Conversation with Silvio Wolf. The Two Doors
Anna Strada: Your alphabet is an ordered chessboard; I can clearly distinguish the pieces from the game. Prominent among them is a noble King made of light; at his side sits the Queen of elsewhere; and the stately Bishops are the concepts of time and space. I can recognize the key pieces of this game: the threshold and the limit, in the guise of Castles; the form of codes in the Knights; and finally illusion symbolized by the Pawns.
Now that all the pieces have been named, we see a stone Chessboard (p. 23), the game within the game. I see a table in a park. I barely glimpse the contours of the benches, and my eye is attracted by the glare, a ray of sunshine that hits that chequered and empty plane. I can’t see the pieces, but I feel the cold: nobody is sitting on those backlit benches. The first move goes to the Bishop of absence. Why is there only silence around us? What is the meaning of this uninhabited place?
Silvio Wolf: Absence is a dominant theme in all my work. It is as though man were ingrained in the places that represent him without ever being explicitly named, as though these places contained him and were his spatial emanations. Chessboard is a real place and also a model of reality that shows me possible routes: neat, plotted and still untrodden paths. It represents the idea of the double, the symbolic space where One meets and mirrors itself in Another.
The idea of a model takes me to Red Screen, in which the vision from above of the seats in a deserted theater is the staging of the absence of man, articulated by the rhythm of reds and blacks. In this work reality appears to be a geometrical model, the enlargement of an apparent microcosm of organic matter that creates a pattern governed by rules of perspective. Actually what appears is not what we think, but the miniaturization of a larger reality.
Absence is also the shape of the most extraordinary symbolic model I have ever come across: the Myhrab, the Islamic prayer niche, a pure directing of the gaze that indicates the most sacred place of Islam. In Large Myhrab (p. 21) the niche may be seen as both a concave and convex form; in one case it is absence, in the other it is illusion. What strikes me most is that the Myhrab is the fruit of dual perception and dual negation because it is neither a place nor a thing; it is missing from the space in which it finds itself, and this absence represents a place that is something other than itself, faraway and invisible: an emptiness that points elsewhere. So I think that the Myhrab is the symbol that gives man the power of ubiquity, because it allows the believer to be both here and there at the same time. It is the place of virtuality, an act of faith, the true illusion.
AS: And so we come to the Pawn’s first move. The illusion is a constant in many of the installations you create using light and voice as pure forms of language, evoking presence and elsewhere in a present and absolute time. I’m thinking above all of The Elsewhere, the London installation in which the only clue of a human presence is the sound of children’s voices, totally bathed in the radiant white light that illuminates the large empty room. Our voices as visitors join theirs: what you create is a different place from the one before; now we are part of the work, we experience it.
SW: Yes, the place is the event. As it happened for the first time in White Lights in the Stelline, a former girls’ orphanage, the space is void of physical elements other than the familiar ones, but subtly pervaded by an invisible and different world. Here collective identity is recalled by the memory of the place, the individuals who truly lived there. Recalling it to the present signifies challenging death, what happened, and who lived through and suffered world events. Like in Berlin Station, where my work made scenes of the genocide of the Jewish people reappear on the walls and streets of that city in a historical moment of profound change after the fall of the Wall.
AS: The parallel with Annunciation (p. 43) arises spontaneously. Again the scenario is a city hosting the work, but there is no image of a past event on San Francisco’s walls, instead a timeless icon, the Holy Shroud. You say that the image, and in particular that image, needs to find a network to be fixed upon. How can a holy image appear on a city’s advertising billboards?
SW: An Annunciation is, first and foremost, an announcement, a form of communication, letting someone know about something somewhere. So I chose a universally known image that could interact with the everyday life of the metropolis and become a sign of the world, not just a symbol, creating its manifestation, the evidence of a possible event. You see, photography is not merely evidence of the past, but also evidence of the future and possible. It can show us places without an elsewhere and presents without a past; it generates images that are able to confirm and deny, both true and false. These photographs, the product of digital elaboration, are the true photographs of a virtual event, and the visitors to the exhibition seeing them exhibited in the gallery in San Francisco did not wonder if the events portrayed had truly taken place, but only if the Shroud had been there in that moment, if they had failed to notice it in the city. With their questions they helped me understand to what extent the testimonial value of photography has definitively vanished nowadays, how it can create sure and credible models of reality, and, on the other hand, to what extent we still need to be able to believe in them.
AS: You have raised fundamental issues. I am thinking of the evocative icons of Angels of Time images in which the light itself cancels the faces and true identities of the young members of the family of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, which you took from old postcards. Among the tidy hedges of that Italianate garden, you entrusted the vanished faces, the children’s voices and the birdsong to the wind of memory. Isn’t the light – which, while making the figures visible, destroys their identity – perhaps the result of your desire to set to zero what you call the testimonial value of photography? To turn the images into icons?
SW: Yes, these images represent the action of light, the subject and the medium in my work. In Icons of Light (p. 43) it creates photographic images while destroying the painted ones. This cycle of works is the result of a dual process, simultaneously generative and destructive: of the original painting only the surface and the frame remain visible, of the photograph only the light that exposed it. I believe vision may come as much from illumination as from blindness; that every generative act carries an end within it and every ending a new beginning. In the Icons of Light these two extreme conditions fuse in the coincidence of instant births and deaths. The icons are materializations of light in which perception oscillates between two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality, between a here and an elsewhere, between being and having been.
AS: Now the white King of Light, sovereign of the game, is moving. I’m thinking of the glare of Lightscape (p. 19), which no longer meets a two-dimensional image but a body, the house, the icon of man and his architecture. I don’t perceive destruction here; this ray of light does not annihilate the body, it barely skims it, it illuminates it in part, is reflected in it . . . We could be blinded as much by the surplus of light as by its absence, but I feel that it leaves that body its imprint; the visible trace is like a form of writing.
SW: Photography is writing, the transfiguration of light into sign, light which becomes image. Using photography in Braille Stars I created the signs of a new visual language basing myself on the verbal language of the visually impaired, reinterpreting the black-and-white as binary codes of light-not-light. In The Observance words written during my interviews with patients in a psychiatric hospital became graffiti of light in nocturnal projections on the buildings of the same institute.
You see, the theme of codes is constantly present in my work. In Québec City I made an installation around the linguistic identities of the Francophone and Anglophone ethnic groups. I entitled it Double Breath/Double Souffle (p. 46) because the two male and female voices that alternately recite the words collected during my stay in that city express the difficult coexistence and the dichotomy between the different cultures. In my concept these two voices represent the vital expressions of the only intangible body of the work. The country itself offered me the signs I was seeking of the possible union between these polarities: Inuktitut, the native language of the place and the ideal origin of the languages called into play. Using its letters I wrote all over the gallery floor, transliterating the French and English words diffused in the air. So while visitors walked on that wooden floor that became their solid common ground, the immaterial lines of light from a cathode ray oscilloscope connected to the acoustic sources projected the vibrating images of the two voices on the walls.
AS: I read your words: “In my concept the notion of breathing is as much a primary sign of life as communication among people. Speaking and breathing cannot be separated from each other. Breathing joins the nature of human beings just as much as words can separate them. Everything that joins can separate.” Here comes the key piece of the game, the threshold move, the border kingdom overlooking two worlds, which could not exist should one of them disappear.
It is the condition of the limit that in Day-Night-Day becomes both the transition between light and darkness and the transition between outside and inside. The threshold takes the form of the skylight of an Oriental house, first photographed by night from the roof, then by day from the inside, leaving only a rectangle of sky visible. In Argentiera (p. 48) you compare the limits of vision: the window of the room from which you look at the horizon and the frame of the photograph, the very limit of your language. On that occasion you wrote: “The outside sets itself against the inside, the annulment of one is the possession of the other. The mind is the medium. The mind is the limit.” I feel I can say that the threshold has always been the true subject of your work, even through apparently very different formulations.
SW: You have touched on a crucial issue from which perhaps everything stems. If I look at one of my more recent works, Before Time, I see that even the photographic film self-exposed while loading a camera reveals a threshold, the clear limit between light and darkness, between matter and language. Equally, in the whole cycle of Skylights (pp. 25, 27, 29, 31, 33), the dazzling white light that penetrates through the skylights dematerializes the architecture, reducing the place to thresholds that float in the photographic blackness, while every other clue of space vanishes. In Grottos (pp. 34, 35), a work I did twenty years before, two very slightly different photographs, taken from two fluctuating points of view, reveal the minimum variations in the direction of our gaze, the imperceptible margins between two almost equivalent instants. Here the inside is darkness, the outside is just light; in the middle is the mutation, the experience of time.
AS: The darkness you speak of is manifest in The Two Doors (p. 37), which I read as an emblematic work on the theme of threshold. The black room, the place of blindness captured by the photographic eye, creates between the two apertures the possibility of a direct and always denied passage in some of your other works. Now I see clearly that beyond, which needs me in order to exist, as it presupposes a point of view, a dialogue, a presence. The leading players of the game are revealed: the distant door, suspended in the dark, is a harsh West with clear-cut borders; the arch on this side speaks to me of the East. It is therefore the limits that outline the place to search, the latent space that indicates the elsewhere and the present.
Silvio, if the Queen has the last move in this match, what other games will open up beyond that Threshold?