Laura viale, opere 1999-2009

Giorgina Bertolino
Laura Viale. Ogni cosa è illuminata
(Laura Viale. Everything is Illuminated)
Fondazione Bottari Lattes, Monforte d'Alba, 2009

"The idea has come to me that what I want to do now is to saturate every atom."
Virginia Woolf, 28 November 1928[1]

The images by Laura Viale are saturated, saturated with light and colours, volumes, outlines and details. The most recent are also saturated to the core with matter until each individual particle of vegetable or mineral, petal, rock, stem, pine needle, strip of grass at the foot of a hill, or algae in a pool of water is smothered.

In the diary Virginia Woolf kept while working on The Waves she sets herself the task of saturating each and every atom. Later, in the same diary, she defines her book as "a shot at my vision", "this ecstatic book"[2]. Conceived around light (the first draft was called The Moths) it abounds with colours. In her writing these colours are attached to things, places and even people. They spread, expand and bleed into spots and background colours that can be likened to elements of an abstract painting.

"(...) and the air seemed to become fibrous and to tear away from the green surface flickering and flaming in red and yellow fibres like the smoky fire that roars from a bonfire. Gradually the fibres of the burning bonfire were fused into one haze, one incandescence which lifted the weight of the wollen grey sky on top of it and turned it to a million atoms of soft blue"[3].

In the first part of the book, the sun still has to rise over the sea. The pages record the abrupt, albeit extremely slow, atmospheric permutations of the aurora.

Laura Viale waits for dusk before taking her photographs. In a series of photographs and a video she produced on the Pacific coast in 2002 she brings back a piece of land Alla fine del mondo (At the End of the World).

A curtain of bright red stems stands out against a black mass poised before the slightly undulating outline of the land. Then, halfway between this and the sky, a soft breath of blue fog floats up and spreads to touch the rosy strip separating it from the tips of the blue-grey clouds.

An inner time pervades this piece as in others by the artist. It is a time divided into spaces made into portions. It does not flow. It stops. Time in the panorama of Alla fine del mondo is static, held firm and taken to an extreme by light. Something happens here reminiscent of another event described in a later passage taken from The Waves: "Whatever the light touched became dowered with a fanatical existence"[4].

The light in Laura's work is artificial. The red of the stems comes from shining a theatre spotlight onto the blades of grass. The result is an immaterial and reversible brushstroke, an impalpable layer of luminosity that has settled onto reality. In another of the photographs from the series Alla fine del mondo, flashes of yellow, green and red lights pierce the darkness, highlighting a cluster of otherwise invisible bushes. These and similar shots as in Loto (Lotus) and Stagno (Pond), 1999, or Come Closer and See and Without title (Chiaroscuro), 2002-2009, need careful on-site preparation. They grow out of the set created from the potential inherent in an illuminated scene from nature's theatre. Before being recorded on film the artist gets down to work in the real environment. This initial "performance" involves finding a location, assessing its qualities, scene shifting and finding the right camera angle. These locations range from ocean coastlines, or a corner of a public park to a vase of flowers on the kitchen table. The "frenzied" light brings out the wild and exotic from the domestic.

In L.M.F., 1999, the theatrum naturae is a closed environment, a room. Here coloured light strikes a group of twelve orchids arranged on the floor. The room has become a sort of greenhouse, an incubator for colours, a circuit. This is a device to enchant the spectator, who physically becomes part of the "growing" cycle once the spell is cast.

Projecting light in these environments and photographic series enables the artist to bring abstract fragments of reality to the surface and create a wide variety of structures, reactions and temperatures.

The coloured light soaks the fibres, transforming them into glowing bodies and pushing them to the limits of pure evanescence. The effect – clearly visible in the foreground of the "picture" described – leads to an eccentric relationship between the various components of the photograph. It forces the viewer to accept the lack of homogeneity and the inversion of focus. Vision is conditioned by the coexistence of a distant panoramic, optic view and a blindingly close haptic view, synaesthetically disposed to seek out alternative sensorial inputs. Referring once again to The Waves, on 26 January 1930, Virginia Woolf wrote, "Sometimes I am out of touch; but I go on; then again feel that I have at last, by violent measures - like breaking through gorse – set my hands on something central..."[5]. The sharpness of the vision is substantialised by the complexity of the experience, albeit in an imaginary way, and this sensorial expansion leads, paradoxically, to what the writer defines in this novel as "eyeless" seeing: the power of sight is superseded by a probing perception of matter itself.

To a certain extent this is what happens in the close-up shots by Laura Viale, those that "hotlight" details. In the red variant of the Loto series, the luminous energy that spreads over the petals and the flower buds gives rise to an intensive, physiological picture. The forms are haloes, spectres of living flowers burned onto the retina and held there in the darkness of closed eyes. At the same time they can be intensely radiant pictures, polished, uniform surfaces bursting with colour and warmth, yet containing indefinable depths. Light striking the living texture of the petals creates an almost gaseous consistency, while it becomes cursive when weaving between the sinuous edges of the stems and closed forms of the buds. The emphatic light distorts our focused gaze, causing us to lose sight of details, imperfections, veins, and cells, but it does provide us with a fuller abstract image. The photograph becomes pictorial. Once deprived of "space-time limitations", the artist states that the work opens itself up "to the perception and the imagination of the observer."[6] When outlining a trilogy of ideas, Gilles Deleuze placed the ideas of artists and authors into "percepts", distinguishing them from philosophical "concepts" and musical "affects". "A percept," he explains, "is a group of perceptions and sensations that outlive those who feel them"[7]. In order to define the intentions implied in her photographs, Laura Viale turns to contemplation, an exercise that she seeks for herself and for the viewer. "Taking photographs," she writes, "becomes a contemplative act which creates an image that in turn invites contemplation."[8]

Until now Laura Viale has done her "tinkering" in real places. Utopia, 2003, is a clear sign of a change of scene: "The whole Utopia series is built around a pattern extracted from one of my photographs and redrawn, then repeated with different sizes and colours. Here the departure point, taken from nature, undergoes a phased transformation designed to create very "light" images - light in the Italo Calvino sense of "not heavy". The surfaces have the polished quality of painting on glass, but they began life as a photograph that was manipulated digitally."[9] This is a decisive step that signals her arrival in the world of computer-aided processes. Her artistic experimentation now employs a new creative force governed by the laws of a different model, a new world where vitality generates results. The title Utopia indicates a shift into a place unhindered by nature's gravity, a space for experimenting new projections. The images in this series come to life in the video Laura's Garden, which pulsates to the "nervous" rhythms of an electronic melody. This garden is another enclosed space, a place for growing and escape. In P.L., a project begun in 2004, it is clear that the software does not play a corrective role typical of post-production work. For the second time, the artist transfers a shot – a detail of a cane thicket – into a digital space, in this case a vector programme. The initial image, traced line by line with the help of a mouse, splits up into a drawing made up of an infinity of points and lines (of which the title is an acronym). The programme's inability to generate curves and trace a continuous line, gives rise to a rich and angular structure, a complex screen exhibited as samples in a series of lambda prints and in the video 00/00.

Having lost the unity of the original, the prints and frames appear as fields of pure abstraction. However, the original form of the plant becomes legible again in the gauge of the MDF. The design, carved into the material, becomes embroidery. Woven into a heavy and opaque substance it reacquires transparency and luminosity through the empty spaces. The three-dimensional vegetation now shown on the wall is a multiplication, the result of a sequence of grafts; now, literally, a hybrid. Laura Viale has used what Felix Guattari defines as an "machinic autopoiesis": in that she has created a sort of - aesthetic - organism from the relationship between organic matter and technology. Delegating part of the creative process to a machine allows chance happenings. The discovery – invenio – or the willingness to comply with a series of constraints, accidents and results, begins to nurture a genuine creative system. It is with the methods and rules determined by such equipment and tools that the artist moves on once again, this time embarking on a journey into the realm of painting, which she has actually been skirting for some time.

Raw is a project still in progress. It comprises a series of medium-sized canvases that explore different possible relationships between subject and background. Once again the work develops in phases and pauses, blending the use of different tools and, consequently, different working processes.

The subject is a common yellow meadow flower photographed and transformed into lines by the vector programme and then transferred in black and white onto the canvas. The artist then spreads rich colours in thick layers around these thread-like compositions. The colours are spread in a circumscribed and indirect way. The use of intricately cut templates (whose construction is comparable to marquetry work, albeit inverted) allows the artist to print broad background areas of colour from these negatives. Using this basic contact monotype print technique the artist prints onto the canvas, duplicating shapes; thus creating a painting without using brushes. At the end of the fifties, Pinot Gallizio (scientist and inventor of industrial painting, a happy, heretical marriage of serial production and the "single and unrepeatable gesture"[10]) defined this technique as painting by "parthenogenesis". Laura Viale is therefore experimenting with a new means based on rudimentary technology: she squeezes colour onto a surface straight from the tube, presses it onto the canvas with the help of a roller and then removes the template. She carries out a series of gestures that seem to conserve – for her who is a photographer – a trace of the photograph, keeping concretely and conceptually to the idea of the original through contact with the positive and negative. This process recalls early Polaroids; the shot "in the dark" followed by the slow coming to life of the image.

In Raw the sandwiched matter pressed into place creates a "skin", a pictorial skin characterised by raised streaks and flakes that form a dense weave of alternating bright colours. The tactile sensations, already hinted at in the photographs now begin to dominate. The background, alongside the subject, works as a kind of sample board, a list of the world in which every colour is potentially a thing:

"(...) the colours are given before being used. The dictionary bears witness to their derived character, even in the designation of the most subtle colour shades: midnight blue, peacock blue, or petrol blue; water green, jade green, straw yellow, lemon yellow, cherry yellow, etc. (...) as if our perception of such a yellow were bound to straw or lemons; as if that particular black obtained from the calcination of ivory were in fact its cause and that particular brown from a pulverised earth"[11].

The words are those of Claude Lévi-Strauss, "consulted" by way of that "raw", which together with "baked, fresh, putrid, wet, burnt (...) can actually act as conceptual tools that help certain abstract notions to emerge and link them in propositions"[12]. Also for Laura Viale raw is a conceptual category: The word raw, which gives the series its name, is also used to define the primitive format of digital photos. In her artistic experimentation it functions as a work programme, as the definition of an attitude, which adopts "just as it is" as a broad working practice.

The monotypes spread over the edges of the canvas. The colour soaks into the paper templates.

Laura keeps the offcuts and makes little landscapes out of them. The circle closes then reopens.

[1] V. Woolf, A Writer's Diary, 1953, Triad/Panther Books, Herts, GB, 1978, 28.
[2] V. Woolf, The Waves, 1931, Oxford University Press, Oxford, GB. First quotation (17 July, 1931), 169, second quotation (15 August, 1931), 170.
[3] V. Woolf, The Waves, cit., 3.
[4] Ibid, 89.
[5] Ead, A Writer's Diary, 150.
[6] Observations from notes taken during a conference held by Laura Viale in Venice as part of the "Incontri degli artisti del mercoledì", Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, 22 April, 2009.
[7] Translated from Abecedario di Gilles Deleuze, video-interview by C. Parnet, directed by P.A. Boutang, DeriveApprodi, Rome, 2005, for Idea.
[8] L. Viale, Venezia, 2009.
[9] Ibid.
[10] P. Gallizio, Manifesto on industrial painting and unitary applied art, in "Internazionale Situazionista", n. 3, December 1959, now in, Internazionale Situazionista 1958-69, Nautilus, Torino, 1994, 31-35.
[11] Translated from C. Lévi Strauss, Il crudo e il cotto (The Raw and the Cooked), 1964, Il Saggiatore, Milano, 1998, 37 and 41.
[12] Ibid, 13.

Text © Giorgina Bertolino 2009, English translation: Andrew Turner