English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

October 30, 2009

Synesthesia: The Work of Giuseppe Chiari

Filed under: Online Reports — alyale51 @ 12:18 pm
Giuseppe Chiari, 1997

Giuseppe Chiari, 1997

by Anne Yale

Few artists, contemporary or otherwise, can be recognized as accomplished in more than one medium. Nonetheless, the consummate artist Giuseppe Chiari (b. 1926), who is a musician, composer, and poet, as well as a visual artist, epitomizes the practice of Fluxus art, and is perhaps the most important Italian practitioner within this avant-garde artistic movement. Self-labeled a composer, Chiari is known primarily in avant-garde musical circles for his “sound art.” However, it is his visual compositions which have perhaps made Chiari’s a household name in the history of contemporary visual art.

Fluxus' Manifesto

Fluxus' Manifesto

Fluxus, a late twentieth-century artistic movement begun in 1961 by George Maciunas, and formally named by Dick Higgins in 1966, is Latin for “flow.” Giuseppe Chiari joined the movement in 1962. Fluxus explores and expresses the implications of the theoretical artistic concepts of John Cage through the use (and intentional erosion of the boundaries) of interdisciplinary media including combinations of poetry, music, video, architecture, visual and performance arts. In one of Cage’s most widely recognizable pieces, 4’33” (four minutes, thirty-three seconds), for example, the “artist” arrives on stage, opens the piano, sits down and simply waits for four minutes and thirty-three seconds before rising and exiting the stage. This piece is designed to demonstrate Cage’s theoretical position that even so-called “ambient” noise (i.e. the coughing, talking, and movement within the audience) is, in fact, or can be construed as, a musical “composition.”

Giuseppe Chiari at the piano
Giuseppe Chiari at the piano

Cage’s influence on the sound art of Giuseppe Chiari is evident in his “action pieces,” the most well-known of which is probably a staged event where the “artist” drags the piano across the stage like it was a wheelbarrow or a cart. To be sure, these works are intended to push the sensibilities of the audience and to challenge the limits of what is or can be accepted as “art.” Other “sound art” pieces “composed” by Chiari consist entirely of fragments which the performers are instructed to “collage,” by playing them in any order they choose, including “one on top of the other,” i.e. simultaneously (Strano). This broad application of the term collage, a technique that is one of the hallmarks of fluxus art, leaves us little doubt, then, that Chiari’s musical practice also informs his composition of visual poetry. As a member of the Gruppo ’70, Giuseppe Chiari also composes concrete and “sound” poetry. Yet it is his visual poetry, which has been exhibited in museums and galleries, as well as online, that is of interest in aesthetic studies of contemporary visual art. Additionally, Chiari’s visual poetry makes an unusual and unprecedented contribution to the field of image/text studies.

Ben Vautier e Giuseppe Chiari

As a musician and an arm-chair musicologist, what attracts me to Chiari’s visual poetry is his utilization not only of verbal/linguistic texts, but his incorporation of musical texts as well. By including pieces of musical scores, the viewer is asked to consider not only the image/text relationship(s) between picture and words, but also musical ideas. By the introduction of a third term, the integration of musical “text,” the binary pair of image/text is thereby deconstructed.

The Serenade

The Serenade

Chiari writes that his musical work “as a whole is made of several pieces which have no life by themselves; the pieces are fragments….consequently, each work of mine is a suite” (Strano). Similarly, his visual poetry compositions employ carefully selected and manipulated fragments of musical scores. For example, in the piece above, “La Serenata,” or “The Serenade,” created in 1995, Chiari has chosen what seems at first to be just an innocuous little ditty. However, he has cut off the left-hand side of the score, thus depriving the viewer of the two most essential conventions within the Western musical tradition: key and time signatures.

In further disruptions of the musical language, Chiari has manipulated the score so that we are given a total of six measures of music, though the first three measures and the second three measures are non-sequential fragments which do not appear anywhere near one another in the original score of the piece. Nonetheless, Chiari presents just enough of each fragment to make the piece identifiable as Franz Schubert’s lieder Ständchen, or Serenade, D. 889, composed in 1825 as a musical setting of Shakespeare’s “Hark, Hark, the Lark,” from the play Cymbeline, Act II, Scene 3. The first three measures are a fragment from the opening of the piece, establishing the instrumental, or accompaniment thematic motif (a chief characteristic of Schubert’s lieder), and the second three measures Chiari presents come from the middle of the piece and give us the unmistakable melodic motif.
The backwards eighth rests in the left-hand of the piano score, as well as in the last measure of the melodic line, further indicate that Chiari has manipulated the musical score and is playing with us and our conventional sensibilities. The colored scribbling over the musical text further disrupts the musical language, while adding a synesthetic element: one may begin to hear color and see sounds. It can be no accident that Chiari chose this particular piece of musical text, as a long-standing tradition of intertextuality is once again called upon to “speak” to us (the viewer/audience) through the presentation of this piece, which is highly ironic, in light of Chiari’s statement of each fragment having no life by themselves!

Chitarra 1998

Chitarra 1998

Mixed media collage

Mixed media collage

Untitled 1995

Untitled 1995

Untitled 2001

Untitled 2001

Fluxus practitioners share a distrust of mass media and marketing, while simultaneously disavowing European cultural elitism and espousing mass culture and art for the masses – a populist idea. Consequently, a repeated visual motif in Chiari’s work is the representation of the guitar, historically, the most popular and populist instrument of all time. Another repeated visual, or verbal/linguistic textual motif is the inclusion of the label, “Fluxus,” which, like the bits of musical texts, Chiari manipulates, as in “Humoreske,” a mixed media collage on white cardboard, created in 1996:

Humoreske 1996

Humoreske 1996

The label, placed upside down, has the first three letters “FLU” going in the conventional left-to-right placement, but the second three letters “XUS” are upside down from the first three, thus appearing right-side up again and “backwards”: something happens visually or perceptually that causes us to accept a new convention, which the artist immediately disrupts again!

Sometimes, rather than placing a label of the whole word, Chiari uses what appears to be a rubber-stamp of just the letters “FLXS,” as in this piece, “An den Frühling,” (To the Spring), mixed media, 2000:

An den Fruhling, 2000

An den Fruhling, 2000

The rubber-stamped letters “FLXS” appear on the left-hand side in the middle of the piece, as well as over part of C.F. Peters’ (the publisher’s) imprint, so that Leipzig (Germany) now reads “FLXSPZIG.” Incidentally, it can also be no accident that a C.F. Peters’ edition, traditionally thought to be the best and most authentic publishing house with regard to being faithful to the composers’ intentions, is selected as the perfect “cover” target for Chiari’s ironic and witty disruption of the conventions of the Western (or European) musical tradition.

Decisions, 1996

Decisions, 1996

Chiari’s use of printed materials range from flyers, handbills, newsprint, magazine pages, and advertisements: all sources of verbal/linguistic texts from mass media/marketing. The printed texts he selects, like the musical texts, are purposefully incorporated fragments within a new composition which form a new whole and, as a whole, convey a new message. For example, his “Decisions,” 1996, a mixed media collage, makes use of media text found on two separate pages in which the phrases “Sound & Vision” on the top page is prominent, and brought to our attention by the red marking which appears to be tape holding the two printed pages in place. On the lower page, the repeated word “Decisions” is thus emphasized. The piece infers: Make a decision: sound and (or?) vision – music/poetry or image; it is almost though this is a question rhetorically posed by the artist to himself. Or, perhaps in a total synesthetic artistic experience, both sound and vision are always present for the artist, as he, in turn, presents them for us.

In addition to being a performer, composer, poet, musician, and visual artist, Giuseppe Chiari has published journal articles and reviews, and two books on music theory: “Musica senza contrappunto,” (Music Without Counterpoint, 1969) and “Senza titolo,” (Without a Title, 1971). He has also been a guest lecturer on avant-garde music at the Seminario di Musica in Venice.

Chiari links:
http://www.marquette.edu/haggerty/exhibitions/visualpoetry.html

http://www.strano.net/town/music/chiaribi.htm

http://www.sonoloco.com/rev/singular/chiari/chiari.html

http://www.all-art.org/art_20th_century/chiari1.html

Works Cited:

Carter, Curtis L. “The Artifacts of Poesia Visiva.” Haggerty Museum of Art.

Marquette University. Web. 12 Oct. 2009.

Chiari, Giuseppe. “Giuseppe Chiari.” Chiari. Florence, Italy. Web. 12 Oct. 2009.

“Fluxus.” Fluxus. Wikipedia. Web. 12 Oct. 2009. .

“Giuseppe Chiari.” Sonoloco Record Reviews. Sonoloco Records. Web. 12 Oct. 2009.

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