Early afternoon, Glastonbury: London-based artist Chiara Ambrosio and I have left the cottage where we had slept, fortified by a breakfast of cherry tomatoes roasted in a ramekin and spread on toast. We made our way through the English fog and ascended the mysterious Tor—a cone-shaped hill rising from the landscape crowned with a mysterious tower dedicated to St. Michael (who, being an Archangel, has a legendary love of high perches). I peered out from the arched doorway over the Somerset rooftops, and asked Chiara to snap a photo.
I had a hunch that it was the same arch that William Blake depicted in his book, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804 – c. 1820), which has long-been compared to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, in both form and function. The frontispiece depicts a pilgrim stepping beyond the page into the dark expanse of the book itself, an illusion created through a masterful application of paint. Around the borders are broken chains (Blake invited his readers to cast off their “mind-forg’d manacles” and enter, as pilgrim explorers, the recesses of their own imaginations). It is widely accepted that Blake seldom left London on foot, but from his cottage at Felpham, he walked mentally through Dante’s inferno, to Jerusalem and Spain, and to Glastonbury—issuing an invitation for his readers to follow him into the “images of wonder” that he created. The sentiment is not unlike what the 12th-century mystical theologian Hugh of St. Victor described as an activation of an eye within that can touch, produce light, and behold past, present, and future all at once. Ambrosio has breathed new life into this ancient idea through a series of hand-held zines, As Far As the Eye Can Travel. The title invokes the medieval idea of so-called virtual pilgrimage through manuscripts. I say “so-called” because, if we heed the wisdom of Blake and Hugh of St. Victor, an embodied experience is possible through sight and touch. Such projects also radically democratize pilgrimage for folks who are unable to travel by foot. The AFATECT issues are thematic, interactive, and cinematic – on one page the viewer encounters a panoramic landscape, and on the next an intimate portrait; the aperture of Ambrosio’s lens widens and narrows, carrying the viewer—yes!—as far as the eye can travel, from Coney Island to Palermo and beyond. The zines contain ex-votos, landscapes, shrines, and portraits—all things, places, and people that Ambrosio has personally encountered on her travels and pilgrimages.
Issue no. 26, “Napoli 18” begins with an augury into the landscape as we follow a figure’s gaze out the window. Suddenly, we are on the street looking at a pile of debris that juxtaposes plywood cupboards with an empty sculptural niche. On the next page, day turns to night and we gaze up at the rooftops and down again, onto a roadside Marian shrine. An icon of Our Lady of the Way is affixed to the wall and underneath is an altarcito of photographs and flower offerings. Ambrosio writes that her “paper Wunderkammer” is “an act of commitment to the mystery of presence, a search for continuity within the cracks and the margins” (and, as Leonard Cohen wrote and Hugh would agree, it is through those cracks that the light gets in).
Ambrosio emphasizes the collective subconscious at work in what she sees as a universal re-enchantment of artistic production and draws on a diversity of sources and inspirations, including Blake and also the work of the Czech neo-surrealist filmmaker, Jan vankmajer. Her love of “charged architectures and spaces of ritual” (like the Glastonbury tower) recalls a childhood immersed in the deeply Catholic culture of Calabria and Rome. The popular piety in those places is one of tactility and expression; a religious culture saturated with devotional paraphernalia. It is not unusual for the faithful to press a prayer card to the relic of a saint to create a “contact relic” that is believed to carry a trace of a blessing of the holy body.
Like these vernacular relics, Ambrosio sees the zines as conduits of spirit from interior spaces, landscapes, and objects: she has described them as handmade talismans, amulets, and portals inside which the captured images are given to the paper, and then transformed into “charged objects.” Like the contact relics made by Calabrian grandmothers, there is an aspect of touch at every step of the way in the production of AFATECT—the touch of light as the landscape is captured, the touch of silver nitrate as the image is fixed, the touch of ink on paper. Her project is both an archive of landscapes and spaces and an invitation to a voyage—no boots required. Perhaps she will take us to Glastonbury next.
Chiara Ambrosio’s AFATECT project can be found here: https://asfarastheeyecantravel.com/