«To give drink to the thirsty»
Mario Codognato
Based on the most recent estimates, more than a billion people still do not have access to sources of clean water. In some countries in Asia and Africa the average distance people walk every day to obtain water is about 6 kilometers, carrying an average load of 20 kilos on their backs on the return journey. Meanwhile in Italy we consume 200 liters a day per capita. (United Nations Development Programme)


People’s good deeds we write in water. The evil deeds are etched in brass. (Shakespeare)


Water is the source of life for all living creatures, the human body is made up of seventy percent water, and water resources will be fundamental for geopolitical strategies in the future, a probably not very distant future. Water quenches, irrigates, purifies and renews, but it can also devastate and destroy. It is the substance of floods, the cause of shipwrecks; nymphs seduced men to drown them in springs, in Indian mythology the waters into which the sun dives at every sunset are the symbol of the hereafter, darkness and death. Water is so present in man’s imagination that every mythological story ends up describing this element, placing it at the center of almost every creation scenario. This was true for the Egyptians, who believed that the earth had emerged from a primordial ocean; it was true for the Babylonians, who thought that the world had been born from an encounter between Apsû and Tiamat, fresh and salt water. Closer to our own time, the great Thales of Miletus considered water to be the originary element because it could extinguish fire, dissolve earth and also absorb air. Water traverses the subconscious and the realm of dreams. In the mind and hands of an artist, water allows the imaginary and the symbolic to flow from the collective to the individual and vice versa; it becomes a tool of negotiation between the real and the symbolic, between life and art.


In the photographic compositions of Ileana Florescu, water simultaneously fulfills many if not all its physical and symbolic functions. Above all it functions as a mirror and as a tautological mechanism of the process that has historically brought them into the world — photography is the impression of light on paper, and before digital technology the fixing of the image occurred through its immersion in a chemical bath — the image slowly forms and emerges from the water. In her work, water immerses the depicted subject in an amniotic liquid that protects it and transforms it into an archetype and a subject in a state of becoming, a tabula rasa ready to absorb and reflect the wonders and the wretchedness of the world. Water forms a protective and distorting screen between subject and reality, between observer and observed. Water mediates and dilutes the time and space of viewing; it constructs a transparent but fluid barrier, never completely formed thanks to its visual indeterminacy.
Water envelops and suffocates the subject with mystery and with a hypnotic illegibility; it purifies and at the same time consumes the image, regenerates and at the same time dissolves what is represented. Water accelerates the corrosion of time, transforms the subject into something else while preserving its features, reveals its most unexpected or forgotten facets, contorts and amplifies its most recondite meanings. It generates doubts and blinds rationality with its reflections and distortions. Water detonates the power of the image, taking it apart into a myriad of refractions, but it deadens sound, conjoining it with photography’s immobile and constant, but dianoetic and maieutic silence. It probably does all this or none of it, but clearly it stimulates and encourages viewers to construct their own narrative around and within this element, which characterizes, on all levels, their lives and the lives of everything that surrounds them and relates to them. Water assumes the form of the container; in photography it conjoins the surface plane of artistic mimesis with the volumetrics of reality; it conjoins nature and culture. This joining is even more evident in one of Florescu’s most extraordinary and complex series, La biblioteca sommersa (The Submerged Library), in which books are submerged into the depths of the sea and photographed in their state of static wreckage, in their slow but inexorable decomposition, cradled by the currents and their unpredictability. The book, repository of language and writing, container of knowledge, symbol of culture and of man’s resistance to the forces of nature, unexpectedly becomes an object, an element returned to nature and its forces. This restitution even further amplifies, by contrast, the incommensurable value of writing in all its forms. Paradoxically, the destruction of the book and its documentation heighten its incalculable necessity and presence in the history of humanity.


In the project for the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome, all this becomes even more extraordinary and urgent. In fact, the library preserves an important collection of books that the Catholic church banned over the centuries, including them in the infamous Index librorum prohibitorum, which, from 1559 to 1966, condemned and prohibited many of the most important works ever written. The theme of the censorship of books, of the ban on publications, many of which were and remain among the most fundamental and innovative contributions in the history of science, philosophy, politics and literature, from all ages, sadly traverses all eras, in all parts of the world, and is still tremendously relevant.
The memory of the bonfires of books by the Nazis, including the notorious Bücherverbrennung of May 1933, in the Opernplatz in Berlin, or those carried out by military regimes in South America in the 1970s, remain indelible in western modern consciousness. The recent events in Paris, a few months ago, with the slaughter in the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, on the occasion of the release of Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Submission, or the destruction by ISIS of every non-religious book, to name two of the most glaring and most recent events, continues to keep alive the tension and the connection between the destruction of books and religious obscurantism.


The copies of some of the volumes listed in the Index librorum prohibitory, submerged at the bottom of the sea and photographed by Florescu’s lens, seem to be preserved and to resist the destructive power of fire, which seems to lick them with its tongues of light, mirrored on the liquid surface. And the writing is reborn through the symbolic regenerative function of water.


To quote the artist: “These works of mine are meant to call attention to the gratitude, that we all owe those who, despite the ostracism and violence to which they were subjected, have bequeathed us an incommensurable legacy”. These include the works of Dante Alighieri, Pietro Aretino, Francis Bacon, Honoré de Balzac, Cesare Beccaria, Henri Bergson, Simone de Beauvoir, Giovanni Boccaccio, Ernesto Buonaiuti, Colette, Copernicus, Benedetto Croce, Daniel Defoe, Descartes, Denis Diderot, Alexandre Dumas père and fils, Gustave Flaubert, Antonio Fogazzaro, Ugo Foscolo, Galileo Galilei, André Gide, Thomas Hobbes, Victor Hugo, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Jean de La Fontaine, Giacomo Leopardi, John Locke, Karl Marx, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Alberto Moravia, Blaise Pascal, Francesco Petrarch, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Spinoza, Stendhal, Voltaire and Émile Zola, to name only some. Certainly if their works, and those of many others placed on the list, had never existed, we would be living in a different world.