The Dazzling Glimmer of a Future Vision

Vittorio Fagone

in "Enclave", Nuovi Strumenti, Brescia, catalogue of the exhibition at Galleria Cavellini, Milan 1989

The keen return of interest over the past few years to the juncture where the visual arts and photography exchange lucid and determinant linguistic inferences necessitates two reflections. The first of these pertains to the entire course of modern figurative art which, for the past one hundred and fifty years, has jealously watched the achievements and technological advances of the medium of photography, not only from the standpoint of the imitation of reality, on which Western art has based its laws of representation and its rules of perspective for almost a millennium, but also from that of photography’s manipulation of light and time within the duration of an instant.

The second consideration, on the other hand, concerns the nature of visual research at the close of the twentieth century where the radical opposition and confrontation between the conventional material processes of the art world and immaterial representations tied to the new techniques of automatic image production has become a fundamental issue for the future development of artistic communication.

Over the past thirty years, artists have used photography with varied intentions: as a neutral, and therefore effective, instrument of a linguistic operation determining the reflective potential of the image; and, in accordance with a different parameter linked to the irreversible implications of the specificity of the photographic art, as a medium capable of revealing the hereto unrecorded order of relationships inherent in the process of comprehending any image of reality. The structural complexity of “artist’s photography”, in which creative and purely technical impulses meet and develop to the point of exposing more than just the more or less sensational potential evidence of a new image, causes in the photographic act a specific vector effect (an orientation and directing of time, an internal and referential space, a weaving and continuity of light, a symmetry and intrinsic isomorphism). This is capable of moving and activating each image towards an iconic dimension that is both mobile and symbolically productive. It is here, in fact, that displacements and approximations, recognitions and ambiguous open views start to acquire meaning.

At a moment in which those external images aspiring to a refound expressionism, more mannerist than wittily frivolous, finally seem to be destined for the great archive of our rapid consumption of new forms, it cannot be a surprise to find that in many excellent exhibitions organized in the important centres of contemporary art (from Cologne to New York and from London to Osaka) there is a return to including “artist’s photography” as an essential part of present-day visual research. This, of course, with the warning not to overlook the acknowledgement of a wide polarity in today’s applications of photography. The latter is, in fact, no longer considered merely the mechanical reproduction of a mirror-image of reality, but a technique at once intelligent and productive that can provide abundant communicative resources and autonomous capacity of meaning.

Instrumental photography and structural (or structuring) photography have constituted two moments of a chronicle that is already recognizably mapped out in the experimental visual research of the Sixties and the Seventies. In the scenario that is evolving with the approach of the Nineties, photography is vitalizing both its constituent element and a much wider dynamic of images that do not yet need to establish external references or congruences, but which need instead to declare the sites of an inimitable actuality and temporality, as well as of an eccentric and effusive space that continuously challenges the boundaries between the material and the immaterial by establishing a shifting curve of balance between an external reality and a corporality without contours.

Since the end of the 1960’s, Silvio Wolf has rendered an original contribution to the front line of visual research in Italy. Throughout this period his work has consistently examined the application of the photographic process with the aim of highlighting the constitution of the evidence time of the image as well as its variations within a series which articulates as much the coherence of diverse moments of the same act of vision as the irrepetibility and the consequence of a series ordered in the time span of every single moment of this vision.

Since his earliest works, however, Silvio Wolf’s attention has been fixed less on the individuation of an emblematic device than on the analysis of the particular elusive materiality of photography and, within this, on the identification of engendering light movements. It is important to stress these two aspects of Wolf’s work because it is they that determine its particular character. His investigation is comparable to that undertaken in “cold” painting: the purification of every expressionistic trace and the care to reveal the formulation of a corporality that is definite, yet subtle and unpredictable. The substance of photography is established by a thousand silent fires as something that is not inert, as a material without weight and redundancy, as a spatial verity.

Nevertheless, the most vital and mobile element is that of light, which constitutes the means and the motive in all of Wolf’s oeuvre. His research is aimed at discovering luminary variations, increases, dissolutions, transparencies, and eclipses. However, this obsession with light in Wolf’s work is not metaphysical, but rather totally physical. When it does open itself to a primary and bitter symbolism, it is only after having crossed through the diffuse materiality of the photographic body.

These constants place Silvio Wolf’s work of this past decade in a particular context, namely in a regime of tensions vigorous beyond every skillfull manipulation of the technical possibilities of photography. References of Wolf’s work should only be sought in international arenas where his oeuvre has met with possibly even more recognition and acknowledgement than in his own country; as such, his participation in the last Documenta at Kassel should be considered a positive signal.

Dimensioned, if not limited, by the space of the gallery that hosts it, this exhibition leads one to reflect of the vital and risky issues around which Silvio Wolf’s work revolves. It presents with perspicacity the dimensions of time and space explored in an internal and only seemingly paradoxical reflective mode. The continuum of the photographic surfaces achieves a subtle, dense and ever-changing corporality that the artist has often examined, and is sealed in a mosaic structure that limits its boundaries within a perimetrical geometry. In some cases, as a result of the angular positioning of the work, it also takes on an implausible mirroring effect that nonetheless reveals itself an orderly and coherent “escape”. The space of the weightless body and the diffuse space of the photographic surfaces give form to another material that is however unable to acquire any verification other that of the virtuality of the photographic image. The internal space of photography, so paradoxically negated, is forced to an elliptical confrontation with an external spatiality which comes to life like a forest dense with signs that are definite yet difficult to identify within an insidious labyrinth of rectilinear routes, and that are continuously jostled back and forth among themselves.

The operation that Silvio Wolf today effects in photography, but also through photography, possess another crucial key that merits attention.

The obsession with time, without doubt the hallmark of the art of our century, from Cubism to the conceptual and neoconceptual experiments of our own moment, is located in an ever recurring confrontation with the light that meets every object and visible sign in an earthly way, with an intensity strong enough to bring forth an impression at the exact moment in which the resolution of the image is burnt in the fire of absolute existence.

The photographic act that Silvio Wolf attempts as if it were a productive linguistic act, capable of an expansion of communicative and symbolic efficiency, embodies this conscious reflection of time. Time is that of the recognizable duration of the short, certain like of an instant; time is the epiphany of light; time is the canon by which the image acquires identity and the possibility of transformation, allusive physicality and density. Also activated within the time-light relationship is the subtle play of transparencies that modulate light into profiles, edges, chromatic effusions, stratifications and shiny surfaces.

It can thus even be disorientating to watch this exhibition establish itself in space.

What is the worth of the declared evidence in this bonded situation? What is the worth, if it exists at all, of an external frame of reference (within which photography has conventionally been fettered)? What is the worth, in short, of the internal temporality which has bonded with an irreversible tie the transforming light and the voracious sensibility of a structure open to the fire of its images?

Silvio Wolf does not provide any answers. He does intervene, however, with regard to photographic chromatism by testing its characteristics and resources with the same rational lucidity of those who, forty years ago, managed to exploit the pitfalls of orthochromatic film.

From this realm of exploration and definition, the boundary between the material and the immaterial, where photography today lives its dialectic actuality, reveals itself to be a productive key to the gates of our imaginations, making us perceive a dazzling glimmer of a future vision.