Savoy Hotel

text by Andy Grundberg

Common belief holds that photography does not mix well with metaphor. It is too descriptive, too pragmatic, too fact-bound. Yet Mariella Po/i’s pictures confound this belief They are evocative and allusive, filled with the poetry of memory, history and intense feeling. Of course, these photographs might also seem mute-and, paradoxically, part of their magic is that they are mute-were it not for the photographer’s narrative voice explaining them as landscapes of devastation, lost innocence, perseverance. As a body of work, Savoy Hotel reads like a Pompeii of the heart.

The earliest photographs ever taken struck the nineteenth-century observers as being like mirrors with a memory; today, Kodak likes to remind us to pull out our snapshot cameras to capture the best years of our lives. This sense of photography’s mnemonic perfection, of some wished-for total capture of the moment, has in practice proven elusive: camera images fail not only our sense of smell, taste and touch but also our emotions. But Po/i’s photographs do something mirrors cannot; they provide access to a fictional reality that is in many cases more rich than the facts of pure description.

By speaking of fiction I do not mean to suggest that these photographs have been tampered with or manipulated. I am secure in my faith that Poli has photographed the abandoned interior of the Savoy Hotel just as she found it, and that no computer has created the orphaned objects she depicts. But the curtains, the hangers, the pillows (especially the pillows, seemingly imprinted with the weight of the last couple to have lain with them) exist in a state of rapture that brings to mind Italo Ca/vino’s fiction, or that of Alain Robbe-Grillet (how far is Marienbad from Gardone Riviera, one wonders).

Their endurance, now extended by the camera’s trace, provokes a meditation on the temporality of things, of marriages and dreams and on morality itself. However fiction-like, this is in fact Po/i’s most personal and revealing work to date, and it marks a turn in her picture making. The documentary urge seen in her other pictures is harnessed, in Savoy Hotel, to a much larger notion of what photographs mean in the context of contemporary art. Neither strident nor sentimental, yet incredibly straightforward and moving, this series defines Mariella Poli as an artist who has found fertile new territory