Annalisa Sonzogni

Endless fluctuations amid small displacements 

by Francesco Scasciamacchia
English translation – Lorenza Bacino

Annalisa Sonzogni's work focuses on the relationship between architecture as a philosophical place in space and time, and the way in which the space assumes a complex set of meanings when it is depicted and/or experienced.

Through the use of photography and installation, the artist invites the viewer to reflect upon the way we perceive a given reality and how the experience separates the authentic experience from the depicted one and transports us to a reality which is at once 'confused' and 'hybrid' and one where the subject (perceived in the photograph as an alternative reality), simultaneously experiences the very same space, but through the camera lens that depicts it.

A tautology that confuses the way we normally live and experience the joy of an architectural space, its history, its elements and its physical essence in a given temporal dimension. A tautology - consisting of the authentic space and, at the same time, its depiction - that takes us beyond the physicality of a photograph or architecture in its tangible form, and leads us to a new experiential dimension.

The artist uses photography and the architectural space as a means to create this perceptual experience - an experience that detaches us from the conventional way in which we interpret the sensibilities of our world. An alienation that distances itself from the ordinary divisions that help us interpret the world: the depicted and the real world, the physical and mental spaces, the content and surrounding support structures, the art objects and their museum showcases - creating a fusion in which the two entities overlap, fuse and confuse.

Thus, perusing the rooms of the Pinacoteca di Brera, where we enjoy the exhibited works and try to make sense of their milieu, meaning, technique and historical context, we also run into their ‘mirror image’,  photographed from a distance that translates the content represented on the canvases of the Pinacoteca into an abstract form. The abstract space which is normally considered the epicentre of the artworks becomes merged with the staged space created by the context in which the works are displayed: the frames, the walls, the colours, chairs, doors, security exits, captions.

The photographic series, synopticon, 2014 - by focusing attention on the narrative of the artworks exhibited and the 'official' history of the spaces that host them, succeeds not only in overturning our relationship with the contents and the space in which they are contained, but also our way of experiencing the spaces where art is displayed.
In a different way, however, the two triptychs and four diptychs of the series shift our interest towards things that are usually considered mere add-ons, things we are incapable of attributing meaning to - for example, that there is no centre without a suburb, no exhibition without captions, no protagonist without actors, no performance without theatre costumes or better still - no painting without a frame.

In this way, the add-ons assume a central position, but it’s not an all-consuming central position, but one where no single element is the true protagonist, and all the elements (the painting, its frame, the walls of the room, the chairs, etc.) assume the same level of importance in a parallel relationship aimed at decentralising the power of one narration over another to create a vision that destabilises the subjectivity of the spectator.

Not only is the spectator disorientated by what he perceives as mirror images of reality (the paintings and the walls of the Pinacoteca) and what he sees as 'depicted' (the photographs of the same paintings and the same walls), the viewer also begins to question his habitual way of interpreting the world through a hierarchical relationship that places some elements in the centre (in this case the historical/artistic importance of Brera's paintings and historical spaces) and others on the margins (architectural shapes, lights, flooring, the colour of the walls, the safety bollards, etc.)

In the triptych synopticon XIII-VI-VII (Fig.1) for example, the attention of the photographs is placed on the architectural structures of the arches (as shown in the two lateral prints) and a glass roof (in the central print), in which the emerging figures and shapes assume the same level of importance as the paintings, walls and showroom walls.

By connecting the two-dimensional properties of photography and the elements that make up the different rooms of the Pinacoteca, the artist invites the spectator to create unexpected connections that alter the singular narrative pertaining to each of the rooms. In turn, these connections can become repositories of historical information in themselves, and also of subsequent renovations, and are represented in the triptych as multiple, almost free associations based on a musicality of form.

These are structures created from associative thinking processes trying their best to escape that official and accepted way of creating history- via accepted channels of knowledge or positive science such as the canons of architecture or history that favour reflection and questioning on behalf of every viewer. A reflection that invites us to consider lines, colours, light and shadow as possible elements that alter our experience of gratification and contribute to the idea that narration - as represented in paintings or by what history and architecture tell us - is not necessarily at the heart of things, with all the rest as simple corollary ornaments, but that all we consider as irrelevant in our accepted cognitive map, also make up the founding elements for a subjective, complex and associative experience.

If we interpret the series synopticon, as we would habitually do, as the mere representation of objects, we are faced with an oxymoronic experience where the narrative quality of the photographs - where our attention is focused on finding the meaning - collides with our inability to read and / or to observe what is contained in the paintings, as the narrative is created from the display and the whole architectural experience. Instead we are immersed in a choral staging of overlapping elements where multiple layers of meaning refuse to be placed in hierarchical order. In a way, the experience created by Annalisa Sonzogni's photography and installations is one of de-hierarchisation and de-centralisation, and are strategies that work not only with the elements that make up the whole experience, but also act on the spectator's subjectivity when faced with a chaotic world. This chaos is contradicted by 'ordered' precision, great attention to detail, and a symmetrical composition brought forth by the artist's photographic sense and sensibility.

A clear example of this order is the diptych XXI (Fig.2) belonging to the same series synopticon where the artist symmetrically photographs the two sides of the same room with three chairs placed opposite one another at the front and to the rear of the room and include both an entry and exit door at the two extremities of the diptych. Again a 'double', but it’s as if our visual apparatus were unable to decipher where we stand exactly unless we lend our undivided attention to the task at hand, given the subtle changes indicating where one photograph ends and another begins (the chairs in two different directions, the green exit signs and the plate XXI above the respective entrances, the two and three light switches).

Here, however, despite the replica of the exact same room, the element that clearly indicates that different sides of the same environment are represented, are the different paintings, or rather the different frames. This element brings us back to our visual perception that helps us to discern clearly and sharply that we are in the same room, but in two different areas of the same room. In this way, synopticon XXI operates in the flat dimension of photography creating a double relationship, and one that not only alters our visual perception, but also operates with precisely the same criteria and logic of the laws of perception in the way we intend it to be: we view things in order to be able to decipher them, absorb clear messages and information, and we are secure in the knowledge that it corresponds to what is ‘represented’ in the photograph. In this case, that the photos are irrefutably taken in the same room albeit from two different sides.

Not only are Annalisa Sonzogni's photographs detached from the photo as mere object, but they become the tools capable of creating the experience and represent a story in an un-hierarchical way between (purely architectural and non-architectural) the two-dimensional plans that form the building blocks of a thought process or, even a philosophical way of understanding and interpreting what is real. Hers is a reality that always takes the interior and exterior into consideration, all that is an integral part of a building, an object or a thought and also what is external to the entire process - the support structures - which are for this very reason 'insignificant'.

It’s a similar concept as that of parergon as theorised by the philosopher Jaques Derrida pertaining to the aesthetic appreciation of painting in ‘The Truth in Painting’ from 1978. Here, the vision of the world in the artist's photographs never reaches the level of pure truth (in the case of photography, what is represented never corresponds exactly to reality) but rather, if truth it is, it is inseparable from the art of speculation (building a narrative through what is represented) or to the historical-philological dimension (as in interpreting a work through the criteria of the year, style, movement or era).
Derrida defines what is parergon as coming “against, beside, and in addition to the ergon, the work done [fait], the fact [le fait], the work, but it does not fall to one side, it touches and cooperates within the operation, from a certain outside. Neither simply outside nor simply inside. Like an accessory that one is obliged to welcome on the border, on board.”1

Following on from his analysis of the aesthetic appreciation of painting, the philosopher argues that parergon is not just an insignificant accessory to the understanding of the work, such as a dress or jewel placed on the sculpture of a human figure or a frame around a painting and the columns of a building. But rather he considers it as a hybrid element that lies somewhere between the inside, the ergon (the subject of the work) and the outside (the frame or the milieu). In this way, all that we consider an accessory and as such, superfluous to our understanding of a piece of work, is in fact a necessary entity without which the work itself would not have a meaning, unless as mere speculation or historical-philological interpretation of a narrative. Thus, parergon is the quality of that which is lacking in the artwork to make it what it is. Only through its inclusion on the inside and the outside, within a boundary between the work and its exterior, can we grasp the irreducibility of any work of art to a narrative or interpretation that would only follow the aesthetic canons and representations that fit into a given interpretation: the economic, political, cultural and social context of a given milieu.

In this way, the synopticon series emphasises certain contextual elements, to say it in the words of Derrida (frames, rooms, showroom walls, lights, etc.), and Sonzogni draws us into an experience where all categories of analysis, interpretation and aesthetic evaluation of artwork with a focal point (what is represented) are reset or simply obscured (such as the subjects of the canvases in Brera building). The artist invites us to experience the irreducibility of the artwork to objective and official criteria through which their history and aesthetic evaluations are constructed. She pulls us towards a distortion between what is real and what is represented, confusing our position as viewers, neither inside nor external to what is real, but from the viewpoint of a sort of hybrid boundary. It creates a position that allows us to evaluate what we usually filter out as an insignificant accessory and which, if included on our map of values, would entice us to experience the real in an alternative way from what we are normally told is universal and unambiguous. Sonzogni leads us into a the unknown, contained within the negation of a clear representation, creating shapes and figures through architecture, that are both real and abstract, 'hybrid' to be precise, when connected in an arbitrary way.

This experience is even more marked in the identikit (2014) (Fig. 3) installation displayed in the riss (e) space in Varese. The installation is constructed from a wall-to-wall image depicting a classroom inside Lilian Baylis' former south London school abandoned and disused  since 2005, a red armchair, a yellow wall, a curtain and a coffee table - a scene that reproduces almost exactly and almost scientifically the furniture and furnishings in the photograph, but in a different space. So this time the element of disorientation is not just created from the photographed mirror image (with minimal alterations from reality) and the same place (as in the synopticon series), but acts from a perspective of multiple planes: an abandoned space with its remnants is replicated in a space other than the riss (e) space which shares certain similarities with the school (a red floor, columns, neon lights, an industrial electrical system network); and the photo that almost exactly represents the reality as shown in the installation; the abandoned school space in London and the space of riss(e). Once again, it is not just a matter of seeing in photography and in the installation, objects of representation, albeit with slight alterations that change our perception of reality, but of a new ontological reality somewhere on the boundary between reality and represented reality. It is an experience of gratification that travels along parallel lines of reality, altering our perception by immersing us visually in a distortion of our space-time reality and lending us a subjectivity which lies neither inside nor outside but somewhere in a subliminal space where the centre of real orientation (In this case the architectural space of riss (e)) is dislocated and confused by the other space (the Lilian Baylis school) (Fig. 4).

For the exhibition at the Italian Cultural Institute in Mexico City, Sonzogni does nothing more than follow the footsteps of her previous artistic research by creating a man-made scene consisting of ‘doubles’ (both photographed and real), composed of minimal alterations (between details of the ‘real’ and the ‘depicted’) which has at its heart the very same architectural space of the building that houses the Institute. This time, the effect of alienation works on two levels: in the centre of the exhibition space, like a mirror, a large picture depicts the same void space. Taken a few months ahead of her exhibition, when the artist visited the space, the photograph takes on the role of ‘deepening’ the room as though the exhibition space was being extended. As if there were another room, artificially created, yet identical to the one we visit for the duration of the exhibition. Yes, almost identical, but emptied of the 'photographic complex' that the artist has orchestrated for her first personal exhibition in Mexico. (Fig. 5)

In short, architecture captured in a photograph that is apparently the same in its architectural elements, but includes shifts and alterations that confuse us. We are asked: are we here and now in the same viewing area as that of the exhibition, with our attention focused on the artist's photos, whilst at the same time we are in that almost identical space represented when the empty room was photographed by the artist? This photo, the duplicate of its other ‘real’ image, reveals the naked architectural structure without the artwork, and allows us to see, in a negative format (through the absence of installed artworks from previous exhibitions and devoid of Sonzogni’s photographs) that which we usually pay no attention to when we observe a work of art. In the centre: works of art with their narrative are obscured, as they are in the synopticonseries. Or rather here, they are removed in order to highlight what is normally ignored on the margins of our perception: the empty structure that hosts them. Through this expedient, not only does the artist accentuate the interior and the exterior simultaneously, and once again places the viewer on a boundary from where architectural, historical, social and cultural features that characterise a place, then help to construct its narrative.

Never as in this case, given the passing through of many directors of the Institute with different cultural visions, the passage of various exhibitions, the different uses of the spaces, the recent white panels laid across the ancient walls of the building, the architectural space is the receptacle or the stage of innumerable stories and narratives. For this reason, representing the empty space and then filling the very same real space with its double, is a way of opening the area to the thousand ancient histories, and not reducing them to mere historical, philological or cultural readings. The artist is not telling us how things really are, but is simply showing us that there is no one truth over and above all others. Truth is made up of different strata of ever-reversible narratives, which remain true despite small displacements.

Next to the central image at the Mexico exhibition, along the lateral walls in the room, the artist exhibits some photos from the synopticon series, again placing another reality upon reality. Photos that this time have a dual function, not only disorienting from the space and place in which we find ourselves - the Italian Cultural Institute in Mexico, given that the photos were taken in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Italy - but a distancing from the information we would like to gather from the paintings assembled in Brera. Yes, we are in a space that promotes Italian culture, but Sonzogni, rather than guiding us like tourists through the narrative contained in these paintings, brings us back to the idea that lies at the core of all her work - that there is no universal unambiguous truth about Italy and its place in the world, (the Brera Art Gallery becomes the case-in-point) but rather different perspectives, such as those coming from the lens of a camera, with lights, shadows, colours, walls and multiple viewpoints.

By calling the series synopticon, the artist appears to refer to the idea of panoptic, as theorised by Michel Foucault. Foucault in his essay, Discipline and Punish: The birth of the Prison 2 1975, referring to the ideal of a jail designed in 1791 by philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham-a prison designed to allow a single watchman to see all the prisoners without them noticing that they are being observed - focuses the attention on the existence of a single invisible power of contemporary society to observe (optic) the behaviour of many (pan). Synopticon instead stands for an inverted relationship, that is, the power of the many to control the one, as in the relationship between the media and celebrities. Usingsynopticon as the title of her series of photographs at the Pinacoteca di Brera, the artist uses the word as a metaphor, not in order to replicate the mechanism of the photo to narrate what we see of life so we can deliver and control information flow to many - but to capture that one 'unreadable' representation (the obscure elements in the paintings) and return the narration over to the many, not just to the thousand, innumerable elements that we usually leave aside in the construction of a narration or unique story - things such as frames, lights, didactic apparatus, chairs, etc. But also to the many shapes and figures, that if we considered them as abstract and thus unreadable, we would not be able to see the multiple histories that are contained within - which would be impossible to restrict to one single, objective and unmistakable story. It is only possible to reveal all these stories as told via the multiple angles and viewpoints presented in the photos of the ‘real’ and their ‘doubles’ as demonstrated in the work of Annalisa Sonzogni.



1- Jaques Derrida, The Truth In Painting, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987, p.45

2- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The birth of the Prison, Vintage Books, 1977