Carlo Rocchi Bilancini

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Submerged Identities

Photographs are part of our daily media bath – as pervasive as air and pools of water.

Pools of water? Recently I have been watching people, fully dressed, standing semi- immersed in water, presenting themselves with insouciance, as if at a cocktail party. They – men and women, many familiar as types, mostly young and good-looking – stand waist-deep in clear blue water. Are they in a swimming pool or in a benign ocean? No peripheral clues are offered. Several, like Trecento saints, are accompanied by the emblems of their trade. They will never move. They are captured – a word frequently used when photographs record the unusual – in rich, sun-lit colour. Why are they so oddly detained, half way between air and water (elemental media which now meet the artificial medium of photography)?

Because they partake in a conspiracy. A conspiracy with a photographer who has, heaven knows how, persuaded them to pose semi-immersed. We know the photographer’s name, but he remains mysterious, as he must. He must preserve the fiction – what poets call “the conceit” – that he just happened upon a watery community of delightful eccentrics. They express no surprise at their condition (predicament?). Quite the contrary. Very much at ease, they return to the camera’s stare a quite contented gaze. Their relaxed presentation of their state as normal makes the photographs strange.

How did they get there? The resourceful photographer simply asked them to pose for an artwork, a beguiling invitation to those of us whose mild narcissism makes us vulnerable to such invitations. To the point that shoes, stockings, trousers and skirts are saturated, if not ruined. The clothes are essential to the project. If all were stripped and nude, the effect would be homogeneous and less disturbing. Photographed on dry land, without the watery foreshortening of their nether halves, the results would be interesting but not extraordinary. Part of many inventive photographer’s strategies is to play off figures against unusual environments, to produce, by contrast, insights into the subjects, beginning a narrative which must, as is the nature of photography, be stopped in mid-disclosure, producing the enigma that photography has at its centre.

What has Carlo Rocchi Bilancini disclosed? There are indications that we have here a community of mixed professions, employments, activities. Many faces invoke different moods, all gathered under the sunlight which uses the water to reveal its transient, perishable inflections. The subjects include a mime, a cyclist, an opera singer studying her music, a frame-maker with his floating wares, and a sober, middle-aged woman quietly knitting. Her ordinariness conforms to the best definition of acting that I know: “being natural in an unnatural situation”. Or as Oscar Wilde put it, “Being natural is a pose”.

And natural they all are, a new kind of amphibian, posing in layers of irony and pretending they are in their natural habitat. If wit is the resolution of unexpected contrasts, then each photograph aspires to the status of an epigram – a thought encouraged by the subjects’ talent for posing. For they all, except for the mature women who present their everyday selves with unselfconscious aplomb, are gifted posers, if not poseurs. A chair is an opportunity to spread legs dramatically, an arm gestures out and into the water, a sword is flourished, a handsome woman’s gauzy shawl billows around her, a relaxed gentleman reads a book.

The photographer adds to the accidents photography offers his own alert eye for details: the opera singer’s belt scribbles away from her on the water; a puff of smoke dissolves out of a man’s mouth. Is the submerged hand of the reading man a new form of marine life? Transparencies where the bodies meet the water offer several intermediate readings. But there is more here than artifice. For however dissembled by charm, wit and self-consciousness, we are witnessing the Freudian plunge of our lower, animal halves into the soup of our original genesis.

Brian O' Doherty

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