Meeting the Shadow

The Shadow’s emancipation and materialisation

In ancient Greece, before dawn a young Corinthian girl, with a lantern in one hand and a charcoal in the other, is said to have sketched on her house-wall the shadow of her lover, who would leave for war. Later, her father, Butade, would make a stele out of it, to be placed in the temple.Myth traces the birth of art back to that shadow, and in the Western cities that were to be soon filled with magnificent statues, in which their inhabitants could proudly recognise themselves.

Now that the fine arts have been locked up in museums, in cities that men find increasingly indifferent, today’s city dweller can sometime happen to catch an unexpected glimpse of his or her shadow on the city walls while walking by them.

Giorgio De Chirico, however, maintained that the shadow that a man casts in the sunshine is more enigmatic than any religion that has ever existed. In his metaphysical paintings, the city squares have been emptied of people and filled with their shadows.

During the same years, Adelbert Von Chamisso, in his ‘The Marvellous History of the Shadowless Man and the Cold Heart’, related how no one values the shadow; it is bodiless and useless. What counts is the soul. A night stroll in the city may bring about the rewarding experience of seeing one’s own gigantic shadow thrown on the building walls by the headlights of a passing car. This experience becomes the ephemeral monument to an ordinary moment in our life. In Guy-Ernest Debord‘s words, “every city is geological, and one cannot go for a walk without running into ghosts armed with all the prestige of their legends”.

According to Roberto Casati, the shadow is not only a representation of the object from which it is cast, but also a copy of this object whose place it can even take. Therefore, in our head the shadow belongs to both the spiritual and the material world. As a mark of its complexity, the shadow tells of the very mystery of humankind.

Thus Jung maintains that everyone is followed by a shadow; the more it gets ignored the thicker and darker it becomes. Rainer Maria Rilke laments how the body disappears because it is consumed as it continuously fades away.Our body evaporates and sends out a shadow that is then hidden in the pores of matter, from which it can re-emerge at any time. This is the feeling that we have when, for example, we run into an everyday object belonging to someone dear who is far away, and who is evoked by this object. As Andrea Zanzotto wrote, “perhaps what I secrete/ is my shadow form”.

The shadow, that of oneself dragged among others, alone and anonymous, rushing incessantly because daily life is elusive, appears to increasingly be the condition of contemporary humanity.

Mario Martinelli works on the subject of the shadow’s emancipation and materialisation. With his magic lantern, he is able to remove the shadow from a person’s body, presenting it as another self. He subsequently covers it in wire net to keep it visible over time, finally placing it on the city walls. These two steps that Martinelli takes are reminiscent of the mythical ones taken by the Corinthian girl and her father.


The Shadow’s emancipation

Artist Mario Martinelli travels the world with an interactive installation called Meeting the Shadow consisting mainly of a wide screen and a spot-light in front of the screen. When a passer-by accidentally activates the spot-light, this illuminates the screen, casting his or her shadow on it. The shadow, detached from the body’s movement, lingers on the still illuminated screen that seizes it for some time. The discovery of one’s emancipated shadow strikes one as a new visual experience, in which the shadow appears as a copy, stirring up questions and emotions. The installation space becomes a theatre, an arena in which role-plays, group actions and collective moments can take place.The next step is the fading away, when the shadow’s image slowly fades out.


The shadow’s materialisation

The second step is three-dimensional. Martinelli’s screen turns into a wire net-mesh to be cut out along the outline of the shadow left by a passer-by. The result is a wire net figure that represents a piece of art in which, like in the famous Laozi’s glass, what counts is what is missing: emptiness. This is the shadow-in-the-net, a sort of modern graphic stele or plastic graffiti.

The shadow-in-the-net is a synthetic, transparent and silent image only made of emptiness. It is ambiguous in so far as it still appears like a real object on close inspection, while from far away it looks like an immaterial shadow reminding one of absence.