Armin Linke

Galleria Marabini

The Hindu festival of Mahakumbhmela takes place over the course of several days, every twelve years, where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet. More than twenty million pilgrims converge to purify themselves in the waters of the two rivers at a site where there is already a city of six hundred thousand inhabitants. The impact of this gathering, on an observer of the scene as well as on the place, is terrible and grandiose. It has the feel of an epochal migration and an environmental disaster, and yet it occurs without incident, almost as if it were a “natural” occurrence. The faithful come, go, sleep, live, and bathe in a hubbub that seems intolerable to an outsider. How can images bear witness to this overflowing spectacle? By their very nature, visual media compartmentalize and fragment what they show.

Armin Linke, a thirty-five-year-old photographer from Milan, has risen to the challenge of conveying this event in the five photographs and one video that make up “Mahakumbhmela,” 2001. For years Linke has traveled the world in search of those “choral” human events that disclose the epic and collective nature of work that is deaf, blind, and obscure, yet grand, such as the construction of a dam in China, shown in his series “Global Box,” 1998–2000. In such moments man and nature face off and do battle, revealing their respective strengths and weaknesses. But here, on the Ganges, there are no such exploits. What is built lies with the heart of each pilgrim, and it is not revealed externally except through a ceremonialism that is hardly spectacular even when multiplied by twenty million. Do twenty million individuals participating in a ritual become a single body?

Linke's two-channel video was shot from a camera fixed aboard a boat. At one time we witness both the boat's morning departure and its return to port in the evening. In its simplicity, the work achieves the desired effect of capturing the sense of rolling water, dizziness, and, above all, a human swarming that is impossible to perceive in its totality. Presenting such sensations through individual photographic images seems even more difficult, because it is a question of freezing not only the sense of pilgrimage, which in itself is a voyage through time and space, but also the relationship that ties the individual to the mass. In this regard Linke has achieved a difficult synthesis, thanks to the trained eye of an artist who has thought deeply about the significance of the image's framing, which is nothing but the first geometricization, reduction, and definition of the space that will contain it. Thus the crowd in these photographs is always channeled into a geometry—a pontoon bridge, an extremely dense and squared-off tent city—that collides with the sense of the infinite aroused by the number of believers and by the extremely deep field in which the throng disappears from view. In the foreground, its members can be seen individually, in the background as a mass, but the reverse is also true. Likewise the geometry gets lost in the infinitude of a swarming horizon, but it is not annulled, just as the incommensurable vastness is partially contained by those abstract lines of the geometry that become bridges or a house. Linke captures the equilibrium between finite and infinite, matter and spirit, excrement and transcendence.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.