of Simona Antonacci

“Stefano took it into his hands and looked at it. It was an enormously large pearl. And he recognised the famous Pearl of the Sea which bestows fortune, power, love and peace of mind on those who possess it. But by now it was too late.”

From the day when Stefano Roi, during a sea voyage with his father, a sailor, first catches sight of the colombre, a gigantic sea-animal, his life changes. He is the only person who can see it and so his fate is sealed: he will be persecuted and killed by this fearsome fish, which naturalists strangely know nothing about, yet all sailors are familiar with. Not wishing to leave the sea and tormented by this thought, like a “baleful and fascinating mirage”, Stefano Roi spends his whole life in a kind of “fanatical flight” across the seas, shunning but simultaneously stalking his greatest obsession. This imaginary tale by Dino Buzzati leads superbly into the photographic project that Valentina Vannicola has created for Living Layers. The protagonist of her photographs – stemming from a slow, careful and constant quest for compositional technique – is the deeply personal, yet absolutely universal, emotional space inhabited by the fears and simple obsessions that we build, project and essentially pursue, with steadfastness and commitment.
Screenwriter, set and costume designer, filmmaker and photographer, Valentina Vannicola imbibes an atmosphere, allowing herself to become now inebriated, now overwhelmed. Something reverberates. Her imagination is hard at work, an image emerges, Valentina chases it, searching in those very places that served as its inspiration. Once she pictures the perfect image, she pursues only that. And so a new phase begins, extrovert and complementary to the first – research that is harrowing but also methodical, rational and structured. The inward looking, highly imaginative hunt turns into pure physical energy, into shameless encounter with others, into focused ability to plan. In this way, she builds that relational experience which is an integral part of her work, clearly visible in her photographs set in the semi-outskirt areas of Rome, whose inhabitants become the performers.
The Living Layers series consists of the previously un-exhibited work resulting from Valentina’s encounter with the caustic, cramped, stone-cold, chilly “cementified” surfaces of urban space. Whereas the starting point in her previous works was a literary tale (The Princess and the Pea, Don Quixote, Dante’s Inferno), the six photographs here are no longer arranged according to a story line, but all have the same emotional theme in common: they are the material outcome of the long-term bond she has interwoven with the Tor Pignattara district and the city in general. A setting which, in terms of surroundings, architecture, and landscape, has an “emotional atmosphere” that is unusual for her, born and raised as she was, both as a person and artist, in the soft Maremma landscapes of northern Lazio.
It is the “emotive quality irradiated by surroundings and objects” , the particular Living Heritage of this territory, in other words, which sketch out her new imaginary. If the Living Layers project has attempted, by means of contemporary art, to interpret the particular range of skills, customs, ways of life that are part of a community’s Intangible heritage, and in particular those existing now and thus still being formed, Valentina Vannicola interprets above all that state, of emotion and mood, which every place evokes in its inhabitants. A heritage of sensations, even if contrasting, made up of aspirations, melancholy, immobility, curiosity, apathy, desire, which can be found both in the furrows of everyday life and in the larger expanses of History. Following a path through this landscape, which lasted for more than a year and enabled her to discover the history and soul of places, Valentina in reality undertook a journey into the darkest, most troublesome, most mature part of herself, interpreting at one and the same time her own and our deepest feelings of unease. And those feelings of unease are the protagonists in the photographs shown here. The urge to take flight, and so change, get away, while imprisoned as though in a cage, in a motionless space.
The torment caused by the ghosts which we believe are stalking us, for that’s how we project them, and which we come across constantly, washed up like immense colombri on the paths we follow. The ability to melt ourselves down and thus become part, through empathy or metamorphosis, of a world different from our own, driven by the desire to overcome an inborn feeling of maladjustment, and then discover that even here we are unable to build our own home, our own nest. The attempts to leave with an unmade suitcase and then learn that we are instead suspended in an aseptic, muffled, motionless and disturbing world. And at last coming back to the mental space from which this journey began, an image imagined a thousand times, that could be nothing other than one’s own home, the place from which one leaves and to which one returns, where the fears so often imagined are finally faced. Deliverance that can occur only in a no man’s land, enclosed in a suspended, unmoving moment, frozen thus incapable of producing real change, but precisely for this reason, no longer unalterable. A parallel universe, materialized by Valentina through photography, which we build in secret, of which we are prisoners, but which at the same time welcomes us, protects us, warms us. A space in which we can move freely and without end, and thus go back in time to relive forgotten or lost passages from our lives, to discover “how it might have been.” And finally meet our deepest fears and simple obsessions, face to face.
Only then perhaps discovering that the colombre, which we have followed so obsessively, merely wanted to give us the most beautiful pearl in the sea.

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