The ‘Horizons’ in Silvio Wolf’s idea of light

Cristina Casero

in "Origins. Horizons in Silvio Wolf's Idea of Light", Postmedia books, Milan 2016

Thresholds of sight. Horizons

If the theme of the horizon and the idea of light as essence intrinsic to every aspect of the visible, as its very substance, are fundamental aspects in the work of Antonio Calderara, then an encounter – at a “distance,” of course – between his research and that of Silvio Wolf, both engaged in the definition of a “noumenic” reality created by light, will certainly be stimulating: beyond the contingency of the phenomenon, in the case of Calderara, and paradoxically inside it so deeply as to make it impossible to recognize, in the case of Wolf. The latter works with photography, in fact, but achieves results that are visually in line with those of the painter, so much so that he defines them as abstractions, considered “non-retinal interpretations of the visible, super-sensitive forms, mental images recognized symbolically in the real.” The abstract result does not necessarily imply total detachment from reality, as the pictorial experience of Calderara also demonstrates. Wolf, however, takes one further step, shifting into a different dimension with respect to that of representation, though still sublimated and evocative. The works of the Horizons cycle are generated by light, imprinting loose forms that come prior to any representative image, since they are generated in a moment before that in which the photographer consciously takes his first picture, and as such they come to light prior to the action, prior to the gaze. They are images that arise by chance and become language in the mind of the observer. Wolf has made the pieces included in this body of work starting in the mid-2000s, and we can say that they constitute a coherent arrival point and meaningful junction on the long path of his research, to view in terms of the continuing development of a linear discourse, focused around certain fundamental themes which the critics have repeatedly emphasized as factors underlying his production, and which emerge clearly in the Horizons, forming the basis for the works on the conceptual plane and in praxis, intertwining with each other, as happens in nearly all of Wolf’s oeuvre: light, the idea of absence also as a positive, regenerating element, the concept of the threshold as a fertile place of ambiguity as opposed to superficial certainty, of polysemy as opposed to closed, personal, narcissistic expression. These concepts also run through Calderara’s research, though in different ways, in an approach to painting that comes to grips with ideas of limitation and absence. The Horizons, as we have seen, are inscriptions of light, the subject of the image but also tautologically its expressive means, its medium, the true protagonist of the artist’s investigation since his very first photographs, dating back to the late 1970s and early 1980s (p. 18-21), all the way to latest installations, like Double Doors, made in the spring this year in the spaces of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (p. 53).

Wolf has been engaged for years in reflections on photography, which owe something – as is only natural – to the thinking of Ugo Mulas, leading him to analyze the practice of photography from the inside, starting with the intrinsic characteristics of the image, its constituent elements, putting light at the center, the very essence of photo-graphia, as the primary focus of reasoning, not without openings towards a dimension that goes well beyond the coolness of conceptual analysis, meta-language and self-referentiality. What makes these works so interesting is precisely their shift with respect to a pure analytical end. Of course the Horizons metaphorically and very firmly manifest the “limits” of images, but in doing so they open to infinite possibilities of interpretation on the part of the viewer, offering themselves as a horizon of the visual. These images situate themselves prior to representative expression and thrive on the taut dialectic between darkness and light, its lively and paradoxical colors, manifested as the synthesis between all possible images and silent blindness. Precisely the absence of a subject in the traditional sense of the term, which in the Horizons is only foreshadowed by the uncontrolled and accidental flow of light, makes it possible to translate excess into negation, conveying by analogy the effect produced by the too many images that blind us every day, making themselves illegible, erasing themselves from our mind. The Horizons, in their magmatic chromatism, make the very process that has generated them concretely visible, the free and unperceived imprint of the light on the surface, capable of generating an inscription that comes prior to any code.

As we have seen, however, it would be limiting to interpret these works only on a conceptual plane. What truly marks this “absence” is its capacity to leave room, to grant the gaze of the observer free rein. The horizons are such only by virtue of the imaginative projection of each viewer, who looking at these images identifies his or her own visual and mental horizon, actively coming to terms with them. Wolf displays a conception of the work as an experiential and certainly not purely contemplative fact, and the light is understood – here lies the interesting, innovative aspect – above all as an activator of an experience, whose nature is not limited to the simple plane of perception. As Lyle Rexer has aptly explained, “photography is a conceptual object that explores a series of relationships, not things, and we can glean even greater intuitions from it – new levels of penetration, the cabalists would say – on the nature of our experience” (1).


Light, at the origin 

Like Antonino, the protagonist of the famous story by Calvino on The Adventure of a Photographer (2), Wolf from the outset has tried to reach a sort of “single” photograph, that which can not only represent all the others, but even all images tout court, even those that are impossible to make. Perhaps also for him, “photography has a meaning only if it exhausts all possible images” (3), it has a meaning, that is, if it presents itself as image that embodies the concept, beyond anecdote and circumstance, as happens in the Horizons, pre-photographic images, clearly in action and not just in potential. Somewhat paradoxically, to achieve this goal I believe Wolf began precisely from the point in which, on the other hand, the protagonist in Calvino’s story arrived, almost surrendering: “Once all the possibilities had been exhausted, when the circle closed in on him, Antonino understood that photographing photos was the only road left to him, in fact the true road he had been vaguely searching for up to then” (4). At the end of the 1970s Luigi Ghirri, the absolute protagonist of that moment, a photographer and a lucid theorist at the same time, invited the young artist to the exhibition Iconicittà. On that occasion he presented a work that reminded me precisely of these words of Calvino: Feticcio della Comunicazione (Fetish of Communication, pp. 18-19). This is a complex work (5), with a clearly conceptual approach, that in my view constitutes the premise of all the future developments, a sort of fixed point from which to discuss things. It is one of his very few works to show the human figure, though reduced to being a manikin whose nature dissolves in a game of photography in photography that increasingly distances itself from reality, from its plausible representation. “The mechanical re-production of the effigy exorcises the medium from its nature as infinitely reproducible, through digressions of light intrinsic to the medium, all the way to its perceptible extinction” (6), as the artist says. Light, from this first moment, becomes the origin, the pivot round which the investigation of vision is conducted, as in Giorno-Notte-Giorno (Day-Night-Day, p.19), in which the choice of different moments and vantage points to represent a skylight, a threshold between inside and outside, “demonstrates the total ambiguity of convention” (7), LuceRiflesso (Light-Reflection, p. 20) and Grotta (Grotto, p. 21), also relatable to a “mental space.” These youthful works are, furthermore, the premises for a more structured reflection on the ability of light to unveil the ambiguity of our perception of space, like that expressed in the Skylights (pp. 32-33), on which he worked in 2002: here the clear signs of very white light are the signals we perceive in an other, indefinite, immaterial place, not measurable except with the aid of luminous reflections. Franco Vaccari observes, regarding the photographs of the early 1980s, that “more than detections of the different modes of appearance of things, they seem like the recording of changes that intervene in the Self that moves. But this self never reaches the point of forming a stable reality, capable of naming the real. It is a Self that is perceived only in movement, and that movement continuously throws into crisis” (8).

During the course of that decade the focus on light becomes assiduous, prevailing: it is obviously an expressive tool, but it is also a symbolic element and, above all, a fluid vehicle of possible and open relations, the sign of the continuous mutation of gazes and reflexes. I am thinking about Vittorie della luce (Victories of the Light, p. 22), Luce di Pietra (Light of Stone, p. 23), Moallaqah (p. 23), Luce Verde (Green Light, p. 24) in 1988, and Piccolo Myhrab, from the next year (p. 25).

In this sense, a “manifesto” work like Origine della Luce (Origin of Light) is fundamental, a large lightbox from 1994 (p. 26), in which the light becomes concrete presence, totally incarnating itself in the work, in all its physical significance, becoming precisely its origin, not just its outcome. The luminous material is also the preferred medium to make many installations, in which it not only redesigns and redefines the space, but above all determines and connotes the place, also bringing out its essence, structure, history and memory. This is also the direction taken by the Icone di luce (Icons of Light): shown for the first time as a reinterpretation of the Gian Ferrari picture gallery in 1993, together with the Libro Bianco (White Book, p. 27) and Laboratorio (Laboratory, p. 46), they foreshadow that installation dimension of the work that precisely from that moment on becomes important in the artist’s output, as a necessary opening: the need to come to terms not only with the space, but also and above all with viewers, to involve them in an experience that shifts from the artistic to the human plane, becomes more pressing, and light – an element that is simultaneously real and ethereal, concrete and symbolic – is the ideal vocabulary for this dialogue. To make the Icone di luce (Icons of Light, pp. 27-31), the artist photographs paintings from strange and unusual angles, conveying the image as he has captured it, illegible, erased by reflections and perspective. Light takes on a dual meaning, creating photographic images while erasing painted images: the ambiguity destroys the illusion and leaves us faced with reality in an open and implicating relationship. As Verzotti writes, “Silvio Wolf’s work through the images he makes, whether they are two-dimensional or protruding, placed in space like sculptures or arrayed in installations, addresses our passive condition in their regard, our way of being pure receivers when faced by their fascinating power and their capacity to totally take the place of reality. His work takes aim at the alienation of the experience of the real as a truth of our existential state of which we should at least gain some awareness” (9). Wolf shakes us, trying to make us take part, as well as take note. If the Icons of Light leave us bewildered and the Horizons present us with our inner images, the Soglie a Specchio (Mirror Thresholds, pp. 36-40), like the Meditations (p. 41) from the same period, made starting in 2009, call us physically into play, including us in the image we are observing. The threshold becomes mirrored, showing us our figure reflected in another, virtual but at the same time extremely real space. We are projected into a new reality in which, in contrast with black – photographically legible as the product of a surplus of light, hence of figuration and image – stands our image, the only image we are able to see: we are left alone with ourselves and it is the light that guides us, because once again it erases and recreates; the particular printing technique makes the reflection of what is in front of the photograph visible precisely in the areas of the image that would normally be white, because they were flooded with light.

The same function, amplified, is performed by the luminous material in I Nomi del Tempo (The Names of Time), the impressive installation presented in 2009 at the Venice Bienniale (p. 43), but also in several earlier projects on an environmental scale, in which the substance of light redefines both the space and our way of acting in it, at the same time, evoking intense sensations exerted on the plane of perception, emotion and awareness: The Elsewhere, made in 1999 in London (p. 50) and Sulla Soglia (On the Threshold) set up in Milan in 2001 (p. 42), but also Pietra d’Acqua (Water Stone), the fountain designed in 2004 for a public space (p. 53) or, on a smaller scale, Light House (p. 35) and the very recent project Enclave (p. 34). The symbolic thickness of the luminous material, combined with its “constructive” potential, is more explicitly activated in projects where its ability to evoke the memory of a place is translated into intensely evocative spatial reformulations: Stelle Braille (Braille Stars, pp. 44-45), in which fixed slide projections fill empty space with “words” and light is transformed into a new possibility of communication, mingling in the setting with recorded voices; Luci Bianche (White Lights, p. 47), a complex multimedia installation, where in the enveloping darkness of the Refettorio delle Stelline in Milan female voices are heard, as the faces of the children once hosted in that place resurface like ghosts, which “charged with a cutting and paradoxical intensity of lighting, take on an evidence that blurs the contours of the individual profiles. The light, in its metamorphoses and epiphanies, involves recognitions and relations: the figures ignited here have no stasis, no immobile viewpoints, boundaries or frames, but are in continuous expansion” (10); in L’Osservanza (The Observance, pp. 48-49), as in Braille Stars, light explicitly becomes inscription and words, the deeper meaning of this work, and the installations emerge from the buildings, visible from the outside, becoming concrete presences. A dynamic inversion between interior and exterior that offers wide and always new possibilities of interpretation and fascinates Wolf, who organizes some of his projects around this mechanism, such as the one made for the Waldensian Church in Milan, Luogo Parola (Word-Place, p. 51), in which the suggestion of the identity between light and word returns, in an even more sweeping way.

In these projects, as in all of the artist’s output, light plays a fundamental role as an active element, rich with symbolic intensity and communicative power, capable of concretely determining an elsewhere, an abstraction seen not as an escape from the real, but as its deeper, sublimated and at the same time open interpretation. Light forms the basis of photography and what the artist, the photographer, does is substantially to take a step backward. He shifts the attention to the auroral moment of origin, thus proposing alternative developments with respect to our conventions of seeing and, therefore, of interpretation. Wolf does not at all reject the dialectic with the real; in fact, he chooses to photograph or to intervene in physically determinated places, often with an important history. He always starts with the given reality, but gets beyond its circumstance towards a different dimension that is not just mental but fully experiential, in a synthesis between thought and life. And he does so by returning to the origin, to light.


1. Rexer Lyle, Silvio Wolf: la Porta verso la Soglia, in Paradiso. Photography and video by Silvio Wolf, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Gottardo, Lugano, 15 February/6 May 2006, Galleria Gottardo – Contrasto, Lugano 2006, p. 125.
2. Calvino Italo, L’avventura di un fotografo, in Gli amori difficili, Einaudi, Torino 1970, English edition The Adventure of a Photographer, in Difficult Loves, 1983.
3. Calvino Italo, op. cit., p. 43.
4. Calvino Italo, op. cit., p. 45.
5. Feticcio della Comunicazione is a polyptych from 1978, in 4 parts: the first is composed of six Polaroids (33 x 18 cm), the second of 8 Polaroids (44 x 18 cm), the third of 18 Polaroids (11 x 153 cm) and the fourth of 11 Polaroids (11 x 99 cm).
6. Silvio Wolf. Light Specific. Opere 1977–1995, Edizioni Nuovi Strumenti, Brescia 1995, p. 24. 7. Quintavalle Arturo Carlo, Commento a una poesia di Silvio Wolf, in Spazio Mentale, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Mercato del Sale, Milan, Editore Ilford, Milano, 1981, s.i.p.
8. Vaccari Franco, La frontiera labile, in Spazio Mentale, op.cit., s.i.p.
9. Verzotti Giorgio (ed.), Silvio Wolf. Sulla Soglia, exhibition catalogue, PAC, Milan, 7 October/6 November 2011, Silvana Editoriale, Cinisello Balsamo 2001, p. 12
10. Fagone Vittorio, Il “Senso del luogo” e altre quattro variazioni. A proposito della ricerca fotografica di Silvio Wolf, in Silvio Wolf. Light Specific… op.cit., p. 9.