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Bellum - Critical essay


by Romina Zanon [Arte Trentina. N. 6 – January 2021]

[translation by Chris Culy, 2021]


"Even grammarians have intuited the nature of war: some claim that it is called "bellum" by antithesis, because it has nothing good, nor beautiful [...]. Others prefer to derive the word 'bellum' from 'bellua', belva: because it is for beasts, not for men, to engage in mutual extermination". This reflection by Erasmus of Rotterdam represents the conceptual preamble to "Bellum", the latest visual work by experimental photographer Paolo Aldi (resident in Nomi). The work - which consists of ten polyptychs, each of which takes the shape of a sequence of twelve images - represents a visual reflection on contemporary society torn apart by cruel wars of self-destruction and by an exhausting crisis of moral values that manifests itself in the loss of the individual, prey to false modern myths. A humanity unprepared for the unnatural speed of progress and victim of the loneliness imposed by the brutal mechanisms of today's society becomes the protagonist of the panels of "Bellum" titled with names of an archaic and mythological flavor, as if to imply that nothing seems to have changed in the profound nature of humankind: IRA or The destruction of the world, HECATONCHEIRES or Death comes from the sky, URANUS or The extermination of the children, MITHRA or The rejection of propaganda, VAYU or The suffocation of the peoples, HARPOCRATES or I don't want to hear, CRONUS or The self-castration of humanity, IXTAB or The suicide, MNEMOSYNE or The desire not to lose memory, AHOEITU or The search for recomposition.

In each polyptych - made up of narrative series of consequential images one after the other according to a paratactic logic - the allegory of the self-destruction of humanity takes the form of the naked body of a woman who draws metaphorical visions moved by a futuristic dynamism. The photographic seriality breaks down gestures and movements of the female figure which, being a mixture of appearance and reality, presence and representation, opens up aesthetic horizons of surrealistic memory: the body, being shifted into another dimension of signification, becomes the pivotal subject of the staging of contemporary social dramas in the meanings delineated above. Crossing the boundaries of her own anatomy and continuously exploring the possibilities of her own body-form, the figure goes beyond the dimension of perceptible reality, expressing or evoking, also through the use of props, the tormented unconscious of contemporary society in apparitions that stir the "Unheimliche", that is, a perturbing sensation. The presence of the bodies, which are offered without shame or complacency to the gaze, is perceived as familiar and alien at the same time ,causing anxiety combined with a feeling of disorder and alteration ("The uncanny is that sort of frightening that goes back to what is known to us for a long time, to what is familiar" wrote Sigmund Freud in The uncanny, 1919). Real and fictitious, truth and manipulation are merged.  There is no longer any distinction between reality, constructed image, staging and allegory: the body, through a metamorphosis, becomes a visual metaphor that disconcerts the representation in its whirlwind of gestures and fragmented volumes. Aldi conceives the photographic image not as a composition aiming at an internal aesthetic harmony, but as the place of a confrontation, if not a conflict, of forces and shapes that precisely through their contrast evoke the sense of simultaneous dramas. Through a particular use of chiaroscuro and lighting - a paradigmatic accessory for the relevant materiality with which it shapes surfaces and volumes - the convexities and concavities of the bodies assume a particular importance in drawing the dynamic game of movements; in the same way, the sharp shadows that mark the bodies and the objects seem to absorb the darkness of the black space in a tonal fusion of real forms and metaphysical spaces. The objects of the mise-en-scene (maps, newspapers, hammers, nails, televisions, pens) - which, acting as an annex or extension of the body, allow the woman-allegory to express herself in purely iconographic registers - are a fundamental part of the representation. On closer inspection, despite the dramatic nature of Aldi's narration, the objects make it possible to visualize the inner forces of the human figure, giving it a vivid presence. They represent containers of meanings that she combines in space, creating between them new levels of signification.

The dynamic interaction of forces of compensation and confrontation between the body and the objects gives way, in the last two paintings, to a different narration: the human figure is marked with evocative graphic lines to signify the importance of memory and the need for a collective rebirth. In the plot of the story there is a faint hope of a new humanism: to the dissolution of absolute values, as well as of ideologies, of memory and of moral values, we do not react now with a sense of anguish, bewilderment and disintegration, but with the will for reconstruction, self-determination and the reinvention of ourselves and of the community. The painted body becomes a pictorial canvas capable of opposing a sense of permanence to the disintegration of death and to the sense of self-destruction that seems to pervade contemporary society.

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