The archaeology of memory: Cristina De Paola – #TheNewOnes

Hand, Salento, Italy 2019

Do we belong to a specific place? What’s the relationship between that place, our life and our ancestors?

By digging into the past, Italian photographer and visual artist Cristina De Paola tells us the story of a territory; of people, animals and plants, of the space they inhabit and the way they interact with it.

Southern Italy, with its caves, ruins and woods becomes the ideal place to tell the tale of the relationship between living creatures and Mother Nature, between our past and our present.

Cristina’s work recollects the traces of who we were and builds around them the archaeology of our memories.

Explore Cristina De Paola’s projects on her website and follow her on Instagram.

Hello Cristina, thanks for accepting this interview. I would like to start by asking you something about yourself and about the moment you started approaching photography and visual arts in general. 

Sure. I was born near Lecce and I lived there until I was 19 years old. I then moved to Milan to study New Media studies (cinema, video, etc.) at the Accademia delle Belle Arti di Brera. I always loved art in general but it’s probably in high school, where I was already studying drawing and painting, that I started to get closer to photography (at that time I used to take pictures to basically everything I saw). In Brera, I realized that photography was a way for me to better express my art. In my master degree I then understood how I wanted to organize a photographic project and it’s in those years that I started working at Finis Terrae

Talking about Finis Terrae, I must say that I got mesmerized by it when I had the chance to see it during the last Liquida Photo Festival in Turin. I loved the feeling of nostalgia and pride for Salento, the place where you grew up, that you were able to capture. Can you tell us what’s your relationship with your roots and how important is for your art? 

First of all, thank you. I think the nostalgic interpretation is correct. After a few years of detachment from Salento I felt the need to come back. There wasn’t even an artistic purpose at the beginning of the project, just a strong need to reconnect myself with the territory by narrating it in an objective way. For this reason, Finis terrae is a heterogeneous project: there are family photos, paintings and there is a strong archeological presence. Porto Badisco is the symbolic place of the project, the place where I photographed the cave paintings and the place where “the earth ends”. 

You talked about archaeology. What’s the relationship between archaeology and photography in your art? 

Well, I think it’s all abuout digging, digging is the keyword of this relationship. Photography, like archaeology gives me the opportunity to have a trace, a testimony of something that happened in a certain place at a certain time. It allows me to explore a territory, its past and the men who inhabited it. While I was doing Finis terrae, I discovered the Grotta dei Cervi, an almost inaccesible place with a mysterious aura, something almost imaginary. But what I actually had in front of me were forms of ante-litteram communication, some traces. Photography, like archaeology, is a trace. 

Another fascinating work set in Southern Italy (this time in Calabria) is Randagi, which mostly explores the time issue in relation with landscapes and the stray dogs that inhabit them. What was the storytelling behind this project and how did you discover the places you photographed? 

Randagi is the result of a 2019 artistic residence in Calabria. I’ve spent 10 days to do researches in an unknown territory and this, combined with the fact that I had a strict deadline to deliver the project, was really challenging for me. The title, that means “stray”, makes reference to the state of neglect that characterize those territories and the dogs that live there, but also the condition I was experiencing. Despite the fact that I was in Southern Italy, pretty close to the place I was born, I felt like I was in a completely different context. So at the end, the project was a pure documentation exercise. 

Can you tell us something about the genesis and the idea behind  What hath God wrought, the video project that you realised with Giacomo Infantino? 

It was the first collaboration between me and Giacomo and it started when we were both in Puglia. What we tried to do was to combine our artistic visions using artificial lights (which are typicals of Giacomo) and natural contexts. The title What hath God wrought is a reference to the first message transmitted by Samuel Morse after the invention of the electric telegraph; that was this unanswered question he was making to God after the death of his wife. What we did was to repeat this question using a led lamp over and over again. It was a sort of spiritual experience in a very spiritual place (the already mentioned Grotta dei Cervi) where many historians had testified that ancient people did shamanic rites. 

Video still by Cristina De Paola-2021 © All Rights Reserved

Another issue that you explore through your art is the relationship between humans, animals and plants, that are at the center of Il luogo delle forme. How did you get into the world of plants and what is the main purpose of this project? 

It all started during an artistic residence in Milan, at the Cascina Biblioteca, in collaboration with Non Riservato association. Every artist had to work on a different environment and I’ve been really fascinated by this self-managed vegetable garden in the heart of Milan. What I’ve done with Il luogo delle forme was to adopt the point of view of the plants that were inhabiting this microsystem, making them the protagonists of the project. I photographed them using my mobile phone and an analogic microscope that allowed me to do a sort of taxonomic collection of the plants system. I then decided to present the final work by projecting the slides of the pictures in loop. 

Your artworks have been part of different exhibitions, not only in Italy but also in the Netherlands, a country where you also studied. Are there any differences in showing your works abroad? How did Dutch people react to your art comparing to Italian audiences? 

Well yes, I studied for a semester in Rotterdam and what I can say is that the academic approach was totally different from the Italian one. In general, it was easier to see my works exhibited and the feedback was immediately positive. Some of my works didn’t even exist before going to Rotterdam and it was a pleasure to see that, a few years later, one of my photos was selected as part of the Fresh Eyes exhibition, one of the most important for emerging European photographers. 

As a communication student I’m always interested on how creative people promote their works and ideas, so I’m curious to know what’s your relationship with social media like Instagram, Facebook and so on; do you see them as a means to promote your artworks or do you see them as a way to express yourself indipendently of the work? 

I use Instagram a lot (she laughs) and in general I see a lot of potential in social media. Instagram is the primary means that I use to convey my work and I normally use it as a way to attract people on my website, which is a space where I can talk about my projects in more detail. Instagram is definitely the social media I use the most, even if it is a sort of double-edged sword: everything depends on how you use it. For example, I discovered many open calls for photographers directly on Instagram so in this sense it could be a very useful and powerful means. 

I’d like to end this interview by asking you what are your plans for the future and if you’re working on a specific project at the moment. 

It’s a difficult question (she laughs). At the moment I’m taking my time to reflect. I’m working on a new research which is a sort of “archaeology of memory”. I feel like I’m progressively detaching myself from the physical places and my art is becoming more and more conceptual. I’ll also have the chance to exhibit at the Milan’s Rea Fair in October and for the future I would like to have my own studio. But at the moment I’m pretty focused on my research. 

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