Inside the image: the photography of Roberto Kusterle

Roberto Kusterle’s photographs are the result of a long and complex process of analysis and re-composition. Before the final decision the distance and the point of view were experimented with at length. Finding an expressive range within different natural materials was not easy. The re-articulation, intertwining and grafting of one natural order onto another was considered and tested at length. Attention to details was also very demanding. The result is remarkable, not only for its stylistic coherence, but also for the meanings and emotions it conveys.
It could be argued that the starting point for Kusterle’s photography lies in the overcoming of the distinction between subject and nature. Human beings are part of the nature they observe and are called upon to know and represent what they are part of. However, there is more than this in Kusterle’s photographs. Man’s belonging to nature is based on the overcoming of another limit, the distinction between that which is organic and that which is inorganic, between life and matter, body and stone. Indeed, Kusterle considers the bodies he photographs with a sculptor’s eye. His photography implies a preliminary stage where flesh is turned into stone, soil, clay or bark. This has always allowed him to use the body as a material for engraving and tracing marks, for re-writing and for new creations. This has been a recurrent stylistic element in his previous cycles of photographs, but Kusterle’s work is now moving forward. The marks on the body/matter no longer hint at undecipherable primordial alphabets. Rather, they become incisions, sections opening the way to originary depths, unexpected possibilities of life. They reveal complex levels of life, undoubtedly drawing from the categories of post human and the so-called anthropotechnical, but are then elaborated in the sense of a genealogical research into the most profound roots of life1. The aim of his research is knowledge, not just exploiting technical possibilities. It’s not a matter of devising prostheses, but rather of exploring the dynamics of an ancient, originary biology, pre-dating the distinction into natural orders. Thus Kusterle’s gaze shifts and takes on an archaeological approach. He investigates layers and sediments, reveals latent systems of life. He does not seek out or reconstruct traumas, nor does he investigate suppressed notions, rather he re-traces the desiccated paths of irretrievable lives, or at least that’s what it looks like at first glance. Blood vessels have become straw for bird’s nests, circulatory systems have become straw for stuffing, spinal columns extend like branches, women’s hair morphs into feathers or becomes wonderful shells. The figures that Kusterle’s gaze composes, uniting the human with the animal kingdom, look like embalmed animals, rigid reminders of a lost life. They look like exhibits from a natural history museum, what is left after some obscure alchemic lesson, or after an enigmatic autopsy. They look like extraordinary remains of some mythical civilisation whose memory evokes a feeling of displacement and curiosity.
In actual fact, the most recent dimension glimpsed and explored by Kusterle deals with the passage between different orders of life, pleats and folds that translate one world into another, rips or hems in the fabric opening into uncharted depths. It is here that Kusterle’s gaze becomes that of a photographer seeking, exploring, refusing to conform to a reality that has become rigid and stereotypical. Indeed his sections reveal a void. Instead of essential elements, the incisions reveal mummy-like stuffing, frames and theatrical sets. In this way, Kusterle’s vision does not aim at a reality that is per-se beyond the image, beyond the phenomenon. At the centre of his research lies the issue of the image, the issue of the line between reproduction and creativity, between receptiveness and invention. The ultimate, determining goal of Kusterle’s research is that margin, that “split” that keeps together outside and inside, organic and inorganic, essence and appearance, life and image2. The accent falls on the ontological condition of the surface, of the skin, that is on the nature of an image that is not the product of pure vision or invention, neither is it the mere reproduction of a positive reality.
The logic behind the elaboration on the image, the work of construction and assembling of the photographed object, resemble the formal criteria of surrealism. Of course, digital photography allows Kusterle new possibilities, without having to curb the imaginative power of his vision. In fact, the reference to surrealism is distant and obsolete. This research no longer deals with dreams, the unconscious and the depths of the mind striving to “widen” and ultimately “superseding” reality3. Quite the opposite, Kusterle’s research enters into the woods and the countryside, seeking signs of “metembiosis” in a known and familiar nature. His gaze moves toward the outside, it goes beyond an immediate and direct vision of reality, piercing and passing through the opaque nature of bodies and the false consistency of matter, surfaces and full spaces. His gaze overcomes the clear distinctions of species and orders to grasp the moments of differentiation or transformation of a single, vital principle. On the other hand a surrealism without the unconscious can only delve into nature’s fault lines, revealing different forms of light, unexpected evolutionary branches, “line of flight” among “heterogeneous series”4.
Alain Badiou demonstrated that where being can only be a partial, “local”, circumscribed and ultimately uncertain “support” to reality, then reality is, and can be perceived to be, in continuous “mutation”5. This is what happens in Kusterle’s work. On one hand, the stable and linear relationships between object and phenomenon, between reality and its appearances, break down. On the other hand, photography exploits this crisis to bring the extremes, the breaking points or the furthest limits of the image “to the surface”. That punctum that Barthes argued destabilises the compact nature of a photograph, that was initially misunderstood to be where a perfect mimesis of reality could take place6, now becomes the very centre of Kusterle’s photography. It becomes the place of encounter and solidarity between different biological orders, who are however no longer opposites. At the same time it becomes the place for photography to reflect on its own possibilities, ambitions and limits.
Kusterle’s entire work is thus clearly a continuous, repeated and passionate photographic research into photography itself. Kusterle has always composed his subjects and photographs in search of aesthetically and formally perfect photographs, as well as emotionally powerful ones. His photographs do not allow improvisation or error, and have always pursued archetypical figures capable of determining and expressing a contemporary classicism, figures who can respect the freedom of each individual, or form of life. For this reason the viewer looking at these photographs for the first time might initially feel displaced, but ultimately reassured: feeling involved in a familiar environment, not a disquieting one, an almost natural atmosphere that has always been part of the viewer themselves.

Simone Furlani
1 This refers to P. Sloterdijk, Dumuß tdeinLebenändern: Über Anthropotechnik, Frankfurt a.M. 2009; Devi cambiare la tua vita, italian translation by S. Franchini, Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milan 2010.
2 Regarding this “split” and its meanings see H. Belting, Bild-Anthropologie. Entwürfefüreine Bildwissenschaft, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, München 2006 3, pp. 148-154.
3 Regarding this idea of surrealism see R. Krauss, Le Photographique: Pour une théoriedesécarts, Paris 1990; Teoria e storia della fotografia, ed. it. by E. Grazioli, Bruno Mondadori, Milan 1996.
4 See G. Deleuze, F. Guattari, Capitalisme et schizophrénie. Vol. 2: Mille Plateaux. Paris, 1980; Mille piani. Capitalismo e schizofrenia, italian translation by G. Passerone, Castelvecchi, Rome 2006, p. 43
5 See A. Badiou, Second manifeste pour la philosophie, Paris 2009; Secondo manifesto per la filosofia, italian translation by L. Boni, Cronopio, Naples 2010, p. 51.
6 See R. Barthes, La chambre claire. Note sur la photographie, Paris 1980; La camera chiara. Nota sulla fotografia, italian translation by R. Guidieri, Einaudi, Turin 2003, pp. 36 e ss.