Fulvio Ventura, conference-projection at the Faculty of Architecture, Polytechnic University, Milan, Italy, 1994
Ladies and gentlemen,
I accepted with pleasure professor Nava’s invitation to give a lecture with slides, manly, I should say, for selfish reasons. In fact for about twenty years, faithful to the saying “baker do your job”, I always refused to comment upon or to explain the work I was involved in, because I believe that exist a visual thinking different and complementary to verbal thinking and not reducible to it, just as no one would dream of pureeing a good plate of spaghetti unless the person who is supposed to eat it is totally unable to chew: at this point, though, I believe that he won’t give a damn about pureed spaghetti, and the logic of his meals would be completely different from ours. To make myself clear I was convinced that to describe verbally and to represent visually were to complementary activities like eating and drinking. I am also no certain how big a role laziness had in my choice; I didn’t have to wait for the results and they were tragic. In short, the least disagreeable result was of being misunderstood. Now I realize that you are taking your final exams and the reason for you to come here is to gain some insight, and you are right. Therefore, I now offer you something useful: one word of advice for your future career of college graduates: do not let yourself be labelled as equivocal or limitative professionals.
To go back to myself, if my autonomous photographic work about landscape was concerning what was left of a nature which I won’t call virgin but still not so degraded by human intervention so that it could be seen and photographically represented as a place of “apparitions”, quote on quote, well shortly I found myself labelled as a photographer of gardens. I will not say the label did not have its positive sides; to be asked to photograph gardens helped me to survive. As far as I am concerned, though, my work was rather more extensive and complex.
I will explain: one of the founding fathers of photography, Alfred Stieglitz, during the twenties, took several photographs of clouds and titled them Equivalents, but I am not aware that he took the trouble to diffusely and verbally explain to what those images were equivalent. Perhaps because he had already gained some fame as a portrait’s photographer, nobody ever dreamed to label him a meteorologist.
Now the title Equivalents can be applied without problem to a large part of photography which was able to combine formal knowledge, an adequate technique and a visionary quality. I do not know if some of you were here last year too and attended the lecture-show of Gabriele Basilico. I don’t believe that Basilico would object if someone would define his photographs equivalent, rather than see them as a sort of illustrative architectural-urbanistic-sociological tables.
I will therefore try to explain something about equivalence, specifically of my photographs, starting from the exotic and slightly pretentious title and the subtitle which makes my story more modest and reasonable. Lon, Sien, Jen: in Chinese Dragons, Immortals and Men.
The photographs were taken in two geographical areas: in the South of France, that is Drome, Vaucluse, Var and Haute Provence and, in Italy, on the Piedmont shore of Lake Maggiore, especially on the territory that was the wartime partisan republic of Ossola. What do Chinese dragons have to do with it? Well, if I lean out of my study window what I see before my eyes, across the sheet of water of the lake, is a flawless specimen of a dragon, although devoid of a leg: and of his amputation I highly suspect human intervention. For those of you who are somewhat familiar with the Chinese doctrine of Feng Shui, everything should be enough clear. For those among you who are not at all acquainted, because of time constraint I will limit myself to a couple of quotations and a small bibliographic information. But in order to avoid right now more misunderstandings like the one of the Ventura-botanist, I want to make this clear right now: I am not an expert of Feng Shui, in fact if anyone is more knowledgeable, I will be happy to stay in touch with him in the future.
Yet, before talking again about Feng Shui, I believe it is appropriate to read to you a short writing by Ceronetti, included in the collection of articles and essays bearing the title La carta e’ stanca (The paper is tired) published in the seventies, and in my opinion still very valid, although I cannot say the same about Ceronetti of the most recent years.
So, here is Ceronetti in the seventies.
A tree without Gods, without fate, without transcendent meanings, is already a dead tree. Against the destructive passion of the deconsecrated man, it is defenseless.
If, in a courtyard, there is a cedar of Lebanon older than the Pyramids which impedes eleven lawyers, nine business men, three dentists one photographer, one pediatrician from parking their cars, it is immediately cut down. But if the cedar of Lebanon is connected with the belief that, if it is cut, then the whole building will collapse, because together with the tree the genius of the place will also die, reverent fear will prevent his being cut.
Man withdrawn from the sacred can only do what is doing; do not ask him to honor what for him is not an obscure and unforeseeable reality. Haudricort and Hedin’s belief that all the trees grown right now were originally sacred, and for this reason only, they survived, should be retained. At the apex of secularization there is only destruction.
So little power has reason in human actions, that the destruction of trees goes on, even though reason, awaken from its sleep, is screaming that this destruction has to stop. Ecological rationalism asserts that we have to save the green (but what is the green?) otherwise the air becomes unbreathable and great is its amazement on seeing that its advice for survival bears no results. Survival does not concern concretely the human soul: the answer of heart is icy cold. What we are looking for is not the survival of the species (but what is the species?), is a meaning to life.
Trees are not the green: they are “our big immovable brothers”, a hairy, moist and horned people, whose distinctive feature, inconceivable for men, is a boundless goodness. They cannot survive without an unselfish devotion: we only frightened them. And ecology will fail, because its mental horizon is not different, deep down, from the one of the destroyers.
Let me explain: It is not Ceronetti intention to write a manifest in order to start a new ecology based on mythology or religion. Nor I want to be its illustrator. It all depends on how much time and space one wants to give to the rationality we have in ourselves. If in you prevail a rational attitude, nothing prevents you from considering Ceronetti writing as a splendid metaphor. On the other hand, if you do no mind a more freak-happy go lucky attitude nothing prevents you, on the first sunny weekend from going to some wooded area free from too many tourists and boy scouts and putting to your walking ego a nice pair of Husserl parenthesis and like a big mystic insect finally pull out your (metaphorical) antennas and have a good time.
But our rationalist friend doesn’t let go: metaphor of what? he’ll ask me. It’s true, it’s a matter of taste, and the rationalist is also “an honourable citizen”, as the Shakespearian Anthony would say.
Time is running out and let’s try to make it short: behind all this there two fundamental attitudes regarding the cosmos, either the world is κόσμος, cosmos, that is to say beautiful, according to the Greek etymology, is a good thing, as is written in the Genesis, or is something similar to a ball of dung according to a whole sect of cosmos haters way more numerous in the western culture than one can imagine, and is not limited to it. Personally, since I was a child, I had chosen the first hypothesis and therefore I can talk about this one only. And in the minds of the family of cosmos lovers, to quote Marx, a ghost willingly wanders. Is the idea of the Anima Mundi (the Soul of the World), or if we prefer of a cosmos alive and well (a soul which can easily divide itself into a plurality of souls). Such vision of the world it not so far from our own thinking: I believe that it was deeply rooted in that very classic Greece which gave birth to the beginnings of the western science. (See The Homeric Hymns).
Unfortunately, I have to rush a bit, our time is running out and your attention span has been tested long enough. Indeed, I will not only run, but jump. And here I can jump back to Feng Shui: For those who do not know, wat is it? Very briefly is an interpretation of the cosmos in terms of Ch’i.
The Ch’i is the active energy which runs through forms. As such is responsible for the forms mutations, which is a distinctive feature of all the living beings, the earth included.
The Ch’i acts at all levels. At the human level is the energy running through the meridians, of the body acupuncture. At the agricultural level is the power, which if not stagnant, yields fruitful crops. At the climate level is the energy carried by winds and waters.
In Tao Magic (1975, p.3), Lazlo Legeza explains the Ch’i as follows:
The Ch’i, the Vital Force, permeates the Taoist world. Is the Cosmic Spirit which gives life and infuses itself in all things, giving energy to mankind, life to nature, motion to water, growth to plants. It is exhaled from the mountains, where the spirits reside, taking form of clouds and mists, therefore the wavy motions of the clouds, the mist, and the air imbued with the smoke which exhales from burning incense is a typical representation of the Ch’i in Chinese art.
Take notice of the importance given to the clouds and to the mist, feng and shui, they form the dragons in the air. The dragon draws a Ch’i course-line like the tiger, his second lead, does. Now nothing prevents you from giving a similar explanation in terms of electromagnetism. It really looks, based on reports from western science, that the earth is crossed over by mutable electromagnetic meridians. But talking about dragons, according to the answer given by a computer, (who, then had programmed it?) to a geologist friend of mine, is more beautiful. And above all, this concept opens the way to that attitude regarding the world so well described by Walter Friedrich Otto in The Greek Gods.
In the Greeks world, divinity doesn’t rule natural events as a sovereign power: but reveals oneself in the forms of nature itself, as their essential being. If in other cultures miracles happen, in the Greek spirit the greatest miracle takes place because is able to see objects trough living experience in such a way that they can disclose to them the venerable outlines of the divine, without losing anything of their natural reality.
Shall we become phrenetic as a video clip? Then from Greece let’s go back to China and we shall summon the Immortals: Chinese Taoist tradition. Eight are the most famous, but it seems that there are many more. For those who want to know more, I will refer you to the great book by Kristopher Schipper, The Taoist body. Here is enough to say that that they seem to have a happy disposition, move at ease in the air and tend to keep proper distance from human beings but, if invited, they gladly take part in festivities and banquets, although invisible or under strange appearances. But do they have anything to do with what was said before? A good question. Any how I will read to you what Shitao, a Chinese painter and theorist from the eighteen century, wrote In his book about painting, chapter 11, paragraph 6, titled Vertigo:
In it is the vision of a universe inaccessible to mankind, without roads to reach it, like are the mountains of Bohai, Penglai and Fanghu; here only the Immortals can dwell, the common man cannot fathom it; is the vertigo, just as exists in the natural universe; in order to express it in painting one has to portrait rugged peaks, precipices, suspension bridges, extraordinary depths.
And with this nostalgia of time past we look at the external world, our gaze becomes an ethical feeling, the possible way to search and relate places that we cannot longer recognize and that denies us any ability to understand them, as though they were fallen under an evil and science fiction like spell which swept them away.
Among the tangled threads of the forever the same, of the indifferent repetition in the shapeless space, kingdom of analogy and quantity, photography can, through fragments and intuitions, small variations of the light, the evidence of a color, the details of a facade, the features of a face, an unexpected space, transforms for us all this in small certainties, in small worlds to be joined together in order to mark out a possible path as if they were Little Thumb’s pebbles.
I think that we can start the projection or, if you wish, the magic lantern.