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27.10.2016 | fondazione zegna

The art of Dan Graham seen by Biella photographer Roberto Ghiardo

Two Way Mirror / Hedge Arabesque, a work of art, photography and reality, on display in Trivero, on Sunday 5 June

Two Way Mirror / Hedge Arabesque is a steel and glass pavilion split in two by a tall yew hedge created in 2014 by the American artist Dan Graham in the Conca dei Rododendri, in Trivero. A two-way mirror (differentially reflective glass) has a unique optical property: one side is transparent, while the other reflects light, like a mirror. On entering the pavilion, the spectator is captured by a continually altering play of mirrors reflecting the movements of the visitors, the light conditions and changes in the surrounding landscape. Dan Graham’s glass pavilion, partly transparent and partly reflective, is not so much an object to look at as an instrument to look with, as a camera can be. We used this concept to open an interview with Biella photographer Roberto Ghiardo on art, photography and reality.   Contemporary art, thanks also to the advent of photography, freed itself from slavish reproduction of reality, but at the same time photography too devoted itself to transforming reality. Is distortion of reality through a lens an art form then? Yes. We see it in photographs by the greats. Certain black & white images by the photographer Elliott Erwitt come to mind, for example, from a series in which he photographed people and dogs together. In a certain sense he distorted reality with his lens by taking shots of the dogs and their owners from ground level. If he’d taken the photos standing up, he would have produced completely different images, with another kind of distortion.   Graham often does optical experiments in his work using convex two-way mirrors to create a unique experience for the spectator. In photography too, wide-angle or telephoto lenses deform reality: they accentuate perspective, subjects close up seem disproportionately large and so on... How does the focal length of a lens distort reality? Lenses are “bionic” eyes that enable us to get closer to a distant object, with a telephoto lens for example, or widen our visual horizons by changing the focal length with a wide-angle lens. Every lens has its own physical characteristics that produce a more or less distorted image. Some lenses are designed to do just that in fact, such as the fisheye, a complex combination of lenses that makes it possible to reproduce on the sensor an image that’s distorted but at the same nice to look at.   Photography and mirrors. Both reproduce reality, but what’s the difference? I think the difference lies in the fact that photography adds at least two things compared to mirrors. Time: every photo we look at has “imprisoned” in itself a “temporal moment” that may be more or less long, and this is one of the choices the photographer makes before shooting. The second difference is depth of field, ie. the possibility to isolate the subject of the photograph by focusing.   In Dan Graham’s mirrors the reflected image is fleeting, at times almost ghostlike. Might we say that photography is a “mirror with a memory”? Yes. I would define photography as a mirror with a special, temporal memory, different from that of a video for example, in which time is articulated by the individual frames. In photography, time is “memorized” in just one frame, which we can’t break down afterwards. In photography, the concept of time is fundamental. If I want to photograph a raindrop falling on a leaf or the movement of the stars in a summer’s night, the choice of the “time”, of how much reality I want to capture in my photo, is vitally important, but once I’ve taken the photo that time is trapped.   The illusion produced by Dan Graham’s mirrors is twofold: not only is light reflected frontally but it also comes from behind the surface, while the spectator too becomes part of the work of art together with what she sees in front of herself and what is behind her. Photography is always characterized by bi-dimensionality or can it go beyond that? Yes, I think the answer can be found in the definition of the word photography as “drawing with light”. The depth of a photograph is the result of the photographer’s interpretation and use of the light available at that moment. Giving importance to the areas of light and shade is vital. Otherwise you’ll get a photo that’s “flat”. All these elements must obviously be backed up by the photographer’s vision, by a capacity to understand and interpret the environment and light conditions and exploit them as effectively as possible to obtain an image that’s not two-dimensional.   In photography, with long exposure times, human subjects turn evanescent and ghostly, and we see this in Dan Graham’s work too. What sort of relationship is there between real objects, photographic images and the mirror? I think that what real objects, photographic images and mirrors have in common is light. Let’s imagine ourselves in a dark room for a moment, with these three objects: an apple, a camera and a mirror. Without light we can’t use any of them. If we decide to photograph the apple or look at its reflection in the mirror, the result will be the same. But if we light a simple candle, it all starts to take shape and be observable in the mirror or through the camera lens. Light is the fundamental element without which art too becomes meaningless.   How has photography, and therefore representation of reality, been changed by digital technology? Digital technology brought about a veritable revolution in the world of photography. Photography has become an integral part of everyday life. Think of social networks, smartphones, photos exchanged by friends, photos in advertising. Sometimes though, it’s fake reality, made of perfect colors, improbably blue skies. I think photography is losing a fundamental part of itself, its content, the desire to tell a story, convey something to the whoever looks at it.   We look forward to seeing you in Trivero on Sunday 5 June to discover this fascinating work. There will be three sessions: a guided tour in the Conca dei Rododendri at 10.00, then at 15.00 and lastly a guided tour at 17.00, with Andrea Zegna, curator of the All’Aperto project.   Information Casa Zegna Tel. 015 7591463 archivio.fondazione@zegna.com

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