Marta Viola, Sangue Bianco

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Seipersei (here). Thread-bound softcover, unpaginated, with thirty one color plates, 188mm x 240mm. In an edition of 500 copies. Edited and designed by Stefano Vigni. With texts in Italian by Marta Viola and an introduction by Stefano Vigni. Realized with the support of three hundred crowd-funding contributors, under the campaign management of Chiara Narcisi. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 1978 Susan Sontag published Illness as Metaphor. Investigating her subject not for its physical effects on body and mind, but rather as a sentimental, stereotypical way of thinking, Sontag’s book opens with this sentence:

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

Within the same page she states that illness, actually, “is not a metaphor” and that “The most truthful way of regarding illness […], is one most resistant to metaphoric thinking.”

Earlier this year, Italian photographer Marta Viola published her first photobook, Sangue Bianco. In English, “sangue bianco” means “white blood”. Semantically, this figure of speech, merging two words of opposite meaning, is a contradiction in terms; a metaphor. From a medical point of view, it implies an excess of diseased white blood cells, commonly known as leukemia.

At first glance, Viola’s and Sontag’s publications seem to relate by inversion, engaging illness from opposite ends. Yet, it is the very encounter with Sontag’s “other place”, dismantling metaphor and grounding it in lived experience, which Viola describes in words and images as you turn the pages of Sangue Bianco. On the first page, she writes:

“July 2016 – Positano in the summer. My photographer-friends. Our collective. I wasn’t able to eat anything at dinner. I remember telling Dario that I had never felt this bad, but I smiled while saying it. I was ironic until the end. I said – maybe I’m dying – but I didn’t think it was really possible. While I was brushing my teeth, I couldn’t stand straight; I balanced myself with my other arm on the sink. I tried to look at myself in the mirror but I could only see half of my face, the rest was spotted and blurry. The gums were bleeding. At six in the morning, I got up to go to the bathroom, then darkness. They found me on the floor, I had fallen against the shower. I regained my senses almost immediately, but I couldn’t get up.”

You might imagine the events that followed. After being hospitalized, Viola is diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. She is transferred to another hospital in Naples, where she undergoes several treatments of chemotherapy that are punctuated by short stays at home. Then, finally, a transplant, followed by ninety-seven days of isolated recovery – and the incessant alternation of fear and hope, whether she “would make it, or not.”

Viola told me that she did not have the time to absorb what was happening, that there was no time, as therapy had to start immediately. And while her approach to life usually embraces an “OK, what do I have to do?” attitude, this time she was told to merely accept what was happening and to take it from there. “It was a shock” and one of the reasons why Viola began to take photographs and write from the start. While her photographs are usually taken with a digital, mirror-less reflex camera, for this project she also used two smartphones (as there were moments in which could not handle anything heavier).

With the precision of a captain’s log and the unforgiving frankness of a diary, Sangue Bianco retraces a nine-month journey through illness and recovery. Captured in atmospheric, carefully contrasted color photographs, Viola depicts close-ups and interiors, with and without people, in full-bleed, alternating between one and double-page spreads. Some of her images show the every-day objects of her hospital life: a blue curtain tenderly brushing against a window, a slender plastic tube filled with yellow liquid (is it nourishment or refuse?), or a small cup containing some viscous, deeply purple juice that looks so intriguingly artificial, you can’t decide whether it’s beautiful or gross. Other photographs show land- and city-scapes, at day- and night-time, always framed through a window’s or a balcony’s point-of-view.

Most of Viola’s images seem to utter a single word – longing. It is palpable in the small leafy plant standing against the backdrop of semi-closed blinds, breathing life into a rather aseptic surrounding; as well as in the pictures of family and friends, solving crosswords and keeping company, while communicating through hospital telephones, standing in front of yet another window, as they were not allowed to enter her room, due to the risk of infection.

Yet, there are also images of vulnerability and profound worry, emphasized by the thick paper upon which they are printed, tangible in the intimate close-ups of hands holding on to a blanket or one another. Even though Sangue Bianco is a portrayal of a young woman fighting cancer, the book does not include many portraits, and, in fact, only one picture that alludes to the painful transformations of a body in the aftermath of chemotherapy. Instead, Viola confronts us with her face – the geometric lines of her nose, lips, and eyebrows, but most importantly, her eyes and their impenetrable, yet resilient, gaze.

In contrast to other photobooks engaging with the subject of cancer, such as Nancy Borowick’s Cancer Family, a tender and heartbreaking portrayal of her parents both diagnosed with the illness, or Hannah Wilke’s unsparing depiction of herself and her ravaged body in the Venus Series, Viola’s photographs do not reveal what cancer looks like, but how and what it feels like to look from the inside out.

“Photography was my way to become intimate with the new surrounding I was obliged to live in – the hospital. […] There was always a distance between me and the others, me and the world. I’ve tried to describe this through my images. In fact, the photographs of my immediate surroundings are the ones that were ‘closest’ to my gaze, while people were always on the other side of the glass. To photograph the little things, implies that these little things were what my attention focused on. […] I became friends with every inch of my hospital room.”

As opposed to her photographs, which focus on visual details, colors and their gradation, as well as light and shadows, Viola’s texts provide insights into the thoughts and feelings that she “did not dare to say out loud”, to the others, but also to herself – her fear and determination, her anger and her hope. Reproduced on differently colored sheets of paper, the text-pages echo the overall tonality of the photographs they are paired with. Even if her words follow the chronological unfolding of events (the photographs don’t), they don’t form a linear narrative, but rather a series of beautifully written fragments (sadly, only those who know Italian can read them – they make for a breathtaking, at times gut-wrenching read). Her writing ranges in tone as much as in content, both of which are difficult to describe, as they have to be experienced. There is love for her parents and their care; resignation about the craved-for pear juice that always turns out to be apricot; there is wonderful irony about the soon-to-be-nurses that do not even give the courtesy of a greeting; there is the silent mourning for her hair (“My mother arrives with a Kleenex, ‘I’ll take care of it’ she says. The subtext is: Don’t look, you’ll feel worse”); there is fatigue (“Everything exhausts me, even cutting zucchini for the risotto”) and there is a forceful desire for touch, the sky, the sea, and air. For Viola, words and images are binary elements, which are complementary but proceed on independent paths. For me, they are the secret and means to her book’s power – balancing distance with intimacy, and thereby elevating a highly personal experience to something more universal that others can relate to and feel for.

Holding a degree in psychology, Viola began working with photography by assisting a fashion and still-life photographer in Padova. After attending a class at New York’s International Center for Photography, she enrolled in a course of advanced photography at Milan’s European Design Institute, where she met professor Stefano Vigni. Following her illness and recovery, Viola made preliminary edits of texts and images – and, then, contacted Vigni for honest feedback. He replied with a book-proposal.

The result is a delicately designed object that, despite the weight of its subject matter, is neither dramatic nor didactic; it does not amplify nor diminish. As such, Sangue Bianco, is not a metaphor, but a testimony of illness, as much as of survival – carving a space, a threshold between the two.

On the book’s last page, preceded by close up of her face, Viola writes: “All too distinctive voices overlap without any grace. While I am sipping a nice glass of white wine, I gasp the smells of dinner. Cigarette smoke, tipsy laughter, knowing gazes, tales from the past. I linger in a fluctuating bubble. My view is blurry. Life is slipping away, nobody has noticed.”

In the simplest, and therefore, perhaps, most difficult sense, Viola has captured, verbally and visually, what was. Nothing more and nothing less.

Collector’s POV: Marta Viola does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should contact the photographer directly via her website (linked in the sidebar).


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