Alessandra Baldoni, Atlas

Dem zwischen religiöser und mathematischer Weltanschauung schwankenden künstlerischen Menschen kommt nun das Gedächtnis sowohl der Kollektivpersönlichkeit wie des Individuums in einer ganz eigentümlichen Weise zur Hilfe: nicht ohne weiteres Denkraum schaffend, wohl aber an den Grenzpolen des psychischen Verhaltens die Tendenz zur ruhigen Schau oder orgiastischen Hingabe verstärkend.

Both the collective and the subjective memory come to the aid, in a very peculiar way, to the man-artist who oscillates between religious conception and mathematical perceptions of the world. This does not only create space for thought, but in fact strengthens the two pole-limits of the psychic attitude: quiet contemplation and orgiastic abandonment.

The Atlas project by Alessandra Baldoni finds inspiration in the writings of Aby Warburg. Einleitung to the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne. To understand this complex conceptual work, it is necessary to retrace the Warburgrian thought through a series of fundamental dissertations.

Warburg’s research inaugurated the study of iconology through his meticulous attention to documents and materials that generally would not fall under the study of art history and his method of study goes well beyond the traditional boundaries between disciplines. By working against the purely aesthetic interpretation of the artistic work, Warburg opened up the scope to a completely new field of research and study.

The breadth of Warburg’s spectrum of interests is based on the “good neighbour rule” which requires thematic and conceptual affinity between the texts. His Library, which is now in London at the Warburg Institute, is a clear example of his elaborated studies and the Atlas of images entitled to memory “Mnemosyne” although unfinished due to his death, is nevertheless, his most original legacy, representing his rich life-research. 

In Mnemosyne Warburg interrogates the Western tradition on the permanence of forms of art from the Ancient Italian and Northern European Renaissance by investigating them, discovering hidden reoccurring mechanisms and by questioning arguments left unsolved.

According to Warburg, the thought is configured as a frequency which ranges between the fantasy world and the rational world, between the religious perspective and the mathematical perspective. Within the artistic creation, the awareness of this frequency is enhanced by memory, both social and individual. However, memory does not act or intervene as a stabilising element, an anchor, of traditional heritage but instead increases the distance between the two poles and therefore between the more passionate and religious impulses of the artist with its rational perception and the structure of reality that science imposes to us as rational thinking. Within this context, the artistic act is placed halfway between contemplation and action. It grasps empirical aspects of reality within a unique and precise form of expression but it also abandons itself completely to it in an adulatory manner: the phases of this polar process were for Warburg a privileged object of study, becoming a “psychological history through images”. 

At the heart of this process of study there is therefore a de-demonisation of the artistic gestures and the ranges of human emotions in all their dynamism, which can be retraced and outlined in a “diagnosis of the Western man”. This theme manifests particularly in the exhilarating but risky experience of the intellectual man of the Renaissance period, which, having emerged from the cultural climate of the Middle Ages, takes appropriation of the “forbidden” and the “impious” ways of art representation, inspired by the figurative heritage of the pagan world.

Initially, Mnemosyne, is conceived simply as an inventory of images, an instrument that helps in understanding the formation of style and depictions from the Renaissance period through the use of ancient forms. In reality, it is a pioneering work, based on a comparative method that evaluates the permanence of the expressive value of images not only from a historical-artistic point of view but also from a socio-psychological perspective. By focusing on “a few main types of artists” and by investigating the assumptions and consequences of their artistic work, Mnemosyne configures a much more complex structure of meaning, becoming a fundamental piece of writing for the historical memory of the Western world and its cultural future.

The fundamental way of reading the Mnemosyne module tables is by adopting the concept of Pathosformel, which is the identification within the image of a content or expression from a superior unit, and is therefore of such expressive importance that it goes beyond any stylistic modification through time. With the help of a linguistic analogy this concept can be defined as the “gesture to the superlative degree”, finding within that content or form of expression its exemplary representation.

The result of this process is a strong emotional intensity that becomes an engram: an experience that is engraved within the cultural memory, becoming part of a hereditary heritage. This experience does not limit itself to the enjoyable aesthetic appreciation of an expressive sign but, quite oppositely, it must be investigated more in depth, with the perspective of a  “biologist” or “entomologist”, such as in the chrysalis-butterfly metaphor. 

The variation of meaning is fundamental for Warburg, and finds historical reoccurrence with the preservation of ancient monuments such as in the case of the Trajan reliefs of the Arch of Constantine, which, thanks to a revival of the “imperial pathos within Christian piety”, avoided being destructed: the antithesis and the continuity between the pagan and Christian world is another core theme of Mnemosyne.

In this regards, the return of ancient forms of expression put forward by Renaissance artists was not only the result of historical awareness or stylistic empathy, but also an act of deep intellectualism.

The acquisition of a new perspective on the ancient was a real conquest for the Renaissance artist and with this process the pagan world underwent two fundamental “unmasking” before being seen in its “olympic” clarity: the first against the monstrous creatures that survived in the Eastern Hellenistic astrology, the second against ancient figures dressed in contemporary French costumes. Although these “masks” were anti-classical expressions, they constituted two legitimate and scrupulous vehicles for the transmission of ancient inheritance, and were now perceived as unacceptable camouflages: another fundamental theme of Mnemosyne is the underlining of the stages of stratification on original ancient forms of expression.

In Mnemosyne the Eastern, Northern and Italian conceptions of the ancient are considered for the first time in ‘unison’ with the formation of the Renaissance style. This last, despite having an obvious predominance of the Roman style, is the result of an exchange of expressive values coming from North and South due to international migration that needs to be studied from both its intensive and extensive point of view.

With this introduction we can now enter Alessandra Baldoni’s Atlas where the role of the artist goes beyond the scope of creation to become a sort of demiurge, an organiser and a custodian of memory. Inspired by the fundamental role of poets in the transmission of myths, Alessandra elevates the role of photography to be the anchor of memory, time and places. 

With its provocative allusion to the conceptual poetics of non-places, Alessandra Baldoni’s research is devoted to the conquest of an existential dimension where time, in its relationship with identity through its systematic recourse of the memory, is the protagonist. 

The choice of Alessandra Baldoni to cut and mend moments into a reasoned alliteration scheme is justified by the axiom: “Cutting is thinking and seeing.”  The cut therefore reorganises and semantically links images and emotions, similarly to knitting. The camera shot therefore marks and gives life to a new reality which is completely conceptual and iconic. In Atlas, the cutting transforms non-places and generates a window, opening infinite spaces. Often the process starts with memories within the creative act of the artist and the development is the construction of new settings expressed through a subjective and universal language.

Alessandra’s association of elements and settings therefore interpret a world that goes beyond the poetic vision of the artist and beyond the rigidity of the physical world, recreating an analytical representation of reality fused with whirlwinds of senses and impressions in a conceptual scheme of photography that becomes a model of study.

In this way Alessandra Baldoni manages to photograph concepts. The shots of the Atlas project are the continuous attempt to anchor a thought, correspondingly to the Lacanian mirror stage. The idea of stopping for a moment to preserve the image from its dissolution does not belong to Alessandra’s intent on identifying the remote balance between artistic creation and image. Photographing these concepts is for Alessandra a rhetorical question: “Can images communicate effectively a philosophical or a poetic thought?”. The answer is enclosed in her works, within the representation of a precarious reality that turns its meaning to an inner world. A world conceived beyond its mere appearance.

Like a theatre within the theatre of existence, art and image become a thought that develops into language and eventually into word. And from the strength of the verb, new horizons are born where photography tightens a series of links between the concepts of existence and expression, modifying the points of interference between the physical world and the subjective experience. Atlas is therefore built as a process of self-reflective intertextuality and the images go through contemporary and ancient poetics. Thusly, the gesture of photographing becomes object and subject, finding strength in its own performative act, sometimes anticipating and sometimes capturing later the events of the scene. Yet, always capturing, by choice or by chance, an exemplary and recognisable moment, seizing it along with the analytical eye of the artist.

Atlas is the construction of an invisible language where nothing is delivered by chance and nothing is improvisation or a casual inspiration. Everything is part of a designed construction in which the innumerable shades of color tones mark the moment of representation. In this way, Atlas presents itself as a project of images where poetry and philosophy dialogue in a discontinuous and personal language. In this project, Baldoni presents photography like an idea that always belongs to the concept of time. Not only with the past but above all with the concept that time stretches and recomposes itself. Poised between the dead-time of the past and the time in which the work is born, Alessandra dialogues with a few distinguishable concepts of time: the subjective, the mourning, the memory and the fruition.

In this interrelation of time concepts, photography becomes poetry and semantics.

Baudelaire said: “Tirer l’eternel du transitire”, and this statement finds full justification in Atlas, a work punctuated by the tension in between being both documentation and poetry. A tension that is also combined with an analytical attention based on profound poetry and reflection on time, life, death, transit, memory, appearance and absence, redefining that added value that Walter Benjamin called the optical unconscious.

Order, rigor and the analysis of these works are the confirmation that the artist-process, when constructing Atlas, does not recall the theme of memory to simply its suggestions. Contrarily, it deeply questions the dimensions of time with experience, work and everyday life research, starting from the analysis of nature and resulting with the structuring of a language similarly to the French of Boltanski.

Exquisitely and purposely conceptual, Alessandra Baldoni therefore experiments with extreme margins and structures, going well beyond the simple image to the point of venturing a semantic deconstruction of the photographic language, recomposing it through combinations inspired by Warburg. Her process is therefore anything but random, according to the logic of resemblance and representation which determines a discontinuity between things and perceptive habits, and nearly touches the thin line that separates the conscious from the subconscious, the idea from the image.

With Atlas photography surpasses itself and takes on the role of art, of conceptual intervention on reality. External disturbances, exhortations and/or personal suggestions are subjected to a cognitive process of reason. The viewer, in front of the absolute need to look inside her work, is confronted with the challenge of time and the sense of eternity, going much beyond the conscious time of the present and of contemporary stories. In this process her photographs do not have just simple meaning or value. Rather, they detect an inner and subjective condition typical of our time, both authentic and tangible, with respect to the mystifying use of the image of the world today, which is credited as certain in the social media and instagrammers era.

The poetry of Alessandra’s images is photography that is both a tool for the symbolic reconstruction of time and an immediate form of representation, according to the logic of an ambiguous Duchampian ready-made. We are therefore intrigued by various interpretative options and yet, we cannot be sure which one is the right one. Ambivalence and plurality make her process contemporary.

Atlas is a work on time and of testimony of existence through scenographic moments of life, transforming the value intrinsic within the poetic expression into a recurrent and evocative element of her series. Alessandra manages to coincide, in alternation between past and present, in which the future is conceptually revealed through its association with memory, both the presence and the absence within reality.

Within Atlas, metaphors of a fragmentary and fragile contemporaneity are recomposed, yet contemporaneity is not immune to the expectation and the search for an ideal beauty.

Alessandra Baldoni takes us, through her eyes, into our own and frightfully beautiful world.