Materie finissime, entità sottilissime
(Diaphanous matter, tenuous entities)
In Laura Viale, Carbone.to Gallery, Turin, 2004
For Laura Viale, the end of the world is a place rather than a day.
At the end of the world, the title of a photographic series and a video from 2002, sounds more like a signpost to a destination, a stop, an accessible place. It calls to mind the ancient cartographers' finis terrae, that region whose far border marks the end of the known; where all mapping ends.
This is an appropriate starting point for an exploration into an artistic path where travel has been chosen as a cognitive dimension, in which marvels abound.
For this project Laura stayed in California, on the Pacific coast, the last stop in that Far West that for European culture represented territorial conquest, but also revolutionised our concept of landscape through literature, photography and film.
The video shows images of a narrow tongue of land where vegetation forms the limit of the landscape. The grass tufts and spiky weeds in the foreground, transformed by light into an iridescent, impalpable filigree create a platform for viewing the sky at sunset. The artist established the rules for her photographic voyage of discovery long ago. There is just one moment of the day for her photography and that too is borderline territory: dusk. This is Viale's shadow line and it allows her to graft an intensely coloured light onto the shapes of nature, but also allows her to differentiate between the real and the artificial, by ensuring that each of her light sources remains distinct and recognisable.
At the end of the world, the colour that saturates the grass coexists with the colour of the atmosphere to create a hybrid zone of powerful contrasts. Just as dawn may be mistaken for dusk, here the end of the world could just as well be its beginning. And paradoxically, standing on the edge of the world reveals an infinity of time and space.
It is significant that on this occasion, the artist has abandoned her habitual use of details and close-ups in favour of a panoramic view. She has, in fact, reconstructed the view in her stage set and, above all, in animating the sequence of stills that make up her video, rather along the lines of the first eighteenth century "panoramas". Originally, before the word acquired its current meaning, a Panorama was a machine, an "optical theatre-in-the-round", in which the centrally positioned viewer observed the passing landscape painted on a canvas rolled onto a rotating cylinder. The Panorama was invented in 1789 by a painter called Barker to portray Edinburgh in a synthetic image designed to portray the urban skyline, and later other European cities like Paris and London.
Laura Viale's video is a device based on a loop that creates the illusion of endless movement. At the same time, the impression of duration is created by a densely packed soundtrack that ends in the suggestion of a happening. This work reminds us that landscape is a cultural construction, the discovery, when not the outright invention, of artists. Landscape and panorama, circorama and diorama.
Travel played a major role in the development of new perceptions and artists resorted to the Grand Tour, that aristocratic prototype of the holiday abroad. By the middle of the 19th century, the Grand Tour of Italy, France and Greece, but also Scotland or Ireland and even the New World, had become a voyage of aesthetic discovery or "A Sentimental Journey" to quote the title of Laurence Sterne's book, published in 1768. Transcribed into memoirs, letters, diaries or immortalised in sketches, the impressions of the new Grand Tourists had nothing in common with the detached view of the Enlightenment movement, typical of the first half of the 18th century. The new Romantics invented a vision based on "the psychological projection of moods and thoughts evoked by the seductive sights they encountered". With paintbrush or pen, these visionary travellers portrayed not just what they saw, but what they felt as they saw it; their response to moods, walking, climbing up and down, moving closer, changing weather conditions, the play of light, the projection of shadows. The end product was a language and style imbued with contrast, a dramatic rendering that turned to the picturesque to express harshness, variety and irregularity. It was a broad, multiple perception of the world with a multi-sensory approach that lent itself to fragmentation and detail. It is precisely this break with tradition, this shift towards surprise, shock, the extraordinary and the exotic that shows the ancestry of Laura Viale's images. Her journey, however, is inward rather than outward, focused on proximity not far horizons: through her eyes a tree in a city park is transformed into an extraordinary object for contemplation and, in her most recent series, a computer screen into the stage for a collage of unexpected events and discoveries. In both cases colour plays a significant role as an abstract quality of light, albeit to varying extents.
"Colours are the simplest of deceptions, a plot scripted in dust (...)", writes Manlio Brusatin at the start of his Storia dei colori, thinking of the tricks and chromatic deceptions Nature plays on plants and insects. An evanescent, unstable medium, independent of matter to a certain extent: "a conceptual film", a tincture applied to the real surface that merges with it".
Even when it is no more than convention (Laura often appends the relevant Pantone number to the titles of her photographs), colour can "scintillate". Just think of Joseph Conrad, that hypersensitive explorer of the chromatic universe and the words he puts into the mouth of Charlie Marlow, captain in Heart of Darkness to describe the map hanging on the wall of the drab office belonging to the Company from whom he awaits authorisation for the departure of his ship.
"There was a vast amount of red -good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, (and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer). However, I wasn't going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre.".
Green on orange, turquoise on blue, red on green, turquoise on orange, red on blue... are the colour choices Laura has made from time to time for a lotus flower, a cactus, reeds, a heap of pine needles, a face. And each change in the coloured light that floods her flowers and faces gives them a new identity that bears no relation to the original model. The progression may be extended as demonstrated by her 2000 installation 7x4=28 in which a row of seven real white orchids mutate under the reflected light from optic fibre. The title is a deliberate reference to the rhythms of Nature: seven days of the week; four seasons of the year; 28 days of the lunar cycle; the cyclical rise and fall of the sap in plants. The viewing box for this installation is a miniaturised version of the room she used for her L.M.F. installation in 1999, in which colour flooded the flowers she had placed on the ground as well as the features and the bodies of the people walking round the installation.
Laura nurtures colours. The camera and the box are her greenhouses.
I was inspired by Marcel Duchamp, who nurtured dust and colour on his Grande Vitrine. In his Boîte verte (1934) he put notes and jottings on the work itself, including the following words on colours: "Sown [on glass sheet, colours seen in transparency]./ Mixture of coloured flowers i.e. each colour still in its optical state. / Scents (?) of red, blue, green or grey tending towards yellow, blue, red or bleached browns (all in range)".
For Duchamp, colours came in two families: "native" and "apparent". Significantly the distinction between them was a mirror image of the difference between "apparition" and "appearance", in which the former was intrinsically generative, the latter "negative".
Cultivating colours, allowing them to infiltrate the changing appearance of things, is a bit like cultivating or "nurturing" apparitions.
The research undertaken by Laura Viale for her most recent series is also a move in the direction of apparition. Here, colour is secondary to the structure of things. Natural elements are still her point of departure, albeit restored to us unrecognisable, but photography is replaced by digital creation and light gives way to drawing.
PL, the abbreviated acronym for punto, linea, superficie, selected as the umbrella title for the exhibits in this solo show, applies to work based on drawing. It shows a decisive rejection of an iconography that consciously eschews drama and empathy, as well as any direct link with reality, in favour of the colder register of abstract formalism. Even so, her new direction is still a voyage and retains the same intense proximity as before though it now focuses on meticulous attention to the work's structure and details.
The grasses in At the end of the world, were already drawings, even though they were made by light and were more soul than body. Only now do we understand the promise implicit in the title of that borderline work and realise where it was taking us: PL inhabits a different world.
Utopia was an intermediate stage between Laura's visionary journey in photography to the similar dimension of PL, and offered an ironically playful interpretation of the tension involved in constructing a place without place.
Starting with the photographs of Utopia (2003) and the video Laura's Garden (2004) the artist has chosen to follow the requirements of a new filter, a different interface that replaces physical space with the intermediary space generated by computer technology. Laura Viale's digital image processing is not done after production, but operates directly on the basis of a model.
PL began when the 1999 Canneto photograph was transferred onto a software vector. Laura traced the outlines of the plants stem by stem, leaf by leaf using her mouse. This was effectively delayed-action drawing that gradually traced the image on the screen. Since the operation takes place in phased space, the resulting drawing is a sequence, a succession of apparitions and unforeseen events, in which the precision of the calculation model produces a sort of sensibility. Since the software can only produce a curve by breaking it down into a series of infinitesimal segments, its essential aversion to a flowing continuous line renders it as a series of multiple pauses. The hand stops, waits for its tiny journey to be recorded, then starts again. While the fragmentary marks disappear in the synthesised image on the screen, Laura "saves" that slow, meticulous progression as well, so that it is recorded as an abstract pattern of lines and tiny squares. The closer you get to it by opening windows on the screen, the more its breakdown into hyphens and full stops translates into a richly vertiginous multiple composition. In space of this kind, colour assumes a different role from the one it has in nature. Here, every colour is a layer, an essential convention that simulates and establishes the way we read depth, volume, three-dimensional figuration.
Movement out of this implied space into the exposed, explicit space of reality is done by duplication. The artist handles the layers as a basis from which she can obtain anything from a series of two-dimensional lambda prints to several objects made of MDF. The former have the appearance of complex abstract compositions, literal embodiments of an exploration, the latter are exquisitely eccentric lacey engravings.
In this way, the artist has reached a new milestone in her development, which includes the pursuit of weightlessness; the lightness Calvino speaks of in his first American Lesson and which counteracts the dullness of the world by "subtracting weight". It is a way of feeling and observing that stores up exempla from fiction and poetry, but also scientific figures with their perception of a world supported by tenuous entities and analysed by machines that "obey the weightless bits".
The intricacy of the PL engravings is an invention of weightlessness that comes very close to the design of an Invisible City, a landscape that reminds us of the potential reciprocity between imagination and construction.
 This work was produced during the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California, which Viale attended, with the support of the Italian Foreign Ministry's Movin'Up programme and (GAI). (the Association of Young Italian Artists)
 R. Milani, L'arte del paesaggio, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2001, p. 81.
 L. Viale, Interview, at "www.exibart.com", July 2004.
Its full title is A Sentimental Journey through Italy and France.
 R. Milani, Op. cit. p. 62.
 M. Brusatin, Storia dei colori, (1983), Einaudi, Turin, 1999, p. XIII.
 Ibid, p. 9.
 J. Conrad, Heart of darkness, (1902), Einaudi, Turin, 1976, p. 133
 In his book La polvere nell'arte, Elio Grazioli devotes a whole chapter to The raising of dust: Duchamp and Man Ray (Bruno Mondadori, Milan, 2004, pp. 55-88). Duchamp actually got Man Ray to photograph the dust that settled on the Grande Vitrine (1912-1923) as it lay. (M. Duchamp, Èlevage de poussiére, 1920, photography).
 M. Duchamp, Duchamp du signe, Flammarion, Paris, 1975, p. 100, now also in E. Grazioli, Op. cit., 2004, p. 59.
 Apart from La Boite Verte, his notes on colour also appear in La Boite Blanche (1967). Cf. E. Grazioli, Op. cit., 2004, pp. 60-61.
 Punto, linea, superficie is the Italian translation for the tiltle of W. Kandinsky's essay Point and Line to Plane (1926).
 I. Calvino, Leggerezza, in Lezioni americane. Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio, (1988), Oscar Mondadori, Milan, 1993, pp. 7 e 12.
Text © Giorgina Bertolino 2004, English translation: Dialogue International Turin, Clare Littlewood