Intro by an art historian
THE UNIQUE GESTALT OF VISION
Although built upon a decade of assiduous self-education and dedication to technique, the work presented in this book is the product of three years’ activity. Keen to demonstrate photography’s ability to suggest something other than itself, Gianfranco Merati has pursued conceptually inflected possibilities that serve as a channel for visual metaphor and personal expression. His photographs have evolved from an almost hermetic practice, independent of direct outside influences within the artform and based upon a contemporary interpretation of the age-old enquiry of the gentleman-scientist: What frontiers exist to be crossed and how do I find the means to cross them?
The importance of ideas to Merati becomes quickly apparent. In conversation he lists his current reading, a range of subject matter indicative of an enquiring mind. On his desk as we talk are three books: Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s uncompromising description of political repression, ‘The Gulag Archipelago’; the ‘Moral Epistles’ of Seneca the Younger, the Stoic philosopher of Ancient Rome who reflected on the moral questions in public and everyday life; and a volume by the British biochemist and parapsychology researcher, Rupert Sheldrake, called ‘Morphic Resonance’. He picks up the last of these to point out its significance to photographs he has recently been making.
For Sheldrake describes a bold hypothesis that has struck a chord with him, namely that the conscious self interacts with the external environment as a unifying principle of life. Merati is fascinated by this controversial theory. It proposes that common processes, free of the constraints of time and space, pervade everything and cause cells, tissue and organisms to develop their shapes within a state of controlled activity. The universe is not in a steady state, Sheldrake maintains; an ongoing creative principle is driving nature onwards.
Knowing about these ‘morphic fields’ is not required to respond to Merati’s images of creative evolution in the matter he photographs. Yet a series like ‘Earth Rocks’ responds to that notion. The camera appears to project into the internal chemical structure of cell-like crystals. The lens offers a front-row view of the search, perhaps for signs of the intermingling life forms that Sheldrake suggests cascade through different levels of consciousness from man to mineral. What Merati uncovers are iridescent cliffs and verdant landscapes, lustrous surfaces like streams of molten glass and caverns glowing purple with unseen luminescence. This cross-fertilisation of shapes and their associations is intensely poetic, a dynamic, dream-like quest evocative of William Blake’s innocent aspiration ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.’
The ideal of the Renaissance man may now be out of date, supplanted by the modern term of praise, the polymath. Yet with the wide scope of his interests and his ability to take the leap from abstract theory to productive enterprise, Gianfranco Merati might be a candidate for that earlier accolade. After all, the concept was exemplified by individuals whose capacity for intellectual development embraced the classics, poetry, art, science and mathematics, the technical virtues of their day. Merati appears to be immersed in the modern equivalent of that spread of knowledge. A graduate of quantitative economics, he is now involved in business in London while his emergent ability in photography is already recognised by awards in prestigious international competitions. At the same time, he admits to more interests besides. Levitating objects using ultrasound waves is a current preoccupation. These are early days in his research, he says, but he has already built a device and is engaged in discussions with a professor overseas. Who could conclude that his capacity for further development has reached its full extent?
Merati occupies territory unusual for an artist. Adopting photography was, in his own words, ‘a mental release valve’ that gave him the creative, visual dimension that his extensive interests were missing. He soon moved beyond the medium’s objective documentary function of representing people, places and objects, as he told interviewer Adelé Kotzé, ‘to explore and test the limits of visual perception.’ The series of images that have been gathered into this book testify to that investigation. By turning the lens away from the exterior world of superficial resemblances towards another universe, his work implies a deeper reality, where the shape and structures of matter are orchestrated into an artful image by the technology of capturing light. Merati’s aim is not scientific record, however, but picture-making that engages the imagination in wanting to know more. The thread connecting many of his projects is invention: it draws out behaviours inherent in his materials that, while dictated by chemical and organic forces that forge and dismantle elaborate compounds, are not confined to being illustrations of those processes.
Merati’s studio is more akin to a laboratory than an artist’s workplace . To accommodate the demands of professional and family life, he works mostly at night. The arrangement was a factor in deciding to eschew daylight subjects and concentrate on his distinctive variant of abstraction. That environment stimulates him in a manner that open ground cannot satisfy. The room he has set aside for photography in his London home is compact, almost monkish, and organised for fertile solitude. Space is limited and enforces a high degree of concentration on small areas – a tabletop, for instance, is both his field of investigation and his equivalent of the painter’s easel. On these areas he focuses lenses and lighting, and the equipment he brings out of neatly maintained storage nearby to achieve the effects he seeks. Constraints conveniently align with his temperamental preference for exacting challenges that his disciplined and strategic approach to innovative problem-solving can tackle. Constraints, he believes, have an aesthetic dimension and, indeed, are creatively beautiful. For the series ‘Electric Trees’, which assembles a cognitive ambiguity out of high-voltage brush discharges with distinctive colourful arcs and coronas, he constructed his own small-scale Tesla coil within this limited workspace. Imitated within these photographs is the natural phenomenon of nighttime lightning streaking across the unbounded sky, as if gently mocking the physical indoor confinement in which these sparks originated. Instead, assumptions arise about Illuminated branches in towering trees or expansive arterial pathways spied on by orbiting satellites.
Prominent among his experiments with form, light and colour is the series titled ‘Metallic Flowers’. At first sight, the images appear to come directly from the world of flowers, depicting fascinating botanical creatures regarded as the essence of beauty. Punctilious attention to detail makes these blooms seem almost to breathe and reach beyond the dimensions of the photograph. Yet the extraordinary forms belong to no known species; Merati does not register reality in terms of appearances but by the type of manifestation that could occur in a mirage. His ‘flowers’ are fabricated with a substance as far from the biological origins of plant life as can be imagined: inanimate magnetic fluid (sometimes called ferrofluid). Invented in 1963 by the US federal space agency, NASA, as a rocket fuel capable of being drawn toward a fuel pump in a weightless environment, the liquid is pliable in a magnetic field, a property that Merati enthusiastically exploits. Lighting plays off its surface as if the forms were modelled in space. In a sense, the liquid has become for him what oil medium is to a painter or clay to a sculptor, an inactive material transformed by skill into vibrant resemblances. In fact, the ‘Alchemy of Life’ images use chemical compounds mixed with liquid colours in an overtly painterly fashion. The series is well titled; art is an act of transmutation, just as the speculative philosophy of the Middle Ages sought to make gold from base materials. As when colour is added to paint, Merati adds pigment to the fluid in the form of commercially-sourced dyes of various types. These tints infuse chromatic tones through chemical reaction or simple reflection into a composition. He lays no claim to gifts with applying colour: he insists that he selects them intuitively.
Implicit in his interest in constructing images is the potential for connecting them with other images that the viewer has in mind. These visual metaphors are inherited from the collective consciousness, that expansive set of beliefs, values and sensations that people share through their cultural affinities. Indeed, the German-born political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-75) described metaphors as ‘the means by which the oneness of the world is brought about.’ The value of such resonances, which in part reflect Sheldrake’s conjecture that memory plays a formative part in how new forms take shape, is to open a work to multiple layers of continuous interpretation. Some of the connections that Merati hopes to give admittance to are described in his own brief introductions to each of the series in this book. They express a hope for unity in creation. But none presumes to control either the viewer’s reaction or the pathways these images will flow into to build ever-wider mental pictures. This potentiality in the non-objective or broadly allusive image has been integral to photography since its abstraction entered the artform early last century. Key practitioners in the medium’s history, from László Moholy-Nagy to contemporaries like James Welling, have emphasised process and emotional expression over observed reality.
There are exceptions to this stringent approach and ‘A Portrait of my Garden’ is an outstanding example. The series required no careful planning and was inspired spontaneously by chance and the acuity of natural vision. Captivated by the delicacy of fallen leaves decomposing into the miniature architecture of lace-like filigree, he collected some examples and took them to his studio. After studying their structure, he decided on compositions that would draw out the surreal lyricism in their decay. Placing a reflecting glass beneath them had the contrasting effect of amplifying that fragility while at the same time inferring a new existence in the leaves’ return to an almost elastic animation in their confident objectivity.
A step beyond the simulacrum of nature animates the series called ‘Micro Mountains and Lakes’. Once more, the illusion of microscopic reality highly magnified to reveal the unsuspected sophistication of organic forms is contrived with magnetic fluid. ‘The material is extremely dark,’ Merati tells me, ‘but also very reflective: an impossible combination for photographers.’ The attraction to this inveterate problem-solver of the unlikely material becomes immediately obvious. He recalls first reading about it in a research paper published in 2018 by seven Harvard researchers. They described in detail the use of ferrofluid for variable pattern casting to form intricate spike and labyrinthine structures. He was determined to find a sample so that he might apply the material’s almost sculptural capacity to the image-making he had already embarked upon in his home studio. ‘What’s more,’ he continues, ‘the fluid moves ever so slightly and continuously, setting in quivering motion the reflections from the peaks and valleys that make up its surface.’ To obtain the mesmerising intensity of focus in these images, Merati used focus stacking, the technique of superimposing separate digital files that allows photographers to create a single image where objects on various focal planes are all in focus. He inevitably encountered an obstacle: ‘One key condition for successful stacking is that nothing moves in the various frames that are stacked together. So, a lot of hard work goes into these images.’
The journey to this stage of technical invention was hardly less demanding. Cameras featured in his growing up as they did in many western families of his age group. His father and his uncle took photographs, and while his father’s purpose was primarily in building an album of family memories, graduating in time to an SLR design, his uncle had a more serious involvement. ‘From my father,’ he says, ‘I learnt the basic principles of exposure, focus, ISO and composition. And with my uncle I was able to experiment with a relatively wide array of SLRs in his collection - from Minoltas to Nikons and Fuji medium format models, and even a Topcon’. Nonetheless, Merati attributes the choice he made in adulthood to make photographs to random factors and opportunity. Settled in London and established in business, he worked in London’s alternative financial district at Canary Wharf in an office located near a camera shop. That coincidence exudes synergy in retrospect, but a decade ago the link only came about as his wider interests sought their visual outlet. As ways of manifesting those interests as imagery evolved, Merati researched more advanced models with which he could learn to get the results he wanted, with trial and error his principal guide during sessions in his night studio. The failures were fortunately outweighed by the successes that helped to point the way forward and towards the equipment he should invest in next to maintain his progress. But until 2021, he showed his work to no one.
Much also depended upon his visual awareness. He knew he had a lot to learn. While claiming no great ability, he had enjoyed art classes at school in Pesaro, the Adriatic coastal city where his parents moved when he was an adolescent from their home in Asmara. For three generations his family had been part of the Italian community in Eritrea that long outlived the Italian pre-WW2 colonial presence that had brought Merati’s grandfathers to the region as military engineers. The Merati family’s arrival in Italy had been preceded by spells in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia as his father’s work in construction compelled him to travel. It is tempting to speculate that these early experiences of diverse cultures, stimulating landscapes and varied architecture had a formative impact on his aesthetic sense. Moreover, he remains an avid visitor to exhibitions of art from all periods, a habit begun as a student. When I asked which shows he particularly remembered from his university years, his answer was not surprising: a survey of painting by Caravaggio, the Baroque master of dramatic light and shade.
Galleries inform our expectations of the dimensions that pictorial art presumes. Merati perceives his imagery as occupying a large wall space, in spite of the small scale on which his compositions are conceived. That ambition arises not from a misplaced desire for a kind of ornamental grandeur but from an appreciation of the potential for an image to envelop the viewer and so ignite that person’s imaginative response. For that to happen, Merati attaches as much attention to the printing quality and minimal framing of his work as to securing the consistency of definition for that degree of physical rendition. He is specific about edition size, paper weight and surface, about the milling of that paper (he works with the historic papermaker Hahnemühle) and the knowledge that his chosen printers in Italy and the UK bring to drawing out the layers of line and colour in a photograph within the giclée process.
‘The discipline of an enforced objectivity in laboratory photography is countered by the creative control of selection exercised by the photographer.’ The observation by Edward Steichen (1879-1973), one of the most prolific and influential figures in the history of photography, sits well with Merati’s work. Nature can be seen in abstract terms but this photographer is seeking more from his personal vision. He creates his forms much as natural forms themselves are created. But the role of recorder is not for him; what he visualises is the personal element, his unique gestalt of vision.
Martin Holman is a British writer and art historian whose work has appeared in newspapers, art journals and the publications of public museums and private galleries in Europe and North America. He has a special interest in post-war Italian art and has been involved with exhibitions at venues in the UK and Italy.