Fusing archival images, staged portraits and his grandfather’s memoirs to explore the impossibility of photographic truth, the project is both moving and thought-provoking as it leaps through memory and historical artefact.
Koxvold’s grandfather, Aldo Varisco, was involved in a campaign of direct action against the Nazi occupation of Italy.
Varisco died when Koxvold was a young boy, and although there were few words spoken between them in life, after death a chance find was made among his belongings.
“I didn’t know him [my grandfather] very well at all,” Koxvold said.
“He was quite a stoical man, and had no time or patience to talk to me about the world.
“After he died, we found a collection of World War II explosives and paraphernalia behind a secret wall in his home.
“From then on, he was something of a legendary figure in our family, cloaked in mystery.”
After learning that Varisco had written memories of his experience, Koxvold asked his mother to translate them, and so began a harrowing journey of discovery about the realities of intimate warfare.
The project’s title refers to the location of the Venetian headquarters of the National Republican Guard at Ca’ Giustinian, which Varisco’s team destroyed with explosives in 1944, killing 13 people.
“They took a sea-mine and rigged it with a timer, delivering it in a box of some sort,” Koxvold recalled, having extensively studied his grandfather’s recollections.
“I believe the German guard said something along the lines of ‘is that a bomb then?’, and the two men carrying the crate laughed it off.
“The explosion was brutal, by the standards of the time, and killed 13 men, who were swiftly avenged by lining 13 Italian prisoners up against the wall at the site of the explosion for a hastily-arranged firing squad.”
Thirteen Italian prisoners were killed in an eye-for-an-eye retaliative act, which was ongoing; Varisco and his team were later captured and extensively tortured for their actions.
Koxvold suggested that the creation of Calle Tredici Martiri helped to develop his understanding of subjective experience.
All survivors remember the resistance with difference, and Varisco’s writings can be strikingly poetic:
It was a moonless night, but clear and windy. We ventured out to sea and immediately faced difficulties. The waves we had heard rumbling from afar were frothing, because of the shallow water, and tossing the boat like a twig. Once we were past the breakers we would have been out of danger, but the waves drenched us and we had to work hard to bail the water out of the boat. Finally, after a struggle we reached the open sea a few kilometres offshore, but Giuliano called an all stop for a short time when a German plane flew over us, very low. After a frustrating wait, Salvino said he had to return to the shore before dawn. Depositing us on the river bank, he pointed to a small hut made of reeds surrounded by tamarisk trees, and we slept there.
Koxvold’s use of photographs plays into his exploration of subjectivity; a photograph is so often conceived of as objective reality, but here they express personal suffering and a deep sense of solitude.
Koxvold himself called his portraits “vessels for ideas” which translate Varisco’s experiences into “a modern-day framework, in which our assumptions about terrorism are quite different”.
One such “vessel for idea” depicts a creative reimagining of a tortured man, struck with visible lashings.
Staging this image was “a lot harder than I imagined it would be”.
“I worked with a motion picture makeup artist, and as she came close to completing her work a silence fell over the room; the model fell into character,” Koxvold mused.
Excerpts from Koxvold’s commendable work are currently on display at The Cornershop Gallery, in Newtown, Sydney.
The gallery space is unorthodox in that the works are showcased in windows looking out onto the street.
They are free for anyone to observe.
“It’s important to me that this work feels authentic and democratic, so yes, it’s the perfect space for that,” Koxvold mentioned.
His selection of a few striking large-format pieces “creates the sense of the individual being dwarfed by the institution”.
The pressure to act in singular, striking acts against a monopoly of power is something which is observable in the present-day, whether through activism, art, lifestyle, or, disturbingly, random acts of violence which still pepper a war-free society.
“Perhaps by inviting viewers to take a small step outside the bubble of the contemporary, the work allows us to see ourselves more clearly,” Koxvold mused.
Images and texts from Calle Tredici Martiri by Jason Koxvold are currently on display at The Cornershop Gallery, 82a Angel Street, Newtown, Sydney.