appears and disappears from the public’s eye, though the field is no longer a geometric form but a carpet of red pigment, scattered on the floor like a vortex of sand. The movement of the beam, which emerges from the center of the vortex, seems natural and organic. Its mysterious disappearances and reappearances, and its repetitive route, suggest the cycles of nature, the principle of eternal return, the possibility for art to reassert its mythic power.

But Mochetti treats even the symbolic and imaginary force of art as an element of the reconstruction of meanings that passes through all his work. If it is true that the great artistic rupture of 20th-century Modernism stems from the machine age’s displacement of the artisanal world so closely related to the production of art, then Mochetti attempts to revive artisanal values, to express them through the technological and scientific revolution. He works not with the reasoning of the scientist but with the inventiveness of the craftsperson, and he presents art not as a poor relation to science but as a model and an example. Art for Mochetti is a leap in the dark, the artless dark that Fontana feared. It survives by walking a high wire of irony and by a tireless faith in experiment.

Here Mochetti’s work is unexpectedly consonant with that of Pino Pascali. Pascali’s is the artisanal imagination, Mochetti’s the scientific; both recognize art as a means of revealing the truth through shock, irony, alienation, the visual pun. What is especially similar is the attempt to restore art’s value as experience. If Modern (and post-Modern) consciousness has overwhelmed the individual experience, art must denounce its loss and must attempt its restoration.

Recognizing that explosive creativity is now the domain of industrial production, Pascali responded by modifying our sense of the machine-made object. Painstakingly remaking an artillery piece out of various found materials, for example, he alchemically transformed it from a commodity into a work of art. Thus he urged the viewer to recognize an artistic operation in this object. If Pascali moved metaphorically through reality, Mochetti moves metaphysically through art. He too knows that the ultimate significance of the artwork is given to it by the gaze and by the judgment of the viewer. But Mochetti doesn’t transport an object into the space of art; rather, he transports our categories of thought. Both Pascali’s cannon pieces and Mochetti’s Natter airplanes use a playful, ironic stance to present an instrument of war. But Pascali’s machines of death become fetishes of the death of art, while Mochetti, on the other hand, dematerializes the Natter, makes it less a physical presence than a resonant signal of time and space. Pascali’s cannons create a heavily physical space, and their detail and substantiality is connotatively packed; when Mochetti presses to wall or ceiling a “skin” of the Natter, an actual-size outline in camouflage-painted paper or aircraft plywood, he creates an immaterial, virtual space. It is as if one artist had stayed on this side of the cut in Fontana’s canvas and the other had passed through it to a different terrain. Both artists are profoundly aware, however, that the laceration provoked by Fontana is irremediable.

The long road that Mochetti has traveled thus far is paved with such awareness, augmented by a knowledge of the history and tradition that have gone before. But for Mochetti, to be aware of history is not so much to quote it as to follow its lessons, to connect it back to art as to a system of thought. Thus it is not enough to reflect on the death of art, to exhibit its aphasia. The true challenge is to try to restore its function. This is the only effort that can still allow an artist to declare, along with Fontana, “I have built, not destroyed, that’s the point.”

Alessandra Mammi is a writer who lives in Rome. She contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.



1. Progetto nove was exhibited in Maurizio Mochetti’s “Dieci progetti” exhibition at La Salita gallery, Rome, in 1968.

2. From the Maniflesto blanco, written by Fontana in 1946 in Buenos Aires and signed by a group of his students.

3. Mochetti, in conversations with the author, spring 1989.

4. Mochetti, in the catalogue for his show at the Studio Marconi, Milan, in 1987.

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