Franco Vimercati’s first major solo exhibition in Rome, entitled Il mondo in un granello di sabbia (The World in a Grain of Sand), curated by Susan Bright and with a critical text by Doris Von Drathen, is on display at La Galleria Nazionale in Rome. Franco Vimercati (Milan, 1940-2001) was a quiet, reserved and complex artist, little known to the majority of the public but, in any case, better known in the North of Italy than the South.
More than one hundred black-and-white photographs dating from 1974 to 2000 introduce us to a photographic practice involving more conceptual features than optical ones, which reduces showing to a secondary concern and turns towards a kind of contemporary metaphysics without enigmas. To a certain extent, these images can be traced back to Giorgio Morandi’s paintings, which are also immersed in metaphysical nuance, in the same way as they can be traced back to the series of works by American conceptual photographers, such as Ed Ruscha and Douglas Huebler, in the meticulousness and rigour of the photographic process that becomes performance. However, the truth is that Vimercati’s artistic activity represents a balance between these two ways of thinking about reality with the addition of a third element – the most hidden – the intrinsic and unexpected intimacy emanating from these structured photographs of objects that eschew the definition of still life. In fact, they contain no memento mori. The works are an architecture of everyday objects that become an architecture of expectation, evolving and stabilising into an architecture of existence, creating a kind of synecdoche.
Vimercati’s photographic series are absolute sublimations of contemplation. The piastrelle (tile) and parquet series are an important example of the artist’s work: the photographs look identical at first, but on close contemplation we discover that each work represents a different object. The photographed object is extremely detailed, situated in space with precise attention, each time lit in a different way, but never randomly – one of the few elements that allows us to glimpse the artist in this act of extreme rigour. The zuppiere (tureen) series is the clearest example in this respect: an immense number of photographs, all different, depicting the same small object, which is an everyday object with no special features, if you like. An object becomes a mirror because it reflects the very practice of photography which, in turn, is Vimercati’s artistic filter. Between the artist and the object, we see a basic technical route, giving us a clear view of the purity of the photographic act which emerges from this extreme practice. In this respect, the Capovolte (Upside Down) series represents a paradigm: the small objects, sometimes out of focus, but also in this case extremely balanced, are positioned upside down exactly as the artist saw the image in the plate cameras he used.
The subject of Vimercati’s photographs is always the same – photography. And so, at this point we see a resemblance we would never have imagined on our first viewing, the tautological attitude of another artist from Milan: Piero Manzoni. Of course, the process is very different but similarly revolutionary. Vimercati needs a subject to be photographed, he needs realism, a mirror that reflects the technical qualities of the technological medium. He cannot afford abstraction which, as Man Ray has shown us, loses photographic essentiality by polluting itself with optical absoluteness. Vimercati is interested in the photographic act and not its optical process. Photographing photography means repetition rather than reproduction, it means freezing an instant but not freezing an event (the objects photographed by the artist are emotionally void).
There is also another important focus in Vimercati’s decade-long research, that of time, best demonstrated in his series Un minuto di fotografia (A Minute of Photography). This is a series of photographs representing an alarm clock photographed every five seconds for one minute. Time for Vimercati is not fluid. Instead, it is highly atomised and he represents it as if it were a metronome. He does not lengthen the time of his camera to catch the blur – the futurist time, i.e. of human action – but ‘limits’ himself to shooting atomic instants among the infinities that structure existence. He does this methodically with a model, almost scientifically, but betrayed, as mentioned above, by the weak yet extreme intimacy that bounces between the object and the artist through the camera.
The world in a grain of sand – in a soup tureen, in a bottle of mineral water, in the shadow of a coffee pot. A cosmology of essential references in “banal” photographs of everyday objects placed in a neutral space, still life disguised, with the black and white accentuating the composition and cooling the experience but, nevertheless, totally focused on the alienating contemplation of photographic products. The exhibition, arranged thematically, can be easily enjoyed, a fact that should not be taken for granted, especially with an artist like Vimercati, who approaches the ontology of contemporary photography and simultaneously reveals, with the right amount of patience, how the cold medium of photography is able to reveal the photographer beyond the photographic impression.
Franco Vimercati. The World in a Grain of Sand / Il mondo in un granello di sabbia, curated by Susan Bright
Galleria Nazionale, Rome, 07.06 – 10.09.2023
The exhibition was realised in collaboration with Archivio Franco Vimercati and Raffaella Cortese Gallery
images: (cover 1) Franco Vimercati, «Senza titolo (Zuppiera)», 1991, Courtesy: Archivio Franco Vimercati, Milano and Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milano © Eredi Franco Vimercati (2) Franco Vimercati, «Senza titolo (Zuppiera)», 1983 (3) Franco Vimercati, «Capovolte», 1995 (4) Franco Vimercati, «Capovolte», 1996 (5) Franco Vimercati, «Un minuto di fotografia», 1974 (6) Franco Vimercati, «Il mondo in un granello di sabbia», Galleria Nazionale, Roma, installation view