Passages, a new exhibition at the Embassy of Italy, is part of the 2016 Protecting our Heritage program. Our heritage as humankind is continuously being threatened by wars, terrorism, criminal organizations, climate challenges, and simply the passage of time combined with the ultimate prospect of oblivion.
In order to increase awareness and foster networks of institutions and experts to protect and preserve heritage, the Washington cluster of the European Union National Institutes of Culture (EUNIC), following a proposal by the Italian rotating presidency, has agreed to focus on the topic of protecting our heritage as one of the main themes for its 2016 activities.
Passages marks the opening of the EUNIC “Protecting our Heritage” program and is made possible with the support of the European Union Delegation to the USA, UNESCO and prominent institutions including international organizations, universities, museums and various foundations.
In support of the 2016 Protecting our Heritage program, the Istituto Italiano di Cultura of Washington, D.C. and the Embassy of Italy opened last week the Passages photography exhibition by Massimiliano Gatti, a renowned Italian photographer and archeological activist.
Gatti’s exhibition is an especially appropriate, timely and an important way to initiate the program. Gatti worked with the archaeological mission of the University of Udine in Qatna, Syria from 2008 to 2011. From 2012 to 2015, he served as a photographer with PARTeN, an interdisciplinary research unit conducting archaeological activities in the Kurdistan region’s Land of Nineveh in Iraq, the home to some of the most important archaeological sites in the world.
At last week’s opening, the curator of the exhibition, Prof. Jonathan Green, professor emeritus and founding executive director of ARTSblock from the University of California at Riverside, explained the significance of Gatti’s work.
Such photography, Prof. Green notes, can be used as a “neutral and powerful tool both to provide great accuracy in archeological investigations and to help rebuild and reconstruct destroyed or decaying sites.” It was in this capacity, as an archeological photographer, that Gatti began his photographic work in Syria and Iraq.
As a photographer for the PARTeN project, Gatti found himself tracing ancient civilization through modern times. This includes the remains of the Assyrian, Hellenistic, Persian and Ottoman periods and now the remains of the most recent events that have ravaged the country. Gatti found on the ground both ancient archaeological shards and contemporary artifacts from the current wars, Prof. Green points out.
Gatti writes of this project: “All these items come from the same layer: the surface of the earth. Here they join together to tell a single story that has continued for centuries. These objects show many faces of Iraq that was — before years of wars and violence — Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. The juxtaposition of objects deriving from different historical periods and contexts highlights — through reference and similarity — the circularity of history. My rendition of these objects deliberately flattens any historical depth, but defines the way the past impinges on the present and the present repeats the past.”
Gatti’s pursuit of ancient ruins and past civilizations has led him to photographic projects in Scotland, Syria, Iraq and Italy. Gatti has exhibited extensively in many group and solo photo exhibitions in Italy and in such European and American cities as Edinburg, Paris, Los Angeles and Riverside.
In Europe, Gatti’s artistic work is represented by RBContemporary gallery, Milan. Gatti’s works are included in important public and private collections such as Galleria Civica di Modena, Fondazione Fotografia, BNL Paribas, Collezioni Comune di Monza and others. He lives and works between Italy and the Middle East.
Gatti’s photographs explore the history of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, not by reportage, but by careful, poetic, archeological description that transforms artifacts into metaphor and ancient objects into contemporary commentary, Prof. Green observes.
Gatti’s projects exhibited in his exhibition, In Superficie, Rovine (On the Surface, Ruins) from Tell Gomel and Jerwan are part of a larger suite of five projects that are quiet meditations on violent transformations.
His photography depicts shards, fragments, chips, pieces and particles, the remnants and remains of both necessary and unwanted objects that attest to human presence and human absence, Prof. Green states. Their eloquent simplicity, he notes, interrogates past and present civilizations and references the movements of peoples, armies, immigrants and refugees across time and across what Gatti refers to as the “extended desert.”
In this desert, Gatti explores objects found in the harsh, bright white of the desert sun. All of Gotti’s objects, Prof. Green points out, are de-saturated and faded, flooded by a dazzling light.
What we notice first about Gatti’s work, says Prof. Green, is the tonality. “The photo is almost entirely white. The object has not only been removed from any context, but also is bleached by a blinding light; transformed from a fully articulated object into a ghost-like presence. It is vaporizing before our eyes.”
The objects in many of his photographs, Prof. Green points out, are hardly visible. “They melt away before your eyes. They are merely shells of their former selves. They have been changed utterly from an object with heft and presence to a mere shadow.”
To deeply experience Gatti’s projects from Syria and Iraq, Prof. Green says we must be willing to suspend our anchor in the present and allow these images as “poems of enlightenment to direct us into a richer human and historical experience.” These are not documentary records but rather a philosophical and existential inquiry into the nature of human experience, objects and events, he says.
Gatti’s work, which Prof. Green says is presented at this particular fraught, historical movement, reminds us that our understanding of contemporary occurrences — while in the immediate present almost exclusively articulated in political speech and media coverage — is ultimately absorbed into history and human consciousness through the more careful descriptions, voices and visions of artists and poets. By setting this work into the vast continuum of imagery that reaches back to ancient civilizations, Gatti brings a penetrating humanity and clarity to today’s traumatic events.
The exhibition will remain on display at the Embassy of Italy through March 15, 2016. To view, please request an appointment at email@example.com between Monday and Friday, 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.