The encroachment of dusk holds great metaphoric importance to Rino Noto's series on the process of dying. Crepuscolo, meaning "twilight" in Noto's native Italian, depicts the waning of life - the journey into, and out of, the eve of one's existence. In each of these nine images a shrouded figure, the representational focus of the series, reclines; here contorted, there faded into near abstraction, but always illuminated in a chiaroscuro reminiscent of that brief moment of transition from day to night. This figure, all shadows and decay, embodies a kind of "passing through", as Noto phrases it, from a living state to whatever resides beyond.

 

Crepuscolo considers the eve of human existence, posing difficult questions about life and death with subtlety and charisma. The bewildering experience of being and dying is symbolized here through the conduit of a single shrouded figure, the centrepiece of this nine-image photographic series. Noto’s decayed, skeletal subject embodies a kind of “passing through,” as the artist phrases it, occupying the space between a living state and whatever resides beyond.

The dusky imagery throughout Crepuscolo plays tricks on the mind, just as a flickering candle in a dark room might compel us to imagine intruders in far corners or divine faces where only shadows lie. Ambiguity of form, rampant in the ethereal half-light of these scenes, urges one to question the impression of interlocking fingers, jutting bones, burial props.  Shapes shift, each form taking on a new meaning in every gaze. Just as we might contemplate death, the nature of the Crepuscolo images urges us towards formal analysis, and find us caught between an examination of its conceptual curiosities (to where does death lead?) and its aesthetic qualities (what precisely am I seeing here?).

  Untitled #7

Untitled #7

Once called the “Caravaggio of photography” for his deft handling of light,1 Noto seems to carve his subject out of darkness, coaxing out highlights and commanding silhouettes. Skin and cloth bear textural weight, standing out from the gloom as though carved from granite. Noto contrasts the fleeting dusk of life with a kind of material permanence, evoking the cyclical nature of being: a nod to his Italian predecessors. Empedocles, a Presocratic thinker of ancient Sicily, was perhaps among the first to propose an ontology of immutable basic parts.2 The fabric of life, Empedocles suggested is a flux of elements that mix and separate over time. In essence he was correct: the body’s smallest parts, like the calcium in our bones and the iron in our blood, continue in their atomic form tenaciously into the future.3 For our particles, at least, death truly is a transformation, and this fact of physics has not been lost on modern art. Painter Edvard Munch, for one, found the atom cycle spiritually profound. “The spirit of life,” he once wrote, “…will grow plants from my decaying body – trees and flowers – and the sun will warm them and I will exist in them – and nothing will perish – and that is eternity.”4

Though the series has no order, when viewed in a certain sequence one may sense corporeal decline. In some images, as in Untitled #5, the figure’s limbs remain clearly discernible, arranged neatly within the frame; in others (Untitled #3), body parts have frayed and disintegrated into indeterminate shapes. The photographs mirror reality. In death, flesh and sinew degenerate; in Noto’s portrayal, the figure’s identity becomes fragmented, ultimately lost as the boundaries between forms disperse. The transition from object to abstract lends anonymity to the figure — it is not a dying individual that Noto offers us, but a universal embodiment of the journey into the unknown.
Crepuscolo stands out for its conceptual intrigue, but its technical idiosyncrasy also deserves recognition. Noto employs a large glass pane during the act of photographing in order to achieve a feeling of isolation from the subject in the finished work. When framed, the figure appears trapped forever in its transition: the illusion of containment is complete. Noto’s technique builds on the legacy of Francis Bacon, who presented his paintings under glass in order to further the sense of detachment between subject and audience. (“It’s the distance,” said Bacon of his practice in an interview with critic David Sylvester. “This thing is shut away from the spectator.”) 5 Untitled #1 brings such a chasm into sharp focus. The figure reposes as though already dead, but the body must still breathe, for condensation has caused droplets to form on the glass above. Noticing this we find our separation a tragic circumstance. We cannot help the figure, and as we look on, castrated, the knowledge that we too shall encounter death hangs over us like a specter. It is a doomed separation that we experience.

Yet for all the remoteness imbued by the glass, Noto finds tranquility in these images. He means to capture a transformation rather than a conclusion — the figure hasn’t been buried, he explains, but cocooned, ready for its release in another form. Noto’s work upholds a self-described “mystery in shadow,” an unabashedly agnostic stance on the outcomes of dying. Through this we find Crepuscolo intimates not a macabre end, but a process of transfiguration from one state to another — whatever that other may be.

– Malone Mullin
  Untitled #1

Untitled #1


Notes

1. Quotation in reference to words spoken by Gianni Bardini, Italian General Consul in Toronto. As told to Rino Noto.

2. A translation and interpretation of Empedocles’ ontology can be found in: “Empedocles’ Cycle and Fragment 17,” by Van der Ben, N., published in Hermes (3rd Qtr., 1984), pp. 281-296

3. Paraphrased from American geologist Keith Heyer Meldahl in Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail: “We live and we die, but we are made of sterner stuff. The carbon atoms in our fingernails, the calcium in our bones, the iron atoms in our blood -- all the countless trillions of atoms of which we are made -- are ancient objects. They existed before us, before the Earth itself, in fact. And after each of us dies, they will depart from our bodies and do other things. Forever.”

4. Quoted from Edvard Munch – behind the scream, by Sue Prideaux. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007, p. 119

5. Interview transcript may be found in “The Glass in Front of the Painting: Reflectivity in Francis Bacon’s Exhibitions from a Textual-Semiotic Perspective,” by Dimitrios Chatzicharalampous of the University of Tartu.