READ, DROWNED, PHOTOGRAPHED
Sergio Bertelli - 2009
B: I see you dedicate The Human Compendium to all those who refused to give you their books so that you could throw them into the sea. They must certainly have thought you were intent on destroying “the word”. Or, as you said yourself at the beginning, “the Word” (is it blasphemous?). As for me, who loves the immaculate page, who is horrified at the thought of underlining a sentence or a passage, who is obsessed by the idea that a book should be kept intact (but obviously not uncut); for those who, like me, think that an underlined passage is one that has lost the possibility of being read again, I understand their refusal. But your gesture is so sacrilegious that it fascinates me, makes my head spin as if I were on some dizzying height. Now I have a question: How did you choose the works to be destroyed? Was it a deliberate selection or a random one?

F: I don’t want to play the game of “who would you push off the tower?”. I’d feel caught in a maze with no way out. Nor do I think it is appropriate for me to give a conceptual interpretation of these shots. When you look at a still life you don’t wonder why the painter chooses to depict an apple rather than a pomegranate. Though certainly every different fruit has a symbolic meaning.

B: Of course: the apple refers to Eve, the pomegranate to Proserpine. Therefore there is a message to be made more explicit.

F: As you insist on an interpretation, I’ll say that there are a number of messages. To each his own. One of the decisive factors was aesthetic and I’d be insincere not to admit it. Water is a wonderful lens, full of surprises. I could also mention Narcissus who falls in love with himself through his reflection in the water. A sunken book conveys a sublimated image, making it unnecessary to identify it (Dostoyevsky, De Roberto, Shiel…). The next step was the book retrieved, dried out and transformed into “sculpture”. But throwing books into the sea is also a warning. What use do we make of our books? What is their ultimate destiny? In the digital era, will they disappear? What is our criterion for choosing them? In my view, a book in the water is the emotionally moving image of a lost sacredness. One could also say that throwing books into the water is a provocative act, but let me ask you: when we are lying on our deathbeds what will be the use of all our reading? My brother keeps The Book of Knowledge standing upright on his desk, with a large hole running through it: air instead of water. A book written by an anonymous 14th-century English mystic, The Cloud of Unknowing, occurs to me. The author tells us that to attain the divine we have to make a tabula rasa of all we have previously learnt. If Kien, the hero of Auto da fè, had seen me drowning books, no doubt he would have sentenced me to a thousand lashes and to be sawn in half in the market place: slowly and lengthwise, to make the torture last longer. He would not have understood the substantial difference between fire and water: everything ends in ashes but everything is born from water. Without water there is no life. You yourself quoted Marcel Mauss: water separates different levels of purity.

B: Going back to your question, I really do hope that paper won’t be made redundant by the digital era. Our daily life has been gladdened by the pleasure of tactile reading – hence the trouble I have in using electronic books. Our lives have been enriched by our conversations with the spirits of Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare and so many other authors. As for Kien’s mania for books, I remember that on one occasion I flunked a student who had underlined an 18th-century book with a felt pen. But don’t try to avoid my question: take the Divine Comedy, why throw Hell into the sea and spare Purgatory and Paradise? If it were up to me, I would do the opposite.

F: But it is Hell, with its dark forests and the torments inflicted by devils on the souls of the damned, that stimulates the imagination. It is the very notion of hell itself we have to abolish. However, I’m inviting you to a deserted beach at 7 o’clock in the morning with a copy of the Divine Comedy for a new series of pictures. My choice implies the awareness of its randomness. Bear in mind that we are speaking of a “human compendium”. When we were young we were enriched intellectually by reading in a disorderly manner. I have returned to this disorder .

B: I accept both your invitation and your reproach. Having clarified that, I am curious about another aspect of your work: the dialogue between text and photography. Each shot is accompanied by a passage from the sunken book, and here the choice doesn’t seem at all accidental. Perceiving a patient work of erudition, we discover a connection between picture and text. For example, there is an evident correlation between the darkness of the water in your picture and Dante’s words, between the yellow sandy seabed and Ariel’s song, between the “burning” water of Canetti’s series and Kien’s fire. Is it the text that suggests the image or vice versa?

F: It’s a two-way trip, sometimes one, sometimes the other.
For example, in the particular case of the images taken from Gomorra, the fact that a skull appeared – in what I might call a dramatic coincidence – determined the choice of the quotation. Besides, in hindsight, I have realized that nearly all the classics that I have thrown into the water – Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Balzac’s Le père Goriot, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, De Roberto’s I Viceré, Busi’s Seminario sulla gioventù and Russell Banks’s The Darling – had a common denominator: they were all, in a more or less evident way, about the problematical relationship (through too much love or a lack of it) between one generation and the next, between parents and children. Incredible. Talk about the hand of fate, or rather, the power of the unconscious…

B: You don’t record existence, you create it. You are able to produce pictures not with a paintbrush, but a technological means like a camera.

F: Maybe what you’ve just said is more evident in other works of mine, because the images reproduced here are of books and almost always recognizable. I am in every way a peintre manqué, if you will forgive the cliché. The painter is faced with a blank canvas, the writer a blank page. In the creative process this is the source of exquisite anguish. But a photographer is never faced with a blank. He has only to select, to shift his or her gaze, to interpret things that are already there. He never competes with chaos, nor feels himself to be a god. He starts long after the gun goes off.

B: I don’t agree. You don’t photograph subjects that already exist (a landscape, a building, a face), you create the subject. I mean, you use the camera lens instead of the paintbrush, but you couldn’t be less like a photographer.

F: This is in fact the first time I have created the subject, or rather the setting for the subject. In this sense you are quite right. As to not being a photographer, I am not one to the extent that I’m not interested in time, space or place, the three elements that usually lurk behind every photograph.

B: There’s one book you’ve photographed that’s quite unusual. It’s a book I have trouble in placing, Cradle to Cradle, the title of which is surprisingly clear in the picture. Was it a digital shot?

F: This time I worked both in digital and in analogical. The result is more or less the same. The sharpness doesn’t depend on the camera but on the book photographed (incidentally, it’s by McDonough and Braungart). Cradle to Cradle is “not made of wood pulp or cotton fiber but from plastic resins and inorganic fillers. In addition it can be broken down and circulated infinitely in industrial cycles”. It is practically an indestructible book. Apart from its being a provokingly ecological book, I liked the title from Cradle to Cradle, rather than from “Cradle to Grave”.

B: Water is the very current of life, the shreds of our memory rise to the surface, on the waves. In fact, yours is a message of hope in the eternal. For my part, I confess that I will be content to sink into the warm waters of a thermal pool with my copy of Libidine.