In his heroic time, in all his technical writings above all in the surprising Diario di un borghese [Diary of a Bourgeois], Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli firmly insisted that one should write – in any case on Archaeology and History – in such a way as to be understood by everybody, simply, modestly and in a sharing way.
I am a fully paid up member of the category of folk who go to exhibitions on the basis of general or specific information received, or absolutely by chance.
I’m not a militant critic of the arts or of artistic techniques.
To all effects I am only the spectator and nothing more. The word bystander gives an even better idea of my intellectual condition: someone who gets there almost randomly. But I get close. And I look. So I’ll try to get close to the works. And look at them.
One of the most obvious and immediate features of Benedetta Alfieri’s work is the exclusive, deliberate and obsessive use of the dimensional ratio 1:1.
We are entering an area in which only solid skill may envisage life size images: technical uncertainties, optical approximation and little control over the variables would have a disastrous influence on such an imperious and figuratively risky choice.
The choice of a 1:1 scale seems extreme and impressive, above all in the images of dresses, more than in the ones of shoes. A photographic image measuring 180 x 110 cm. is highly complex to create, transport, exhibit, see and sell.
I’m referring in particular to a photograph in the group Sorelle [Sisters] (2004) in which, it should be mentioned, an extraordinary silvery and complex dress appears.
In the catalogue for her solo exhibition Bianche apparenze [White appearances]1, the same dress appears in five photographs and measures on the page, from neck to hem, respectively 34, 36, 37, 150 and lasty 1506 mm. The first three images refer to the dress represented simultaneously with the environment; the fourth, about four times larger, shows the dress isolated against its programmatically absent, white background; the fifth, in turn about three images bigger than the fourth, shows a detail oh the drape and, as the caption says, is full scale.
The first three images are not very different from what you would see for example at a party where a woman wearing precisely that dress was moving in precisely that room; in the fourth the woman, now absent, would appear to be almost alone in the visual field, dominant and isolated from the social context, the focal point of our eyes; the fifth could not but take on the forms of a tactile sensation of contact; private, personal, intimate contact not shared with others.
Right from this first taste of the mutable representative dimension or scale it may be perceived how a variable, apparently only geometrical or visual, may bestow different and almost contradictory roles on the image: acting roles, narrative role, evocative and lastly nostalgic role.
Do we remember things in actual size? Once relegated to the space of memories, what are the dimensions of an image, what do they become?
The difficulty of moving in mental space led in 1973 to the start of a very long and by definition irresolvable diatribe in both the theoretical and experimental fields. One scientific school declares that mental space has all characteristics of space constructed on the basis of visual and perceptual data, whereas a rival school states that mental space, even if occupied by visual data, has a structure more similar to an alphanumerical file than to a file of images. One of the most complex and dramatic transits seeks to intuit or determine – for the moment measurement is only a senseless option – the structure of the space of dreams. Direct vision of a real object, as in a photograph, undoubtedly triggers high level activities of a cognitive nature which take place in parallel with direct vision of the real object but which occur in another space of which, perhaps fortunately, we know nothing as yet.
The images of shoes, gloves and other body accoutrements are obviously smaller and have less dimensional influence, but they impose themselves with their strange perceptual characteristic. On the face of things an image in 1:1 scale shouldn’t over-amaze us. After all, we’re living in an environment where the objects we touch and are touched by, or merely see, are in precisely the same scale as Benedetta Alfieri’s images. If we limited ourselves to this preliminary consideration, at least one of the aspect of the photos we’re writing about would lose its interest. Yet the sensation extraneousness, of impossibility or only inappropriateness remains. This obliges us to consider an important variant, which is that not only do the photographs represent something in 1:1 scale but that they are not things. An image is not a thing.
Pratically all the images surrounding us are not in 1:1 scale.
This dimensional relationship with reality is very rare in the world of images. But also in the world of three-dimensional and plastic representations. In a word, we are not culturally trained to see images in 1:1 scale. The absence, obliteration or elimination as it may be, of the third dimension brings no perceptual disturbance to the world of images if the dimensional scale takes on the various shared ratios. The image is somehow catalogued as a non-object, and consequently a mountain just a few centimetres high, a cruise ship six centimetres long or a human being thirty-two millimetres tall are immediately assimilated and immediately recognized as such. But with shoes of just the right size, with visibly wearable gloves and with dresses whose visual relationship has always gone together with tactile evocation (and whose perceptual dimensionality is very intricate to comprehend), the absence of the third dimension plays a practically destructive role by relegating the image – through life size – to a strange and uninhabitable place.
The dichotomy we catch a glimpse of here, stimulated by the dimensional variable, is between an image and a thing. An image, necessarily, is a thing only in the sense that we are dealing, all in all, which a physical object (also in the case of images made of light, such as those projected onto or emitted from a screen). In the case of images of a pair of shoes in actual size, what our cognitive system immediately goes to work on is the construction of the residual image, meaning our internal reconstruction of the body that is missing or, only temporarily, on holiday. The actual size image involves us in this tiring and in the end frustrating process.
I can easily imagine another person in the corner of a small square in Venice on the basis of the suggestions, albeit millimetric, of a Canaletto but the game stops here: what remains is a gymnastic exercise. Whereas the construction of an entire body, with everything it has or might have to tell me, is heavy work, obscure and perhaps painful.
The aesthetic, expressive and narrative reasons behind a decision so simple yet so destructive of shared experience belong to Benedetta Alfieri’s personal, intellectual and cultural space.
There’s another highly characteristic element in these images: the background. The presence of white has of course been noted by everyone who has written about these images, and the photographer herself speaks of it explicitly as a choice of language.
Reasoning about this feature, the first technical observation is that the plane on which the shoes stand is made invisible by an intense and homogenous luminosity, while the shoes are intensely and explicitly illuminated by lateral diffusive sources. Naturally the optical quality of the shoes, their state of wear, the laces tied or undone, the details of the labels and all the rest is perfectly rendered and rendered recognizable. But a violent contradiction has been introduced, with the clear intention of disturbing and/or doing something else. The shoes should cast shadows on a physical plane of support, a floor, a shelf, an item of furniture, something on which borne shadows fall. Whereas the shoes are bearers only of intrinsic shadows and their corresponding sisters, borne or projected, are wholly absent. A touch of trick photography then, distractive cunning, a deliberate narrative or lexical error? Hard to evaluate, to know and therefore to subject to criticism. But the effect is intense and memorable.
In any case, for these images too there is a very simple rule that should be applied every time we have to do with observing photographs and graphic or pictorial work: the image requires observation time.
Our approach to even a complex image is to consume it in a few seconds, not even a minute: this makes it practically impossible to analyse the work in question. And while perceptual exploration heads too prematurely to its almost instantaneous conclusion, a linguistically flowing discourse steps in which ends up by obliterating the process of analysis. And which ends up by determining the poor and highly confused intellectual quality of many critics, militant or otherwise.
One might still consider one or more levels with different distances or heights between them: the aesthetic, expressive, formal, historical, iconological or iconographic aspects. I restrict myself to only one comparison.
I find it almost irresistible to recall another artist: Claudio Parmiggiani.
I don’t intend to demonstrate lineage or ascendancy or contiguity or continuity but the thing seems worth pointing out, even if only for a powerful intrinsic assonance. I’m talking about the Parmiggiani of a fairly intricate work – Angelo (1995) – which for the sake of convenience we might define as sculpture. Exhibited for the first time at the Padiglione Italia, 46th Venice Biennale, it was also on show – due to its highly intense meaning in the artist’s career – in his solo exhibition at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Bologna: there’s a marvelous photograph in the catalogue edited by Peter Weiermair2. The work is described as fango, legno, cristallo (mud, wood, crystal), 260 x 51 x 41 cm. To put it another way, it is a tall crystal parallelepiped with a pair of men’s shoes on its bare with base. Set side by side. The size of the sculpture suggests a human or angelic figure, full scale. This suggestion derives from the shoes and from the crystalline volume which could easily contain a human or angelic body. The shoes are not muddy but made of mud.
It does not seem to me out of place to mention this sculpture here. The reasons lie precisely in the complementarity of Benedetta Alfieri’s photographs of shoes and Parmiggiani’s apparent three-dimensionality. In this case the absent-evoked object is the body, or the human/angelic presence, exactly as the photographs we are analysing.
The bases on which the absent figure stands are white, not structured, not given. But if with Parmiggiani a three-dimensionality is evoked, explicit and the same time evanescent like crystal, with Alfieri a programmatic two-dimensionality dominates perception of her photographic images and tha absent third dimension is almost more real, heavier and more physically perceptible than Parmiggiani’s crystalline though volumetrically identified component.
Lastly, the tactilely explicit muddy material in Parmiggiani is already an allegory, and also a verbal one; in Alfieri the image, unofficially abstract and almost immaterial, retains and brutally transfers to the beholder the strength and physique and physiology of walking, of moving, of being there at that moment.
But we cannot dismiss this population of highly involving and intense images without at least a brief attempt at interpretation.
Aside and far from the extremely and astutely financed and plundered rhetoric of the body, the post- or pre- human body, or other convenient labels, we cannot but admit that Benedetta Alfieri’s images are a solid exercising of subtraction and operational reticence. The physical body of the man or woman was present but at the moment of shooting the photo it was not, or was no longer there. The body is not simultaneous with the space. Signs of wear, almost disturbing in their evident biological and personal history are there to demonstrate a past. And perhaps, with effort, to foresee a future.
Absence of the body moreover is accompanied by a marked removal of the world tout court. The base, in a word the planet, disappears to be replaced by a light so all-inclusive and omnivorous as to be invisible. Shadows, which are also very cumbersome in the shared ecosystem of our everyday life, are wholly absent. Movements seems to be lacking, and anyway how could shoes walk alone? Above all, where would they go? They’re actually set side by side, without the right foot in front of the left.
A step granted even to the Pharaohs, perennially walking.
Genoa, on February 2008
© Ruggero Pierantoni