V. Agnetti, Documentario N. 2, 1973, video, b/n, mono, 8’24”
Archivio Storico della Biennale di Venezia
The GAM di Torino is pleased to present an exhibition dedicated to Vincenzo Agnetti (Milan, 1926 - 1981), in what marks the fifth appointment in the cycle of exhibitions resulting from the collaboration between the Historical Archive of the Venice Biennale and the GAM Video Library aimed at illustrating the initial season of Italian video art between the 1960s and 1970s.
Through a few, essential works, the exhibition addresses a central aspect of Agnetti's work: the substitution of word and number as the ultimate degree of critical analysis and zeroing of language. The theme emerges in his works from 1968 onwards with the creation of the Macchina drogata [Drugged machine], a calculator that translates the numbers typed in into sequences of letters that are combined without any meaning.
One of Agnetti's most famous phrases of fulminating but paradoxical clarity states: One word is as good as another, but they all tend towards ambiguity. On the way to zeroing every structured cultural system, the next step can only be the verification of an even more radical hypothesis: one code is as good as another, but none of them convey meanings. The word is ambiguous, and every exercise in translation is proof of this. And numbers, which commonly appear to us as a universal alphabet and as elements of an exact language, are shown in Agnetti's work to be just as shorn of any ability to communicate meanings, but offer themselves as supports for the intonation of the voice.
In the exhibition, a work from the Assiomi [Axioms] series, created in 1969, shows an engraved phrase beneath a sequence of letters turned upside down and raised to different numerical values: When words are raised to numerical values, numbers are worth [the same as] words. The one and the other code – letters and numbers – are in a position of symmetrical mirroring, one that is visual and conceptual. If there is any promise of intensity, any hint of a forgotten basis, it can only be found in the space between them, in that compact black of the Bakelite that seems to recede in time, as if to evade its function of supporting the unstable white signs. The black that occupies the centre and the greatest extension of the work is one of the multiple forms of that void around which all the intelligence of Agnetti's work gathers. A void born of the deliberate collapse of all languages and yet open to the search for something, perhaps an echo, a resounding sound that has to do with the interiority of meaning and not with the formulation of a meaning.
The theme of the permutability of words and numbers reached its full expression in 1973, the year in which the video presented in the exhibition, Documentario N.2, was made, shot by Vincenzo Agnetti at his studio in Milan. In the space of a few minutes we witness the passage from the presentation of the most typical didactic codes of documentary language to the hermetic production of the artist's own voice, which delivers a speech made up solely of numbers and different expressive intonations, while the images pass from the fixed shot of a numerical sequence transformed into a visual pattern to the black screen until, in that darkness, the sound is interrupted as if by the sudden jamming of an audio tape.
Like and even more than the ‘artist's book’, video offers Agnetti the possibility of superimposing, and thus eliding, several languages and elements: images and darkness, spoken and written text, Italian and English, Arabic numerals and geometric shapes, sharply-focused moving shots and blurred fixed camera images, details of the artist's works interspersed with objects and working tools. Everything is mixed, everything is contradictory and in the gap between one and the other opposing element, the perception of the underlying void makes itself felt.
The year 1973 is also the one in which Frammento di Tavola di Dario tradotto in tutte le lingue [Fragment of Dario’s table translated into all languages], was made, in which the evocation of an abyssal past is presented with the characters of cuneiform writing to confront a numerical sequence, the language of the technological present. The boundary line between one image and the other is a hiatus in time that renders the obvious betrayal hidden in the promise of a universal translation even more profound. In its simple solemnity, the work is a sort of overturned Rosetta Stone that the artist gives us to deconstruct the illusory presumption of possessing the keys to meaning from every past and future language.
We wish to thank the Fondazione per l'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea CRT, which acquired the artist's books on display in the exhibition, part of the Giorgio Maffei Collection at GAM, the Biennale di Venezia, the Vincenzo Agnetti Archive, Emilio and Luisa Marinoni.
Above: V. Agnetti, Frammento di Tavola di Dario tradotto in tutte le lingue [Fragment of Dario’s table translated into all languages], 1973, photographs on panel and writing in indian ink, Emilio e Luisa Marinoni, Lurago Marinone Collection.