In Conversation with Francesca Catastini
Francesca Catastini’s eye for photography is rooted in her quest for lightness. Her background as a former aspiring-ethologist imparts a sense of philosophical inquisitiveness to her work as a photographer. In this interview she discusses her new photo book about Renaissance dissections, The Modern Spirit is Vivisective, from capturing self-reflection to employing irony, Francesca certainly takes the relationship between perception and photography to a new level.
What interested you in photography?
I don’t know if I really know. It was about observing — it was about using my eyes and studying through vision.
You recently released a photo book The Modern Spirit is Vivisective. What’s it about?
It’s about the history of the study of anatomy from the Renaissance period. The starting point is dissections, which took place inside anatomical theatres, but for publicly dissecting corpses from criminals. The book is also about the vision and knowledge as the thing ‘I see, I understand’, which is linked to anatomy because vision plays a very big role in it. It is divided into five chapters, each section is about anatomy involving dissecting. The title is The Modern Spirit is Vivisective, but the book isn’t exactly about vivisection. It is more about dissection.
Were you trying to create a polarity between the anatomical as we know it against the backdrop of more romantic structures, such as the old anatomical theatres?
Yes. It’s about irony, even the theatres which are empty are beautiful. It’s about contradictions and oxymorons, which are constant in human beings. It is strictly linked to the past but also to the present.
Photographers can be analytical in their processes, however you seem to take it to a new and academic level. How difficult is it to translate your vision into something intelligible for the everyday viewer of your work?
There are several layers of meaning. It’s all about what you want to see. I leave it to the viewer to get whatever he wants or whatever he sees in it. It’s not really about your education. Especially because I like to combine things and I try to find possible connections. For me it’s not important that everyone sees the same thing.
There’s a particular image I find fascinating, the self-dissection – it’s undisturbed yet it’s like the existential question is looming in your head. What were you trying to convey with the image?
First of all it depends on how much time you spend in front of it, because if you look at it quite carefully it’s easy to understand it’s not about the corpses. It’s a human being on a table. Anatomical theatres are the roots of the modern museum. The museum is usually about a subject or an object being viewed, which is usually perceived as animated in a way. It was sort of a relationship between death and life, and it also linked to the dissections which at that time were about self-reckoning. So it was about trying to learn how we are made. It’s self-reflective — it’s a way of thinking about ourselves, however at the same time there is this relationship between what is dead and what is alive. It is linked to the fact that anatomy and the Renaissance was about self-reckoning and thinking about human beings. They actually used human beings to understand life, so there is this constant self-reflection. I decided to do the self-dissection because I was particularly fascinated by some illustrations I found in anatomical manuals from the Renaissance where it depicted a man actually dissecting himself, it was like he was still alive with the knife and attempting to dissect himself. That was quite striking for me.
Was it your intention to attach a philosophical element to the photos in the book?
In a way, but it’s about what you want to get from it. I don’t like giving a strong personal interpretation of things as I prefer the viewer to look and decide for himself. Of course, if you think about connotations some of the images are strictly linked to philosophy in a way. Again, anatomy at that time was linked to the Renaissance as philosophy. It was actually more linked to natural philosophy than to medical research, so it is the reason why you can find references quite easily.
The book contains archival material and different photographic methods. How important was using different techniques in the book, i.e. typology?
It is important on a different level. I wanted to combine different things together with different methods. It is also linked to the fact that anatomy was probably the first subject that used illustration before photography existed. Illustration in the kind of non-hierarchical relationship between text and image, since the image had a proper value and it was as important as the text even inside the manuals. As photography was invented they started using photographs as a document to record things, and the reason why I used all these different materials is probably linked to the fact that I strictly wanted to combine different things together in a similar way to the analytical process of anatomy, which divides a whole into fragments and puts them together mentally again. So it’s linked more to the mental process of combining things together.
There’s a negative image photograph of a woman and she’s pregnant included in the work. What’s it about?
It was a way to synthesise something I found while doing my research in anatomy. The origin of life and pregnancy were the main topics in the study of anatomy at the very beginning, as it was a mystery for them. I found several illustrations of placentas and they all had different forms. I found ones which reminded me of jellyfish and then I looked for images of jellyfish. I found a page from a book on art forms of nature, and it was a green page of several jellyfish. I decided to turn the green into blue and I remembered a month earlier I took a picture of a pregnant woman, and I found one which was suitable. I put everything in positive except for the woman and then I decided to put that jellyfish placenta on her, because in my mind it was about women being viewed as strange figures and maybe coming from the sea. These anatomists trying to understand women as the generators of life reminded of these old mythologies about women being mermaids or other monsters maybe. After all this I thought about making the image. The title of this image is Medusa, which in Greek mythology is the name of the gorgon with the head of hair of snakes, but in Italian it also means jellyfish. In a way it’s also linked to photography because medusa was supposed to be a monster and when you looked at her you turned to stone, so it’s like photography which points at something and turns it into something still.
There’s quite a bit of literature that accompanies the work, so is your style linked to anyone or anything in particular? Or, is that just drawing on the way the anatomical manuals were written?
In a way it’s the latter. It was important for me to add some text and quotations because I like to have this relationship between text and image. Even if it’s just brief quotations, but I like the fact that text and image both have the same value for me. The starting point of this whole thing was when I started learning about the existence of anatomical theatres. The main inspiration for me is the anatomical manuals from the Renaissance period. It’s the first time I used text in my work.
Moving away from your book to other projects you’ve done, another one I found quite absorbing was Happy Together. Can you tell us a bit more about that one?
It was probably my very first project and it was 2009. It’s a series of family portraits, where my real family is involved – my parents, myself, my uncle, my partner, my brother, his wife. The subjects are members of my family, but the portraits are all staged. They are all very ironic, and it’s quite easy to see looking at the images.
How far do you think employing irony in your work helps you explore particular themes?
It’s really important for me as I am really fond of lightness, but lightness intended in a non-superficial way, and something which tries to go deeper but without taking itself too seriously.
Do you use it in a lot of your work or just particular projects?
I guess I use it more or less in all of my projects, because it’s my way of saying things. It’s really rooted inside me so I cannot help it. I think in a way being highly sensitive it’s a way to protect myself.
Lastly, what do you have lined up for the future for your photography and work? Do you have any upcoming projects?
I have just started one called Petals, after an Italian liquor. It was advertised as the perfect drink for men living according to nature in the 80s, which is funny because it says more about the cultural idea of drinking in the 70s and 80s. It was advertised for men only. Petals is in the first stages; it’s about masculinity, and trying to get a grip on it again in an anatomical way. It’s a project I would like to deconstruct and reconstruct.
All photos thanks to Francesca Catastini.
To view more of Francesca’s work click here