PRINT October 2000


A SKATER ADVANCES through the fog on a frozen lake covered by a layer of thick red jelly; his blades cut into the translucent substance, which resembles a mixture of water and blood. The figure, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's fictional polar explorer Arthur Gordon Pym, mysteriously disappears before his story is complete, and he's destined for now at least to remain in the world of literary fantasy—unless Italian artist Alessandra Tesi finds a backer to finance filming on location. Her setting of choice: the South Pole. Anyone interested?

Tesi, who has shown throughout Europe, has been producing work since the mid-'90s that is considerably more technically manageable than shooting a gelatin icescape, yet no less hallucinatory in visual effect. She began making video installations in 1997 but before that was known chiefly for her photographs of rooms in cheap hotels. Uninhabited yet hardly melancholy, her details of stairways and corridors, armchairs and bathroom corners, all highlight vivid colors: the red of velvet fabric covers, the green of hallway runners, the absolute white of porcelain sinks, the unexpected sugary pink of cosmetically enhanced water pipes. In the artist's vision, hotel rooms are anonymous places that ape the domestic warmth of home.

Tesi is interested precisely in the affective aspect seemingly neutral signs can take on, and she stresses this through her emphasis on color. In her installations, chromatic values are accentuated by the artist's projection of video images on surfaces (walls, the floor) painted in iridescent shades or covered with tiny glass spheres. But if this layering process is relatively straightforward, the creation of the images always has a more complex genesis. For Opale 00, 1999, Tesi, who has lived in Paris for the past five years, gained permission to film French firefighters for seven days during drills, some of which were organized especially for her. For Nuit F-75003, 1999, she turned to her neighborhood police. For TECH 2634 HP, 2000, she convinced some Air France pilots to give her in-flight access to the cockpit, usually off-limits to passengers. (The perplexity with which each of Tesi's proposals was met gave way to cooperation and curiosity: In fact, it was the police officers who put her in touch with the firefighters, and the pilots expressed interest in seeing their workplace exhibited.)

One might expect Tesi's collaborations with such figures of authority to generate visions of power and security. In fact, the results are more nuanced, even dialectical. Opale 00 juxtaposes outdoor scenes near the Pont Neuf and along the Seine with interiors of the fire station just outside Paris where regular drills take place. The exterior shots are characterized by the blinding white of powerful jets of water, the greenish reflections of the Seine, and the silvery flashes of metal helmets—water as a salvational force, doing battle against the flames. Fire is simulated in the drill (and thus in the video as well) by a luminous reddish sphere that appears from time to time as a subterranean presence inside a dark space illuminated by flashlights. The continuous to-and-fro between the two worlds, distinguished by light and dark and by cool and warm hues, builds to a crescendo of tension tempered only by the whirlpools of foam that swirl quietly down street drains.

In Nuit F-75003, the blinding blue and orange lights of police vehicles alternate with the blinking neon inside a pinball machine. The cold cop-car lights pulsating in surreal silence contrast with the hot red glow of the circular pinball lights, shot at close range, and the ambient noise of a crowded bar. The video is projected on the floor against an expanse of sky-blue sequins arranged to exactly correspond with the dimensions of the image. The effect is brilliant, amplifying the intensity of the colored reflections in real space. In TECH 2634 HP, a semicircular scheme of cockpit control panel symbols indicating route direction and flight conditions is superimposed on a spiral of revolving red lights on the wall (in fact, a detail taken from a sign on the Moulin Rouge); the vortexlike progression of the latter contrasts with the precision of the route indicators as if articulating an emblem of non-place. The same spiraling pattern appears above the projection in a wall painting of an airplane engine rendered in “interference colors,” iridescent shades that cause portions of the engine to appear or disappear depending on the viewer's line of sight.

Through such optical manipulations—now you see it, now you don't—Tesi's video works communicate both a gain and a loss. Light becomes an ambiguous signifier, on the one hand breaking up images, on the other augmenting, even transforming them into pure emotional energy. In her most recent work, Flashbulb Memories, 2000, Tesi projects a video shot of water (taken from a Venetian bridge) against a wall painted with colors that change from purple to green according to the play of light in the image. The result is a dynamic phantasm marked by extreme visual unpredictability.

Perhaps Tesi uses figures of strength and authority to highlight what happens when their power is withdrawn from its usual sphere—the point at which, in her art, a plenitude of meanings begins to emerge. For Interference Pearl, 1999–2000, she designed an environment in the project room at Castello di Rivoli. On the walls of the space, she reproduced in interference colors a pattern found in the paved courtyard outside—an architectural plan referring to the eighteenth-century palace's unrealized throne room, the symbolic representation of the seat of power. In Tesi's project the same diagrammatic lines run along the curved space like bands of energy, unrestricted, their colors changing with the angle of the light. The stable presence of a king is replaced by a wealth of mutability. It is as if the Lacanian expression, les non dupes errent, found, in this piece, a visual equivalent.

Giorgio Verzotti is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

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