[Written as notes to accompany an installation in The Box, a video exhibition space at the Wexner Center for the Arts, in August 2006.]

Olivo Barbieri

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” --Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

It’s quite apparent that these three videos from Olivo Barbieri’s “site specific” project are deeply informed by his almost thirty-year career as an internationally exhibited photographer. Although his work has almost always been concerned with hyper-real presentations of urban landscapes, the desire to reexamine the rules of perspective has become increasingly important. For the past decade, he has done this by frequently working with the “selective focus” available when using a special tilt-shift lens.

The lens is traditionally employed to keep wide-angle views in the proper scale. But Barbieri intentionally misuses it with an overly shallow depth of field that causes unnatural blurring. The result is an optical illusion that causes the viewer to perceive the images as trompe l’oeil scale models of cities rather than the cities themselves. To heighten the artificiality of these very concrete locations, Barbieri exposes the film in a way that washes out the images. The attendant loss of detail further reinforces the idea that these objects are being viewed in a miniature scale.

The “site specific” series, which includes a series of photographs in addition to the videos featured here, is Barbieri’s attempt to find new ways to visualize the city after September 11, 2001. For these works, he gives us a helicopter’s-eye view of a diverse range of cities. By taking his modified camera into the sky, Barbieri creates a tension of scale and intent. Such aerial photography often serve the purpose of tourism, but now suggest an unsettling sense of surveillance to these images. And when structures as massive as the Parthenon appear so fragile and delicate, the observer’s power over the observed seems amplified. Barbieri describes the vulnerability inherent in the videos by stating that he aims to examine “the world as a temporary site-specific installation, structures and infrastructures, the foundation of our sense of belonging and our identity, seen from afar, as a great scale model: the city as an avatar of itself.”

Barbieri clearly chooses the cities he depicts quite deliberately, offering portraits of the past, present, and future. Representing classicism through modernity, site specific_ROMA 04 is full of ruins (even the ruins of other cultures are included when the camera tracks over the façades of the Gangs of New York set on the backlot of the Cinecittà Studios – echoing the simulacra of Las Vegas) and junkyards. The ruins of the present pile up alongside the ruins of the past.

As Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi wrote in their (in)famous 1972 study Learning From Las Vegas, “a careful documentation and analysis of [Las Vegas’] physical form is as important to architects and urbanists today as were the studies of ancient Rome to earlier generations.” Consequently, site specific_LAS VEGAS 05 becomes a logical follow-up to Barbieri’s study of Rome. He places Las Vegas within the context of its natural, desert environments and utilizes his tilt-shift lens once again. This artificial look at the most artificial of cities only emphasizes the ways in which Vegas serves as postmodernism’s objective correlative.

With site specific_SHANGHAI 04, making its North American premiere here, Barbieri examines the city that is likely the world’s best example of a post-postmodern landscape. Here he employs a conventional lens rather than the scale-distorting tilt-shift lens, as if to simply record and document this new city in its constant state of becoming. While the result is a much less pointed examination, SHANGHAI 04 (subtitled A Silent Story despite the punctuating presence of a soundtrack) is perhaps Barbieri’s most accomplished video yet in terms of cinematics, editing, and architectural study.


site specific_ROMA 04, 2004
35mm film transferred to video, 12 mins.

site specific_LAS VEGAS 05, 2005
35mm film transferred to video, 12:30 mins.

site specific_SHANGHAI 04, 2005
Video, 12:45 mins.

© The Ohio State University/Wexner Center for the Arts. Reproduced by permission.

 site specific_ROMA 04   (Olivo Barbieri, 2004)