[…]“Matters of concern | Matières à panser” is built around a conceptual ecology: the presentation of alternative practices that challenge dominant modes of production and explore the spiritual, political or therapeutic function of raw materials in art. From a curatorial standpoint, Gianni Pettena’s participation in the series quickly emerged as evident and necessary. Because there is properly an “ecology” of work and thought underpinning his emphasis on observation over production, attentive mindfulness over theory, gestures over objects, and precarity over immutability. Pettena’s relationship to the landscape at the heart of his practice is invariably furtive, discreet, expressed in projects that are often ephemeral, reversible, wholly documentary, or imagined. This cerebral architecture though no less lacking in form, or seductiveness, or experienced physicality offers an original way to rethink our need for new ways of relating to the living world, in art and elsewhere. Gianni Pettena’s work has close connections to a current of radical theory that sought to “liberate mankind from architectural construction” (Andrea Branzi). But it also owes a subtle debt to the counterculture of the 1960s and early 70s (the hippy movement, pacifism, utopianism), in which the environment was a central concern. As an early adopter of the need to “learn from nature” rather than tame it, his work may be viewed with hindsight as a pioneering critique of the effects of the Anthropocene, the often indelible trace of human presence and activity in modern ecosystems, of which architecture and urban planning are the visible emanation. But, beyond this critique which is never a head-on confrontation , Pettena’s work is characterised by its focus on learning, and the transmission of know-how between disciplines, cultures and the “kingdoms” of nature. His mineral or plant-based architectures express the symbolic connection between nature and culture, delegating their forms and outcomes to the wind, time and the seasons. Building is no longer an act of insulation from the surrounding scene, but a conductive gesture, conceived not as protection from the vagaries of the weather, but rather as an expression of indebtedness to them. It is perhaps in his perpetual challenge to the hierarchies of traditional and technicist architectural practices, or the vernacular and the universal, even art and architecture per se, that Pettena’s work resonates most closely with the defining spirit of this season of exhibitions. Echoing the nomad lifestyles that have influenced him so strongly, Pettena has always viewed his career as quintessentially mobile, unfixed and slippery, adapting and transforming as the context requires. Artist, architect, teacher, theorist, he did not set out to accumulate his many functions, nor to pass from one to the next like some great demiurge, but rather to cultivate a constant ambiguity, to resist definition, eschew order and assignation. In his famous, seminal text L’anarchitetto: Portrait of the artist as a young architect4 , Gianni Pettena defines himself as an “anarchitect” rather than an anti-architect a fundamental distinction that points to a creative condition, a way of life, rather than a “status” as such. We know how easy it is for a critique of a system to become another system, issuing judgements and prescriptions of its own. But Pettena’s gestures and experiences are never conclusive; projects are never based on clear propositions, but invariably remain open to the viewer’s interpretation. Just as the original participants in the installation Paper (Midwestern Ocean) had to find their way through a forest of paper, so Pettena’s work as a whole is an invitation to find our own path through an ensemble of images, plans, filmed shots, and real or fictional situations, whose meaning is forever held in suspense. This refutal of a discursive or (literally) “edifying” position is more deeply rooted in an urge to defuse the charge of the dominant author/messenger, or rather to dissolve the maker/creator in the experience, like the physical disappearance of Pettena himself so often staged in his performances, films or photographic projects, as we watch him evaporate on contact with water. The only building Pettena has ever made is a kind of cabindwelling on the island of Elba. More than the making of the built structure, the work has been a personal and collective process evolving over an extended period of time, like a private journal, using recycled natural materials found in situ. The very presence of the house in Pettena’s life story shattering his heroic status as the “architect who doesn’t build” is itself a magnificent demonstration of how his critical practice, for all its radicality, does not relinquish making, but rather stakes a claim to alternative ways of making. In this sense, there is materiality and physicality, of a kind, in Pettena’s work. The approach is not so much anti-architectural as a selfreflexive means of living with, and in the practice of, architecture. In the same way, the artist’s relationship to the desert is not a negation of human culture, but a recognition that these spaces inhabited against all odds can engender new ways of living, based on the necessity of cohabitation with the unique topography of each place, a skill and an art that Western modernity has forgotten. “Matters of Concern | Matières à panser” is guided by a desire to listen to the ideas behind things, and to embrace a wider perspective on the world. This is what Gianni Pettena has always done and continues to do. His practice is “radical”, not in the contemporary sense of a specific finality or outlook, but (on the contrary) in the true, etymological sense: it is “rooted”. With the potential to sprout new growth, and new artistic genealogies.
Forgiven by Nature.Le Journel de la verriere, N°25, 2021