History, photography, evidences
The starting point of my interest in the medium of photography is a direct inquiry into its nature as a truth-bearer. I am interested in photography, first of all, as testimony, understanding that a testimony, if not false, is at least able to be interpreted in multiple ways.
In regard to the photograph’s subject matter, I consider photography to be a ready-made; it affords a certain freedom of manipulation, which, in my case, implies almost always a slight displacement of the subject. In such a displacement I recognize my work as the work of a translator.
From this perspective, there is no difference between the found image and the created one; photography is merely a document. It’s a matter of taking the image and removing it from itself, in order to open it up to other, possible interpretations, in order to encourage its movement.
I will show you two sets of images: the first set concerns several recent works based on archival materials; the second set documents a few site installations I created in Norway, France, and Italy.
La Buoncostume, suite (mixed media, 2009) (01)
In January 2008, in a dumpster near the police headquarters in Rome, a bin man found two large garbage bags full of photographs: eight thousand images (identification, monitoring, evidences), “no longer relevant to the investigations,” which the police threw away instead of bestowing them to the State Archives. The found images were acquired by an antiquarian bookshop, Il Museo del Louvre; an exhibition was organized and the information was communicated to the newspapers. But the same day of the opening, the Civil Guard, sent by the Authority of the Cultural Heritage, entered the gallery and seized all the material presented, including the exhibition catalogs. However, a gallery assistant managed to hide one of the catalogs, which I used to choose and modify six images: they surely come from the “vice squad” of the police and, judging by the clothes of the suspects, would date from the late sixties. Working on them, I tried to keep the idea of a series, superimposing these photographs, which have a certain statuary elegance, over texts drawn from an Italian grammar book. There is no relationship between images and text, except perhaps the fact that these texts establish rules, which are linguistic rules. (02-05)
Leçons d’anthropométrie (mixed media, 2009-2010) (06)
The series Leçons d’anthropométrie derives from my researches in the archives of the department of Gard (southern France). It is well known that any nomadic or itinerant had to carry an “anthropometric book,” which was stamped at every entrance or exit of a French village. This book was in effect from 1912 to 1969. It contained, in addition to personal data and characteristics of the carrier, his photograph (face and profile) and the fingerprints of all ten fingers, following the instructions dictated by the world famous criminologist Alphonse Bertillon. I chose six photographs of anonymous members of the same family (taken in the twenties), and reproduced them on glass. I transcribed with a marker, on the cardboard backdrop, some articles of the law ruling the movements of the nomads. I painted red and white geometric shapes over it that could recall the Russian Constructivists or the Bauhaus designers. To confuse the identification process, I overlaid the frontal image of a person with his profile, or with a picture of a relative. (07-09)
Phantombilder (mixed media, 2010) (10)
My last example of the difficult relation between truth and image is also the most paradoxical. I refer to the so-called photo fits of the German police (and, perhaps, of other national police departments), which one can find easily on the Internet. In a technical sense, photo fits are photographs, that is, photographic reproductions. But, at the same time, they do not reproduce anything. They are merely pieces of fixed memory, artificially reconstructed. What they reproduce does not exist, even though they are images as credible as “true” photographs.
We are here before a kind of icon of a face, which seems strangely flat to us, and which bears something doubly uncanny – to borrow Freud’s term -, something like a double death: the first one produced by the photographic process itself, the second one by the montage procedure. This results from the effect of the death mask which—as Alfred Döblin observes in 1929 in his introduction to August Sander’s Antlitz der Zeit, Visage of time—is proper to photography (Döblin was surely referring to the then famous wax mask of L’Inconnue de la Seine, and wax or plaster casting can be seen as a double of photography, since both are deadly in their capacity to freeze time and to condemn a subject like the Unknown of the Seine to be young and smiling forever). (11-12)
To return to the German Phantombilder, what is lacking in them is the asymmetry that characterizes each individual, that is, the irregularity or the accident: the history of a face and a person. What remains is an icon, a logo, which nobody will ever recognize, but which will be useful in defining an individual.
How have I treated these phantom-images? I have made them transparent, reproducing them on glass. I have placed them in simple square frames. I have superimposed them on contemporary wallpapers, in an attempt to give them an “uncanny familiarity.” (13-14)
Lingering on allegories taken from Freud’s texts, I could refer to his famous article on the Wunderblock (A Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad, 1925); my work, indeed, is a work of stratification. But, if I do add layer upon layer, this is not in order to liberate the past or to make it more legible, whether in the first or the last instance. On the contrary, in a kind of “reverse archaeology”, I create a blurred image that perhaps could lead to the intuition of “something else”, that I don’t know and that I can’t anticipate.
The following slides document my attempt to follow a single process that re-takes the existing image and translates it in another language. Sometimes only a slight shift is needed.
Mirror (dripped) 01 (15)
Teatrino (dripped) 01 and 02 (16-17)
These works must be taken – among others – as a criticism of the eugenic attempt not only to define human “types” but also to find the “truth” of an individual through the examination of facial signs. I have used the illustrations from La nouvelle iconographie de la Salpétrière, the photographic revue published in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century by Professor Charcot and his assistant Albert Londe.
I would just note that, in my effort to resist the mimetic “swallowing-up” of the photographic image, I have made it vulnerable to other agents; for instance, the red fluorescent signs and the drippings are a dramatic element whose function is to remove the photograph from its own saturation: here it is not possible to read an image without the eye being forced to encounter the above-mentioned “something else”, a something else that displaces the image and moves it into a different context.
Laralia. A transient monument. (20)
This work, made in Norway in 1999, was entitled Laralia. The dictionary tells us that, in ancient Roman times, the Lares were the ancestors’ spirits, whose images, made out of painted wood or cast wax, were collected and worshipped in a specially designated part of the home called the Laralia.
These pictures were periodically displayed in processions, and then set on fire. Pliny the Elder mentions them in the section of Naturalis Historia devoted to painting (Book, XXXV, 6-7): in his criticism of modern art then in vogue, he underlines the moral value of these portraits, which served not only to commemorate the deceased, but also to accompany the living, so that “when somebody died, the entire assembly of his departed relatives was also present.”
Ten pictures of local people, chosen at random among the ones conserved at the Fjaler Folkbibliotek in Dale, underwent a multi-staged process of transformation: first, they were deformed in order to reveal their Anamorphosis, reminiscent of the long evening shadows; then, they were enlarged to life size; finally, their silhouettes were traced and cut out on boards of pine wood. (21)
These black silhouettes were placed atop a hill and then set on fire, in a brief ceremony. On the other end, the three-meter-high wooden boards, from which the silhouettes were carved, were erected upon a plateau, above the village of Dale. During the day, in sunlight, the shadows on the ground change shape, cross each other, and are, for a fleeting moment, similar to the original picture.
The instantaneous freezing of the photographic image documents a unique state of a person and is meant to be recognisable by the person’s relatives and the collective memory. In this installation the image is subjected to multiple reproductions, which progressively distance the subject from its departure point.
The final stage of this process – the woodcut – is the opposite of the photographic image, in terms of the time and energy required for its execution; the slowness can be seen as a less tyrannical and more intense way of recording the image. The ten pictures, transformed into steles whose commemorative function is only vaguely related to the individuals they portray, will surrender to the action of time and nature, which will further modify them and ultimately lead to their decay. (22-28)
The cares of a family man (29)
The title of the next work is The cares of a family man. I don’t know why I named it after Franz Kafka’s novel, Die Sorge des Hausvaters, where the main character is a shapeless and changing creature made out of left-overs and living in the most obscure parts of a mansion. I think that unconsciously I identify Odradek with the beast that dwells in each of our homes, the beast of identification and of the measurement of the other, the same beast that today, in the streets of France, expresses itself with the slogan “ici on est chez nous!”, “here it’s our home”. (30)
This same beast forbids August Sander, in the mid-thirties of last Century, to publish his portraits, because of his unwelcome “Enlightenment” aesthetics and because of the Socialist Workers Party involvement of his son Erich. After this, he was doomed to realize gorgeous landscape photographs of hilltops in the Cologne region; he also composed a couple of strange visual cut ups, made out of facial details belonging to diverse individuals. The two surviving panels bear the title Studies: Mankind, while the subjects of his previous work were always identified, at least with the mention of their profession. (31) I think that these “dissections” demonstrate a giving up of the principle of identification, as well as the “second death” of the subject to which I referred at the beginning of my talk.
I would also remark that, in Sander’s images, the face is only a component of the recorded signs: the posture, the clothing, all seem to have as much importance, as in this photographic portrait, dated 1938, whose title is National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture (copyright Die Photographische Sammlung, August Sander Archiv, Cologne). (32)
You surely know that in the late Thirties Sander made several clandestine portraits that bear the title Victim of persecution (33) , and also some photographs of political prisoners, including his own son Erich. This one was taken in 1943 (34) and this one in 1944 (35). Erich Sander, who was also a photographer, died in March 1944 after ten years in prison.
Why did I mix Sander’s images with the other sources I used for my work, which come mostly from the “beastly” side of photography? It is because the digital stretching of the images makes them anonymous and ghostly like the Etruscan “sunset shadows”? (36)
In the same years in which Sander was completing his Antilitzt der Zeit atlas, several scientists were realizing monumental photographic bodies, following the myths of the archetypical, the whole, the pure. Professor Montandon from France went to the Hokkaido islands, North Japan, to document the entirety of a Caucasian minority: his The Ainu civilization was published in 1937. (37-38)
This professor, back in the Paris occupied by the Nazis and where the extermination program was being set up, published a useful booklet in 1940: How to recognize and explain the Jew. In 1941 he helped to organise the propaganda show Le Juif et la France (please note the use of the singular “the” Jew). (39)
On his side, Professor Genna, director of the anthropological institute of the University of Rome, went to Palestine, where presumably the only Semitic community that hadn’t ethnically mix from biblical times, the Samaritans, were living. Along with the usual body measurements, he took pictures (face, side and three quarters) of each one of the three hundred villagers. (40-41) In 1938, one of 180 scientists, he signed the Manifesto for the Race which opened the way to the Italian anti-Semitic laws.
I don’t know the particular myth that led the Swedish fellows from the Uppsala University in their quest for Nordic, Baltic and Lapp “purity”, but in 1936 the excessively zealous head of the State Institute for Racial Biology, Herman Lundborg, was replaced (still, this institute was, under another name, the main actor of a program of forced sterilization which ended only in 1975). (42)
In contradiction with the heaviness of this subject, I chose to reproduce the stretched images on a silk fabric, which is very light and flies with the least breeze. It makes a row of banners or flags, whose movements have a festive side. But I prefer to show them at night and under artificial lighting. I wanted these frail pieces to signify the immanence of the past and our responsibility before it: hic est historia. (43-45)
“Memory and immigration” (46)
In the wake of the presidential elections in France, in May 2012, during which the right-wing Front National party, known for its xenophobic views, captured one-third of the votes in rural areas, a group of teachers from a high school in the Camargue region near the city of Nîmes applied to the regional school district to set up an artist-in-residence program devoted to the theme of “memory and immigration.”
Once I installed my studio in an empty classroom and began discussing with the students, I realized that only four out of twenty-eight of them had no foreign origins (which means, just as an afterthought, that several of their parents of foreign origins voted for a xenophobic party). I asked the students to find family pictures, or to take photographs of relatives or neighbors who had been or were immigrants. Each student, then, had his or her picture enlarged and mounted on a good frame, the same for everyone. Each one intervened on the image as he or she wished.
From my side, I used their work for a simple installation made out of enlarged photocopies. The documents that the students brought were superimposed on the pictures I took of them, in a photo studio setting. Once in the studio, each one was asked to keep a white cardboard oval before his face. Mounted in the school hall, these images changed depending on the place from which they were viewed: outside (where the sunlight was intense) or indoors, where this same light created a light shadow behind the foregrounded subject. Sometimes an ancestor’s or a foreigner’s portrait could replace the cut-out face of the young person. My aim was easily understandable: to make the subject (which was also the bject) say: “I also could be the other”… (47-56)
Fifty righteous (57)
To close my review, I wish to mention a work I realised in another high school in France. I was invited to intervene, along with the history teacher, on the matter of “the Righteous,” the persons who, during the Second World War, accepted to shelter or protect persecuted Jews. Their names (about four thousands for all of France) are listed in the Yad Vashem garden of the Righteous among the Nations, in Jerusalem, and in the related database accessible on the Internet (www.yadvashem.org).
Starting from the simple consideration that, if questioned, these persons would answer that they “would have had no other choice,” and lingering around the idea of a “banality of the goodness,” I decided to transform the found portraits of the southern French “Justs” into flags, public signs that would be at the same time festive, enigmatic, and transparent. You will notice how the stencil technics I applied doesn’t go without recalling the most iconic image of the hero, Che Guevara. (58-65)