Luigi Ghirri

Mai 36, Zurich, Switzerland

It is said that we owe the meaning of the word ‘laconic’ to the Spartans. When Philip II of Macedon was planning to conquer Sparta, capital of Laconia, he sent the city’s inhabitants an unambiguous message: ‘If I invade Laconia, you will be destroyed.’ The Spartans replied with one word: ‘If.’

The spare, austere photographs of Luigi Ghirri likewise seem to say: ‘If.’ If someone came down this road (Verso Lagosanto [Serie: Il profilo delle nuvole], 1989); if someone stepped through this pair of doors (Modena [Serie: Catalogo], 1972); if someone wore these rubber boots (Lucerna [Serie: Kodachrome], 1972). Ghirri’s work depicts empty streets, locked doors, unworn shoes and nondescript houses in such a way that his subject matter appears laconically abridged. Ghirri wanted to move away from the ‘decisive moment’ of Henri Cartier-Bresson and also resisted trends for exoticism and folklore (popular then, as now). Instead, he focused on moments of concision, uncertainty or muted suggestions of human action: people sitting around, drinking; trees; windows; a flag; the midday sun; an advertisement.


Luigi Ghirri, Sassuolo (Serie: Diaframma 11, 1/125 luce naturale), 1975, vintage c-type print, 16 x 19 cm. Courtesy: Mai 36 Galerie, Zurich

For this exhibition, curator Urs Stahel, formerly director of Fotomuseum Winterthur, showed Ghirri’s small-format photographs in a compact presentation covering several key series from the late 1960s to the early ’80s. Stahel’s selection (sourced directly from the family-owned Ghirri Archive) was divided into two main areas. On the ground floor, there were unspectacular, nonchalantly shot explorations of regional scenes – including Modena (Serie: Fotografie del periodo iniziale), 1971 – in which Ghirri experimented with colour-transparency film and unconventional framing. The upper gallery showcased Ghirri’s work as an appropriation artist: by photographing advertising posters and magazines, Ghirri – who was engaged with the critical theory of his day – created pictures about pictures, as in Modena (Seria: Topographie Iconographie), 1979. In so doing, he anticipated the spirit of the Pictures Generation artists. Ghirri’s deadpan aesthetic is visible both in the cheap serial prints he used in his early work and the more laboured studies he produced from the late 1970s onwards.


Luigi Ghirri, Modena (Serie: Fotografie del periodo iniziale), 1971-72, vintage c-type print, 13 x 18 cm. Courtesy: Mai 36 Galerie, Zurich

In the late 1960s – inspired by Marcel Duchamp and in direct dialogue with conceptual artists like Giuliano della Casa, Carlo Cremaschi, Franco Guerzoni and Claudio Parmiggiani – Ghirri developed a philosophy of the image that was most strongly reflected in the Zurich show by the series ‘Atlante’ (1973). In the critical terminology of the time, Ghirri’s close-up photographs of the details of atlases and other maps question the link between signifier and signified, referring to a supposedly ‘natural’ environment that has long since become a simulacrum, and revealing the specific aesthetics harboured within ‘objective’ representation. The longevity of this work is evidenced by Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory (2010): the tale of a 21st-century artist who is made famous by his photographs of Michelin road maps.


Luigi Ghirri, Modena (Serie: Kodachrome), 1971, vintage c-type print, 17 x 13 cm. Courtesy: Mai 36 Galerie, Zurich

Luigi Ghirri, Modena (Serie: Kodachrome), 1971, vintage c-type print, 17 x 13 cm. Courtesy: Mai 36 Galerie, Zurich

This semiotic dimension, rooted in the linguistic turn of the 1960s, is not directly evident in Ghirri’s later work (such as ‘Still Life’, 1978–81) with its focus on cities, vases, plants, signs and tiles. Here, Ghirri displays a more complex art-historical frame of reference – including series referring to classical genres, such as ‘Vedute’ (1983–86) – and an increased emotionality. Stahel has spoken in the past of ‘the two Ghirris’: one rational and analytical; the other, irrational and synthetic. The fact that Stahel focused more attention on the 1970s in this exhibition can be read as the curator’s own preference for the rational-analytical, conceptual Ghirri. Yet, the laconic Ghirri is the one I find most compelling.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Main image: Luigi Ghirri, Untitled (Serie: Fotografie del periodo iniziale) (detail), 1970-72, vintage c-type print, 12 x 18 cm. Courtesy: Mai 36 Galerie, Zurich

Jörg Scheller is an art historian, journalist and musician. He teaches at Zurich University of the Arts.

Issue 184

First published in Issue 184

Jan - Feb 2017

Most Read

From Linder at the Women’s Library to rare paintings by Serge Charchoune, the exhibitions to see outside of the main...
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
Ahead of the 52nd edition of Art Cologne, your guide to the best shows to see in the city
‘I'm interested in the voice as author, as witness, as conduit, as ventriloquist’ – the artist speaks...
In further news: a report shows significant class divide in the arts; and Helen Cammock wins Max Mara art prize
A genre more associated with painting, an interest in the environment grounds a number of recent artists’ films 
A new report suggests that women, people from working-class backgrounds and BAME workers all face significant...
The divisive director out after less than six months by mutual consent
In further news: Gillian Ayres (1930-2018); Met appoints Max Hollein as director; Cannes announces official selection
With miart in town, the best art to see across the city – from ghostly apparitions to the many performances across the...
From Grave of the Fireflies to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the visionary director grounded fantasy with...
In further news: art dealer and Warhol friend killed in Trump Tower fire; UK arts organizations’s gender pay gap...
Emin threatened ‘to punch her lights out’, she claimed in a recent interview
As the Man Booker Prize debates whether to nix US writers, the ‘homogenized future’ some novelists fear for British...
‘Very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl’ – for this series, writer Fran Lebowitz speaks...
The artist is also planning a glass fountain of herself spouting her own blood
‘The difficulties are those which remain invisible’: for a new series, writer and curator Andrianna Campbell speaks...
With ‘David Bowie Is’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Glenn Adamson on the evolution of the music video – a genre Bowie...
Under a metahistorical guise, the filmmaking duo enact hidden tyrannies of the contemporary age
The area’s development boom isn’t just in luxury property – the art scene is determined to keep its place too
In further news: Laura Owens’s 356 Mission space closes; John Baldessari guest-stars in The Simpsons
With his fourth plinth commission unveiled in London, the artist talks archaeological magic tricks and ...
When dealing with abuse in the art industry, is it possible to separate the noun ‘work’ from the verb?

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018