Silvio Wolf: The Gate to the Threshold

Lyle Rexer

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

“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.


Hysterical History

“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