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25 June 2020

Reconstructing the Past, One Object at a Time

25 June 2020 - Written by Lucia De Stefani

In her fiction-documentary work Diachronicles, Italian photographer Giulia Parlato reconstructs and then photographs artifacts while she wonders on the arbitrary meaning we apply to objects, as we tell our story and make our history.

© Giulia Parlato, from the series Diachronicles

And then there were the hands—many hands, reaching: wrapping an artifact in a thick sheet of plastic; holding a lizard, its tail slightly curled between gentle fingers. There were hands that analyzed and hands that catalogued; hands that asked and hands that showed.

As they all tended to some precise task, indicate an intention or a meaning, these hands also point towards the heart of Giulia Parlato’s work Diachronicles—exploring our ancient need to examine and understand reality, to question the present and past, through clues scattered all around us.

In this soulful search for knowledge, we attribute values to artefacts that represent aspects of the world. Yet, such traces remain elusive and they depend on our attribution for the narratives we build around them.

"In the end, one never gets to a total awareness of the past," Parlato says, "because we haven’t really been there in the first person."

© Giulia Parlato, from the series Diachronicles

Diachronicles arises from the confluence of her acute sense of wonder and a burning need to question. Shot in black-and-white—with her sunbathed homeland, Sicily, as the backdrop—this unmistakable landscape where layers of history overlap also becomes a place of the senses and the mind.

The initial idea, though, arose at the Warburg Institute in London, where Parlato perused the photographic archive of counterfeit works that had been sold illicitly to cultural institutions around the world. Once the fraud had been revealed, their value overturned, these objects were stored away from public view.

“How can an object have a certain value, a historical significance in a certain moment, and then lose it completely a moment later?” Parlato asks. “And what does it mean to insert a disturbing element within a well-established narrative”—within history as we know it?

To find such disruptive elements, the Regional Archeological Museum Salinas in Palermo was a good place to start. There she learned of i Falsi di Mastressa (“Fakes of Mastressa”)­, a collection of bogus small statues whose authenticity was claimed by an improbable couple.

© Giulia Parlato, from the series Diachronicles

That’s where Parlato started photographing the fakes, but then she took a further step introducing a more disruptive element: she began creating the artefacts herself, then photographing them, composing a collection of timeless archival photographs, whose value is the result of a fictional construct.

What authenticity do we attribute to an object then?

In her quest, Parlato uses photography as instrument for reconstructing the truth, drawing from the craft of archaeology and archival work as well as crime scene photo-documentation—two distant fields that both investigate the past.

“It is important to recognize the power that an artifact has and the multiplicity of stories contained within it,” she says. “It is the power that these objects and fragments left behind have today, hence the importance of the past.”

Animals, too, enter her frame, intensifying the sense of a Mediterranean landscape and culture. The lizard, peeking from the open fist, from animal is transformed into an object by the holding fingers, speaking about the cycle of life and death. A hawk, peering down with a wider vision of the horizon and thus reality, symbolizes wisdom. But its trajectory is interrupted by an insurmountable wall—a visual metaphor for the limits of our own knowledge.

© Giulia Parlato, from the series Diachronicles

There is something supernatural, perhaps mystical, in the way some things are photographed, Parlato says of her process. “[I wanted to] underline the fascination that humanity has for what we will never get to know, this kind of melancholy for a time in which we have never really lived, this desire to understand why we are here now, which will remain forever impossible to satisfy.”

A value system shapes the story (and history) of a people, but it can also be subject to sudden shifts. That’s when it’s a relevant question to ask who writes the story (and history), and what responsibilities and consequences come with authorship.

“We must try in the best way we can to represent all the voices of our present, so that in the future the story won’t be told again by only a single narrator as it often has been.”

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Giulia Parlato is an Italian photographer based between London and Palermo. Her practice focuses on staged photography, and revolves around history, myths, and object-hood. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Lucia De Stefani is a writer focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives in New York. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.

Written by

Lucia De Stefani

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