Assembling photographs and installations that reflect his experience as both a designer and cinema set painter, Lorenzo Vitturi’s “ Dalston Anatomy” is one of the most highlighted and talked about projects within the photography community this year. The work has been featured in the TIME best photo books of 2013 list, shortlisted for the Paris Photo/Aperture Foundation First Book Award and selected by Martin Parr for his photo book picks of the year. Our blog editor Daniel C. Blight interviewed Vitturi in order to find out something of the way in which the work was made, the apparent problems of gentrification in Dalston and how an artist might tackle this, the artist’s struggle with the flatness of photography and the exhibition design for his recent exhibition at Foam Photography Museum, Amsterdam.
Daniel C. Blight: How did you conceptualise and then come to make the Dalston Anatomy project? What were you thinking?
Lorenzo Vitturi: When I started Dalston Anatomy I just felt the instinctive need to freeze everything else that I was doing, choose the widest corner of my flat, build a studio, buy a plastic floor to cover the wooden floor (in order to avoid being kicked out by the landlord), and to start playing with the objects I could find in the near-by streets of Dalston, mainly debris and products from the market. That’s how everything started really.
For a couple of months I just walked up and down the market; I selected materials, brought them back to the studio, used them as raw matter to build precarious sculptures and photographed them before and after they collapsed. Only then did I start asking myself what I was really doing, and what the rationale behind all this work was…
I realised that my neighbourhood was dramatically changing day after day: its people were changing too, and new people, asking weird questions such as “ excuse me, where is the closest Prada shop?” were moving in to the area. I also realised that the debris I was collecting was not just ordinary trash, but it was in fact what was left of old flats and peoples’ lives; parts of those interiors that were being refurbished for the arrival of a new class of individuals.
The last revelation was that all these images I was producing were not just simply the result of my secret imagination, but they were in fact deeply connected with a wider reality. They were fragments of a bigger picture, my own “ bigger picture” – which also clearly includes the place I live in and the community that I love and care for.
DCB: Dalston has undergone quite an alarming process of gentrification in the last 10 years: cafes, bars, restaurants and clubs have sprung up and are competing and in lots of cases overshadowing the businesses belonging to the local African and Turkish communities. With this in mind, what kind of Dalston do you see and represent in the project?
LV: This is exactly what’s happening: the gentrification process is changing Dalston really quickly, different worlds are in the moment of meeting, merging, clashing, and eventually one world will prevail over the other. It is quite a common “ natural” component of globalisation, which I’ve been personally experiencing during the past few decades in my home city Venice, in which super-wealthy foreigners have occupied the city centre, which was previously occupied by a diverse local community.
I think that gentrification, as with many other phenomena of our time, has both positive and negative effects, but certainly involves a powerful energy that makes big cities so dynamic and attractive. Since the beginning of the 20th Century London has faced the effects of gentrification in some of its boroughs, but the difference between then and now is the incredible speed of today’s phase. Particularly since the beginning of the new millennium the urban landscape of the Eastern boroughs of London have experienced, and still experience, a dramatic change, which involves architecture, the economy, people and ideas.
What I am interested in is not to criticise gentrification but to visualise what this process of transformation will leave behind. I am interested in what soon will be seen as memories – debris from a lost time. I wanted to freeze Dalston’s colourful mix of cultures just before this transformation changes the neighbourhood’s appearance completely.
When I first moved to Dalston seven years ago, I chose this neighbourhood because of its strong odours, flavours, and colours which despite coming from all over the world, manage to harmonically coexist and create something unique. I’m quite sure that this social richness will be soon wiped out by the brutal blandness of the high-street economy and culture, which, while increasing order and efficiency, will inevitably bring conformity.
DCB: The images here, of your Foam Amsterdam exhibition, take the project in a really interesting direction where exhibition design is concerned. Could you talk a bit about the decisions you made here and whether you collaborated with a curator or a technical team to realise the installation?
LV: In my opinion, the reality of today is too complex to be depicted by a series of framed pictures hung on a white wall. I usually get quite bored viewing photo exhibitions today, because I think that most of the time photographers use exactly the same language and format, to present quite different subjects, and end up diluting and flattening the experience of a show. Instead, to me, exhibitions should be a totalising experience, where the space merges with the artwork and vice versa.
In the case of Dalson Anatomy I felt the need to create a multi-layered exhibition, where images play with the space, with objects, raw materials, dust and fluff, and I tried to physically rebuild the magic encounter between the outward social reality of the project and my most intimate, personal visions.
In the case of Dalston Anatomy at Foam, I took all the materials that the market people use everyday to build up their temporary shops, and I set up the exact exhibition installation first in my studio, in order to get all the measurements right. From the beginning I wanted to design an organic and dynamic space which could function as a sculptural work of its own, to be looked at from different angles, but which would however continuously replicate the shapes and colours of all the pieces composing it. In so doing I created a chain of references from the micro-level – the smallest component of a single image – to the macro: the whole installation, based on the infinite replication of what is the leading order in my compositions; a sinuous and precarious pile of objects.
In fact if you visit the exhibition, you will realise that it works whether one looks at it from the side or from above, at one piece, at two pieces together, or at the whole installation. To me the world appears like a chaotic alphabet of shapes, colours and patterns that I record in order to mix them and remix them in my studio, trying to reach a state of temporary harmony in the final image .
And words, whether written or spoken, become meteoric elements, just like all others, that contribute to the final installation. This is why Sam Berkson’s poem had to be physically present in the exhibition, and thanks to the TankBoys graphic designers, this has been possible by beautifully hanging the poem from the room’s sealing, just like a deus ex-machina.
During the preparation process in my London studio, I collaborated with the curator Francesca Seravalle who knows Dalston Anatomy really well, and she helped me in the image selection. During the installation phase, I was helped by two exceptional Foam technicians.
DCB: The Dalston Anatomy project also comes in book form. Could you point out some of the challenges you faced when producing this? Your project is obviously a very dynamic, three-dimensional thing, yet a book is a flattening out in some respects…
LV: My practice is a continuos struggle with the flatness of photography. I am both frustrated and intrigued by the limits offered by two dimensions, and it is probably due to this kind of frustration that I started to look for ways to introduce a third dimension, through playing with objects. These are first reduced into images, and then go back to their three-dimensional shape, once mounted on wooden geometric volumes. As a matter of fact my practice is stuck in a continuos and obsessive loop involving both sculpture and photography.
From the beginning I knew that the book was one of the best mediums to show what I had in mind. And from the beginning, throughout the process of collecting images, forging atmospheres, making sculptures, I was in fact already editing the book, and this helped me to find an optimal visual coherence between the sculptural side of the work and all the different visual outputs I was coming up with. I treated every double-spread like a an empty physical space ready to host a different composition, and the final output is quite a heterogeneous series of images that mix different languages and photographic approaches: from snapshots and portraits to photos of sculptures; from photographs of collages to scans of found materials.
Everything has been edited together in order to try to create a fluid series of images using colours and anatomical similarities in some form of narrative binding agent. A sort of musical rhythm, an afro-beat if you want…
DCB: What’s next for you?
LV: During this last year and a half, I worked so hard that I’ve already got another two book dummies ready. These are two different projects, more conceptual, which are centred on the relation between sculpture and photography and do not maintain that strong link with a spatial or social reality, as in the case of Dalston Anatomy. So I would like to complete these two other books and continue my research. Dalston Anatomy is just a starting point.
While I was making Dalston Anatomy I nearly went to the Central African Republic – where my love was living at the time – in order to make a sort of “ photographic negative” of what I was then working on: instead of looking at an african market in a Western city, I would have loved to play with the tacky aesthetic of a Western supermarket in a derelict African capital. I was ready to pack up, then the war started…