Presente Infinito / Essay / Marcello De Masi

Alone, you will be born

Alone, you will walk down the streets of the world

Alone, your light will shine

Alone, you will fade away

But only in the Other you will really be born

But only with the Other you may be at the center of the Infinite

Only in the Other your light will leave a trace

For him or her who, Alone, will be born, again

And the encounter between you, the world and the Other

Will continue to come to light

 

Presente Infinito seemed to us the right combination of words to represent truthfully the spirit and the gaze that bring us together, and that form the basis of our shared path. The title reflects some peculiarities of the optical image, the expressive form we all use, and a certain way to understand art. On the one hand, it emphasizes the relationship with “Time” and “Becoming”, and, as we shall explain later, with life and death, and therefore with the possibility to isolate a single moment from the flow of instants and “bring it back to present” – that is, to re-present it – making it last, in the form. The act in itself of showing an instant, which, dying and vanishing, would normally escape contemplation, represents the most direct demonstration of how photography can show the invisible.

On the other hand, the title expresses the aspiration to grasp and reveal the depth of that instant, in the awareness that the totality of reality is unfathomable and unknowable, hence the strong act of reduction that all authors carry out through their work. Thus, the reflection on this condition shows through the image, and our attempt consists in expressing powerfully a personal vision and arouse a strong emotion in front of the realization that there is always something bigger than humans, such as beauty and the love that moves us. This can be how the infinite manifests itself in the finite, the invisible in the visible, the unknown in what is known, the immeasurable in the measure.

Taking both aspects of this “invisible Present” into consideration, ‘the role of art is to penetrate that interstice of time and space, “playing” with memory. […] We want to make the Present visible. Thanks to art, we want to transform the becoming – which is the form under which the invisible present disguises itself – into an image: ecce imago’1. But, starting from the awareness of a shared sensitivity, this is also a way to work together, and ‘avoid a certain cultural and artistic approach that tends to place itself beyond or against any genealogy; and not only this; we also think that it is fundamental to create collaboration and communication between those who live in the same context, overcoming competition as the only way, as well as a self-centered and individualistic attitude.

We seek to retrieve a collective spirit of concrete action and solidarity, […] and believe in the necessity of a dialogical dimension; to be clear, we are not claiming that solitude is not important, rather we refer to something else, the idea that a person is self-sufficient; we believe in collaboration’2.

And we were together when, in the dark of a cinema hall (which the Neapolitans used to call “’o mbruoglio int’o lenzulo […]3” – “the trick of the sheet” –, a definition adopted in order to avoid using the complex Italian term, and which at the same time hints at a remarkable and fascinating epistemological condition pertaining the optical image), while watching the magical film “The Art of Happiness” by Alessandro Rak (2013), we were struck by the coupling of those two words, which we then chose for our venture; watching the scenes of this film, we came across these words: ‘when I rummage the present, I find this present, this one here, this moment […]. This infinite present. Luminous’4. Hearing these words, we looked at each other, struck by that ‘strange dichotomy between “PRESENT” and “INFINITE”, which, in Italian, are nothing but two verbal forms, the first one denoting an action that is taking place (in the present, indeed; or it can also indicate habitual or absolutized actions, which connect various temporal “layers”); the other one introducing an attitude and an action suspended in time (the infinite tense)’5.

In Italian, unlike in English, both word orders – “Infinito Presente” and “Presente Infinito” – are possible, each disposition carrying a specific, distinct meaning. It is then fundamental not to invert the word order, which would cause a subversion of the intended meaning. In the context of this project (and its spiritual inspiration), we are not referring to the idea of a flow of time annihilated in the present, as evoked by the expression “Infinito Presente”, and its English equivalent, “Infinite Present”. Conversely, our position is ‘at the opposite of one of the most disturbing features of our epoch, the ‘eternal present’, the declining phase of an ongoing transition in which the past loses its value of inspiration of change and regeneration, and consequently the future ceases to be a promise’6. Hence the choice to keep the title in Italian, as English does not allow a different disposition of the adjective – noun dyad, thus radically distorting the core inspiration of this work.

There is another reason why we chose to keep the title in Italian, and this consists in our desire to make our cultural origins visible and audible through language.

The role of compression of times and spaces realized by the optical image can be linked directly to the notion of “Nostos”: ‘[…] photography rendered “memorable” not only the “subjects” portrayed, but also, with them, the photographic acts, the “shutter clicks”, which exalt the “now” and “here” of the breaks, the stakeouts, the shootings, the “where” and “when” at which the images point in a process of ritualization, elevating them to “places” of memory. On a deeper level, Nostos, the “comeback”, is the kernel of the photographic event, the inner essence of the clashing encounter between conscience and a (spiritual or material) reality, within whose factuality the epiphany of a dense, emotional and meaningful image, almost the “trace” of an archetype, emerges, precisely in that void that yearns for the infinite’7.

It is important to specify that what photography makes memorable, beyond the subjects, the “here and now” and the “where and when”, can also consist in non-physical coordinates, which rather belong to an inner landscape, a landscape of the “I”, or of the “Self”. Entirely personal places of memory, feelings and impressions that carry with them the whole inheritance of a world perceived and experienced with humbleness, respect and curiosity; processes of ritualization, then, that reconnects to ‘breaks, stakeouts and shootings’ which are all internal to one’s own being and presence, one’s own memory and one’s own spirit, which can thus express much wider meanings.

Similarly, it is fundamental to understand, from the passage quoted above, that the sense of Nostos to which we refer does not concern just the specific relationship with time (space) and the past, but also with the ‘trace of an archetype’, as well expressed in the conclusive line of the citation itself. We are talking about the “return” to a concept that exceeds the human being, or that is anyway impossible to comprehend in its entirety, such as beauty, as we wrote at the beginning of this text, pointing out how this awareness arouses an intense emotion.

Now, on the basis of the due, necessary specifications just discussed, I (we) can affirm: ‘[…] the world outside of me is larger and more complex than all my representations, my work is me, my way to inhabit the world. The present “hic et nunc” contains this relationship with the world, my being an individual inseparable from the society where I live, in-finite. In the film (“The Art of Happiness”), one of the characters, in front of the statement “I can’t remember who I am anymore”8, replies: “What does it mean I can’t remember? It is as if someone asked: excuse me, do you remember what time it is? We are all here, we are what we can, the best we can”9. […] Photography enables a particular connection between the two terms, “present” and “infinite”, consisting in the possibility to give new shape to old things, illuminating them […], it is peculiar of this form of writing that, together with time, it allows memory to become re-collection. It is a testimony to our ceaseless investigation, seeing through a device that allows us to traverse the time of our memory, into the infinite. […] I am convinced that all of us, each in a different way, can find ourselves in a “presente infinito” through the naturalness and silence of our work’10.

I (we) can then continue: “[…] I believe that in the combination of these two simple words, “Presente Infinito”, in this specific order, lie the essence and the reason of our being photographers. In these sad times of eternal present, in which the “here and now” loses its greatest value, that of being part of a wider coral history, made of a plurality of “here and now”, and becomes instead a short-sighted way to inhabit the world, whose boundaries are reduced to those of the single individual and his/her needs, the inversion of the two terms generates a powerful short-circuit. In this sense, I associate “Presente Infinito” to another word which I keep thinking about, and which I believe explains, clearly and beautifully, the demand behind our being photographers. This word is custodire, “to preserve”. If I look back at our works, I can see this desire to “safeguard the present” emerge strongly. During a discussion, Silvano Petrosino said that ‘“to preserve” means to inhabit the world, for the very concept of inhabiting includes the idea of care for the Other. If we do not preserve, building will turn out to be destroying. […] “Presente Infinito” not only as the title of the exhibition (and the project) we intend to realize, but also and especially as the orientation of our communal research […]’11.

This journey, and this pursuing a well-defined route, was not an easy and effortless choice, because it goes against the flow in many respects, or perhaps because it is complex in itself, consisting in a path of deprivations, negations, illusionary and real solitudes, sacrifices. But it was the dimension of community and solidarity that helped us share the burden, determined to pursue the vanishing point towards which our heart directs us: ‘[…] for how much courage do we have? And how much more do we need, in order to survive this socio-cultural disarray that grips our epoch and wants us to be blind? Yet, we want to understand, look, touch, scrutinize, register and… preserve, of course. […] How far away have humans gone from the truth, nowadays? […] photography becomes poetry when, looking at it, it is no longer possible to say exactly what time it is’12.

We tried to lose and find ourselves again in that “absence of time” of the alchemic breath that makes all the organs and the whole body suddenly and magically apt for respiration, inexplicably vibrating in unison, filling Being with the Unknowable; we tried to express our work in the best possible way, aspiring ‘to the eternity and the constantly renovated relevance of art, to that sort of exo-temporality13 that characterizes the work of art fully accomplished, as such subtracted from the categories of what is transient and provisional’14. This is why, once again, we chose “Presente Infinito”. Only time will tell us what we created, and whether we succeeded in establishing communication through our work.

Death is the unavoidable frame of our reflection, precisely because of what we said so far – because, without it, it would not be possible to talk about life, death’s intimate companion; we could not talk about the work of art that seeks to name it, revealing its image in the mirror, and that seeks to last, overcoming the passing of those who created it (the permanence of the form). It would not be possible to talk about the time that accompanies it, as its shadow, nor the space that preserves it, since ‘The artistic image is an image / that guarantees itself / its own development, / its own historical perspective. / This image is a seed, / a living and evolving organism. / It is the symbol of life, / but is different from life itself. / Life comprises death within itself. / The image of life either excludes it / or considers it as the only / possibility to affirm life’15. Therefore, once again, “Presente Infinito”.

In silence we contemplate, filled with wonder in front of what stands above us, immeasurable, but starting from the sacredness of the details and the everyday life, looking for a spirit that is ‘[…] still able to contemplate and feel the mythical, magical and intrinsically sacred sense of the world,’16 and we hear its echo in our images. From here, the teardrop: ‘The teardrop is the demonstration of this. Because we disappear, while beauty remains. […] The teardrop is a regression, a homage to the past from the future. It is what remains after subtracting something superior from something inferior – the beauty from humankind. The same happens with love, for love is superior, and it too is larger than those who love’17.

 

Marcello De Masi
November 2013 – March 2014

 

  1. Marcello De Masi, from an e-mail conversation with the authors, 25 November 2013
     
  2. Marcello De Masi, Appunti sul progetto Napoli 2015 – Nuova Luce, May 2012.
     
  3. Erri De Luca, Montedidio, Feltrinelli, Milan, 2013, p. 122.
     
  4. From the screenplay of The Art of Happiness, 2013, directed by Alessandro Rak, courtesy of the director.
     
  5. Giovanni Scotti, from an e-mail conversation with the authors, 27 November 2013.
     
  6. Lorenzo Martelli, from an e-mail conversation with the authors, 27 November 2013.
     
  7. Giacomo Camuri, Fotografia, voce dell’Enciclopedia Filosofica, Vol. 5, Bompiani, Milan, 2006, p. 4440.
     
  8. From the screenplay of The Art of Happiness, 2013, directed by Alessandro Rak, courtesy of the director.
     
  9. Ibid
     
  10. Sebastiano Raimondo, from an e-mail conversation with the authors, 29 November 2013.
     
  11. Luigi Fiano, from an e-mail conversation with the authors, 29 November 2013.
     
  12. Giovanni Scotti, from an e-mail conversation with the authors, 30 November 2013.
     
  13. The notion of exo-temporality (esotemporalità) is developed, with reference to literature, by Giuseppe Stellardi, ‘Il “tempo ultimo”: strutture della temporalità nell’opera di Italo Svevo’,in Cuadernos de Filología Italiana, vol. 18, 2011, pp. 115-39.
     
  14. Agnoldomenico Pica, Storia della Triennale, 1918-1957, Edizioni del Milione, Milan, 1957, p. 25.
     
  15. Andrej Tarkovskij, Luce istantanea, Itaca-Ultreya, Milan, 2007, p. 56.
     
  16. Giulio Carlo Argan, L’Arte moderna, 1770-1970, Sansoni, Milan, 5th edition, Novembre 2009, p. 111, about Gaugin’s travels in the Pacific Islands.
     
  17. Iosif Brodskij, Fondamenta degli incurabili, Adelphi, Milan, 2010, p. 108