Filippo Amato Sciascia’s Uncertain Allegory
– Text by Robert C. Morgan
“… we must rediscover the structure of the perceived world through a process similar to that of an archaeologist.”
– Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1)
Over the past four years, Filippo Sciascia has been working with the perception of video as an allegorical medium. For Sciascia allegory is a matter of interpretation based on a set of images for which he attributes a fundamental symbolic meaning. The characters within his uncertain allegory are anthropomorphic manifestations of his own mind – characters that constitute the personae within himself. These characters describe an internal state of being, a conflict in which there are questions being asked. These questions relate implicitly to how he (the artist) perceives the structure of his internal world. In this sense, Sciascia’s video allegory – like most allegories – suggests a feeling of absence. He exists in a dream. His reality takes on the feeling of a dream – and this is how the allegory unfolds.
I came to know the work of Sciascia during a visit to Bali in the summer of 2004. At the time, Sciascia’s studio was filled with medium – and large-scale paintings in monochromatic tones that were taken from a video he had recently shot. Sometimes there would be phrases printed in English over the paintings, suggesting a kind of narrative or perhaps ancillary information that offered some oblique clue to what the image meant to convey. I sensed earnestness in these paintings, but also an eerie removal, a kind of detachment, as if Sciascia wanted to remain independent from their striking intimacy. Was he embarrassed by the intimacy? I don’t think so. Rather it was a matter of finding the necessary aesthetic distance, the kind of distance familiar to early modernism in Italy as introduced by the philosopher Benedetto Croce at the outset of the twentieth century.
Sciascia’s roots are from Sicily. He moved to Bali several years ago where he now resides and works as an artist in self-imposed exile. In central Bali, he became involved with Gaya Art Space near the town of Ubud – an area known for its cultural activity, namely traditional painting, dance-theater, decorative arts, and music. Here he began to show his work and, eventually, started curating exhibitions of work by other artists. Even though his “video painting project” is removed from traditional Balinese culture, the environment offered him the necessary breadth and distance whereby he could concentrate more fully on his work.
Allegory is a type of narrative, and video is the medium that Sciascia employs as a form of digital representation. He chose video (DVD) partially because of the distance it offered him, but also for its speed, accessibility, and convenience. His training in film and his ability to shoot and edit film played an important role in the way he works with video. Within each of the three consecutive videos he has made – in fact, they are a trilogy that explores one large narrative – the artist pulls forth selected images that he believes are essential to the kind of allegory he wants to represent.
Sciascia has stated his debt to post-World War II filmmakers, such as Federico Fellini’s “8 1⁄2,” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt,” for the kinds of self-exploration they employed within a cinematic context. For these directors, film was an extension of self-exploration. Their films hold a feeling of indeterminacy, an expedient use of chance operations that allows the narrative to become allegory rather than imposing a predetermined structure upon it. In this sense, the story is self-exploration at a distance, a little outside the reach of the viewer. This longing for resolution – without revealing it – is precisely what Sciascia wants to adopt in his own story line, and thus, to keep the narrative at a symbolic arm’s length.
In a “storyboard” notation made in reference to his first video narrative, Sciascia discusses the role of Kadek, a Balinese woman and the subject of his first video painting project (2003). He states that the concept for the painting is not to represent Kadek in terms of portraiture but to incite a relationship between the human eye/brain mechanism and the video camera. Sciascia believes that the similarities between these two systems are important in coming to terms with how the viewer interacts with the painting as a still extension of the video medium. Such an image constitutes a much different kind of representation than if the painting of the woman were based on chemical photography, as in Photo-Realism.
From the perspective of the twentieth century philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, one can make the assumption that any perception will subsequently define one’s inner-reality. It is a matter of how one reads and interprets the external visual world according to perception or how one’s angle of vision functions in relation to the phenomena that presupposes the existence of an external reality. Thus perception is the basis by which one forms one’s sense of being (in the world). There is little doubt that Sciascia understands this precept and is willing to apply his art against it – not against it in the manner of a disagreement but in the matter of offering his “video painting project” as a parallel counterpart to it.
While fantasy pervades much of Sciascia’s earlier video, entitled “For Your Consideration Only,” the recent one, entitled “Sophia 19: 38,” more accurately clarifies the semiotic discourse that exists in relation to his related paintings. In the latest narrative, three dominant characters – the Artist (or “Mr. Artist”), Freedom, and Conscience – circle around one another in an allegory that suggests the pursuit of sexual identity and the role of the artist in society. The triumvirate is really one person – namely Mr. Artist – while Freedom and Conscience are internalized specters of his duality. A young Asian woman – the same performer who played “the Amazon” in the first video – enacts the role of Freedom. Conscience is played by a young male actor with balding head who wears a white suit. Mr. Artist is also young. He wears a dark suit and dons trendy Milanese eyeglasses.
The narrative concerns an artist’s struggle to define himself. What is the price of Freedom? At one point in the video DVD the Asian female Freedom, in a rather spectacular sequence, comes riding a horse into an empty gallery space. Freedom becomes an allegory that has intervened in Mr. Artist’s dream, and thus, he is obliged to consult with (his) Conscience who haunts the Water Palace in the ancient region of Karangasem in East Bali. In another sequence of the video, Mr. Artist confronts both Freedom and Conscience lying in parallel supine
1 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception (edited by James Edie). Northwestern University Press, 1964, p. 5
positions on the floor, but he is powerless to revive them. Each of these episodes is represented as paintings. Two other striking images show Mr. Artist and Conscience standing between a small herd of buffalos and a stark view of the artist’s rumpled bed. The “Sophia” paintings are less obvious in their pixilation than the earlier ones. Instead, they tend to be more refined with less evidence of their video sources.
There is a phrase that appears in one of the “storyboard” notations that says: “… to dive into the deep and rise again.” The reference could be to the Irish poet Yeats or to numerous other religious sources, but the point of this phrase is interesting and curious in relation to Sciascia’s overall body of work. There is something timeless about the structure of these video allegories as there is in some of the paintings. The interface is far from pointless. Sciascia wants us to communicate his vocabulary of images as his personal semiotic lexicon – his a posteriori dictionary of signs and symbols that reference the dream. In referencing the dream, Sciascia is also representing his desire for freedom. In this sense, Sciascia is part of the age-old tradition of the romantic artist – the artist who longs for inspiration to further his vision of the world, whether it is within the perceived world of things and events or in the internal symbolic world that so fascinates Sciascia.
In either case, or specifically in the case of “Sophia 19:38,” the desire for freedom holds a lingering effect. Relative to this lingering effect, Sciascia has over the past two years created several object/images that employ various distinct media, including charcoal, gesso, paint, objects of various kinds, wax, rolled canvas, and blackboard. In fact, the blackboard motif appears in various guises and permutations. On one assemblage, a thinly rolled bolt of canvas, tied together at various intervals, is mounted against a primed canvas and touches a small blackboard that lies facedown on the floor. These disparate elements – while holding semiotic values within Sciascia’s allegorical narrative – are collectively titled “Trinacria,” in reference to three referential points on the Italian peninsula. This allegorical title suggests that the artist is at
While the twenty or so works identified with “Sophia 19:38” evolve from concerns related to painting and assemblage, not entirely removed from the influence of Rauschenberg, they hold a clear conceptual or semiotic underpinning within the narrative structure that sets them apart from Sciascia’s previous works.
Whereas in 2003-2006, Sciascia’s paintings relied more on a cinematic and photorealist approach to interpretation – often taking images directly from the moving images – the recent works are more lyrical, more open and poetic. The focus is again on banal details – such as a pair of walking feet, a girl on horseback, a boy’s head sleeping, a bullrider, a pair of slippers – in which the readymade object is “assisted” – to use the familiar term of Duchamp. For example, the bull is accompanied by the addition of three tightly rolled canvases applied at intervals against the surface of the painting, or a pair of slippers if filled with charcoal and chalk. In another object, a model airplane is covered in gesso with an enormous stainless steel caliper gripping the top portion of the fuselage. The point, of course, is to extend the meaning of the object, to take it away from its normative functional meaning and thereby give it another meaning through de-familiarizing its context. This method was not only used by Duchamp but also employed by the Russian Formalists and Surrealists in the twenties. By putting unlikely objects together, one to another, the meaning changes. This is precisely what Sciascia wants to achieve.
What is moving about Sciascia’s work is that he cannot escape his existential domain – his struggle between Freedom and Conscience – and this is where the profound conflict of his work resides. All significant art is founded on a struggle or a conflict. This is evident in the works of Picasso and Duchamp, in Boccioni and Gino Severini. Art is always squarely within the realm of conflict – within the realm of contradiction and confrontation – and this is precisely where Filippo Sciascia has chosen to work. One might say that he is an artist – or to use Merleau- Ponty’s term, an archaeologist – bound to uncover the exigencies of his fate according to perception.
While this is an irrefutable aspect of his working process, one cannot deny the allegorical impulse in Sciascia: to give objects a transferable meaning. This is made evident, as the still-frame image has shifted into a new semiotic territory. Here meaning is both indexical and transferable, that is, unimpaired by its original context. With “Sophia 19:38” – the culmination of his triadic allegory – the meaning of the still- frame image changes through extension, addition, and expansion. By compounding a single sign into a set of meanings – through pluralizing its effects – the still-frame no longer functions as a mere excerpt or illustration of something else. It now stands on its own, dispensing its own meaning through a kind of relay or transference.
The viewer must become less prepared to encounter the work of Sciascia. It is continuously projecting outwards. This narrative is still contained within its own semiotics, but its poststructural declension has given these image/objects a new and vital role. Sciascia’s universe of signs weaves both inside and outside the narrative. In the process of weaving, the allegory expands into an illimitable universe of signs made possible by the viewer’s (or participant’s) intervention. For the moment, Filippo Sciascia is outside his own culture in search of a new one that may somehow illuminate the past. Then there is the lingering question: Who is Filippo Sciascia? The question continues as he works both withi .
Robert C. Morgan is an artist, professor, curator, and international art critic based in New York City. He is the author of several books, including The End of the Art World. He travels widely in Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, where he lectures on issues related to contemporary art, artists, and culture. In 1999, he won the Arcale prize for international criticism, awarded in Salamanca (Spain).