Elisa Sighicelli

Laure Genillard

The Turin-born, London-based photographer Elisa Sighicelli looks for signs of the numinous in empty and desultory spaces. For her recent series “Santiago” (all works 2000), she visited Santiago de Compostela, the most important pilgrimage site in Spain, but pointedly ignored the more famous and crowded landmarks. Instead, she photographed apartments that are usually rented out to students, but which were then uninhabited. Through a meticulous orchestration of light, she dramatized these dowdy, limbolike spaces.

Sighicelli’s photographs are almost all square in format and mounted on light boxes. However, most of the reverse side of each transparency is covered over, so that the backlighting is confined to specific zones. This works to haunting effect in Santiago: Table, where a round dining table, covered in two orangey-brown tablecloths, has been photographed from near floor level, so that it looms up before us, filling the top half of the picture. It stands in front of an open French window in a predominantly gray room, cutting out most of the daylight. There is, however, a slight gap at the bottom of the tablecloth, just above the floor, where light floods in. As a result, the table appears to float on an orange pool, whose glow is intensified by backlighting. This interior luminosity transforms it into a mysterious object that almost looks more like a lampshade or a tent than a table.

Sighicelli seems to want to imbue this object with the sort of gravitas and metaphorical richness that Mario Men gives his igloos. The table-viewed from floor level-is both inviting and threatening. It is a refuge (somewhere cozy we might be tempted to crawl under) and a sentinel, shrouded yet strangely animate, seeming to block any movement through the window. Sighicelli’s technique of using artificial light to rupture and intensify particular areas recalls Men’s deployment of shaped neon tubes and spotlights.

In another image, Santiago: Tablecloth, we are transported onto the top of a round table and we gaze across a roughly woven tablecloth toward a French window veiled by a net curtain. It could well be the same table in the same room as in Santiago: Table. But tantalizingly, we seem to be no closer to the outside world here than in the other picture. The camera has been placed almost at the same level as the tablecloth, giving us a worm’s-eye view. Every detail of the stitching is seen in bumpy close-up (a strategy that recalls the paintings of Italian Pop artist Domenico Gnoli). The change of scale feels vertiginous, as though we were suddenly stranded on the surface of the moon.

We cannot tell whether these interiors are more like monastic retreats or prison cells—or both. The closest we get to company is in an unexhibited work from the series, Santiago: Bedroom, where we glimpse some dazzling white shirts hung upside down to dry on a washing line outside the window. These limp tokens of human presence serve only to remind us of the room’s—and, by implication, our own—nakedness.

James Hall