By Luca Fiore
Alberto Garutti (Galbiate, 1948) shares Conceptual Art and Minimalism’s interest in the procedures and systems for describing phenomena (maps, diagrams, geometric forms). The artist, however, merges “human matter” to this analytical approach, consisting of doubts, fragilities, personal and collective stories. “I Think I Remember,” a work made for his first exhibition in 1975 consisting of 32 black-and-white photographs, depicts the artist in the room in which he was then sleeping. Around him, represented in a systematic way, are objects usually found in a bedroom: a mattress, shoes, a glass, a pillow, records. In an extremely politicized historical period, putting an “individual narrative” into play was tantamount to going against the grain of the more radical experiences of conceptualism, which then dominated the art scene. It was in that context, marked by ideologies and dogmatisms, that Garutti decided to take a stance aimed at recovering a dimension of attention and sensitivity towards the other, and of course also towards things.
Garutti, like the conceptualists and minimalists, uses artistic language to trigger subtle games of mental associations, but he also opens up for us personal narratives associated with the emotional dimension. This is the case with the ‘Skeins,’ a series of works made with colored nylon yarn coiled around a spool of cardboard. The length of the material used varies and corresponds to the distance between two locations. In some cases, for example, they tell the story of the space that separates the artist’s studio or home from that of the collector buying the work. “I grew up in Milan in a family with four children, and when any of us would get sick with measles, Mom would send us to isolate at our grandmother’s house in Olginate, on the Lake of Lecco. And there I would feel really blue. An unbearable homesickness. And that feeling measured the distance between me and my parents.” Thus ‘Skeins’ represents the objectivity of a physical distance that corresponds, ultimately, to an emotional closeness.
When working on a conceptual level, the work is all the more successful because the simplicity of the idea is able to touch on complex and profound topics. From 2004, Garutti began placing a stone slab on the pavement of public places in several European cities (Siena, Milan, Florence, London, Lugano, Antwerp, Kaunas) on which he engraved the inscription “Every step I have taken in my life has led me here, now.” The inscription is an invitation to reflect on the uniqueness of a person’s human journey. The work also takes on a new depth of meaning each time it is looked at. It is a silent narrative that follows the viewer wherever he or she goes. It suffices even just to evoke it in your memory and you will be led to trigger a mechanism that will make you think back over your life, leading you to say, “Everything I have lived was, in some way, necessary.”
What matters most in art, the artist says, is the mysteriousness of the visual event. He demonstrated this well in a work, also from 2004, created in the Certosa di Padula, in the province of Salerno, where, on a wall of one of the cells of the monastic complex, he affixed the inscription, “A sheet of gold 20 centimetres wide, 20 centimetres long, with a thickness of 3 millimetres had been hidden inside the walls of this room.” Here Garutti asks the viewer for an act of faith (the actual realization of the work is attested by a notarial deed) asking them to believe in the existence of something that is there but cannot be seen. The very instant the visitor reads the inscription, the empty space of the cell is filled with a precious but invisible presence. Just as, in centuries past, the same room was occupied by the mysterious Presence recognized by the faith of a monk. It is the theme of the spirit, of the mystery of existence. This theme is fundamental for Garutti. For, as he often repeats, “If we take spirituality away from art, what would be left?”
From the early 1990s, Garutti began to reflect systematically on art in public space, contributing to the redefinition of the concept of the monument. This no longer included the equestrian statue of the founding father of the fatherland, the hero or the martyr in the middle of the city square, elements alien to the fabric of the city’s human and social relations. These works involve a process of creation that is simultaneously critical, ethical and poetic and that, as a whole, constitutes the work itself. “The method is the work,” the artist states. What this means can be understood in his recent Three Thresholds for Ca’ Corniani made in 2019 in Caorle (Venice), with landscape curatorship by Andreas Kipar and artistic curatorship by Elena Tettamanti and Antonella Soldaini, commissioned by Genagricola, Generali’s agri-food holding company that own the largest estate in Italy (17 thousand hectares). It consists of three works placed at access points to the area, which arose from his initial involvement with the life of the place, made up of meetings and dialogues with those for whom the work is intended. They are, he explains, the “unwitting patrons.” The works speak of them and they will be the ones to benefit from them. This is how Garutti identified the three places and three themes.
The first theme are the animals from the only farm that the business, to this day, continues to rent to a private farmer. They are three horses and two dogs whose life-size portraits the artist has produced in acrylic resin and white marble powder, lined up along a canal. “They are not just any animals, they are those of Renzo, the farmer I met in person. The work speaks of his work, his presence in the area, his toil and his affections. It is an invitation to reflect on the relationship between that man’s work and that particular landscape.” The inscription on the pedestals of each statue reads: ” The horses and dogs portrayed here live on the farm and are the custodians of this landscape. The work is dedicated to them and to the people passing through here who will see these fields cultivated like a great garden.”
Garutti then singled out another “emotional” place in the area: the abandoned farmhouse of Ca’ Cottoni, which he had secured and cleared of Eternit roofing. The work consists of 7 thousand square-based pyramids of gilded metal sheet, which reflect light differently according to its intensity and from different points of observation. The “caption” reads, “The great golden roof lends a precious touch to this farmhouse. The work is dedicated to its history and to the people passing through here who will imagine its empty rooms filling up with life again.” In the past, the building was home to many families in the area. There was also a rectory in it, where the parish priest lived. “That was where the life of the village took place. They told me that the faithful would go to those rooms to celebrate Mass in the winter because it was too cold and damp in the nearby church.” At the project’s inauguration in summer 2019, the local residents who attended, Garutti recalls, spoke of their relatives who had lived there. The new golden roof restores dignity and revives a history of relationships that time was making people forget.
The last site-specific work is that placed between the earth and sky. It is a large inscription of light (the handwriting is that of the artist) that bears these words, “These lights will vibrate whenever lightning strikes in Italy during thunderstorms. This work is dedicated to anyone passing by who will think of the sky.” The installation has a light intensity control device connected to Meteorage, which monitors the fall of lightning. It is a work that invites a relationship with that part of the landscape that is the sky: a place of imagination, where Zeus sits, or where the Eternal Father dwells. The theme, Garutti concludes, is “the enigmatic nature of natural phenomena and their seductive mystery. It is the mystical sense of nature, which art has always tried to represent.”