“In religious symbolism, as in every kind of symbolism,
it is through forms–and with these forms–
that thought constructs its objects.”
(Jean-Pierre Vernant)

The first Christians, divine effigies, had a dubious relationship with the image. The mediologist Regis Debray reminds us that the Bible “clearly associates sight with sin” and he highlights the following passage from the Book of Genesis: “The woman saw that the tree’s fruit was good to eat, pleasant to look at...”. The image is Evil itself. The damned cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which the Bible elevates to a paradigm of Evil, are related to the image as aesthetical pleasures are consummated there, primarily of the gaze.

For this reason, Alessandro Bavari’s voyage is one directed towards the origins of the image. But it is not the journey of an archaeologist as Bavari’s art is conjugated in the present tense –the infinite present of great utopias. Sodom and Gomorrah are not consumed by the gaze: they are constructed by the gaze. Places of the mind.

The progeny of Canaan was the first to enter the land of Sodom and Gomorrah, beyond Gaza. They are the damned children: Noah, upon being seen drunk on wine by his son Cam, condemns his son to become “the least of his brothers’ servants”. The Valley of the Jordan where they live “was all the Lord’s Garden, like the land of Egypt”. The artist sees joyful cities where Creation has not stopped, where everything is movement and ferment.

An invitation to the journey

Access to the places from which the deafening clamor of sin reaches God involves the passing of a threshold, of a Gate that is marked by Bavari with the presence of an anti-monument. Beside it he places the elements of the entire oeuvre as clues that the gaze collects to orient itself or out of simple curiosity or mania.

The Veil, the Fragment, the Superhuman are the elements of a poetics that is mannerist by vocation: the Veil places things in the uncertain light of an irreductible ambiguity; the Fragment is a quotation, it is the linguistic withdrawal that takes away from order to give to chaos; the Superhuman is the leap in scale that leads individuals and objects to create unheard-of and stimulating proportions (to the artist and to the eye).

The Statue, the Gate’s anti-monument, returns in both Simposia, together shattering surface and symbol: the Statue is an effigy, therefore an image (in Hebrew “image” is “selem”. It comes from “salmu” in Akkadian, which means statue, effigy), a doubling of the real, a doubling of dreams.

Sodom and Gomorrah are the places of style, with landscape and men in blissful symbiosis, as they create a tableaux vivant. Herein lies the mannerist practice of an art that protects (itself) from life, and refuses life’s ethics in order to seek refuge in glittering metaphor. It is man that says: I am the Image. I am the Work of Art.

Here the New Flesh is engendered. Beyond the human, all too human of Abraham and Lot. In these cities, aesthetical domains of grafting, the gaze quenches its thirst: vain creatures are reflected on mirror picture frames which cast back beauty, calm, voluptuosness. It is an invitation to the journey in the fashion of Baudelaire. It is a journey of the eyes.

The destruction of the cities of the impious is Divine Justice. Only one man is saved, Lot: he has not joined in the unnatural practices of the Sodomites. He remained an outsider, he remained pure. But above all he is the son of those who have not been given the terrible promise of damnation. He is not the “least of servants”.

Therefore virtue consists in not seeing: for example, beauty. In Lot’s Progeny, Man takes the graces of a young woman out of view–but he can in no way deny beauty, which lifts itself above the characteristic misery of all censors with small and graceful wings.

The angels know that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is looming, and Lot hurries to try to save his family from Divine Punishment. His wife, who hesitates fatally and turns her head while fleeing, is turned into a pillar of salt, becoming the negative model of a doubting individual who does not know Faith’s blind and deaf embrace.

Bavari’s work can be divided into three categories by theme: Environments, Situations and Portraits.What links each painting to the others is the ambivalence of the images, based in reflecting layers and fooling the eye. As Freud argued, everything subject to taboo has the nature of ambivalence: see the way in which the artist has reinterpreted the genres of painting (portraiture, landscape); upon coming into contact with each fragment you will experience the vertigo of the double meaning. Not to say that it is impossible to reconcile this with a subject ignorant of taboo: the serene contemplation of pleasure that emanates from pictures such as Portrait of a woman watching an initiation rite also shows the anguish in every life.

It can be said that Bavari’s exploration of form and symbolism leads him into the territory of mannerist poetics: under the shinning surface dark things nest, and the harmony of the visible contains in itself the seed of disharmony. This oscillation, which is precisely an ambivalence, creates a constellation of opposite signs: life and death, joy and sorrow, hope and resignation.

An imaginary, created in such a way, derives from a deep understanding of all historical crisis: we know that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah are a damned progeny, destined in any case to disappear, as they are the children and great grandchildren of Canaan. Therefore, the menace that threatens them, coloring the sky, ineluctably has those features which make the chosen tone of Bavari’s work come close to the modes of the tragic genre.

On the other hand, from a compositional point of view, the space within each piece is extraordinarily open; the subjects represented within it as well as the spectator’s gaze can move about freely. But this triumph of infinite perspectives, these urban deserts which follow one another until you can no longer see them, maintain illusion’s patina and fragility. And they are forcefully negated by domestic interiors, a list of objects compiled in a sculptural vein, which are forever creating changeable and controversial combinations. What is found in these houses, in these faces, cannot be fully expressed in words: a dynamic tension can be perceived, but the rules of its movement are internal to the pictures themselves.

We are led to wonder where this language comes from, capable of creating cities and transmitting to our time the message of balance and lightness of an imaginary civilization, a civilization that takes shape and narrates itself. There is no place, one would almost want to say, to which these visions can be referred. There is the Artist and the Machine. Bret Easton Ellis wrote: “With this you can set the planets into motion. Forge existences. Photography is just the beginning”.

Luca Bandirali
Film critic and journalist

Follow the correspondence between
Alessandro Bavari and Luca Bandirali