The work of French artist Daniel Buren is always related to the context of the site where it is positioned. He views the art work as a sign to be inserted into a particular context, that is into a pre-existing system of signs, in order to comment on it. Since the 60s, all his work has been characterized by this will to comment on the reality in which the art work intervenes. The context may be the traditional sites of the art system – galleries, museums or any space habitually used by artists to exhibit their works. In this case, his aim is to emphasize the function of the place, with all the cultural, ideological and political connotations that relate to that function. Indeed, there are no neutral spaces within the art system where artists can express themselves in complete freedom and equally free observers can enjoy the work. These places are highly conditioning in ideological terms, a process which starts with the means they offer for the exhibiting and reception of what by convention we define as a work of art.
However, Buren does not only operate within the system of art and its conventions. He has also chosen to intervene over the years in a wide range of public spaces, in piazzas, city streets or in the open countryside, as in the case of the site next to a house at the Castello di Ama. He works in any place where human relations have created a context of meaning, dwelling on and questioning that meaning. In these cases, the observer is invited to reflect on the historic memory of the site, on an original function which has been lost or modified, on collective activities that are or used to be performed there. So while in Turin his luminous ceiling built from square containers with light bulbs inside lights up a different place in the city each winter, recalling the décor of a popular festivity, the variously-coloured flags he installed some years ago in the magnificent and peaceful landscape near Poggibonsi recall the ancient wars between Tuscan cities.
Buren’s sign, with which he makes his works recognizable as such, consists of a series of 8.7-centimetre wide white and coloured stripes made in various different materials and installed in a diverse range of unexpected ways. Always the same and always different, this sign appears to be not so much a formal pattern to observe in its own right but an index pointing to something else, a signal which stimulates us to look for and connect, and create sense relations from, the elements revealed by the installation.
The concept of representation often lies at the centre of Buren’s work, because visual art was traditionally expressed through this form of language, and the majority of social communication, with every possible form of contamination, both true and false, is based on it. There is a representation at the Castello di Ama as well, or rather an instrument through which something is represented. A wall twenty-five metres long and two metres high has been built in front of one of the buildings of the castle complex in order to close off the view of the surrounding countryside, but at the same time to open it up in a very particular way. The wall is dotted with square windows that frame and thus emphasize the beautiful landscape of the valley, thereby re-elaborating the tradition of “landscape painting” but also the equally habitual notion of painting as a “window” onto the real. In this link with a canonical legacy of the artistic tradition, there are two signs of different value. One confirms the canon, referring us back to the historical context from which we originate culturally: the bicoloured stripes of the Cathedral of Siena can be seen in Buren’s stripes, which fittingly are in black and white marble. The other sign, however, has a more perturbing value: this is the large reflecting surface that entirely covers the house side of the wall on this side of the landscape. Depending on the angle of one’s gaze, the mirror portions of whatever stands out in front of it – the lawn, the other wall opposite it, the facade of the house, the actions and events that take place in front of it, the people who go up to it in order to look at the valley through the windows. The mirror produces a reflection, a doubling of things, it creates a diaphragm where what reigns is pure virtuality, capable, given its dimensions, of interfering with our perception of the surrounding reality, perhaps instilling a hint of disquiet in the investigating certainty of our gaze. I forgot to mention, in fact, that representation is almost always a trick.