You walk to the end of the pier, drive to the canyon’s edge, or stroll down to the beach. Shading your eyes, you peer out across the water or valley to watch the bright disc slide like a gold coin into the horizon’s slot. Appreciative murmurs are heard as the sky darkens. Another end of day.
In its essence, the planetary spectacle is quotidian, but that in no way diminishes its emotional or even spiritual impact. Sunrises and sunsets are existential dramas — they enact the passage of time, the cycle of birth and decline, and do so while engaging the fundamental elements of aesthetics and narrative (light and dark, rising and falling) at the most primordial level. Why, then, are most depictions of this scene — high-gloss postcards, summer-house watercolors, dorm room posters of embracing couples emblazoned with calligraphed poetry — almost always cliché at worst, and camp at best?
Subverting traditional landscape photography’s clichés was Luigi Ghirri’s stock-in-trade. The Italian artist prized representational antics over the mere grandeur of seascapes and dizzying cliffs. During his brief career (he died in 1992, at the age of forty-nine), he invigorated the established tropes of landscape imagery. Drawing on the conceptual practices of the late-’50s and ’60s, as well as on influences such as de Chirico and the Surrealists, Ghirri developed a visual grammar both witty and gymnastic.
His wry method — flipping the frame of reference, thus confusing the real and the representational — is on display in several of the works in the show “Kodachrome,” currently up at Matthew Marks Gallery: In one shot taken in Engleberg, Switzerland, there’s a billboard for Sprite depicting a bottle of the soft drink poised between two waterfalls. Below the billboard we spy a cyclone fence and what could be construction materials; above the advertisement, a panoramic view of the actual Alps. Tinted in the same blue-ish hue, the waterfalls and mountains appear — at least initially — contiguous, as if part of the same geography. The majesty of the Alps is Sprite’s majesty, too; the viewer’s double-take is the photographer’s achievement.
Ghirri complicates the drama of the sunset in much the same way, offering a photo of another photo, or in this case several photos. Taken in the town of Calvi on Corsica, this close-up view of a tourist shop postcard rack focuses on an array of eleven sunsets and two sundowns (another familiar trope — harbor lights on water). The cibachrome print glows with the aggregate of hyped-up oranges and yellows conjured in various darkrooms with the aim of catching a tourist’s eye.
The result is a textbook illustration of Walter Benjamin’s work of art mechanically reproduced: Multiple suns ignite multiple skies; waves or still waters throw off the fiery reflections; rocky outcroppings and lone towers loom in shadow. Over and over. The visual rhapsody of a sunset is routinized and made commonplace (although not as common as it is in fact — 365 cards would turn that trick). In Ghirri’s rendering, the overwrought skies become all the more unpleasant, the moody seas even more trite. In “Song at Sunset,” Walt Whitman begins in high spirits: “Splendor of ended day floating and filling me,/ Hour prophetic, hour resuming the past.” Such rapture, a more or less typical nineteenth-century response to the scene, most likely wouldn’t survive acquaintance with Ghirri’s cannily proliferate image.
In the top row at the center, one postcard holder is empty. Set against a textured wall behind the rack, the white piping against the tan background couldn’t be any more nondescript. But the composition cleverly flips our response to the surrounding natural wonders: it’s this dull geometry of the rectangle that draws the eye — an empty slot revealing a blank concrete wall and the spine of a mass-produced display rack. The plainness, even ugliness, acquires a formal dignity in this garish company; it’s a welcome parenthesis amid a nauseatingly burnished splendor.
Every day has its denouement, Ghirri suggests, but the art-making machine respects no such terminus. More sunsets can roll forth from a print shop in one day than any one life might witness. Whitman, in a later stanza, seems to have anticipated, however unwittingly, the leveling effect of replication: “I sing to the last equalities modern or old,/ I sing the endless finales of things.” Of course, contemporary poets are reluctant to give way to candid passion at the sight of the sun extinguished in the sea. They know there’s at least as much inspiration to be found in contemplating the human need to create—the compulsion that produced horse paintings in the caves of Chauvet and, eventually, tacky postcards by the millions—than there is from brooding upon rocks, waves, and a faraway blaze.
Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.
Luigi Ghirri: Kodachrome is on view at Matthew Marks Gallery (526 W 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 20.