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A Sight from afar

Photographs by Olivo Barbieri and Luo Yongjin

Two photographers sharing the same love for traveling. Both of them mesmerized and intrigued by urban landscapes, they spend hours on the streets, photographing surroundings and auras in their frequent visits to Italian and Chinese cities. In February 2001 they met in Bologna to talk about this event, opening the exhibition space of the Italian Cultural Institute in Beijing.

Their photographs are very different: color images for Barbieri, while strictly black and white for Luo Yongjin (but who said that black and white can’t be considered as colors?). Unique shots taken with large format cameras and long exposure times for Barbieri. While Luo Yongjin‘s images are composed of countless photograms placed side by side, of such a size to remind Borges paradox, where "the map of one single Province taking over the whole City."

But there’s something convincing that the two works displayed in the same exhibition space are compatible to each other, there is something suggesting that they have the same tuning on reality. Perhaps, as Barbieri said, it is the same receptiveness towards the real world, without any aesthetic or moral judgement. A sheer desire of grasping and seeing, though In different ways.

Beyond reality

I agree with Robert Adams when stating that "photographs are persuasive only if their author watches reality with an attentive stare, even though photographs somehow must reach beyond reality." With this frame of mind Adams could recover from the shock had in front of the landscape destruction occurred in Colorado while he was away. He proved that light can "turn even the most bizarre and obscene artifacts into mysterious and captivating items."

Barbieri denies feeling repugnance for the ever-changing Chinese city landscapes. Neither for Shanghai highway intersections, nor for Yongding ‘urban sculptures’. He finds open structures, hybrid constructions and risky combinations as very challenging, when compared to places built according to abstract precepts and strict rules. His is a real connection to the primary, chaotic energy rising from the desire to write a new chapter upon the few bequests of Chinese past, a legacy which is surely less intrusive than the Italian architectural and cultural heritage. Still Barbieri knows how to use light at its best, especially artificial lighting, at nighttime, in order to turn a common place' into a dreamscape, with striking colors and inverted lights and shadows.

Barbieri is intrigued by the unsuspected appearance of reality, urging him to frequent exits at nighttime, a moment that was "so little represented in the history of art and in photography, in the last case also for technical reasons".

Barbieri talks of ‘colors mingled in shadow`, as if his primary vocation was painting, though admitting that in the past he nursed the idea of becoming a writer.

Luo Yongjing on his part started his journey into the ‘visual’ field studying painting, spellbound by its power of representing life on paper, spinning off imagination just with a few strokes. But as the sculptor Antonio Violetta noticed, Luo’s black and white mosaics remind of long sequences of characters in the classical ‘five colors of black', neatly registered into the ideal square space.

In his life, Luo Yongjin experienced staggering changes, from 1960’s China up to these days. His knowledge of classical culture, an acquaintance favoured also by a long residence in Luoyang, antiquities place par excellence, caused him to be more affected than others by historical buildings destruction. Though agreeing with Barbieri’s receptive attitude, his stare is more wistful, and being behind a camera creates the emotional distance smoothing out his acceptance of the present. As taught by the traditional Chinese shuimo hua, the brush and ink painting style, the artist has the possibility of creating a microcosm imbued with the vital energy of qi, as much alive as the macrocosm, as nature itself.

The huge buildings photographed by Luo Yongjin with painstaking care, shot after shot, are recomposed in a vision essentially different from the ordinary one. The artist manipulates focus as he likes, and the overall view does not affect the accuracy in rendering tiny details. Besides mastering space, the artist prevails also on time. He creates a virtual continuity, placing side by side images taken at different moments, with different light conditions and ambience. Maurizio Giuffredi wrote, "in Luo Yongjin there’s something similar to the nostalgic nature of an archaeologist, even when photographing the smallest detail". Comparing the unoccupied buildings in Luo’s images to "contemporary ruins", he reminds us that ruins are full of sense because they ‘make you dream’.

The ‘reading’ process of Luo Yongjin’s work occurs in an opposite way to that aroused by Barbieri’s photographs, especially when the last one uses the blurred effect, enhancing only a portion of the image. Luo Yongjin instead proposes, as Giuffredi wrote, "a stretching out of the perception experience, by looking at each detail again and again, photographing again and again as a ritual of appropriation and re-appropriation of the object", neither leaving out nor neglecting a thing. Barbieri’s exposure time is so long that in some cases is refractory to motion.

In his nighttime shots, Chinese cities appear as deserted as Bologna in August, since the action of walking is too fast to be registered. Thanks to the photographic apparatus potential, Barbieri operates on reality translating it in a virtual way (Virtual Truth was indeed the title of his last exhibition). His version of reality "has more to do with philosophy than with geometry. It’s a way to represent, perceive, describe the world through a significance code which is more open and less definite than language"

In some photographs the artist shifts the large format camera horizontally or vertically, getting only one streak on focus, so that, as in shortsighted vision, one spot stands out above the rest. However, this ‘rest’ continues to exist, suggesting colors and shapes that are sometimes distorted; though recognizable. Barbieri does not aim to express the idea of motion in itself, but "the fact of not having certainties upon a place." Through out of focus and blurred photographs, "the image gets closer to life than the representation of it."

In some cases, as in the image of Fujian round houses, the overall surface is out of focus. This effect reminds what the artist Jochen Gerz said twenty years ago; "What is vague maybe is the gap between experience and what is rendered of it in a codified way. What is vague is the expression of the highest realism I am capable of. [...] My work is neither reality nor its representation; it is, at best, a hindered conveyance, a series of evidences concealing the course of events instead of revealing it. There is a no man’s land between reality and its representation. My work places itself right in this area."

Moreover: "Basically images always compel me to sabotage them. What is visible progressively controls what is not. [...] I use images to expose them as a screen. It is the wall of visibility surrounding the non-experienced."

Barbieri spends hours on the streets, by a crossroad, in front of a building, taking photographs and merging into a place, into real life, from that moment on becoming part of himself, saturating him as a scent. It is a time suggesting the meditation one, a contemplation space that nowadays is a veritable luxury, allowing the achievement of a different knowledge, a more physical one.

The result could never be experienced with the naked eye. It is an alternative appearance, which is evocative, sometime phantasmagoric in its richness of colors and surreal shades.

Italy and China in ten photograms

For this exhibition, ten photographs were chosen for each artist, half taken in China and half in Italy. Whether images taken abroad or in their own country, they cannot be defined as ‘travel’ photographs. They are not expression of a worn-out exoticism, unless referring to the meaning introduced in Segalen’s Essay on Exoticism, of "exit, evasion from our conditionings, opening up to the

wonderful diversity of the world", originating from his awareness of an "eternal incomprehensibility".

Barbieri’s five Italian images were taken in peculiar places: stadiums, courthouses, and a church. These images belong to the last two years production (except for the church one, 1994), with the artist selecting some specific issues.

It is in the stadium series that Barbieri tries for the fist time the ‘partial blurred’ effect, an idea that he previously worked out. This time he uses it to express his ‘hesitation‘ towards the subject, a very personal and outsiders interpretation of one of the most visited places by the Italian media. The same happens when he deals with the courthouse series: places the Italians are used to hear of, but not so accessible to the individual experience. Many are the orthodox images representing what happens in these places, rather than the architectural and environmental surrounding. In stadiums as well as in courthouses, says Barbieri, dealing with them a bit wavering, there is a winner and a loser. In a word, there is a clear—cut separation of reality.

uncompromising attitude reanimated by Barbieri’s images, softened by blurring and shades, where the elliptic architectural voids suggest a breakthrough, a possibility of alternative interpretations, which are smoother and manifold.

The result of Barbieri's trips to China is here condensed in five powerful images. Except for the traditional round building in Fujian (Yongding, 1999), they portray an urban China rapidly developing, with bird’s-eye views (Shenzhen, 1999), vertical tensions (Shanghai, 1997), futurist phantasmagoria (Yongding, 1999), strongly juxtaposed lines (Beijing, 1997). The 1970’s public housing projects suggest a development still ‘bound to the earth’, to reality; ‘l990’s towers, instead, are more similar to missiles aiming to another world, belonging to the future, in which China demands a prominent role.

What makes these places different from the Italian suburbs, besides their extension'? "A way of representing the world through the arrangement of objects, which is very different according to each culture", says Barbieri. More concretely, the difference in "stretching the lines for the washing", for example.

Through the visiting of the elsewhere the attentive observer is able to identify a thick net of signs, of ‘words' building up the language of a place. It is up to the photographer to translate it into a visual expression.

Going back to the departure place, the stare has picked up some freshness, looking to familiar landscapes in an unusual way.

Luo Yongjin’s works - from the single photograms of the new residence series, portraying buildings in Luoyang outskirts raised by native peasants} own accord, to the huge mosaics reconstructing the new building units in Beijing and Shanghai- represent in real time the changes occurred in China in the last years. By this, l mean that the dimensions of his works expanded simultaneously and in proportion with the building industry ones.

"It is not that l don't understand, but the change is too fast", the rock—star Cui Jian used to sing a few years ago. Luo Yongjin used this line in a recent text about his work. The continuous changes, unexpected, sometime stunning, seem to be the leitmotiv of his life and of affluent China coastal cities. lt is a fact that each citizen faces with great or small flexibility; in any case, the choice is not up to the individual. Luo Yongjin compares nowadays China to a greedy housewife throwing in her shopping trolley anything attractive, randomly. It is the desire to try to taste anything, an insatiable curiosity revealing also a great open-mindedness.

Luo Yongjin (called Luigi by his Italian friends) already visited Italy three times in consecutive years. He was impressed by the lack of such destruction and construction frenzy. Luigi has a feeling that in Italy the above mentioned housewife has a definite idea of what she likes to be surrounded with, sticking to a very consistent frame of mind. However, he did not miss realities such as Gela, which he found very familiar, or the suburbs we consider as less livable, namely Corviale in Rome, the Vele in Secondigliano near Naples, Pilastro in Bologna.

But he could not merely represent the Italian urban landscapes through the remarkable photographs taken in those places, since the old town centers still play a vital role. Therefore, in Bologna, at the rear of Saint Petronio with the Pavaglione, the mixed patterns of the arcade vaults and the vague profile of the church give us a peculiar vision of familiar and ancient architectural features. These spaces - as Luigi knows well- are still alive though very old.

These are the stages of daily life with its imperceptible renewals.

This can be said also of the evocative ‘interior‘, splitting in neat squares the curved lines of the vault over Milan Central Railway Station. Through a perspective effect that seems to multiply space, as through concealed mirrors, Luo Yongjin image recalls a new place that we can observe for the first time with unpredictable views and slants.

Turning to a pictorial metaphor, the slight modifications of Italian old town centers can be compared to the s|ow»paced progress in traditional Chinese painting, made of details and minutia. Contemporary Chinese cityscape suggests instead the crackling climate of European historical avant-gardes.

I think it is legitimate to ask what is the difference between Barbieri’s and Luo Yongjin’s frame of mind while abroad or in their own countries, whether their expectations actually differ and how this can be traced in their works. But at the same time, this question implies a bias, which is alien to their nature. Actually, they do not want to express a preconceived idea on a place. They prefer to be led by the unexpected, by the lives gradually revealing in front of them during their free wanderings or when reaching a destination. An unconventional position made of sympathy and interpretation, rather than the application of pre-existing plans. "All that’s vision", says Barbieri, "has to do with philosophical notions, it’s a support to thinking. It’s an alternative language to the one of words, it has transversal codes, which are less defined, more changeable." Therefore, it is up to the onlooker to go beyond the overall sight, though impressive, and to linger over the images as long as it needs for an attentive reading.

I think that the cognitive survey on the world carried out by Barbieri and Luo Yongjin clings, concretely and symbolically, to a downright statement by German film-maker Werner Herzog, so subtle in its sternness: "Walking is a virtue, tourism is a deadly sin".

Bologna, April 2001

PECHINO (CINA)
VISTO DA LONTANO
A SIGHT FROM AFAR
Giugno - 2001
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