Ezio D’Agostino, NEOS

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Skinnerboox (here). Two softcover books inside a silkscreen-printed silver envelope. The 48-page book includes 43 color and black and white reproductions, some printed in silver ink on black paper, and an essay by Andrea Lorena Soto Calderón. The 24-page book includes text captions for each image. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Nicholas Polli. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As an artistic medium, photography has a particularly rigid and unforgiving relationship with time. When the shutter is clicked, the mechanism of the camera makes an image of whatever sits in front of the lens, thereby preserving a representation of that moment in the now nearby past. Logically, we can’t directly make photographs of the past or the future, only the immediate present of right now – when we want pictures of the past, we must go back to pictures that were made in a present that has long since gone, and when we want pictures of the future, absent time travel, we’re essentially stuck.

Ezio D’Agostino’s thoughtful photobook NEOS actively wrestles with this time conundrum. It takes as its subject Luxembourg’s announcement of a first-of-its-kind space program to mine asteroids and near-earth objects (the NEOs of the title). But it is impossible to document something that doesn’t yet exist, so D’Agostino has been forced to get creative in his effort to tell this story with photographs.

The backstory to this dream from science fiction is equal parts national interest, international finance, resource scarcity, and the high-tech science of mining. As rare earth metals and other compounds used in cutting edge technologies have become increasingly sought after, the divide between the materials haves and have nots gets more problematic, and one potential solution that has been proposed to lessening the volatile scarcity of these materials has been to mine them from space. Such an ambitious endeavor of course requires political accommodation and negotiation (a legal framework is needed for claims), a significant amount of scientific and technical investment, and a massive amount of capital to fund the effort.

Even a quick glance at this problem brings up complex echoes of previous human projects to extract precious metals (like gold and silver) from the land. It doesn’t take long to surface the thorny issues of colonialism, development, exploitation, empire building, and disregard for the environment, as well as the tricky equations that try to bring costs, profits, and secondary and tertiary consequences into some kind of reasonable balance. NEOS attempts to engage some of these questions and hypotheticals, via photographs that remind us of how we have tackled related issues in the present. In a bold conceptual reversal, D’Agostino has ventured to make an archaeological study of the future using images from the present, essentially extrapolating fragments from today into a plausible (and arguably cautionary) version of what might occur tomorrow.

D’Agostino’s photographs are formally rigorous, isolating objects and details into anonymous fragments and then emphasizing their structure and patterning. Luxembourg’s now obsolete steel manufacturing and mining facilities are used as the basis for many of these imaginative visual exercises. He sees the angled shadow lines and the woven metal grill fence of old steel mills, the circular opening of a water cistern, a broken lamp and a tunnel map from abandoned mines, and a robotic arm used to analyse steel. And he zeroes in on details that would likely be part of any NEOS project – slag heaps, protective gloves and shoes, clouds of smoke, breathing gear used to clean blast furnaces, environmental core samples, and ice in cooling basins.

Other images dig further into scientific experiments and samples, from the white pinpricks of a calcium carbide explosion and the transparent boxes and storage containers used to house rare metals to a collection of gemstones from Zimbabwe found at a flea market and a golden nugget in the National Museum of Natural History. Like the images from Larry Sultan’s and Mike Mandel’s Evidence, D’Agostino’s pictures of mass spectrometers, software interfaces, and satellite dishes show us something profoundly technical that, without more context, we can’t quite grasp. Still other images make finance the entry point, where banks, accounting firms, security service providers, and freeport vendors offer the invisible services that glue a project like this together. D’Agostino’s photographs are once again one step removed from literal, with scaffolding on a bank building, a heartbeat sensor at the entrance to a freeport storage room, the prison tower-like facade of Deutsche Bank, and a lamp at PricewaterhouseCoopers alluding to certain financial realities without ever naming them.

The design of NEOS is truly outstanding. The two slim books are housed in a space age silver envelope, with the letters NEOS turned into a brilliant graphic logo of twisting switchbacks. Inside, the main volume houses the images, most of which are given full page spacing; the images at the beginning and end are printed on black paper with silver ink, amplifying the mystery as we enter and depart. A second volume houses detailed descriptive captions, and separating them out is a fundamentally smart, as it prevents us from immediately identifying what we are being shown. That distance gives D’Agostino’s photographs the room to convince us that they plausibly document the NEOS program and not something else. The whole package feels futuristic and cool, with just a tiny tinge of ominous foreboding.

In the end, I’m impressed by the artistic ingenuity displayed in trying to first push photography to do something it doesn’t inherently handle well and then delivering something as compelling as NEOS. D’Agostino’s photobook is a sleek, tightly-crafted project, executed with equal parts braininess and flair.

Collector’s POV: Ezio D’Agostino does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with artist via his website (linked in the sidebar). An exhibition of this body of work was recently held at the Centre National de l’Audiovisuel, Dudelange (Luxembourg) (March 13 – June 9, 2019, here).

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