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.

lug.15742.jpg

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.

lug.15697.jpg

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.

lug.15703.jpg

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

Q. What is art for? A. To tell us where we are.
The work of filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins on the occasion of his inclusion in the 2017 Whitney Biennial film...
Trisha Brown has died, aged 80; two new appointments at London’s ICA; controversy at the Whitney
A round-up of the best shows to see in the city ahead of this week’s Art Basel Hong Kong
How should the artistic community respond when an art space, explicitly or implicitly, associates itself with right-...
Charlie Fox on a new translation of Hervé Guibert's chronicle of love, lust and drug-addled longing
Three highlights from the New York festival promoting emerging filmmakers
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA
A report and the highlights from a show themed around fluidity, flux, botany and the subterranean
From growing protests over the gentrification of Boyle Heights to Schimmel leaving Hauser & Wirth, the latest from...
kurimanzutto, Mexico City, Mexico
Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland
The body is a troubled thing ...
Sir Howard Hodgkin dies aged 84; finalists for Berlin’s Preis der Nationalgalerie 2017 announced

From the Women's Strike to a march that cancels itself out: what to read this weekend
The most interesting works in the IFFR’s Short Film section all grappled with questions of truth, honesty and...
With the reissue of their eponymous debut album, revisiting the career of legendary Berlin art project / punk band Die...
Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, Brazil 

Tramway, Glasgow, UK
A work by self-taught artist Martín Ramírez
Munich’s Haus der Kunst embroiled in Scientology scandal; Martín Ramírez to inaugurate the new ICA LA
If politics today obsesses over the policing of borders, art in France is enacting multiple crossings
A new video installation from Richard Mosse investigates the refugee crisis
Gustav Metzger has died aged 90; director of the Met resigns
What draws us to certain stories, and why do we retell them? 
It’s time that the extraordinary life and work of Anya Berger was acknowledged

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

Nov - Dec 2016

frieze magazine

Jan - Feb 2017

frieze magazine

March 2017