Light is the key to the source of life and in its most immediate and vital nature it is in the sun and in electricity. Light is an extremely malleable medium: it is the key component of any work that can be ascribed in the category of new media, from video to net art, from generative art to multimedia installations.
I was pleased to interview Carlo Bernardini, an Italian artist who uses light as a primary element in his works, that are now on show at the Grossetti Arte Contemporanea Private Gallery in Milan, until 29 th May 2009. In Bernardini’s work light is mediated by the use of optical fibre, which he uses since 1996, and through which he creates stunning effects of geometry and spaces that multiply vision and perception perspectives. Carlo Bernardini was born in Viterbo in 1966. He graduated at the Rome Accademia di Belle Arti in 1987. He won twice (in 2000 and 2005) the “Overseas Grantee” of Pollock KRASNER Foundation in New York, and in 2002 the prize Targetti Light Art Collection “White Sculpture“. He is currently teaching Multimedia Installations at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan.
In 1997 he published a theoretical essay On the Division of Visual Unity published by Stampa Alternativa, where he explains the concept of operational reasons in his creativeness and how he focused his research on the transformation of visual perception. Light, the line, the shade, the subtle difference between what is visible and what is invisible or illusory, are the substructures of his research.
Carlo Bernardini produces sculptures and big environmental installations that create an architectural-minded section of light, incorporeal but visible, which is completely changing the function and structure of reality. The light creates a drawing in space, a design that will change according to the points of view and according to the movements of the viewer, who is to live inside the work
Silvia Scaravaggi: How did your research around light generate and why did you chose to use optical fibre?
Carlo Bernardini: Many people contacting me are drifted by the research on light. A scientist who lives in Los Angeles even wrote to me that when he was young, now he’s about eighty years old, he took part into the experiments on the ruby for the invention of the laser, together with the scientist Maiman. He was among the four young men who assisted Maiman in Hughes Research Laboratories room in Malibu, California, when he invented the laser with the ruby crystal in 1960. He got acquainted with my name from Kepes Society in Budapest, and he wrote to me because he was interested in the process of light release in optical fibre. Another person, who is working for led in a company, wrote to me to know a number of specifications on the use of optical fibre in technology and science, which I do not follow because I use optical fibre only in visual art. I use it on an intuitive level, I draw a mental space as if it were a drawing done with a white pastel on a dark sheet. I reduce the visual conditions of real space and the result is a mental space for plastic-visual intuition. The optical fibre is the line of a pencil that is drawing in space, and I use this material because it is functional to the visual language.
In my opinion, we should work with technology supporting discoveries. It is not as in painting or in sculpture where the artist’s talent is evident by his technical skills. Technology is seen as an idea, so if you use the same idea as that of another artist you run the risk of being recognized as an imitator. But if you use a different medium, which is not clichéd by the art languages, then you are acclaimed. Or at least, they will know you for your own style, that nobody can infringe. You don’t descend from another artist before you.
And this area is easy on the one hand because innovation gets more directly to the audience’s feelings; yet, on the other hand , it is difficult mainly for two aspects: first, because you risk being seen as a follower since you’ve been using an already exploited language, and then because a new medium, that was not encoded by the art system, arouses the insiders’ suspicion, who wonder if the medium will gain a positive market response, and if the work will persist over time.
Silvia Scaravaggi: I think that many artists use advanced technology to talk about topics such as space and light, without being able to get to the point. In your work, however, these elements emerge as pure concepts, they get there at once…
Carlo Bernardini: Technology causes some dangers if it is abused, and so a work can become rhetorical, be overloaded, or become baroque. Technology is a vice you can be carried away with. This is the problem with artists who have neither synthesis nor originality, and copy their the other artists’ language, maybe pasting together several different results. The risk in the use of technology is that who misappropriates such rituals or such media, abuses them by assembling them together, and creates poor things.
A common characteristic, in the artist looking for innovation by testing evolutionary languages (as during the Twenties Lazlo Moholy Nagy did with his light modulators, or as Olafur Eliasson does nowadays), is the purity of extreme synthesis of the language used as a transformation of space, as a perceptual processing, regardless of the work being static or kinetic. Indeed, the static creates a sort of perceptual intrinsic mobility in the work, that it has never the same aspect form any internal and external point of view. And there are no trinkets or things out of place, there aren’t unusable elements or any thing producing effects in itself, everything is part of a very simple and concise unique project.
This is the difference between light used as environmental lighting or design and light used by artists, whose aim is not at all functional. An artist does not think about creating something really functional, and the language he uses is merely experimental; his aim is to bring out a simple visual phenomenon that has nothing to do with its usefulness. So being free from functionality, the artist can create something out of any logic. This is not possible for those who use space to reach out some lighting, some beauty or some effect. These three things generate fair works or rhetoric.
Silvia Scaravaggi: Now let’s talk about your series of “Permeable Space”, designed to be in fact permeable, so that people cross them physically. Can you explain that?
Carlo Bernardini: The idea of permeable space is the idea of navigable space, in which the installation can cancel the visual state, then it cancels the space physicality and then allows a person to cross a mental space. So you can permeate this space in a totally different manner from the standard one. The perceptual processing means that a person can live that space, even through darkness, in a different way. This is an area permeated by the presence of an environment of light.
Silvia Scaravaggi: It means that a person does not realize what’s around? Is the darkness total?
Carlo Bernardini: The darkness is never total and then the viewer is aware of what’s around: the optical fibre itself lightens a little. So you can see the surrounding environment, but visibility and the physical reality of a normal environment are literally absent. Space is permeable, in fact the installation goes through it creating a new and personal visual permeability. I am working on other installations, in which space is made very permeable and physicality is cancelled: lines cross the environments, and follow the concept of optical fibre that can extend light to several metres. A single installation can be structured in an environment with an unknown number of rooms and corridors combining, and cover them all remaining visible only in small portions or in small blocks that visitors can rebuild in their memory, because the installation hasn’t got an overall point of view. Then, everyone will see a different image of the installation.
Silvia Scaravaggi: Why is the work’s permeability so important? Why is it important that visitors are able to interact with the work and maybe not see it if they are far from it?
Carlo Bernardini: It is interesting to view the work at 360 degrees, from the inside and from the outside . The greatest transformation in contemporary art was not the use of new materials, of new languages, or of expressive concepts, but it was the loss of the perimeter in a painting or of the volume in a sculpture. The works are boundless in space, whatever their material. And light is the main element because it is immaterial, because you can also work with sunlight. Light is in fact the most suitable to remove physical boundaries and go beyond perimeters. It has in itself an innovative communicative power, that other materials haven’t got: that is something that allows you to go beyond the fixed boundaries.
Silvia Scaravaggi: How is your work related to multimedia installations in the current scenario, since the use of light is a key element in every multimedia reality?
Carlo Bernardini: Obviously art compares with its topicality. It is also clearly related to fashion, and this often proves to be a limit. History is full of innovators and artists who follow fashion, and of others who mix the results. Among all the current innovators I think Olafur Eliasson in the use of light and Michal Rovner for the video element are the best.
Silvia Scaravaggi: Let’s talk about video. In 2008 you created a work that considers the use of audio and video, developed by filmaker Manu Sobral, which I think can represent an evolution in your artistic production.
Carlo Bernardini: In this work called “The Fourth Direction of Space”, I used two video projections, created for a space of fourteen metres by two. The movement of visitors in space is to enable a first video, where they can linger on; when they start moving again, as they are attracted by the light beams, the second video opposite the first one in the installation space will start. Two different videos suddenly activate while people get into in the space of the installation. Sounds, as well as images, are pure abstractions, they are noises from the underwater world, percussions, materials that are not stacked in a collision even if they are piled up.
This is a different experience compared to the other installations I created and to light sculptures as well, but there is always a general theme that is the breaking of space and the division of visual units. This environment is enriched by video, and the audio gives a further sense of plenitude. There is a sensory superimposition of two elements: the static perception and the dynamic one. The static installation becomes dynamic with the movement caused by the video, which is generated by the motion of a body crossing it, the video instead holds in itself the movement. In this case the dynamic visual sensation superimposes to the static one created by the audio. This generates a less comfortable situation for the viewer, or rather unpredictable.
Silvia Scaravaggi: How important is the reaction of the viewer in the development of your work? And how important is the audience’s awareness when you use a medium that can create illusory settings?
Carlo Bernardini: As regards the audience’s reaction, I care about it to see if some dynamics have been released or not. I may work on it to improve some perceptive aspects of the performance. Very often in the exhibition visitors don’t know what is behind a work, they can only catch the procedures of some structures or of some situations. They can understand as they get into the work, which thus becomes an experience fact. A person discovers something by surprise, and performs a minimum effort or action. Sometimes this happens, sometimes not. Some people refuse to approach a too much pensive work and they search for something easy or hasty to understand.
Silvia Scaravaggi: Let’s talk about the themes and foundations that comprise the creation of certain works and installations. In 1997 you published a theoretical essay on “Division of the visual Unity” (Rome, 1997, Ed. Stampa Aleternativa)…
Carlo Bernardini: The idea of division of the visual unity was born in the early Nineties to create two independent visual identities within the same work. At the beginning I performed it with some paintings that you could watch in the dark, made of a phosphorous substrate under thirty light coatings. White monochromes were crossed by white lines, lines of white light on white; in the dark you could see a kind of photographic negative, the white colour became a sparkle unfolded over the coatings. The part of the surface not covered by the coating spilled the phosphorous substrate, creating that sort of sparkling extended over the entire surface, while the white painted line didn’t beam light and became a shade on the surface. This was an independent visual reality of modular panels in succession that you could watch by natural light, as well as white and bright in the dark.
The types of works such as “Permeable Spaces”, however, are an example of space decomposition created inside a pentagonal scalene structured prism. I used this structure to hide the actual size of the volume, as if it depends on its refraction over the transparent surface or on the optical fibre creating a deconstruction of its internal space. This work is exactly based on the concept of visual permeability even within a solid work.
In the “Light boxes” instead, a surface called the OLF is positioned before the optical fibre; that is a lens, a diaphragm by which what you’re watching appears both real and illusory. What you see is not totally an optical fibre but a reflection against a mirror that lies behind and that contains a film between two Plexiglas plates; it is used to confuse the boundary lines and the depth. Working with these materials is crucial in small dimension works when you want to reproduce the same illusory feeling that optical fibre creates in larger installations.
The same principle of division of visual unity applies to sculptures made of steel and optical fibre, such as in “Line of Light”, temporarily lodged in Rome in Piazza del Campidoglio by the Italian Presidency in the EU in 2003. During the day steel is more consistent than light. By night steel disappears and another form in the form appears. There are two realities: a minimal reality, and a mental one, that are different and independent twenty-four hours a day. The division of the visual unity is exactly a difference in perception.
There is another aspect in which I have implemented the division of the visual, that is the two-dimensional and three-dimensional visual condition. For example, in an exhibition created in 2004 for the Imperial Museum in Rio de Janeiro there is an installation of “Permeable Space” series, twenty-five meters long, where if you close one eye you can see from a single point of view a two-dimensional rhombus and a two-dimensional triangle meeting in one point. Actually, these two geometric figures are drawn from 4 areas, the floor and three walls, and behind these lines there are others that run directly on the surfaces of the same space, that is floor and walls. This is an example of installation I cared for in every aspect, where from a precise point of view, you cannot see the lines splitting: you essentially see only the lines that cross space, and these latter perfectly hide those that run on the walls. At the slightest movement, the image is split in two, space completely opens and shapes are completely transformed as they move in space. The work opens like the wings of a butterfly and looks like an image in a kaleidoscope.
Silvia Scaravaggi: We can experience your installations at the Grossetti Arte Private Gallery in Milan, where your solo show is ongoing until 29 th May 2009. What works are on exhibition?
Carlo Bernardini: This exhibition resumes all the features of my works as a whole, different works in connection with different materials and different ways to explore them. There is also a site-specific installation, an environmental installation that crosses the two rooms of the gallery, separated by a wall: this installation includes them in a single form. In this installation, the fibres pass inside and outside the two rooms, piercing the wall and creating a single form that eludes the physicality of the place. Three prisms in Plexiglas and the optical fibre create a diagonal line of sculptures. There are also two light boxes. Even in this exhibition, it is clear that I am very interested in experimenting with materials, steel and optical fibre, glass and optical fibre. Electroluminescent surfaces are especially interesting because of the light passing through a wire of one millimetre. Very often the spectators are unaware of the work’s material, they get closer to it and wonder how it works, and how can light cross one millimetre wire. Then they look for a headlight that projects this triangular shaped light but don’t find it, and then they look behind the surface to find a lamp but there is none. So they are stunned. Actually there is a secret: it’s a micro-alimentation coming from behind a hollow, and it is used only in environments where the source is outside the visual space.
This is an example of the elements that must be dosed sparingly, in the right measure, trying not to get carried away with it and not to miss the dryness or expressive synthesis that is what makes the difference. My idea is not therefore Minimalism, but an attempt to create works that are visual bodies, in which you can see static and dynamic simultaneous perceptual superimpositions.