Published August 15, 2013
According to Niklas Luhmann’s theory of social systems, art is defined as being about communication. In his opinion, what constitutes art is defined by what its subsystem – namely critics – say is art. Meaning that art being art is dependent on the assessment of these so called experts being able to differentiate what is and is not suitable to be analyzed within the realm of art theory and art history (and let’s not even go into what “culture” really means). I do disagree with this assessment as an empirical condition, but I acknowledge critic as playing a very important role, especially if it lets people in on other layers and if it triggers our imagination and curiosity at the core of our intellect. And who cares about what anti‐ intellectual intellectuals have to say?
I began with this statement because it might be that Duarte Amaral Netto’s (b. Lisbon, 1976) work is suffering from the lack of good (or serious enough) critics in this country and for that his work is not reaching its full potential, simply because it’s not being fully contextualized. No, I’m not implying that I could do that; I’ll just be attempting to broaden the spectrum.
Though Duarte is not going through an identity crisis, neither is his work, “critics” seem to be either asleep or adrift amidst his non‐linear approach on fictional narrative. I’m sure if Duarte had been boring us to death with chuck‐closy‐portraits for the past fifteen years, the art system would have no trouble “understanding” and “promoting” it. Well, but fortunately for us, consistency is more than “the quality of achieving a level of performance which does not vary greatly in quality over time!”1 and we can expect to expect more than what’s to be expected from Duarte. Hurrah!
If we tried to approach Duarte’s body of work starting at his latest exhibition – Afinidades Selectivas /Selective Affinities – we could be tempted to relate the core of his problematic to a question of “how personal memory operates in the cultural sphere”. (Kuhn, 2007, p.283) We’ll get back to that but, for now, let’s try it the other way round and start with Duarte’s earlier works.
In Why Photography Matters Now as Never Before, (2008) Michael Fried identifies three stages within Jeff Wall’s body of work: first comes the “fictional or staged”, then the “spectacular or indeed ‘theatrical’”, and finally the “quieter”, neo‐realistic phase. (p.63) It’s not like these stages could characterize Duarte’s work, but what is important is how they give way to one another, how the most literal approach to fiction expands to questions about installation and staging in and out of the picture and how this question of staging with and in front of the viewer gives way to a play with reality that speaks to the subjective eye. You might think you know the difference between reality and fiction, you might even think that what separates these realms also defines your sanity or lack of but, in fact, if the artist is good enough you’ll give those pre‐conceived ideas up and realize what is at stake is how willing you are to dig inside your memory.
In his earlier works, Duarte was focusing on the everyday life as to evoke narrative, especially in the way cinematic tableaus usually do. Jeff Wall created the term near documentary, which Michael Fried then equated with the antitheatrical ideal. They both refer to the attempt to stage something that if “repeated” enough would then be thought of as always having been there before, on its own. Always well composed, Duarte’s photographs mostly portrayed wanderers, reading books, sleeping on sofas, looking out the windows, eating, drinking, taking baths. They portrayed everyday characters performing their everyday roles and that “domestic” quality was easily associated with one’s imaginary house of affections. Light hit them from two extremes – either they were dark, highlighting the forms; either they were penetrated by a very recognizable Mediterranean‐light that could easily evoke neo‐realistic cinematic family drama, if you know what I mean.
Following an exhibition back in 2006, curator Filipa Oliveira wrote about the importance of the “suspended moment” in Duarte’s work and how absence was evoked by the way light drew itself within the images, suggesting that “the search for light” could be a theme: “the search through the perfect illumination of the image (the literal quest, or the journey through an unknown path to attain it), and in this way the spots of light are central moments when reading the following pieces. The search for light may also persuade, by opposition, everything that is not visible and builds the image, everything that opens it to a new dimension.” I do disagree that this so‐called search for light should be put forward as a theme, for it does nothing to expand the understanding of Duarte’s work outside the realm of the art connoisseurs, which will always be a problem if you keep insisting on talking about what is not there instead of what is there.
The real question might be related to the subjective eye and universal affections. This group of single images Duarte produced between 1999 and 2007 were seductive and had presence. What captivated me were their formal qualities, qualities specific to the photographic medium. They are beautiful, in the Kantian sense of the term – they are appealing, they trigger our imagination and our understanding and they drive us to share our experience. They have enough spirit to make them present and there is enough left in the dark to rely on our impulse to construct narratives. Of course absence is important, mainly because of what it does for the imagination, but what I want to argue is that thematic content should not be equated with what the meaning of a work might or might not be within art history’s narrative; otherwise the work is just referring back to itself, being tautological. These group of photographs live for their present(ness) without the need for a deconstruction of the symbolic nature of their aesthetical options. They speak to our everyday reality and that’s where they should be kept, in a dialogue between what we know we remember and what we choose not to.
Duarte’s photographs didn’t use to be candid; they were autonomous beyond that basic photographic quality of pretending to be an objective depict of reality. Take Luda (2007), for instances. Here is an example of an everyday scene with enough presence to have fundamental aesthetical attributes and trigger a narrative plot. I am inclined to suggest that there’s a numbness quality to all the characters portrayed. They aren’t particularly sad, or particularly pensative; they aren’t particularly bored and they are never euphoric. As the waitress portrayed in the photography above, they seemed to be captured in an instant before they make a decision. Luda is gazing at her reflect, absorbed in some sort of thinking, while behind her there’s a spot of light, maybe evoking other image planes, other ways.
Heidegger’s concept of authenticity is a very disappointing one (at least for me), since it is based on the idea that there is no human nature and there is very little space for decision‐ making and to act upon one’s will.2 On the other hand, he brought the concept of authenticity to the everyday life, by reduction it to the option to do something less conditioned, more out of the ordinary. So maybe Luda is going to drop down the tray and she is going to take off. Or maybe there is nothing so radical and she will just sit by the window for a moment and take a look at the stars before serving these coffees. Either way, according to my understanding of Heidegger, these everyday moments would be it, there’s nothing more to that. Well I say there is and Duarte’s work has proved he feels the same, so let’s move on+.
Before going on to explore Duarte’s recent exhibitions – The Polish Club Case (2011), Z (2012) and Selective Affinities (2013) – I’d like to take a brief moment to glimpse at Ambient 4 (2004), particularly because of its evident cinematic qualities and because it makes me think of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2002). Nothing is depicted in these photographs as barely anything is happening in Gerry. But the simple thought of needing a plot to make something happen is a dumb one. Nothing happens in front of us that isn’t happening because we are put in the place of the observer. That doesn’t mean the event doesn’t take place in the universe, it just means it doesn’t happen for us. Blind people see as much happening as we do, for they have the same ability to conceptualize, to formulate images in their minds.
In a review of “Gerry”, Devin McKinney speaks of Gus Van Sant’s ability to find “human psychology signaled in the semiotics of physical landscape”. (2004, p.43) Might that be the case with the amount of layers implied in Ambient 4? Both Nature and Landscape have a powerful quality: they make us stare and by doing that, they open up the world for us. Ambient 4 might be about a rite of passage or about man‐to‐man relationships (represented by the two male figures) or even about man‐to‐woman relationships (humans representing the male, natural motifs representing the female). In either case, the humongous greenery is there so we are allowed to wander. And though these photographs are simple and quiet and apparently short‐ lived, they do justice to their universal quality of being a cut into the existential nature that is perpetuated among men.
The Polish Club Case (2011), Duarte’s work that earned him a spot in Bes Photo in the following year, is, in my opinion, his most unsuccessful work. The work is presented as being a narrative about events taking place in Chicago in the 60’s. Following his tradition of constructing fictional narratives by (re)staging or (re)assigning different roles to those presumed to be (en)acted by the original element he chooses to play with, here Duarte takes a set of archival photographs, depicting everyday scenes, and displays them accompanied by subtitles that are not descriptive of the environment they belonged to. It is a simple discursive play, well known to the literary and cinematic field, as Godard’s so masterfully shows in Histoire(s) du Cinèma (1988).
The almost inexistent habit to discuss photography in our country, and the lack of good criticism as I’ve said earlier, paved the way for uninteresting takes on this particular work. It is my opinion that if it weren’t for that, Duarte could have gone further but, instead, he kept accentuating the importance of the configuration of the work, denoting that there was little beyond that. The art world pretends to love conceptual work, when in reality what it likes is not the art works themselves but the discourse about art. Though I am very fond of the conceptual approach to making art I struggle with the general lack of commitment and connection between the content, the form, and the how and where it is presented. The latter being what threw me off the Club Case.
It was exhibited in a particularly cold place, in a linear display, with small gaps as the sequence of photographs moved into another room and then into another room, and then back to the beginning. Everything looked too polished, too neat. The fact that it was clear Duarte wasn’t behind the camera on this one, accentuated the alienation of the author and denounced the game at play. Although the viewer has had a major role in art for a long time now, with installation calling him/her to be at the center of the stage, it isn’t pleasurable to be forced to assume the place of the investigator up front and realize that the work is all about a dialogue between the fact and the artifact, and that’s it.
There’s something about being an author that makes it a particularly edgy position to be in: one can easily fall in an authoritarian role, pending to (presume) to mediate between reality and the observer. This strategy, in my opinion, has little respect for a conscious viewer; it invalidates the possibility of an autonomous reading, by way of imposing a confined way of decoding.3 Duarte has since moved one to other works that also incorporate this process remain autonomous and that makes all the difference in the way the viewer is able to relate to them.
As I said earlier, the best about critic and general discussions about artists’ body of works is their ability to open the meaning of such work. In an interview conducted by Sandra Vieira Jürgens back in 2011, Duarte states that the thread in The Polish Club Case is faith: “faith in its religious meaning and faith in its more abstract meaning, the one we can even place in the credibility of an image”. Though I’m filled with anti‐religious impulses and I know very little about faith, I’ll go ahead and say that in order to have faith there needs to be something incomprehensible that paves the way for a revelation. This is not the case, there are a lot of unknown reasons and motifs and a lot of historical content evocative of hope and trust, but there’s too much reason to allow faith to step in.
The concept of phototherapy is not new but it has spread awkwardly. It also has nothing to do with Duarte’s work, but I’ll make my point in a minute. Phototherapy is not a practice from the art world, but from the scientific one. It defines a clinical procedure that uses “people’s personal snapshots, family albums, and pictures taken by others (and the feelings, thoughts, memories, and associations these photos evoke) as catalysts to deepen insight and enhance communication during their therapy or counseling sessions (conducted by trained mental health professionals), in ways not possible using words alone”, as defined by Judy Weiser. 4 It then was appropriated by different art practitioners, using it as a photo art therapy technique, Jo Spence being one of the most famous artists practicing and writing about the subject.5
On the other hand there’s Annette Kuhn, feminist and theorist of art and culture, who has been developing several different methods of what could be summed up as hetero and autoethnographic visual work. What it means is that she works with documents, family photographs, personal and collective memory, both for her theoretical work as by setting up workshops and having people come together to discuss their relation to particular images. Both Kuhn and Spence have set up protocols anyone can follow if one chooses to do memory work. Both acknowledge its capacity “to unlock meanings and insights extraordinarily readily” but Kuhn draws attention to the relevance others’ memories and others’ relations with their family albums has to our collective memory.
I say this is where Duarte’s Z project comes in. Z was the work shown at Bes Photo 2012, the biggest prize for photography‐related work in Portugal, now extended to include Brazil and the PALOP’s.6 Duarte was one of four. Together with fellow Brazilian artist Rosângela Rennó, both their works reflected on the photographic medium, its limits, its specificities, but it was evident Duarte’s work was flying solo and how high, for it had a sort of infantile joy to it, something I’d never seen before on his work. Duarte’s work had reached adulthood.
Z came about when Duarte found a set of photographs from a family member depicting his voyage to Germany in the 1930’s to study aviation. He then mixed this set of images with others from an archival of a plastic surgeon and with some of his own and created the fictional story of Z, a physician from Coimbra, specialized in facial reconstruction, who goes to Germany to study as an aviator and gets caught up in the middle of World War II. The exhibition comprised a huge amount of images, interweaving manipulation of historical documents, archival photographs, original photographs, a slide projection and fake family albums.
Because the idea for this work (and for The Polish Club Case also) was triggered by a photograph which ended up being included and (re)shown, Duarte’s latest projects tend to be put in the context of the archival genre, when I dare to say what triggers Duarte is storytelling, either in the photographic, cinematic, musical or literally form. And this thread is his consistency, although time can prove me wrong.
Storytelling isn’t far from the discursive play, on the contrary. Martha Langford would call it an oral‐photographic method of telling stories, in the sense that works using family photographs and historical documents trigger our day‐to‐day ways of interpreting the world and having conversations with one another. It’s my opinion that is why Z saw the light of day: to set up a rhizomatic dialogue that inevitably speaks to our collective memory by being on display as the personal story of the doctor, through whose eyes we are invited to (re)count, (re)member or (re)live multiple singular and universal narratives.
Rosalind Krauss defined Sculpture as an Expanded Field (1979), somehow located in between to negative polls: that of the non‐architecture and that of non‐landscape. George Backer then located Photography’s Expanded Field (2005) in a neutral zone in between non‐narrative and
non‐static. In fact they don’t put forward this negative tension, but that’s what I understand from a definition that goes around the inclusion to locate by exclusion. Both Krauss and Baker want to relocate sculpture and photography, respectively, to the periphery of the polls they firstly entailed them in, arguing that’s the way to realize their full potential and interact with the culture field.
And then comes Kuhn, also referring to Marianne Hirsch, arguing about such cultural potential, saying that the power of the combination between memory work and photography stems “from the very everydayness of photography – from the ways photography and photographs figure in most people’s daily lives and in the apparently ordinary stories we tell about ourselves and those closest to us.“ (2007, p.285) And we’re back to the everyday.
Before talking about Duarte’s latest exhibition, I’d like to take a moment to draw a connection between this everydayness quality, which is now proved to be a sub‐thread throughout all of his work, and the idea of the voyeur. Going about Wittgenstein’s thoughts, Michael Fried highlights a passage from a manuscript dating back to 1930. In it, Wittgestein tells “Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone who thinks himself unobserved engaged in some quite simple everyday activity”, (Fried, 2008, p.76) to sustain his idea that the way we go about the works – what we expect from them, how we looked at them – is what graduates them from their everydayness to art.
In a recent article, Boris Groys defines the contemporary subject as “primarily a keeper of a secret”. (2013, p.2) What both these claims put forward is the idea that value exists only where there is exclusiveness, so it’s not that the scenes depicted are mundane or that the archival photographs have been travelling the world for ages and have been seen by various people, but the fact that this or that is being shown to us. The image plane and the observer’s plane coincide, so the image is only completed when fully formed inside my eye. I am the sole testifier of Z’s portrait, as I am the sole testifier of Luda’s introspective moment. At least I need to be sold on a narrative where this relation is possible.
Selective Affinities, Duarte’s last work I’ll be focusing on, has a bigger diaphragm than Z: it takes longer breaths and it breaths better, deeper. It also exacerbates something I thought I had seen in Z: the joy at play. It brings together a big collection of Polaroid transfers presented as diaries; another collection of Polaroids displayed in a continuum, and a triple projection of slides from different sources. It could be that our smile is ripped apart because of all the kids running around in the photographs or because we are reminded of the punctum arisen by similar family portraits, but in fact the major qualities of the work lie with the use of the medium specificities. Don’t forget Duarte is first, foremost or also, a photographer, and a really good one.
I will argue that this work is about blurriness and about what is left behind when the absence of material relevance gives way to time. Back to Baker’s location of photography between the narrative and the static, we could maybe agree that static in cinema is less organic than in photography, though they both struggle with it. The time given to an image, on the other hand, can trigger imagination, allowing us to project our desires. So what really differentiates the photographic from the cinematic moment is the time of the experience. Light, in photography, allows the capture of moments never seen before, it builds from nothing; in cinema, the same light giving us the images is the same that kills them in a split‐second. Having said this, it doesn’t matter how many frames are killing each other in front of us, nor how much time we can stare at a single photograph, for their mechanical time in not our biological time. In between narrative and static there is an aesthetical attribute stronger than them – temporality, and that is what will influence the eco of the image’s spirit in us.
The tenderness and affection in Duarte’s polaroids shown in Selective Affinities is overwhelming. It’s raw. It implies a romantic notion of immediacy, only interrupted by his selection of which we are able to see and which not. Again, we are made believe we are witnesses to exclusiveness – unique moments of his private life. And because this everyday life draws innumerous parallels to our singular and collective memory, our imagination is triggered, for these images resonate with what we remember, or know about ourselves.
I too belong to a generation whose fado is to wonder, who has no sense of community and no true willing to find freedom. Our generation has played a very special role as passive viewers, particularly regarding cinema and photography. We understood that as passive spectators we were actively participating in cultivating an impossible ideal of what the ideal life would be, how families should behave, how lovers should kiss, how you are supposed to feel at every moment of your life. This living in between our own non‐linear narratives and the fictional ones – the ones Others were apparently living – has seriously compromised our identitary structure, our ability to avoid lying, our capacity to remember our memories instead of building new ones that would suite us better. Not being able to distinguish between a documentary narrative and a fictional narrative impaired our judgment. Suddenly we had to choose between to be or not to be when we could have chosen to be and not to be.
So as I go through Duarte’s Selective Affinities with the eyes of an image‐maker, I have the feeling that he mastered the fusion of the real and the fictional within his own personal life. These are not snapshots, these are not Polaroid transfers, these are not family moments, this is not a family album. This is an archive. I do doubt whether it was made conscious to Duarte that these images reveal the history of a generation, for all that is there, for all that it stands for – our day‐dreams, our nightly‐dreams, our fears, our world of possibilities, our sense of joy, our sense of structure, of identity, of family.
It is the blurriness of the photographs that convince us of the barthesian that‐has‐been. A green rabbit could be inserted next to one of the kids in the photographs and we would still believe the verity of the photograph. We believe because we want to, because we were made to believe, brought‐up as individuals in a post‐modernist world, where everything that matters has to be about achieving, conquering, becoming, when instead our sense of daily sharing should have been taken care of. Because we are loners, wonders, drifters, we become the characters to whom we write scripts that we then play in our lives, both as narrators and having a lead role.
Lastly, I’ll finish by explaining the title of this article – It’s all real, you just need to give up on your anguish – by explaining that the term “anguish” was chosen for its relation to the Heideggerian notion that anguish enables an inauthentic life and, consequently, prevents us to potentiate reality. So this is what I say (sort of as a wishful‐thinking): let go on the idea that you can define things by exclusion. Instead, exclude the non‐fact and the non‐artifact; the non‐ static and the non‐narrative; the non‐real and the non‐fiction. Anguish is the acceptance of frontiers; it stops the realm of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary, to fully realize its potential to become reality.
1 Definition from the Oxford Dictionary [online] Available at: http://oxforddictionaries.com
2 This is a direct reference to Hubert Dreyfus interpretation of Heidegger’s concept of authenticity in a conversation with Bryan MaGee, about Husserl, Heidegger and Modern Existentialism. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaGk6S1qhz0&feature=share&list=PL1B2436687744840B
3 Reference to Koenraad Geldof’s article that relates the term “author” with “authority”, by analyzing the author’s role as a figure that sets a definite mediation between another author and the reader. “Authority, Reading, Reflexivity: Pierre Bourdieu and the Aesthetic Judgment of Kant”, by Koenraad Geldof. Diacritics, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), pp. 20‐43
4 Definition by Judy Weiser, from the PhotoTherapy Center at: http://www.phototherapy‐centre.com/
5 For example, Jo Spence’s book Cultural Sniping: The Art of Transgression, (1995) where she talks about the art of Reworking the Family Album.
6 the group of Portuguese‐speaking African countries
Baker, G. (2005) Photography’s Expanded Field. October, Vol. 114, pp.120‐140
Fried, M. (2008) Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, London: Yale University Press
Groys, B. (2013) Art Workers: Between Utopia and the Archive. [online] E‐flux journal, #45, Maio Jürgens, S.V. e Netto, D.A. (2011) Entrevista: Onde está o facto e onde está o artifício. arq./a: Arquitectura e Arte, n. 98/99, pp.86‐89.
Krauss, R. (1979) Sculpture in the Expanded Field. October, Vol. 8, pp.30‐44
Kuhn, A. (2007) Photography and cultural memory: a methodological exploration. Visual Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, pp.283‐292
Oliveira, F. (2006) Studies for a Narrative. [online] Available at: http://duartenetto.com/final/txt_index.html
McKinney, D. (2004) Review. Film Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 2, pp.43‐47