Closed Vitrines and Open Histories: Photography, Archaeology and Museum Practices

A Conversation with Giulia Parlato and Giovanna Petrocchi
by Camille Relet and Laura Bivolaru

Giulia Parlato and Giovanna Petrocchi are two visual artists who explore historical narratives, museal practice, and material culture. Parlato starts from the idea of the photograph as a truthful document and borrows from the aesthetic of crime scene imagery and archeological discoveries in order to stage moments in the life of artefacts. Petrocchi, inspired by museum displays and catalogues, creates collages and photomontages that question institutional narratives. In this interview they discuss their practices, tracing a connection between photography, archaeology and their interest in artefacts, forgeries and ancient history. The concept of a dynamic past informs their representational strategies, from photographic subject and their collaboration process to displaying their work. This conversation reflects on the artists’ position in relation to cultural heritage, but also on the power of fiction and forgery to indicate the need for multiple accounts, as opposed to a single, unifying history.

Camille Relet and Laura Bivolaru: You both work with photography to explore different aspects of history and the past. What qualities of the medium of photography do you think make it suitable to work with this subject?

Giulia Parlato: Giovanna and I are interested in the artefact and therefore, we are also interested in archaeology and the museum space as a way to display it. Photography was born at the same time as a more scientific methodology was being developed in archaeology and it helped with the documentation of artefacts and their review during the second stage of research. The way Giovanna and I use photography references that way of making images. 

Giovanna Petrocchi: The amazing thing about both photography and archaeology is that they have the same ambivalence, because they’re supposed to be scientific methodologies, but they can never be objective. Both are leaving something out. When documenting an artefact, even if it is recorded as straightforwardly as possible, there is always something missing. And it’s the same with archaeology – there are missing fragments of statues or archaeological sites that escape our knowledge, we imagine what they looked like and their specific uses, but we can’t really say for sure what they were. So, there is this gap of information that is always filled with our imagination, and that is what’s interesting to me. I think that collage, especially, is a perfect medium to emphasise this fragmentation of information, of past and present.

The amazing thing about both photography and archaeology is that they have the same ambivalence, because they’re supposed to be scientific methodologies, but they can never be objective. Both are leaving something out – Giovanna Petrocchi

CR/LB: Do you think growing up in Italy had anything to do with your interest in history and artefacts?

Giovanna: Yes, I think it is intrinsic to my upbringing. I was born in Rome, and Giulia was born in Palermo, two cities that are melting pots of cultures, full of archaeological sites and remains. After I spent nine years in London, I was longing for my heritage, in a way. So that’s why I think I started to play with fragments and archives.

Giulia: My experience is similar and it’s important to say that this subject represents an interest specific to the Italian school, where, for years, you study ancient Greece, philosophy, Latin, Ancient Egypt etc. The way we photograph references our education. Where I am from, there is also a stratification of different cultures dating back to the Punic people – we have Arab, Norman, Spanish influences, mixed with Ancient Greek culture. My parents are both architects and my mother’s job is to look after historical buildings, so I also grew up going to different sites with her.

CR/LB: You’re both mainly photographers but you’ve decided to add other mediums to your practice – Giovanna by creating 3D sculptures and Giulia by adding a video piece to ‘Diachronicles’. Why did you decide to work with these mediums and combine them with your photographic practice? Is it because photography isn’t enough? Is there something else that the other medium brings to the table that you can’t quite express through still images?

Giovanna: I am not a traditional photographer, I mainly use collages, but I went from collages to more sculptural work, by using 3D printing. I wouldn’t say that photography is not enough, but that photography can also be other things. A 3D object, for example, is a 3D print, while collage has a tridimensional aspect, too. We live in a period when photography has changed a lot, so I think it’s good to make photography communicate with other mediums and let it become something else. I’m really intrigued to find out what more it can be, how much I can push the boundaries of the medium and experiment with both subject and process. 

Giulia: I don’t feel the need to use other mediums, I am not bored with photography. In ‘Diachronicles’ there are objects I made myself, a 3D rendering (made in collaboration with 3D artist, Giuseppe Alaimo) and a 3D print, but they appear as photographs. Because the project also talks about photography and its connection to history and truth, I wanted to insert photography not as the final product, but as a subject itself. Therefore, I collaborated with the movie maker Claudio Giordano to create a video piece. It was important for me to show the relationship between archaeology and photography, so the video is about the repetition of these two things – finding, recording, finding, recording. It’s very rhythmic, because the flash goes off every other second. The camera flashing was a way to insert the idea of photography without actually using photography. 

Giulia Parlato, ‘Box’, from Diachronicles, 2019

CR/LB: You both attempt to reconstruct, to amend and to reflect on the past. And it’s easy to think that the past cannot be changed, but I think your work proposes the opposite. Why is this artistic act important – to reconstruct or to reflect on the past?

Giulia: It is important to consider history as something dynamic, that is not there just to be studied, but that can be rethought and looked at in a different way. Things are still being discovered. For example, a statue has just been discovered on a small island near Sicily, where archaeologists have been digging for a long time. I think this is a metaphor for the past as a creation, rather than something static. It’s always evolving, unravelling. For me the point is to reflect on how powerful photography has been and how we should be critical of the way we look at images. It’s important to question how information is passed on, which things are preserved or why some are not preserved. Let’s take the example of the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy. Because the Italians funded the excavations in Egypt, the agreement was that they could take from Egypt a certain percentage of artefacts. I don’t know if that is right or wrong, but because now the museum has been there for so long, we must consider on one hand the Egyptian history it presents, and on the other hand the history of the museum itself. 

It is important to consider history as something dynamic, that is not there just to be studied, but that can be rethought and looked at in a different way. Things are still being discovered – Giulia Parlato

Giovanna: I agree. For example, in one of my projects, I’m proposing artefacts mixed together through collage. I’m using photographs of real, documented artefacts, but the way I’m representing them is completely different from the perspective of the museum display. We cannot change the past, but my effort is to give the impression of a fluidity of cultures and civilizations. Western institutions may present, for example, Pre-Columbian objects in a scientific, static, and rigid way, not even knowing how these objects were meant to be used, and therefore presented. I’m repurposing artefacts, not in their physicality, but as images, and I’m connecting them with elements that belong to different civilisations. It’s a way to say that we all come from the same Earth and that museal categorisations are problematic.

Giovanna Petrocchi, ‘Contemplazione’, from Private Collection, 2018

CR/LB: How do you get access to artefacts or to archive source material? And how do you find this process – do you think it’s accessible enough for people who are not familiar with this historiographical area?

Giulia: Because I worked with different museums and institutions for ‘Diachronicles’, the process was to write official request letters, build trust, explain the project, and ask about their activity. It was a constant exchange of information. In Palermo, the museum staff were relaxed and excited that a photographer wanted to know more about their profession. Here (the UK), I’ve never really tried, because I felt a bit intimidated. However, I had different experiences, depending on the place. If you want to write about something, to understand or to research, it’s easy. If you want to photograph, it’s a bit different. One museum that I worked with was easy-going and they let me touch and move things, as long as I was careful and there was someone with me from the museum. And I had the same experience when I went to an archaeological dig, which is not like a museum at all. There, everyone is digging and it’s full of soil everywhere and they let me help them. In the zoology museum too, they were quite relaxed, opening the vitrines and allowing me to touch and move the animals. But in private institutions they were very strict and my wish to photograph created a sense of tension between us.

Giovanna: I think we can say that it’s not easy to get access. Most of the time my sources are online, so I either contact the online archive, or if it’s public domain, I simply download these images. In the museum I mainly take pictures of the objects behind the glass. On another occasion, my best friend, who works at the Byzantine Departments at Princeton University, put me in touch with the person responsible for the artefacts in their art museum. There, I couldn’t even touch the objects, a member of staff with gloves would manoeuvre them for me and I would take pictures in order to make the 3D model. I also had the chance to take photographs in Italy, for example in a small museum in the south of Italy, in Calabria. The staff was concerned and careful. It is almost as if museums wanted to keep artefacts preserved, but also secret and hidden. Which is why for ‘Modular Artefacts’, I created a fictional archive by using an existing archive from the Smithsonian Institution, which was public domain. But generally speaking, if you’re working with objects, not images, the museum is the main supervisor and in control of them. 

CR/LB: How important is the idea of the physical display for your projects, whether it’s exhibitions or photobooks? How different is the digital display to your exhibitions, for example? And how has your display strategy changed over time?

Giovanna: The idea that I want to create is of movement and fluidity within the installation and within photography. I work with bringing elements out of the frame, out of the print, and playing with the sculptural element. I like this idea of disguising the one within the other, the photographic print within the actual object, and vice versa. I tend to create an installation where you can feel this movement, this fluidity of cultures, which is something that is completely opposite to what you’re experiencing in a museum. The objects are not displayed in low lighting, enclosed and hidden. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with big prints mounted on aluminium, that are hanging from the ceiling, and the idea is that you can walk through these images, and you can feel the three dimensionality of the work. I really like using shelves and vitrines, which in a way echoes the ones that museums use, but the displayed objects are positioned randomly. There is this contrast that I like to play with between making it seem like an installation that could be in a museum, an installation that is documenting objects, and the objects in fact defying categorisation. My solo show, ‘Hybrid Mythologies and Migrating Tales’, at Flatland Gallery in Amsterdam, included the ‘Magic Lanterns’ work, where I use discarded glass slides documenting historical fragments, which I scanned and then used as backgrounds for new collages. They are displayed as sculptural objects on tables, not hanging on the wall. I’m really fascinated with these transformations within the medium –  scanning, collaging, reprinting, while the sculptural elements are also really intriguing to me.

Giulia: I always try different things because I’m still trying to find out what is working and what is not. The first time ‘Diachronicles’ was shown, when I graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2019, the display was a series of big frames with one or more images inside, and white space in between. I thought this was a successful display, because of the content of the project, which connects to how the pages of a book are arranged, similarly to the layout of an encyclopaedia. It was referencing Aby Warburg’s ‘Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne’, an enormous work which was an attempt to trace the development of civilization through the history of art. His display was made up of panels that had black space in-between images. The next time I showed the project was for a funded show, but the funding was low. I wanted to show as many images and produce as many artist proofs as possible, but afterwards I found the display very simple and rigid. My work can be very rigid too, because the images are black and white, straight, shot with direct flash. I am still trying to find a way to make the display more dynamic and immersive, more engaging for the audience.

My exhibition at Mucho Mas! in Turin was funded by CAMERA – Italian Center of Photography through the European-funded programme ‘Future Photography’. I didn’t have a lot of space, but I really wanted to show the video piece and the lightbox tables, because they are new works. The idea of the installation came together thanks to the advice and help of Luca and Silvia from Mucho Mas! and of Giangavino Pazzola, curator at CAMERA and coordinator of ‘Future Photography’. I think they have really helped the display to come alive. I had made them because I wanted to have an element that recalled the set of the museum display, but a camera obscura too. Photography is invoked by recalling the gesture of projecting with the enlarger a negative on photographic paper. At the same time, the objects shown in the lightbox tables are photographed as if they were X-Ray scans, which is the procedure when you try to authenticate artefacts. This brings us to the question whether what the viewer sees is real or fake. On the other hand, the metaphor of strong light as a way of revealing something is present throughout – in the images, in the lightbox tables and in the video. When the video is flashing, the soil of the video is reflected onto the glass of the lightbox tables and onto the glass of the photographs. It creates a connection to an actual archaeological dig and the experience of the excavation taking place in front of you.

Giulia Parlato, ‘Evidence n.6’, from Diachronicles, Mucho Mas! Torino, Italy, 2022
Photographs: Luca Vianello e Silvia Mangosio

CR/LB: Concerning the project ‘Private Collection’ (2018), Giovanna stated that her motivation came from a “desire to actively feel engaged when visiting an archive or a museum” because in many collections the “objects are static and inaccessible”. Yet, for the ‘TPG New Talent’ exhibition (2019), the display of images and artefacts of the projects ‘Modular Artefacts’, ‘Mammoth Remains’ and ‘Private Collection’ felt almost identical to what we can experience in a museum or in a gallery. Could you tell us more about the idea behind this installation? 

Giovanna: The initial idea was to mimic the museum display, but to subtly intervene by removing or adding some aspects in ways that would make the objects feel freer and more alive. However, I could not do it because it was being shown in a public gallery. The staff were afraid that people could take the objects or that they could fall. That’s one of the reasons why I had to make it look more like a museum vitrine, but the way the objects were displayed in the end was not as static and rigid as a museum display, because the objects didn’t really relate to each other. By using replicas, I could combine vessels from ancient Iran alongside Goddesses from the pre-Socratic era. We also showed the black and white ‘Modular Artefacts’ together with enlarged fictional pages of the archive, which were presented as big prints, along with more intimate images shown in small walnut frames, which we thought looked as if they were floating. The display at the Photographers’ Gallery was the exception, as my objects have otherwise been shown without vitrines, as was the case at Unseen, PhotoTallinn and at Flatland Gallery, in Amsterdam.

Giovanna Petrocchi, ‘Modular Artefacts, Mammoth Remains + Private Collection’, from TPG New Talent, The Photographers’ Gallery, London, 2019

CR/LB: Perhaps Giulia could tell us more about how the forgery section in Warburg’s  Mnemosyne archive influenced your work?

Giulia: I was at the Warburg Institute because I was researching his methodologies, his photographic archive, and his library. His library is fascinating, because the books are ordered according to free association, following the rule of the good neighbour. You would go there thinking about a book that you wanted, but you would never find that book. Instead, you would find something else that perhaps would even be better than the one you wanted in the first place. That is what happened to me when I was looking at the photographic archives for my dissertation. I started to open all the drawers and I reached the forgery section, which was quite intriguing.  Then I started to think about the fact that those were only possible fakes, because some were not actually confirmed. There was writing on the back of the images, I guess Warburg’s writing, saying “fake” and a question mark. In the meantime, some of these objects are still on display, because it’s impossible for people to tell if they are fake or not. I started to think about my project, to reflect on the idea of the fake and to wonder what would happen if I made my own iconography, like a photographic archive with forgeries and missing information.

Giulia Parlato, Diachronicles, Royal College of Art, London, 2019

CR/LB: Material culture is one of the most important aspects for historiography; without objects, how would we know how our ancestors lived? And it’s essential to recognize the difference between knowledge and speculation – we can only imagine the objects’ utility, after all. In the current postmodern climate, I wonder what do you think weighs more – the presence of the artefact, or the weaving of its story? 

Giulia: Something interesting about forgeries, for example, is that they used to have a negative value. But nowadays, they are used to preserve information. A lot of organisations and museums now 3D scan and 3D print replicas to study the actual artefacts.  Factum Foundation managed to recreate the surface of one of Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ that was lost in a fire, for example. It’s interesting to think about all the things that we lost, like the ceiling of Notre Dame, or places ravaged by war, where artefacts are being destroyed.  Let’s imagine that these new technologies had recorded those artefacts and buildings. I think it is important to have the artefacts, but also the forgeries, because they can help to study the artefacts and preserve all this data. It is also important to tell their story. Giovanna and I question history, but we respect historians. I don’t think it would be better not to have history, I think it is important to have it and keep it open. It doesn’t have to be one history; we can have a multiplicity of stories. And we can tell the stories from different angles.

Giovanna and I question history, but we respect historians. … It doesn’t have to be one history; we can have a multiplicity of stories. And we can tell the stories from different angles – Giulia Parlato

Giovanna: I think preserving the objects and the memory of the objects is the most important thing. For ‘Sculptural Entities’, for example, my idea was to create a visual conversation between newly made artefacts – the new, discarded object, which is the fictional puzzle cut-out, and the old, natural element, which is the fossil. Perhaps this points to a new way of archiving, too. The elements that belong to nature sit next to ‘technofossils’, the discarded remains of the Anthropocene; they are in conversation. We can’t know the story of the old artefact, but by preserving it, we also preserve the potential of narrative. If we keep the artefact in a museum, some people won’t be able to travel and experience the objects in real life. To me it is important to disseminate an image of the artefact everywhere, digitally. When you disseminate the replica, you can disseminate a part of its narrative as well. Otherwise, it’s just stuck, either in a storage room or in a vitrine in the museum.

CR/LB: Your practices are similar in essence but your approaches to the subject and your creative processes are quite different: Giulia, your interventions and staging are subtle to a point where your discoveries seem real, whereas Giovanna’s images are playful and obviously altered. How did you find the collaboration process for Art Licks’ Issue 25, ‘Monochrome Eyes’ and to what extent has it impacted your working process?

Giulia: Tom Lovelace, who was my tutor at the RCA, was in contact with Giovanna, whom he met during a talk at The Photographers’ Gallery New Talent exhibition. He invited her to be a part of the show ‘With Monochrome Eyes’, and when he was invited to guest-curate the 25th issue of Art Licks he contacted us both and asked us to collaborate on a new project for the magazine. From what I remember, I felt that it was quite easy to work with Giovanna because I had a lot of images of artefacts, while Giovanna had many archival images. I sent Giovanna my photographs, she made collages out of them and I was able to try my hand at collage too.

Giovanna: Working on Giulia’s archive was interesting because I usually work with museum or gallery archives, but to work with the archive of another photographer was something new and exciting for me. At the beginning, the idea was for me to build collages on top of Giulia’s archive, but then the process became a visual conversation. We created a fictional photographic documentation of imaginary museums that was a mixture of archives, fossils, bones and statues. It was a combination between a natural history museum and an ancient art museum. We had to do it on very short notice, but it was nice because it was fun and easy and we are both very precise and organised. We share the same interest in terms of concept, ideas and references, but Giulia’s process and aesthetics are completely different to mine. We borrowed elements from each other’s work in order to make a unique body of work. You cannot really tell what is Giulia’s and what is mine in that series.

This conversation took place in February 2022 during Archivo Platform’s editorial internship programme.

Giulia Parlato and Giovanna Petrocchi, ‘Collateral Histories’, Artlicks Issue 25, 2020

Text © Camille Relet and Laura Bivolaru;
Images © Giovanna Petrocchi/Giulia Parlato unless otherwise indicated