Light is an indispensable tool in the hands of an artist, and a material on a par with others in architecture. Directly connected to our perception of the world, light –which has always been used to enhance surfaces and volumes – since the dawn of artificial lighting has played a more independent role in formal and structural processes. With its dematerializing energy, light has contributed to the decline of the opacity of bodies and volumes that has taken over much of artistic and architectural output since the second half of the last century (1).
The scenario has taken form in slightly more than one hundred years, precisely since neon light became a new presence in the world. The development of fluorescent and differently colored tubes by the French physicist Georges Claude opened up a ne era, starting in the first decade of the 1900s (2), just as in this new millennium LED technology has triggered another step forward in the world of technical lighting. Light has altered our relationship with panoramas and nightlife in cities, no longer only in the metropolis, revealing solid architecture in terms of essentially luminous signs, adding another dimension in the visual arts, expanding its symbolic value to match what had previously been that of painting, because no longer confined to a metaphorical plane. The spiritual essence light evoked for centuries swerved into a secular suggestion; luminous effects conquered real space, just as shadow – closely connected to light – no longer played an exclusive role in the chromatic relationship or in the creation of atmosphere. Finally, the light source, coinciding with the illuminated object, assumed full status inside the space of communication.
So light constitutes a new expressive field that artists and architects cannot overlook, precisely due to the value of novelty it has introduced and the quality of the experience it is able to provoke. Beauty, amazement, knowledge, functional quality, wellness gain new vitality from skillful use of light. These considerations of a general character should be followed by more specific ones referring to the individual tension applied by each agent towards luminous expression, and its intersection with other themes pollinate the works. To approach the individual, to zoom in on the particular, in this case means focusing on Massimo Uberti, an artist who works with light, even making it the generative feature of all his pieces. Without light his works would not be visible, not because they are wreathed in total darkness, but because they would be deprived of their main essence, their poetic power. Luminous energy is a source of life and Uberti reinforces it in this role in the art world. In his research light does not only have the task of revealing the work, but also that of making it a material apparition, of holding it together in its conceptual coherency, offering it to the visitor as a passage outside the void. The artist’s investigation of form, though starting with some characteristics shared by his generation, that which at the start of the 1990s ran up against the dispersal of form, has eluded any constraints in terms of style, broken every rule with its free use of the widest range of media. It has been experienced in individuality with an extreme rigor that reminds us of the controlled steps of a tightrope walker. And, as for the acrobat, it is not a question of technique or artifice, but instead of a natural tendency to walk on the edge, to measure each step, to experience vertigo as a real emotion, in his case the virtual character of the luminous phenomenon in its evanescence and physical essence.
He stands in silence at the crossing, acting as its gatekeeper, waiting for the visitor to enter and thus lose his condition of inexperience. It is in this game of offering and expectation that the inner adjectival sense Uberti has of space takes on meaning, as he declares in short statements: necessary space, beloved space, awaited space, infinite space, or other space. To which we should add “being space,” i.e. the readiness for action, to become part of it. After such statements, it immediately seems clear that spatial quality is pursued in all his works, most of which are made on site; a long chain that may seem like a sort of continuous performance, always in new “theaters.” Works in which space intertwines with the tendency and taste for drawing as well as a utopian projection with respect to the society. Art as a force of warning and aspiration for a new world, as the defeat of cultural and mental shadows, remains the beacon that shows the course. In his works, once again, the experience of art and everyday life is presented as a single unified universe. And Uberti presents this unity not with incursions into sociology, geopolitics or information, but with the grace and joy of one who dwells in art and is closely engaged with it, because the work gives rise to other places and embraces past and future. If we have to identify a detour into another discipline, Uberti makes it in architecture, and even more specifically in its projective origin in which the concerns of giving form to a better world are registered. This vicinity gives force to his works around ideal cities, which in turn are the perfect meeting point of political and aesthetic thought. Starting with the new millennium, Uberti reinterprets, on various occasions, the projects of these cities governed by the superior spirit of Humanism precisely because the foundations of good habitation are rediscovered in their ideas and aspirations. But before analyzing the mature results, it is worth backtracking a bit to examine his early works, which offer a useful narrative to interpret everything that is documented in the photographic part of this volume. The first exhibition was in the space on Via Lazzaro Palazzi in 1990, a space independently organized by a group of artists, recent graduates of the Brera Academy in Milan, among whom Uberti was the youngest of all. A slide projector aims the image of an industrial building, the refuse recycling plant of the city of Brescia, at a plexiglas box containing cockroaches. The insects, which move inside the transparent container, make the slide look like a video projection that does not actually exist. The title, “… Signori … si chiude!,” (Gentlemen, it’s closing time!), undoubtedly propitiatory for a debut exhibition, in its apparently bizarre statement contains a typical expression used to clear out a bar, an invitation to participate: only those who have entered can be urged to find the exit. Two architectures, real and virtual, equally humble and inexpressive, are put into a relationship. And light immediately plays an important role because “it permits giving form to such a complex relationship”(3) because it illuminates the space and gives substance to the image. Also in the next show, at the church of San Zenone in Brescia, a slide is projected, and once again the setting is charged with presences from the past that dialogue with an image of the present. The fragments of frescoes inside the building are joined by a wooded landscape with the large inscription, in graceful characters, VLU, which in Provencal means velvet, a material that was widely and carefully represented in Renaissance painting. This installation speaks of the art-nature relationship, referencing the history of art in which different timeframes and forms intertwine. With discretion, it respects and reinvents the historical character, thanks precisely to the use of light. Uberti’s projections offer the stimulus to reflect on the presumed neutrality of space, even when it appears as a screen, and they define his tendency to technically resolve the work with simplicity, which has remained a distinctive characteristic of his work over time. With the participation in the “Imprevisto” project at Castello di Volpaia in 1991, for the first time Uberti makes the beam of light itself the protagonist. In fact, a powerful beacon placed atop an olive tree lights a pavement of golden yellow industrial tiles. Il dittatore (The Dictator), the title of the outdoor work, introduces an unexpected event in the night of the Tuscan countryside and imposes its presence as an artifact in a natural context. The contextual disorientation, though in an opposite direction, returns in the installation Vegetali di Milano presented the next year at Le Magasin in Grenoble for a group show, when the artist places a series of streetlamps in the large hall of the contemporary art center. An installation that straight from its title references the odd, innocent and poetic adventures of Marcovaldo, the protagonist of the book by Calvino of the same name, and which observed from a temporal distance marks the first step in his career for an architectural-sculptural function generated by the lighting together with the fixtures that spread it. A passage that only arrives definitively at the end of the decade; in fact, in the 1990s Uberti is engaged in reflections around the use of the photographic image, which as we know is a way of “writing with light,” and later on its virtual nature, thanks to the advent of new software. This direction of research, however, does not prevent Uberti from continuing his experimentation with on-site installations, in which he continues to use projections or backlighting, as happens in the exhibition “La maesta` dell’invisibile” or in “Empedocle” at Studio Bocchi in Rome. The themes are still those of art history (for the Roman show he uses a plaster copy of the Cavaspina in the Capitoline Museums), of viewing and distortion, internal-external relations, materials of various nature. In a moment in which also in art what is sought is the media event, Uberti reacts by trying to follow a different path, closer to his ethic as an artist, and more closely focused on the universal values of the work. His challenge has always been to shine light on the less familiar side of things. This is the period of a series of photographic works with a visionary tone, in which the predominant figure is the house or a fragment thereof, suspended amidst clouds or doubled in the night. These are joined by images of lit windows in the darkness, which in continuity with what has been done so far take the title of Sipari luminosi (Luminous Curtains) or Abitare (Dwell). This title is again found in the backlit drawings of a crouching body or a window with its blinds raised.
Finally, it is also used for that simple house, almost a child’s drawing, made in 1999 with just 15 neon tubes, like luminous linear pencil strokes. Here we can see confirmation of what has been done to date, but also the start of his way of operating directly with light in space. Furthermore, this synthetic structure brings to completion his dialogue with architecture identified as the “cradle of human and social existence, place of meaning, place of foundation.” (4) From now on the fragile contours drawn by neon that allude to the presence of man and whose emotional content is expressed by a void continue without interruption in his work. They are citations of architectural fragments that appear like symbolic more than real theatrical wings or sculptures, luminous cages facing infinity, as also evoked by the titles of some of the works dated 2005 and 2006. The themes return of an iconography of the past, as in Uno studio or the simpler “desk,” while the link with the design drawing, precisely because there are lines in space, becomes closer, more literal: as if the structure had been projected into space with respect to the drawing. But here too, Uberti is ready to sidestep, to shuffle the deck, to transform it into writing because he is aware of the fact that “if you move they do not catch you”, as he wrote in 2005 in a tribute to Pinot Gallizio. His luminous neon statements only partially evoke the conceptual radicalism of the 1960s; Uberti softens them in terms of the typical legacy of Middle Eastern culture of drawing as a form of writing, and of the lesson of Lucio Fontana and his “arabesque” for the 11th Milan Triennale in 1951. The already mentioned statements regarding the value to attribute to space take on an environmental dimension and light up their destinations with new meaning. Altro spazio (Other Space) made for Museo Pecci Milano amplifies the museum impact of the operation of Centro Pecci of Prato, that of opening a new “showcase” (5); Spazio amato (Loved Space), reprised for the large entrance hall of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome, invites the visitor to reconsider the value of a museum as a common asset, while the same phrase, with less orderly characters and outdoors, in Ravenna, declares the love for art and its diversity. Though in a public space, Today I Love You, a permanent work on the bridge in front of the central station in Amsterdam (made during the Amsterdam Light Festival in 2016), offers each individual observer its moving and playful message, documented inthousands of snapshots posted on Instagram. Strictly private, but of no less impact for those lucky enough to have access to their homes, are the inscriptions “esserespazioamatonecessarioinfinito” (to-be-beloved-necessary-infinite-space) or “il faut cultiver notre jardin” (we must cultivate our garden), with which Uberti plays once again with ethics and aesthetics. Never Off, on the other hand, written in neon and presented for the exhibition of the same name at Spazioborgogno in Milan in 2011, seems instead to allude to light as a source of infinite energy. The exhibition offers a variety of luminous signs that no longer form a single environment but individual elements (an approach also seen in other exhibitions from the same period), though the vision is one of great unity, and in spite of the fragmentation the parts form a single tableau. Mai spento, “never off,” returns obsessively in the show, almost as if to convey Uberti’s vigilance with respect to art and light, but also the phantasmatic character of his works that can “die” simply when a switch is turned off. When Uberti, in 2015, at Art Basel Miami, for the English automaker Bentley, makes the work Drawing of a drawing, the piece is not an architectural phantom; like the other luminous structures, it does not have the same overtones as the Franklin Court by Robert Venturi in Philadelphia. The structures are always something alive, ready for entry, though they exist only in terms of their neon boundaries; they are sources of ethical and aesthetic energies, aspiring to measure, the tact of proportions, to beauty, in the final analysis. One good example in this direction towards the ideal of life and art is the large public installation made in 2008 at Fondazione Le Stelline, entitled Tendente infinito. In the already striking Magnolia cloister, Uberti reproduces on a large scale the drawing of Sforzinda, the ideal city designed by Filarete in 1465 circa. It is a suspended plan made with neon tubes that acts as a filter between the real city of Milan and the sky, almost as if to indicate a new constellation and therefore a new route. In the words of the artist, it is a “city that does not have man at the center, that is still capable of dreaming, returning to gaze upward.” It can truly be said that Uberti not only sheds new light on one of the most characteristic threads of Italian architectural thought (6), but also inverts the perspective, since what was previously seen from above is now visible from below; he proposes the possibility of living in the ideal city in a real way, just as several years earlier he offered, on a different scale, the dimension of walking in the cities reproduced on carpets woven in 2004 in Rajasthan, or like the mirror cities in which it is possible to see one’s reflection, becoming part of them, in 2013. Participation is one of the fundamental aspects of Uberti’s work, and light is a means of creating relations. Of course Uberti is well aware of the fact that an ideal city cannot exist, and that it cannot even be imagined outside of art. But he also knows that art is one of the most powerful messages to indicate a different future. While architects and urbanists can build only functional cities, the artist can take the more problematic position of reiterating utopia. So eight years after that experience, Uberti again evokes the ideal city in the exhibition “After the Gold Rush” at Spazioborgogno. This time the title takes its cue from a song by Neil Young, but it alludes to the gold of the space blankets, the metallized thermal covers used in emergency situations, by now in a massive way due to the rescues of hundreds of thousands of refugees attempting to reach Europe across the Balkans or by sea, heading for Lampedusa and Sicily. The bright, golden skin of this industrial material used to wrap human beings and save lives becomes the “module” on which to write new words and to draw, once again, as a plan or a perspective, the city of Sforzinda. On the floor, a portion of the neon work from 2008 is placed, so it can continue to light up the world with its poetry, but also so it can amplify the reflectivity of what springs from an urgent situation of the present. Repetita iuvant, just as poetry has to help reality and ethics has to unite with aesthetics: now that the gold rush is only a misleading glimmer, we have to necessarily build the ideal city in which to live in harmony, in the sharing of space but also of values. Uberti, in all these years, has moved step by step on these boundaries, with surprising refinement and elegance, to offer places for poetic inhabitants.
(1) Though in art the first experiences date back to the start of the 1930s with the big play of lights and shadows of LaÅLzloÅL Moholy-Nagy in Licht-Raum Modulator or the first neon sculptures by the Czech artist Zdeněk PešaÅLnek, it is since 1951, when Lucio Fontana made that arabesque in space entitled Struttura al neon per la IX Triennale di Milano, that this new dimension begins and spreads.
(2) “Neon – la materia luminosa dell’arte,” curated by David Rosenberg and Bartolomeo Pietromarchi, Quodlibet, Macerata, 2012.
(3) Mauro Panzera, Under the Sky of Milan, in Massimo Uberti – Dreams of a possible city, Electa, Milano, p. 14.
(4) Mauro Panzera, op. cit., p. 34.
(5) In April 2010, during my term as director, Centro per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci in Prato opened a space at Ripa Ticinese 113 in Milan, for the display of items from the museum’s permanent collection. This project came to an end in March 2014.
(6) Fabio Isman, “Andare per citta` ideali”, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2016.