Stains on the wall

Monday, 10 March 2014 22:34 Written by Juan Antonio Molina
It is even useless to continue an image, useless to conserve it. It being is enough.
Gastón Bachelard

…stains, inscriptions, material plots, smelt metals, doodles, shocking, secretions, tatars, stretch marks, leporosy, ex beliefs, microcosms of every kind disposed by chance, on a wall…
Umberto Eco
The matter of photography is so attached to the surface of the photo that it seems to replace it. But this also implies that the identity of what was captured acquires a superficial quality, an immediacy, certainly illusory, but determinant for the relationship of closeness –of a comfortable intimacy- that we tend to establish with photographic images. The biggest draw of Silvana Agostoni’s recent photographs is the illusion of proximity and the sensation of contact they provoke, which has to do with its insinuating textures, with the tactile experiences they evoke and with the play of surfaces doubling.
The image of the “superficial” has always seemed crucial to me in the work of art. It recalls the imperative of attending to the elements of form and expression, and, above all, it reminds me that expression always finds a way to settle down. Nietzsche wrote that it is likely that “the objects of religious, moral, aesthetic and logical feelings belong no more than the surface of things.” Susan Sontag employed a phrase of Oscar Wilde’s to drive a point in Against Interpretation which is also suggestive in this regard:
“Superficial people are the only ones that don’t judge by appearances. The mystery is the world of the visible, not the invisible.”
In a previous text I mention the importance I grant to the surface of the photograph as the support to the subjectivisation processes that drive the peculiar semantic and iconographic condition of photography, but also refer to the processes of obstruction and intervention that tend to destabilize photography’s important effect of identification of the subject.
If Silvana Agostoni’s recent work does not arise out of a desire for intervention, her emphasis on surfaces (photographed surfaces, surface of the object and, in consequence, surface of the photo) leaves a space open in the supposed stability of the sign-signifier relation. And although it isn’t a project meant to reach an abstract representation of that which was photographed, it confronts us with a figuration that seems to reinvent the original figure, in the same way as the photo of a stain in the wall can lead to the reinvention of an icon. I mean to say that this project is underlined by an iconological intention (not necessarily in the sense given to that term by Panofsky) which turns every photo into a re-interpretation of an icon previously manipulated and that presents that icon as a residue, print or remnant of said manipulation.
Thus the indexical condition of the photographic sign becomes redundant, and appears to us as relative. Because if, in the first moment, the representation of a stain in the wall can be interpreted as an icon, in the photographs of Silvana Agostoni I sense that a photographed icon can be interpreted as a stain on a wall, a possibility which is just stopped by the difference between chance, which gives origin to the stain, and the intention which gives rise to the icon.
I can’t move away from this speculation without recalling a chapter in Umberto Eco’s Definition of art, with the opportune title “Photographs of Walls”. There, between a judicious discussion about the relationship between formalism, intention and signifier, Eco places a few notes down at the feet of the traditional vision of photography as a figurative and realist practice, closing his idea with a suggestive question, about the possibility that certain kind of photography might be renouncing “a finality belonging specifically to itself, determined by social function, which obliges it to remain tied to the figure.”
The photographs of Silvana Agostoni, “tied to the figure” in a redundant manner, nevertheless seem impregnated with an abstract principle that makes even the social or political reading which we must make of some of its referents relative. Let’s remember that the photos were taken in a prison. But are reproductions of other photos, magazine pages, drawings and iconographic signs that at some point decorated the walls of the place. The photographed objects are remnants of a particular visual culture and allow an attempt to localize the gaze in certain subjects in very particular circumstances of communication and enjoyment. As a result, these signs also seem to substitute the subjects that inscribed them, while at the same time appears to evoke them.
In spite of being photographs taken in a space of reclusion, the gaze does not respond here to the structure of surveillance and power that is cast over prisons, but is instead the gaze of the inmates themselves, which can be interpreted as a gesture of freedom which establishes a place and object for the gaze inside the prison. Thus Foucault’s metaphor on panoptic through which the prisoner “is seen, but cannot see himself” is inverted. The first thing that this series of photographs calls attention to is what the prisoner sees, the visual landscape that the prisoner builds as transition between the space of confinement and the outside. This landscape, fleshed out in the surface of the wall, emphasizes the objective qualities of the surface as it fades them. The photos, drawings and magazine clippings that the prisoners place on the walls of their cells brake the hermetic of confinement in two directions: one is in the sense of the transversal relation inside-outside, and another, in the sense of the horizontal relation of the same prison, as these images establish poles of socialization inside the space of reclusion. They are not placed there only to be enjoyed by one person, but for the enjoyment of the group and their interactions. But above all, they are placed there on the walls as statements that say something about the person who put them there, like signals of identity and existence of the subject. And those signals are always built for another.
That other is a kind of alter ego: another inmate occupying the same space I did, finding those signs of identity and belonging, those signs also in transit which say that I was there before, and that there is something I still have a right to; although the reverse is still possible, due to their subtlety; there us a place here I still belong to. But that alternative also has to do with time: those signs are there with the future in mind. Because the prison is not just a spatial confiner but also confines in time. The prints that the prisoner leaves behind are meant to cross that confinement in time, but also aim to brake the temporal limits of reclusion itself. Thus, the work of Silvana Agostoni has something of archeology to them (the icon as residue and as print). And archeology as we know, means to act on site, to cross through the layers of matter, but also time.
Perhaps from that stratified and fragmented condition of the icon comes to mind the similar sensation of gazing at antique murals, sometimes fractured, cracked and faded. Of course this reminiscence has much to do with psychological effect and does not oblige to suppose that Silvana Agostoni set out from the start to achieve this effect. Nevertheless I consider the comparison not to risky. These photographed graphic residues appear to me with the appearance (and perhaps with the “aura”) of ancient paintings and decorations, and have in general, due to the aestheticism of the photographs themselves it must be said, the delicate and fascinating feeling of ruins. In fact, they have a harmless feeling to them which seems to contradict the sordid images usually associated with prisons.
These reproductions really do convoke nostalgia to me, possibly because they are bearers of another’s nostalgia. And that makes me sense in the other who is the prisoner, a spirituality which grazes mine. Not enough to make me feel lonely or compassionate, but enough to grasp a humanity ratified in the shared imaginary. The imaginary is, without a doubt, the factor that allows to translocate the disciplinary logic of outside and inside. Gaston Bachelard said that “the dialectics of inside and outside are based on a hardened geometry where the limits are barriers.” And in reading Poetics of Space I always find reasons to suppose that geometry becomes harmless before the image and as a result, the limits are moved.
I have previously proposed the hypothesis that the sacred, the erotic and the aesthetic form a cornerstone of the imaginary – they are the beginning and end of the imaginary, I would dare to say now. And it is interesting that the kind of representations photographed by Silvana Agostoni, those components (those vehicles of the imaginary) seem to be itemized, insinuating typologies that resume the manner in which the prisoner represents the connections between inside and outside of the prison. It has to do mostly (and it can be appreciated in Agostoni’s photographs) with particular codifications of sexuality, religiosity and beauty.
In great measure these codifications have to do with the values of mass culture, which are reproduced in printed media and recall the consumption of the imaginary through an iconography that functions as a mechanism to standardize reality. At first glance it is a project what works aesthetically from the effect of the reproductions as much as from the isolation and amplification of a group of signs selected by the artist. It is not the type of photography concerned with events, but rather seems to carry to the rank of event the multiplication of signs and possible readings. The possibility of a reading here depends both on conserving certain residues of the original signifier as well as relocating the signifier according to a new context, supports and gazes.
This series of photographs initially seems to contradict Bachelard’s idea that I mentioned previously, as the existence of the image is being represented in its continuity, passing and memory, through the presentation of an icon which in itself represents another. In this way we could stop talking about an “image within an image” and could rather speak about the image through the image, as well as the icon through the icon. Nevertheless, this idea also negates the possibility of conserving the image, of retaining it or pretend it to be immutable or conscious.
In truth this reference forces me to grasp the tension that always exists between the image and the icon, as if the icon was the result and sign of a frustrated attempt to retain the image, of granting it consistency and body, of putting a limit to it and granting it definition. If Silvana Agostoni’s work was meant only to document a group of graphical representations, it would not merit such a complex reading. But its main purpose, beyond creating new visual references for a group of previous representations, consists in actualizing a past aesthetic experience, through its remnants. Or perhaps in underlining the preterit status of aesthetic experience associated with the photographic document.
1. Susan Sontag. Contra la interpretación. Alfaguara. Madrid, 1996
2. Juan Antonio Molina Cuesta. Énfasis. Del cuerpo fotográfico al cuerpo fotografiado (variantes de un discurso sobre lo espiritual en la fotografía contemporánea). ZoneZero.
3. Umberto Eco. La definición del arte. Ediciones Martínez Roca, S. A. Barcelona, 1970. Págs. 192-193
4. Michel Foucault. Vigilar y castigar. Nacimiento de la prisión. Siglo XXI Editores. Buenos Aires, 2002
5. Gastón Bachelard. La poética del espacio. Fondo de Cultura Económica. México, 2000. Pág. 188
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