Giorgio Ciam (1941-1996) was an important Italian member of the international Body Art movement who used mainly photography and performance, as well as painting, collage, drawing, and sculpture, as a means to explore questions of identity and the self in the late 20th century. He was born in Pont-Saint-Martin (Aosta) and studied at the Accademia delle Belle Arti, in Turin. His work has been widely exhibited both nationally and internationally.
Ciam had a keen interest for experimental theatre, for anthropology, and for the different possibilities opened up by incorporating various artistic media into his practice, characterised by a protean complexity. In a booklet of his writings published in 1979, Ciam states, “uncertainty means declaring who man is”. And it is through the optics of this uncertainty that the artist’s work is startlingly realised. Through a series of collating processes that incorporated amongst others, paint, sculpture, projection, and performance, Ciam used photographic self-portraiture to capture and relentlessly rewrite his own identity.
Whether it involved an artist, a friend, or a member of his family, Ciam truly underwent a metamorphosis, becoming a performative and enigmatic alter-ego. In the 1970s, to execute such a dramatic transformation, Ciam employed two central techniques in his practice. The first method was by printing the image of his face onto an emulsified canvas, where he would add or remove material using a cutter and a pencil to masterfully transform his own face into that of other artists such as Rainer, Gilbert, and Cesar. The second method employed by Ciam involved the use of photomontage, where portraits would be either on photographic paper or emulsified canvas. Together, these techniques represent some of the earliest in photo-editing.
A critical theme in Ciam’s oeuvre is ‘stratification’, which can be seen in his work from the early 1980s. As explained by Elena Re, with stratification, Ciam wanted to “focus primarily on his own concept of time. This is a time that is always present, because it is generated by the simultaneity of countless possible fluctuating moments”. To achieve this the artist would surround himself with a number of projectors and a camera. The projectors would screen Ciam’s own compositions, and in some cases also other images, onto his own body as the camera set to a long exposure would take pictures. The results would be artworks that conveyed intensely liminal identities, disrupting the notion of authorship and character seen in traditional self-portraiture.
The early 1990s were characterised by the malaise that permeated society through global conflicts and economic uncertainty. At this time, Ciam entered what can be understood as his ‘dark’ phase. The artist took his stratification method to an extreme, abstracting matter, photographing, and often painting over the photograph until the end result was mostly blackness. In doing this, Ciam brought the uncertainty of human nature to the fore.
Themes of the body and identity re the connecting threads across the artist’s oeuvre. The manipulation and reconfiguration of the body as a means to represent new facets of the self was an ongoing preoccupation in the artist’s quest to create a fragmented yet continuous vision of identity. By focusing on the face especially, Ciam explored his possibility of interacting with the ‘Other’. Indeed, he saw the face as one’s interface with the world. By incorporating various media in his work, Ciam was able to develop a rich visual language that constantly questioned its own identity.