Reviewer’s Note: An obscure press in Buffalo, New York has recently published one of the more interesting documents in aesthetic theory to emerge in the past few years. Ostensibly a reissue of Italian writer Francesca Cicchetto’s Sadiani Rognoni, an avant-garde work originally published in Bologna in 1952, the book includes, in addition to the Sadian cut-ups (or more accurately, cut-outs) that occupy its recto pages, a philosophical commentary by guerrilla theorist Nils Ya. Printed thus, both texts run parallel to each other, informing each other yet remain distinct as befits their generic allegiances. Both address the curious status of the fragment as aesthetic topos in our post- and unprepossessing-of-anything historical moment. And both work the ragged seam marking that marriage of poetic and philosophical discourses that increasingly informs contemporary theory.
Ecstatic time can only find itself in the vision of things that puerile chance causes brusquely to appear: cadavers, nudity, explosions, spilled blood, abysses, sunbursts, and thunder.
A poet recently remarked, apropos of the American serial poem: “Little potato prints of consciousness.” The child’s absorbed attentiveness in art-making summoned by that phrase could hardly be further removed from the cool, antiabsorptive conceptualism of Francesca Cicchetto’s work. A neon impassiveness lends its steady charm to the cookie-cutter, heartshaped shape of readerly awareness in these poems. No aura – no bliss either. The Italian impulse to laugh off artefactual mystery. Yet the imprint of method, be it figured as crudely as acorn head or ace of spades on the raw cut half of a potato dipped in paint, has nonetheless an exploratory deliberation about it that poses certain questions to the (re)viewer through these portholes of the future.
What can we discern there? A short history of the uses of “method” in twentieth-century poetry of the West might take us from modernism’s odd uncle, Raymond Roussel, to the surrealists, the lettrists, Language poetry, and back again to the Romantics, without still ever addressing the crucial determinations that underwrite a writer’s use of one “method” over another; and the question becomes acute when, as here, the method involves a framing of found material. Method as window – opening on to different scenes, certainly, but homogenizing them (as Cicchetto’s Sadian source-text endlessly reiterates its subject matter) within the unchanging fact of a single reiterated frame. And that frame, as Nils Ya demonstrates so clearly in his exhaustive commentary on the logic of the fragment accompanying Cicchetto’s texts, is an art frame, a frame encrusted with a flaking history of perception whose very scabrousness causes us, paradoxically, to overlook it as historical (rather than aesthetic) object.
What is the point of Cicchetto’s method? Baldly stated, shorn of literary-historical braidings, what does her work propose – about Sade, about sexuality, about postwar (or post-Wall) Europe, about language? After the passage of forty years, years whose same-as-new rhythm has appeared to be ineradicable from the texture of Italian political life, does her point need sharpening?
Like the slipped wig that provides the movie Naked Kiss with its single real frisson, Cicchetto’s work reveals the sloppiness of modernism’s hold on mid-century European culture, at a time when it was supposed to reign triumphant. The perfect symmetry of her cut-outs only serves to point up what’s askew in the culture that provides their primary frame of reference – askew not morally or aesthetically or politically, but “out of joint” in the sense of Hamlet’s despairing description of his time. And this temporal dislocation of the century’s high noon is in no way a reflection of retrogression or anachronism in the realm of the arts – it could be argued, in fact, that the stylistic “imperatives” pressed by international modernism were among those things that Adorno’s Auschwitz made definitively obsolete. To take two roughly contemporary examples from the realm of the (Italian) visual arts: when Lucio Fontana slashed his canvases with a razor, or when Piero Manzoni produced, for sale, sealed cans labeled “Artist’s Shit,” they were hardly interested in pressing some quasi-Hegelian logic of modernism to its next identifiable synthesis. Art is health, Yves Klein asserted in 1960, and Joseph Beuys would later respond: it is healing. Scabs, knitting tissue, crusting over a live wound whose lips speak a great deal more than the usual dilemmas of sexuality – is this the health promised us by a thoroughly appropriative art? ~Ut pictura poiesis~ indeed! Yet in this space of disarticulation, the hip bone unconnected to the thigh bone, a space for articulation: Cicchetto holds fast to her method as Rosselini does his camera while filming Open City amid the fresh ruins of a recently abandoned Rome.
Georges Bataille, parsing the language of flowers, has remarked on the image of the Marquis de Sade among the mad in his asylum cell, stripping off the petals of a rose and throwing them into a latrine. The time is long past due, suggests Sade’s redactor here, to abandon the postcivilized world. Derelict structures of half-smashed thought, held in abeyance, so many matchflames shielded by cupped hands, they burn out of sight the next step we might take. Yet we don’t need extra light to read the graffiti on walls and screens: No more hedging around the demands of the last decent extremism. Human chance reappears at this juncture not in her medieval dress, randomly blindfolded in a double personification of Fortuna-Justice (is that a torture-wheel or scales she holds behind her back?), but as the frolicsome boys, familiar from Lear, tearing wings off flies to see what will happen next. Flinging art’s petals to the breeze may indeed give pleasure to those suffering from a newly authorized boredom, that form of blank restlessness that has long been the ground of modern creativity. But to expose, to strip off the patterned wallpaper of aesthetic assumptions buried under layers of peeling paint: it could take a lifetime, and the basic questions of redesign – “what next?” – still go unbroached.
What Francesca Cicchetto suggests, I think, is that a total negativity as asymptotic aesthetic limit might well fit our fortunes now – “we” having no horizon on which to construct images of perfect cities, neither hill nor ditch; better the tears and holes of a negative architecture, Matta-Clark’s exuberant ruin of dead policies of renewal. Leaves shattered before the mellowing rot of eroticized spatial relations: is that what we, turning the corner of a page, find in the familiar neighborhood that Cicchetto outlines for us in her book? Elegiac smoke, without a hint of self-pity, gets in the reader’s eyes. We should be careful, of course, not to draw too close an analogy between the time in which she writes and our own – between the languid fifties and the scraped-thin nineties. But neither should we overlook the parallels.