in "Light Specific", monograph, Nuovi Strumenti, Brescia 1995
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.