Under the Volcano and Other Stories. Gianluigi Ricuperati in conversation with Stefano Graziani

As Featured on Fantom 04 / Summer 2010 

Graziani (1971) is a photographer like no other. His series adhere to non Euclidean rules of associations and constructions of meaning. They are distorted encyclopedias – hyper-elliptical narrations. For a writer working with an artist like this means plotting a veritable coastline of connections and references, ideas and stories. Stefano Graziani is able to transform the invisible lines of distant subjects into the visible lines of near objects. He loves display cabinets, the reverse side of collections, and the hidden face of museums. (The following conversation took place in Modena, Italy, in front of the steps of the city’s synagogue.)

Gianluigi Ricuperati: There are many reasons why I am happy about this interview, first and foremost because of the title of this work, Under the Volcano, which has a literary connection. Indeed it comes from Malcolm Lowry’s book, a masterpiece of literary modernism, now somewhat forgotten. So, let’s start from this. 

Stefano Graziani: I know the book and the film directed by John Huston. However, there is no direct relationship. It is a citation to which I have added “and other stories.” The reason why I chose this title is that there is a volcano in the photographs and I also wanted the cover to allude in some way to the geographical condition, and then to try to contradict it inside the book, in line with the aim of my work. What I am interested in saying is that the volcano is Vulcano. As for the famous embarrassment of description in photography… I tried to achieve a superimposition of object and name. I don’t think it is embarrassing to say “that volcano is Stromboli” because in this case the volcano is Vulcano and there is therefore a further superimposition of object and place.


… as though the volcano were a God, an Entity, as though there were only one volcano in the world…

Yes, actually the words of the title are in capital letters because it is in English, but in the book it is sometimes written “Vulcano,” like the name of the island, and at other times “volcano,” like the geographical feature.


I am curious about your relationship with photography. I would like to know if you feel that you are a photographer to the core or if you might at some stage decide to express your creativity by means of some other form of expression.

I wouldn’t know. I have never thought about it. In any case photography is the medium that suits me most.


This exhibition, like the previous one, Taxonomies, is a collection of works that is apparently unrelated or related in a way that is not immediately obvious but is disclosed gradually. However, the strength of your work also lies in the ties between one photograph and another. How would you describe the network of analogies, of references, of rhymes that lies in these images compared to Taxonomies?

The first difference is that for Taxonomies I had to travel a great deal. I thought it was important to visit certain places, which happened to resemble one another, mainly botanical gardens. That too was a work linked to the word, to the problem of how to name the same things unambiguously all over the world, which meant I had to travel. On the other hand, Under the Volcano was produced in just one place, with the exception of the trip to Vulcano in Sicily. And it is not important to know where I worked. None of these photographs needs to be described by a place or a date.


And yet these are the features which determine the essence of a photograph, as testimonial of time and space. And yet you destroy these two parameters and this is what triggers the metaphysical tension of your work. The most thrilling aspect, from an intellectual point of view too, is that the images truly seem to be suspended in coordinates which are lacking dimensions.

Yes, it is a work done on voice. There are parrots, which are talking animals, although the ultimate talking animal is man. My work is also a work of passion. Passion is one of human’s potentials. It generally emerges when language is left behind. By bringing in talking animals I wanted to allude to what isn’t there. The talking animal for me is, first and foremost, a parrot, not a man. It only occurs to you later that the talking animal is man.


Indeed, there are hardly any people in your photographs.

That is true. There are two human figures taken from a painting by Vasari, Perseus and Andromeda, and two more tiny ones on the cover, at the summit of the volcano. Otherwise there are imitating animals, the monkey and the parrot.


The reference to imitating animals is fascinating. There is a wonderful book by Thomas Bernhard, The Voice Imitator, which contains the framework of a story in which a character imitates the voices of a bureaucrat, a financier… But there is something else I would like to ask you. There is a photograph in this sequence that you didn’t take, or perhaps more than one…

Yes, there are photographs of stars, obtained by scanning negatives given to me by the Astrophysical Observatory of Asiago. I took all the others but there is no precise poetical reason behind this choice. The various images were produced using various instruments and are presented in different ways. Each photograph has its own precise need, both when you take it and when it is mounted.



The poetics of imitation is a meta-project in some sense. Moreover, the animal in taxidermy is already in itself an imitation of the living animal… This might be a key to interpretation. There is a sort of taxidermal quality to all of the images.

In these images, as well as the stuffed animals, there are, amongst the various dead, inanimate objects, three prehistoric burial tools. They are an allusion to the cult of the dead and therefore to the origin of the soul. In addition there is the crow, a bird, which ‘celebrates’ its dead, and the owl, which recalls witchcraft, the occult, the night. It is no coincidence that in the book the owl is placed next to the photograph of the cosmos. In folk tradition it is the animal of the devil because it sucks the blood of the he-goat.


Moreover, the journey through the nocturnal, infernal world is one of the themes of Malcolm Lowry’s novels, which can be considered to be a sort of Divina Commedia, a descent into the human hell of alcoholism.

Because the protagonist destroys himself as a result of a series of disastrous situations which happen to him and which come to pass. There are many things in this work, perhaps too many. Sometimes I even notice professionalism in this field, although professionalism is a strange word.


What do you mean by professionalism?

I mean the cancellation of secrets. At times you are aware of the professionalism but you no longer see the secrets, which are instead the most interesting part. I don’t know if secrets can be perceived in this work. I think there are some there. What matters to me is generating questions, perhaps different questions from those I have asked myself. The installation, like the book, is a personal response to a question I was asking myself during the time it took me to produce the work.


What strikes me most deeply about your way of working is that this juxtaposition of images has a conceptual architecture behind it, a narration if you like, or anyway a logic of its own, yet it never achieves that kind of absolute coldness which many contemporary art operations have. Let me give a splendid example. I saw an exhibition of Dan Graham in New York, which clearly places him as one of the major artists, perhaps the greatest of them all, in the last 30-40 years.

Yes, he is.


However, there is a coldness, an emotional iciness that is almost autistic, which represents a minus.

I think Dan Graham has paved the way for a completely transversal approach. His first works were essays published in newspapers and this is something inconceivable in Italian art circles. However, in his case, it is not important what medium he uses. He works on art.


Indeed, his history is very different from yours. One of the most interesting features of this work are the spaces between one work and another, where the question arises, where the secret is born, where vertigo is created, like the bust of the monkey, which is one of your most disturbing images. This is why I wonder if it makes sense for a collector to own just one piece, if you think it can alter the nature of your work or if it’s ok, perhaps in the name of commercial interests.

There is a commercial side obviously. Perhaps it would be better to unify the works but, anyway, the exhibition has a life of its own and there is a book too. Books are important, they circulate, they are a work in themselves. In this case it isn’t a question of a simple catalogue. It has its own structure which I planned with Francesco Mazzoli and Amedeo Martegani.


And there is a link with taxonomies too.

Yes, it is intentional. It doesn’t mean to be an actual continuation of the previous work but there are similarities.


Instead, from the technical point of view, how do you work?

I use film.


Are these blocked out?

No I used a uniform lighting, a backing of white paper and objects placed on it. The light is reflected. And I also entrust my work to a printer who I have been able to rely on for many years.


And the shadow? Are there shadows of the pedestals for instance?

Yes there are. Actually, the entire corpus aspires to be a ‘huge shadow’ due to this relationship with the night.


I am lucky enough to be in your book. You asked me to come up with a piece without a critical slant, let’s make that clear, as I am no art critic.

Yes, I liked the idea of collecting what comes into your head when you see my photographs. In this way we invert our roles. This is what I asked you.



I want to respond in a very pragmatic way, talking not of poetics but of what I put on the page. One might draw inspiration from these images for a tale in the fashion of Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies or even for a work of composition in the style of Giorgio Manganelli. But that is not what I want to do because I think that seam has already been exploited by literature, however convincing it may be. I intend rather to linger on the method. These images, which are so different from one another, are perfect because they represent almost the entire cosmos in a nutshell – there are parrots, the plaster of the statue, the element of nature, the imitation of nature, painting, mythology, craftsman’s tools, there is truly everything you need in order to live and die, and perhaps be born again. However, at a certain point I began to think about the conceptual architecture that lies behind it…

The method is a consequence. You start off without knowing where you’ll end up.


It is camera work, almost an archive…

…which however alludes to incredible, fantastic journeys, navigations, shipwrecks, castaways, desert islands and atolls. Without necessarily having to go to the South Seas.


There, what gave me the inspiration for my piece is this idea of analogies between ghosts, objects and embalmed memories, which go through the mind of a man conscious of the imminence of his own death following a car crash – a cliché of quick, sudden, violent death – like in The Eye by Vladimir Nabokov. In that short novel a character continues to talk about his life after his death, to spy on himself as though the brain was holding onto some posthumous neuronal drift, which allows him to watch himself alive for a few seconds. I also believe in that other cliché of your entire life passing before your eyes when you are close to dying and I liked the idea of bringing it to life with a sequence. This is why I didn’t write a story about a parrot or a monkey because one work must always lead to another work, one budding to another.

It is a more productive relationship.


Finally, I would like to add a note about your life and self-perception as an artist. This is your first major exhibition in a private gallery.

Yes, a gallery which has a long and prestigious history.


You are joining a group that includes Alighiero Boetti, Giovanni Anselmo, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Gino De Dominicis, Enzo Cucchi and the whole of the Transavanguardia, Alex Katz, William Anastasi…

It is something which has an influence on you and it is important to feel part of the Italian context. You become aware of your roots. I took this into account and I felt a sense of belonging to a world, to an evolution, characterised by Italian-ness.


You are considered to be single-minded, a poet, a person obsessed with his work, equipped with a vein of ‘Trieste-Po Valley madness.’

Well madness can be useful if it is controlled.


Do you see yourself in this role of ‘moody scientist?’

I don’t know. Every so often it seems to me to be an extremely rigid label, in this most recent work especially, where a lot more soul comes into play.


You are an extremely cultivated artist, but one who has ‘buried’ his own culture and the awareness of what is happening in the arts, literature, the production of ideas, “under the volcano, ” to leave room for insight.

You have to be able to go with your gut instinct and that is the hardest thing to do.


It takes years.

There are those who start doing it straightaway and those who never manage it.


You are 39 years old. Many artists debut much sooner, with weaker works perhaps…

I am extremely grateful to Emilio Mazzoli because he left me all the time and freedom I needed. He bought my previous works and he gave me the financial and mental stability I needed to be able to concentrate fully on the new project.


Would you like to do another work that takes you around the world?

No, I would like to start with some seeds, which are in Under the Volcano, the idea of spirit, of soul, what the photo doesn’t show…


The hiatus, that which is not said, the empty parenthesis…

This is an earthly work, as it is all about the earth, caves, the volcano and rocks.


And the birds are stuffed anyway so they cannot take flight.

For the next book I would like to take to the air.


I can only end the conversation by saying that these meetings with artists are very important to me, also because they are sources of fertile and unexpected insights. The reference to the air, for example, strikes me in particular because I am about to publish a novel entitled Il mio impero è nell’aria – My Empire is in the Air. “In the air” is a lovely expression. Everything there is in the air could be something which dissolves and which is simultaneously on the point of materialising. I would like to end precisely with this idea.


All images © the artist, courtesy Galleria Mazzoli, Modena 43