Olivo Barbieri: Early Works
Posted on October 12 2020
It should be a property of every language to express what is unexpressable in any other form if not with that language. Olivo Barbieri's research has always aimed at the specific essentials of photography. What could not otherwise be made resonant with the observer, if not through the photographic image; what does not completely coincide with the object represented but at the same time evokes and invokes the imagination of the observer: through these methods Barbieri puts those who stop to look at his works in a researching position. A research for meanings that is never exhausting and saturating, even when the landscapes it takes up are saturated. A research that makes the observer part of the image, in an ecological process of visual perception. In his images we move, reflecting and imagining, without pause. A sensorimotor participation is activated in the viewer that resonates both with places and landscapes, and with the gesture of the photographer and his perception. A perception usually unheard of, unexpected, destabilizing, yet full of a sense of discovery.
With such amazement, we find ourselves observing and saying: this is also the case!
And the internal world and the external world access aesthetic experiences that extend perception, understanding and the feeling of reality. We come out of this augmented. Barbieri narrates the sublime of the world. The leaner the subject represented, the more Barbieri manages to enhance its essence. Or because he captures it in a single pixel, or because he detaches it from the background, where it was flattened, and a scene, from an initial simple place or moment, becomes a hyper-place. In Early Works 1980 - 1984 (at the Complesso Monumentale of Astino, Bergamo, from June 26th to October 31st 2020), space becomes time, experimenting with a metamorphosis that generates more dimensions.
The path, where the works on display are gradually closer, produces a singular effect: the images speak simultaneously of close and incredibly distant situations. The full-fledged universes contained in each photograph are of an overwhelming normality, but are also able to be confusing, precisely because of their recent archeology, if it is permissible to resort to an oxymoron. Relieved and raised from where they lay, things, houses, streets and trees, haggard and dated objects form the backdrop, as do many alienated human presences, giving life to a gallery of landscapes in which one moves in amazement,
as in a modern antiques exhibition where the museum broke the walls and overflowed into the world. Is it truly possible that so little time has passed, after all, and that everything appears so incredibly distant? Only a superficial glance could lead to speak of “Non-places” referring to the works exhibited in Astino.
Despite the crisis in the experience of places and the access to meanings that are both saturated and rarefied, for a symbolic animal such as we are, there is no "non-place". It cannot exist because we know the world by giving it meaning or, better said, it is our giving meaning to anything that that thing exists. Since we have become endowed with symbolic behavior, we do not have the possibility of accessing the world in an immediate and practical correspondence relationship, so to speak on a one-to-one scale. We know reality through the attribution of meaning. A place, however alienated and anonymous, is an object of meaning for us: a meaning that is perhaps uncanny, disturbing and even saturated and depressing, but still a meaning. The materials that compose it can be a source of discomfort and suffering, of loss and alienation, but we incorporate them with the processes of affordance and "sense-making" that characterize and distinguish us as a species.
At the same time and for the same reasons, every place is landscape for us. The landscapes of our life are a constant theme in Olivo Barbieri's poetics. Whether it's the extensive Site_Specific series with which Barbieri has explored the world in its most varied manifestations, from the complexity of metropolises to the naturalistic expressions of mountains such as the Dolomites, or whether it is the micro-experiential manifestations such as the works of the origins of his research path, where the fragments of modernity have taken on a very particular aesthetic connotation thanks to his gaze and his photographic work. The Early Works path that unfolds from 1980 to 1984 captures a threshold point between a world that ends and a world that begins. Those are years of profound transformation for Barbieri, which he fixes in images that manage to become poignant in their normality. It is as if the iconography were that of the last day of an era in which the illusion of modernization comes to fruition whose simulacra are represented both by consumable objects now worn out and by traces of life, from houses to streets, to people, who appear astonished in their extraordinary significance.
Still, time is a great sculptor, as Marguerite Yourcenar reminds us. It thus happens that what was in the ordinary everyday life ends up being covered with a singular aura when the action of time and the gesture of the photographer relocate it to an unprecedented horizon of meaning.
The conversation between observer and observed takes place for the umpteenth time and endlessly, with the mediation of the principle of imagination. In many respects this is the aesthetic experience, an emergent property accessible to us humans, capable of continually composing and recomposing the meanings of the world and the objects that populate it. Our experience proceeds in the same way and dresses up time and time again and takes on new meanings. In the process, the contributions of photographic research that today make up our semiosis in a broad and widespread manner have no secondary function.
The aesthetic relevance of the ordinary
In many photographs of the exhibition, absences and shortcomings are in the foreground. In the mutual game between Barbieri's art and the observer's gaze lies the emergence of what is not there but presents itself, evoked mainly by emptiness. A closed house, suspended in the last light of day, decorated by the last sun, in the province of Ferrara, in 1981, manifests the story of a world that no longer exists, even if recent; which has already passed; a world that is, however, able to refer to what would come later, almost foretelling it. That simulacrum of recent yet remote times finds many followers in the exhibition. In other cases, in fact, it is the silences that evoke voices, or the objects of consumption that denote dreams of social affirmation that propose anthropological and existential readings of a transition, fixed as if it were suspended, with an almost metaphysical tone. In the poetics of the photographs of the exhibition, sometimes it is as if Giorgio De Chirico peeps out. The cars, in these works by Barbieri, underline the work of time on our experience. Car models and brands propose, perhaps more than any other object represented, the destiny of forms.
The edges of change and the modernization of details and colors would soon become a sign of the past, yet with them Barbieri represents with particular effectiveness the illusion of the economic boom at what would have been one of its highest apogees. The photograph of the seventeenth century with a television on the luggage rack, Tuscany 1982, is valid for all, appropriately used for the cover of the catalog, where one of the most eloquent semiotic syntheses of an entire era is consummated.
It was in Rio Saliceto, in the province of Reggio Emilia that, again in 1982, Barbieri captured an image that oozes history: a 126 parked in front of a 1960s house that accommodates the headquarters of the Italian Communist Party on the ground floor. The shutter of the garage used as the party headquarters is raised but slightly out of frame, as if it were by now unused or deprived of the care of a place that had a central function in terms of representation and belonging. An image that manages to contain the end of an era. In Italy 1982, a game room with pinball machines and a seated woman are immersed in a universe with a Hopper-like style, an unexpected fusion between the Italian province and America in a narration of the Western culture of those years, that at the same time contains the dreams and the alienation of entire generations.
An unstructured view of any stereotypical mellowing of the seafront of Via Caracciolo in Naples, with Castel dell’Ovo in the background, returns the human and civil drama of that city in those years, with the pending sense of a turning point that is still to come. Emilia Romagna 1982, presents a scene that is lost in the night and that speaks of an era that runs out on that night to leave a void caused by an illusion that basically lasted too little. Barbieri measures the speed and at the same time the stillness of those years with the photographs of country churches or small villages: places with a sense of falseness by abandonment and yet present, almost incapable of invoking time and a role that was theirs, as is true for the headquarters of the Italian Communist Party. The glassy transparency of the night of Lugo, Ravenna, 1982, a photograph that speaks of Olivo Barbieri's poetics in an emblematic way, contains one of the hallmarks of the entire project: the camera in Barbieri's hands comes to capture the unrepresentable and make it the object of a sublime narrative.
For Barbieri, the world is a system that observes. There is no effort in his photographic act. Reality seems to present itself to his willing gaze and even invoking his photographic act. "Those images were a kind of performance", says Barbieri in the interview contained in the catalog, "I reacted according to the reaction that was manifested towards me". This does not mean that in his work there is not a constant commitment to research and also a lot of effort, including travels, permits, speculative commitment and realization of the works. All this, however, is not noticed, as the calmness and rigor of a long-thought-out language tends to prevail, the results of which are tangible across his entire career. Looking at the photographic act of Barbieri in the Early Works 1980 - 1984 cycle, a series of Italian and European places and situations appear, presenting existential scenes among rare human presences.
There is a constant and silent lack and an intense participation, which united give the sense of the suspension of a time of transition in which the last vestiges of the illusion of the economic boom show that they are starting to present the bill for the start of an era that, first with obsessive speed, and then with a long series of crises and emergencies, would have produced a profound transformation. So much so that our contemporaneity appears to be more distant than it actually is compared to the images on display that Barbieri presents to us. There is an ineluctable archaic component in things, in rare glances, in landscapes. Often a bewildered atmosphere appears in the images, that atmosphere through which the worlds of the Po valley have been able to become a metaphor for the world, a hologram of our current life.
As a comparison, the narrative atmospheres of Gianni Celati and the cinematographic ones of Federico Fellini are valid for all. Barbieri also puts on stage the mythical simulacra of time, those simulacra that in those years, in fact, had been defined as “myths of today” by Roland Barthes. Myths and observation, experimentation and narration combine in the relationship that Olivo Barbieri establishes with the world. And a systematic effect of truth, or rather a sense of truth, is presented to the observer of his works. That effect of truth is neither demonstrative nor violent, but presents a realism that at times takes on the magical tones and at other times the dramatic tones of our contemporaneity. His work in all these years, starting from the beginning up to today, is configured as a viaticum of our time, which over the years takes on the connotations of a constant questioning about our presence and our destiny as a human species on planet Earth..