Deborah Ligorio

Francesca Minini

“The audacity of modernity has trained us to challenge the double vertigo of abyss and sky at the same time.” This is not a passage from a Futurist manifesto but the voice-over from an old TV documentary on Mt. Vesuvius, which is incorporated into Italian artist Deborah Ligorio’s latest video, Il Sonno (Sleep; all works 2007). Excavated from Italy’s largest cinematographic archive, the Luce Institute, the clip mixes the crackling noises of radio broadcasts and the mesmerizing sounds of a psychedelic score. The extracts accompany aerial sequences shot in flight during a journey that starts at Naples’s chaotic suburban periphery, located only six miles from the summit of the volcano, and ascends to the magnificent crater spiraling along the mountain’s upper flanks.

This piece furthers Ligorio’s multifaceted research on spatial microcosms, here highlighted by the sprawl of unplanned housing that was illegally constructed after the volcano’s last eruption in 1944, contrasted with the uninhabitable desert of solidified magma that slopes down the other side. The artist’s interest in the transformations of landscape (which she also regards as invisible networks of information channels) has led her to revisit some of Land Art’s most influential theories. It is no coincidence that Il Sonno evokes Robert Smithson’s fascination with the way natural processes violate the man-made, as described by Spiral Jetty, 1970, whose site, the Great Salt Lake, he called a “dormant earthquake.” (Smithson’s film about the project would appear to be a major influence on Ligorio’s cinematography.) Moreover, Ligorio’s title points to the risks taken by human settlements that deliberately ignore the threatening unpredictability of a still-active volcano, which in 79 AD destroyed the neighboring towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The other works that were on view are also concerned with the geophysical properties of Naples and its surroundings as well as the cultural temperament of its inhabitants. For instance, the slide show La Scomparsa dello spettacolo (Disappearance of the Spectacle) shows sequential images of an old postcard of the crater of Vesuvius, which Ligorio has exposed to the sun; its image gradually fades away, progressively erased by nature itself. Another slide show, Détournement, 2007, presents close-ups of abstract drawings and real objects whose circular or triangular shapes bring to mind the profile of a volcano, seen as a mountain or crater, depending on one’s viewpoint. The collage series “Inconsapevole leggerezza” (Unconscious Lightness) employs images of Neapolitans and visitors engaged in leisure activities (including shots of Ingrid Bergman’s visit to Vesuvius in 1954, when she was filming Viaggio in Italia [Voyage in Italy] with Roberto Rossellini). These found portraits, their subjects’ faces, hands, and legs replaced by embroidery, float in the center of black-on-white reticular grids, spatial compositions that Ligorio has enlarged on two walls in the gallery. These seemingly neutral surfaces recall the way, in the ’60s, the radical Florentine design group Superstudio used this typical modernist design structure, extendable ad infinitum, over different landscape typologies. Whereas Superstudio used the grid to criticize the paradoxes of uncontrolled speculative urban construction carried out in the name of modernity, Ligorio reprises the pattern to warn against the potentially catastrophic impact of architectural interventions on natural ecosystems.

The works in this exhibition reveal the artist’s desire to let the potential violence of Vesuvius become entwined with a playful rhythm of negative and positive spaces, a harmonious relation of forms and colors. Ligorio’s conceptual and aesthetic tactics achieve meaning by doing less, with the idea of landscape becoming a vehicle of visual creativity. She is a latent formalist whose concerns with geometry and color merge with ecological ones, giving shape to an abstraction that is less visual than mental, where landscape is the bridge to repetition, silence, synthesis, and utopia.

Diana Baldon