Domingo Milella:

An Interview

Domingo Milella, Cheops and Chephren, Giza, Egypt 2009

NC: I was just rereading the interview you did with [Hippolyte Bayard], and there’s a particular section that interested me:

A landscape and its own architecture often represent a vocabulary of human facts, dreams and illusions. I am mostly interested in the clear edge between the manufactured landscape and natural space. Consider the engravings (drawings) of Saint Peter Basilica in Rome after its completion, for example. You can see a monumental piece of human history built right above the uncared soil, dirt, bushes and forgotten rocks. I am utterly fascinated by this contrast between cultural and natural, when architecture grows out of the earth. There is a sentence from the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben that I would like to quote in this regard:

“Only for an instant, like dolphins, human language puts its head out of the semiotic sea of nature. Yet, the human is properly nothing else but this passage from pure language to discourse; this transition, this instant is history.”

I was wondering if you could speak more about this, and in particular about why do this work now – Obviously, these layers of human landscape have existed forever (as far as we’re concerned), but I’m curious why you think depicting human societies in this layered manner has such resonance now?

Domingo Milella (DM): I feel that language and narrative in this technological and capitalist new world are under a continually changing pressure. Time and its metabolism as we have known it for centuries is mutating faster then ever and architecture and landscape are still a territory in which to observe these changes. We need the time to contemplate this passage. Pier Paolo Pasolini always spoke of a kind of post-history, “dopostoria”, a very interesting concept. There is a poem he wrote that mentions this notion of ancient time and actual time, and the clash of the contemporary confusion.

I am a force of the Past.
My love lies only in tradition.
I come from the ruins, the churches,
the altarpieces, the villages
abandoned in the Appennines or foothills
of the Alps where my brothers once lived.
I wander like a madman down the Tuscolana,
down the Appia like a dog without a master.
Or I see the twilights, the mornings
over Rome, the Ciociaria, the world,
as the first acts of Posthistory
to which I bear witness, for the privilege
of recording them from the outer edge
of some buried age. Monstrous is the man
born of a dead woman’s womb.
And I, a fetus now grown, roam about
more modern than any modern man,
in search of brothers no longer alive.

The theme of memory and identity for me now becomes more and more important. Growing up in Italy I had always felt the presence of this book written in stone, a huge part of my culture was silent and forgotten, anonymous yet still readable. Such solidification of human language is very evident in architecture, as a written volume of representation, a written vocabulary of stone.

In southern Italy as in many other parts of the globe, there is an ancient history of human life, dated and marked onto the landscape. Most of this history has a legacy of pain and poverty, an epic yet anonymous struggle for an evolution based on sacrifice. The perfection of the way the archaic communities have evolved their collective life from caves to brick homes is stunning, like plants growing from a rocky strip of dirt into a lush tree. This passage triggers for me many interests, as well as a search for a sense of purity and balance. Identity and architecture are part of a connective history of place, as a collective and cumulative memory. In this age now the technological tools of fastness and easiness always direct us to the result as a product and not as a process. Progress and technology should also be dilemmas and not only certainties, yet they seem to have taken the place of the sacred and the holy, is this a new religion?

I like the Freudian idea that indicates the grade of unhappiness of mankind directly proportional to the grade of civilization of its own society.

NC: I’m intrigued by your notion of ” research” of these concepts in your use of photography – Since the Bechers, the scientific tendency of photography has been more associated with the serial approach – photographing with a consistency of approach/angle/technique/etc. If I were to place your work in the continuum of scientific photography, it would be somewhere closer to the classic egyptologists and their views of the Valley of Kings, etc, that were using photography as part of the colonial project (Francis Frith, Maxime du Camp, etc. ). How do you see your work fitting into the scientific tradition in photography?

DM: To talk about objectivity is hard… all is and is not objective. It’s a style, a desire of realism may be.
I like the purity of most objective landscape and architectural photography from the 19th century. I enjoy the simplicity of these images, their direct link with the subject, the slow light and the muted space. I think it’s a question of purity and authenticity, where the grammar of these images is still rooted in the foundations of photography itself.

Domingo Milella, Al Azhar Park, Cairo, Egypt 2009

NC: If I’m reading you right, you’re approaching architecture and the natural and geological layers (“natural, geological and historical, almost a physical fact, an evidence hard to avoid,” as you put it) as if it were a text – not a text in the semiological sense, but more in the most literal sense; a text that tells a story or a history (it’s the same word in french, perhaps it’s the same in Italian?).

DM: Yes, “Storia” in Italian is the same word for history as well as just a story. I think “history” is not only a topic or a discipline, but it’s a form of narrative, of great human narrative, a missing voice today…

I believe we are entering an age of great and new innovations, a sort of change of alphabet from analog to digital is taking place, a change of narrative perhaps? The new global values of newness, originality, and freedom are categories of seduction and too often illusion of a capitalist ambition of shopping malls, airports and highways. Where and how is the rural world represented today? Where is the great majority of the third world aiming to go to? To imitate what? What is the guiding narrative-history now?

I struggle for a sort of realism, a hunger for values that resist to the conformity of our enlarging models of consumerism, standardization and hedonism. I am fascinated with the archaic lately…

NC: At the same time, though, despite the fact that your work addresses these ‘histories in the landscape’ (as a shorthand for what we’ve been discussing), it does it in a general way. That is, though specific images may discuss an individual history of a place, as evident in the layers of the picture plane, architecture, and meaning, the work as a whole seems to speak more to the concept of this history in the landscape. It is, in some ways, an extremely contemporary work – the images are taken all over the world, but are also preoccupied with being rooted in their individual circumstances. And here, I too could use the Pasolini quote, though Pasolini as a member of the international intelligentsia, as opposed to a specifically Italian one.

DM: I agree with you, the pictures are much more specific then this kind of thinking, and the fight is between the reality of the dust of every history of every place and the forces of a new history inside which we are all entering… But I choose specific places and histories, and I do not roam the capitals of the established economy but rather metropolis of old kingdoms, small towns isolated in the mountains of southern Italy or Turkey, places too unimportant to our gaze to be seen or noticed.

Domingo Milella, Tlatelolco, Plaza de las Tres Culturas, Mexico City 2004

NC: This is part of what I think appeals to me in your work – the sense of architecture and the physical facts of place being more akin to tree rings than a snapshot – not an incidental makeup of unrelated details that the viewer draws together in his own mind, but rather an organic growth that all belongs to the same organism.

DM: Well, I hope we will always belong to the same organism, on this delicate balance in which nature accepts us only under certain terms…

I see landscape as a search of meaning and esthetic messages. That is why I am looking for places, cities, villages, natural views, that can carry a different sense of harmony, a sort of ethic belonging.

I am not happy of what I see surrounding our lives in the western reality today, as well as in any imitative developing country and culture. After all art can be a defensive and alternative beauty. I look out for an option, a place of resistance to stop and look, slower, better. I do not want to defend the role of poverty against richness, yet I find all the cultures where there is a sense of archaic values more interesting.

NC: This lichen-like aspect of human society can be found in a lot of the places you photograph – cairo, mexico, italy, the caves of turkey (?) cities in these places all give the impression of growing on their own, independent of will and individual human direction – sort of like the dystopian cities found in 80’s sci-fi like Bladerunner, Akira, etc. These aren’t dramas of the individual will, but rather of the individual surviving despite breathing organism that surrounds them, with the city simultaneously both the backdrop and that organism. This draws on your ideas of the origin (the birth of the one) and the community.

DM: I believe that culture, community and family, not only thru people and personal influence, but also thru places, architecture and objects, they determine us always more then what we could ever admit. And any true observation cannot avoid to consider, link and discuss all these factors as a single fact and metaphor. Naturally I like this comparison you draw with dystopian ideas, yet I feel more linked to a medieval sense of time and culture, as if we are now again in an age of the middle, where we changed from Pagan to Christian at the time now we are shifting from analog narrative to digital language.

NC: I recently worked on a project of German aerial photography taken immediately before WWII. They were used as military maps at the time, but I was attracted by their aesthetic makeup as well as the complicated levels in which this works with the gaze of the viewer.

Your work reminds me of these aerial maps: I feel in some ways that it is possible to read some of your cityscapes like one reads a map: The layers are there on the surface, one need only trace the links between them to begin to make sense of what you are seeing.

This tangle is there in the layers you speak about – but photography is literally concerned with surfaces so we are not talking about an excavation of the subterranean foundations of a place, but rather a history constructed there on the surface. Like a map.

DM: I would say that there is a similarity in any kind of map, and I like to play with this formal aspect of comparing different realities thru esthetic aspects. Yet what I like more about this sense of mapping, or drawing a map, as a good friend of mine always says is that “the map is not the territory”. It’s an effort doomed to fail, always an unfinished bridge over the sea. So I would see this drawing, or let’s say this act of collecting maps, piece by piece, as a search for a direction. A better imagery can be a desire of renovation, discovery and memory. I feel the main drive for this search comes from the need of belonging, a search for a better home, for a better future perhaps.

Domingo Milella, Tomb of Kind Midas, Turkey 2011

DM: The new vertical image I sent you [above] needs further explanation. I forgot to give you one, and yesterday while in the train towards Dusseldorf I felt compelled to explain, and maybe use it as a focal point of our dialogue.

It is an unusual picture for me, very new, but rooted in my interests…

It is a portait of the Tomb of King Midas, in the old Frigia region of central Turkey, and it was taken only last month.

I travelled by car from my hometown Bari to visit that specific site during the cold Jenuary days, when the light is pearlish and soft.

The Tomb is located in an isolated valley at the center of an altiplan north of Afyon in central west Anatolia. It took an hour off road to reach the so called Frigian Valley, where a population of Greek origin migrated and settled more then 2500 years ago. The funerary monument for King Midas consists of an archaic Greek temple facade carved into a few centimeters of tufa stone, 550 years BC. King Midas is a mysterious character of mythology who was famous for his ability and divine power to turn everything he touched into gold.

But the reality of the myth lives in the refinement of this idea of architecture born out of pure free natural forms into a perfect piece of art. The rock embraces the monument and the monument holds the rock around it.  I was kidnapped by the modernity of this harmony, its decorations, and its timeless evocative sense. It’s an archetype of western mythology to witness the death of a mythological king.

The geometry in the tomb’s center is ancient as well as modern in it’s simplicity. It reminds me somehow of a digital background from an 80’s video game. A small figure standing on the bottom of the monument holding a small digital camera is tring to record in binary code an arrangement of pixels. I like the metaphor of this friction: the digital writing of numbers in front of the stone writing of hands, eyes, and bodies. Not to mention souls as it’s a tomb.  A dialogue between the writing of time as it was, and as it might become, or already has…