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DOPOSTORIA reviewed by Leonardo (MIT Press)

Reviewed by Jan Baetens


Leading us from the description of a research project to the final artist of an artist book, DOPOSTORIA is a thrillingly complex and multilayered object at the same time as an intriguing dialogue with a concept borrowed from Pier Paolo Pasolini, who coined and illustrated this neologism in a 1962 poem (“Io sono una forza del passato”, I am a force of the Past). Yet from the very beginning, that is in Pasolini’s text already, each of its components rapidly turns into a cluster of competing and perhaps conflicting meanings: “storia” is history  as well as story (narrative), while “dopo” (meaning post or after) does not only refer to what comes after the traditional, linear, canonical way of streamlining the past with the help of names and dates, but also to ways of thinking and doing where past, present, future, afterlife, oblivion, and confusion overlap in permanently shifting forms and constellations.

It is not by chance that the title of this book sticks to the initial Italian word, rather than tying in with the dangerously contemporary (and therefore narrowing) stereotypes of words that belong to the “post-history” family. Neither is it a coincidence that the theoretical reflections on time which are at the core of this publication appear in the context of the medium of photography – on the one hand, photography as the material practice that reproduces but also modifies what is no longer there, on the other hand photography as the producer of a new type of collection, that of the archive, which in turn discloses a fundamental relationship with larger questions such as memory, more specifically the memory of the dead (the link between photography and the death mask or techniques of embalming are well known to all photography scholars).

Photography, archive, cemetery, ruin, museum, Rome, and finally a specialized library famous for its photographic art history and architecture collections, the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome: that is the setting of Keller’s project, DOPOSTORIA being as much a performance as a work in print. The book is the challenging gathering of three types of contributions, sharply separated (the work is divided in three sections that are supposed to be read one after another) appears as well as tightly interwoven (each new step can only be understood in light of the preceding one). First, the description of an unfinished movie. Second, a double historical reflection on burial and cremation practices and their relationship with larger cultural frameworks (actually, the revised transcription of two interviews, respectively with historian Carolin Kosuch and archaeologist Maria Clara Martinelli). Third, a sequence of photo-collages processing material of the Bibliotheca Hertziana collection, as a creative counterpart of the previous sections.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it is the global structure and the internal dynamics of DOPOSTORIA that best illustrate the challenges as well as the achievements of the work. DOPOSTORIA is composed in the form of a three stages machine, with the collage part functioning as the expansion of the critical primer of the first half. This visual sequence is not just the creative “answer” to the theoretical “questions” raised on the meaning of past, memory, archive, ownership, etc., that are present from the opening pages of the book. It is instead an example of how (visual) artists can continue, specify, and deepen the theoretical perspectives opened by cultural and scientific institutions and policies. Art appears thus as another searchlight, neither reducible to scientific research nor detachable from it.

Keller’s work is in this regard as thought-provokingly convincing. The collages offer much more than the juxtaposition of dissimilar parts (as the concept of “collage” seems to suggest). In his images (and sequences of images), time and space are truly mixed, for the artist’s particular way of practicing montage does not rely on gluing and superposition, but on transparency and mutual blurring of objects and layers. In a similar way, Keller’s photo-collages also dissolve the frontiers between the language of the moving image and the fixity of print: the transparency effects, combined with constraints of repetition and variation, tend to animate the images, which eventually morph into film stills. Moreover, the use of negative images and grey or black color filters (color is used very sparsely and always with gloomy undertones, as if the color spectrum could only hint at the chromatic features of a corpse or a ruined building). The overall presence of black and grey establishes a fascinating relationship with the theme of burial and cremation that is at the heart of the two interviews, to the extent that readers may think that they are viewing half-burned pictures, saved from a fire or another form of natural disaster or decay. Finally, the thematic combination of mainly buildings (the human presence in the photo-collages seems to be reduced to the intermediary register of non-living antique statues), the absence of captions (which further stresses the blurring of boundaries), and the half-ironical clear and systematic foregrounding of the library’s logo (all photographic items bear the stamp of the host institution of the project) generates a fascinating disorientation. Readers are permanently struggling with the question how to conceptualize the very idea of reading a work like this. Are we supposed to see the visual representation of a walk-through Rome? Are we instead time-traveling, between the ancient ruins and the most sophisticated digital technology? Are we browsing a library catalog and flipping to a set of numbered photographs? Or are we to forget about all this, and are we invited to carefully examine how we have to turn the pages of a book? For the last word of DOPOSTORIA may be a very paradoxical one: a word of praise of a medium that remains at the crossroads of past and future, the book.

Published on Leonardo (MIT Press), October 2023

Category: Review

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