April 2017_by Mauro Zanchi
Around 1955, Giacomelli began creating lines and grooves in the snow-covered earth. He then shot photographs from above, first from the hills and then from an aeroplane. Gradually, in order to continue exploring the theme and to embrace other elements straddling the border between chance and controlled circumstance, he asked the country folk to plough their fields in a way that left different lines and marks each time, using a ripper machine which broke up the surface layer and created grooves. Tractors were used to leave marks too, a mixture of tracks created by chance and designed thought out to accommodate Giacomelli’s desire to produce simple, gaunt, graphic compositions on the earth itself.
Both his observation of the landscape and his physical modifications of the surface of the fields would change over time, resulting in a number of series of Landscapes: Memories of a reality, Land’s metamorphosis, The dying land (or Land’s stories), Growing awareness about nature. Around a decade before American artists Dennis Oppenheim, Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson started to alter nature and create temporary works, Giacomelli made the rural landscape his workshop, using the medium of photography to document his conceptual process through lines traced in the fields and the land’s annual changes, from sewing season to harvest time. He took his visions from above and transformed them in the dark room, working like an alchemist with images in black and white, trying to capture on paper the whispered messages left by the light on the land, to trap the magic of the image. Giacomelli’s poetry shone through an expression of spirituality permeated with agrarian animism.
Over a 20-year period, he made use of the material provided by the landscape: earth. His focus was split between the graphic result of the composition and the idea of creating an experiential work which was inextricably linked to peasant roots while incorporating environmental themes, calling into question the flagrant urbanisation of contemporary society. For Giacomelli, these ancient lands slowly follow their destiny towards eternity. Over time, countless generations have left their mark and worked the fields, as if they believed that forgetting the land – and, most of all, forgetting how to work and look after the land – meant forgetting their roots and indeed who they were altogether: ‘There’s a reason I talk about marks. I could make them on paper, in the sea, but they would all be planned, all false. I’m interested in the marks that man leaves behind without realising, but without killing the land. Only then do they mean something to me – only then to they carry emotion. In essence, photography is like writing. The landscape is full of signs, of symbols, of wounds, of hidden things. It is a strange language that you start to read and understand when you begin to fall in love with it, to photograph it. That’s how these signs discover their voice: they help me understand things, while for others they just stay marks.’ Giacomelli feels that the deeper meaning of agriculture is the cultivation and perfection of human beings. Coming from peasant stock, he has a profound vocation for giving the land of his forefathers a voice. He amplifies the words of the interred through writing made up of marks and grooves, allowing him to channel the voice of the earth and convey how it has changed over time while remaining in the same space. Every vision provides a new perspective, yet ensures perfect continuity with images past and future. His aerial photographs even include birds attracted by the worms thriving in the earth, flocks of sheep grazing on the hills and in the fields, the silent movement of the shadows over the course of the day, the breath of the wind on the crops or grass.
Giacomelli’s first aerial photographs were taken during his return flight from Bilbao to Italy, as he soared far above the earth over Spain and France, at around 9,000 metres. The artist explained that those first photographs were taken while the plane was being buffeted by air currents: ‘That journey gave me the idea of shooting the landscape from above. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise, because I knew it wouldn’t have been possible with 1/200. When it was time to eat, they told us to fasten our seatbelts because we were coming into a storm, and the plane began to be flung this way and that. I was scared and got out my camera to take photos so I wouldn’t think about falling out of the sky. I took photographs because I was scared of falling. That was the only reason – I wouldn’t have even considered it otherwise. My camera wasn’t right for it. […] I took them with my camera, because when you’re in a plane and you look down you feel like you’re not moving. I shot at 1/200 and took these photos, which should show movement but – because of the magnitude of the distance – came out stationary.’ Giacomelli’s successive aerial shots were taken from a Piper, because he wanted to restore a more graphic quality to the land, as if the marks on the ploughed fields in the hills of Le Marche could be seen as messages sent from some primordial country goddess who is both let down by men who have left6 the land to its own destiny in favour of the city, yet confident that they will return to their roots: ‘The idea of taking photos from above came about because the peasants have left the land. The real landscape revealed itself when I understood that the land is the Great Mother – not just mine, but all of ours. A Great Mother with her arms open, always warm, always ready to embrace us. The farmer puts all of his hopes in the land and that was crucial for me. When I looked at the farmer’s hands and the land he worked, I realised that they were made from the same thing, that they bore the same marks. The country folks’ skin wasn’t smooth like mine. It was rough like the earth. These marks you see here, this veining, those are the earth’s veins; the trenches where the water flows... in my eyes, those are the earth’s veins. The land is alive. That’s why I call it the Great Mother. [...] If it wasn’t for the very first people who worked it, the land wouldn’t be here anymore. It would have vanished some time ago with the water, with the rains and the floods. Yet man, through hard work, has managed to contain it, to maintain it, to keep it safe, protected by embankments, marked by grooves designed to ensure the water doesn’t carry the land away. I still look for signs on the land. I look for texture and the kind of marks that an engraver might leave.’
Even when Giacomelli shot the landscape from the hilltops, he tried to see it as a vertical form leading skywards, even when the images were to be viewed horizontally: ‘The fact that it goes towards the sky represents the spirituality of the earth.’ Giacomelli also shot the same places at different times of the year, or even at intervals of many years, in order to document the change and reveal the mysterious messages of the earth through infinite variations of one subject, one land. Through images, he narrates the voice of nature as it changes. He documents the process of metamorphosis. He interprets and reads the land in order to find similarities with his own thoughts on nature and on how things change: over the course of the seasons, he notes how the designs of the earth change alongside his view of nature. Through his images, he documents the process of the harvest, the mounds cut and laid out like sheep, the plough tracks, the lines and grooves of the fields, the remnants of meteorological events. And then he modifies the land, with his own hands or with the help of the country folk, before taking his photographs, because the act of altering the landscape and nature makes him feel as powerful as a deity, more powerful than any mark left by chance: ‘It was important to modify the earth before shooting, because modifying nature makes you feel like a God. You feel powerful. It gives you a different kind of energy – it’s not easy to put into words. The landscape becomes yours. You’ve created it. Yet in reality it’s been created by chance, by the farmer, but he doesn’t know that.’ Giacomelli descended from peasants and was intimately aware of the pace of life in the country, the seasonal cycles, the way the people’s work is linked to the earth, the deep bonds and customs handed down from one generation to the next. The land he documents is permeated by this truth, mixed with his childhood memories, underpinned by knowledge which turns time all the way back to primordial mythology. These images of the landscape are not just prolific exercises in observation, nor are they formal projections when you compare them with the experimental side of the art in those years. Rather, they testify to moments of realisation linked to a direct, first-person relationship between man and earth, between individual thought and the objective mystery of nature. This can certainly be considered to be an approach that paved the way for the American artists who began experimenting with the landscape even before the advent of Land Art, which began around 1968. Between 1967 and 1969, Giacomelli produced a series of images centred around the cross-section of tree trunks. These shots are like aerial shots, like visions of other planets, of microcosms, a way of exploring the complex simplicity of real things that our experience helps us to recognise straight away, but that fantasy and imagination can turn into other images, other forms; faces, bodies, worldly entities on the one hand, flows, magnetic fields, waves of energy, abstract forms on the other: ‘What does photography mean? It means that you see something that others don’t. [...] Lots of people take different photos of the same place, because one sees something that is important to him but another sees something different.’
Giacomelli’s tendency to adopt an abstract approach is a way of seeing reality from a “second viewpoint”. It’s something that primitive man knew well millions of years ago: they saw nature as a hostile chaos and, in search of inner calm, turned to abstraction as an effective means of alleviating the shock caused by the disorder in the world. Giacomelli’s photographs reveal his “animist awakening” – his way of presenting the divine qualities of the earth and evoking the primary flow of the world, its intimate, subtle relationship between the visible and the invisible. They merge both empathy and abstraction. In the dark room, Giacomelli transformed his images, harnessing the power of blacks and whites, searching for new visions, messages of light, a communion with the spiritual world of the peasant, a sense of transcendence, to find a deep bond with the flow of life by delving into the very nucleus of the natural world.
 ‘It was 1954-55 when I started. Land Art! It always seems like the Americans invent everything and then everyone else catches up. They’re good at some things, but… One winter it had snowed and we made lines, marks in the landscape. Land Art! I’d love to know how much they think they invented. I have two photos from 1955, one of which I absolutely love.’ (cited in: Giorgio Gabriele Negri, Mario Giacomelli. Storie di terra, Milano 1992, p. 90).
 ‘I remember once that we chose the place – my daughter Rita was still small – and I told her: “Look, there are already two marks that the farmer has made around the tree. I’ll come up with you, we’ll speak to the farmer and we’ll tell him that he needs to make some more by bringing the tractor round this way and then the other. You go with him because he might not understand.” I showed her the piece of paper on which I’d drawn the design I wanted. “Look, here’s the black: we need to create this black, so come down with the tractor, and here – where there’s already this mark – you need to add some more. Then go round the tree and do some more here, here and here. Then go back up, come past here and you’ll make another line.’” (Ibid., p. 90).
 Unlike the figurative designs found in Nazca, Peru, Giacomelli used the fields and hills to create primitive markings with strong geometric, abstract influences: ‘I have more of an infinity with the informal and the abstract. That’s part of the reason that I think my work has gradually become more abstract. When I used to paint, I was interested in materials – I was informal and abstract at the same time, quite close to Arte Povera. […] When I look at the work of Burri, I see the landscape as a source of power, as the start point for an idea, for him and for me.” (Ibid., p. 94).
 Ibid., p. 68.
 Mario Giacomelli. La mia vita intera, edited by Simona Guerra, Milano 2008, p. 57.
 ‘The farmer sews potatoes in the earth but he doesn’t know that for me, what he’s doing, is leaving a mark, creating an emotion. The lines in the earth and on our skin have taught me things that I never knew before, that the farmer cannot know, that the pilot of the aeroplane cannot know. It’s like somebody has magically lit up everything. Black hides things, while white highlights certain shapes. You create a different world on the film: the landscape is transformed into embroidered lace. If the peasant who has left his home knew how beautiful his land was from this perspective, maybe he wouldn’t have abandoned it.’ (cited in: Frank Horvat, Entre Vues, Paris 1990).
 Mario Giacomelli cit., 2008, pp. 58-60.
 Mario Giacomelli cit., 2008, p. 60.
 Mario Giacomelli cit., 2008, pp. 65-66.
 Mario Giacomelli cit., 2008, p. 121.