Manuel Cosentino: The Fourth Kind of Madness
Manuel Cosentino (b.1980) is an Italian artist working with photography. He graduated from the Istituto Europeo di Design in Rome, and moved to London where he worked as a visual effects artist in the film Industry contributing to several movies, including Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix and Narnia Prince Caspian.
He is interested in the role of the individual—and collective responsibility—in contemporary society, and on the function of art as an agent of change. His work unfolds onto the retina of the mind to make visible, one at the time, the threads that connect us to one another and the walls setting us apart. His series pierce physicals and imaginary boundaries to reconnect the public not only with but through art.
His work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Venice Arsenal (Italy), the Museo Diocesano F. Gonzaga (Italy), the Museo Civico G. Fattori (Italy), the Pantheon of Mirafiori (Italy), the Griffin Museum of Photography (USA), the Carmel Center for Photographic Arts (USA), The Fence (Brooklyn Bridge Park, NYC), Festival de la Luz (Buenos Aires), Head On Photo Festival (Sidney), the Royal Photographic Society (UK), Klompching Gallery (New York), Galerie Huit during “Les Rencontres d’Arles” (France), and has been featured on L’Espresso (Italy), WIRED (USA), The Huffington Post (USA), PDN (USA), Blink Magazine (S. Korea), Lens Culture (Netherlands), iGnant (Germany), the Colossal (USA), Lenscratch (USA), My Modern Met (USA) and L’Oeil de la Photographie (France). In recognition for his work, he has received several international awards. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Premio Combat Prize for contemporary photography (Italy). His work resides in several private and public collections, including the permanent collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France
The Fourth Kind of Madness
“Where to? And from where?” is asked in the first line of one of the early extant works on the meaning of Beauty as the city walls are crossed to enter the countryside and enquire into the irrational. Only by cultivating the highest form of madness—Love—starting from a fragment of beauty in the world in its infinite becoming we could have learned to perceive intelligible beauty. Losing reverence for beauty would have resulted in losing our capacity to seek it in human pursuits, laws and ideals. Ultimately, beauty would have turned into something to be merely consumed.
Inspired by the postmodern shunning of beauty “The Fourth Kind of Madness“ elaborates on Elaine Scarry’s philosophical work on the relationship between beauty and justice, and the societal value of the “unselfing” that we undergo when standing in the presence of something beautiful, what philosopher Simone Weil saw as a radical decentering—possibly the only perceptual event in human experience where loss of perceived or pursued centrality is associated with the feeling of pleasure.
In the series I reconsider beauty as a subject, reevaluating it from an alternative perspective that goes beyond counter-aesthetic frameworks of political and social engagement, and explore how our pursuit of notions of justice, equality and fairness is assisted by beauty and its availability to sensory-perception.
Seven years in the making “The Fourth Kind of Madness“ reflects on the societal value of the encounter with something beautiful. Where to? And from where?
Installation details: The photographs are imagined as cuts into the surface of the world, small openings along the dividing line between the sensuous and the intelligible. When articulated on the vertical axis the visual metaphor of the line opening a gap in-between the walls of the exhibiting space morphs into the “scala amoris”—Diotima’s ladder of love—moving us, one step at a time, from appreciating beauty across the surface of the world to seeking it in the very ethical framework of society.
Congratulations on the new work! What are you interested in as an artist? And what is the subject of your second body of work “The Fourth Kind of Madness”?
I like my work to transcend the limits of the medium as it goes beyond geopolitical, cultural and epistemological confines, pierce physical and imaginary boundaries to make visible, on at a time, the threads that connect us to one another and the walls setting us a part.
While the “Behind a Little House Project”, which explores what it means to belong and how it shapes our perception and attitude towards the world, works with the page creating an indissoluble interconnection between the public through a participatory artist book, in my second body of work, “The Fourth Kind of Madness”, the visual metaphor of the line cuts through the exhibiting venue opening a gap in-between the very structure that so often disconnects us from art. The colour photographs, imagined as cuts into the surface of the world, small openings along the dividing line between the sensuous and the intelligible, pierce the impenetrable “white walls” of the art world to reconnect the public not only with, but through art, exploring how our pursuit of notions of justice, equality and fairness is assisted by beauty and its availability to sensory perception. When articulated on the vertical axis the line morphs into the “scala amoris”—Diotima’s ladder of love—moving us, one step at a time, from appreciating beauty across the surface of the world to seeking it in the very ethical framework of society.
What moved you to create “The Fourth Kind of Madness”?
“Where to? And from where?” is asked in the first line of one of the early extant works on the meaning of Beauty as the city walls are crossed to enter the countryside and investigate the irrational.
The two questions are inverted, warning us, I believe, against looking at beauty from the city’s perspective—the self-centered rationalizing lens that has led us then and now to merely consume it, use it for, or reduce it to mere power. They point us towards the dangers of crying wolf when the wild beast we fear might be hiding in our own, unchecked Self. Not kalliphobia, fear of, but the very love for Beauty is what can tame the appetites of the one hundred headed Typhon monster looming over the city.
It is here, outside the city walls, looking towards the city that the series will be looking at Beauty.
The two questions seem to urge us to consider what moves our soul, to see the glittering of the strings in the dark, feel the push-pull forces that orient our actions in the world. Burke’s inverted taxonomy of aesthetics, and the postmodern ontology of power have deserted beauty and pushed us towards the sublime, an esthetic of force. While we continue to merely consume it we’re losing beauty and the one hundred leashes of the Typhon breathing within us, we are turning our back on the city.
Seven years in the making “The Fourth Kind of Madness“ reflects on the societal value of the encounter with something beautiful. Where to? And from where?
Where is the landscape framed in the series located?
As with my first body of work “Behind a Little House”, which focused on the unifying nature of our common environment, I am not interested in landscape as an indexical representation of a geopolitical coordinate, I prefer for it to transcend geographical placement and become an idea. For the first time my work is also undated dissolving the specificity of space and time.
Imagined as a walk along the dividing line between the sensuous and the intelligible, the series invites us to enter a symbolic and metaphorical landscape setting the stage for a conversation on the meaning of Beauty where it started nearly 2400 years ago—outside the city walls.
Deeply intertwined with Plato’s “Phaedrus” and the 14th century cycle of frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government and its Effects on the City and the Countryside”, not only is the series developed along the three axis of the “dividing line” and the “scala amoris”, but as it moves vertically, horizontally and across physical and imaginary confines it also travels in two directions, from the city to the countryside, and from the countryside to the city.
It is here, in this multidimensional coordinate as Plato’s and Lorenzetti’s path cross that the conversation begins. This symmetrical structure fluctuating between converging and diverging views opens the series to a multiplicity of perspectives and further points of discussion as we delve deeper into the work.
How does beauty act as a lever towards justice, equality and fairness?
Early 14th century frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” show how the ethical framework of the city affects the surrounding countryside. When balance is lost and self-interest prevails over the Common Good “Timor”—Fear—flies in the air and the “integritas” of the land becomes corrupted as the integrity of the rulers.
In conversation with Lorenzetti, as we go outside the city walls, the series inverts the perspective and reflects on how aesthetics can shape the landscape of ethics, and the morphology of our surroundings inspire our laws.
Elaine Scarry, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, the Diotima of our time, to whom I am greatly indebted, believes that when we encounter something beautiful we are swept off our feet to land beyond the limits of the Self, no longer at the center of our own world, as we turn down the leading role to become what in folk tales is known as the “donor figure” and enter a larger story. This Copernican Revolution of the Self is one of the very few if not the only perceptual experience where loss of perceived or pursued centrality is associated with a feeling of pleasure.
Scarry, who has furthered the thought of mid-century philosophers Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch on “radical decentering” and “unselfing”, and who is also the author of one of the seminal texts of our time on pain, believes that this dissolution of our Ptolemaic universe as we move towards the other is a “preparation or a rehearsal for caring about the injuries of the world or caring to repair injustices”.
But this is only a fragment of her beautiful theory, where Scarry, whose ideas have helped shape the grounds onto which the series was founded, maps the morphology of beauty and the unfolding of “radical decentering” and “unselfing” to the pursuit of the Common Good.
Beauty might be pulling us closer to justice, equality and fairness, connecting us, like the rope that in Lorenzetti’s frescoes connects the members of the community as they all bare equal standing in symmetry with one another, while gently pulling them, one step at a time, closer to Justice and ultimately, Peace.
Perhaps it was the timeless beauty of the surrounding countryside in its infinite becoming that inspired the enlightened rulers of the city state to commission Lorenzetti frescoes to move us from the “center” towards the Common Good.
It is a risk, I believe, to trivialize Beauty, turn it into something to be merely consumed. As “The Fourth Kind of Madness” and “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government and its Effects on the City and the Countryside” are trying to tell us there won’t be peace without beauty, and beauty without peace.
Beauty begets Beauty, after all.
Isn’t beauty subjective?
“Siena mi fè”—[the city of] Siena made me—sais Pia de’ Tolomei in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Environmental factors do affect us, they mold parts of our identity and help shape the lens through which we see the world, but we are not made just by “the city walls”, which unite us dividing us setting us apart behind cultural borders. Beauty, I believe, is the us in the other, and the other in us. We are also made by the invisible thread intertwining us all.
Someone else’s taste might lead us beyond the limits of our culture and experience to an undiscovered territory, give us the coordinates to a neglected locus of beauty in one of our blind spots. We are, I believe, all looking for, and finding, the same thing across different attributes of the surfaces of the world. This unmapped common ground is, I believe, at the hearth of the search for beauty.
As we move through its endless becoming we occupy a personal vantage point overlooking the world, a raised and central position which sets us apart from others, but it is my hope that viewers scattered across its surface will find in a fragment of beauty something to reconnect them all.
What is your artistic process? How does your work come to life?
I like to paint with the world sometimes looking for years across its surface for that fragment where the unknown and the familiar collapse into a single coordinate and the visual metaphor that I have painted in my mind becomes isomorphic with the land. I call this part of the process the déjà-vu—the seen.
But painting with the world also means in conversation with the world. Rather than a monologue I seek a dialogue. The land should have a voice, a standing. While I set out thinking that I am speaking through the land, I need to come back feeling that the land is speaking through me. There must be something that I don’t know, a side of the story that I could not have told on my own. I call this part of the process the jamais vu—the unseen.
While the déjà vu reminds me of what I know, and the jamais vu tells me what I do not know, they must both converge towards what I call the veil–the forgotten. To lift the veil, or in the specific case of “The Fourth Kind of Madness” series, thinking of the Irish philosopher Iris Murdoch, ”to pierce the veil”, is the third and often most important part of the process.
The ancient Greeks believed that drinking from the river Lethe would erase our memory, disconnect us from the world. I like to walk upstream the troubled rivers of our time to look at the memory of the water, the collective memory of the world.
The young Burke before leaving the world of aesthetics for that of politics rushed the publication of his inquiry inverting the taxonomy of beauty and the sublime, before it could fully settle in his mind, as he himself stated, to trouble the waters of his time—“I know of nothing sublime which is not some modification of power.” he argued just before stating that we ultimately feel contempt for what we love. His towering waves still brake onto the dark cliffs of the sublime postmodern landscape, a world of eternally troubled waters withholding the memory of Empedocles’ cosmogony of strife and Orson Wells’ eternal wars. Travelling in the opposite direction “The Fourth Kind of Madness” was imagined as a cosmogony of love. The series puts the weight of Beauty on the scale to rebalance the asymmetries of the postmodern culture of war.
As we lift the veil off beauty, the forgotten of this body of work, beauty in turn lifts the veil that disconnects us from one another.
How much of your work is created in post-production?
“The Fourth Kind of Madness” series was created over the course of seven years including several months of pre-production work focused on location scouting and over 1000 hours on site.
I used to work as a visual effects artist in the film industry and contributed to several movies including “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”. Post production can do wonders. But, sometimes, among all that cloning, dodging and burning something gets lost—that very spark which can act as a mediator between different worlds.
Sometimes, putting down Photoshop’s magic wand is all you need to cast a spell on the public.
Can you speak about your influences?
For the series I delved into more than 2500 years of literature on the subject, going from the pre-Socratics extant fragments to Graham Harman’s considerations on philosophy and art; Trasimacus’ words in the “Republic” to the post metaphysical theory of justice of John Rawls. Skipping out of philosophy for the verses of Saffo, the notes of Leonardo—which have trickled into the titles of individual pieces, and are reveled when the series is mounted in a specific sequence—and the life experience of Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka whose memories of the effects of beauty during “Hanging day” left a mark. The series has also been influenced by the eastern tradition of landscape painting and, as mentioned, by early 14th century frescos by Ambrogio Lorenzetti “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government and its Effects on the City and the Countryside” which have had an Important role within the development of the series, and provide a key point of discussion across the work.
I am greatly indebted to Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch and Elaine Scarry. I call them with sincere respect “Diotima’s Priestesses”—Diotima being Socrates’ teacher in the Symposium, the Delphic priestess who introduces him to the “scala amoris”—the ladder of love—one of the most beautiful concepts in Plato’s epistemology, which also has had a role in the development of the series. They possess a degree of sensitivity which the young Burke trying to impose himself on the intellectual scene by troubling the waters of his time with his enquiry on the sublime could never achieve.
Ultimately, Plato. I wanted to invite the public in the conversation on Beauty where it started, and the Phaedrus, one of the most fascinating early extant works on the meaning of beauty, provided the right settings—the countryside outside the city—with its rich symbolic and metaphorical subtext. I couldn’t resist the lure of Socrates trespassing the city walls in what I believe is the father of western rationality’s palinode to the “irrational”, and the pardon of the poet reimagined as the psychagogic artist—Plato himself.
Cicero, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Virginia Wolf, Heidegger couldn’t but feel the attraction of this platonic dialogue and become entangled with it. Theodor Adorno considered it part of the prehistory of beauty, and Jacques Derrida constructed between its lines one of the key tenets of his thought. Trodden by friends and foes for over two thousand years its lush landscape continues to affect public discourse. It is here, in these fertile grounds at the gap between the sensuous and the intelligible that “The Fourth Kind of Madness” is set.
I always think of a new body of work as a secret romance. Going public now would spoil the fun. I can reveal one thing. I am in love.
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