Galleria Eugenia Delfini is pleased to present Gao Yue 高跃, Rachele Maistrello's first solo show at the gallery.
Interested in the relationship between reality and fiction, Maistrello works mainly with photography and installation to reveal small personal heroic acts, evoke marginal worlds, or imagine untold utopias.
Gao Yue 高跃 is a photographic installation in which the artist presents the complete Green Diamond series (2019-2021), consisting of 16 analog photographs, a series of documents and some selected photographs from the Blue Diamond series (2021-2023).
The narrative revolves around the working life of Gao Yue, a Chinese acrobat employed in the late 1990s by Green Diamond and in the 2000s by Blue Diamond. Green Diamond was a microchip factory in the suburbs of Beijing for which Gao conducted cyborg experiments through sensory receptors implanted in her body, capable of causing sensations related to nature. Blue Diamond, instead, was a research center that studied the relationship between humans and cetaceans, where Gao was hired for her ability to communicate with dolphins, receive ultrasounds, and act as an intermediary between the deep sea abysses and individuals. We do not know if these events happened for real, yet they outline our visceral need to connect with the natural world. At the same time, the exhibited photographs validate and document the existence of Gao Yue and her working days in the factory and at sea.
Using the ambiguity of photography and its evocative power, the artist creates a speculative place that eventually never was, but could have been. In doing so, she investigates our relationship with planet earth and where we are heading without delivering answers, but rather raising a question that is more widespread than ever: How can we reconnect with the nature we are made of and belong to?
"What are you talking about? Do you really think you've turned into a tree? How could a plant talk? How can you think these things?' Yeong-hye's eyes shone. A mysterious smile played on her face. 'You're right. Soon now, words and thoughts will all disappear. Soon." Han Kang, The Vegetarian
Rachele Maistrello’s solo show at the Eugenia Delfini Gallery is titled Gao Yue 高跃, after the name of the Chinese acrobat and freediver hired by the Beijing-based company Green Diamond. Back in the 1990s, the company produced mysterious diamond powder sensors which, once implanted under the skin and activated by a series of very precise movements, were able to artificially reproduce natural sensations such as the warmth of the sun on the skin, the feeling of being surrounded by green trees or the sparkle of the sky reflected by the ocean. Gao Yue was one of the best students at the Beijing Acrobatic School and was hired precisely to design the gestures that would activate the GD sensors. She became, despite herself, the protagonist of an experiment placed on the thin line between utopia and dystopia.
In a climate of suffocating secrecy, the presence of Gao Yue – dressed in a fluorescent green unitard – is instantly perceived as disturbing: the videos and photographs show her performing contortion exercises on anonymous desks or getting lost in another world while brandishing strange silhouettes that seem to recall splashes of emerald paint. She is always alone, with her eyes veiled by a strange melancholy.
The only reason that these visual documents have come down to us is a love story. During her collaboration with Green Diamond, Gao Yue had a relationship with Lin Jiang Ping, a worker in charge of cleaning the sensors. Their first approaches were timid and awkward, also because the company had imposed total confidentiality on the project and forbade any type of fraternization between different departments. But Lin Jiang Ping was in love and, like any true lover, wanted to distill the “mythology” of his love through a rich vernacular archive: images, emails, videos, scans… It almost seemed that the more Gao Yue moved into her impenetrable world, the more Lin Jiang Ping desperately tried to bring her back to him, to irrefutably prove that their relationship existed and was something important.
Meanwhile, Gao Yue became more and more evanescent and Green Diamond suddenly shut down, vanishing into thin air. The only proof of their existence remained the testimony of Lin Jiang Ping, who decided one day to send the collected material to Rachele Maistrello in the hope of transforming it, back then, into an anniversary gift.
Maistrello deliberately imbues Green Diamond with a fundamental ambiguity. It is meticulous in every detail, from the paper documentation (dating back to the 1990s) to the media with which Gao Yue's excerpts are filmed, from the domain used for the emails between the protagonist and Lin Jiang Pin to the corporate slogans designed by Chinese workers who, this way, actively contributed to the whole reenactment. Moreover, Maistrello skillfully plays with stereotypes: on one hand, the Western ones, for which China is a suspicious country where murky experiments are carried out and, on the other hand, the Chinese ones, for which the archive is a methodology far from one's daily life, being instantly perceived as a reliable source.
In Green Diamond, reality and fiction are inextricably intertwined, and the more the viewers dive into Maistrello’s patiently reconstructed world, the more they feel the earth crumble under their feet. The artist brilliantly plays with the tropes of the sci-fi genre, reconstructing an epistolary story that reveals the future in the past and is set in an era in which recording our memories was not yet completely digitized; for this reason, the story seems, in a certain sense, more tangible, more real.
Essentially, Green Diamond questions the ontological status of photography itself and its documentary value – a theme that has followed the history of the photographic medium since its very beginning, becoming more and more relevant in the era of deepfakes and AI. The ambiguity of the project is deliberately left intact even in institutions that are meant to be at the service of truth – such as museums or newspapers – and it is not by chance that the story of Gao Yue ended up in a Russian fake news website, thus underlying the fluidity and permeability of reality and fiction, by now so omnipresent in our daily lives.
The two-dimensional cardboard silhouettes – which are a recurrent motif in Maistrello’s body of work – equally emphasize the artist’s commentary on the status of the photographic images: taken from the internet, enlarged, decontextualized, printed on cardboard and then re-photographed on analogical supports, these cutouts are enigmatic elements, utterly transformed in their form and meaning.
Gao Yue is not only a kind of alter ego for Maistrello – a gateway to a parallel world where she can face the questions that haunt her – but also a metaphor for the alienation from the natural world and the transformative power of art. It is, indeed, a narrative device that has worked so well that became the concept from which the more recent work, Blue Diamond, stemmed.
Gao Yue became so obsessed with the GD sensors experience that she continued her research into the deep sea, exploring the womb-like muffled void, the mysterious shapes created by the ultrasound, and the mind of cetaceans. Blue Diamond is infused with multiple references ranging from the Chladni plates to Jacques Mayol, scientific documents are interspersed with diary notes and all the artist’s dearest themes come together: the human senses that maybe “hide rather than show”, the art that gives a glimpse of the possibility of “another” life, the disturbing contiguity of truth and fiction in the photographic medium.
A linguistic theory from the early 1900s roughly stipulates that the language we speak and its structure inevitably and ineluctably shape our way of thinking and seeing the world. In light of this, for Rachele Maistrello, Gao Yue embodies many things: a doppelgänger and an avatar, a scaffolding and a key, a tool and an end in itself but perhaps, most of all, a new language, an attempt to see the world and our humanity in a radically different way. And, perhaps, thanks to Maistrello's work, we too will be able to leave behind our language, senses and beliefs, so that we can look at the world, at least for a while, through the diamond, with the eyes of Gao Yue.
Chiara Bardelli Nonino is an independent curator and editor. With an MA in Aesthetics, her research and writings focus on contemporary visual art and its intersection with identity and post-internet culture. She is a curator for the Photo Vogue Festival, where fashion is explored from a socio-political point of view, and has been the Senior Visual Editor of Vogue Italia, L’Uomo Vogue and Vogue.it photography section over a decade.