My Fayum…

Sandra Kontos moved to Athens in 1993 to pursue her studies in archaeology and photography. Photography and archaeology share many qualities, namely they both record or archive the past. It was during this time she discovered the Fayum portraits (first and second centuries A.D.) They fascinated her, “Here I found myself gazing directly into the eyes of people from the ancient world.” Captivated by their melancholic beauty and the mystery surrounding their ancient faces, dress and jewellery, Kontos intensely studied these exquisite portraits. The portraits accompany mummified bodies and were painted on wooden panels by anonymous artists. Euphrosyne C. Doxiadis writes, “Of these two strands [the Greek painting tradition and Egyptian funerary beliefs], the sophistication of the first and the intensity of the second combined to produce moments of breathtaking beauty and unsettling presence.” [1]

Almost a decade later, whilst studying at UNSW COFA, Sandra Kontos experimented with Polaroid transfers. This photographic image transfer process was time consuming and produced fragile unpredictable images. The materiality of the results was a stark reminder of the textured surfaces of the Fayum portraits. Kontos paired the portraits with tea stained replicated maps of the Fayum region. The Fayum “… as it appeared c.1800, when it was surveyed by Napoleon’s Commission. This map, from the Descriptionde l’Egypte, vividly suggests the lush cultivated land, with its small fields, surrounded by rocky escarpments.” [2] This was a definite nod to her Athens days and the magnificent lessons of her archaeological teacher Aggeliki Papadopoulou. Pairing the portraits with the map was also a way of memorializing the dead; of establishing a sense of place for those depicted. An act of making the absent present.

With the discontinuation of Polaroid, this series of portraits now sit precariously in the digital age. The colours of Polaroid 669 film and the tea stained paper stock are unreproducible. These portraits are what Kontos loves about analogue photography. “The process is slow and vivid, random elements are revealed and they are unique objects imbued with the hand of the artist.” Geoffrey Batchen talks about rediscovering photography in the digital age. Sandra Kontos’ photographs are chemical events, actions that occur directly onto the paper stock. [3] The images are made not taken.

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Sandra Kontos, Fayum Portrait, 2004

References

[1] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits From Roman Egypt, accessed 22 December 2015, http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/press-room/exhibitions/2000/ancient-faces-mummy-portraits-from-roman-egypt

[2] Doxiadis, Euphrosyne, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits Faces from Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, 1995, p. 228.

[3] Batchen, Geoffrey. Blindness and Insight: Photography and/as Ruin, Symposium – The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg, SCA Auditorium, Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, 5 December 2015, Keynote Address.

 

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Pop Art – Perhaps Not So Bright…

After World War II, a sense of optimism prevailed as the United States and Britain enjoyed a remarkable period of economic and political growth. (1) Middle class Americans moved into affordable, mass-produced homes in the suburbs and television became more popular than radio. Mass communication began to saturate homes in the industrialized world. (2)

In Britain, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, artists and thinkers began to rebel against a dull and stifling world bound by social conformity. Looking to the United States, these artists saw “a more inclusive youth culture that embraced the social influence of mass media and mass production.” (3)

Inevitably, a cultural revolution gained momentum, as mass media streamed major events into living rooms around the world. Pop art emerged during the turbulent times of the Vietnam War and the protests it incited, the Civil Rights Movement and its call for equality of African Americans and the women’s liberation movement. (4)

Pop artist’s based “their techniques, style, and imagery on certain aspects of mass reproduction, the media, and consumer society, these artists took inspiration from advertising, pulp magazines, billboards, movies, television, comic strips, and shop windows. These images, presented with (and sometimes transformed by) humor, wit, and irony, can be seen as both a celebration and a critique of popular culture.” (5)

Richard Hamilton’s compelling collage of 1956, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, is crammed with all the new consumer products from the United States. On the surface it is a playful and naïve work, however, as Fiona MacCarthy writes, “at a more profound level it is horribly disquieting. No other work of art of its period expresses so precisely the jarringly ambivalent spirit.” (6) Hamilton’s disdain towards the dominance of America’s consumer culture is abundantly clear in his work.

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Richard Hamilton, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? 1956.

Andy Warhol saw American society as a world of ready-mades. He once famously wrote, “All cokes are the same, and all cokes are good.” (7)

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Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola Bottles, 1962.

Warhol liberated the art world and attitudes towards art radically shifted. It was the ideas behind Warhol’s art that makes him significant. Warhol was saying that Twentieth century America is about this, it is about movie stars, Brillo boxes, Coca-Cola and Campbell’s soup. His art dealer Ivar Karp said, “In this thing orientated world, Andy was a kind of God. America is a thing orientated culture, it’s a culture of objects and we bow down to that God everyday. Andy produced the artifacts. Andy gave us what we bow down to, things, movie stars, boxes, the American dream and life and finally death.” (8)

MarilyndiptychAndy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962.

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Andy Warhol poses with his series of prints titled The Brillo Boxes at the Tate Gallery in London on February 15, 1971.

Warhol’s images are contrary to the heroic images of the Abstract Expressionists. On the surface there is a sense of buoyancy and optimism in Warhol’s work. It is glossy and bright, like the products that line supermarket shelves. However, there is also an unsettling quality. For instance, Warhol used a newspaper image of an empty electric chair in 1963 and returned to the subject of the death penalty for the next decade. A disturbing metaphor for death, “the chair, and its brutal reduction of life to nothingness, is given a typically deadpan presentation by Warhol.” (9)

Electric Chair 1964 by Andy Warhol 1928-1987

Andy Warhol, Electric Chair, 1964.

In the aftermath of John F Kennedy’s assassination, Warhol scoured newspapers and magazines for images of his wife, Jackie Kennedy. Warhol used eight photographs in his series ranging from Jackie arriving in Dallas to attending her husband’s funeral three days later. Warhol said that what bothered him the most was the way the media was “programming everybody to feel so sad.” (10) Echoing his sentiments, Alastair Sooke writes,The serial nature of the Jackie portraits – the way the images are repeated over and over again – is a metaphor for how the news media can work: bludgeoning its audience with a finite set of pictures and words, until we are “programmed” to think and feel a certain way.” (11)

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Andy Warhol, Jackie Kennedy, 1963.

References

1. https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/pop-art

2.  https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/pop-art

3. http://www.slideshare.net/jackjsargent/pop-art-photographers

4. https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/pop-art

5. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/movements/195228

6. https://www.dlsweb.rmit.edu.au/bus/public/referencing/newspapers/dir_quotes/intext_newspapers_no_author.html

7. http://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Andy_Warhol

8. Andy Warhol A Documentary http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0862644/

9. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-electric-chair-t07145

10. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140418-jackie-warhols-pop-saint

11. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140418-jackie-warhols-pop-saint

Images

Richard Hamilton, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? 1956. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/feb/07/richard-hamilton-called-him-daddy-pop

Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola Bottles, 1962. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Coca-Cola_Bottles

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Diptych

Andy Warhol poses with his series of prints titled The Brillo Boxes at the Tate Gallery in London on February 15, 1971. http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/remembering-life-legacy-andy-warhol-gallery-1.1893857?pmSlide=1.1893846

Andy Warhol, Electric Chair, 1964. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-electric-chair-t07145

Andy Warhol, Jackie Kennedy, 1963. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140418-jackie-warhols-pop-saint

Cubism and Photography – More than Squares.

Between 1907 and 1914 Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque collaborated to create Cubism. The work of Paul Cézanne and tribal art are considered the major influences of the movement.

Cubism rejected traditional modes of representation, these included emulating nature, creating a three dimensional picture plane using perspective and foreshortening and other inherited modelling techniques. The Cubist’s in fact wanted to accentuate the two-dimensionality of the canvas. (1)

The Cubist’s reduced and fractured objects into geometric forms, they used multiple and contrasting viewpoints to capture the essence of an object or scene and they realigned these components within a shallow and relief-like space upon the canvas. (2)

Both artist’s greatly admired the work of Cézanne and in 1908 Braque imitated Cézanne’s landscapes of L’Estaque in Southern France. Cézanne painted the town often and Braque was immensely influenced by his work when he saw it in a memorial exhibition in Paris in 1907. (3)

1280px-Paul_Cézanne_-_Houses_in_Provence-_The_Riaux_Valley_near_L'Estaque_-_Google_Art_Project

Paul Cézanne, The Riaux Valley near L’Estaque, 1883.

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Georges Braque, Road near L’Estaque, 1908.

The impact of Picasso’s avant-garde painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 was immense. Picasso’s stylized and distorted forms were drawn from Iberian sculpture and African masks. Picasso first saw African art earlier that year in Paris at the Ethnographic Museum in the Palais du Trocadero.

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Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907.

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Picasso in his studio with his collection of African art, 1908.

In 1982, an exhibition called “Cubism and American Photography, 1910-30” opened at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester. The curators asserted that Cubism in painting promoted the formation of a truly modern photographic style. (4)

The curators, John Pultz and Catherine B. Scallen, suggested that the Armory Show of 1913, which brought modern French painting and sculpture, including Cubist works to the United States significantly influenced Paul Strand. Alfred Stieglitz considered Strand’s work avant-garde. Strand’s “close up photographs were crispy lit, dynamically composed and superficially abstract.” (5)

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Paul Strand, Abstraction, Porch Shadows, Connecticut, 1916.

Stieglitz renounced Pictorialism’s painterly aesthetic and photographer’s began engaging with the medium’s “unique properties and capabilities.” (6)

In Grundberg’s article about the 1982 exhibition, he claims that the curators have failed to recognize the impact of other art movements such as Suprematism, Constructivism and Surrealism upon photography. Figures such as Aleksandr Rodchenko and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy also contributed to the new style that was appearing in photography. “Straight photography” was sharply focused, unmanipulated and unsentimental. (7)

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Aleksandr Rodchenko, Composition, 1918.

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Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Untitled, 1923.

More recently, in terms of Cubism and photography, David Hockney’s experiments are of interest. Hockney created a new way of making photographs more akin to that of a painting or drawing in terms of time. He writes, “A photograph is… a fraction of a second, frozen. So, the moment you’ve looked at it for even four seconds, you’re looking at it far more than the camera did. It dawned on me this was visible, actually, it is visible, and the more you become aware of it, the more this is a terrible weakness; drawings and paintings do not have this.” (8) Hockney stands in place and photographs a scene as it unfolds before him. He then joins the photographs together to create one picture.

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David Hockney, “Joiner” Self Portrait.

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David Hockney, “Joiner” Gregory and David.

In 1983, Melvyn Bragg’s art series, The South Bank Show, visited Hockney at his home in LA. Hockney was filmed as he created a “Joiner” portrait especially for the documentary of two women drinking tea. (9)

Watch on Youtube David Hockney “Joiners”

References 

1. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cube/hd_cube.htm

2. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cube/hd_cube.htm

3. http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78787

4. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/12/13/arts/photography-view-what-was-cubism-s-impact.html?pagewanted=2

5. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/12/13/arts/photography-view-what-was-cubism-s-impact.html?pagewanted=2

6. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/12/13/arts/photography-view-what-was-cubism-s-impact.html?pagewanted=2

7. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/12/13/arts/photography-view-what-was-cubism-s-impact.html?pagewanted=2

8. http://dangerousminds.net/comments/david_hockneys_cubist_photography

9. http://dangerousminds.net/comments/david_hockneys_cubist_photography

Images

Paul Cézanne, The Riaux Valley near L’Estaque, 1883. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_C%C3%A9zanne_-_Houses_in_Provence-_The_Riaux_Valley_near_L’Estaque_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Georges Braque, Road near L’Estaque, 1908.  http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78787

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=79766

Picasso in his studio at the Bateau-Lavoir, Paris, 1908, Musée Picasso, Paris.               Photo Credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux.                 https://uncrated.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/picasso-and-african-art/

Paul Strand, Abstraction, Porch Shadows, Connecticut, 1916. http://www.moma.org/collection//browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A5685&page_number=12&template_id=1&sort_order=1

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Composition, 1918. http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A4975&page_number=2&template_id=1&sort_order=1

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Untitled, 1923. http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A4048&page_number=1&template_id=1&sort_order=1

David Hockney, “Joiner” Self Portrait. http://dangerousminds.net/comments/david_hockneys_cubist_photography

David Hockney, “Joiner” Gregory and David. http://dangerousminds.net/comments/david_hockneys_cubist_photography

Youtube “David Hockney Joiners.”                                     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGtraVb_0vY#t=265

Surrealism – The Conscious & Unconscious Merges to Create a New Reality.

André Breton published his Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. Freud’s theories on automatic writing & the subconscious significantly informed Breton’s concepts on the psychic origins of the image. (1) Rational analysis and calculated forms of exploration were rejected by the Surrealists, they were seen as blocking imagination. In the Surrealist Manifesto Breton wrote that he wanted to merge the conscious and subconscious in order to create a distinct “new reality.” (2)

Breton and his contemporaries used dreams, intoxication, chance, sexual ecstasy, and madness to access the creative powers of the unconscious. (3) “The images obtained by such means, whether visual or literary, were prized precisely to the degree that they captured these moments of psychic intensity in provocative forms of unrestrained, convulsive beauty.” (4) The Surrealist dilemma of reconciling the contradictory conditions of reality and dreams were compellingly resolved by using photographic techniques. Artists used double exposure, combination printing, montage and solarization to merge the conscious and subconscious mind. (5)

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Man Ray, Dust Breeding, 1920.

h2_1987.1100.49Otto Umbehr, Mystery of the Street, 1928.

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Maurice Tabard, Composition, 1929.

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Man Ray, Jacqueline Goddard, 1930.

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André Kertész, Distortion No. 6, 1932.

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Réné Magritte, Edward James in front of ‘On the Threshold of Liberty,’ 1937.

References

1. http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=768

2. http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/surrealism/Origins-of-Surrealism.html

3. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phsr/hd_phsr.htm

4. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phsr/hd_phsr.htm

5. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phsr/hd_phsr.htm

All Images

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phsr/hd_phsr.htm#slideshow1

The Pictorialists – Photographer as Artist.

Pictorialism was an international style and aesthetic movement that legitimized photography as a fine art in the late C19th. (1) The rapid increase in travel and commerce easily transported books and publications around the globe. This facilitated the exchange of aesthetic ideas, artistic techniques and most notably actual photographic prints. (2)

For the first 40 years of photography only those dedicated to science, mechanics and art practiced it. In 1888 things dramatically changed when Kodak introduced the first hand held box camera. Kodak’s slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.” (3)

The Kodak camera was preloaded with film that produced about 100 pictures. When the whole roll of film was exposed, the camera was returned to Kodak in Rochester, New York. The film was developed and prints were made. The prints and the camera with a new roll of film inside where returned to the customer. Now anyone could take a photograph. “No knowledge of photography is necessary,” read the Kodak advertisement. (4)

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Kodak Advertisement, 1888.

Photography collector Michael Wilson observed, “Thousands of commercial photographers and a hundred times as many amateurs were producing millions of photographs annually… The decline in the quality of professional work and the deluge of snapshots (a term borrowed from hunting, meaning to get off a quick shot without taking the time to aim) resulted in a world awash with technically good but aesthetically indifferent photographs.” (5) Naturally with the advent of the Kodak camera, debates about photography as an art form or a mechanical medium ensued.

The Pictorialists denounced the point-and-shoot Kodak approach to photography and emphasized the role of the photographer as an artist or craftsman. They preferred “labor-intensive processes such as gum bichromate printing, which involved hand-coating artist papers with homemade emulsions and pigments, or they made platinum prints, which yielded rich, tonally subtle images.” (6)

In terms of style, Pictorialists would manipulate or “create” a photograph rather than just recording a scene. Pictorialists veered away from documentation of everyday life and composed images imbued with a sense of drama and fantasy. Generally, a Pictorialist photograph lacks sharp focus and due to the hand coated papers, brush strokes appear on the surface creating a painterly quality to the image.

Stieglitz-SpringShowersAlfred Stieglitz, Spring Flowers, The Coach, 1902.

Steichen_flatironEdward Steichen, Flatrion Building, 1904.

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Alvin Langdon Coburn, Spiderwebs, 1908.

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Clarence H. White and Alfred Stieglitz, Torso, 1907.

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Clarence H. White, Nude, 1908.

Clarence_H_White-RaindropsClarence H. White, Raindrops, 1903.

References

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pictorialism

2. ibid.

3. ibid.

4. ibid.

5. Wilson, Michael and Reed, Dennis. Pictorialism in California: Photographs 1900–1940. Malibu: Getty Museum, 1994, p.1.

6. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pict/hd_pict.htm#slideshow7

All Images

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pictorialism

Guest writer Pamela Browne on Inta Ruka: A Latvian Photographer Uncovering the Essence of Human Character

Inta Ruka (1958-present) is one of the major figures in the fine art, documentary photography in Latvia since the early 1980s when Latvia was still under Soviet occupation until the present. Latvia regained independence in 1991, after being illegally annexed by the Soviet Union under the provisions of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany and its Secret Additional Protocol of August 1939. In the early 1980’s a ‘new wave’ (1) of Latvian photographers used subjective documentary photography to challenge Soviet ideology, Soviet Socialist Realism and the decorative and simplistic ‘established pictorial aesthetics of [Soviet-Latvian] camera clubs.’ (2) At the same time, the supposed truthfulness of documentary photography was compatible with the rhetoric of glasnost―openness, directness and transparency. (3) These photographers not only set new aesthetic and critical standards by raising photography to a fine art status (that was still excluded from the accepted visual arts discipline which consisted of painting, graphic arts and sculpture) which was inspiring, contemplative and sophisticated, but also engaged in dialogue. This work was characterised by its subjective documentary nature, by the ‘straight’ un-manipulated black and white photographs and its apparent directness and honesty as well as by the Latvian experience.

Ruka is distinguished by her well known series My Country People (ca. 1983 – 2000) and People I Happened to Meet (1988, 2000-2004), where she initiates up conversations with strangers and then, by mutual consent, photographs them. In the series Amalijas Street 5A (2004-2008), she portrays the residents of an old Rigan wooden apartment block not only recording their faces/spaces and histories via short commentaries, but also provides a startling/disquieting view of the socio-economic situation in Latvia since its integration into the European Union. In short, this series addresses the dichotomies of life―happiness/sadness and love/hate.

fig. 2 Rihards Stibelis  2006

‘Richards Stibelis’, 2006, from Amalijas Street 5A, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka

My Country People consists of portraits of people from Balvi, a rural area in Latvia from which her mother originates and where she spent many summers of her childhood. (4) Old women, men and children are photographed in their domestic settings—places in which they feel simultaneously ‘organically bound’ and ‘free.’ (5) Likewise, the photographs are characterised by the way the subject directly confronts the camera. Apparently, the subjects strike their own pose. (6) Whatever the complicity apparent between the photographer and the photographed, the ease in which the subject has posed and the trust s/he has in Ruka are confirmed by the pictures themselves as they later will be found hanging in their homes. (7)

fig. 3 Iveta Tavare, Edgars Tavars 1987

 ‘Iveta Tavari, Edgars Tavars’, 1987, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka

My Country People challenges Soviet iconography of peasant life, stereotypical poses of healthy workers in the field as model citizens. Ruka’s defiance, however, is by no means overt criticism of the regime or the reason behind the work. Although Estonian photographer and critic, Peeter Linnap, regards her selection of subject matter as being based on a romantic point of view that is ‘elusive and enigmatic’, Ruka’s motivation is, as Canadian photographer, Vid Ingelevics, suggests, more straightforward. (8) On the one hand, it indicates a symbolic return to her roots and childhood as she pays homage to her past. On the other hand, it signifies, as German art historian, Barbara Straka suggests, ‘remembering and mourning [and] its irretrievability.’ (9) In short, Ruka confronts, as Swedish art critic, Ute Eskildsen suggests an ‘old and vanishing world.’ (10) In his essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, Austrian psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, argues the strength of attachment to the lost person/abstraction determines the length of time of mourning. Overcoming it is often a long process because ‘people never willingly abandon a libidinal position’, physically prolonging the ‘existence of the lost object.’ (11) Freud finally assures his readers that the mourners overcome their grief ‘after a certain lapse of time.’ (12) Additionally, I would argue that Ruka’s return to wonders of childhood aligns with the wonderment connected to the invention of photography, as well as German philosopher, Ernst Bloch’s concern for Heimat—the familiarity and safeness of feeling at home. Likewise, the concept of wonder, that was significant for Bloch, which describes Ruka’s feelings for people and nature and conveys their enigmatic qualities. This parallels Bloch’s use of the German word for wonder (Staunen) which Jack Zipes translates as: ‘intended to startle us in a mysterious and mystical sense . . . not only startlement but astonishment, wonder, and staring.’ (13)

fig. 4 Inta Ruka, Untitled (Ruka with her models), ca.1984

Untitled (Ruka with her models), ca.1984, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka

In keeping with Bloch’s philosophy on human dignity, Ruka portrays her subjects with the utmost sincerity, respect and dignity. (14) She photographs people in their private space (as opposed to collective) and attempts to uncover the essence of their human character. The square format, that undermines the horizontal purview of human vision, and the conventional eye-level vantage point, appears confrontational but is countered by Ruka’s sensibility and simplicity. Ruka does not alienate her subjects but rather unites them. She also urges the viewer to consider the values of quality human relationships. She identifies with the people and further links herself to the land by cycling around Balvi each summer carrying her old 1950’s Rolleiflex and tripod. (15) Although her work is premeditated and directorial, the end result is, as Latvian photographer, Andrejs Grants suggests, ‘organic and unforced.’ (16)

Several critics draw parallels between Ruka’s work and August Sander’s Man of the Twentieth Century project (1929)—a series of portraits intended to draw attention to the social and cultural dimensions of life in Weimar Germany. (17) Ruka herself admits that her first encounter with Sander’s work made a vivid impression on her. (18) For example, in his essay entitled ‘Anthropologist Inta Ruka’, Linnap notes that both photographers stage their documentaries and identifies their work as an ‘artistic survey catalogue.’ (19) Sander’s anthropological methodology identifies the sitters and their physiognomy according to labels and trades/professions—Peasant Bride, Young Mother, Small-Town People, Bourgeois, Bohemians, Industrialist, Judges and Lawyers etc.—endowing his studies with a clinical detached gaze. While Sander’s work can be criticised for its stereotyping of people and monologic encounters, Ruka’s work engages dialogue that is in accord with Russian literature theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin’s call for dialogue. (20)

Following Bloch’s humanist and exploratory approach, Ruka instinctively pursues utopian impulses and attempts to discover the world in people and the people in the world. (21) She seems to be more interested in people, as Linnap suggests, as ‘archetypes, as particular expressions of the wealth of humanity.’ (22) In his essay ‘Art and Utopia’, Bloch distinguishes certain features that supplement the status quo in an anticipatory countermove ‘against the Bad Existence’ that is not deceitful or merely embellishment. (23) He writes: ‘When they refer mostly to concentration, they are known as archetypes, when they refer mostly to perfection they are known as ideals; when they refer mostly to meaning they are known as allegories and symbols.’ (24) These structural categories are subject to the utopian function and anticipatory illumination and, as in Ruka’s case, it awakens one to ‘cultural heritage . . . the knowledge of what is missing.’ (25) She keeps Bloch’s ‘promise of culture, which means building its house.’ (26) Separating ‘utopia from ideology’, Ruka’s photographs remain open-ended. (27)

Naming each subject identifies her sitters and signifies respect. (28) In a recent publication, Ruka ‘adds descriptions or quotes that give a sketch of the encounter with or experience of the subject.’ (29) For example, next to the portrait of Vladimirs Pušpurs (1984), she writes:

Vladimirs works a lot and jokes a lot. There is no job he couldn’t do. He grows his own tobacco and has created his own tool for cutting it. Likewise he made a butter churning device. Vladimirs plays the violin. Often after supper, around midnight, the whole family play and sing, after a hard day’s work on the farm. (30)

Unlike Sander, Ruka’s vernacular is romantic and her gaze is compassionate. At the same time Sander’s typology and Ruka’s archetypes illustrate Bloch’s notion of nonsynchronism—the simultaneous coexistence of types (of experience, class, qualities) in the present that belong to past moments of history. (31) Polish photographer Zofia Rydet’s series entitled ‘Sociological Record’ (1978-1986), illustrates the dying lifestyle of Polish peasants, that also demonstrates Bloch’s nonsynchronisation. But Ruka refuses the notions of anthropology and ethnography to locate her work although she admits that certain traditions and ways of life are fast disappearing. (32) Grants also considers ethnography a genre to avoid because it presents boundaries of confine. He terms the ‘scene of the real actor’ where the photographer takes pictures, more characteristic of the time and place. (33) Nonetheless, the social survey or mapping nature apparent in Sander and Ruka’s work gets entangled in contemporary evaluations in which aesthetic and historical experiences can be, as American theorist, Alan Sekula, observes, interchanged and recontextualised—an issue that needs addressing. (34)

Fundamental to Ruka’s portraiture is her concern with formal qualities—texture, rhythm, light, proportion and movement—that are imbued, as Linnap observes, with a ‘purposeful significance.’ (35) She only uses available light. Her photographs of young children convey an optimistic view of childhood, combining expectation, curiosity, playfulness and entertaining qualities associated with fairy tales. Like the readers of Bloch’s ‘Better Castles in the Sky at the Country Fair and Circus’ who become part of the fantasy imagery, encountering fragments of plots, catalogues of types and figures, arrays of historical and generic categories, Ruka’s subjects live out their fantasies. (36) For example, a sharply focused photograph of a young boy facing the camera with one hand covering his eyes alludes to a game, a prayer or a wish.

fig. 5 ‘Agita Rutkaste’, 1984

‘Agita Rutkaste’, 1984 from My Country People, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

Another small boy standing further back, who is out of focus and faces the camera left, has his eyes closed and holds his hands as if in prayer. The two figures are located in an empty room and together they form a triangle within the square, contrasting to the vertical movement of the walls and the diagonal movement of the floorboards. In contrast to the vagaries of life, Ruka positively exposes new dimensions through the power of the imagination which helps build one’s inner resources. A photograph entitled ‘The Girl’, 1992, which shows a girl with long blonde hair wearing a light coloured short sleeved dress that reaches down to her knees, can be likened to American photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s photograph of his daughter who is captured in the act of spinning around (1965). (37)

fig. 6 ‘The Girl, Balvi, Latvia’, 1992

‘The Girl, Balvi, Latvia’, 1992 from My Country People, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka,

Both girls occupy the centre of the image and are similar in age, appearance and dress. Just as Bloch, who in the midst of his fairy tale surveys, abruptly interrupts the text to remind the reader that ‘the fairy tale does not presume to be a substitute for action’, the two figures counterbalance and contrast to the dark, rough textured wooden shed in the background. (38) Anchored by opaqueness, the utopian quest is suddenly illuminated through the blurry movement—in Meatyard’s image through the twirling movement and in Ruka’s through the blurry movement of the leaves of the tree and the dress—and by the happy smiles.

Ruka’s subjects are rooted in the home environment—their clothes, their personal belongings and paraphernalia. The photograph of the old couple in their simple house—with a bare light globe, tar papered walls, floorboards, single beds and a cupboard with an old-fashioned television—not only exemplifies a lifestyle without unessential material goods, but also shows them as appearing comfortable and content.

fig. 7 ‘Emma Stebere and Jânis Stebers, Balvi, Latvia 1984

‘Emma Stebere and Jânis Stebers, Balvi, Latvia’, 1984 from My Country People, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

With a hand on her hip and a dishcloth in the other hand, the barefooted woman has her back to the viewer and seems absorbed in her programme. The old man sits on the bed equally fascinated. Apart from her formalist and aesthetic concerns, Ruka apparently comments on non-competitiveness, satisfaction and the simple things in life.

While Sanders was interested in gestures that he thought had social implications, Ruka addresses more meaningful issues such as culture, mortality, existentialism, family, procreation and nature. For example, a sharp three-quarter photograph of a tired looking man sitting on the edge of a metal bed contrasts to the tiny baby lying in the bed.

fig. 8 ‘Inese Rutkaste, Imants Rutkaste’, Balvi, Latvia’, 1985

‘Inese Rutkaste, Imants Rutkaste’, Balvi, Latvia’, 1985 from My Country People, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

Likewise, the blurry movement of the baby’s arms contrasts to the man’s resigned, clasped hands. It is as if the photographer has pictured the circuitous journey of life. Additionally, the side-lighting casts an ambiguous shadow on the wall and the viewer cannot be sure whose shadow it is—the man’s or the photographer’s? Ruka’s portrait of a mother wearing a big Jānis wreath of leaves and grass on her head and her two children—her son also wearing a wreath—fuses nature and culture.

fig. 9 ‘Edgars Tavars, Dain Tavare, Iveta Tavare 1986

‘Edgars, Iveta, Daina Tavari’, Balvi, Latvia’, 1986 from My Country People, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka

Contrary to Latvian tradition, the faces are visible under the abundance of greenery—the young boy looks wistful, the mother looks kind and serene, and the young girl shyly responds to the camera with a half smile. In her description of Ruka’s work, critic Jane Richards suggests Ruka’s subjects are like those of Sanders because they are nameless and stand before the camera ‘lost and confused.’ (39) I would argue that Richards’ criticism closes her off from Ruka’s compassionate gaze and cultural understanding.

Ruka also photographs people with their animals—a young girl holding her dog, two girls holding a big dog, an old woman holding her dog, an old woman sitting on the bed with her cat, and a male hunter with his dog. Unlike American photographer, Garry Winogrand’s, poignant portrait of a man holding his rabbit which expresses sadness and defeat, Ruka’s portrait of a young boy sitting on a bed holding his fat rabbit conveys warmth and hope. (40)

fig. 10 Untitled (Boy and his rabbit), ca.1984

Untitled (Boy and his rabbit), ca.1984, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

The relaxed rabbit sits comfortably and looks content and familiar in the surroundings. The boy’s love and devotion to his pet rabbit conveys the notion of hope. Likewise, Winogrand’s portrait of a fat lamb and fat boy (ca.1974-1977), again illustrating fall and decline, also demonstrates both the photographer’s and the subject’s ennui—their boredom, inactivity and tired-of-life attitude. (41) While Winogrand illustrates banality, Ruka depicts a caring and relaxed relationship between subject and animal. Although the situation sometimes appears humorous—for instance, two young girls embrace a huge shaggy haired dog in their arms as if it is a baby—Ruka averts banality through her sense of responsibility.

fig. 11 Agita Rutkaste , Andis Rutkaste 1992

‘Agita Rutkaste, Andis Rutkaste’, 1992, silver gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

It may be argued that like American writer, James Agee and American photographer, Walker Evans in their project Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), Ruka exploits private moments for her own private gain. (42) By identifying the sitters, she locates a place in the archive for the people in the national collective memory, providing a new framework from which new histories can be told. German historian Siegfried Kracauer’s warning that to possess the historical subject is to lose it, recasts Ruka’s project in historical terms. (43) Yet she does not try to recover these people for history. (44) The implicit motive of Ruka’s study—her respect for her roots, the land and the people—does not foreclose historical speculation or social engagement. Rather it discloses the photographer’s honesty about the terms of this transaction, the context that inspired it and the purposes to which it may be put.

Post script. Interestingly enough, Ruka collaborated with Swedish filmmaker Maud Nycander on a documentary film titled ‘Road’s End’ that followed the life of Daina, the protagonist in Ruka’s photograph ‘Edgars, Iveta, Daina Tavari’ and her dog George Bush. It shows Daina thirty years later, still living in the house in Balvi without running water and no electricity. Abandoning the impoverished Latvian countryside, her daughter, Iveta, now lives in Italy while her son, Edgars, lives in Norway.

References

1. Helena Demakova, ‘Group A: Ideals and Reality—The Ideal and Real Space of Group A’, trans. Martinš Zelmenis, Māksla, No. 146, April 1991, Rīga, pp. 56-63.

2. Alise Tifentale, ‘The new wave of photography: The role of documentary photography in Latvian art scene during glasnost era’ https://www.academia.edu/1856067/The_new_wave_of_photography_The_role_of_documentary_photography_in_Latvian_art_scene_during_glasnost_era, p. 4 retrieved 14.5.2014.

3. Documentary photography is not to be confused with photojournalism.

4. According to Barbara Straka and Swedish writer Ute Eskildsen, Ruka began this series in 1983. Andrejs Grants, however, dates it from 1985. Ruka herself remains allusive about dating this series although some of her early work is dated 1984. Photographs, however, included in this series were photographed in the late 1970s. See: Barbara Straka, ‘The Memory of Images: Baltic Photo Art Today’, The Memory of Images: Baltic Photo Art Today, exhibition catalogue, Nieswand Verlag, Stadtgaleries im Sophienhof, Kiel, March 17-April 25, 1993, p. 21; Letter from Andrejs Grants to the author, 15.4.1996; Inta Ruka, People I Know, Ute Eskildsen, trans. Rolli Főlsch, Bokőrlaget Maz Strőm, Stockholm, Sweden, 2012, p. 7.

5. Letter from Andrejs Grants to the author, 15.4.1996.

6. Ruka, People I Know, p. 11.

7. Vid Ingelevics, ‘Introduction’, Latvian Photographers in the Age of Glasnost, exhibition catalogue, Toronto Photographers Workshop, Toronto, May 18-June 22 1991, p. 7.

8. See: Peeter Linnap, ‘Anthropologist Inta Ruka: 1980’s: Romantic Catalogue on Latvia’, Borderlands: Contemporary photography from the Baltic States, (ed.) Martha McCulloch, exhibition catalogue, curated by Peeter Linnap with the assistance of Valts Kleins and Gintautas Trimakas, Street Level Photography Gallery and Workshop, ‘The Cottier’, Glasgow, June 5-July 4 1993, n.p; Letter from Vid Ingelvics to the author, 23.8.1996.

9. Straka, ‘The Memory of Images’, p. 21.

10. Ruka, People I Know, p. 8.

11. Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ in On Metapsychology: the theory of psychoanalysis, Vol. 11, trans. James Strachey, (ed.) Angela Richards, The Pelican Freud Library, Penguin Books, London, 1985, pp. 244-245.

12. Charity Scribner, Requiem for Communism, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005, p. 90.

13. Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993, p. xxxi.

14. Jan Robert Bloch, ‘How Can We Understand the Bends in the Upright Gait?’, trans. Capers Rubin, New German Critique, No 45. Fall 1988, pp. 9-39; Ernst Bloch, Natural Law and Human Dignity, trans. D. J. Schmidt, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1986.

15. Apparently, when her son was younger she would carry him on her bicycle.

16. Letter from Andrejs Grants to the author, 15.4.1996.

17. Linnap, ‘Anthropologist Inta Ruka’, n.p.

18. Ruka, People I Know, p. 8.

19. Linnap, ‘Anthropologist Inta Ruka’, n.p.

20. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, (ed.) Michael Holquist, trans. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1981.

21. Inta Ruka, ‘My People from the Country’, Parmijas, Contemporary Art from Riga, Münster, 1992, p. 34.

22. Linnap, ‘Anthropologist Inta Ruka’, n.p.

23. One of the subheadings of this chapter is entitled ‘The Utopian Function Continued: Its Inner Subject and the Countermove against the Bad Existence’ (Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, p. 108).

24. Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, p. 110.

25. Jack Zipes, ‘ Something’s Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing’, 1964 in Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, pp. 1-17.

26. Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, p. 58.

27. Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, p. 58.

28. Naming the subjects Linnap terms as an act of politeness (Linnap, ‘Anthropologist Inta Ruka’, n.p).

29. Ruka, People I Know, p. 8.

30. Ruka, People I Know, pp. 8-9.

31. See: George Baker, ‘Photography between Narrativity and Stasis: August Sander, Degeneration, and the Decay of the Portrait’, October, 76, Spring 1996, p. 87; Ernst Bloch, ‘Nonsynchronism and The Obligation to Its Dialectics’, trans. Mark Ritter, New German Critique, No. 11, Spring 1977, pp. 22-38.

32. Artist’s statement June 1998.

33. Letter from Andrejs Grants to the author September 1996.

34. Alan Sekula, ‘Reading an Archive’ in Blasted Allegories, (eds.) Brian Wallace and Marcia Tucker, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991, p. 123.

35. Linnap, ‘Anthropologist Inta Ruka’, n.p.

36. Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, pp. 167-185.

37. Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Untitled (Girl twirling in front of a shed), 1965, silver gelatin print in An American Visionary, (ed.) Barbara Tannenbaum, Akron Art Museum, Rizzoli, Ohio, 1991, pp. 35-37; Baker Hall, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Aperture, New York, 1974, p. 122.

38. Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, p. 170.

39. Jane Richards, ‘Freedom Shots’, The Independent, 18.1.1994, p. 24.

40. Garry Winogrand, ‘Fort Worth Texas’, ca.1974-77, silver gelatin print in John Szarkowski, Winogrand: Figments From the Real World, The Museum of Modern Art New York, New York, 1988, p. 187.

41. Garry Winogrand, ‘Fort Worth Texas’, (Lamb and boy), 1975, silver gelatin print in Szarkowski, Winogrand, p. 187.

42. James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Farmers, Ballantine Books, New York, 1966.

43. Siegfried Kracauer, History: The Last Things Before the Last, Markus Wiener Publishers Inc., Princeton, 1995, p. 79.

44. For the recontextualistion of history see Charles Wolfe, ‘Just in Time: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the Recovery of the Historical Subject’ in Fugitive Images: from photography to video, (ed.) Patrice Petro, Indiana University Press, Indiana, 1995, pp. 196-217.

Bibliography

Agee. James and Evans. Walker, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Farmers, Ballantine Books, New York, 1966.

Baker. George, ‘Photography between Narrativity and Stasis: August Sander, Degeneration, and the Decay of the Portrait’, October, 76, Spring 1996.

Bakhtin. Mikhail, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, (ed.) Michael Holquist, trans. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1981.

Demakova. Helena, ‘Group A: Ideals and Reality—The Ideal and Real Space of Group A’, trans. Martinš Zelmenis, Māksla, No. 146, April 1991, Rīga.

Bloch. Ernst, ‘Nonsynchronism and The Obligation to Its Dialectics’, trans. Mark Ritter, New German Critique, No. 11, Spring 1977, pp. 22-38.

Bloch. Ernst, Natural Law and Human Dignity, trans. D. J. Schmidt, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1986.

Bloch. Ernst, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993.

Ernst Bloch, Natural Law and Human Dignity, trans. D. J. Schmidt, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1986.

Bloch. Jan. Robert, ‘How Can We Understand the Bends in the Upright Gait?’, trans. Capers Rubin, New German Critique, No 45. Fall 1988, pp. 9-39.

Freud. Sigmund, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ in On Metapsychology: the theory of psychoanalysis, Vol. 11, trans. James Strachey, (ed.) Angela Richards, The Pelican Freud Library, Penguin Books, London, 1985.

Hall. Baker, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Aperture, New York, 1974.

Ingelevics. Vid, ‘Introduction’, Latvian Photographers in the Age of Glasnost, exhibition catalogue,Toronto Photographers Workshop, Toronto, May 18-June 22, 1991.

Kracauer. Siegfried, History: The Last Things Before the Last, Markus Wiener Publishers Inc., Princeton, 1995.

Linnap. Peeter, ‘Images from Borderlands’ in The Memory of Images: Baltic Photo Art Today, (ed.) Barbara Straka, exhibition catalogue, Nieswand Verlag, Stadtgaleries im Sophienhof, Kiel, March 17-April 25, 1993, pp. 44-49.

Linnap. Peeter, ‘Anthropologist Inta Ruka: 1980’s: Romantic Catalogue on Latvia’, Borderlands: Contemporary photography from the Baltic States, (ed.) Martha McCulloch, exhibition catalogue, curated by Peeter Linnap with the assistance of Valts Kleins and Gintautas Trimakas, Street Level Photography Gallery and Workshop, ‘The Cottier’, Glasgow, June 5-July 4 1993.

Meatyard. Ralph. Eugene in An American Visionary, (ed.) Barbara Tannenbaum, Akron Art Museum, Rizzoli, Ohio, 1991.

Richards. Jane, ‘Freedom Shots’, The Independent, 18.1.1994, p. 24.

Ruka. Inta, ‘My People from the Country’, Parmijas, Contemporary Art from Riga, Münster, 1992.

Ruka. Inta, People I Know, Ute Eskildsen, trans. Rolli Főlsch, Bokőrlaget Maz Strőm, Stockholm, Sweden, 2012.

Scribner, Charity Requiem for Communism, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005.

Straka. Barbara, ‘The Memory of Images: Baltic Photo Art Today’, The Memory of Images: Baltic Photo Art Today, exhibition catalogue, Nieswand Verlag, Stadtgaleries im Sophienhof, Kiel, March 17-April 25, 1993.

Szarkowski. John, Winogrand: Figments From the Real World, The Museum of Modern Art New York, New York, 1988.

Tifentale. Alise , ‘The new wave of photography: The role of documentary photography in Latvian art scene during glasnost era’  https://www.academia.edu/1856067/The_new_wave_of_photography_The_role_of_documentary_photography_in_Latvian_art_scene_during_glasnost_era, p. 4 retrieved 14.5.2014.

Wolfe. Charles, ‘Just in Time: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the Recovery of the Historical Subject’ in Fugitive Images: from photography to video, (ed.) Patrice Petro, Indiana University Press, Indiana, 1995.

Zipes. Jack, ‘ Something’s Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing’, 1964 in Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993, pp. 1-17.

Letter from Andrejs Grants to the author, 15.4.1996.

Letter from Vid Ingelvics to the author, 23.8.1996.

Artist’s (Inta Ruka) statement June 1998.

Images

Fig. 1 self-portrait of Inta Ruka, 2014 courtesy of Inta Ruka.

Fig. 2 Inta Ruka, ‘Richards Stibelis’, 2006, from Amalijas Street 5A, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

Fig. 3 Inta Ruka, ‘Iveta Tavari, Edgars Tavars’, 1987, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

Fig. 4 Inta Ruka, Untitled (Ruka with her models), ca.1984, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

Fig. 5 Inta Ruka, ‘Agita Rutkaste’, 1984 from My Country People, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

Fig. 6 Inta Ruka, ‘The Girl, Balvi, Latvia’, 1992 from My Country People, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka,

Fig. 7 Inta Ruka, ‘Emma Stebere and Jânis Stebers, Balvi, Latvia’, 1984 from My Country People, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

Fig. 8 Inta Ruka, ‘Inese Rutkaste, Imants Rutkaste’, Balvi, Latvia’, 1985 from My Country People, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

Fig. 9 Inta Ruka, ‘Edgars, Iveta, Daina Tavari’, Balvi, Latvia’, 1986 from My Country People, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

Fig. 10 Inta Ruka, Untitled (Boy and his rabbit), ca.1984, Silver Gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

Fig. 11 Inta Ruka, ‘Agita Rutkaste, Andis Rutkaste’, 1992, silver gelatin print, photograph courtesy of Inta Ruka.

“My work is all my personal history… I can’t separate my art from my life.” Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work deals with issues relating to life, gender, sexuality and death. All these things happen to the body but no bodies as such appear in his work. In Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) 1990, the artist uses the body of his lover Ross as a metaphor, which is signified in the “ideal” weight of candy used for the work. Untitled (Bed) 1991-92, appeared in several locations on billboards in the New York area. The body is absent yet alluded to in the unmade bed. Audience participation is an integral element to Gonzalez-Torres’ work. The artist’s choice of displaying such intimate imagery in a public form relates to his resistance of separating private and public domains. The Word Portraits further establish Gonzalez-Torres’ ability to create the historical meaning of an individual beyond representation of the body.

161459_2809251Felix Gonzales-Torres, Untitled (Ross in L.A.) 1990

Felix Gonzalez-Torres avoids representation. Candy in this case becomes “saturated with personal association, memories and emotions.” (1) The body of Ross, his lover, is the subject of the work. Ross’s body is represented in the “ideal” weight of the candy, this is 175 pounds, which is stipulated in the certificate of authenticity. The candy is either piled in a corner or spread out in “carpet like landscapes.” (2) “The spills appear as parodies of abstract, geometric sculpture.” Gonzalez-Torres described them as subverting the neutrality of minimal sculpture by annexing issues that derive from his biography.” (3)

As a metaphor the candy is consumed, the viewer sucks on someone else’s body. Felix Gonzalez-Torres said, “my work becomes part of so many other people’s bodies…” (4) It is at this point, when the candy is consumed, that the work is complete. Charles Merewether writes that the candy represents, “not only an eating away of the body, but a sign of regeneration, as in the symbolic eating of Christ’s body and the miraculous giving of life.” (5)

Apart from addressing consumption and challenging galleries, the political ramifications of this work are more pertinent because Ross was a homosexual man dying of AIDS. Thus the work, “… confronts visitors with the issue of homophobia and their fear of contact with HIV carriers.” (6)

Felix Gonzalez-Torres said, “in a way, this letting go of the work, this refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture, in favour of a disappearing, changing, unstable, and fragile form was an attempt on my part to rehearse my fears of having Ross disappear day by day right in front of my eyes…” (7) Freud wrote that we rehearse our fears in order to lessen them. By relinquishing his control over the work and allowing audiences to touch, eat and possess his work, Gonzalez-Torres rehearsed the imminent loss of Ross. “Memory offers a path back to the other side of the line between life and death: it is all that remains after the disappearance of the body.” (8) The replenishment of the candy memorializes the subject.

FGT_Manhattan_sized-643x428Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Bed) 1991-92

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ billboard, Untitled (Bed) 1991, is a black and white image in soft focus of the artist’s unmade bed. The impressions of bodies are left behind in the indented pillows and rumpled sheets. The absence of any accompanying text offers no explanation for the image by the artist. Yet, this vacant space openly invites the viewer to enter the work based on their own memories of loss, absence, leaving and grief. (9)

For Gonzalez-Torres, “it is a wrenching, intimate depiction of his loss.” (10) The unmade bed becomes a metaphor for the love and loss of his lover Ross to AIDS. Most viewers were unaware of the artist’s biographical information and would therefore construct meaning based on what was personally relevant to them. The unmade bed a place of pleasure and intimacy, or of absence and loss. “Inviting audiences to remember moments of closeness and separation, this image is a passage linking the particular losses we experience with a culture of collective grief… Although the bodies are gone, memories sustain the experience, allow the feelings these bodies generated- the warmth and passion- to be revealed, recalled, recorded.” (11)

The audience participates to in the meaning of the work. (12) Gonzalez-Torres measured his work against the same questions, “I need the viewer, I need the public interaction. Without a public these works are nothing, nothing… I need the public to complete the work…” (13) Gonzalez-Torres felt that collaboration with the viewer was the force behind the work giving it meaning and emotion. Hence, Duchamp’s 1957 speech on the creative act is fully embraced by Gonzalez-Torres. Duchamp claimed that there were two poles in the creation of a work of art: the artist and the spectator. (14) Another repercussion to the artist’s method is Roland Barthes’ notion of the death of the author “… and [the] fundamentally emancipatory idea of the birth of the reader into the structure.” (15) Although Gonzalez-Torres adapts devices from the Minimalist vocabulary, his work is distinguished from it because his personal experience is transcended to become universally valid. (16)

Gonzalez-Torres said, “my work is all my personal history… I can’t separate my art from my life.” (17) The work was first displayed simultaneously at the Museum of Modern Art and twenty-four billboards around New York. By displaying such intimate and private experiences in a public form that typically promotes consumer products, Gonzalez-Torres dissolved the boundaries between public and private space.

George Chauncey states that, “there’s no queer space; there are only spaces used by queers or put to queer use. Space has no natural character… no intrinsic status as public or private.” (18) For a homosexual man, the ramifications of whether there can be a separation between private and public space are enormous in light of restrictive and repressive legislation ruled by the U.S Supreme Court in 1986, “which denies same-sex couples rights to a private sphere.” (19) By displaying such a deeply personal and emotional image on billboards around New York, Gonzales-Torres perpetuated what George Chauncey argues is a tactic used by gay men, “… to claim space for themselves in the face of a battery of laws… designed to exclude them from urban space altogether.” (20) This reciprocal relationship quantifies Gonzalez-Torres choices. The artist said his choice for the billboard was an easy one. He wanted to distance himself from his bed. With Ross’s death, his bed has become a source of pain and grief, especially at night.

Ann Goldstein clearly states:
(…) the nature of his work in general (…) subtly yet emphatically intensifies one’s own self awareness, subjectivity, and sense of personal history. In effect, his work insists upon the inclusion of the complexities of those areas most preciously protected or deeply repressed – it sets up a conflation of public and private, and the personal with the professional. (21)

The artist insisted that an individual could not be isolated from the socio-political structure that governs our world. Conversely, politics has always had ramification upon every individual. As a homosexual man, Gonzalez-Torres was directly effected by public policy as it impacted on his private life. His choice to present his unmade bed in public domains affirms his works ability to provocatively comment on socio-political issues.

Gonzalez-T_portrait_2011-repl_colorFelix Gonzalez-Torres, Word Portrait.

Gonzales-Torres’ amalgamation of public and private life is evident in his Word Portraits. They are also examples of the use of text as a metaphor for more than just the body, but for a life lived. Gonzalez-Torres would collaborate on commissions with the prospective owner asking them for their formative experiences and the concurrent dates. (22) Gonzalez-Torres intercepted this information with important public events that he believed undoubtedly contributed to their personal history. Thus, the portraits positioned the owner within a personal and a collective history. Gonzalez-Torres changed the order of the events, which coincides with the nature of memory as fragmented. He also included events before birth and places never visited by the owner. He felt that the portraits were more than a life, they were a history, “to sense our connectedness with the rest of the world.” (23)

The following Word Portrait is Gonzalez-Torres’ from the Brooklyn Museum commission of 1989. The intention of the museum’s curator was to blur the line between public and exhibition space. This Word (Self) Portrait was installed in a small annex near the elevators. It was painted in light blue and ran along the top of the wall in a single line. (24)

Red Canoe 1987 Paris 1985 Blue Flowers 1984 Harry the Dog 1983 Blue Lake 1986 Interferon 1989 Ross 1983

In Untitled (Ross in L.A) 1990, Gonzales-Torres uses candy to signify the loss of his lover Ross to AIDS. By avoiding representation in Untitled (Bed) 1991-92, the artist adopts devices from Minimalism. Yet, he subverts them and imbues them with personal significance. The universality of the signs invites the viewer to participate, to complete the work of art. Gonzales-Torres transfers the private into the public domain in a calculated response to the restrictive legislation imposed upon the homosexual body. In his Word Portraits, Gonzalez-Torres’ combines the personal and collective history of an individual based not on physical characteristics but on lived experiences.

References

1. D. Elger, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cantz Verlag, 1997, p. 107.

2. ibid., p. 44.

3. L. Weintraub, Art on the Edge and Over, Art Insights, In., 1996, p. 115.

4. Elger, op. cit., p. 92.

5. C. Merewether, ‘The Spirit of the Gift’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 70.

6. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 115.

7. ibid.

8. R. Ferguson, ‘The Past Recaptured’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 32.

9. B. Hooks, ‘Subversive Beauty: New Modes of Contestation’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 47.

10. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 116.

11. Hooks, op. cit., p. 47-48.

12. Merewether, op. cit., p. 61.

13. Elger, op. cit., p. 44.

14. ibid., p. 106.

15. ibid.

16. ibid., p. 81.

17. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 110.

18. G. Chauncey, ‘Privacy Could Only Be Had in Public: Gay Uses of the Streets,’ in Stud; Architecture of Masculinity, Joel Sanders ed., Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, p. 224.

19. Elger, op. cit., p. 18.

21. Chauncey, op. cit., p. 224.

21. Elger, op. cit., p. 18.

22. Elger, op. cit., p. 51.

23. ibid.

24. ibid., p. 50.

Images

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Ross in L.A.) 1990 http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/152961

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Bed) 1991-92 http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/04/04/printout-felix-gonzalez-torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Word Portrait http://edu.moca.org/education/teachers/curric/themes/artandtext/looking/discussion-7