“It was his sea: the wide open kingdom of his adolescence, the refuge, the childhood friend. It would only take the scent of it to recall the almost carnal contact with that immense liquid body which had sustained, beaten and welcomed him on countless occasions”.
Giani Stuparich, “L’isola e altri racconti”
There is a sense of nostalgia running through these photographs by Roberto Kusterle, a longing for the sea and light of the Adriatic rather than the Mediterran, like a hidden source of vital energy. This nostalgia assumes the form of the body of a man or a woman emerging from a deep darkness- not total darkness, but that of absence, or origin: the original pre-condition for every birth and thus of every form. In a world full of banal travel agency pictures of it, it is as if the sea wanted to remind us of its true nature through that darkness. The only hint of the presence of the sea in Kusterle’s photographs is the faintest glimpse of it, or rather of its patient, unending action of deposit and concretion. It is as if the sea were trying to recover its ancestral, archetypal nature: that of a womb, with its generative and generating nature, its primary and essential truth. It is through this darkness that the sea, even though it is only indirectly glimpsed, states its presence as a founding element with renewed strength. Each form emerges from it, and sinks back into it, with the reassuring but unrelenting rhythm of the waves on the shore, and the slow merciless heartbeat of the tides that reveal or wash away the sediments of life.
In this way, the almost sculptural forms captured by Roberto Kusterle’s images could be seen as an unexpected gift brought by the momentary ebbing of the sea, carried on a favourable tide which brings us the signs of ancient civilisations and long-forgotten myths. In the midst of our insecure and restless modern lives, it lets us benefit from the domestic cultivation of some small truth or perhaps the patient care of the soul. Whichever way it comes to us, we should know how to seize this opportunity, between the lapping of the waves or upon a silent nocturnal tide, yet many of us are distracted by the deafening noise of the day, or dazzled by the brightness of the afternoon sun. As such, the miracle never happens, or even worse, it goes unnoticed among the crowd of swarming summer bathers.
All things considered, the sea’s nature is not reassuring, as our ancestors well knew: Homer described it as sounding and bewailing, and mankind, or at least that great wandering hero Ulysses, must constantly struggle against it. For centuries the sea was the abyss, a dark and menacing dimension, populated by monsters and filled with risks. It was not until the age of modernity that a new image was elaborated, connecting the sea to the concept of the sublime, the desire for the infinite and the idea of heartrending beauty. However our postmodern age has reduced the sea to a shiny background, a vacation location and an open-air swimming pool, and as such, somewhat inconvenient.
And then we have Roberto Kusterle’s black, a dense black with painterly origins, a black we could surely call Mitteleuropean (a glimpse of this seems to come from beneath the calming appearance of golden mosaics and secessionist glazes from over the Alps), indeed, it is no coincidence that this black is very close to the heart of many artists from Gorizia (and not just photographers). This is a black which calls on us to confront the largely fathomless dimension of our unconscious, with its barely perceivable ripples and its violent waves which threaten to sweep us away from the small, reassuring rock we cling to.
Kusterle’s figures are always profound and the Return he refers to evidently relates to the drives of the Id and the most intimate desires of the Ego. In this cycle of photographs the sexual, erotic component takes on a central role, and around it rotate all the bodily forms which bear the signs left by the sea of Life, the sea of the Psyche, the sea of the Soul. However this sexuality, although going beyond the conventions of gender in its diverse manifestations, reveals itself to be a partial or reductive expression of the primary drive: that of Eros, of the expansive richness of life and that unending drive towards the harmony of life.
However, according to Freudian theories, the counterpart of Eros is Thanatos, the drive towards destruction and death. In opposition to the vital principle of pleasure, Thanatos aims to return the living to a quiet state with no desires, a pre-organic, or non-organic form of life.
If we consider these photographs by Roberto Kusterle from this point of view, we realise that the mineralisation of the bodies, their return to stone, takes on an obvious psychological reference, well beyond the stated intention of the artist. In the light of this unconscious dynamic, those which look like antique statues or hermai found by chance in the depths of the sea, when placed even casually side by side, shed their external forms with their vaguely classicist appearance and take on an enticing and disturbing power of the unconscious, the ancestral and eternal dimension of mankind.
It is clear that the nostalgia for the sea of which we spoke at the start (a nostalgia-desire for the sea of Life and the sea of Eros: that of each individual) is above all a nostalgia of the sentiments, of emotional intimacy, of affection and of philia. The bodies laid bare by Kusterle seek one another, they pull each other close, they tangle passionately together, but above all they embrace each other with the closed eyes of desire and dreams.
With this embrace they tell us not to be solely a “sensorial experience” (as a reductive modern viewpoint would have it), but to be above all souls with power over a body. Life itself runs through those bodies, flung at birth, defenceless, into a hostile world and seeking in erotic union a way to overcome the fear of solitude and the existential void. This is why the Shadow of desire and the Bite of pleasure, perhaps through Modesty, can transform into Hospitality, into Succour and into the maternal, protective Cradle of the sea.
The opposite of Eros is Thanatos, and these bodies are well aware that they are victims of time, even without any precise temporal characterisation (the salty sweat which cakes their limbs is nothing more of less that a sign of the slow evaporation of the days). It is just as significant that Eros also signifies a constant and strenuous rebirth, day after day, moment after moment. And it is the sea which has always been the archetypal symbol of all origins, of the possibility of every new beginning. Modern biology now confirms this to be scientifically true, but it was already recognised poetically in mythology with the birth of Venus, that is to say, the birth of beauty and desire from out of the brilliant blue waves of the fertile Mediterranean.
In the series entitled Riverberi (reverberations), Roberto Kusterle has immersed faceless female figures in this marine amniotic liquid precisely to underline the incessant necessity for such a rebirth, which has precedence over all individual characterisations. The foam of the sea laps against them, and we, glimpsing the surface, waiting for their (our) immersion. We may have to struggle against being shipwrecked, defeating the darkest gales and the most threatening waves, but in the end we can be sure that we will return to the surface. At the rising of the sun we will symbolically abandon the protective element of the origins and set off, armed with our small every-day heroism, to explore the world anew.