Katabasis: Marianna Tedeschini’s Descent

In Marianna Tedeschini’s Katabasis, we descend into an underworld of frozen emergences, disrupted reflections, and landscapes caught between life and death. Katabsasis takes us on a quest through landscapes teeming with uncanny essence—is it life? is it death?
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Familiar, yet haunting presences animate these seemingly lifeless scenarios we encounter. Whatever lurks within the trees and whispers in the tall grass, this subterranean energy repeatedly thwarts our expectations, disturbs perceptions, and even makes us laugh at times.
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It is interesting that Tedeschini, an architecture photographer and recent graduate from the Sapienza Univeristy of Rome, should turn her attention from Roman ruins and urban interiors to cold, eerie landscapes and portraits of decay. Indeed, her previous work has focused on explicitly human creations.

Here, in “Katabasis”, we see a shift from photographing overt architecture to cultural and mythic structures, perceptions of movement and life that emanate from within the landscape but linger on the outskirts of human cognition. Nature is so “natural” that cultural presence slips quietly and easily into the grass shown above. The etheric and wispy quality, the fashion in which green, red, and brown blend through wind, that we gain the impression of spirits breathing or souls individuating themselves into strands of hair. It is an image of torture and loneliness, the striving for connection. The presence before us struggles to make itself recognizable as formerly human, but fails to manifest its previous form because the force lives in a world beyond. That is why we feel like we are in a space of otherness, but that space of otherness is so very familiar. This anthropomorphism is a kind of architecture — an invisible, but palpable structure we erect in order to understand something ineffable. As viewers, we struggle with these gestures that cannot realize themselves in our world of bodies and language. But we understand the gestures of longing and loneliness that operates as Katabasis’s modus operandi. Presence strives to make itself known.

We feel this presence even more as we embark on a journey through strange images that juxtapose cool and warm colors, human identity with mud and water. As we travel, a deathly longing to live becomes represented in semblances of bodies and skulls that form in the landscape. The image below approximates two giant eye sockets–a skull. But a human footprint besmirches its face, suggesting that our journey is bringing us into direct contact with this yearning presence.

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Yet, the clash of warm earth and cool water, the skull versus the foot mark–these elements situate us in a fate of wandering, life before death.

Tedeschini tells us the title “Katabasis”, a Greek word, means “descent.” Katabasis suggests many types of movement, from retreat in battle to traveling along a river toward the coast, but Tedeschini’s use of the word conveys her remembrance of Odysseus’s journey into Hades to meet the shade of the famous prophet, Tiresias.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus’s katabasis, his descent into the underworld, is a quest for knowledge: he wants to know how to get home. So he ventures into Hades to ask Tiresias for direction. But the dead cannot talk. For the shades of Hades to gain the power of speech, Odysseus must offer a sacrifice, the blood of rams.

A lot happens in Hades, but there is one main point I wish to make for our purposes here. Odysseus’s descent earns him some cautionary knowledge for how to get home, but more importantly for Tedeshini’s katabasis–Odysseus’s descent reveals hordes of shades that ply him with their stories, woes, and requests. The weight of their longing to communicate overwhelms the living man.

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This reference to Odyssesus’s descent and encounter with the shades helps explain the haunted architecture in Tedeschini’s landscapes. The foam on water puts us in travel at the same time as hellish presences rise to the surface. We are able to perceive, for instance, a headless body forming in the sand as we sail by. In lieu of a proper sacrifice, we cannot converse with these presences since they exists outside our language like the shades who besiege Odysseus. They are doomed to appear strange and mute, but recognizable.
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Michel Foucault’s concept of “heterotopies”–another of Tedeschini’s avowed inspirations for this series–deepens the uncanny presences that figurate the landscape and our perceptions of them. Writing in “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” Foucault states

We are in the epoch of simultaneity . . . The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible. Thus it is that the theatre brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another.

The ‘heterotopia’ works like a ‘stage’– it forces time and space through the funnel of narrative. Situations become squeezed into each other for the sake of meaning. This process of framing abstract or ethereal spaces (like the underworld) onto real places (like the river or the grass) is limitless and always compiling potential meanings onto other potential meanings. For Foucualt, this proliferation of distant spaces onto particular places is our modern condition. Simultaneity of ‘incompatible’ or incongruous situations governs our way of life in the relentless process of symbol-making, meaning-perceiving architecture.

Hence, Tedeschini’s journey of juxtaposing opposites and paradoxes triggers our association with windy grass and breathing underworld spirits, or faces and bodies in the water. Our journey brings us into a heterotopia where life and death interchange.

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In light of these observations, Tedeschini’s portraits of decay make sense, and are pretty humorous. Black-and-white carcasses risk cliche, but the carcasses we meet in Tedeshini’s katabasis are creatures who are only play acting at their death. Their heterotopic presence stages the paradox of life and death, mocking human fears of mortality.

Above, the skull has stopped to look at you. Our gaze disrupts its scurrying. We can be sure it lives because of its shadow. Its eyeless socket fixes right on the viewer, but it is hard to decide whether its gaze is menacing, neutral, or if it is grinning like a sly joke has been told.

Similarly below, this truncated stump is abstracted from its earthly bed. With roots that look like tentacles, the stump resembles a creature that crawls the ocean floor.

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What is hellish about these living corpses is the dead isn’t dead. If you turn your back on any of them, they will move. The black humor is that life will happen despite death. The carcasses defy what had been their lifely purpose–to die. Once dead, respect the parameters of death, which is, of course, to remain quietly in the grave so as to not disturb the living. But the creatures of “Katabasis” do not obey the rules that life places upon death. In rebellion against life’s colonization of death’s domain, these corpses dance, squirm, and wiggle. They will not remain still. The heterotopic nature of this environment provides these creatures the agency of mobility.

Birth, new life, is possible within this katabasis into death. We see this below in the aerial shot that Tedeschini took of the region we have been looking at. Alarming — it looks like a birth frozen in ice, an embryonic sac squirming within a grave during a birthing process. But this is kind of connection Tedeschini wants us to make. Graves, aerial photography, birth, these are layers of inference imposed upon a place from beyond itself, developing this heterotopic underworld.

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Both Tedeschini’s landscapes and portraits of carcasses convey the presence of shades on the cusp of emergence, but are forbidden. What is preventing these frozen scenes and carcasses from being fully animate in our world of breathing is akin to lacking Odysseus’s sacrifice.
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Heterotopic architectures provides occasions for simultaneity, or double (or limitless) images. For instance, the above photograph seems to place us before a fountain trapped in ice. If we read it this way, the ice clashing with the dry mud bed in the background is incomprehensible. Yet, it is also perfect for representing the anarchy of juxtaposition and exacerbates the strangeness of our journey.

In truth, the water is toxic. Loaded with calcium and sulfur, the water only appears frozen. Tedeschini’s uses heterotopic architecture to appropriate a frozen landscape and places it, to use Foucault’s word, in an ‘incompatible’ terrain. The incongruity heightens our wonder and introduces a force emerging from the water.

Light emanating from within the water signifies this presence trapped in rising. Its tides falter against logs half buried in the embankment, an image of bones frozen after war or on the cusp of a creature’s lair. Tedeschini’s cold palette becomes especially luminous to signify suppressed being. Light concentrates in the poisoned water to dissolve reflection. We behold singularity. It is an anti-mirror — it refuses to reflect the sky and refuses to reveal the truth of itself. The opacity disrupts the phenomenon.

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This image of trees similarly harkens an inverted awakening. Interestingly, it follows a cyclical path. Our eye starts at the top, among the graying autumnal life, and travel the winding path of the split trunk as it descends in dance-like movement to its base. The paths turn and bend, seem separate, but they finally converge at their common core, which should be recognized as the base of all things in Katabasis: a journey where death encounters life. At the tree’s feet, we behold the broken version of itself — another disrupted reflection.

Yet, the opacity of dead wood and rotting foliage reveals something singular and true. Tedeschini reverses how we think of progress, the forward direction of life. Here, we start at the top and descend instead of what seems normal–starting at the base working one’s way up. We travel downward, to the earth and its bed of carcasses. Given the background of trees undergoing their autumnal cycle, this tree is emblematic, representative of the common fate that we all wander paths that appear separate but are actually locked in dancing partnership and join hands in the fateful moment at the root of all things.

The carcass performs like an altar before the dance of death. The viewer bows, and begins the counter-intuitive journey up the tree in a kind of flight.

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Both Tedeschini’s landscapes and portraits of carcasses convey the presence of shades on the cusp of emergence, but are forbidden from our world. They crawl through grass and parched earth in the struggle to reassemble the upright body possessed in life. The heterotopic architecture within these images of corpses striving for rehabilitation or blithe silence is built upon Tedeschini’s katabasis. Our descent into this underworld connects us with forces beyond our limited understanding of life who wish to press themselves into our consciousness. Juxtapositions create mirrors of our longing for connection just as strange combinations break these mirrors and leave us in the opacity of our existences.
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Marianna Tedeschini is an architect and photographer based in Venice. To see more of her work, you can follow her on Instagram or visit her website. 
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