James Pfaff. Alex & Me.1000 Words 23, Autumn issue 2016
“Alex & Me” is an intimate autobiographical account of a road trip and a broken affair between a man and a woman. Materialised as a refreshingly original scrapbook with a strong diaristic scent, the project is the outcome of the creative tandem between the author of the pictures, Glasgow-based photographer James Pfaff, and two women; Francesca Seravalle, who curated the concept and sequence editing of the book, and Alex, the woman in the story. “Alex & Me” recovers out of Pfaff’s archive a series of photographs shot during the two-week car trip he and Alex took in September 1998 from Toronto to New Orleans and then back north to New York. The book carries the aura of a charmingly imperfect journal. It emerges as a container of elusive feelings that seek to accommodate themselves in the present, and is replete with a plethora of snapshots on the move. Car interiors, highways, gasoline stations, bars and telephone booths are all embedded alongside Alex’s vibrant portraits against the pages of a hand-painted journal tainted with expressive paintbrush strokes and handwritten texts.
Pfaff had originally conceived the idea for a publication back in 2007. However, his attempts had somehow not fallen into place. It was not until 2012, with Seravalle’s thought-provoking input, that “Alex & Me” took off as a diary emulating the aesthetic of a scrapbook. Seravalle encouraged Pfaff to harvest from his archives an assemblage of notebook pages and a cover originally made in 1998 but never intended for publication. The journal was completed with additional material originally shot during the journey and printed in local snappy snap shops along the way. Painting and texts came afterwards as a means for Pfaff to release his contemporary response to the work. Partially present in his anterior practice, painting served as the pretext for an artistically challenging process met at first with hesitation and then with more confidence. From a mere illustrative companion to the pictures, colour turned into an autonomous expressive element chronicling the dust and time of a journey past: white for the fences of the American houses, blue for the packaging of the cigarettes, red for the neon lights, and black for the highway darkness… The same applies to Pfaff’s evocative texts and poems. They could have been nothing but personal. This implication to all the aspects of the book renders it an authentic, quiet, albeit confident universe of words and images.
“Two books in one”, as Pfaff likes to describe it, “Alex & Me” is both a book and a memorial – a so to speak carrier of haunting experiences crystallised in images, colour strokes and words that claim for themselves a three-dimensional space the same way objects do. Similarly to Orhan Pamuk’s “Museum of Innocence” – a novel and a museum created simultaneously– it fulfils its mission as an iconographical depository of artefacts, scratches, clichés and Love; the print reproduction and the poem in the envelope that accompanies it confirm this worshipping penchant. With the pictures, painting and words articulated in first person, it reproduces Pfaff’s gaze, subjective response and passion. As such, it instigates an intuitive, heart-felt response from the viewer. No conceptual schemes are to be encountered here; just a cumulus of raw human experience alongside infinite stories of love, sorrow and solace to project and to narrate.
September 1998. In a parallel temporal dimension, we also found ourselves on the road. Likewise our trip was destined to turn into a catalyser of stormy inner changes in our timeline. We have however no material leftovers of these stories in our drawers. But somehow, Pfaff’s pictures succeed in filling the gap; gradually, they burrow into us as our most cherished souvenirs. They induce us to think of all those myriad insignificant incidents around the world that become unexpectedly symptomatic of the changes we are going through, and prepare us to confront larger issues. From today’s perspective, both Pfaff’s intimate fictions and ours seem to have unfolded when everything was about to change. Two years later, in September 2001, the new millennium affected abruptly History’s panorama, and to a great extent our faith towards Images and the way we perceived and consumed them. Something was irrevocably broken. America in September 1998 offers the set for a minor story with unexpected larger connotations, before the crashing and demolition of expectations and the beginning of a new era of neo-conservatism when the two protagonists of this story followed their own destinies and paths.
From the black and white sequences of its early pages to the subsequent double spreads in colour that intensify feeling and temporality, “Alex & Me” reveals itself as an open-ended artistic project that defies conventional progression. As if emanating from a Jim Jarmusch film, its neo-noir aesthetic makes a contained albeit heart-breaking allusion to Love without idolising or fetishizing it. It also establishes loose connections with “Double Mind: No Sex Last Night”, a 1992 film in which Sophie Calle and Greg Sephard, equipped with separate cameras, recorded every moment of their road trip across America. But whilst “Double Blind” finds its raison d’être in a voyeuristic tour-de-force operated by two antagonistic cameras within the confinement of its filmic time, here the weaving of relationships, desires and fears shifts outside narration and its historical time, in a continuous real-time narrative of a life shared and in a living book-object.
“Alex & Me” was conceived from its outset as an ever-expanding project made to be repainted, re-enacted and relived not only by Pfaff himself but by many others who have been actively involved in the reshaping of its story: his muse Alex (“everything comes out of me and her”), Seravalle (“the second woman who has scrutinised the project”), the audience, and, last but not least, the book which seems to claim its own life. The original scrapbook with Pfaff’s interventions was scanned and printed on a matt paper that would allow for further manipulation. During his public performances, Pfaff intervenes upon it anew with paint and words. He invests layers of his contemporary feelings onto a story in constant evolution and onto a book he describes as a “painful” one —“a book that took so long to make”, “a book with real consequences for peoples’ lives”. What’s more, an “unfinished book” marked by the sudden end of a friendship. Two years before its finalisation, Alex, his muse and creative companion in this sixteen-year endeavour suddenly stepped back. She asked him not to publish.
Pfaff’s story invokes the impossibility of letting go. It also speaks for the desperate attempt to hold on to what is relentlessly evaporating –that persistent memory that still haunts us as a ghostly manifestation of a past once lived. But it somehow manages to tackle it and make possible its reincarnation in the present without falling into banal melancholy. Beyond what a conventional solid (photo)book can represent, “Alex & Me” is a tangible performative capsule of memory. A cathartic meta-fictional experience in tenor, it opens up the possibility of alimenting, appropriating and recreating the past, while suggesting and acknowledging new collective modes in the creative process. “Alex & Me” has certainly become the path for Pfaff to look back over his story and deliver it to others. Now it is no longer just his; it is here for us to see and to react in our own way. And, perhaps this is where redemption is to be found in photography –even if only momentarily and restlessly.
Copyright: Natasha Christia/1000 Words 2016
Dragana Jurisic. My Own Unknown. 1000 Words 22, Spring issue 2016.
“André? André? … You will write a novel about me. I’m sure you will. Don’t say you won’t. Be careful: everything fades, everything vanishes. Something must remain of us…” (André Breton: Nadja, 1928, p. 100)
In 1954 a farm girl disappeared from a village in rural Yugoslavia. She supposedly left her husband to visit the doctor but never came back. Rumours speculate that she fled to Paris where she led a double life as a spy and a prostitute until her death in the 1980s. A colour photograph recovered from her few personal belongings portrays her striking a pose of a hypnotising albeit ambiguous charm: half-closed eyelids and mouth on the verge of pronouncing an inner score; a rose in her hand; next to her, a beast —its gleaming eyes and teeth destabilize the apparent harmony of the composition. Almost a century earlier, in Paris of the late 1880s, the body of a young anonymous woman was pulled out of the Seine River. Memorialised by her death mask, which became a popular morbid fixture in the years to come, her blossoming, breath-taking beauty was venerated by artists and writers, such as Man Ray, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Albert Camus, to name only a few.
These two female characters —the mysterious Mata Hari from the Cold War era Balkans, and the tragic figure of L’Inconnue de la Seine— are the protagonists of “My Own Unknown”, the latest project of Dublin-based artist Dragana Jurisic. A work in progress since 2014, “My Own Unknown” unfolds as a fascinating assemblage of five chapters that will eventually culminate into a fictionalised biography combining text and image. Here new and found photographs intermingle ruthlessly with notebook texts, video, performance, and diverse creative processes and voices. Hybrid and complex in tenor, “My Own Unknown” defies being classified as a conventional photo project. Its overlapping of languages, registers and dramatic motifs complies fully with the eclectic and expansive universe of Dragana Jurisic, the author behind it.
Jurisic is part photographer, part writer, part videographer, and all at the same time. In 2014 she came to international attention with “YU: The Lost Country”, an emotive, first person account of her return trip to former Yugoslavia after a decade of absence. Articulated as an installation and a book, the work draws upon the memories and aftereffects of war. It follows the pages of Rebecca West’s seminal travelogue “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”, published in 1941, and Jurisic’s own visual and written recollections in the year 2011, 2012 and 2013. If “YU” concluded in a failure of self-recognition and national identification amidst a devastated landscape of rotten bonds and latent traumas, “My Own Unknown” unfolds as Jurisic’s most intimate autobiographical confession to date. Here the journey is accentuated. Departing from the tainted life of her aunt Gordana Čavić and the symbolic connotations of L’Inconnue de la Seine, it embraces an utterly personal tale that contemplates the turbulent fate of femininity and its quests within the stream of History and Art. The shades of the past, its intrigues, losses and ghosts, still cohabit the scenario here alongside a prevalent sense of lack of direction and a predominantly male historical narrative, wherein female characters exist as much as they are fetishised as sexually charged but otherwise “empty” objects.
Gordana Čavić and L’Inconnue de la Seine occupy respectively the two first chapters of “My Own Unknown”, but fuel the rest of the series giving birth to a chain of actions that deal with the attempt to make sense out of a whole of bits and parts. They place two mirrors for Jurisic’s own re-enactment of self in a triangle of female identity. Both are imagined rather than experienced the same way it occurs in André Breton’s autobiographical novel “Nadja” (1928) that chronicles his brief ten-day affair with an unknown woman. Nadja, the titular character in this key surrealist work, gains validity the moment she becomes approved by the author’s colleagues. As soon as Breton fixes her within his consciousness, he abandons her. Romance fades and Nadja is ultimately committed back to a sanatorium where she belongs. Jurisic’s female protagonists seem to fall in the same category. Both haunt the fantasies of others –Gordana is a sexual muse, whereas L’Inconnue the new Mona Lisa for artists. Like Nadja, they are not real persons but worshipped “souls in limbo” grounded in absence rather on historicity. The two first chapters of “My Own Unknown” perform this enchanted, androgynous gaze. They have to reference it, in order to finally overcome it and to unlock different registers. Unlike Breton’s, Jurisic’s fable soon reveals with bitter melancholy and resignation that the bottom line of the story is violence, cruelty and oppression. Moreover, it goes further to negotiate this ideal of female beauty, suggesting the possibility of a quiet historical reading of femininity far away from the noise of myth. In chapters 3 to 5, Gordana and L’Inconnue become the starting point of a subversive project executed by women and for women. The passive muse is resurrected as an active agent, unleashing a visual narrative of a different kind: the romantic fable gives its place to an anthropological, gender-directed iconographical tableau with clear political connotations.
In chapter, “100 Muses”, 100 women from Dublin, aged 18-85, responded to an open call to be photographed nude. Jurisic invited them indiscriminately to pose as one of the nine Muses of Antiquity, holding a replica of L’Inconnue mortuary mask and using the two following props: an old chair that looks like a throne, and a cheap curtain that potentially serves as a draping to cover the naked body. Upon completion of the shooting session, she conferred on them the opportunity to choose the portrait that represented them the most. Her intention was to empower her female sitters and to negotiate openly their relation with their bodies. The final portraits of these Deities of Fertility looking back at the camera possess a primitive, earthly beauty. Deprived by sexuality, their exposed bodies create a ritualistic amalgam that challenges iconographical clichés. They are physical manifestations and reinventions of the romantic ideal of the muse and by-products of the complicity between the author and her sitters. As such, they express the quest to detect a genuine female gaze and the freedom to accept one’s body within a society that carves out physical and mental standards for women. In chapter 4, “Her Mother and Her Daughters”, Jurisic proceeds to overlap the portraits of women who identified with the same muse, generating nine collective portraits. A stratigraphy of all the over-layered portraits gives as a result Mnemosyne, the daughter of Gaia and mother of the Nine Muses. A synthesized phantasmal taxidermy of skin and visages, the image of “The Mother” is the overlap of all. It condenses the maturity of different lives and skins, against the weight of immortality and idealization.
“Don’t’ be afraid to look into a shadow”, the fifth chapter of “My Own Unknown”, takes the viewer into a further remixing of female identity as a renewed collective meta-fiction. A video wraps and puts in motion the stories of all these women, with Jurisic placing herself in front of the camera. Here, her identification with her aunt Gordana Čavić is crystallized. They share, in her words, the same taste for adventure and braveness; they also share the awareness of an innocence lost in the depths of a river. Jurisic used the super-8 camera her aunt left behind to re-enact a life that was censored. The viewer is asked to access these short films through the holes of a series of black boxes. It is hard not to detect parallels between this diorama-like assemblage and Marcel Duchamp’s major artwork “Étant Données”. An unexpected and unimaginable landscape, visible only through the peepholes, communicates an intense experience of accessing a life shred in mystery, but imagined this time by women. In these rolls of film, woman emerges as the “other” — that which cannot be grasped, comprehended or penetrated, but only felt and sensed, the same way as war, displacement and tragedy. If male identity by norm operates as a solid narrative object (an object that is what it is, according to Sartre’s definition”), “My Own Unknown” looks back at femininity as a restless object that imaginatively allows the space for an ultimate unearthing of micro-histories of females that were abridged and buried in the tomb of History.
“Who am I?” asks the narrator voice in “Nadja”. “How well do we know ourselves? How well do we know the others?” asks Jurisic. She describes “My Own Unknown” as an existential attempt of self-knowledge, the only worthy enterprise amidst a world of disintegration and spiral events.
Her interpretation of history through individual identity and genre makes connections between beauty, understood as authenticity, and artistic endeavour. She evokes John Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty —that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know”. But perhaps, rather than this deeply conflictive aesthetic-moral coupling of beauty and truth, Breton’s “convulsive beauty” provides a much more insightful term when it comes to highlighting the worshipping of images in her tale. “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all”. Convulsive beauty like History itself; sheer, hazardous and frenzied, like its search and quest for answers. In its indecisiveness of format and constant mutation, “My Own Unknown” seems to reproduce the liquid, non-linear identity of its women protagonists. There is something ungraspable, anarchic and stormy in its multiplicity of chapters, installations and Jurisic’s proper notebooks that will bring as their final outcome the fictionalised photography-embedded autobiography of her aunt and L’Inconnue. Set against the milky surface of River Seine, archival photographs, recollections, fictions and documents add more to the mystery to a formidable woman who “is not going back —will never go back there”… For once more, “Nadja” provides a striking parallel. As counterparts in time of male and female writing, the two artworks form part of the same Sebaldian legacy of oeuvres that integrate images into their first-person narrative.
As vessels that communicate with each other, the chapters, processes and distinct authorial voices of “My Own Unknown” keep the viewer traveling. Its female muses emerge like shades against a veiled backdrop. Pulled ashore from a river of mystery, they regain life. When not covered by a mask, their gazes are firmly addressed towards the camera. And yet, despite their urge to overcome vulnerability, they slip once more into a tranquil death in the area of meaning. There is so much of sadness and latent resignation infusing these bodies. There is an awareness of futility amidst our turbulent, disappearing times. There is the acknowledgment that recession into absence is the final redemption. Bodies are deemed to vanish, to fade…
By the moment I complete the reading of Jurisic’s notebooks, Maurice Blanchot’s account of L’Inconnue resonates in my ears:
“A young girl with closed eyes, enlivened by a smile so relaxed and at ease… that one could have believed that she drowned in an instant of extreme happiness”.
And so the story continues.
Copyright: Natasha Christia/1000 Words 2016
Vittorio Mortarotti. The First Day of Good Weather. 1000 Words 21, Winter issue 2016.
Impelled by a similar penchant, Mortarotti’s narrative takes me through a misty topography of devastation, melancholy and resignation. Nothing in it appears particularly visible or obvious. There is a bluish undertone in the whole book –a sort of mute score reverberating in the depths of an ocean. Night and day alternate indifferently in perennial circles of rising tides; views of semi-demolished houses, cracked cement blocks and smashed cars are paired up with flashy portraits of drained individuals and tormented night bar affairs. And yet, I can tell that beneath this rough silent mood there is a winding stream of emotions, a lust to hang on to life. This collision of distinctive visual and emotional registers within a low-spirited, obscure and industrialized nature turns into a both graphic and literal incarnation of an attempt to get access to a secret, to recollect its traces, to finally grasp how life can be after everything has been smashed into a million pieces.
Then, all of a sudden, in the middle of the book, a text insert dating back to May 1999 appears. It is a letter written in French by a Japanese woman named Kaori and addressed to a man. This letter adds up a literal complexity to the story. It makes clear that there is much more in here –something deep, personal and intimate.
the pages to follow, the story recovers its visual pace. While Mortarotti’s gaze keeps safeguarding its distance from dramatic exasperations, it unleashes an unsettling emotional and existential register that drives me away from the letter and away from words.
And so it goes… In the colophon I read that the book brings together three unconnected moments: the fall of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the death of Mortarotti’s own father and teen-aged brother in a car accident on July 8-9, 1999, and the terrible earthquake and Tsunami that shook Japan in March 2011. All moments of historical relevancy; all massive, unexpected, unprecedented and utterly absurd in their after-effects.
In the wake of this data assemblage, everything falls into place. Death appears here with capital letters and History intermingles with personal traumas. The locations shown in the book recover their names: Fukushima, Tokyo, Hiroshima … As far as the letter is concerned, it forms part of the correspondence between Mortarotti’s brother and Kaori, his Japanese girlfriend who kept on writing and sending postcards for months after the accident. Tracking this pack of letters and looking for the woman fifteen years later became for Mortarotti a pretext to visit Fukushima and the area hit by the Tsunami in a cathartic search of what might have been the aftermath of stories of loss other than his own.
I am aware now of many key elements of the story. Too many probably in the eyes of the purists still inhabiting our photographic community. Photographic purism would dismiss the book I hold in my hands as too dependent on words. Photographic purism would dictate that sequence has to speak for itself: We do not need illuminating words; when these are needed, it is because images do not work for themselves. All this, as if proclaiming the autonomy of the Image from the Word, would confer it with the ultimate credibility status…
Curiously, to me, “The First Day of Good Weather” feels relevant precisely because of its “contaminated” versatile mood. Delimitating visual storytelling or photobook-making to a pure form is an option in its own right. Nevertheless, it cannot be axiomatic. It does not and should not exclude other options. As Jean-Luc Godard would put it, “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to”.
“The First Day of Good Weather” is a hybrid photobook in every sense of the word. By expanding its branches on apparently irrelevant storylines, its narrative adopts an elliptic style akin to cinema and literature. At the same time, it masterfully combines and balances the documentary, diaristic and conceptual modes with a marked preference for a “slow” inception of reality and its facts. The links between the photographer’s personal tragedy and Japan’s collective trauma play out the universal mechanisms of coping with grief and moving on after experiencing a dramatic event. Mortarotti manages to tackle the delicate and private sphere of mourning without falling into clichés or to an excess of autobiographical references. What’s more, he brings Japan to the foreground in an unpretentious and neutral way. It would have been easy to let it take up the entire frame for the umpteenth time, but he does not. He avoids temptations.
How can we approach an alien space? How can we cope with death and its remnants? How can we overcome it? The components of Mortarotti’s story are tied together by the intuitive assumption that the bits and pieces of our immense world are interconnected. During most of his journey around Japan, we feel attached to the ground. Then the bird’s-eye view in the small postcard pictures of skyscrapers and the portrait of the woman (Kaori in the present) against the window and the blue sky introduce a soft airy element –a parallel dimension to this journey. There is a climax of sensations that reinforces an awareness of the randomness of cosmic events –a volatile lightness horrendous in many ways, as the title of the project suggests: The first day of good weather was the day life stopped in Hiroshima. “The first day of good weather” was the order issued by President Truman to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. On August 6, 1945, it was raining over the other targets. It was sunny in Hiroshima.
We are used to conceive books –not merely photobooks– as static objects, but perhaps it would be useful to start thinking that they are not. Books are elastic condensers of time. They exist in time; they grow up with us. They stand for a sort of synesthetic experience where we, the readers-viewers, have to contribute our imagination and intuition to fill in the gaps.
So I let myself drift into “The First Day of Good Weather”.
I let myself add to its sequence layers of experience emanating from my personal debris. Experience that, rather than explaining, adds more lines to the story as if it were an unfinished novel. I catch myself going back and forth. Especially backwards, to be frank, in a futile hope that this movement could restore something past; rather than revoking the trauma, I seek to accommodate it the present. I catch myself returning to “The First Day of Good Weather” for there is something in it that persistently resonates in my mind: an intense, sustained and profound force that replenishes its argument and makes me see it anew.
Copyright: Natasha Christia/1000 Words 2016
On devastation and other stories. An entry for Photocaptionist on Regine Petersen. Photocaptionist, fall 2015.
How are we to deal with the collision of images and text in the work of Regine Petersen? For it is a collision, a deliberate one. When compiling data for the essay accompanying “Find a Fallen Star”, I found myself exploring the interweaving of pictures and the written word. A double equation at work emerged before my eyes: Texts therein operated like visual unities as much as images were equivalent to language blocks. Petersen instigates this sort of dialectic coupling. The visual material she employs (be it archival resources or her own photographs) is not meant as a plain illustration of the texts she cites, neither the other way round. There is no intention of doing so whatsoever. It rather serves as a disquieting counterpoint that renders meaning milky and sub-aqueous. In its semantic richness, meaning expands amidst an automatic writing on random occurrences and their unpredictable outcomes to human fate.
The Tunguska incident showcased in this entry conforms an imaginary blank chapter of “Find a Fallen Star”. It is a variant albeit not a less significant case in Petersen’s relentlessly expanding archive on meteorites. On June 30 1908, just after seven in the morning, an explosion took place over the Siberian Taiga. It is believed to have originated from an incoming comet or asteroid that produced an airburst of five to ten kilometres above the earth’s surface without actually hitting it. Despite the fact that the blast centre was remote and uninhabited, people felt the shockwave within forty miles from ground zero. The explosion reverberated in illuminated skies visible to distant areas of the world. It knocked down about eighty million Taiga trees over an area of 2,000 square kilometres and killed hundreds of reindeer. Its energy was estimated about 1,000 times greater than that of the Hiroshima bomb. No impact crater was found
Contrarily to the three chapters of “Find a Fallen Star” (“Stars fell on Alabama”, “Fragments” and “The Indian Iron”), wherein the irruption of meteorites to earth gives rise to a chain of relatively un-dramatic, non-sensational events, the Tunguska case is a hazardous tale of destruction. And yet, here, the piece of cosmic stone that once struck through the atmosphere provoking environmental disaster on an unforeseen scale is up to this day evinced as a non-witnessed and non-tangible forensic record, relegated to the realm of speculation. What remains is the blast that Petersen literally enacts in the semantic clash of images and texts. In their openness, images and texts turn into indexical containers of concocted suppositions and ghostly stories in need of decoding. They wind and connect from one pairing to the other, exercising a quasi-physical impact on us. The rest is History and Myth.
While conducting research on the origins of the Tunguska explosion, I stumbled upon a handful of scientific and other fabulous conspiracy theories, ranging from Nikola Tesla’s experiments with wireless transmission to UFOs or mosquito explosions. Petersen’s approach performs how this information noise collides with the object that remains miraculously absent. Incomprehensible, ungraspable, the object is replaced and transformed into something else. A sort of visual pastiche conjectures a disparate global whole that paradoxically mends up to the Tunguska reality: Tree rings, illuminated skies, a little graphic of the blast with a schematized bird’s view of flattened trees as well as different told and re-told perspectives of its destructive power (by foreigners or the local Evenki people). All these visual and textual testimonies move along a line of long vs. short exposures and cosmic vs. mundane temporalities, conforming an enthralling narrative sequence on minorities, lost words and eclipsed cultures.
Weaving in and out of facts, photography has this inexplicable side effect of absurd meaninglessness. Rather than filling the holes, it opens new ones. While its natural inclination is to provide a perspective of the past, it exposes the anomalies of interpretation and what is simply out of reach as if offering redemption to the phantoms generated in our times from time immemorial. It seems to me that beyond all beauty and catastrophe, ultimately there is nothing but the physical exhaustion of images. And devastation, mute devastation in the spirit that W.G. Sebald once described it in The Rings of Saturn:
“Where a short while ago the dawn chorus had at times reached such a pitch that we had to close the bedroom windows, where larks had risen on the morning air above the fields and where, in the evenings, we occasionally even heard a nightingale in the thicket, its pure and penetrating song punctuated by theatrical silences, there was now not a living sound”.
 SEBALD, W.G., The Rings of Saturn. Vintage Books: London, 2002, p. 268.
Copyright: Natasha Christia/Photocaptionist, 2015
“Find a Fallen Star”. Essay for Regine Petersen: Find a Fallen Star. Kehrer Verlag, 2015.
Regine Petersen employs meteorite falls to venture into her multi-layered narratives. Her practice is based on a seemingly straightforward investigation that employs occurrence as a pretext for further research. Petersen visits places where meteorite incidents have been recorded, interviews witnesses and gathers all relevant forensic evidence –archive press cuttings, testimony transcripts, religious and literary fragments, genealogy records and found images. In the resulting final narrative, this extensive bulk of visual and textual information is reworked in tandem with her own fieldwork and innate sensibilities into a fascinating whole.
Though the background of the three stories in “Find a Fallen Star” is different, though their action takes place in three geographically and culturally disparate areas of the world, they all form consecutive chapters of the same multi-fold approach. They are tied into a powerful and dense semantic threshold, whose main quest is reinforcing an insightful exploration of the potential abilities of the image to both sustain and challenge its proper core foundation; myth. What follows are the ingredients omnipresent in any melodrama: proximity and distance, the lapses and decays of memory, the mundane and the sublime, and, of course, as it is to be expected in any occurrence of cosmic character, the universe with its infinite intergalactic and interstellar constellations.
The meteorite in itself, always the meteorite, this ancient pearl of the universe condensing on its surface billions of kilometres, billions of years. The meteorite, a heavenly sign of awe-inspiring divine dimensions and an artefact of ruthless scientific observation, triggers spiritual amazement but can also instigate fear, destruction and flames. From time to time it becomes an intruder to human history; it just streaks through the atmosphere and falls on the earth, interrupting everyday life, dismantling individual and collective fate and unravelling a handful of monetary transactions, museum donations, and small private dramas
1954: In Sylacauga, Ann Elizabeth Hodges, a thirty-four year old woman is struck by an unidentified grapefruit-shaped object while napping on the couch of her living room. She is the first recorded human subject ever to have been injured by a meteorite. Her featuring on the CBS panel game show “I’ve got a secret” in the aftermath of this absurd event encompasses the bliss and the fall of a fading star. Manifested as a huge bruise on her hip, the abrupt collision of universe’s forces onto her body takes only four minutes to be consumed by media frenzy. The day after the fall, Julius McKinney, an Afro-American farmer, finds a second smaller fragment of the same meteorite that hit Ann Hodges but in contrast to her, keeps his discovery secret for some time, probably out of fear that it will be confiscated. Later on he sells the stone for profit. 1958: A meteorite falls in Ramsdorf, a small town in German Westphalia, unearthing a torment of hidden tensions and authority issues in the local community, and putting into test its apparently peaceful coexistence and human relationships. A group of children discovers it and breaks it in five pieces. Then the village doctor intervenes, the extra-terrestrial object’s fragments are reunited and a contract is signed, according to which they come into his possession for 10 DM each. 2006: A much less spectacular encounter of a meteorite with humans happens in India. A meteorite falls at Kanwarpura village near Rawatbhata, where the Rajasthan Atomic Power Plant is situated. The two shepherds who come across it are nomads who, just like the stone, stand outside the realm of History. They enter the stage as long as it takes them to discover it, drag it for some distance, immerse it in water, report it to local authorities, and then leave. What is left behind are politics, speculation and a huge piece of iron junk.
On Personal Memory, Myth and Language
“This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.
W. G. Sebald: The Rings of Saturn 
The irruption of meteorites into the flow of History triggers an infinite number of accounts that confront the finite nature of human perception with the infinity of the universe. “Find a Fallen Star” reverberates through its aesthetics the collision of meteorites with the earth. It performs it in all its absurdity by means of a collision of images and words and the semantic pitfalls the latter causes. The three episodes featured here are packed with a continuum of factual evidence of various kinds: reports facilitated by police authorities, lawsuit documents over property, contracts, a newspaper article on Petersen herself, Internet forum–posts of meteorite enthusiasts and, last but not least, press images and found photographs. All machine-typed in a bureaucratic way, all approved by investigation committees and experts, their mission is to shed light on facts, yet obstruct it instead. Fitting chaos into the human scale is not an easy business.
Interviews work as a substantial tool to this frenetic enquiry for facts. The Alabama chapter includes a later interview recording that finds Eugene Hodges, Ann’s husband, some five decades after the events. A key figure but also a very conflictive agent in the story, Eugene is supposed to have been ill-tempered in the past, but now is mellow and less resolute when recollecting the events of the fall and when defending his version about the dispute over possession and his divorce. In his early nineties, he has partially lost the capacity of remembering and/or disremembering, putting at stake the interviewers’ attempt to extract from their encounter a vivacious account of what really happened in Sylacauga. As his version of the story unfolds through his old fragile southern accent, Ann Elizabeth Hodges gets more and more blurry. Her figure is gradually disappearing; we cannot tell who she is and whether her fate was tragic or not.
This sort of oral recollections, plethoric and abundant in style, albeit unable to clear the path to information, are even more present in “Fragments”, the Ramsdorf chapter. Some sixty years later, conversation still makes itself omnipresent here through the disparate testimonies of some of the children (now adults) who were supposed to have been made privy to the incident. Ferdinand, Luise, Willi, Horst, Ludger, Hildegard, Gisela, Oswald, Reinhard… Each one of them provides the artist with their own version of the facts. All of them safeguard a valuable part of the truth. Theirs. They took it with them when breaking the meteorite in five pieces. This is the way life-stories are constructed; people learn them by heart, they employ them as shields in order to sustain their identity, they become them. Putting together the fragments that perfectly match each other makes it possible to re-establish the original shape of the meteorite, but this does not happen with the scattered bits of memory. As always, there is a voice missing: Franz, one of the main incident witnesses, is not alive to recount his version. As in the conjured fields of Alabama, here too people who are no longer present take their words with them.
In “The Indian Iron”, language throws an opaque veil on testimonies blurring the horizon. The interview with the villagers of Kanwarpura is purposely left in its original version –Hadoti dialect mixed with Petersen’s original questions in English. In contrast with the almost repressive language of “Fragments”, translation does not seem to work properly here. Lines and lines of the Rajasthani conversation are resumed in short answer phrases that do not address the original questions. Many essential pieces of information seem to escape, at least to non-Hadoti speakers. Petersen deliberately reproduces her experience while conducting research in India –the experience of being marginalised from the dissemination of meaning. And yet, these leftovers of meaning –whole blocks of Devanagari letters occupying the sequence– suddenly allow a novel space for the standpoint of the “Other”. They conduct an enquiry through the perception of other people and cultures, thus releasing the monolithic westernised condition of the previous two chapters. History can be written in many ways by many hands, suggests Petersen. Sometimes truth seems to lie in the gaps and lapses of language, somewhere in between words and on the other side of representation; it can be even found outside Myth and also outside the semantic trappings of the image, as we are about to see…
On a Dialectical Image
“The essence, properly speaking of the image, and very particularly of the photo, is to be found in that power of appearance that cannot be explained by the representational content”.
François Laruelle: The Concept Non-Photography 
Petersen treats text as a surface, as a meta-form that expands into space and is perceived in terms of its property of representation rather than as writing. It is not words and arguments per se that matter to her but the experience of proximity and/or distance with facts they convey as interchangeable variables of fantasy. As a mental constellation of this physically sensed condition of aloofness, language also suggests a way to delve into her still contemplative images. “Find a Fallen Star” is replete with visual equations of proximity and farness. The camera constantly re-enacts on many levels the experience of micro and macro scale in the natural world. It records creatures barely perceptible to the eye. Besides the imprint they leave on the environment, creatures such as a frog, a chameleon, a snake on the path, a donkey or merely an egg on the ground, are minor cosmic components, epiphanies of fragility and humble reminders of the limitation of perception. Other kinds of images, as the Google view of a crater in India, aerial views or amateur astronomer takes of a moon eclipse, appear as minimising the dramatic effect of human presence amidst the vast cosmos, while performing the earthly necessity to catalogue and possess the world, to literally fit it within science and the confined limits of myth. As a whole, these visual haikus can be seen as symbolising the material distances meteorites cross, the miles the artist herself had to cover in order to gain access to geographically remote areas of India or the American South. But, ultimately, they also seem to imply how troublesome the path to meaning and interpretation is.
Texts and images turn into integral elements of the selection and spatial organisation of information in “Find a Fallen Star”. They engage in cross-temporal conversations, exposing the unbearable lightness of understanding in a fragmented world. By doing so, they involuntarily twist documentary photography’s traditional exclamations of the sort “If you aren’t good enough, you are not close enough” (Robert Capa). It goes without saying that in a media and communication era Petersen feels that she cannot nor has to be close. Concerned with the aftermath, her photography maps the world in its chaotic incompleteness. Petersen goes to the impact sites after events have happened and sees what is left. Her practice is not premeditated. She recollects photographs from the surface, allowing margin for chance. Her pictures, despite their registering character, are not mere images of material remains. Motivated by an intuitive and curious approach to the world and by a desire to make connections, they are articulated as independent visual unities leading to insightful metaphoric associations. They turn into liquid images that, depending on their context, meld the signifier and the signified into a third object, too subtle to openly spell its connections.
Take meteorites, for example. They work here both as real tangible rocks and as mental images binding form, language and content in an array of rich dialectic associations. Like photographs, they are representations and re-presentations, triggering a series of metaphors in relation to memory, tangibility and materiality. They simultaneously show and conceal. Meteorites may contain unbiased records of ancient memory in their interior, but we cannot obtain real access to this cosmic information; we can only imagine and project it. Then unexpectedly, these dreamlike apparitions of the sky reach our hand as artefacts in museum captivity. Petersen takes time to photograph them as isolated still lifes against a black background. Realised in large-format and with long exposures, their photographs transmit a feeling that is by turns sensational and unsensational. On the one hand, they advocate the miracle of bearing witness to an object with evident religious and sacral connotations, or, alternatively, a luxury item. On the other hand, one cannot let go that each of these images is nothing but the record of a banal rock. Here is before us, a single piece of stone unleashing a handful of absurd stories.
Likewise, chimps –a recurrent motif in “Find a Fallen Star– are activated on a second-order speech level that abandons the field of literacy for the sake of some magical thinking. Monkeys are a part of the natural wonder. They live in a world of their own that we cannot access, but at the same time their genealogy is related with our past. Monkeys also carry mythical connotations; they are parts of a colourful ritual that contrasts with German small-town Catholicism as implied in “Fragments”. They are the “Gods of the Old World”, worshipped as non-figurative rectangular objects embellished with rice and coconut. In the recent past, they formed the International Space Hall of Fame. They were sent to space, and the empty space suits of those who made it back are exhibited as emblems of human ambition and journey exploration. But Petersen’s eloquent visual narrative undermines such an iconic reading, pinpointing what these animals really are: namely, involuntarily launched bodies to an extra-terrestrial orbit of perils. As if thinking could be performed in their portraits, history and reality find their expression in the experience of absolute terror and fear these poor chimps must have experienced during their historic missions.
On Melodrama and, finally, on Facts
Although “Find a Fallen Star” unfolds as a threefold narrative, the leitmotif behind it is one and the same. It is all about a melodrama palpitating with passion, counter-memory and exhaustion –a melodrama that sardonically cuts through religion, politics and collective fantasy. Its three acts are orchestrated as cyclical narratives of beguiling and tantalising polarities that can be read in one way or the other. As unpredictable outsiders, meteorites invade the stage and become masterfully interwoven with the extremities of life. Experiences and history become cognisable and visible through them. In a transformative sense, they confront us with multiple perspectives and entombed secrets. At the outset of each tale there is a mystical, supernatural hint, as if the answer to everything were to be found in allusions to the Lord and in Judgment Day. But, paradoxically, what ultimately prevails are the subterranean forces of human relations taking over and raw facts.
“Stars fell on Alabama” takes off as a white woman’s tale. It transports us to the mid-fifties’ American South, while eloquently describing the way Ann Hodges’ quotidian life becomes afflicted from the media attention and legal disputes over possession that accompany her encounter with the extra-terrestrial. Then, when less expected, the narrative suddenly becomes engaged with the ventures of Julius McKinney, a 60 year-old black farmer who happens to discover another piece of the rock from outer space in the middle of a dirt road. First we see him in a contemporary newspaper photograph surrounded by his family, his hands holding the “black coloured pearl”. Then, looking back, the original negative is restored, demonstrating that part of the frame of the reproduced image had been over-painted to hide the extreme poverty of the McKinney family. Narrative is moved from the context of American nostalgia to the dark fringes of old plantation days. We find ourselves before a second invisible and less idealised level of reading that addresses altogether the issue of racial segregation while showcasing a whole draft of contradictions and anomalies in the construction of the photographic image. The flow of images takes us even further, into a realm where polarities melt into one. During her research, Petersen discovers in the genealogical tree of the McKinneys the complex African-Scottish origins of their ancestors: Julius McKinney’s father was the fruit of a relation between a white slave owner and a slave, following a series of biracial relationships. She thus deciphers the story of a white man within a black man the same way a careful viewer will spot a little Americana statue in the desolating opening portrait of Ann Hodges, next to her radio. In the end, things are not what they appear at first sight. We can never fully know the grim undercurrents of history that lie in store or its unexpected and surprising twists that bring the opposites closer. And so the story unfolds, unexpected, ambiguous and random. Its two narrative threads are masterfully tied together as one through the religious texts that open and close the chapter respectively. The comments of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith about the stellar shower of 1833 in Alabama are paired with the recollections of Amanda Young, a slave, on Judgment Day, punishment and redemption. Beyond specific statements on contemporary racial injustices and minorities, the “black pearl” ends up performing altogether the inherent dynamics of the place it falls on, even if this is by chance.
As Petersen wistfully states, “Places do not change much. Only life on top of them does”. Beneath the surface of her imagery lies tension. In “Stars fall on Alabama”, everything feels just different. There is a poetic connection with the muddy earth, the blood-coloured moon and the pine trees in these pictures –a so to speak dramatic, cinematic-like feeling transcribing the savage magical spell of Carl Carmer’s Alabama into a universe of stillness . In “Fragments”, the presence of this ambiguous world brooding under the surface is further reinforced. Ramsdorf seems like a fragmented world of powerful father figures (the doctor) and the surrogates for them (the male children). All of them carry an impending need to impose their proper views, to become comprehended and appreciated. Regardless of their flaws and possible fallibility of memory, they are human beings thwarted by individual limitations and the circumstantial historical stances of society. And yet, beyond them, there is always a broader historical context to bear in mind. If in the Sylacauga tale the hidden agenda is racial segregation, here it is post-war Germany in the shadow of its recent past. In their sculptural-like quality, images such as “Mole hills” draw allegorically this two-fold hidden past wounding under the earth, whereas the Wehrmacht steel helmet at the village church made into a picking bag shows the very same past palpitating in actuality. There is a sort of autobiographical element in this chapter, a feeling of estrangement Petersen feels at times, when investigating about her own country, an inability to fully recognise herself in the repressive language of German sermon post-war articles. This feeling of alienation is perpetuated in the other series; it serves as a reminder of what-has-been by locating the remaining traces of what is past in the contemporary world. Take, for example, the portrait of Wernher von Braun, an ex-Nazi technician who became member of the NASA crew, in the Alabama chapter.
As soon as the curtain of history unfolds, we are made privy to a Cold-War-era feeling that dictates the underlying historical context and mood of Petersen’s stories. In “Fragments”, the anonymous photograph of the boy building his Sputnik out of a milk can is a direct allusion to the same space dream with that of the NASA chimpanzees in Alabama. As far as “The Indian Iron” is concerned, it commences as a 19th century tale with religious and colonial nuances. Like the previous chapters, it is gradually arising from amidst a legend to 2006. It somehow ends up being part of the same culture of globalisation, politics and war. The initial association of the meteorite with a Pakistani bombing or its quick dismissal by American meteorite enthusiasts as a piece of junk from the neighbouring power plant brings to our attention the current political patterns of the zone. For once more, Petersen’s narrative tells us something crucial about prejudices, localisms and the narrow focus of Westerners failing to see the broader scheme.
History intrudes with its weight and, much more considerably than the meteorites, exercises a repressive force onto people and their fates. Petersen seems to acknowledge this fact. However quiet, restrained and understated her photographs may seem, they are neither programmatic in tone nor rigid. She cares passionately for her subjects. Hodges is the woman who never fully recovered from the consequences of the contact with the extra-terrestrial. “She never again was the same person”. Her voice remains unheard in a male dominated narrative the same way many other voices remain unheard or inaccessible in the rest of the other stories. Ed, whose mother, the Hodges’ landlady, was involved in a lawsuit with them over the stone from space, and Ferdinand in the German story appear peaceful and unattached; Franz and Eugene, Julius and the two nomads are absent protagonists … All of them have involuntarily become actors in this theatre of the absurd. Petersen is concerned with a sort of right distance, seeking to remain un-judgmental in her approach. What are the limits of investigation? What are the limits of intrusion? What does it mean remembering things properly? When photographing her witnesses, she records them with simplicity and directness, allowing time and space for the personal, tangible, subjective element to surface in the portraits. First and foremost, she wants things to matter. The corollary of her visual approach is sadness and affection about people passing away and about estranged friends. Some people get the stage, while others are not even mentioned…
Petersen’s ultimate personal meditation is existential. Beneath the visual sequence and conceptual layout of her elliptical, contingent, and open-ended narratives lie the trappings of our little world. “Find a Fallen Star” unveils how both the banal and the profound in the universe are interrelated in a whole of sense or non-sense. Everything about the work is walking lines between different aspects and things. A lot cannot be explained. Nature appears as a key in this whimsy envisioning of History. It consists of a world of its own that we cannot access. With its perennial circles, it provides pauses for contemplation within the narrative question, but at the same time it is much more than a modest backwater context. Nature energises a shift from the realm of the historic to the flaccid and silent confines of the ahistoric. The last images in the Indian chapter “Old World (crater rim)” and “Sky” mark this approach. In “Old world”, a universe deprived of humans appears floating in time; there are just a few little houses in the background and the natural world. “Sky” is a kind of hopeful view albeit resigned at heart. Obtained not from a shooting star but from a plane, it formulates itself as a reminder of the fundamental shift in perspective that space research brought about in the sixties, just one decade after the events of Sylacauga and Ramsdorf. After men set foot on the moon, the image of the rising Earth seen from a distance united people, revolutionised our ideas about the environment and the planet, and condemned any extreme aphorisms to fallacy. Amidst a vast universe everything got relative, both for better and worse. This is what lies behind the bittersweet whimsy effect of these concluding stills. Looking from a distance at history and at its anarchic and raw happenings brings somehow hopefulness and resignation about things. This is the way things go. Men get born, live, pass away… A whole world gets lost when a person disappears. But the universe somehow keeps on being here in its utterly compelling essence – at times sad and insightful, at times funny and unpredictable.
And then, silence comes.
The silence of ending marks the end of history. After all Photography is a deeply melancholic medium. Gradually we are distancing ourselves; gradually everything is diminished. In distance and in time, everything –images and words– get lost in translation. What is only left is the echo of a song  resonating in our ears:
We lived our little drama
We kissed in a field of white
And stars fell on Alabama
I can’t forget the glamor
Your eyes held a tender light
While stars fell on Alabama
I never planned in my imagination
A situation so heavenly
A fairy land where no one else could enter
And in the center just you and me
From the distance, we can hear Doris Day’s voice. Or is it Billie Holiday? Here too, there is the black and white version. We can buy into the version we prefer. We can buy into the myth. As in all representation, as in all historic fictions, we are the speculators who profit from the traffic between the realm of things and the realms of allegory and phantasmagoria. In the meantime, the image of Hodges surrounded by police officers in the aftermath of her encounter with the extra-terrestrial keeps ringing into our mind. Eyes lowered, under the gaping hole of the ceiling, Hodges is fading within the old photograph. As Benjamin once rightly remarked, “History decays into images, not into stories” .
- SEBALD, W. G.: The Rings of Saturn. Random House, 2013, p. 125.
- LARUELLE, François: The Concept Non-Photography. Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2011, p. 110.
- CARMER, Carl: Stars fell on Alabama. New York, Doubleday, 1934. Reissued various times.
- Stars Fell On Alabama is the title of a 1934 jazz song composed by Frank Perish with lyrics by Mitchell Parish. The origin of the song is an earlier cosmic event in Alabama, the Great Leonid Meteor Shower that was visible in the skies of the South-eastern United States on Nov. 12, 1833. Curiously, the two versions of the song by Doris Day and Billie Holiday cited at the text were released in the same year, 1957.
- BENJAMIN, Walter: The Arcades Project. Ed. Rolf Tiedmann. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 476 [N10a, 3]).
Copyright: Natasha Christia/Regine Petersen, 2014
Sara-Lena Maierhofer. Dear Clark. !000 Words 16. Autumn issue 2013.
Erasing the past, tailoring a new identity, becoming somebody else; not just anyone, but a Rockefeller, the husband of a wealthy woman. The old, long-buried self used to be Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter from Bavaria. But he vanished a long time ago in a journey from Germany to the States. His initials were lost in a series of taken names; his skin appropriated a handful of aliases, all grandiose and luxurious in lifestyle. In 2008, after three decades of spurious identities, the lie collapsed and with it the man. Christian Karl Gehartsreiter, aka Christopher Crow, Clark Rockefeller to name but a few; to many a swindler, a con man, a crook; to others, a gifted storyteller, a man with a polished accent who dared to be whoever he wished.
Sara-Lena Maierhofer discovered Clark in a Süddeutsche Zeitung article in 2011. She became fascinated by the man with multiple skins and decided to approach him. After Clark refused to meet her, she decided to study him from a distance, to conduct her own criminal investigation based on the existing pieces of forensic evidence – the bits of newspaper, pictures, even Clark’s early drawings, and her letters to him. Still, Maierhofer needed to go further. In an attempt to penetrate the multiple layers of his lie and reach the core of his personality, she chose to approach him through fiction, following Clark’s lead. She imagined him in a world of clones and doubles, one where the borders of truth and lie collapse against the rigid confinements of the image.
Dear Clark grew into a multifocal installation and a book that carry both the rigorous yet awkward aura of an uncanny cabinet of doubles, Siamese twins, and the world’s most famous criminals. Departing from Clark’s case, Maierhofer took one step further and enclosed in her study a fascinating register of chameleonic apparitions and unresolved tales of hybrids and optical illusions, some real, others invented. Liquid definition and duplicity are omnipresent in this open-ended narrative that asks the viewer to join in piecing together the clues Maierhofer has collected.
Like other contemporary visual artists who use photography to explore the possibilities of fiction, rather than the forensic search for truth, Maierhofer seems not to consider her photographs able to tell her story on their own. She instead incorporates them in a systematic, non-hierarchical use of archival documents and resources as diverse as pure documentary, staged photography, texts and film studies, in order to unmask the subjectivity of vision and the fragility of perception. Her production process lies transparent on the wall and the page, inviting a series of playful and, at times, unsettling associations between images, words and media, in equal, democratic terms. As she explains, “it is all zooming in, zooming out, looking at different perspectives, reviving the joy I first experienced when compiling my material and browsing through it.”
Cinematic in pace, Dear Clark allows for mystery and intrigue. Maierhofer acknowledges her documentary roots and the influence of the German film director Werner Herzog who has extensively theorised about and mingled the languages of fiction and documentary. It is from him that Maierhofer draws her philosophy, one that defends tampering with the truth for the sake of storytelling. The elasticity that both the installation and the book possess reinforces this determination to engage multiple layers of meaning, interpretation and experience. “I was concerned”, Maierhofer recalled “about how much information I should provide without destroying the viewer’s imagination, without being didactic. The installation provides the opportunity to discover things. You can flip the pictures, read the texts underneath them or behind the glass vitrine. You can if you want, but you do not need to. I wanted to preserve this element in the book, hence the different paper layers and sheet lengths.”
The elliptical narrative in Dear Clark eloquently unravels the strong underlying parallels between the flux of fraudulent identity and photography’s unfulfilled promises of objective truth. The extent of the lie in Clark’s case – how he took it to its limits and imposed it on everyone – is another example of human credulity before the presence of a seducing image, imagined or real.
Says Maierhofer: “Identity seems to be after all a matter of persuasion. Clark did not just choose to be anyone; he chose to be a Rockefeller! He was not just like any other common crook out there who tries to make money out of peoples’ beliefs. What he was after was status. For months he studied the Rockefellers thoroughly, and managed to pass himself off as one of them. People bought into his lie and invested in it because it was so charming.
“All of us are drawn to storytellers, to people who make reality just a little better with their lies. In Germany there is a saying, ‘I will love you forever is the most honest lie in the world’. The same applies to photography. It wants to give us the truth but it can’t.”
Images direct our attention towards their confined surfaces; it is their unique, privileged bond with the real that renders them so appealing. They tempt us to believe there is more beyond the surface. The condensed meaning palpitating in one single photograph allows us the space to imagine multiple universes, a life of different options. And yet, when the hour of truth comes, it is so hard to specify the path to the final meaning. Charming and ambivalent, the Barthesian punctum resists being tied down to the norms of language. As does Clark. He becomes the punctum for Maierhofer: an exemplary subject avidly explored. A recollection of family pictures in the series shows him the way he was: blurry, unrecognisable, an awkward pose defying definition. Every time he had his picture taken, he would cover himself or make a face: he, the man of invention, chose to leave a weak imprint on film.
Clark is the man in constant rebirth. A series of chapters with Kafkaesque titles – The Promise, The Lie, The Transformation – allude to his duality and process of transformation, but also attempt to fully capture his complexity, to neatly outline him as the subject of a readable narrative. Maierhofer disposed of two portraits of him: a newspaper clip from the day of his arrest and the portrait of a smiling young man with sunglasses. This latter picture, which was taken in Germany when Clark was around seventeen, is the only photograph where we see him openly looking at the camera. “I love this picture”, says Maierhofer, “it delivers the naïve hope he had as a young man. When he first landed in the States, he spent some time in Pasadena trying to succeed as an actor. But he failed. When you travel to the US you just expect everything to be like in a Hollywood movie. The whole country is a particular setting of reality and fiction. This is what happened to Clark. He got the message of the American dream delivered by him in his living room in Germany, went there and expected that he could be anyone he wished.”
As an ideal, charismatic subject, Clark remains mysterious and blurry until the end. Still, Maierhofer confesses that romance gradually faded despite her initial fascination with him. The gloomy part of the story prevailed. “Inventing a fake persona and keeping track of the lie for thirty years takes a lot of calculation”, she explains. “Just imagine, Clark was never able to tell anyone about who he really was. I sometimes fantasise about him going out to these little drive-in bars, running across a stranger probably drunk, letting it all out and then going back home”.
Clark Rockefeller, or Christian Karl Gehartsreiter, is currently serving a sentence for murder in America. Sara-Lena Maierhofer carried out the project without meeting him; he never responded to her request. How would the work have turned out if he had said yes? “It would have certainly been less my project and more his”, responds Maierhofer. “Clark would have directed me. He is an extremely intelligent man who knows how to play the game of seduction. A con man is the perfect mirror. He gets into people’s heads, finds out about their desires and gives them what they want. In our case, it would have been the same. Clark would have sensed what I want and would have manipulated me. He would have been the rider and me the horse”.
Copyright: !000 Words/Natasha Christia 2013
Trinidad Carrillo: The Name from Mars. The essay has appeared alongside Johanna Willenfelt’s text in the artist’s self-published book The Name from Mars. Göteborg, Sweden, 2013.
Dreams, Freud insists, suggest not lineal narratives but a rebus that must be deciphered element by element. The visual tales of Trinidad Carrillo (Peru, 1975) put this thesis into evidence. Situated on the crossroads of a real and a fictional phantasmagorical world, they are diluted in the midst of the subconscious, drawing our attention to all that lies hidden deep underneath the surface of things – to all this bright, imaginative and perturbing at times underworld of secrets that constitutes our existential matrix. Carrillo’s photographs, fulfilled visually when arranged in couples and sequences, become carriers of this narrative puzzle. They pronounce a phrase without a beginning and without an end, in the same way that dreams insist upon us and then quickly dissolve in the first light of the dawn.
Since her first series “Braiding” in the late nineties, Trinidad Carrillo was singled out for the dualism of her imagery, for this so-to-speak point of fugue in her stories that emerges as an alternative clue to reality, as a means to overcome its deeper cadences and to resolve its unspoken polarities. International recognition came in 2008. “Naini and the Sea of Wolves” (Farewell Books) won the Swedish Photobook Award and the artist was nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, besides having been selected the previous year for the Discovery Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles. With her singular elliptic and introverted imagery, rooted in the realm of the real and its very abnegation, Carrillo was, in the words of Johan Sjöstrom, “to catch the things that elude our eye, replacing the ‘normal vision’, which she found inadequate, with the vision she found through her lens instead”.
The pictures in “The Name from Mars” can be read the way Freud alleged; as sudden glimpses against the wall, as single, isolated photograms of an organic sort that magnetically place themselves one next to another; as enigmatic apparitions in conformity with the ambivalent diaristic aesthetics of contemporary photographs and photobooks. The fictions they engage avoid any claim on universality. They remain strictly personal, strictly confided in an idiosyncratic imagery of infancy dreams, hallucinations and folk tales. What Carrillo assumes and what ultimately becomes universal here is the essence of the journey: Each journey presupposes a new identity for the traveller. We buy new clothes when we move about out of the brackets of our domestic quotidian life. The journey may even be to another planet – name it Mars or whatever you like. And yet, our filter to reality remains the same – the same old camera, the same old lens, the same old eye.
There are no rules to this universe. Its stories, piled up together from 1997 to 2013, seem to interconnect organically with each other. Old pictures are reassembled and edited as part of novel sequences and new ones arrive in order to form part of a single series that keeps reformulating itself. All of them replenish, fragment by fragment, the very same existential storyline with familiar faces as its protagonists, among them Naini, the photographer’s daughter, and the people that inhabit her day-to-day surroundings. By means of this obsessive resorting to the image, Carrillo does nothing but remind us that behind every person there is an unresolved life-story. From childhood to adulthood it is the same mystic tale that incites us to grow and look for more clues, for more answers to unpronounced questions.
Although the photographer prefers to elude words about the decisive role of her ethnic and cultural roots in her work (she left Peru for Sweden at the age of eleven), this doubling of identity has played an intrinsic role in her biography. As a child, she used to imagine a spaceship transporting her to the new place. Curiously, at the end of each reverie, the new lieu always turned out to be the old home but with a different stage setting. Many years have passed since then, and yet, in a way, this paradoxical double condition still persists within her: the feeling of dislocation from the familiar gives its place to an affinity with the ‘other’, and vice versa. In “The Name from Mars” this becomes evident more than ever. The spacecraft now is the camera, and the illusion of belonging to two planets at the same time is visually echoed in an incessant shuttling back and forth between two dimensions, the real world and the one beyond it.
Trinidad quotes “Aniara”, the famous science-fiction poem by Harry Martinson, as a significant source of inspiration for this project. Science fiction has been one of the main referents for her, but she humanizes it. She integrates it into her own proper metaphysical vocabulary of playful re-enactments and masquerades. A parade of extra-terrestrials, ghosts and wistful spirits provides alternative forms to envision the real and to speak about the invisible and cryptic aspects of the human existence; about its magic moments, uncanny suspensions and faded remembrances; about the way things are beneath the surface, beyond and despite external apparitions. Open-ended, cryptic and imaginative at heart, the narrative here is purposely devoid of any contingency. Time and locus dissolve, and along with them, ages, identities and Carrillo’s film – many of her images are over-exposed, literally burned by light. The new protagonists are adult-like children and adults with childish faces, hybrid creatures with a double face, performing the self as somebody else. The bonds that unite them are here stronger than ever, as if they were all carriers of an old-age generational wisdom. And the play goes on. The natural world and its perennial circles underscore this constant journey between two planets and dimensions. By analogy with portraits, they expressively mirror this dual dimension of self-transportation and recognition. They remain concomitant with creating a double space, dislocated and spared, as if existence needed to be pulled towards the shore of fantasy and dream to obtain full awareness of its elemental somatic interdependence with the world.
In “The Name from Mars”, Trinidad Carrillo visualizes eloquently the incisive existential locus between external reality and dream in the same way the Surrealists chose to do many years ago when photographing themselves with closed eyes at the first photomaton in Paris. A series of images of sleeping figures in a state of somnambulistic trance or unawareness operate as punctums in her story. Submerged into another world, these pictures expose the fleeting moment of live interior motion against a background of generalized immobility. They register, to say the least, all that lies before our eyes when the mists dissolve and the remote landscape of the dream falls apart under the weight of a desire that cannot be fulfilled in real life. For, everyday existence is unable to sustain the logic and order of the dream. What’s more, it is unable to sustain the fluidity of identity or irrational answers to unstated questions. “There is a part of us that wants to know, another part that prefers to leave it hidden like a sacred secret”, says Carrillo. “If you call everything by its name, you will dry it”. And so the language of dreams remains veiled. On the other shore, latent under the foggy horizon, faces and bodies slowly decompose. But the dream persists. In its ecstatic futility, it conjures a space that keeps the desire alive.
Copyright: Natasha Christia/Trinidad Carrillo 2013
Alexandra Catiere, Here, beyond the mists, 1000 Words 16, Fall issue 2012
There is a subtle light burning in these pictures. A sort of an intangible, frail, albeit persistent piece of memory that cannot be fully restored. In the photography of Alexandra Catiere, we encounter the remains of an agonizing perception, unfinished and rapidly consumed. Something that intrigues us to resort to her pictures again and again, relentlessly trying to recover now what is felt like before, and yet felt for the very first time. Like a speech running after a fading light, Catiere’s photographic mode triggers within us the awakening of something we sense as irremediably lost and yet still present. Like an abrupt flash-bolt, it announces a primal moment of photographic genesis, in which everything surges forth from the depths as never seen before, and yet, at the very same time, as familiar, universal and authentic.
Catiere’s pictures carry the audacious transparency of a glance that arises in its own right to be partial and mindful. Far from being instantaneous shots capturing merely the mundane aura of a city and its people in the style of the contemporary diaristic mood, they are loaded with a timeless dignifying gentleness that successfully bridges the space between wonder and understanding. In the image that introduces the sequence of the book, a truck abandons the set rendering as its sole protagonist a slender male figure. Ethereal, almost reduced to a black spot, this latter counterbalances the emptiness of the composition, while reinforcing, in its standing immobility, the impression that, in fact, all the meaning infused in the picture – essentially metaphysical at heart – is to be encountered elsewhere, outside the frame.
Doors and windows are left half-open in these photographs. There is always a way-out drawn by a photogenic light, a vanishing point that marks the path to a spiritual after-world beyond apparitions. In many portraits, the sitters appear on the verge of turning into somebody else. Their awkward poses suggest the possibility of an inner transformation. In the views of nature, the light mixes with the particles of the atmosphere, is diluted amid the falling snowflakes and draws the profile of trees, humans and cityscapes. It is precisely this very moment, when the picture seems completely void of content, when its surface becomes an indefinable blank surface, carried outside the field of meaning and language, that intrigues Catiere: This so-to-speak irruption of the emptiness intrinsic in all photographic act, wherein the weight of representation tends to burn everything, literally and metaphorically. Paradoxically, this moment of indecisiveness bestows upon us a reminiscence, just to take it away afterwards. It offers us the past as a coherent and plausible whole, but then dissolves it abruptly in the midst of the image, consumes it like a flame, leaves it incomplete, vague, mute …
There is fog over the Saône River. Perhaps no other scenery could better fit the dreamful but contained Baltic idiosyncrasy of Alexandra Catiere. Likewise, “Here, beyond the mists”, the title chosen for the work, serves as a statement of purpose. For Catiere’s photographs reach to the foundation substance of all photography in the sense that they are mental images. Far from being mirrors of things, they are sparkles, fugitive apparitions, blank reflections of missing idols – of what we long for from the past but are unable to recover in the present; of something that, in its painstaking departure and absence, becomes properly ours. Loss is not the question here, nor is there space for drama or free melancholy. It is rather all about a sort of decaying vital information we carry in our genes and about what we can make of it.
Light burns everything in these pictures. Light as evoked in the darkrooms of the first pioneers; light as the mystic force of the first heliographic experiments and their alchemical processes – glass negatives, plates and contact sheets. Though a child of today in many respects, Catiere enjoys working in film. Being eligible for this residency has allowed her to expand and redefine her practice, adapt new approaches, as well as experiment with old cameras and various printing methods. It has fulfilled an element of sensibility that pre-existed her arrival at the museum, has made it grown and has contributed maturity in the direction of plastic properties and intuitive connections. Even so, this young artist does not stick to the rules. Her prints do not seek perfectness. On the contrary, as if by a series of deliberate accidents, they push the medium to its limits in terms of contrasts, tonality and nuances, fostering an expressivity coupled with a very contemporaneous aesthetic. As objects with material properties, they restitute the photographic desire in its ghostly archaic primitiveness and become utterly personal. Here, the act of photography is endlessly condensed to nostalgically behold but also to reinvent the past, beyond conventions and constraints.
When behind the lens, Alexandra Catiere lets herself be surprised. For every moment, she contributes a different kind of photography. The effortlessness with which she cuts across genres and styles is extraordinary. In her portraiture, an infinite variety of repertoires abounds: From the straight frontal conceptually woven stance, the staged fashion shot or the elegant studio pose evoking the solemnity of the first photographs, to close-ups imbued with a marked restless surrealist aura, such as the portrait illustrating the cover of her book. While informed by the subtle and intimate lexicon of black and white, her pictures conjure a space devoid of solid statement. Departing from creative ties and affinities with her generation, they go further to integrating the old and the new into an unvarnished map of personal sensibility. Catiere approaches her subjects, but also maintains an honest distance from them. The encounter between the photographer and the world is an ephemeral celebration steeped in empathy and an honest exchange. The fruit of this shared response is a closeness physically denoted in many of these pictures. A striking balance between the photographer’s insight and what is finally insinuated to the psyche of the beholder is accomplished.
The visual universe of Alexandra Catiere is woven as an eclectic palimpsest of an exceptional organic quality. Within it, the humble awareness of one’s identity and roots finds its place alongside the fullness of a sensorial presentness that serves insofar as it resurrects and reinvents before us an evaporating, ungraspable past. Catiere recollects, through her imagery, diverse emotions and moods, evoking constantly the circles of life, birth, childhood and age. The way she chooses to conclude her book – from Burgundy she goes back referencing her hometown Minsk – reinforces this feeling of integration to the chain of an ever-changing historical reality. On the last page of the sequence we encounter a tiny image that shows the statue of Nicéphore Niépce at a distance. Lost in the mist, could this be the carrier of a last homage to one of the fathers of photography before a future that will be distinct photographically? Or is it, perhaps, the tangible record of a photogenic reminiscence diluting in the passage of time? By turns gentle and disturbing, Catiere’s photography raises awareness of the fact that memories irremediably decay, losing their intrinsic meaning and coherence. What is left upon us is to look at and discover the beauty beyond the mists – a beauty, proper to the living, pure and immaculate at heart, that will stand over the patina of time.
Copyright: 1000 Words/Natasha Christia 2012
Tereza Zelenková, Supreme Vice, 1000 Words 10, Winter issue 2011
“It is the empirical, sometimes accidental meaning and beauty of Nature – as well as the overlooked obvious – that art portrays”.
Austin Osman Spare
With her intuitively assertive project, entitled “Supreme Vice”, Tereza Zelenková (Czech Republic, 1985) seems to point out this psychic aspect of photography. The series, published in an elegant zine by Mörel Books, employs the photographic language as a leitmotif of contemporaneity, while negotiating the impermanence of life and various hidden existential facets of our being. A combination of observational and staged studio practices, it reworks Zelenková’s penchant for Symbolism, Surrealism, and most significantly, the 19th century western occult societies, under the premise of an updated postmodern gaze. The result is a ruthlessly edited and tight narrative sequence that requires viewers to actively participate in the creation of its final meaning.
“Supreme Vice” unfolds as the diary of a loner’s journey through natural settings, paired with transition, ecstasy and loss. Raw in texture and infused with harsh direct light, Zelenková’s bleak monumental landscapes are interwoven with clinical close-ups of occultist paraphernalia. In the same way Zelenková can resort to a medium-format camera to photograph a petrified forest, in her studio snapshots, her flash blasts unmercifully over bones, insects, tattooed hexagrams. In a playful reinvention of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s “Evidence”, everything is scrutinized into the forensic artifact of a disproportionate objectivity; even the cryptic remains of dubious rituals.
It is the surrealist spirit of uncanny ambiguity and the postmodern aesthetic leitmotif of the “pastiche” that Tereza Zelenková borrows from her referents. This is eloquently manifested in a series of diverse iconographical cameos, woven from her affective relation to theosophy, popular culture and art: From a free interpretation of Man Ray’s “Dust Breeding”, in the pictures of the sand dunes and the pigeon dummy, to references emanating from Mapplethorpe’s emblematic portrait of Lisa Lyon in the black cape image that concludes the sequence, the mystic’s gnostic vision quest is steeped in the partaking of the banal, the arty and the insignificant.
The pictures of “Supreme Vice” stem from a recognizable mundane reality, and yet they end up awkwardly unfamiliar – almost surreal, to be precise. Far from accentuating the symbolic connotations of her object matters, Zelenková tends to render them as low-density, prostrate surfaces. Her gaze seeks to unravel appearances, and reveal whatever lies below the “peau douce” of a world that firmly keeps its secrets. Optical illusions and symbolic vastness are interspersed with an elegant minimalism into a mysterious expressive whole. The scene and the element of the crime arise before our eyes, all under a bizarre dreamful mood.
It is not social theory Tereza Zelenková is after. In her pictures there are bodies but not identities. There are spaces blanketed by historic and aesthetic clichés, but not history itself. What prevails are the signs of an obscure symbolism, and nature; nature not as a claim, but as an infinite enigmatic backdrop, in its savage primitiveness and erosive animalism.
Death Valley, Zabriskie Point, the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo… Primal landscapes whose lifespan is dwarfed by the scale of the centuries. If Anselm Adams venerated with his camera the universality of nature and God, here, by contrast, these images are set against the flow of time – at least outside the monolith of the grand narratives of History. These are landscapes from another planet without “sunrise, no glitter of green and golden wonders”. If one is to return here, it will be to that obscure and harsh nature that conserves its questions, a nature naked by any quest for sublimity and authenticity. Deadness under a dark moon manifests itself here the way it does in the mummified bodies of the catacombs – not as horrifying or grotesque, but rather as present and reachable, the only objective truth apprehended through one’s sensorial capacities.
Inasmuch as the final resolution is death, the photographic image becomes a topos per se, a non-place, a sort of tangible nothingness as the one revealed in the picture of the black cape. Here, there are no traces of memory, no past, future and present. Non-identity becomes overtly real, and the absence of content seems to allow for a million possibilities.
Replete of any textual descriptions, the thirteen photographs of “Supreme Vice” speak right to the skin and the senses. What is attested is a palpable, inconspicuous feel of existence prompted by these images’ stillness. A sense of timelessness sets into high relief the mystic and the occult, the alchemy of nature and man – all of them outcasts of the western culture’s rationalism that has loaded us with the burden of an obstinate shapeless memory.
Raised as an agnostic who has faced constant difficulties in adapting herself to a single cult system of thought, Tereza Zelenková feels much more at ease outside history, religion and science. Her ethical code resembles that of a Thelemite, and her neo-gothic aesthetic idiolect of automatism and intuition owes a lot to the art and writings of the 20th century grand mystics Austin Osman Spare and Leister Crowley.
“Supreme Vice” appears as the ultimate declaration of these principles, vindicating the artist’s conviction about death as the only objective truth. But if this is so, then life, the condition of life in its presentness, becomes the negative imprint of this final nothingness. When Zelenková travels through the world or shoots on the floor of her studio, she shares with the old travellers and mystics the gritty mortality of the desert, but also carries within her some of this maverick’s quest for the inner path. Insofar as her images eloquently declare this mortality, they simultaneously leave a door open to a feeling of a different kind: the faith of a mystic who aspires to transcend with her art a world deemed to efface her.
Amid life and nothingness, the photographs of “Supreme Vice” emerge as tangible imprints of the ‘what-has-been’ and the ‘what-is-to-be’, and as such they provide us with the opportunity to regain illusion and momentarily allow ourselves to reconcile with our final ineffable destiny.
Copyright: 1000 Words/Natasha Christia 2011
Martina Hoogland-Ivanow, Far Too Close. 1000 Words 11, Spring issue 2011
First came eviction and the prison camp. Then, exile and the plain awareness of finding oneself not just beyond the Ural Mountains but also beyond History. In “Dostoevsky reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears”, the Hungarian writer László F. Földényi beautifully recreates what all those years in South Siberia must have felt like to the Russian author. Semipalatinsk was a small town surrounded by a plain sand desert. Dostoevsky lived in a small ascetic hut with a bed, a stove and a table, where he read, among others, Hegel. While thousands of people were arriving to Siberia, the German philosopher, who at that time was lecturing on universal history in Berlin, would write:
“Siberia lies outside the constraints of our study. The characteristics of this country do not allow it to work neither as a setting of historical culture nor as a model for universal history”.
Reading these lines, Dostoevsky felt deeply hurt. Now he knew; Europe had expelled him not just beyond its frontiers but also outside History. He found himself confined to a state of non-existence at a non-place. Paradoxically, that very vantage point would gain him a decisive turn in his literary production and a unique perspective of the world that has fuelled generations and generations of transcendental existentialism.
Likewise, the pictures of Stockholm-born photographer Martina Hoogland Ivanow are to be found in a blurred territory on the periphery of perception, far beyond the borders of historicity and its written laws. By analogy to the places they depict –some of the most remote and sparsely inhabited locations of the planet that have long represented the focus of discontent, bitter dispute and disaffection– these pictures eloquently account for various experiences of emotional attachment with the world that surrounds us. They provide the scenarios wherein collective memory and its traumas intermingle with the subjective consciousness of the solitary traveller and the banal domesticity of family interiors. They trigger the empathy mechanisms that connect us with places and inanimate objects, while reiterating the way photographs irremediably filter our gaze as pre-mental constructs. For we need photographs to visualize what lies before our eyes. We need them to speak for themselves beforehand, as much as we need ourselves to be part of the visual tale they engage, its protagonists and observers at the same time.
If existentialism and its visual advocators felt compelled to resort to the odours of the first childhood memories in the motherland in order to recover a full perspective of their misplaced identity amid the exile, Ivanow’s wanderings to the ends of the five continents have won her full awareness of a seemingly opposite position of remoteness, more emotional than physical this time, experienced in the closeness of one’s own community. Back them, reclusion, silence and physical distance were so abrupt and absolute that inevitably marked nostalgia in capital letters. Nowadays, by contrast, the notions of proximity and farness have become more relative and contextual. In Ivanow’s universe, in our own globalised universe, be it in the realm of cyber communication or in the form of surveillance cameras, the image both anticipates and substitutes the very experience of time and place. In this fluctuating context of virtual proximity and estrangement, the journey is ever-lasting and offers the possibility of multiple returns back home, while the body is granted with significance and experience insofar as it is inscribed to any narrative that it is not its own. This is the only way left to render the rotation of time and space intelligible to the eye and thought. In this equation, even the Heimlich, in order to be fully experienced, has to be recognized in its exoticism.
All these elements are put into strategic use in the interplay of closeness and remoteness of “Far too Close”. Published by SteidlMack, the monograph gathers together a series of images Martina Hoogland Ivanow recollected during her journeys of the last seven years to Siberia, Sakhalkin Island north of Japan, Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of Argentina and the Kola Peninsula in the Russian Lapland, alongside photographs of her family and the intimate milieu in Sweden. The multiple visual threads of the book are wistfully interspersed, interweaving a range of historically and topographically identifiable images with primal landscapes of desolation, snapshots and pictures of abstract intimacy, all in all a mixture of sensations of diverse density levels that carry Ivanow’s exquisitely atmospheric aesthetic.
By deducting colour, by reducing light to the maximum and by abstracting the surface of her images, Hoogland Ivanow shifts the attention to their essence. For she is convinced the part suffices to describe the whole. Her pieces seem almost edited out of a mysterious dark background. They are literally diluted under a grey heavy filter, which attributes them with a mystic painterly effect, partly indebted to German Romanticism and partly to the faint aesthetic of disappearance old colour prints gain with the passage of time. Cast over her subjects, this foggy veil of soft darkness accentuates the play of farness and proximity and obstructs us from reaching at the bottom of the image. Here, more than what there is to be seen, there is a lot to be felt and insinuated. The image ends up as a disturbing to the eye phenomenological enigma that defies straight categorization, while evoking as a metaphor the historical obscurity of the depicted locations and the photographer’s mental distance with them. But, it also adds a lot to our mood with its plasticity, as a flickering light dissolved under the melancholic realism of a fainting reality that seeks to explore the unknown.
Ivanow’s cities emerge as the battlefields and open wounds of modern history. With their monuments, squares and flags, they seem inhabited by the decadent remains of old regimes –symbols of fear and threatening desolation. The camera captures them from a distance; it never gets too close. Candid in style, these views speak for the unabridged gap between the painfully sealed historicity of these places and the photographer’s eye. Their aloofness is recompensed in other images of close-ups of flowers and lost footsteps on the snow. Hoogland Ivanow looks to the primal solitude to be encountered outside the polis and its entropic ethos, in order to unleash repressed feelings. Before her eyes, vast and monumental landscapes from the poles, deprived of human presence, are interlaced with a series of heightened visions of nature as a tableau of human fictions, a so-to-speak artifice of the individual and collective imagination. In these desertscapes, bodies are arrested in abrupt movements, as if performing a ritual exorcism. With their ambiguity and staged character, these scenes reinforce a cinematic-like aesthetic of suspense that opens the tale to imagination; it is upon us, viewers, to complete the story. At the same time, they suggest the movement palpitating beneath this apparently transcendental stillness – as if the clock of history were still on – broken, but still on.
Then, all of a sudden, remoteness is interrupted by the trivial intimacy of domestic settings, as they can be encountered in a series of portraits of the artist’s closest family back in Sweden. Contrary to what is expected, the flatness of content here is carefully counterbalanced by means of a reductive graphic emotiveness that takes the private into the realm of an anonymous universality. It is all about sweeping away the seductiveness of these faces and staying with the essential; it is about distancing oneself from the familiar and experiencing one’s primal existence in total loneliness. To achieve this, Hoogland Ivanow accentuates her aesthetic technique. She partially bathes these faces and bodies in a harsh natural light that fractures and distorts them up to the point of turning them into unrecognizable, “undecipherable” others, the so-to-speak protagonists of a tormented Bergman-like existential tale.
Well said, there is much more going on beneath these faces. In the cover image of “Far too Close”, two aged women look at each other. Neither of them confronts the camera. They rather establish an internal kinaesthetic visual dialogue of tenderness that is lost in the darkness. There is a complex undercurrent of gazes that cuts through the whole image and the entire set of representations it stands for: the generic gaze that photographically speaking is meant for our eyes, the elusive gaze, the one inhibited and lost in the darkness, as well as the interior gaze that is experienced from within the image rather than from outside. No matter the effort we put, we will never gain direct access to the bottom of the photograph, let alone to this first-hand experience of places and facts we so strongly yearn for: This is certainly something Hoogland Ivanow is well aware of. Her whole working process and aesthetic signature are an affirmation of this lack of direct access to reality. Like the covered horse she photographs, we are before a world of phenomena that carries its veil well. Everything is concealed; nothing is what appears to be. Idols faint in the distance, and we are led to remain nothing but occasional intruders, irremediably tainted by the camera’s lens and the frame of the photographic picture.
Expressive, albeit subtly melancholic and introverted in tenor, Hoogland Ivanow’s vision gives a way out to reserved feelings and sensations, layered with the haunted consciousness of unresolved questions and traumas that still rule the locations she visits and the destinies of the people who inhabit them. As a traveller who experiences her journey through photography, she is not lured by the grand narratives and their operatic scenic extravaganzas. Her attention is rather drawn to the moments in-between, to all these minor anodyne moments of misrecognition and non-places that, by tradition, have been marginalized by historical writing as trivial and inconspicuous.
A close-up of bed sheets, a magnified view of the details of a painting, the distorted idol the mirror returns to us and the banality of domestic interiors: through this iconography of reflections, interior moods, dead-ends and vision, framed and re-framed by the camera, Martina Hoogland Ivanow can open up vision to an unfamiliar, albeit tangible experience of the self, relieved from the burdens of historicity. Like Dostoevsky before the small framed mirror of his room, like Dostoevsky beyond the Urals, she has been led to the awareness of the need to momentarily step out of the monolith of History and explore the experience of remote closeness to emotional distance as prompted through photography and its intentional fallacies.
In the meantime, the stream flows. Currents and lakes and the body of a child who dives in and steps out of the water… The images of “Far too Close” persist in our mind. They dive into the river of history with its flows, eclipses and spirals and then stem out of it. And the ageing river goes on in its flux of generations set against the pendulum of time –all the people, young and old, whose presence is shown or implied in this book…
Copyright: 1000 Words/Natasha Christia 2011
Rinko Kawauchi, Illuminance, 1000 Words 12, Fall issue 2011
Since her rise to international acclaim in 2001, with the simultaneous publication of her photo book trilogy Utatane, Hanabi and Hanako by Foil, Rinko Kawauchi has been widely admired for the mesmerizing poetic idiolect of her photographic work, the lyrical, albeit enigmatic, titles of her series, and above all, the ecstatic atmosphere of her vision that gravitates between a breathtaking beauty and an unequivocal cryptic uneasiness.
In her debut, Kawauchi launched a surprisingly mature body of work, which proved that the event of photography was still in place to provide a novel means of connection with the world in its elementary ordinariness. Conforming to the diaristic spirit of our times, Kawauchi’s eyes and practice reconstituted the endeavour of taking pictures afresh in all its inventiveness and instinctive playfulness. And they kept doing so in the years to follow through nine more beautifully assembled monographs, which, besides featuring various series of her photographic repertoire, contributed to her firm establishment, not just among Japan’s most popular female photographers, but among the main protagonists of the international photographic stage altogether.
The recent release of Kawauchi’s twelfth monograph by Aperture, the first to be published outside Japan, seems to be the natural outcome of this prolific path. Entitled “Illuminance”, the book stays faithful to the style of the previous editorial enterprises of this artist. It also lives up successfully to the demand for a comprehensive publishing event of a wider scope, capable of introducing her oeuvre to audiences from all over the world. In this sense, “Illuminance” is by far more pretentious than any of her previous eleven books. It may be because of this that it results being less intimate, and more epic instead…
The monograph is a retrospective statement that works backwards, over fifteen years of work, both commissioned and personal. Like an authentic Rinko Kawauchi book, it is infused with a rhythmic visual crescendo of atmospheric ups and downs. Raptures of an unforeseen ethereal beauty are punctuated with melancholic slippages and spurs of tentative uncanniness. It is all before our eyes: A compelling whole whose distinctive traits live up to the highest expectations of the most committed Rinko Kawauchi fan.
With its title, “Illuminance” pays tribute to light, an omnipresent element in Kawauchi’s work and an old-age source of photography. The light, translucent and ethereal in tenor, carries significant symbolic connotations of transcendental immanence; the light in contre-jour insatiably bathes Kawauchi’s subjects amid a dissolving world; the light breeds ravenous hallucinations and phantasmagorical dreams that unveil impulsive silence and irreverent shadows.
Nature is a constant in this dazzling auratic world. Pristine physical elements, such as waterfalls, rain drops, radiant blue skies, volcano earth, blossoms, shells and insects, evince here a primal cosmogony of varied emotional and affective nuances that bursts under a sublime halo. And yet, amid this apparent raw simplicity, there is room for curiosity, the prospect of discovery, and the myriad quotidian dramas, whispers and small voices of the world; a pantheon of the mundane which Kawauchi has always affably adhered to.
For once more, there is the familiar synthesis of fragment on fragment. Kawauchi’s tales can only be fully sensed through the flow of her books. The pairs of images she puts together while assembling her layouts emerge as the threads of a spontaneous action of pairing, an action of a certain dream logic that she executes as if driven by a psychic automatism. Her process is grounded on instinct rather than judgment. A fruitful encounter takes place between the camera, the free activity of the heart and the accidental, during the overall creative stages; when shooting, when coupling the fragments, when editing the sequence. The fruits of this labour are visual associations of a contained lyricism and a meditated dramatic quality, hard to write about. Describing them literally, case by case, in the terms of a banal poetic sentimentalism, would be equivalent to missing the point of Kawauchi’s innate sensibility. For hers is a resolute and semiotically complex vision endowed not just with feeling, but also with a profound comprehension of what images can potentially communicate through their sequencing and juxtaposition.
Rinko Kawauchi brings signs of our sorts into her visual lexicon, invoking and subverting the languages these latter represent. Throughout her work there are constant allusions to biology, memories from wildlife and natural history books, domestic clichés and childhood memories. Playfully, her camera is inclined to display everything in an unorthodox way. Micro and macro scales, irregular frames, and imbalance render the subjects of her compositions particles of radical visual systems. Here, it is all about reinscribing photography to its most elemental and idiosyncratic properties, which are exclusive in nature. Exclusive, for the very moment we press the shutter we automatically meet the decision to leave aside the whole world lest the fragment – that insignificant partial element that suffices to put into view the inner aspects of our personal narrative. In its artful recreation of the “real”, photography departs from the real but ends up irremediably detached from it once and for all. This is where its fundamental paradox lies. With its capacity to replicate the world in a profound and moving way, it speaks for a “thereness” where we would least expect to encounter it. This is what Kawauchi’s gaze seems to suggest with its distorted angles and constant changes of perspective. It kind of puts the real, the unreal and the imaginary on the same level. It cherishes trivial and ordinary things and dignifies them with a universal halo that transmits universal ties. To all this, it adds an element of organic empathy, as if by somatising the world we are capable of experiencing it more fully.
By cutting out moments in time, Rinko Kawauchi builds her visual notes in a constant here and now. Memory has no place here, neither the future nor the past. Recompiled from mutually distant places and times, her pictures express the sensory interconnection of the individual experience with everything that surrounds it. Hers are personal, minimal stories that bear an organic attachment with the world in its deepest cadences. Hers is a sustained visual meditation on the universal forces that sustain our experience. Beyond the visible.
If History has to find a place in these pictures, it is far from the western teleological view of the world, in organic circles of birth and death. Kawauchi seems convinced about this. Her photographs celebrate birth as much as they celebrate loss; they embrace the world in the fragility and imperfection of a momentary life that rushes by. There is reconciliation, endurance and stoicism in them. There is so much of it, even in the gloomiest and most unsettling images of “Illuminance” that seem irremediably stained in the aftermath of the recent natural disasters in her homeland Japan. And yet, despite the dizzying pace and turbulence of this world, there is always a comeback to the minor vibrations of life. In the meanwhile, the spider, one of Kawauchi’s most recurrent motifs, keeps weaving its web, as if weaving a broader pattern of life.
“Illuminance” is a good example of what a photo book can be about: A gift of myriad uses; a window to a world beyond the evident; a means to hold on to the things we believe are of value in this life. A photo book like this can help us replenish our poor vision and rethink our personal tiny narratives in myriad contexts. It transports us and finally unlocks a new register for what lies unnoticed next to us. By turns familiar and uncanny, the quotidian world is what we make of it. From its outset, the camera has provided the fertile ground for the partaking of the thereness lurking in the minor vibrations of the universe, by drastically altering our perception of the commonplace. And it will keep doing so, as long as photographers like Rinko Kawauchi keep capturing pictures in such a magical way.
Copyright: 1000 Words/Natasha Christia 2011
Melinda Gibson. The Photograph as Contemporary Art. 1000 Words Issue 9, Fall 2010.
Images and pages sliced apart, cut and composed against one another and the remains of a book… In the hands of Melanie Gibson, “The Photograph as Contemporary Art”, Charlotte Cotton’s classic manual for photographic education has been reinvented as a ‘readymade’.
Gibson’s artistic practice consists of progressively removing the photographs reproduced on the textbook pages, interrelating them into groups of layered trios. Gibson reworks the three separate parts into one, starting with the largest page number at the back. Driven by a random, psychic automatism that owes a lot to the Surrealists, she further moves on to dissect and stitch together the best bits, recomposing them into a new original. The principle applied at this stage of transformation is rendering visible the elements for which each of these pictures has gained its prominence in the history of photography. The result is photo-collages that work as a synoptic amalgam of bits and genres and authorial signatures. As such, these compositions provide a curious blend of abstraction and figuration. Their bits and parts may incite an eagerness to identify a recognizable whole and yet they remain suggestive – nothing but painterly plain surfaces with the feel of a patchwork. Their fissures, though initially expected to mark discontinuity and a palpable artificiality of forms and contents, end up distracting the gaze towards a rather concrete narrative direction, by underscoring the outline of a human figure that occupies the visual centre of the image. If, as Gibson remarks, de-contextualization brings along the recreation of a new dismembered reality, this reality certainly obtains the corpus of a canonized pattern of representation in which the figurative, human element of the selected images becomes prioritised and makes its imposition a metaphoric and symbolic punctum for the rest of the image, legitimizing a voyeuristic desire to project and become projected in it.
The re-appropriation and re-organization of the original Gibson proposes is not merely confined within the image-part. On the contrary, her practice conceives the whole context in broader terms, through the juxtaposition of the photo-collages with their corresponding textual contexts, the textbook pages. And then there is what is left; Charlotte Cotton’s book in itself, stripped bare of the key components of its narrative sequence and with its argument in disarray. This coupling of “presence” and “absence”, this pairing of positive and negative, strongly implements Gibson’s approach in photographic terms; an approach wherein the actual possibility of re-presentation and audience participation becomes intermingled with other crucial issues such as the politics of licensing and appropriation.
In this sense, Gibson’s discourse shares the same realm with many other contemporary artists systematically engaged with photomontage – among them, the also British John Stezaker. Even so, rather than attempting a post-modernist pastiche with found imagery and, hence, constructing a photographic text that merely refers to other photographic or cultural texts at large, as Stezaker does, Gibson aspires to gain a better appreciation of the ethics of the historiography of photography. What makes a photograph good? How can a trained gaze be defined? Observational and introspective, rather than redemptive towards contemporary culture, her photo-collages address the very resources of canonisation of images within an institutional educational system and an art market that edify their hierarchy of values through a narrative of sameness and reiteration.
Gibson puts forward new questions surrounding the infinitive possibilities of misplacement, manipulation and exploitation of images today, hand in hand with the advent of the e-book and the uncontrolled availability of pictures on the cyberspace. Needless to say this set of concerns is not new, neither to her nor to photography or book publishing. Photography’s veracity has been always uncertain and troubling. Nevertheless, nowadays, they seem to have gained a certain alarming relevance with the ever-increasing blurry boundaries between documentary and fiction. A bit of cutting and paste, a little more of those faux-real history pictures flooding the art photography market, and what is at stake here is recreating a fake world through the real, instead of a real one through the fake, to say the least, in the words of Gerry Badger. If, in Gibson’s case, the handcrafted character and artificiality are obvious –here, we are still looking at a photomontage in the manner of the constructivists or the Dadaists– a myriad of questions arise about all those other cases of photographs where the computer and setting reworks are less obvious.
Skilfully constructed, the collages of Melinda Gibson offer different ways to consider anew the photographic medium. If the photographic apparatus is by nature a reproducer, this is well attested here. The images appearing in the book are dismembered, re-appropriated and adapted into a new unique collage, which ends up reworked and re-photographed. The laws of a new photographic unity are established. The original images are re-contextualized within a new stratigraphy; as isolated but morphologically heightened parts that allude less often to a photographed reality and more to a pictorial one – perhaps an indirect hint on the ever-existing dialogue of photography with painting?
Gibson’s collages operate as spaces of function of time and gazes. Underline panoramas of the history of photography unfold before us; panoramas offering a wonderful insight into the mind’s eye and its paramount role in what we decide to decode and to detach from a picture in order for it to become validated in our visual history and textbooks. But, is it actually us, the ones who do the validation work, Gibson seems to wonder. Is it the photographer-auteur, the camera apparatus, or, perhaps, the theorists and critics the ones who have done it beforehand in the pages of our textbooks? Whose is the selection of the visible parts in these collages? Gibson’s? Ours? Theirs? The layers of these images –the visible as much as the invisible, missing ones– remind us that photography is “incomplete” by nature. A photograph is constructed both from what is there and from what is missing, from what fails to enter the frame and from what the photographer excludes when editing. A photograph is the exclusive property neither of its creator nor of our vision.
Melanie Gibson goes back to the matrix, to the infinite possibilities of photography. Each of her photomontages is abstract and yet impregnated by the almost physical presence of a shadow-like human figure; a head and a brain, reminders of the omnipresence of the photographer beside us. Here, beyond all and more than ever, it is all about the allowance of a certain sense of spatial temporality –the photographer’s mental topography– in which our gaze corresponds interactively. At a first stage, it is probably all about the inscription of reality and its parts through the senses. Then the moment comes to amorously perceive, filter and re-filter reality through the lens, to thoroughly examine it in our mind and re-apprehend it as such. This applies as much to the viewfinder as to the photographer, to the very photograph as photographed on site and as pre-existing in the constraints of the mind.
Dismembered in the hands of Melanie Gibson, Charlotte Cotton’s manual becomes conceived as a worthy exhibit in its own right alongside the photomontages. The work brings together an archived version of contemporary photography in its continuous struggle to become accommodated among the arts. On its face, the title of Cotton’s work seems critical and problematic, for it postulates for photography an autonomy and a wholeness that it does not need. Gibson counteracts this principle with her very artistic practice. Her newly articulated ‘readymade’ advocates a new subversive reading of the history of the medium. While its textual parts work as a metaphor for raw reality, its manipulated pictures operate as the punctum of a grand visual narrative altered and distorted. And yet, everything still makes perfect sense. For photographs have the unique capacity to replicate the world and themselves. The parcelling of reality suits them quite well. It empowers them with this fascinating capacity to astonish through the bits and parts, conjuring up a compelling desire that makes us keep looking and looking. This is something that ultimately only photography can do. And it is as simple as that.
Copyright: 1000 Words/Natasha Christia 2010.