Giorgio Verzotti

in "On The Threshold", monograph, Silvana Editoriale, Milan 2011

There can be no more appropriate term for the title of an exhibition by Silvio Wolf than “threshold”.

His works are photographs and, in the end, the photographic act itself is a way of standing on a threshold: the photographer is immersed in his here-and-now, no matter what his camera wants to capture, yet the photographic shot that fixes the image immediately drags him elsewhere, in the arrested time of reproduction that eternalizes time-space simultaneity and projects it into future times and spaces, those of the perception of the image thus made.

Every shot, then, has the value of a threshold, of an opening that from a here virtually shifts us toward a “beyond”. So it is proper that the entire exhibition we are discussing here has been named for the “Threshold”, and that this is also the theme of one of the rooms, each of which is devoted to a different iconographic idea.

One of Wolf’s first works, Le Due Porte (The Two Doors, 1980), seems like the depiction of the idea outlined above. Triggered, as usual, by a chance encounter of the artist with a phenomenon of reality, the photograph simply provides us with a frontal view of a strange masonry construction. We see a door shaped in the Moorish style that leads to a small dark room, at whose back there is another opening in the form of a door, this time perfectly rectangular. The second door offers a view of what seems like a desert landscape. A door that opens to another door is a pure threshold, we might say: the construction performs this sole function and fulfills it, placing itself moreover at the center of an anthropological “void”, the desert, that lends itself all too easily to a metaphorical interpretation. And the small dark zone inside will inevitably be assigned the function of a border between two luminous zones, foreground and background, becoming the darkness that permits perception of light and thus vision and the visual, a negative that becomes the condition for the presentation of a positive.

Much of Silvio Wolf’s work is based on these figures of reciprocity, of symmetry composed of pairs of opposites, but ones that interact as dialectical poles; and much of the work is based on these somewhat romantic figures that are nevertheless also indicative of our way of being in the world: absence, emptiness, the lack that as such moves thought and creates unexpected synthesis of meaning.

The results are images that contain a certain more or less secret, more or less perception-disturbing dualism. This comes from the artist’s particular position with respect to the images produced by an art that by now is at the apex of its technical reproducibility. The world, Wolf says, has already been entirely “mapped” and photography, as such, has lots its value as a witness.

The question is that Wolf looks at photography with an analytical intent that is not, however, exclusively based on dissection of the specific photographic language. He is not interested only in the language of photography, but also in its imaginary, meaning the cultural, ideological and also emotional expectations we have regarding the medium and its possibilities of reproducing and interpreting reality. Beyond this, we might say that the focus of the artist’s interest is the image itself, its inevitable condition of polysemy and, therefore, inherent ambiguity, and above all the civilization of images that is part of the intrinsic character of our contemporary world. Now, photography is based on conventions that make it anything but transparent, and even intervene between the medium and the pure representation it is supposed to produce. If we also consider the scope of the libidinal investment made in images, and media imagery in particular, in our contemporary world, we can grasp (though only partially) the great, powerful phantasmatic sway that dominates our relations with representations, iconic signs, images.

So there is not much that is real, not much reality in what photography produces. There is an aura of unreality, subtle but capable of grounding our relations with that product. Wolf works precisely on this unreality, this phantasmatic influence, and this is why his works so often address themes like absence, what is missing, non-being.

Absence, first of all, of subject: Ugo Mulas already said this, in his Verifiche (Verifications), when he defined the place of the subject-operator of the photographic process as the place of an absence (“…the camera is not part of me, but is an additional medium whose significance cannot be either overestimated or underestimated. Precisely for this reason, it is a medium which leaves me out just when I am most present”), combining this reflection with his self-portrait, out of focus, and that of his wife, perfectly in focus.

And a lack of certain, verified references that can be assigned precise meanings: thus the photograph “misses”, the images become enigmatic, the camera investigates undecidable aspects of the real (of an object, a work of architecture) simply by being positioned in one way or another.

This attitude might seem to be driven by purely formal issues, but for some time now artists have been interested in forms only as vehicles of thought, not only of the pleasure they can bring when they are observed. For contemporary artists the “writing with light” that reveals the forms is the matrix and vehicle of thought, of critical reflection on the status of the languages on which they operate. Photography does not represent the world, it re-creates it: so we can think of Le Due Porte as a viaticum for a disenchanted journey.

The above observations apply above all to the matter of “thresholds”: photography, an art that is supposed to convey to us, like clues, the phenomena of the real, instead leads to deception of our perceptions. Concave wall surfaces that are, perhaps, convex, and vice versa, works of architecture in black and white stone where the chromatic values are inverted because the image is actually a negative, a door that lets strong light enter darkness, but is actually the image of a skylight that has become vertical instead of horizontal. Two figures that vividly evoke the idea of a generating lack, a void that creates: that of an empty niche lit from above by artificial light, seemingly the very emblem of every process of signification, and the Grande Myhrab of 1989.

An image-structure in itself, the Grande Myhrab, this concave-convex space, represents, in the words of the artist, a “void made visible”, and it is “the indication of a direction, of a latent place”, an elsewhere. It is the empty space that in the mosque indicates the direction of the Mecca, the elsewhere towards which the faithful bow in prayer, a void that is eminently a harbinger of language, thought, “discourse”.

Dual images or paradoxes of sight… we can think of these, and many other works of Silvio Wolf, as dialectic images that take the extreme randomness of meanings into account, to the point of becoming a receptacle of coexistence of opposites themselves.

In the gnoseological preface to his Origin of German Tragic Drama “…Benjamin attributes a new physiognomy to the dialectic as ‘proof regarding the origin’, as form that ‘from the most remote extremes, from the apparent excesses of development, brings forth the configuration of the idea as a totality marked by a possible coexistence of opposites’. This is why in the ‘naked and manifest existence of the factual’, that which is original is never revealed, ‘its rhythm is apparent only to a dual insight. On the one hand it needs to be recognized as a process of restoration and reestablishment, but, on the other hand, and precisely because of this, as something imperfect and incomplete’”. Thus writes Georges Didi-Huberman in an essay on experience (1), which can be of use for a better understanding of the work of Silvio Wolf.

If there is no univocally dawn-like origin, and photography for us becomes the very emblem of this fatal absence, any hypothesis of totality can be conceived only as the coexistence of opposing tensions, or the irremediable continuation of contradictions that merely bear witness to the imperfection of the (after all) inexhaustible attempts to put them back together.

I think the work of Silvio Wolf is oriented almost entirely in the light of these concepts. We see it in the logic that lies behind the Icons of Light and also, maybe above all, in the work he has done in response to the stimuli of the environment in which he was operating.

One of the thematic rooms of this exhibition is set aside for the first series of works. The Icons of Light appear at the start of the 1990s, but previously the artist had already made photographs that showed the reflections of the light of the place in which they were shot. This series, however, concentrates on a particular iconographic theme, that of the antique painting photographed from a particular vantage point, in an angled lateral perspective view, so that the surfaces no longer seem square, round or rectangular, but trapezoidal or oval, irregular formats that seem to emphasize the underlying process of disappearance in the work.

The lateral position lets the photographer also reproduce the light of the place on the surface of the painting, in most cases hiding the painted images or letting only a few glimpses show through, as if the light had devoured the depiction. Instead of the portrait, nearly always the type of painting chosen by the artist, instead of these artistic documents of history and identity, we find zones of light, glowing areas that sometimes let a few details emerge, ghostly latent features, hands, the contours of a face.

This act of negation of meaning finds its dialectical counterpart in the corresponding affirmative act that has to do with the physical character of the work, its nature as an environmental device.

The photograph that reproduces the painted canvas impacted by light may erase the image, but in doing so it brings out the canvas itself, and the whole painting, in its physical essence. The lateral vantage point makes it possible, for example, to see the craquelures and other materic accidents that have happened to the painted surface, while the thickness the photographer grants to the work emphasizes the physical presence of the surfaces, the frames, the stretchers, so much so that we are reminded of the famous first chapter of The Order of Things, where Foucault describes the scene of Las Meninas, also considering the framed works that furnish the room painted by Velasquez, along with the staging of a linguistic system with its tools and its actors, the painter, the subject to be painted, their social context.

The format of the Icons, which depends on the physical location of the artist who has materially photographed them, is also a reminder of the real space in which they are set; likewise, the “conveyed” light functions as a mnestic trace of that very space, and possibly also of the time in which the work was made. In short, the work positioned in an exhibition space “remembers”, so to speak, the original space and the artist’s experience of it: the installation, then, is like the superimposing of one space over another, creating logical discrepancies and perception ambiguities that, as always happens in art, do not hamper but regenerate meaning.

Such an overlaying or mixture of spaces and times, the confrontation between what is remembered and what is activated in the here-and-now of the real display, the synergy between virtual and real, then opens to historical space and time.

This happens when the work is born “contextual”, i.e. suggested by the space in which it originates and is displayed, by its nature and historical character. The “exhibition of paintings” made for Claudia Gian Ferrari in 1993 was contextual to the history and role of the person, heir to a renowned gallery in Milan active since the 1930s. A number of other works by Wolf fulfill this function: always re-compositions of a collective history, a scattered memory, with the awareness of always being imperfect, incomplete. What for the sake of convenience we call “installations” are represented in the exhibition by two videos, both generated parallel to photographic work on two institutional sites, Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Banca del Gottardo by Mario Botta. This catalogue, however, includes ample documentation of other installations, especially those done in outdoor, public or collective settings.

Wolf develops the work starting with the context chosen for the operation; the work is completely determined by the place and, above all, by its history, or by that of the people who have lived there. Whether they are the patients of a psychiatric hospital in Romagna or the children from the former girls’ orphanage of the Stelline in Milan, the aim is to plumb the historic depths that have defined the identity of that particular place, in an anthropological sense. The idea may be to reassemble the memory of a vanished community, as far as is possible through archival research, defined precisely on the basis its relationship with the place (or with the tragic side of history, as in the case of the Jewish community, marked by tragedy and thus even more prone to feel the need for continuous digging into memory). Or to shed light on the function of the place, its readiness for use by the community, or its role of service as an institution: a school, an opera house, a bank, a public park.

This clear intent of connection and testimony, however, is accompanied by the dialectic intent of the work, that prevents, from the start, any univocal stance in the exploration of relics of memory, the recovery of images. Therefore the images will be highly ambiguous, the installation enigmatic, rich in allusive signs or even traps of perception. For example, we can look at the videos Scala Zero and Tesoro (Treasure), made as reconnaissance inside two institutions. Especially in the second, the cold, precise architectural structure of the caveau of a Swiss bank is dematerialized, the images literally blurring and seeming to melt, and the movement of the camera seems to follow oneiric paths inside a non-place, in a situation of nearly total uncertainty of spatial coordinates.

The fact is that the work of Silvio Wolf, through the images he makes, be they two-dimensional or in relief, existing in space like sculptures, or organized like installations, thematizes our passive relationship with it, our way of acting as pure receptors when faced with its power to fascinate and to fully replace reality. The alienation from the experience of the real is the goal of the work, like a truth of our existential state of which we should at least be aware.

If the world has been completely “mapped” by media reproduction, covering it inch by inch as in the cartography of Borges, if the document function of photography has been replaced by what we might call the “precession of simulacra”, the reaction we can use to counter all this cannot help but rely on recovery of experience, even in a “minor” tone, that acts at the edges of the spectacularizing system of information.

In a sort of urging to take back possession of this abandoned sense of experience, Georges Didi-Huberman, in his Survivance des Lucioles compares the strong beams of spotlights, an apt metaphor to describe both the repressive face of power and spectacle in its alienating nature, with the weak, intermittent, fleeting but vital, persistent light of fireflies, starting precisely with the famous article by Pasolini. Clandestine survival of a counter-force, or a counter-power.

Silvio Wolf is not so distant from this sensibility, though the tone with which he addresses us is certainly not one of exhortation, but instead that of the invitation, taken from the supply of sensory stimuli that tend to vitalize our perception, offering us opportunities to experience rather than to just observe.

The artist, again in this case, deploys two modes (or a dual mode) to achieve this result of proposition, where the subject is placed in discussion. Among Wolf’s recent works, many are generated by one single principle, and this is why they are given a single title, Horizons, and grouped in another one of the thematic rooms in this exhibition. These are photographs that have “made themselves”, self-generated at the moment of insertion of a roll of film inside the camera: the initial portion of the film struck by light generates, on its own, a phenomenology of chromatic marks, from red to yellow to black, that already exist as images. As such, the artist preserves and enlarges them, showing them to us as abstract panels, based on the overlaying of two (or more, but usually two, in keeping with the title of the series) horizontal bands of different colors (some of them, in effect, remind us of the color fields of Rothko…).

The organization of the surface, which remains recognizable in spite of the variations, is entirely mechanical. Nothing here, except the first unpremeditated gesture, is determined by the subject, by the artist, who has a merely technical role. A cycle of photographs based on the same principle, but oriented in a different direction, was made by Bertrand Lavier in the 1980s, significantly and tautologically entitled Bandes-Amorces.

So these works come into being under the sign of a “death of the author”, of a “model of absence” that can also generate spectacular effects, as in the case of Light Wave, shown at the 53rd Venice Biennale and now seen again, with variations, in the new context of this exhibition.

Nevertheless, the dual voice that always lurks in Wolf’s work is heard again, above all, here; the artist himself explains it very aptly, in this catalogue, speaking precisely of the Light Wave shown in Venice: absence is countered by the vital though marginalized claims – active though not displayed in full light – of presence, the urge of experience.

We should also recall that the famous essay by Barthes (2) that bore witness to that “death” also urged the activation of the response of the reader, an operative agent on a par with the writer, precisely in symmetrical response to the demise of the egoic claim of the latter. We might say that all art that has appeared after those theoretical positions (we were in and around 1968…) has capitalized on that indication. As for Wolf, he puts it into practice as the logical consequence of his reflections, as a necessary fulfillment of his labors of over two decades.

So while Didi-Huberman contrasts the totalizing light of power with the fireflies of Pasolini, Wolf counters the alienating logic of the simulacra with absolute, backlighting black.

Do you remember the story behind the mirrors of Michelangelo Pistoletto? The artist, in his studio, in total solitude, observes the canvas he has just painted with dark, reflecting acrylic paint: he realizes he can glimpse his image, his face, reflected and thus inscribed “inside” the surface. An image of the Self, its weak reflection, randomly enters the process and the world of the representation. For Pistoletto this chance event became the foundation for the great epic of the mirror. From that moment on, the surface becomes totally reflective and welcomes the images of the world, giving them back for what they are, changeable, ephemeral. The mirror becomes the tool for a principal representation of reality.

So it should come as no surprise that many years later this function is grasped not in terms of the metaphor of a window open to reality, but in terms of total closure, a completely black screen, but one that is also capable of producing, precisely due to this totality, a reflecting effect.

Silvio Wolf opens his latest cycle of works by offering the viewer the black rectangle of a photographic print that has absorbed into itself all possible images, whose black depths offer us a total of collapsed or “con-fused” visual stimuli in a single coated surface.

Images? Here we have the last possible image, a “…pure chromatic structure, abstract, self-referential, self-illuminating, atemporal, aspatial”, as the artist defines it, an allusion, an index of the absolute, we might say, where nothing happens or becomes… The sole icon we can think of as cut off from the de-realization in which all images are gripped, the only one that presents itself to us outside the extreme relativity of all the others.

The observer is placed in his here-and-now: let’s say that in this way he observes himself “being there”, he embodies this being there every time he comes to terms with that denying screen, and every time he finds himself haloed by conveyed light, that of the backlighting that projects onto the wall from the back of the photograph where it is positioned. In a certain sense, the viewer finds himself ennobled, immersed in an almost sacred atmosphere.

A sacrality that is quickly diminished and contradicted: the mirror of Pistoletto marked a beginning, while the total black we see here, “image of all images”, indicates an end – let’s just say it, a death – not simply as figuration, as might be implied by the screen printing applied to the mirror and frozen there forever, but as something effectively real: before us we see the absorption in the black depths of everything possible, because “…the excess information has blackened the photo-sensitive surface”. 

The dual voice of the work is heard exactly here: death is made operative. Like the glow of fireflies, weak, intermittent but vital, infinitely less strong and pervasive than the full light of spectacle, nevertheless the reflection of the face of the viewer survives and reappears every time the work is “activated” in what, in the end, is its function, to be an emblem of an end and, at the same time, to give life each time to a new beginning.

The two large installations created specifically for the spaces of the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea perform this function, while amplifying into real environmental dimensions what the artist has already investigated in single works; the relationship the work triggers with the individual viewer becomes interaction with the collective audience.

This already happens in some of the Thresholds shown here, where certain parts of the photographic surface literally become reflecting zones to incorporate portions of the phenomenic reality in which they are inserted, along with us. It also happens in certain techniques developed by the artist to engage the observer, to transform his act of perception into a sensory experience. There are sound elements activated based on the action of the viewer and, more simply, doors left ajar to invite those who wish to enter, to seek the work, to activate a new sort of attention.

Le Parole Invisibili (Invisible Words) is the title of the installation that occupies the entire first-floor gallery of PAC: on the walls of the long room, five Meditations, the totally black photographic surfaces that permit the viewer to glimpse his own face inside the dark background, while the light that is directed toward the wall, opposite his face, forms a halo from behind the surface. In a preordained rhythm, recorded voices pronounce the names of people, calls that evoke recognition, identification, presence. This repetition leads us to our here-and-now, while the name evokes identity as if it were a sort of foothold to resist the flow of standardization, to keep from getting lost in the undifferentiated mass.

Light, here, exists and expresses its properties, but it is not the sign of a power. It permits us to implement that form of resistance for which the fireflies of Didi-Huberman are such an appropriate emblem.

Light, in the form of backlighting, is also seen in the powerful installation that fills the whole space set aside for sculpture, in this case engaging only the glazing that faces the garden. A true threshold between an inside and an outside made fully visible, the glazing is subdivided into ten parts, one of the outstanding features of the architecture by Ignazio Gardella. Instead of a source of light for the interior, it becomes a darkened screen, a diaphragm that no longer allows natural light to penetrate. In the work, it is now that diaphragm that emits its light toward us and forms a horizon, a long luminous line that extends for the whole length of the glazing and divides it into two superimposed bands. The upper band, where the backlighting is positioned, shades upward, so to speak, shifting from maximum luminosity to absence of light through a progressive passage of grays to black. The lower band, instead, remains uniformly black. The space, in any case, is darkened, but receives the glow of the artificial lighting that spreads and strikes the white marble flooring. This zone of the PAC, often known as the “tub”, now becomes a “tub of light” that with its luminous void presents itself as work, installation, or we might say “virtual” sculpture. We can say that the space is activated thanks to this new light: the closure of the glazing is, at the same time, an opening, the animation of an “other” space, its self-display as a device ready to create relationships of meanings with those who will inhabit it. Relationships that are not only based on the passive role of he who looks, but also on the active role of he who takes possession of the space, activates it and “signifies” it with his presence. It would appear that at the height of what are now three decades of research, Silvio Wolf has invented another “dialectical image” for us… a grand one, this time.



1) Georges Didi-Huberman, Come le lucciole, Torino, Bollati-Boringhieri, 2010, pag. 66.
2) Roland Barthes, La morte dell’autore, in Il brusio della lingua. Saggi critici IV, Torino, Einaudi, 1988, pgg 51 sgg.