"The ancient structures of Palmyra are paired with images of what seem to be simple clouds - but actually they represent smoke-columns that rise after the explosion of archaeological sites."
Unseen Platform: Can you briefly introduce the project?
Massimiliano Gatti: Le nuvole, (which is the Italian translation for ‘clouds’) is a photographic project focusing on the relationship between historical memory and the spread of information on social media. I took images of the ancient city of Palmyra and some ISIS propaganda video frames which document the destruction of several monuments during their attack in 2015. The ancient structures of Palmyra are paired with images of what seem to be simple clouds - but actually they represent smoke-columns that rise after the explosion of archaeological sites.
Le nuvole draws inspiration from a comedy of the same name by Aristophanes, in which the Clouds are ethereal and impalpable divinities that the Greek playwright associates with the lightness of metaphysical thoughts, hovering in the realm of possibilities. With the same attitude, I have matched pictures of imposing architectural structures to the lightness of the clouds of dust. With our devices we can access, at any time and in any location, videos that ISIS publish on YouTube. These are my Nuvole, a form of dangerous, violent and nihilistic thought, but also, an easy way to access ideas that deny the history, memory, the past, and the roots of our culture all over.
Palmyra was popular in the news when ISIS destroyed the city’s most important monuments, but it wasn’t long before interest subsided; and none of the newspapers reported on it in the aftermath. My work reflects on that fact and, more precisely, on the loss of symbols of our entire culture and our perception of it.
Le nuvole speaks to the potential risks brought about by the way we access and consume film and images today. As an image-maker yourself, can artistic responses help to challenge dominant or dangerous narratives?
Image is a powerful weapon. We should be able to decode all images and informations we face every day. The great risk we live with now is connected with the great power of spreading information on social media. We're used to believing what we read and what we see, and we don't always ask where information comes from. We can’t personally check the veracity of every news item, and that's why in some hands fake news can become a dangerous medium which can influence the perspective of masses. ISIS knows this alchemy deeply, and have used it to call foreign fighters from all over the world, and it worked! An artistic glimpse is a critical perspective on all these mechanics and it should help us to reflect on what's happening around us; that's why in Le nuvole I used image frames from propaganda videos published by ISIS on YouTube.
Your works have been exhibited in European and American galleries. Did you have a Western audience in mind when you created this project?
When I start a project I never think of an audience. I try to follow research that interests me, then the audience, if it comes, comes later. Edward Said wrote an important essay about the perception Western culture has on the East, which he called “Orientalism” – a kind of paternalistic attitude, based on a judgment of superiority. This point of view affects my work more than the audience. Above all, when I work in the Middle East, I always try to have the greatest respect possible on issues that I have to face.
Text by Jenny Willcock, Unseen Platform