‘To be another, this is what interests me,’ declared Giorgio Ciam at a talk in 1975. A recent retrospective of the Italian artist’s self-portraits at Mummery + Schnelle exhibited this interest in critical disguise with significant grace. Curated by Elena Re, this selection of 25 of Ciam’s photographs taken between 1975 and 1995 (a year before he died) capture the artist’s face, or the shape of some faintly perceptible substitute, at the composition’s centre. His features remain tenaciously out of focus in all of the works. In the black and white Self-Portrait (1976), Ciam reclines on a table, his head extended backwards to face the camera. But his sudden movement has interrupted the photograph’s exposure and his expression has become obscured, replaced by a white, blurred oval. In contrast, a friend standing beside him, dressed in flares and a turtleneck, addresses the camera with an unflinching gaze. This first work of the exhibition introduces Ciam’s consistent play with the doughy elasticity of the analogue film’s manual exposure and the malleability of photographic subject or dramatic persona.
From the late 1960s, Ciam had identified with the Italian body art movement (or ‘Teatri Scultura’) that, in his words, set up ‘interaction between human beings and plastic structures in a continual and variable process’. Developing from Arte Povera, and the grassroots activism and widespread rioting of Italy in the early 1970s, throughout his career Ciam remained focused on the representation of the human body and its potential estrangement from the self as subject matter. This exhibition marked the artist’s shift towards a kind of photography that assimilated the dynamic, plastic and three-dimensional elements of both sculpture and performance. Two dramatic examples of this came early on. Paesaggio nero + due ritratti (Black Landscape + Two Portraits, 1995) comprises an imperfect, partially torn square of dark blue photographic paper mounted alongside two vertically stacked photographs. These show a head, blurred in motion against a white background, extended and exaggerated by dark jagged points, presumably of the corresponding material. Using a process he called ‘stratificazione’ (or ‘stratification’), Ciam would project images, slides or materials onto his own profile, which he would then re-photograph. When further distorted by his movement between these images, the results were unpredictable and varied; through stratification, Ciam pushed and moulded the internal contours of the photographic image as far as possible within the bounds of the figurative. In Paesaggio nero + due ritratti the result is dark and unsettling, a self-portrait like a raven in flight (or fight).
Two of Ciam’s ‘Stratificazioni’ series (both 1985) show how adept he was at conjuring sculptural form through other media. Slide images have been projected this time onto lumpy rounds of clay, before being photographed. Ciam then painted directly onto the photograph’s surface with watery acrylics, red and green specks bleeding onto their rust-coloured surface. The resulting forms appear like eroded antique busts, spot-lit against a black background. A similar process appears elsewhere on a pair of colour photographs mounted on canvas, both titled Opera altra (Other Work, both 1982), which show the faintly recognizable features of a 1969 self-portrait by Francis Bacon, projected from a slide onto Ciam’s own face, which is again indistinct from movement. Formal tributes to the older artist recur in many of the works, but the anxiety of alienation is worked through in such a unique way that this bold reference does not overpower.
Throughout the exhibition, the facelessness of these otherwise familiar human silhouettes is consistently troubling, even when the curatorial scheme became clear. It is striking that, despite repeating his trick of facial obscuration in all these works spanning 20 years, it never seems like a formula. Ciam’s material exploration and exploitation of the fleshiness of analogue film, whether pointed at human form or its many surrogates, preserves its appeal. And the estrangement of the viewer from the subject’s unseen face was presumably a conscious critical intention. The works present, then and now, a sharp antidote to the public appetite for a famous face in the medium most crucial to its development. And while the artful disguises responding to American media culture seem very well exposed, via Douglas Crimp’s 1977 ‘Pictures’ exhibition and its associated generation, this show provided welcome insight into a lesser-known Italian artist, whose photographic presence now seems just as powerful.