text by Andy Grundberg
With this exhibition Mariella Poli joins the ranks of world-class artists for whom installations that blend photography, video, sound, and other media are a primary means of expression. Her installation Montecatini asks us to look at her photographs not as individual, self-sufficient images but as parts of a more complex machinery of meaning.
That the installation is akin to a machine seems fitting considering Poli’s subject, which is centered on an industrial plant in Northern Italy that produced purified aluminum for most of the 20th century. Now closed, an artifact of an industrial era that brought the Western world a mixed menu of war, prosperity, pollution, and progress, the factory stands as a container of both personal and historical memory. Its interior spaces, seen in large photographs, and its artifacts, combed from a company archive, speak in frozen silence of the activity that once animated it.
In memory the factory is more than its walls, residue, and documents, of course. The workers, from manager to doorkeeper, also keep Montecatini alive, even though it has been nearly 20 years since they worked there. Their faces and postures testify to the factory’s impact on their lives, and to the dedication that members of industrialized societ ies bring to organized production. Yet a sense of sadness blankets them just as dust and detritus blanket the factory floor.
Their jobs were lost; the plant is a relic; production has moved elsewhere? most likely offshore. We are reminded by the video projections of rushing water coursing through the factory’s canal that life goes on, constantly in flux and always changing. Aluminum, the material to which all these memories adhere, plays a specific role in contemporary life. It is associated with cutting-edge design and engineering, in fields as diverse as furniture and automobile construction. It has supplanted steel in many functions? bicycle tubing , for example? to the extent that steel is denoted as old fashioned and “retro”, whereas sleek, rust-free aluminum is synonymous with modernity. At the same time, however, more fashionable metals like titanium are threatening aluminum’s symbolic glamour. Social styles change, and with them design imperatives and industrial processes change as well. The remains of Montecatini already testify to aluminum’s eventual demise, as well as to the symbolic rusting of the industrial culture it epitomizes.
Producing metallic aluminum requires both raw aluminum ores (usu ally bauxite), and a great deal of elect ricity. Thus, the water we see projected on the walls was an essential part of the plant’s production: water became the hydroelectric energy used to fuel the conversion process. It is a point of linkage between the rhythms of the natural world and our current state of industrialization, which perhaps accounts for the hypnotic quality of the video projections. Looking at the water streaming past a bridge besides the factory, we might feel that queasy sensation associated with motion sickness. We, too, are moving through life’s frame, unable to reach back fully to retrieve our past.
In terms of Poli’s previous work, Montecatini is most reminiscent of her series Savoy Hotel (1997). The photographs of Savoy Hotel show the emptied out remains of a resort hotel where the artist had lived 15 years earlier. Like the interiors and found objects of Montecatini, these pictures are imbued with memory and a sense of loss. One could speak of the similarities of the hotel and the factory as places of labor, but more to the point is the way in which each provides a stage for the artist’s reflection on her own life. Born in Rovereto, she has memories that tie her inextricably to the people and places of northern Italy.
As for the portraits, they recall Poli’s work of the early 1990’s, when she was engaged in two simultaneous projects. One, eventually published as “No People No Joey”, was an extended documentation of the life of a young American boy infected with HIV. (He died of AIDS in 1993.) The other, titled “Winik: True People” (Hach Uinik: Uomini veri), consisted of portraits and other pictures taken in Chiapas, Mexico, of a people directly descended from the ancient Mayans. These two projects? one emphasizing mortality and temporality, the other perseverance and timelessness? are united by Poli’s urge to use photography in service to human needs and human ideals.
Compared to these earlier pictures, the portraits of Montecatini are less jou rnalistic in style and more composed in effect. Using color film anda large -fo rm at camera, Poli has allowed her subjects to present themselves to the lens as dignified, self-contained individuals. They are, in this sense, presences in the exhibition with us, and they have a palpable dignity in their expressions and their poses. Nevertheless their photographs, as images appearing in a room filled with reminders of the past, seem to be records of an earlier time, like oval mementos affixed to the headstones of the departed. The factory employees connect us to past and present, and one can suspect they connect the artist in other ways as well, since they are roughly of the same generation as her parents.
If, as I suggested earlier, the installation has some of the functions of a machine, what kind of machine is it? What are the meanings it produces? Montecatini, as an exhibition, can be described technically as a multi media show, since it mixes photography, video, sound, and sculptural elements. Even within the confines of the medium of photography there is a mixture of elements: color prints mounted on aluminum (the material subject, now an object) and color transparencies mounted in light boxes. But the impulse for using these different materials does not come from any urge to mix things up. The different media and elements that Poli employs are clearly meant to function together, to create a seamless whole that visitors can experience viscerally as well as visually. The aim is not to reproduce the factory (if it were, the exhibition would need to be located there, in situ) but to elicit its metaphoric potentials.
Much recent contemporary art using photography has been propelled by a fascination with cultural heritage and with cultural difference. Rare within this practice, Mariella Poli does not claim extraordinary status for her background, nor does she dissemble about her own status as a cosmopolitan artist. Instead, she seeks to locate within the textures of the world she knew as a child some sense of her adult identity. Since Poli divides her time between Italy and the United States, it is not surprising that she should feel an acute dislocation from the past. In a metaphorical sense, the empty factory, like the derelict hotel, stands for all that has disappeared from our lives, the closed chapters that cannot be lived again. All we have left are memories, which, like photographs, tantalize us with their fictions.