13 February 2015
The work of the artist Valerio Rocco Orlando, born in Milan in 1978, explores the landscape of the encounter and the relationship with the Other with surprising delicacy. Video is his favorite medium: his camera penetrates, through extreme close-ups, into the depths of the expressions and the lines on the faces of the people he portrays. Orlando’s practice—a contemporary form of the Socratic Method—is based on dialogue, on an intimate exchange with the interlocutor. After studying dramaturgy in Milan and film directing in London, he has lived in Rome, New York, Cuba, Bangalore, Tel Aviv and Seoul, moving from residence to residence and making travel the indispensable condition of his research. I met Valerio a few months ago in Milan, shortly after his return from Israel, the place where he is going to shoot his next film.
Interfaith Diaries is the title of the project on which you have been working during your residency at Artport Tel Aviv, since May 2014. As a result of the conflict that broke out in the Gaza Strip in July of the same year, you were forced to leave Israel and interrupt your work. Can you tell me more about this experience?
Interfaith Diaries is a project that I have been thinking about for a long time. I was raised as a Catholic, I’m thirty-six years old and in this phase of my life I am calling my relationship with God completely into question. There are moments in which I think it is fundamental to raise questions of this kind. For some time I’ve been keeping a diary, something that allows me to investigate my inner world. Before the invitation from Vardit Gross, director of Artport, I’d never been to Israel. I saw it at once as an opportunity to produce a new work on just this theme of spirituality. So I set off with the best intentions. Initially, I thought Jerusalem would be the ideal place for this research. In reality, it’s not like that. The Israeli state is very young, social progress is really rapid and people’s relationship with religion is fairly controversial. And then I didn’t want to explore the reality of the orthodox communities. On the contrary, what I wanted to look at was the everyday lives of ordinary people and the way in which they relate to their own spiritual dimension.
So people who are asking the same questions as you, who mirror your personal experience.
Exactly. Individuals who are in some way close to me. Even though my work takes me to faraway places—Korea, Iceland, the United States, Cuba, India or, as in this case, Israel—I always try to collect and tell stories that are close to my own experience. Ever since my arrival in the Middle East, I’ve been explaining to everyone that it was not my intention to deal with the conflict or the situation of the religious minorities; rather I wanted to interact with those who like me are questioning deeply their own relationship with the spiritual dimension. When I presented the project in Tel Aviv, at the beginning of June last year, I started by saying: “I’m looking for someone who is on some sort of spiritual journey.” This open call included many possibilities: I wasn’t going to look for a specific type of person. I was open to different stories and I started to frequent alternative situations. Among them, a rather special synagogue, where the rabbi welcomed those who no longer identified with their community of origin as a result of a series of personal choices. For example, lesbian couples with children: stories quite different from the classic orthodox family. To tell you an anecdote, among these people I met a young man of twenty-eight-year who decided to take part in the project and share his experience. Yarden is originally from a kibbutz near Tel Aviv, where years ago he got married and had a child. At a certain point in his life he recognized and accepted his homosexuality, deciding to leave his family and move to the city. Now he lives in Tel Aviv with a partner and attends the synagogue that I was just talking to you about. Yarden told me that as a boy he used to walk in the fields close to his house, at night, and pray. Something that he can no longer do and for which he feels a certain nostalgia. When I asked him, for this new film, to think of a place that represented his inner path, he spoke to me of these walks. The idea is to shoot a nighttime stroll in one of those fields—a long tracking shot in which he is walking hand-in-hand with his son. A choice that springs from constant dialogue and mutual trust. I won’t hide from you my enthusiasm about this meeting. Anyway, we haven’t been able to shoot this scene yet because, when the war broke out, Yarden was called up to the reserves and left for Gaza.
What was it like living in Israel in the middle of the conflict, even if only for a short time?
I never feared for my safety. However, everyday life was a complete shambles, even though no one in Tel Aviv was hurt. Those two months were a period of preparation and research for me. I knew that I wouldn’t do any actual shooting or concretely realize the project. Rather, I was trying to work out how to develop it. For the first time for ten years I decided to deal with an actor, choosing to work with Saleh Bakri. Born in Palestine, but with Israeli citizenship, he was one of the signatories of the manifesto of the BDS, a movement founded by some Palestinian intellectuals that boycotts Israel, refusing to take part in government-funded productions. It was very difficult to get in touch with Saleh and to start working with him: the funds for my residence, in fact, come from an American foundation. After a long series of emails, telephone calls and failed attempts to meet him, one day, finally, Saleh agreed to see me. He invited me to his home, in Haifa, a city in the north of the country, close to Lebanon. The war had already started and the journey was fairly complicated. I remember the marvelous view of the port from his terrace. There I started to explain my ideas, speaking excitedly, in the hope of being able to stir his curiosity in a short space of time and persuade him to participate. After listening to me without interruption, he offered me an espresso, saying: “Valerio, my friend, relax!” Then I realized there was no need to convince him. He had found out all about me and had already decided to take part in the project. That day we decided to write the thing together. I asked him not so much to play a part or a character as to be himself, inviting him to be my guide, a bit like Virgil was for Dante. He was supposed to help me to meet people, Israelis and Palestinians, establishing a dialogue with the participants. We started to define the script together, until I realized that it was impossible to go ahead and so, reluctantly, decided to postpone the shooting. Not just because of the obvious difficulties on the emotional and relational level. Many of the places that we had to go to were too close to the conflict. There was, for instance, the Negev Desert, not far from Gaza, where I’d have liked to shoot a central scene of the film. I had hired a car, and driving along the road we encountered a series of tanks that were being transported in preparation for the ground attack. Sleeping in the desert, we could hear the noise of the bombs going off. The project was suspended and the production budget frozen. For the moment we are working at a distance. My intention is to go back there next year (in 2015, author’s note) to reestablish contacts and carry on with the work.
What form will the work take in the end? Will it be a video installation?
Interfaith Diaries will be different from my other works. As I was telling you, in the first place I’ll be working with an actor—and I’m sure that Saleh Bakri is the right choice. He’s much loved by the people of the place, a lucid and well-informed activist, a person who knows how to listen. It will be a film, a feature-length movie, that can be shown in a museum or at a festival or in a movie theater. There won’t be much dialogue, I’m imagining scenes with long walks. I believe that the spiritual quest at the base of this work, in its final form, will emerge above all from silence. I see this work as a sort of personal pilgrimage, on which I am accompanied by individuals with whom I share a certain feeling and the same interest in inner analysis.
You have studied in Milan and London. Directing is at the center of your work. In your videos, you gather a series of stories and guide the contributions of the people you speak to in your “inquiries,” each turning on a specific theme: love, education, religion. The end result is a harmonious orchestration of faces and extreme close-ups. I’m thinking in particular of The Sentimental Glance (2002-07), one of your earliest video installations, composed of portraits in motion of six young women connected with your own life.
In the cinema and the theater I’ve always been fascinated by the expressive possibilities of the human face. So in a sense the portrait has always been my main field of research. The face provides an opportunity for dialogue and exchange. All my videos are like self-portraits, even though I never appear in the scene and you never hear my voice. Yet my presence is tangible. Perhaps, the basis of my directing in all these works—and I’m not speaking just of the videos, but also of my books, photographs and installations—lies in the empathy that is established between me and the subject. For me, art is a process of shared understanding, of development. In this sense, empathy is an extraordinary vehicle for learning.
Editing, in your videos, plays a fundamental role: by selecting and putting together the testimonies of the individuals with whom you establish a relationship, the work is charged with a symbolic, emotional value. Which means your works are light years away from pure sociological research.
I don’t make documentaries: my research is not at all scientific. I start out in an emotional and instinctive way from a need for self-understanding; then the encounters with the people I talk to show me the way forward. I ask questions and connect up the answers: my idea of art is a proposal that remains open. Editing is the means by which, as an artist, I make choices; one of these can be to link one story with another by creating, for example, a shot-reverse shot that in reality never took place. This is how my subjectivity emerges. The heart of the directing process lies in the editing stage, so no one but me can edit my works. It is a question of assuming responsibility, in a way.
And what role does the viewer play in your work?
A fundamental one. My aim is for the questions I raise to involve and stimulate the viewer, so that the latter can become part of the platform of reflection, dialogue and exchange that is at the base of my work.
You often cite Jean-Luc Nancy and his notion of “being singular-plural,” that is to say the idea that the essence of our existence is “co-existence,” living with others. In your works you explore the concept of identity and try to understand to what extent the individual is influenced by the sense of belonging to a more or less small community, like the pairs of lovers in Lover’s Discourse (2010), the students in What Education for Mars? (2011-13) or the artists in residence of The Reverse Grand Tour (2012).
First of all, I’m not interested in working with enormous communities because what I have to maintain—and I’m firmly convinced of this—is the personal one-to-one relationship. For me, the concept of identity is closely bound up with that of community, and I think that art and artists have great possibilities to act on this level. Intimacy becomes the key of access to truth.
We could say that the relations you establish with people to create your works contributed to the definition of your identity.
Yes, as an individual and an artist. This has been happening since The Sentimental Glance, which is a sweeping depiction of my growing up, a self-portrait through the faces of some young women whom I’ve known over the course of several years. It’s a different kind of production from the more recent ones, in which I deal with remote and exotic communities—it suffices to think of the Indian forest where I worked last summer with the students of the Valley School. However, I don’t see major differences with respect to the methodology of the other works. In all of them the personal character is strong. For me they are a single, grand work. In fact I dream of one day showing all these videos and films together. I’d like the viewer to enter this labyrinth of stories: some of them whispered, others spoken out loud, but never shouted, intimate in character, and at the same time social. I like the idea of involving the public in a broad dialogue, in part autobiographical, but one that in fact recounts the life of others.
I see your work as a form of maieutics, of the Socratic Method: dialogue, on which your practice is founded, becomes a means of growth and understanding.
That’s exactly right. Dialogue is a way of looking one another in the eyes, listening to and entering into deep contact with the other. Martin Buber speaks of the “sphere of the between,” of the space that is created between two people in the act of meeting. He argues that when two human beings find themselves face to face something unique happens, which helps to reshape the identity of the individual. I’m convinced of this: through a profound exchange with the other we continually bring ourselves into question; without it, I’d be like a painter without muse, canvas and paints.
To go back to the principal role that the human face takes on in your videos, on more than one occasion you have compared the faces filmed by your camera with landscapes. Giuliana Bruno, with her Atlas of Emotion, constitutes one of your literary references. I’m deeply fascinated by the connection between body and landscape, anatomy and geography, on which your formal language seems to be based.
I’ve always thought about the face in relation to space. At the moment in which I confront the other, the face becomes an organic tissue capable of registering a range of emotions: in this sense it becomes landscape. I want my videos to be shown on large screens or through projections on a large scale not for any simple formal reason, but because the face, through the close-up, the framing of the expression at really close range, becomes a place in which the viewer can lose himself. These requisites favor a sort of emotional immersion, of a cathartic nature. Ever since I was young, in the movie theater, I would lose myself in the faces of the great actors. What fascinated me was not so much the popularity of the personage, his or her so-called star quality, as the details of the face and its mimicking of expression. In my videos I never shoot the natural landscape; instead, I frame the emotional scenery of the meeting between me and my interlocutors.
A sort of emotional cartography, in which the human body—the face—becomes a map.
Exactly. And all these faces, one day, when I manage to show them all together, will form an extremely variegated, particular and universal landscape, linked to my personal experiences in very different places. When Heidegger speaks of the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, he uses a metaphor of which I’m very fond, that of the “slow pathways.” These pathways are bridges that do not seem to be bridges, as they are part of the places between which they form a passage. The exploration of humanity that I carry out through my work is made by taking these “slow pathways” alongside the other. They connect different elements of the landscape, favoring meeting, dialogue and opening—all processes that require time and constant presence, but above all mutual trust, observation and listening. It is, precisely, a slow journey, made step by step.
Let’s move on to the series of videos on the theme of education, entitled What Education for Mars?
The whole project was born in 2011, when I was invited for a residency of six months in Rome by the Nomas Foundation. The idea was to investigate the relations between students and teachers within the national system of education. So in Rome I worked with the students and teachers of the Liceo Artistico De Chirico, in the suburbs. The students then became my crew: they helped me to develop the project, to write the questions, to carry out the interviews and to do the shooting. I presented the same project in Cuba, on the occasion of the 11th Bienal de La Habana in 2012 and, in the summer of 2013, I was invited as visiting professor to The Valley School run by the Krishnamurti Foundation, a school in the Indian forest outside Bangalore. Here the students live on a campus with the teachers; there are no textbooks, the classes are vertical and made up of children of different ages, ethnic groups and backgrounds. Teaching is done exclusively through dialogue. Over the course of my stay in India, I made a new video—the third chapter of the series—with the young people who attended the workshop. During the lessons I raised questions, and at the end of my stay we filmed the interviews. At my solo exhibition at the Museo Marino Marini in Florence, next spring, the series will be shown for the first time in its entirety. In addition, in cooperation with the museum’s educational department, a special two-month-long workshop will be held in the exhibition spaces that will involve a varied group of students from Florence. The aim is to create with them an artist’s book, a collective work that will be the result of their observation of the videos on show.
In addition to the solo exhibition at the Museo Marino Marini, what are your future projects?
Until January 6 you can see a joint exhibition at the PAC in Milan (now closed, author’s note) devoted to the interactions between art and cinema in Italy, to which I’m contributing a little gem that few have seen: The Screen, a film from 2004 that can lay claim to being Alba Rohrwacher’s first appearance on screen. Then I’ll be holding exhibitions at a couple of museums in Korea, where I’ll be staying until the end of the year, thanks to an International Artist Fellowship at the MMCA in Seoul. After which I’ll go back, at last, to the project in Israel. I’ll admit to you that it’s not easy to keep it all together. In any case, I’m more and more conscious of the fact that this path is in keeping with my nature, and above all how every new encounter is vital to reactivating and cultivating this shared process.