Walter Guadagnini on Olimpia Ferrari

Reflect What You Are

Mart Rovereto 2 luglio - 30 ottobre 2011

At the beginning of her recent Auto Focus. The Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography, Susan Bright points out how the self portrait can be perceived as a “conditioned, reflected concept, which leads to the thought that there is no ‘real’ Self. If we follow this idea to its logical conclusion, the Self breaks up, it melts, it shatters and be- comes so staged and constructed as to not maintain anything authentic: it becomes ‘everyone’ and ‘no-one’ and as a last analysis, a real Self would be nothing other than an invention without any content”.1 Bright quite correctly points out how, despite these premises – or perhaps exactly as a consequence of them –, the self portrait genre is in excellent health. These considerations are not very different from William A. Ewing’s in his Face. The New Photographic Portrait: “The faces that we deal with every day are not only physical, in flesh and bones, but they are also cloned faces, ageless, without defects and worries on the advertising boards (amplified due to their large dimensions) and in the pages of magazines (the French expression papier glacé, mirror paper, is appropriate; these pages reflect our collective desires). The faces, retouched to super- human perfection, are the product of many commercial artists: male and female models, art directors, make-up artists, designers, photographers, photographic retouchers, lithographers and printers. While the faces obtained in this way are aimed at seducing in a fraction of a second, the so-called after images remain in our memory for a much longer time and become a very efficient mental source to draw from”.2

The faces presented by Olimpia Ferrari move within this horizon of thought, they play on the cross between personal memory and collective memory, between choices made consciously and chance interventions, in research which on one hand seems to accept Avedon’s classic definition of the portrait,3 on the other hand the research puts it into discussion from within, superimposing surfaces on surfaces until reaching the creation of a new figure, which can be measured more by the invisible than the visible. To fully understand the reasons for this work, however, it is perhaps worth taking a step back, to see where they come from, what their origins are. A series of images dated 2007-2008 form the first nucleus where this path is clearly defined: these are urban visions, highly elaborated during post-production, typical of a widespread attitude in last generation research, fascinated on the one hand by the tradition of the urban landscape, on the other by the possibilities offered by new technologies to manipulate the image in an explicitly pictorial way. An immediate work, of great visual impact, a sort of hyper-chromatic rival attraction to Vera Lutter’s black and white, which achieves the same result, that of making the vision spectral, unreal, playing on the spectacular dimensions and colours. In fact, this is the first impression provoked by these images; a more careful look reveals how the centre of the attention and thought of the photograph does not lie in the buildings and in this instinctive fascination but rather in a detail which at first sight is almost undistinguishable, in the small figures which appear in a corner of the surface, in the streets or on the roofs of a metropolis which seems, according to what was foreseen, to swallow up the human figure.

Olimpia Ferrari’s portrait work starts here, and finds one of its effective basic reasons here. As is known, and as was admirably shown by the recent exhibition “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera”, since its birth control functions of more or less explicit surveillance have also been attributed to the photographic camera; at the same time photographers have often tackled – intentionally or not – the voyeuristic aspect connected to the nature itself of the means.4 Paul Strand’s street portraits, Walker Evans’ underground portraits are only the most famous achievements of a widespread practice and above all they are the consequence of a consideration, which is not occasional, on the complexity of the reasons themselves for taking photographs (as shown by the fact that these two authors made the idea of documentation and “honesty” of the image the essence of their philosophy, as if paradoxically one thing could not exist without the other). Now, these themes which are embodied in photography have undergone a striking acceleration in the last decades, following the famous questions connected both to the increase in social control systems as well as to the risks connected with the use of the web. Although having no interest in developing this kind of issue in her creative skill, Olimpia Ferrari fits into a classic current of the history of the image in the 20th century (it is enough to think about the famous James Stewart in The Rear Window) and she draws inspiration from that to progressively move her attention from the environment of the figure to concentrate on the element which at first sight is the most marginal in her imagination.

Not by chance, between that series and the one exhibited at Mart today there is another which is explicitly transitional, where faces and buildings blend together, become one: the figure takes up its central position once again, or at least dialogues as an equal with the place, becoming a place itself, finding its first, clear identification, mutating, taking on the identity of its environment. In this series there are already the forming elements of the present one, in an embryonic form, in an almost didactic way. The decisive transition consists in definitively eliminating the external environment, in totally drawing the attention to the face, that can be one’s own, or that of another known person, as well as that of a stranger, belonging to that group of people who are indirectly part of our lives, through their image diffused by means of communication. With a single stroke, Olimpia Ferrari gives up both the environmental portrait and the psychological one, she takes note of the fragmentation of the contemporary identity and gives her own reading of it. As this is a condition which is common to a lot of artistic and photographic research for contemporaneousness it is worth pointing out how this work does not follow the path of disguise, of a mask, of je est un autre so dear to numerous followers of Cindy Sherman or Luigi Ontani; and it does not even choose to follow that path of a succession of series, found in Thomas Ruff’s early portraits. The artist seems rather to turn to a figure like John Stezaker, a maestro finally acknowledged today for the hybridisation of images, able to play on the double register of the individual imagination and that of the masses through extremely simple gestures in the execution and extraordinarily elaborate in the conceptual premises.

Olimpia Ferrari’s most recent works are those that more clearly bring this ability to light, where the artist abandons the standard rectangle of the photographic print, the surface of the paper, to face the concrete space of reality, with the introduction into the composition of objects and some painted parts. A choice which the artist herself explains as a consequence of a rediscovery of personal relationships with others, be it acquaintances, strangers or images found.

Oneself and the others, in a confusion of roles which answers to a human condition which in turn finds an essential reference “figure” in the photograph. Jean-Luc Nancy, admirably realized this, his words seem to be the best possible description of Olimpia Ferrari’s works: “Every photograph is an irrefutable and luminous I am whose pro- per being is neither the photographed subject nor the photographing subject, but the silvery or digital evidence of a grasping: this thing, that thing, this man here, that woman there was grasped, there at that time, by a click, and this hic et nunc eterna-lises here and now, on this paper on which it was developed and printed, its sovereign hesitation immobilised and sublimated in the decision that took it, and grasped it, by surprise. This grasping presents itself and says to us, ‘I am’. But at the same time this I am says ‘nous autres’: we who were grasped in the grasping, we who were caught together by this hic et nunc, which makes us others together, others to one another, one through another and one in another, others who we never are outside of this surprise, we who are other (finally and above all) than you who regard us, we others who are now embedded in the strangeness of our illuminated capture”.5

Being inside the other and at the same time outside as a condition of portrait photography is a crucial point of Olimpia Ferrari’s philosophy, which to this condition adds the consequent one of the use of found images, not directly carried out by the artist. An otherness – which even Ferrari makes her own by re-photographing it – that refuses every psychologism, instead giving the act of photographing the task of bringing to light the reasons for a choice and being completely within its time, within society. The result of this process is a multiple image which takes up an entire surface in which the individuality melts in a projection of itself into the other and where it be- comes impossible to find the “real” face of each single subject. The iconographic effects are different, the images strangely progress in layers from dramatic to comic, the multiplication of the identity also reflects on the layout where the faces appear in different sizes, as if they were being seen in a crowd, who further away, who clo- ser. Or as if they were alternated among the pages of a family album or a magazine, or on a web page, without any hierarchy, neither private nor social. The absence of identity changes into evident appearance of the image: at this point the explosantefixe of Surrealist memory comes to mind and this does not seem to be by chance, if it is true that multiple exposures actually belong to the Surrealist photographic cu stom, unfocused and with all the paraphernalia of technical errors transformed into expressive enrichment. Like Breton, also Olimpia Ferrari seems to believe that “la beauté sera convulsive ou ne sera pas”.

1 S. Bright, Auto Focus. The Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography, Thames & Hudson, London 2010. 2 W. A. Ewing, N. Herschdorfer, Face. The New Photographic Portrait, Thames & Hudson, London 2006. 3 “The fact is you can’t get at the thing itself, the real nature of the sitter, by stripping away the surface. The surface is all you’ve got. You can only get beyond the surface by working with the surface. All you can do is manipulate that surface – gesture, costume, expression – radically and correctly”, R. Avedon, Richard Avedon Portraits, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2002.

4 S. Phillips (edited by), Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, exhibition catalogue, Tate Mod- ern, London 2010.5 J.-L. Nancy, The Ground of the Image, Fordham University Press 2005.