Picture! Light!

Marco Meneguzzo

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

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.