Currently on view in a small darkened room at the Gardner Museum, "Travels With Isabella, Travel Scrapbooks 1883/2008" is Italian artist Luisa Rabbia's attempt to transform Isabella Stewart Gardner's travel scrapbooks into art. As a lyrical experiment, Rabbia's 26-minute video is nothing if not audacious. And yet - except intermittently - the work is not quite transporting.
During a residency at the Gardner Museum in 2007, Rabbia became fascinated by Gardner's travel scrapbooks, many of which have never been on public display (an exhibition focusing on her Asian scrapbooks is slated to open at the museum in early 2009). She was particularly drawn to a personal photo album recording Gardner's journey through China in 1883.
Rabbia - who was born in 1970, hails from Turin, and is based in Brooklyn - has never been to China and says she knows "very little about Chinese culture." But art, of course, can thrive in the dark. Animated by the strange, almost abstract qualities of the scrapbook and by poignant images of prisoners and peasants seen against landscapes and architecture, she approached her work, she says, "very spontaneously, trying to leave my imagination floating through her images."
The result is a kind of surrealistic doodling in real time. Visually, it is intriguing, and yet its isolated moments of surprise and even brilliance came too infrequently for my liking.
It's not immediately obvious how one animates black-and-white photographs from the 19th century. In fact, Rabbia keeps things relatively low-tech. Movement is created by a continuous, steady-paced panning across a succession of individual photographs from the scrapbook, as if we were watching a scroll unfolding from right to left. It's obvious where each photograph ends and the next begins, but Rabbia creates an impression of seamlessness by superimposing video footage of moody skies and rippling bodies of water.
More conspicuously, she superimposes drawings of her own, mainly in a beautiful deep blue. The predominant motif is quite entrancing: looping roots or branches that silently fork and twist their way through the photographs like invading weeds.
Other animated elements (many of them motifs from Rabbia's previous work) appear from time to time - distant helicopters, a bound female nude from whose genital area a blue tree grows, dejected male figures in positions suggesting resignation, individual leaves that float from one image to the next, a veil of digital rain.
Objects from the museum's collection also appear. A Chinese vase, for instance, that reminded Rabbia of the architecture Gardner photographed. (Not all the images in Gardner's original scrapbook, by the way, were her own photographs; in many cases she sought out local photographers and bought their images before incorporating them into her scrapbooks, just as today we might paste postcards into travel diaries).
All this unfolds to the accompaniment of a soundtrack by Rabbia's collaborator (and fellow Italian expatriate), Fa Ventilato. Ventilato has drawn on live recordings from the Gardner's classical concert series (these are freely available to the public as an online podcast), which he has sampled and manipulated to suit his purposes.
Because the play of imagery is so free and spontaneous, the music plays a critical role in binding everything together. Unfortunately, apart from a few moments in which Ventilato juxtaposed a Beethoven sonata with a Chinese tune, creating weird emotional sparks, I found much of it as dreamy and inchoate as the imagery.
Rabbia and Ventilato have both brought the technique of collage to what was already a collage-like endeavor. "It was very much like inscribing my own scrapbook on hers," Rabbia has said. To make something coherent and articulate out of such ingredients was always going to be a tall order.
And yet, even if the overall experience is less than earth-shaking, it is hard not to be impressed by the delicacy of what Rabbia has done. Though necessarily parasitic, her work remains respectful; its touch is light.
She lets the original images provide many of the work's most memorable moments: the two blind musicians playing stringed instruments, the two men carrying dead game and poultry, the many photographs of old ruins and temples, their exterior decorations all extraordinarily ornate.
Something about 19th-century photographs, whether they have been taken by Isabella Stewart Gardner or anonymous Chinese photographers, whether their subjects be, to Western eyes, "exotic" or everyday - cannot fail to move us. They remind us that the past itself truly is another country - unrecoverable, unknowable, and yet, at times, shockingly intimate. You look at the image of two men in stocks, for instance, and wonder: By what mysterious process did this evidence ever reach us?
But it is one thing to admire Rabbia's obvious sensitivity to the images in Gardner's scrapbook. It is another to claim that she has converted this sensitivity into something truly convincing in its own terms.