Walter Guadagnini

Walter Guadagnini
Il n’y a plus des Pyrénées

Excerpt from the catalogue Unstable Territory, ed. Mandragora, Firenze, 2013.

However you look at it, from whatever point of view and with whatever interpretation, the theme of the “border”—and the numerous issues related to it—today has the prime characteristic of a paradox. There is, in its interpretation and definition, an intrinsic ambiguity that makes it particularly captivating, and at least apparently even excessively treated, as much by scholars as by artists

The most obvious paradox is undoubtedly the fact that political, physical borders—even today causing conflicts to flare up and entire populations to live in states of emergency—coexist with social structures, particularly in the spheres of communication and the economy, that through the use of technology have destroyed the very idea of the possibility of putting limits on the flow of information and money between different countries.

This is a paradox deriving from the most recent developments in computer technology, although it is also, on closer inspection, one of the constitutive, ontological elements of the very idea of border, of its existence. Whether considered in a physical sense, or interpreted as a metaphor, a border exists in order that it may be crossed; it exists only through its negation, or at least the fact of its being overcome. If the border remains intact, if on the inside of the dividing line there is no way to get through, that which is on the inside of the line—whether physical or abstract—is destined, over an indeterminate length of time, to wither and die.

A border clearly implies an inside and an outside (at a symbolic level, a before and an after), a here and a beyond. It calls into question, first of all, the relationship of the self with the not-self, with an alterity that is in turn a necessary condition for the existence of the dividing line. Without Otherness, the presence of a system of exclusion and inclusion like the one provided for by the border has no reason to exist. In the same way, and at the same time, this relationship—whether conflictual or peaceful—is destined, from the point of view of the social and political body, to in turn experience changes and transformations. Created to enclose, a border always ends up encouraging opening and, above all, change.

Paradoxically, therefore, it becomes the figure of change, having its literal embodiment in the skin, which at the same time separates and unites the body with the surrounding environment. The words of Giuseppe Penone, an Italian artist who has developed a large part of his research around the subject, may help to clarify the concept: “The skin is a limit, a border, a separating reality, the extreme point capable of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, cancelling that which surrounds us, the extreme point that can physically encompass enormous expanses, the content as well as the container. Mobility allows man to contain a large quantity of things with his own skin at different and continuous moments, with contact, impression, knowledge, discovery, holding, repulsion…, actions that are a continuous development or unfolding of his own skin on other things or on himself.” The question of sight is dealt with from an analogous point of view: “Mirrored contact lenses cover my iris and pupil; wearing them makes me blind. […] when placed over my eyes, they indicate the point that separates me from that which surrounds me. They are like a skin, a border element, the interruption of a channel of information that uses light as its medium. Their mirrored surface is such that the information that reaches my eye is reflected.”

What the two quotations draw attention to is the complexity of the definition of border, and its presence at every moment of our existence. The border in ourselves (the skin) can be created artificially by interrupting the flow of communication (mirrored lenses). However, while the former condition has positive connotations in terms of relating with the world and with the Other, the latter implies an underlying negativity, represented by a blindness that is not that of the visionary poet, but is that which impedes the process of relating, the passing through.

The contradictory nature of the term, with its inescapable relevance to any discourse on the human level, concerns this fundamental difference relating to the spatial as much as to the temporal sphere. A discourse, moreover, that even relates directly to the world’s physical form and is, despite everything, indisputable in political terms. Voltaire’s presumptuous declaration to Louis XIV, “il n’y a plus de Pyrénées” (the Pyrenees have ceased to exist), is destined to be contradicted by the presence of that mountain chain that continues to influence the lives of people who live in the area, independently of royal marriages or political decisions that are made in the course of time.

In short, from whatever perspective you look at it, the exceeding of a limit coexists with its very affirmation. When these two elements assume a social dimension, the contradiction is destined to explode. Every dividing line marked out, every wall raised, whether physical or symbolic, brings with it the person who wants to cross it, and the result of these actions and reactions can only be change or conflict. For this reason borderlands are the most unstable, and for this reason some artists have concentrated a substantial part of their artistic thought and actions on the body, as the cases of Sigalit Landau and Kader Attia illustrate. It is easy to see a political gesture in Landau’s experience with her body, which is in turn charged with associations with the natural setting and with the collective memories of the places. For Attia it is the bodies of history’s victims that become the vehicle of a political discourse developed through various forms of apparition, which find continuity in an emblematic phrase used by the artist on various occasions, “the body as object and target of power”.

Precisely the inextricable union of individual values and collective values has meant that these themes have always been present in the narration of the world, both in historical narration—where the continual modification of political borders on geographical maps are the most eloquent illustration of what has previously been stated—as well as in artistic and philosophical illustration, from the hic sunt leones to Joseph Conrad’s The ShadowLine. Undoubtedly, and by no mere coincidence, the former model has a precise reference to a border of a natural order, existing for cultural reasons, though also and above all for technological reasons; while the latter has primarily a cultural significance, albeit referring to an individual, as if the solution to the technological problem (the columns overthrown by scientific progress) was followed by the starting of the psychological issue. Admittedly, even the unnamed protagonist of Conrad’s short novel relates with nature, but the real border he has to cross is within himself; what he has to confront, besides illness and hostile elements, is the straying from normality that took place in the mind of the ship’s previous commander and the madness of the first mate.

The Shadow Line tells of the rites of passage associated with the idea and nature of the journey, with that process of detachment, transit and arrival that has innervated world literature since the earliest epics of Gilgamesh and Ulysses. These elements too are an integral part of the identification of the whole question of the “border” within contemporary society, a society that has paradoxical attitudes toward movement and travelling, based on a sort of splitting of the collective personality. Capitalist society, more than any other before it, has made travelling possible. Movements of goods and people—and with them ideas—have been claimed as absolute values, as foundations on which to build a narration of the inherent goodness of the society promoting them (in contrast, for example, to the closure of the communist bloc so eloquently represented by the Berlin Wall). Having gone through and subsequently overcome the guilt syndrome associated with colonialism, the transformation of the Grand Tour into mass tourism—from the middle of the 19th century onwards, in singular and paradigmatic coincidence with the origin and spread of photography—completed the definitive process of anaesthetization of the journey, or at least that fundamental part of it which is represented by the time of transit but, for reasons of economy, has also diminished the perception of borders between state entities.

From the European point of view, the apparently triumphal conclusion of this process was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent creation of the Europe of Schengen (made possible as a consequence of the collective removal of the Balkan tragedy, a war of ethnic groups and borders).

A further paradox of the situation, clearly, is that during these same years new walls were being built in various places throughout the world. One striking example is the barrier along the frontier between Mexico and the United States, since it is not even justified by the sort of historical complexity characteristic of, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Above all walls were built inside cities, separating certain areas in the interests of exclusion, a separation, moreover, not only between upper and lower social groups, but even within a single class. It is the material representation of an immobility which from physical becomes social, an immobility deriving from the mobility of migratory flows, and which precisely because of this is an admission of failure, at least in the long term. It has, however, as regards the specific cultural sphere, given rise to further narrations and further forms of representation that take account of this social complexity.

These considerations are valid in relation to the primary question to which the Unstable Territory exhibition seeks to provide answers, that is to say: in what way do some artists react to these conditions and these paradoxes? And, at the same time, how many of these conditions and these paradoxes are found in contemporary artistic research?

The first consideration deserves to be made relative to the cross-disciplinary approach adopted by all the artists invited, with the exception of the rigorously and exclusively photographic work of Jo Ractliffe. Over a century since the appearance of the avant-gardes and their postulates, this affirmation may seem banal, although it is undeniable that even on the theme of interdisciplinariness the last decade has seen some far from marginal, and in some cases decidedly ground-breaking changes. It is a question of instruments and spaces, in effect, as in the case of the relationship between photography and video, which can be interpreted in a totally new way starting with the appearance on the market of cameras capable of performing both operations, still shots as well as videos, without one format prevailing over the other.

It is not just a question of the quality of the final product, although this is also significant. It is an element that influences the approach towards the language; it is a material element that becomes conceptual because it has eliminated a dividing line that has always existed, the one between fixed image and moving image. Neither of the two, today, can be the same as before, for within their language the other is already present, originally, and the choices therefore spring from a different basis, the basis, substantially, of what is possible and not what is necessary.

It is clear, moreover, that the twofold nature of the means of production also entails a remise en question of the channels of diffusion, with further implications, if possible, on the nature of the works produced.

Once more, simplifying—though not too much—it is again a question of borders, starting with those of the exhibition areas, which are no longer able to fully contain products that have been conceived and constructed with techniques (and thinking of the users) that are different, at least originally, from those belonging to the traditional field of the artistic world. The strategies are undoubtedly different, and range from the equipment used to the formal medium, and even the incorporation into the creative or operative process of figures that are different from that of the artist as such. The result, at the macroscopic level, is a diffusion that is not so much vast in quantitative terms, as it is in terms of the nature of the places involved, whether physical or abstract.

The whole question of diffusion, when dealing with artistic productions whose subjects, by the artists’ own admission, refer directly or indirectly to issues of a socio-political character, is absolutely central, and deserves further explanation. Works like Chicago by Broomberg & Chanarin and The Enclave by Richard Mosse deal with themes traditionally associated with the practice of photo-journalism. Both are strongly linked to current situations and events, both propose themes that are sufficiently circumscribed to lend themselves to journalistic treatment, and both have been filmed directly in the areas in question. In the light of these characteristics, the photographs of Broomberg & Chanarin have only been exhibited in artistic venues, particularly museums, while the work of Richard Mosse has appeared on the printed page in its photographic form, although as a complex and spectacular sound and vision installation it is clearly appropriate also in a museum environment, as is shown by its recent presentation at the Venice Biennale.

In both cases, we witness a voluntary renunciation of the great diffusion guaranteed by the mainstream periodical press, in favor of the greater expressive freedom and greater concentration enabled by the artistic venue. In Mosse the renunciation is partial; in the English artists it is total. It is a renunciation reminiscent of the moment of departure on a journey, the loss of certainties, the detachment from reassuring habits associated with familiar places, a choice that initially resembles loss, but which along the journey becomes conquest, the formation of a new identity, in this case the new identity of documentary photography: “In 1960 John Cage compositioned his now legendary piece 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence, in which a pianist comes on stage, opens the piano, sits there for that length of time, before closing the piano and walking off stage. All that is heard is the ambient noise of people shuffling their programs, rain hitting the roof… Cage was asking us to listen, to attend. For Cage, and going back to the Minimalists again, the emptiness of a steel slab sculpture, or the silence during a musical performance, is not simply a negation or deprivation, but an invitation to contemplate. To look harder.”

This is how we may understand the work of Chicago, a work that at first sight is difficult to decipher, as is that of Jo Ractliffe on the consequences of the “border war” between Angola, South Africa and Namibia, with the participation of hundreds of thousands of Cuban soldiers, in the final years of the Cold War and after. These images need captions and concentration, time, a space, like a museum, which in this way takes on the identity of an area of freedom, where a critical discourse can be developed that would otherwise be denied. This too is one of the possible consequences of the continual search for new identities and new spaces, which arise from new forms of information and its mechanisms.

In Broomberg & Chanarin this attitude has a considerable influence on the style, on the formation of the image, which is based on models of communication within the chosen field, that is to say, the artistic one. The three wallpapers exhibited on this occasion are the most obvious example of it.

The case of Mosse is different in many respects, because the Irish photographer and film-maker appears instead to force the language of the photo-journalistic tradition, causing it to implode, transforming it into a kind of hallucination, whose unreal color seems to be a metaphor for the unrealness of the violence that is encountered and represented. Mosse also builds a rhetorical and instrumental apparatus that is fully inserted into the artistic field; he too essentially takes photo-journalistic language as a starting point, though he reacts to it and takes it to the extreme, facing the subject directly, frontally. Broomberg & Chanarin elaborate a visual strategy that takes an often apparently insignificant detail as a trace of the whole, as a clue and not as evidence. While the wars confronted by these artists are dramatically contemporary, Ractliffe and The Cool Couple choose to represent memory, acting on the places and times of past events, imbuing them with an exemplary character. Here too, the strategies of representation are what really count; for the Italian artists the question of the borders of artistic activity finds expression in the overlapping of disciplines, since their work involves archive research, direct testimonies, historical material and art photography. Individual specialization seems to be giving way to a sum total of different techniques that form a fabric of knowledge that is difficult to define. The aim appears to be that of forcing the confines of the museum area in order to spread out beyond it, encouraging a constant to and fro between the experience of the historical research and that of an aesthetic formalization which is in any case perceived as a prime necessity to the completion of the former’s meaning.

This dialectic between inside and out has different embodiments in the works of Ressler and Begg, Kawamata, Nazareth and Cirio, whose experiences cannot be confined within an exhibition venue. The Austrian/New Zealand couple makes a precise, unmediated, ideological choice, proposing the form of the documentary with very few, though nonetheless extremely important, stylistic variations compared to its conventional format: Begg’s drawings, the absence of a narrating voice and traditional sound track, and the abstract gestures of the hands around the passports. A form which, by Ressler’s own declaration, envisions searching for its public even, and perhaps above all, outside the museum, using the channels of communication a documentary traditionally uses. Given the political implications of the film, its presence outside the museum can obviously vary in meaning: if projected and diffused using official channels of information, it is like a “virus” grafted onto the “healthy” body of regime information; if on the other hand it continues its existence in alternative, antagonistic channels of information, it is simply one more item of knowledge in a community already prepared for this type of content. In any case, “The Right of Passage”—a perfect play on words that hooks up with the considerations developed previously—functions in relation to the museum as the young sans papiers interviewed function in relation to society, presences capable of questioning ascertained and commonly accepted notions of border. Just as the rite of passage appears to be the primary claim in the attitudes of Nazareth and Cirio, the viral idea, at least visually, seems to be pertinent also in the work of Kawamata.

It is clear, in fact, that the questions raised by Kawamata, Nazareth and Cirio are perfectly in keeping with these attitudes, despite the fact that they are founded on contrasting points of view and use instruments that are totally different, resulting in iconic and material results that are incomparable with each other. All three artists expand the field of their activities beyond conventional spaces, move themselves and their works, travel, mark out paths, construct other places in common areas. At the same time, all three conceive their work as an experience in constant evolution, not confinable within a predetermined space and time, or rather, they decide the time and space of the work only in relation to the specific experience that justifies that specific project, a principle resulting in an equally free, though no less rigorous, formalization. But what I would underline most, in conclusion, is how their work always envisages the presence of others, others who are not just the public, but the essential material of which the work is made, and without which the work itself would have no point existing. The apparent instability of Kawamata’s constructions, the nomadic instability of Nazareth, the economic instability derided by Cirio, all presuppose the presence of other individuals capable of building them, living in them, activating them, making them become something different from a work of art, transforming them into a territory whose borders are modified according to intentions, needs and sometimes even chance, and whose instability is the main quality, underscoring the thought as much as the action.


Walter Guadagnini (1961, Cavalese, in the province of Trento) lives and works in Bologna, where he has held the chair in History of Contemporary Art at the Academy of Fine Arts since 1992. Director of the Galleria Civica di Modena from 1995 to 2005, he has chaired the advisory board of the UniCredit for Art project since 2004. His work as curator includes the following exhibitions: Mel Ramos (Galleria Civica, Modena, 1999), Domenico Gnoli (Palazzina dei Giardini, Modena, 2001), Peter Phillips (Galleria Civica, Modena, 2002), Allan D’ArcangeloRetrospective (Galleria Civica, Modena, 2005); Pop Art UKBritish Pop Art 1956–1972 (Galleria Civica, Modena, 2004, with Marco Livingstone), Pop Art Italia 1958–1968 (Galleria Civica, Modena, 2005), Pop Art! 1958–1968 (Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome 2007), Past Present FutureHighlights from the UniCredit Group Collection (Kunstforum, Wien 2009; Palazzo della Ragione, Verona; and The Yapi Kredi Cultural Centre, Istanbul 2010), Things are Queer (MARTa, Herford, 2011) and People and the City (Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art, Moscow 2011; CoCA, Torun, 2012). He was also Commissaire Unique of the Italian Section of Paris Photo in 2007. His books include Fotografia (2000) and Una storia della fotografia del XX e XXI secolo (2010), both published by Zanichelli (Bologna). He is the editor of La Fotografia, 4 volumes, Skira, 20112014. He wrote for the newspaper La Repubblica as an art critic from 1995 to 2003 and has been head of the photography section of Il Giornale dell’Arte since 2006.

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