Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 10

Here’s another plate of fresh links and random weirdness to swallow in one bite, like the above frog did with a little snake.

  • In Madagascar there is a kind of double burial called famadihana: somewhat similar to the more famous Sulawesi traditionfamadihana consists in exhuming the bodies of the departed, equipping them with a new and clean shroud, and then burying them again. But not before having enjoyed one last, happy dance with the dead relative.

  • Whining about your writer’s block? Francis van Helmont, alchemist and close friend of  famed philosopher Leibniz, was imprisoned by the Inquisition and wrote a book in between torture sessions. Besides obviously being a tough guy, he also had quite original ideas: according to his theory, ancient Hebrew letters were actually diagrams showing how lips and mouth should be positioned in order to pronounce the same letters. God, in other words, might have “printed” the Hebrew alphabet inside our very anatomy.

  • Reason #4178 to love Japan: giant rice straw sculptures.
  • At the beginning of the last century, it was legal to send babies through the mail in the US. (Do we have a picture? Of course we do.)

  • In France, on the other hand, around the year 1657 children were eager to play a nice little game called Fart-In-The-Face (“Back in my day, we had one toy, and it was our…“).

  • James Ballard was passionate for what he called “invisible literature”: sales recepits, grocery lists, autopsy reports, assembly instructions, and so on. I find a similar thrill in seeking 19th-century embalming handbooks: such technical, professional publications, if read today, always have a certain surreal je ne sais quoi. And sometimes they also come with exceptional photographs, like these taken from a 1897 book.

  • In closing, I would like to remind you of two forthcoming appointments: on October 29, at 7pm, I will be in Rome at Giufà Libreria Caffe’ to present Tabula Esmeraldina, the latest visionary work by my Chilean friend Claudio Romo.
    On November 3-5, you will find me at Lucca Comics & Games, stand NAP201, signing copies of Paris Mirabilia and chatting with readers of Bizzarro Bazar. See you there!

 

The Unexpected Ascent

(This article originally appeared on #ILLUSTRATI n. 44, Che ci faccio qui)

It’s September 7, 2013. At the 0B pavilion of the Wallops Flight Facility, on the east coast of Virginia, NASA is getting ready to launch a rocket towards the Moon.
The LADEE probe was designed to study the atmosphere and the exosphere of our satellite, and to gather information about moon dust. For this purpose, the probe is equipped with two technologically advanced mass spectrometers, and a sensor which is capable of detecting the collisions of the minuscule dust particles that rise up from the lunar ground due to the electrostatic effect.

As the countdown begins, dozens of specialists supervise the data flow coming from the various sectors of the rocket, checking the advancing launch phases on their monitors. Vibrations, balancing, condition of the ogive: everything seems to be going according to plan, but mental tension and concentration are palpable. It is a 280 million dollar mission, after all.

Yet at the 0B pavilion of the Wallops Flight Facility, on the east coast of Virginia, there is also someone who is happily ignoring the frantic atmosphere.
She knows nothing about electrostatics, mass spectrometers, solid rocket fuels or space agencies. Furthermore, she does not even know what a dollar is.
The peaceful creature just knows that she is very satisfied, having just gulped down as many as three flies within two minutes (although she ignores what a minute is).
From the edge of her body of water she looks at the moon, yes, like every night, but without trying to reach it. And like every night, she croaks, pleased with her simple life.

A life that had always been without mysteries, ever since she was just a tadpole. A comfortably predictable life.
But now, all of a sudden – here come the thunderous roar, the flames, the smoke. Absurdity breaks into the reality of our poor frog. From the pool, she rises in the air, sucked up by the rocket’s contrail. Flung up in the sky, in an unexpected flight, in a definitive and shining rapture.

NASA Wallops Flight Facility © Chris Perry

She sees her entire existence passing before her eyes, like in a movie – although she doesn’t know what a movie is. The endless stakeouts waiting for a tiny little insect, the cool nights spent soaking in the water, the eggs she has never managed to lay, the brief moments of fulfilment… but now, because of this cruel and unnatural joke, it all seems to be meaningless!
“There is no criterion for such an end” reflects the amphibious philosopher in the fraction of a second in which the incredible trajectory pushes her towards the rocket’s furnace “but maybe it is better this way. Who would really want to be weighed down by a reason? Every moment I have lived, good or bad, has contributed to bring me here, in a vertiginous ascent towards the flash of light in which I am about to dissolve. If this world is a meaningless dance, it is a dance after all. So let’s dance!”
And with this last thought, the fatal blaze.

One must imagine that frog happy.

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 7

Back with Bizzarro Bazar’s mix of exotic and quirky trouvailles, quite handy when it comes to entertaining your friends and acting like the one who’s always telling funny stories. Please grin knowingly when they ask you where in the world you find all this stuff.

  • We already talked about killer rabbits in the margins of medieval books. Now a funny video unveils the mystery of another great classic of illustrated manuscripts: snail-fighting knights. SPOILER: it’s those vicious Lumbards again.
  • As an expert on alternative sexualities, Ayzad has developed a certain aplomb when discussing the most extreme and absurd erotic practices — in Hunter Thompson’s words, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro“. Yet even a shrewd guy like him was baffled by the most deranged story in recent times: the Nazi furry scandal.
  • In 1973, Playboy asked Salvador Dali to collaborate with photographer Pompeo Posar for an exclusive nude photoshoot. The painter was given complete freedom and control over the project, so much so that he was on set directing the shooting. Dali then manipulated the shots produced during that session through collage. The result is a strange and highly enjoyable example of surrealism, eggs, masks, snakes and nude bunnies. The Master, in a letter to the magazine, calimed to be satisfied with the experience: “The meaning of my work is the motivation that is of the purest – money. What I did for Playboy is very good, and your payment is equal to the task.” (Grazie, Silvia!)

  • Speaking of photography, Robert Shults dedicated his series The Washing Away of Wrongs to the biggest center for the study of decomposition in the world, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University. Shot in stark, high-contrast black and white as they were shot in the near-infrared spectrum, these pictures are really powerful and exhibit an almost dream-like quality. They document the hard but necessary work of students and researchers, who set out to understand the modifications in human remains under the most disparate conditions: the ever more precise data they gather will become invaluable in the forensic field. You can find some more photos in this article, and here’s Robert Shults website.

  • One last photographic entry. Swedish photographer Erik Simander produced a series of portraits of his grandfather, after he just became a widower. The loneliness of a man who just found himself without his life’s companion is described through little details (the empty sink, with a single toothbrush) that suddenly become definitive, devastating symbols of loss; small, poetic and lacerating touches, delicate and painful at the same time. After all, grief is a different feeling for evry person, and Simander shows a commendable discretion in observing the limit, the threshold beyond which emotions become too personal to be shared. A sublime piece of work, heart-breaking and humane, and which has the merit of tackling an issue (the loss of a partner among the elderly) still pretty much taboo. This theme had already been brought to the big screen in 2012 by the ruthless and emotionally demanding Amour, directed by Michael Haneke.
  • Speaking of widowers, here’s a great article on another aspect we hear very little about: the sudden sex-appeal of grieving men, and the emotional distress it can cause.
  • To return to lighter subjects, here’s a spectacular pincushion seen in an antique store (spotted and photographed by Emma).

  • Are you looking for a secluded little place for your vacations, Arabian nights style? You’re welcome.
  • Would you prefer to stay home with your box of popcorn for a B-movies binge-watching session? Here’s one of the best lists you can find on the web. You have my word.
  • The inimitable Lindsey Fitzharris published on her Chirurgeon’s Apprentice a cute little post about surgical removal of bladder stones before the invention of anesthesia. Perfect read to squirm deliciously in your seat.
  • Death Expo was recently held in Amsterdam, sporting all the latest novelties in the funerary industry. Among the best designs: an IKEA-style, build-it-yourself coffin, but above all the coffin to play games on. (via DeathSalon)
  • I ignore how or why things re-surface at a certain time on the Net. And yet, for the last few days (at least in my whacky internet bubble) the story of Portuguese serial killer Diogo Alves has been popping out again and again. Not all of Diogo Alves, actually — just his head, which is kept in a jar at the Faculty of Medicine in Lisbon. But what really made me chuckle was discovering one of the “related images” suggested by Google algorythms:

Diogo’s head…

…Radiohead.

  • Remember the Tsavo Man-Eaters? There’s a very good Italian article on the whole story — or you can read the English Wiki entry. (Thanks, Bruno!)
  • And finally we get to the most succulent news: my old native town, Vicenza, proved to still have some surprises in store for me.
    On the hills near the city, in the Arcugnano district, a pre-Roman amphitheatre has just been discovered. It layed buried for thousands of years… it could accomodate up to 4300 spectators and 300 actors, musicians, dancers… and the original stage is still there, underwater beneath the small lake… and there’s even a cave which acted as a megaphone for the actors’ voices, amplifying sounds from 8 Hz to 432 Hz… and there’s even a nearby temple devoted to Janus… and that temple was the real birthplace of Juliet, of Shakespearean fame… and there are even traces of ancient canine Gods… and of the passage of Julius Cesar and Cleopatra…. and… and…
    And, pardon my rudeness, wouldn’t all this happen to be a hoax?


No, it’s not a mere hoax, it is an extraordinary hoax. A stunt that would deserve a slow, admired clap, if it wasn’t a plain fraud.
The creative spirit behind the amphitheatre is the property owner, Franco Malosso von Rosenfranz (the name says it all). Instead of settling for the traditional Italian-style unauthorized development  — the classic two or three small houses secretely and illegally built — he had the idea of faking an archeological find just to scam tourists. Taking advantage of a license to build a passageway between two parts of his property, so that the constant flow of trucks and bulldozers wouldn’t raise suspicions, Malosso von Rosenfranz allegedly excavated his “ancient” theatre, with the intention of opening it to the public at the price of 40 € per visitor, and to put it up for hire for big events.
Together with the initial enthusiasm and popularity on social networks, unfortunately came legal trouble. The evidence against Malosso was so blatant from the start, that he immediately ended up on trial without any preliminary hearing. He is charged with unauthorized building, unauthorized manufacturing and forgery.
Therefore, this wonderful example of Italian ingenuity will be dismanteled and torn down; but the amphitheatre website is fortunately still online, a funny fanta-history jumble devised to back up the real site. A messy mixtre of references to local figures, famous characters from the Roman Era, supermarket mythology and (needless to say) the omnipresent Templars.


The ultimate irony is that there are people in Arcugnano still supporting him because, well, “at least now we have a theatre“. After all, as the Wiki page on unauthorized building explains, “the perception of this phenomenon as illegal […] is so thin that such a crime does not entail social reprimand for a large percentage of the population. In Italy, this malpractice has damaged and keeps damaging the economy, the landscape and the culture of law and respect for regulations“.
And here resides the brilliance of old fox Malosso von Rosenfranz’s plan: to cash in on these times of post-truth, creating an unauthorized building which does not really degrade the territory, but rather increase — albeit falsely — its heritage.
Well, you might have got it by now. I am amused, in a sense. My secret chimeric desire is that it all turns out to be an incredible, unprecedented art installations.  Andthat Malosso one day might confess that yes, it was all a huge experiment to show how little we care abot our environment and landscape, how we leave our authenticarcheological wonders fall apart, and yet we are ready to stand up for the fake ones. (Thanks, Silvietta!)

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 4

As I am quite absorbed in the Academy of Enchantment, which we just launched, so you will forgive me if I fall back on a new batch of top-notch oddities.

  • Remember my article on smoked mummies? Ulla Lohmann documented, for the first time ever, the mummification process being carried out on one of the village elders, a man the photographer knew when he was still alive. The story of Lohmann’s respectful stubbornness in getting accepted by the tribe, and the spectacular pictures she took, are now on National Geographic.

  • Collective pyres burning for days in an unbearable stench, teeth pulled out from corpses to make dentures, bones used as fertilizers: welcome to the savage world of those who had to clean up Napoleonic battlefields.
  • Three miles off the Miami coast there is a real underwater cemetery. Not many of your relatives will take scuba lessons just to pay their last respects, but on the other hand, your grave will become part of the beautiful coral reef.

  • This one is for those of you acquainted with the worst Italian TV shows. In one example of anaesthetic television — comforting and dull, offering the mirage of an effortless win, a fortune that comes out of nowhere — the host randomly calls a phone number, and if the call is picked up before the fifth ring then a golden watch is awarded to the receiver. But here’s where the subversive force of memento mori comes in: in one of the latest episodes, an awkward surprise awaited the host. “Is this Mrs. Anna?” “No, Mrs. Anna just died.“, a voice replies.
    For such a mindless show, this is the ultimate ironic defeat: the embarassed host cannot help mumbling, “At this point, our watch seems useless…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgz0KVd7HHM

  • How can we be sure that a dead body is actually dead? In the Nineteenth Century this was a major concern. That is why some unlucky workers had to pull cadaver tongues, while others tried to stick dead fingers into their own ears; there were those who even administered tobacco enemas to the dead… by blowing through a pipe.
  • What if Monty Python were actually close to the truth, in their Philosphers Song portraying the giants of thought as terminal drunkards? An interesting long read on the relationship between Western philosophy and the use of psychoactive substances.
  • If you haven’t seen it, there is a cruel radiography shattering the self-consolatory I-am-just-big-boned mantra.

  • Man will soon land on Mars, likely. But in addition to bringing life on the Red Planet, we will also bring another novelty: death. What would happen to a dead body in a Martian atmosphere, where there are no insects, no scavengers or bacteria? Should we bury our dead, cremate them or compost them? Sarah Laskow on AtlasObscura.
  • In closing, here is a splendid series of photographs entitled Wilder Mann. All across Europe, French photographer Charles Fréger documented dozens of rural masquerades. Creepy and evocative, these pagan figures stood the test of time, and for centuries now have been annoucing the coming of winter.

La Morgue, yesterday and today

Regarding the Western taboo about death, much has been written on how its “social removal” happened approximately in conjunction with WWI and the institution of great modern hospitals; still it would be more correct to talk about a removal and medicalization of the corpse. The subject of death, in fact, has been widely addressed throughout the Twentieth Century: a century which was heavily imbued with funereal meditations, on the account of its history of unprecedented violence. What has vanished from our daily lives is rather the presence of the dead bodies and, most of all, putrefaction.

Up until the end of Nineteenth Century, the relationship with human remains was inevitable and accepted as a natural part of existence, not just in respect to the preparation of a body at home, but also in the actual experience of so-called unnatural deaths.
One of the most striking examples of this familiarity with decomposition is the infamous Morgue in Paris.

Established in 1804, to replace the depository for dead bodies which during the previous centuries was found in the prison of Grand Châtelet, the Morgue stood in the heart of the capital, on the île de la Cité. In 1864 it was moved to a larger building on the point of the island, right behind Notre Dame. The word had been used since the Fifteenth Century to designate the cell where criminals were identified; in jails, prisoners were put “at the morgue” to be recognized. Since the Sixteenth Century, the word began to refer exclusively to the place where identification of corpses was carried out.

Due to the vast number of violent deaths and of bodies pulled out of the Seine, this mortuary was constantly filled with new “guests”, and soon transcended its original function. The majority of visitors, in fact, had no missing relatives to recognize.
The first ones to have different reasons to come and observe the bodies, which were laid out on a dozen black marble tables behind a glass window, were of course medical students and anatomists.

This receptacle for the unknown dead found in Paris and the faubourgs of the city, contributes not a little to the forwarding of the medical sciences, by the vast number of bodies it furnishes, which, on an average, amount to about two hundred annually. The process of decomposition in the human body may be seen at La Morgue, throughout every stage to solution, by those whose taste, or pursuit of science, leads them to that melancholy exhibition. Medical men frequently visit the place, not out of mere curiosity, but for the purpose of medical observation, for wounds, fracturs, and injuries of every description occasionally present themselves, as the effect of accident or murder. Scarcely a day passes without the arrival of fresh bodies, chiefly found in the Seine, and very probably murdered, by being flung either out of the windows which overhang the Seine river, or off the bridges, or out of the wine and wood-barges, by which the men who sell the cargoes generally return with money in their pockets […]. The clothes of the dead bodies brought into this establishment are hung up, and the corpse is exposed in a public room for inspection of those who visit the place for the purpose of searching for a lost friend or relative. Should it not be recognised in four days, it is publicly dissected, and then buried.

(R. Sears, Scenes and sketches in continental Europe, 1847)

This descripton is, however, much too “clean”. Despite the precautions taken to keep the bodies at low temperature, and to bathe them in chloride of lime, the smell was far from pleasant:

For most of the XIX Century, and even from an earlier time, the smell of cadavers was part of the routine in the Morgue. Because of its purpose and mode of operation, the Morgue was the privileged place for cadaveric stench in Paris […]. In fact, the bodies that had stayed in the water constituted the ordinary reality at the Morgue. Their putrefaction was especially spectacular.

(B. Bertherat, Le miasme sans la jonquille, l’odeur du cadavre à la Morgue de Paris au XIXe siècle,
in Imaginaire et sensibilités au XIXe siècle, Créaphis, 2005)

What is curious (and quite incomprehensible) for us today is how the Morgue could soon become one of the trendiest Parisian attractions.
A true theatre of death, a public exhibition of horror, each day it was visited by dozens of people of all backgrounds, as it certainly offered the thrill of a unique sight. It was a must for tourists visiting the capital, as proven by the diaries of the time:

We left the Louvre and went to the Morgue where three dead bodies lay waiting identification. They were a horrible sight. In a glass case one child that had been murdered, its face pounded fearfully.

(Adelia “Addie” Sturtevant‘s diary, September 17, 1889)

The most enlightening description comes from the wonderful and terrible pages devoted to the mortuary by Émile Zola. His words evoke a perfect image of the Morgue experience in XIX Century:

In the meantime Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. […]When he entered the place an unsavoury odour, an odour of freshly washed flesh, disgusted him and a chill ran over his skin: the dampness of the walls seemed to add weight to his clothing, which hung more heavily on his shoulders. He went straight to the glass separating the spectators from the corpses, and with his pale face against it, looked. Facing him appeared rows of grey slabs, and upon them, here and there, the naked bodies formed green and yellow, white and red patches. While some retained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemed like lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against the bare plaster. […] Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellow skins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. […] One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing.

Zola further explores the ill-conealed erotic tension such a show could provoke in visitors, both men and women. A liminal zone — the boundaries between Eros and Thanatos — which for our modern sensibility is even more “dangerous”.

This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and in places bored with holes, attracted and detained him. Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broad and strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white form displayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a black band, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness. […] On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the [well-dressed ladies] standing at a few paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lace mantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet. She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broad chest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew.

Finally, the Morgue was also an ironically democratic attraction, just like death itself:

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.
Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked in on their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companions of the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making witty remarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had beenburnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, the bodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity, and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.

(É. Zola, Thérèse Raquin, 1867)

In the course of its activity, the Morgue was only sporadically criticized, and only for its position, deemed too central. The curiosity in seeing the bodies was evidently not perceived as morbid, or at least it was not considered particularly improper: articles on the famous mortuary and its dead residents made regular appearance on newspapers, which gladly devoted some space to the most mysterious cases.
On March 15, 1907 the Morgue was definitively closed to the public, for reasons of “moral hygiene”. Times were already changing: in just a few years Europe was bound to know such a saturation of dead bodies that they could no longer be seen as an entertainment.

And yet, the desire and impulse to observe the signs of death on the human body never really disappeared. Today they survive in the virtual morgues of internet websites offering pictures and videos of accidents and violence. Distanced by a computer screen, rather than the ancient glass wall, contemporary visitors wander through these hyperrealistic mortuaries where bodily frailness is articulated in all its possible variations, witnesses to death’s boundless imagination.
The most striking thing, when surfing these bulletin boards where the obscene is displayed as in a shop window, is seeing how users react. In this extreme underground scene (which would make an interesting object for a study in social psychology) a wide array of people can be found, from the more or less casual visitor in search of a thrill, up to the expert “gorehounds”, who seem to collect these images like trading cards and who, with every new posted video, act smart and discuss its technical and aesthetic quality.
Perhaps in an attempt to exorcise the disgust, another constant is the recourse to an unpleasant and out-of-place humor; and it is impossible to read these jokes, which might appear indecent and disrespectful, without thinking of those “comical companions” described by Zola, who jested before the horror.

Aggregators of brutal images might entail a discussion on freedom of information, on the ethics and licitness of exhibiting human remains, and we could ask ourselves if they really serve an “educational” purpose or should be rather viewed as morbid, abnormal, pathological deviations.
Yet such fascinations are all but unheard of: it seems to me that this kind of curiosity is, in a way, intrinsic to the human species, as I have argued in the past.
On closer inspection, this is the same autoptic instinct, the same will to “see with one’s own eyes” that not so long ago (in our great-great-grandfathers’ time) turned the Paris Morgue into a sortie en vogue, a popular and trendy excursion.

The new virtual morgues constitute a niche and, when compared to the crowds lining up to see the swollen bodies of drowning victims, our attitude is certainly more complex. As we’ve said in the beginning, there is an element of taboo which was much less present at the time.
To our eyes the corpse still remains an uneasy, scandalous reality, sometimes even too painful to acknowledge. And yet, consciously or not, we keep going back to fixing our eyes on it, as if it held a mysterious secret.

 

Yamanaka Manabu

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Dove ci sono uomini
troverai mosche
e Buddha
(Kobayashi Issa)

Chiunque percorra un autentico cammino spirituale dovrà confrontarsi con il lato oscuro, osceno, terribile della vita. Questo è il sottinteso della parabola agiografica che vede il Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, uscire di nascosto dal suo idilliaco palazzo reale e scoprire con meraviglia e angoscia l’esistenza del dolore (dukkha), che accomuna tutti gli esseri viventi.

Il fotografo giapponese Yamanaka Manabu da 25 anni esplora territori liminali o ritenuti tabù, alla ricerca della scintilla divina. Il suo intento, nonostante la crudezza degli scatti, non è certo quello di provocare un facile shock: piuttosto, lo sforzo che si può leggere nelle sue opere è tutto incentrato sulla scoperta della trascendenza anche in ciò che normalmente, e superficialmente, potrebbe provocare ripugnanza.

Gyahtei: Yamanaka Manabu Photographs è la collezione dei suoi lavori, organizzati in sei serie di fotografie. I sei capitoli si concentrano su altrettanti soggetti “non allineati”, rimossi, reietti, ignorati: sono dedicati rispettivamente a bambini di strada, senzatetto, persone affette da malattie che provocano deformità, anziani, feti abortiti, e carcasse di animali.

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L’approccio di Manabu è ammirevolmente rigoroso e rispettoso. Le sue non sono foto sensazionalistiche, né ambigue, e ambiscono invece a catturare degli attimi in cui il Buddha risplende attraverso questi corpi sbagliati, emarginati, rifiutati. Con la tipica essenzialità della declinazione giapponese del buddhismo (zen), i soggetti sono perlopiù ritratti su sfondo bianco – e il bianco è il colore del lutto, in Giappone, e sottile riferimento all’impermanenza. Sono foto rarefatte ed essenziali, che lasciano al nostro sguardo il compito di cercare un significato, se mai riusciremo a trovarlo.

Ogni serie di fotografie ha necessitato di 4 o 5 anni di lavoro per vedere la luce. Quella intitolata “Arakan” è emblematica: “Una mattina, incontrai una persona vestita di stracci che camminando lentamente emetteva un odore pungente. Aveva lo sguardo fisso verso un posto lontano, occhi raminghi e fuori fuoco. Cominciai di mattino presto, in bicicletta, cercandoli fra strade affollate e parchi pubblici. Appena li trovavo, chiedevo loro “Per favore, lasciatemi scattare una foto”. Ma non acconsentivano a farsi ritrarre così facilmente. L’idea li disgustava, e io li inseguivo e continuavo a chiedere il permesso ancora e ancora. Ho continuato a seguirli senza curarmi dei loro sputi e dei loro pugni, finché la pazienza veniva meno. Allora finalmente mi concedevano di fotografarli“.
Dopo 4 anni di ricerche, e centinaia di foto, Manabu ha selezionato 16 scatti che a suo parere mostrano degli esseri al confine fra l’umano e la condizione di Risveglio. “Sono sicuro che queste persone meritano di essere chiamate Arakan, titolo riservato a colui il quale recide i legami della carne ed è assiduo nel praticare l’austerità“.

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Nella sua sincera indagine sul significato dell’esistenza non poteva mancare la contemplazione della morte. Il suo racconto della ricognizione su una carcassa di cane illustra perfettamente il processo che sottende il suo lavoro.

Nel mio tentativo di comprendere la “morte”, ho deciso di guardare il corpo morto di un cane regolarmente, sulla costa. 

Giorno 1
    – L’ho accarezzato sulla testa, domandandomi se la sua vita fosse stata felice.

Giorno 2
– La sua faccia sembrava triste. Ho sentito l’odore diventare più forte.

Giorno 5
– Molti corvi si sono assiepati sul posto, a beccare i suoi occhi e il suo ano.

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Giorno 7
Il suo corpo era gonfio, e sangue e pus ne uscivano. Nuvole di mosche su di lui, e l’odore divenne terribile.

Giorno 10
– La bocca era infestata di larve, e il corpo si era gonfiato del doppio. Quando ho toccato il corpo, era caldo. Pensando che il corpo avesse in qualche modo ripreso vita, mi sentii ispirato e giunsi le mani verso di esso.

Giorno 12
– La pelle dell’addome si era lacerata, e molte larve erano visibili all’interno. Mi sentii deluso quando scoprii che il calore era causato dallo sfregamento degli insetti. Pensai che la “morte” è brutta e dolorosa.

Giorno 15
– Si poteva vedere l’osso da una parte della pelle strappata della faccia. Il corpo divenne sottile come quello di una mummia. L’odore divenne meno penetrante. Il corpo morto sembrava bello come un’immagine di creta, e scattai alcune fotografie.

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Giorno 24
– Le larve erano scomparse, e la testa, gli arti e il corpo erano completamente smembrati. Sembrava che nessuna creatura avrebbe potuto mangiarne ancora. In effetti di fronte a questa scena sentii che il cane era veramente morto.

Giorno 32
– Soltanto piccoli pezzi di osso bianco sono rimasti, e sembrano sprofondare nella terra.

Giorno 49
– L’erba nuova è cresciuta sul posto, e l’esistenza del cane è scomparsa.

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Ma forse la sua serie più toccante è quella intitolata “Jyoudo” (la casa del Bodhisattva).
Qui siamo confrontati con il volto più crudele della malattia – sindromi genetiche o rare, alle quali alcuni esseri umani sono destinati fin dalla nascita. Senza mai cedere alla tentazione del dettaglio fastidioso, Manabu colleziona degli scatti al contrario pietosi e commoventi, volutamente asciutti. Qui la condizione umana e la sua insensatezza trovano un perfetto compimento: uomini e donne segnati dalla disgrazia, “forse per via di cattive azioni nelle vite passate, o soltanto perché sono pateticamente sfortunati“.

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Il confronto con queste estreme situazioni di malattia è, come sempre in Manabu, molto umano. “In una casa di riposo ho incontrato una giovane ragazza. Non era altro che pelle e ossa, a stento capace di respirare mentre stava distesa. Perché è nata così, e che insegnamento dovremmo trarre da un simile fatto? Per capire il significato della sua esistenza, non potevo fare altro che fotografarla.
Persone che gradualmente diventano più piccole mentre il loro corpo esaurisce tutta l’acqua, persone i cui corpi si putrefanno mentre la loro pelle si stacca e le loro fattezze diventano rosse e gonfie, persone le cui teste pian piano si espandono a causa dell’acqua che si raccoglie all’interno, persone con piedi e mani assurdamente grandi, e via dicendo. Ho incontrato e fotografato molti individui simili, che vivono con malattie inspiegabili, senza speranza di cura. Eppure, perfino in questo stato, quando li guardavo senza farmi vincere dalla paura, vedevo quanto le loro vite fossero veramente naturali. Cominciai a sentire la presenza di Bodhisattva all’interno dei loro corpi. Queste persone erano l’ “Incarnazione del Bodhisattva”, i figli di Dio.

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Quando un artista, un fotografo in questo caso, decide di esplorare programmaticamente tutto ciò che in questo mondo è terribile e ancora in attesa di significato, il confronto con la vecchiaia è inevitabile. D’altronde i quattro dolori riconosciuti dal Buddha, in quella famosa e improvvisata uscita da palazzo, sono proprio la nascita, la vecchiaia, la malattia e la morte. Quindi i corpi nudi di persone anziane, in attesa del sacrificio ultimo, rappresentano la naturale prosecuzione della ricerca di Manabu. Pelle avvizzita e segnata dal tempo, anime splendenti anche se piegate dal peso degli anni.

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E infine ecco la serie dedicata ai feti abortiti o nati morti. “Per una ragione imperscrutabile, non ogni vita è benvenuta in questo mondo. Eppure per uno sfuggente attimo questo piccolo embrione, a cui è stata negata l’ammissione prima ancora che lanciasse il suo primo grido, ha sollecitato in me un’immagine eterna della sua perfetta bellezza.”

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Quelle di Yamanaka Manabu sono visioni difficili, dure, sconcertanti; forse non siamo più abituati a un’arte che non si fermi alla superficie, che non si nasconda dietro il manierismo o lo sfoggio del “bello”. E qui, invece, siamo di fronte a una vera e propria meditazione sul non-bello (ovvero asubha, ne avevamo parlato in questo articolo).
Nell’apparente semplicità della composizione queste opere ci parlano di una ricerca di verità, di senso, che è senza tempo e senza confini. Fotografie che si interrogano sull’esistenza del dolore. E che cercano di catturare quell’attimo in cui, attraverso e oltre il velo della sofferenza, si può intravvedere l’infinito.

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Ecco il sito ufficiale di Yamanaka Manabu.

De profundis

The second title of the Bizzarro Bazar Series is now available for pre-order.

After exploring the Palermo Capuchin Catacombs in the first volume, now we enter another unique place, the Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples, where one of the most peculiar and fascinating devotional cults has developed.

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Buried in the heart of the city, the Sanità quarter is an authentic borderland between the world of the living and the world of the dead. You only need to distance yourself from the hustle and bustle, from the megaphones of the fruit and vegetable stalls, the mopeds ridden by fearless street urchins darting between the cars, and reach the top of the area: here on the right of the church of Maria Santissima del Carmine, is the Fontanelle cemetery.

Situated within an ancient tuff quarry, the cemetery is an imposing underground cathedral, hovering between darkness and the swathes of light cutting through it.

Thousands of bones and skulls are piled up for all to see, the remains of at least 40,000 anonymous human beings. In this evocative and peaceful place, death is no longer insurmountable: the living and the souls of the deceased communicate with each other by means of the so-called capuzzelle, which embody the ancestral obsession with the skull as an icon of transcendence and the promise of eternal life.

 

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Here the skulls are spoken to, touched, and cleaned. They are taken care of. Candles are lit, offerings are given and favours asked for in a do ut des of worship.

This is the cult of the anime pezzentelle, abandoned and anonymous souls, in need of the compassion of the living to alleviate their suffering in Purgatory. In return, they promise to be kind to the devout believer, helping out with health problems, finding a husband for young unmarried girls, solving financial issues or providing the winning lottery numbers. Although the cult is now almost completely abandoned, it still resists, and its traces are well visible in the Cemetery.

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There are countless ossuaries around the world, but the suggestion of the Fontanelle Cemetery is quite specific. On one hand, the compassionate and sober disposition of the human remains shows no sign of macabre or baroque taste, introducing the visitor to a suspended quiet as if he was entering a real sanctuary; on the other hand, the devotion of the people has somewhat mitigated the memento mori effect – not just on the account of those colorful, often ironic legends and myths surrounding the skulls, but also by elaborating the cult of the souls of Purgatory in a peculiar way, through unprecedented rules and rituals. Thus, adding to the wonder of thousands of piled up bones under the immense vault, one can feel a palpable devotion, transforming the skulls from figurations of mortality to symbols of transcendence.

Carlo Vannini‘s photographs plunge us into the enchanted atmosphere of the underground cathedral, revealing its gloomy charm and bringing us so close to the capuzzelle – bare or adorned with various votive offerings such as handkerchieves, little holy pictures, coloured rosary beads etc. – that their eyeholes seem to meet our eyes with a glance which is not less alive.

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De profundis, with texts in Italian and English, will be available in Italian bookstores (and online retailers worldwide) from May 18th and will be officially launched at the Turin International Book Fair, with book signing sessions on May 16 th and 17 th.

If you are not going to attend the book fair, you can order your signed copy here, which will be shipped after the book fair is over, by May 25th.

For further info, please check out the official bookstore for the Bizzarro Bazar series and our Facebook page.

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Slow Life

Slow Life è un ipnotico e spettacolare video realizzato da Daniel Stoupin, specializzato in macrofotografia, e ci mostra le meraviglie della barriera corallina come non le abbiamo mai viste.

Il filmato si concentra proprio su quelle specie viventi (coralli e spugne) i cui movimenti sono troppo lenti per essere percepiti da un osservatore umano; con la tecnica del time lapse, però, il mondo subacqueo “prende vita” magicamente, come un pulsante panorama alieno. Nelle parole dell’autore:

Gli organismi viventi più importanti, che giocano un ruolo chiave nella biosfera, possono non sembrare particolarmente eccitanti per quanto riguarda il movimento. Piante, funghi, spugne, coralli, plankton e microorganismi rendono possibile la vita sulla Terra e svolgono tutto il lavoro biochimico fondamentale. Proprio come tutte le altre forme di vita, sono dinamici, mobili e fondamentalmente hanno le stesse proprietà motorie che abbiamo noi. Crescono, si riproducono, si moltiplicano, si muovono verso le fonti di energia, e lontano dalle condizioni sfavorevoli. Eppure, la loro velocità sembra essere fuori sincrono con la nostra limitata percezione. Il nostro cervello è equipaggiato per comprendere e seguire eventi veloci e dinamici, specialmente quei pochi che accadono a velocità simili alla nostra. In un mondo di predatori scattanti e prede in fuga, eventi in cui possono volerci minuti, ore, o giorni per notare un cambiamento sono più difficili da cogliere.

Il lavoro compiuto da Stoupin è impressionante soprattutto se si pensa che la macrofotografia ha normalmente il limite di una ristrettissima profondità di campo; è possibile, cioè, mettere a fuoco soltanto una piccola parte del soggetto ripreso. Per questo motivo ogni singolo fotogramma di Slow Life è in realtà composto da una quantità variabile fra i 3 e i 12 scatti diversi, in seguito fusi in un’unica immagine in modo da ottenere una maggiore profondità di campo. È facile comprendere l’enorme mole di lavoro che comporta l’utilizzo di questa tecnica, chiamata focus stacking, se applicata ai 25 fotogrammi necessari a completare un solo secondo di video.

Il time lapse rivela un mondo interamente differente, pieno di movimenti ipnotici, e la mia idea era di rendere la vita della barriera corallina più spettacolare e quindi più vicina alla nostra consapevolezza. Avevo un progetto molto più ambizioso in mente. Ma dopo molti mesi passati ad elaborare centinaia di migliaia di foto e a cercare di catturare vari elementi del comportamento delle spugne e dei coralli, ho compreso che devo fare un passo alla volta. Per ora, la clip si concentra soltanto sulla bellezza dei “paesaggi” microscopici sulla barriera. I pattern e i colori di questo tipo di fauna, sotto la lente, non assomigliano in nulla agli ambienti terrestri.

Ecco lo straordinario blog fotografico di Daniel Stoupin.

Street Monkeys

In Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, urban overpopulation entails extreme poverty. In order to survive, people have to come up with new ways of gathering attention. When Finnish photographer Perttu Saska saw what was going on at the corner of every street, he decided to document it in a series entitled A Kind of You.

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These monkeys are exhibeted at traffic lights or in the alleys, dressed up in baby clothes and forced to wear doll’s heads that give them an unsettling, almost human appearance. They are trained to ask for charity, and sometimes to enact sad little performances like riding a small bike, or applying makeup while looking in a mirror.

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The phenomenon of topeng monyet (“masked monkeys”) is certainly not a sight to behold: various animal rights associations are fighting to save the 350 macaques that are exploited, undernourished, often abused and locked up inside minuscule cages every night, in appalling sanitary conditions. There have already been some good results, as reported on this article.

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But Saska’s photographs have the merit of raising questions not only on animal cruelty. The little monkeys, chained by their neck, with their dirty and torn clothes, with those doll heads (probably found in a dump), look like a grotesque and transfixed version of their owners: poor people, choked by the chains of misery, who live by their wits because there’s nothing else to do.

Saving the monkeys is important and righteous; it’s difficult to see how the ones on the other end of the leash will be saved.

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This is what is really disturbing in Saska’s work: the feeling we are actually looking in a mirror, at “a kind of you”.

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Here is Perttu Saska‘s official website.

(Thanks, Stefano!)

Il Lago Natron

Nel giro di due giorni ci sono arrivate una dozzina di segnalazioni riguardo alcune bellissime foto che, evidentemente, sono diventate virali proprio in queste settimane: quelle degli animali “pietrificati” del Lago Natron. Sembra esserci anche un po’ di confusione sull’argomento, e per questo ci siamo decisi a trattarlo qui.

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Primo chiarimento: gli animali ritratti nelle foto non sono pietrificati, ma ovviamente mummificati. Il Lago Natron, in Tanzania, è un lago salino di bassa profondità, la cui concentrazione di sodio è tale da rendere l’acqua viscosa al tocco: non solo, attira colonie di cianobatteri responsabili per la caratteristica colorazione rossa-arancione delle sue acque.

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Il lago prende il suo nome dal natron, il carbonato idrato di sodio, un sale minerale che nell’antico Egitto veniva utilizzato proprio per imbalsamare le mummie. Gli egiziani lo raccoglievano dal letto dei laghi alcalini ormai secchi, e lo utilizzavano per le sue proprietà prosciuganti ed antibatteriche: se immergete un corpo nel natron, esso ne risucchierà tutti i liquidi e, contemporaneamente, i microorganismi responsabili della decomposizione saranno mantenuti a distanza.

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Secondo chiarimento: gli uccelli ritratti nelle foto non sono morti così, sono stati messi in posa. Dovrebbe essere superfluo specificare una cosa tanto ovvia, ma molti sembrano aver frainteso il lavoro del fotografo Nick Brandt e hanno immaginato che il Lago Natron sia un qualche tipo di trappola mortale per qualsiasi animale vi si avvicini. In realtà gli animali, morti per cause naturali, sono caduti nelle acque del lago e sono stati preservati per diversi mesi dai sali che esse contengono. Brandt li ha “ripescati”, e posizionati per ottenere esattamente l’effetto voluto.

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La cosa forse più interessante della nicchia ambientale del Lago Natron è che, nonostante esso sia piuttosto inospitale per la maggior parte delle forme di vita, non è affatto disabitato: sulle rive, infatti, dove sorgenti minerali calde moderano la salinità dell’acqua, proliferano alcuni tipi di alghe; queste alghe sono un cibo particolarmente ricercato da una specie di tilapia – un pesce tropicale – che vive nei pressi delle sorgenti, e dai fenicotteri.

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Infatti, a dispetto di quello che suggeriscono le fotografie, il Lago Natron è uno dei luoghi di nidificazione principali per i fenicotteri. Questi ultimi non soltanto riescono a filtrare, con il becco, le alghe dall’acqua salata, ma addirittura sfruttano a loro vantaggio l’ambiente poco confortevole: costruiscono i loro nidi fangosi vicini alla riva, in modo che la poca acqua che li circonda (viscosa, imbevibile, dall’odore nauseabondo) costituisca un efficace deterrente per i predatori.

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Il lago, con i suoi microorganismi, batteri, alghe, piccoli pesci e fenicotteri è dunque piuttosto vivo – eppure anche i suoi giorni sono contati. Alle alte temperature africane, il bacino ha una grandezza che varia in continuazione, a seconda del carico di acqua piovana che vi si riversa, ma il suo destino inevitabile è quello di prosciugarsi del tutto. Come altri laghi alcalini prima di lui, una volta secco si trasformerà in una bella distesa di erba e piante che spuntano dal suolo ricchissimo di sali minerali.

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(Grazie a tutti coloro che ci hanno scritto!)