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Billboards. Two projects by Maurizio Montagna

by Marianna Ascolese, Federica Deo

Compasses Magazine

Architecture, city, device, time: all of these issues are taken into account by the Milanese photographer Maurizio Montagna. A keen interpretation of places in their anthropic and cultural transformation emerges from all his works.

This article aims to focus on two different projects, Billboards 2008 and Billboards site-specific Latronico 2018, in which the author reflects on the relationship among the object, the subject and the context/landscape where they belong.

FD: Both projects have the same name. Both of them thoroughly look into a specific object and its relationship with the real world, with the landscape and with its own elusive meaning as well. In the ten years running between these projects, the billboard function has changed: advertising has undergone a process of dematerialization. The obsolescence of the billboards becomes a temporal threshold: these switched off displays bear the stamp of time going by, of the transformation of places due to their context and their economy. How has your thinking and your research changed during these years?

MM: During my researches from 2003 to 2009 I was interested in the billboard in itself. In the Billboard 2008 project, I tried somehow to make it a sacred object and consequently my language adhered to the patterns that the billboards created in their space, at the expenses of an overall interpretation of the places I shot. This brought me to sacrifice a general reading of the places recorded; the relationships with the urban fabric are partial: streets, outdoor furniture, buildings, industrial architecture are almost an incidental presence defined by the perspective of the shot. As for the Site-specific project, the assumptions are definitely overturned: the billboard is placed in an exact location of the Lucan landscape, the latter having an importance for itself, in spite of the fragmentation due to the frame; the relationship with the space has been planned so as to contextualize the installation and at the same time to define a precise point of view, which would allow to look at the sky.

FD: In the Billboards 2008 frames you find a hint to the urban dimension that is excluded by shots: in fact, it is possible to interpret it as the expression of a post-industrial city, of its production and commercialization, as well as of the social and anthropic transformation that it underlies. As for Billboards site-specific Latronico, on the contrary, there is a return to the places which have experienced a different consequence to that transformation: desertification. The survey tools employed for these projects are different. The 2008 work shows on the one hand an effort – through the “series” – to witness, more than listing; on the other hand, thanks to the photographic poetics, it appears as an analytical and expressive work, a personal reflection upon the daily experiences. Billboards site-specific, by contrast, reconsiders the object and unties it both from its passive reception in an ordinary place and, to a certain extent, from that strong authorship which characterizes your first work. Here the billboard, set in a context which neutralizes its original function, becomes a signifier, a «word»[1] in progress that, breaking free from its objective meaning, enables a new kind of interaction between the object and the recipient. And this vision is highlighted by the wider project A cielo aperto, of which the installation is part. Could you tell us about the creative process which led to these projects?

MM: Deleuze in Difference and Repetition asserts that it is essential that each point of view is also “the thing”, or that “the thing” is also a point of view. “The thing” is a billboard, now deprived of its primary function. This change in paradigm allows the subject to fix new reading codes. Our perceptual functions are modified in relationship to the subject: once chromatic and figurative invasions of advertising messages are eliminated, the billboards enact a kind of mimesis. It is on us then to attribute a meaning to this transformation. After the photographs taken during the first year, I realised that my interest was directed toward the subject as such. This would push the work in a direction capable of making us reflect not so much on the urban landscape but rather on the values parcelled by an almost taxonomical cataloguing of these subjects. Nevertheless, I think that Billboards is a possible instrument for urban analysis, despite that was not the premise of the project. The possible qualities of an object are placed in relation by whoever observes the object, and this practice is particularly bound to Billboards 2018. Here the premises are different. Even if we are speaking of the same object, the project in Latronico presents itself as a hinge between my latest works: having the billboard pose in a definitive way, aiming to eliminate the stasis in my work was already a challenge. Billboards 2018 was completed according to specific characteristics: the materials, the colour, the filter, and thus the point of view and the aim were to make the object compatible with relations, activities and artistic processes of various sorts. The actualisation of the project was nonetheless possible thanks to the work in synergy with Pino Valente and the group of A Cielo Aperto.

MA: The two projects emphasize the different role that the image assumes in the contemporary condition, not only as a medium to describe reality but also as a tool capable of conveying another possible way to see urban space. Arbitrariness and rule describe the places crossed in Billboards, giving the same image two different meanings. In the first work, the city is the protagonist and the antagonist of the same “image”, identifying a generic daily reality that endlessly confronts with the fragility and the disruption that the visual system imposes on it. In the second, the image assumes a more evocative and introvert form, seeking a balance between the visible and the sensitive world. How would you define the role of the image in the contemporary condition? Which could be, in your opinion, an image (or a device) able to describe it?

MM: Vilem Flusser, in his Towards a Philosophy of Photography, proposes a reflection on the relationship between the operator and the tool, on the role reversal between the operator/user and the technological processes in the photographic field. In brief, the philosopher assumes that any author of an artistic project will be necessarily influenced by the technology he employs, hence the true “artist” must be able to design the tool/software to be employed for the post-production of the pictures. Although Flusser’s observations are undoubtedly relevant, he shows no interest in the relationship between the subject and the photographer, which is actually the core of a shooting, if you want to determine a necessary world view. In my opinion, photography has a huge potential, but it is crucial to modernize the expressive methods, avoiding the dangers of the marketing system, that occur in contemporary art.

MA: A frequently recurrent aspect in the two works is the constant reference to absence, which not only represents a search for emptiness, but also implies a richer meaning that explores a relationship with the surrounding objects. This absence is both impersonation of lack, which is expressed in those places cut out from billboards, deprived of their roots, strenuously placed at the edge of something, and a dreamlike presence capable of capturing a rarefied reality defined by a changeable white tubular structure. This concept of absence can be also found in other works (for example Torri Milano 2015-2017 and Biennale 2014) in which the relationship with the building and the city is very strong, almost necessary. What condition makes you choose to photograph in this way? How do you interpret the concept of absence in a personal relationship with the city and the urban landscape?

MM: «The sign does not wait in silence for the coming of a man capable of recognizing it: it can be constituted only by an act of knowing»[2].To act within the technical limits of the instrument available in relation to the reading possibilities of a subject is the prerogative of an artist. Photography is an act of knowledge, perhaps more than other forms of art; to observe attentively a photograph is an act of caring for the world. Every minimal detail of photographic image can open up possibilities of interpretation. Our sensibility will give us the possibility of an understanding of the subject through codes: it is up to us and to our visual culture to interpret them and to give them meaning. Through good photography I always hope to unhinge the subject’s superstructure, enabling a reading in which sense and vision validate the “sacrifice” carried out by the subject that is posing. It is like this for every model that I try to bring to all my works, particularly for architecture, where a stereotyped gaze runs the risk of proposing a doctrine stuffed with prefabricated models, with the unhappy result of being satisfied with what we already know.

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