Arman e l'elenco

Umberto Eco, L'Espresso, November 19, 2005
Arman (Armand Pierre Fernandez) passed away at the age of seventy-seven. He was one of the artists of Nouveau Réalisme, the movement that displays little boxes full of watches and glasses, the assemblages of split violins or bicycle wheels and pedals. He was a great, friendly and generous man.
After achieving success, he often charged only in kind. He had furnished much of New York's famous restaurant Circus, and desperately tried to get back what he was owed by inviting as many friends as he could to that cherished restaurant -- but he always ended up in credit. He had created an entire suite at the Lutetia Hotel in Paris, where every piece of furniture had his freakish imprint. He could live there, except that every time he left he had to pack his bags because the suite was being craved by wealthy amateurs, and he complained, because it was like coming and going to a hotel meublé where they kick you out if you didn't pay the bill. His apartment building in a decayed area of downtown New York was a magical place, with two floors covered in all the unlikely objects that he collected and then assembled.
I have long wanted to write about the form of the list or the catalog, but I don't know whether to write an essay or a book. One of the final chapters will certainly be about Arman. I would start by contrast with Canto XVII of the Iliad, when Thevi goes to Hephaestus and asks him for a shield for Achilles, and Hephaestus builds it for him as a wonderfully organized microcosm. It has a circular shape, with a triple border and five concentric bands, where the earth, the sky and the sea, the sun and the moon with all the constellations are carved. Then from geography and astronomy we move on to civil life and see a city with its wedding ceremonies, markets and courts. In the end, a review of the art of war around the city follows, because the war takes place in the outer territory. Around the city life in the fields and wild animals appear. Then, in harmony with nature, there are festivals and dances, and that is art. The strength of the ocean surrounds everything. This shield is an encyclopedia of all that men of that time knew and which they gave value, order and criteria to. It represents the shape of the world. 
By contrast, in the Iliad again, Canto II, the Trojans must realize who they are facing, and with what strength. That is a difficult task in those archaic times, because after all, the Greeks identify themselves as such only throughout the common challenge of the war against Troy. In terms of political and cultural being, they do not know who they are yet, much less do the Trojans. Here their description cannot achieve an accomplished form, so it continues with a list. It is the catalog of ships and armies, and some academic believe that it is precisely through this catalog that we can now speculate about the geographical, economic and political reality of that Mediterranean civilization time period. 
In short, accomplished forms happen when one's cultural identity is sure, and lists are piled up when a disconnected series of events shows that this identity is still in the searching. The book I would like to write about should not deal with time periods offering the accomplished forms of the Venus de Milo or the Apollo of Belvedere, but it should be about the long catalogs of medieval literature and encyclopedias, as well as about those lists that are cathedrals' treasures and baroque Wunderkammern, the disconnected views in which Bosch draws multiple landscapes and creatures out of all mythologies, to get to - perhaps through Arcimboldi - the Cubist collages and lists that enhance Joyce's Ulysses
Every experiment in assemblage belongs to the tradition of the list. Except that the list can either be a review of varied things or a multiplication of identical items. Arman had chosen the latter path. His works were almost always multiplications of a single object. And this is why his catalogs are mysterious and revealing, because they show us that even within the same item (many forks, many glasses, many musical instruments) there is the possibility of a modulation of the multiple. In the frantic (but secretly very regular) play of his assemblages, in which each object, by a tilt, a deviation of balance, a minimal rotation differs from the others, Arman transforms the monody of the identical into a symphony of the heterogeneous. 
He was playing, and having fun, but at the same time he was wondering about our world as a huge parade of objects. And since we have not found the boxes where to place them in a harmonious mutual relationship yet, we can only put them together, as if we're waiting - not infrequently anxiously - to discover the secret of a hidden form, of a golden rule for which we feel nostalgic.

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