Behind the Walls
Behind the Walls
Lo Zuavo Scomparso
Lo Zuavo Scomparso
Lo Zuavo Scomparso
Lo Zuavo Scomparso
A true image-maker, Paolo Ventura is an artist that uses photography as the final step in a complex creative process where every object, garment and architectural structure is created by the artist himself and then photographed.
Ventura presents us with familiar worlds that are contemporaneously, fabled, precious accounts of memories; worlds that have never existed, that for this very reason are able to restitute truth, or as he describes it ‘whether it is fake or true it is not important… what is important is the suggestion it creates.’
Paolo Ventura interviewed by Niccolò Fano
Niccolò Fano: I was introduced to your work a few years ago through the BBC’s Documentary The Genius of Photography. What pushed you to become a photographer?
Paolo Ventura: Good question. I never really planned to become a photographer; in a way I stumbled upon it and found myself becoming one by chance. At the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, I wasn’t very clear about what I wanted to do. I had a friend who was a photographer and needed an assistant so I started following him and began, from then on, to work as a photographer. Photography as a profession was never a youth dream of mine, my father was a children’s book writer both in Italy and abroad and he would often work from home, so images have always been part of my surroundings. I admired photography, but I never imagined it would become my life.
NF: Looking back on it now, how important was your creative upbringing in relation to your professional development?
PV: It was very instrumental: growing up I realised that working with images could indeed be a profession and not a simple hobby; my father was the living proof of this possibility. On the other hand this family propensity towards creativity could have triggered the inverse mechanism fuelling a rejection of what one’s parents do for a living, as a rebellious reaction spurred by the pursuit of youthful independence. Thankfully this was not the case for me.
NF: I have always been fascinated by the way you approach the creation of a project, specifically the steps that form and allow to you achieve the final photographic result. You seem to have a consistent aesthetic thread throughout your work; what is the procedure and modus operandi?
PV: There isn’t really a fixed method; everything usually starts by writing down and condensing my thoughts, experiences, words and sensations in a notebook that becomes the primordial element of my practice, informing the basis of my work. The way a project finds its true direction and evolution is a bit of mystery, you can write down all the ideas and guidelines to follow only to realise they are expendable and interchangeable tracks; a first step serving a greater purpose.
NF: You were born in Milan and spent a few years in New York. Where are you based today?
PV: Yes, I was born in Milan and then moved to New York where I lived for an extended period of time; there I thought I would find the possibilities needed for my work to evolve. I now live in the Tuscan countryside, in a very calm and isolated place that allows me to concentrate and work properly. I find that the idyllic location to work doesn’t really exist; it changes depending on one’s person, expectations and phase in life. Nowadays obviously everything is made easier by our technological means of sharing and maintaining networks, which enable us to work on a global scale from a fixed location.
NF: I decided to move to London and spent quite a while there, however always bearing in mind that my ultimate intention was to come back to Italy, possibly out of guilt of having left my own country for an adopted one. Living with today’s technologies enabled a smooth transition for me, making it possible to now live and work in Rome whilst maintaining strong ties to London and other cities across the globe.
PV: Yes, in terms of quality of life, Italy is extremely comfortable and a great environment to produce work in. Unfortunately, for several reasons it is a country that doesn’t allow its emerging artists to gain an international profile. Italian photography abroad is scarce, except for a few notables and greats such as Luigi Ghirri; unfortunately our nation’s contemporary photography is nowhere to be seen unless you dig it out and discover it yourself whilst purposeful promotion is meagre. Amongst a number of talented Italian photographers is a sea of banality and approximation, creating a clog that prevents photographers, who have important things to convey, to emerge and benefit from the international exposure they deserve. It’s paradoxical that Italy has this situation in photography with the artistic heritage and status embedded in its history.
In general outside of Italy the approach to the medium is different. In Italy to be relevant you must sell, whereas outside (U.S, France, UK) galleries look beyond the sole economic value of the artist and tend to invest in projects that truly inspire them regardless of the immediate economic gains and profile associated with the work, making in my opinion the best long-term investment possible. In general the photography market outside of Italy seems gentler which makes working internationally an essential aspect of one’s methodology. Today, to make a living out of photography you must have a global approach; looking at other cultures such as South America, Japan, Europe, Asia, and so on is paramount.
NF: Having an international outlook today, as you mention, is essential. I imagine you’ve witnessed, throughout your career, a radical shift in the understanding and definition of Photography.
PV: Yes, and I think that regardless of the difficulties of our times, being a photographer today is much more interesting. First of all photography has ‘opened up’: The medium today is no longer just photography, it is an art form that encompasses others; we have finally answered the obtuse question of whether photography is or is not an art form. Photography is reality, surreality, hyperreality… it is what you want, just like painting or installation art; this for me is a miracle. We have finally removed the chains that have kept us grounded, we are now free and freedom is beautiful.
NF: On the subject of photography’s versatility: I noticed that you started off your career by working as a fashion photographer. Subsequently with War Souvenir we saw a different, more art-driven Paolo Ventura.
PV: I started with fashion in the same casual way in which I became a photographer. I always had a non-photographer approach in the sense that I was never passionate about photography’s technical aspects (cameras, films, printing). I would think more in terms of art rather than photography, I saw photographs as a tool I could use to put together the things I liked. I never thought about it in terms of reality, in the sense that I could have easily taken pictures to capture ‘reality’, yet if you substitute that approach and complement it with your inner world, you no longer need reality because you are creating your own. With War Souvenir I put this into practice.
NF: Your ‘non-photographer’ approach is evident in the choice of themes that oscillate between the historical and the timeless/imaginary. War Souvenir deals with the historical event of the Nazi occupation in Italy; why did you choose to focus on this particular period and what made you decide to use scale models as a representation of this event?
PV: The creation of scale models was necessary for me since I had to reproduce a historical reality that was no longer present, in order to do so I needed a stage and characters. As for the choice of theme, you have to consider that although we didn’t have the direct experience of it, our parents constantly told us about the horrors of World War II, making us somewhat obsessed and strangely part of it. When I found myself dealing with my own obsessions and imaginary world, the WWII theme came out on its own in a very natural way. I had been incessantly told of it, I had listened to the first hand accounts and in a way I had constructed my own vision and imaginary. War Souvenir is the result and condensation of all these factors.
The series therefore is based on my own interpretation of these events. If I had participated in the war, I would have probably created something completely different, possibly something more conceptual or abstract. Because I was not there, I recreated my own version of it, a re-elaboration of the accounts that I had been told. The projects I worked on after War Souvenir are very different: I tried to break away from time-based connotations and moved closer to the fictional space and non-historical event. I started focusing on loose themes linked to my imaginary that I treated like an empty box that I could fill with my ideas without stringently defining them.
NF: I find the passage from the historical to the out-of-time event very fascinating. How did you approach the creation of Lo Zuavo Scomparso, commissioned by the MACRO museum and exhibited to coincide with the Rome International Festival of Photography in 2012?
PV: As you mention, the work was commissioned by MACRO in Rome and the only guideline I had to follow was to make work about the Italian capital. Imagination was my starting point, hence I represented my own vision of Rome. I created a timeless city by putting together elements of Rome that I enjoyed and added the figure of the Zuavo, which – not many people know – is an extremely Roman character. The Zuavo is a folk figure whose clothes and attire are timeless: a Nineteenth Century uniform impervious to change. This allowed me to play with a real, historical figure by placing it in the context of my Roman imaginary scene. The Zuavo, a subject deeply characterised by historical events is somewhat lost in the dream-like version of Rome that I recreated. He can be seen wandering aimlessly almost as if he never entered the city at all.
NF: What differences did you encounter between working on commissions and personally driven projects?
PV: I don’t particularly like working on commissions, I always try to avoid taking them on if possible. The work I did in Rome was the only one, probably the exception to the rule, where I felt at ease and where the commissioning body kept faith to their end of the bargain ensuring that I could work under complete freedom and control. My past experiences have been very different, putting me off the dynamics of commissioned work. I must also add that working in Rome made everything easier because of my love for the city.
NF: I went to the MACRO last year to view the outcome of the commission and found particularly interesting the collocation of the scale model next to the pictures. What made you decide to exhibit an example of your preparatory objects next to the final piece?
PV: Well, it’s all part of the work. The final outcome is the photograph but there are a number of tassels that allow me to achieve that result (scenography, polaroids, research and so on). All these elements are extremely important and allow the project to fall into place resulting with what you see printed on the wall.
NF: When I saw the exhibition I knew about the use of scale city models. By listening to the people who were observing and commenting on the photographs, I noticed a general level of ambiguity and wonder about the reality and truthfulness of the locations they were presented with. This calculated aesthetic deception is what I, as well as other people who are not familiar with your work, seem to be drawn to.
PV: Sure, I always want to create places where people can confront themselves, a world accessible to everyone. I can personally relate to the images because I took the shot, but whether I had that image in mind due to a dream, a nightmare, or a thought it doesn’t really matter because thanks to my camera I am able to then recreate it. We use photography to translate what we have in mind into a physical form by also enabling us to manipulate what we decide to show and play with ambiguity.
NF: The aesthetic grounds of War Souvenir and Lo Zuavo Scomparso are very close and recognisable; your signature on both works is very clear regardless of the time span between them. In Lo Zuavo Scomparso and Behind the Walls the subject moves from its ‘fakeness’ towards a recognisable humanity, whereas the set remains the same throughout the work in its duplicity between reality and fantasy. What do we owe this change to, and what is the role of the new technologies in its production?
PV: New technologies have a fundamental role in this shift: I’ve transitioned from completely constructed figures/models to inserting myself within my images and sets, which is something that I’ve always dreamt about achieving. It’s a great satisfaction to be able to immerse myself in my own constructed imaginary. I believe it is essential to make good use of all the tools at our disposal; it’s entirely up to us whether we make a good or bad use of these devices. All innovations can prove to be of great value whilst having the opposite potential of creating monstrosities.
NF: Generally, a very strong line is drawn between analogue and digital photography, with analogue photography professed as being more technical and necessitating a greater craftsmanship. However before the digital era some of the things we can achieve today were unthinkable.
PV: Absolutely, I find the analogue vs. digital debate quite absurd. Regardless of how we achieve it, the end result is the most important thing. The elements that take us there are made available by the timeframe we live in, enabling us to have a wide choice and greater number of creative possibilities. It is entirely up to us to decide which tools suit our final goal.
I find this choice refreshing; what I do not enjoy is the mechanical aspect of photography. I’ve always preferred the physical contact with my creative elements (scale models, backdrops etc.) to the coldness of the mechanical tool. Interacting with matter is what I truly enjoy, but at the same time I don’t deprive myself of the privileges of technological advancement.
NF: I want to ask you about the circus, as it seems to be a recurrent theme in your images, particularly in the series Winter Stories. What attracts you to the circus?
PV: I like things that have a specific iconography and that can easily move through time without loosing their aesthetic recognisability; things that I can employ and represent in several ways because they don’t belong to fixed era. The circus is a perfect example; it is a parallel world with its own rules where we are free and encouraged to lose ourselves. It is a timeless space, for the pictures of circuses that have been taken in the 1930’s are still recognisable in images by Diane Arbus and others many years later. To me this is an extremely fascinating world to represent: rather than recounting an era, I can convey feelings and emotions.
NF: This seems to relate very closely to concept of memory, a central theme in your work.
PV: Memory is a central part of my practice that alongside other simple elements enables me to produce images that are purposely open and accessible, something that I always strive for. One must always look behind for inspiration, look behind to a place where memories are stored. We have to pick from our memories, finding the link between our previous experiences and the present. In my case, the trait d’union between my artistic production and memories was boredom. I have been infinitely bored for years, especially in Milan, and boredom puts us in contact with parts of our mind where we are able to find very beautiful things. We usually see boredom as a negative element and tend to escape it in any way possible. Approached in a healthy way, boredom can lead to important moments of reflection, enlightenment and creativity.
NF: It’s interesting that your work is understood and comprehended on a global scale even though your sets are typically Italian in their architectural and cultural motifs. Evidently there must be an element that translates universally going beyond what is purely visual.
PV: Exactly; for example many Americans ask me if I depict France, whereas Italians recognize instantly our country, as my sets are 100% Italian in their look. Mistaking it for France is far from problematic; it doesn’t matter because the bottom line is that the message seeps through the aesthetic immediacy of the location. Art works on numerous levels and there are many layers below the surface that not everyone is bound to grasp; something I’m absolutely fine with. I work on simple aesthetics and add more complex underpinnings so that accessibility doesn’t become catered towards an elite. Look at Federico Fellini; his films were the apotheosis of Italianicity, yet he ended up captivating the whole world.
NF: How would you represent present-day Italy if you were asked to do so?
PV: Hmm… Like a pine grove overlooking the sea, one resembling those found in the Maremma area of Tuscany. I think this idyllic landscape is a good visual ‘escape’ from what surrounds us at the moment.
Paolo Ventura was born in Milan in 1968. His work has been exhibited in museums and private galleries worldwide.
His work is held in various collections including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Library of Congress in Washington, MACRO Contemporary Museum of Art in Rome and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris.