Prima del tempo
published on the occasion of the solo exhibition
“L’INVISIBILE. Silvio Wolf. Prima del Tempo”
curated by Luca Pietro Nicoletti and Ornella Mignone
Casa Museo Boschi Di Stefano
March 22 / June 5 2022
In all of my work, the Threshold belongs in different forms to the images inspired by architecture. Reflecting upon the concepts of limit, absence and elsewhere, I explore the Threshold through metaphors of space, symbols of places and, ultimately, presence and absence of light.
In architectural images, I recognize the Threshold in transitional sites interpreted as models of reality: that limit between here and elsewhere, presence and absence unveiling a site’s potential for experiences and otherness. It connects and separates simultaneous visions of interior and exterior that are a border overlooking two worlds, of which one could not exist without the other: everything that joins, separates.
The places I represent are uninhabited, immobile and suspended in time, as if men were ingrained and contained in their spatial emanations, without ever being named. Each work results from a physical encounter and a direct experience. Following a perception and intuition, and the coincidence of a physical and mental position, there is a recognition of a given place expressed in time and space, rendered by means of light.
My predilection for the zones of transition seems to indicate that Photography, considered as a symbolic language, can be thought of as a Threshold between what is visible and its multiple levels of interpretation: the point of balance between material and immaterial, real and possible.
Photography is a means and an interface, a two-dimensional plane where two opposite flows of information meet and mutually shape each other. One is endlessly streaming from the outer world in its thorough and raw state, and the other from our invisible inner world where images are formed, processed and brought to light. The image plane is an active Threshold placed between the Subject and the Real: Us and It.
The architectural element depicted by this image is the most extraordinary symbolic model of space I ever encountered: the Myhrab the Islamic prayer niche. It represents a pure direction of the gaze, and in the worshipper’s eye, indicates the most sacred place in the Islamic tradition. The Myhrab is not significant as an object, but for the void identified by its presence: a void made visible. It is possible to read this photograph of a niche either as a concave or convex form: the former indicates an absence; the latter is the clear depiction of an illusion. In my vision, the Myhrab results from a double negation: it is neither a place nor a thing, being absent in the very space of its location. It always represents another place, which is distant and not directly visible: it is a void that indicates an elsewhere. I see the Myhrab as a symbol capable of giving man the power of ubiquity because it allows – the believer – to be here and there simultaneously, a virtual place and an act of faith.
The ‘Large Myhrab’ embodies a unique metaphorical value; it allows for seeing Photography as a Threshold that indicates a double virtuality. Accordingly, a photograph — is and is not — what it shows: we look and see through its surface, beyond and elsewhere: to see the image we think of the object. Like the Myhrab, the reality conveyed by a photograph resides beyond the image. Photography simultaneously is the illusion in the real state and the Real in virtual form.
Above the choir seats of a church, a large white stained cloth is suspended in mid-air. The photographic reduction of three-dimensional reality to a two-dimensional image reveals the perceptual ambiguity of planes, mutually conveying the idea of an interior or exterior space, either as foreground figure or background. Is the cloth suspended in front of the apse or is it a recessed space accessed through the two symmetrical edges of its aperture? This image brought to my mind the painting by Piero della Francesca ‘<em>The Dream of Constantine</em>’, in which the Emperor lies asleep inside a camp tent while outside two soldiers watch over him. The threshold to the inside of Constantine’s tent is marked by an aperture with a double curved edge. Della Francesca’s rendering of the tent’s entry resembles the ambiguous shape of the cloth in ‘Canvas,’ which appears inverted from the material and spatial reality of the place depicted. Is the problem the way things ‘are’ or how they appear to us? Can the image be seen as the active threshold between reality in itself, and what our thought can see and expresses visually in the form of an image?
The apse of a church built with white and grey stones discloses a surprising resemblance to speculative Islamic architecture through its re-presentation in a foreshortened and inverted photograph. This imagery also recalls Maurits Escher’s visionary architectures concave/convex and interior/exterior perceptual ambiguities. Once again, the photographic transposition of a three-dimensional physical place into a two-dimensional virtual space reveals a vision of reality undetectable by the naked eye, or perhaps only perceptible within the illusionary surface of an image?
What appears as a door is the foreshortened photograph of a skylight in the ceiling of the Revoltella Museum in Trieste, designed by the architect Carlo Scarpa. This image was rotated 90 degrees, so that the opening in the ceiling is transformed in a portal of light that allows neither the inside nor the outside to be seen, but only the immaterial presence of light and its crossing in a space defined by the limit between black and white, light and absence of light.
The Third Door
A wooden ladder placed diagonally across the steps blocks a portal to a steep ascending stone staircase. The open doorway and the closed passage seem to represent the possibility of crossing and an obstacle to its overcoming at the same time. To enter and exit, ascent and descent is impossible; only an in-between state can be experienced.
My work always indicates a process and an awaiting, but never a fulfilment. It solicits the choice of a physical and mental position that requires deciding where to be and how to see, standing on the threshold where two opposite polarities coincide on the two-dimensional plane of a virtual image. What I experienced then, in the presence of that door at the moment of capture, does not coincide with what I see in the resulting image. One is generated by the other; in the gap between the two lies an unstable fracture and a perceivable mystery. In my opinion the mystery lies not in the way things ’are’, an ontology we may never grasp, but how we see and, ultimately, experience them.
Intervista a Silvio Wolf
see more on
Parola d’Artista Website
Gabriele Landi: Buona sera Silvio, per prima cosa le volevo chiedere che importanza riveste la luce nel suo lavoro?
Silvio Wolf: Nel mio lavoro la luce è attivamente soggetto e mezzo. Avverto un vincolo inscindibile tra processo e forma, Linguaggio e Realtà: l’uno è la condizione d’esistenza dell’altra. Fotograficamente parlando, la luce opera uno strappo virtuale che mi consente di materializzare l’oggetto in un luogo intenzionato, altrove. Essa genera una condizione d’ubiquità, un legame immateriale tra corpo reale e corpo virtuale: i due esistono simultaneamente in un nuovo, unico spazio-tempo.
G.L.: Che tipo di lavori faceva agli inizi?
S.W.: Inizialmente ho inteso verificare i meccanismi stessi dell’operare con il linguaggio fotografico, e le forme simboliche che esso andava assumendo al cospetto di dati certi ed esperibili del reale. La mia ricerca si è focalizzata soprattutto sugli spazi architettonici e in particolare, come mi sarei accorto solo più tardi, sui luoghi di transizione. Non è stata una scelta di metodo, ma una risposta quasi istintiva all’esperienza dei luoghi.
G.L.: Quando il suo lavoro ha cominciato ad avere una pertinenza spaziale e da dove viene questo suo interesse?
S.W.: Direi sin dall’inizio. Piuttosto che scelte, si è trattato di incontri, accadimenti, circostanze cariche di valore simbolico. Non so dire da dove provenga questo mio interesse. Mi sono accorto di aver sempre privilegiato lo spazio alla figura umana, i luoghi alle persone, la sospensione temporale all’attimo fuggente, l’apparentemente banale all’accadimento eccezionale: l’incontro e la trasformazione, alla costruzione e la messa in scena. I luoghi che scelgo sono normalmente disabitati, immobili e sospesi nel tempo. E’ come se l’uomo vi fosse inscritto senza mai essere esplicitamente nominato, come se già lo contenessero, quasi ne fossero le emanazioni spaziali.
G.L.: In seguito a questo passaggio come si è evoluto il suo lavoro?
S.W.: Verso la metà degli anni ’80 ho avvertito la forte esigenza di non limitarmi più alla rappresentazione bi-dimensionale dei luoghi, ma piuttosto all’intervenire al loro interno trasformandoli in spazi multi-dimensionali d’esperienza, agendo attraverso l’Integrazione, la trasposizione e trasformazione del dato esistente.
G.L.: I suoi interventi nel tempo si sono fatti sempre più in dialogo con il luogo in cui vengono collocati arrivando a realizzare delle vere e proprie installazioni monumentali dal forte impatto emotivo. Che importanza ha il dialogo con i luoghi nel suo lavoro?
S.W.: Il dialogo con i luoghi è fondamentale. La genesi del mio lavoro è sempre dovuta all’incontro con un luogo particolare, che può avvenire per caso o necessità, purché lo possa riconoscere e trasformare in spazio simbolico: una metafora del Reale che offra identità e presenza, appartenenza ed esperienza.
G.L.: Il tempo per un artista come lei che usa il mezzo fotografico che importanza ha?
S.W.: E’ molto importante. Ci sono tempi diversi, vissuti coscientemente o inconsci. Tempi istantanei e tempi sospesi. Assenze di tempo. Tempi relazionali e individuali. Tempi condivisi e tempi soggettivi. Conta il divenire del tempo: delle cose, dell’esistenza, dell’ignoto.
G.L.: Per chiudere questo nostro dialogo le volevo chiedere di parlare dell’idea di soglia che mi sembra un concetto chiave del suo lavoro?
S.W.: L’idea di Soglia appartiene in forme diverse a tutto il mio lavoro, sia nelle immagini ispirate all’architettura, sia in quelle apparentemente più astratte. I concetti di limite, assenza e altrove sono espressi attraverso metafore dello spazio e simboli dei luoghi.
Nelle immagini architettoniche riconosco la soglia in luoghi reali che interpreto come modelli di realtà: quel limite tra interno ed esterno, presenza e assenza, qui e altrove in grado d’indicare strade, esperienze e alterità possibili. Sono luoghi di transizione che connettono e separano, visioni simultanee d’interno ed esterno. La soglia è un confine che si affaccia su due mondi, dei quali l’uno non potrebbe esistere senza l’altro. Ciò che unisce, separa.
La mia predilezione per i luoghi di transizione forse vuole indicare anche che la Fotografia, intesa come linguaggio simbolico, può essere pensata come soglia tra il Reale visibile e i suoi molteplici livelli d’interpretazione: il limite e il punto di coincidenza tra materiale e immateriale, visibile e invisibile, reale e possibile. La Fotografia è un’interfaccia, la soglia tra l’Io e il Reale.
Dialogo attorno all’invisibile
From the exhibition catalogue
Palazzo Pirelli, Milan
February 26 – March 22 2020
Viaggio oltre la soglia del futuro
Interview realized during the exhibition “Voyager”
Robert Mann Gallery, New York
January 30 – March 15 2008
My Double Threshold
The Two Doors, 1980
Archival ink-jet print on Hahnemuhle Baryta photo rag, back mounted to Dibond, framed cm 200×130
Mental Space 1980
That which I represent
Is a visible image
Of my thought.
Of thought that sees
And recognizes itself
In that which already is.
Coincidence of position,
Physical and mental,
Of being and space.
Places of transition,
Inside and outside.
Of ubiquitous antagonists.
I unveil the world of the unseen.
I represent that which I do not know.
The Double Threshold of my Life, 2021
A direct analogical photograph of the passageway through two different doors: the former is Western- styled and rectangular, the latter arched, fashioned according to the Islamic tradition. Outside is the desert, inside is a sunny courtyard. Between these two doors resides a non-illuminated environment, unrecorded because of the film latitude and exposure constraints. The result is darkness, rendered visible by the surrounding light.
In the two visible areas of the image, inside and outside are simultaneously present and mutually exchangeable. What I could not record is at the core of my interrogation: that unseen, yet existing space, framed by the void generated by the two doors. The resulting image indicates the possibility of crossing, without which we cannot pass from one place to the other. Central to the matter is the experience, to which the image alludes, which is a metaphor of our existential condition: all life is a constant crossing of Thresholds.
This image has revealed to me a new approach, perceptual and conceptual to visible reality: the reflection of a mental image in the ‘given’ world, the encounter with a physical space, that becomes mental and experiential.
The Two Doors has been an initiatory work, the starting point of a process that continues nowadays along a path of exploration I could not have predicted had I not crossed those two different yet coexisting doors. Had I not entered that retinally visible but photographically unrecordable ‘black in between’. The awareness of having identified this phenomenological and existential blind spot has unveiled the path of my life: to be an artist.
Ever since that founding experience, I have seen myself responding to places of transitions, always in between, reflecting upon the concepts of limit, absence and elsewhere, and exploring the Threshold through metaphors of space, symbols of places, presence and absence of light.
I unveil a site’s potential to connect and separate simultaneous visions of interior and exterior that are a border overlooking two worlds, of which one could not exist without the other: everything that joins, separates.
My predilection for the zones of transition seems to indicate that Photography, considered as a symbolic language, can be thought of as a Threshold between what is visible and its multiple levels of interpretation: the point of balance between material and immaterial, real and possible.
Photography is a means and an interface, a two-dimensional plane where two opposite flows of information meet and mutually shape each other. One is endlessly streaming from the outer world in its thorough and raw state, and the other from our invisible inner world where images are formed, processed and brought to light. The image plane is an active Threshold placed between the Subject and the Real: Us and It.
Ultimately, I wonder, can the image be seen as the Threshold between reality in itself and what our though sees and visibly expresses?
Silvio Wolf 2021
“Postcards from the Inside” is an LCA initiative that falls within the scope of “LAW IS ART!” – the firm’s project in order to support contemporary art.
Postcards from the Inside
Therefore no answer, but the artists’ sign that offer us new perspectives
We live in an unavoidable dimension that surrounds and conditions us, makes us imagine and fear: the Invisible. We do not know the position, nor the substance, it is everywhere, intangibly present in front of us.
The Invisible is the subject that most inspires my research within the Visible, that boundary between two worlds that I perceive on the Threshold, the place – real and symbolic – that connects and divides the inside and the outside, the presence and the absence, so that the one would not exist without the other one.
I feel their presence in the transition places, in the point of equilibrium between here and elsewhere, where these two distinct worlds are so close, even if greatly far apart. Exploring their connection is what interests me most.
// Lightboard, 2020. Artwork realized as an answer to the Present, the Possible, the Unavoidable.
// Courtesy of Silvio Wolf
The Pillars of Truth
Had I not lost my Polish Grandparents during the Second World War,
Had they not been persecuted Jews in Warsaw,
Had my Father found a single trace of their unspeakable destiny
In his after war research,
I wouldn’t have been obsessed seeking the traces
Of where and when they were murdered.
Had I not been morally compelled to honour their memory,
Tracking any information about the loss of the family ancestors I never met,
Had I not browsed the Internet looking for a truthful needle
In the dark haystack of the Warsaw Ghetto liquidation,
I wouldn’t have connected the past with the present,
In this unpredictable realm of exactitude and chance.
Had they not been immersed
In the mysteriously manifold, sacred,
Realm of Reality,
Had History offered me
A reason, a meaning, a scrutable horizon
To the unfathomable experience they lived,
I wouldn’t have encountered
This photograph by Michael Nash,
Shot among the ruins of Warsaw in November 1946.
This picture tells one story and many stories.
It talks about the power of the image,
Our wish to exist and survive,
To be and resist time,
It is about shaping our existence
In spite of history, occurrences and death,
Being who we want, where we wish to be:
To reframe our lives.
It talks about Reality and make believe,
Fiction, imagination and Truth,
About Human being-ness.
This picture has been there for the last 73 years,
Only to be recognized Now,
Buried under the ruins of oblivion,
In the encompassing over-accumulation
Of infinite and simultaneously available information.
This image will be my
Pillar of Truth
Within the temple of all questions.
It is built by the photographer’s eye,
The architect of all that is Given,
To stage one’s Life
The way he and she would have wanted it to be.
Everything is out there,
At our disposal,
To be selected, reflected and recognized,
Offered on the silver plate of Imagination,
Tendered when ready to be had.
As soon as the photograph is taken
The object is turned into an image,
The narrative born,
Stemmed from the ashes of Reality.
What necessarily existed,
What had to be there
For the photographer’s encounter,
Is tailored into a garment of the Real,
The semblance of a subjective thought
In the reflection of one’s mind-eye.
The Real is shaped into Reality,
The ‘thing in itself’cast into the image of the thing.
It is no longer and forever will be,
To exist in a new visual semblance:
The finite image of an infinite one.
Aspiration and desire,
The Human Theatre of Life
Is staged by a visual backdrop,
The screen of desire,
A window that obliterates the unbearable presence
Of the inalienable, Tangible Real.
Through the camera lens,
The constraint of the eye and the beholder’s viewpoint,
An Image is born.
The inception of a journey
In the desired time, envisioned space,
In Life after Death.
Life within Death.
Brucha Rojsa Piatkowska,
Hersz Laib Wolf,
Will an image,
A Word or a sound
With Your Presence,
Shall we ever know
What you lived:
Michael Nash. A photographer uses his own backdrop to mask Poland’s World War II ruins while shooting a portrait of a woman in Warsaw, in November of 1946. Copyright: Michael Nash-AP Photo/ANSA
Once upon a time, a man believed his eyes. He thought that what he could see existed, that things as such were precisely the way they appeared to be, and appearances were a door of perception that led to a truthful way to Reality:things as they actually were. For this reason, he made his choice, became a photographer and began to capture, depict and record his visual experience of things as if every picture that he took were a question he posed to Reality, and his images the optical answers to his retinal quest.
Strangely, the more he photographed, the more his pictures revealed aspects of things his eyes were not directly able to see, as if his images were pages of an unknown language he was learning to read, offering him access to what his eyes could only superficially grasp. He began to realize that the surface of all visible things was like a skin, the first and literal level of an all-encompassing and infinitely complex entity he referred to as Reality. He sensed that the depth of its manifold nature could disclose multiple levels of perception and meaning.
Through this practice, he was posing new questions, wondering whether he was looking at the actuality or the images of things. Could he only be seeing pictures formed in his mind and defined by his thought? Why were his photographs looking so increasingly different from what he thought he had seen? In the developmental process of his ever-evolving photographic language, a deep distance grew between the vision conveyed by his eye-sight and the language spoken by his pictures, until he realized the medium he most trusted had led his eyes to a naive temptation of truth, dissolving Reality into unfamiliar forms without a bond to the past.
The gap between the ‘irrefutable given’, without which no picture can be had, and its ever-expanding interpretive content had become so vast, that his work no longer represented any objects, but only its vague and at times indiscernible allusion.
He accepted the radical transformation of his photographer’s experience, convinced his photographs were acts of faith in Reality demanding to be reframed as part of a much larger scheme of interpretation. One day he saw himself writing:
“All my work stems from an experiential root, the recognition of a pre-existing element lived, appropriated and transformed into a metaphor for Reality. I feel that things in themselves are unreachable and unknowable, and I wonder: what if things already contained all their possible images? Since each of us looks at the same thing and sees it differently, couldn’t every image we produce be the projection of a corresponding internal one, of a thought that sees and recognizes itself in what already is, out there? Otherwise, how would we choose the very image that corresponds to us among the potentially infinite, existing, revealable ones?
I think that every photograph can be understood as a symbolic form of the mind, implemented through experience. I am struck by what I cannot directly see, and capture, process and accompany it towards the formation of its image. I observe where this process leads me, and ultimately, the form it takes to assume the ‘idea’ of the thing. It is a mystery how trivial things that belong to the every day and the undifferentiated may contain extraordinary levels of complexity that lay there where we are, exactly in front of us.
I am not interested in what binds us to the memory of the photographed events, nor the narrative produced, but the power of transformation in a new Reality: no longer the thing seen nor the one represented, but perhaps the summa and the overcoming of both. If men have created an image for everything and the sensible universe is entirely mapped, we no longer have to look at things, but see through them”.
Photography had taught him to see his practice as a way to simultaneously look towards the visible outer world and the lightless inner one, and see his picture as a plane of coincidence: the Threshold where these two different, yet tightly related worlds, coexist.
Eventually, he stopped looking around and seeking new subjects, and turned the lens towards his latest photograph: a completely black one. This image was the sum of all his previous negatives and files exposed onto a single sheet of photographic paper. It no longer retained the information of any individual pictures, so that the excessive amount of information had blackened the photosensitive surface, making his images retinally invisible.
This all-encompassing image of all the images reflected his presence in its black mirror-like surface at the moment he stood before it. Looking into this blind photograph, the only thing to be seen was this ghostly-reflected image of an invisible man, the metaphor for his overexposure to the images of the world and their constant, bulimic consumption. What was left to be photographed, he wondered, still unmatched by the presence of an existing image?
He titled his ultimate photograph Meditation: a blind gaze and a chance to see, a light negated and revealed and an absence from which a presence was born. His black-mirrored photograph was a meditation on Photography, the Subject and Reality at the same time.
This meta-photograph emerged from the ashes of the visible, at the end of any possible photographic representation, and inspired him to write the following words:
Reality ‘as it is’ is unattainable:
Present and distant, literal and obscure, evident and complex,
Multilayered and enigmatic,
Through our vision and expression
The things in themselves become things as they are for us:
Our visible ideas of what we call
It is not about the way things are,
But the way we see them,
Isn’t our mind the special place where Reality
Becomes Exactly Who We Are?
Reality is the object of our thought:
What unity lies behind the diversity and complexity
Of the manifold appearances of Reality?
Is there a way to grasp such elusive unity
Through the windows that we open on Reality?
How can we allude to such unreachable wholeness
Through the limits of our languages?
The forms through which we express ourselves are mysterious,
Literal and symbolic at the same time,
These planes simultaneously exist
And one offers access to the other,
Can an Image tell me
Who I am?
Silvio Wolf, Meditation, 2009-2013. Black photograph face mounted to plexiglas, back mounted to back-lighting light box, 100x100x25 cm .
Doors of Perception
Are Gates to the Unknown.
Borders overlooking two worlds.
Inside and outside,
Places connect and divide.
Windows, Mirrors and Screens,
Acts of Faith in the Theatre of Life.
Existence and Illusion,
Subjective Reflections in the World of Objects.
Images are Optical Truths,
Thresholds of Reality.
Silvio Wolf, The Two Doors, 1980
Silvio Wolf, Lighthouse, 2009
Silvio Wolf, Grande Myhrab, 1989
Silvio Wolf, Canvas, 2006
Silvio Wolf, Apse, 2006
Silvio Wolf, Skylight 03, 2002
Silvio Wolf: metafore fotografiche
Opere fotografiche come riflessioni concettuali sul fare fotografia, e non solo: da molti anni Silvio Wolf (Milano, 1952) ha consolidato la sua presenza nel mondo della fotografia e dell’arte italiana delineando un profilo particolare di artista di confine, tra fotografia tradizionale e procedimento squisitamente concettuale e performativo.
Dal 26 novembre 2018 Silvio Wolf presenta presso lo Studio LCA di Milano con il titolo di Metafore della luce uno dei suoi lavori più noti, Icone di luce: si tratta di fotografie//installazioni di grandi dimensioni che rappresentano alcuni dipinti, compresi di cornice e ripresi da angoli visivi diversi, colpiti da una forte illuminazione che riflettendosi sul dipinto ne annulla totalmente la leggibilità.
Siamo su un piano fotografico decisamente antirealistico se per realismo intendiamo la riproduzione quanto più fedele possibile della realtà visibile. Lo stesso autore, in un’intervista di Sandro Iovine di qualche anno fa, dichiarava al proposito: «[…] …Una luce che rivela e che nasconde; la stessa luce che serve a realizzare la fotografia è quella che abbaglia e cela […]».
Questo approccio così decisamente concettuale e declinato in forme concrete di grande impatto visivo, colloca le opere di Silvio Wolf, come dicevo, in un territorio altro, contiguo o del tutto immerso nei procedimenti installativi propri di tanta arte attuale. La fotografia di Silvio Wolf, come lui ama sottolineare, non è narrativa o almeno non lo è secondo parametri tradizionali: «Le immagini ci parlano» aggiunge l’autore, «sono forme visibili di interpretazione del reale» e la sua particolare narrazione procede secondo un percorso molto personale, che può spiazzare chi, occupandosi del cosiddetto specifico fotografico, cerca nella fotografia la certezza della documentazione. La fotografia di Silvio Wolf è allusiva, simbolica, aiuta a riflettere sul nostro rapporto con la visione: appunto metafore di luce.
La mostra di Silvio Wolf si inserisce nell’ambito delle iniziative culturali del progetto LAW IS ART! di LCA Studio Legale, che nel corso di questi ultimi quattro anni ha ospitato nella Project Room e nell’ingresso dello Studio mostre di numerosi importanti artisti, tra cui Botto & Bruno, Franco Guerzoni e Silvia Camporesi.
The Indecisive Image
In pictures of ethereal specks and kaleidoscopic explosions of color, photographers are embracing abstraction.
In Marco Breuer’s recent photographs, black specks dance across a white surface, leaving faint trails that mark the passage of time. Sensuous blocks of yellow glow like crystals lit from within, and drippy parallel lines that seem to sit on top of the paper call to mind Action Painting. Made without camera or film, these lush, textured works, collected in Breuer’s 2007 book Early Recordings, defy our basic notions of what photography can be. Breuer achieves his effects by burning photographic papers, scraping their emulsions, and experimenting with chemical formulas that were popular in the 19th century.
Breuer is one of a wave of photographers now gaining recognition for work that abandons recognizable subject matter. “Abstraction goes back to the very beginnings of photography and has come back in different revivals,” says Roxana Marcoci, photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “There were the New Vision people in the 1920s and another group in the 1960s, and it is here again right now.”
The range of work recently on view testifies to the current strength of abstract photography. Last fall, a miniretrospective of Breuer’s explorations of light-sensitive materials was featured at Von Lintel Gallery, and Eileen Quinlan’s disorienting close-ups of spaces fractured by mirrors and light were showing on the other side of Manhattan at Miguel Abreu Gallery. This winter Walead Beshty exhibited his folded-paper photograms in lurid colors at China Art Objects Galleries in Los Angeles, while Alison Rossiter’s foggy prints made on unexposed photographic paper were on view in “The Death of Photography” at Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto. And when the Whitney Biennial opens this month, it will include photograms of screens that appear digital by James Welling, one of Beshty’s teachers at UCLA and an influence on a whole generation of photographers looking at abstraction.
The reasons for the resurgence of abstraction are almost as diverse as the work itself. “The question of what sort of object the photograph is inevitably leads to the examination of abstraction,” says Lyle Rexer, whose book tracing the history of abstract photography is scheduled to be published by Aperture in the fall. That question has loomed ever larger in recent decades as the notion of photographic veracity has come under assault. The idea of photographic “truth” is undermined by the conceptual investigations of subject matter in Cindy Sherman’s film stills and Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s staged street scenes as much as by the mass media’s embrace of Photoshop. Digital advances in the commercial realm have drawn art photographers’ attention back to a range of earlier methods. “I find 19th-century photography most interesting because the medium was not yet standardized,” says Breuer. “Now, too many people automatically make 30-by-40-inch color prints, just like printing 8-by-10 black-and-white was the default 30 years ago.”
And while recent years have witnessed a market enamored of pristine oversize prints that require labored postproduction, cameraless photography reintroduces immediacy and chance into the process. “Rather than working six hours on the perfect print, I can go into the darkroom without an idea and just let a direction appear as I work,” says Rossiter. Other observers see the pull of art-historical influences. “I think that a lot of these artists are getting back to these movements in the history of photography connected with light experiments,” says Marcoci. “But they are also looking beyond photography or even abstraction to the artists in the 1960s and ’70s who used unconventional techniques, like James Turrell, Gordon Matta-Clark, Anthony McCall, and Robert Smithson.”
While various 19th-century photographers inadvertently skirted abstraction, Alvin Langdon Coburn was the first to deliberately embrace it nearly a century ago. Around 1916 he used crystals and mirrors to create works he called Vortographs, tying the images to Vorticism, a movement of Cubist-inspired painters and sculptors in Britain. Since then, many of photography’s best-known names — from Paul Strand, Lotte Jacobi, Man Ray, and Harry Callahan to Wolfgang Tillmans — have been drawn to abstraction, but just a handful have made it the centerpiece of their endeavors. “Abstraction was seen as being contrary to the supposedly genuine nature of the medium,” observes photographer Joan Fontcuberta.
No single movement has emerged in the field, although a number of loose-knit groups have advocated for the abstract potential of photography: the teachers at the Chicago Institute of Design in the middle of the last century, the Association of Heliographers and the Generative Photographers of the 1960s, and the Concrete Photographers, largely based in Germany, today. But none of these could rightly be called a school, and each embraced a number of approaches.
The Chicago Institute was an outgrowth of the New Bauhaus school, founded in 1937 by Lí¡szló Moholy-Nagy. He had begun experimenting with photograms as early as 1922, and they played an essential role in his “New Vision” theory, which sought to expand human perception. Although an object, such as an eggbeater, may appear in Moholy-Nagy’s photograms, that specific image is completely beside the point. The artist’s concern was making a fuller range of light effects visible to the human eye.
For two decades after World War II, the institute was also home to Aaron Siskind, whose abstract works could not be more unlike those of Moholy-Nagy. Siskind used a camera and photographed real things, but often in extreme close-up or in other ways that would eliminate the viewer’s frame of reference. When stripped of their context, peeling paint or distressed wood became geometric forms and lush textures. Siskind, who showed at Charles Egan Gallery alongside Willem de Kooning, was the only photographer associated with the New York School, and his abstract work is rightly called expressionist.
Even today much abstract work can best be understood as tending toward one or the other of these masters’ primary techniques: creating unique cameraless prints in the darkroom or rendering real subjects unrecognizable as a result of manipulations either before the camera or in postproduction. Over the last decade or so, these two techniques have been joined by a third: process-based work, which is indebted as much to recent research into the methods of 19th-century photography as to the process artists of the 1960s and ’70s.
Breuer is perhaps the most radical of the process photographers, but he started his career at a very old and traditional school in Germany, the Lette-Verein Berlin. “After that, I needed to find some place where I could work outside the rules,” he explains. So he moved to a remote village and began producing all the work that had been percolating in his mind. “I thought if I minimized new visual input — no television, no billboards, no magazines — and maximized my output, I could get everything out of my system. That is when I started digging deeper into the process and engaging with materials.”
Today, at his home and studio in Upstate New York, Breuer pursues his work almost as a series of experiments. “Often I am trying to force materials to do things,” he says, “and it is the material’s resistance that suggests the image.” In 2005, for instance, he set out to see if he could instill a sense of immediacy into the gum bichromate printing method, in which the emulsion is traditionally laid down in layers, in the case of color images, and can take days to build up. He eventually came upon the technique of abrading the emulsion with a palm sander. The finished images resemble colonies of mold spreading across the surface and puddling to form richly varied tonalities.
Ellen Carey, who works with a 20-by-24-inch Polaroid camera, also disrupts a carefully tuned process, albeit a relatively new one. Her ongoing series “Pulls” and “Rollbacks” present irregular shapes in deeply saturated colors, sometimes drawn out to several feet long. The work, which was on view through last month at IBU Gallery in Paris, is made by interrupting the dye-transfer process in which pigmented emulsion migrates from the contact negative to the positive print paper, or by mixing incompatible chemicals, such as color emulsions and black-and-white developer. The names for the series came from the physical work of manipulating the camera apparatus, but even after years of experimentation the outcomes are largely beyond Carey’s control. “The materials inform the process, and the ‘Pulls’ are documents of their own making,” she says. “In a certain way, this is the action of the thing making itself.”
Carlos Motta went even further in letting the pictures make themselves in “A Tree Is a Tree Is Not a Tree,” which was shown alongside the work of Breuer, among others, in “Agitate,” a 2003 show at SF Camerawork in San Francisco that helped define the term “process photography.” For the series, Motta tacked unprocessed photographic paper to trees for a week at a time and let the elements go to work. The prolonged contact with bark, leaves, and rain resulted in surfaces that appear both liquid and corroded.
A desire to engage with the accidental motivates many of the artists whose work can be categorized as darkroom abstractions. To produce his “Chance” series, Silvio Wolf, whose show at Robert Mann Gallery in New York will be up through the 15th of this month, uses leader —the film at the beginning of a roll that is never shot through the lens but may be exposed while loading a camera. Wolf’s chromogenic dye-coupler prints, which are up to six feet tall, present intense monochromatic fields that mimic the compositions and emotional tension of Rothko paintings.
Though Wolf doesn’t control the exposures, he pores over hundreds of leaders looking for a usable frame. Alison Rossiter is more systematic in carrying out the project she calls “Laments.” Printing full sheets of commercial paper that have never been intentionally exposed, she is creating an archive with at least one example with an expiration date in each year of the 20th century. The project began when a search for discontinued film on eBay led her to the auction of a complete photographer’s studio, including paper that had expired in 1946. Rossiter printed a sheet and was surprised to find an ethereal image that looked like a cloudscape at dusk, the result of years of light leaking through the packaging. “The move to digital imagery is fantastic in terms of postproduction and especially in photojournalism,” the artist acknowledges. “But the way that silver gelatin materials make use of light and precious metals is astounding, and there is nothing like the beauty of 19th- and 20th-century materials.”
Rossiter has experimented with darkroom techniques, including “drawing” directly on paper with a light. She began by producing nearly unrecognizable outlines of land masses and now does the same for “pictures” of horses from famous paintings. “The image is not abstract, but the technique is,” she says. “It only requires light and chemistry, and it goes directly from idea to object without making reference to a thing.” Rossiter has also made photograms, the oldest and still most widely practiced cameraless technique.
Both light drawing and photograms figure in Ray K. Metzker’s recent work, on view at Laurence Miller Gallery last winter. Tearing and stacking photosensitive black-and-white papers, carefully controlling the exposures, he creates collagelike geometric images that feature stark contrasts as well as subtle shading.
The same restrictions are made plain in the title of Walead Beshty’s photogram Picture Made by My Hand with the Assistance of Light(2006). Just as the title highlights the lack of an outside reference, the artist has made a variety of such works by creasing and even crumpling the paper, a technique meant to draw viewers’ attention to the physical properties of the medium. Depending on the paper used, the finished imagery ranges from mottled gray tones to pastel mists to brightly colored kaleidoscopic jumbles.
Beshty “is interested in treating the image abstractly rather than the content being abstract,” Whitney Biennial cocurator Shamim Momin says of the photograms. That distinction helps link the photograms to Beshty’s other work, such as the group of multiple exposures included in the biennial that the artist says depict the abandoned Iraqi embassy in Berlin. In both bodies of work, Beshty is trying to make explicit the essential quality of the artwork as an object rather than an image.
A similar emphasis is evident in the work of James Welling, who is showing at the biennial for the first time after nearly three decades of photographic experimentation. “Welling has been tremendously influential on the post–Gregory Crewdson generation, the people who are not pursuing portraiture or setup photography,” Momin says. “But he is also included because this is a very fertile moment for him.”
For his show in the spring of last year at David Zwirner gallery in New York, Welling exhibited three series that exemplify the range of techniques available to those who create abstract images by distorting the figurative or removing its context. In the “Authors” series, for example, Welling printed photos he had taken of drapes two decades earlier as a sequence of high-contrast monochromes in negative. He named each work after a 19th-century writer, but the correlation between the moody colors and the individual authors remains unclear.
In contrast, Quinlan eschews technical manipulations in the darkroom. By carefully arranging objects, cropping, then enlarging the small scenes, she fashions almost indecipherable pictures. Titled “Smoke and Mirrors,” the works are honest about their attempt to deceive. The reflected planes and refracted light hark back to Coburn, but the angular compositions and strong colors more readily recall the experiments of Barbara Kasten in the 1980s. Kasten, however, reversed the play with scale, photographing fractured architectural spaces and printing them as small puzzle pieces. Last year Kasten showed some of these vintage works at Daiter Contemporary in Chicago, but recently she has been working on tabletop arrangements using wire screens shot at angles to create moiré effects.
Rather than manipulate the content before the lens, Roger Newton has manipulated the lens itself. By shooting through glass and plastic forms filled with fluid — water, mineral oil, corn syrup — he creates surreal distortions of the natural world. He has lately been working on a diamond lens; the resulting pictures are nebulous, and as with the earlier works, the lens is both a tool and the subject.
While these aqueous images have emotional resonance, they lack the direct expressive intentions of Siskind and those who dominated the last abstract photography revival, in the ’60s. Conceptual concerns regarding the objectivity of the image, the limits of perception, and the intrinsic properties of materials have moved to the fore as photographers venture into the digital age.
A historian of the medium as well as a photographer, Fontcuberta over the years has revisited many earlier techniques, using them to explore these contemporary concerns. His “Hemograms,” enlarged depictions of a drop of blood, ask viewers what they expect from a “portrait.” His starry “Constellations,” made from photograms of his car’s bug-splattered windshield, prod viewers to question the source of photographic information. But recently Fontcuberta has concentrated on a number of digital projects, hoping to get beyond what he calls third-class surrealism and neo-pictorialism. “Digital photography should be much more than Photoshop and photomontage,” he says.
Two years ago, at Zabriskie Gallery in New York, he showed his “Googlegrams,” photomosaics that piece together miniature digital images selected by the search engine to create pictures with often ironic relations to the constituent parts — portraits of millionaires were assembled into an image of a homeless man, for instance. And Bellas Artes in Santa and Aperture in New York have shown his “Orogenesis” pictures, which use a software program that renders three-dimensional terrain to transform selective scans from art-historical works — a Turner landscape, for example — into otherworldly topography. While both series contain recognizable imagery, they call into question the boundaries of representation in the information age.
Jason Salavon takes these ideas a step further in his show at the Columbus Museum of Art, which runs through May 4. For his “Amalgamations” and “100 Special Moments” series, for instance, he converts similar images — of newlyweds or Playboy centerfolds — into data sets and compresses them. The fuzzy results, as with so much abstract photography, are at once vaguely familiar and completely meaningless.
Eric Bryant is senior editor of ARTnews.
Non è un albero di Natale
The New Values Photography
A Shared Way
For me IED was the path that led to teaching, a door that reopened to an academic world that I had not experienced since my university studies in Italy and those of photography and visual arts in England.
The use of photography, which quickly evolved into research and artistic endeavours, led me along the path of doing and thinking, along an itinerary that proved to be both analytical and experiential. Since I was offered the opportunity to teach more than 20 years ago, forcing me to study and systematise my thoughts to be able to better process and communicate them, for me photography has been enriched with new values, providing me with a mental and existential view that is deeper and more articulated.
Since then and with the advent of new technologies, photography has been trivialised, increasingly becoming a quotidian and gratuitous activity of instantaneity and oblivion, paradoxically losing one of the most precious things we can cultivate: the ability to “see”. While today everybody is able to take pictures, people are less able to visually interpret Reality, as if by photography’s becoming ubiquitous the language has imploded within the means, making itself invisible to the user.
To the contrary, I think of photography as a philosophical object, a symbolic form of thought implemented through experience, a metaphor of the Real. Precisely in the relationship between Reality and Individual, existence and experience, phenomenal objectivity and interpretive path, today I feel its great necessity and significance, increasingly defined as a discipline along a mysterious path that originates in the visible and the worthwhile leading to deep territories of the subject, of the symbolic and of expression of the self.
This is what I try to communicate to my students: the horizon upon which I summon them is the awareness of how much there is still to discover and know, how what we see and think we know is only a tiny part of the Real. For this I urge them to seek, so that they can find their own way to see and understand, to visually communicate the deepest part of themselves, the least known, the part that guides us, that governs inside, that allows us to implement higher forms of communication.
When I began to teach at IED the school was geared towards the professional model of artisan-photographer and the student population was almost exclusively male. Over time, the teaching of photography changed value and the students have increasingly perceived it as a tool for personal expression, and for some an artistic practice. While fewer want to become photographers, many perceive it as a valuable tool for research, and, for the most intellectually honest, for discovery.
A very significant phenomenon is that the student population approaching photography is increasingly feminine. In my experience this has meant more experimentation, willingness to challenge oneself, to experiment at greater risk, often “flying higher” in the sphere that the Anglo-Saxon world has called lens-based arts.
For me teaching has turned out to be a continuous learning process. I have had magical encounters with young travelling companions whose sensitivity and research I was honoured to accompany towards the discovery of their “own way”, men and women encountered in a profound, existential and symbolic area, where I discovered how teaching is first and foremost a form of communication that is not only verbal: perhaps the most important things are not conveyed through words.
Here are some milestones that define my experience as a teacher along the road shared with my travelling companions:
“Before man there is a particular way, his own: no attempt to imitate what has already been done and no claim that his own way excludes others from their ways: there is no single way, each must choose his own, and choosing means sacrifice.
[Our achievements] have their real value in that we bring them about in our own way and by our own efforts.
Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique … Every single man is a new thing in the world, and is called upon to fulfil his particularity in this world. Every man’s foremost task is the actualization of his unique … and never-recurring potentialities, and not the repetition of something that another, and be it even the greatest, has already achieved.
Everyone has in him something precious that is in no one else. But this precious something in a man is revealed to him only if he truly perceives his strongest feeling, his central wish, that in him which stirs his inmost being”.
(Martin Buber, in The Way of Man, ed. Qiqajon, Comunità di Bose, 1990)
Asking a question is more important than offering answers, because the answer is written in the question itself: only from the point of view from which it was asked will the answer be recognised, and this is always personal and heard in a special manner by the person who asked. There from where we question Reality will we receive the answers that await us.
Banal and Exceptional
All that we see and that happens – the banal, the trivial, the seemingly undifferentiated, the residual and the no longer visible – can be captured and experienced in an extraordinary way, symbolising them, interpreting them and learning to communicate through one’s own person, look and experience: our vision.
“It’s not the world that is poor, it is we who are unable to call forth its riches”. (Rainer Maria Rilke)
Every single photograph can be read as an individual choice, an act of recognition, a meaningful gesture extracted from the gratuitousness of everyday life and made unique and necessary to belong to this experience in the unrepeatable moment of individual choice: the divide between the possible and the completed act.
“We are given the opportunity to say everything, in every possible way, and we must say something, in a particular way”.
(Italo Calvino, in: Lezioni Americane, Oscar Mondadori, 1993)
Each choice, each path taken necessarily precludes others. Of the endless possibilities offered to us by visible Reality we are forced to define those that belong to us. Only by placing limits can we fully exercise the power of our actions. Just as the frame defined by the edges of the viewfinder poses insurmountable limits on the view, any self-imposed limit is an impediment that empowers, producing freedom. That which we cannot do defines all that we can do, experience and convey.
The Point of View
From where we look we can see, from where we question Reality we will get our answers. The points of view are potentially infinite and we are called to define our own: this point is both physical and mental. We can change it until the last moment, then the image will be totally defined by the point of view from which it will be taken. From there, others will see the world through our eyes.
Photography can be thought of as the place of confluence of two streams, one coming from the inner world, from the unknowable depths of the mind and the psyche, and the other from the outside, from the unreachable existing Reality, unknowable except through the partiality of the means offered to us by our subjectivity. The image is the limit between the inner and the outer world, the point of union and separation, the threshold between two worlds in which one could not exist without the other: all that unites, separates.
Reading images, interpreting them, experiencing them, feeling where they resonate within. Can an image be considered “fundamental in one’s life”? And if so, what ascribes to it a value that is so highly symbolic? What do we profoundly call image and what natures can it assume: visual, memory, mental, smell, sound, performance? What is our image?
-“[People have] created an image of every thing”
(Wim Wenders: the angel Raphaela to the angel Cassiel in Faraway, So Close!)
The practice of teaching has made me aware that the current bulimic condition caused by the excessive consumption of images is producing a radical impoverishment of the visual experience and an incipient blindness. My educational programme aims to provide tools for searching for a way to slow down and listen to reflect on the value that the image has in our lives, where it resides in our experiential path, indicating ways that make it possible to shift attention beyond the time and place of the image to discover its non-literal value. It is a symbolic field that relates the physical and mental space, giving identity to both: the visible and the invisible are present together in the single Reality.
“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”
Inkjet UV print on glass, variable dimensions
Ogni mio lavoro nasce da una radice esperienziale, il riconoscimento d’un elemento che mi pre-esiste, vissuto, appropriato e trasformato in metafora del Reale. Avverto che le cose in sé sono inarrivabile e inconoscibile, e mi domando: se le cose già contenessero tutte le loro possibili immagini? Se ciascuno di noi guarda la stessa cosa e la vede diversamente, ogni immagine che produciamo non è forse la proiezione di un’immagine interna, del pensiero che vede e si riconosce in ciò che già è? Altrimenti come sceglieremmo quella che ci appartiene tra le infinite potenzialmente rivelabili?
Penso che ogni fotografia possa essere intesa come una forma simbolica della mente attuata attraverso l’esperienza. Mi colpisce ciò che non posso vedere distintamente: lo catturo, lo elaboro, accompagno l’immagine verso la sua formazione, vedo dove mi porta, che forma và assumendo l’idea della cosa. E’ misterioso come cose del tutto banali che appartengono al quotidiano e all’indifferenziato contengano straordinari livelli di complessità.
Così è nato il mio Fireplace: la canna fumaria d’un camino incontrato in un luogo e circostanza qualsiasi. Della fotografia non m’interessa ciò che ci lega alla memoria del soggetto né la narrazione che produce, ma il potere di presentazione e trasformazione in una nuova realtà, che non è più la cosa vista né quella rappresentata, ma forse la summa e il superamento di entrambe.
Gli uomini si sono creati un’immagine per ogni cosa, l’universo sensibile è interamente mappato: non dobbiamo più guardare le cose, ma vedere attraverso di esse.
Silvio Wolf, Dicembre 2017
Horizons, in Silvio Wolf’s idea of light
Silvio Wolf’s (1952) research of the expressive, cognitive, perceptive and analytic potentiality of art is not new to LUCE readers – n. 295/2011, “Sulla soglia della percezione. Silvio Wolf al PAC di Milano” (On the threshold of perception. Silvio Wolf at PAC, Pavilion of Contemporary Art, Milan). However, on the occasion of the exhibition held in September 2016 at Fondazione Antonio e Carmela Caldera in Vacciago di Ameno (Novara), the author was remotely confronted with the aniconic paintings of Antonio Calderara for the first time.
The title of the exhibition, curated by Cristina Casero, provides an interpretation of the fatal encounter of Calderara’s paintings and Wolf’s abstract photographs generated by light – both attracted by the idea of representing a threshold, a point of origin where the invisible, intangible, becomes visible, with suprasensitive shapes, mental images which however have different outcomes.
The authors investigate stages in the configuration of “landscapes” that dissolve in the light, and unexpected perspectives and minimal formal solutions, solved in structures that can return an abstract synthesis of the sensitive world. The threshold, the boundary between the real and the imaginary perceptive horizon, is a formal requirement that involves a constant redefinition of the relations between a line, composition, colour and intensity of light in painting as well as in photography, with the aim of pushing the spectator’s glance beyond what can be perceived, through works with a strong visual impact. In particular, Wolf’s photographs from 2000 to date, paradoxically appear an instant before the photograph is shot, before the action, like the representation of a reality that although denied, is still included, and is evoked in the inscriptions of light that are selfgenerated by means of a mindful use of the photographic equipment, with results that go well beyond the artist’s will. His Horizon “is a scrap of the photographic process, the initial segment of the film, developed together with the entire strip of sensitive material to reveal all the exposed images” as described by Wolf. In fact it is a process that takes place in the darkroom with the aim of writing actions of light, attributing the paternity of the images not to the shot but to the sense of the photographic object itself. The subject therefore is not so much the way of producing the photographic image as much as the language, the code, the referent meaning that it contains in its sensitive display, seen in apparitions, icons of immanent light, within space and time, through a hypnotizing energy with bright tonalities. His inscriptions of light, time, shape, matter and substance configure the analytical thought regarding the absence and presence of what is real, they are purposely ambivalent in order to configure a boundary between photographic objectivity and abstraction. In Wolf’s artistic research , the idea of absence is recurrent, of emptiness as in the Zen philosophy, a regenerative, dynamic concept, in which light becomes an image, an instrument to overcome the limits of the visible and the invisible , where horizons in their magmatic chromatism are manifested, threshold states between darkness and light, being and non-being, space and time.
His inscriptions of light materialize the perceptive experience and go beyond the contemplative aspect to generate emotional and cognitive sensations together, because everything happens the moment one looks at them. Through photographs, that are conceptual objects, the possible relations not of things, but of the signifier and the signified as Saussure would define them, are investigated.
Icone di Luce (icons of light) and other works of the end of the 90s, already rotated around the creation of images through light, anticipating the subsequent researches of the light boxes Black & Blue (2009), Light House (2009) and Stelle Braille (Braille stars,1991) the installation
in which light projections are inspired by the language for the blind, because they cannot see light, but imagine it, they perceive mental flashes beyond the darkness, while we do not. These images lead to the articulation of reflections regarding the capacity to go beyond images and areas of what is visible, with signs, segments, blades of blinding white light that cut across the darkness as can be seen in Skylight 08 (2002), thrusting our view inside daring unusual perspectives which take the form of sculptures, at the same time real and ethereal luminous objects, concrete and symbolic thresholds of metamorphic perceptions of the space in which they are integrated, that define hermeneutic horizons, to be experienced rather than described.
By shifting one’s attention to the original moment of the photograph, Wolf raises the question: which was born first, the light or the photograph? And in the synthesis of the thought and action, both real and imaginary, light becomes a display of life.
Man Ray Effect #2
Silvio Wolf was already part of the list of authors for the previous “Effetto Man Ray” exhibition and here he is sort of representing a link. At the time, he was a young photographer who paid attention to the transformations that the use of the camera in an artistic context was implementing in different ways. Back then, we exhibited his artwork “Cambi d’Orizzonte” (“Changes of Horizon”), which was a diptych in Cibachrome from 1977 that was expressing the relationship between time and space, as I was indicating in the short personal caption dedicated to him in the catalogue. Logical and conceptual expressive action quite used in that period, but, because of the contents freshness and the technical expertise, it was displaying him as a real promise to deal with in order to participate in his progresses. Prediction that he proved right in a really short amount of time.
In 1989, I dedicated him our first solo exhibition that was part, amongst others, of the incipit of a newly opened space in Via Pastarengo, in the Isola district of Milan, indeed dedicated to the installation ideas of a new generation of artists that I was aiming to promote.
“ENCLAVE, progetto di fusione spaziotemporale” (“ENCLAVE, space-time fusion project”), I believe was an important exhibition both for me and for the artist, who was really committed to its great success. It was a sort of environmental recreation dedicated to the Islamic colours and to fragments of some of its iconographic aspects, the whole thing carried through the space as it was a small enclave from which just a cute notebook was left.
Since then, we started hanging out with each other, this relationship brought us, after a few group exhibitions with other authors from the same context, to the production of the installation “Condomini” (“Condominiums”) in 1992, displayed in my gallery in Via Gramsci in Brescia, where the artist exhibited himself in symbiosis, in a “double flight”, with Franz Kafka, recalling his presence to comment the Primo Raduno Aviatorio Internazionale di Montichiari (First International Aviation Convention) in 1901. It might have been one of the most beautiful and complex exhibition I’ve ever realised. In that period, our collaboration had its climax with the publication of an important monograph about his work, summarising most of it, titled “Light Specific”.
Even though my career as a gallerist was then drawing to a closure, I didn’t stop taking care of his work and following him step by step also in the transformations, which, even though they were consequent to each other in nature, were growing in nature and drying out in shape.
His current work, which is partially going to be displayed, could look like it is dedicated to the making of “abstract” photography. I said “look” because the definition of this oxymoron has subtended within itself a “realistic” form too. In fact, in “Soglie a Specchio” (“Mirrored Threshold”), the subject is a curtain repeatedly moved by a public pedestrian who, vanished due to a long exposure, disappears from the image leaving instead a series of geometric forms emphasized by the mirrored support. Finally, in “Orizzonti” (“Horizons”), the subject is the enlargement of the first piece of photographic film exposed to the light during the loading process, which then becomes the threshold between darkness and light creating a completely abstract picture.
The Truth of the Images
Film still from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, 1966. (Original photograph by Don McCullin)
…we know that beneath the image revealed there is another one, more faithful to reality, and that beneath there is another one, and again a new one under this last one, up to the true image of that absolute and mysterious reality that no one will ever see
Michelangelo Antonioni 
The last thing that counts in what the poet says is that it may also be true
Michelangelo Antonioni’s seminal film Blow-Up anticipated some fundamental questions that are proving to be decisive in re-considering the nature and role of the photographic image as an umbilical cord with the Real and a medium between the subject and the object depicted. In its ability to represent and convey the mental and retinal vision of the photographer, its subjective and interpretive position in a man’s experience of the world and, ultimately, the Truth that it simultaneously hides and discloses, proves and belies, conceals and reveals, the photograph is fundamental to our comprehension of the world.
Blow Up depicts a single day in the life of Thomas, a glamorous 1960’s London fashion photographer, unfolding among a series of apparently disconnected and casual events: taking pictures in a flophouse and professional studio shootings, driving around town in a convertible Rolls Royce and looking for paraphernalia in an antiques shop, wandering in a nearby park taking pictures of pigeons, trees and a couple of lovers; meeting his book editor, visiting his neighbor and discussing his abstract paintings, playing with two aspiring young models in his studio, attending a rock concert, a drug-drenched party, fancy restaurants, playing with mimes on a tennis court ….
Surprisingly, the core event of the day reveals to be his voyeuristic chase of two lovers in a city park, the photographs he takes and the relation with the woman who is initially angry with Thomas for having violated their privacy only to visit him later, smoke pot, make love and give him a false phone number while requesting the restitution of his film. After she leaves, Thomas reviews the sequence of his black and white negatives, examining their enlargements and seeking insight into the woman’s apprehension, sensing he might have missed something contradicting his memory and understanding of the event. Following the timeline of his film and blowing up single shots and details, he begins to grasp a different story, this time through his pictures, as if a new narrative within the film unfolded in front of the photographer’s and the viewers’ eyes. Finally Thomas enlarges the detail of one image seemingly containing a possible solution to his morbid quest for an answer. Upon many successive enlargements Thomas suspects seeing in the hazy, grainy and enigmatic print the corpse of the man he had photographed with the woman, discovering another truth from what he had seen in the park. This crucial photograph that may contain evidence of a murder is abstract and unclear, dotted and elusive as one of his neighbor’s paintings. That same night Thomas returns without a camera to the location in the park and sees the corpse; when he returns in the morning with his camera, the corpse is gone. Back in his studio he discovers that all the pictures, except for the abstract one, have been stolen together with the negatives and contact sheet. The only trace left, perhaps ignored by the thief as meaningless, now bares the entire memory of the event and its secret: it is the key element to stand for the “truth” that revolves between -what he thought he had seen- and what -actually occurred-.
In Blow Up, the photographer exerts full power over his subjects when thoroughly staged and kept under his direct control, rewound, restrained and immobilized to perfection, only to loose grip and control of events when involved in a seemingly banal circumstance, an ordinary occurrence of his everyday life.
Through the experience of the photographer and the scrutiny of his enigmatic key shot, Antonioni seems to suggest the existence of an unbridgeable gap between looking and seeing, and likewise between seeing and thinking; his story expresses dramatically the enigma of seeing through a narrative which is literal (the facts depicted), metaphorical (the interpretation of images) and symbolic (the Truth of the pictures and of the event) at the same time, eliciting fundamental questions if we see the practice of photography as an experiential path of discovery and knowledge.
Do we only see what we think?
Through a single photograph the protagonist can see what he retinally did not see: how can this be? Was he blind while looking so intently, peeping and peering, glaring, observing, glancing and hawking like a hunter his prey? Was he the witness of a different story from what he sensed as a love one? Was his belief responsible for his vision, decisions and actions, only to be contradicted by a different story unfolding through the frames of the photographs?
Blow up reflects on the binding link that intertwines seeing and thinking, revealing the mystery of our glance as we ponder what the photographer actually saw. The limits of our vision, the constrains of the medium and ultimately the way we interpret Reality, dramatically determine our knowledge and understanding of the external world. Is Antonioni suggesting that we can only see what we think and our eye receives simultaneously the information from outside and inside, the existing world and our mind so that one could not be distinguished nor exist without the other? Therefore: on what actual elements can we base our comprehension and judgment of reality in order to exert our free will and be able to decide, chose and responsibly act?
Is our point of view responsible for what we actually see?
Voyaging alternately through the movie camera eye, the still camera eye and the photographer’s eye, we see how an apparently mundane event, a couple of lovers playing with each other seeking privacy in a park, may disclose an unexpected story, an obscure plot and possibly unfold the mystery that resides in the ordinary everyday. Once the event has occurred and disappeared from us, it is turned into memory and imagination; the photographer can no longer change his physical point of view, nor examine the raw material of reality from a different angle; yet he can change his mental perspective and position, reconsidering anew what he sees through the irrefutable timeline of his contact sheet, exploring a different film that ultimately leads him to a conclusion opposing his original premise.
Are Images Models of Reality?
Seeing is a creative act: we make up what we see more often than see what is actually there. Our glance only grasps highly reworked subjective fragments, shadows and reflections, “ideas” of the world: our understandings of what we call Reality.
We access and acknowledge Reality through images that are formed in our mind and result from the connection between two worlds: the manifold external one and our lightless inner one. This connection is fundamental. We do not see Reality in itself but only images that we make up of it and through these powerful, complex, mysterious mediators we see and we think. Mental images are the models of reality that we use; they are visual metaphors, allusions, interpretive vessels, and emanations.
These images are our true “lies that make us realize truth”, but how? We attribute meanings to images through our process of interpretation so that we can grasp what we see and what we think. Although the answer is always further away from our reach, the finite forms of our images may disclose multiple ways to read them and visually approach the infinite complexity of the Real. What we actually see is a mystery and the models we create as our images may tell and help to interpret the greater mystery that we are part of. In the words of Luigi Pirandello: “Man necessarily acts through forms, which are the appearances that he creates for himself, to which we ascribe value of reality”.
Can an interpretation be right and wrong at the same time?
Love and death seem to be two aspects of the same Reality that Thomas seeks to decipher through his key photograph: something doubtlessly happened in the park and his pictures prove that he was there. Could he possibly also have provoked the event? Albert Einstein stated that the understanding of a phenomenon observed is relative to the frame of reference of the observer; quantum physics maintains that the very presence of the observer changes the nature of the event. It is legitimate to wonder whether there would have been a murder if the photographer had not intervened on his stage of Reality, influencing and possibly determining the very course of the event. Was the woman the dead man’s lover or was she the accomplice to the murder or, possibly, both? Thomas is confronted with the deceptive truths of a photograph and the natures of the event that he eyewitnessed and ultimately with the meaning of what he saw, as the interpretation of this mysterious photograph is his alone.
How many realities can we attain through a single photograph?
The event that occurred was one: in how many different ways can we understand it if the same photograph can lead us to different meanings when observed from different angles? Are there actual events out there or do they result from subjective processes that turn them into stories and narratives? Had something not taken place, Thomas’ photograph could not have been taken; therefore there must be a link of necessity between Photography and Reality, yet the nature and meaning of the Image generated by their encounter need to be questioned. Inevitably we come to terms with the enigmatic nature of the Image as a threshold between these two active polarities, yet the Image is also a new self-defined object entirely determined by its language and narrative.
What is a photograph?
The more Thomas blows up his picture looking for the truth of the event depicted and the deeper he penetrates its secret, seeking the clarity not achieved while in the presence of the event, the more vague, grainy and elusive, less intelligible the picture becomes. When he finally sees and understands the presence of the corpse, the image has become like a pointillist painting: paradoxically now that the picture finally reveals the Truth of the event, the photographer is left to be the only person capable to read it. While his friend Bill needs to step away from his abstract painting to begin to see what he actually painted, the photographer has to get closer and closer to magnify the bits of information embedded in his picture, as if both Bill and Thomas were more in control of their imagination and desire than of external reality. Diane Arbus once stated that “a photograph is a secret about a secret: the more it tells you, the less you know”. The power of a photograph often resides in what is not explicitly depicted, in the unclear areas, the accidents, outside the borders and within its structure, in the silence embedded in the secret of its language, in its interpretive depth.
Can Abstract Photography lead us to objective Reality?
The photographer blows up the image to see as deeply inside as he can, but trying to reveal its inner truth destroys its physical structure. Ultimately he is the only one able to decipher it: only he can see and imagine the corpse through the enigmatic structure of the silver grains.
The evidence of a murder, the most objective proof of what had happened is also the most abstract representation of the event. The photographer did not see the murder: he only photographed it. Why is the Truth more accessible through an abstract photograph rather than the man’s direct experience of Reality?
Can an Image reveal the Truth?
Does an Image contain its own truth or is there a superior one which we are part of?
Is the Truth in the eye of the beholder or does it exist out there, awaiting to be grasped? Does Reality contain already all its Truths and all its possible images? What vehicles do we have to access and reveal them? What Truth does a single image contain, if any, and how many others can be attributed: as many as can be thought, imagined, remembered, envisioned and wished? Can an Image reveal our Truth and ultimately tell us who we are?
 From a presentation that Michelangelo Antonioni made of Beyond the Clouds, the film that proved to be the last one of his life, 1995.
 Pablo Picasso, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies”, in The Arts, 1923, conversation with Marius de Zayas.
 Luigi Pirandello, in One, No One and One Hundred Thousand, novel, 1926.
 Diane Arbus, in Art Forum, A Biography by Patricia Bosworth, May 1971.
Silvio Wolf: Us
Milan-based photographic artist Silvio Wolf has achieved an international reputation as one who celebrates the photographic process on what might be called the far side of representation. He famously exhibited a series of works made from the end of a film leader, Horizons, where complete overexposure resulting in yellow-tinted transparency transitions to the opacity of unexposed film via a gradient band of deepening orange that retains a trace of the felt that seals the cassette against light. He has also shown images of architectural abstracts, geometrical forms produced by the way light falls on skylights or sections of mosques or Romanesque churches. His subject has been light in its purity, and he has found some of his best locations for this subject in sacred spaces.
At Bruce Silverstein’s Chelsea gallery on W. 24th Street, however, Wolf’s site-specific installation creates what amounts to a secular sacred space using photographic means. In a succession of four chambers Wolf’s photographs, sometimes huge, sometimes large, and sometimes quite moderate in size, usher the visitor through a series of mental states, culminating in a deeply moving encounter with him/her-self. The show is called simply, Us.
As one enters the gallery one encounters, as an opening gesture, a huge high-contrast black and white photo mural showing silhouettes of two figures entering a curtained-off space. The viewer may not realize it at this point, but this is meant to represent his/her own experience entering the exhibition—in invitation to enter into the viewer’s own self. Once inside one faces a large vertical black surface with a long vertical slit in the middle made of mirror. Could this be about rebirth, you wonder, as you see yourself in this stylized vagina? Then on the right is a grid of 30 different heads in the same medium, black-and-mirror. Only the hair silhouette gives us a clue to gender; the features are too indistinct for any other particularization. The mirror medium again invites us to see ourselves in one or more of these heads. Next to this is another black- and-mirror image of a line of figures: the figures are in mirror (that stands for white), and the background is black.
Then at the threshhold of the next room is a very large abstract, again in black and mirror, but this time the form is quite enigmatic, and the lines are extremely soft. Is it a sexual reference, I wondered? No, I was told. It’s a self-portrait of the artist, but the mirror again allows the viewer to see her/himself into it.
The next room is entirely surrounded by large (30×60) images of blurry human figures in white on blue: a sparse, anonymous crowd, but without the mirror surfaces, we’re clearly in the presences of Others.
Finally, the last room, the climax of the show, offers only three perfectly square, hard glossy, entirely black squares, 36×36, set out from the wall by flourescent panels, so that the room is completely illuminated by the white light coming from behind the black squares. These are actually prints that have been completely overexposed to the point of blackness, the symbolic tracing of myriads of photographic images, resulting in a glossy blackness that reflects back the viewer’s image. Emanating from two of these squares are the voices of children stating first names, possibly the viewer’s among them. The starkness of the squares, their purity and that of the light from behind them create a solemnity that invites self-centering, even meditation. Wolf has created the equivalent of a sacred space, a sanctum sanctorum, where one is invited to be with one’s purest self. It is quite an achievement.
Wolf has harnessed the Photograph, the most particularized of representational media, to welcome the viewer into a progressively deeper meditation on his/her own being. It is not insignificant that the mirror substrate so essential to Wolf’s process at the front end of the show, was also the medium of the first photographs, the daguerreotype; while at the end the black squares stand for the accumulated layering of images: chemical photographic materials based in silver salts turn black when exposed to light. So besides the progressively deeper encounter with self, there is also an implicit history of photography being propagated here.
The visitor expecting a conventional photography show will be frustrated, but this is the norm for conceptual art, and especially for the art of Silvio Wolf. But if we place ourselves trustingly in Wolf’s hands, he can take us through an experience much more profound, in which we stay safely on one side of the picture surface, while the depicted virtual world of the image extends on the other. Wolf actually invites us to penetrate his surfaces and contrives, if we let them, to have them penetrate into our deepest, stillest experience of our selves.
Silvio Wolf: Us
Silvio Wolf’s work has not appeared solo in New York since 2008, and it has returned, to the Bruce Silverstein Gallery, in a new and surprising form – the human figure. His previous photographs had worked the border between representation and nondisclosure. The images bore visual references, but it was impossible in most cases to tell where they pointed, perhaps toward some horizon or threshold of apprehension, two words favored in the titles of those earlier series. They suggested that within the camera’s view, the real has many guises, and the act of deciphering inevitably becomes an act of self-scrutiny. Interpretation is dictated less by what is shown than by associations in the viewer’s mind. The approach echoed Minor White’s, minus the sententious mysticism, and acknowledged an essential dynamic of photograph and audience — that the motivation to look arises from a desire to know, a desire that no external object, no image can fully satisfy.
By referring directly to the human figure in the current exhibition (on view through February 16), Wolf makes literal what had been implicit: the primacy of the viewer, the “us” of the show’s title. The gallery rooms, dramatically organized, conduct viewers on an itinerary of self-recognition, from an introductory work that is part image and part mirror – a kind of aperture – through a central gallery of shadowy blue silhouettes (of gallery goers in Chelsea), to a final room containing three backlit deep black photographs with mirrored surfaces, variants of the so-called Claude glass, or dark mirror, which obscures and reveals its viewer simultaneously. These works are accompanied by the delicate sound of young voices reciting people’s names. In this environment visitors contemplate the image of themselves as the subject of the work, illuminated by light that seems to leak from the pieces themselves. The sound installation emphasizes viewers’ involvement with others (and with their own memories).
Since the Dadaists of the 1920s, many artists have confronted viewers with the reflected image of themselves, most recently Douglas Gordon and Gerhard Richter. Viewers have been implicated as voyeurs, celebrity mongers and phantoms before the object. Never has this confrontation served as the destination of a journey, one that leads to an act of awareness beyond the narcissism of self. In Wolf’s exhibition, meaning resides with the seer and not within the thing seen, and the seer is not an isolated individual but all of “us” who pass through the gallery.
L’Ostensione della Scrittura
A Proposito dell’Installazione di Silvio Wolf “John 14 – Il Libro dei Libri”
Quaranta leggii sorreggono quaranta immagini simili e diverse: tutte riproducono infatti una doppia pagina del Vangelo di Giovanni, per l’esattezza il capitolo 14, tradotta in quaranta lingue diverse. Silvio Wolf, con questa installazione progettata appositamente per la Biblioteca cantonale di Bellinzona, con coerenza indaga il Libro sacro e la relazione tra segno e scrittura utilizzando la fotografia al suo grado zero, come una traccia, come una semplice impronta del reale capace di trascenderne i limiti grazie alle sue stesse leggi. Volutamente egli non interpreta nulla, non usa luci sapientemente organizzate per creare effetti suggestivi, e neppure gioca con riprese ravvicinate o con sfocature per trasfigurare tali pagine in qualcosa di misterioso. Il suo lavoro è lontanissimo da quello di Abelardo Morell che, affascinato dai libri, si impegna a farli apparire come strani esseri metamorfici, magari cogliendo una pagina che si carica di magia quando la luce la colpisce da una particolare angolazione, oppure inquadrando dal basso un voluminoso dizionario fino a farlo apparire simile a un’imponente montagna di fogli. Così come si differenzia nettamente dalla ricerca di Pino Musi, il quale interpreta il libro come un paesaggio di carta ed esplora da vicino la consistenza materica delle pagine con l’insistenza e la passione di un innamorato, quasi volesse compiere un viaggio iniziatico all’interno dell’universo cartaceo fin dentro le sue trame più nascoste e recondite. Nell’opera di Silvio Wolf non c’è niente di tutto questo: quaranta doppie pagine di Giovanni 14 sono fotografate con la stessa luce omogenea, dalla stessa distanza, attorniate da uno spazio nero che evidenzia la presenza dei libri e li fa come emergere dall’oscurità. Libri che però, grazie al suo intervento fotografico, divengono non sfogliabili, immobili e deprivati dalla loro consistenza materica e oggettuale: si offrono su un leggio, ma al contempo impediscono la presa alle nostre mani, si negano al nostro corpo. Essi si ostendono come una pura, assoluta, visibilità che si moltiplica attraverso le lingue del mondo senza muoversi mai, ostinatamente, dalle due pagine evangeliche di Giovanni 14. Collocati in modo da non creare un percorso univoco e direzionale, tali leggii invitano al contempo i visitatori a trovare un proprio cammino esperienziale di vicinanza e di contemplazione rispetto a queste pagine che, leggere, quasi immateriali, si dispiegano sui loro esili sostegni.
«A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose» ha scritto Gertrude Stein: nello spazio enigmatico di questa ripetizione, ciò che rimane è solo l’insistenza di una interrogazione che si ripropone su molti livelli senza cristallizzarsi in una domanda precisa. Ma, mentre la ripetizione della Stein resiste a ogni definizione, e soprattutto a ogni sviluppo, quella di Silvio Wolf ci interroga senza sosta e al contempo ci trascina in un viaggio simultaneo attraverso la visione delle lingue del mondo. Lingue che si offrono allo sguardo come scritture allo stato puro, visibili sotto forma di segni, di icone impronunciabili. Di fronte a queste grafie spesso incomprensibili e affascinanti si osservano le pagine del Vangelo di Giovanni non solo per cogliere il senso del messaggio in esse racchiuso, ma prima ancora per quel che esse mostrano con la loro muta evidenza: ideogrammi, lettere, spazi bianchi, punteggiature.
Secondo i mistici ebraici i livelli d’interpretazione dei testi sacri sono almeno sessantaquattro, di cui solo il primo è quello letterale. Come ricorda Haim H. Baharier: «Il Talmud gerosolimita insegna come l’allievo agguerrito, ovvero dotato di una famigliarità estrema con gli insegnamenti della tradizione, sia chiamato a leggere la scrittura, nei suoi spazi bianchi e neri, per riscoprirvi un senso inedito»(1). Ecco, è come se le pagine del Vangelo mostrate da Silvio Wolf ci invitassero a compiere un’operazione interpretativa e di lettura analoga a quella compiuta da questi mistici. Un’operazione protesa a superare il limite del senso manifesto delle parole, assimilabile dalle coscienze, per avvicinarsi all’inarrivabile, a ciò che sconfina oltre noi stessi. Qui la parola scritta si articola con l’ignoto in modo radicale. Ogni pagina-fotografia del Libro è un altrove materiale e al contempo metafisico. Coerentemente con altri suoi lavori, come, ad esempio, Paradiso esposto di recente presso la Galleria Gottardo di Lugano, questo artista riesce infatti a creare atemporali opere-soglia, che dal reale si aprono verso un’altrove presente”, per usare un termine a lui caro, che lo spettatore è invitato ad attraversare.
Con quali parole si fa udire la voce del Signore a un algonchino, un bulgaro, un laotiano, uno slovacco, un cinese? Potrà mai il significato delle Sue parole rimanere identico passando attraverso lingue, culture e tradizioni così diverse?, viene da chiedersi mentre osserviamo queste pagine che ci rimandano a una babele linguistica di cui non riusciamo a udire le voci, ma che pure ci inseguono come un’eco, come un ‘apertura nel mondo. Silvio Wolf non ci offre risposte univoche, eppure avvertiamo che la sua opera diviene una sorta di luogo di manifestazione del Divino attraverso la scrittura. Di traduzione in traduzione la Parola sacra non si disperde, ma anzi pare intensificarsi. Anziché venire tradita, si arricchisce declinandosi nelle molte lingue del mondo, passando di cultura in cultura, di scrittura in scrittura. D’altra parte nella pagina stessa di Giovanni 14 si trova scritto: “Nella casa del Padre mio ci sono molte dimore”: come se ogni singola lingua fosse una „dimora” custodita, accolta, accettata nella “casa del Padre”, cioè nella Parola di Dio. Tale simultanea propagazione e moltiplicazione della scrittura del Vangelo, messa in atto dall’opera di questo artista, si rivela così un’apertura che si contrappone a qualsiasi tentativo fondamentalista di afferrarne definitivamente il senso attraverso un’interpretazione puramente letterale. Nella “installazione-lettura” di Silvio Wolf, la scrittura, quale veicolo della Parola di Dio, si rivela dunque refrattaria a qualsiasi tentativo di esegesi univoca, totalitaria.
1) Haim B. Baharier, Il Dio e il popolo che scaturiscono dalle Scritture, pp. 89-90, in: AAVV, Il Libro sacro. Letture e interpretazioni ebraiche, cristiane e musulmane, Bruno Mondadori, Milano, 2002.
Pietre di Carta
Attraverso un procedimento fotografico e installativo molto complesso Silvio Wolf a Civitella d’Agliano ha riattualizzato il monumento sfuggendo per altro alle funzioni che la tradizione e il senso comune al monumento attribuiscono. L’opera di Wolf non celebra infatti un’autorità, se mai un’autorevolezza, quella di un luogo culturale di cui nella città sono rimaste poche tracce. Neanche pretende di cogliere aspetti di una cultura autoctona, popolare, “bassa”, di cui non potrebbe che inscenare una non meno discutibile celebrazione. Collega invece la città, la comunità, all’ambiente naturale che la ospita. Con un duplice intervento negli spazi pubblici di Civitella insomma l’artista, con un atteggiamento totalmente privo di presunzione, amplifica la possibile lettura antropologica del luogo dove si trova ad operare. Così, il monumento non sarà neppure l’auto-celebrazione dell’artista, ma si legherà ad una funzione di stimolo nei confronti della comunità, stimolo a scavare nella memoria collettiva. Interamente giocato sulla possibilità “salvifica” della memoria è l’installazione che Wolf, da fotografo ha progettato per la “piazza” di Sant’Antonio insieme ad uno scultore, Angelo Casciello, e ad una pittrice, Annamaria Santolini. La “piazza” è in realtà lo spazio vuoto rimasto dopo la demolizione della chiesa di Sant’Antonio e di una casa attigua. Gli artisti si occupano per l’appunto di questo vuoto creatosi nel cuore di Civitella, ne sottolineano la realtà di frattura e di beanza. Casciello lo occupa con una struttura fatta di vuoti, lineare e leggera; Santolini delinea forme pittoriche su una parete dove restano visibili strutture della vita domestica. Wolf interviene con i suoi riporti fotografici su ciò che resta dell’abside della chiesa abbattuta e li pone in relazione con la parete che, con l’abbattimento della casa, ora sta loro alle spalle. L’intervento però non inizia da qui, inizia da un’altra chiesa, a Bolsena, nella quale l’artista ricerca spunti iconografici da annettere, da spostare in Sant’Antonio. Questi spunti, come tracce mnestiche “altre”, inserite nel vuoto di Civitella non funzionano solo come memoria di un luogo storico ma anche come segno di un luogo tipico, il luogo del culto. Quest’ultimo rimanda ovviamente al mito, così l’artista riporta alla luce, insieme alla storia del luogo, la sua dimensione mitica e dunque accentua la dimensione antropologica che anima l’installazione. Ricrea inoltre, con la virtualità degli indici iconici, un ambiente immaginario designato attraverso la nominazione delle funzioni architettoniche della parete e del portale. La loro dislocazione è motivata tuttavia da questioni strutturali: i particolari di un’epigrafe e di un portale fotografati a Bolsena vengono applicati su quelle porzioni di superficie reintonacate a causa dell’eccessivo degrado, così le immagini risultano intagliate irregolarmente, enfatizzando la loro parvenza di frammenti precari preservati a stento da un processo di logoramento. Il secondo intervento di Wolf riguarda invece la Porta Vecchia di Civitella. Luogo di passaggio e di differenziazione fra un esterno e un interno, la porta viene prescelta proprio per questa sua funzione primaria e simbolica. L’immagine che l’artista vi applica, letteralmente, facendo combaciare le carte fotografiche su ogni blocco di tufo, appartiene al paesaggio che circonda la città, è un suo “tratto” distintivo (i calanchi). L’immagine conformata secondo la struttura architettonica, è resa in un nitido bianco e nero ma la frammentazione cui è sottoposta e il suo potente ingrandimento la rendono difficilmente riconoscibile. Così il lavoro resta sospeso fra questo approccio simbolico e il puro gioco visivo, dove il bianco e il nero assumono valore di assoluti, funzioni di un linguaggio astratto e dialettica di luce e non-luce. L’interazione in cui l’opera si inserisce è quella di un segno nuovo che viene accolto, senza perturbazioni, nel seno di un “contesto” fortemente significante.
Civitella D’Agliano Discovered Its Truth
Perhaps true miracles are tricks of memory or rather tricks on memory. An intuition of this type must have inspired the linguistic adventure of the sculptor Angelo Casciello, the painter, Annamaria Santolini and the photographer, Silvio Wolf in their search for the “truth” of the small town of Civitella d’Agliano.
The truth of a town that is the truth of its architecture, which is to say its history and the memories connected with the organic expression of the existential continuity of its community. Casciello, Santolini and Wolf went to two key points in the history and geography of the town in search of the truth of Civitella d’Agliano. The town is sited resting on a rock and dominates the valley below. The “Great Western Wall” is a great buttress that connects the rock to the valley. Silvio Wolf’s photographic image follows the internal order of the blocks of tuff in the wall with their rhythmic metre. The balance between the stones and the image on photographic paper glued onto the tuff is certainly precarious. It is like the skin of a snake: like the skin of a snake the surface of this film has a light, active and vibrant dimension. It is a dream of light that will last one summer. It should crumble and disappear slowly as winter arrives. I do not dislike this fatality of the ephemeral, it is also part of the specific condition of the memory of country towns.
Angelo Casciello and Annamaria Santolini joined Silvio Wolf to emphasise another aspect of the “truth” of the town: a small church and an old house completely in ruins. The modest fragments of the internal architecture of the church were exposed to the light of the sun as traces of the history of the place or better still as tattoos incised in the architectural flesh of the town. It is a work by three people designed for an open and revitalised space dedicated to preserving the history of Civitella d’Agliano.
The meaning of the gesture is to conserve the history of a site in a place. It is an alarm signal against oblivion and indifference, a gift to the collective awareness of the inhabitants of the town.
These signs of history torn from centuries of slumber are pathetically fragile. It was certainly not by chance that Silvio Wolf and his companions transferred responsibility for conserving the evidence of the town’s history to the town council. It is perhaps an ironic or perfidious gift: what will the Mayor and his councillors do with it?
published on the occasion of the solo exhibition
“Origins: Horizons in Silvio Wolf’s Idea of Light”
curated by Cristina Casero
July 10 / Sept 4 2016
While I was in Silvio Wolf’s studio, I noted the different stages of his work as summarised by the succession of colour photos the artist showed me. Two statements came to mind that I remembered having read among the “Verifications” by Ugo Mulas and in a passage by Emmanuele Severino.
In the “Verifications” the last of Mulas’ work, the photography shifts from its traditional function of documenting and becomes the subject of self-reflection starting with its technical aspects and involving its cultural implications. In the second and thirteenth “Verification”, Mulas talks of the place of the photographer within the photographic process and defines it as the place of absence (“…the camera does not belong to me, it is an additional instrument the importance of which can be neither overestimated nor underestimated, but that is precisely why it is an instrument that excludes me while I am most present”).
As an artist, Silvio Wolf’s work tackles photographic language starting from this same awareness and in fact many conceptual contributions started with the reflections of Mulas. Analysis of the specific process of signifying leads to a criticism of the illusion of reality, which the language of photography, more than any other language, involves as its myth, as its imaginary dimension.
While, however, Mulas questions whether reality can be represented by the medium, artists who have followed this line with photography have come to question reality itself as an entity that can actually be experienced.
In his first works, going back to the end of the 1970s, Wolf often defined the place he was working in and, like Mulas, experimented with the centrality and at the same time with the laterality of the place. Basically, the process of photographic signification is built on a moment of not looking, of blindness as Wolf says, where the mechanical eye is appointed to deputise. Apart from this, which is clearly a starting point, the artist’s intention is to investigate the referents of photography, the images of reality. In Wolf, images take on the features of ambiguity. It is rooted, as far as it is present, in its complete visibility. The work Le due porte (The two doors), 1980, is rightly considered a key work of Wolf’s: it presents us with a perfectly readable image, yet it is highly ambiguous. A strange architectural construction standing in the desert is photographed from the front in the most direct and also the simplest manner. The two doors that make it possible to look through the walls of the construction and even to glimpse the horizon have precise cultural connotations. One resembles Islamic architecture with the upper part depicting a dome while the other on the opposite side and framed by the former is a pure form of our geometry, a rectangle. What is the subject of this photograph? The construction itself or the elsewhere that we can see beyond it? Or is it not rather the relationship between non-light and light where the dark of the inside is unquestionably a condition for the visibility of the light outside?
And is the desert presented as a document or as a metaphor?
At this point one cannot help thinking of Severino’s comment on a passage by Heidegger. He said that eyes that know how to read the desert do not belong to the desert. What Silvio Wolf does is to tackle a negativeness that starts by posing the subject as a blank, as proof of an absence and which verifies this absence as the motor of the arguments. Light on condition that there is dark: photography lies in this relationship and Wolf’s works are in effect a discussion of this relationship. They hinge on the representation not of things but of the light which signifies things, not on the objects of the vision but on the vision itself. The images that the camera records are reflections and shadows, they are the relationships between reality and virtuality in a game which at times is that of a virtuoso and at others is limited to simple shots, which, however, are always of phenomena with an elusive meaning imbued so to speak with ambiguity. One of the most emblematic of these, always the same and always changing is that of flowing water; or, loaded with symbolism and at times disquieting, that of mirrors and the effect they have of multiplying, complicating and transfiguring spaces. It may be said that the artist investigates what creates appearance and what makes images apparent, what destabilises perception and comes to transform perceptible reality. With light and its effects the artist elaborates what he calls the ordering structures of an image, structures which lie beyond the objective facts of reality and which all present as discrete and united elements within the linguistic universe of photography.
Images printed on transparent surfaces, constructed very similarly to genuine stained-glass windows, as in the case of the Puzzle Copto (Coptic Puzzle), 1985, exploit the grid into which the surface is divided, as a framework for the arrangement of the image. This in turn is structured according to a freer but no less constant and identifiable pattern. It functions as an unconventional ordering structure that contrasts with the convention of the grid which divides the glass into equal parts and which although presenting as a mere “object” clearly recalls one of the elements of modernism and therefore a historically given way of representing. Nevertheless this representing is called into play to create appearance and not to return reality. In the Puzzle Copto another of Wolf’s key works, the image of the shadow of some grape vines all of which seems to have been photographed is in fact the result of a set of different details. They are located next to each other with no other order which is not that of its own internal structure. The unity between each individual part is determined without any relation to real referents.
In the “stained-glass windows”, the light of the environment makes the work itself visible, passing through it and with it, it visualises the represented light, the “plays” of light which weave through it. His most recent work deals more directly with the representation of light and the interaction of his works with the environment in which they are set. In Vittorie della luce (Victories of light), for example, the artist photographed portions of columns of an Egyptian temple each lit to a differing extent by natural light from the outside. In this case the light defines the outlines of images sculpted on the columns, it cuts them out from the whole and that is how we find them, isolated, in the work of Wolf. The photographs were in fact cut out along the borders between light and shade and mounted on thick wooden supports. The set of images was then mounted on the wall projecting out considerably. With Luce verde – Prospettico (Green light – perspective), 1989, the image is rendered in a false perspective so that it restores the condition of space in which the artist found himself. The original environment which receives or allows the effect of light, due to its structure, is recalled in the layout of the work which in more recent works is increasingly freer. The light effect is frozen in the representation and the work-installation opens up new relationships of meaning with the new environment of the exhibition that houses it, for example in the relationships between the false “photographed” light and the effects of the light in the new environment starting with the shadow thrown by the elements that make up the work. The work-installation tends towards the possibility of fusing together two environments because of the difference between the areas of meaning and between functions which again revolve around an absence. It may be said that Silvio Wolf’s recent work visualises absence, makes it present and in this way restores its function of opening to it, starting up the formalities of discourse. In these works the artist again takes up the architectural theme of the “Myhrab”, the niche which shows the faithful in a Mosque the direction in which to pray, the direction of Mecca. The Myhrab is an empty place, a blank around which a Mosque is constructed. It is emblematic of an entire system of beliefs and thought. The artist reconstructs it in his three dimensional photographic works and gives life to the spaces with it. He thereby locates a sign in it that is decontextualised and made a re-generator of thought. A thought that leads us to a free zone where even two cultures that are in some ways divergent such as our contemporary culture and islamic culture can find harmonies: in the singular testimony of a subject that mirrors itself in the empty space that constitutes it and that establishes it as a subject of thought.
Attorno all’invisibile. Del lavoro recente di Silvio Wolf
Da tempo le realizzazioni di Silvio Wolf paiono negare la possibilità, o l’esistenza stessa dell’immagine. Eppure la sua ricerca si fonda sull’origine del visibile, in un passaggio sensibile, oltre che mediato intellettualmente, fra le apparenze e la realtà, di un’immagine che è comunque autonoma rispetto al referente. In questo processo, che trova forma in opere fondate sul valore assoluto della relazione fra luce e buio, o sul ricorso al valore segnico per eccellenza, quello della parola, la sua recente produzione – presentata nei mesi scorsi in una mostra personale da Nicoletta Rusconi a Milano – intreccia una particolare trama fra le nozioni di temporalità e di visibilità.
L’assunto di partenza di questa serie di lavori è che viviamo in una condizione in cui il visibile è esploso, ha avvolto ogni forma dell’esperienza sensibile e della comunicazione. La diffusione e la moltiplicazione delle immagini hanno generato una saturazione, che ha conseguenze sul nostro modo di rapportarci agli strumenti del comunicare, ma anche alla realtà quotidiana. Si è passati nel giro di alcuni anni dalla affermazione dell’“iconosfera”, come condizione avvolgente e globalizzante, a una “iconocrazia”, che pare ancora determinare il giudizio sulle cose e soprattutto definisce il grado di subordinazione delle qualità intellettive rispetto a parametri di referenzialità esteriore.
Rispetto a questa forma di sollecitazione, proprio il settore che dell’immagine parrebbe, per statuto linguistico, maggiormente necessitare, come la fotografia, ricorre a nuove soluzioni, che non sono da intendersi come gratuite e sterili indagini sulle potenzialità del mezzo e sulla sua capacità di sperimentazione. Rispetto a qualsiasi forma di inconscio tecnologico, l’operazione attivata da Wolf con le sue realizzazioni è piuttosto di natura originaria ed elementare. Si tratta di verificare, cioè, cosa resta delle forme della realtà quando ci poniamo di fronte alle cose non in forma eterodiretta, pronti solo a ricevere, ma con un’attenzione di natura più profonda, che verrebbe da dire interiore, per quanto il termine si presti a interpretazioni forse fuorvianti o apparentemente eccessive.
Non è eccessivo però pensare che in fotografia, o nel “fotografico”, si possa generare una rappresentazione originale dell’invisibile attraverso forme concrete. È un processo che si trova al centro dell’attenzione di Wolf da tempo, e che ha trovato nuova e ulteriore possibilità di verifica in alcuni dei suoi lavori recenti, a cominciare da Meditations, un’installazione all’interno della quale chi sosta si trova circondato per tre lati da lastre monocrome nere, ottenute mediante registrazioni di luce omogenea, nelle quali specchiarsi, accompagnati dal rumore di un respiro che cade dall’alto proprio al centro dello spazio creato. Quello che Wolf propone è un confronto con il sé, con lo stare in una condizione di immobilità, spingendo a guardare se stessi attraverso un’immagine che è negazione dell’immagine, pur provenendo dalla luce che rivela l’immagine, nella nostra percezione abituale. Il respiro che ascoltiamo ci rimanda ad altro, ci fa sentire una presenza invisibile, che ci piove da sopra, come una mano che accompagna o come una presenza inquietante.
Un altro tema che Wolf ha spesso accarezzato nei suoi lavori, quello della soglia, del luogo di passaggio o di transizione, che ci introduce in una realtà altra rispetto al luogo sensibile nel quale siamo o che ci viene offerto dalla visione, ritorna in alcuni altri lavori, come la nicchia vuota fotografata come spazio dell’assenza e divenuta una forma architettonica muta e geometrica, ma che è soprattutto, un’immagine astratta ripresa dal “vero”, sulla falsariga di altre composizioni in cui Wolf ha reso in immagini fotografiche presenze fisiche che diventano figure autonome. In questo caso l’immagine esiste, può offrire un rimando diretto o molteplici rimandi, e proprio per questo richiede un “completamento” che non è di natura emotiva o riempitiva, ma un ulteriore segno della capacità di indagare, attraverso l’epidermide registrata con il procedimento fotografico, la sostanza interiore delle cose.
Nel suo procedere attraverso l’indagine sui confini del visibile, che trova ulteriori conferme e possibilità di espansione non in senso orizzontale, ma verticale – non si sollecita una fame bulimica di immagini, ma si suggerisce la possibilità di fermarsi al dato di uno svuotamento di forme che è riempimento di senso – Wolf ha tracciato una parabola che coinvolge le potenzialità del mezzo con le particolari soluzioni e sostanze offerte dall’esperienza delle forme “ambigue” in cui si manifestano le sue “rappresentazioni”. Il ribaltamento tra il visibile e l’invisibile, spesso prodotto naturalmente mediante l’attenzione per il controluce nelle sue opere, derivanti da osservazioni concrete e tradotte nelle immagini che il mezzo fotografico “vede”, produce forti contrasti, motivi di separazione, nei quali fare esperienza, come ha detto in qualche occasione, della sostanza temporale. Il tempo diventa l’essenza del tramite, del momento di separazione fra un qui e un altrove, fra la luce e il buio, fra il presente e la memoria.
La densità di tali stati di sospensione alimentati dall’osservazione si manifesta in altri suoi lavori recenti, come Aperture, dove il “rispecchiamento” del sé avviene nella superficie specchiante in alluminio di un controluce prodotto da un luogo accecato, collocato al di là di una cortina improvvisamente apertasi. Una doppia forma di azzeramento conduce in questo caso alla sostituzione della nitidezza dell’immagine, comprensibile in via intuitiva, con l’accostamento tra l’invisibilità della tenda divenuta una superficie omogenea nera, e l’invisibilità della luce, riflessa in uno specchio sull’ambiente in cui ci troviamo a guardare questa immagine in negativo. Il carattere formale di tale figura verticale raggiunge la sua sintesi ulteriore nelle separazioni orizzontali che, rese anch’esse nella dialettica fra il nero e l’alluminio, portano a pensare alla stagione estrema di Rothko, la sua più astratta e spirituale. Per quanto Wolf non intenda ricondurre a un piano specificamente formale il suo intervento, l’accostamento ad alcuni aspetti dell’opera del grande artista americano non si gioca sul piano del pittorico, come è stato avanzato per altri suoi “orizzonti”, ottenuti dall’ingrandimento di scarti di pellicola impressionati direttamente dalla luce che inavvertitamente li ha colpiti, ma per la sostanza di azzeramento dell’espressione e dell’immagine che in quelle opere si manifesta e qui riverbera inevitabilmente. Lo scopo che Wolf si è prefisso, come dichiara nel testo che accompagna gli ultimi suoi lavori, è provocare un ribaltamento dall’attenzione per l’immagine che appare a quella per la posizione del soggetto che guarda quella “soglia” interrogandola, immediatamente ponendosi di fronte a se stesso. Quello che ha certamente raggiunto è il desiderio di un’immersione nell’invisibile della sostanza delle cose, che si fa tempo e spazio interiore.
Si pensi a Dittico Scala Zero, del 2001, alla serie Skylight, del 2002, o anche alla grande installazione I Nomi del Tempo, gigantografia di sei metri per dieci, esposta alla Biennale di Venezia di quest’anno, originata da una fotografia di un lungo corridoio ripreso in prospettiva allungata e in controluce. Le immagini di esse, oltre che nei cataloghi delle mostre personali e collettive, per cui cfr. Silvio Wolf. Le Due Porte, Galleria Fotografia Italiana, Milano, 7 maggio – 14 giugno 2003, e Silvio Wolf. Scala Zero, cat. della mostra, Fotografia Italiana, Milano, 18 novembre 2004 – 22 gennaio 2005, sono riportate nel documentatissimo sito dell’artista: silviowolf.com
The Labile Frontier
It has always been suspected that photography has more than one point of contact with magic. I do not refer so much to its most obvious “power”, that of multiplying reality, with respect to which we are mithridatised. The excess of images has destroyed our capacity to recover a minimum of the surprise that photography caused when it first appeared. The images must therefore shout louder and louder and contain more and more surprising details to obtain a little attention.
The term “magic” is intended in the sense used by Ernesto de Martino when, on the subject of the world of magic, he spoke of it as a “world in decision”.
In a magic world, “Presence is still busy collecting itself together as a unity in the eyes of the world and the world, thrown in front of it and received as presence, has not yet moved away from presence”. “Reality, as independencies of the given, as the becoming aware of an observable world, as decided and guaranteed otherness is a formation relative to our civilisation, relative, that is, to the decided and guaranteed presence that characterises it”. (E. de Martino, Il mondo magico – “The magic world”).
Strangely however, it is photography with its capacity for “hard” observation which instead of confirming the world as “decided and guaranteed otherness” often achieves the opposite result. It is then the precariousness of the real which reveals itself through photography. When the paintbrush was the only instrument for fixing an image of this otherness, the difference between the quantity of facts that crowded together to be recorded and the speed of the recording medium was too great. So the world could be felt as something that was absolutely compact.
Today, however, new recording instruments show that the real is full of cracks, crevices and false bottoms.
Anton Giulio Bragaglia, with his photodynamic experiences had already dissolved the hard outlines of figures, leading matter to reveal its fantastical nature.
All futurism, however, must be seen in the light of that dematerialisation of the real which new technological means, and photography above, all had produced.
In fact Boccioni said, “the continuous flight that objects make around us has made them fluid, extending into infinity, no longer existing as luminous appearances.”.
It is therefore technology, the most mature fruit of the post-magic way of facing the world, characteristic of western civilisation, which upsets the very foundations of this attitude.
After a period in which presences that felt themselves guaranteed could face a guaranteed world, we are slipping into a world that is in-decision.
The post-modern could therefore be brought down to the loss of a sense of ones presence as compact, conquered once and for all like a right to a pension.
The post-modern is this rediscovering oneself in a magic situation, that is, the substantial precariousness of the real when it seemed that decision of itself and of the world no longer constituted a dominating and characteristic problem for our civilisation. The post-modern, if we were still in time, could be the gestation period of a new rationality.
If one now looks at the work of Wolf, one notes that its interest is concentrated on that delicate diaphragm, more mental than physical, that separates the inside from the outside.
The photos are never isolated, almost as if to say that it is impossible to resolve the problem of vision in one single image. The sequences are usually binary and this suggests a work of arrangement rather than a desire to describe, in fact they never result in a narrative fact. Rather than sampling the different ways in which things appear they appear as a recording of changes that occur to the ego which moves. But this ego never manages to constitute a stable reality capable of being called real. It is an ego which only perceives itself in movement and which is continually thrown into crisis by the movement.
Each slight shift of the point of observation causes a surprise, a new necessity to find an equilibrium. If one raises ones head above a wall, then the vision of an expanse of sea bursts in; the reassuring light of a lamp hanging immobile in the centre of a room becomes a grandiose rotation of stars if we look out of the window.
If the slightest little thing is sufficient to discover unexpected realities and if in discovering our ego it is completely filled with surprise, then our movements must become cautious and careful. Opening a door becomes a gesture emblematic of all dangerous gestures.
Silvio Wolf is one of those rare European artists of the latest generation, who have based their creative work entirely on experimentation involving the technical nucleus of the resources of photography. They bring out a new world of images that are structurally dense and at the same time distant if not ungraspable.
In his work, Wolf constantly approaches the point where photography is no longer the creation of a mirror image of reality, the capturing of an image in the speed of an instant, but the close up exploration of how images themselves form and appear.
Wolf’s work hovers between a search of phenomena that is not closed in the description of an icon-sign, and the identification of a firm structuring node. It privileges an image that condenses sliding vision and the epiphanic revelation of the subtle and mobile border where light and time can either collapse in on themselves or move apart in an irrevocable and determining relationship.
These photographic signals of Wolf originate from a mechanism with two identifiable principles. It is a place, an elsewhere. Its uniqueness and its type are laid bare by the photographic eye without any recognisable classification of emblems or stereotypes, but with a coming close up that covers the arrangement of a subject in a contagion of particular and unique light (Belvedere, Praha or Trasfigurazioni dei Santi give an idea of a curved horizon of associations more than a single direction to look in). The other principle that qualifies all Wolf’s more recent production is the value of putting images created according to a constitutional logic side by side. This logic tends to emphasise the particularity and expansion of the images in a calibrated play of a “simultaneity” which rather than a futuristic energy, follows a more complex and angled iteration. Here, the gaps between one photograph and another are active residues between which the vigilant gaze establishes (recognises, shifts) structuring links, figures made final and frozen in their productive movement. These images, side by side, are ordered according to a rule that comes more from the traditional canons of the visual arts – the use of the term “polyptych” has a precise meaning in this respect – than from typical photographic sequences in which the reflection of reality follows a dynamic that mirrors movement. The simultaneity that Wolf proposes is complex. It is not so much what is seen that it expands as the virtuality that the photography is experimenting with, its own active structuring movement clearly recognisable but not a resemblance, not of one dimension closed within the perimeter of repetition with minimal variations. Technique and the capacity to define a new autonomous and constructively oscillating image are balanced within a charged and unique synthesis in this procedure and the exploration of the new universe of photographic technique seen as a universe in progressive and unstoppable expansion is fundamental to it.
In his more recent studies Wolf prefers to construct series of images that live through a double system of active distances and relations. Each image, set against the ambiguous continuity and spatial arrangement of the series, constitutes its own virtual appearance which sums together a print on a strongly reflecting surface and a different print on the transparent surface of an acetate. The result is an ungraspable, dense, liquid and slippery image that has no centre and immobile focal point but a convex and fleeting tension.
Wolf’s work has the lucid rigour of experimentation that loves to stay close to the structural (technical and linguistic) game of taking a photograph; within this sphere he finds new icons that do not ask for ecstatic or idol-worshipping veneration, but for fast sliding openings of meaning, recognitions within the articulated, constructed density of a language which is still generative.
Silvio Wolf’s Origins
As with many of Silvio Wolf’s recent works, this show is also a so-called “in situ” installation, despite the fact that it is located inside of a rather canonic space: an art gallery. Being interested in investigating that which photography can make us come to know, the artist has visualized the element that constitutes photography as a specific language: the light that permits the taking of the pictures (and which therefore superintends over most of the so-called mass media). Within a self-reflexive, light displays itself in Wolf’s photographs and necessarily interacts with the real light of the environment in which the work is located.
The artist’s interest in space begins here, as a direct consequence of the work, and its constant as well as its verification. And the double value that Wolf’s operations assume, a value which is both negative and affirmative, and which is the intrinsic nature of all metalinquistic operations in art, also begins here. While the referential function (which pertains to the means more as its effectualness) is mitigated, the artist traces perfectly autonomous ordinative structures on the image, which are connected to the image merely on a formal pretext. The “brought” light – that is, the light reproduced on the surface of the photographic paper, with its bright points and shadow effects, becomes the icon itself (which the artist simply calls light icon). In other words, the language precedes every significance, and the linguistic elements are disjointed and treated as being self-sufficient.
But the light is “brought” by virtue of the particular point of view, which results in considerable foreshortening. In this way, the work located in a given environment tends to bring to mind the original environment and the artist’s past experience in that environment.
Each of Wolf’s installations superimposes another space and creates logical discrepancies and perceptive ambiguities which, as always happens in art, generates the sense. And the light which the surface of the work shows and which belongs to a precise place and time are not experienced data but non-axiomatic data. It is easy to reconstruct the movement the artist made in space to establish that particular point of view.
From the pure conjugation of the linguistic element, Wolf turns to focus the attention on an element which is considered qualifying in order to specify the significant potentialities of an entire system. His ceding to visibility is connected to another significant environment – real time and real space – to which he synthetically returns processuality by writing the completed empirical experience into the work.
Therefore, the artist goes beyond the point of treating the subject as a mere function of language, and themizes the empirical subject. And this new installation by Wolf leads us to believe that the empirical time of the subject is conjugated with its historical time.
The show we want to present now is given as an “in situ” installation, even though this term normally means artistic realizations in outdoor spaces. We say this because Wolf intends contestualizing the place – the gallery – not as an abstraction but as an environment which has a pricise history and role. This gallery, which is now owned by Claudia Gian Ferrari, who inherited it from her father, is one of Milan’s most important galleries and has, since the early post-war years, dealt with the works of Italy’s foremost figurative artists. The gallery now has two sections: one for modern art and one for art which follows present trends.
Therefore, taking this specificity into due account, Wolf displays his “picture show”, as he insists on calling it, and his figurative paintings, all following the portrait theme. He presents a discrepancy in this theme, a non-correspondence of expectancies. He presents them under the form of foreshortened photographic image which simply reveal the side position that the photographer took to capture the ambient light reflected on the surface of the painting. Thus we have round shapes becoming ovals and square shapes becoming trapezoids: irregular shapes that emphasize the work of mitigating or annihilating the recognizability of the painted image.
In its place we have spots of light, icons of light, flashes that occasionally allow a glimpse of some detail, as though they were spectral latencies: a pair of hands or the outline of a face. A rather dramatic effect is produced by the contrast between these “light victories” and the solidity of the thick pieces of wood upon which the very thin Cibachrome sheets are mounted. The examples of art of the past are shown and then negated by the photographic entervention, but this negation interacts with an affirmation.
The solidity of the wooden supports shows them as objects of a certain consistency. But then, while we curiously watch as the imaginary part of a painting is eclipsed, we see certain distinct details of the painting system appear from another part.
Through the side view and reflected light annihilate the “subject”, they do reveal the cracking, the material nature of the pictorial paste and its phenomenology, as has been explicated in the past.
Furthermore, the frames and nameplates giving the title and authors of the works remain recognizable, while one painting seems to be covered by a veil and another shows the visitor sign-in book of one of the museums included in the artists’ survey. The museum’s institutional space is depicted in a side view which appears to show, for the first time, the frames of the paintings. It also reminds one of the first step of Words and Things, where Foucault analyses Las Meninas also taking the paintings that decorate the room by Velásquez into consideration, as well as the room itsef as the setting of a linguistic universe.
Wolf also puts this universe in a setting and contestualizes it in a similar way, letting the personages speak for the functions they represent, except for the representation of the reality to which he himself is tied on the occasion of the show he is now giving: the Milanese gallery, for its part, anchored to its history. And we as visitors should feel an integral part of this setting, where different times and environments integrate simultaneously: the museums visited by the artist, with “their light”, Claudia Gian Ferrari’s paternal gallery, and this new one where the viewers are reminded of the paintings shown in the former gallery.
But this is a twofold operation, with two different titles: Exposition, in its canonical completeness, and Laboratory, which is located in the semi-interred part of the gallery and, as is usual, houses exhibitions of small drawings and works. Wolf metaphorically uses it as in a dialectic between above and below with the above pertaining to that which is formalized, and the below being for that which is still in the design phase. And the poles pf the dialectic can be enriched with other attributes: that which is public and which is private; that which is rational and that which is pulsative.
In effect, we can briefly say that the two distinct polarities are connected to two moments: one when the shapes are being put into their limpid, completed, definitive forms, and the other being the ideating, imprecise phase which is dependent on the aleatory and the possible.
In the dark semi-interred part of the gallery, an uninterrupted sequence of images is projected onto the walls. These images contestualize Wolf’s recent work with his past work and, more importantly, with his life. Here, time and space are the times and spaces of life; they are factors that can be qualified according to one’s past experience. The slightly red-shifted images of his preceding works are accompanied by the blue-shifted works of his historical period. All of them, which are side views and sometimes partially superimposed, seem to be caught up in a whirlwind or explosion.
It could be said that with the Laboratory the artist wanted – in a Pirandello fashion – to “unlock” the very precisely defined fixity of the works in the Exposition. As Dr. Hinkfuss says: If a work of art survives, it is only because we can release it from the fixity of its form; release its form within ourselves by giving it vital movement… But there is also something dramatic that springs from the being of these images, all of which are pregnant with history and attest to how much history each one contains.
If these portrait reproductions open onto the recognition of the historical conditions of their particular putting into being, these private images – which are tied to a sentimental instant – are also documented history. We see works done by the artist, together with portraits of his parents and of himself as a child, of the places he has visited and the paintings he has loved, as well as images of the Holocaust, electrocardiograms and ecographs: abstract signs that not less dramatically refer back to the biological body. Therefore, in a certain way, this explosion of images bonds death to life and, in particular, connects what is private with what is public, and tells us that it is this connection that gives sense to art today; the awareness of the fact that a subject becomes its own historian.
The “Sense of place” and four other variations
The development of Silvio Wolf’s work can now be documented over a period of almost twenty years of activity. Various creative and communicative nuclei are identifiable which today can be considered genuinely constant lines of experimentation.
A careful examination of the fields of analysis selected by the artist allows one to see the methods of operation employed and to identify progressions and specific linguistic enrichments.
It is also important to point out, for correct identification of the context, that Silvio Wolf’s work has an original position in a lively international area of experimentation where rigorous study of the concepts of the visual arts seems to solicit a use, as essential as it is innovative, of the photographic medium that redefines it.
The “Sense of place”
Can places, environments and objects reveal themselves differently to the immediate perception of “everybody’s eye” and to those who know how to use exploring optical machines (of photography, cinema and today video) creatively? The consequences of a by now inevitable affirmative answer to this question – which shifts the level of the relationship between vision and reality – were well analysed by Walter Benjamin in a reflection that turned out to be fundamental for the developments of the aesthetics of our century. The awareness and the roused unawareness of modern vision – which, is seen differently and has different duration and sense to the imitative convention of the real – are tied to the advances and the reflective break-throughs of the languages of the technology of images.
Silvio Wolf’s work, constantly oriented towards forcing the optical possibilities involved in taking a photograph – as much in the sense of a completed and paradoxical perspective restitution of environments and meaningful details as much as in the direction of an intense and dense recording of luminosity – seems to confirm the basic theoretical and working postulate of Benjamin.
By getting up close to the complex “distinctness” of a place, a field of observation and photography according to the canons, Wolf implements various and congruent strategies, achieving a strongly specific “sense” rather than a calculated and recognisable “relief”.
Wolf analyses place as a field that reveals architectural order and existentialist mental experience, variable daily light and unstoppable progressions of time, social anonymity and the irreducible individuality of time. It is seen in two distinct stages. Until 1987, his analysis of place is in terms of recognition and transfer, according to the primary and universal motivation of the photographic act. From 1987 onwards, with an original procedure that is varied each time, the orientation of his experimentation is angled in a particular and specific way: the photography, solicited in its essential linguistic determinations, is rooted in the place in which it is done; it becomes a means of unveiling, not just a sensory indicator of possible visions but of imaginative temperatures.
In White Lights, Wolf’s most recent work, being rooted and unveiling activate the direct involvement of the spectator who is obliged to follow a curved ordered space which is also a tunnel inhabited by irrefutable presences and memories. The exhibition space, the ancient refectory of the Stelline, is repopulated for the occasion with a series of long tables which repeat the dimensions and modules of the original furnishings. The stelline (little stars) have a particular importance in the social history of Milan. The “stelline” are the “poor daughters of Milanese families. Orphaned, at least of their fathers, their poverty is above all material poverty, but also moral. The institute takes them in, keeps them, brings them up and educates them; it teaches them the trade of living.”. (E. Baio Dossi, Le Stelline, Franco Angeli, 1994).
The ancient institution which has its origins in the 16th century became well-established under Cardinal Carlo Borromeo and later was protected by the enlightened policies of Maria Theresa of Austria. The Stella Orphanage for Girls was situated in the severe looking building in Corso Magenta from the beginning of the 17th century; for centuries it expressed different ways of conceiving of social welfare and also of educational stereotypes and conventions. As late as 1970 the girls who entered into the institute were obliged to wear a uniform and to strip themselves of any, even remote, family identity. Until the beginning of this century, life at the “stelline” was almost entirely confined within the walls of the institute. The girls went out, in a group, for a brief walk only once a week. Unfortunate and segregated lives, but not lost however; in any case, saved from a harsh and severe life in the community. The large refectory is the fulcrum and depository of centuries old memories of community life. A brief moment of relaxation and meeting was enjoyed there in a daily rhythm of absorbing study and work.
Wolf found records, above all visual, documenting the passing of the days in the Stella orphanage. He was able to reconstruct the living spaces and above all to trace the physiognomies and the expressions of the faces of the guests, all expressing a knowing sadness where, however a steadfast thread of possible or impossible hope never appears broken.
On the long tables arranged in the refectory, as they were originally, hundreds of faces of “stelline” run on twenty monitors in a continuous film. The individuality of each person emerges and is confused and lost in the uninterrupted flow of images. Opposite, a photographic image as long as the wall of the refectory, 65 metres, reproduces convulsively and rhythmically with its components of light and non-light the sum of those faces in a cadenced and free continuum; a disquieting presence, both indistinct and animated, silent, or rather still chattering in subdued voices.
The “sense of place” ties together stone architecture and the relationship of abstract space in which spectators are obliged to move: the material furnishings and the immaterial images in the opalescent electronic luminosity; the immobile and co-penetrating flight of black and white in the extended perspective that the glance cannot fragment or avoid.
Epiphanies and metamorphoses of light
The meditated activation and the clear exhibition of one of the systems that make up the photographic language coupled with its radical intensification constitute determining elements in Wolf’s work. Thus the relationship with light, the primary element of any photography is the essential field for experimentation and analysis. Light is investigated, not by scanning differently illuminated surfaces but by going straight to the light source. The reproduction of the light is the reproduction of a glare in a sort of surge of current that does not belong to the light source but to the surface it makes an impression on.
The faces of White Lights, loaded with a cutting and paradoxical intensity of illumination, acquire an aspect that burns the edges of the individual profiles. In its metamorphoses and epiphanies, the light brings in to play recognitions and relationships: the “lit up” figures have no stillness, immobile points of view, confines or frames but are in continual expansion.
The rooms of time
Wolf’s study of the language of photography certainly does not ignore the importance of a dimension of time. This involves the operating time of the “act of photographing”, the time of revealment and the curved time of memory or of possible memories all within the same organisation. The photography of Wolf discards instantaneous time, preferring the duration or fast shifts of views in sequence, easier to link together than to superimpose. The photography is thus like an arrow slit in the closed perimeter of daily perception. It is an opening and shifting of the paths of existence in which neither mirroring nor repetition is possible.
Wolf’s photography, quite beyond any narrative or anecdotal complacency, isolates emblems, sharp and at the same time contracted memories, memories which set ghosts free while they distance desires and ephemeral impulses. It is on the axis of time, never rectilinear but neither fragmentable, that the “sense of place” and the intensification of the visibility of light unveil an acute and oblique communicative dimension: everything seems to be shouted and yet it is only suspended between the messages without the rebounds of time. It is as if the ellipse of memory were suddenly blocked in its expanding and dispersing curves.
Code, matter and architecture
Brought down to its essential components, the Wolf’s photographic language reveals itself as oriented in a constructive not a reproductive direction. It establishes fields of exploration where what is seen counts for the rhythm and order that it can reveal, for the relationships and iterations that it manages to modulate when it is arranged with structuring elements in an “architecture of the visible”. It is important to Wolf’s works to declare values and the essential specificness of the photographic language. He loves to isolate it and show its constants and laws but also that it is both a chromatic body and a constructive, not abstract, matrix. If this fact, which the history of Wolf’s consistent experimentation continuously confirms, is not taken into account then it is difficult to grasp the meaning of White lights fully. He uses concentrations and extensions, he condenses images like mobile nuclei and iterates them within modules that are never stereotyped. The result is the establishment of a complex visual structure brought to life by the play and intensity of the images that it encapsulates and continues in the body of its sensory materials. The rooms that Wolf creates profitably confuse images and phantoms in the fast deflection of meanings and reflecting signs, but they are always recognisable with their depicted structures and they can be lived in with advantage to the vigilant imagination. The use of resources belonging more properly to the photographic medium allows Wolf to activate, within the same creative process, a work of communication which is characterised by its rigour and absence of redundancy and also by its interrelated complexity.
Photography and multimedia
White lights is one of Silvio Wolf’s rare installations in which the photography correlates not just with its environment and the dense and direct memory that this conserves but also with another very dense and suggestive media language, that of video images.
The comparison that is established does not result in a loss of linguistic and communicative effectiveness of the photographic medium but rather in a sort of expressive enrichment. It is onto video that the facial expressions of the “stelline” are transferred, mobile galaxies of faces, living presences, distinct and yet by now remote. The photography on the other hand exacerbates the shapes and outlines of the faces in continuous light. The obsessive repetition of the faces, the reduction to a module, repeated and varied with the same intensity, achieves an effect of oblique disorientation that involves the perception and the attention of the spectator.
There is a constant exchange between video and photography. The two languages, used without any mirror images or duplications, act together to establish the “other” dimension of a lost and living presence firmly anchored to an “environment memory” made explicit and, above all, untransferable. The “sense of place” at this point reveals a seductive itinerary of the imagination that the combined use of different media languages makes proposable and fully practicable.
The more we look at the painting, the more we see the photograph
I shall put my digression first: the threshold between vision and visuality might correspond to that same imaginary line that Hans Holbein the Younger marked by using a double perspective in his “Ambassadors”. Symbolic interpretations were commonplace in every painting of antiquity, but Holbein – as many after him – didn’t want the viewer to just sit and ponder in front of the huge canvas; not at least the implicit viewer – as reception aesthetics had it – who was inexorably meant not only to advance towards the finely detailed painting and then recede, so to catch a proper sight of the powerful and magnificent whole; but also twist, bend and make a wide range of both mental and physical contortions so to compress the anamorphosis of the skull. Anamorphosis in facts used to be a visual tool often used in order to emphasize the importance of what postmodern criticism might indulge in calling a constructive gaze.
Many visual devices are still operating nowadays, even though photography and all the newest media have taken the place of painting; and also despite the digital drift luring technology geeks into its swirls. Ready-made visual seductions have always been at hand relieving the visual artists from the toil of conceiving works that should – or rather could – have the same degree of complexity of life, although presenting themselves with the astonishing simplicity of nature (or of commodity: see at the enter Duchamp).
Silvio Wolf (born 1952 lives and works in Milan) is among the accomplished contemporary artists born and raised within the domain of photographic images. Studies in Philosophy, graduated in Advanced Photography at the London College of Printing and a teacher worldwide, his works always include those features that make art a rich, complex, unfathomable – yet highly rewarding – experience. An experience at times both delightfully preverbal and difficult to exhaust. Among Silvio Wolf’s many photographic series two in particular bear witness of his unexhausted creative attitude: the Icons of Light (Icone di Luce – from 1991) and the Horizons (Orizzonti – from 2002). Nothing could appear to be visually more different and no less far apart in chronological terms. As the former series is baffling, awkwardly perspectival and dazzling (in both senses of the word), the latter series looks aesthetically serene, flat and luminous, deceptively simple. And yet the two series are but different inflections of the same discourse. As we shall see, every time Wolf deploys a different language in order to create a new set of images, immediately he deflects our attention on a nearly timeless issue: the language of photography. Despite the infinite variations of a photographic image in itself, how do its operational tools turn into conceptual features and work within both us and our cultural framework? No matter if some could call one series iconic and the other abstract, we shall see that all over Silvio Wolf’s career the transparence of the medium is always equally exploited, scrutinized and questioned.
The “Icons of Light” should be considered as photographic objects or perhaps, and even more so, tangible photographic thoughts. Each and every one of these art pieces, before being a photographic image whatsoever, already presents a distinct irregular trapezoidal shape, a bodily consistence that casts a shadow on the wall where it is hung, and also an evenly varnished glaze that makes it shiny and slick. Therefore, first comes the object, then the photographic picture arrives; as direct, wordless, both complex and plain as ever. Every “Icon of light” is but the photograph of a painting, a nameless painting, for once, and a featureless one too. All we can see are old gilded wooden frames, slanted for their being caught from unnatural angles. The available lights have been searched accurately in order to let them bounce on the reflecting canvases, and into the camera, effacing their representations. No staging of any sort, no fiction takes place here. Once confronted with Wolf’s art piece, all we can see is just a found object in its ordinary perceptual conditions. Perhaps a little enlarged for the sake of amplification and for conveying an immediate sense of artificiality. Everything conceptual resides in the chosen vantage point. In the picture of a celebrated painting we would sneak in a museum, we would at least try to catch a readable memento of our having been there, despite the blurs of motion and the streaks of unwanted light. But no, Wolf prefers an accurate rendering of the wrong sight; and for more than a reason. An image – the painting – dissolves while another – the photograph – gets ground. The more we look for the painting, the more we find the photograph. The more we peer through that transparent media we are accustomed to, the less viable it appears. The language at work becomes visible, its protocols taking tangible shape, while the actual subject of the picture remains forever a figment.
The “Horizons” are but a set of faithful, unretouched, analogic prints of the initial parts of different strips of photochemical film. That part of the roll which is usually overexposed to the light when the camera gets loaded. It is a rarity nowadays, to find this sort of scraps Wolf has been collecting for years. Reframing and rephrasing – so to speak – the roll of film, cutting off the traction holes, allows the author to focus on the found imagery provided by complete casuality. The different hues depend in fact on the type of film, on the sort of light they have been carelessly exposed to or on the amount of time of such exposure. Where the film was protected from light, darkness dominates: blackness becomes then a metaphor for the total lack of information. Where light flooded uncontrollably, whiteness explodes instead, dyed with randomized chemical tints. White becomes in its turn a metaphor of the complete overload of information. The threshold between the two areas – between the two metaphors – is marked by the gradual fading caused by the felt rim of the canister; which makes for those blurs which we would interpret as horizons.
I believe it to be quite relevant that the emergence of Silvio Wolf’s subjects is as casual as any decisive moment would be, thus reinforcing the proverbial attitude of the photographer who searches and waits. While we overestimate their symbolic values as if they were true or reconstructed horizons – or worse, as if photographic equivalents of a Rothko painting – these prints declare their simplicity instead. This is not exactly an understatement anyway, for their aim is higher. That the image is obtained entirely from photo-chemicals, that it restrains itself to being but the image of the memory support, that it promotes noise to signal, are all features underpinning the similarity between the Horizons series and the Icons of Light. For both series implicitly ask us some unsettling questions: what makes us think they represent what we see them fit to? Why couldn’t we see them for what they are? Perhaps because what is seen doesn’t correspond, for once, with what is represented even though there is nothing artificial in the mechanisms of its representation? And why don’t we give more attention to this, usually?
It would be equally true and mistaken to say that Silvio Wolf’s works defend the basics of photography against its hybridizations. It is true, on one side, that Wolf never messes photography with what it is not for the sake of a captivating final effect. His discourse inextricably coils up around the pivot of the very notions of photographic experience and, in this sense, his work could never inadvertently tramp on any of its practices or languages. Besides, it should be acknowledged to Wolf’s oeuvre a constant effort to reroute photography off the beaten tracks of straight black-and-white candid-witness analogic photography. In this sense Silvio could – and I suppose would – never be considered an orthodox officiant.
Such – perhaps exceedingly – intellectualized interpretation does not stem from an opaque or introverted set of works, occasionally or obliquely lit and enlightened by someone else’s gaze. There is in fact a long and established tradition of artists such as Ugo Mulas with his Verifications (“Verifiche” – 1971-72) end especially the “Hommage to Niepce” where the subject of the image is but a contact print of a roll of unexposed film witnessing the basic materials and procedures of the photographic. But also Franco Vaccari, Mario Cresci, Luigi Ghirri and others – on different battlegrounds – have fought from the early Seventies onward for establishing, in Italy and abroad, a richer and more self conscious practice of photography as a contemporary art and, as a consequence, its deeper and wider understanding. Silvio Wolf is one of the benchmarks of such tradition which is, at the same time, at the very core of the constant renovation in photography; not just within the technical domain – fickle and ephemeral as this is – but a poetic, philosophic and cultural one.
The ‘Horizons’ in Silvio Wolf’s idea of light
Thresholds of sight. Horizons
If the theme of the horizon and the idea of light as essence intrinsic to every aspect of the visible, as its very substance, are fundamental aspects in the work of Antonio Calderara, then an encounter – at a “distance,” of course – between his research and that of Silvio Wolf, both engaged in the definition of a “noumenic” reality created by light, will certainly be stimulating: beyond the contingency of the phenomenon, in the case of Calderara, and paradoxically inside it so deeply as to make it impossible to recognize, in the case of Wolf. The latter works with photography, in fact, but achieves results that are visually in line with those of the painter, so much so that he defines them as abstractions, considered “non-retinal interpretations of the visible, super-sensitive forms, mental images recognized symbolically in the real.” The abstract result does not necessarily imply total detachment from reality, as the pictorial experience of Calderara also demonstrates. Wolf, however, takes one further step, shifting into a different dimension with respect to that of representation, though still sublimated and evocative. The works of the Horizons cycle are generated by light, imprinting loose forms that come prior to any representative image, since they are generated in a moment before that in which the photographer consciously takes his first picture, and as such they come to light prior to the action, prior to the gaze. They are images that arise by chance and become language in the mind of the observer. Wolf has made the pieces included in this body of work starting in the mid-2000s, and we can say that they constitute a coherent arrival point and meaningful junction on the long path of his research, to view in terms of the continuing development of a linear discourse, focused around certain fundamental themes which the critics have repeatedly emphasized as factors underlying his production, and which emerge clearly in the Horizons, forming the basis for the works on the conceptual plane and in praxis, intertwining with each other, as happens in nearly all of Wolf’s oeuvre: light, the idea of absence also as a positive, regenerating element, the concept of the threshold as a fertile place of ambiguity as opposed to superficial certainty, of polysemy as opposed to closed, personal, narcissistic expression. These concepts also run through Calderara’s research, though in different ways, in an approach to painting that comes to grips with ideas of limitation and absence. The Horizons, as we have seen, are inscriptions of light, the subject of the image but also tautologically its expressive means, its medium, the true protagonist of the artist’s investigation since his very first photographs, dating back to the late 1970s and early 1980s (p. 18-21), all the way to latest installations, like Double Doors, made in the spring this year in the spaces of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (p. 53).
Wolf has been engaged for years in reflections on photography, which owe something – as is only natural – to the thinking of Ugo Mulas, leading him to analyze the practice of photography from the inside, starting with the intrinsic characteristics of the image, its constituent elements, putting light at the center, the very essence of photo-graphia, as the primary focus of reasoning, not without openings towards a dimension that goes well beyond the coolness of conceptual analysis, meta-language and self-referentiality. What makes these works so interesting is precisely their shift with respect to a pure analytical end. Of course the Horizons metaphorically and very firmly manifest the “limits” of images, but in doing so they open to infinite possibilities of interpretation on the part of the viewer, offering themselves as a horizon of the visual. These images situate themselves prior to representative expression and thrive on the taut dialectic between darkness and light, its lively and paradoxical colors, manifested as the synthesis between all possible images and silent blindness. Precisely the absence of a subject in the traditional sense of the term, which in the Horizons is only foreshadowed by the uncontrolled and accidental flow of light, makes it possible to translate excess into negation, conveying by analogy the effect produced by the too many images that blind us every day, making themselves illegible, erasing themselves from our mind. The Horizons, in their magmatic chromatism, make the very process that has generated them concretely visible, the free and unperceived imprint of the light on the surface, capable of generating an inscription that comes prior to any code.
As we have seen, however, it would be limiting to interpret these works only on a conceptual plane. What truly marks this “absence” is its capacity to leave room, to grant the gaze of the observer free rein. The horizons are such only by virtue of the imaginative projection of each viewer, who looking at these images identifies his or her own visual and mental horizon, actively coming to terms with them. Wolf displays a conception of the work as an experiential and certainly not purely contemplative fact, and the light is understood – here lies the interesting, innovative aspect – above all as an activator of an experience, whose nature is not limited to the simple plane of perception. As Lyle Rexer has aptly explained, “photography is a conceptual object that explores a series of relationships, not things, and we can glean even greater intuitions from it – new levels of penetration, the cabalists would say – on the nature of our experience” (1).
Light, at the origin
Like Antonino, the protagonist of the famous story by Calvino on The Adventure of a Photographer (2), Wolf from the outset has tried to reach a sort of “single” photograph, that which can not only represent all the others, but even all images tout court, even those that are impossible to make. Perhaps also for him, “photography has a meaning only if it exhausts all possible images” (3), it has a meaning, that is, if it presents itself as image that embodies the concept, beyond anecdote and circumstance, as happens in the Horizons, pre-photographic images, clearly in action and not just in potential. Somewhat paradoxically, to achieve this goal I believe Wolf began precisely from the point in which, on the other hand, the protagonist in Calvino’s story arrived, almost surrendering: “Once all the possibilities had been exhausted, when the circle closed in on him, Antonino understood that photographing photos was the only road left to him, in fact the true road he had been vaguely searching for up to then” (4). At the end of the 1970s Luigi Ghirri, the absolute protagonist of that moment, a photographer and a lucid theorist at the same time, invited the young artist to the exhibition Iconicittà. On that occasion he presented a work that reminded me precisely of these words of Calvino: Feticcio della Comunicazione (Fetish of Communication, pp. 18-19). This is a complex work (5), with a clearly conceptual approach, that in my view constitutes the premise of all the future developments, a sort of fixed point from which to discuss things. It is one of his very few works to show the human figure, though reduced to being a manikin whose nature dissolves in a game of photography in photography that increasingly distances itself from reality, from its plausible representation. “The mechanical re-production of the effigy exorcises the medium from its nature as infinitely reproducible, through digressions of light intrinsic to the medium, all the way to its perceptible extinction” (6), as the artist says. Light, from this first moment, becomes the origin, the pivot round which the investigation of vision is conducted, as in Giorno-Notte-Giorno (Day-Night-Day, p.19), in which the choice of different moments and vantage points to represent a skylight, a threshold between inside and outside, “demonstrates the total ambiguity of convention” (7), Luce–Riflesso (Light-Reflection, p. 20) and Grotta (Grotto, p. 21), also relatable to a “mental space.” These youthful works are, furthermore, the premises for a more structured reflection on the ability of light to unveil the ambiguity of our perception of space, like that expressed in the Skylights (pp. 32-33), on which he worked in 2002: here the clear signs of very white light are the signals we perceive in an other, indefinite, immaterial place, not measurable except with the aid of luminous reflections. Franco Vaccari observes, regarding the photographs of the early 1980s, that “more than detections of the different modes of appearance of things, they seem like the recording of changes that intervene in the Self that moves. But this self never reaches the point of forming a stable reality, capable of naming the real. It is a Self that is perceived only in movement, and that movement continuously throws into crisis” (8).
During the course of that decade the focus on light becomes assiduous, prevailing: it is obviously an expressive tool, but it is also a symbolic element and, above all, a fluid vehicle of possible and open relations, the sign of the continuous mutation of gazes and reflexes. I am thinking about Vittorie della luce (Victories of the Light, p. 22), Luce di Pietra (Light of Stone, p. 23), Moallaqah (p. 23), Luce Verde (Green Light, p. 24) in 1988, and Piccolo Myhrab, from the next year (p. 25).
In this sense, a “manifesto” work like Origine della Luce (Origin of Light) is fundamental, a large lightbox from 1994 (p. 26), in which the light becomes concrete presence, totally incarnating itself in the work, in all its physical significance, becoming precisely its origin, not just its outcome. The luminous material is also the preferred medium to make many installations, in which it not only redesigns and redefines the space, but above all determines and connotes the place, also bringing out its essence, structure, history and memory. This is also the direction taken by the Icone di luce (Icons of Light): shown for the first time as a reinterpretation of the Gian Ferrari picture gallery in 1993, together with the Libro Bianco (White Book, p. 27) and Laboratorio (Laboratory, p. 46), they foreshadow that installation dimension of the work that precisely from that moment on becomes important in the artist’s output, as a necessary opening: the need to come to terms not only with the space, but also and above all with viewers, to involve them in an experience that shifts from the artistic to the human plane, becomes more pressing, and light – an element that is simultaneously real and ethereal, concrete and symbolic – is the ideal vocabulary for this dialogue. To make the Icone di luce (Icons of Light, pp. 27-31), the artist photographs paintings from strange and unusual angles, conveying the image as he has captured it, illegible, erased by reflections and perspective. Light takes on a dual meaning, creating photographic images while erasing painted images: the ambiguity destroys the illusion and leaves us faced with reality in an open and implicating relationship. As Verzotti writes, “Silvio Wolf’s work through the images he makes, whether they are two-dimensional or protruding, placed in space like sculptures or arrayed in installations, addresses our passive condition in their regard, our way of being pure receivers when faced by their fascinating power and their capacity to totally take the place of reality. His work takes aim at the alienation of the experience of the real as a truth of our existential state of which we should at least gain some awareness” (9). Wolf shakes us, trying to make us take part, as well as take note. If the Icons of Light leave us bewildered and the Horizons present us with our inner images, the Soglie a Specchio (Mirror Thresholds, pp. 36-40), like the Meditations (p. 41) from the same period, made starting in 2009, call us physically into play, including us in the image we are observing. The threshold becomes mirrored, showing us our figure reflected in another, virtual but at the same time extremely real space. We are projected into a new reality in which, in contrast with black – photographically legible as the product of a surplus of light, hence of figuration and image – stands our image, the only image we are able to see: we are left alone with ourselves and it is the light that guides us, because once again it erases and recreates; the particular printing technique makes the reflection of what is in front of the photograph visible precisely in the areas of the image that would normally be white, because they were flooded with light.
The same function, amplified, is performed by the luminous material in I Nomi del Tempo (The Names of Time), the impressive installation presented in 2009 at the Venice Bienniale (p. 43), but also in several earlier projects on an environmental scale, in which the substance of light redefines both the space and our way of acting in it, at the same time, evoking intense sensations exerted on the plane of perception, emotion and awareness: The Elsewhere, made in 1999 in London (p. 50) and Sulla Soglia (On the Threshold) set up in Milan in 2001 (p. 42), but also Pietra d’Acqua (Water Stone), the fountain designed in 2004 for a public space (p. 53) or, on a smaller scale, Light House (p. 35) and the very recent project Enclave (p. 34). The symbolic thickness of the luminous material, combined with its “constructive” potential, is more explicitly activated in projects where its ability to evoke the memory of a place is translated into intensely evocative spatial reformulations: Stelle Braille (Braille Stars, pp. 44-45), in which fixed slide projections fill empty space with “words” and light is transformed into a new possibility of communication, mingling in the setting with recorded voices; Luci Bianche (White Lights, p. 47), a complex multimedia installation, where in the enveloping darkness of the Refettorio delle Stelline in Milan female voices are heard, as the faces of the children once hosted in that place resurface like ghosts, which “charged with a cutting and paradoxical intensity of lighting, take on an evidence that blurs the contours of the individual profiles. The light, in its metamorphoses and epiphanies, involves recognitions and relations: the figures ignited here have no stasis, no immobile viewpoints, boundaries or frames, but are in continuous expansion” (10); in L’Osservanza (The Observance, pp. 48-49), as in Braille Stars, light explicitly becomes inscription and words, the deeper meaning of this work, and the installations emerge from the buildings, visible from the outside, becoming concrete presences. A dynamic inversion between interior and exterior that offers wide and always new possibilities of interpretation and fascinates Wolf, who organizes some of his projects around this mechanism, such as the one made for the Waldensian Church in Milan, Luogo Parola (Word-Place, p. 51), in which the suggestion of the identity between light and word returns, in an even more sweeping way.
In these projects, as in all of the artist’s output, light plays a fundamental role as an active element, rich with symbolic intensity and communicative power, capable of concretely determining an elsewhere, an abstraction seen not as an escape from the real, but as its deeper, sublimated and at the same time open interpretation. Light forms the basis of photography and what the artist, the photographer, does is substantially to take a step backward. He shifts the attention to the auroral moment of origin, thus proposing alternative developments with respect to our conventions of seeing and, therefore, of interpretation. Wolf does not at all reject the dialectic with the real; in fact, he chooses to photograph or to intervene in physically determinated places, often with an important history. He always starts with the given reality, but gets beyond its circumstance towards a different dimension that is not just mental but fully experiential, in a synthesis between thought and life. And he does so by returning to the origin, to light.
1. Rexer Lyle, Silvio Wolf: la Porta verso la Soglia, in Paradiso. Photography and video by Silvio Wolf, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Gottardo, Lugano, 15 February/6 May 2006, Galleria Gottardo – Contrasto, Lugano 2006, p. 125.
2. Calvino Italo, L’avventura di un fotografo, in Gli amori difficili, Einaudi, Torino 1970, English edition The Adventure of a Photographer, in Difficult Loves, 1983.
3. Calvino Italo, op. cit., p. 43.
4. Calvino Italo, op. cit., p. 45.
5. Feticcio della Comunicazione is a polyptych from 1978, in 4 parts: the first is composed of six Polaroids (33 x 18 cm), the second of 8 Polaroids (44 x 18 cm), the third of 18 Polaroids (11 x 153 cm) and the fourth of 11 Polaroids (11 x 99 cm).
6. Silvio Wolf. Light Specific. Opere 1977–1995, Edizioni Nuovi Strumenti, Brescia 1995, p. 24. 7. Quintavalle Arturo Carlo, Commento a una poesia di Silvio Wolf, in Spazio Mentale, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Mercato del Sale, Milan, Editore Ilford, Milano, 1981, s.i.p.
8. Vaccari Franco, La frontiera labile, in Spazio Mentale, op.cit., s.i.p.
9. Verzotti Giorgio (ed.), Silvio Wolf. Sulla Soglia, exhibition catalogue, PAC, Milan, 7 October/6 November 2011, Silvana Editoriale, Cinisello Balsamo 2001, p. 12
10. Fagone Vittorio, Il “Senso del luogo” e altre quattro variazioni. A proposito della ricerca fotografica di Silvio Wolf, in Silvio Wolf. Light Specific… op.cit., p. 9.
Paradiso, Photography and Video by Silvio Wolf
This work started from the specific need to connect my projects very firmly to the places for which I create them. When I went to Lugano a number of things happened simultaneously which seemed insignificant at first, but then they took on meaning. The first was reading a name, the name “Paradiso” which I found on a road sign. It was the first thing that I read in Lugano and it struck me a lot. Basically I was looking for a way in. The city made me this gift and well that’s it… the game had started, everything was already underway.
In fact on the first day I found the term “Paradiso” and then when I started to expand the circle of my research, while I was going to the little church of Saint John the Baptist at Mogno, I discovered Monte Verità (Mount Truth) above Locarno… that place had a particular meaning in the twentieth century.
The truth fascinated me as a name, because every one of us seeks our own truth, so I decided to give the corpus of all the photographic works in the project the title “Truth”.
The other fundamental element was the discovery, where they took me, of the deep belly to the bank, the treasure, a place that lies sixty feet underground of which I had no idea, not even any perception of it. When I saw it, I felt that this was the start of everything, it was a sort of spark to the project.
It is a constructed place because everything that is contained in it is also concealed. So it is a place that makes things invisible. The place itself basically has no identity because when you enter this space you don’t know whether you are in a space ship, in a morgue, in an icy place, absolutely… unidentifiable in terms of its function. This place inspired me with the idea of discovery, of travel, of a vision of a possible alterity through surfaces.
The video work, “The Treasure”, was born inside this deep place along a downwards route. You take a lift, you go down sixty feet under ground and then this journey starts, a journey that is repeated three times according to three different levels of interpretation and stratification in space to achieve increasingly denser, increasingly stronger perceptions of the place.
In the room that I called “Altrove” (elsewhere) I faced the challenge of these images, perhaps not entirely retinal, of the space I had discovered under ground.
I worked on the details or on the fields, that are also broad, of these opaque and reflecting surfaces at the same time . They are images that I desaturated and reversed to the negative, particularly cold, almost evaporated, like X-rays of the space.
I liked the images as they were, but at the same time they ran the risk of becoming icy images of architecture. When I was left alone for eight hours working down there in this space, in which I didn’t know what time it was any more, what the weather was like, I didn’t know anything anymore… slowly I started to sense the possibility that these surfaces, so polished, reflective and cold would appear more meaningfully if I managed to reduce their degree of contrast and the shininess. So I gradually started to blur. And when you blur using wide angle lenses very particular things happen, because on the one hand you manage to define the structure of the perspective because it remains almost intact, but on the other hand, it is as if the surfaces started to smudge, they reflect light differently and things change.
It is difficult to say what lies behind a negative image. At times absolutely nothing at all happens. At times the negative image is so similar to the positive, but there is this extra something: when the architecture is in black and white it becomes white and black. The really extraordinary thing is how the lights with the shadows reverse, and it is then that something happens so that curiously some of these architectures, not all, acquire a depth that I wasn’t able to see in the positive image. So in the depths of the photographic language I allowed myself to go further and see how far I could go, and in particular the apse of the little church of Saint John the Baptist at Mogno, a point of reference that I find sublime, that I felt strongly as being inspired by Islamic architecture.
I have studied Mario Botta’s architecture and I have found it has cardinal points:
there is the use of symmetry, the alternating materials, the constant and almost obsessive presence of a binary code, a stroke, a horizontal mark that alternates dark with light, shiny with reflections. This binary code was very important for me because it constituted a form of writing and it became an interface for me between the physical place and also the intangible entities to which I intend to relate through these specific elements of architecture. The place remains on the one hand the same as itself because, photographically speaking, I can only start from the surfaces on which the light reflects, the absolutely faithful surfaces of my vision, and on the other hand, I manage to transform them through the photographic process into forms that are meaningful for me, so that they become metaphors of architecture.
There are other constituent parts that are very significant for me which are: the “Castle”: “the flying castle” which is a series of images linked to the specific architecture of the bank, which I am not showing because it wouldn’t fit in relation to the exhibition itself. They are basically perspective photos of the balconies taken from above looking down, where at the post production stage I intervened radically, removing and cutting all the parts that concerned the daily routine of the bank. All that remains are the white balcony perspectives that I juxtapose with images of galaxies and nebulas. I wanted to create almost the sense of a space ship, of a traveling place.
And then there is another important verbal element, a text that I started to write exactly one year before the inauguration of the exhibition. It is entitled “The Factory of Paradise”, a sort of diary of mine, but it is also a continuous reflection on photography, on the sense of things and also on certain important, strongly existential elements of which my photography is definitely full. Photography is really a research tool for me and also a tool for discovery, because when I start to work, I do it from what I find, from what I see and I don’t pose myself very many problems, in fact I absolutely mustn’t pose them, I have to act, I have to act in an entirely intuitive way: collecting, collecting materials that I know full well will be only semi-finished, but I’m at a loss without them. It is a response, it is a response to real facts and it is also a fast, intuitive response and along the way, with hindsight, they manifest as forms of recognition.
I like the surprise dimension when I work with film, in the sense that I don’t know exactly what and how it will turn out. I’m always suspicious of the capture with digital cameras and the consequent urge to look immediately at the resulting image, because there is something… I don’t know how to define it, almost a sort of sacrilege… of the necessary period of latency, which is so important to me. Waiting for the image to manifest itself, its coming to light.
An then naturally I digitalize the images and subject them to quite a lot of post-production work because changing some of the details of the real space is inevitable to make particular aspects perfect, to take it to those extreme conditions that you would have liked to find in it, or because your new reality is the image. It is not a fact of the reality any more.
Photography before the generation of images, photography in its pure state, is the constitution of light and colour, autonomous, generative scripts of light on photosensitive material. They are horizons. They are images consisting of the first part of a photographic film which is exposed to the light while the camera is being loaded and therefore they are pieces of photographic film that have not been exposed to the light intentionally by the photographer, but simply because the camera must be loaded before taking the first photo. Some are insignificant, some are special, some are extraordinary: you never now in advance, you can never say, it first needs to occur…
Conversazione con Silvio Wolf
Potresti spiegarmi le origini della tua pratica artistica, che identifichi nella fase degli “Stadi del Linguaggio” (1977-1987)? Qual è il filo conduttore che ti ha guidato in quegli anni e com’è nato il tuo interesse per il linguaggio visivo e mentale, per i “codici dell’esistenza”?
Ho intitolato la prima sezione del libro Light Specific “Stadi del Linguaggio” perché all’inizio della mia ricerca sentivo l’esigenza fondamentale di definire, verificare e rendere visibili non solo le “cose della Realtà” attraverso la loro apparenza sensibile, ma il Linguaggio stesso che mi permetteva di “scriverle” e ricostruire la loro immagine. A posteriori posso dire che quei lavori mi consentirono di definire il mio linguaggio e di renderlo visibile non dissociandolo dalla rappresentazione, come invece faceva molta arte concettuale del tempo. Mi sembrava, infatti, che l’artista concettuale “che usava il mezzo fotografico”, privilegiasse gli aspetti linguistici mortificandone l’azione e l’esperienza, che demandava “al fotografo”, concentrandosi piuttosto sul concetto e il processo, così che l’immagine aveva un valore relativo e talvolta strumentale.
Per me invece era come se il linguaggio – emanasse dalle – e – aderisse alle – superfici sensibili della Realtà e la Fotografia s’incaricasse di scriverlo mediante le immagini.
Mi fa impressione notare come nei primissimi lavori (Cambi d’Orizzonte, Argentiera e in tutto il ciclo Spazio Mentale fosse già presente il problema della Soglia, del quale non ero allora cosciente e che ho riconosciuto solo più tardi come uno dei temi centrali della mia ricerca. Individuavo istintivamente luoghi di passaggio nei quali il limite tra interno ed esterno, presenza e assenza, era reso visibile dalla superficie fotografica, perché la fotografia era (è!) essa stessa soglia attiva tra due mondi, che si definiscono reciprocamente attraverso il piano simbolico dell’immagine.
Un’altra questione che il mio lavoro ha indagato a fondo in quegli anni è stata certamente quella dello Spazio: di uno spazio fisico che corrisponde a uno spazio mentale. Avevo scritto:
….. la realtà data supporto di immagini mentali. E’ il pensiero che vede… (in Cambi d’Orizzonte)
….. essere la cornice…. la mente è il mezzo, la mente è il limite….. (in Argentiera)
….. Ciò che rappresento è immagine visibile del mio pensiero, del pensiero che vede e si riconosce in ciò che già…. (in Spazio Mentale)
Poi l’indagine si è indirizzata al Tempo, con i grandi polittici (primo dei quali Acqua, che indagava l’aspetto della cecità, delle morti istantanee iscritte nell’atto di fotografare).
Il tempo, cruciale dello scatto diventava un -altro- tempo, interno all’opera, (… un tempo nuovo la percorre internamente. In Alberi) riguardante più l’esperienza dell’osservatore che quella del fotografo (… Infinito Presente. In B.A.C.H.), o il tempo della simultaneità (in Grotta e Specchi), fino alla sintesi di Tempo, Spazio e Luce in Trasfigurazione dei Santi, Belvedere e Praha. (questi ultimi due lavori presentati a Documenta nel 1987).
I luoghi e gli oggetti che hai scelto sono parte di una tua poetica dell’immaginazione, che decostruisci e ricomponi grazie alla fotografia, che sveli “rappresentando ciò che non sai”? Noto una forte presenza di elementi naturali – la luce, l’acqua, gli alberi: questa ricerca cosa ti ha svelato ai fini del tuo percorso successivo?
La scelta dei soggetti di quelle immagini è stata per certi versi una “coincidenza” (… coincidenze istantanee … In Alberi), casi fattisi necessità, luoghi del quotidiano divenuti simbolici e caricati si senso, così che la realtà data si trasformasse in codici, scritture, metafore, luoghi d’ascolto. Ho scritto nel 1982: “Il visibile sottende l’immaginabile. Immagini senza oggetti. Oggetti senza tempo” (in Alberi). Ho praticato una fotografia non confermativa fatta per svelare il non visibile attraverso il visibile, slegata dal tempo ferreo che l’ha determinata con lo scatto e non più necessitata dall’oggetto osservato, ma svincolata dalla sua presunta “oggettività”.
Mi piace molto la tua idea di “poetica dell’immaginazione, che decostruisci e ricomponi grazie alla fotografia, che sveli ‘rappresentando ciò che non sai”.
Sì, penso che alla fine la cosa fotografata sia importante, ma in fondo sia solo l’occasione; là le cose sono state viste, ma restano inimmaginabili senza tutta quell’attività autonoma, inconscia e imprevedibile del farsi immagine che fa emergere l’“altro” da sé.
C’è stato un momento fondamentale che ti ha portato a uscire dalla bidimensionalità delle immagini dal 1987 in poi?
L’uscita dalla bidimensionalità dell’immagine è coincisa con il compimento di questo ciclo, che si concluse con Praha nel 1987, una delle 2 opere esposte a Kassel. Pochi mesi dopo realizzavo La Verità (lavoro collaborativo) e soprattutto Grande Muro Occidentale, la mia prima installazione site-specific con la quale uscivo (finalmente) dagli obblighi rappresentativi dello spazio, trasformandolo inserendo elementi bidimensionali nello spazio tridimensionale, così che il luogo stesso fosse anche in “un altro luogo” e caricato di valore simbolico ed esistenziale, non più solo visivo e contemplativo.
Oggi mi accorgo di stare tornando all’immagine “pura”, condensando in essa il mio percorso nello spazio e includendo gli elementi dello spazio esterno attraverso la riflessione; interni attraverso la materialità della superficie; esperienziali, attraverso la presenza e lo sguardo dell’osservatore; temporali, attraverso la definizione del Present Perfect dell’opera; al Bianco e Nero che assomma, sintetizza e definisce tutti i colori e le declinazioni di luce, rendendo visibile e assieme invisibile.
Posso chiederti di più sullo Spazio Islamico, che hai conosciuto durante il tuo viaggio? Cosa ti ha colpito, più in dettaglio, e dove sei giunto partendo da esso?
Mi colpì molto la dimensione del vuoto, dell’assenza e dell’altrove che la cultura visiva e architettonica islamica rendono visibile ed esperibile. La mia cultura mono-centrica e prospettica Occidentale (della quale la Fotografia è una delle massime espressioni) si proiettava in spazi e luoghi il cui fuoco non era né visibile, né centrale e le cui linee prive di angoli retti difficilmente erano circoscrivibile alle mie forme familiari quadrate o rettangolari.
Thinking in Berlin
12 Projects for the final solution of the problem
1) “Do not buy from the Jews”
2) The Italian consulate, half inhabited and half closed, on the edge of a land of no one, among the hills of debris and tablas played among the trees. Car seats, children uncatchable as herds of wild animals, mysterious figures behind the dunes. Machines with the doors open, prostitutes, pickup trucks, landfills, waste of all kinds.
3) Sprigs of a tender green sprout on the dark trunk of a tree in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery. A tiny red spider walks over. Perhaps the smallest thing I can perceive across the city.
4) The cells of the SS were located in the former artists’ studios of sculpture. Kids play, rabbits flee over the rubble of the buildings of the Gestapo. “In late Summer 1933 the Gestapo set-up its own prison (Hausgefängnis): twenty one-man cells in the lower section of the basement floor (artist’s studio rooms) of the former School of Industrial Arts and Crafts”.
5) “They used to process people in Birkenau” First gassed, then shaved and gold being removed, then burned away”.
6) The night: clear air. The dark masses of the Prussian museum architecture against
7) the blue starry sky. No one around. The night city, semi-unknowable, softly crossable.
8) The extermination of the Jews of Europe was decided in a villa in the trees, between yacht clubs and holiday homes. Four steel cables to hold up a pine tree in the garden. A gunshot is enough for a man.
9) From the lowest apex I looked up. The dark sky, cloudy and moving. The strong wind. Everywhere traces of death systematically devised and implemented. Outside, charming villas and exuberant flowering chestnut trees.
10) Few times in my life I’ve been in places circumscribed by man of such beauty and charm.
11) A grand piano covered with a black shaped case. The black piano bench and the round stool of the page-turner. The instrument cannot play, light cannot enter.
a) The reunified Berlin is a large backyard with no walls, with many gates of which I never have all the keys. I have to go out with the car, but I cannot find all the keys. The same thing happens to me with the motorcycle. The continuing difficulty to cross these barriers, though there are no walls.
b) I’m in Berlin in a nightclub. It ‘s a Berlin as I can imagine from Milan. Not the place where I am, but its image as seen from the outside. Then at the entrance of a room in which is being celebrated a Jewish holiday, perhaps a birthday, but not a sacred rite. It’s a secular holiday. They don’t let me go in, in spite of the attempts, the explanations, the protests of belonging to the Jewish roots. They don’t let me enter.
c) Once again, a dream of exclusion from the Jewish community. Once again I am not part of it, I’m held outside. I get close but I cannot enter.
In Berlin sein
I cannot enter the rooms of Judaism. The gallery next door to the synagogue is closed again. I pass by many times, but I always miss the magic combination of time + space + person to enter. It ‘s like in dreams.
I hope not to have them put to death for the second time.
The Factory of Paradiso
The first words:
Paradise, Treasure, Truth.
This is the beginning:
perhaps it already contains all that is to be.
The Factory of Paradiso.
An idea of a journey.
The names, the field of research,
the gathering, the recognition.
To search for an implicit inner law
to correspond to,
that guides me and takes me far away.
The genesis of the project:
Formation, Threshold, Treasure, Elsewhere.
The Tree of Paradise is the map of the Treasure.
These are the words.
Architecture: the art of making the void inhabitable.
Life in direct light,
Experience in reflected light.
The beginning, foundation and spark,
The origin of the whole project.
sculpture and scripture of light,
material and color.
The building is constructed starting here.
Already contains the idea of the whole and the possible.
Physically I put it at the beginning.
To create the void in the full,
Inner and outer.
To reveal the hidden,
To present the elsewhere.
“The beyond that lies within”.
Words or images?
Words and images.
A metaphysical principle.
That which is,
Material of immanence,
To be experienced, represented,
Is the form of an indivisible present
Set between two infinite times.
“…a medium in which inner and outer worlds converge…”
Raw: the pure luminous signal,
Degree zero of vision,
The almost invisible.
To write images,
To think with the eyes.
A narrow street
That leads deep inside,
The truth of the image
In the image.
to transcend the limits
Thanks to them.
It is dream material.
exegesis of the Real.
Elsewhere, infinite Present.
Writing of Time.
One never knows.
Each scan of the image
Is its translation in numbers.
The truth of words,
The truth of the image.
The word gives existence to nothingness.
The image reveals the real,
Interprets its shadow and absence,
Appearance and fullness.
The word image makes us see.
Language stops things,
Gives them truth.
Truth names and transcends Time.
Photography as judgment and choice,
Taking a position on time
By means of light.
Reality and appearance:
To bring things to light,
To bring into presence.
Void, absence and elsewhere,
In the Real lies the reason of being.
In the evidence and the limit
The appearance of being.
To create the conditions:
The truth appears.
Responses of the Real
to thought’s questioning.
The infinite and the frame:
The mind is the means,
The mind is the limit.
Levels of Reality.
Contingent and Infinite.
Interpretations of being.
The following text, a journal and a meditation on photography and the meaning of things, was written during the making of Paradiso.
A) Place reflecting and opaque,
sparkling and impenetrable,
secret and inaccessible,
container of the invisible,
It conceals infinite secret stories:
the time of men, unspeakable stories,
past, private and profound.
It leads elsewhere
Through sensitive surfaces.
B) The place, the surfaces, the reflections
allude to a mystery I sense laden in the space,
three floors deep, 18 meters under ground.
C) Sealed to light,
It conceals and protects the visible.
D) The deep heart of the project,
a generating cell,
the root from which everything springs.
E) The place of departure,
Inner and outer, binary.
Dull and reflecting,
opaque and transparent.
Neutral, gray, white and black,
anonymous and mirroring.
All inside absorbs the present,
hides the invisible.
The extremely near, the extremely far.
The here and the there.
Place without scale:
F) The Present:
the ampulla, a spacecraft,
an pristine laboratory.
the Universe out there, beyond.
The visible Infinite.
a station of listening and departure.
a possible path, the wait and the elsewhere.
G) Inner sounds:
organic membranes, percussion,
tribal rhythm, physical and primordial.
radio emissions, light echoes.
H) The secret of the possible.
A thin skin shields us frrom the invisible.
A very subtle, shining threshold.
I) Finite, infinite.
The limit permits us to look beyond.
The limit beyond which we can look.
K) The experience of the journey.
Identification between body
(voyaging subject) and place.
Experience of the place,
identity of the subject.
From absolute white, from light,
descent through color
to the threshold of absolute black.
Imagination of space
by fragments, flashes,
sharply blurred pulsations.
M) As soon as you see something,
you make an image of it.
The experience of seeing,
the vision of the image,
to see (is) to re-see.
interpretation of time.
A dual perception,
access to forms of the possible.
Intuition and allusion.
O) To think with the eyes:
To sculpt time (Tarkovsky)
To write time (Wolf).
Experience of the Subject,
nature of the Place.
P) The motor is an idea of journey.
The experience (vision)
A real journey,
a sensory experience,
A voyage through the experience of the place crossed.
Q) Light generates,
connects and reassembles.
echoes of light.
R) Progress in work:
Ship’s log of the Treasure Hunt
In the darkness of post-production
the film is like clay,
it senses and responds to fingers’ contact
on sensitive dry keys.
Light translated into numbers,
matter into data,
place into chromatic fragments.
To write, to write,
to write the times,
places and spaces,
peaks, saturation and contrasts.
Recordings of invisible events,
sensitive profane traces,
The judgment is expressed by the eyes alone,
very long instants,
To treat the image,
the human psyche,
the idea of the place.
the possible vision,
the finitely other.
The treatment of the image:
to deprive reality of the imperfections
the eye doesn’t catch,
the mind doesn’t bear,
the film, therefore, doesn’t accept.
From the film-clay to the Real-sculpture.
All that I make visible, exists.
That which exists, is.
The possible condenses in the being
Disguise, conceal, show through, write, lighten, discover, reappear, define, vanish:
versions of “non-being”.
Like 21st-century scribes,
we write black to say white,
summoning light through darkness.
Muybridge unveiled the mystery of movement
thanks to the still image generated inside it,
modern warlock-photographer of instant time.
make the stillness of suspended time dynamic,
the fragments unearthed from the indistinct whole
of things thought and not spoken.
Intelligent visual deceptions,
projected in a river
crossed by 24 frames per second.
We breathe much more slowly
than the time captured by the eyes.
Art need not astonish,
but just let appear.
Manipulating clay and light
appears the essence,
the clear core of all problems.
In order for space
to appear equal to itself,
one must apply radical,
subtle, profound metamorphosis.
The deception is real:
X and Y the coordinates.
Z the crucial point
where the image implodes:
coded rewritings of space and time.
Make, Save, Gain, Restore, Cast, Effect, Replace, Repeat, Insert, Resolve, Stretch, Undo, Reset: strip down the image till it becomes a perfect body.
R3) Compositing, Editing
The code is inscribed,
Each new reformulation
Maintains structure and secret intact.
Each new permutation
Recombines the parts,
distinct and opposite.
Offspring of the same matrix,
Now the place reveals the secret.
The elsewhere is (in the) present,
Marbles and metals generate thresholds.
Positive that interfaces with negative,
the skin of the place conducts and retains.
S) All is already written,
needs only recalculating.
All is potential,
needs only enactment.
Therefore all is connected:
we reveal ourselves through images.
Paradiso post scriptum
A) All the parts of the project, of the work, of the installation are connected, interrelated.
The work obeys and respects inner laws of the place.
B) Everything that appears is in the place and of the place.
D) The work as a whole forms a place of experience.
E) The connections are: above/below, inner/outer, static/dynamic, positive/negative.
F) The place is certain, specific, material (bank, caveau, church)
G) The work has to do with:
Material data: films, walls, doors, elevators, balconies…
Immaterial instances: light, color, threshold, elsewhere…
Architecture: art of making the void inhabitable, mediator between material and immaterial, between coexisting languages.
H) The place, and the circumstance:
Are necessary and specific.
Are opportunity, possibility, vehicle.
Are the outer, the otherness.
Are intact and transformed.
R) Material and dream, dream material.
Home of the Unknown
Photographs are stable, still images,
Humans transient, impermanent entities.
Pictures are partial,
They cannot capture the actual, real self.
Yet images allude
To the essence we long,
The loss and the wholeness we strive for.
Are we unique,
Scattered, sparse fragments
Of a greater, unreachable image?
By will and experience,
By chance and through choice,
Is there a fulfillment to our irremissible quest?
The root and the problem,
The known and the unknown,
I wonder: who are
The appearance of things is deceiving, their aspect elusive. What I see, the retinal image that I can grasp indicates only the first layer of what is visible, the skin of reality: the first level of its infinite complexity and the root of manifold visual interpretations. The phenomena that we witness are products of our consciousness, perception and projection: this clear illusion we call reality.
Photography bases its investigation on the physical data of reality, a codified transcription marked by traces of light shaped onto a fixed sensitive support. A photograph is a multilayered text to be read and deciphered, it may contain an inexhaustible reserve of understandings: all meanings are contained within its boundaries and present to be discovered and revealed. New interpretations may spring from the depth of the apparently flat surface of the image, rendered manifest through a hermeneutic process. Although we shall never grasp the true way things are, photography is an open source, an endlessly rich means of investigation and discovery.
I have worked with the medium of photography for a long time investigating manifold forms of reality from different points of view, aspects and positions. Along this quest I have developed an increasingly non-representational, almost abstract approach to transcend the first and essential layer of visible reality.
I wonder how the literal vision of photography can explore the depth of what cannot be seen directly; how this inherently limited medium, bound and dependent upon the appearance of what is manifest, may offer a way to trespass its boundaries and allude to what is beyond, elsewhere, perhaps invisibly there.
My exhibition US addresses these ideas and explores them through a subject that I’ve always found extremely problematic, if not almost prohibitive to approach: the human figure. The more I look at us, the more I wonder who we are. I have come to the conclusion that we are the problem and the solution to the problem, and the responsible act of pointing the camera towards us may offer a new insight and a different perspective to this endless quest.
The identity of my subjects is unclear and their names unknown; these photographs are visible forms of the questions I pose. I’m asking the audience to assume a fundamental role in completing my work, which I conceive as an open platform presented to the viewer. I sense that the answers are primarily embedded in the glance of the beholder, his active position and experience. Ultimately the picture is the medium between the Subject and the Other, the vessel to communicate in either direction: a threshold to trespass.
“Men have created an image of everything”
(The angel Raphaela speaking to the angel Cassiel in Faraway, So Close by Wim Wenders,1993)
The visible has been completely mapped, our planet is covered with images and we live immersed and overexposed to images: reality is seen, confused and understood with them.
We are constantly engaged in a practice of interpretation and re-consideration of second, third, fourth order realities, where images have become a substantial part of the visible real, the skin of Real that we address photographically. Is there anything unseen left to be photographed “out there”, anything to be looked beyond the veil of the existing images?
In my opinion the heart of the problem is the Subject: he who sees, how he sees and, above all: what he actually sees. In Photography the symbolic relationship is no longer based on the umbilical cord connecting the image to its referent, instead it is between the image and the gaze of the person who stands before, becoming an active and aware part of its essence and existence. I am interested in the Reality of the Image, that which is charged with meaning in the present time of experience: it is as it happens. The work pertains to the individual and his awareness: the artist is the medium between Reality and Subject. The image is a vibrating threshold between elsewhere and present, the invisible underlies the visible: images are their symbolic forms of interpretation.
I wish to explore the very fine line between seeing and thinking, the threshold that connects and separates these two fundamental aspects of our visual understanding of reality. My focus is on the boundary that defines our mental and perceptual interaction with the Real, therefore the crucial role that the beholder plays in the relationship between what the photographer saw and what the viewer is seeing. The picture is a new reality, at the same times a symbolic place of contact and experience: ultimately the surface where two different gazes and thoughts can meet for the very first time.
In my photographs the subject is unclear, often veiled and ambiguous. Photography is the perfectly imperfect medium that can only represent the Skin of Reality, the first, literal and fundamental layer of many others that are covered and not directly visible. I sense that we are never -in front of the things-, or perhaps we have been there all the time, but their names and appearances are absolutely unclear. This is the reason why although we are granted visual access to the objects of Reality, we need to interpret their appearance and reach our idea of truth which is, nonetheless, always beyond and elsewhere, no matter how close we feel we may have come to it. I trust that art can bring us very close to our idea of truth and to the awareness of our human impossibility to grasp the actual way things are, that we’ll never reach and fully understand until the day when we shall finally know, know again?
We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the very first time.
T.S. Eliot, from Little Gidding, in Four Quartets, 1943.
There can be no more appropriate term for the title of an exhibition by Silvio Wolf than “threshold”.
His works are photographs and, in the end, the photographic act itself is a way of standing on a threshold: the photographer is immersed in his here-and-now, no matter what his camera wants to capture, yet the photographic shot that fixes the image immediately drags him elsewhere, in the arrested time of reproduction that eternalizes time-space simultaneity and projects it into future times and spaces, those of the perception of the image thus made.
Every shot, then, has the value of a threshold, of an opening that from a here virtually shifts us toward a “beyond”. So it is proper that the entire exhibition we are discussing here has been named for the “Threshold”, and that this is also the theme of one of the rooms, each of which is devoted to a different iconographic idea.
One of Wolf’s first works, Le Due Porte (The Two Doors, 1980), seems like the depiction of the idea outlined above. Triggered, as usual, by a chance encounter of the artist with a phenomenon of reality, the photograph simply provides us with a frontal view of a strange masonry construction. We see a door shaped in the Moorish style that leads to a small dark room, at whose back there is another opening in the form of a door, this time perfectly rectangular. The second door offers a view of what seems like a desert landscape. A door that opens to another door is a pure threshold, we might say: the construction performs this sole function and fulfills it, placing itself moreover at the center of an anthropological “void”, the desert, that lends itself all too easily to a metaphorical interpretation. And the small dark zone inside will inevitably be assigned the function of a border between two luminous zones, foreground and background, becoming the darkness that permits perception of light and thus vision and the visual, a negative that becomes the condition for the presentation of a positive.
Much of Silvio Wolf’s work is based on these figures of reciprocity, of symmetry composed of pairs of opposites, but ones that interact as dialectical poles; and much of the work is based on these somewhat romantic figures that are nevertheless also indicative of our way of being in the world: absence, emptiness, the lack that as such moves thought and creates unexpected synthesis of meaning.
The results are images that contain a certain more or less secret, more or less perception-disturbing dualism. This comes from the artist’s particular position with respect to the images produced by an art that by now is at the apex of its technical reproducibility. The world, Wolf says, has already been entirely “mapped” and photography, as such, has lots its value as a witness.
The question is that Wolf looks at photography with an analytical intent that is not, however, exclusively based on dissection of the specific photographic language. He is not interested only in the language of photography, but also in its imaginary, meaning the cultural, ideological and also emotional expectations we have regarding the medium and its possibilities of reproducing and interpreting reality. Beyond this, we might say that the focus of the artist’s interest is the image itself, its inevitable condition of polysemy and, therefore, inherent ambiguity, and above all the civilization of images that is part of the intrinsic character of our contemporary world. Now, photography is based on conventions that make it anything but transparent, and even intervene between the medium and the pure representation it is supposed to produce. If we also consider the scope of the libidinal investment made in images, and media imagery in particular, in our contemporary world, we can grasp (though only partially) the great, powerful phantasmatic sway that dominates our relations with representations, iconic signs, images.
So there is not much that is real, not much reality in what photography produces. There is an aura of unreality, subtle but capable of grounding our relations with that product. Wolf works precisely on this unreality, this phantasmatic influence, and this is why his works so often address themes like absence, what is missing, non-being.
Absence, first of all, of subject: Ugo Mulas already said this, in his Verifiche (Verifications), when he defined the place of the subject-operator of the photographic process as the place of an absence (“…the camera is not part of me, but is an additional medium whose significance cannot be either overestimated or underestimated. Precisely for this reason, it is a medium which leaves me out just when I am most present”), combining this reflection with his self-portrait, out of focus, and that of his wife, perfectly in focus.
And a lack of certain, verified references that can be assigned precise meanings: thus the photograph “misses”, the images become enigmatic, the camera investigates undecidable aspects of the real (of an object, a work of architecture) simply by being positioned in one way or another.
This attitude might seem to be driven by purely formal issues, but for some time now artists have been interested in forms only as vehicles of thought, not only of the pleasure they can bring when they are observed. For contemporary artists the “writing with light” that reveals the forms is the matrix and vehicle of thought, of critical reflection on the status of the languages on which they operate. Photography does not represent the world, it re-creates it: so we can think of Le Due Porte as a viaticum for a disenchanted journey.
The above observations apply above all to the matter of “thresholds”: photography, an art that is supposed to convey to us, like clues, the phenomena of the real, instead leads to deception of our perceptions. Concave wall surfaces that are, perhaps, convex, and vice versa, works of architecture in black and white stone where the chromatic values are inverted because the image is actually a negative, a door that lets strong light enter darkness, but is actually the image of a skylight that has become vertical instead of horizontal. Two figures that vividly evoke the idea of a generating lack, a void that creates: that of an empty niche lit from above by artificial light, seemingly the very emblem of every process of signification, and the Grande Myhrab of 1989.
An image-structure in itself, the Grande Myhrab, this concave-convex space, represents, in the words of the artist, a “void made visible”, and it is “the indication of a direction, of a latent place”, an elsewhere. It is the empty space that in the mosque indicates the direction of the Mecca, the elsewhere towards which the faithful bow in prayer, a void that is eminently a harbinger of language, thought, “discourse”.
Dual images or paradoxes of sight… we can think of these, and many other works of Silvio Wolf, as dialectic images that take the extreme randomness of meanings into account, to the point of becoming a receptacle of coexistence of opposites themselves.
In the gnoseological preface to his Origin of German Tragic Drama “…Benjamin attributes a new physiognomy to the dialectic as ‘proof regarding the origin’, as form that ‘from the most remote extremes, from the apparent excesses of development, brings forth the configuration of the idea as a totality marked by a possible coexistence of opposites’. This is why in the ‘naked and manifest existence of the factual’, that which is original is never revealed, ‘its rhythm is apparent only to a dual insight. On the one hand it needs to be recognized as a process of restoration and reestablishment, but, on the other hand, and precisely because of this, as something imperfect and incomplete’”. Thus writes Georges Didi-Huberman in an essay on experience (1), which can be of use for a better understanding of the work of Silvio Wolf.
If there is no univocally dawn-like origin, and photography for us becomes the very emblem of this fatal absence, any hypothesis of totality can be conceived only as the coexistence of opposing tensions, or the irremediable continuation of contradictions that merely bear witness to the imperfection of the (after all) inexhaustible attempts to put them back together.
I think the work of Silvio Wolf is oriented almost entirely in the light of these concepts. We see it in the logic that lies behind the Icons of Light and also, maybe above all, in the work he has done in response to the stimuli of the environment in which he was operating.
One of the thematic rooms of this exhibition is set aside for the first series of works. The Icons of Light appear at the start of the 1990s, but previously the artist had already made photographs that showed the reflections of the light of the place in which they were shot. This series, however, concentrates on a particular iconographic theme, that of the antique painting photographed from a particular vantage point, in an angled lateral perspective view, so that the surfaces no longer seem square, round or rectangular, but trapezoidal or oval, irregular formats that seem to emphasize the underlying process of disappearance in the work.
The lateral position lets the photographer also reproduce the light of the place on the surface of the painting, in most cases hiding the painted images or letting only a few glimpses show through, as if the light had devoured the depiction. Instead of the portrait, nearly always the type of painting chosen by the artist, instead of these artistic documents of history and identity, we find zones of light, glowing areas that sometimes let a few details emerge, ghostly latent features, hands, the contours of a face.
This act of negation of meaning finds its dialectical counterpart in the corresponding affirmative act that has to do with the physical character of the work, its nature as an environmental device.
The photograph that reproduces the painted canvas impacted by light may erase the image, but in doing so it brings out the canvas itself, and the whole painting, in its physical essence. The lateral vantage point makes it possible, for example, to see the craquelures and other materic accidents that have happened to the painted surface, while the thickness the photographer grants to the work emphasizes the physical presence of the surfaces, the frames, the stretchers, so much so that we are reminded of the famous first chapter of The Order of Things, where Foucault describes the scene of Las Meninas, also considering the framed works that furnish the room painted by Velasquez, along with the staging of a linguistic system with its tools and its actors, the painter, the subject to be painted, their social context.
The format of the Icons, which depends on the physical location of the artist who has materially photographed them, is also a reminder of the real space in which they are set; likewise, the “conveyed” light functions as a mnestic trace of that very space, and possibly also of the time in which the work was made. In short, the work positioned in an exhibition space “remembers”, so to speak, the original space and the artist’s experience of it: the installation, then, is like the superimposing of one space over another, creating logical discrepancies and perception ambiguities that, as always happens in art, do not hamper but regenerate meaning.
Such an overlaying or mixture of spaces and times, the confrontation between what is remembered and what is activated in the here-and-now of the real display, the synergy between virtual and real, then opens to historical space and time.
This happens when the work is born “contextual”, i.e. suggested by the space in which it originates and is displayed, by its nature and historical character. The “exhibition of paintings” made for Claudia Gian Ferrari in 1993 was contextual to the history and role of the person, heir to a renowned gallery in Milan active since the 1930s. A number of other works by Wolf fulfill this function: always re-compositions of a collective history, a scattered memory, with the awareness of always being imperfect, incomplete. What for the sake of convenience we call “installations” are represented in the exhibition by two videos, both generated parallel to photographic work on two institutional sites, Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Banca del Gottardo by Mario Botta. This catalogue, however, includes ample documentation of other installations, especially those done in outdoor, public or collective settings.
Wolf develops the work starting with the context chosen for the operation; the work is completely determined by the place and, above all, by its history, or by that of the people who have lived there. Whether they are the patients of a psychiatric hospital in Romagna or the children from the former girls’ orphanage of the Stelline in Milan, the aim is to plumb the historic depths that have defined the identity of that particular place, in an anthropological sense. The idea may be to reassemble the memory of a vanished community, as far as is possible through archival research, defined precisely on the basis its relationship with the place (or with the tragic side of history, as in the case of the Jewish community, marked by tragedy and thus even more prone to feel the need for continuous digging into memory). Or to shed light on the function of the place, its readiness for use by the community, or its role of service as an institution: a school, an opera house, a bank, a public park.
This clear intent of connection and testimony, however, is accompanied by the dialectic intent of the work, that prevents, from the start, any univocal stance in the exploration of relics of memory, the recovery of images. Therefore the images will be highly ambiguous, the installation enigmatic, rich in allusive signs or even traps of perception. For example, we can look at the videos Scala Zero and Tesoro (Treasure), made as reconnaissance inside two institutions. Especially in the second, the cold, precise architectural structure of the caveau of a Swiss bank is dematerialized, the images literally blurring and seeming to melt, and the movement of the camera seems to follow oneiric paths inside a non-place, in a situation of nearly total uncertainty of spatial coordinates.
The fact is that the work of Silvio Wolf, through the images he makes, be they two-dimensional or in relief, existing in space like sculptures, or organized like installations, thematizes our passive relationship with it, our way of acting as pure receptors when faced with its power to fascinate and to fully replace reality. The alienation from the experience of the real is the goal of the work, like a truth of our existential state of which we should at least be aware.
If the world has been completely “mapped” by media reproduction, covering it inch by inch as in the cartography of Borges, if the document function of photography has been replaced by what we might call the “precession of simulacra”, the reaction we can use to counter all this cannot help but rely on recovery of experience, even in a “minor” tone, that acts at the edges of the spectacularizing system of information.
In a sort of urging to take back possession of this abandoned sense of experience, Georges Didi-Huberman, in his Survivance des Lucioles compares the strong beams of spotlights, an apt metaphor to describe both the repressive face of power and spectacle in its alienating nature, with the weak, intermittent, fleeting but vital, persistent light of fireflies, starting precisely with the famous article by Pasolini. Clandestine survival of a counter-force, or a counter-power.
Silvio Wolf is not so distant from this sensibility, though the tone with which he addresses us is certainly not one of exhortation, but instead that of the invitation, taken from the supply of sensory stimuli that tend to vitalize our perception, offering us opportunities to experience rather than to just observe.
The artist, again in this case, deploys two modes (or a dual mode) to achieve this result of proposition, where the subject is placed in discussion. Among Wolf’s recent works, many are generated by one single principle, and this is why they are given a single title, Horizons, and grouped in another one of the thematic rooms in this exhibition. These are photographs that have “made themselves”, self-generated at the moment of insertion of a roll of film inside the camera: the initial portion of the film struck by light generates, on its own, a phenomenology of chromatic marks, from red to yellow to black, that already exist as images. As such, the artist preserves and enlarges them, showing them to us as abstract panels, based on the overlaying of two (or more, but usually two, in keeping with the title of the series) horizontal bands of different colors (some of them, in effect, remind us of the color fields of Rothko…).
The organization of the surface, which remains recognizable in spite of the variations, is entirely mechanical. Nothing here, except the first unpremeditated gesture, is determined by the subject, by the artist, who has a merely technical role. A cycle of photographs based on the same principle, but oriented in a different direction, was made by Bertrand Lavier in the 1980s, significantly and tautologically entitled Bandes-Amorces.
So these works come into being under the sign of a “death of the author”, of a “model of absence” that can also generate spectacular effects, as in the case of Light Wave, shown at the 53rd Venice Biennale and now seen again, with variations, in the new context of this exhibition.
Nevertheless, the dual voice that always lurks in Wolf’s work is heard again, above all, here; the artist himself explains it very aptly, in this catalogue, speaking precisely of the Light Wave shown in Venice: absence is countered by the vital though marginalized claims – active though not displayed in full light – of presence, the urge of experience.
We should also recall that the famous essay by Barthes (2) that bore witness to that “death” also urged the activation of the response of the reader, an operative agent on a par with the writer, precisely in symmetrical response to the demise of the egoic claim of the latter. We might say that all art that has appeared after those theoretical positions (we were in and around 1968…) has capitalized on that indication. As for Wolf, he puts it into practice as the logical consequence of his reflections, as a necessary fulfillment of his labors of over two decades.
So while Didi-Huberman contrasts the totalizing light of power with the fireflies of Pasolini, Wolf counters the alienating logic of the simulacra with absolute, backlighting black.
Do you remember the story behind the mirrors of Michelangelo Pistoletto? The artist, in his studio, in total solitude, observes the canvas he has just painted with dark, reflecting acrylic paint: he realizes he can glimpse his image, his face, reflected and thus inscribed “inside” the surface. An image of the Self, its weak reflection, randomly enters the process and the world of the representation. For Pistoletto this chance event became the foundation for the great epic of the mirror. From that moment on, the surface becomes totally reflective and welcomes the images of the world, giving them back for what they are, changeable, ephemeral. The mirror becomes the tool for a principal representation of reality.
So it should come as no surprise that many years later this function is grasped not in terms of the metaphor of a window open to reality, but in terms of total closure, a completely black screen, but one that is also capable of producing, precisely due to this totality, a reflecting effect.
Silvio Wolf opens his latest cycle of works by offering the viewer the black rectangle of a photographic print that has absorbed into itself all possible images, whose black depths offer us a total of collapsed or “con-fused” visual stimuli in a single coated surface.
Images? Here we have the last possible image, a “…pure chromatic structure, abstract, self-referential, self-illuminating, atemporal, aspatial”, as the artist defines it, an allusion, an index of the absolute, we might say, where nothing happens or becomes… The sole icon we can think of as cut off from the de-realization in which all images are gripped, the only one that presents itself to us outside the extreme relativity of all the others.
The observer is placed in his here-and-now: let’s say that in this way he observes himself “being there”, he embodies this being there every time he comes to terms with that denying screen, and every time he finds himself haloed by conveyed light, that of the backlighting that projects onto the wall from the back of the photograph where it is positioned. In a certain sense, the viewer finds himself ennobled, immersed in an almost sacred atmosphere.
A sacrality that is quickly diminished and contradicted: the mirror of Pistoletto marked a beginning, while the total black we see here, “image of all images”, indicates an end – let’s just say it, a death – not simply as figuration, as might be implied by the screen printing applied to the mirror and frozen there forever, but as something effectively real: before us we see the absorption in the black depths of everything possible, because “…the excess information has blackened the photo-sensitive surface”.
The dual voice of the work is heard exactly here: death is made operative. Like the glow of fireflies, weak, intermittent but vital, infinitely less strong and pervasive than the full light of spectacle, nevertheless the reflection of the face of the viewer survives and reappears every time the work is “activated” in what, in the end, is its function, to be an emblem of an end and, at the same time, to give life each time to a new beginning.
The two large installations created specifically for the spaces of the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea perform this function, while amplifying into real environmental dimensions what the artist has already investigated in single works; the relationship the work triggers with the individual viewer becomes interaction with the collective audience.
This already happens in some of the Thresholds shown here, where certain parts of the photographic surface literally become reflecting zones to incorporate portions of the phenomenic reality in which they are inserted, along with us. It also happens in certain techniques developed by the artist to engage the observer, to transform his act of perception into a sensory experience. There are sound elements activated based on the action of the viewer and, more simply, doors left ajar to invite those who wish to enter, to seek the work, to activate a new sort of attention.
Le Parole Invisibili (Invisible Words) is the title of the installation that occupies the entire first-floor gallery of PAC: on the walls of the long room, five Meditations, the totally black photographic surfaces that permit the viewer to glimpse his own face inside the dark background, while the light that is directed toward the wall, opposite his face, forms a halo from behind the surface. In a preordained rhythm, recorded voices pronounce the names of people, calls that evoke recognition, identification, presence. This repetition leads us to our here-and-now, while the name evokes identity as if it were a sort of foothold to resist the flow of standardization, to keep from getting lost in the undifferentiated mass.
Light, here, exists and expresses its properties, but it is not the sign of a power. It permits us to implement that form of resistance for which the fireflies of Didi-Huberman are such an appropriate emblem.
Light, in the form of backlighting, is also seen in the powerful installation that fills the whole space set aside for sculpture, in this case engaging only the glazing that faces the garden. A true threshold between an inside and an outside made fully visible, the glazing is subdivided into ten parts, one of the outstanding features of the architecture by Ignazio Gardella. Instead of a source of light for the interior, it becomes a darkened screen, a diaphragm that no longer allows natural light to penetrate. In the work, it is now that diaphragm that emits its light toward us and forms a horizon, a long luminous line that extends for the whole length of the glazing and divides it into two superimposed bands. The upper band, where the backlighting is positioned, shades upward, so to speak, shifting from maximum luminosity to absence of light through a progressive passage of grays to black. The lower band, instead, remains uniformly black. The space, in any case, is darkened, but receives the glow of the artificial lighting that spreads and strikes the white marble flooring. This zone of the PAC, often known as the “tub”, now becomes a “tub of light” that with its luminous void presents itself as work, installation, or we might say “virtual” sculpture. We can say that the space is activated thanks to this new light: the closure of the glazing is, at the same time, an opening, the animation of an “other” space, its self-display as a device ready to create relationships of meanings with those who will inhabit it. Relationships that are not only based on the passive role of he who looks, but also on the active role of he who takes possession of the space, activates it and “signifies” it with his presence. It would appear that at the height of what are now three decades of research, Silvio Wolf has invented another “dialectical image” for us… a grand one, this time.
1) Georges Didi-Huberman, Come le lucciole, Torino, Bollati-Boringhieri, 2010, pag. 66.
2) Roland Barthes, La morte dell’autore, in Il brusio della lingua. Saggi critici IV, Torino, Einaudi, 1988, pgg 51 sgg.
The Theatre as a Place for Seeing
The theatre as a place is the subject of the complex research conducted by Silvio Wolf from 1999 to 2004 for a work he entitled Scala Zero.
According to the root of the word, which is the ancient Greek verb theaomai, a theatre is a place for watching. Wolf started from this concept and applied photographic procedures to the theatre, firstly with photography as an instrument for looking at the real, at what is in front of our eyes, and then using digital procedures with photography as an instrument for looking at what does not exist in tangible reality. He therefore constructed a work that is based totally and intensely on pretence or make-believe, a concept which he addresses (or surrounds might be more appropriate) from several viewpoints each of which reinforces the others superimposed one over the other, so that they almost generate each other with a tight consistency: the pretence is the theatre itself. Pretence is the activity of imagining (from the latin fingo)1 and is therefore the construction of images that exist in the physical world and at the same time also in the virtual world, of what exists because thought of and experienced, as occurs in the limitless kingdom of the unconscious. Wolf shows that part of the theatre which is programmed to be seen and which we expect and wish to see, its supreme symbol (the stage, but also secondarily the seats in the auditorium and the boxes: we must remain seated to watch in the theatre), and that part that is not seen and mustn’t be seen (because it lies behind and inside, like the vital organs of a living and functioning body, its innards, the control panels for the stage lights, the security monitors and then the corridors and passage ways which lead to the most mysterious and necessary places of this complex and hidden theatrical machine). He thus projects his work into an other dimension, different from that of the immediate description of tangible facts: and yet Wolf’s images are based on likeness. They are particularly clear, particularly tangible and credible, true in the perceptual sense; they meet the criteria of that original theaomai mentioned at the beginning. Nevertheless they constitute a special place for seeing, a space that creates itself and is put as a question that is almost of a metaphysical nature. The space is dark red, golden, mirrored, sinuous and contains vivid ancient objects and flat ghosts of the present. It is a photographical-theatrical space which Wolf defines rigorously, scientifically we might say. He simultaneously presents thresholds, crossroads and borders to be crossed to imagine other possible, eminently mental, spaces similar to those that Alice discovered beyond the looking glass. Wolf works on this elastic, plastic space that is there to be explored and interpreted in many ways: he reorganises the framework of the perspective following the canons of a crystal clear pretence and cuts it into neat shapes-icons that are both real and arbitrary at the same time. He cuts out fragments structured in abstract textures similar to details seen under a microscope. He blurs the tender material it consists of as if our vision were impaired and our sight is floundering (and this last device of blurred images and a loss of orientation and concrete sight is set dialectically against those times when the images take full possession of the theatre and this clearly demonstrates its nature as a place-image, which is dual).
But Wolf goes further and almost as if in an Escher labyrinth of visual procedures that chase each other, he even works on the theatre space with moving images: film. The basic method of vision-perception is that of the “subjective camera”. He films the theatre travelling through its hidden and inner parts (almost as if in the belly of a whale) thick with curves, apparitions and thresholds waiting to be understood, perhaps crossed, or even just looked at intensely, because once again these thresholds are none other than figures. The place of the theatre, travelled through insistently even its rear, its other space, allows itself to be investigated by a wandering gaze, the expression of a sort of unconscious in movement. The flow of images strengthens the sense of insecurity and suspension and triggers a going to a place, the reason for which is always and in any case that of appearing, of being an event, both in its visibility and in its hidden existence.
1 Translator’s note. The Italian word to pretend is fingere and for pretence or make-believe is finzione from the Latin fingo
Fluidity, Light, Trespass
In the work of Silvio Wolf, and in Paradiso in particular, reality is transfigured by light. But there is also a strong physical sense of a limit without which sight would probably not be able to find itself.
I’m reminded of Der Brief des letzten Contarin, written in 1902 by Hugo von Hofmannsthal: «Every object we possess is nothing but a credit card, a surrogate for one more beautiful: each pearl, each piece of cloth, each antique fragment, each house is just a balcony from which our desires gaze out on the infinite, the keyhole through which we peer into the enchanted realm of pearls, silk, antiquity».
That keyhole is immediately comparable to the camera’s lens. A foreshadowing of the photographic gaze, or the reality of the human gaze that needs to push a door in order to see? Probably both.
I often see a kinship between the visions opened up by literary and photographic narratives. Both call forth events and memories that do not have to do only with the writing or the image, but also with the immaterial space of the figure in the wider sense of the term. The narrative synthesis is different, but both take part in the creation of places that would otherwise remain concealed in the fluidity of the real. It is the form the artist gives to the diffused perception that, in turn, makes the fluidity of being perceptible, about which everyone, truly everyone, wonders. Art adds a visual and narrative limit that makes it possible to look beyond appearances, to glimpse what is happening inside and behind the things that give form to the real.
Photography has brought about a leap in this dynamic. From the idea of recording of the physical time of an event, it was later understood that what it was generating was the possibility of translating, through the light that writes its traces on the film, the perceptive space of truth. I mean the truths we all find around us, emotional and rational, which when they take form in a “film” intuitively adapt to the intangible “skin” of human sight. So it is much more than the recording of a memory, just as in the case of every literary tale. The events narrated materialize through words, which are also decisive for “reading” the truth of experience, both the personal experience of the person who looks and reads, and that circumscribed by the words themselves.
Without this diaphragm what the eye sees and records would not meld with thought and would remain fluid, impossible to process. The see-perceive-narrate relationship forms the basis of the individual, social and cultural languages that qualify the human condition.
All of Silvio Wolf’s work comes to terms with the possibility of access to a trespass. It’s not about the technical capacities of the instrument, but the decision to trace a trans-figuration, in which the trespass itself finds its proper place and proper limit.
I’ll get back to this. But for now, I’d like to continue on the relationship with literary narrative.
What strikes me in Hofmannsthal is the dual, a posteriori coincidence between the preciousness of the palace of Count Contarin and the preciousness contained in a bank (i.e. the place where Wolf has installed this work); between the term “credit card”, used by Hofmannsthal, and the way we think of it today.
Place names are also involved in this play of coincidences. Before entering Lugano, the city in which the video and photographic work of Wolf appears, a sign warns us that we are entering “Paradiso”: and this is also the title of the exhibition.
There are a great many assonances between physical place and spiritual place. Wolf has discovered that “in the Jewish tradition the word PaRDes means orchard, but above all it is an acronym for the four levels of interpretation of the holy scriptures”. This research came later, but right from the start, due to a significant coincidence, he worked on the metaphor of the tree, whose form is evident in the layout itself of Galleria Gottardo. I thought of the beautiful story by Elsa Morante, Il Beato propagandista del Paradiso. I’ll try to sum it up.
«One of his particular features was that of having three distinct names. The first is Guido di Pietro: Guidolino for those close to him, of course. (…) The second, Giovanni da Fiesole, was assumed in the act of his religious vocation. (…) The third, Beato Angelico, was granted him, in life and after, by folk legend. (…) Guido di Pietro, from the day he first opened his eyes, was in love with light. His was a happy and requited affection, as the light awaited him every day. (…) Guidolino received the tools of his work in his chubby little hands as a pledge of his union with the first light. And such a union was undoubtedly approved of by the authority of the Fathers, as it could serve to spread the good word about Paradise. Thus Guido di Pietro discovered his calling. To be a painter, at the service of the propagation of the faith. (…) The artworks of propaganda are a truth serum. If the propaganda is spontaneous and sincere, they are beautiful. If not, they are monstrous. (…) Inside Giovanni da Fiesole, Guidolino was still alive, madly, incurably enamored of his first love. (…) Colors are a gift of light, that makes use of bodies (as music makes use of instruments) to transform its invisible celebration into an earthly epiphany. (…) The frescoes of St. Mark’s are the lyrics of Beato Angelico: he could paint them (so to speak) with his eyes shut, as this time the colors were not brought to him by the sense of sight, but by memory, which is another testament of light. (…) Nevertheless, Brother Giovanni was not destined to rest in lyrics; Giovanni da Fiesole was a Renaissance painter, and Catholic, and Dominican; and around the fiftieth year of his life the Pope summoned him to Rome ( …) Where, in place of the ‘Golden Legend, History awaited him. The confrontation with History is another of the necessary tests that presence in the world demands of artists. And in this confrontation the great Giovanni (…) no longer explores the lights of nature and memory, but the monumental mirrors of antique classicism and the new humanism; adapting his song of love to earthly eloquence». (in: E. Morante, Pro o contro la bomba atomica e altri scritti, 1987, Adelphi, Milano, p. 121-136)
In this “biography” Elsa Morante concentrates the original meaning of art; I do not want to adapt this to the voyage of Silvio Wolf inside the light of his photographs, but there are some factors that intertwine, a posteriori. The parallel is not between the painting of Beato Angelico and the images of Wolf, but between the words chosen by Elsa Morante to think about painting and the process with which Wolf gives body to light.
The first assonance has to do with falling in love with light: love is always a journey. Wolf has constructed his whole exhibition journeying inside the Banca del Gottardo. The brilliant definition as a “propagandist of Paradise” creates a coincidence with the Paradiso seen by Wolf on a road sign and in the architecture of Mario Botta. The propaganda Wolf makes of this place is “spontaneous and sincere”, and thus it produces “beautiful things”.
Wolf, looking through the secret of «pearls, cloths, fragments of antiquity» (Hofmannsthal) – the invisible wealth safeguarded by the bank – seeks contact with the Elsewhere.
He too, «to transform [light’s] invisible celebration into an earthly epiphany», makes use of bodies, or namely the architectural walls of the underground room, The Treasure. And here, though absolutely invisible, we find History. Wolf explores the alternating mirrored and matte surfaces that enclose the room of the safe deposit boxes, and creates «a song of love with eloquence» of the cosmic universe he draws forth, introducing visions of galaxies and heavenly maps.
The Guidolino who lives inside Frate Giovanni can be recognized, perhaps, in the entrance area of Galleria Gottardo, where Wolf shows the astonishing images of certain remains of film, altered by light alone, without any intervention on the part of the photographer. The strip that is eliminated in the light and chemical process, the segment that comes before the part of the film that has actually been exposed.
It is precisely this willingness to welcome the light of “every day” (the inner potential of every photographic film) that brings out the colors that inhabit the threshold between the visible, capable of leaving traces of its passage in the photographic material, and the invisible, which precisely through human limitations is capable of shaping light and colors on its own. The enlargements of these wonders show the passage from absolute black to the ascent of reds and yellows, that disperse until they trespass on the realm of pure white, or light itself, which encountering the world’s bodies bestows colors.
The layout of the gallery has the form of a tree. Wolf’s voyage follows this path, as he states: «the Tree of Paradise is the Map of the Treasure».
It begins along the trunk, the zone entitled Formation, then splits into two branches, Altrove and Treasure. The Thresholds branch off at this joint: there is no one direction, the path depends on the pull each person feels with respect to the Treasure, where the video of the underground voyage is shown, or the Elsewhere, containing the photographs taken in the exploration of the spaces of the bank and the chapel of Mogno designed by Botta. Wolf’s paradise is here, in a place that is both present and elsewhere for him.
Wolf is emphatic about defining this project as a voyage in the void from which the architecture springs, and a voyage is narrated with words and images. This also suggested my recollections of literary, rather than theoretical or philosophical texts, though the structure of the exhibition might immediately suggest references to certain works of Heidegger: from Building, Dwelling, Thinking to On the Way to Language to The Origin of the Work of Art.
But another text comes more insistently to mind. Prompted by Wolf to find a point of contact with the textual analysis of the Jewish term for paradise, I was faced by the Angel of Benjamin, and the one by Klee he had acquired in 1921 in Berlin, and which accompanied him in all his homes, including the last one in Paris. Before fleeing he put it away for safekeeping, together with his papers, in two suitcases he left with Georges Bataille. For a certain period the Angel was hidden in the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris. After the war it reached Adorno, and from that time on it became a topos of the exegesis of Benjamin’s thought.
The text Agesilaus Santander, an anagram of “Der Angelus Satanas”, written by Benjamin in Ibiza on 12-13 August 1933, begins like this: «When I was born my parents got the idea that I might become a writer. In that case, it would be better if everyone did not notice that I was Jewish. So besides my name they gave me two other, unusual names, from which no one might infer a Jewish identity for their bearer, nor that they belonged to him as names» (Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin e il suo Angelo, Ital. ed., Adelphi, Milano, 1978, p. 20). The reference is to the secret name that, under Jewish law, is revealed to sons when they reach the age of thirteen, the age of puberty.
In the game of a posteriori similarities, this connects with the three names of Beato Angelico and their revealing meaning.
For Benjamin puberty is synonymous with change, and as such it can be repeated multiple times. «This name – he continues – does not represent an enrichment of its bearer. Quite the opposite: it removes many things from his image as soon as it is given. In the room in which I lived in Berlin, that bearer, before emerging from my name armed to the teeth, hung his image on the wall: Angelus Novus» (op. cit., p. 23). The fact that he describes it as «armed to the teeth» with «wings sharp as blades» brings out the character of Angelus Satanas, which can be connected to Klee’s depiction.
As Scholem observes, «Benjamin transcends the ancient tradition by which the angel granted to a human being conserves the pure, original figure, taking on human features.» (op. cit., p. 41) Nevertheless, the image is not called Angelus Satanas, but Angelus Novus, and therefore – as Scholem points out – it is part of the «Talmudic motif of creation and dissolving of the angels before God, regarding which a Kabbalistic book tells us that they vanish like the spark on coal. To this was added, for Benjamin, the traditional Judaic image of the personal angel that represents the heavenly self of every human being, as of every other created thing» (op. cit, p. 33).
These angels, having the property of dissolving into nothing as soon as they have «sung their hymn in God’s presence», seem to hover around the images of Wolf. In the moment in which they appear, they dissolve the rigid, perfect binary code that forms the basis of the architectural vision of Botta, both in the chapel of Mogno and in the Banca del Gottardo. As soon as the light finds the place in which to speak its name, in the photographic film, as happens with the Angelus Novus of Benjamin, nothing «is any longer as it was before».
Space becomes a magma in which clear reflexes alternate with blurring. The bluish, cool, clear color transmigrates into the reddish glow of nebulae that insinuate themselves among the cold metal mirrors of the walls. The subjective movement is crossed by vibrations, like imperfect caesurae, but instead they have the task of interrupting the linear character, of creating points of recognition divert away from the real confines and adapt to the trans-figuration of the light. So much so that the duplication of its reflection on a column generates the image of a book, where the light itself, dazzling the potential written words, makes only the white page visible, and thus the start, the future and the past of every story.
The progressive trespassing out of real vision, interrupted by a single passage in which we can intuit the space as a whole, grants figure to the invisible contained in every being and every thing produced and thought by the human species. All this unfurls like an antique cartouche through the video. In this circular movement the dual action develops of descent into the underground space of the bank, and ascent that culminates in the vision of clear white, perfect, untouchable, or the very image of light and its continuous variability. A connection appears to the anagogical theory of light, or the conceptual basis for the architectural form of the apse in early Christian basilicas. A space that symbolically represented the ascent to Paradise, seen as the place of manifestation of the divine. In Wolf the ascension of the light constitutes the key of access and the outcome of the entire itinerary.
The photographs, on the other hand, capture the moment in which images vanish like the spark on coal. Their clarity, crossed by shadows, by blurred sparks, condenses in a blue-tinted, vibrant light that would not be perceptible without the limit Wolf places between the architecture, seen as the place of the real, and his eye, which looking through the lens intercepts the movement of the real itself. An inner world appears in each figure. By reminding us of the need to go beyond the surface, it captures the moment in which the image takes form. The image isn’t simply there before our eyes, it interacts with the trespass it contains, and therefore with a metaphysical but also material elsewhere. Each image suggests the others: thus the particular capacity to vanish. Though each image is complete in itself, we get the sense of a probability, as if they were hovering around the many visions that have not yet found their way onto the film. The sparks the shoot out of the fire are perfectly defined, but no one of them can become an all-encompassing synthesis.
I don’t know if this is an image of heaven seen from the earth, but it is certainly a way to imprint the film of our perception, through what we are able to intuit behind the surface of reality.
The black-white (Mogno), shiny-matte (Lugano) binary code with which Botta has built his very real works of architecture has become the door for Wolf to push, to look inside that perfect alternation, recovering the fluidity of light and experience.
If we think about the fact that all this is happening inside a bank, in its most impenetrable spaces, another type of inaccessibility emerges, that of the resources – in the real and metaphorical sense of the term – that are not equal for everyone. The veil of shadow that makes the image of this place unrecognizable speaks, perhaps, of an elsewhere that is not in heaven, but on earth: inside the banks, inside the real and symbolic powers and constructions that are their result.
Wolf doesn’t state it explicitly, but we can correctly imagine that his trans-figuration of light also visibly contains the original opposites that, through the binary code, have given rise to the logos and the great discoveries of Western civilization, but also to the dichotomies of subject-object, man-woman, visible-invisible that today, more than ever, call for other systems of interaction to allow differences to coexist rather than opposing each other as intangible truths.
As Wolf would say, it is necessary to seek an elsewhere, in which to experience another visible, reminding us that like the remains of film not exposed by the camera’s shutter, that elsewhere has a life of its own capable of transcending orders and hierarchies, and that the light of each day, in the moment it encounters the bodies of the world, restores to us the color of reality: it is never only black and white because, as in Wolf’s images, it retains the infinite mobility of light and colors.
Sylvie Parent: In your work you use photography because of its ability to materialise light. The Icons of Light, for example are images of light. These works make light the subject of the representation and at the same time a new object. How do you explain this desire of yours to have light seen, to give it another sensory form and to assimilate it with architecture, with a surface or an object?
Silvio Wolf: In my work light is actively both subject and technique together: an unbreakable bond has been created between form and creative process. Each one is the other. The light operates a virtual “tearing apart”, it is capable of materialising the elsewhere in an intended place. It generates a state of ubiquity, an immaterial link between a physical and a virtual body. The two exist simultaneously in an -original- space-time. The very language in which I act seems to materialise in visual objects.
The re-contextualisation of these new objects allows me to create a network of physical and virtual relations with the architectural space. A marked out space becomes a-symbolic space.
S.P.: The systematic use of photography in relation to physical space is characteristic of all your work. Your projects are always integrated into the place in which they take shape and each time they establish a close relationship with the space and the environment. The images that you add to these spaces extend them, revealing certain aspects of them. How do you hope to connect up your work to concrete space? Which aspects of these places particularly interest you?
S.W.: I feel a fundamental need to build my work beginning with the place in which I am called upon to work. I collect signs, icons, and local references on which I act in planning my work. There is always a strong desire to originate work in that specific place.
Any space is “good”. Each space already exists when I arrive, when I acknowledge it. Each marked represents a “station” of my life. I represent a stage of my existence in it. Process of interior development and physical places in the world unite symbolically in each new “station”.
I must always start from an existing – external fact-. These facts are more and more often images, which I find, which I look for, which I know how to recognise as necessary, there, at that moment.
I go to a place. I collect. I carry stuff into the studio. I create a project. I construct new signs. I take back metabolised matter to the original place.
S.P.: The idea of the frame, of framing seems to be equally important in your work. Your works create relationships between the limits of places, their architecture and the edges of the photograph, basically, the borders of an internal space. These limits often remain readable as if to assert their presence and double their function. What are the purposes of this readability of the picture?
S.W.: For many years I’ve worked on what I call “Places of transition”, on thresholds, on the “Inside-Outside” relationship, on the limits between them, on the search for a position that is not just physical, that allows me to be simultaneously inside and outside, here and there, or to be neither here nor there.
Here are two of my writings that deal with this search:
To be a frame. / To belong at the same time / to the reassuring space/ that limits vision / and to the sensory universe / that comprises it. / The outside sets itself against the inside. / The annulment of one/ is the possession of the other. / Upright and codified space / is a sequence of frames:/ the crossing of it / a prerequisite for liberation. / The mind is the means. / The mind is the limit.
MENTAL SPACE 1981
That which I represent / is visible image/ of my thought. / Of thought that sees/ and recognises itself/ in that which already is. / Coincidence of position / Physical and mental. / Of being and space. / Places of transition. / Inside and outside. / Complementary opposition / of ubiquitous antagonists. / I unveil the world / of the unseen. / I represent that which I do not know.
S.P.: In Icons of light, as in various previous works, the distortion of images triggers accentuated perspectives revealing the position of the photograph. These perspectives bring out the impression of space and the position of the spectator and make the point of observation a fundamental aspect of the work. Can you explain the role that the point of observation plays in your projects?
S.W.: In my work the point of observation is almost a proof of existence. I find myself there. I was there then. To be in space, in time. The accentuated perspectives in my works are physical representations of mental positions, of a non-orthogonal vision. I place myself in an -unconventional- position. I intention geometrical rules and perspectives, loading them with symbolic value. I return to the world a work that exists relatively to the observer, to position taken up by some one looking at it. The work varies as the spatial conditions in which it is located change.
“… Represented reality / medium of mental images. / It is thought that sees”. (1977: from Cambi d’Orizzonte)
S.P.: The images of the photographic works for Icons of light are almost entirely blanked out by the light. On the other hand photographs strangely allow a glimpse of the texture of the works, they make other aspects of the initial work visible. This re-materialisation is hindered by the smooth and reflecting texture of the enamelled Cibachrome. These works produce a strange relationship between the original image and the final image, the original materials and their subsequent transformation…
S.W.: The Icons of Light are the result of a double process, simultaneously generative and destructive. The same light that generates the photographic image destroys the painted image.
The light that illuminates the pictures in the place where they are, becomes the subject of the representation. The light that illuminates the Icons of light activates the internal light of the images.
Over the years much photography has tended to -make visible-, to amplify the visibility. These works of mine act in the direction of disappearance. Each generative act brings with it an end, a ceasing. In my works these two acts are summed up by the dual simultaneous representation of two images with a distinct nature, one of painting, the other photographic. They fuse together in an instantaneous coincidence.
What remains visible of the painting is the perspective frame and the painted surface.
Each Icon of Light can in turn be subject to further representations, modifications of perspective and destructions of icons. The objects produced by this are just materialisations of light, spatial bodies on which perception fluctuates continuously between the two dimensional surfaces and the three dimensional bodies. Vision is born from an act of blindness. Light generates instantaneous deaths.
S.P.: Many of these projects of yours are integrated into religious places revealing their spiritual character such as Trasfigurazione di Santi (Transfiguration of Saints) 1984-86, Annunciazione Lagrange (Lagrange Annunciation) 1988, and Grande Myhrab, (Large Myhrab)1989. The Icons of Light also possess a religious connotation. The work on light, the complex fluctuations between material and immaterial and the religious references seem to participate in a form of spiritual or metaphysical experimentation. How is your work bound to these spiritual references?
S.W.: Most of the iconography that I collect in the places I work in comes from museums and churches. It is there that the most meaningful and the most narrated “Images”, those most heavily loaded with the symbolic value of place are kept, in the “sanctuaries of images”.
Profane places also, such as the Casino at Baden-Baden, the tiled walls of the old bars of Valencia, the gates of the coal mines in the Ruhr region seem to become meaningful to me when their hard and practical function becomes a metaphor, a symbol of the place, a code that is projected into the folds of time and takes on an ultra-local, universal value. In this way the throwing of roulette ball with its circular movement becomes welded to the circular dancing movement of mystical dervishes. The green and white 15×15 cm. tiles become ancient bi-polar codes of a language for which I create a visual alphabet. The image of the work of the miners fuses with that of icon painters.
Is Perhaps everything sacred?
Is nothing a question of chance?
Is everything necessary?
Perhaps every place already contains the origin and the end?
And how many more finite images will I be able to produce?
And how many works still separate me from?
Dialogue entre Enrico Lunghi et Silvio Wolf
Enrico Lunghi : Silvio, tu viens à Liège pour la première fois et on t’assigne un espace souterrain, assez difficile parce que très présent. On pourrait dire qu’il s’agit de l’un de ces quelconques parkings pour voitures, impersonnels et sans histoire, et pourtant, les conditions de sa construction et sa situation sont plutôt particulières. Qu’est ce qui t’intéresse en intervenant ici ?
Silvio Wolf : Chaque nouvelle installation est pour moi un défi et une aventure. Ce lieu m’était étranger et inconnu, j’ai été appelé et j’ai répondu à l’appel. Je suis entré dans ce ‘ventre secret’ de la ville sans images ni idées préconçues, sans conna”tre l’endroit ni sa langue. Ma familiarité avec ce lieu est née en en traversant le seuil et en le concevant comme un espace symbolique dans lequel mes gestes pouvaient être ceux d’un rituel. J’avais en effet, le choix de considérer que je me trouvais dans un quelconque chantier anonyme quelque part dans le monde ou bien très précisément à Liège, sous la place Saint Lambert, en l’été 1999.
Ce qui m’a impressionné c’est l’aspect de ‘catacombe technologique’, proche des fouilles de l’ancienne église, tout comme la pression psychologique qui s’exerce du fait de se trouver à deux niveaux au-dessous de l’énorme édifice nouvellement construit ainsi que l’absence de relation entre l’espace intérieur et extérieur.
L’énorme ‘ventre’ était vide, sa tradition restait à découvrir et à écrire. C’était en quelque sorte le devoir à accomplir en étant invité à me mesurer au lieu.
E.L. : En 1979 du écrivais déjà : ” L’extérieur se confronte à l’intérieur. Annuler l’un c’est posséder l’autre “. D’une certaine façon, on retrouve dans ton projet liégeois un ensemble de paramètres présents depuis le début de ton parcours, c’est-à-dire ‘faire voir’ un lieu différemment grâce au travail photographique, même si aujourd’hui tu te concentres davantage sur l’espace réel et moins sur l’espace photographique en tant que tel et si, en plus, tu introduis la dimension sonore. Or, dans ce projet, le son est double aussi : il y a d’une part les voix du marché, de l’autre le vrombissement des autobus publics…
S.W. : La relation intérieur/extérieur est un thème récurrent dans mon travail, aussi bien en tant que dimension spatiale que comme métaphore. Il en va de même pour le thème du seuil, des limites entre extérieur et intérieur, du double. Je pense que cela vient de ma longue confrontation avec le langage photographique et de sa capacité spécifique à agir simultanément sur un ‘ici présent’ et un ‘ailleurs passé’, donc sur une présence et une absence. Le titre même du projet pour Liège Chantier/Marché est double et indique une polarité, deux temps et deux lieux dans une même ville. Le projet sera réalisé à l’aide de deux facteurs : la lumière (la photographie) et le son (les voix). Dans ce cas, la photographie représente la mémoire, c’est-à-dire ce qui n’est plus, le passé, l’intérieur. Le son est le présent, l’âme du lieu, l’extérieur. Ensemble ils confèrent une vie et une identité nouvelles à la catacombe métropolitaine en la transformant en une crypte enchantée dans laquelle l’intérieur et l’extérieur, l’espace et le temps s’unissent de façon immatérielle.
E.L. : Tu as utilisé durant notre conversation les termes de ‘rituel’ et de ‘crypte enchantée’ : ce sont des notions qui ont des liens avec l’univers magique. Je pense que la photographie a toujours un aspect magique, celui de saisir l’instant fugitif et de l’arrêter à jamais, celui de suspendre le temps et d’introduire, comme tu l’as dit, la mémoire ou un ‘temps passé’ dans ‘l’actuel présent’. D’une certaine façon, c’est aussi la fonction des anciens rites qui étaient sensés faire réappara”tre les esprits des ancêtres ou de ‘réactualiser’ les moments sacrés des origines, comme par exemple celui de la Dernière Cène et de la consubstantiation dans la messe catholique. Mais notre époque, ‘désenchantée’ par le capitalisme triomphant et le néolibéralisme mondial, a peut-être besoin de pauses, de travailler avec la mémoire, même si c’est fait dans des espaces isolés, renfermés, coupés du monde extérieur comme cet espace souterrain à Liège.
S.W. : Ritualiser les gestes est une façon de les sortir du ‘tout possible’, de les rendre nécessaires par rapport au lieu et au contexte, d’éliminer la marge ambiguè de gratuité des actes possibles, qui peuvent être infinis mais vains. Ainsi, ma présence en tant que sujet, en ce lieu et à ce moment, acquièrent une nécessité.
Je pense que, d’une part, ce travail est lié aux conditions objectives du lieu, c’est-à-dire au résultat tangible de ce gâchis urbanistique en plein coeur de Liège, à l’effacement de la mémoire, de la cathédrale, du centre historique, des origines de la cité ; d’autre part, il agit sur ce qui est, ici, aujourd’hui, sur le présent, en générant de l’intérieur un espace enchanté, capable d’absorber les nombreuses blessures, les cicatrices, les scléroses du concept d’une ville transformée en pure fonction d’usage. Par ‘enchanté’ j’entends ‘suspendu’, riche en liens sensibles, immatériel, fait de temps et d’espaces paradoxaux et harmoniques en même temps, où les choses sont et ne sont pas, révélant le possible. Mon défi est de ne toucher à rien, d’introduire des signes discrets et insaisissables, de faire de la lumière et du son les instruments magiques de cet enchantement.
E.L. : J’aime l’idée que ton intervention est pratiquement immatérielle: les projections lumineuses et le son ne transforment pas physiquement l’espace et pourtant sa perception en est totalement transformée, il acquiert d’autres dimensions et une charge psychologique et sensible nouvelles. Une autre solution aurait consisté à déconstruire ou à réaménager cet espace, en luttant contre sa ‘nature’ (même s’il s’agit d’une ‘nature métropolitaine’, d’une fonction urbaine). Revenons à l’ouverture du fond, là où l’on voit et entend passer les autobus : tu as voulu garder ce passage ouvert, visible, à l’encontre des projets du chantier qui le prévoient uniquement comme porte fonctionnelle. Cette ouverture est un lien ténu entre l’extérieur et l’intérieur, comme un point limite où les deux mondes se rencontrent, même s’ils ne se touchent pas directement, mais uniquement à travers – nommons les ainsi, pour rester dans le ton du rituel – des ‘messagers’, des ‘témoins’ de l’extérieur que sont les véhicules des transports en commun. C’est comme si la soudaine irruption d’un autobus rompait ‘l’unicité’ du ‘ventre’ ou que les sons du marché ne pouvaient être les seuls possibles du ‘monde extérieur’. Les deux mondes ne sont donc pas des mondes abstraits, idéaux ou mentaux, mais il y a toujours l’immixtion du réel, d’un rythme incontrôlable…
S.W. : L’ouverture est réelle. Elle représente la mémoire concrète, la fonction d’usage originale, la véritable raison d’être du lieu. C’est une brèche ouverte sur l’extérieur d’où on ne peut pourtant guère percevoir l’intérieur. Pour les passagers des autobus, cette ouverture donne sur un ventre sombre, un intérieur illisible. Pour ceux à l’intérieur c’est une chance, un lien avec un monde possible, l’ailleurs. Mais aussi un seuil inviolable. Comme tu dis, ‘l’irruption du réel’ est hors de notre contrôle, de notre volonté. C’est en même temps une chance et la négation de ce qui se passe à l’intérieur. Ce qui m’impressionne c’est justement la présence simultanée et l’absolue étrangeté des deux mondes. Cette irruption est un élément dévastateur et fascinant. Il confère de la réalité à l’intérieur enchanté, lui donne substance en le faisant apparaître fuyant et insaisissable, nous mène au ‘marché’ de la vie. Il n’y a qu’un seuil entre le mythe de la caverne de Platon et les souterrains publics de Liège.
E.L. : Je suis curieux de voir comment sera perçue cette intervention par le public liégeois – qui doit avoir une relation à ce lieu ayant longtemps fait l’objet d’un ‘scandale’ dans le cadre de coûteux travaux publics ‘inutiles’ – mais aussi par le public étranger qui le percevra d’abord physiquement. Ce qu’il y a d’intéressant dans la mémoire c’est aussi que chacun porte la sienne avec soi, et que même lorsqu’on parle de mémoire collective, il y a peu de chances que deux ‘images mentales’ d’un même fait se ressemblent. Les notions en jeu sont nombreuses dans ton projet, et leurs relations complexes : technologie, religion, histoire de l’art, travaux publics, communauté et communication… la liste est encore longue et puis, ta métaphore du ‘ventre’ et de la caverne nous renvoient à des sensations originelles…
S.W. : J’ai du mal à imaginer l’auditoire et la salle d’exposition là-bas, je veux dire l’espace tel qu’il est conçu dans l’actuel projet urbanistique. Je comprends la nécessité d’un auditorium, d’une salle polyvalente, d’une galerie d’art, mais je suis davantage intéressé à imaginer la ‘découverte’ – par les visiteurs du Chantier/Marché – d’un lieu transfiguré. La stupeur en voyant quelque chose qui ne ressemble à rien de ce qu’on a traversé en descendant là, même s’il s’agit du même complexe urbain. Comme si, en s’engouffrant dans les viscères d’une ville, un lieu possible se manifestait, un site mis au jour à un moment déjà passé ou qui doit encore venir. Voilà le sens et la valeur de ‘l’irruption du réel’, de l’absurde seuil en béton armé. Voilà la nécessité des autobus jaunes qui foncent là dehors avec leur vrombissement et leur brusque indifférence. Ce sont justement ces présences si familières et au fond banales qui renforcent l’expérience du Chantier/Marché. L’irruption du réel charge le quotidien de valeur symbolique, la vie de nous tous. Mais si un simple autobus peut devenir la métaphore du monde entier, comment apparaîtra alors la Place Saint Lambert ‘métaphysique’ à ceux qui retourneront voir les étoiles en sortant de ‘l’hypercentre de la cité ardente’ ?
Lorsque les projecteurs et les amplificateurs seront éteints pour la dernière fois, la crypte magique redeviendra le souterrain des débuts qui m’a été confié et il ne restera aucune trace apparente du temps passé. C’est ce que je désire. L’oeuvre se sera transformée en mémoire dans l’imaginaire de ceux qui l’ont vécue. Elle sera un petit fragment de leurs images mentales, une particule de mémoire historique de la ville. Elle sera un temps dans le temps. Je crois que ce qui est venu au monde ne meurt pas, mais persiste dans la mémoire, dans les paroles, dans les seuils. Et souvent aussi dans les photographies.
Silvio Wolf. Le Due Porte
Il tempo e la fotografia. Scrive Roland Barthes: “Nella Fotografia non posso mai negare che la cosa è stata là. Vi è una doppia posizione congiunta: di realtà e di passato. E siccome tale costrizione non esiste che per essa, la si deve considerare, per riduzione, come l’essenza stessa, come il noema della Fotografia” (R. Barthes, La camera chiara, Einaudi, 1980, pag. 78). Molto si è discusso attorno al problema del tempo insito nella Fotografia, ma queste riflessioni di Barthes sono spesso apparse, quasi ad ogni critico, come un punto imprescindibile da cui partire. Ora però Silvio Wolf – nel presentare il suo nuovo lavoro che sarà esposto presso la galleria Fotografia Italiana di Milano – quasi a voler contraddire tale “noema della Fotografia”, dichiara con sicurezza: “La mostra è costituita da 12 opere fotografiche: sono immagini senza tempo di luoghi eterni.”
In effetti le sue opere si presentano come immagini che non rimandano al passato, prive come sono di dimensione narrativa, di hic et nunc. Eppure non sono state integralmente costruite con l’aiuto del computer: tutto all’opposto, si tratta di “vere” fotografie nate dall’esperienza. “Sono fotografie di luoghi reali, incontrati e vissuti dall’artista tra l’Occidente e l’Oriente, tra la città e il deserto, tra opposte concezioni di spazio, di vuoto, di presenza e assenza” scrive lo stesso autore. In che senso allora possono le sue immagini essere “senza tempo”, se sono nate nel tempo reale dell’esperienza? Per capire come il lavoro di quest’autore riesca, senza tradire la fotografia ma anzi usandola nel modo più ortodosso possibile, ad aprirla a una nuova, inaspettata e al contempo arcaica dimensione, conviene riflettere sulla mostra nel suo complesso.
Una mostra dove ogni stanza della galleria diviene la stazione di un percorso simbolico, rituale ma non religioso, segnato dalle opere esposte che s’impongono non tanto per quel che rappresentano, ma per quel che evocano. Un percorso che non termina, che non avvicina all’Assoluto o a nessun dio, ma che non a caso inizia con la sala chiamata Il corpo, così come dal corpo dominato dalle passioni e dai desideri, comincia il percorso iniziatico di quel grande mandala di pietra che è il tempio giavanese di Borobudur. Nel lavoro di Silvio Wolf il corpo si presenta però enigmaticamente e modernamente come una troneggiante grattacielo che riflette la luce: una luce violenta, opposta alla luce generativa e spirituale di cui parla la tradizione dell’Occidente. La luce di quest’edificio, infatti, non illumina, abbaglia; non genera, cancella. Cancella il corpo stesso dell’edificio, nega la nostra possibilità di vedere.
Nella seconda sala – L’Altrove – campeggiano le immagini di un Grande Myhrab, di una Scacchiera e di un Labirinto. Di nuovo ci troviamo quindi di fronte a immagini-emblema che non valgono tanto per quel che documentano, che indicano, ma per la loro ambivalenza simbolica, per la loro capacità di significare se stesse ma anche altro, aprendosi a una fluttuazione di significati. La scacchiera, con i suoi quadrati bianchi e neri, non è forse a sua volta un mandala, un’immagine del mondo nel suo dualismo naturale, uno specchio dei cicli celesti? E il Grande Myhrab – la nicchia che indica la direzione della Mecca nelle moschee – non è forse un’assenza, capace però di evocare con forza un luogo sacro, lontano e non visibile? “Il Myhrab è il frutto d’una doppia percezione e d’una doppia negazione, perché non è né un luogo né una cosa” – scrive ancora Silvio Wolf – “è il luogo della virtualità, un vuoto che indica un altrove”.
Antianedottiche, essenziali, le immagini di quest’autore si aprono al futuro, al possibile e finiscono per suggerire più una sacralità senza tempo che un passato preciso. A un mondo inflazionato di immagini urlate, troppo visibili, trasparenti, le sue opere contrappongono il silenzio dell’evidenza sconosciuta delle cose, un’assenza capace di divenire intensità. Un silenzio ottenuto strappando gli oggetti al contesto rumoroso del mondo reale (ma non dovrebbe proprio questa essere una caratteristica della fotografia?), rinunciando a ogni fuga narrativa, a ogni proposito di interpretazione, di decifrazione, per arrivare là dove le cose dichiarano semplicemente la propria irriducibile alterità, la propria presenza enigmatica. Un’operazione di sottrazione di ogni elemento anedottico che si rende ancor più evidente nella terza sala – La Soglia – dove campeggiano immagini di lucernari trasformati in immateriali soglie luminose, immerse nel nero fotografico. Immagini che ci ricordano come l’abisso delle tenebre sia vasto quanto il dominio della luce; infatti, “soltanto immergendosi nella tenebra si può sperare di raggiungere una conoscenza della più vera luce, distinta da quella che ci circonda durante il dì” (Elémire Zolla, Lo stupore infantile, Adelphi, 1994, pag. 52).
Un’oscurità connessa alla luce stessa che riappare anche nell’ultima stanza – Il Passaggio – dove un arco islamico e una porta sono congiunti e divisi dal buio profondo di un vano nero; e dove due grotte scure fanno baluginare sul fondo, in lontananza, una luce che non sconfigge le tenebre ma sembra proseguirne il cammino. Simili al labirinto – dove il tempo appare sospeso in un tempo senza tempo e i sentieri portano ad errare verso un centro agognato e al contempo sconosciuto – le immagini di Wolf non ci portano alla meta, ma ci guidano attraverso soglie luminose, ci conducono in un misterioso avvicinamento, ci invitano a compiere una silenziosa ricerca dentro noi stessi. Come nel film Stalker (1979) di Andrej Tarkovskij la guida accompagna i viandanti verso la “zona” ma poi si ferma nel momento dell’approssimarsi affinché ognuno trovi e cerchi la propria zona, così le immagini di Silvio Wolf ci lasciano nel punto sospeso del Passaggio. La sua però non è solo una ricerca che riflette sulla forza dei simboli, sulla sacralità insita nell’arte stessa, in antitesi con il proliferare delle immagini “vuote” dei mass media. Infatti, tutto il suo lavoro, giocato com’è tra luce, assenza di luce ed oscurità, si rivela anche una riflessione sulla fotografia stessa. Una luce-fotografia che – sembra volerci dire il lavoro di Wolf – può trasformarsi in abbagliamento, in astrazione (come nel caso dell’immagine Lightscape nella stanza Il Corpo ) là dove perde la sua relazione con la gravità e l’opacità dei corpi, con le ombre e il fondo inaccessibile del reale.
Il Convivio delle Parole
Il marciapiede che segue le mura del PAC e conduce verso piazza Cavour: uno dei tanti luoghi di passaggio che in città si attraversano di fretta, immersi nei propri pensieri, senza neppure vedere i volti di quanti incrociano il nostro percorso. Ma ecco che, grazie all’installazione sonora di Silvio Wolf, la solitudine del passante viene spezzata dalle parole inaspettate di una comunità immateriale, nascosta alla vista. Quasi a ogni passo si odono nuove voci narranti e pacate, come quelle di chi sta raccontando la sua vita a un ascoltatore attento e partecipe. Intrasentiamo qua e là qualche parola riconoscibile: “Milano”, “lavoro”, “Italia”… Ma l’estraneità di tutte queste lingue ci impedisce di comprendere quanto i diversi parlanti ci stiano dicendo. Identifichiamo a volte i suoni di una lingua abbastanza familiare, ci interroghiamo sull’identità di altre, del tutto oscure e misteriose. Ma più ascoltiamo questa profusione di frasi, e più ci accorgiamo che non importa tanto distinguere ciò che gli invisibili parlanti vanno dicendo. Lungi dal risultare perturbanti o respingenti, tutti questi discorsi incomprensibili finiscono per esercitare su di noi una piacevole sensazione di avvolgimento, di accoglimento. Viene come naturale fermare i nostri passi, rimanere incuriositi in ascolto, lasciarsi inondare dagli accenti di questi suoni ignoti, quasi fossero una musica amichevole.
Se nella realtà quotidiana “gli altri” – gli immigrati provenienti dai tanti Paesi del mondo – ci appaiono spesso come presenze estranee e distanti, oppure fastidiose e invadenti, qui invece la loro voce risuona con un tono affabulante e vagamente incantato che cattura, che invita all’ascolto. D’improvviso abbiamo l’impressione di trovarci nel cuore di una variegata e ospitale comunità che, con pacatezza e affabilità, ci dona generosamente le sue storie, i suoi racconti, le sue esperienze. Non importa se non capiamo quanto i singoli parlanti ci vanno dicendo, perché avvertiamo innanzitutto il calore della voce di questi “interlocutori” invisibili, simili a presenze assenti. Così, grazie alla grana amabile della loro voce, da stranieri estranei che erano, si rivelano ora per noi come persone vicine, come soggetti prossimi alla nostra stessa vita.
Evitando un esito di pura contemplazione, l’opera di Silvio Wolf agisce dunque dentro la città per offrirsi come una forma inedita di convivenza che genera nuove possibilità relazionali ed esperienziali. Quasi fossero un dono, queste voci morbide e pacate che invitano alla sosta, a un ascolto paziente e protratto nel tempo, riescono a trasformare un piccolo, anonimo angolo di Milano in un luogo quasi incantato, sottratto magicamente al senso di estraneità e di indifferenza che domina abitualmente la nostra percezione della città. Di sera, inoltre, gli stessi faretti che illuminano dal marciapiede le pareti del PAC divengono parte integrante dell’installazione e paiono voler scandire il susseguirsi delle diverse voci che dall’alto piovono dolcemente sui passanti. L’opera si trasforma cioè nel luogo stesso, attivandone la percezione, generando nuove esperienze.
Nel lavoro di Silvio Wolf il tema dell’abitare non si confronta dunque con lo spazio privato, domestico, ma con quello della città, intesa come luogo d’intersezione tra il sentire individuale e quello collettivo. Il suo intervento riallaccia infatti i legami tra le nostre e le altrui esistenze, puntando su una sorta di condivisione e riattivazione dello spazio urbano. La scommessa di questo autore è che lo spazio urbano, sordo e anonimo, che ci circonda, può essere rianimato, riattivato, se si riportano all’ascolto comune, all’orecchio di tutti, quegli strati di memoria collettiva che generalmente vengono negati, trascurati. L’installazione sonora di Silvio Wolf nasce infatti dal suo incontro con alcuni nuovi cittadini milanesi, provenienti dai più disparati Paesi del mondo. Ognuno di loro, esprimendosi nella lingua nativa, gli ha spiegato i motivi dell’abbandono del Paese d’origine, la storia del suo arrivo a Milano, le difficoltà dell’integrazione e la felicità nella conquista di un lavoro, di una casa. Tutti questi nuovi venuti, insomma, gli hanno raccontato, in sedici lingue diverse, le loro storie: quelle vicende che la città non ascolta, anche se di fatto, ormai, fanno parte integrante della sua stessa esistenza.
Così, dopo aver raccolto con pazienza e partecipazione, questo concerto di storie e di voci, Silvio Wolf lo ha poi ripresentato alla città stessa, sotto forma di un’opera che evoca e accetta la complessa realtà sociale e linguistica di Milano. Una simile operazione si ricollega quindi in modo rigoroso ad altri suoi precedenti interventi, realizzati sia in Italia che all’estero, dove egli ha sempre costruito il suo lavoro – che si trattasse di video, fotografie o installazioni – a partire dal luogo stesso in cui era stato invitato a operare. Nell’opera Ricreazione (Ex Scuola Umanitaria, Milano, 1998), ad esempio, Wolf diffonde, nel piano terra di una scuola ormai abbandonata, le voci di una comunità di bambini che giocano, come a voler riattivare la memoria di quel luogo ormai privato della loro presenza gioiosa. Nel centro della Città di Lussemburgo (Angeli del tempo, Città di Lussemburgo, 2001) ridona le voci di bambini giocosi e il canto degli uccelli a un giardino poco frequentato ed eccessivamente curato. Contemporaneamente posa, sulle aiuole e i vialetti di questo piccolo parco, decine di immagini tratte da antiche cartoline postali che ritraggono i giovanissimi membri della Famiglia Granducale. Rese leggermente indefinite dai riflessi luminosi che ne rendono le sembianze quasi immateriali e bruciate dalla luce del tempo, tali immagini di bianche figure infantili paiono riemergere dal passato, come se il vento della memoria fosse entrato nei cassetti segreti dei Granduchi per riportarle alla luce e rioffrirle alla città. In The Elsewhere (Royal Festival Hall, Londra, 1999) Wolf interviene nella Ballroom, dove spesso i bambini si divertono a giocare attratti dal suo ampio spazio vuoto: e qui moltiplica il vocio indistinto di decine di bambini che gridano concitati e si chiamano festosi. Quasi costituisse una sorta di doppia memoria – sedimentata al contempo dentro il luogo e nel profondo del nostro sentire – la voce carica di vitalità dei bambini agisce sugli spettatori creando nuove possibilità emozionali, sospese simultaneamente tra passato e presente, tra il qui e l’altrove. Un effetto di spaesamento e di rimemorazione a cui contribuisce anche la luce pura e atemporale che volutamente illumina in modo costante la sala, immergendola in una sorta di presente assoluto e sospeso. Simili a soglie instabilmente protese tra visibile e invisibile, tra presenza e assenza, questi interventi (così come quello che fa parte della mostra Less – Strategie dell’abitare) si offrono come generatori di possibilità percettive ed esperienziali, che creano nuove e più profonde relazioni di senso con l’ambiente in cui interagiscono.
Interview with the Artists
Johanne Bernstein: When we first met you were proposing a different project to the current one, though it was also called The Elsewhere. You wanted to use the Ballroom as a site to show live images (transmitted via the telephone network) of underground stations in Berlin, London, Montreal, Moscow, New York, Paris and Rome, where you would emit through the Tannoy systems the sound of places of worship (such as synagogues, churches and mosques). You talked of transforming the underground stations – indistinct multicultural transient places – into “profound places of listening” by the intervention of a type of sound which represents stasis and uniform culture and purpose.
Clearly you are interested in disrupting the habitual perceptions of a place by introducing evidence of a different kind of place or community that exists elsewhere. Can you tell me why this is and how this has figured in your previous work?
Silvio Wolf: Places are complex entities. Like individuals they have their own memories, identities and symbolic lives. What we experience is an interaction of these many layers. I’m fascinated by the personality that a specific place is capable of expressing, and I’m also increasingly obsessed by the need to establish a symbolic relationship with such a place. Searching for a given place’s identity enables me to establish my own roots and memory through it. What challenges me in this process is the possibility of activating a perception of a simultaneous past and present, of here and elsewhere, coexisting in Time and Space. People can be made aware of this through the symbolic languages of Art.
A few years ago I became aware of these things while working on a project for a major art space in Milan which had originally been the refectory of an orphanage for girls. My discovery of the origins of the building and the design of the installation became completely interwoven. I wasn’t just interested in giving evidence to the lost traces and memory of the place, but rather with giving a new form, life and presence to the vanished community of girls which had previously lived there for centuries. Through my research into those very specific references, I began to face general issues of the disappearance and identity of any enclosed or separated community.
Since then I have developed installation projects for a number of public spaces originally conceived for or still used by different kinds of communities, like ex-schools, mental hospitals, churches and an ex-prison. In the process of working in each place, I found that my own subjective perception of it would gradually change, transforming it from an originally foreign entity into a symbolic territory, so that the finished installation would transcend the specificity of the place and give the audience a more general and shared understanding.
J.B.: Can you tell me why you are interested in disrupting the experience of the underground station, and why you wanted to use the sound of religion specifically to do this? I’m also of course interested in why you felt that the Royal Festival Hall’s Ballroom was an appropriate place to present this project.
S. W.: People in the underground share the experience of an unusual suspension of their present time. They are all coming from somewhere and aiming to go somewhere else, and it’s as if the time spent in the underground system were of a different and rather lower quality compared to the time spent in their over-ground lives. In the underground one becomes part of a vast, silent, ever-changing and passive community within a strange environment to which no one ever belongs. I thought that the sounds of places of worship transmitted through the Tannoy systems, would transform these everyday indistinct and transient places into profound places of listening, where the “sacred” could unexpectedly be experienced. The sound has a special quality; it reaches deeply inside you more than any image can because images are hindered by too many cultural barriers. The project also involved using a public location in each city to present the live images and sounds of the seven simultaneous underground events. I thought of the RFH Ballroom as the perfect location in London: it is the focal point of a transient and crowded place, and its 5 x 30 metre rear glass windows looks like an fantastic back projection screen. It could be turned into a wall of live images broadcasted from the seven different Undergrounds, and the Ballroom audience would witness the entire global event.
J. B.: What made you propose the current and simpler project for The Elsewhere?
S.W.: After working on the project for over a year, it could not be finalised because of technical and cost-related problems faced by the sponsoring telephone network (although the project is still alive, and I’m looking forward to its future fulfilment). In any case, by that time the Ballroom had become a meaningful “symbolic territory” for me with a strong and autonomous identity, which went far beyond the original project. That’s when I felt it had the potential to express in a different form another concept of The Elsewhere.
J. B.: Much of your previous work uses light as its subject. Can you describe in what way, and what you mean when you talk about light as being a primary form of visual language?
S.W.: In most of my previous photographic pieces and more recently in the site-specific installations, the light has become not only the medium but also the subject matter of my work. The light illuminating my subjects, in other words the light that allows me to “take” the pictures, is trapped within the image thus becoming a visible image of its own. In the same way that a fresco can physically be detached from its original wall and removed to a new site, so can the light take an object virtually off the place where it was found and transport it elsewhere. Within this process the light changes from a pure medium into an active and visible subject.
In The Elsewhere at the RFH the light as much as the sound is used as a primary form of language. The same way that the children’s voices are the only original sound instruments to be heard in the Ballroom, the pure white light is the only new element to be seen in the space. It represents the potential origin of any image, but is also presented as an almost material entity of its own. Its energy creates a luminous white screen allowing the audience to give form to the projections of their own mental images. The very light that prevents us from seeing the outside world can thus make the inner space of the Ballroom, and the inner world of our minds visible; as you wrote in your text ” Whilst leading nowhere physically, the Ballroom can lead anywhere mentally, or virtually”.
Distant Origins of Silvio Wolf’s Work
Let’s begin with some declarations Wolf himself made on the nature of his work: “They are timeless images of eternal places” and “It is like a journey, the works are its stations, the emblems of a present elsewhere.” These few lines are sufficient to clear the field of the usual jargon employed nowadays whenever photography is discussed.
Certainly such peremptory affirmations are also made as a reaction to the excess of images that besiege us. Once rare, images are now hackneyed, provoking a state of perceptive bulimia from which it has become urgent to defend ourselves. This is one of the reasons for the creeping spread of iconoclastic forms.
We might apply this theory and we would undoubtedly reach conclusions that make perfect sense, but in Wolf’s words there are elements that seem to point us toward new developments. Wolf is in a position where the themes of time, which seem so intimately linked to those of photography, are suddenly supplanted without entering into the least dialectical relationship. We are immediately beyond time, frozen in that instant, suspended between past and future, which is over and above the real time of experience, fixed forever for the benefit of a deferred enjoyment. When, speaking of his work Large Myhrab – the Islamic prayer niche – he says: “It is missing from the space in which it finds itself, and this absence represents a place that is other than itself, faraway and invisible: it is the place of virtuality, an emptiness that points elsewhere.”
Here, too, one of the fundamental frameworks of photography is being contradicted – the hic et nunc that is at the basis of its narrative dimension and of which, in fact, there is no trace in these works of Wolf.
If one thinks of the battle fought in defense of this principle introduced by Walter Benjamin, its desertion could be felt to be particularly painful. But something tells me that, instead of questioning what appeared to be breakthroughs in debates on photography, Wolf’s affirmations mean to show us new dimensions of experience made possible by this medium.
To lend substance to this sensation it might be useful to abandon the usual conceptual instruments used currently to deal with artistic questions and instead turn to the roots of Silvio Wolf’s world, which are those of Polish Judaism. By this I don’t mean to say that his work contains no linguistic or semiological issues regarding context, just that these are subordinated to an urgency of a meta-artistic nature.
It is enough to open a book of Jewish mysticism to hear echoes of accents extraordinarily in tune with those perceptible in Wolf’s declarations.
First of all, it is rare to come across full-bodied, rounded, weighty images in these texts. Instead we find lights, flashes, splendors, words and letters that are worlds and breadths and then numbers and numbers of light.
Space, too, has little in common with what we ordinarily experience, but is segmented, multiplied, opening onto unfathomable abysses and measureless heavenly hierarchies.
The ever-present element is the insignificance of the immediately perceivable datum, because it is constantly suggested that the meaning of things opens out to understanding according to degrees of conscience that can only be reached through paths of knowledge.
According to Jewish mystics there are at least sixty-four levels of interpretation of holy texts, the first of which is the literal one. One understands how, from this perspective, sight no longer occupies that privileged position it has in our culture where, in fact, perception is usually confused with comprehension, while in the Jewish culture more often it is the source of distortions and mistakes. Abulafia in The Seven Paths of the Torah affirms: “The world is branded with the secret” and then adds that it is only by starting from the fourth level of interpretation that the allegorical dimension of the texts begins to reveal itself.
On further investigation, even isolated letters can turn out to contain unimagined levels of meaning, while others are emphasized through permutations of themselves until they end up concentrating one’s attention on the empty spaces between one letter and another. In all this there is an evident mortification of the act of seeing or, more precisely, the act of looking, which finds itself strangely attuned to the signs of rejection of that visual constipation currently produced by the media.
But the strategy chosen by Wolf to react to the state of perceptive saturation is not the disparagement of referential data. Otherwise there would be no explanation for his insistence on working exclusively with photography without ever transforming it into a synthetic image with the aid of computers. For him it is of primary importance that his works refer to absolutely concrete experiences, deriving, that is, from situations that are not manipulated. Their only apparent abstraction is a consequence of the elimination of anecdotal details that might impede an encounter with the absolutely real.
His predilection for zones of transit, for doors and thresholds might perhaps be seen as indicative of the fact that his work, too, considered as a whole, means to be a threshold between utterly different perceptive states. If this is the case, we might find ourselves facing that issue of the levels of understanding discussed by the Jewish sages.
1. Avraham Ben Sêmu’el Abulafia, The Seven Paths of Torah, Ital. ed, in Mistica Ebraica, Einaudi, Torino 1995.
Conversation with Silvio Wolf. The Two Doors
Anna Strada: Your alphabet is an ordered chessboard; I can clearly distinguish the pieces from the game. Prominent among them is a noble King made of light; at his side sits the Queen of elsewhere; and the stately Bishops are the concepts of time and space. I can recognize the key pieces of this game: the threshold and the limit, in the guise of Castles; the form of codes in the Knights; and finally illusion symbolized by the Pawns.
Now that all the pieces have been named, we see a stone Chessboard (p. 23), the game within the game. I see a table in a park. I barely glimpse the contours of the benches, and my eye is attracted by the glare, a ray of sunshine that hits that chequered and empty plane. I can’t see the pieces, but I feel the cold: nobody is sitting on those backlit benches. The first move goes to the Bishop of absence. Why is there only silence around us? What is the meaning of this uninhabited place?
Silvio Wolf: Absence is a dominant theme in all my work. It is as though man were ingrained in the places that represent him without ever being explicitly named, as though these places contained him and were his spatial emanations. Chessboard is a real place and also a model of reality that shows me possible routes: neat, plotted and still untrodden paths. It represents the idea of the double, the symbolic space where One meets and mirrors itself in Another.
The idea of a model takes me to Red Screen, in which the vision from above of the seats in a deserted theater is the staging of the absence of man, articulated by the rhythm of reds and blacks. In this work reality appears to be a geometrical model, the enlargement of an apparent microcosm of organic matter that creates a pattern governed by rules of perspective. Actually what appears is not what we think, but the miniaturization of a larger reality.
Absence is also the shape of the most extraordinary symbolic model I have ever come across: the Myhrab, the Islamic prayer niche, a pure directing of the gaze that indicates the most sacred place of Islam. In Large Myhrab (p. 21) the niche may be seen as both a concave and convex form; in one case it is absence, in the other it is illusion. What strikes me most is that the Myhrab is the fruit of dual perception and dual negation because it is neither a place nor a thing; it is missing from the space in which it finds itself, and this absence represents a place that is something other than itself, faraway and invisible: an emptiness that points elsewhere. So I think that the Myhrab is the symbol that gives man the power of ubiquity, because it allows the believer to be both here and there at the same time. It is the place of virtuality, an act of faith, the true illusion.
AS: And so we come to the Pawn’s first move. The illusion is a constant in many of the installations you create using light and voice as pure forms of language, evoking presence and elsewhere in a present and absolute time. I’m thinking above all of The Elsewhere, the London installation in which the only clue of a human presence is the sound of children’s voices, totally bathed in the radiant white light that illuminates the large empty room. Our voices as visitors join theirs: what you create is a different place from the one before; now we are part of the work, we experience it.
SW: Yes, the place is the event. As it happened for the first time in White Lights in the Stelline, a former girls’ orphanage, the space is void of physical elements other than the familiar ones, but subtly pervaded by an invisible and different world. Here collective identity is recalled by the memory of the place, the individuals who truly lived there. Recalling it to the present signifies challenging death, what happened, and who lived through and suffered world events. Like in Berlin Station, where my work made scenes of the genocide of the Jewish people reappear on the walls and streets of that city in a historical moment of profound change after the fall of the Wall.
AS: The parallel with Annunciation (p. 43) arises spontaneously. Again the scenario is a city hosting the work, but there is no image of a past event on San Francisco’s walls, instead a timeless icon, the Holy Shroud. You say that the image, and in particular that image, needs to find a network to be fixed upon. How can a holy image appear on a city’s advertising billboards?
SW: An Annunciation is, first and foremost, an announcement, a form of communication, letting someone know about something somewhere. So I chose a universally known image that could interact with the everyday life of the metropolis and become a sign of the world, not just a symbol, creating its manifestation, the evidence of a possible event. You see, photography is not merely evidence of the past, but also evidence of the future and possible. It can show us places without an elsewhere and presents without a past; it generates images that are able to confirm and deny, both true and false. These photographs, the product of digital elaboration, are the true photographs of a virtual event, and the visitors to the exhibition seeing them exhibited in the gallery in San Francisco did not wonder if the events portrayed had truly taken place, but only if the Shroud had been there in that moment, if they had failed to notice it in the city. With their questions they helped me understand to what extent the testimonial value of photography has definitively vanished nowadays, how it can create sure and credible models of reality, and, on the other hand, to what extent we still need to be able to believe in them.
AS: You have raised fundamental issues. I am thinking of the evocative icons of Angels of Time images in which the light itself cancels the faces and true identities of the young members of the family of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, which you took from old postcards. Among the tidy hedges of that Italianate garden, you entrusted the vanished faces, the children’s voices and the birdsong to the wind of memory. Isn’t the light – which, while making the figures visible, destroys their identity – perhaps the result of your desire to set to zero what you call the testimonial value of photography? To turn the images into icons?
SW: Yes, these images represent the action of light, the subject and the medium in my work. In Icons of Light (p. 43) it creates photographic images while destroying the painted ones. This cycle of works is the result of a dual process, simultaneously generative and destructive: of the original painting only the surface and the frame remain visible, of the photograph only the light that exposed it. I believe vision may come as much from illumination as from blindness; that every generative act carries an end within it and every ending a new beginning. In the Icons of Light these two extreme conditions fuse in the coincidence of instant births and deaths. The icons are materializations of light in which perception oscillates between two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality, between a here and an elsewhere, between being and having been.
AS: Now the white King of Light, sovereign of the game, is moving. I’m thinking of the glare of Lightscape (p. 19), which no longer meets a two-dimensional image but a body, the house, the icon of man and his architecture. I don’t perceive destruction here; this ray of light does not annihilate the body, it barely skims it, it illuminates it in part, is reflected in it . . . We could be blinded as much by the surplus of light as by its absence, but I feel that it leaves that body its imprint; the visible trace is like a form of writing.
SW: Photography is writing, the transfiguration of light into sign, light which becomes image. Using photography in Braille Stars I created the signs of a new visual language basing myself on the verbal language of the visually impaired, reinterpreting the black-and-white as binary codes of light-not-light. In The Observance words written during my interviews with patients in a psychiatric hospital became graffiti of light in nocturnal projections on the buildings of the same institute.
You see, the theme of codes is constantly present in my work. In Québec City I made an installation around the linguistic identities of the Francophone and Anglophone ethnic groups. I entitled it Double Breath/Double Souffle (p. 46) because the two male and female voices that alternately recite the words collected during my stay in that city express the difficult coexistence and the dichotomy between the different cultures. In my concept these two voices represent the vital expressions of the only intangible body of the work. The country itself offered me the signs I was seeking of the possible union between these polarities: Inuktitut, the native language of the place and the ideal origin of the languages called into play. Using its letters I wrote all over the gallery floor, transliterating the French and English words diffused in the air. So while visitors walked on that wooden floor that became their solid common ground, the immaterial lines of light from a cathode ray oscilloscope connected to the acoustic sources projected the vibrating images of the two voices on the walls.
AS: I read your words: “In my concept the notion of breathing is as much a primary sign of life as communication among people. Speaking and breathing cannot be separated from each other. Breathing joins the nature of human beings just as much as words can separate them. Everything that joins can separate.” Here comes the key piece of the game, the threshold move, the border kingdom overlooking two worlds, which could not exist should one of them disappear.
It is the condition of the limit that in Day-Night-Day becomes both the transition between light and darkness and the transition between outside and inside. The threshold takes the form of the skylight of an Oriental house, first photographed by night from the roof, then by day from the inside, leaving only a rectangle of sky visible. In Argentiera (p. 48) you compare the limits of vision: the window of the room from which you look at the horizon and the frame of the photograph, the very limit of your language. On that occasion you wrote: “The outside sets itself against the inside, the annulment of one is the possession of the other. The mind is the medium. The mind is the limit.” I feel I can say that the threshold has always been the true subject of your work, even through apparently very different formulations.
SW: You have touched on a crucial issue from which perhaps everything stems. If I look at one of my more recent works, Before Time, I see that even the photographic film self-exposed while loading a camera reveals a threshold, the clear limit between light and darkness, between matter and language. Equally, in the whole cycle of Skylights (pp. 25, 27, 29, 31, 33), the dazzling white light that penetrates through the skylights dematerializes the architecture, reducing the place to thresholds that float in the photographic blackness, while every other clue of space vanishes. In Grottos (pp. 34, 35), a work I did twenty years before, two very slightly different photographs, taken from two fluctuating points of view, reveal the minimum variations in the direction of our gaze, the imperceptible margins between two almost equivalent instants. Here the inside is darkness, the outside is just light; in the middle is the mutation, the experience of time.
AS: The darkness you speak of is manifest in The Two Doors (p. 37), which I read as an emblematic work on the theme of threshold. The black room, the place of blindness captured by the photographic eye, creates between the two apertures the possibility of a direct and always denied passage in some of your other works. Now I see clearly that beyond, which needs me in order to exist, as it presupposes a point of view, a dialogue, a presence. The leading players of the game are revealed: the distant door, suspended in the dark, is a harsh West with clear-cut borders; the arch on this side speaks to me of the East. It is therefore the limits that outline the place to search, the latent space that indicates the elsewhere and the present.
Silvio, if the Queen has the last move in this match, what other games will open up beyond that Threshold?
The recent development of photographic culture as well as the increasing use of the medium in the field of the arts, are freeing the photographer from the strictures of depicting only the “real” world.
More and more photographers are turning their explorations from outer realities to inner ones according to a historical process which involved painting and sculpture at the beginning of the century.
It’s very common to manipulate photographic processes and invent new techniques in order to find the perfect form for representing the intangible world of the individual.
In fact, since it is impossible to properly convey what belongs to the sphere of spiritual life, the artist transforms the medium for creative needs.
Other artists, however, respect the intrinsic characteristics of the medium but use the depicted object as “symbol” of the inner world. In this case, in spite of the fact that we recognize the object, we have to make an imaginative effort to interpret the object as a vehicle for “thoughts”.
The artist who uses photography with this aim, adds a new element to reality, by making ideas and thoughts concrete, and with that introducing them in reality. With this premise in mind, we may look at the work of Silvio Wolf.
To penetrate the deepest significance of Wolf’s imagery, the critical inquiries are addressed to certain common denominators which are the synthesis of his evolution. First of all, the single meaning couldn’t be represented. Consequently, his pictures are constructed with the highest ambiguity, even if the chosen objects and forms are not ambiguous in themselves. The viewer is free to form his own interpretation, to recognize or refuse himself in a sort of mirror reflection. The relationship between interior/exterior is the issue for Silvio Wolf. He extends the concept from real space to metaphorical space which involves the human being with him/herself as well as with outer realities. Secondly, Wolf’s research is a statement on the autonomy of the photographic medium which has its own language and its own expressiveness, as do other traditional visual media.
In one if his earliest works, Punti Cardinali (Cardinal Points, 1979), Wolf wanted to portray the concept of the surrounding space according to our geographical conventions. He stood in the same place and turned himself towards the four cardinal points making pictures of what was in front of him. He composed a work in a cross shape with a hole in the centre – the photographer’s place. An action like that might seem obvious, but Wolf just found out the simplest and most direct way to represent the environs that we perceive but don’t see.
Exploring inner worlds, Wolf employs surrealistic imagery, avoiding all kinds of photographic manipulation; merely putting two or more pictures side by side. The message comes with the coordination of the totality. The single photograph in itself doesn’t contain any meaning. It is useless for the viewer to look at the represented subject searching for narrative sense, literary content or documentary record. The subjects are merely devices for hinting at his own psyche; Wolf is concerned with the final image that “exposes” the mind.
As Silvio Wolf wrote in the poem Spazio Mentale (Mental Space, 1981), an introduction to the work of the same title: “What I portray is the visible image of my thoughts.” Therefore, the photographic image is a tool for revealing his intimate world by using symbols. Symbols embody etymological meanings that are hidden in the picture. That’s why the viewer needs special resources to capture those meanings.
Wolf’s sequences work like written language: an isolated single word has its own etymology which is ambiguous and poly-significant. Only in reading word by word, do we have the key for the comprehension of the sentence.
In the last work Acqua (Water, 1981/82), Silvio Wolf abandons the surrealistic imagery for a simpler record of reality. “Acqua” has surprising similarities to Punti Cardinali, but a stronger symbology.
To express the concept of continuous cariations and the loss of what bombs our minds (but which we don’t detain consciously), Wolf has chosen water as a subject. He plays with symbols freely: water is a symbol of movement, change, renewal and inconsistancy, as well as being strictly linked with the oneiric symbology of “birth”.
Indeed, as Silvio Wolf wrote when presenting the series: “I perceive by intuition a birth in these primitive representations which are ambiguous and metaphoric at the same time.” The images are built by using concrete reference feature: a semi-swamped stake covered by seaweed. Once again, he selected the simplest representation for portraying thoughts and emotions in an object from the real world. In its continuous movement, water creates forms by way of a stake and seaweed; forms that we lose in temporal experience the very moment we look at it. In photographs, they are frozen forever and become the lexicon for a silent conversation between the viewer and him/herself as well as between the viewer and the author. To be paradoxical, I may say that what we see in Wolf’s images is not what the images are. He challenges the analogical power in photography.
Silvio Wolf: The Gate to the Threshold
“Fifty gates of light (they were revealed to him)”
Jiri Langer, Nine Gates to the Chasidic Mysteries (1)
If the spirit of photography is ancient, associated with Prometheus and the bringing of light, with Zoroaster; if it is also primordial, connected with magic and the desire for resurrection (a century ago, Siberian shamans called their first experience with the process “drawing shadows to stone”) then Silvio Wolf is surely a tsaddik, a diviner, a person of photographic wisdom and deep insight. Although he shares concerns with a number of important contemporary artists, photographers, and philosophers, I would describe his artistic progress as unique in my experience. It has been all about coming into the light of photography, crossing a threshold into a deeper immersion and understanding of its character, properties, and implications. From an awareness of photography’s dense cultural coding and its memorial function, Wolf has moved toward a greater intimacy with its physical nature and metaphoric possibilities. In many ways, his progress is exactly the opposite of most artists using photography today. Where they have become steadily more diffuse, deploying photography to other purposes, he has become focused, relating everything to the conditions of photography. Where they have become more analytical (or more confessional), he has become more mystical, more willing to let beauty be a divine accident. And where they regard photography as a tool or merely an occasion, he has come to see it as a mode of knowing, a gate.
The Eclipse of the Image
In this essay, I want to describe this progress with reference to works created by Wolf over the last fifteen years, the period during which his path has defined itself. To understand it, I need to outline briefly the context of photography leading up to this period. The 1960s must be our point of departure. Until that period of turmoil, photography had been an ancillary art, one that struggled with the task of its own modernism, asserting through the work of its greatest artists a unique nature and province for the medium, bequeathed by the complex of camera-photographer-world. Critics above all asserted a formal history for the medium, exemplified in masterworks of craft, composition, and engagement with the moment. Inevitably, a hermeneutic of the image was elaborated.
Yet photography could not shake off its indexical relation with an anterior order of reality, and it could not extract itself from the quagmire of its many uses – as propaganda, document, memento, and fetish. For political and other reasons, many artists would not allow photography its artistic “place elsewhere.” In different ways Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter, to name only a few, all implicated the photographic image, even as they used it to level painting (not to mention art) and deprive art of its hieratic cult value. In a curious way, however, photography had far more to lose than painting. With Ruscha’s gas stations and Richter’s Atlas, photography was exposed as, itself, an anterior reality, as “the prose of the world,” in Merleau-Ponty’s famous phrase, all-enveloping and undifferentiated. The single image as the bearer of univocal meanings and authorial self-consciousness simply could not withstand this onslaught (although photographers went on, often desperately, making pictures).
Yet these appropriations liberated photography to explore its many functions and relations, as well as its physical identity and history. Indeed, it finally acquired a history, although not the formal one most photographers and partisan critics had proposed. The liberation has been further assisted by digital technology, which has made chemical photography fully metaphoric and, at the same time, recalibrated the relation of image and world. It could be that in the not too distant future camera-based images will no longer be assumed to specify, ipso facto, any such relations. Everything will be up for grabs.
In any case, the notion of the archive and the project – including installations – have replaced the single-frame image as the vehicle of expression and exploration. Fully self-conscious, photography continuously bears the burden of its context. It is often constructive rather than reproductive, commandeered and deployed rather than autonomously presented. There can be no naïve photographs. It is not an overstatement to say that the most interesting photographic artists today are not photographers, or not primarily photographers, just as it is not an overstatement to say that the best photographers are also concerned with art in ways they never were before.
It is this new and varied landscape that Silvio Wolf surveys. In its preoccupations with time, place, epistemology and identity, his work resembles that of Roni Horn. Like her, Wolf often returns to earlier imagery, placing it new contexts to develop new dimensions of meaning. In his works exploring memory and loss, he resembles above all Christian Boltanski, although Wolf is not fixed on the Holocaust but rather on the fact of all departures and effacements. Although he usually looks beyond temporary political engagements, Wolf approaches Alfredo Jaar in his sense of the photograph’s suggestive, poetic character. Boltanski, Jaar, and Wolf all understand that authentic politics originate in a deep attachment to human particularity, whose celebration – rather than mere enumeration – is one of photography’s provincial tasks.
“History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it – and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it.”
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (2)
We can view Wolf’s entire career as an investigation of photography and how its meanings are constituted in terms of space and time. But I propose that this ongoing investigation has led him inevitably into more intimate and personal experiences of memory and loss, and through them to a more profound understanding of the limits of all images. In such exhibitions as Argentiera (1979) and Spazio Mentale (1980), whose imagery returns more than twenty years later at the heart of the exhibition Le Due Porte (2003), Wolf early on explored what can be seen, framed, and most importantly understood. Wolf’s poem Argentiera made clear that his concern was less with the nature of things than with the limits of understanding. It ends with the lines “The mind is the means. / The mind is the limit.” (3) It is the mind, not the world, that creates the photograph. And it is the mind, not the world, that must push beyond a simple visual understanding of it. The photograph is a conceptual object that explores a set of relations, not things, and from it we can gain ever greater insight – new levels of insight, as the Kabalists might put it – into the nature of our experience.
With the Icone di Luce series that began in 1991 and reappeared in various settings for most of a decade, the terms of knowing and unknowing peculiar to photography were extended to all cultural artifacts, all art. Wolf photographed paintings from odd angles in order to increase surface glare until all imagery was effaced. He then placed these non-images in galleries among objects and paintings that could still disclose themselves. This simple strategy has complicated ramifications. First, photography announced itself as the sign of absence among the “presentness” of art. In the world of gain, it testifies to loss. In the world of “now” it authenticates “no longer.”
Second, in the exhibitions (Esposizione, Alias) pointed out the provisional and historically conditioned nature of aesthetic seeing. It is possible for whole categories of cultural objects (not to mention individual artists) to become invisible, nullified by time and changing circumstance. Wolf included his own position as artist within this dialectic of visible/invisible, present/absent, in the exhibition La Zone d’Ombre (1999). He installed six of his Icone in the cells of the old jail of Quebec City, now part of the Musée du Québec. The images were based on paintings of the city’s French founders, a reference to the origins of the exhibition venue itself. Background voices sounded the languages of the artist’s familial identity: Polish, Hebrew, Triestine, Italian, German, and Hungarian. Quite apart from its comment on the conventional space of exhibition, the piece drew an analogy between the artist and the photograph. Like the subject of a photograph (in this case the originators of the city), the artist, who after all is the true subject of the work and its originator, is never fully disclosed and is present only “in” the work, as at best a shadow, or in this case the presence of voices.
In truth, all our cultural inheritance exists in a kind of shadow, never more than half known, because time and history permit no total and final revelations within themselves. This is doubly so for photography, which, as Barthes reminds us, because it is contingent cannot signify, except by adopting masks. Those masks are its history. (4) This intuition leads us to two paradoxes: that light can obscure the visible (and knowledge obliterate its own objects) and that the destruction of meaning engenders new meanings.
Such insights gain poignancy when applied to human duration and loss. Two of Wolf’s most ambitious installations involve the staging of photographs, partially effaced, of individuals no longer alive, much less present. Unlike the faces in Boltanski’s better known works, these are not victims of history and the deeds of men but of time itself. For Luci Bianche (1995), Wolf installed video screens along one wall of the old refectory of a former girls’ orphanage, and projected nearly obscured historical images of the girls on the other. The video screens bore the children’s more readable images, so the two forms of evidence and levels of specificity confronted each other. At the same time, an audio of children’s voices recited the girls’ names, in random order, never coupling name and face. In recalling the true and human history of the place, in witnessing lives, the installation nevertheless emphasized the forgotten-ness of that particularity, and the play of memory in the process of attenuation. The photograph allows us to stand outside of time and thus to bring history into being. But it does not grant us this permission for ourselves and our moment. There is no such thing as a history (or a photograph) of the present.
With Angeli del Tempo (2001), Wolf restored the icons of light and brought them into the open and a more public arena. He re-photographed and, according to his technique, partially obscured historic images of the family of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg. These childhood images he mounted in large format on aluminum, and placed, as if they had been scattered by the wind, in a public park in Luxembourg. The actions of time and chance were accentuated by voices of children and the sound of birds, broadcast over loudspeakers. Lineage and continuity persist as attenuated memories and scattered recognitions, or perhaps only as voices in the wind, the last evidence of people and a world that are no more.
At the Zero
We can see that Silvio Wolf’s deeper preoccupations, his selected paradoxes, display a remarkable consistency. Yet there are points in history and in individual lives when what has come before is gathered up in some decisive engagement, and later it can be seen that from there on, everything was different. I regard Scala Zero as such a point for this artist. It represents the rapport of photography’s epistemological sign and architecture’s social, historical, and ontological signs. The project began in 1999 and just recently concluded in 2004 with the Scala Zero video and with the Sfocate series. At the very end of the project, it seems to me, Wolf has discovered a means of transcending not just the various species or roles of photography but the balkanized genres of art itself. This is the last gate.
Beginning in the 1980s, artists began to pay close attention to architecture, not just because of Modernism’s stylistic eclipse but because of its ideological collapse, the revelation of architecture as the historical inscription of power in the social landscape. Artists such as Louise Lawler and Sherrie Levine sought to re-appropriate (or de-inscribe) institutionalized space through installation and photographic quotation. Others – Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and their epigones – following in the footsteps of Bernd and Hilla Becher, have conducted an inventory of architecture’s growing hegemony, its monopolization of space. These photographic projects have in common an attitude of spectacle, regarding such structures theatrically, as pure signs in a semiological wonderland. In the novel Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo has provided a description of this landscape:
“The bank towers loomed just beyond the avenue. They were covert structures for all their size, hard to see, so common and monotonic, tall, sheer, abstract…and he had to concentrate to see them.
They looked empty from here. He liked the idea. They were made to be the last tall things, made empty, designed to hasten the future. They were the end of the outside world.
They weren’t here exactly. They were in the future, a time beyond geography and touchable money and the people who stack and count it.” (5)
Wolf has approached such perceptions in Lightscape, the opening image to the exhibition Le Due Porte and in the Altrove section of Paradiso, the exhibition at the Galleria Gottardo (2006). In both cases, he has attempted to open a vision beyond the reflecting surfaces of technocratic structures produced by capital. In Scala Zero, however, he imagined something completely different. He used photography to open up the historic structure of Teatro alla Scala from the inside out. Combining photography and digital imaging, Wolf did not deconstruct La Scala but reconstruct it, making the structure, heaped in national myth, visible to itself. He projected the theater’s concealed inner technological workings – circuit boards and lighting controls (Doppie Icone), seating diagrams (Totem), into public spaces such as loggias and corridors. These revealed functions were phantoms of the opera, geometric abstractions inserted into the house’s baroque, antiquarian splendor.
At the same time, Wolf matched this reversal of inside and outside by removing – avoiding really – any trace of human presence and substituting images of empty red and blue seats (Red Screen, Blue Screen) where the audience should be. In the video Scala Zero, the crowd of theater-goers present at the beginning in the lobby disappears completely by the end, leaving the view of an empty theater. The removal signaled a deliberate turn away from direct socio-political comment and prevented human stand-ins from deflecting the complex experience of this re-inscribed space that Wolf wanted to offer directly to viewers. Scala Zero was not about someone else’s experience.
Wolf has pursued such reversals throughout his career, always according to his preoccupation with photography’s polarities. In his work we see presence become absence, appearance become effacement, the past become present, and the particular become iconic. We are reduced to describing his work in oxymorons and to calling Wolf a dark seer, unable to imagine or name any condition of being without also naming its opposite. With Scala Zero, however, there arises, beautifully, the possibility of a resolution, a third term that contains and transcends the oppositions at the heart of photography.
Such a third term could not be any recognizable image at all, just as a Teatro alla Scala fully present to itself, whose inside and outside, past and present, were manifested at once could not be any actual physical edifice, any architecture narrowly bound by time and place. So the video Scala Zero ends in a blaze of imageless white light obliterating the famous stage, and the photographic project concludes with the blurred Sfocate images and the binary image of two red circles in a black background – Occhi (Eyes). It is sight itself, experience itself, that is the ground of being, prior to any codified forms. There is no image to signify or transmit such apprehensions, but since this is a photograph, we can nevertheless experience the ambiguity of our relation to the world and a metaphor for that relation, at the same time.
I hesitate to call Wolf’s art mystical because I do not think he proposes access to unmediated experience, to an order of reality that does not include representation, specifically photographs. And yet, the exhibition Le Due Porte strongly suggests the approach to such a state, as Franco Vaccari has insisted. (6) In a discussion of the meaning of Hasidism, Martin Buber speaks of a specifically Jewish mysticism, not of annulment but of fulfillment, a telos rather than a regression. (7) Implicit in this hallowing of time, it seems to me, is the notion of thresholds, crossings, movements toward revelation. This concept structured the exhibition Le Due Porte and, if this micro-retrospective could be taken as evidence, Wolf’s entire artistic progress.
The exhibition Le Due Porte gathered many of the key images of Wolf’s career: the Grande Myhrab, an empty prayer niche, signifying the elsewhere of thought and divine presence; Le Due Porte, in which an Arab arch frames a dark passage to a desert landscape and the prospect of further travel and arduous insight; Grotta, watery caves with their beckoning apertures of light, as if we were inside a pinhole camera (or Plato’s cave), registering a faint image of the universe. The exhibition opened with Lightscape, the image of a vast office tower partially effaced or transmogrified by light. It proceeded through Skylights, in which light sculpted new architectural spaces seemingly out of nothing but shadow, and it concluded with a remarkable “cameraless” image, Prima del Tempo: Orizzonte 01. The large color print was made from the very beginning of an exposed roll of color film, a discard, an accident, retrieved to sight and signification from contingent physical circumstances. Its horizontal, binary structure – yellow above a rich reddish brown – suggested a Rothko painting but with a sheen and luminosity alien to painting. I want to say purely photographic. The center horizon line suggested a landscape, another threshold.
It is impossible not to see these abstractions as a terminus ad quem, an eschatological minimalism. Wolf himself has said as much, speaking of the recent Totem (2006) as photography before the advent of an image, a primordial encounter of light and time. The fascination with first things (which is implicit in every photograph) grips many artists today. In the twilight of the chemical image, at the moment of its transformation into unmediated digital information, there has arisen a spirit of experimentation and a willingness to harvest the gifts of photographic chance that recalls the 1920s, when photographers sought to register the conceptual transformation from a Newtonian to a relativistic universe.
Yet this language of regression may be misleading. It seems to me these “Horizons” suggest not so much a stripping away as an embrace of all possibilities, as if the totality of what can be shown and seen might be contained in a single image. Or we might be led to conceive such an image. To paraphrase Buber, in Silvio Wolf’s work two lines meet which one usually assumes cannot meet: the line of inner illumination and the line of revelation, the line of historical time and of the moment beyond time. And, I would add, the elevation of the ordinary and the creation of beauty.
That leaves only the question, what do we do after the end of the world?
Jiri Langer, Nine Gates to the Chasidic Mysteries (Northvale, New Jersey, Aronson, 1993), p. 204
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981), p. 65
Vittorio Fagone, Silvio Wolf, Light Specific (Brescia, Edizioni Nuovi Strumenti, 1995), p. 26
Barthes, op. cit., p. 34
Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996), p.36
Franco Vaccari, “Distant Origins of Silvio Wolf’s Work,” in Silvio Wolf: Le Due Porte (Milano, Charta, 2003), p. 15
Martin Buber, The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism (New York, Horizon Press, 1960), p. 239
A New View of Delft
Two hundred years from now – if we could imagine such an age – Silvio Wolf may be seen as our Vermeer, an artist so intimate with our intuitions and precise in his reticence that we simply assume his presence, his relevance, his fidelity. What Proust will come forward in that distant time to find in his geometries, his imagined places and represented light, a new view of Delft, whose contours delineate the future’s sense of mortality and transcendence?
We can trace the arc of Western art’s preoccupation with light – ignoring its deeper roots in Zoroastrianism – from the Paraclete, stigmata and annunciations of the late middle ages, when light was pure sign, to the immanence of the Quattrocento, to the interiors of Delft, where light entered, conflating space and time in a confident embrace of the real. After that, we know the exact moment – or moments – when light was liberated into its own mystery and art took up the task of its registration. That was the moment of photography. It’s not that photography gradually usurped the image from painting and other arts. It usurped what was left to sanction images – light (and thus, the progress of time).
Wolf seems to have summed this up with lapidary elegance. I am thinking of his Icons of Light, which he has deployed in a variety of spaces, usually museums. These icons are photographs of framed paintings, their shapes distorted by the camera’s angle and their images deliberately obscured by captured glare. When I first saw these strange rhombuses hanging in a New York apartment, I thought they were a Calvino-esque joke about the belatedness of representation, its endless regression from the subject. Perhaps, too, they caricatured the limits of photography’s putative expressiveness. Now I see in them something far more sweeping, a leveling of all imagery to undifferentiated light and the bending of all form and significance (the frame) to a geometry determined purely by light’s path. Art, they seemed to say, is no less contingent than this. And photography, too.
We have come to the end of photography’s moment, an end signaled in so many different ways, from the light sculptures of James Turrell, Dan Flavin, and Bruce Naumann to the gigantic inflation of Andreas Gursky’s images, a terminus ad quem for photographic information. This is not mere critique but an evacuation, an exhaustion of the medium that has defined modernity. It is a true threshold we find ourselves approaching, and Wolf has long since crossed it. He waits for us on the other side.
So, it is no accident that this exhibition is a sequence of threshold experiences, cultural, personal and historical, experiences that have been ongoing for Wolf since 1980, when the imagery of The Two Doors first made its appearance. I detect, first of all, a profound sense of leave-taking in these rooms. It’s not that photography and for that matter representation are being abandoned, but rather that they are being subsumed into a profoundly reflective experience. The captured external light of photography is quickly transformed by its deployment in these spaces into a far brighter inner light. In this sense, the exhibition’s imagery must be photographic, that is, it must offer only the record of absences, of things and places physically unavailable, in order to direct us back to the spaces where we find ourselves, alone with our transitions, memories, and language. It seems to me that the images are there to do away with themselves, and if we experience this exhibition correctly, the photographs simply disappear before our eyes, leaving us instead with a sense of apprehension.
Wolf deliberately excludes any human imagery, not only because he wants to enforce the visitor’s isolation (there is something penitential in these threshold crossings), but also because he wants no stand-ins, no simulacra, no possibility for projection or evasion, no other bodies on which experience can be seen (or imagined) to register. The opening image of a skyscraper reflecting light, which Wolf considers the frame of the installation, is an obvious stand-in for the body. Architecture shelters us with a physical form. Yet it is more than that. Architecture is an imaginative projection of the body in space, and a representation of architecture must inevitably direct us back to our shifting experience within this real architectural space.
What I am trying to describe – and Wolf himself might take issue with the description – is a non-metaphorical use of photography as a meditative instrument. All the images in the installation, with the possible exception of Chessboard and Labyrinth, are paradoxical or nonspecific. They are intended not to hold our attention so much as direct it elsewhere – to their traces within us. Room three: The Threshold makes this point clear. Five photographic “skylights” provide light from several angles that is no light at all, but represented brightness. What we retain is an imagined or remembered intensity and a sense of geometric complexity. Imagine an image by Vermeer or de Hooch stripped of its carpets, maps, ewers, pearls, windows, people. And of course, as we move across the thresholds, we accumulate the traces, modifying them, and us. We are the artwork; we complete it.
The only other artist working today who uses photographs to focus inner experience with this level of sensitivity is Roni Horn, and the comparison is striking. Both artists regularly return to images they have introduced years before, redeploying and recombining them like words in new sentences. Both have a strong linguistic – that is to say abstract and structural – orientation. And both move effortlessly between two and three dimensions, using imagery to transcend imagery. Yet with Wolf there is more of a straining after pure experience, an inclining toward some source of light that lies beyond us. In this exhibition, and ultimately in all Wolf’s work, we move back and forth between internal darkness and external illumination, and that movement is the measure of time. When the darkness and the light change places, time stops. And insight replaces blindness.
Commentary on a poem by Silvio Wolf
In order to help me to write these few lines, Silvio Wolf sent me a page, some verses, that give a precise measure of his work and I believe it is important to reproduce them here:
Mental space. / That which I represent / is visible image / of my thought. / Of thought that sees / and recognises itself / in that which already is. / Coincidence of position / Physical and mental. / Of being and space. / Places of transition. / Inside and outside. / Complementary opposition / of ubiquitous antagonists. / I unveil the world / of the unseen. / I represent that which I do not know.
Wolf’s framework of reference is not gestalt psychology as it might seem from a superficial reading but, if anything, Husserlian investigation. We are therefore faced with the analysis of an event where the presence of the photographer-actor determines the reference system. Is this perhaps why Wolf’s images seem isolated, outside of time, suspended and motionless? Let’s take a look at them, these images, before returning to the verses, the lines we have just reproduced.
In Argentiera, Wolf tackles the problem of framing; certainly in Italian photography the basic notions for this type of work were established by Ugo Mulas, but the great Sardinian photographer, definitely more American than European in culture, based his work on an analysis of language and therefore, if you like, on the elements with minimum meaning and elements with no meaning (morphemes and phonemes to be precise) in literary linguistic culture. He had then mediated this experience through Merleau-Ponty on the one hand and an analysis of photography through “Art & Language” on the other. Then came the Verifiche (Verifications) which I have already analysed one by one and to which the reader (1) is referred, keeping in mind the need to view Mulas’s thesis within the more general framework of photographic “writings” in the sense given to the term by Derrida (2). But how does the work of Wolf diverge from that of Mulas and from those connected with pop art and a subtle formal experimentation by Ghirri or from the conceptual works by Vimercati? Let’s take a look at these images: the inside with the shots of the windows completely white because of the difference in the light and the landscape which, however, in the other photo is interpretable with the entire room, the rear, appearing dark. Or still in the same series (Argentiera 3) we see the relationships between frames which, from a plan view of the image, tend to be a succession, narrating also with the sequence and therefore a path. Little by little, from the sea and sky you arrive at the edges of the roofs, at the window and the inside and moving progressively farther away, to the house as a whole, as far as the entrance of the house peering across the threshold at the very distant window. Like a backward tracking shot, where, however, the whole mechanism is based on memory of the layout of the environment rather than on the structure of the individual relationship between territory and frame closed by this frame. There is therefore no relationship, not even with the work of Cresci which follows on directly from the premises set by Ugo Mulas.
In other experimentation Wolf focuses on the light shade relationship and therefore on reflection, on the trace of forms. He shows the ambiguity of the contrast between the image of structures and their shadows, between light filtered by forms and the forms themselves therefore. And again he shows the ambiguity of the opposition between foreground and background, remaining with gestalt psychology, or is the analysis perhaps more complex? One piece Quattro Finestre (Four windows) or another entitled Le due porte (The two doors) shift the emphasis completely: the first, half way between behaviour, art povera and an exercise on writing, apparently reveals a sequence where a pile of stones progressively closes an aperture, a window in fact, a possible frame which is progressively closed. “The two doors” again contrast, in the area of islam, two cultures through the the virtuality of the limit, through the virtuality of two spaces marked out by the edge, the edge of the two doors. Wolf, however, focuses on light: a piece like Notte-giorno-notte (Night-day-night) shows the total ambiguity of convention and therefore the absolute conventionality of time. Time is in fact tied not to words but to the mental impact of its duration: this “night” and this “day” are assumed empty, virtual spaces of a mental action which alone can qualify them. Figure-interni puts the accent on this aspect too but also focuses on the duration and the impossibility of a realistic image: these oblique cuttings of windows, these figures like apparitions are forms of memory, barely marked out traces of gestures that appear but then can immediately disappear.
Explicit confirmations are given by Virtuale, a work where the space, the environment of memory no longer appears circumscribed. A white, white frame emerges in it or there is the other mirror where forms of people only just appear, but the place, the space is no longer determined. It is as if the place, the space were suspended, absent unless in a not directly narrative dimension. Ravenna, also provide a consistent theme: this time it is the stratification of memory. The focus is again on the border between light and shade and on the frame of the limit, all the architectures become a juxtaposition of these openings, symbolic signs of the inside-outside, unconscious-conscious relationship.
After this brief outline of an interpretation, which should be much more detailed, it is worth reading again the verses given at the beginning. Mental space, said Wolf, and representation as projection, he states immediately afterwards. There is an assumption of the “physical” inside the virtual, which, in so far as it is tied to the procedures by which an individual is aware of things, appears within a history that is never objective, but always dependent on the convention of individual history. Inside-outside, therefore is a contrast that is above all symbolic between individual, its darkness, its unconscious (shade-light) and outside, external reality. The function of the photograph is to tell the story of the unconscious, that which does not know how to project its models onto the world, its experiences, its own choices.
But then if this interpretations of Wolf’s text is correct then the total representation of a single experience and of an external “fact” will be an event which no longer distinguishes Husserlianly between the inside and the outside, which no longer splits the unity between subject and object as the philosophic tradition of idealism suggests.
1) A.C. Quintavalle, Ugo Mulas, dall’oggetto al fenomeno, in “Ugo Mulas”. Parma, Centro Studi e Archivio della Communicazione dell’Università degli Studi, 1973.
2) A.C. Quintavalle: Il territorio della fotografia, in “Enciclopedia pratica per fotografare”, vol. I, Milan F.lli Fabbri 1979.
Light and shade are at the same time both physical and the metaphorical elements for some one working with the photographic medium. What I have always clearly noticed first of all in Silvio Wolf’s work is the metaphorical aspect of the images as historical memory, even when his works are of a chequered floor or of a blade of light on polished tiles. Light and shade, then, of a presence or a human action which persists. The artist reveals this persistence with his very particular shots, bringing out that which exists but which the eye does not see. In this case everything would seem a eulogy of the shadow of what is secret and which re-emerges thanks to the duration of the photographic vision that crystallises and isolates the moment and the space respectively making it possible to dwell on what disappears unexpectedly – even if Wolf is certainly no lover of the snapshot – or on what is buried under a thousand other images or under the convention of the vision of these. In Wolf’s works, above all in the nineteen eighties, a cut of light (or shade) contorts the forms and creates others which the artist shapes making them contemporary objects extremely tangible and mysterious.
Nevertheless, this operation too has the flavour of a record of a “micro-history” in which the observer – i.e. Wolf himself – was a participant as well as a witness. Although the light – an ahistoric element in itself – plays an important role in these works, it is history in the dual sense of narration and record of human events which predominates and which constitutes the main line of interpretation and this is also in agreement with the declared attitude of the artist himself to the construction of his works and to the attempt to re-establish a direct and close relationship with the client. “I would like to be like a mediaeval artist who goes from town to town offering his services to illustrate and record that society which affords him hospitality”. That is how I remember Silvio in Valencia where he had mixed together, in a complex installation, the self-important portraits of the dignitaries of the community and the plants from a nursery garden – ex psychiatric hospital – where he had been a guest and had lived to create that Spanish work. It is the same, however, with the mining work at Recklinghausen or randomised and not randomised numerical combinations in the room at Baden-Baden and many others. His work is the result of a relationship with history and the observer, a relationship which is not afraid to transform into a short circuit of expression where random relations go deep down into the personality of the artist. The iconographical references get confused with the sentimental references, or in other words the given facts, the historical records – with a special fondness for the minor artisan and exacting details – are related to the personal experiences of the artist creating an invisible but very fine network of references which come to mix together the sediments of a local culture, of the genius loci, with its gaze and this revitalises its meaning. That is why one talks of a short circuit and of a “micro-history”: the presence of the artist or the phenomenon of the observer’s gaze intervenes heavily in the field of existence of the images and a very personal imaginative foundation is constructed based on an impression, or the capacity of an object to strike the imagination and mediated by culture with continuous flashbacks which dig into memory in search of a point of contact between personal experience and collective history. The contact does in fact generate a sort of visual and interpretative short circuit because the cause and effect relationships between the images are burst in by one single relationship with its individual mnemonic importance, which directs them along often unpredictable paths. On the other hand, it is just that aptitude for mediation and meditation – so well developed in Wolf – that aims at constructing a new history of images which also includes the intrusion of the sort of alien element, of a reactivator virus – or vaccine. And that is again why the most appropriate term seems to be “micro-history”, an essentially invented (which comes from the latin invenire meaning to find, or discover) “micro-history” and nonetheless real, as are all “micro-histories” which is to say those series of minimal, humble and almost always everyday facts – and we are speaking here of minimal images although they may be displayed on a sizeable scale – which according to a recent historiographical study constitute the framework of history.
There must of course be a narrative aspect to this very historical attitude of Wolf – history as a story indissolubly tied to the visual aspect. On the other hand, the very use itself of the word history implies diachrony, a before and an after, a narration, a succession, therefore, and the presence of images, what is more images that are often laden with the past, make it almost imperative to build narrative relations. Naturally in Wolf’s works the prominence of time in the narrative contrasts strongly with the spatial simultaneity of the images so that the narrative result, so to speak, resembles a network of points simultaneously connected by associations as sudden as they are unexpected more than it does a linear sequence of cause and effect. The result is almost a musical score which although it follows a diachronic as well as a synchronic path, its beginning can never be as determined and determining just as its end can be situated at any point. Wolf’s works allow an open interpretation even though the initial movements seem – in the exact interpretation of the artist – extremely rigid, dictated by the ineluctability of history.
And yet for some time Wolf’s works have also permitted an idea that is absolutely different, different, that is, from all these assumptions which in any case have history at their base, no matter how re-invented by the artist. It was already present in works such as Grotta in 1985 or in the series of jets of water B.A.C.H. presented at Kassel in 1987, perfectly visible in the installation based on the Braille alphabet – at the time, 1991, it appeared as an anomaly in Wolf’s repertoire – and finally fully evident in the Icons of Light of the last few years and in the last work the Refectory of the Stelline in Milan. The brightness of the work with light seems to have blinded out all that shadow so pregnant with historical presences, so welcoming in each narration. Naturally one might object that in the same way as shadow, the light too contains and welcomes the same presences: after all the Icons of light apparently conserve their identity as paintings – you can see the frame, the cracks on the canvas and even the ghost of an image –, just as the work on the Stelline (“little stars”, the orphan girls after which the Milanese refectory was named) seems a documentary work on daily life, on objects and images that once again have faded into history and are restored to memory in the umpteenth micro-history.
But if it is true that conceptually light contains the same images and the same histories as shadow, it is not equally true that the resulting perception is the same. Light cancels, shadow preserves and this visual sensation becomes sentiment, concept: while the emergence of images and therefore of narrative may be sought in the shadows, nothing is sought in the light because the former is permeable to our vision, the latter on the other hand is impenetrable, absolute in its reflecting nullification. What comes out is a profoundly different aspect of Wolf’s work, almost a complete change of interpretation, which transforms into a continuous concealment of his ultimate aim, of the objective of his expression. His work is no longer history, then, – a mere intermediate phase – but light which nullifies everything in its totality. Today when speaking of Wolf, it seems difficult to think of the concept of nullification and we would be the last to deny the narrative aspect that often assumes deliberate documentary tones, nevertheless it is by connecting those apparently very exact documentary aspects to the possibilities of an open reading, as we said, and now to this interest in light which burns the image, that an attempt was made to interpret all his work as an enormous game of simulation, as a gigantic pretence which always concludes in the same way, with a dazzling flash. So if light is one of the linguistic rather than narrative components of the photographic medium (even if the boundaries are variable) Wolf, in this stage of his work, seems to be examining the internal principles of his discipline more than continuing to tell the story of his and others’ personal experience. The two aspects are in any case present together and this shift of attention – from the story to the code – merely creates other metaphors. Photography has no choice, it must start with the existing, but it is thanks to the light which illuminates it that this existing, so investigated, constructed, invented and documented, becomes invisible so that the only evidence we have of all these facts, things and people is their invisibility. The Stelline, with its environment recreated by Wolf – he reconstructs the tables of the refectory but without the mania of the antiquarian -, are in any case also invisible because all we see now of those groups of live persons is patches. Nihilism? No, absolute synthesis: it is not the end of the story but its reduction to the essential elements of light and shade, of black and white. It is photography.
Conversazione con Silvio Wolf
Angela Madesani: L’interesse per la fotografia come mezzo dell’arte quando é iniziato e perché?
Silvio Wolf: Ho iniziato a lavorare con la fotografia nel ’77. La prima opera fu Cambi di Orizzonte. L’interesse é nato in antagonismo con la strada che mi ero disegnato, quella della professione di psicologo. Dopo avere deciso di interrompere questi studi ho scelto di studiare fotografia e a questo scopo sono andato a Londra.
A.M. Nel suo lavoro il mezzo fotografico é sempre stato utilizzato per una ricerca di carattere artistico?
S.W. Sin dall’inizio come sfida ho cercato l’accesso all’arte attraverso questo strumento espressivo, pensavo di non essere tagliato per il disegno e per la pittura. Gli unici accessi possibili erano per me attraverso la parola e l’immagine fotografica.
A.M. La parola comunque accompagna molti dei suoi lavori.
S.W. Mi sono accorto in questi anni di quanto fosse per me importante l’espressione verbale. Sin dagli inizi é stato spontaneo associare dei testi scritti alle immagini: si tratta, forse, di un riferimento a quell’area di tipo concettuale, la prima che ho conosciuto quando mi sono avvicinato al mondo degli artisti e delle gallerie .
A.M. Qual’é il suo debito nei confronti di Ugo Mulas?
S.W. Direi che é un patrimonio che molte persone della mia generazione hanno acquisito nel proprio sangue, più o meno consciamente. Avevo già avuto percezione dei suoi ultimi lavori prima della partenza per Londra. Mulas é riuscito a oggettivare il suo lavoro mettendone interamente in discussione il linguaggio.
A.M. E nei confronti di Franco Vimercati?
S.W. Ho conosciuto Vimercati in occasione della prima mostra a cui ho partecipato invitato da Luigi Ghirri, a cui fui segnalato da Franco Vaccari, nel ’79, Iconicittà al Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea a Ferrara. Pur stimandolo molto non penso di essergli debitore: penso che non abbia influenzato la mia ricerca. Ci siamo trovati su un’onda molto vicina esprimendoci in maniere differenti. Vimercati ha trovato la sua luce all’interno del suo mondo, mentre io ho sempre avuto bisogno di confrontarmi con il mondo esterno, al punto che dopo dieci anni di ricerca sul linguaggio fotografico ho cominciato a creare lavori di tipo installativo. Non mi erano più sufficienti, infatti, ripresa e analisi: era diventato sostanziale creare un nuovo spazio, intenzionato dai miei segni.
A.M. M’interessa commentare insieme il suo testo Spazio mentale, pubblicato nel catalogo della sua prima personale nel 1981.
S.W. Vorrei prima di tutto sottolineare che sono ancora pienamente d’accordo con quanto ho scritto in quel testo. «Ciò che rappresento é immagine visibile del mio pensiero». Nel senso che mi é stato chiaro da subito che ciò che fotografavo era uno spazio di proiezione del mio io, non mi interessava la presa fotografica se non come supporto di immagini mentali. Questo non é stato un discorso programmatico, perché ho sempre concettualizzato a posteriori. Il primo atto del mio lavoro avviene sempre in maniera intuitiva, poi analiticamente cerco di ordinarlo. La mia attenzione per diversi anni s’é attestata su quelli che ho chiamato i luoghi di transizione, i luoghi di passaggio interno/esterno, le soglie. Come in Cambi d’Orizzonte e come nel secondo testo che ho scritto Essere la cornice. «Del mio pensiero che vede e si riconosce in ciò che già é». Ci sono, cioé, un tutto esterno e un tutto interno che si interfacciano sulla superficie della fotografia. Quello che m’affascina é questa assoluta bidimensionalità, l’immagine che si definisce come soglia, che si attua in un’esperienza di non visione, il buio e la luce assieme. «Coincidenze di posizione fisica e mentale. D’essere e spazio». Nella mia ricerca fotografica c’é la tematizzazione della non rappresentabilità, guardando le Icone di Luce siamo al problema della negazione dell’icona e della creazione dell’immagine attraverso la sua distruzione. Trovo che fotografare sia un gesto anche di estrema banalità se non viene caricato di senso. Mi interessa il valore simbolico che il linguaggio può assumere. «Luoghi di transizione. Interno ed esterno. Opposizione complementare d’antagonisti ubiqui. Svelo il mondo del non veduto. Rappresento ciò che non so». Era la quintessenza del mio pensiero di allora.
«Essere la cornice, appartenere allo spazio rassicurante che limita la visione e all’universo sensibile che lo comprende».In Argentiera la questione della cornice é stata essenziale. Il lavoro é un trittico formato da due immagini, poi da quattro, poi da una sequenza di sedici. Nelle prime due ho fotografato la cosa più banale del mondo: l’orizzonte, poi ho fatto un passo indietro e l’ho fotografato attraverso le cornici della casa, ma anche nelle prime immagini c’é una cornice, quella fotografica. é dunque tutto ruota attorno al problema della soglia.
A.M. Può parlarmi ancora di Cambi di orizzonte?
S.W. Ho fotografato due volte. Era normale che fotografassi delle cose in più modi, più volte, proprio perché con la fotografia si tentano normalmente diverse strade: per me la cosa importante é stata che le due immagini fossero compresenti e venissero presentate simultaneamente; ho sentito per la prima volta l’esigenza di definire il lavoro come interazione. Cambiando posizione nello spazio si é definita una nuova visione. é come se il fotografo avesse scoperto l’artista. Ho cioé intuito questo nuovo orizzonte. Da una parte l’immagine é in potenza e dall’altra é in atto ma ciascuna immagine é importante proprio perché esiste l’altra: é il rapporto di interazione tra le due che definisce il processo. La realtà é rappresentata a supporto di immagini mentali: «E’ il pensiero che vede». Le due immagini vengono presentate contemporaneamente, l’una rappresenta l’esistenza dell’altra. Curiosamente il primo soggetto nel quale ho riconosciuto questo atteggiamento mentale sono state Finestre destituite di ogni valore d’uso. Poi é venuto il lavoro delle cabine che non ho mai esposto in pubblico e dove ho ripreso la stessa posizione rispetto a realtà differenti. Erano tre cabine antivento in Inghilterra, e sembra che io non abbia fatto altro che mutare il colore dell’oggetto, invece ho cambiato la mia posizione nei confronti del reale. Qui non c’é nessuna elaborazione, ne é la testimonianza la posizione leggermente diversa della mia ombra in ciascuna immagine. In queste fotografie c’é il problema che sentivo molto forte in quegli anni: di fotografare e cercare di capire al tempo stesso cosa stessi facendo mentre fotografavo. Quindi ho fatto esperienze estremamente processuali, dove fotografavo il mondo e contemporaneamente il luogo dove mi trovavo. Ho fotografato i miei piedi mentre camminavo, ho fatto un taglio nella sfera dell’universo dai piedi allo zenit. Di quegli anni é anche il lavoro che esposi a Iconicittà, si tratta di un lavoro che oggi giudico estremamente masturbatorio sulla fotografia, ma dove però c’é un punto che trovo ancor’oggi fondamentale. Avevo un manichino in studio, ho cominciato a fotografarlo con la Polaroid dividendolo in pezzi, poi ponendogli sopra l’immagine di ciascun pezzo. Poi l’ho ricostruito in modo mnemonico senza guardare esattamente i punti di registro, la sinistra, la destra.
A.M. Fa venire in mente David Hochney.
S.W. In un certo senso si. Poi ho dato vita a un processo lunghissimo e noioso: l’ho rifotografato allontanandomene gradualmente. Il punto fondamentale della questione s’é rivelato però nello stadio finale del lavoro quando ho deciso, fatta una nuova prima fotografia del manichino, di rifotografare questa e non più il manichino. Poi ho rifotografato la seconda immagine, poi la terza, e cos“ via. Allora mi si é reso evidente che l’immagine dell’immagine genera la propria morte. Ogni volta che si riproduce l’immagine fotografica rifotografandola, si verifica una perdita d’informazione e allo stadio ultimo c’é la sua distruzione, il nero, l’assenza di luce. «Nel momento in cui la prassi fotografica verifica i propri meccanismi rappresentandoli, nega quelli assunti come propri connotati tecnici»: voglio dire cioé che quello che ha scritto Benjamin é vero e non é vero. Il mezzo ha anche un grado di autonomia interno non governabile.
C’é un piccolo scarto che non si può controllare, quello che Franco Vaccari chiama l’inconscio tecnologico. C’é dunque un elemento sfuggente nel linguaggio e nella prassi fotografica.
A.M. Che ruolo ha avuto per lei la memoria?
S.W. Allora la questione della memoria non era cos“ importante come lo é adesso. Mi occupavo, piuttosto, di problemi legati, da un lato, alla percezione, dall’altro, al problema della soglia e della proiezione dell’immagine. La memoria é diventata una questione centrale più avanti nel tempo, quando l’ho collegata alla questione dello spazio e soprattutto all’immaterialità. Per moltissimi anni ho fatto le fotografie per poi leggerle solo molto più tardi. E’ un metodo che mi davo per poter guardare le immagini senza la durezza del ricordo, della circostanza dello scatto, perché volevo che il mio corpo avesse già metabolizzato il viaggio, l’esperienza. Il ricordo non doveva influenzare la mia visione delle immagini perché era come se mi confrontassi con il lavoro di un altro, cioé di quel Silvio Wolf che aveva fatto quell’operazione e che ora, a posteriori, andavo ad analizzare.
A.M. In Camera chiara Ando Goliardi riporta questa affermazione: «Lo specifico fotografico non attua le leggi che lo definiscono».
S.W. E’ proprio una citazione del mio testo. Non per nulla quel lavoro si intitola Feticcio della comunicazione.
A.M. Quindi la comunicazione era già da allora un problema per lei?
S.W. Certamente, proprio perché usavo la fotografia ma non avevo niente da raccontare con quelle fotografie.
A.M. Sin dall’inizio del suo lavoro si é occupato dello spazio simbolico, dell’architettura in rapporto con il tempo.
S.W. Non c’é stata una vera intenzione in questo. Inoltre la figura umana non é mai stata rilevante nei miei lavori fotografici, quanto piuttosto lo é stato lo spazio. Il primo vero momento in cui la figura umana s’é rivelata centrale per il lavoro é stato con la mostra Luci Bianche alle Stelline, ma qui si sta parlando degli anni Novanta. E comunque di un lavoro basato sull’assenza dei soggetti e sulla memoria dello spazio installativo.
The Dazzling Glimmer of a Future Vision
The keen return of interest over the past few years to the juncture where the visual arts and photography exchange lucid and determinant linguistic inferences necessitates two reflections. The first of these pertains to the entire course of modern figurative art which, for the past one hundred and fifty years, has jealously watched the achievements and technological advances of the medium of photography, not only from the standpoint of the imitation of reality, on which Western art has based its laws of representation and its rules of perspective for almost a millennium, but also from that of photography’s manipulation of light and time within the duration of an instant.
The second consideration, on the other hand, concerns the nature of visual research at the close of the twentieth century where the radical opposition and confrontation between the conventional material processes of the art world and immaterial representations tied to the new techniques of automatic image production has become a fundamental issue for the future development of artistic communication.
Over the past thirty years, artists have used photography with varied intentions: as a neutral, and therefore effective, instrument of a linguistic operation determining the reflective potential of the image; and, in accordance with a different parameter linked to the irreversible implications of the specificity of the photographic art, as a medium capable of revealing the hereto unrecorded order of relationships inherent in the process of comprehending any image of reality. The structural complexity of “artist’s photography”, in which creative and purely technical impulses meet and develop to the point of exposing more than just the more or less sensational potential evidence of a new image, causes in the photographic act a specific vector effect (an orientation and directing of time, an internal and referential space, a weaving and continuity of light, a symmetry and intrinsic isomorphism). This is capable of moving and activating each image towards an iconic dimension that is both mobile and symbolically productive. It is here, in fact, that displacements and approximations, recognitions and ambiguous open views start to acquire meaning.
At a moment in which those external images aspiring to a refound expressionism, more mannerist than wittily frivolous, finally seem to be destined for the great archive of our rapid consumption of new forms, it cannot be a surprise to find that in many excellent exhibitions organized in the important centres of contemporary art (from Cologne to New York and from London to Osaka) there is a return to including “artist’s photography” as an essential part of present-day visual research. This, of course, with the warning not to overlook the acknowledgement of a wide polarity in today’s applications of photography. The latter is, in fact, no longer considered merely the mechanical reproduction of a mirror-image of reality, but a technique at once intelligent and productive that can provide abundant communicative resources and autonomous capacity of meaning.
Instrumental photography and structural (or structuring) photography have constituted two moments of a chronicle that is already recognizably mapped out in the experimental visual research of the Sixties and the Seventies. In the scenario that is evolving with the approach of the Nineties, photography is vitalizing both its constituent element and a much wider dynamic of images that do not yet need to establish external references or congruences, but which need instead to declare the sites of an inimitable actuality and temporality, as well as of an eccentric and effusive space that continuously challenges the boundaries between the material and the immaterial by establishing a shifting curve of balance between an external reality and a corporality without contours.
Since the end of the 1960’s, Silvio Wolf has rendered an original contribution to the front line of visual research in Italy. Throughout this period his work has consistently examined the application of the photographic process with the aim of highlighting the constitution of the evidence time of the image as well as its variations within a series which articulates as much the coherence of diverse moments of the same act of vision as the irrepetibility and the consequence of a series ordered in the time span of every single moment of this vision.
Since his earliest works, however, Silvio Wolf’s attention has been fixed less on the individuation of an emblematic device than on the analysis of the particular elusive materiality of photography and, within this, on the identification of engendering light movements. It is important to stress these two aspects of Wolf’s work because it is they that determine its particular character. His investigation is comparable to that undertaken in “cold” painting: the purification of every expressionistic trace and the care to reveal the formulation of a corporality that is definite, yet subtle and unpredictable. The substance of photography is established by a thousand silent fires as something that is not inert, as a material without weight and redundancy, as a spatial verity.
Nevertheless, the most vital and mobile element is that of light, which constitutes the means and the motive in all of Wolf’s oeuvre. His research is aimed at discovering luminary variations, increases, dissolutions, transparencies, and eclipses. However, this obsession with light in Wolf’s work is not metaphysical, but rather totally physical. When it does open itself to a primary and bitter symbolism, it is only after having crossed through the diffuse materiality of the photographic body.
These constants place Silvio Wolf’s work of this past decade in a particular context, namely in a regime of tensions vigorous beyond every skillfull manipulation of the technical possibilities of photography. References of Wolf’s work should only be sought in international arenas where his oeuvre has met with possibly even more recognition and acknowledgement than in his own country; as such, his participation in the last Documenta at Kassel should be considered a positive signal.
Dimensioned, if not limited, by the space of the gallery that hosts it, this exhibition leads one to reflect of the vital and risky issues around which Silvio Wolf’s work revolves. It presents with perspicacity the dimensions of time and space explored in an internal and only seemingly paradoxical reflective mode. The continuum of the photographic surfaces achieves a subtle, dense and ever-changing corporality that the artist has often examined, and is sealed in a mosaic structure that limits its boundaries within a perimetrical geometry. In some cases, as a result of the angular positioning of the work, it also takes on an implausible mirroring effect that nonetheless reveals itself an orderly and coherent “escape”. The space of the weightless body and the diffuse space of the photographic surfaces give form to another material that is however unable to acquire any verification other that of the virtuality of the photographic image. The internal space of photography, so paradoxically negated, is forced to an elliptical confrontation with an external spatiality which comes to life like a forest dense with signs that are definite yet difficult to identify within an insidious labyrinth of rectilinear routes, and that are continuously jostled back and forth among themselves.
The operation that Silvio Wolf today effects in photography, but also through photography, possess another crucial key that merits attention.
The obsession with time, without doubt the hallmark of the art of our century, from Cubism to the conceptual and neoconceptual experiments of our own moment, is located in an ever recurring confrontation with the light that meets every object and visible sign in an earthly way, with an intensity strong enough to bring forth an impression at the exact moment in which the resolution of the image is burnt in the fire of absolute existence.
The photographic act that Silvio Wolf attempts as if it were a productive linguistic act, capable of an expansion of communicative and symbolic efficiency, embodies this conscious reflection of time. Time is that of the recognizable duration of the short, certain like of an instant; time is the epiphany of light; time is the canon by which the image acquires identity and the possibility of transformation, allusive physicality and density. Also activated within the time-light relationship is the subtle play of transparencies that modulate light into profiles, edges, chromatic effusions, stratifications and shiny surfaces.
It can thus even be disorientating to watch this exhibition establish itself in space.
What is the worth of the declared evidence in this bonded situation? What is the worth, if it exists at all, of an external frame of reference (within which photography has conventionally been fettered)? What is the worth, in short, of the internal temporality which has bonded with an irreversible tie the transforming light and the voracious sensibility of a structure open to the fire of its images?
Silvio Wolf does not provide any answers. He does intervene, however, with regard to photographic chromatism by testing its characteristics and resources with the same rational lucidity of those who, forty years ago, managed to exploit the pitfalls of orthochromatic film.
From this realm of exploration and definition, the boundary between the material and the immaterial, where photography today lives its dialectic actuality, reveals itself to be a productive key to the gates of our imaginations, making us perceive a dazzling glimmer of a future vision.
Conversation with Silvio Wolf
Silvio Wolf: Photography is made transparent and annulled by the abuse of images. Photography as such has disappeared while it has not at all finished with the objective representation of things. It should, however, be treated as a code, equivalent to the code of painting, which allows an approach with space as long as you know how to use it. Space is a dimension that can be worked on with techniques.
Martina Corgnati: Silvio Wolf feels free to act with respect to space because it is offered naturally. In his photography there are many spaces that intertwine with each other: internal space relevant to the image because it represents the space. In a recent work (Belvedere) this space is broken up even further in the space of the surface of a mirror and in the virtual space inside it. Furthermore there is the dimensional space of the cibachrome, a paradoxical and limiting condition of the language that is so thin that it annuls the reality value of the third dimension and is just a threshold between inside and outside.
SW: My work always concerns questions of a linguistic nature so that the images are finished forms of an object inside a language, which has light and time as its signs. The photography, a given fact, is a place of possible coincidence between inside and outside, which is to say between space (light = visible space) and time.
MC: The notion of time, in Silvio Wolf’s work, refers to a concept which in this case too is not uniform: the time in which an image is formed (photo impression) which is to do with the incontrovertible banality of train timetables; the time of wine cellars, that which passes between the moment when the raw photographic material is accumulated and that in which it is selected, about two years, during which Silvio Wolf has changed sensorially and mnemonically with respect to the immobile images; the missing time in the experience of a photograph, the instantaneous blindness which makes it possible to transfer a visual experience to a film; finally, time inside the work or what is represented.
SW: To understand what I mean by represented time, it is enlightening to consider a work by Peter Breugel the Elder (Danza di Contadini, Vienna). A set of figures dances, completely involved in the time of the work. Just one couple is running to reach the others, coming from a different time outside the picture with the result that one of the woman’s feet has not come into the canvas, it is still over here. A fantastic crossroads of dimensions, marked out by a diagonal and all in 114 x 164 cm. You don’t need much.
MC: Breugel, though, painted. Silvio Wolf photographs, makes images and experiments. One doesn’t ask oneself questions about time as a conceptual category.
SW: What counts are the deep formal structures of the mind, like the diagonal in Breugel. There is an interest in moral questions in his work, expressed almost didactically. There is something similar in J.S. Bach. I am thinking of the Art of the Fugue which I encountered in Berlin in 1982. Bach started with a simple and powerful theme to construct a solid and liquid combining work of art.
MC: Silvio Wolf performed B.A.C.H., a work on jets of water.
SW: Water is an infinite possibility of image and life. In photography change is effected in the sense of instantaneousness and simultaneousness.
MC: People speak of an artificial condition produced with a finished work, which is in fact the presence together of many instantaneities presented simultaneously (polyptychal). The linear succession of events, the sequence, as old as daily existence, is therefore shattered.
SW: This is similar to the idea of musical harmony, a single sound which comprises all of them but which respects the uniqueness of the individual parts. With a musical score, all that is actually accomplished visually.
MC: The form that is sought is balance, worked order of the parts. The composition develops as simultaneity but also as space.
SW: The external images correspond to certain autonomous mental images that are pre-existing and relate to exploration of the world. There is a sort of clairvoyant sense in special zones of the real where some answers seem possible. The selection is a form of love.
MC: Love chooses a place, a particular point in external reality by which Silvio Wolf is pierced. Something is held back in this process, the photography, and the finished work returns it to the world.
Silvio Wolf: The Epiphany of Light
In his concept of experience, Dewey included the indistinct, all the “qualities” and therefore the risk factors that characterise life, excluding that which is Cartesianly clear and distinct. To know means to entrust oneself to growth to selective adaptation which is based on surprise and capable of grasping the deep structure of reality. If we apply these criteria to the world of art, what emerges is the undefined pervasive quality of experience and a work of art becomes the transmission of a qualitative whole.
In Silvio Wolf, the whole is an experience of virtuality in which various interactive elements take shape. First of all there is photography seen as a medium with the expressive power to filter the explicit rendering of mental space. Wolf in fact aims at representing “thought in a visible way”, so that it becomes a print of mental experience. Secondly there is light, the activating subject of all representations. It creates a dialectic that exalts dichotomous figures: physical and psychic, absolute and relative, concave and convex, light and dark, presence and absence. It manifests in a graduation of guises: transparency, shadow, veiling, allusion and depth, reaching the threshold of words, the consistency of which takes on the fragility and fleetingness of a meteor with the rhythm of a magic vibration. It is visual and perceptual strength.
Two elements play an essential role in Wolf’s experimentation. The spatial which is proposed as a container for dualisms and at the same time as the resolution of them as it manages to give life to a metaphorical meta-reality. It is not by chance that Wolf displays great interest in the physical nature of “neutral” space before taking any action. The architecture of places becomes the object of simulation before “fusing” with the work, creating a relationship of intense references which always relate to an otherness. Space also proposes the dilemma of “transition”; doors, windows and niches therefore take on a precise and determining physiognomy in the design of symmetries and analogies. Time, neither crystallised nor homogeneous, is bonded to the spatial element: the frozen moment causes shifts in meaning and exalts light as a source of emanation and as determining perception in an inexhaustible repertoire of images. The interaction of these elements demonstrates the inanity of attempts to reduce phenomena to an irritating uniformity.
Grande Myhrab (1989), or the “place of virtuality” shows the simultaneous presence of illusory-real duality. By definition the Myhrab is an empty space. Its characteristic feature is that it recalls an elsewhere. Wolf constructed a parallelepiped structure, self-supporting, self-illuminated and double faced. The symmetrical arrangement of the two photographic images in a North South direction demonstrates how concave and convex, clearly complete opposites can virtually appear simultaneously in perception. The uniformity of pattern divides to generate evocations and concatenations, signs of an unstable, temporary equilibrium made of peaks, breaks and re-integrations.
Enclave (1991) is a “space-time fusion” project in which the three dimensional nature of the photographic fragments fuse with the painting, the architectural structure and the installation.
The search for an original code for space takes on the value of a singularity in Light House (1991) which evokes complementary connections. By showing two local referents, fragments of the façade of the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara on the one hand and on the other fragments of the Jewish cemetery, Wolf constructs a design with the underlying idea of the duplicity of writing. The writing attributed to the ethical code that emanates from the tablets of the mosaic law alternates and changes with the natural writing sedimented in time with the tablets themselves. The action of time detaches remains and projects them into a present loaded with memories, creating a metamorphic alphabet by means of the three dimensional nature of the photography. The light identifies traces that become fragments of writing and the capacity to produce new images.
The complex references of Wolf’s work come together in a multimedia framework in the project Condominiums (1992). It is interesting to note that the etymology of con-dominium does not just indicate the simultaneous presence of elements but also the mastery of them. Wolf uses the autobiographical episode of the journey of Franz Kafka to Brescia recorded in the intense story Die Aeroplane in Brescia to construct a system of interrelationships of identity. In the Vestibolo delle parole (Vestibule of words) he takes fragments of Kafka’s language and transforms them into Erlebnisse of awareness; in the last room of Doppio Volo (Double flight) the duplicity becomes the constituting seal of every aspect of the existing where the flight takes on a profoundly symbolic valence. It is “élan vital” set against what for Kafka was the experience of a den. It is the overcoming of the limit of the physical, the projection towards the absolute, abandonment of the corporeal and melting into pure image. Wolf’s work goes further: it recreates new identities through the staging of the Stanza Controluce (Backlit room) in which the icon of the last known image by Kafka and his rock-drawings cause perceptual oscillations, the dematerialisation of figures alternating with fluctuations of consciousness between memory and oblivion.
A completely mental path – that which runs through the labyrinth of identity – it becomes physically expressible in the dialectic of black and white, in the relation of words and profiles through the concreteness of photography, of video and the miniaturisation of space.
The most recent work on the reflection of icon light proposes the explosive dynamic of an icon that fragments into a myriad of images, cyclically generated, destroyed and regenerated. The icons suspended on steel cables interact with a bar code on the walls: a double pyramid perspective located at the centre of the space reaches towards the skylight and images of dervishes squat on its soft surface. The soft and filtering light generates silent periodic rhythms, gives body to the motions and marks out the space by welding the archaic to the contemporary. The light, to which the photographic medium is enslaved, has now become an epiphany of pure states.
An Elsewhere of Space and Time
The common denominators
Silvio Wolf’s installations are linked by a number of common characteristics. The size of the works plays an important role on a number of levels, interacting with what might be called “the architecture of temporality”. The photographic image is an integral part of the works and this undergoes a number of shifts of focus and paradoxes which are all the more striking and unexpected because of the conventional use which is made of the technical and linguistic resources of the medium.
The conventional use of the technical medium
An orthodox approach is the key to the exploration of what is an intrinsic feature of the medium: the roots of photography or “recording with light”.
This approach calls in mind a similar dialectic between tradition and innovation, which has often featured in the development of scientific thought. Lobacevsky’s revolutionary conception of the first non-Euclidean geometry and Einstein’s concept of space as an assembly of “chronospheres”, of moving frameworks of space-time, are both examples of revolutionary thought which started out as an attempt to explore the foundations of an existing tradition – in the one case, Euclidean geometry, in the other, Newtonian mechanics.
The theme of light
In the work of Silvio Wolf, light, as well as being the theme of the research, is also the means of exploration and expression; it is this phenomenon, this “propagation” to use R. Thom’s term, which allows us to “see” the opacity of objects; it is the medium through which the classically “present” object is transcribed onto the film; and it is, subsequently the means by which this “imprint” may recreate the presence of the absent object at a place distant in space and time from the original situation. Re-inscribed in a new present, at the site of the installation, it creates a place in which traces, local and non-local, meet and interact.
The paradox of light
Here we come up against the first paradox and the initial significant shift of focus: light is the vehicle of many acts of inscription and transcription in the domain of awareness and meaning and in this respect it behaves as a medium in the true sense of the word; but light also takes on form in the image. As such, it is one of the strangest of nature’s entities; so extraordinary in fact that its study sparked the transition from classical to quantum physics and a completely new concept of the nature of matter and object – during the same period between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which saw the emergence of modern art. Light, as is now well known, behaves like a stream of particles – in striking objects – and at the same time like a wave motion capable of diffraction, interference, etc.
The work of Silvio Wolf uses the process of photography to make us aware of the paradoxical nature of light.
The locality of place and non-locality of image
The local nature of the installation site and the non-local status of the image which exists in a relation of reference to another situation in the world (whether this be still in existence or already past), together create a new space in which we can simultaneously experience both the here and now and, at the same time, a spatial and temporal “elsewhere”. Our perception, the aesthetic experience, undergoes continual shifts of focus between our awareness of a known object which is being referred to, a memory which is immediately obliterated, driven out by the pressure of a new domain of awareness.
The work is not passive: it actively involves the spectator who becomes a unique element in the play on memory, both personal and collective, which is transcribed through the signs referring to other time-frames and spaces to form a new “cronosphere”.
Spatial and temporal multiplicity
But this does not exhaust dimensions or the traces of time: there are also historic times, other places, of presents elsewhere given meaning by other people, natural cycles of time, the nature of “now” in a new place, unique time-structures in the lives of those who are here now or who will come after.
The space of the installation is not structured along Euclidean lines. This is another source of paradox and focus-shift.
Euclidean geometry provides an idealised structure for the space which surrounds human bodies, the “local map” across which we move and on which the shortest distance between two points is the straight line which connects them – and above all where what is distant is also far away. The space in which physics describes nature and the cosmos is, still today, with few exceptions, Euclidean.
In the places created by Silvio Wolf’s installations, in the “cronosphere” traced thereby, one experiences a kind of hybrid space which is structured both along Euclidean lines – expressed through the body of the observer who crosses the space and the Renaissance perspective of the photographic image – and at the same time by a “magical” plastic space in which “distant” and “far away” are not synonymous. Distant dates, other places, fragments and representations of distant localities interact in the -here and now- of the new space created within the installation.
Ubiquitousness and synchrony
While this technique “gathers” other places and times into a space-time enclave, a different operation may produce strange effects of ubiquitousness. In Pegasus, three separate cities – Parma, Brescia and Rome – simultaneously relocate and reconstitute themselves through mutual cross-references, in the form of three enclaves located in Parma, Brescia and Rome. The observer entering the work is given the task of mentally conceiving the state of invisible synchrony between the three places, which are too distant for such a state to be grasped perceptually. In this way the work elicits personal experience of the mobility of urban living and the widespread use of telecommunications. We interact with others far distant from our biological bodies, and our experience already has a kind of ubiquitous quality which enables it to transcend the limits of the “local scene”.
Finally we come to another unexpected spatial dimension in Silvio Wolf’s work, which derives from its “local” quality. In this the artist takes the orthodox artistic interpretation of the installation to its logical extreme. “Localism” refers to the fact that while the place in which the spatio-temporal “enclave” is constructed makes reference at many levels to other places, it may also be considered as a place in its own right, the unique outcome of the act which conceived, intended and constructed it. Only those who live in the locality are able to grasp the meanings which are denied to others because they are expressed through signs which, although present in the work, refer to memories which are not universal but local. Hence the images of the furrows on the Grande Muro Occidentale in Civitella, the angel covered in words taken from the church inscription, the image of the Turin Shroud in Annunciazione Lagrange, the shadow of the palm tree in the courtyard of the Swabian castle in Camera Sveva, the emphasis of the threshold in Grande Myhrab and Scale Reali al Grato Soglio.
The paradox of reference
In this way Silvio Wolf brings out an essential characteristic of the photographic image: its reference to something which exists elsewhere in the world. This feature of referentiality has become of great interest to semiologists, just as it has always been for artists. While both in art and signs in general, referentiality has been almost unanimously rejected, it remains an inseparable feature of photography, although the act of reference may be mediated through many and strange processes of transformation. Nevertheless a trace of the relation always remains. Yet Wolf takes this for granted in an almost philological manner. He smiles, in spite of his irritation, every time someone (be they well-versed in or devoid of photographic know-how), looking at one of his works in his presence, asks “What is it? Where did you take it?”
Reality and illusion confused
In this aspect of his exploration of convention, Silvio Wolf comes up against the most radical paradox of all.
On the one hand, he likes to take the unusual step of including in his exhibition a portfolio of photographs which illustrate the process of creation of the work on display: his hands at work, the various stages, taking measurements and the photograph of the site before the installation. On the other hand, his preparations for a work take the form of simulations of the site before and after the installation. In order to do this, he uses another photographic technique – that of photo-montage – to create small vignettes of imaginary places, virtual images in which, at the culmination of the work, illusion and reality blend and the features of “reality” and optical illusion cancel each other out to create a new reality which is completely virtual, more real than illusion or reality itself.
Reference texts about the topics on architecture, time and art-time
K. Pomian, L’ordre du temps, Gallimard, Paris, 1984
S. Bonfiglioli, L’architettura del tempo. La città multimediale, Liguori, Naples, 1990
V. Fagone, L’immagine video, Feltrinelli, Milan, 1990
D. Formaggio, Estetica, tempo, progetto, Clup, Milan, 1990
I have often wondered what the term abstract means in photography, a medium whose laws maintain an inseparable connection to the Real. I think it indicates the abstraction from the river of time, an immobile and suspended temporal fragment: an infinite, absolute present time. Nevertheless, the photographic medium is capable of indicating an abstract vision of the Real, as it alludes to non-retinal interpretations of the visible, super-perceptible forms, mental images that find their symbolic recognition in the Real.
The Horizons are scriptures of light self-generated during the process of loading the camera with film, beyond the consciousness and will of the photographer. They are perceptible manifestations of light inscribed on the photosensitive surface, before it records the first image taken by the photographer: they are images prior to time in latent form, already active before the encounter with the gaze and the experience of the photographer.
Every Horizon is a scrap of the photographic process, the initial segment of the film developed together with the entire strip of sensitive material, to reveal all the exposed images: its 36 true photographs.
This is an “off camera” process that happens “in camera”: a paradox that produces pre-photographic images, directly inscribed by light.
With the term Horizon I indicate the result of an act of appropriation; those films are not mine; my authorship lies in the recognition and attribution of meaning to the photographic object, not in the shot. My object is not the world but the language, the code of the visible world. I am interested in the latency and revelation of the image, its perceptible manifestation, the possibility of an apparition and the icon that arises from the intimate relationship among light, time and matter: the chance that occurs.
In my view, the Horizons are the last “true” photographs of the XX century. Everything has been photographed, Google tells us that the entire skin of the visible has been mapped, just as the whole chain of DNA has been written and encoded. Scientists say that only 4% of existing matter is visible and thus, I infer, can also be photographed, while the remaining 96% is classified in part as Dark Matter and in part with the even more enigmatic term of Dark Energy. These terms seem to imply a reality that exists but is not evident to media based on the use of light, and perhaps not even susceptible to representation through analytical thinking.
If the Horizons are the ultimate photographs of what visibly exists, its summation and reduction to the roots of language offer a more “objective” image of it, in which the object and the image of the object coincide, generating a model of reality that is the limit between light and its absence, between material and language. Language and subject seem to no longer require an object outside of themselves through which to establish a dialogue: it is the language that speaks (to us).
These works represent a borderline between photographic objectivity and abstraction, where the latter term doesn’t indicate a non-referential image, but pure interpretation of light revealed by photographic means. My will comes into play in the choice of how much white (excess of information) and how much black (absence of information) to include in the image, the positioning of the threshold: the line that separates the light from its absence, the latency from its manifestation and, ultimately, the power from the act.
The Horizon indicates the -here and now- while alluding to a possible elsewhere. Every Horizon is a genesis of light in time, a present here that alludes to a possible elsewhere. The Horizon is a visible threshold, the real and immaterial place that unites what it separates; I represent photographically a process of experience and transition: all life is a continuous crossing of thresholds.
In my work light is actively the subject and the medium: I sense an inseparable link between process and form, language and reality: the one is the other.
In photographic terms, light implements a virtual separation, like that of a fresco from a wall, which allows me to materialize the elsewhere in an intended place. This generates a condition of ubiquity, an immaterial bond between real body and virtual body: the two exist simultaneously in a single, new space-time.
Installations: Artist’s Statement
«What is the place?»
«The road. The home. The heart».
(Martin Buber, Gog e Magog, ed. Neri Pozza, 1999)
In my public art practice, I am particularly responsive to the spirit of places and the exploration of their physical identities and social values. I strongly believe that art should be experienced where we happen to be because of the circumstances, choices and occurrences of our everyday lives.
I wish to help people enjoy what they see and experience. Their perception and awareness of the new visual and sensory relations with the environment becomes part of the art work, increasing individual mindfulness and welfare. Offering a different perception of the urban spaces, they see with new eyes what has been designed for purely functional purposes, transforming an often-uninviting space into one that encourages and excites.
Seeking my inspiration from the reality of the places, I envision a transformative experience that belongs to the specific space where the installation is conceived, responding to the cultural and architectural personality that a place can convey, so that the overlooked, the ordinary and the familiar are made extraordinary and dynamic. I am particularly interested is spaces of transition, crossing and intersection, for everything that connects and separates. This leads me not to negate or conceal the actual nature of places, but rather affirm their transformation to augment imagination and collective benefit.
Halfway through the 1980s, after years of experimentation with the medium of photography, I needed to engage real space and move beyond purely two-dimensional representations of places. I sought to make the invisible visible, to reveal identity by capturing and subtracting, re-placing and modifying aspects of the locations, attributing their meanings through a process of appropriation and transformation. This practice has helped me to develop a sense of identity, necessity, and belonging so that I could become part of them.
Every space has its own spirit. It exists prior to my reconnaissance and will continue to be after my passage. Once marked and charged with a symbolic significance, each place becomes the station of a voyage that connects all the ones I encountered and recognized before. My personal experience and the physical place will be inseparably connected, and the space becomes the event.
All Art Has Been Contemporary
All art has been contemporary è un opera di Maurizio Nannucci: una scrittura di luce. Essa ha ispirato la mia riflessione attorno alla domanda rivoltami da Roberta Valtorta: “E’ contemporanea la fotografia?”
Forse Nannucci ha già risposto alla domanda attraverso questo truismo, purché si assuma la Fotografia in quanto pratica artistica: questa è secondo me la questione centrale da cui ogni altra risposta deriva.
Dunque la mia prima risposta è: sì, la Fotografia è sempre stata contemporanea.
1) Forse gli unici ad essersene accorti con tanto ritardo sono stati proprio i fotografi, una comunità in perenne equilibrio tra linguaggi altrui, ma spesso poco cosciente dei propri, pervasa da un senso d’inferiorità e d’inadeguatezza nei confronti di linguaggi considerati talvolta più nobili del loro. Questa comunità è stata continuamente scavalcata da altre e più agguerrite tribù: i chimici, che hanno inventato la fotografia, i fisici, che l’hanno sviluppata per verificare le proprie intuizioni del mondo, gli informatici, che l’hanno smaterializzata e trasformata in numeri, i semiologi, che l’hanno utilizzata per riflettere sui segni e sui loro referenti, e infine la più radicale ed agguerrita, quella degli artisti, grandi padri e onnivori consumatori di linguaggi, che l’hanno contaminata, trasgredita, sovvertita e spesso abbandonata senza troppi problemi.
2) Ecco una seconda questione importante:
Perché l’arte e la Fotografia per così tanto tempo non si sono identificate? Perché la Fotografia così a lungo ha guardato solo a se stessa pensandosi meno nobile e meno fiera dell’Arte, quasi ne fosse una sua lontana parente? Perché s’è dunque scavata una nicchia d’autoreferenzialità? Cosa le è mancato?
Da questo stato di subalternità e separatezza deriva un’ulteriore questione importante:
3) Quando diciamo Fotografia, quale Fotografia nominiamo?
La fotografia s’è rivolta sin dalla sua nascita al Reale: l’ha registrato, studiato, documentato, rappresentato, copiato, testimoniato, denunciato, ricordato, negato, simulato, ridefinito, simbolizzato e messo in codice fino a identificarsi e confondersi a tal punto con esso da divenirne il sinonimo per antonomasia, la sacerdotessa d’ogni sua espressione e rappresentazione sensibile, s’è fatta Icona del Reale.
Non esiste dunque la Fotografia, ma esistono molte Fotografie. Essa è ormai ricca di generi, di modi e di tradizioni, d’identità e di stili. La Fotografia non può più essere affrontata – in toto – come se si ripartisse da zero ogni volta che la si nomina, come se fosse un’entità unica, a maggior ragione oggi che sono in corso cambiamenti epocali del suo linguaggio e dei suoi statuti, della sua tecnica e della sua identità, del suo ruolo sociale e del suo mercato.
4) Questi cambiamenti vanno di pari passo con gli enormi mutamenti oggi in atto nel mondo dell’informazione e della comunicazione e più in generale nel modo stesso di assegnare senso alle manifestazioni del Reale. E’ un processo d’enormi proporzioni, paragonabile alla crisi che l’apparire della Fotografia produsse nell’ancor solido mondo della pittura. Allora furono la figura professionale del pittore ed il suo ruolo sociale ad entrare profondamente in crisi; fu una crisi di valori, di prassi e di statuti che si ripercosse non solo sul lavoro dei pittori e sugli oggetti del linguaggio ma, cosa assai più importante, sulla loro stessa messa in codice della realtà. Fu una crisi lunga e complessa che produsse una feconda esperienza di morte, foriera d’un grande rinnovamento che costrinse gli artisti ad interrogarsi sulla propria visione della realtà, ricercandone e in fine trovandone di radicalmente nuove. Paradossalmente fu proprio la verosimiglianza fotografica, cioè la straordinaria e per quei tempi immediata aderenza dell’immagine fotografica al suo referente mondano, fu la scrittura stessa della Fotografia a sgravare la pittura dall’ingombrante fardello che si portava appresso da secoli: il cordone ombelicale della dura rappresentazione del reale, rescisso il quale si dischiuse quell’immenso orizzonte che condusse alla visione cosiddetta astratta della realtà.
5) A quasi due secoli dalla sua nascita, la Fotografia si trova oggi in una situazione analoga a quella descritta. Incalzata e scavalcata, esautorata di ruoli e di funzioni, la grande madre di tutti i mezzi e processi non manuali di produzione dell’immagine sta sperimentando anch’essa una profonda e feconda esperienza di morte. I processi digitali, l’immagine elettronica e di sintesi, la multi-medialità e la realtà virtuale, col loro potere di calcolare e riscrivere l’immagine secondo ordini e strategie infinitamente arbitrarie e complesse, stanno dissolvendo -nei fatti- gli statuti storici della Fotografia, quelli che essa fin dalla sua nascita ha assunto come propri ed ai quali si è affidata per affermare la propria esistenza e la propria verità. Intendo i codici della fotografia analogica, quelli propri del suo DNA linguistico:
– La certificazione della realtà.
Che ciò che vedo nell’immagine sia anche esistito, che sia anche stato. Che al presente della rappresentazione corrisponda necessariamente un passato dell’esperienza. Che la cosa descritta sia accaduta.
– L’unità di spazio e di tempo.
Che il fotografo e la cosa fotografata si siano trovati nello stesso luogo nello stesso momento, l’uno in presenza dell’altra. Che le cose si siano trovate là dove sono state fotografate e che sia quindi esistito un tempo in cui gli eventi raffigurati siano anche accaduti: un tempo condiviso dal fotografo e dal suo soggetto.
Che io abbia visto, vissuto, scelto e fotografato: abbia fatto esperienza della realtà rappresentata. Che la fotografia parli per bocca del fotografo: che sia segno e testimonianza assieme, indichi l’Io dell’autore.
Simbolicamente: che ad un qui presente corrisponda un altrove passato.
6) Ecco dunque una prima risposta alla nostra interrogazione iniziale: la Fotografia contemporanea è diventata molto brava a mostrarci ciò che non è ancora accaduto e ciò che potrebbe accadere, a darci evidenza del futuro e del possibile, a mostrarci luoghi senza altrove e presenti senza più un passato, mentre sta perdendo il suo potere storico sulla rappresentazione consolidata dello spazio e del tempo.
L’essenza irriducibile del linguaggio fotografico non sembra più essere il noema Barthiano è stato, ma piuttosto il come se espresso dalle più avanzate ricerche linguistiche. Ci confrontiamo oggi con immagini indifferenti, potenzialmente in grado di confermare o di smentire, vere e false assieme. Arbitro di questa scelta non è più né il soggetto delle immagini, né l’etica di chi le crea, ma piuttosto il pensiero e l’atteggiamento di chi vi si confronta, e soprattutto l’ambiente in cui sono fruite.
7) I processi socialmente significativi, ciò che è veramente in grado di generare senso, avvengono sempre più spesso in luoghi non più visibili, né rappresentabili fotograficamente: in luoghi non più raggiunti dalla luce. Sappiamo che la fotografia ha sempre avuto bisogno di luce per materializzarsi e a sua volta la luce di superfici sensibili sulle quali riflettersi prima di raggiungere la nostra retina o di penetrare all’interno del dispositivo ottico, fisico e chimico per trasformarsi in segni fotografici. I processi comunicativi e decisionali, lo spostamento d’informazioni e dati, la produzione di senso avvengono ora all’interno di reti, circuiti e sistemi non più necessariamente visibili all’occhio umano: come potrà la Fotografia rappresentare luoghi e processi non più visibili? Ciò che noi vediamo è spesso solo l’output, la fine d’un processo, la sua ricaduta materiale, la crisalide da cui l’insetto perfetto è già volato via: del bruco ci resta solo la memoria, della crisalide, la fotografia, non sappiamo più cosa farcene. L’insetto perfetto vola libero lungo le fibre ottiche nell’infinitamente lontano o nell’infinitamente piccolo, a distanze siderali dalla terra o negli irrappresentabili spazi delle particelle subatomiche; vola ovunque nella rete delle reti, là dove risiedono e sono accessibili un numero virtualmente infinito d’immagini del mondo. Sono immagini che rappresentano tutto e il contrario di tutto, mediante le quali possiamo ricombinare infiniti racconti, narrare storie d’ogni genere, per qualsiasi cultura ed ogni finalità: é un arcipelago di linguaggi che ci consente d’essere testimoni assenti, ubiqui e simultanei.
8) Siamo ormai giunti di fronte alle immagini d’uno specchio del mondo in grado di ricombinare i frammenti delle sue infinite immagini riflesse e di restituirceli nella forma di pure Icone della Luce e del Tempo. Siamo i fotografi d’una realtà che è potenzialmente già immagine e possiamo ricodificare ciò che è già in codice senza confrontarci con la durezza del reale e in fondo senza doverne più necessariamente far parte: la realtà delle immagini è già infinitamente ricca e tutto -o quasi- ci sembra possibile.
9) Se possiamo partire da realtà di seconda, di terza, d’ennesima generazione, cosa ce ne faremo più delle nostre vecchie o contemporanee macchine fotografiche? L’antico gesto d’impugnarle assomiglia sempre più a quello del brandire una sorta di clava del XX Secolo, un oggetto anacronistico, fuori misura ed inappropriato a rappresentare un presente che s’è fatto cangiante, discontinuo, molteplice e frantumato in infiniti presenti non più riducibili all’esperienza del singolo individuo in un singolo luogo, né tanto meno a quella d’un singolo sistema occhio-mano-corpo.
10) Ecco allora una nuova risposta possibile alla domanda iniziale: la Fotografia contemporanea sta diventando campione nel mostrarci il banale, il quotidiano, l’indifferente. Il fotografo sembra più a suo agio nell’impugnare una leggera retina con la quale rivolgersi a delicate farfalle che assumono via via le forme di lievi rappresentazioni introspettive, mutamenti di stati d’animo, rapporti interpersonali, incontri minimi, minimi scambi, scene della vita quotidiana: di quel vissuto che appartiene all’immateriale sfera della soggettività.
Così come la rete gettata dal pescatore è in grado di riportare a galla ciò che scorre nel fiume in cui è immersa, così la nostra rete fotografica può cogliere randomaticamente nel grande fiume del tempo. Tutto il pescato è ridotto ad equivalenti presenze delle quali nessuna di per sé è più significativa: si tratta d’un fiume indifferenziato di senso perché proprio il fotografo, l’attore del gesto, il pescatore del fiume del tempo pare come smarrito ed incapace di dar senso a ciò che vede e raccoglie.
11) Il fotografo non riesce più ad essere “là dove le cose accadono”, sulla “prima linea” del mondo, né a denunciare né a criticare, né ad offrire alla comunicazione il senso del reale: a nominare il presente. E’ come se al fotografo stesse oggi sfuggendo di mano il tempo: il cardine del suo linguaggio, paradossalmente proprio ciò di cui è stato per anni l’incontrastato maestro: l’artefice dell’infinito presente.
12) In assenza d’un pensiero forte e capace d’identificare il reale la Fotografia contemporanea si concentra su modelli della realtà. Ci mostra scene, situazioni, eventi che sembrano reali o verosimili. I fotografi narrano storie di cui sono gli scrittori, i registi e talvolta gli interpreti. Se la realtà sfugge di mano e si rende invisibile, ecco che il fotografo ricrea la propria attraverso le particelle d’un mondo dove tutto è sotto controllo, la messa in codice è pianificabile come nel gabinetto d’uno scienziato, la realtà fa ciò che lui le detta, perché assomiglia alle sue aspettative, la riconosce, è il modello delle sue nostalgie. Dopo aver preteso per quasi due secoli di poterle fare da padre semplicemente donandole il suo nome, oggi il fotografo comincia ad esserne anche un po’ madre: la procrea, la alimenta e la cresce, la protegge e la ospita dentro la sua casa, il suo studio e il suo mondo creando la sua icona nel dominio del possibile.
13) Altri fotografi hanno gestito il proprio smarrimento di senso del mondo visibile cercando di catalogare in modo oggettivo la realtà che sta scomparendo. E’ quella Fotografia che ha fatto dell’approccio duro e frontale la mappa e il testamento assieme della realtà industriale e sociale del XX secolo, concentrandosi s’una pelle del mondo che è divenuta la dura crosta della realtà, fotografando le cose prima della loro scomparsa, come in una catalogazione a futura memoria.
14) Una delle più grandi palestre della contemporaneità nella quale i fotografi hanno praticato i propri esercizi di stile e coltivato la crescente nostalgia del reale, è quella del paesaggio. Ormai incapaci di ritrovare un centro al suo interno l’hanno trasformato in una sorta di Disneyland dello sguardo, forzandolo a diventare un quadro fotografico colorato, sfocato e modificato a loro piacimento, nuova finestra di contemplazione d’una realtà indifferenziata e distante. Meglio dunque concentrare lo sguardo ed il proprio sentire sulle fotografie stesse, rese nuovi oggetti del mondo: foto belle, suadenti, colorate, inclinate, sfocate, basculate, riflesse, invertite, grandi, enormi, monumentali. Le nuove icone possono esistere senza fardelli di tipo morale nei confronti d’una realtà muta ed assente.
15) La fotografia analogica si scopre contemporanea proprio là dove appare superata e per certi versi obsoleta: nel confronto con l’immagine digitale. E’ importante ricordare che la Fotografia è la grande madre di tutte le tecniche non manuali di produzione dell’immagine e notare anche che l’estetica di gran parte delle immagini digitali finora prodotte è ancora ampiamente di derivazione fotografica (prospettiva, posizionamento della luce, riflessi, punto di vista, natura delle superfici). Particolarmente le immagini sintetiche, quelle prodotte all’interno del mezzo mediante computo numerico e modellizzazione, cioè che ci consentono di vedere immagini d’oggetti reali senza che le loro superfici siano state investite dalla luce del sole, pagano pegno alla Fotografia quando devono darsi status, dignità e valore. Per essere accreditate alla Corte del Reale affinché ad esse si creda, hanno bisogno di sembrare fotografie, di mimare la speciale messa in codice della fotografia. Paradossalmente i mezzi in grado di spingere al di là i limiti d’una visione consolidata, stereotipata e ormai sospetta della realtà, proprio gli strumenti del nuovo si rifanno ai valori formali della Fotografia tradizionale per essere suffragati dal più ampio consenso. Sembra dunque ripetersi il destino dei fotografi dell’800, che ricercavano nell’estetica della pittura quella legittimazione che la scarsa tradizione e l’acerbo linguaggio d’allora non potevano offrire.
Infine ancora tre notazioni attorno a questioni che rendono la Fotografia quanto mai “contemporanea”:
A) Il mercato.
Tanto più la fotografia si approssima alla sua morte come oggetto socialmente utile, atto a fornire e trasmettere informazioni e a certificate dati della realtà, tanto più perde terreno nelle strategie di comunicazione, nell’uso “duro e diretto”, tanto più acquista valore come pura immagine, nuova icona autoreferenziale. Diventa oggetto di contemplazione, feticcio da collezione: opera per il mercato dell’arte.
I nuovi media aiutano oggi la Fotografia ad assomigliare sempre di più alla pittura, nel senso che la Fotografia può raffigurare qualsiasi cosa e in qualsiasi modo essa creda giusto farlo, liberata dagli obblighi cui la sua sudditanza psicologica, prima ancora che linguistica, l’avevano costretta. I mezzi elettronici e multimediali stanno riscattando la Fotografia da molte sue servitù storiche, spingendola velocemente verso la propria morte sociale, ma offrendole finalmente accesso alle arti belle.
B) Il Museo.
Due interrogazioni: costituire oggi un Museo della Fotografia, pur rappresentando di per sé un’iniziativa utile e necessaria, non rischia però di dar forma ad una nicchia disciplinare, ad un ghetto del linguaggio?
Attribuendo la propria identità ad un unico linguaggio, il Museo non nega forse la grande ricchezza presente nell’Arte contemporanea anche grazie all’uso d’una pluralità di linguaggi finalmente liberi da gerarchie?
C) La scuola
Cosa si prefiggono d’insegnare oggi le scuole di fotografia in una situazione così complessa di transizione e di cambiamento? Quale figura professionale sanno indicare come modello? Quale nuova idea di Fotografia sono in grado di proporre a studenti che si avvicinano allo studio di questa ormai storica disciplina con un’idea spesso datata e mutuata più dalla mitologia che dalla sua realtà attuale?
Peter, il fotografo di successo ritratto da Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow up 37 anni fa viveva già dentro di sé, esistenziale, la crisi del soggetto-fotografo e la fine dell’ottimistico potere di lettura del reale attraverso il suo principesco strumento. Egli crede di vedere, pensa di aver visto; attraverso le sue immagini si costruisce storie, certezze e modelli cui credere ma che la realtà s’incarica di smentire, oppure semplicemente non confermare.
La crisi del suo rapporto con il mezzo ed il linguaggio di cui è pubblicamente un maestro, coincidono con quelle della sua identità personale profonda. Egli finisce per identificarsi, far parte e credere solo ad una realtà che si è trasformata in finzione e rappresentazione, di cui lui diventa attore e spettatore assieme: Peter non ha il problema d’informare, né quello di comunicare, ma forse solo quello di essere. Il film sospende il giudizio, caricando di valore simbolico l’immagine come solo l’artista può fare: nel mistero del tempo presente. Oggi, finalmente, la Fotografia può trovare i modi per dirsi contemporanea.
L’ultima cosa che importa in ciò che dice il poeta, è che ciò che dice sia vero. (G.Galilei)
On the Threshold
Monograph published on the occasion of the exhibition “On the Threshold” at PAC, Milan
Documented in the volume are the cycles of photographic works Thresholds (symbolic images of architecture), Horizons (abstractions of the language of photography) and Icons of Light (appearance and disappearance of the object-image), through which the ‘threshold’ relationship between visible reality, surface and subject, a theme particularly dear to the artist, is examined.
This is followed by the presentation of the site-specific installations and permormances created for the exhibition at Pac in Milan, the outcome of which summarises thirty years of activity.
The volume includes texts by Giorgio Verzotti and a critical anthology by other authors.
On the Threshold
Silvio Wolf, Photographer: In this Place
Silvio Wolf talks about time and place, two variables that relate to his work.
© David Rapport, New York
Interview realized during the installation of the exhibition
“The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Art”
Aperture Gallery, New York
May 15 – July 16 2009
Silvio Wolf is an artist known for site-specific installations and lens-based art that lead viewers to perceive a simultaneous past and present, here and elsewhere, a threshold and coexistence of time and space.
Using still and moving images, projections, light and sound, either individually or in combination, Wolf creates multimedia and public art installations that engage a location’s specificities and histories. Responding to the cultural and architectural personality that a place can convey, Wolf seeks to establish a symbolic relationship with it.
Wolf expresses a metaphorical view of reality in his lens-based art, alluding to a visual language and society’s ideological and emotional expectations regarding the photographic medium. Working between representation and nondisclosure, Wolf challenges the indexical nature of the image while exploring the idea of the limit: what is visible and invisible, memory, abstraction and identity.
Born in Milan in 1952, Wolf studied Philosophy and Psychology in Italy and Photography and Visual Arts in London, where he received the Higher Diploma in Advanced Photography from the London College of Printing. His work has been widely exhibited in galleries, museums and public spaces in Belgium, Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, Korea, Luxembourg, Spain, Switzerland and the United States, and is included in numerous public and private collections.
Wolf lives and works in Milan and New York. He is a Faculty member at the European Institute of Design IED in Milan, and is a Visiting Professor at the School of Visual Arts SVA in New York.
Michael Amy, Silvio Wolf: Voyager in Art in America, Ed. Brant Publications, New York, 2008
Joanne Bernstein, The Elsewhere in The Elsewhere, Ed. South Bank Centre, London, 1999
Eric Bryant, The Indecisive Image in ARTnews, Ed. ARTnews Media, New York, 2008
Piero Cavellini, in Effetto man Ray, l’uso del mezzo fotografico nell’arte contemporanea Edizione Nuovi Strumenti, Brescia, 2006
Jacqueline Ceresoli, Origini. Gli orizzonti nell’idea della luce di Silvio Wolf in Luce, AIDI publishing, 2016
Gianluigi Colin, Non è un albero di Natale in La Lettura, Corriere della sera, #317, 2017
Martina Corgnati, Questione di luce in Style Magazine, Corriere della Sera, Milan, 1-6 January 2019
Martina Corgnati, Conversazione con Silvio Wolf in Arte e Cronaca, 1987
Tiziana Conti, Silvio Wolf: L’Epifania della luce in Titolo, 10/1992, Benucci Editore, Perugia
Nathaly Dufour, Dècortiquer l’image in Les Arts a Quèbec, ed. Devoir, Quèbec, 13/7/1999
Vittorio Fagone, L’abbagliante spiraglio di una visione futura in Light Specific, Ed. Nuovi Strumenti, Brescia, 1995
Gigliola Foschi, Il convivio delle parole in Less, Ed. 5 Continents, Milan, 2006
Enrico Lunghi, Silvio Wolf, Chantier/Marchè in L’Art e la Ville, Ed. Universitè de Liège, Liegè, 2000
Marco Meneguzzo, Quadro! Luce! in Light Specific, Ed. Nuovi Strumenti, Brescia, 1995
Minjung Lee, Space’s Inside and Outside in Monthly Photography, Ed. Monthly Photo, 2008
Marc Lenot, Détourner la matiére Photographique in Jouer Contre Les Appareils Editions Photosynthèses, Paris, 2017
Sylvie Parent, Silvio Wolf in Entre image et Matiére, Ed. Incontri Internazionali d’Arte, Rome, 2000
Augusto Pieroni, Silvio Wolf. The more we look at the painting, the more we see the photograph in Hotshoe, Ed. Hotshoe International UK, London, 6-7/2007
A. C. Quintavalle, Commento a una poesia di Silvio Wolf in Messa a fuoco, Ed. Feltrinelli, Milan, 1983
Francesca Pasini, La fluidità, la luce e lo sconfinamento in Paradiso, Ed. Contrasto e Galleria Gottardo, Lugano, 2006
Pierre Restany, Civitella d’Agliano ha scoperto la sua verità in Domus, Ed. Domus, Milan, 1989
Lyle Rexer, The Gate to the Threshold in Paradiso, Ed. Contrasto – Galleria Gottardo, Lugano, 2006
Silvio Wolf in The Edge of Vision, Ed. Aperture, New York 2009
Giuliana Scimé, Silvio Wolf in Perspektief, Ed. Perspektief, Rotterdam, 1983
Franco Vaccari, La frontiera labile in Spazio Mentale, Ed. Ilford, 1981
Roberta Valtorta, Fotografie: storie di luce/ Photographs, stories of light in Fare Luce/Shedding Light, Ed. Corraini, Mantova, 2017
Roberta Valtorta, Il teatro come luogo del vedere in Scala Zero, Ed. Fotografia Italiana, Milan, 2004
Giorgio Verzotti, Silvio Wolf in “Cimal, Arte Internacional”, Ed. Cimal Internacional, Valencia, 1991
Silvio Wolf in L’Invisibile, Ed. Fotografia Italiana, Milan, 2007
Lontane origini di Silvio Wolf in Le Due Porte, Ed. Fotografia Italiana, Milan, 2003
Origini di Silvio Wolf in “Origini”, Ed. Claudia Gian Ferrari, Milan, 1993
BOOKS AND MONOGRAPHIC ESSAYS
Origins. Horizons in Silvio Wolf’s Idea of Light, Postmedia Books, Milan, 2016. Texts by C. Casero, S. Wolf
Sulla Soglia, ed. Silvana Editoriale, Milan, 2011. Texts by G.Verzotti e AA. VV
Paradiso, ed. Galleria Gottardo e Contrasto, Milan, 2006. Texts by F. Pasini, L. Rexer, S. Wolf
The Elsewhere, ed. SBF, Royal Festival Hall, London, 1999. Text by J. Bernstein
Light Specific, ed. Nuovi Strumenti, Brescia, 1995. Text by V. Fagone
Immagini dell’Invisibile, Istituto Svizzero di Roma, ed. Sottoscala, Bellinzona 2008. Text by D. Lucchini
La Doppia Vita, Auditorium Conciliazione, ed. Auditorium Conciliazione, Rome 2008. Texts by U.Ughi, S.Wolf
L’Invisibile, Fotografia italiana, ed. idem, 2007. Text byG. Verzotti
Scala Zero, Galleria Fotografia Italiana, Milan, ed. Fotografia Italiana, 2004. Text by R. Valtorta
Le Due Porte, Galleria Fotografia Italiana, Milan, ed. Charta, 2003. Texts by L. Rexer, F. Vaccari, A. Strada
La Zone d’Ombre, Musée du Quèbec, ed. Musée du Québec, Quèbec City, 1999. Text by S. Parent
Luci Bianche, Refettorio delle Stelline, Milano, ed. Nuovi Strumenti, 1995. Text by S. Wolf
Origini, Galleria Gian Ferrari Arte Contemporanea, ed. Gian Ferrari, Milan 1993. Text by G. Verzotti
Azuleyes Casa Cultura, Bellreguard (Valencia), ed. Ajuntament de Bellreguard 1993. Text by S. Wolf
Silvio Wolf (con G. Colombo), ed. Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden, 1992. Text by R.Tardito
Enclave, Galleria Piero Cavellini, Milan, ed. Nuovi Strumenti, 1989. Text by S. Wolf
Spazio Mentale, Galleria Mercato del Sale, Milan, ed. Ilford/Ciba-Geigy, 1981. Texts by A. C. Quintavalle, C. Formenti, F. Vaccari, S.Wolf
Selected Solo Shows
The Invisible / L’Invisibile (with Valentino Vago), Casa Museo Boschi Di Stefano, Milano
Breathing Staircases (with One & Seven Collective), MEET, Milano
The Everyday Invisible / L’Invisibile Quotidiano, site-Specific installation, in Seeing The Invisible / Vedere l’Invisibile, APE Museo, Parma
Metaphors of Light, LCA Studio Legale, Milano
Scala Reale MAC, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Lissone, Milano
Double Truth, Unimedia Modern, Genova – Vision Quest, Genova
Origini, Fondazione Calderara – Casa Museo di Vacciago, Novara (curated by Cristina Casero)
Double Doors, Jewish Theological Seminary, New York (curated by Rebecca Pristoop)
La Realtà / Reality, Otto Gallery, Bologna
Double Blind, Photo & Contemporary, Turin
Present Perfect, Photographica FineArt, Lugano
Us, Bruce Silverstein, New York
Sulla Soglia, PAC, Milan (curated by Giorgio Verzotti)
Art-Quitectonica (with Monika Bravo), The Lobby Gallery @ 750 Seventh Ave, New York (curated by Ombretta Andruff)
Prima del Tempo, Galleria Nicoletta Rusconi, Milan
Insight, Italian Cultural Institute, San Francisco
Scala Reale, Bentley Hotel, Genoa
La Doppia Vita, Auditorium Conciliazione, Rome
Immagini dell’Invisibile (with Jean Odermatt), Istituto Svizzero, Rome
Voyager, Robert Mann Gallery, New York
L’Invisibile, Fotografia Italiana, MiArt, Milan
John 14, Biblioteca Cantonale, Bellinzona
Scala Zero, Italian Academy at Columbia University, New York
Thresholds, Robert Mann Gallery, New York
Paradiso, Galleria Gottardo, Lugano
Screens and Mirrors, Arendt & Medernach, Luxembourg (curated by Paul di Felice)
Scala Zero, Fotografia Italiana, Milan
Le Due Porte / The Two Doors, Fotografia Italiana, Milan
Double Breath, La Chambre Blanche, Quebec City
Fondazione del Tempo, Fondazione Pistoletto, Biella
Scala Zero, Galerie Clairefontaine, Luxembourg
Icons of Light, Keith Johnson, New York
Grida dal Tempio, Piazza Affari, Milan
The Zone of Shadow, Musée du Québec, Québec
The Elsewhere, Royal Festival Hall, London (curated by Johanna Bernstein)
Luogo Parola, Chiesa Valdese, Milan
Luci Bianche, Galleria Credito Valtellinese – Palazzo delle Stelline, Milan
Azuleyes, Casa Cultura Bellreguard, Valencia
Belvedere 288, Galleria La Polena, Genoa
Origini, Gian Ferrari Arte Contemporanea, Milan
Condomini, Piero Cavellini, Brescia
Stelle Braille, Sala CI, Arte Estetica, Milan
Azuleyes, Pasqual Lucas Espai, Valencia
Icone di Luce, Alberto Weber, Turin
Scale Reali al Gratosoglio, three permanent urban installations, Milan
Camera Sveva, Permanent installation, Vertical Museum, Sheraton Hotel, Bari
Enclave, Galleria Piero Cavellini, Milan
Generazioni di Luce, Galleria Alberto Weber, Turin
Annunciazione Lagrange, Marginalia delle Forme d’Arte, Turin
Grande Muro Occidentale, permanent urban installation, Civitella d’Agliano, Viterbo
La Verità, permanent urban installation, Civitella d’Agliano, Viterbo
Mailand Aktuell / Milan Nowdays, Galerie Van Marwich, Munich
Mental Space, Galerie Perspektief, Rotterdam
Acqua, Studio Marconi , Milan
Spazio Mentale, Mercato del Sale, Milan
Maroc, Galerie Medamothi, Montpellier
Selected Group Shows
L’Italia è un desiderio, Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome (curated by M. Balduzzi)
Space Oddity, Galleria Photo and Co., Turin (curated by A. Magno, V. Tazzetti)
Salon Bite&Go, Palazzo Lombardia, Milan (curated by N. Rusconi)
Fotogenesi, Habitat Ottantatré, Verona (curated by A. Ferraro)
Le Radici del Nuovo, MEET, Milan (curated by M. G. Mattei)
20×20 Eventi, Villa Croce, Genova (curated by C. Gualco)
Ritratto Paesaggio Astrazione, Museo Fotografia Contemporanea, Cinisello Balsamo, Milan (curated by G. Guerci)
Take Care Project, Fondazione 107, Turin (curated by F. Piccari)
New Post Photography, MIA, Milan (curated by G. Foschi)
31st Month of Photography, Bratislava
Beyond Photography, Palazzo Pirelli, Milan (curated by E. Grazioli)
Archive Show, Otto Gallery, Bologna (curated by G. Lufrano)
Keeper of the Hearth, Center for Photography, Houston (curated by O. England)
Aperture Photographs, Aperture Foundation, New York (curated by A. Booth)
Lumi di Channukkah, Fondazione Sassi, Matera / MUST, Museo Storico, Lecce (curated by E. Carmi)
WunderMoRE (The Independent), MAXXI–Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XX secolo, Rome (curated by I. Bignotti, E. Modena, V. Rossi, M. Scotti)
Work in Progress. La collezione d’Arte Contemporanea San Patrignano, La Triennale, Milan / MAXXI, Rome / PalazzoVecchio, Florence (curated by C. Pecori Giraldi)
Effetto Man Ray #2, Spazio Contemporanea, Brescia (curated by P. Cavellini)
Mercy in-sight, Università Cattolica, Milan (curated by E. Di Raddo)
Ai limiti del Visibile, Galleria Biffi, Piacenza (curated by G. Foschi)
I Lumi di Chanukkah, Palazzo Ducale, Mantova (curated by D. Carmi, P.Assmann)
Privitera, Uberti, Wolf, Spazio Borgogno, Milan (curated by P. Borgogno)
de-Formations, Bruce Silverstein, New York (curated by D. Brandt)
Zoom, Fondazione Remotti, Camogli (curated by F. Pasini)
Homage to the Square, Photo and Contemporary, Turin (curated by V. Tazzetti)
Luce. Scienza Cinema Arte, Palazzo del Governatore, Parma (curated by C. Casero, J. Malvezzi)
Konstellationen, Galerie f 5.6, München (curated by K. Weber)
Opere e progetti del Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea 2004-2014, Palazzo della Triennale, Milan (curated by R. Valtorta)
Glances at Time, Casa dei Carraresi, Treviso (curated by C. Sala)
Cantieri del ‘900, Gallerie d’Italia, Milan (curated by F. Tedeschi)
The Edge of Vision, Schneider Museum of Art, Oregon (curated by L. Rexer)
The Edge of Vision, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Winter Park, Florida (curated by L. Rexer)
In a Favourable Light, Nicoletta Rusconi, Milan
Abstract, Galerie f 5.6, München (curated by F. Baur, N.Stanner)
The Edge of Vision, Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Arizona (curated by L. Rexer)
Collaudi, Padiglione Italia, 53a Biennale di Venezia (curated by L. Beatrice, B. Buscaroli)
The Edge of Vision, Aperture Gallery, New York (curated by L. Rexer)
Beyond the Document: Color Field Photography, Paul Robeson Center for the Arts – Arts council of Princeton (curated by E. Cramos)
Clear Light, European Photography, Reggio Emilia (curated by G. Calvenzi, M. Mulas, L. Serani)
Dopo la Sicilia. A Milano, Galleria Credito Valtellinese – Palazzo delle Stelline, Milan (curated by M. Meneguzzo)
Fotografia Astratta. Dalle Avanguardie al Digitale, Scavi Scaligeri, Verona (curated by R. Valtorta)
Tracce d’Acqua: “Chance”, Installazione personale, Fiume Stura, Valle Stura, Cuneo (curated by T. Conti)
Nessuna onda può pettinare il mare, Fotografia Italiana, Milan (curated by L. Fassi)
Una Historia Privada, Teatro Circo Prince, Madrid (curated by A. e G. Cotroneo)
Three Generations of Italian artists facing time, Art Gallery Society for Macedonian Studies, Salonicco (curated by G. Foschi, N. Kassianou)
Una Storia Privata, Museo Carlo Bilotti, Rome (curated by A. e G. Cotroneo)
Ma liberaci dal Male, Galleria San Fedele, Milan (curated by G. Foschi, A. Dall’Asta)
Spazio Bianco, Four Emotions Palace Galerie, St. Moritz (curated by G. Verzotti)
BMW–Paris Photo Prize for Contemporary Art Photography, Carrousell du Louvre, Paris
Le Stanze della Fotografia, ArtVerona (curated by F. Castelli)
Less #1, Gwangju Design Biennale, Seoul (curated by G. Scardi)
ViviMi, installazione personale: Voce delle Parole, Palazzo della Triennale, Milan (curated by E. Carmi)
Un monde non-objectif en photographie II, Galerie Tessa Herold, Paris (curated by P. Piguet)
TransForm, Arendt & Medernach, Luxembourg (curated by P. di Felice)
Alterazioni, Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea, Cinisello Balsamo, Milan (curated by R. Valtorta)
Une Histoirre Privée: La Photographie Contemporaine Italienne dans la Collection Cotroneo, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris (curated by A. e G. Cotroneo)
Start@Hangar. Arte a Milano, Hangar Bicocca, Milan (curated by G. Verzotti)
Less. Strategie alternative dell’abitare, PAC, Milan (curated by G. Scardi)
10 Artisti della Galleria Fotografia Italiana, Auditorium Conciliazione, Rome (curated by F. Castelli)
Contempor’art. Dal privato al pubblico, Palazzo Bonoris, Brescia (curated by P. Cavellini)
Italy, Spaces and Places, Robert Mann Gallery, New York (curated by C. Traub)
Nodi, Galleria Martano, Turin (curated by A. Candiano, L. Dematteis)
CITTa’ZIONI, Loggia dei Mercanti, Milan (curated by M. di Marzio)
PHotoEspaña 2003, Centro Cultural Conde Duque, Madrid (curated by E. Viganò)
Il Fantasma della libertà, Spazio Erasmus Brera, Milan (curated by M. Meneguzzo)
International Meetings of Photography, City Art Gallery, Plovdiv, Sofia (curated by C. Zanfi)
Utopie Quotidiane, PAC, Milan (curated by V. Fagone, A. Madesani)
Il Tempo della Profezia, Installazione personale: Oggi, Ex Cinema Moderno, Monferrato (curated by T. Conti)
“Today and Tomorrow”, installazione personale: Sunday by Sunday, All Saints Church, London (curated by V. De Circasia)
Monumentos Futuros Esperia, Collegi d’Architectes de Catalunya, Barcelona (curated by E. Biffi Gentili)
Points of View, Künstlerhaus, Dortmund (curated by P. Schmieder)
Experimental Photography in Italy 1970-2000, Villa Savorgnan, Lestans (curated by I. Zannier)
La geografia degli Artisti, Galleria Milano, Milan (curated by F. Tedeschi)
Luxemburg, Les Luxembourgeois, installazione personale: Angels of Time, Urban spaces, Luxembourg (curated by E. Lunghi)
More Ethics Less Aesthetics, Biennale di Architettura, Padiglione U.S.A., Venice (curated by M. Fucksas)
Formae, Galerie Haus am Askanischen Platz, Berlin (curated by A. Beolchi, M. Cecchetti)
La Spiritualità Nell’Arte, Santuario di Oropa, Biella (curated by A. Fiz)
Problemi di luogo, Lorenzelli Arte, Milan (curated by A. Madesani)
The Image After, SFCamerawork, San Francisco L. Delgado (curated by J. L. Reed)
Focus on Italy, Angel Orensanz Foundation, New York (curated by E. Biffi Gentili)
II Biennale Internationale de la Photographie et des Arts visuels, installation: Chantier-Marché, Coeur Saint-Lambert, Liège (curated by E. Lunghi)
32 Italian Photographers – A Tribute to P.Lambert, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal (curated by P. Costantini)
Fotografia e Arte in Italia 1968-1998, Galleria Civica, Modena (curated by F. Maggia, V. Guadagnini
Pagine di fotografia italiana, Galleria Gottardo, Lugano (curated by R. Valtorta)
Due o tre cose che so di loro, PAC, Milan (curated by M. Meneguzzo)
VII Biennale Internazionale di Fotografia, installazione personale: Stazione di Berlino, Bricherasio, Turin (curated by D. Curti)
Oscar, La Nuova Pesa, Roma
Ezra Pound e le Arti, Palazzo Bagatti Valsecchi, Milan (curated by A. Beolchi, M. Cecchetti, V. Scheiwiller)
XII Quadriennale, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome (curated by L. Pratesi )
Entre Image et Matièr, Centre Internazional D’Art Contemporaine, Montréal (curated by S. Parent )
Mistery and Mith, Museum of Art, Fukuyama/Museum, Chiba/Museum of Art, Kochi/City Museum, Iida, Japan (curated by F. Tanifuzi)
Carambolage, installazione personale: Baden-Baden, Kunsthalle Baden-Baden (curated by T. Camps, I Mirò, A. Von Fürstemberg)
Europäische Wekstatt Ruhrgebiet , Städtische Kunsthalle, Recklinghausen (curated by F. Ullrich)
Now in Italy. Transavanguardia and After, Kodama Gallery, Osaka (curated by G. Niccoli)
Lo Specchio Infedele, PAC, Milan (curated by G. Scimé)
TAC ‘90. Taller d’Art Contemporain, Palacio del la Scala, Valencia, Spain (curated by A. D’Avossa)
L’insistenza dello sguardo. Fotografia italiana 1939-89, Museo Fortuny, Venice / Museo Alinari, Florence (curated by P. Costantini, S. Fuso, S. Mescola, I. Zannier)
DOCUMENTA 8, Museum Fridericianum, Kassel (curated by M. Schneckenburger)
Experimental Italian Photography, Shadai Gallery, Tokyo (curated by G. Scimé)
L’Italie Aujourd’hui, Centre National d’Art, Nice (curated by O. Calbrese)
European Edge, Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego (curated by P. Rittermann)
Nuovi Argomenti, PAC, Milan (curated by M. Meneguzzo)
AKTUELL ‘83. Kunst aus Mailand, München, Wien, Zürich, installazione personale: B.A.C.H, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich (curated by V. Fagone)
Linee della Ricerca Artistica in Italia 1960/80, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome (/curated by A. Quintavalle)
Nuova Immagine, Palazzo della Triennale, Milan (curated by F. Caroli)
Iconicittà, Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, Ferrara (curated by L. Ghirri)
20 years of work by Silvio Wolf on the language of photography, to explore its specificities, to reveal and surpass its limits