In Conversation

ELISA SIGHICELLI with JOHN YAU

On occasion of the artist’s new exhibit The Party Is Over, which will remain on view at Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue till March 6, 2010, Elisa Sighicelli paid a visit to the home of Art Editor John Yau to talk about her new body of work and more.

John Yau (Rail): Your new exhibit consists of two videos and nine photographs mounted on light boxes. Though can you first talk about the video, “Untitled (The Party is Over),” which is of fireworks shown in reverse? As you said before I turned on the tape, it is a close-up of the fireworks. Usually, we see fireworks from a considerable distance.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Elisa Sighicelli: Yes, you see usually many of them at the same time, while my video is focused on just one section of the fireworks.

Rail: And clouds, you see these grey clouds.

Sighicelli: Yes, it’s the smoke from the fireworks. The whole video is in reverse. Usually you see fireworks go up in the sky; they explode really fast and then you see this slow shower coming down. In my video, because it’s reversed, the shower of lights rises very slowly and then you get sucked into the projection with a quick implosion. Somehow this reversal activates the space of the video. When the fireworks implode, you get pulled beyond the video projection. I think it does something strange to the space of the video. It’s not flat anymore and somehow it’s what I am also trying to do with the light boxes. They play with the space of the photograph because only part of the image is lit up. It’s not like a normal light box with the transparency evenly lit. In my work, only some areas are lit up and others don’t have the light going through the photo and this creates different spatial planes, it gives it more depth.

Rail: And do you paint on these?

Sighicelli: Yes, some of the works are painted on the back. The photo is mounted on opaque Plexiglas that you don’t see. It’s painted black in certain areas so you have to imagine that it’s like a mask that stops the light from going through the photograph, so the object becomes more three dimensional.

Rail: There seem to be two related preoccupations in your work, space and light. In one group of earlier photographs, there are two rooms with an open doorway connecting them. The first room is like a box with white walls and through the doorway you see part of another room that actually has all the furniture. In these recent photographs, you are interested in the relationship between light and dark. I was thinking of Stan Brakhage’s early film Mothlight where he pressed hundreds of moth wings between two strips of tape, which he ran through a film printer; it mangled the tape, as well as made what was white black and vice versa. The result was a film made without a camera. I remember Brakhage saying something to the effect that film is about light.

Sighicelli: Definitely. My work is all about light. Light is the subject matter of the work and I try to work with it as a medium in different ways—through the photographs and the video pieces. For me, light is a material to manipulate.

Rail: The fireworks video is called “Untitled (The Party’s Over).” Because of the fireworks, I first thought it had to do with the end of the decade, but I quickly realized that I was wrong. You can’t settle on an exact meaning, where this equals that. It’s not working under the shadow of a theory.

Sighicelli: Yes, I didn’t want to give it too much of an ideological reading. My work is quite open in subject matter; I try to give suggestions but never answers.

Rail: On an immediate level it’s apparent what’s going on, that the fireworks are in reverse, but the longer you look and the more you think the more you forget about the fireworks. It becomes this light going out, or going back into itself and then all sorts of, I would say, Metaphysical associations, come into play

Sighicelli: Yes, sometimes I think of it as a representation of a journey with a time machine, like a time reversal, going back, but that is just one possible interpretation because what I am interested in is that people look at this video, which is very immersive, and they lose themselves in daydreaming. The rhythm is very hypnotic. They lose their perception of space and time.

Rail: You said you cut it very carefully.

Sighicelli: Yes, I did—I shot twenty five minutes of fireworks and then each explosion was cut and then mounted in a new sequence in order to have quick moments of implosions and slow moments—to create a rhythm that would make you lose yourself in this space.

Rail: While we associate fireworks with a specific occasion, like July Fourth or New Years, you’ve eliminated all references to the social.

Elisa Sighicelli, “Untitled (Prop)” (2009). Partially backlit C-print on lightbox.
481/2˝× 481/2˝× 21/4˝, (123.2 × 123.2 × 5.7 cm) © Elisa Sighicelli. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Sighicelli: This is what happens in most of my work I think, whether I’m working with architectural details or details of interiors or landscapes. I always try not to give too many references to a real space in order to distance myself from documentary material. I try to subtract the characteristics that make an object or a space immediately recognizable; I try to de-familiarize what we see in our everyday life.

Rail: There is that photo of what seemed like the biggest billboard in the world—well the skeletal structure, actually—but you had no idea where it was. You felt like “I know this city, I don’t know this city—where could this city with a structure this big on which to place an immense billboard possibly be?”

Sighicelli: It’s interesting you’re saying this because I always think of my photos as shot by an alien somehow—that you have a feeling of displacement, but at the same time you think you recognize something and I’m interested in that aspect.

Rail: For some reason I was reminded of the filmmaker Wong Kar-wai.

Sighicelli: That’s because he’s from Hong Kong and these photos were taken in Hong Kong. Well done.

Rail: Oh, I thought of him because he shot a film, Happy Together, in Buenos Aires, and he never shows you the city. It’s all close-ups and he never pulls the camera back and gives the audience a panoramic view.

Sighicelli: It’s very claustrophobic, yes very interesting.

Rail: There’s some of that in your photography, but more importantly I think it is that you feel like you don’t want to step back in your photographs; you see the subject, you focus very tightly and all the things that tell us where it is, that make us feel comfortable with it, are eliminated.

Sighicelli: Yes, it’s interesting you are saying that because I’m always trying to avoid references to the obvious. In the past, I did many photographs of interiors and they were always without any people, without the people’s belongings. They were always furnished so you had the feeling that someone lived there, was going to live there, but there weren’t enough clues for you to make up a narrative.

Rail: And the perspective is sometimes from the floor, like you are looking up. It was too low to be a child unless the child was crawling on the floor.

Sighicelli: Someone told me that it’s the perspective of someone kind of half dead crawling on the floor. [Laughter.]

Rail: I didn’t think quite that, but it made the room into a huge foreign landscape.

Sighicelli: It’s funny that you’re saying that because at the time I was shooting these photographs of the interiors with a camera on the floor, I also did a series of landscapes. In the interiors there was a kind of horizon line in the middle of the photograph. The bottom half of the photo was out of focus and there were some pieces of furniture above this horizon line. The landscapes were shot in the same way so that there was a sort of fictitious horizon line. The landscape, above it, and the bottom of the picture, is out of focus. I showed these two groups together so that the interiors became a sort of landscape photograph, mixing the two genres. While the photographs in this show don’t have that kind of horizon line, I was playing more with multiple perspectives. There is that big photograph of the bamboo scaffolding in my current show that has a very complex geometry and then there is a photo of the chandelier and that, again, has a very intricate geometry and it doesn’t have perspective lines.

Rail: It seems to me that you have a strong knowledge of painting that informs your photographs.

Sighicelli: I like painting. I don’t know how much knowledge of it I have, but I like to look at painting.

Rail: Well, I thought of Malevich and other Russian Constructivists and Georges de la Tour— you’re interested in the relationship between light and dark.

Sighicelli: Yes, and I think photography is a good medium to work with light because you actually write with light.

Rail: These are color photographs, but they really seem like they’re sepia, almost black and white. You are working within a narrow range of color.

Sighicelli: Yes, they are photographed at night and they are hand printed so the light is very carefully balanced.

Rail: I just want to kind of bring in some background for people who may not know that much about you or your work. You grew up in Torino, but you spent three years living in Brazil. How old were you when you lived there?

Sighicelli: Between five and eight.

Rail: So you immediately had a very different landscape when you were quite young.

Sighicelli: Yes, I think that unsettled me for the rest of my life, which is a good thing.

Rail: And then you went back to Torino and you studied textile design.

Sighicelli: I went to high school in Torino and then I moved to Florence to study textile design for a couple of years and then I moved to London and I went to art school there—Chelsea, Kingston University—and then I did my MA at the Slade.

Rail: And you said you lived there 17 years? That’s a long time.

Sighicelli: It was very interesting and very difficult.

Rail: And then you decided three years ago to move back to Torino?

Sighicelli: Yes. You wonder why I guess?

Rail: A little question mark did pop up.

Sighicelli: Well, partly I was a bit tired of always feeling like a foreigner and partly for my husband’s work.

Rail: He’s a physicist?

Sighicelli: Yes.

Rail: And he works in Geneva?

Sighicelli: Yes, so, it doesn’t make much sense to live in Torino if he works in Geneva, but it’s not possible to live in Geneva, I think. But I travel a lot. I don’t think that I could spend all my time in Torino, which is a small city.

Rail: It’s a small town, I know one other artist that lives there other than you, Nicola De Maria, and I think he’s not so social. As you said he lives rather like a monk. Well, this reminds of the 80s, when Italian artists began showing their work for the first time in New York City and they were all men. There is also the fact that you are a woman artist, Italian, living in Torino. Isn’t there a sense of isolation in that regard? There are no names of woman artists that come to mind when thinking of Italy.

Elisa Sighicelli, “Untitled (Empty Square)” (2009). Partially backlit C-print on lightbox.
481/2˝× 481/2˝× 21/4˝, (123.2 × 123.2 × 5.7 cm). Edition of 3. © Elisa Sighicelli.

Sighicelli: Well, now there are some very good women artists that are quite successful from Italy. I am thinking of Paola Pivi, Lara Favaretto, Luisa Lambri, and Luisa Rabbia, who are all showing internationally.

Rail: Do you show a lot in Italy?

Sighicelli: I work with a gallery in Milan called Gió Marconi and I had a couple of museum shows in Torino and in Siena.

Rail: But mostly you show in London and America?

Sighicelli: I guess lately I have been showing more in Italy.

Rail: So how do you go about planning your projects? They seem intentional, but you can’t guess what the intention was?

Sighicelli: [Laughter.]

Rail: You know, some art is intentional and you can figure out the intention right away. It allegorizes a theory, usually about the end of something, for example. You have a work, “Untitled (The Party is Over),” but I didn’t feel like it allegorized anything. And that was true of all your work.

Sighicelli: Yes, I always try to have a very open subject matter because what I am interested in is playing with the space and the time of the image. The subject matter somehow is unavoidable in photography because it’s indexical, but to me this is not that important. I am interested in playing with the light and, as I said, the space and the time of the image.

Rail: Speaking of indexical—you went to Cuba, but no one thinks of you as the person who took Cuban photographs.

Sighicelli: [Laughter.] Maybe you could guess it was Cuba, but it wasn’t obvious. I think all my work is like that.

Rail: Well, we have a view of Cuba through photographs of certain kinds of architecture and old American cars that are still in existence and none of these tropes were in the work.

Sighicelli: I guess I could be photographing anywhere in the world. I like to go to places and possibly not know too much about where I am going. I look for the kind of cultural distance that makes you look at things in a different way—fresh. It could be anywhere. I am sure I could find something to photograph, but the only place where I couldn’t photograph was India. There everything was so full of everything, full of objects, full of people, full of color that it was impossible for me to photograph.

Rail: So, you went to India thinking that you would do something.

Sighicelli: No, well I went on holiday and said I would bring my camera with me and see what happens. Nothing happened.

Rail: Was there any other place where nothing happened?

Sighicelli: Italy. But maybe because it looks very familiar to me so, it’s more difficult to see things with a fresh eye.

Rail: You studied sculpture at the Slade and in this most recent body of work, which had the skeletal structure of billboards, scaffolding, and this large, round, windowless structure that I didn’t know.

Sighicelli: It’s a planetarium, shot from above and yes, I am very interested in the fact that one cannot immediately recognize what this shape is.

Rail: I thought it was some kind of weird factory and I thought, “What are they making there?”

Sighicelli: It’s a planetarium and then I created a sort of halo of light on top of the planetarium and I actually placed the light where it shouldn’t be in the photograph; the object becomes even more alien and you cannot work out if it’s convex or concave.

Rail: In these works, you have to imagine yourself entering into them and moving through their spaces. I found that both disconcerting and engaging in the big, multipart photograph of the bamboo scaffolding.

Sighicelli: It’s interesting that you’re saying that about that piece because it’s composed of five photographs; and I imagine it as someone almost moving through them because the first one on the left is shot from a distance, which gives you an indication of what you are looking at—the bamboo scaffolding against the building. The photograph on the immediate right is a close-up and the following one is even more of a close-up. And then it recedes again—so there is a rhythm and a movement of being closer and more distant in the same piece. At the same time, there is this very chaotic geometry of bamboo poles tied together, but I tried also to give it a rhythm in composition so there are diagonal lines that connect.

Rail: Yeah, I felt like I had a number of associations. I thought of Constructivism because of the the dynamic angles and I thought of sculpture because things, like the planetarium, are odd things in our landscape, while the huge monumental billboard scaffolds seem it could be a sculpture at the same time.

Sighicelli: In fact, I was interested in the billboards, the bamboo, and the planetarium as geometric objects. A theme that runs through all the works in the show is a search for geometry in the details of everyday life. You go from the most simple geometry of the planetarium that is a sphere to a billboard, which is just the frame so it is a square, and then there is another one that is a parallelogram and then there are works with more complex geometry, the bamboo—that is a very chaotic geometry and with the photographs of the chandelier, that is a very, very complex structure.

Rail: I think you’re right, after awhile you don’t care what it is that you’re looking at, because you get to the point of just looking.

Sighicelli: Ah, that’s interesting because I am interested in the way we look at things.

Rail: If you don’t know the name of what it is, then you can stay in the act of looking, whereas naming it allows you another distance; you’ve categorized it and put it in a category, maybe filed it away. You seem to be trying to get us to the place of looking. Let’s look at this, whatever this is.

Sighicelli: I guess that is my challenge. Also with photography you cannot avoid looking at the subject matter, at what has been photographed but.

Rail: But it seems very different in your work because photographs are often about naming. They have a documentary aspect; or they are constructed fictions and surrealist; or it’s Cartier Bresson’s decisive moment. And you are trying to get to this other place where it’s not about naming that transparency, but about our inability to name it.

Sighicelli: I always imagine my photographs as kind of, almost like a metaphor for an impossibility of communication. Time is suspended, the light suggests a presence, but the image is mute. I think the real subject matter is the viewer. I never photograph any people because I thought, as soon as you put a person in, the viewer will start constructing a narrative while I’m more interested in having a photograph that works as a mirror somehow, towards the viewer—especially the old works, they were interiors. The viewer could imagine himself or herself in that space.

Rail: I was thinking about the scale of your photographs and the smallest one in the show is of a door. And the way the door breaks the rectangle into geometry of diagonal lines. At the same time, you don’t know what it’s a door to—a nightclub or a factory? It seemed very idiosyncratic, this door, but also very ordinary. Somehow, it wasn’t this or that, it was both.

Sighicelli: It was just a normal door in Hong Kong. We see it as something not ordinary, but actually there were people stopping and looking inside my camera to understand what I was photographing and wondering why.

Rail: [Laughter.] Like “Why is she photographing this door?”

Sighicelli: This happens all the time.

Rail: It’s a cultural thing where someone from Hong Kong would see this door and not think anything of it, but then you displace it and it becomes new rather than exotic to us.

Sighicelli: Once I was doing a video of the back of a billboard. It was one of those neon light billboards that switches on and off, and I was shooting the back of it. A man was looking at me and couldn’t understand what I was doing. Then he looked in the viewfinder, and saw that I was shooting the back of the billboard. He flipped his hand over, making a gesture saying, “This is the wrong side.” [Laughter.]

Rail: There is this notion of globalization and the belief that everything is going to become more and more like everything else in the world, but that assertion is not necessarily true. There are these things that persist and are ordinary in one culture. I often think that when you go somewhere, what you look for are the familiar things that enable you to feel comfortable in that new place.

Sighicelli: Yes, and you find a lot, commercially, of the same things, the same shops, but there’s always some spontaneous architecture that differentiates one place from another.

Rail: When we were talking about Torino earlier, I thought of Giorgio de Chirico’s buildings; they’re 19th century buildings with arches, which we don’t associate with Italy.

Sighicelli: Yes, it’s a very Nordic architecture.

Rail: It’s the youngest city in Italy in a way and really more uniformly a 19th century city.

Sighicelli: Yes, and also a Baroque city. We have also a lot of Baroque architecture, which is really extraordinary, but always a very clean Baroque. I think one characteristic is that the geometry of the city is orthogonal, so even the Baroque is very clean compared to the sort of bombastic Baroque you find in Rome. Maybe somehow that has influenced my work—that kind of discipline in the gaze.

Rail: I’m intrigued by this video that I haven’t seen of the man in the swimming pool, which you said is in reverse.

Sighicelli: [Laughter.] Yes, he swims. It’s shot from above, from the twentieth floor. You look down into a pool, one of those with palm trees, sort of cliché.

Rail: But it looks like it’s a figure eight. It’s not even a rectangular pool.

Sighicelli: It’s more of an exotic pool. [Laughter.] He swims from the top of the video frame; he swims down; he exits the video; and then when he comes back he swims in reverse so when you look at first you don’t even see that he is swimming in this impossible way because if you do the breast stroke—imagine that in reverse, it’s very strange but again, it is going in the right direction; he goes up and then he comes back down. It’s a very simple piece.

Rail: In some of his films, Bill Viola uses devices such as stop-and-go, slow motion, and I felt, in your work, the connection between the event and the device, which is always very simple, is seamless; you don’t see the device and the thing separating from each other.

Elisa Sighicelli, “Untitled (Triangle)” (2009). Partially backlit C-print on lightbox.
481/2˝× 481/2˝× 21/4˝, (123.2 × 123.2 × 5.7 cm). Edition of 3. © Elisa Sighicelli.

Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Sighicelli: Yes, because I don’t want to make it about the device, about it being in reverse, I want that to happen naturally, as if it has always been like that.

Rail: Right, and that the meaning of the work, say “Untitled (The Party is Over)” is dependent and embedded in what you see—that its light absorbs itself or goes back into itself. And, as you say, you feel like you’re being pulled beyond the projection. I was reminded of seven archons standing between the Demiurge and us; and the phrase “The Big Bang” and what happened after the universe came into existence. The light given off by certain events that occurred near the epicenter; supposedly that light is just beginning to reach us. Your reversal suggested to me that you were bringing us back to the darkness or black hole before the Big Bang.

Sighicelli: I like the fact that in one moment you understand that they’re fireworks and then the moment after, you’re lost again to daydreaming and then you go back to thinking, “no, those are fireworks.” There is another video in the show called “Phi Building,” which is a building I shot in Shanghai, a skyscraper that has got a façade covered with LED lights. They use the lights to make advertising, show products, and there was a lot of Chinese writing.

Rail: I was perplexed by that video because it looks fake. I kept wondering how the lights on the building became so aligned and connected to the shape of the building.

Sighicelli: The lights were embedded in the façade of the building. What I did was I shot it for a couple of hours and edited out all the moments where you could see the advertising of a product. I just kept the abstract patterns—the circles, lines, and really crazy patterns—it almost looks like an experimental film animation or something done by computer with animation but it is actually a real building. I edited it so that you have the lights doing these patterns, and then, for a few seconds, it goes back to being a normal building. And then again it plays with the light and then it goes back to being a normal building.

Rail: And then there’s music? Some kind of sound?

Sighicelli: Yeah, the music is crazy. Yes.

Rail: I thought of Oskar Fischinger’s films. He was the first person to synchronize music and film Disney asked him to work on Fantasia, but he hated that Disney wanted to make the images into animals and he wanted to keep it abstract, and he quit.

Sighicelli: I have seen his films in this fantastic show at the Centre Pompidou, “Son et Lumieres.”

Rail: As you know, Fischinger did some beautiful abstract films. I thought of him but, I know that your film wasn’t connected to his. I felt like the music was really nutty and especially that red sight that resembled some sort of structure rising and falling, almost like a radio wave. Knowing now that it’s embedded in the building makes it even more curious.

Sighicelli: Yes, because I always work with real things, they are never computer generated or manipulated. What I like is to have a detail of reality transformed into something else that almost looks artificial and that’s why I was interested in that building because it’s a real object, but at the same time, doesn’t feel real. It’s like a drawing, like an animation.

Rail: I suspected that you don’t use the computer to generate anything.

Sighicelli: It’s all based on reality, on a real thing. It’s just the way you look at them, the way you shoot them, or edit them, that transforms them.

Rail: The longer you look at the world, the stranger it becomes. It doesn’t become more familiar. It becomes stranger and stranger. I feel like that’s a strong element in your work.

Sighicelli: Definitely, yes, I like this sudden revelation of the existence of an object in front of you, the sudden revelation that you are looking at that object, as if you were seeing things for the first time. It could be a very everyday object and I try to suggest this feeling of estrangement, but at the same time, it’s about being very close and very distant to the thing. I tried to express that by using this light-box, because it’s a photograph with some light added on in one area. It creates a paradox in time. You have a photograph that, by its nature, is a trace of something past. As soon as you shoot something, it belongs to the past. Then you have this electric light that I add behind the photograph that brings you to the present of your perceptions so you’ve got this play between the past and the present, and then the subject matter. It’s quite open so it brings you into the future somehow. There is a play with the time of the photograph that makes it quite strange.

Rail: I think that’s true, particularly say, with the door with the light coming through it or it glows—you can’t really tell. And the two billboards and the angle from which you shoot them.

Sighicelli: Lets say the electric light of the light box follows the photograph. The photograph’s light and the added light sometimes coincide. Other times I place the light where it shouldn’t be.

Rail: That’s very metaphysical, like de Chirico.

Sighicelli: I guess so.

Rail: To bring it back to an artist who also lived in Torino, I felt there was something curious about the light in some of the works though I didn’t get it right away. It’s never obvious, particularly since some of the light seems right and some doesn’t.

Sighicelli: Especially, for example, in the bamboo piece—it’s the fact that the light is very, very subtle. The viewer wouldn’t understand immediately where the light is and the fact that the bamboo in the foreground has been painted black on the back.

Rail: It’s de Chirico but it’s not immediate the way he is, especially with shadows.

Sighicelli: No, no, not at all. In most of the work the effect of the light is quite subtle, but it initially looks normal.

Rail: So you are making George de la Tour subtle.

Sighicelli: [Laughter.]

Rail: Subtle was not his strong point.

Sighicelli: I did photograph candle scenes.

Rail: The candle illuminates the darkness surrounding it and lights your photograph. In your recent work, the lights from the billboard illuminate the photograph. It’s not like you’re bringing a flash or bringing other light. At the same time, you feel like there’s something slightly odd about the light. For example, with the planetarium.

Sighicelli: The base of the planetarium has light, but I didn’t light that area with the light box. I lit above and around it, like a halo.

Rail: The light changes the shape of the planetarium. You can’t figure out, as you said before, whether it is convex or concave and I found that fascinating. You do feel like there are these architectural structures in the world that you take for granted but suddenly you realize there is something strange about them. Once, when my wife and I were looking for an apartment, we found one that was very nice inside, but it was across the street from a building with no windows. We couldn’t live there.

Sighicelli: Because of that view.

Rail: And yet I walked past that building many, many times and hadn’t given it a second thought but if you’re on the fourth floor and that’s what you see when you look out the window, it changes and you go no! I don’t want to live there. And do you know what your next project is?

Sighicelli: No. [Laughter.] There are things that interest me but I never know where the work is going to take me.

Contributor

John Yau

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