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Family, portraits, past and nostalgia


08 May 2012

Family, portraits, past and nostalgia

The culture of the archive is revisited with a touch of nostalgia. Nostalgia, an emotionally, and also politically charged word. A look at the past, the familiar and the communal, in the exhibition by Iñaki Bonillas at La Virreina, brings the archive closer to the personal and emotions closer to conceptual work.

The J.R Plaza archive by Iñaki Bonillas brings together twenty works made since 2003 when he started working with a bequeathed collection of photographs and other documents that had belonged to his grandfather. The exhibition is accompanied by a little artist’s book that seems to physically resemble a copy of Walter Benjamin’s “A Little History of Photography”, if such a volume had ever been published. Within its pages lie twenty short essays by twenty different writers.

Casting my eye over the mounted slides that Iñaki Bonillas made of his Grandfather’s volumes is like attempting to contemplate historical events presented in a diorama: in short, it is quite impossible to take everything in. With his book “Present Pasts” Andreas Huyssen discussed a global trend in memory discourses as they accelerated throughout the late twentieth century. This was apparently an effort to shore up memory that, it was felt in some quarters, was being threatened by the speed of technological change. It might be said that as regards photography in the digital age, the Arcadian moment was the time of analogue, thus creating a new fetish for the twenty-first century. Most of the images in this exhibition are digitally printed and engineered, there are a few exceptions but not to the extent that we could say that obsolete technology has been made into fetish. The treatment of the photographs is conceptually-driven, that is, each work has conceptualised and formalised something detectable within the primary documents. To this end the artist has objectified these photographs, sometimes this may be troubling to the viewer, as after all they do depict members of the artist’s immediate and extended family, and one has to wonder: to what end is this objectification? Perhaps one answer is that it is an effort to depart from a strong sense of nostalgia: nostalgia for the time of the people in the photographs and nostalgia for a time of analogue technology. This departure could detect, as Walter Benjamin wrote, the “spark of contingency” in the pictures that we can link to the present and project into the future, and perhaps it represents a “tiger’s leap” into the past as far as retro is concerned.

If you are a photographer, amateur or otherwise, what do you do when you want to forget someone who has been a large part of the photographic archive that you are trying to preserve? On a more personal note: what do you do when you have been betrayed by a friend? Do you mark his head with a void and cut out his silhouette from your photographs and move on? Would you ever truly forget the treachery of a close friend? It sounds so banal to say so but memory and forgetting are the battleground of the personal photographic archive and of any archive. A further complication is the false memory that can come from a photograph. So how wrong was the Tyrell foundation in Blade Runner in furnishing the replicants with false memory? The prosthetic memory has been part of our accepted psyche since the new photographic technology became widely available after the turn of the century. Organic memory does seem to be at its strongest, however, where there has been a trauma and no image is necessary or possible in some cases. The void has become the place where neither language not visuality can express the memory; this is one of the blind spots of the archival impulse which is hinted at in the moth-eaten work included in this exhibition: “Tineidae” (2010).

Language is another expression of our memory; the conflict that vision and language may enter into can come from the comparison of diary with photograph. “A Sombra e o brilho” contrasts just such a pairing while providing echoes in the use of light and dark, fantasy and reality, visibility and invisibility. That the visual can distract from contemplation, leading to a denigration of vision, has played a large part in the history of twentieth century art, but language can over-contextualise the visual. Neither vision nor language is solely dependable as the location of truth: the archive may be the law and the testament but this unreliability is its struggle or fever.
The concept of photography seems to be under scrutiny in a four-carousel slide projection called “Bañeras” (2005), we see the picture of a cloud in front of the sun, whereby three of the projections slowly move through the chromatic variations possible in the blue, red and green channels, going tone-by-tone from blue to yellow, red to cyan and green to magenta. The fourth carrousel moves from pure darkness to pure light. This is a languid and meandering treatment of the nature of white light that also high-lights the differences and complementary nature of digital and analogue technology. Meanwhile another piece “Double Chiarascuro” (2008-2010) utilises the stop motion possibilities of 16mm film, when the artist converts the divided up colour graded black and white digital photographs, taken from a gridded photograph of his great grandfather, into a projected film. No doubt the relative age of the photograph also influenced the artist in his choice of final medium for the film.

A photographic print depends on the quality of the materials used to print the image and varies from place to place; this is the materiality that separates the ubiquitous image from the rarefied art object. Returning to the echoes that may be found in language, “The Voice Imitator”, a decidedly conceptual piece, presents the work of professional copyists in Mexico who transcribe documents by hand, they were asked to copy the story of the man who could imitate every voice but his own, each copy is different, containing little mistakes or adjustments that have been made by each copyist. The little joke inherent in the story: that the imitator can copy every voice but his own, is later echoed in the artist’s addition to his grandfather’s self-portraits posing as other professions, “A card for JR Plaza” (2007), each fantasy accompanied by a typewritten business card. Iñaki Bonillas has intervened in this appropriated work: as well as Attendant (Encargado), Owner (Armador), Representative (Representante) or Wood-cutter (Machetero), there is a card, without a photograph, stating, plainly: Self-portraitist (Autoretratos ).

As amply discussed elsewhere, there has been quite a tendency within contemporary art practices to delve into the archives, to re-examine history or to sift through facts, objects and even detritus like an archaeologist would. Superficially, this exhibition may parallel such an inclination, but on a deeper level our attention is drawn to the technical nature of photography, as it has evolved, including the technical aspect of its relationship with our memory. Easy to note are the conceptualist leanings and an interest in the relationship between the history of conceptualism and photography. In many ways it is a study into the nature of photography at this technological impasse, or this ‘fin de siècle’ moment.

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