It was around the same time – the early Eighties – that Filippo Marazzi inaugurated the Crogiolo, a research and experimentation centre open to architects, designers and artists from all over the world. The same period saw the birth of the “Marazzi Portfolios”, in which the first photographers to be invited – Luigi Ghirri, Cuchi White and Charles Traub – placed ceramic tiles in the context of their own artistic language, producing a series of outstanding photographs. This is how Luigi Ghirri introduces his work in the text that accompanies his portfolio: “Ceramics have a history that is lost in the mists of time. They have always constituted an “object” on which other objects are placed: the furniture, gestures, images and shadows of the people who inhabit these spaces. When creating these images, I kept all this in mind and tried, by using surfaces in different colours, and superimposing objects and images, to reconstruct a space which was not the physical and measurable space of an actual room, but rather a representation of mental space in a given moment…”.
The photographs exhibited at the Palazzo Ducale in Sassuolo, brought together in a single show for the first time, tell the story of this long partnership, in which Luigi Ghirri uses ceramics to investigate topics of importance to him in those years, especially issues relating to the very function of photography. One of the first and most obvious points of contact is the transformation of ceramic tiles into a “grid”, a large chequered sheet that stimulates reflection on and questioning of the themes of representation, using miniaturisations, changes in scale, shadows, the inclusion of unexpected objects and the overturning of the viewpoint. In one of his lectures at the Università del Progetto in Reggio Emilia, on the topic of transparency, Ghirri reminded his students: “What does transparency in photography refer to, fundamentally? It refers to the polished viewfinder glass with the focusing marks you look through […]. In some respects, the polished glass of a camera’s viewfinder is no different from the grid of a slate on which you learn to write or draw.” Ghirri sees photography as a continual opportunity for investigating the world, with the aid of recurrent elements that activate our visual experience, mainly originating in play, childhood and memory. So we see the shadow of a hand holding a paper rainbow in a photograph that moves between two different dimensions of space and time, not to mention direct references to childhood and learning, with abacuses, crayons and a ball, while a paper doll delicately placed on a ceramic tile is projected into a real landscape.
The view through a grid also evokes the projection, design and representation devices – from the camera obscura to the photographic camera itself – fundamental to our perception of the world and space. Ghirri consistently places ceramics in a series of images that reference systems of proportion and the organisation of space, investigating the theme of collective, shared perception. So we find a series of photographs that evoke the architectures of the ideal cities of the Quattrocento, in which Ghirri considers the relationship between these systems of vision and the way in which man has shaped space and the territory, highlighting the specific link between the landscape and its representation, a topic that has always been central to his work.
From the construction of space we move on, in another group of images dominated by white, to a reflection on its illusory nature. Ceramic tiles cover walls and the floor in a sequence of shots where the location portrayed becomes enigmatic and mysterious: a combination of reflections, mirrors, combinations and interweavings transform it into a kind of maze. For Ghirri, no image is direct and immediate: they almost always conceal a system of figures – reflected, concealed or enhanced by shadows, or created by shifting a detail into another context, as in the two still life compositions where one becomes the equivocal, ambiguous double of the other. Something similar occurs in the image with the mirror reflecting a missing part of the landscape, which seems to find its counterpoint in another photograph where a rose – a real one, this time – emerges from an artificial ceramic background.
In his ten-year partnership with Marazzi, Ghirri was thus able to pursue many of his research themes regarding perception and representation; supported by his excellent technical skills, within a few years they were to make him one of the most influential contemporary photographers. For Marazzi, he produced a coherent body of work in which his ironic, subtle gaze is ever-present to “reveal to us something magical and marvellous, a deliciously Borgesian surprise, in which a vague feeling of improbability embraces everything we see, and a slight doubt arises regarding what is true and what is false” (Georges Perec, L’oeil ébloui, 1981).