The fact that Paolo Bufalini’s research has recently turned towards photography surprised me only at first. Although somewhat intermedial, the path taken by the artist in recent years focuses on a production specifically linked to sculpture, installation – more the former than the latter – and, albeit more rarely, site-specific interventions.
To claim, however, that a work such as The Sleeper represents a special case or an unexpected turn in the artist’s research would be superficial, not to say entirely wrong, but the work itself, as conceived and realised, can already remedy this possible misunderstanding. The Sleeper, a rather eloquent title, is a photograph made in two versions – contact print and digital scan print – showing the artist’s partner while she sleeps; presented for the first time in Beloved, Bufalini’s recent solo exhibition in Bologna at Gelateria Sogni di Ghiaccio, is part of the Land of Nod project promoted by the OmniArtVerse digital art laboratory. Not a simple photograph, then, but the physical counterpart of an operation that sees the production of an immaterial work, in NFT format, which consists of a table of the girl’s biometric data (breathing frequency, heartbeat, body movements) taken over the course of one night. This easily explains what can be defined with some immediacy as the punctum of the photograph: the appendage of the measuring device worn by the girl and which emerges, with not excessively revealing sharpness, almost in the exact centre of the image.
The Sleeper is clearly a work whose reading cannot be separated from what in fact exceeds the pure dimension of the photographic image, that is, from the NFT work that is its counterpart and constitutes the key to the reflection that Bufalini intends to trigger. The artist, voluntarily or involuntarily, plays with the ontological statute of photography – or rather with its age-old deception, now a cliché – which has always related image, reality and, above all, truth.
In fact, the only real data to which photography alludes inevitably lies outside of it, but that is not all: the document of the vital state of an organism, of a body, of a person, is not even re-mediated in The Sleeper. The allusion to the concrete process of data collection, at least in the here and now of the photographic image, does not correspond to anything that has actually happened. What we see is representative, the mere simulation of an event that took place in another space and time. As obvious as it may seem – The Sleeper certainly does not have the appearance of a faithful documentation – the operation emphasizes the age-old ambivalences within photography, which the artist accentuates by juxtaposing two works and inverting their significant value: a scientifically certain but invisible proof on one hand, a photographic lie on the other.
Paradoxically, this underlying fiction is what grants the work the necessary autonomy to “free itself” of the NFT that ideally comes with. In the glossary that accompanies the important essay Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilém Flusser finds concise but effective words to clarify what an image is from his point of view, i.e. “a significant surface on which the elements of the image act in a magic fashion towards one another”.
The repetition in the definition of the word itself may seem to us one of the paradoxical lists conceived by Borges, but we should not be fooled. In this sense, an image is a form of visual synthesis whose elements in relation to each other act on a significant level as a unity that is more than the mere sum of its parts. It is a question, then, of understanding the image as a compositional dilemma, as a mechanism of signification for which the artist provides the direction. I have not used casual terms, we are at the heart of Bufalini’s research and specifically of The Sleeper, which I have had the pleasure of discussing on numerous occasions during its production. The idea behind this photographic fiction – realised with the collaboration of Marcello Galvani – is centred precisely on the choice of visual elements and technical solutions functional to a precise stratification of meanings. Thus, the fact in itself (the collection of biometric data) goes background in the compositional value of the mise-en-scene and the questions it allows us to ask about various issues. On the pose of the girl, sleeping so naturally that – as the artist himself states – macabre funerary correlations are triggered; on the preponderant darkness, a narrative as well as an aesthetic element, which dominates the work as well as the entire exhibition that hosted it; and, above all, on the unnatural and disturbing zenithal point of view that the work offers us, into which we enter with an intrusive yet disembodied gaze.
That photography enters into Bufalini’s research, I was saying, is not all that surprising. Certainly, the example of The Sleeper shows us a photograph that in some ways wants to be something other than itself, in a symbolic rather than technical key, questioning and dematerializing its referent and insisting on the very meaning of a staging and the theatrical logic behind the construction of an image. Primary elements of this work, are among the central lines of the artist’s sculptural research. Obviously, it makes no sense at all to make direct comparisons between photography and sculpture, whereas it is possible to trace a common attitude, the same compositional dedication in juxtaposing elements by bringing out the ‘magic fashion’ that they can entertain with each other. Contrary to many approaches to sculpture, in Bufalini’s case it is very rare to trace an interest in formal and material issues, or in that dimension that can be said to be participatory in the medium, where the spectator’s body is aesthetically involved in the field of forces generated by the work. The artist’s works, as in The Sleeper, are devices for activating the gaze through compositional contrasts that generate short circuits of meaning. Hence, the encounter between a human skull and confetti (Untitled, 2020), between skull fragments and a puzzle (Untitled, 2018), between dog muzzles and bar tables (Untitled, 2020). Marked, theatrical oppositions, for a staging of sculpture deprived of its spatio-temporal specificity by virtue of its pure visibility, where the scopic dimension constitutes not so much a perceptive exercise as the gateway to the unfolding of a possible meaning, of a synthetic intuition.
The methodological rigour, the compositional rationality, even the coldness, of Bufalini’s works, hint at the desire to explore the possibilities of an imaginary, of the conditions of existence of an image and its perpetually intermediate state, in an interregnum between opacity and transparency.
Paolo Bufalini was born in Rome (1994). Lives and works in Bologna.