Truth and falsehood, fact and fiction shifted and overlapped in Elisabetta Benassi’s second solo show at Magazzino d’Arte Moderna, “All I Remember.” The first presentation of a work-in-progress conceived in late 2008 at the Microforms Reading Room of the New York Public Library, it drew on the 20th-century explosion in the use of photography to document and illustrate the news in daily papers and magazines. Searching public and private archives of press photographs in Italy and the U.S., Benassi has digitally gathered some 70,000 images dating from the 1920s to the early 1990s, when computers made archives of photographic prints obsolete. Her attention, however, has focused not on the pictures themselves, but on their backs, covered with typed and handwritten notes, newspaper clippings, rubber stamps and stickers from news agencies and libraries—layers of information that classify each image and record the history of its circulation.
The show started with a series of 12 works featuring slightly enlarged versions of these marked-up photo backs. Easily mistaken for mechanical reproductions, they are in fact watercolors painstakingly executed by an anonymous designer and engraver of paper currency hired by Benassi. Precluding any trace of the artist’s hand, these text-based images call to mind John Baldessari’s conceptual work What Is Painting (1966-68).
Usually more confusing than illuminating for the layperson, the inscriptions on the backs provide few clues as to what the photos actually depict. They refer to a mix of forgotten and well-known bits of history, such as Hitler’s acquiring one of the first Volkswagen Beetles, a Russian demonstration against the Ku Klux Klan and the murder of Italian politician Aldo Moro. Further complicating the status of the factual—already problematized by the handmade copies of photo backs—some works cite books and movies that either were never released or saw their titles changed. Noted on a 1944 photo back near the gallery entrance was Gertrude Stein’s “new book, dealing with the human race, entitled ‘All I Remember.’” Stein never published a book with this title, which Benassi uses as the exhibition’s name.
The show continued in a darkened room where an authentic Aldis lamp (used by the German Navy during World War II) signaled the exhibition title in Morse code to passersby outside the gallery. The code’s esotericism—similar to the archival photo notations—makes it decipherable only by specialists and therefore mysterious to the general audience.
Concluding the presentation was a worn-out microfilm reader standing atop a sleek 1960s Olivetti table in an otherwise empty room, dimly lit and painted entirely smoke-gray. Operated by a hidden computer, the reader erratically fast-forwarded, stopped, rewound and advanced a series of photo backs digitally transferred onto color film. This rendered the text nearly illegible—a maddening experience for the viewer.
“All I Remember” was a provocative show that prompted contrasting feelings of frustration, curiosity and wonder. In step with the lineage of Italian Conceptual art (from Alighiero Boetti to the up-and-coming Francesco Arena), Benassi addressed the ever-changing nature of history—and the distance between what actually happens and what is ultimately remembered.
Photo: Elisabetta Benassi: Bikini, 2010, watercolor on paper, 12 by 14 inches; at Magazzino d’Arte Moderna.