Memory of place
“I see photography as a medium to experiment, to examine changes in our perception and memory.”
Italian artist and photographer Marco Bettoni journeys to places where stories endure, are lived and remembered. His experimental, photographic works, drawing on urban and natural settings, evoke all of the senses, and invite the viewer to revisit and reconsider past experiences and moments where time is the filter. Views, objects and motifs from across the world characterise Bettoni’s compositions, comprised of images which are manipulated to question meaning of place, memory and custom. Bound to personal encounters, his subjects are captured in landscapes, portraits and contemporary still lifes to yield unconventional, alluring visual narratives, often recalling quasi-familiar scenes which propagate the photographic genre as an art form. Continuing to explore the same preoccupations as those artists he admires, his works allude to past masters of contemporary art and photography such as Luigi Ghirri, Hiroshi Sugimoto or the pioneering photograms of Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy.
Bettoni was born in the northern Italian city of Bergamo. After gaining a BA in Fine Art, he relocated to London in 1990. This experience of displacement has been a constant driver in influencing, in various permutations, his entire body of work. Classic landscapes, constructed in multiple layers, or objects presented outside of their usual context mark an exploratory approach to art which subconsciously draws on the techniques learnt during his masters studies in Printmaking and History of Art at Camberwell College of Art in 1992. His inventive methods, executed on paper and neon or LED lightboxes, continuously push the boundaries of what photography can be.
His artistic enquiries began by taking printmaking materials to make sculptural books using metal and embossed white paper affixed with metal washers. Mounted onto the wall or displayed on the floor “it was an original way to do printmaking and fitted with the trend for installation art at that time.” In 1993, those pieces, informed in part by the work of Alberto Burri and the Art Povera movement, were exhibited in a solo show – Culture at Galleria Continua in San Gimignano, Tuscany and at Arte Fiera Bologna.
Intrigued by the culture of a place, its history, philosophy and experiences in nature, Bettoni shifted his attention towards photography because “there is simply something magical about developing the film and seeing images evolve from the darkness.” He began documenting the destinations with which he has a close affinity, examining how landscapes change over time.
“I was influenced by the old books, beautiful magazine covers and photographs of Rome or Venice and Paris in my grandfather’s study. These images fueled my imagination with questions about time, memory and space.”
Photographing household objects in a room or flowers from the Portobello market in London, he later observed the gestures embraced in the daily rituals and traditions of Japan. Referring to the Japanese principle of seijaku or ‘tranquility’ “which relates to ideas of calmness, stillness or solitude which you might experience in a Japanese zen garden” Bettoni’s images featuring carp streamers, tea ceremonies, Jizo devotional statues, indigenous flora or rivers and streams strive to achieve this omnipresent feeling.
A series entitled Drawing the Sky explores how, through certain re-arrangement of the image, works evolve, gaining distance from figurative representation to lean towards abstraction.
“In the spring, landscapes across Japan are decorated with koinobori to mark Children’s Day. I wanted to capture their imperative connection to Japanese life so that the kite itself becomes an integral part of the landscape.”
Using a fisheye lens, Bettoni moved the kite with his left hand while clicking with the right.
“Handling them became an act of performance in itself.”
Bright-coloured fabric merges with fragments of buildings, garden and sky in a composition which plays with positive and negative space – vibrant swathes, diffused with light and shade and interspersed with the Koi’s form or decorative fish scales, are juxtaposed, randomly, against the negative space of the surrounding environment. In a single frame, sensations of freedom, direction, movement, emotion and heritage and are all achieved. These silken flags, acting as cultural markers, extend beyond their function to elevate an ordinary neighbourhood scene into the artist’s own uniquely-contrived world.
Bettoni’s preoccupation with the horizon is a continuum of his investigations. In a series of photographs taken in 2009 at the pavilion designed by SANAA architects Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa in the grounds of the Serpentine Gallery in London, the structure’s undulating aluminium sheet ‘roof’ serves as a separator between parkland and sky. Bettoni’s images appear to repeat symmetrically, a reflection in which the ‘sky’, now displaced, inverted, is composed of concrete and grass becoming less ethereal and more tangible. Yet, they are illusory. By obscuring reality, where the spectator is compelled to look closer to notice partial figures, dissected seemingly by the upper limit of the lens, he succeeds in mystifying sense of place, his photographs, henceforth, emerging as unconventional works of art.
This reversal of the visual supports Bettoni’s concerns about the altering perception of surroundings. His celebrated Tokyo Lights call into question the role of an object and its potential to represent something new. The images taken in Tokyo of taxi lights transform ubiquitous icons of public service into shining beacons of design.
“Tokyo is full of neon lights and these taxi lights are part of the city’s fabric. I wanted to capture what is considered as an everyday object and see how, when taken out of context, it could become greater than its original purpose. It’s also about reversing the state of the object or subject. The images of a taxi in movement become still, reflecting the stillness in the night. This is what I try to capture in these images.”
In 2009, Bettoni presented the series at Scream Gallery in London. Exhibited in a specially-constructed room – a kind of meditation space - to recreate the city environment, the fine prints and lightboxes, now in quietness and solitude, concentrated the essence of the city. Entitled Tokyo Nocturne, Art critic Guy Brett wrote:
“Marco Bettoni's work becomes a beautiful example of the way we can discover traces of local culture in features of globalised culture, enriched by the artist from a certain sense of wonder in something taken for granted by locals. We may see this as the mysterious workings of what is often mistakenly dismissed as exoticism, but which is in fact a universal phenomenon, an inevitable component of the renewal of perception.”
By eliminating all ambient luminosity, the lights float in the sky, ascended from their original manmade status. Titles such as Irodori, Glowing Stars, Shikojin and Sunset imply wider connotations of change in shape and appearance to become something more beautiful or interesting, now revived as emblems of the natural world.
In 2013, Bettoni began a new series of fractal landscapes which further explore the fluctuations in memory and perception of place. Like apertures opening onto all corners of the planet, his Infinity series transports the viewer to Japanese rivers, Venetian canals, the precipitous coast of Capri or the gardens of England. As with the blurring of memory over time, the shifting, fragmented visual becomes symbolic for time passed, where the validity of recollection is interrogated.
“Ghirri’s landscapes in Italy really speak to me, especially his misted views of Emilia-Romagna or his Capri seascapes. There is something intangible and mysterious about them, it can be difficult to place them in time. He achieves a feeling of immateriality in his use of over-exposure.”
Vague outlines, familiar but at the same time ambiguous, infer location. In the repetition of pattern, achieved through sequencing and layering of numerous photographs, Bettoni’s eye for printmaking is evident – but it is the expansive vistas with their blues, greens and earthy tones subdued over time which demonstrate the artist’s fascination with nature. A triptych of the Sai-gawa river in Azumino, Nagano Prefecture in Japan awakens consciousness. The scene, with a figure amongst the reeds, is one of calm movement. The fresh, aquatic scent of the river bank which frames the rippling, transparent surface infuses the air. Behind it, wasabi fields.
Infinity (Rebirth) portrays wheat fields. Light, warmth, aroma, sound and breeze arise palpably from the undulating Italian terra, spiked golden tops symbolise renaissance, hope and life. Spanish palms in Seville sway majestically in Vision, leaves float on a pond in Water Garden or mediterranean island shrubbery recalls heat, sun, the scent of pine. Other urban cultural references are conferred with artistic reverence: Japanese houses in the city of Kanazawa, identifiable only by the traditional wave-like tile edging; Meiji Shrines; Tokyo skyscrapers; the fan-decorated walls of a tea room; gondolas or a Venetian clock. Silhouetted portraits in Abstract Thought and Feeling I remind the viewer that this is an observation of Bettoni’s personal discoveries.
Gentle, transcendental and sublime, his images endure, altering, but remaining as visual accounts of the power of memory.
Independent Art Writer
Like many artists, Marco Bettoni has always been very observant when it comes to the world around him, something which has over the years translated into some insightful and thought-provoking bodies of work. A keen traveller, time spent in the Japanese city of Tokyo led to his well-received ‘Tokyo Lights’ series, a captivating study of the illuminated signs on the tops of taxi cabs made into works of art by Bettoni when he took them off the street and presented them in a gallery.
In 2013 he began to work on the Infinity Series, which, partly autobiographical, explores how we perceive places, and how this conscious impression affects our memories of that place over time. The works are made through a sequence of photographic processes creating a layered effect. This deconstruction of the imagery creates a blurring and shifting effect, much like what is referred to as ‘double vision’. This in turn seeks to represent the breaking down and transition of our own recollections, giving an appearance of movement which suggests how these memories constantly change over time. The result is a stunning collection of enchanting abstracted landscapes made from photographs the artist has taken during his travels.
The four works we’re presenting today were taken on recent visits to Europe, Asia and the UK. Infinity Series (Japanese House) has been developed from a series of shots taken in Kanazawa, Japan. Like Kyoto, the city of Kanazawa escaped the bombing during the Second World War and as a result remains as it has been for hundreds of years. Clearly taken with the charm of Kanazawa, Bettoni decided to use it as the subject of one of his artworks, although due to the abstracted nature of these works, it’s only the title of the piece that gives away its location, aside from the wave-like pattern that appears in the top half of the image which suggests the recognisable Japanese architecture, along with the foliage in the foreground that also gives the piece a sense of Asia.
For Infinity Series (Vision), Bettoni travelled to Spain to capture the towering palm. The sense of movement in this piece is strong, perhaps because as the viewer we can relate to the tree swaying in the wind; the more this piece is studied, the more intense the action becomes, to the point where we start to question the legitimacy of our trusted personal vision.
With its beautiful sky blue hues, Infinity Series (Capri) exudes the very essence of the Italian island, while Infinity Series (The Garden of England I) transports us to the Kent countryside for a taste of what Bettoni describes as “an extraordinary and intriguing place to continue my research and exploration of landscape and perception.”
Art Consultant, London
There’s no telling what form Marco Bettoni’s next works will take, or the materials he might use. He is open to many stimuli, interested in many things, responds with curiosity and wit to what he comes across as he moves about the world. There is an autonomy to each series he has produced, yet at the same time a thread runs through them: a succinct and focused quality that centres the viewer’s attention on the visual (and sometime auditory) phenomenon, or the philosophical problem. That is why it is a pleasure to take one of his series of works and concentrate exclusively on it. This concerns a suite of urban nocturnes made by photographing the illuminated signs on the roofs of Tokyo taxis. Each sign stands out against the darkness, a distinct object, strange to us if not to a Japanese public. Often it is reflected, doubled, by the shiny black roof below it. Bettoni obtained these images with considerable agility, and sometimes risk as he leapt into the traffic to obtain a particular example. But in the glowing images of the light boxes which Bettoni has made from these photographs the traffic is completely stilled, absent. He introduces a meditative calm into what we know is an urban frenzy.
Besides this quality, but perhaps related to it, a most intriguing aspect of these images is the degree to which Bettoni, a London-based Italian artist, has sensitively filtered a response to Japanese culture and its history. Although at first we wonder what these bright objects are, when we have discovered their identity we may see them as a contemporary version of the traditional ‘lantern’. Both in China and Japan lantern festivals are ancient and persistent traditions. China has had a lantern festival at New Year for 2000 years. Japan has the Obon, a Buddhist festival dedicated to the memory of departed friends and relatives in which beautifully designed lanterns are set adrift on the water. Yamagata prefecture in Japan has a ‘snow lantern festival’ in which lights concealed in lanterns made of snow illuminate the dark night. A nineteenth-century description of a Chinese lantern festival speaks of lanterns that are “cubical, others round like a ball, or circular, square, flat and thin, or oblong, or in the shape of various animals, quadruped or biped. Some are so cunningly constructed as to roll on the ground like a fire-ball … others, when lighted up by a candle or oil, have a rotary or revolving motion of some of their fixtures within …” and so on.
The love of floating lanterns out on to the water seems to link up with the celebrated notion of the “floating world”, an epithet which was used to describe metropolitan culture in the Edo period in Japan, and which produced the popular prints Ukiyo-e: “pictures of the floating world”. Bettoni’s is also a metropolitan floating world conjured ironically from the reflections of the electric signs in the roofs of modern taxis. Considering it more broadly, Marco Bettoni’s work becomes a beautiful example of the way we can discover traces of local culture in features of globalised culture, enriched by the artist from a certain sense of wonder in something taken for granted by locals. We may see this as the mysterious workings of what is often mistakenly dismissed as exoticism, but which is in fact a universal phenomenon, an inevitable component of the renewal of perception.
Art Critic and Writer, London
Drawing the Sky
To create his latest collection, Marco Bettoni has once again picked up his camera. As in previous works, Drawing the Sky reflects the artist's lack of interest in documentary-like realism. Though hardly reportage, his art nevertheless draws inspiration from daily life: in Bettoni's case, a daily life that is not wholly his own. As an Italian living in London, Bettoni is well-qualified to refine his powers of observation of another reality, however familiar it may seem to him. Frequent trips to Japan have allowed him to capture the unusual in the usual; he spots the potential of everyday items and then translates them into art in which his personal hallmark – he reconnects everyday life with the deep-seated traditions of the culture that generated it in the first place Everyday life as seen by Bettoni becomes something new, yet resounds with the echoes of its origins.
Bettoni's Tokyo Lights, which has long been a fixture on the London art scene, are photos of taxi lights by night. What would merely be illuminated signs indicating a cars for-hire status are, in his hands, transformed into objects sundered from the seething metropolis, floating calmly in the placidity of darkness. They are lanterns, a link to ancient Japanese tradition that his perceptive outsider's eye has spotted in the fast-flowing traffic of a big city, to remind us that beneath frenzy lies tradition. He has succeeded in his intent because he has the ability to approach a culture without modifying it; an ability to take hold of a culture and experience it his own way. This is most certainly true of his Jizo. Jizo, or at least the statues from which the artist drew inspiration, are baby-faced figurines that are very common in Japan, especially in temples. In the afterlife, they protect infants aged two and under who have died, and unborn children too. Family members who have suffered such a loss cover a Jizo's head with a little cap, put bibs on them, and bring them baby games. Bettoni has trodden the extremely fine line between individual grief and tradition, and reinvented the statues by weaving little caps right onto canvas, reprising the immobile expressions of their stereotypical little faces, and transforming them into mini totems which, in a calm and repetitive aesthetic gesture, are both reassuring and, because of their totemic arrangement, disquieting at the same time.
Bettoni's hallmark approach to art is evident in Drawing the Sky. This time he has drawn his inspiration from koinobori, the carp-shaped kites that flutter in Japan's skies on the May 5th celebration of children. Once again, the artist is not content merely to observe and reproduce an event. As if in thrall to a psychological or aesthetic imperative, he experiences the event personally and makes it his own. In his photographs, the flying fish are not fully formed. Through "child's play", the artist has taken hold of the string and spun the kites round over his head, creating a new relationship with the outside world in which he himself plays a part. His photographs of these original objects reference the vivid colours created by the surrounding space, the blue sky and the green trees. His koinobori are no longer "just" kites, they are the sky and the landscape. There is no computer retouching here, it's all spontaneous happening. Bettoni's photographs capture the moment and freeze the transitional as it rapidly evolves. The Japanese element, which is where the whole process began, has become vanishingly muted in these invented vedutas which, to borrow the words of the poet Hashin, are "neither sky nor earth". They are neither abstract nor figurative either. They are worlds apart that the artist has created, using a fisheye lens to form rounded worlds because "each circle is a finite world; together, the circles make a constellation of finite worlds." Exhibited in this form, they become "the creation of a universe composed of self-contained parallel worlds." It is interesting to note how, in the colour-saturated luxuriance of fabric and blue sky, the images have sloughed off the breathlessness of motion; the houses, the trees, and the focus-challenged background of garden prevail, evoking the impression of a convergence of colours. The moment has been captured through the striking of an inner balance. The result is a visual impact, a kind wind: harmony.
The velocity of movement is visible, on the contrary, in the photo of London's City Hall, the Norman Foster-designed seat of the city's mayor. Here one truly does get the impression that it is possible to see the thread attached to the kite, twisting as it is tugged by a hand, yet the only flowing movement anywhere in the entire collection is a tethered structure, the building whose circular aspect and glass walls create a simulacra of movement which the artist uses to draw a direct link between the sky over Nagano and the sky over London, and in the process, trigger a second series of photos that focuses on architecture and its ability to create new landscapes. The relationship between landscape and buildings is the underlying theme that once a year spawns the construction of a temporary pavilion in the heart of Hyde Park. Each summer, the Serpentine Gallery invites a famous architect to design a structure for its garden, which is then pressed into service as a covered annex for the gallery, with a bar and places to meet, and then, when autumn comes around, the pavilion is taken down. This year it was the turn of the Sanaa Group, Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa, to fashion an incredibly light and airy mirrored metal structure perched on impossibly slender columns. The building interacts directly with the environment, through refractory references that the artist uses to redraw relations precisely where it is difficult to pinpoint separations or thresholds. Where, often, it is difficult to find one's bearings in an optical illusion. The dancing reflections offer an escape into the irony of disorienting detail, as the mirrored structure twists and turns into strange distortions.
As a whole, Drawing the Sky is an enrichment of Marco Bettoni's body of work. It broadens his path of enquiry, yet at the same time it is a continuation of the artist's sensibility, his ability to seize details from reality and use them to redraw reality with his own personal signature; to craft a new reality out of the equilibrium of harmony, and a balance between the figurative and the abstract. He personally and directly participates in creating the conditions that allow the idea to fly. Once again, he shows that his creativity is strong enough to make us forget the starting point, in this case, the koinobori, without in any way betraying it. Indeed, by retaining its framework of reference in the finished work of art, by achieving this stance, he amplifies the potential of the reality that prompted the idea in the first place.
Paolo Nelli: Writer
Translation: Adam Victor
An exhibition is always the mise-en- scene of a threshold and of an intersection.
The threshold concerns the apparition of the work as visible object, which is confined in the double frame of the space and its own perimeter. The intersection concerns the relationship between the works exhibited, which relate to each other, through the dialect of their various images, which is capable of going beyond the interval between one work and another. The works themselves become the traces registering creative attitudes and methods which are differentiated by their linguistic diversity and by the interval that links them. The show becomes the simultaneous representation of various meeting points and, at the same time, the opposing linearity of the difference.
The concept of Crossing underlines, also, the impossibility of presenting a homogeneous artistic production and shows the necessity of marking out the cultural and stylistic subjectivity of each artist. The concept finds its own riposte above all in the formulation of the exhibition, which highlights the pause between one work and another and the circularity of each creative adventure. It escapes an easy eclectism, relying on stylistic multiplicity, but depends rather on the complexity of the creative experience. The artistic operation is closer to what Dylan Thomas described when speaking of the creative process: "... often I allow an image to work internally when I am in an emotional state, and I apply to it whatever critical and intellectual strength I possess. Then, allow the next image to emerge and contradict the first one. A third image is generated from the first two, and together with a fourth, contradictory image, I allow all these images to remain suspended in conflict within the formal limits imposed by me."
It seems that the artist may be looking for a way of reaching a linguistic formation capable of witnessing the creative process through an image that objectively challenges temporality through spatial compression. That is, the work visualises the value in art of an image which exists in duration, as against the ephemerality of television or advertising: an image that resists and constantly defers the consuming gaze of the spectator- which means the capacity to challenge its own present and to penetrate into a possible future.
Here I intend to underline, in particular, the work of Marco Bettoni, the way in which he treats the themes of space and time, dissolved in the relationship between light and dark. The title of the photographic work is Seijaku, which in Japanese means immobility as a moment of calm and quiet. The artist takes up themes close to his heart: fragments of space, the road, the city by night, houses, doors open or closed, windows ablaze with light. So in this work, the image immersed in a mysterious glow becomes a nocturnal space, illuminated by the light of two lanterns which leads you into seeing the entrance of a Japanese temple. The work offers movement and repose, presence and absence at the same time. And it is there, suspended in a moment of time, that the work is absorbed in the expectation of creating a place where a human being may dwell poetically. The forms immersed in a play of light and shade express the idea of quietness. It sets itself up as the horizon, as a screen that alludes to a potential space. It is an apparition which gives to things without a name the property of form and to the image a language with which it may recount its own shadows. Here the artist emphasizes an idea of art as communion with a place. The artist is he who has the capacity to capture the genius of the place, to draw its breath. And therefore, the artist himself is able to become the place. And it is here, in this space-Seijaku, that the artist proposes endless experiences of living, outlining for us his emotional geography that follows the passing of time in many possible stories. From this place suspended in time, there remains only the movement of thought. The veil of time, continuous and indifferent to quotidian life, is unveiled to reveal another time, that of art, which is the movement within immobility.
London Art Critic and Writer