Distant Origins of Silvio Wolf’s Work

Franco Vaccari

in "Le Due Porte", Charta, Milan, catalogue of the solo exhibition, Galleria Fotografia Italiana, Milan 2003

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.