Fluidity, Light, Trespass

Francesca Pasini

in "Paradiso, Photography and Video by Silvio Wolf", Contrasto
catalogue of the solo exhibition at Galleria Gottardo, Lugano 2006

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.