In Dante’s Inferno Italian artist Valentina Vannicola merges staged photography with socially engaged practice, resulting in a rich body of work reminiscent of the postdramatic theater of Romeo Castellucci and the Societas Rafaello Sanzio. Using non-professional performers from her hometown of Tolfa, north of Rome, Vannicola has constructed absurdist scenes recreating Dante’s journey through the strata of hell. While the outcome could easily have been predictable and illustrative, the mise-en-scène of landscape, objects, and untrained actors suggests rituals both playful and tragic.
In Vannicola’s optic, the classical text is transported to a wasteland bearing marks of industry and agriculture; the damned wear soiled thermal underwear and endure miseries particular to the contemporary world. # 02 – Canto III – Slothful depicts the fate of the complacent and ethically impoverished:
“This miserable fate
Suffer the wretched souls of those, who liv’d
Without praise or blame, with that ill band
Of angels mix’d, who nor rebellious prov’d
Not were true to God, but for themselves
Were only.” (Dante, Canto III)
Vannicola’s sinners tread a weary circuit around a precarious stack of wooden chairs. An elderly man grasps a dirty, improvised flag in surrender, but it is obvious that no respite is forthcoming; this torture is one of endless, meaningless repetition.
In # 04 – Canto IV, Circle I – Limbo, a soul is suspended between heaven and hell: A young girl in a pristine dress is encased beneath a bell jar in a muddy wasteland. In these images we might read the travails of an economically and intellectually exhausted West, or an existence devoid of ideological confidence—while these tableaux are immensely suggestive, they are ultimately open to interpretation. In theater it is common practice to revisit and contemporize the classics, but within the constraints of still photography, Vannicola has succeeded in reanimating a long-abused historical text.
Dante’s Inferno is on view at Showcase Gallery at Central Institute of Technology, Perth, Australia, through December 13, 2013.