November 2016_by Mauro Zanchi
In the field of esoterics, tradition has it that a concave mirror serves to focus attention on the astral world and to sharpen the ability to observe.(1) Sibyls, prophetesses, sorceresses, vaticinators and shamans have all used mirrors to improve their powers of clairvoyance. They would stare into the cavity of a mirror and wait to see images of what was to come. They would act through telepathy and think through images. They were able to move atoms and molecules in the air with their minds and with intuition. At night, they would fill a bowl with water to observe the lights and the flowing of the stars in the brightness of their ‘desiderare’ (desire).(2) Some people discovered the mysteries of nature a long time before science found out about the truth of things. The study of old documentsreveals that some people were well ahead of their times, or quite simply prophetic, and saw truths which were not confirmed scientifically until the 20th century. This journey back in time is like reading archaeological science fiction. It seems that Francis Bacon, in combining physics, magic, medicine, ethics, mathematics and mysticism, managed to discover the biological structure of cells and the process of embryo formation with the help of a concave mirror and thus found access to a series of information about the universe. Along the same line, some Russian scientists (3) experimented with altered states of consciousness in certain mirror set-ups called Kozyrev mirrors. They theorised that a particular arrangement ofconcave mirrors gave access to invisible energy which activated certain parts of the brain which would then be induced to connect to a much more complex reality, maybe a universal mind. Some scientists have even gone as far as to say it is not by chance that the brain is placed inside the cranium which evolution has forged into a shape that is very similar to that of a concave mirror as if it were a resonator. But regardless ofthe scientific experiments or the fanciful conjectures, it is the associations that are of interest to us and it is these reverberations, areas full of mystery that onlypromptness of spirit and speed of intuition can really understand, that are the principal theme investigated in the works present in the exhibition entitled Lo Specchio Concavo (The Concave Mirror).
Seen from multiple standpoints, the exhibition highlights both the dissonance that is sparked by the numerous contradictions in the ups and downs of time and history, and the mysterious areas of reality, divined by the gaze of women, that are surprisingly manifest in places that in actual fact have always existed, in the inner being of people and the world, in the folds of time and in the cracks of everyday life. Our attention is drawn to the energy that can be felt in the unexpected elements of the real world, to necessity that is necessary and therefore cannot be contradicted, to the truth that reveals what life is about, what life is, in the friction of its opposite forcesthat are constantly in conflict with each other. We have chosen photographs that document both objective and visionary images of reality, personal testimonies within political contradictions, faithful interpretations and transcriptions of both personal and public stories, photographs that reveal empathy with their subjects and others that do not. Other photographs instead investigate and evoke the secrets of a secret, what can be perceived if you go beyond a limit or a threshold. Just imagine Alice in Lewis Carrol’s novel as she enters the mirror and begins her journey in another dimension, in a fantasy world.(4) In an upside down world, only nonsense is meaningful. And in this dimension it is possible to believe in the impossible. You can have dreams that you do not even know are really yours. Alice learns in her world beyond the mirror of appearances thatit is only when you lose yourself that you can really find yourself. And since her mirror hasinverted everything, one can reasonably conclude that it is a concave mirror and that it hastriggered psychedelic resonances.
In the tradition of iconology, a mirror is an ambivalent image which, depending on the context, can have several, sometimes even contrasting, meanings. As a positive symbol, it alludes to the knowledge we have of ourselves, of our inner being and, if it is held by Prudence, it is seen as essential to see what is happening behind our backs. Instead, as a negative symbol, it is associated with Narcissus, with those who are self-satisfied, with the idea of vanity and with the sins of lust and haughtiness, with beauty but with areference to the approaching of ageing and death. But what we are interested in investigating is the evocative power of another mirror that turns upside down the image of someone looking for a reflection in the reflecting surface, in the cavity which displays the upside down image of reality where both the hidden inner I and the image of the world enter the eye of the observer upside down andare elaborated or assimilated and undergo a transmutatio.
In order not to be turned to stone by Medusa, Perseus moves with the help of a magic mirror which he received as a gift from Pallas Athene, the Greek god of wisdom. The sequence of the photographs in the exhibition proceed with a similar reflection to the one described in the myth but witha concave reflection.
Evidence of the use of the concave mirror goes back to ancient times. Archimedes used concave ‘burning glass’ mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays and set fire to the enemy ships during the attack on Syracuse in 212 BC.
A mirror as a weapon, a burning mirror, or an image taken as an eloquent symbol for the Italian feminist movement in the sixties and the seventies. A mirror that attempts to convey how complex differences are.(5) But for the moment, seeing that we have involved artists that have used photography to express their poetry and their obsessions, what we are interested in is the metaphorical idea and the use of the concave mirror in the camera obscura in order to upright an upside down image. In the sixteenth century, Giambattista della Porta described the possibility of using a concave mirror in a camera obscura to reverse inverted images that enter the pinhole from the outside through a lens which makes them more well-defined.(6)
The philosopher, Giambattista della Porta, intended a camera obscura as the nineteenth century one that can still be seen today in the Sanvitale Castle at Fontanellato which was built to observe the landscape outside. The principle is exactly the same as for reflex cameras which are able to project an image from the lens to an internal mirror. A simple concave mirror, however, can project an image onto a flat surface. On December 21st 1544, the Dutch mathematician and astronomer, Rainer Frisius, used a camera obscura to observe an eclipse of the sun and the stars in the sky. But this had already been done many centuries before in other parts of the world. For example, the principle of the camera obscura appeared in a text (7) written towards the end of the 5th century BC by the Chinese philosopher Mozi, the founder of Mohism which opposed Confucianism. In the West, in the 15th century, Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti developed perspective representation through the use and knowledge of the camera obscurato faithfully project landscape and architecture on a sheet of paperhanging on a wall. Leonardo and the Benedictine monk Francesco Maurolico (8) also described in their works how the eye and the camera obscura worked from a scientific point of view. From the 15th century onwards, many painters used optical instrumentslike concave and convex mirrors to paint their works which later evolved into a camera obscura and camera lucida. These mirrors and lenses focus the projection of images onto paper, greaseproof paper and canvaswas perfected by the camera obscura, a modern reflex ideated by the German physicist Johann Christoph Sturm and perfected in 1685 by the German inventor Johann Zahn until more modern times andthe invention of the modern camera and photo sensitive materials.(9) Inventions and subsequent changes, ideas and technology have developed our ability to capture constantly-evolving reality and to anchor it onto various kinds of medium.
For a long time now, we have been surrounded by a staggering number of images, films and photographs. In this particular moment of transition it is necessary to reflect upon the sense of contemporary images and photographic tools. In an attempt to understand, some take refuge in the dark room of their conscience (which some people may have deliberately sought, constructed or just simply found by chance) and contemplate what comes in from the outside, observing life as it flows by and living life without fixing it with camera shots or film clips, or with drawings or anything else. A dark room (or camera obscura) can be intended as a space where the outside world, with its series of images or events which flow with life, are reflected parallelly in the darkness of the room. What happens, then, is a double perspective which is identical but upside down. Often we need another space and another dimension to see further or to watch more carefully what is going on before our eyes every day. A camera obscura as a place to concentrate our attention on the details of the world where an observer finds himself in a dark space in order to capture more clearly, in a more well-defined way, what is around him. In this way, the observer perceives that he is a sort of present continuous in time. Besides, a camera obscura illustrates exactly what it means to reproduce images. An example is Campo San Samuele 3231, by Zoe Leonard in 2012 in Venice at Palazzo Grassi.(10) After working for thirty years with photography, the American artist projected a series of inverted images (that were not photographs that had been taken by an analogical or digital camera) that were created simply by light penetrating a hole in the window. In this going back in time, compared to all the sophisticated means we have available to us nowadays and compared to the sometimes affected approaches to contemporary art, Zoe Leonard has a simpler, more direct way of contemplating what we see and observes how our brain works and how we see things. In this going back in time toward our origins, we find a further attempt to understand how people think in everyday life when they find themselves in a space in the present.
In the exhibition's catalogue, we have chosen not to use words ‘to explain’ the works on display either individually or as a whole. The images are there for the observers to understand and to create links or otherwise. In the sequences there are areas of mystery, luminous shadows which accompany the bodies, (11) Barthes-like punctum, circumstances that draw the attention of the observer, details that make you think, memories and sensations. In some cases, the images in the photographs project something of the observer that cannot initially be seen. Some are about the inner world of the subject without being about the intimacy of the private world. Others, evoke what is inaccessible, something profoundbeyond the immobile surface of the exterior. Others recall an undefined time, pure action. The most successful can be observed without being looked at a second time because they have already entered the mind and the imagination and have already moved other lives and other experiences.
(1) This kind of mirror probably acts upon particular psycho-physical zones that are activated in altered states of consciousness, thus a person is able to extend his perceptions beyond reality and matter. In this dimension it is possible to have access to information that is normally not perceivable.
(2) The Italian word ‘desiderare’ means ‘desire’ but it derives from the Latin De Sidera which meant regarding the stars. Here there is a play on the word, associating the idea of desire with having the movement of the stars in mind.
(3) According to Russian esoteric literature of the 1990s, the astrophysicist Nikolai Aleksandrovich Kozyrev (1908-1983) identified the presence of a fieldin space that was full of energy and information, a flux that could be absorbed, reflected and pinpointed. Barchenko and other scientists from Novosibirsk carried out experiments with concave aluminium mirrors to activate extra-sensory perceptions and clairvoyance. Cfr. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kozyrev_mirror
(4) “And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist. In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room.” (Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass, 1871)
(5) “In my opinion, one of the main reasons for confusion is language which talks about differences as if there were something between men and women that splits mankind into two. I wonder if your criticism of my ’binary way of thinking’ does not stem from that. The differences do not lie between. They are in me, inside me , they prevent me from identifying myself with what I am, they relate me to what I am not. There is no real solid identity with being called a woman, and at last this is beginning to be seen as a virtue. I made a conscience political decision to be identified as a woman which coincided with a commitment for a free sense of sexual differences. Strictly speaking we can get round being called women/men just as we don’t necessarily have to contend with the biological imposition of sexuation. But can we really?” (L.Muraro, Worrying about differences, An Open Letter to Benedetta Selene Zorzi, author of Al di là del ‘genio femminile’ (Beyond the female genius), Il Manifesto, 8th October 2014).
(6) See Magiae naturalis sive de miraculis rerum naturalium (1584),(Natural Magic), a work that discusses various topics among which cosmology, geology, optics and medicine. Cfr. R. Zaccaria, «Della Porta, Giovambattista», in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani (Biographical Dictionary of Italians), Volume 37, Rome, Institute of the Italian Enciclopedia, 1989; AA.VV., «Della Porta, Giambattista», in Dizionario di filosofia, (Dictionary of Philosophy) Rome, Institute of the Italian Enciclopedia, 2009; P. Piccari, Giovan Battista Della Porta. Il filosofo, il retore, lo scienziato, Milano 2007.
(7) Mozi intended the principle of the camera obscura as a ‘collecting place’ or a ‘locked treasure room’ able to capture an upside-down image created by the rays of the sun entering a dark room through a small hole.
(8) Cfr. Photismi de lumine et umbra ad perspectivam et radiorum indicentiam facientes (1521).
(9) The German chemist Johann Heinrich Schultze (1687 – 1744) is considered to be the father of photochemistry. The Italian Giambattista Beccaria (1716 – 1781), a monk, physicist and mathematician and the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742 -1786) carried out the first experiments on photosensitive matter. In 1788, the Japanese scientist Bansui Otzuki described the camera obscura with the term ‘shashin-kyo’, the mirror of the truth.
(10) At the Camden Arts Centre in London in 2012, Leonard transformed an exhibition room with high ceilings and large windows into an enormous camera obscura in order to project on the walls, through lenses inserted into a pinhole, images of Finchley Road where the rhythm of the various buildings and the traffic was transformed into an experience that was both of the senses and surreal.
(11)“Thus the air is the luminous shadow which accompanies the body; and if the photograph fails to show this air, then the body moves without a shadow, and once this shadow is severed, as in the myth of the Woman without a Shadow, there remains no more than a sterile body.” (R. Barthes, Camera Lucida, Turin, 1980 and 2013, p.109)