I Had to Shed My Skin
“I have often asked myself whether I am not more heavily obligated to the hardest years of my life than to any others…Amor fati: that is my inmost nature…Only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit…I doubt that such a pain makes us ‘better’, but I know that it makes us more profound...”
There is a creeping harshness to this strange and uncertain place. At first it almost seems promising, perhaps even fertile or full of adventure. The landscape looks open, craggy, dramatic and vast. Yet up close, its soil crumbles, revealing only sharp and shattered rocks. The golden light quickly sours, turned grey and gloomy by the gentlest gust of wind. The branches are often bare, the tables too. The paths are uneven, obstructed and uncertain. Climbing a hill or craning one’s neck only leads to further disappointment; even the hint of a horizon is always partially obscured.
The world dreams of snakes – according to a recent study, they are the most common subject of dreams on every continent. Dreams are said to be restful, insightful, perhaps healing. Even nightmares can unlock traumas and truths that otherwise may never consciously surface. But some dreams are just so empty and ambiguous that nothing is revealed. Awakening, one is simply left feeling edgy, restless and uneasy, the dull hum of its details drifting back into a haze of half-forgotten memories and vague imaginings.
Why does the scent of ripe tomatoes evoke such saccharine memories of childhood, it’s heaviness reeking of longing and nostalgia? Why does the ticking of a clock conjure up such intense inklings of dread, it’s hammering growing louder and more incessant the longer one listens?
For some, this is still home. Perhaps it always has been, and they’ve never known anything else. Perhaps they’ve adapted, slipped into the cracks, carved out a little corner or niche by the side of the road, and found a way to thrive – or if not, at least survive. To protect themselves they sometimes become barbed and prickly. They construct barriers – fences and walls, shutters and gates, even towers – to stake their claim, locking others out and fortifying themselves in. Most of the public spaces seem empty and deserted, left abandoned from behind closed doors. Encountering little but the occasional wary stare of a half-curious horse, a traveller passing through might wonder if they are the last living person on Earth. But for those once from here and now returning after time away, there are still subtle signs of lives being lived here and memories being made; albeit not always happy ones.
At what age does growing older turn from looking forward to all that’s to come to reckoning with all that’s been left behind? And can this cycle be renewed, even in later years?
The skin of a snake is a physically protective layer that helps to prevent dehydration, infection and injury. It also minimises friction as the snake moves through the world. Throughout its life, and until its death, a snake’s body perpetually continues to grow, but its skin does not. Instead, from time to time, it generates a new and larger skin layer, and the old skin is discarded or ‘shed’. Just prior to shedding, a snake’s skin begins to turn bluish; its eyes become opaque, hindering its vision. Eventually the snake rubs its head on something abrasive – a rock, a tree, etc. – tearing open the outer layer and allowing it to come off. Shedding its old skin also helps a snake remove harmful parasites from its body.
In a popular Handbook for Travellers published in the late-nineteenth century, this region is described as being “situated in an unhealthy plain.” “The coast is flat and monotonous,” its author continues, “and destitute of good harbours. The villages and towns, in which local peculiarities often prevail in a marked degree, are generally situated on the heights and conspicuous at a great distance. The district is gradually attracting more attention from travellers. As yet, however, it is only the larger towns which boast of tolerable inns.” The only restaurant mentioned is at the train station, Leone d’Oro, which is referred to as being “dear [i.e. overpriced] and indifferent.” Such words – unhealthy, monotonous, destitute, peculiar, tolerable, indifferent – seem to haunt this landscape, perhaps for travellers and natives alike. Today’s guidebooks attempt to put a more positive spin on the place. “Whatever you think of the towns, which in the more remote areas can be rather grim, you will be favourably impressed by the particular character of the landscape…The coast is flat and unremarkable, but just a few kilometres inland are areas known for their natural beauty.” But ultimately, the conclusion is the same: “The towns can be curiously quiet in low season…unless you’re coming for the long sandy beaches, there’s no great reason to hang around.”
There are still relics and ruins here of communal dreaming and escapism. Following the war and before the arrival of television, it was cinema that often drew the people together, transporting them collectively to other worlds, beyond the limits and routines of their everyday. Young people especially flocked to the screens, which were often built outdoors – cinema all’aperto – and which due to the smallness and remoteness of many villages, were only temporarily erected for a night or two in the central square. In fact, this region coined a specific name for the man who travelled from town to town, projecting unexpected images and unimaginable fantasies onto the otherwise familiar façades of their lives – il cinemaro. Some places eventually constructed permanent screens; flat cement edifices, weighty, whitewashed and meticulously smoothed, ever-ready for his arrival. But in recent decades, as screens moved from the piazza into the house and eventually into the hands of nearly everyone around, these structures have fallen into disrepair; stained and pockmarked they blankly stare back, projecting nothing but the sense of absence that now surrounds them.
Several years before his death, Andy Warhol wrote, “You can only live in one place at a time. And your own life while it’s happening to you never has any atmosphere, until it’s a memory.” Many photographers, at some point in their career, return to a place they once lived, a place they once called home. In search of traces of their own personal history – remnants or small details that might validate or corroborate what they remember – they are often frustrated by the fact that so much has changed or disappeared, and so little of what they are looking for is left. The act of making a photograph is stubbornly tied to the present; attempting to capture a memory with a camera is almost a futile pursuit. Almost, insofar as what is fresh and ever-present when one encounters a memory in the now is its newfound atmosphere: it’s ‘feel’. It’s no easy task, photographing – and successfully conveying to others – the feeling of a place, especially one that is so personally defined, but it can be done. In his last major statement on the medium, Walker Evan’s wrote, “Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts…the matter of art in photography may come down to this: it is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt.”
There is a crooked fence. Its pickets have been broken, then clumsily mended, now even more awkward, lopsided and imposing. The pavement lying before it is cracked and ruptured; beside it, in the shadows, a small wall disintegrates into a pile of stones, then pebbles, and then a layer of course grey sand. But beyond, the path is promising, the air thick with golden light and the scent of the surrounding pines. On second glance it is a gate, not a fence; an entrance not a barricade, and one easy to pry open – there is a way through.
“…What is strangest is this: after such pain one has a different taste – a second taste. Out of such abysses…one returns newborn, having shed one’s skin; more ticklish and sarcastic, with a more delicate taste for joy, with a more tender tongue for all good things, with gayer senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more childlike and yet a hundred times more subtle than one has ever been before.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche (1882)
published by ARTPHILEIN EDITIONS, LUGANO, IN May 2022
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Artphilein Editions SA, Lugano
Printing and Binding
Fontegrafica, Cinisello Balsamo (MI)