The Experience of Linda Salerno’s “Black Mirror Series”

Elisabetta Longari

These images might have been produced by sorcery. They have the phantom-like quality of photographs, while also deploying the materials of painting and its penchant for metamorphosis. They present themselves as something on the order of fleeting illuminations, of sudden glimpses of a world of rustlings and whispered voices, as visions produced by the splitting of a veil which then gives access to an otherwise hidden otherwhere. The gaze seems to make its way through a curtain of rain that, descending, dissolves and distances the images behind it. In the foreground, this liquid diaphragm, as viscous and gritty as ink, questions and radically entraps the viewer. A curtain “written in Morse code,” made of fluid, painterly signs that resemble the foliage of weeping-willow trees, flows thickly down into Linda’s hair, and grows confused with it.

The lens that is always interposed, like the rippled surface of a pool of water, between the observer and the scene observed brings to mind the world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice: a world, moreover, evoked by the mirror in the series’ title. But this is a subject to which we will return.

Linda, or the outline of her body (we never see her face, which is always directed elsewhere, attracted by something that lies outside the edges of the scene, and which also, as though by magnetism, draws the gaze of the viewer) seems to dance and run through a wood. Space and time experience a dimension of suspension.

Linda moves through nature in much the same way that Francesca Woodman negotiates interiors: they are both like angels. They use their bodies in performative ways, but their photographs amount to a form of self-portraiture only insofar as they show us a beating of wings. (And who hasn’t wanted to be able to fly?)

Ever since moving to Canton Ticino, Linda has given indications of a rapprochement with the most essential part of her being: her work has come to be more revealing of her relationship with nature (not with landscape).

The “Black Mirror Series” can in fact be read as an act of immersion into the forces of generation. We’re to note a relationship of substantial consanguinity between the woman, the butterfly and the woods: they are simply three different moments, three of the aspects of an energy which might also be referred to as spirit, or as soul. (The symbolic link between the butterfly and the soul is both ancient and tenacious, and its echo still survives in many cultures.)

One must also, however, be careful to foster no imprecision about this contact with the depths: we’re not to imbue it with any inflection of a New-Age pantheism. It’s much more a question of ancestral feminine forces, of nature itself as “the eternal feminine,” das Ewig-Weibliche.

The work in which Linda turns into a butterfly summons up a world of fairies, and the artist herself seems to play the role of Titania, the Queen of the Fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As said before, these works are not self-portraits in any strict sense. They never, again as said before, so much as show the features of a face. Linda is mainly seen from the rear, and thus enacts a strategy that powerfully stimulates the viewer to identify with the image. (One recalls the function of the human figure in the works of Caspar David Friedrich.)

Even if Linda doesn’t precisely turn her back on us, her face in any case escapes us, and is always attentive to something somewhere else, as though she had just heard a call in her near vicinity from something far away. What is Linda looking at? What does she see? What is she pursuing?

Curiously, the artist positions herself in precisely what we understand to be the typical locus of the work of art: on the threshold between the visible and the invisible, thus transforming herself into a presence which is “other” yet concrete.

Her choosing to dwell in a border area, in a territory demarked by a limit, arouses feelings of estrangement and disquietude. A world of difference surrounds and beleaguers the profile of reality, pressing up against it, and always ready to irrupt  into its precincts.

We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and one of the rights of dream is suddenly to shift its quality, inverting the sign of its atmosphere and transforming itself into nightmare, as Lars Von Triers reminds us in  Antichrist—his most recent film—which is no less sublime than terrible.

Even the title of the exhibition, “Who are you?”—skewering that viewer with a sudden, brusque question—puts us on our guard: the territory opened up by Linda Salerno’s gaze is a difficult place to decipher.

Derived from a complex procedure—a successful alchemical wedding of dance, performance, painting and photography—these enigmatic images, of which the substance cannot be grasped even from a linguistic point of view, function like darkened mirrors in which the world, as it reduplicates itself, transforms itself into a pattern of glimmerings, shadows, projections, superimpositions and unseen reflections.

Translated from Italian by Henry Martin