A FOCUS ON AFRA AND TOBIA SCARPA
For forty years, Afra and Tobia worked together; then, since 2000, Tobia has continued on his own, still designing objects, lamps, furniture, and building houses, restoration projects, industrial complexes. It is brutal, and perhaps senseless, to identify the differences between the work done together and the work done individually. Forty years of life and work inextricably intertwined the modes of one with the other, transforming them into a single approach. It is equally complicated to determine the contribution to each work. Tobia, in a conversation with Marco Sorteni in 1986, after Afra had remarked on Tobia’s curiosity regarding new materials, explained:
“Certain innovations have developed
due to the need to get beyond difficulties
we have imposed on ourselves”
“It is hard, if this is what you want to know, to distinguish between my contributions and those of Afra. She may veto certain solutions if they don’t seem rigorous enough, or impose constraints that always force us to find suitable inventions. Certain innovations have developed due to the need to get beyond difficulties we have imposed on ourselves”, and he narrates the episode of the hinge created to resolve the problem of the joint of a window frame (to avoid the stress caused by putting the cantilevered frame on a single track) that emerged after Afra “had decided, for aesthetic and practical reasons, to divide the frame into six instead of two parts”.
There is something alchemical in the story of Afra and Tobia, that alchemical dimension that also remains even in the time when Tobia and Afra no longer work together. This alchemical dimension can be narrated as follows. We have seen bricks no one wanted to use any longer become a magical floor. We have witnessed lime mortar, concrete, plaster, sand, and pozzolana become exquisite stucco. We have seen large pieces of sheet metal transformed into perforated window frames for dreams and lights, as in 1001 nights. We have seen a sheet of silver become a chalice to capture and reproduce the dramatic hues of wine, the fragrance of its aromas. We have seen a lifeless ruin reborn, liberated of the constant memory of its slow death, its uselessness, without having to transform what has been inevitably lost into a monument.
We thought it was magic, or witchcraft,
but then we understood: it’s alchemy.
We have seen material with its forms, fibers, sculptural potential, aggregations, textures, and structures bend to become architecture, a chair, a table, a lamp, a coat rack… We have listened to poetry and music together; we have eaten and drunk together, finding all the possible harmonies with what we were listening to and what we were eating. We have always had the impression that, somewhere, perfection can exist. We thought it was magic or witchcraft, but then we understood: it’s alchemy.
The alchemical mark is inside Tobia Scarpa. Maybe Tobia is one of the few heirs to an underground tradition. A tradition holds together very ancient, very different civilizations: the Chinese, the Indians, the Assyro-Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks. A tradition that ran through Occidental culture until the Renaissance and was then dispersed in the collective unconscious, in the dogmatic victory of the sciences of nature. A tradition in which thought makes and makes thinks. Tobia exists between the end and the beginning. He sees the past as a god dying and the future as a child playing dice. He pursues beauty like medicine, alchemically mixing possible and impossible, consumption and regeneration, past and future.
They believed in an essential unity of
all things. This is why they saw technique,
religion, philosophy and astrology as one.
The alchemists searched for the Philosopher’s Egg in the cavern turn to the original matrix, the primordial substance, the elixir, the Philosopher’s Stone that would permit transmutation among the matters of the four elements of nature (earth, water, air, fire). They wanted spirituality, sublimation, and purity. They believed in the essential unity of all things. This is why they saw technique, religion, philosophy, and astrology as one. Their god was Hermes, always young, and their symbol was the ouroboros, the cosmic serpent that bites its tail, consuming itself.
Some say alchemy was an impotent presumption based on a state of prescientific ignorance, but that is not so. The difference is this: chemistry and physics want to gain as much as possible from nature, while alchemy wants to facilitate disposition to become what it wants to be and can be. Alchemy attempts to make that impure, imperfect, relatively pure, perfect, absolute. It wants the fulfillment of things and the world in beauty and splendor. It knows this result is impossible, but it also knows that the secret of beauty lies precisely in this continuous pursuit. So does Tobia.
Some say alchemy was an impotent
presumption, based on a state of prescientific
ignorance; but that is not so.
Tobia always makes what he handles become precious, like a child at play. Not because he covers things with gold, but because he makes things poetically return to themselves. He frees creation and never lingers over creativity. He tries to make the thing become itself, never worrying about its form. He knows that beauty owes more to ethics than to aesthetics and that its approach requires the material to partake in spirituality.
The historical-critical literature on the arts and aesthetics concerning the relationship between the contemporary era and beauty seems to agree that no typically 20th-century ideal of beauty can be pinpointed. This is not to say that the problem of beauty has not been of great importance in the debate and the practices of 20th-century art, but simply that it seems to be perceived only by starting with its absence, its condition of being missing. If beauty is actively pursued, it immediately collapses into kitsch. In other words, the idea of beauty appears through its disturbing ghost.
What is the problem? Let’s try to put
some questions into perspective.
Just consider Barnett Newman, who in 1948 stated that the impulse of modern art consists in this desire to destroy beauty, or believe, on the philosophical side, the position of Adorno, which can be summed up like this: after Auschwitz it is no longer possible to write poetry. Which, in substance, means: that even the possibility of seeking beauty no longer exists. What is the problem? Let’s try to put some questions into perspective. The metaphysics of beauty that extends from antiquity to the 170os refers to a substantial harmony that has to do with the cosmos. Nature manifests itself in its infinite variety, but it is sustained by laws expressed through the proportions.
Man’s task is to adapt himself and his practices (all of them, not just the ones we define as artistic) to this regularity of nature. Harmony means law, universal law, which, if known and practiced, produces not only an adaptation and a “well-being” with nature (an “ecology”) but also a knowledge that can permit its taming. In this adaptation, there is great humility, pride, and the possibility for a man not to obey those laws and thus to produce horror, like hubris, the greatest peril: going against nature. This was so for the ancients but certainly not for the moderns. This is the very space of freedom that sets man apart from nature. This is the space of ancient tragedy: the terrible possible liberty of going against nature.