After a six-month closure, Palazzo Grassi reopens with a project entirely dedicated to Venice on the occasion of the city’s 1600th anniversary. Hypervenezia showcases the amazing photographic work of Mario Peliti (an architect by training but professionally linked to photography as a gallery owner and publisher). Since 2006, Peliti has been working on the Venice Urban Photo Project, a collection of black and white shots of the city, without shadows cast and human beings. A way of making people think about one of the possible futures of a Venice that has gradually been depopulated and filled with tourists.
Today, there are more than 12,000 photos and the project is scheduled to end in 2030. The exhibition, curated by Matthieu Humery (curator at the Collection Pinault) is divided into three acts: the line, 400 photos linearly displayed on the wall as in an ideal itinerary; the projection, 3,000 images on three screens accompanied by Nicolas Godin’s original music and the map, a reconstruction of the plan realised through the photos (as in a mosaic) arranged in relation to the neighbourhoods. All the images are geolocated and each place captured by Peliti’s camera can be traced back to a precise point in the lagoon city.
This is an ambitious and challenging project, how did it come about?
I discovered Venice in the 1970s while studying at the Francesco Morosini Naval Military School. At that time most of the hotels closed at the beginning of November and reopened at Easter. There were almost 100,000 inhabitants, some of whom worked in the city’s factories. The architectural decay was evident. I returned to Venice in 2002: there were just over 60,000 inhabitants and the city’s economy was extremely focused on tourism. On the other hand, the real estate assets were, and are now even more so, extraordinarily well recovered. Currently, there are about 50,000 inhabitants. Therefore, my project aims at picturing the city as it appears at the beginning of the new millennium, emphasising its depopulation through images without people.
Your photos are all in black and white, and in the total absence of human beings.
I photograph on overcast days or just before dawn and immediately after sunset. Around five in the morning, there is a nice light with daylight saving time in mid-June. At that time, you can shoot almost completely alone in St Mark’s Square.
Walking is an integral part of this work.
I love walking and I guess I am a compulsive observer. Most of the time the photos show images that have already been stratified in my memory over the years. I regularly analyse what I have already taken and then return to the same places and sometimes repeat the same shot, with very small variations. On average, I travel ten kilometres a day in Venice.
Your pictures show an unusual Venice, not at all picturesque, which also shows us several unusual, peripheral and little-visited areas.
The Venice I show is the one that is daily offered to any passer-by, except for some places that are not open to the public. All you need to do is turn off your mobile phones and let yourself be guided by instinct without fear of getting lost. Going back to my work, I think it can be described as a diary of encounters, divided – just as it is in reality – into days.
In the popular imagination, Venice is a city that does not change, or changes very little. What transformation do your photos tell and will they tell?
We all want to believe that Venice has remained substantially unchanged over the last century. However, compared to its limited surface area, I believe that it is the Italian city that has undergone the most transformations, including the creation of new islands. Without waiting for the end of my project (I hope in 2030), it is enough to look back 25 or 30 years to realise the number of changes that have taken place in such a short period.
Were there photographers who have inspired you?
Over the years I have had the pleasure to work with many photographers with extremely different characteristics, from Gianni Berengo Gardin to Helmut Newton, to name two extremely different personalities. I owe something to each of these encounters and to others that I have only met in books. Very often the references are easily identifiable in images, as in the case of Charles Marville, Gabriele Basilico and Bernd and Hilla Becher. In other cases, the link belongs to the mere conception of the project, such as the obsessive insistence of Nobuyoshi Araki’s gaze, or, in apparent contrast to the Japanese photographer, Pentti Sammallahti’s absolute respect for the subject, whatever it may be. Attempting to systematically document the whole of Venice as a photographer is, paradoxically, my first intense experience as an architect, in trying to create sources of documentation that will be useful to other architects, urban planners and art historians in the future.
Finally, you have signed an agreement with the Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo e la Documentazione (ICCD) and the Superintendence of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape for the city of Venice and Lagoon through which you will donate this very long work to the city. Could we call it a great act of generosity?
In the spirit of the signatories, it is a “win-win” agreement. I will have the opportunity to take the photographs, while the State will be responsible for cataloguing the Venice Urban Photo Archive and creating a section dedicated to it on the ICCD portal for consultation.