Gigi Cifali

New Vesuvian Landscapes

Sites are intrinsic to human nature, an inseparable part of our life. A place belongs to us and we possess it; because the inhabitant represents the quintessential practice of living in any tangible space. A place is self-defining, and one of its peculiarities is in its ability to interact with the surrounding space and its users. The interaction between man and environment is one of designated unity. A place is a living space in which past and present, memory and future should all coexist and complement each other. However, in contemporary reality, we found that these assertions could be more often refuted. The situation documented by Gigi Cifali in this photographic series offers a broad look at the symbolic paradox of the identifying characteristics of place.

We are at the foot of Vesuvius; a volcano dormant since 1944, a national park since 1995, and home to several archaeological UNESCO sites. This is a notorious volcano, not only for its unique landscape, but also for the human tragedies it has dispensed in the past.  For some time, Vesuvius has been the sole guardian of itself as well as the surrounding nature, which has been allowed to grow undisturbed. It is a site enjoyed for centuries by international tourists for its historical sites that are without comparison, and for the Grand Tour, popular among artists and the public. A world-renowned site, one might rightly say. Nevertheless, today the area is experiencing a turnaround, whereby a dialogue is missing with nature, and with history. And if we look to its future, we are faced with uncertainty, and danger. The troubled context of the volcano has not permitted human settlement for centuries, but the recent inactivity has led to abusive exploitation by allowing increasing overbuilding throughout the lower area. The result is a sprawling settlement, against all logic and rules: the security, the preservation of the environment and the identity of the place. Palazzos and villas, hotels and restaurants all lay their foundations on the shaky ground of Vesuvius.

An everyday existence populates the magma pathways, which have been shaped through centuries of eruptions. The veneration of rules concerning the preservation of the environment is non-existent. In the meantime, trusting in luck and building amnesties, people continue to build new homes. The government builds as well: the largest hospital in the south of Italy now lies partly in the red zone, despite warnings from a plethora of volcanologists that it is the world highest risk area. In case of eruption escape routes would be impractical, the decongestion plan is totally rejected, overwhelmed by the undisciplined abusive of the land. People challenge the volcano, the government also. All remain on hold. The Gigi Cifali shots series depict a fatalistic and deeply abnormal present. However, we are far from the traditional reportage. In these photos the reflection of the phenomenon goes beyond the documentation. Vesuvius is not just a chronicle of abused land. The same identity of the place is ignored; we are faced with a chronic illegality that goes against the basic purpose of architecture as proposed by Norberg-Schulz. The building is not characterized to develop the place, and absurdly, given the high-risk situation, we are also confronted with the abolition of the concept of living. The constructions that arise are not only out of the norm, but also extremely poor, almost not proper homes. It is a proliferation of unfinished buildings that seem to have been born by parthenogenesis. Their major characteristic becomes this temporary, precarious sense of urgency; they are provisional buildings expressed in an illogical form of construction. The impression is one of never being finished, due to the uncontrolled and inconsistent development: the landscape is uneven, slippery. The normal perception of space and time is disrupted by this acceleration, and empty suspensions. The experience of time, in parallel to that of space, expands and contracts according to the swirling rhythms of construction and demolition.

This place no longer seems to be master of its own image. The work of Gigi Cifali aims at the recovery of these places. Suspended in time, bridled in circular forms, the scenarios represented seek to regain the dignity of the landscape. They are fixing in time what in reality is close to collapse.Represented as souvenirs of our time, these classically cut photos depict architectural eyesores, emerging from the surroundings with confidence and audacity. At the same time, the images seek to describe the heedless and precarious attitude of those who live in them. “People die with the explosion of bombs, floods: here we have Vesuvius, and we hold on to him” – said a lady in an interview. Paradoxically behind this attitude, there is also a deep love for this land and the landscape. What mechanism will develop the overall handling and destruction is not explained by a single fact: there is the urgency of living, there is poverty, there is the Camorra, there is the State itself … all these things are enough to explain, if not justify this situation. There seems to be an underlying feeling that everything is legitimate, an ambiguous culture that these pictures also describe. There is a classic beauty in these images, a romantic view of the Grand -Tour and at the same time a representation of reality, which is a condemnation only of the given facts. The rest is just life; among debris, rubbish, waste and contaminated nature. These photos could be the visual memories of a journey to hang in the parlor, with their circularity reminiscent of plates painted with striking panoramas. Because the evocativeness remains, it lingers in the deviation of a new reality made of contrasts now incorporated, and digested.