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Art-book: THE WALLS OF MIND
photographs and poems by Libera Mazzoleni, essay by G. Longoni, G. Foschi. In Italian/English, 72 pages, 46 colour images, cm 22 x 22;
Silvana Editoriale Milan 2007. (€ 20,00 + shipping).
INSIDE THE HELL OF EXCLUSION
di Graziella Longoni
“The hell of the living is not something that will come to pass; if there is one,
then it is the one that is already here, the hell in which we live every day,
that we make by staying together. Here are two ways not to suffer from this.
The first is easy for many people: to accept the hell and become
part of it until you don’t
see it anymore.
The second way is risky and requires continual
care and learning:
to seek out and learn to recognize who and what,
in the middle of hell,
is not hell and make it last and give it
Translated from I. Calvino,
Le città invisibili
Walls that are seen, walls that live inside us
To go beyond amnesia and to unveil awareness, tracing an aesthetic-poetical path within the abysses of exclusion, separation, negation, active and violent nihilism; to give a face to the hell that we live in every day without recognizing it, because we call it by reassuring names: safety, peace, democracy, freedom, defense of identity.
Placing herself at the horizon of wakefulness, the artist forces herself to look inside unprecedented pain and the waste of blind force, launching a disquieting meditation on what Hannah Arendt called the “primary ontological crime”: the destruction of the human being, the erasing of his unique character, the annihilation of his relational identity, the reduction of the world of human plurality to an uninhabitable dwelling, where a sick sentiment dominates, a sentiment arising from the ruins of fear, hate and grievance.
Here are the walls conceived as defense systems against the “Other” who threatens our existence and steals our world of things; the walls that open terrible wounds in the territory, transforming the places of life into immense prisons; the walls of antipersonnel mines, of electrified barbed wire, the heavy barriers of cement and steel, erected to prevent seeing the “Other”, constructed to distance him from our living space, and to kill him when he dares to cross that border that forces him to live only like a foreigner.
Here are the walls of fire that distance and incinerate; the stinking walls that contain the survivors of the crossings, depriving them of any dignity; the sinister walls of prisons where tortures are perpetrated among smiles, swears, photographs of the “animal” left groaning on the ground, covered and stained by the fluids of his exhausted body, a body wounded by shame in which the victim will no longer be able to recognize himself.
Here are the walls of the patriarchy with its veils that separate the female from the male, that hide a woman’s body seen as a means of spiritual perdition. At the same time patriarchs decide to whom that body belongs and decree her insignificance in the public sphere; women can only live in hiding or in the revolutionary passion that condemns her to martyrdom.
Here are the mental fences of patriarchy that suffocate the dignity of the female body, undressing it, depersonalizing it, reducing it to goods to be sold in the inviting market of sexual liberation.
Here is the disguising fakery of patriarchal ideology which cancels sexual difference, celebrating an homologating and mutilating emancipation where women, covered in military garb, are finally equal to men in exercising the power that brings death.
Walls everywhere, walls that can be seen, walls that rise like emblematic icons of a time that seems to recognize and transmit only two-faced and strangely complementary messages, messages to reassure addressed to those like us and messages of threats addressed to the “Other”.
And also walls that cannot be seen but that live inside us like rigid barriers that imprison the mind, making it incapable of interrogating itself on the meaning of what happens in this world of hardness and exclusion, dominated by the “sad passions”, passions that erase the future as a hope, evoking it only as a menace. It is an empty future that makes hearts cold, unfeeling, full of grievance, obsessively turned to finding a scapegoat in the futile attempt to distance fear, impotence, the disgregation that impoverishes existence, condemning it to the repetition of gestures without animation, carried out in a present that erases everything, memory and desire.
Libera Mazzoleni does not accept becoming a cynical and indifferent part of the hell in which we live. For precisely this reason she decides to view it, from the inside, undertaking the responsibility of representing it through images rooted in daily events and characterized by a bare realism that does not allow reassuring ways out. Next to the images, poetic words try to tell the disorientation felt when confronted with hell, words that originate from listening to pain, to inflicted humiliation, to petrifying silence, to shame that suppresses the will to live, to annihilating power.
A meta-morphosis to encounter
The artist doesn’t just produce images of events; she doesn’t
just recall ideologies of exclusion, placing herself as a gaze
that sees and a mind that thinks; she puts into action an alienating
meta-morphosis that involves her, entirely, in the first person.
In fact she gives her face and her body to the women denied by
wearing the burkha, to the women covered by the chador, to the
veiled women armed with rifles and destined for martyrdom, to the
women soldiers equipped to kill the enemy, to women who have been
humiliated, stripped bare and blinded in the dark rooms of torture.
Breaking with a rigidly closed and self-reflecting identity that
celebrates the “same” while excluding any form of the “Other”, Libera Mazzoleni stages a “liquid identity”: that is, one that melts into other forms of existence. She does this in order to be able to understand and to recount, from the inside, those ways of being-in-the-world that are generated by reclusion, negation, shame, wish of death, by the smiling torturer’s
A woman artist tries to live both the wounded existence of the victim as well as the brutalizing existence of the woman-torturer and tries to speak to one and the other, expressing, to the former, her pained solidarity and, to the latter, her infinite distance.
Like a trip of discovery, transformation, continuous displacements
of her own “Self”, of sinking into memory and imagination,
this meta-morphosis, carried out on her own body is a departure from
the main road traced by blind conformity of identity as well as a
destruction of the rhetoric of power, all in the aim to exhibit the
poverty of that other vision of the world.
Thus the walls appear to be what they really are: devices conceived
and constructed to prevent the world from becoming a “home open to those who come” (Arendt); brutal devices that transform the world into the hell of the living, an inhospitable place of subservience and homologation, a barred fortress against the entrance of the “Other” who
must be pushed back because he is foreign, hunted because he is clandestine,
killed because he is an enemy.
Art as a “procedure
At this point a question naturally
arises: from what place of art does Libera Mazzoleni’s work
takes its procedure?
Alain Badiou writes of an art, which “is in itself a procedure of truth” and “an individual thought”,
which originates in the historical nature of the event and is maintained
(even during the productive deployment of the artwork) within the
uniqueness that characterizes the event itself. This art aims to
recount the event in the multiplicity of meanings that it carries
within itself, preventing it from disappearing into the abyss of
the universal, where uniqueness disappears, sucked up by the bloodless
and disincarnate form of the concept.
In Badiou’s definition we hear the original sense of truth as “alétheia”,
revealing that which always shows itself in the uniqueness of its
This is the place from which Libera Mazzoleni speaks to us, the
historical place of events that happen and that the artist names
one by one, questioning their meaning, placing them always in relation
to things – in this case, walls – with the men and
women who build them, bringing to light, at the same time, a horizon
of meanings to which she refers in an attempt to comprehend herself
and the world in which we live.
Thinking in the first-person singular, she can activate that meta-morphosis
which -- in the diversity of forms assumed by a subject that has
become a nomad – speaks not of a generic human being but of a “subject in flesh and blood”, with a precise name and visage; of a subject that gives death and a subject that dies; of a subject that refuses the “Other” and
of a refused subject that disappears from the gaze; of a subject
that wounds and a subject that is wounded; of a male subject who
drags a female subject into the violent world of patriarchy.
By recalling what constitutes hell to our memory, Libera Mazzoleni
forces us to look, with questioning eyes, into the abyss of denying
Hannah Arendt, who didn’t hesitate to look inside the hell of totalitarianism which renders the human being superfluous and who always questioned herself on the sense of eliminating the human, wrote: “ Thinking and remembering (...) are the human way of putting down roots, of occupying one’s own place in the world, in which we all arrive as foreigners”.
by Gigliola Foschi
“Knowing and telling is a way of staying human”, wrote
Tzvetan Todorov about the images wrenched from the hell that was
Auschwitz by members of the Sonderkommando, shortly before it was
disbanded. The four photographs are blurred and out of focus, “But
precisely because of this”, underlines the philosopher Georges
Didi-Huberman, in his book Images in Spite of All, “We find
ourselves before these images as if before a drastic call for a gesture
of empathy”. It might seem excessive to compare the desperate
urgency of the Sonderkommando to testify to the horror of Auschwitz,
with the images created by Libera Mazzoleni, yet despite the many
differences, her work also springs from the need to “stay human” – the
need to talk about and remember the world’s tragedies. For
Mazzoleni art is not something that lies beyond morality: it is,
on the contrary, an ethical, political force. A similar imperative – “Don’t
think like an artist, think like a human being” – guides
the works of Alfredo Jaar, which are characterized by an ethical
obligation, seen as a way of life. But what does “staying human” really
In the recent film Lemon Tree (directed by E. Riklis) we can see
that the only people willing to combat the destruction of the lemon
grove – considered a security hazard for the family of an Israeli
minister – are those capable of empathy. For the Palestinian
woman Salma, the lead character, as for her elderly helper, the lemon
trees are part of her life, her childhood memories, her very existence.
Watching them wither, as she is forbidden to water them, she suffers
their torment emotionally in every fibre of her being. The lemons
fall to the ground, and every thud pierces her heart. Yet she knows
that she must resist at all costs to defend her beloved plants.
Around her, and around the increasingly troubled wife of the minister,
many people – too many people – react with indifference.
The Palestinians’ representative tells Salma that there are
much more pressing situations to attend to: he is not interested
in concrete human situations, just figures and political developments.
Salma’s son and the minister’s daughter both play down
the situation, unwilling to take on the emotions and suffering of
their respective mothers: they close themselves off, barricaded behind
the defence mechanism of their own identities. So it is that at the
end of the film, when the wall that divides Israel from the Territories
comes to pass between the minister’s house and the lemon grove,
we realize that the minister, the Palestinians’ representative,
the children, and many others like them, have made this possible – because
they themselves were closed behind a mental wall dividing them from
“Evil” is thus born of indifference, that insurmountable
barrier between me and you, us and them. We no longer see others
as people, reducing them to statistics or political arguments, which
are impossible to identify with. And this withdrawal into a self-referencing
wasteland, without openings or relational capacities, is a risk we
all face. It follows that a genuinely critical form of art, able
to reflect on the condition of the world and fathom its dense opacity,
must spring from the artist’s intention to “stay human”:
to relate to other humans – real, living beings, be they victims
or perpetrators – and always looking to the rest of humanity,
addressing it. Being “human” is about having empathy,
sensing the hurt, pain and suffering of others and overcoming the
contemptible indifference that is spreading through the world.
It is no coincidence that Libera Mazzoleni’s work opens with
a series of walls, walls specifically constructed to deny the existence
of others: from the Berlin wall to those which separate Israel from
the Occupied Territories, or the United States from Mexico. To overcome
indifference – the images seem to say – we must first
of all be aware of these walls, be strong enough to look at them,
sense them, and experience them as entities that concern us. This
is why the artist shows them to us close-up, as concrete presences
that are tangible and terrifying, and at the same time an unsettled
and unsettling vision. Her walls, like all her other images, were
not simply photographed to bear witness to an external situation.
As the evil that gave rise to these walls is a force that has touched
and affected the artist herself, the walls come to resemble disturbing
nightmares. As she recounts, one day “I started seeing an infinity
of walls, walls for dividing, segregating, persecuting, dominating,
killing... and I retained some of these images. Coming from troubled
places in my heart, they seemed to form at random, yet they were
held together by my bewildered experience of horror and pain”.
Seeing therefore means not only examining reality, but also experiencing
it with empathy, feeling the pain and suffering. Seeing also means
imagining, so that what happens in the world – from the genocide
in Rwanda to the slaughter of women in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico – is
not left relegated to a far corner that does not concern us. The
artist knows that in spite of good intentions, images of pain and
suffering are often used in the media to bear witness to abominations
that we are exonerated from: they are merely there to serve as a
contrast to those reassuring pictures designed to make us feel part
of one big happy world, a great circus of glittering consumer goods.
To avoid this detachment, the artist opts not to take the part of
the indifferent spectator: with her imagination, her emotions, even
her body, she “climbs over the wall” that separates her
from the world and other people.
Libera Mazzoleni literally enters the images: she is ready to intervene
digitally to create traces of the women massacred in Ciudad Juárez.
In other cases her body refuses to stay obediently within its own
confines, and migrates into that of an Afghan woman negated by the
burqa, or lends her face to veiled women destined for martyrdom,
or takes the place of women stripped and humiliated in torture rooms.
In first person she demolishes the notion of closed, self-referencing
identities, and takes on another persona. As a woman she puts herself
in the position of other women, inhabiting not only the anguished
existence of those female bodies that Islamic fundamentalism sees
as sexual beings to be hidden away, but also that of the female torturer
of Abu Ghraib, hiding her sadism behind an inane grin. By putting
herself in the place of others she tries to transform these women’s
lives into her own experience, in order to experience them from the
inside. While on the one hand her realistic metamorphoses reveal
the importance of and pressing need for altruism, on the other they
generate a doubling, mirroring effect that is unsettling, even disturbing.
Now that the female prisoners in Abu Ghraib have taken possession
of her body, they are no longer just strangers browbeaten by the
tribal law of Iraq into begging for death to cancel out the taint
of rape. “They” are now “her”, and when we
look at “her” we can no longer avoid identifying with
the situation and questioning it.
But where did Libera Mazzoleni take her photographs? She obviously
did not witness first hand all the hardships she shares with us,
but she nonetheless felt the ethical obligation to bring them to
It has to be said that much of the history of photography can be
viewed as an attempt to convey the truth, even when it is not manifestly
apparent. We know, for instance, that many of the photographs taken
during the American Civil War by Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’ Sullivan
were actually staged: driven by the desire to create hard-hitting
images that would act as a statement against the horror of war, the
two photographers actually rearranged the corpses of soldiers for
their shots. Eugene Smith, too, was aware that purely documentary
images might show something to the spectator, but not make them feel
it. The visible reality therefore appeared less significant to him
than the moral truth of the situation, the depth of his emotions
and the injustices he wanted to expose.
So Smith accentuated contrasts of light and shade in order to create
more dramatic effects, eliminated intrusive details and combined
more than one negative to create some genuine photomontages. If reality
turned out to be “inert”, he did not hesitate to recreate
it, like a skilful dramatist: “I adjust reality to make it
closer to the truth”, as he used to say.
To really see, to look beyond the purely visible, we must also imagine.
But this is not about trite fantasizing, or twisting the truth. In
Libera Mazzoleni’s works, the imagination is also, and above
all, a political force that takes over her body, her mind and her
memories, and transports her inside the suffering of others, not
just contemplating it from the outside. For her, and as a consequence,
for us, it is of little importance whether the images were really
captured where it says in the title, or if they were taken by others
and then reworked: the most important thing is that they are effective,
truer than what is actually visible. And to make them even more intense
the artist brings them together: Rwanda and Bosnia, the wall around
Melilla and Iraq – giving rise to an unrelenting constellation
of horrors, with no way out. It is often said that we are deluged
with images and news, but the fact of the matter is that these news
stories hardly ever get under our skin or actually touch us; they
slip away among a thousand other unconnected episodes. In Mazzoleni’s
work, on the other hand, events are tenaciously connected: what might
once have appeared separate and isolated, being determined by particular
local situations, forcefully returns to be part of a whole, guided
by the same logic of oppression. The wall that she demolishes is
that of those who present all events as if they were banal circumstances
or incidental happenings, while in actual fact these situations are
rooted in a system founded on exploitation and exclusion.
Grain of Gold
The Twentieth Century Has Seen
At the end of 1989 when the Berlin Wall was torn down, I allowed
myself to become hopeful and thought “never again will
there be walls!” With the collapse of the Soviet Union
I told myself, “The Cold War is over!”
Immediately someone (F. Fukuyama) spoke of “the end of History” and
began to celebrate “the universalization of Western liberal
democracy as the ultimate form of government for humanity.”
However four years later another thinker (P. Huntington) re-introduced
conflict into the center of the world, saying that the “new
world order”, dreamed by the liberal and liberalist West,
was seriously threatened by a clash of civilizations which, in
their opposing cultures and religions, would set hearts ablaze
and possibly unleash world war between rigidly opposed identities.
So, with the feeling that my head was spinning and my feet weren’t
planted on the ground, I closed my eyes and, as if in a stifling
nightmare, I began to see endless walls; walls to separate, to
create distance, to pillage, to dominate, to kill …I kept
some of these images which, coming from the troubled places of
the heart, took an apparently unordered arrangement; yet they were
all held together by my dazed experience of horror and pain.
The vision of walls, inside me, has led to a confused rumination
on evil: the evil that freedom chooses instead of good, the evil
that is inflicted, without distinction, by one human being on another
human being, the evil that is fed on immoral oxymoron, unleashing
war in the name of peace, carrying out injustice in the name of
justice, covering violence with the ideology of freedom and democracy.
But an artist’s ways of reflecting do not reach the “clarity” of
analytical thought but rather stop on the threshold of an image
which, in the silence of the word, wants to make visible the horror
and hardness of evil.
So I found myself stumbling among pointed stones of uncertainty;
much like an old gold-digger, blind from fatigue, I felt the sand
in my sieve hoping that the day, spent in seeking, was not completely
In my sieve I found, like a grain of gold, the suffering words
of Primo Levi: “…if I could enclose all the evil of
our time in one image, I would choose the image that I know well:
an emaciated man with lowered head and bent shoulders on whose
face and in whose eyes no sign of thought can be seen.”
1 freely translated from P. Levi,
Se questo è un uomo-La
tregua, Einaudi, Torino 1989.