The pre-expressiveness of writing

by Ugo Volli

For more than four decades, Agostino Ferrari has been working on the thin but decisive border parting signal from sign. As his work is within the boundary of the visual and basically (with the remarkable exception of his intriguing three-dimensional maquettes) of the XXth century expressive painting tradition, the thin border Ferrari’s art is mainly investigating lies in between plastic matrix and writing.

Both borders are very stimulating on a theoretical level and very fruitful as far as artistic research is concerned, as Agostino Ferrari’s work shows even at first sight. Looking deeper into them will help us, we hope, to better understand his paintings. Let’s start from the first. Since Greek antiquity, a sign has been understood to be something recalling something else: aliquid stat pro aliquo, according to Augustine of Hippo’s famous definition, which, fifteen centuries later, was to be taken up, if partly, by another famous definition of sign: that of the Genevan Ferdinand de Saussure, describing sign as the indissoluble bond between a “signifier” and a “signified”, bound together and defined by each other like the two sides of a sheet of paper. There is no signifier without signified and viceversa: each exists only in connection with the other, and sign is just this connection. To Augustine and to most ancient authors, the connection between the things implied in the sign was mainly of a deductive kind (whenever there is smoke, there is fire; wherever there is spoor, there is game). To Saussure, on the contrary, it was “arbitrary”, i.e. socially (although unconsciously and involuntarily) instituted; yet it remains a connection between two terms, open to further complexity, for instance by the involvement, in the defining play, of the opposites of the signified things or thoughts or by the attempt to take into account the sign interpreter and the complexity of his/her social and personal conditions. As Aristotle writes, in the often quoted incipit of his work on interpretation:

“The sounds of human voice are symbols of the soul’s affections and the written alphabet letters are symbols of the sounds of human voice. As the written letters are not the same for everybody, so aren’t the sounds; yet sounds and letters are, primarily, signs of the human soul’s affections, which are the same for one and all and build up the images of identical things for one and all (De interpr. 16°, 1-8).

It’s a complex connection, but even in Aristotle’s subtle analysis on four levels, designation is basically a very precise binary relation. Yet it is important to stress that this applies entirely only to signs of a linguistic kind, socially instituted, with the potential of originating codes or languages. In fact, at any given moment, anything may serve as a sign, provided it is used as such. The smoke rising behind the hill – a standard example we already mentioned – may tell me that there is a fire somewhere, that the farmer is burning fallen leaves, evoke domestic bliss or an artillery battle, romantic paesant traditions or the madding presence of civilization. It all depends on how things are and on what interests me. In the same way, a red blotch on the skin or a fading footprint on the ground, a broken twig, a drop of fluid or certain shapes seen through the microscope lens, anything may be interpreted as a sign. In themselves, they don’t mean anything, they are what they are, came into being as the final result of a chain of events, and have a meaning only on the ground of the onlooker’s interest, of their context, of certain hypothesis being made. These quasi-signs to be found everywhere and of interest to a naturalist, a pathologist, a private eye or a diviner – but mainly to an artist – usually are called signals. Anything can become a signal, provided it exhibits a difference from its context: “differences that make a difference” was George Bateson’s sharp definition of this case. Obviously, at the bottom of this quality of theirs, or rather of our ability to use them, there is a kind of perceptive prominence and a certain susceptibility to endure, to serve as traces. While a real sign necessarily has meaning (or it wouldn’t be a sign), there is no need for a signal to be interpreted; it’s enough for it to stand out within its context. I may experience delight in looking at a yellow patch on a mountain, in listening to the “music” of the wind or in following the patterns the sea waves leave on the sand, even though nothing of all this tells me anything.

This perceptive prominence may be extremely interesting at the sensory level, making us susceptible to aesthetic and emotional involvement, calling forth emotional feelings such as eagerness or tranquillity, gaiety or sadness; it may, in short, influence us both on the aesthetic and the sensibility side. Grey gloomy clouds may affect me as much as a glorious setting sun; a brook may cheer me up and a dark gorge scare me – without meaning anything at all. It is common knowledge among artists, architects, musicians and even cooks or perfume producers that it is possible to devise and artificially build signals prompting certain emotional reactions – just by their sheer existence, unrelated to any conceptual meaning or reference to reality.

From this perspective, we can certainly maintain that most of contemporary painting known as abstract art concerns itself with the working of signal, rather than with that of sign (which was, on the contrary, quite peculiar to the representational art of the past and, nowadays, of photography and of such painting as keeps aiming at representational effects, even though with a lot of caution and quotes).

The boundary between signal and sign is where Agostino Ferrari has elected to work; a very delicate edge, as no form (or no informal structure), no signal, in short, has in itself an absolutely definite bent to become or not to become a sign. If we look into the different roles a sign may perform (to represent as an icon, to point at something as a index, to arbitrarily refer to something or to some concept as a symbol, to be mistaken for its systemic cause as a symptom), we easily understand how, according to circumstances, every signal may serve as a sign. A rectangle surmounted by a triangle pointing upwards may be an iconic reference to a house, as well as a directing arrow, a (symbolic) alphabet letter, like “i”, the trace left by something like a table leg on the ground. Yet, it is quite clear that in a given society, ours, for instance, there exists only a limited number of sign conventions at play, as far as images and, particularly, symbolic elements are concerned. In other words, the most common signs share a distinctive style that makes them easily recognizable as such, even though one might not be able to decode them any more.

This intermediate space between the more general and open-ended signals and what, in our society, are identified as signs is Agostino Ferrari’s main painting domain. In his paintings, we clearly make out signals, forms that have strong perceptive impact on us, that linger in our memory, but we fail to attach a meaning to them, even though we are perfectly aware that they are devised, i.e. meant to be signals, craftily built in order to stand out in their context. In short, Ferrari works in a field that foreruns sign (a field of pre-signs), that we could define as pre-expressive, a term borrowed from a great stage director, Eugenio Barba, and originally meant to describe actors’ actions or postures which on their own don’t mean anything precise yet, but convey such an intenseness as to be able to forcefully carry whatever meaning they are supposed to express: it will be the syntax, the assembling and editing of these signals to highlight their meaning.

It is self-evident that a great part of contemporary art concerns itself with this devising of signals. But the specificness of the peculiar course we are now talking about is still other, it is to do with the second border we mentioned at the beginning, the difference between plastic matrixes and writing. Let’s further explain this. Ferrari’s are not only “pre-signs”, or rather “pre-texts” – owing to their huge dimensions –, but more appropriately “pre-writings”, configurations in which one is able to make out the potentiality of a writing, or rather an overlaying and an overflowing of writings (of late, this overlaying builds up a peculiar space dimension, an almost perspective multilayered world where the quasi-writings float and drift away in a non-defined depth.

One has really to acknowledge the daring and the fruitfulness of such an approach, aiming at investigating this native and still undetermined moment of sign, this, as it were, stem cell-like potentiality of forms which don’t counterfeit objects and don’t only imply visual energy and tensions, but brings them on the brink of what in our society looks like writing. And it is also to be stressed that this work, as it were on the native state of sign, is quite antithetical to calligraphies like those to be found in the Japanese, Jewish or Islamic culture. There, for different reasons, partly owing to the ban of representational art, great stress is laid on ornamentation, at times so complex and convoluted that the original sign is lost in it, at least to eyes not privy to its secrets. This ornamental tendency has as its starting point a form of writing based on characters or ideographs, and their underlying meanings, but aims at achieving an aesthetic effect, at times very rich and overwhelming; the writing, in short, gets lost in its ornamentation, is submerged in it, as if the meaning were glad to sink within the emotion we get from its form. Here, on the contrary, there is no pre-existent meaning, (only the miming of its means of expression); so, at least in theory, a meaning could be added, at some future time, by a Cyril and a Methodius (originators of the Cyrillic alphabet), or by a Messrop Mashot (designer of the Armenian alphabet), were they to use these characters in order to write a language of the future.

It is worthwhile pointing out that the illusion of writing we are talking about means, etymologically, acceding to a game (in-ludo) where, as in all games, certain relations, certain effects, certain pleasures are seen in a simplified and sort of patterned way; it is not deception, as there is no fraud and no trick, but a shared experience requiring, on the threshold, that same “giving up of disbelief” asked of novel readers, movie audiences and also representational painting beholders. Here, in order to enjoy the game, what is needed is giving up wondering about the possible meaning of the writings one is looking at and accept them as they look, in the way they are written and displayed, without knowing what they say.

We have to ask ourselves now why we identify as writings the configurations floating in Ferrari’s paintings and quite often even those making up the thick background texture. We have just reached the core of the second border we mentioned at the beginning. The basic grammar of visual communication semiotics refers to as “plastic” analysis (which isn’t concerned with three-dimensionality, but rather with the independent organising of a visual signal expressive level), identifies usually three great dimensions. The first being the chromatic one, to which Ferrari’s work resorts with sparing intelligence, mainly with black or at times red traces and often gray, ochre, sepia, white, of late yellow or red, surfaces, laid out with chiaroscuro effects meant to give the painting depth and three-dimensionality. The second is the topological, concerning the spatial organization of forms, the inclusive effects, the lateral and, particularly, the vertical dimension, originating sometimes dynamic effects or instability. Ferrari’s paintings show, at times, a crafty use of this level, through overlaying, tension, breaking through of the painting surface, but mainly neutralise it by means of an uninterrupted continuity all over the canvas.

What interests us most is the third dimension, the eidetic, which is to do with the features of the forms in the paintings. Even at first sight, it is apparent how, in Ferrari’s painting, this level is original and consistent in time. Since his first works in the Sixties up to today, Ferrari’s painting always features elongated and knotted traces – brush-strokes in medium-length sequences that may go on their own or interweave with other similar sequences. The main feature of these sequences is a doubly linear structure: there is a rectilinear axis around which the trace revolves, the latter being a line (a single brush-stroke) moving up and down along the axis and drawing recurring hooks, links, legs, hairpin bends. One cannot help but seeing the brush-stroke as an uninterrupted movement, along a straight line, of interconnected recurring signals.

Bearing in mind this slightly tiresome description or looking directly at the images, the comparison with writing is self-evident. Writings, all writings are linear, one-dimensional, with the only possible exception of the Aztec one, which was bidimensionally structured in order to express complex thought connections. Writings are linear because oral languages are linear too and probably also thought and consciousness are: sounds follow one another, only “overlaid” at times with some specific overtone, like the questioning one; meanings, even though interacting according complex grammatical rules, do the same.

Ideographic writings, independently arisen in various civilizations, line up series of more or less simplified images (icons), more or less directly connected to thought, thus simulating the consciousness way of working. Alphabetic writings – all stemming from an originally Semitic or Paleohebraic alphabet dating back to some three thousand years ago and variously adapted to the different languages – reproduce the sound sequences. Alphabet letters originated as isolated signs, at first probably ideographic, later on taking up the meaning of the main or initial sound of the ideogram, and were lined up according to different conventions, from left to right or viceversa, from top to bottom or in a boustrophedic way. It’s remarkable that in almost all writings, ours but also Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, Cyrillic, links have been developed between these signs reproducing single sounds, exactly as in speaking the different phonemes are always linked. These cursive writings give us, then, the visual impression not only of linearity, but also of language linking; their peculiar flowing of waves, knots, legs, strokes, threads, cuts, geminated and inverted segments, the frequent recurring of the same elements, their minor variations, mirrorings, wanderings and comebacks along the writing line suggest, may be even without intention, the undulating rhythm, pitch and harmony of writing. Writings are, in short, made up of elementary signs (“letters” or ideograms) following one another along a linear axis. These patterns or fonts are non-representational forms and don’t stand alone, but arrange themselves in reciprocal opposition and their relevance is mainly in their being distinguishable one from another, exactly as it happens for sounds too. Aside their recognisability and easy completion (which makes them develop into cursive), their shape doesn’t matter. What matters is that the different recurring samples of writing are able to faithfully reproduce the pattern, so as to be recognised as an “a” or a “k”.

All these distinctive characters are to be found in the thousand variations on the basically constant graphemes of Agostino Ferrari’s painting. With reference to some major details – for instance the ascending and descending strokes that recall the European cursive way of writing letters such as “m”, “n”, “u”, “v”, “w”; or the hooks that remind us of “a”, “e” and “l” –, a beholder (or rather a reader) belonging to  Western culture would be more easily deluded into mistaking them for a quite difficult sort of handwriting; but also people belonging to different cultures will pick up these “plastic matrixes” (this being the semiotic term for the constant, fixed units structuring the eidetic, chromatic and topologic dimensions) as probable graphic elements of writing, “pre-expressive” of no other signs but those of writing: pre-letters, as it were.

Yet this writing in Ferrari’s painting doesn’t write anything. There is no meaning to decode. Here, the pre-expressive forgoes expressing itself, its virtual meaning remains a mystery. Not because it is structurally unable to do so, but because of its being re-expressed beyond the pale of the forms casually selected by our culture for its alphabet letters. Were somebody to look for a Rosetta Stone or a statistical algorithm to decode this unknown writing, as it has been tried for the Etruscan or Mycenaean one, he’d be disappointed. Cryptoanalysis wouldn’t work here, as there is nothing to decrypt. Visual remains just as such, without aspiring to be the transcription of acoustic. The inscribing is unmixed, doesn’t refer back to anything else. The signal is not a sign, the plastic matrix is not writing.

So, in fact, what these visual texts signify is in a way the difference between the potential-for-saying and the saying. Like Delphi’s God in Heraclitus’ fragment, they don’t say nor deny: they suggest. They take you back to the threshold of meaning, pointing out the non-naturalness of segnic relation, the contingency of expression. They refer you to that slash in between signifier and signified that had a central place in Lacan’s speculations. Here lies the depth of Ferrari’s thought, his stubborn search for closeness of expression as absence of meaning. No nonsense, no senselessness, for sure, no ambiguity, but a well defined absence of meaning based on the fact that here the graphic traits are only what they are, an abstract landscape of undulating lines and force fields, without anything to refer back to. No aphasia, no the negative emotion of an enforced silence, no failed attempt at saying, just the form’s identity with itself (while sign is misidentity, addition, ex-posure of other than itself). Subtle irony of a frothy quasi-writing that does not want, really does not feel like saying anything.

But there is more. Writing, as Plato taught us in Phaedrus much renowned parenthetic clause, is different from speaking, because it cannot change, argue, “plead for itself”, but (“Like the portraits”, is Plato’s parallel, “that, questioned, don’t answer,”) only goes on “majestically repeating the same over again”. And that’s the reason why it is necessarily, compulsorily, fruitfully subjected to interpretation. Along this line, Jacques Derrida brought forth the concept of différance (an homophonic, but heterographic version of the right word différence; in Italian, because of the untranslatable pun, translated as “dif/ferenza”), in order to point out both the writing’s capability of making a difference (what we earlier defined perceptive prominence or feature of signal) and its power to defer, i.e. to delay the meaning it carries, to transfer it to a time beyond contemporariness – the pen of oral expression –, to preserve it for the future, to make it live beyond the moment of its taking shape, delivering it into the hands of others, to be understood.

Agostino Ferrari doesn’t work with the pre-expressiveness of withheld language, but more specifically with that of writing, i.e. with this very “dif/ferenza”. The temporal remoteness of a potential lost language was mentioned a few pages back, while trying to explain his work’s originality, his specific expressive gesture – expressive only of itself, not of anything else, like in languages. What comes into play in his work, then, is not only the language border, but also the time border. Art always dif/fers, because of its superior signalling power to attract the beholder’s attention, but also of its vocation to preserve itself, to be enjoyed beyond the performance (usually kept secret, except in some recent trends of contemporary art) that originated it. In short, art is always the trace of an artistic work, what remains and addresses itself to us even in times and spaces thousand of years and miles apart.

In the painting we are talking about, the “dif/ferenza” (Derrida’s différence/différance) concept comes fully into play, and recurs as a double theme: because Ferrari’s non-writings tender themselves precisely with a difference in respect of what we usually acknowledge as a linguistic means of expression (signs, writings) and also because what is perpetuated, what is deferred is not a meaning, susceptible to disappearance, were its linguistic code to be lost, but a non-meaning, a not-yet-meaning that has always been a not-yet and therefore is a not-ever, a disclaimer of temporal order. Since the beginning, Ferrari’s paintings don’t convey a meaning, but the statement that there is no meaning in the graphic elements that give life to them.

This is the reason why Ferrari’s pre-expressive signals cruise an abstract, but delusively present world, have thickness and physical dimension, always absent in writing (a different thing is semiotic “thickness”, arising from the doubleness of signifier and signified). They are gestures rejecting their “natural” end, thereby disavowing their very nature. That’s why these worlds often seem to sway in a dreamlike non-existence, in a metaphysical reality different from our own. At times, one might be tempted to place this universe within the boundaries of abstract surrealism, that is of a soft and cosy desecration of the structures of meaning we inhabit, of a subversion of the meaning of the world. This is the reason why Ferrari’s imaginative power becomes thought, search of meaning and radical criticism of our commonplaces on them; and why his thought turns out ever newer and more indepth variations on the principle of “dif/ferenza”.

Translation by Clara Zanon