1. Come parlà ai serci
How to talk to stones

About the objectivity of the world and the subjectivity of one's point of view.

Come parlà ai serci (how to talk to stones) is a popular expression spread in Rome that indicates the uselessness of spending time and energies talking with a stone, an inanimate object that cannot hear and react. 

In English, it literally becomes It’s like to talk to stone, but the correct term is stonewalling, which refers to a behavioral characteristic that prevents forms of communication and cooperation.

Language games, the same Italian word “come” can be translated into English both in “like” as we have seen, and in “how”. 

And the meanings could not be more distant: how is that of know-how, the how we use in manuals, it is how we learn to do something; something that can be, and is useful to build, like a universal language that allows us to dialogue even when we thought it impossible.

In an era when everything is relative, we need more than ever to anchor ourselves to something concrete and tangible. To define our environment and our movement concerning it, the basis of the evolutionary process.

And what is more tangible and primary than a piece of stone, a stone that offers itself to our gaze, unchanging, equal for all and measurable, concrete and objective. 

The zero degree scale model of our planet.

But that stone has many different things to tell us, as many as the eyes that look at it. And every look is an investigation, an interrogation. 

Since every creative thought, as well as every evolutionary leap and evolution, arise and feed on questions and doubts, this chapter is dedicated to the first one: what am I looking at?

Bruno Munari (1) accompanies us at the beginning of our journey, inviting us to look better at what we are not used to paying attention to, or that annoys us like the stones under the towel when we go to the beach, entrusting us with the task of discovering its hidden potential and beauty as in front of a unique and unrepeatable work of art.

With a more trained gaze to grasp nuances, affinities, and differences, we continue to move our steps in rough paths among the rocks, picking up and moving some like Sir Richard Long (2), or touching others like Hamish Fulton (3); choosing more comfortable ones to rest on and more solid ones to make them the cornerstone of the progress of our thoughts.

And with Andreas Feininger (4), start investigating the relationship between stones and men, and see what photography has to do with all this.

1. Bruno Munari,
Da lontano era un’isola,
Emme Edizioni 1971 – Einaudi 1984 – Corraini 2006
From afar it was an island,
Corraini 2003

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2. Richard Long, R.H. Fuchs (ed.),
Richard Long,
Thames & Hudson 1986

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3. Hamish Fulton,
Walking journey,
Tate Publishing 2002

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4. Andreas Feininger,
Stone and Man. A photographic exploration,
Dover Publishing 1979

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The following is not an author image, it is “just” a snap I made of a stone found outside my study door, nothing special.

The image of an anonymous stone that in my mind, inserted in my personal life experience, triggers thoughts related to back pain and worries about the account to be paid to the mechanic.

When I share these suggestions, the interlocutor usually looks at me questioningly, which does not change much even when I show the original stone instead of his image.

The fog clears only by adding a piece of fundamental information when I start to reveal its context of origin: it is a “Sampietrino”, a cobblestone, a fragment of the typical road pavement in the center of Rome. And if the following indication concerns the old vintage motorbike that I use to come work, the mental association proposed before becomes more understandable.

However unique and personal, it concerns only me.

If I had been an elegant woman accustomed to wearing high heels, my first thought would probably have gone to the shoe-repair man or the crooked ankle that you risk at every step. 

More frequently the interlocutor – observer was a foreign tourist in Rome just for a few days, and in those conversations, I had the opportunity to experience how the response to the same visual stimuli resulted in reflections on the millennial charm of the history and urban planning of Rome, at thousands of kilometers traveled to take a walk on this pavement. One idea does not exclude the other, all are legitimate and none wrong tout-court.

 

Looking at the same subject, everyone inevitably relates it to their own experience and, if we consider only a photograph devoid of any context, we will never see anything else of what we are already predisposed to see.

But is there really a photograph without context?

More precisely, not only the production context but also the one in which we observe the same image conditions the reading we give of it: framed in a museum or in an art gallery we will be led to spend more time and attention, to evaluate some aesthetic and formal aspects, we will give it a “piece of art” status, which we would never be ready to grasp if we accidentally found the same picture elsewhere in our daily lives. 

In a geology manual, among the pages of a magazine or perhaps in the sales catalog of a natural stones dealer. 

What if it were printed on the napkin of a pizzeria?

Or, as happens in the vast majority of cases, when we meet it in the frame of our smartphones, in a context that will have become the flow of our social feeds, with what kind of different pieces of information will that same image relate, what synapses will it activate in us? 

And what if the photograph was not the same, but visually very similar? In the two or three seconds of attention that on average we spend reading a photograph, will our eyes really see differences?

In a minimal set of this experience, our original cobblestone is now living in an ecosystem of images (this time of “author’s” photographs) of subjects that somehow resemble him. 

Let’s take a closer look at what happens.

The Schaubuch’s cover (5) seems almost to be a mug shot of the stone on which we founded our conceptual building, but it is also proposed here as an invitation to never judge the book by its cover, not to trust the appearances too much. 

If so far we have introduced the context considering the fruition, it is also fundamental to the context of production of the image we are looking at, which otherwise would not exist.

Who Made It? To tell us what?

If we talk about author photography, what tools do they have to narrow the field of our possible readings to the message they wanted to convey to us with their works?

How are these stones, and these images, different from those contained in Stone (6), or War Sand (7)?

5. Aglaia Konrad,
Schaubuch: Skulptur,
Roma Publications, 2017

6. Ad van Denderen,
Stone,
Fw:Books 2017

7. Donald Weber,
War sand,
Polygon Books 2018

The answer is the most obvious: they are contained in different books, as to say in different contexts in which they are inserted in fixed and built relationships between material and symbolic elements such as texts, graphics, sequences and the same physicality of the book object, the interaction that we have in leafing through its pages. 

Similar, but not the same, when the context is that of an exhibition, and the paper of the pages is replaced by the concrete of the wall of an art gallery.

Experiences lived by the observer with the awareness of participating in a game of references in a closed system; that rarely happens randomly and unexpectedly, but almost always planned, prepared and studied in advance.

A habit and attitude towards cultural consumption which (even with a thousand geographical and social differentiation) now affects more or less 5% of the population – I fear much less than 1% if we talk about photography more specifically, without doing all the Art is a bundle, also because photography is not made of art alone.

Of all the stone photographs seen so far, who can say which ones have been used to talk about war or politics? Of sex or architecture?

Which of remorse, or pollution? (8)

8a. Ryan Thompson & Phil Orr,
Bad Luck, hot rocks. Conscience letters & photographs from Petrified Forest,
The Ice Plant 2014

8b. Drew Nikoniwicz,
This World and other like this,
Yoffy Press / Fw:books 2019



8c. Alessia Bernardini,
Pleasure rocks,
self published 2019




8d. Stephen Gill,
Off Ground,
Nobody Books 2011




8e. Sae Honda,
Everybody needs a rock,
Torch Press 2018




Of course, some photos are in black and white and others in color, some stones are individual and others assembled in a group, small or large, but we still have no other elements that can help us make the right connections.

Indeed, to be honest, some of those seen so far are not even “real” photographs (and some are not real stones), but images taken by electronic instruments such as microscopes, perhaps these more identifiable thanks to the scale graphics that can be glimpsed in the bottom corner. Yet contained in a photographic book, proposed in the context of a space and an exhibition or experience devoted only to photography.

Does it really make any difference?

What if instead of Earth, we wanted to explore the Moon? (9)

9. Robert Pufleb & Nadine Schlieper,
Alternative Moons,
The eriskay connection 2018

Staying with our feet firmly anchored to the ground, we are starting to experience how the same image is inevitably seen differently by different eyes, or how even the same eyes can see and consider different aspects from time to time.

And this is true in reading an image, and even more in reading the subject of which it is a representation.

A fragment of the same world that we all live, seen from a certain point of view: ours. With our socio-cultural background, with the wealth of experiences and the system of values and beliefs that we have acquired and rooted over the years, which we often believe to be the only possible and acceptable one.

So let’s start to see how it can be possible that the same subject can be looked at in diametrically opposite ways, making us mainly accompanied by the works of Maya Rochat and Awoiska van der Molen (10). 

Two young and very young authors who used Nature and its basic elements as the subject of their works: rocks, rivers, trees, and forests. 

One has as its practice and goal of her work to focus on artistic abstraction, the other who would like to answer the question: “What if nature could make a self-portrait of itself?”

10. Maya Rochat,
A rock is a river,
SPBH Editions 2017

11. Awoiska van der Molen,
a. Sequester, Fw:books 2014
b. Blanco, Fw:books 2017

In the first case, photography is a starting point, the base on which to apply layer by layer analog and digital filters, paints and pictorial and performative interventions of all kinds, until the subject and Nature itself disappear; here the artist speaks. 

The van der Molen procedure, on the other hand, provides for a solitary and uninterrupted dialogue between the artist and the natural forces, energies that through a controlled and artisanal use of the photographic medium are transmitted to a third observer, as if it were the Artist who disappeared to leave voice only to its subject.

Moving towards the conclusion with a last pair of images, a sort of positive \ negative of each other, to which the reproduction on these pages does not really do justice.

Maya Rochat and one of her abstractions, the first one, which photo are we looking at on the other side?

The reproduction of an Oregon Jasper, from the collection of Roger Caillois (11), a French philosopher who, in the words of Marguerite Yourcenar who introduced the Italian edition,

“in the face of our humanity more than ever perceived as ephemeral, in front of this animal and vegetable world whose loss we accelerate, […] in search of a purer matter […] finds it in the universe of stones “. 

By transforming Nature itself into an Artist and the rest of us into simple reproducers of a beauty that is already there, ready to offer itself to our eyes, if only we learned how to use them.

12. Roger Caillois,
a. La scrittura delle pietre, Abscondita 2013
b. La lecture de pierres, Editions Xavier Barral 2014

Obviously, all those proposals are personal and partial readings of much larger and complex works, worthy of greater depth than these few lines; just a taste to complete our first survey around the idea of the objectivity of the World and the subjectivity of our point of view.

To start considering every vision divergent from ours an enrichment rather than a source of conflict; a wonderful opportunity to discover those different qualities of the world that we will never be able to see as long as we continue to anchor ourselves to that tiny grain of sand from which we look around, which often turns out not to be the most functional observation point (12).

So starting to answer the question “what are we looking at” we are now ready for the next big question: from which point of view do we look at things?

13. Donovan Wylie,
The Tower series, Steidl 2014

Additional references