“A photograph, while recording what has been seen, always…refers to what is not seen.” (John Berger)
The Iron Curtain of COVID has been miraculously pulled aside for my travel to Italy just in time for me to attend the launch of an exhibition of which I was a curator. The curatorial text I wrote about it is very different from what you will be reading now. This show has travelled to Tel-Aviv, Teheran, and Paris, but nowhere was it represented as well as it is now, in Todi, a medieval Umbrian town on top of a hill. The show, Inhabited Deserts, consists of 58 large-scale black and white analogue photographs of deserts, by John Pepper, who travelled tens of thousands of miles to the most distant lands to get these images.
While each picture offers its own “routes” for interpretation, and the viewers have almost infinite possibilities to flex out their imagination and develop their individual take-outs, the 58-strong collection of these images has a clearly defined plot.
It is a graphic novel of the fight between chaos and order. The single point on which both Creationism and physics are in agreement is that life is created out of chaos. It is the method of creation they don’t see eye to eye about. Be it the divine will or the result of billions of years of molecules’ randomly bumping each other, life can’t survive without order, because the chaos that has borne life is naturally inclined to immediately consume it unless stopped by low-entropy guardians. At the same time, order hates life because the latter is mostly disorderly, so life’s survival depends on the delicate balance achieved in the fight between chaos and order.
You may wonder now what life I am referring to as deserts in the photographs have no visible animation.
I am talking about the life of ideas, thoughts, and concepts in the mind of the viewer that the fight between and balance of chaos and order in Pepper’s photographs are meant to create and sustain.
In my original essay, I tried to provide a guide for enjoying individual images. Those precious few who don’t shun curatorial texts could walk with me through a series of photographs while I was pointing out art history references, unique graphic properties, highly engaging compositions, or the original balance of light and dark areas that were creating tension and drama.
But the show’s total effect is something beyond the aesthetic enjoyment of its individual pieces. Walking through the show can be seen as a meditation method that involves the accumulation of impressions from each photograph that climaxes at the Aha!-moment when a new idea is born. The viewer steps inside a picture and spends some time there, then steps out and dives into the next one. While on the inside, the viewer may feel oneself a small god whose mind is revived and recharged enough to produce a spark of a new thought. Dive after dive, these sparks make a fire, and something new and exciting pops up in the viewer’s mind. No colour is necessary – the show is not about taking your divine mind on a tour of easy wows. Your ideas, created inside the photographs, give them colour – whichever rainbow combination of them you fancy.
This is why I thought that putting a trough of sand in the middle of the hall could be a good idea.
Its purpose is not to remind people of sand. It is there to allow people, consciously or subconsciously, to stretch out their hand and make a physical act of creation. A letter, a drawing, a symbol – anything will do because everything becomes an act of creation. A photograph gives birth to a thought, and the thought triggers an action. Here’s the ultimate paradox – a photograph, physically, is dead matter, perfectly ordered and orderly. Yet it gives life to an immaterial idea in the mind of the viewer that induces action, seemingly random and unconscious, but an act of creation nonetheless. On the surface, this creationist act can be tiny and inconsequential, but who hasn’t heard of the butterfly effect? Who knows what shape the ideas born in the fight of chaos and order will take, given some “cooking time”, a little talent, and some effort?
Coming back to Berger’s quote at the beginning of this post, I want to expand it a bit. A photograph, while recording what has been seen, always…refers to what is not seen, and sometimes, what hasn’t come into existence yet.
P.S. The funny thing is that art historians may not have realised it yet, but John Pepper’s work has just stretched the definition of photography as a form of art.
P.P.S. If you happen to be in Italy any time before the end of November, make a stop in or a detour to Todi – let me know what you think and what trace have you left in the sand.