In the artistic practice of Sardinian photographer Emanuela Meloni, landscape is imagined as a physical and mental threshold, a space of relation, intimacy, memory. Photography becomes a form of sensory experience ; a witness of the encounter between the artist and the world, part a personal narrative articulated through the dialogue between images, words, sounds and installation. Both works presented here were created during artistic residencies, in relation and response to specific natural spaces. Du Vert aux Voiles was developed during a collaborative residency between La Rochelle and Niort, on the landscapes along the Sèvre Niortaise river to the Atlantic, from the Poitevin marsh to the ocean. Photo Solstice finds its origin in a short artistic residency that took place in the small island of Asinara, off the north coast of Sardinia.
Landscape is a complex term. Alongside its aesthetic dimension, as representation and scenery, a landscape also implies a relationship between a community and its territory ; it always tells something of the interaction between human beings and nature. Landscapes play a central role in your photographic research ; how did your interest in this topic develop?
My research on landscape stems from a path that precedes photography, but is essential. When I graduated in philosophy from the University of Trento in 2010, I became interested in the theme of non-human otherness, inspired by by Jacques Derrida's book The Animal That Therefore I Am. In that case the other to us was a cat who, just with his gaze and without speech, questioned us about our anthropocentrism. When I wrote my master dissertation at the ENSP (École Nationale Supèrieure de la Photographie) in Arles, I tried to extend this reflection about otherness to the landscape and what inhabits it - stones, trees, natural elements - asking myself if they could also be considered like other speakers, as interlocutors, although "mute" to our all human ears. Not a mimetic representation, but rather an attempted dialogue, an encounter with what is most distant and apparently inaccessible. Could it be possible for photography to be the testimony of an encounter with these irreducible alterities? This question is the leitmotif of all my photographic researches… it is the question that accompanies every step in take into the world.
I always found art residencies fascinating. Being hosted in a "foreign land" (terra straniera), as you define it in your travel notebook from Du Vert aux Voiles, and having to confront yourself artistically with a place that is “other” for a short period of time, producing images of this ephemeral and circumscribed encounter. Can you tell us about these experiences?
The residences are privileged spaces because they are immersive, total. If we remain on the theme of the encounter with this great "Other" which are places, nature, atmospheres, then it works just like with people: to really meet them you have to stop, you have to build a space of intimacy with them, fall into them somehow, in any possible way. Only in this way you manage to cross a threshold and a meeting takes place, you get out of a certain kind of photography - didactic, postcard-like - to enter inside a story. A space is created where something can happen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. Moreover, residences, when they are well made, are also spaces for restitution, because you always take something - a lot, sometimes - from the places you pass through. The restitution is a fundamental moment, because it is a way of confronting oneself with the hosting reality and saying thanks to the community with the artistic work.
Different media and senses contribute to your narrative process, which is a rich combination of photographs, text, dried flowers, sewn and cut snapshots, poetry and nursery rhymes, sound and silences. Along with language and sound, touch also takes a very important role, especially in your travel notebook: hands that write, hands photographed, hands that intervene both on the images and on the natural spaces. How do you see your relationship to the photographic image and this mingling of the visual with other sensory experiences in your research?
Answering this question implies admitting a limit: that is, photographs are not enough for me. Their silence hurts me, at times, and I use my strategies to try and express better the tumult of emotions I experience when encountering skies, stones, lights, landscapes. Words help my images telling a story that resembles me, that resembles as much as possible what has been experienced. I wondered for a long time if this implied that they were not good enough photos… now I just know I work that way. The hands that I call "symbolic", that is, those that you meet in the notebook, those that cut or interfere are a metaphor for human action and manipulation: as a species we always try to possess what does not belong to us, to control what we do not understand, perhaps to try to fill that abyss that separates us from the world. Only by looking at our hands and observing the Other - who always acts as a mirror - we can remember who we are, make ourselves responsible for our actions and correct ourselves if we are wrong.
In Du Vert au Voiles we follow you walking on a path along the river taking to the ocean. For those coming from an island, like you, water and sea are often a central or recurring theme. Do you find they also play a dominant role in your photographic explorations?
It is a good question because I can't answer it. And so I suggest an hypothesis. Consciously I believe that the sea does not accompany me more than other elements, Sardinia is such a large land that sometimes we almost forget that it is an island. Of course - as Elio Vittorini said in Sardinia as a Childhood (Sardegna come un'infanzia): "Finally, we go down to the sea. In Sardinia you always hear it, one hundred and one hundred kilometers from the coasts […] And of something brackish that smells even up to a thousand meters.” So maybe it's as you say, the sea can only be part of the DNA of our soul: as a limit, threshold, the possibility of an elsewhere on the other side. However, our Mediterranean Sea is so different from the Great Sea, the Ocean. Every time I found myself in front of it, it was like looking into the eyes of an elderly man, millions of years old: immense, unattainable, almost unthinkable. Impossible not to stop photographically, as well as with the whole body and soul.
In Photo Solstice the natural elements take an abstract form, the image seems to be in motion, the vision almost loses "control". Why this choice?
I favored an “experiential” type of photography, always to escape some of it intrinsic staticity. Photographic disorientation emerges in front of the things I experience. In this case, the island of Asinara is a place out of time: crossing it at night, by land, meant being crushed by its sky; traveling by sea, always at night, was a spectacle of confusion of elements. The child of the nursery rhyme is the childhood metaphor for our humanity so small, so short, amazed and helpless in the face of so much greatness. Who can pretend to control the uncontrollable?
We know that you are currently working on a project on darkness and night, a subject that really touches us. In your images from Asinara island there is already this constant presence of the night. Where does this fascination come from?
The night is a moment of privileged disorientation: the visual boundaries that we easily take for granted during the day, gradually fade as the night falls. Instead of noise suddenly comes the silence that, in already silent places, becomes even more consistent. The night forces us to abandon our usual references and to sharpen other senses beyond sight: smell, hearing, touch… everything is densified, amplified.
And then the camera is a great ally of the night: it sees beyond and better than our eyes. Shooting at night is always a surprise, because as much as you want to control or decide, the matter, the contours, the edges escape. It's like the intertwining of lovers' bodies, you no longer know where you start or end ... it's a moment of great intimacy, the night.
EMANUELA MELONI - BIO
Emanuela Meloni was born in Cagliari, Italy. She studied political science in Rome for two years, then chose to change path and graduated in Philosophy from the University of Trent in 2010. She started working on photography in 2008, taking part in many workshops in Italy and following a group of documentarists who where shooting a film about the last Coal mine of Italy, The Carbosulcis, Nuraxi Figus, Sardinia. She was admitted to the National School of Photography in Arles, France, (École Nationale Supérieure de la photographie) in 2012, where she graduated with honors in 2015. Her work has been shown at the Carré Amelot, the Rencontres Internationales de la Jeune Photographie at Villa Pérochon, FRAC PACA Marseille, Été photographique de Lectoure, Biennal Mediterranea 17 in Milan, to name a few.