In conversation with Annalaura di Luggo
Raisa Clavijo - Blind Vision is part of Occh-Io/Eye-I, a broader project in which you started photographing the irises of people from diverse sociocultural backgrounds. Since then, Occh-Io/Eye-I has taken form in different projects as different as the experiences and visions of the world of the people who participated in your interactions. Let’s talk about how it all began. Annalaura di Luggo – Occh-IO/Eye-I is an artistic operation with the aim of grasping and offering an “amplified” rendering of a unique aspect of identity that pertains to all of us: the eye, but emphasizing the word “I” to evoke the singularity that distinguishes each individual. For me, each human being is one of God’s wonderful creatures, and I decided to explore their nature through vision, investigating the eye, which the ancients considered the mirror of the soul. I love to consider myself a “soul scout.” My study of the eye is not limited merely to macro-photographic portraits of the iris to highlight their aesthetic beauty. Instead, the actual shot is a moment of camaraderie with the photographed subject, which allows me to come into contact with the person’s interior world in order to capture an aspect of his or her unique essence. An intimate and empathetic dialogue accompanies each photo session, and the final works include—and preserve—traces of the people’s personality, their thoughts and emotions. The basic idea is to encounter the human being without any kind of conditioning or prejudice, taking an approach devoid of the preset concepts that are automatically based on social status, age, gender and religion. The artistic representation I have chosen for the eye instead places the uniqueness of the iris at the center of a deep, dark “universe,” a black hole because it can “absorb” all colors, liberating subjectivity from all possible discrimination. I explore the iris, I lay it bare, I dilate it, I exhibit it in a gigantic format. I also do it simply to remember how important it is to look each other in the eye and interpret a gaze in a world that, all too often, no longer has the time or inclination to do so. Human relations are entrusted to the pure logic of long-distance communication, letting interpersonal relationships deteriorate or be sublimated in “virtual” modes. From a technical standpoint, inspired by the desire to discover the imperceptible structure of the iris without the reflection of light, I perfected and patented a special camera, using accessories borrowed from ophthalmology to reproduce the structure of the eye as faithfully as possible. Many people have asked me where I first got the idea of making the eye central to my artistic research. My response is that I have been lucky in life, because I have had the chance to establish a rapport with every category of people, from the world’s most powerful to those deemed the dregs of society. Thanks above all to vol- unteer work, I had the chance to discover parts of the world of the “invisibles” who live at the margins of society— from the world of the sick to those who spend the night in the street, covered in pieces of cardboard, those who simply need the donation of a meal to say they feel satisfied and can thank God. It was because of these experiences that I decided to represent what, for me, is the art of Divine Creation, which is manifested in every corner of the world but shows itself to be a supreme moment of aesthetic completeness in the unique, unrepeatable beauty of the human iris. It is both a genetic map of the individual and a spectacle of the visual, a triumph of the imagination, arising from the intersection of thousands of colors and countless nuances. Through the camera I patented, I have managed to make something that has always existed but is not perceptible to the naked eye, enormously visible, impressively observable. So I used the eye, which sees and is seen, as the symbol of my dominant vision signifying my most profound thought: We are all wonderfully different and one of a kind, but unique in the eyes of God.
R.C. – How did Blind Vision come about? What is the aim of this project?
A.d.L. – I devoted a lengthy phase of my artistic research to interacting with people and exploring how they perceive the world. This time, I wanted to explore the perception of those who are sightless. I tried to enter into the dimension of the blind, to understand what one feels facing darkness, inhabiting a cognitive territory and an existence without any images. My commitment to this project is united with the desire to stimulate the cultural and social inclusion of the blind and my general penchant for a conception inspired by solidarity in the artistic field, among other areas. Therefore, I contacted the Unione Italiana dei Ciechi e degli Ipovedenti (the Italian Union for the Blind and Partially Sighted) in the Province of Naples and was very warmly welcomed by its president, Mario Mirabile, and the head of communications, attorney Gianluca Fava. They introduced me to the wonderful Istituto Paolo Colosimo per Ciechi e Ipovedenti, an upper-level school for the blind and visually impaired, where I met Antonio Cafasso, president of the Associazione Teatro Colosimo. I thought I might encounter skepticism toward my project, fearing that my request to photograph sightless eyes might be considered invasive. But that was not the case at all: I found great enthusiasm and unconditional acceptance from everyone. I was struck by what president Mirabile said: “The world of the blind is invisible to most people.” These words, so meaningful, reinforced my desire to implement my project. Therefore, I asked the Unione Italiana dei Ciechi e degli Ipovedenti of the Province of Naples and the Istituto Paolo Colosimo to select 20 people of all ages and with a wide variety of experiences. The time had come to put together my work team. First of all, to curate the exhibition, I had no doubts about choosing Raisa Clavijo because of her great sensitivity, undisputed professional talent and my desire to give my project international scope. As a director, I wanted Nanni Zedda because of his technical talents and constant willingness to share the project’s underlying ideas, combined with a spirit of adventure—because this is indeed an adventure. I had decided to prepare nothing and let my interactions with the blind occur completely spontaneously. Nanni and I chose a set cast in darkness, with just golden raking lights, to create a “Caravaggesque ambience” that, for the stage pictures, I could only have entrusted to a photographer who loves depth, like Sergio Siano. The audio component would play a decisive role in a world composed of alternative perceptions to sight, so I decided to involve Paky Di Maio, an excellent sound designer with whom I had worked on Sea Sounds, as part of my project Sea Visions, 7 punti di vista sul mare at the Salone Nautico Internazionale di Genova (lnternational Boat Show, Genoa). The team was completed by my right-hand man Guglielmo Esposito, my trusted graphic designer Gino Bencivenga, my layout person Giuseppe Scotto Di Carlo, my audioand light-system manager Luca Pasquarella, and my life partner Olindo Preziosi. The day of our first meeting, backed by my team, I arrived at the Istituto Colosimo with just my camera. I felt inspired by great emotion and ready for the journey. I didn’t have a specific concept in mind and allowed myself to go as if I were being carried by the sea, the random movement of the waves that encircles you and overwhelms you with new and indescribable feelings. I knew I wanted to get to my destination, but I couldn’t picture how I would get there. I gradually met the visually impaired and the blind and, in the latter case, I kept my eyes closed during my entire conversation with them in order to experience the effort of activating my alternative perceptions to sight. So I was struck by how extraordinary the normal life of the blind is, what they define as “a life like any other.” I entered into a world full of emotions, where what struck me most was the tenacity and will of those who perceive a world with one less sense to live courageously and consciously. What can I say about the photographic results of theireyes? Astonishing! Magnificently impressive and mysteriously unknown forms and colors. My field research led to such extraordinary results that I decided to transfer my experience to the public througha path, a journey like the one I had undertaken, using the leitmotif of the eyes of my leading figures.
R.C. – Tell me about other projects you’ve developed as part of Occh-Io/Eye-I.
A.d.L. – In 2016, I had the chance to develop Never Give Up, a work completed in two days in the jail in Nisida, where I met 10 inmates I involved in a series of performances and interviews to stimulate a positive approach to life in them, both introspective and toward society. The outcome was a multisensory experience in a solitary-confinement cell, where the exhibition was staged. Curated by Guido Cabib, it featured photos and decals, all designed to help the audience reflect on the situations and emotions we tend not to perceive in our normal lives but that are necessary in order to grasp reality. Another interesting collective project was An Triebe im Wandel (Stimuli to Change), which I conducted a year ago at the Heidelberg University Museum. I asked students from all over the world about their propensity for/fear of change and the stimulus/competitiveness of a university environment that strives to make only the “best” emerge. Change starts from self-awareness and from “re-knowing”— recognizing—oneself.
R.C. – I know that the Blind Vision multimedia installation will be exhibited at Istituto Colosimo’s headquarters. How does your interaction with this group of 20 people become tangible in this work of art?
A.d.L. – Blind Vision is my way of transferring my experience to people, because I wanted to create a journey that starts from immersion in darkness to leave room for perception with other senses. The first step is a multimedia installation created in a dark gallery, where you feel completely immersed in a new dimension with the help of the light-box works, synchronized with the voices of the leading figures and sound-design effects. Then I wanted to create a tactile three-dimensional work (Essenza), executed with an iris that could transfer the absence of vision and an exhibition I called “A Journey of Light,” with set images of the creative process executed by Sergio Siano. From here, the journey—led by the young people at the Istituto Colosimo—arrives at the stage of the documentary, which details the approach used with the leading figures.
R.C. – Specifically, what is the concept of Essenza?
A.d.L. – For me, Essenza is wordplay that drags the cruel observation of absence—“è senza,” or “being without”— down from the height of a perception. In fact, the iris I chose is without a pupil, and the hands sink into emptiness.
R.C. – As you told me before, your creative process consists of a sort of performance in which you combine the resources of macro-photography with social research techniques. Do you always have a specific and predefined objective when you start each interaction?
A.d.L. – In my archive, I have more than a thousand pictures showing the broadest array of human types: from famous people like the Kennedys to social outcasts like the young people imprisoned at Nisida; from Hollywood actors like Antonio Banderas, Robert Davi and Jeremy Irons to the neediest of all, the homeless; from Italian television stars like Alessandro Preziosi and Barbara d’Urso to differently abled individuals. Everyone is welcome in front of my camera. I don’t have a specific aim except to move beyond appearances, to reach the deepest part of the people I meet. There is always an initial question that is the same for everyone, and it has to do with the meaning of life. From here we open doors to the broadest scenarios of personality. From here I start to get oriented so I can continue my introspective journey. My interaction is extremely spontaneous and I never follow set questions. They are oriented naturally based on what the other person wants to share.
R.C. – What differences or which analogies have you observed between the outcome of Nisida and that of Blind Vision?
A.d.L. – That under each person there is a world to discover, there is always something to learn, and this stimulates me to go even further.
R.C. – Through your artistic research, which matters of interest for human beings recurred during these personal interactions with different subjects?
A.d.L. – What emerged was the need to go beyond appearances, beyond stereotypes, beyond the expression of judgments to arrive at the “essence.” I think my works are a synthesis of the dichotomy between appearance and the reality typical of human nature. Machiavelli said, “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” I would say, “Everyone sees what they want to see.”
R.C. – Last year you developed a project commissioned by the lnternational Boat Show in Genoa. This
represented a sort of gaze opening onto the sea. Tell me about Sea Visions, 7 punti di vista and how it is tied to your research on perception.
A.d.L. – I developed my research to find a connection between gaze and identity; I also wanted to explore the “gaze of the sea” by executing the project Sea Visions, 7 punti di vista, commissioned by the International Boat Show in Genoa, with an essay by professor Luigi Caramiello. Within it, I developed a multimedia installation titled Sea Mirror, in which the human gaze encounters the gaze of the sea and its creatures. The installation includes spectacular irises from the fish realm, like the moray, the octopus, the blackspot seabream and the green wrasse. It is a multisensory experience backed by Paky Di Maio’s musical composition Sea Sounds. I was greatly inspired by Charles Baudelaire, who in Man and the Sea (1861) said, “Free man, you’ll love the ocean endlessly! | It is your mirror, you observe your soul | In how its billows endlessly unroll | Your spirit’s bitter depths are there to see.” As a result of this project for Genoa, I also created the installations titled Floating and The Womb of the World, through which I developed the concept of vision on the water and in the water. The mechanism of light refraction is not simply a factor of visual distortion; it can also be a magnifying glass. And we know how important the “blow up” can be, as it sometimes reveals the gap between reality and appearance. As Conrad said, “The sea is a metaphysical place: an isolated, ahistoric space, of fullness and solitude, in which spiritual conflicts reach extreme and radical positions with ease, and in which men find themselves, dramatically, grappling with the Absolute.” And continuing with this idea of seeking the “Absolute” within ourselves, as part of the Genoa project I also created Soul Scouting, a dramatic, luminous, giant iris positioned in a dark room, with narration by actor Alessandro Preziosi, who interprets the thrilling true story of three generations of fishermen. Soul Scouting is tied to my in-depth examination of the perception of the sea that comes from living in constant contact with it, from the fact that, for 20 years, I ran the family boat company. Fishermen experience the sea as a source of life but also an eternal antagonist, the companion of interminable days of waiting and silence. In the case of Stefano, the fisherman I met and who inspired my work, I was captivated by the stories of his experiences at sea and those handed down by his father and grandfather. Conrad wrote: You can find anything in the sea depending on the spirit that guides your search. The sea tells many tales, legends, stories of lives, fishing, voyages. You just have to look at it and the inspiration comes. To me the sea is an immense, ancient, open book one can leaf through and mine for endless stories. I always say that I feel seawater running through my veins; and the sea is a subject that I will always continue to develop through my works.
R.C. – You are exploring the possibility of creating a series linking the research into human perception that you developed in the Occh-Io/Eye-I project with jewelry design. This would emphasize that the symbolic value traditionally attributed to jewelry is the result of how society perceives it. Can you explain the concept behind Shining Visions, the project you are planning to develop that will incorporate diamonds?
A.d.L. – A diamond is a social construct. It is the eye that “creates” the diamond and, likewise, it is the eye that grasps its beauty and enchantment. But whereas the human eye is condemned to finitude, to transience, diamonds are truly “eternal.” The Greek word “adamas” means invincible, because it can win the battle with time, a battle that the human eye, that every individual, is inevitably destined to lose, as much as each of us may strive to “search for lost time.” On a very different scale, the iris also has something of this. Of all the exposed parts of the human body, it is the one that stays “young” the longest, maintaining those features, those geometric elements, those colors that are entirely part of the individual’s uniqueness. One of the characteristics that makes a diamond so special is its truly unique way of reflecting light. And this is also the characteristic that gives the diamond its brilliance, its “fire” and sparkle. In short, the brilliance of a diamond is its ability to capture white light and render it to the eye. In this sense, the distinctive beauty of a diamond, its incredible interplay of light, can be compared to the uniqueness of each human iris, which also sparkles in the light, with its rifts and roughness, protuberances and hollows, colors and details, solids and voids. After all, life itself is this never perfectly accomplished synthesis between presence and absence, difference and repetition, perpetuity and impermanence, balance and becoming, that fuel each other constantly.
R.C. – You recently completed the sculpture Uno, Nessuno e Centomila, which arose as a result of some of the testimonies you collected during your interactions. How does this piece contribute to this discussion about human perception?
A.d.L. – Yes, at the New York Scope Art Fair I presented my latest work of kinetic art on the identity crisis, Uno, Nessuno e Centomila, inspired by Pirandello’s novel. The contradiction between appearance and substance is central to Pirandello’s “vision.” The critique of illusions goes hand in hand with drastic distrust of the possibility of knowing reality. Any representation proves inadequate with respect to the unattainable truth of life, perceived as a continuous flow, a procession of ghosts, chaotic and unstoppable.
R.C. – How would you define the main objective of your artistic practice?
A.d.L. – As I said before, the essence of my artistic research focuses on perception from various viewpoints. I am interested in understanding how human beings perceive the world and how it manifests itself to them. My work is a sort of instrument that gives people the chance to share their experiences and reflect on the problems that currently affect daily life. Each of my works serves as a vehicle to bring new subjects to light.
R.C. – Which topic would you like to explore through your work in the near future?
A.d.L. – Faith has been a source of inspiration for all my work. In highlighting the uniqueness of each human being, my artistic research can only be a way for me to celebrate the creative work of God. My secret dream is to create a work on the concept of faith and life as a gift.
I have dedicated my artistic research to photographing people’s eyes to rediscover and underscore the uniqueness of every human being. When I shoot the iris, I begin a deep study of the person I interact with that transfers into me a trace of his or her life and enriches my soul. I conduct an interview with the individual I am photographing, and his intelligence, thoughtfulness and, mostly, humanity is an inspiration to me. Blind Vision is an important step in my research, because I chose to put myself in the shoes of visually impaired people to try to understand what it means to have the darkness ahead. Not being able to share a gaze, I opted for a physical contact and hand in hand they led me on an exciting journey, allowing me to discover alternative ways of perceiving the world. I wanted this project to encourage cultural and social integration of blind and visually impaired people and propose a supportive vision. I was afraid of finding a hopeless darkness, and yet it was a journey of light. I was struck by the strong vitality, balance and wisdom I perceived in many people I met. They live as everyone else, and they made me understand that the darkness does not exist, because the light, before it is outside, is inside us. My choice to photograph the eyes of the blind could be considered an intrusive gesture, but it actually is a wonderful window into alternative worlds.
Annalaura di Luggo
Annalaura di Luggo conceived Essenza to be perceived by the visually impaired. It is a piece with a disconcerting poetic charge. The sculpture was created utilizing as a model one of the photographed eyes that is missing a pupil. The artist devises a semantic game between the Italian word “essenza” (essence) and a very similar phrase with an opposite meaning “e’ senza” (without). In this work the absence is charged with presence, with meaning. It proclaims loudly that the essential is not in the material, but in the spiritual, in feelings, in the energy that moves the heart and the bodies of people who do not need to see in order to achieve their ends.