Empathic Cartography: Objectivity versus Sensibility

Notes on the works of Davide Cantoni

In the works of Davide Cantoni, we are confronted immediately and rather unexpectedly with an intriguing, simultaneously difficult and easy to grasp state of things. It suggests a status of permanence despite its inherent fragility and apparent temporariness as if this were the only, indisputable, unchangeable, objective and natural state of reality. A surface which suggests instability, distortion, vulnerability and weakness does not however contradict the permanence of the ruined condition of things, on the contrary, fragility appears as eternal, objective, universal and compulsory.

This sense of permanence is not a matter of some massive material strength, some real physical resistance or some forced monumentality, instead it legitimizes itself as a manifestation of the authentic, indisputable status quo of all realities and as revelation of the devastatingly vulnerable state, and fragility of the human condition. This condition is universal and irrevocable — it extends to all human constellations. Because there are no alternatives to this general condition, this sense of permanence is at once painful and yet somehow indifferent. The state of being wounded is universal. While this revelation is accompanied by objectivity, calmness, apathy and melancholy the monotonous repetition of motifs and situations moves the interpretation of these visual-plastic appearances towards the perception and recognition of the real condition of reality.

The courageous and unexpectedly radical nature of Davide Cantoni’s artistic position, consists of the uncompromising extremity with which he represents the binding ontological fragility of our life as an unavoidable, objective fact. Paradoxically it is just this objective calm, this indisputable irrevocability of being wounded and of fragility as a universal and eternal state of things, which ultimately provokes an ethical resistance against the concealed apathy hidden behind fatalistic determinism.

In other words: the factually tragic and the morally unacceptable are not shown in the framework of an anecdotal narrative in which certain real events of our time are singled out by images but in the context of the poetic-connotative, visual-plastic appearance of all possible realities. These are marked by the eternal fragility and vulnerability that characterizes our existence, they highlight the material, sensory, ascertainable condition of things, by their wounded, destroyed and decayed physical appearance.

This condition is the true object of artistic mediation and lays bare the essential, objective, unsolvable defenselessness of all mankind. Here the state of being wounded, fragile and vulnerable are revealed as real components of man’s permanent condition. By no means however, does the perception of the facts and the understanding of the reality imply the acceptance of the given situation.

The narrative pictures in Davide Cantoni’s work relate humanity’s self-destructing tendencies; wars, atrocities, discrimination, the extermination of groups of the human race, and other abhorrent brutal episodes. In the course of recent years, these scenes of violence have been archived, sometimes even published and made famous all over the world. These images, prefabricated and at times already stored within our collective memory, are the material with which Davide Cantoni works. His gigantic oeuvre resembles an archive of terrifying or sad images whereby the relative conspicuousness of some pictures can also create a certain sense of indifference. This, however, does neither entirely eliminate the disturbing, touching emotionality of some of the themes in the pictures nor neutralize the dramatic expressiveness of human tales. The primary immediate effect of the imagery remains central to his work.

In all of the work this physical, material, sensory immediacy of the imagery is contextualized through different connotations and historical, political references. It generates a complexity in which wars, violence, terrorist attacks, the destruction of settlements, forced deportations, the suffering of innocent children, injured women, the exiled, the starved and the cold 5 depict a new world map of mankind’s brutality. Davide Cantoni portrays the image of suffering man like few other artists of our time: without pathos but with true empathy. Paradoxically this empathy is created by portraying the permanence of fragility as a tangible condition of humanity. Whilst the immediate, sensory power of the image constitutes the emotional source of the aesthetic effect, it is the sensing of this conditioned state of being wounded, the apprehension of this fragility, that pulls the viewer into the narrative parts of the image.

The project 111 Years represents a new cartography of human suffering whereby the various armed conflicts, aggressions, terrorist attacks and atrocities of civil wars are being systematically counted and structured through different ways of working on paper or by way of graphic representation of the scenes of violence. The seeming objectivity, the quasi-historical encyclopedic claim to present a concise, consistent and transparent reading of world-historical events creates a sort of visual systemization but hints at the true, single stories of individuals, thereby maintaining the poetic impact that derives from concentrating upon the quiet, restrained, material revelation of human suffering which is always at the center of the work. This visual system, a methodically and rigorously structured cartography retains at all times the full emotional impact of the whole picture, in this way provoking an empathic response.

The artistic work remains material, objective, impersonal, physical and silent like a natural phenomenon. Davide Cantoni does not like to speak himself, or put himself into the role of narrator. Hence, it is not the artist as omniscient narrator but the story in the picture that addresses the viewer through its virtuoso, marvelous, delicate drawing, the sensitive working of the paper, through the burning and wounding of the material. This instills in the viewer the impression that what counts is the examination of the condition of things not stories and anecdotes on human suffering. In place of a story told by an outsider, here, the suffering manifests itself in its perceptible, ascertainable materiality as an objective condition of human existence — and it is exactly this unbearable objectivity that triggers our empathy.

Suffering plays such a central role and is integral to the structure of all Davide Cantoni’s work that it becomes the fundamentally determining element, the objective essence of existence. It reveals itself here in its unavoidable, objective, sensory-physical presence making it simply impossible to speak about from the position of an external observer. It is not possible to just speak of such things; it is not possible to narrate suffering in anecdotes: it must be shown in its material, unbiased universal state in order for one to be able to grasp the dimension of the unbearable. Seen from this perspective, the emphasis placed upon the permanence of the true ruined state of things and upon their irrevocable fragility, seems like a subversive intention of the artist to generate empathy against indifference and passiveness.

Within this ethical context, Davide Cantoni’s work can be understood as a hyper-sensitive sensitization process which, served by the objective, material, impersonal revelation of the permanence of the condition of suffering, the sensually-ascertainable account of the real objective state of being wounded, the ontological fragility and the defenselessness of man provokes the intensification of offensive empathy. Strangely, the more concrete and irrevocable the permanence of the condition of suffering that is portrayed, the more incessant and durable the indifference towards the material, the condition of the destruction, the wounds and the burns, in turn, the more radically our outraged empathy manifests. The aesthetically intentioned subversiveness of the material-physical representation of ontological fragility, of defenselessness and the irrevocable state of being wounded (as a permanent condition of man) sensitizes the recipient and provokes the intensification of our emphatic, participatory reactions.

The seemingly unsensational, delicate, subtle, wounded and burned, perforated, fragile works of Davide Cantoni awaken dormant emotions of participation and responsibility, free of pathos and ideology. The historical and political events that emerge within the ruined, wounded, fragile artistic context, serve as general points of reference as evidence of the human condition — in the metaphorical sense — and do not appear as concrete political facts. Herein lies the authenticity and ethical dimension of Davide Cantoni’s work. He is not an artist who, 7 — essentially egoistic and cynical — exploits tragic and brutal events of history and politics arbitrarily or indiscriminately, often with unoriginal and superficial results, for his artistic or ideological operations. He is focused on the complex sensitive processes of sensitization which through the subversive representation of fragility and defenselessness as permanent and irrevocable states of existence, shock the viewer into an outraged empathy against apa- thy and indifference. His political engagement is not determined by a certain political or ideological perspective but shaped by the reflection of anthropological realities and their political constellation. His subversive sensitivity is devoid of pathos, it is melancholic, and overflowing with a calm, solid and infinite empathy.