by Juan Antonio Molina
Probably the objects of a religious, moral, aesthetic and logical
All the concepts appearing in each title of this essay, which indicate its contents, seem to be in a crisis. They refer us to a language that is already out of the critical and theoretical discourse. At times, it seems that they never belonged in there anyway. However, these are terms that -when translated to the language of critics, art theory and contemporary cultural studies- refer to processes -such as subjectivization and ideologization, playing with the structures and signs, and anthropological, ethnographical or psycho-analytical methodologies- to the almost political criticism of representation and the “ “performatic” ” existence (or insistence) of the work of art.
It is fortunate that my starting point is a series of works belonging to the same collection. This will help me focus on my subject matter, placing it in a specific context of circulation, consumption and referred to particular values. In fact, the works I have selected to demonstrate my hypothesis have been produced in a ten-year span (1994-2004) by Latin American photographers. This particular time-space stratum allows me to uphold my lines of research and speculation regarding contemporary photography.
In consequence, the collection can be seen as a sort of laboratory in which I can corroborate certain theoretical propositions. A space in which the aspirations of consumption, value exchange and even the “cultural” value of the work of art, become real. This is an ambit where the work recovers -or at least fulfills an aspiration to recover- that controversial “aura”, which basically has to do with its own historicity, with its reminiscence, and a kind of new rituality in which it will get involved.
Although I see the concept of “emphasis” in the direction that goes from the author to the work, I can’t help to be attracted by the possibility to relate it to this magical dimension, which establishes a flux that goes from the work of art to its origin. An origin in which we will find the author, but also the circumstances that define the current existence of the work itself. In this essay, I will take on this mythical dimension -even though indirectly- to recover, as part of the emphasis, the connection of the work with the representation processes, which somehow reproduce certain archaic relationship structures between the subject and his material and spiritual reality.
To talk about the spiritual in relation to photography entails two risks, the spiritual sounds far too abstract, while photography is seen as being far too concrete. First, I will try to approach both concepts through the two aspects I find to be the most interesting: Today’s need to approach the spiritual as subjectivity incarnated in the object, and the possibility to approach photography as objectuality dissolved in the middle of emphatic processes of subjectivization. This will lead me to comment not only about the body of the photographed, but also about the body photographic, a double approach that I deem substantial to every analysis of representation, in any mode or bearing.
But before, I’d like to digress about something I think is necessary to put my analysis in context. My interest in marking certain zones of the Latin American photographic production through its references to spirituality is related to my own ponderings on the subject in the last few years. This attempt includes the analysis of the relationship between the representation of the body and a certain kind of subjectivity, and considering this relationship as the one that defines the features and content specific to the contemporary Latin American photography. The references I have made to photography as a “weak object” are sustained mainly by the detection of these elements of subjectivity that contribute to a sort of explosion of the photographic object, undermining its monumentality and solidity. I believe that without the detection of these elements, any analysis would be incomplete or biased by the historical and circumstantial aspects of the photographed object.
In consequence, I will lean towards commenting about a group of works marked by a certain anthropological intent. These are images resulting from the reformulation of the concepts of document and evidence. These are propositions based on autobiographic research or the game played between history and biography. Several variations of the representation of the body or the reference to the corporal, but above all I will highlight the fact that all of these variations coincide in an intense game played between the subjective and the objective. And in the fact that this game of correlations responds to the contemporary manifestation of a critical spirituality.
If we pay attention to the judgments made in other disciplines (such as psychoanalysis, sociology or anthropology) we would be talking about spirituality in crisis. Julia Kristeva -who reveals the “transfigured” soul in the contemporary psychic life- puts the problem with a lucid skepticism. The first pages of “The new illnesses of the soul” are a recap of what seems to be the symptoms of a social disease rather than of alleged individual pathologies.
Even when she describes the contemporary subject as being “saturated with images”, it is in a world where “there are no longer boundaries between pleasure and reality, between the truth and the lie”1, she seems to describe a panorama similar to Baudrillard when he evaluates the moral and ideological consequences of living in a world of simulation. In this sense, what is more interesting for the purpose of this text, is that Kristeva’s analysis is, if not a criticism of representation, at least a criticism of its discourse: “ …Is there a “you”, an “us”? The expression is standardized, the discourse is normalized, that is, Dou you have a discourse?” 2
This subject with no precise identity and no discourse to configure it, could be the subject liberated from emphasis foreseen by Nietzsche. The irony of destiny is that the utopia of the free and blissful man returning to his natural state (which is mostly amoral) has been substituted by the reality if the individual diluted in the mass of consumers, who is closer to the image than to nature. Paradoxically, the image is the haven of emphasis; we find it in the soap opera, in the news, in the political discourse, in the commercials, in propaganda and in art.
Although rescuing the confrontational side and the liberating utility of emphasis in art is still a praiseworthy task, it doesn’t imply a precise hierarchy in relation to the rest of the media. Any attempt to distance art from the mass media would be not only incomplete, but also incongruent with the reality of contemporary art. However, beyond any moral judgment implied in any comparison (Nietzsche himself puts the question of emphasis beyond morals), it is possible to detect a healthy energy in the most “emphatic” art, which challenges the powers that be, undermines the totalitarian discourses, that refutes the current state of the aesthetic discourse and vindicates individuality, challenging the pressures of the standardizing impulse of the mass society.
As I’ve suggested, in the case of art in general and photography in particular, the meaning of “emphasis” inevitably leads us to an aesthetic object filled with subjectivity, yet “emphatically” impregnated, this is, having a rhetorical density superimposed to the “natural” quality of the object. “Emphasis” as I put it here, is also self-referent, is a demand for attention on the object itself and on its emphatic character. This means that it does not only affect the structure or the content, but also establishes the surfaces, conditions the aesthetic reception of the object and brands it as an aesthetical object.
I believe that the surface, in the case of photography (as in other bi-dimensional arts), it is particularly important to these subjectivization processes. The surface of the photo is crucial to attach the sign to the referent. It is there where the processes of intervention and obstruction take place, and should weaken this relationship, which establishes the identification effect that seems key for photography to function. Any manipulation of the body of the photographed will go through a manipulation of the body photographic, either adding a new layer of meaning or infiltrating a texture of meanings, an ideological plot (in the end meta-linguistic) that modifies and multiplies the attributive unity of the photographic sign.
The sociological and anthropological references of Baudrillard, the psychoanalytical and linguistic references of Kristeva or even the philosophy of Nietzsche give a nuance to my questions about the function of photography in the current circumstances of the critical relationship between subjects and history. When I talk about a kind of photography in which critical spirituality is manifested, I also refer to an exercise of representation that preserves the traces of a pathetic relationship with history, something that seemed to be lost in the conditions of a mass society and that many times seems to survive transfigured in neurosis, specially if we realize that this kind of artistic production no longer seeks its stability in meta-accounts but is concentrated in micro-structures that touch, move and sometimes hurt the relationship of the subject within reality and with himself.
* This essay was published in the catalog of the Gutierrez-Bermúdez Latin American Photography Collection in Puerto Rico. The text and photos are published in ZonZero by kind permission of the architect Luis Gutierrez Negron.
1.“The body conquers the invisible territory of the soul. We take note. You have nothing to do with it. You are sturated with images that transport you, substitute you, dream you. A hallucinatory outburst: Therea are no more frontiers between pleasure and reality, truth and lie. The spectacle is a dream life and we all want it. Julia Kristeva “Las Nuevas Enfermedades del Alma” Madrid. Cátedra Editorial, 1995 .P 16