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Andrea Balzola

Johannes Pfeiffer: visionary architecture
 
"And Darkness then begot the Earth and the immense Heavens, brought them out from their hiding place where they were waiting to be born".
 
1. The builder artist follows in Orpheus's footsteps to bring us his 'deep-down' installations
 
The most ancient cosmological beliefs from the most varied and faraway places have it that both nature and man spring from the earth, that the works of man come out of darkness and from those pregnant nights when man dreams with his eyes open. The earth is the house of darkness, but it turns its face into the sun's light and the moon's reflection. To pluck a work of art out of darkness, and draw shape out of earth and stone is the sculptor's mythical, and yet extremely practical activity. An ancient activity, yet ever renewed and up-to-date if the artist is capable of exploiting the shapes of his age to tell the story of that which escapes time. Johannes Pfeiffer is just such an artist, who is an integral part of his age, but who, unlike many of his fellow artists, has not lost his ancestral memory nor his mythical memory. As Aristotle once said, "a friend of wisdom is a friend of myth".
Pfeiffer, builder and blacksmith, creates installations and symbolic works within natural and artificial environments, using traditional building materials: bricks, steel rods, synthetic fibre cables. The bricks, preferably hand-made, constitute the cellular base to his sculptures, while the rods and cables are the structural elements that bind and give strength to the metamorphoses worked on these organisms of shape. I use the word 'organisms' because their basic element is simply clay, earth baked hard by fire, and given a geometric shape, earth that is both modelled and modelling in a visionary architecture that is without doubt a designed artifact, but which nevertheless sinks its roots into the mystery of nature. Once Pfeiffer had learned the traditional skills of marble sculpture in Pietrasanta, he then discovered he was a 'builder artist' rather than a sculptor artist, as he prefers to illustrate space with matter instead of acting directly upon the matter itself.
At the beginning of the Nineties his work appears to proceed upon two fronts: visions of air and of earth. On the one front, Pfeiffer's typical Germanic titan verve constantly challenges the force of gravity: in one of his works that seems to foresee the fall of the East-West Berlin wall in 1989, two walls face each other at a dangerously slanting angle, held up only by a strip of nylon lines resembling rays of light blazing from an iron ring embedded in the ground. Then in 1991, Pfeiffer used the same principle to set up an alter ego of the famous leaning tower of Pisa in Piazza dei Miracoli, his 'lyrical solution' to the problem of how to save it. The same year he produced 'Deichwächter' ('Guardians of the river banks'), where a square forest of rods rises up to support a brick platform to create a figure that sweeps its weight upwards, and in serial replicate seems to be the march of absurd sentinels.
On the other front, opened up in 1992, Pfeiffer set off in another direction with 3 particularly significant works - a journey to the depths that embraces both the act of immersion and that of emersion following Orpheus's footsteps to the Underworld and back again. 'Omaggio a Orfeo' ('Homage to Orpheus') is, in fact, the title of one of his installations set up in a Tuscan meadow (Etruria being the ideal background to these journeys), where he opened up a deep gash in sloping terrain with 2 parallel brick walls gradually cut down to form a sort of staircase joined together with grids of iron rods. The result is amazing and far-reaching for anyone looking at it, as he finds himself looking at a staircase whose metal steps seem to sink into the darkness of the underground, but which in fact do not; they reach out towards the darkness and run through it without actually penetrating it. A lyrical journey to the centre of the earth, but also the revealing of its mysteries, because as said at the beginning, the earth is the house of darkness and out of that darkness comes man's works of art. One of these underworld mysteries in fact, seems to emerge with his work the 'Das ungenannte Tier' ('The unnamed beast'): the basic brick elements are put together to make a triangular shape embedded in the ground, from which the ominous 'head' of the triangle rises up on rods. The ground becomes brick and the earth's skin turns into a nameless creature with a clay back and steel soul. Pfeiffer's intention to create an apparently insoluble paradox within a concrete structure shines clearly through in this work; the weight and immobility used to portray tension and therefore movement. The invented structure gives the construction its nature of a living organism and as such it is something that grows and blends into the natural elements and there is therefore no contradiction between natural generation and artificial construction. On the contrary, the movement of the idea may be sometimes deliberately blocked and imprisioned by the structure. This, in fact, is expressed with great force in the work enclosed in the hippopotamus pool in the former Turin zoo, entitled 'E la nave va' ('And the ship sails on') dedicated to the memory of judge Giovanni Falcone. Here the stylized hull of a boat peeps out of the water, caught by and trapped between the bars of the cage, the journey downwards turns into a shipwreck, the passage through truth and freedom stopped, annihilated by the hellish vocation of men and fallen angels.
The moral tension of many of Pfeiffer's works seen, for example, in the series of emblematic coffins representing the absurd tragedy of Yugoslavia ('zu Lebzeiten...', 1993 - ('When they were alive')), is also part of the more intimate motivation behind the work. The builder artist builds visions of the world and visions in the world, and inevitably creates metaphoric monuments and supports for collective reflection, which are real means of questioning reality and its various aspects. In this, Pfeiffer once again shows 'traditional' sensitivity in the sense that he avoids the narcissistic and formalistic pitfalls of contemporary artistic individualism, and manages to restore the value of shape and performance that is part of artistic research, and bring the symbol function, that visual and plastic arts have gradually lost to the forced communication of the mass-media, back to the centre of attention of both individuals and society as a whole.
 
2. Work of darkness: blind visions and designs made of light on sensitive film.
 
When we said that a work of art has its roots in the dark we were not just using a metaphore; Pfeiffer's works are, in fact, born of the negative vision that the artist develops in his mind's eye as he visualises the budding project with his eyes closed and then immediately transfers it with sure strokes to photographic film. Always with his eyes closed. The orphism of his visions of the earth and the underworld is the manifestation in space of an original conception of the whole artistic process, from its sources to its final outcome.
Pfeiffer sees in the dark, because his artist's mind opens up the spaces where he will physically build the work. His mind's eye sees through his vision to fertilise the space dedicated to creation. He sketches the outline of the shape in the virtual space of his ideas. He closes his eyes to concentrate, to prevent the images of the outside world intruding and affecting the idea or shape that is forming, his body helps by capturing what the mind sees on the mind's screen until it can be used for building.
Design and construction: these are the two opposite aspects of the tension that Pfeiffer incorporates into his installations; the installation, in fact, corresponds to an architectonic idea of sculpture; the work occupies physical space and regenerates it so that it becomes symbolic space. But while the work regenerates physical space, it is itself generated in a mental space, and therefore physical space and mental space reflect each other through the external and internal appearance of the work.
According to Pfeiffer, 3-dimensional works of art are the architecture of ideas, and it is here that the constructive significance of the aesthetic idea takes on its ethical dimension. Construction becomes metaphore and metaphore turns into construction, as can be seen in the apparent fragility of the nylon rope that Pfeiffer often uses to support extremely heavy structures. It looks like a ray of light from a distance, but it counterbalances the weight and force of gravity of the brick to conjure up an extremely dramatic tension. A structural and ideal tension where design challenges the solidness and compactness of the materials employed. Image and matter wrestle with each other for a common cause.
If the design is a vision in the dark, the material used to realise it must be light, and in fact Pfeiffer tries to fix the budding images that are the basis of his installation designs on photographic film. He cuts the film with his eyes closed to imprint the ephimeral traces of his ideas on it, and shuts his eyes to look deeper inside himself. The black film lacerated with flashes of light is simply the mirror to his mind. Pfeiffer inscribes his forms the moment they appear; his way is not the automatic writing of the surrealists, direct reportage of unconscious chaos, but he directs his concentration at a target, an exercise aimed at mining his mind for the map of the future work. Blindness is symbolic of profound vision because it brings one to look inside oneself and see beyond the appearance of things. In the realms of wisdom and mysticism, one need only think of the Greek Tiresias and the Nordic god Odin, the meditative enrapture of Buddha and St. John of the Cross, and as regards artistic perception, the slashed eye of Bunuel and Dali, the sublime blindness of Borges.
The etymological meaning of the word 'Photography' is 'writing with light': as Pfeiffer writes on the film with the light produced by his graffiti, he takes snapshots of his creative mind, photographs of the mental genesis of the work. Enlarged and displayed on the wall, these images make up sequences of luminous ideograms that project the work out of darkness into space. Pfeiffer uses the photographic media in this original way, combining the new visual qualities of this technological medium with the most ancient of techniques, graffiti drawing, to produce a motivated and conscious artistic process. This just goes to show that the instruments of art - be they ancient, new, or of the future - , only have value and meaning in the clarity of the design and the force of the artist's motivation, as no material or technique can be used without conceiving its transformation.
Pfeiffer's luminous graffiti close the circle of his work and, in two distinct but complementary phases of the same artistic process, illustrate the mental space and physical space of his work. Yet Pfeiffer's vision is also a challenge, as he cannot be sure until the last moment that his bet will pay off, that the tensions in play will support the weight of the material. Just as in the case of the builders of cathedrals of yesteryear, the mind-boggling design never guaranteed the result, but was merely the seed out of which everything was to grow. Each stone that was chiselled and laid stood for both a visible material action and an invisible symbolic one, both equally necessary and inseparable: to ensure that the temple built for the world is built with truth and force, the interior temple must also be built. Artifice of nature.