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THE ICONOGRAPHY OF SILENCE 

 

The use of mirrors in The Iconography of Silence imposes the reflection of our own image. The perfect depiction of our specular portrait is invaded by unexpected images - the disturbing scenes or sentences. Images and texts melt with thoughts,and we find ourselves as prey and/or predator, condensing past and present.

A situation of abuse is always very specific and unique, but there are certain patterns that it is possible to identify and register, and The Iconography of Silence serves also as an archive of abusive patterns.

The artist tried to build a landscape of abuse where viewers can identify themselves. Acknowledging reality is often the first step towards an exit. The intention of Debora Hirsch is also to assemble a powerful work that could allow viewers to recognize where they are and to know that they are not alone.

Iconography of Silence (images), 2019, ipad, cornice, specchio, 32 x 39 cm
Iconography of Silence (sentences), 2019, ipad, cornice, specchio, 32 x 39 cm
Firmamento, 2019, olio su tela, 110 x 186 cm

Iconography of Silence (images), 2019, ipad, cornice, specchio, 32 x 39 cm

Video stills from the mirror-box Iconography of Silence (sentences)

NIMBY

Iaia Filiberti and Debora Hirsch

From the concept of "Not In My Back Yard," or NIMBY, this project focuses on the lives, work, and research of twelve women who lived between the 19th and early 20th centuries and fought for the defense of the noblest human rights. Elizabeth Fry, Lizzy Lind af Hageby, Rachel Carson, Bertha von Suttner, Irène Némirovsky, Josephine Elizabeth Butler, Susan B. Anthony, Rose Schneiderman, Mary Harris Jones, Frances Power Cobbe, Henrietta Lacks, and Helen Keller are witnesses to tragedies that, even after two centuries, still concern us. Their commitment affirms the non-negotiable values against pedophilia, femicide, vivisection and violence against animals, environmental devastation, exploitation of child and female labor, religious persecution, war-mongering policies, female genital mutilation, marginalization of the differently-abled, the hell of prisons, and human guinea pigs. It provokes a reaction in those who watch. Emotion, reflection, and possibly action, a work in progress because, as Charles Peguy said, a work of art is always made by two. NIMBY consists of a video created from web research of international channels, from BBC to Al Jazeera, from Russian Television to CNN, as well as author documentaries and small networks. All videos are available on YouTube. The work is presented alongside twelve portraits of the activists. The resulting contrast invites us to read current events through the lens of memory and the hard work of these women, so distant yet so close.

HeLa 

HeLa installation is about Henrietta Lacks, an icon related to the exploitation of human beings by the pharmaceutical and medical industry. In 1951, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, created the first immortal human cell line with a tissue sample taken without consent from a young and poor African American woman with cervical cancer named Henrietta Lacks. Those cells, called HeLa cells, quickly became invaluable to medical research and over the years were used worldwide by a multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry that never recognized or even informed her family about the immortal cells. 

Up until then, cells were difficult to be kept alive during an experiment, that’s why Henrietta’s cells have been essential for numerous scientific findings like the development of the polio vaccine, cancer treatments, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and stem cells, to mention just a few.  One group of scientists tracked down Henrietta’s relatives to study their DNA. Only then the family found out about the utilization of Henrietta's cells. A major process was then initiated by the family, with the result being that researchers must mention Henrietta Lacks in their scientific papers every time they use HeLa cells for any experiment.

The artists, with the support of physicians from the Istituto dei Tumori di Milano, made a research and selected hundreds of important papers that used HeLa cells after this process. They found out that less than one percent of the papers mentioned Henrietta Lacks after the sentence. Hirsch and Filiberti displayed hundreds of these documents on the walls of a museum, side by side like a ‘wallpaper’. The papers that did not mention Henrietta Lacks were stamped and signed as REJECTED by the artists, and those that mention Henrietta Lacks (only four of them), as ACCEPTED. A photograph of Henrietta Lacks without her head is exhibited in the same room together with a text extracted from her gravestone epitaph, to remark that she did not have the right to an identity even after her death.

HeLa at nGbK, Berlin. Dreams & drama. Law as Literature exhibition, 2017

HeLa invoked the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman and descendant of slaves in rural Virginia who was diagnosed with cancer in the 1950’s. During her treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital—the sole hospital within a 20-mile radius of Henrietta that treated African-Americans at the time—Henrietta’s cells were sampled without her consent. Because her cells could be divided multiple times without dying they were declared “immortal” by the hospital. Later her cells served to culture a line of cells named “Hela” now being used for research into cancer, AIDS, gene mapping, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, and a myriad of other crucial scientific pursuits. HeLa cells were the first human cells successfully cloned in 1955 and since the 1950’s, scientists have grown 20 tons of her cells; there are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells. Henrietta’s family later clamored for, but never received, any compensation for the hospital’s unauthorized extraction of Henrietta’s cells. Hirsch/Filberti’s installation consists of a two-meter-high glass wall with various drawer-like boxes attached to its sides, containing reams of papers of black and white legal documents addressing the question of who has a right to profit from Henrietta’s cells.

FRAMED

Iaia Filiberti and Debora Hirsch

 

(texts by Maggie Cardelus, Maria Anna Potocka, Antonio Somaini, Bernice Steinbaum, Paola Ugolini)

These words speak of births, deaths, awards and illness, stardom and tragedy. We are under threat by our own bodies and minds that at any moment can betray us, as well as by a myriad of unwieldy external forces that have the power to raise us or sink us, the greatest power lying in the hands of the media. At the heart of mediatic power is the photograph, cunningly able to weave its web of magic and desire over even the most resistant of critics.

We are led by the artists to unmask the forces at work in the image and see these women for who they are, individuals at times strong, at times weak, at times fortunate, at times not, who in one phase of their lives sought to be a part of the brave new media world, but for one reason or another, abandoned that dream. The carefully and shrewdly constructed photographs of Hollywood studios have a quality of permanence, as though somehow protected from the cruelties that hang over the ordinary person. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Each star’s photo is accompanied by a text, whose cold indifference you can almost hear as a narrational voice-over giving us a glimpse into their real lives. It takes but a second to unmask the lure of the image and see it shrivel up in our minds like the portrait of Dorian Gray, and we find ourselves facing our own vulnerability and ephemerality.

The elaborately presented, oval images connect to western memorializing traditions. The artists want us to accept these women as people no different from us, somehow related to us, who were drawn into an elaborate forcefield of power and interest that rendered them even more vulnerable. In order to emphasise their similar but different status, the domestic frames are blown out of scale and polished, serialized, nodes in a system as merciless as a grid, as merciless as a machine. These stars, as fate would have it, very quickly learned how suddenly the system will return their images to the mantelpiece.

Framed is the word reinvented by Iaia Filiberti and Debora Hirsch to define the stop of the artistic career of those actresses.

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Framed book (texts by Maggie Cardelus, Antonio Somaini)

(...) What is a star? Or better, what was a star within that classical Hollywood cinema which between the 1920s and the 1950s had generated a real star system? Writing in 1957 from a country, France, which at that time was witnessing the blossoming of the stardom of Brigitte Bardot, Edgar Morin presents his answer from the vantage point of what he calls “an ethnography of nonprimitive societies” : an ethnography which aimed at unveiling and analyzing the archaic which is still woven within the texture of Western modernity. “The star – writes Morin – is on the border between the aesthetic and the magic. She overcomes the skepticism of the spectator-consciousness, which always knows that it is participating in an illusion” . Starting from the theses he had presented a year before in his The Cinema, or the Imaginary Man , Morin considers the phenomenon of the stars as emblematic of that coexistence of the modern and the archaic in which lies the power of cinema. A modern divinity, the star is at the same time a product, a construct, meticulously crafted and planned in all its manifestations, and a cult object. It is both the focal center of a cinema conceived as entertainment industry, and the symptom of a persistent need for magic which haunts modern society.

At the time that Morin was writing The Stars, the star cult proliferated in a variety of forms that accompanied and reinforced what viewers saw at the movies. The film star – whose life was obsessively followed and literally consumed by a public who needed to project itself and identify with the star’s exemplary life of romance and excess – radiated his or her glow through print and television, gossip columns and advertising. The images of these carefully constructed intermedial divinities meandered through and infiltrated a wide range of channels that pulled them off the screen and brought them closer to their public. One of these material channels, thousands of miles away from Hollywood, were small, collectible photo portrait-cards that circulated during the 1950s and 1960s in Italy, a country then thriving in its post-war economic boom. This is where Iaia Filiberti and Debora Hirsch's Framed finds its starting point, in the accidental rediscovery of an old tin box full of well-worn star cards.

 (...)

“Collect the photos to make a complete artist series”. “With these orginal photos you will make the best collection of stars in cinema history”. “Send us 100 loose photos for verification. We will send them back to you with a magnificent 290mm soccer ball”. “18. Claire Kelly in the film Ask any girl (MGM)”. “29. Rhonda Fleming in the film Gun Glory (MGM)”… These texts written on the backs of the cards show the ways in which the Hollywood myth insinuated itself into the very fabric of the everyday. The myth here finds a foothold in the rituals of collecting and card trading, and were even given away at the supermarket as discount points: 100 star cards would win you a soccer ball, a mother’s dream for a son’s dream. Printed in the thousands, the star cards assumed a trade value that could be exchanged between collectors, used to play games, or traded in for other merchandise. The star cards, miniaturized, made manageable (handled, swapped, ordered) and given specific trade value, gave the collector the illusion of ownership and power. More importantly, perhaps, they maintained, even enriched the aura of divine stardom. Their accummulation and circulation offered their owners the opportunity to cultivate an “infinite time of rêverie” , that like a continuous daydream created a sense that this world of small and governable images would acquiesce and divulge the secrets of their universe.

The cards rediscovered by Filiberti and Hirsch had moved through different spaces of exchange in the post-war years in Italy to be collected by one person into the unified space of a vintage Japanese camphor tin, a serendipitous choice when one takes note that in the first half of this century 80% of all camphor produced went into the production of film and celluloid, and like the Hollywood monopoly on film stars, Japan had the monopoly on camphor. The artists chose to carry these images into various other spaces over the next two years, choosing to abandon the disarray and intimacy of the tin box.

For their first project, they chose to ignore the varied sources of the cards and selected 100 images from the camphor box, enlarged and cropped them into 25cm x 16cm ovals, set them behind thick oval plexiglass, and hung on the wall, each framed by a large adhesive frame shaped like the ones we see in the book. The images were organized on the walls in a grid and we were informed, with accompanying text handouts (similar to the ones we find later in the book), of the various facts of their lives and were forced to recognize that these women were only ordinary human beings with dreams themselves and plenty of failures. Some of the installation’s defining words were order, silence, memory, vulnerability, homage, and untouchability. Walking through the space of this paper and plexiglass cemetery we saw a progression of tombs that made one think of the unfulfilled ambitions of these actresses, or perhaps of their rejection of a system that they found intolerable. On the one hand we were asked, through the texts, to get close to the real lives of the women behind the star image, while on the other hand their new scale and fixed placement behind 2.5 cm of plexiglass denied us the quality of the original print, as well as the accessibility and intimate manageability of the trading cards. We were shut out from the rêverie and promise of knowledge provided by the materiality of the miniature and given instead real knowledge of the women’s lives. It is as though the act of giving up the secrets of the stars made the photos give up their scale, tactility, intimacy, and magic.

Filiberti and Hirsch then continued to work on their project and for a time set aside the tin box and returned to the films in which their 100 stars were cast as leading ladies. The artists chose one film segment per star and edited the 100 segments together into an approx. 30 min video sequence, each segment accompanied by an edited version of the original text. It seemed like the artists had carefully selected the segments like scholars examining the prophesy books, to identify for each star the precise moment that foretold her impending fall from stardom. Here the stars were reclaimed for the present in a compelling operation of returning them to the screen where, as viewers, we were teased by their 20 seconds of magic but not allowed to fully indulge because we were again constrained to participate in the drama of their biographies as real people and made hyper-aware of their performances as career swan songs.

Filiberti and Hirsch continued to develop Framed by returning again to the original material and recontextualizing it into another form, this book. Our divas are now returned to print on paper and we are given a new set of conditions in which to examine the images. Like the trading cards we can feel a sense of ownership and like the trading cards we are allowed to return to them over and over again. We may choose to read or ignore their biographies. The book format allows us to easily examine the pictures because they are neither miniatures nor walled-in by 2.5cm of plexiglass nor disturbed by overlaid text. The images reassume all the compelling quality of the archaic, magical presence described by Morin, a presence deposited over time on the surface of the glamour shot. In the light of what we know of the film and installation versions of the work, these photographs aren’t obliged to foretell the future, nor are they inaccessible visual epitaphs organized in rows, but they stubbornly inhabit a liminal zone between life and death. We are poised in an uneasy balance between the magic of the image and the facts of the text and can lean one way or another depending on our inclination. The book form of this project is perhaps the format that most successfully re-evokes the tensions these women actually lived as they attempted to find a balance between their real lives and their careers as actresses.

Iaia Filiberti’s and Debora Hirsch's ongoing project Framed and the images of stars that emerged from the Hollywood golden age are inextricably, vitally, linked by the continuous shift between movement and stillness, life and death, and the power that this connection has to generate fascination. From the motion of the actual films to the stillness of the glamour shots, back to movement and stillness through their circulation in their intermedial forms during the following decades, these images start and stop up to the moment when Filiberti and Hirsch step in to reclaim the portrait cards and return them to circulation in a new context, the art world, that repositions the images in a new space of signification as the real lives and deaths of these stars come into play. Here we are asked to look at them as both stars and women in installation form, as a found-footage video, and now as a bound book, and each step of the way the passage from movement to stillness, from one form to another, demands a rereading, a reconsideration of how all the elements discussed thus far are held in a balance and how they express the complexity and contradictions inherent in the visual manifestations of the movie world. All this depended on 100 stars taking 100 round trips to Hollywood. Unlike real lives, the images continue to come back, pitting stillness against movement, and will continue to do so as we flip through the pages of this book.

Interview with Paola Ugolini

“Framed” is an English term that has a literal meaning of “set in a frame” (as a picture) and a slang meaning of “walled in” as in imprisoned;  Debora Hirsch and Iaia Filiberti use this same word to describe the sudden halt in the careers of one hundred Hollywood celebrities between the ‘20s and the close of the ‘50s.  The two artists have done an impressive job of recovering the forgotten lives of some women who, for a period of variable length during their lives experienced the thrill of success, the lure of celebrity, the seduction of power, and, often, the sorrow of oblivion and the demise.  Some of these beauties among the beautiful used their intelligence and remarkable will power and managed not to be consumed by the mechanisms of fame, reinventing another life for themselves, different but no less worthy of living, as mothers, or as business managers, UN ambassadors, or even as research scientists;  others, however, did not know how to overcome the shock of the demise, which usually occurred at an age between 30 and 35 years, ending up alone, destitute, or prey to dependencies on alcohol and drugs;  others, still, paid dearly for their decisions as independent women, in favour of pregnancies or weddings not approved by the producers, pounds in excess, lives too immoderate to then be credible on the screen in “the girl next door” roles; all too often these factors were decisive in putting an abrupt end to the career, women who were often talented but had dared to challenge the strict rules of the most efficient and heartless star systems in the world.  Hollywood is a magic name that can still today conjure up the most durable of American dreams, that of the celluloid that can transform a pretty girl into a planetary star, that can send you up in a shining bubble, over and above everyone else, but also, from one day to the next, can make mincemeat of you, if your face and figure no longer correspond to the canons that the dream-makers have constructed for you.

The two artists thoroughly researched their subject to dissect the hidden mechanisms that created the star’s personality, trying to show us these women for what they were: strong human beings, yet very fragile, often so consumed by the idea of their beauty and their role as to prefer physical death to oblivion; while a few were fortunate enough to live a satisfying life as wives and mothers, most were not.

Today these actresses, often forgotten after having tasted the thrill of fame, make their comeback in the medium-length film realized by the two artists; like a magnificent collage, the film brings back their faces captured at the peak of their youth and success—just a few seconds, but enough to sum up a life eternally frozen in the present that only cinema can give to each of its queens and to each of its victims.

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Framed, GAMEC di Verona

Debora Hirsch, Ida e Volta installation view (solo exhibition), MuBe (MuBE Museu Brasileir

Framed, MuBE, the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture and Ecology, São Paulo

Framed, Palazzo Della Ragione, Verona

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Framed, MAGA, Gallarate

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VM21, Rome

Debora Hirsch, Framed installation view (solo exhibition), Room, Milano, 2009.jpg
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Room di Charlie Lioce, Milano

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