Guido Mocafico: Blaschka

With an acclaimed background in commercial and advertising photography for major brands such as Chanel, Gucci, Armani, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Guido Mocafico has also become renowned for his personal projects. Utilising his masterful skills as a still life photographer, these personal projects pay homage to the still life tradition and heritage that is probably most associated with European painting. There is no surprise then that the Swiss-born Italian Mocafico, who lives in Paris, has something of a pan-European appreciation for the classic genre and it is appropriately so that he has found a subject in Blaschka, his latest exhibition on display at Hamiltons Gallery, London, until May 24th.

Originally from Bohemia, but based in Dresden, Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf (1857-1939) Blaschka were master glassmakers who used a combination of clear, painted and coloured glass, producing masterpieces during each of their respective lifetimes. These objects are regarded with a reverential respect and a kind of admirable speculation, being that their delicate structures and exquisite detail are so extraordinary. 

Another fascinating aspect of the Blaschka’s work was that their unique pieces, mostly models of invertebrate animals such as jellyfish, snails, squid, sea anemones, corals, starfish and sea cucumbers were created on commission for study at several institutions in North America and Europe. Not being available to the general public added to their mystique, and although many of the original pieces are today found in collections from London, Liege, Strasburg, Utrecht, Vienna and Dublin to Geneva, where they can now be seen by the general public, access was still very difficult for Mocafico: “Obviously because of the extreme fragility and one-of-a-kind nature of the Blaschka’s models, gaining authorisation from Museums and Institutions to photograph their collections has been very difficult. It has been a long process, which began in 2012. Everyone holds their breath while watching the next piece being carried over to the set ever so slowly.”

On a mirror black background, each luminescent structure hovers as though the real-life animal were being observed in the darkest depths of the oceans. Their alien-like forms play on all our acquired imagery from science-fiction to horror. There are no eyes, nor mouths, nor limbs to locate these strange creatures to a function, place and time we recognise. They are odd specimens, but Mocafico has photographed them as triumphant relics. And this is very much in keeping with Mocafico’s practice as he says choosing them was a “logical continuation of my Medusa (live jellyfishes) project”. However, for the Blaschka’s craft, they weren’t just making sustainable models for study, as the original physical specimens would dry out and crumble; they were making something special, something beautiful. The original “living” specimens were fragile, but so too are the Blaschka’s. Judging by Mocafico’s photographs, he has managed to capture this ephemeral quality that appears almost contradictory considering the media in use.

Take the Renilla muelleri for example; with its familiar shape it is clearly reminiscent of a human kidney. It is blue, sprouting yellow flowers, and somehow it is both animal and plant, solid and translucent. Euglypha ciliata appears to be a genetically modified cactus, while Salpa Africana-maxima look more like X-ray scans of ancient Greek greaves or shin guards. This pair of odd oblongs seem appropriately placed on the gallery wall near the Carmarina hastata stage 4, which for some may resemble an ornate Middle-Eastern helmet complete with trailing tendrils. Things get even weirder when we consider the entire collection of Radiolarian, which form a wonderful grid presentation at Hamiltons. Are Heliosphera actinota and Actinomma asteracanthion not microscopic images of atomic particles? Each one, a slight variation of the last, and each one as sophisticated as it is unbelievable.

The work on show in this exhibition exploits the notion of a photographic surprise; a straightforward presentation of an inanimate thing, yet by virtue of this each photograph suggests something more, “Under my light,” says Mocafico, “each single piece has been unveiling surprises.” But where the collision with future science really becomes visible is with the image of Porpita meditteranea; this globular semi-transparent cell, with its surrounding filaments is closer to an image of a supernova remnant photographed by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory than any recognisable animal here on Earth.

It is with such a robust primary history that the subject of Mocafico’s work for Blaschka is built upon, and it is with his expertise in handling, lighting and photographing the objects that the viewer is captivated. These photographs are a continuation of the protected life of the glass models, as Mocafico agrees, “Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka were reproducing drawings of Ernst Haeckel, for instance, who was himself reproducing nature, and I am reproducing a reproduction of a reproduction.” Building a project around objects that tell a wider story is at the heart of all good still life pictures, and these pictures of Mocafico’s not only present the objects beautifully, they add to that story.

GUIDO MOCAFICO: BLASCHKARuns until 24th May at Hamiltons Gallery
— Barry W. Hughes