Going over still life historiography we come across an interesting definition that connects us with and brings us back to the work of Marco Schifano. Back in 1650 in the Netherlands the word stilleven was used for the first time to define such a genre that one century earlier Vasari had called “natural things”. Hitherto, we are not talking about still life but about a silent (stil) life (leven). By observing Marco Schifano’s photography, we perceive a seemingly impassive, motionless but, at the same time, turbulent and tormented silent life. A look and a style that evoke those of a Flemish painter. Marco seems to pursue the achievement of the subject to become a citation of the “coat” and in which the scenographic aspect together with a careful use of lights and shadows and attention to detail combine to evolve into an image in which the moment absorbs the perpetual flow of time. The study is the set where Marco Schifano “accommodates” animals, reptiles, felines, fish, vegetarian birds of prey, matching them with different objects and putting them into a universal context that is no longer that of Flemish paintings, but an immersion into dreams, typical of Surrealism, in which reverie, fantasy and the subconscious play and twist with our minds. Through his mechanical eye, Marco Schifano assimilates the essence of the relationship between space, silent presences, the mystery of a reality that seems illusory and the unconscious that seems real. A sudden and unexpected appearance that “greets” life space with voracity: it’s a moment that freezes flashes of emotions, beastly looks, beats of wings, a death which is not yet eternal, feelings that are captivating and fiercely lost in pain. Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity, everything is destined to succumb and end: this seems to be the warning that Marco Schifano, without second thoughts, wants to fling pointblank in our face. Life is short, temporary and transient. All things will certainly come to an end but this doesn’t prevent Schifano from asking us to abandon all preconceptions, to sharpen our senses and to enter a universe full of images, in which ephemerality embraces and discusses with beauty, history and the object and in which nature goes hand in hand with death.Marco Schifano reflects with thoroughness and care on time which ceaselessly collects sequences of moments of memory, finding the reason and principles of creation in the power of still life, that primordial poem capable of conveying feelings of wonder and amazement to the mind and senses.
In the "Extinction" series that Marco Schifano has been working on for the past two years (a long time for a 27-year-old), there are many references to the history of art and, in particular, to the still life. And rightly so. His range of reference goes freely from the Flemish to the Neapolitan school and includes - why not? - the sublime and mystic Francisco de Zurbaran, allowing us ample stimuli to seek even more precise models from the past. The question to ask, however, is different and pertains to the here and now: why should a 27-year-old artist feel the need to build a photographic set and to reproduce an (almost) still life? It has to be more difficult, say, than painting it (have you ever tried to get a snake or lion or hummingbird to "pose"?). We probably haven`t understood if we linger too long on the aspect of technical virtuosity, even if it envelops us in an almost theatrical way. After all, Marco Schifano doesn`t seek to avoid it, and for our part we are sensitive to that sense of "wonderment" which always marks the first contact with imagery. But virtuosity and artistic "citations" are not sufficient, even if they do make us feel more intelligent and cultured. At the same time, we are not interested in possible individual or even psychological motivations -- the "self-confidence" of his father Mario versus the "precision" of the son Marco (a possible, but to me a bit manichean interpretation) -- whereas the main collective, if not universal feeling here is that of a sought-after "slowness" of art in the face of life that Marco himself carries off with an almost dandy- like ease. The place of art becomes that of "setup", "construction", "composition", arriving at a sort of metalanguage of its own. This is certainly the case of "Mickey" (from the recent “trompe-l`œil” series), in which the image of the most famous mouse worldwide is composed of dead mice, bringing us back to the literal meaning of "still life". This series of photographs allows us not only to view the balance of his past production in a more meditative spirit, but it introduces a future proposal of vision and contemplation that would necessitate removal to another time, another space.
In his renowned “Ways of Seeing”, John Berger writes: "What marks out oil painting from any other form of art is its extraordinary skill in bringing out the tactile, the texture, the lustre, and the substance represented thereof. The real is portrayed as something that you can put your hands on.”
According to Berger, "oil painting" does not refer to the particular type of technique based on a mixture of oil and pigments ( which has been known since ancient times and is still in use), but to some extent to the pattern of the view and the concept of the world and its lifestyle which, from the XVI th Century till the aesthetic changes introduced by Impressionism and Cubism, has discovered the best means of expression right in this artistic technique. In the present age, color photography, more than any other, is seen as the tool which can restore the material qualities of objects that only oil painting has been able to do for centuries.
In his series ” Extinction”, Marco Schifani, well aware that photography gathered such a heritage, stresses on mimetic and illusionistic abilities,: the strange feeling of touching by hand a reproduced object, thus, persuading the viewer that, being in the presence of living matter, he is able to approach it and grasp it. At the same time, he uses the photography medium to set off on a personal ‘à rébours ‘ journey in the history of art; a nonlinear path, based on ambivalence and duplicity, where photography is considered as a tool which authenticates reality, certifies and provides documentary evidence of truthfuness, starting however from fiction.
As visibile recording photography has gone into a crisis due to the new flexibility of the digital that has muddled the limits between objectivity and imagination, producing a sense of doubt in the viewer: Marco Schifano’s work rotates exactly within such a perceptive and conceptual instability. In this case, Barthes’s “has been” is used, to restore a close reproduction of reality, or so to say “ to quote it” (by going back once more to Berger’s words); nevertheless, it has been used to prove an artificial ‘ real’, a highly and elaborate set up where the ends between real and false, a concrete object and a virtual image are hard to detect.
The difficulty to interpret the nature of what is inside the image and, most of all, the manner in which it has been produced, shows a crucial characteristic of his still life; works that are a result of a meaningful research practice, an acquisition and recording of real elements, but which. nevertheless, instill the doubt of a sophisticated digital processing due to a composite refinement and to a still and almost unreal, atmosphere of the subjects.
Works like the ‘ Dromedario’ inevitably raise a question about the very reality of the image: on what one is actually looking at; the dromedary albino, standing still and having cold eyes, seems to have no relationship with the natural environment, yet it is nothing else but an animal in the flesh, chosen by the artist during his several visits to the circus, an imaginary and fictitious place ’ par excellence’.
To highlight the subtle ambiguity of reality, Marco Schifano turns to something that moves in some cases : the real movement is fixed in his instantaneity of the photo; the fluttering of wings shot in different images displays the kinetic by using methods that are invisibile to the human eye; methods that, after the experience of several Muybridge, Marey, Bragaglia, have become familiar and by now interiorised and yet, as Raymond Bellour wrote, "there`s magic in that which moves, in the unfocused”, nothing is less natural than these tremulous lines, this vibration that does nothing else but defining photography as a device.
As In the best tradition of the Baroque still life, the image becomes a mass of symbols where the objects are the pretext to ponder on existence, the transience and the impermanence of the human condition: pride, death and rebirth are topics that dominate all; in this sense, just imagine the appeal for elements such as the butterfly or the pomegranate. The senses are involved in their wholeness, through the simulated substantiality of the color photo (preferred to the black and white `"abstraction" ); Marco Schifano produces images that give birth to a synaesthetic experience, where the presence of musical instruments, food, flowers and precious materials is created to stimulate sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing at the same time.
The distinct film nature of such works is brought to the fore: the image is created and built
up like a movie set where all of the attention is absorbed by tales and microstories, whose main characters are live or embalmed animals, insects and inhabitants of a rot universe; an unstably balanced world on the verge of extinction, at the threshold between perfection and rot, cult of form and decline of matter, recalling the learned and decadent Mannerism of Peter Greenaway’s shots, where, to express it in Greenaway’s own words: “You never know if you are watching fiction prepared as if it were real or real facts that are presented as fiction”.
On the other hand, the gap between reality and fantasy is also the experimentation field of the previous Earth cycle scenery, where the tradition of the XIVII th century panorama, an
invention that can induce astonishment and wonder in the audience, is reinterpreted by the use of an infrared film so as to modify natural tones and to give life to pure white and apparently snow-capped landscapes, imaginary sights yet once again real.
Photographs of genre, still life and living animals; images of beauty that remind us of Flemish paintings, such as those by Peter Claes, Wilem Kalf or Abraham van Beyeren from whose black holes appear daily luxury objects, fruit, silverware and glasses. Marco Schifano’s photographs travel through that history and make him a contemporary artist who builds up his set according to an ancient manual skill, with a great and tasteful composition. His photographs are both eccentric and classic: a difficult choice because it assumes that the observer has a passion for beauty and a fairly good knowledge of art history. But also images that seize the moment of vision and life; that interrupt and freeze striking moments in dazzling presences. Dazzling presences due to eccentricity of combination, clearness of uneasiness, rigor of contrast between lights and shadows, and for their refined elegance. Marco Schifano is a photographer in that he uses the camera with precision and technical quality. But he is also an artist as he creates his own set by chasing and materializing his own personal idea of obsession and beauty. Finally, he is a painter in that he carries on what his famous predecessors tried in other times. Most of all he is a provoker: at a time when contemporary art rejects all things composed and beautiful (to which it prefers excess, truth, spectacular or conceptual); he proposes cultivated images (meaning something full of culture and of reference to it) that enhance the look but surpass reality, that don’t want to be metaphors or conceptual machines and that reduce anything spectacular to a crystalline, eccentric and private vision. Almost as if to recover a mystery, even if in its total immanence and pagan spirit, such as an appearance, of a Renaissance Annunciation, of a mystical epiphany, reminding us, however, that it is our time that cyclically connects again to other times, to all times. Marco Schifano is, therefore, an anxious artist that sometimes relaxes while composing beautiful images, or at other times instills his anxiety into images that hide or allude to vibrations that set off other emotional states. A complex photographer whose research is always on the move, he may only be chasing the phantom of his own self, that other, intimate one that, despite illusion and mannerist imagination, seems more real than what we are in our daily life. Marco Schifano’s are infinite, hibernated apparitions that pierce obscurity and aspire to some form of eternity and eternal beauty, knowing well that everything passes and everything must die.