by Dilpreet BhullarMay 09, 2022
"There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception,” said the writer Aldous Huxley. The journey from the retina to the brain is a long one - the eye sees all but the mind can only process what it knows. Perception, therefore, is often fraught and diluted - in scientific terms, this is quantum cognition, while ancient Eastern philosophies, very much alive to these differences, place unbiased observation at the top of the spiritual pyramid.
I remember, as a child, scampering after my grandfather on his visits to a family doctor at his home clinic. It was the garden I loved, lush and verdant, although my heart belonged to a particularly climb-able guava tree. Many an hour would slip away atop its branches, as I lost myself in the sunlight dappling through the leaves, while I confounded myself with philosophical conundrums (I didn't know that word back then), "Do I exist in this moment or am I looking back on it from some point in the future? Is this a memory?" And the eternally unanswerable: ‘I recognise the sky to be 'blue', but what if my 'blue' is somebody else's 'red'? How will I ever know?’ As adults, we have little time to toy with these questions, perplexity morphs into indifference; the world, magnificent and immense, is confined to personal metaphor.
In the city of Syracuse, Sicily, is the small island of Ortygia. Also known as the Citta Vechhia (Old City), the island is known for its ancient, sacred architecture. This is where artist Massimiliano Moro (born in Cittadella (Italy) and raised in Lugano, Switzerland) created Quieti Cerchi, one of my favourite works. "You picked the most difficult work I have ever done," he exclaims. "I usually intervene in very interesting places but none is equal to that one."
The ambience there, he says, was in contrast with the architecture, "clinically lit to show everything, there was no penumbra, no texture, nothing that reflected the centuries of stories that passed by”. His intervention was minimal, just enough to restore the aura of sacredness that really makes up Ortygia. After many days visiting, understanding and thinking, he created "a sculpture that may recall the sunlight, whose reflections enhanced the presence of water”. The audience doesn't take all this in at once, they need to become one with the space, "to breathe along with the movement. This change of rhythm was all it needed to go back to the original spirituality, and the mind could start to wander again on the ancient times that passed by”.
"Our perception is in constant movement to give meaning to what we are seeing," Moro says. In Look / See, for instance, he works to change the audience's perception of where one is standing in space. This he does by working, paradoxically enough, with the flatness of the wall. "They key is that shadows are what allows us to move and situate things in space, so transforming them, I transform our perception of what's around us."
All that being said, Moro doesn't leave his audience drowning in abstraction, or having to undertake a left-brained navigation through subtext. Instead, his work, beautiful and enigmatic, will quite simply take your breath away. And as it does, it brings us back to the lost art of seeing. There is no room, in that moment, for perception or metaphor. "Any symbolic contaminations would lead us farther away from the sole act of seeing," says the artist who lives and works between Lugano and Barcelona. His art exists, as he puts it, on "the threshold from light and shadow, visible and invisible." The process itself is very practical. Light is a complex medium, one that requires great precision, so much so that Moro begins his work directly with studio trials, keeping drawings and projecting beforehand to a minimum. "Light," he says, "is such a fragile material that every millimetric change can change the perception of the work, so I prefer to control it practically instead of theoretically”.
The finishing phase is full of technicalities that need solving, "electronics, the choice of materials... the fine-tuning with light is something that can take a long time. A shadow's projection is the magnification of the object, all small changes become gigantic once they acquire size, so calibration is essential and must be done with extreme precision”.
Moro begins working in earnest when he has an exhibition - his art is mostly site-specific. "I can really look at the space where it will take place." The result is art that is a stunning mix of the fantastic and the quotidian. It's an interesting thought - the mundane details of life, which take place all around us, usually escape limited perception. The eye, however, rarely misses a thing - Sigmund Freud describes exactly this in Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams). The countless details that escape us often surface in our dreams, where the door to the unconscious swings open. "Quotidian situations that are almost unconscious" is how Moro puts it.
In the end, it is "inevitable for me to talk about little universes," he says. Working with artificial light has become akin to "creating little suns that generate their own systems. I can say that I have my personal cosmogony." Here, the audience can choose to be a detached observer, or be absorbed in the work itself, to live and breathe within it. "I hope this time we spent confined in our homes makes us more conscious of the little things, to start work again in a way that soothes us instead of creating more contrast. To create art that fits more in a home and can be lived, rather than stored in a collection."