[…] Marea (Thames Tide) (1974) was a conference held by Pettena with his feet in the waters of the Thames estuary where the rising tide ended up interrupting him, as a symbol of the need to balance the noetic element of conceptual understanding, with that of the senses, often coinciding with the urgency of the natural phenomena. 1977 saw his participation in the international festival "The Art of Performance" at Palazzo Grassi in Venice with Performance fosforescente: the artist was covered in phosphorescent paint and, before the audience, he ran in total darkness, holding an Escher cube in his hand, down the main staircase, through the atrium opening onto the Grand Canal, to then slowly immerge himself in the water. At the heart of this was the relationship between the real and the imaginary, as often occurs in the theatrical dimension that was strongly evoked here by the music, lights and the location and was further reinforced by the impossible figure of Escher (a two-dimensional optical illusion that our mind is led, erroneously, to see as three-dimensional) but was here made as if really in 3D. The construction of a space with unusual elements is one of the keys to understanding the artist's work. The rendering physical of elements that, ideally, are inscribed in the sphere of the imaginary, which here were in concise form but would be completed in their entirety in the Archipensieri series of works in the years 2000, is the evidence that building in physical space time or building in the mind have the same level of materiality in Pettena's works. For the subsequent edition of "The Art of Performance", the work Isole abbandonate della laguna (1979) had a series of TV monitors that showed images of the islands of the Venetian lagoon that had been abandoned. Walking over the screens, the artist seemed as if he were sadly reviewing them all and, when he stopped at the center before a lectern that suggested a conference presentation, he tried to speak but remained silent and, after several attempts, he opted for a spectacular exit upwards by means of a cable that raised him up immerging him, nonetheless, as the author explained, "in the darkness of his failures".

The subject of the conference, previously used in preceding actions, and also justified by his parallel activities as a critic and academic, was here reused in its most paradoxical form: its lack of enactment. However, as with Marea, it was again in line with the dominance of natural forces. The abandoned islands respond to the Simmelian idea of ruins which occur at the moment when in a building, the ideal equilibrium of nature and spirit, nature takes the upper hand, revolutionizing its form. The idea of abandonment generates melancholy but should be seen as a fragment of a new reality in the making, open to future possibilities, in which human passiveness, here symbolized by the silent conference speaker, gains a positive value because he becomes complicit with the natural action that completes, by appropriating it, that which humans have begun to 'ruin'. Amongst the works from the following decade, Poltrona Ombra (1986) is noteworthy: flexible elements inserted between the lining and material of the artist's coat permitting those wearing it to sit inside it but also, given that the 'armchair' is self-supporting, allowing it its own performative autonomy. This is a work created not so much as an object but as a place to be lived tout court and which preserves a memory, a reflection, a 'shadow' [ombra] of those who have lived it, even in their absence. Ideally linked to the 1971 Wearable Chairs which, however, had a sense only when worn, here the value is twofold and in relation to mankind both when the latter is physically present and, even when the body is absent, when the work tells us, although rather disturbingly, about a purely theoretical existence. The artist's 'absence' is again the protagonist in the series Spazio vuoto riservato a Gianni Pettena. In the first 1969 version, on the occasion of the `New American Cinema' collection at the Circolo Garcia Lorca in Florence, this wording [Empty space reserved for Gianni Pettena] appeared on the poster that also announced the participation of Claudio Popovich, Paolo Scheggi and Giuseppe Chiari. Subsequently, it appeared in the form of a large banner hung inside the covered market in Rennes in 2008 for the "Contribution" event. A third version represented the theoretical introduction to his solo exhibition in 2001 at the Mercier & Associes Gallery in Paris and the last was at the Galleria Mega in Milan in April this year. These were empty spaces with different values that consistently recalled the construction of a theoretical space, of a dialogue around art which (as per Rosalind Krauss's theory that moved the paradigm of contemporary art from the mimetic to the indexical) is indicative or, in other words, is the trace of its physical reference which, in this case, takes on the form of a poster, a banner or a line of text. II mestiere dell'architetto was a performance carried out in Maiano in 2002 in which the artist climbed up a rock face, showing himself at a stalemate stage, on the edge, aware that a wrong decision could result in a fall. It was symbolic of the tortuous and lonely path that an architect who works or, rather, as Pettena, does not work at the profession, finds himself facing. Embracing the rock has the flavor of salvation: the natural dimension appears to be the choice that will not let you down. Here we are within the ambit of a reflection that tends to sum up his activities and, above all, in the 2004 edition, Il mestiere dell'architetto 2 at the ex-Meccanotessile in Florence clarifies the current condition of those who have worked for decades according to rigorous logical assumptions, untouched by fashions. Here, the natural, absent dimension allows space to the often misleading methods of false pathways, visually well represented by the numerous attempts made by the climber on the metal structure. In Senna (2002), as with Performance fosforescente, the artist again disappears into the water. However, thanks to technological evolution and to the passage from the theatrical to the cinematic paradigm, the artist no longer truly immerges himself but is transformed into a shadow-like presence until he finally disappears through dissolvency. There is a return, as well as that of the performative construction of space, of a theatrical kind of alternancy, that brings together real elements with the rendering physical of the unreal, material with mental construction. La mia idea di architettura (2014) was a performance that took place within the ambit of the "Radical Tools" exhibition at the Florentine Galleria Base. Together with a selection of his works, Pettena chose to talk about himself by means of a sort of lecture that he decided to hold (given the limited space in the gallery) and, he was the only one of the artists in the collection to do this, not simply out of a window but standing on the windowsill, facing the street and the passersby, perfectly framed, considering his proportions in relation to the window, by the shutters. It was precisely the presence of the frame, identified by the shutters, as the deitic element, that made the change of status from a lecture to a performance possible because it concentrated the spectators' attention, inviting them to a perceptive acknowledgement of the work as such. The continuity, experimented with in the past, between the performative work, the artist seen as such and the actual place that the spectator inhabits, the street and the sidewalk in front of the gallery experienced both by the participants at the vernissage and, above all, by generic passersby, was central to the performance. This, as do other works, highlights the idea of living existence as a sort of super performance inside which elements emerge in which the aesthetic paradigm blends with the essential vitality of the senses, generating tranches of lived experience with a elevated degree of harmony.[…]

Cold Theatre Gianni Pettena: Actions and Experiments from the 1970s to Today , Elisabetta Trincherini, 2018, M. Scotini (ed.), Non-conscious architecture. Gianni Pettena, Sternberg Press



[…] With The Curious Mr. Pettena  a deliberate reference to the previous Sottsassian The Curious Mr. Sottsass1 in 2012 Gianni Pettena sorted out a series of snapshots taken in the United States between 1971 and 1973 to form a complete work. Not only because it takes on the form of a photographic reportage, but in general one of the main traits of the work is the legend of the ‘journey’. It follows in the footsteps of that typically American nomadic tradition which starting from the early settlers, scattered across the immensity of a continent to be unveiled and taken possession of, right up to the most modern of habits, which make the American people those most inclined towards moving home highlights long-suffering stances with regard to narrow spaces, by contrast exalting the fundamental inclination towards space and the ensuing sense of freedom.[…]

The stimulus towards the journey remains channelled through the existence of spaces and the possibility of pursuing them, but any escape is hopeless, as the myth of the deep and wild West has faded. The original America of which the existence was based on the natural dimension no longer exists, and perhaps it never really did. This is shown by anthropisation, the consequent commercial dimension of already desert areas and the confinement of the native populations who before had occupied entire prairies inside ever more restrictive reserves. If we take into consideration the sequence that Pettena dedicates to the rural houses of the Native Americans, we cannot but notice how he highlights that component rightly appreciated previously also by Sottsass in a text in 1951 – of popular architecture: “the softness of much popular architecture has been the synonym of a humble and naïve spirit for centuries, since poverty is also a faithful companion of humility, […] humility with regard to the materials which must not be raped but which must be understood and loved; humility towards nature, humility towards oneself, for the needs of man are not created from nothing.”6.

Attention is also given to the marginalisation that the Native Americans were subjected to following the arrival of the pioneers. The historical critique had already begun to undermine the glorious epopee of the founding fathers, fabricated over the previous decades for the benefit of white settlers, in order to put the raw truth back into the frame: American colonisation and the creation of the myth of the West had effectively coincided with the brutal genocide of the Native American population. The cultural production of the day documents and in some ways embraces this change of heart: the film The Command (David Butler, 1954) is an early testimony of this, further explored in Soldier Blue (Ralph Nelson, 1970). Pettena’s shots tell of how it is necessary to go back to the origins to engage once more with that innocent and authentic tradition and its relationship with nature. The return to the desert experienced as a return to the origins is a key aspect both in the work of Antonioni  who frames the desert as a symbol of reproduction and fertility, thus turning the very sense of the name Death Valley on its head and in that of Pettena. At the end of his wanderings with About Non-Conscious Architecture (1972-73) it is in the desert of Monument Valley, a Navajo reserve, that Pettena founds his own personal concept of architecture. Bestowing a form of lay sacralisation onto the natural monuments which that culture worships, in a wide selection of shots and a video for the Triennale in 1973, Pettena examines the architecture created not by man but by the wind. The artist’s ‘desire for the desert’, shared by many American Land Artists, Pettena’s friends and contemporaries, is not manifested so much in the need for open space but for his own artistic practice, and in the search for those liminal areas where nature  despite being hemmed in  still reigns supreme. Despite the fact that Pettena leaves a European and specifically Italian context behind him, densely anthropised and historically cumbersome, his personal flight in search of freedom is not undertaken to leave traces in the desert but rather to bring the intensity of the natural dimension into the urban context. “It is now revealed with ever greater clarity this need to lead back to an analysis that fatally reflects the heights of fascination and seductiveness for a city dweller: the desert, the flight from the city in search of reality, the full versus the void, at least apparently... But, as we shall see, this direction will not be an escape in the end; it never is. On the contrary, it will generally represent a moment of meditation on the condition of historical, physical, conceptual provenance, and a reappraisal of origins so distant and yet so clear, so ‘absent’ and yet so near...”7. A journey only seemingly listless, The Curious Mr. Pettena is actually a clear-minded analysis of the American reality which leaves room for a critical vein, but which also lets him bring something home.[...]

[…]In Fisicizzazioni non consapevoli9, a text written for Casabella to accompany the images of that work, Pettena speaks of the methodological reading of a physical and specific environment in which: “the analysis of methods means tracing a path backwards, being willing to understand that the almost catalogued collection of these images is in some way the synthesis of painstaking research carried out over numerous journeys throughout the South West of the United States and at least just as many mental journeys in search of a precise nexus between all these things that are emotionally and intellectually attracted.”10 Like Antonioni, Pettena11 recognises that it is a matter of ‘places that are no longer virgin territory’, the vulgar human presence encroaches on even the most remote areas, as shown both by his shots and by the unsuccessful escape of the protagonists in Zabriskie Point. While for Antonioni no positive outcome seems possible  it is a symptomatic coincidence that in real life, its protagonist Mark Frechette was to die in an ambiguous accident in prison following a robbery. Despite everything, Pettena instead ascribes a redeeming dimension to nature which in those spaces “had already returned to mitigate the violence of the signs.”12 […]

1 E. Sottsass, The curious Mr. Sottsass . Photographing design and desire, Thames and Hudson, London 1996.

6 E. Sottsass, Architettura popolare, in ‘Comunità’, No. 11, Milan, June 1951; reprinted in M. Carboni & B. Radice (eds.), Ettore Sottsass. Scritti 1946-2001, Neri Pozza, Vicenza 2002, p. 58.

7 See. G. Pettena, Il ‘deserto’ rivisitato, in Ipotesi di seduzione, P. Meneghetti & S. Trombi (eds.), Cappelli Editori, Bologna 1981, p. 28.

8 See R. Calabretto, Il deserto rosso di Antonioni e Gelmetti in Michelangelo Antonioni. Prospettive, culture, politiche, spazi, A. Boschi & F. Di Chiara (eds.), Il Castoro, Milan 2015, pp. 69-85.

10 Ibid, p. 34.

11 The parallelism between Antonioni and Pettena should also be remembered with regard to the use of light: Pettena has stated on several occasions to have drawn on the sequences shot by Antonioni in the desert which favoured the absence of shadows for the desert images of About Non-Conscious Architecture.

12 See G. Pettena, Fisicizzazioni non consapevoli, op. cit.


FROM THE CITY TO THE DESERT AND BACK AGAIN, Elisabetta Trincherini , The curious mr Pettena, Humboldt Books, 2017