by Roderick Conway Morris

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Giacomo Costa
'Scene no.24'

An Italian Artist's Brave New Digital Landscape

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 13 June 2012


In 2002 Giacomo Costa's experiments with digital photography reached a decisive stage: 'I realized that I no longer needed to photograph the world; I could invent it. So instead of translating my photos into fantasies, I could create entire images from scratch,' said the 41-year-old Florentine, during an interview in his top-floor apartment-studio with its fine views over Florence and the city's Duomo.

It was only in 1996, when he started experimenting with a computer, that Mr. Costa says he found a true sense of creative freedom as a photographer.

Once seen, his apocalyptic visions - of deserted megalopolises, gigantic dams in dizzying mountain settings, and abandoned cities, half destroyed, flooded or disintegrating and disappearing beneath the slow-motion onslaught of forest and vegetation - are not easily forgotten.

'I never studied art, I just grew up surrounded by it,' he said, with a wave toward Florence's skyline. 'All my family were interested in music and art, and my grandfather's library was full of art books that I spent hours looking at, as a child. I loved Giotto and the paintings of that period. The strange errors in perspective delighted me. They looked completely surreal to me at that age.'

He had a childhood interest in photography, which became more serious after he left school and, in 1989, went to live in the Italian Alps to pursue his passion for climbing. 'I financed myself by taking odd jobs as a waiter and as a high-altitude construction worker,' he said. 'And I became fascinated with the vast fields of ice around Mont Blanc as a photographic subject, and to earn money took photos of climbs and climbers.'

After returning to Florence to do his National Service as a civilian volunteer, he continued to work with various forms of photography and as a commercial photographer. But he also devoted time to other occupations, including spells as a racing motorcyclist and mechanic, member of an Alpine Rescue Team, and as a paramedic with an ambulance crew.

Despite some early excursions into experimental photography, it was only in 1996, when he started experimenting with a computer, that Mr. Costa said he found a true sense of creative freedom as a photographer.

'The software for manipulating photos was pretty basic in those days,' he said. But he managed to employ it to make what was subsequently entitled 'Agglomeration n.1,' composed of a collage of photographs of multistory buildings with deliberately distorted perspectives, rising vertiginously above and dwarfing the lower part of the facade of Milan Central train station.

'This image expressed my reactions, my sense of disorientation, when I came to Milan after living up in the mountains in Val d'Aosta,' he said. 'It was an attempt to capture my feelings about 'the city' and the sensation of being overwhelmed by its architecture. In other words, it was a metaphor of the city, not reality. And, in a way, all my later images stem from this one image. The technology has changed, but the fundamental concept, the use of this language to communicate ideas, feelings, emotions has remained the same.'

When the artist first began to exhibit these images they received a positive response from the public, but the art world was slow to react to them. 'Apart from the public, they were appreciated by architects some time before art critics began to take an interest in them,' said Mr. Costa.

The artist was invited to exhibit at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2006, before taking part in the Venice Art Biennale in 2009. A compendium of his work 'Giacomo Costa: The Chronicles of Time' published in 2008, had an enthusiastic foreword not by an art critic, but by the architect Norman Foster, a collector of Mr. Costa's work. As recently as 2010, the artist found himself in Taschen's 'Architecture Now' yearbook, in the august company of the world's leading contemporary architects, despite having designed only virtual buildings and cities.

But he is also now well established on the international art scene, with works in public and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic and current and forthcoming shows in Rome; Avesta, Sweden; Luxembourg; Düsseldorf; and Sydney.

The technology the artist commands is mind-bendingly complex, although the hardware looks no more elaborate than that of the average computer-wired household. Such is his technological expertise that he is regularly consulted by the designers of this kind of specialist software and asked to test it before it is marketed.

'I learned how to use it step by step as it came out,' he said. 'If I had to do it from zero it would be almost impossible.'

With the software he now uses, designed for creating movie special effects, he builds images in 3-D and is able to see and manipulate them in the round before reaching the final image, which he prints as a photograph. Each of the artist's images is produced in a limited edition of three prints in different sizes.

Absolutely every element of his pictures, which have an amazing illusion of depth and three-dimensionality, is now computer generated, from skies, clouds and mountains to lakes, buildings and trees. In 2008 Mr. Costa found himself in a curious situation, when the Paris Photo fair at which he had been exhibiting for a decade decided that, since his digitally created photographs no longer contained anything photographed in the real world, these works of his imagination were no longer deemed 'photographs,' so he could no longer display them at the fair.

The ability to generate every aspect of his pictures gave rise, between 2004 and 2006, to his 'Scena' (Scene) series of amazing mountain landscapes bridged by gigantic dams, and the 'Veduta' (View) sequence of nightmare concrete cities stretching away into infinity.

'The message of these was that if we go on living like this, this is what the world is going to look like,' he said.

The massive submarine-like hulls, rammed into abandoned complexes of concrete edifices and acres of industrial wasteland, that feature in 'Atto' (Act) morph in 'Consistenza' (Consistency) and 'Fusione' (Fusion) - all three sequences dating from 2007 - into behemoths of ice, slowly melting and inundating the surrounding urban sprawl.

In his 'Aqua' pictures of 2008, these cityscapes are submerged, the massive submarine hulls now floating above the desolation, moored by huge chains, sunlight filtering from overhead through the pellucid water into a silent, weirdly beautiful drowned world.

The paradoxically sinister beauties of these Armageddons are further elaborated in the 'Secret Garden' series (also 2008), in which nature takes its revenge on the planet now devoid of humans, as trees and plants invade and devour urban spaces, gradually obliterating every trace of past human existence.

'The planet's future is in our hands,' said Mr. Costa. 'It all depends on us. This is a new page in human history, and as an artist I can't ignore it.'

Mr. Costa has more recently worked on a disturbing new series, 'Landscapes,' of visually ambiguous topographies. These viscous, heaving scenarios suggest both this and some completely other planet, with their seas (or are they solidified slopes and peaks?) of what look like oil, polluted water, plastic or even blood.

The artist has also turned his talents to a rather more light-hearted enterprise. This April he was invited to design the scenery for a sell-out modern production of the 18th-century French playwright Marivaux's comedy 'The Game of Love and Chance' at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence.

The artist's digital backdrop, based on an avenue in the Boboli Gardens, acted as a kind of emotional correlative, subtly but constantly changing to reflect the action on the stage.

'There were almost two scripts,' he said. 'One for the actors and one for the scenery.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023