On first glance, the photographs created as part of artist Filippo Minelli’s captivating project Silence / Shapes are gentle, billowing, beautiful affairs – grand bursts of colour rising silently from a mountain range, or a thick forest, or out of a mound of snow, suggesting some kind of a mystical presence. They do not immediately call to mind the slow and terrifying suffocation which accompanies the release of a cloud of tear gas over a crowd of demonstrators – a literal and metaphorical stifling of the freedom to speak and to act. But that is, in fact, what inspired them.
The idea first came to Minelli’s mind at the 27th G8 summit which took place in Genoa, Italy, in 2001, inspired by the haunting quiet which results from the use of such chemicals, he says. “I was inspired after watching political demonstrations, where you can see the smoke arriving, choking the demonstrators and the police. Nobody can breathe, so the whole scene becomes very silent, both visual and acoustically. I got this impression that the smoke itself was the silence arriving into the scene. So I decided to decontextualise the smoke bombs, placing them into landscapes where I could give this impression to other people.”
The landscapes Minelli chooses to execute his performances in range from the Alps – “I work a lot on the border between Italy, Switzerland and Austria,” he says – to Florida, California and the Canary Islands; all places chosen for the drama of their scenery. “I choose the place after hiking, or doing a lot of research – I’m basically searching for a landscape of beauty, that reminds me of the incredible feelings that you can have when you’re alone in nature,” he adds. “You know when you realise that there’s something really powerful out there, but you can’t really feel what it is? I wanted to use the smoke to give silence a political shape that you can recognise and see as a presence in the landscape.” Of all these, the mountains have proven the most problematic, but also, conversely, the most satisfying. “Most people are very convinced that all of the photographs are very staged – like I can easily decide where to point the camera, or where to light the smoke bomb. In actual fact, it’s more like running around these different places and trying to freeze the cloud in the composition that you want.”
The absence of permission plays an important role in Minelli’s practice – to create these performances without having asked a presiding authority sustains a sense of political freedom, harking back to the source of the project’s inception, he explains, but it can also create some problems. This past December, while working on a piece in Miami during Art Basel, threw up one such example. “I was working in very urban areas in the city, and I didn’t calculate the quantity of smoke that I was about to create very well,” he says. “There was this huge cloud moving around the streets of this industrial area. Some people just stared at it with their phones, trying to document the thing. Some called the police. Some took their kids and ran away.”
Elsewhere, unexpected spectators have added a sense of gravity to the pieces. “Once I was up on the Alps, near a beautiful lake. I didn’t know that there were people around, but I started working and I created this huge pink cloud in front of this fantastic blue lake, with the green mountains in the back. Ten or so people who were hiking showed up, and they were really hypnotised by the cloud. It was something completely weird to see in that environment. It felt like a religious moment.”
Filippo Minelli's Silence / Shapes is part of Venturing Beyond: Graffiti and the Everyday Utopias of the Street, which runs from March 3 until May 2, 2016, at Somerset House, London.