Art In Conversation
Silvio Wolf with Lyle Rexer
Everything that Separates also Connects
Lyle Rexer (Rail): I remember very well the first works I saw of yours, in a private showing, “Icons of Light,” as you called them. They were photographs of paintings, shot at an angle so that the reflected light wiped out the image. These were framed as paintings then hung on the wall. These “icons” gave back nothing except the absence of a picture, and yet they provoked a desire to see beyond this instant of blindness. Is this fundamental to your approach to photography, that it can be made to disclose and withhold at the same time?
It has become common today to use the term “abstract” in relation to photography, as if it were a movement. I think the assumption is that such images refer to nothing or are manipulated in such a way as to obscure content. I have also applied it to your work, but in a very specific way. I wonder if that term has made you uncomfortable, as it has others? Is there some sense in which you would consider your work abstract?
Silvio Wolf: I have often wondered what the term abstract means in photography, as the medium’s classical statutes maintain an indissoluble umbilical cord with the real. In my opinion it indicates, if anything, the abstraction from the river of time: a motionless and suspended temporal fragment, an infinite, absolute present. Nevertheless, the photographic medium is able to indicate an abstract vision of the real, alluding to non-retinal interpretations of the visible, super-sensitive forms, mental images that are symbolically recognized in the real.
Rail: In that sense, all photography has as its true subject what cannot be seen, that is, what associations are made in the mind of the viewer for which the photograph is a starting point. This leads me to reconsider the series that made perhaps the strongest initial impression on me, called “Horizons.” These include tall works that appear to be nothing more than irregular bands of color. When I saw them displayed, I listened to people talk about them as if they were abstract paintings. Rothko is probably what they had in mind. I didn’t feel that way. I was struck by how photographic they felt, how chemical, and also by the remarkable fact that they disclosed everything yet withheld just as much. That was a horizon I responded to, the one between seeing and thinking.
Wolf: The “Horizons” are writings of light self-generated during the camera loading process, beyond the photographer’s consciousness and will. They are sensitive manifestations of light imprinted on the photo-sensitive surface before it registers its first image: they are images ahead of time in latent form, already active before meeting the subject's gaze and experience. Each “Horizon” is a waste of the photographic process, the film leader developed together with the entire strip of sensitive material to reveal all the exposed images. It is an off-camera process that takes place in the camera: a paradox that produces pre-photographic images directly written by light.
With the term “Horizon” I designate the result of an act of appropriation: those films are not mine. My authorship resides in the recognition and suggestion of possible meaning to the photographic object, and not in the shot. My object is not the world but language, the code of the visible world. I'm interested in the latency and revelation of the image, its sensitive manifestation, the possibility of an appearance and the icon that arises from the intimate relationship between light, time, and matter: a chance that comes true.
Rail: This moves us away from a purely subject-centered or expressive experience of photograph- making, in yielding to chance, found materials and the activity of time, and in positioning the result within the language of the medium, as a way of challenging aspects of that language. I actually don’t think you have been given the credit for engaging contemporary critiques of the medium. But, as I always tell my students, museum curation and theorizing is a game of favorites.
Wolf: In my opinion, the “Horizons” are the last true photographs of the twenty-first century. Everything has already been photographed one way or another. Google shows us that the skin of the visible is entirely mapped, just as the entire DNA chain has been deciphered and encoded. Scientists claim that only about four percent of existing matter is visible, and therefore, I infer, photographable, while the remaining ninety-six percent is classified in part as dark matter and in part with the even more enigmatic term of dark energy. These terms seem to designate an existing reality that is not evident to the light-based means of observation, and perhaps not even representable through the analytical thought related to them.
If the “Horizons” are ultimate photographs of the existing visible, their summation and reduction to the roots of language also may offer the most “objective” image, in which the object and the image of the object coincide, generating a model of reality which is the limit between light and its absence, between matter and language. Language and subject no longer seem to need an object outside them to communicate: it is the language that speaks (to us). These works represent a boundary between photographic objectivity and abstraction, meaning the latter term not as non-referential, but a pure interpretation of photographically revealed light. I exercise my will in the choice of how much white (excess of information) and black (absence of information) to include in the image, and the position at which to place the threshold: the line that separates light from its absence, latency from its manifestation, and ultimately potency from act.
Rail: Your mention of boundaries leads to another concept, also metaphysical, that animates your work and has been an ongoing preoccupation, that of the threshold. This metaphor—I hesitate to call it that since it is also literalized—has taken different forms, from actual thresholds—doorways and architectural passages—to more recent mirror-based work in which viewers themselves become directly implicated as subjects. They—we—cross a threshold in their presence.
Wolf: The threshold belongs in different forms to all my work, reflecting upon the concepts of limit, absence and elsewhere and, ultimately, presence and absence of light. In the architectural images I recognize the threshold in transitional sites, which I explore through metaphors of space and symbols of places interpreted as models of reality. The most extraordinary symbolic model of space I ever encountered is the Mihrab, the Islamic prayer niche. It represents a pure direction of the gaze, and in the worshipper’s eye, indicates the most sacred place. The Mihrab is not significant as an object, but it identifies and makes a void visible. In my photograph and in reality, one can perceive this niche as having either a concave or a convex form; the former indicates an absence; the latter is the clear depiction of an illusion. In my vision, the Mihrab results from a double negation: it is neither a place nor a thing, being absent in the very space of its location. It always represents another place, which is distant and not directly visible: it is a void that indicates an elsewhere. I see the Mihrab as a symbol capable of giving man the power of ubiquity because it allows the believer to be here and there simultaneously, a virtual place and an act of faith.
Rail: So not either/or but always both.
Wolf: “Thresholds” connect and separate simultaneous visions of interior and exterior that are a border overlooking two worlds, of which one could not exist without the other: everything that separates also connects. And vice versa. Each work results from a physical encounter and a direct experience. There is recognition of a given place expressed in time and space, rendered by means of light. My predilection for the zones of transition seems to indicate, once again, that photography, considered as a symbolic language, can be thought of as a threshold between what is visible and its multiple levels of interpretation: the point of balance between material/immaterial and real/possible.
Likewise the position of the viewer. The “Mirror Thresholds” series comprises direct ink-jet prints on mirror surfaces in which the beholder’s reflection appears in the imageless portions of the image. It simultaneously represents what is inside and outside: exactly where the surface is devoid of an image, in the gap left free by the absence of information, it embraces both the phenomenological world and the inner world of the image. “Mirror Thresholds” extends the idea of photography from the very place of the shot to that where it is seen, and the exposure from the moment when taken to the present of the observer’s hic et nunc: their gaze, time and experience. The works focus on the who rather than or beyond the what, while the beholder’s attention shifts from the referent, reduced to a distant background noise of retinal vision, to the subject who confronts the actuality of the work, activating it at every new glance.
Rail: There is something distinctly unfashionable about this metaphysical turn, and yet I sense among certain critics and a few artists a desire to move away from the dominant socio-political discussion of photography and from media theory in order to reacquaint ourselves with photography as a mode of knowing. It’s been shorn of its modernist absolutism, but revealed as a seeing with, a profound adjunct to the limits of our individual human vision.
Wolf: I wonder: is the truth of an image inscribed in the eye of the beholder? Where is it to be recognized? Like the pearl in an oyster, which is generated in a point of contact and friction, does it reside in the place that simultaneously unites and separates two streams of information and two truths: on the threshold? What discourse is appropriate to understanding and expanding this experience of ourselves and the real?
Rail: I know that your increasing interest in Judaism has had an impact on your work. I wonder what you have been reading and studying as you plan your work.
Wolf: Well, for one thing, I encountered the following words by Russian theologian, philosopher, and scientist Pavel Florensky that resonated with my concept of the threshold:
According to the words of Genesis, God “created heaven and earth” and this division of all creation into two parts has always been considered fundamental. Thus in the confession of faith we call God “Creator of visible and invisible things.” These two worlds—the visible and the invisible—are in contact. However, the difference between them is so great that the problem of the boundary that puts them in contact, that distinguishes them but also unites them, cannot but arise. How can this be understood?
Rail: Obviously this is central to the cognate religions of the Middle East, as well as to other traditions where sacred and profane are separate but contiguous realms. Beyond that, however…
Wolf: Each “Horizon” is a genesis of light in time, a present that alludes to a possible elsewhere. Each “Horizon” is a threshold made visible, the real and immaterial place that unites what separates; I photographically represent a process of experience and transition: all of life is a continuous crossing of thresholds.