Aug 01, 2006

by Michael Helke

We peer down upon the greatcoat-clad body lying turned on its side, its features effaced by the sand of the beach on which it fell. The helmet lying capsized near what used to be the head identifies its owner as a German soldier. The stance he has permanently assumed suggests he had taken a direct hit as he was in stride. Was he in flight? Or pursuit? He might have been brought down by an unseen sniper, a terrified Partisan, or a mortar shell. Pistols lie near the hands that had clutched them; a couple ammo cartridges near his left knee, casings unspent; a coffee canister that looks as if had been hurled into his face by the blast's concussion - had he lost consciousness before he lost his life? - the force of which in turn knocked his helmet off; more unspent cartridges, attached to his chest, appearing at first glance like rib bones poking out; a long blade, resembling a bayonet handle, the rifle onto which it had been affixed long discarded, clinging tenaciously to its owner's side; a pair of goggles near its feet: additional testimony to the violence of the soldier's demise. The whole forensic tableau looks as if it had been recovered during an archaeological dig, or the scene of an ancient crime, attended by a team of unsmiling specialists, diligently brushing away, grain by indifferent grain, revealing a world lost to time, surface details appearing inscrutable to the untrained eye but to that which has long affixed upon such facts of life and death the details being just that - mere surface - revealing the basic reality, the bone beneath the flesh, of the one constant of human existence: that only war is immortal.

Such is the scene that opens War Souvenir (Contrasto), a mixed-media commentary on the specialized savageries of the previous century by artist Paolo Ventura. In addition to the German (excavated, his text says, from the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines), we view the waterlogged corpse of one Ines S., reputedly murdered (by who? Germans? Partisans?) and tossed in the Martesana canal in Milan the morning of 30 April 1945. The look on her face expresses, not terror, but rather disappointment at having been caught out and disposed of in so ignominious a fashion, as she was so sure up to the last moment that she was meant for better things - better than that, at any rate.

But take a closer look at her photo. The materials surrounding her - the water slowly dissolving her, the twigs - look real; they probably are. Ines, however, doesn't; isn't. Death can't transfigure her because she had no life to begin with. Ines - as well as all the other subjects portrayed in War Souvenir, including the aforementioned German - is a doll, a plastic doll the size of an old G.I. Joe action figure, twisted into shape and context by Ventura.

"I don't know exactly where I find my inspiration," said Ventura in a recent interview with Stop Smiling, "but I try to reconstruct my dreams. I work early in the morning, before these dreams disappear."

In one photo of a small public dancehall in Milan, we see to what lengths Ventura will go to further his reconstruction projects: he poses the soldiers dancing with civilians against an overhead light, casting solemn shadows off them; behind one soldier stands an old mirror, reflecting - or, to be precise, refracting - the back of his bald head as he exchanges a furtive glance with a comrade sitting on a bench to his left. What, exactly, is passing between them? Lone details might not signify much beyond itself, but to assemble and frame them, as Ventura has, in such an ambiguous setting as this - are the figures celebrating victory in battle, or merely a brief respite before returning to a certain death? - creates an effect that's more than the sum of its individual parts, that calls forth that lost moment, that forgotten world, that unexplored emotional terrain, calling to mind in this instance a haiku by Ezra Pound: "The apparition of these faces in the crowd: / Petals, on a wet, black bough."

Ventura, who works in a studio in his apartment in Brooklyn - "surrounded by my cardboard cities and props," as he puts it - worked as a fashion photographer for ten years before dedicating himself to more important things. "Because I had such a strong desire to escape from that world," Ventura said, "I was free to think in a completely new way." The Italian exhibition of War Souvenir will conclude at the end of August and head for New York for September before doubling back to Milan in time for an appearance at FORMA, the International Center of Photography, for October and November.

War Souvenir was originally published in the Autumn 2005 edition of Aperture, with an accompanying essay by novelist Francine Prose (reprinted in the present Contrasto volume); images from the project were chosen for the cover of the 2005 volume of American Photography. In addition to the aforementioned periodicals, Ventura's work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Abitare, Das, Elle (Italia), Marie Claire (British), Corriere della Sera and the Japanese version of Harper's Bazar.

Ventura corresponded with Stop Smiling via e-mail while on a recent working holiday in Italy.

Stop Smiling: Discuss how the inspiration for War Souvenir came about. Was it a bolt-from-the-blue moment, or did you have the idea for it gestating for a period of time? (I suppose this is the moment to pose the standard "Who are the artists who most influenced your viewpoint?" question.)

Paolo Ventura: Indirectly, I have been thinking about this project for a long time. When I was a child, I was always fascinated listening to the stories of the war told to me by my grandmother. I started to recreate, in my imagination, a world where I have never been, but where I would have liked to have been. It's difficult to say who has inspired me directly. I can say that I have always been impressed by the cityscapes painted by Mario Sironi, the Italian Futurist painter, in the 20s. I like his vision, the colors and essential shapes that he used to depict the birth of the industrial cities of Italy.

However, I think the thing that has influenced me even more is the photography of the common people of that time. The portraits of soldiers taken in a studio environment where they are completely removed from the context of the war and placed in a false environment surrounded by props and papier-m’chÈ objects. Often these props represent the reality outside, but it is an invented reality, romanticized and made in such a way that it no longer has anything to do with the horrors of the war that is happening around them. They become like characters in a book rather than soldiers in a war.

SS: Is there anything from your familial background that might account for your fascination with the subject matter of War Souvenir? (Or, did you or any of your relatives have firsthand experience with war?)

PV: Like all Italians, my family experienced the war both directly and indirectly. Especially in the last years of the war, when the war became a Civil War and entered in the cities - knocking on the doors of the people.

SS: Did any insights gleaned from your career as a fashion photographer in any way contribute to Souvenir's aesthetic?

PV: In a strange way, yes. Because it is the nature of fashion photography to recreate a world that doesn't really exist.

SS: The images of war you've contrived never deal with combat directly: it's all prelude, aftermath, and intermission. Was this a decision made for practical reasons, or were there more abstract grounds for it? (I'm thinking of Francine Prose's mention of Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others in Souvenir's intro: "We have all experienced the pornographic fascination and the accompanying unease we feel in the presence of images of victims of some natural or man-made catastrophe.")

PV: The reason I chose the images I did is because I wanted to tell the story of daily life during the war and the influence the war had on these lives. The things that happen to the every day people living the war: love affairs, abandonment, death. These events, when experienced in the context of a more catastrophic tragedy like a world war, become even more emphasized, as if being viewed under a lens.