Alessandro Filippini is both a poet and a plastic artist. Inspired by minimalism and Italian aesthetic movements such as Arte Povera and new realism, his works show a careful use of materials. Filippini’s work hinges on several axes: the word and writing, memory and time, the individual and his identity.
After graduating from the Accademia di San Luca, Rome, in 1964 and from La Cambre, Brussels, in 1968, the artist appropriates public space and his surroundings to broadcast his messages. In the sixties and seventies, he graffitied “Plus beau que le ciel” (More beautiful then the sky) on white panels hiding construction sites in Brussels. He writes the word “Solitude” (Loneliness) on a kite, facing the eternity of the North Sea. Since then, words, time and people are an integral part of his approach.
Throughout his work, Filippini transposes with poetry the essence of imperceptible reality. His work revolves around the theme of life in its most universal sense. It is about basic feelings that cross our lives day after day. He relates to our inner nature and our human condition of spectator, actor, living, and of mortal too. What connects us all on Earth, but which is yet beyond our grasp: the passing of time, love, loneliness, parenthood, the dualities of life and death, today and tomorrow, light and darkness, all and nothing. His experience in advertising imposes him to pay attention to the formal work for the sake of communication with the "viewer". The visual strength of the simplified system of advertising can be found in the sleek appearance of works such as his Words-Sculptures discussed below.
Writing, as the first communication technology, is essential for Filippini. It is for its power to convey the words that he started his work “Albums d’écriture” (Writing Albums) in 1975, where the word, spread on the sheet, exists for itself. It reads “Life is vitamins and laxative!” What a programme! The powerful writing on the sheet is enough to perplex the viewer.
The same goes with his "Words-Sculptures", where the letters are cut out at the same size in steel and nested on top of thin masts of several meters high. The objectivity stemming from the use of elementary terms (daddy, joy, loneliness, eternity, dream, tomorrow, etc.) allows the viewers’ mind to wander from archetypes of a situation to memories. Here, the word reminds everyone an experience, a moment within himself, reflecting a collective unconscious. These archetypes, as Carl Gustav Jung put it in 1912, are the “specific pictorial shapes of the instinct.” They contain an extreme expressive effectiveness. The word of the artist and the action of the work are therefore in the invisible, the intangible of what surrounds us, away from the appearance, demonstration, ostentation and material consumption.
In this way, the exhibition “Paroles de Vent” (“Words in the Wind”, gardens of the Van Buuren Museum, Brussels) gathering eleven sculptures allows a stroll, both literally and figuratively, in our unconscious and our collective memory. This is why Alessandro Filippini’s work finds its rightful place in public spaces filled with visitors. He reassures, shakes and refocuses us on our being and the organic world around us.
Suspended between sky and earth, his Words-Sculptures are sealed for eternity by their very material, steel, symbol of solidity and permanence. Only the wind, bad weather and the sun come to disrupt the sculpture’s stability. The ephemeral and the indefinite are essential in what the artist considers as the relativity of things. As in the process of everyone reading the word, everything is a perception flowing from our body and psyche. It also reminds us that there is no definite reality in this world.
The environment and the viewer are also part of Filippini’s work. In his 2006 “Les Mots Sève” (“The Sap Words”), the sculpture encircles a tree trunk. In “Les Mots Cachés” (The Hidden Words”) and “Les Mots Semés” (“The Sowed Words”) between 1991 and 1996, the text is fully integrated into nature, hidden under stones. In this case “only” the reality and triviality of the place are left to us.
The sobriety of the presentation recalls the simplicity of minimalist works. They fit perfectly into the surrounding space and create, through the work’s formal evidence, a kind of physical recess in the viewer. As if, at the sight of a volume such as the word – unconsciously known since the understanding of language – , the human mind, as well as its body, was “swallowed” by the object itself. And for a moment, the viewer loses his body. The work of Alessandro is to be experienced, as with minimalism, thanks to the literal structure of his work. The artist's intervention must be minimized so as not to disrupt the direct perception of the idea of the work, and to remove any personal expression. In this desire to stray from individuality, the artist uses industrial materials such as steel, plastic and mirror. The apparent simplicity of the work heightens the possibility of an exchange. The viewer plays an active role with the word.
Time fleeting inexorably is an important subject for the artist, who seeks to circumvent its irreversibility. “Yesterday is today. Today is yesterday.” Filippini’s perception of time is timeless and cyclic. Since the beginning of his career, he amuses himself at gathering moments temporally distant of his own history, as in his Photomontages, which he began in 1977. For example, in “Gita in Campagna” 1953-1977, you can see the artist at ages 7 and 31 within the same landscape. In “Une Poussière d’instants” (A Moments’ Dust), he reuses these photomontages to renew the past moment in a new room. The gap between the two events is reduced to nothingness. His works-word "Yesterday Tomorrow" or his reference to the poem by Federico Garcia Lorca in an installation at the Van Buuren Museum: “Las rosas del fin seran como las del principio (The roses of the end will be as those from the beginning) are as many offers to brave time.
The temporal condition of man, with his birth, life and death, inspires the artist as an aesthetic object in itself. Here, time is considered not as a result of successive moments but as a whole in which the things that matter are immutable. Cyclical time and the movement of the stars, the return of the seasons, the succession of night and day, are evident in his work with his interest in circular shapes and the gathering of antagonistic words. In his installation made of two clocks "Yesterday Tomorrow" (2008) time is suspended between two voids and the viewer is left to question whether he belongs to "today" or "tomorrow", in the now or in the future. It is an invitation to seize the moment, here and now. Our presence must be absolute and not defined according to artificial criteria of relentlessly temporary recognition.
The issue of conservation and awareness of time passing is nevertheless acknowledgeable in "Scorie della vita”, which began in 1971, a jar in which the artist collects – as relics – his nails since then. Minute traces of our passing and existence on earth, the nail is also a reduction to the primary and unique identity of the artist, his DNA. Each nail cut is the index of the individual at a given moment. The instinct of collection of his own existence with the dirty nature of the nail, scrap our body, is the exception that proves the rule of purity in Filippini’s work.
“La méditation au fil des jours” (Meditation throughout the days) is also a work in progress which shows each day passing. Started in 1995, Filippini places each day an object in a box, which is then sealed after one month. There are 254 of them so far. The object is carefully created or collected. As if in mindfulness meditation, the artist makes a stop in time to shape and look at the object, which will have no utility but the artist’s satisfaction and awareness of the present moment. The feeling of controlling and living in the moment allows intrinsic serenity and fulfilment. This confidence is reflected in his interest in the infinite, as shown in "Socle de l’infini” (The base of Infinite) which consists of two mirrors facing each other and sending back their reflection until total darkness.
Eventually, the individual and identity hold pride of place in Alessandro Filippini’s work.
Between 1974 and 1980, he creates Schède together with Mario Ferrucci and Sergio Domian, a set of 5 issues of a magazine composed of “anonymous operator files.” The idea is to offer artists, critics, and curators to create a sheet of the magazine anonymously, but still according to their aesthetics. Schède aimed to develop the idea of anonymity in art, running counter to a growing lucrative market in which the artist's signature accounts for the value of the artwork. Here, the postulate is that each person has the potential to create and be recognized, but the moment, meetings, knowledge, are – in addition to talent – essential elements too.
Comes the work of Filippini himself about masks in his early pieces “A-Nonimo” and “Dietro La Maschera” (video works, 1975) which are based on a questioning of physical order around the representation of the self. When the individual wears a mask, he becomes “other”, a “me” for whom everything is possible. “I” exists, and “I” can be transposed to an other as virtuality. The physical shell is superficial information that does not reflect the being in its entirety. In this context, he asks during a performance (at the Galerie Diagramma, Milan, in 1975, among others) the members of the audience to wear a mask depicting his face. A polaroid is then shot and everyone is invited to express him/herself under it. In this way, the artist takes possession of other bodies while they become anonymous. The text prompts the model to reinvent itself through writing, notwithstanding its physique. Behind the mask, everyone is a complex of various qualities, the accumulation of which forms an intangible identity built by time and the vagaries of life.
It is in this context, in the seventies, with the influence of Arte Povera, that Filippini will yearn to free himself from formal references and choice of materials in his works. Art should no longer be based on representational and language codes induced by culture but must go towards fundamental and more "direct" forms, aiming to access nonverbal communication feelings and ideas. Such is the case in his “Scènes de la vie du Christ” (Scenes from the Life of Christ, 1977), a set of photographs in which the artist takes the stage to recreate, with him as only character, the 12 Scenes from the Life of Christ by Fra Angelico. He shows that he could have been the Sinner as much as the Christ, the Apostle as much as the murderer. Everything lies in the eye of the beholder. These photographs were published in +-O and Flash Art but were never considered as works to put on the art market. By doing this, the artist demonstrates that the support of the work is less important than the idea itself.
In this reflection on existence and the individual, the artist created in 2009 his "Train de vie” (Train of Life), featuring characters from model train scenery suddenly taken out of context and isolated on a column of 10 cm stuck on the wall. The realisation is detailed and the minimalistic use of color (completely black or gold) allows once again the viewer to instantly imagine a new story of his own.
“L’Uomo che piange” (The Crying Man, 2015) sums up the very essence of human life according to Filippini. This work takes the form of a bronze mask representing the face of the artist, placed on a square wooden column of 1.80 m high altogether. The peculiarity of this mask is its hollow shape. The viewer has to stand exactly in front of the work in order to see the volume of the face appear thanks to an impressive visual effect. Tears continuously flow from the eyes of the mask (through the action of a pump and a water tank). Reminiscing the myth of the blood or water tears of the Virgin, this phenomenon is a first in contemporary sculpture. “The Crying Man” is the symbol of the individual subjected to his fate, his feelings – whether they be positive or negative – and to his pain, of which he is not always in control. This work is linked to another one, “Io non ti capisco”, and to the idea that many elements surrounding us on earth and in the universe are undefined by, hidden and unknown of us. The man remains helpless before the vastness of internal feelings and external factors which he does not understand. And like all living things, that's life!
Louise Van Reeth