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Welcome to Paradise

Notes on the Grammar of the Image as a Critique of Modernity

By José Luis Barrios

 

Preliminary considerations

Over a century and half since the appearance of photography, it is difficult to think of another technology that has so radically and thoroughly defined the historical, political and aesthetic nature of representation. One might of course say that the cinema, television or even information technologies have far surpassed the scope of photography, in the past as well as the present. Upon closer examination, however, these media in some way or another can be seen as having derived from photography. Little wonder that Baudelaire’s arguments, or the theses developed by Kracauer, Benjamin and even Heidegger about photography’s mode of existence were and still are decisive for any consideration of the ontology of the image.

In this context it would perhaps be worthwhile to pause, even if only briefly, to consider the changes wrought by the birth of photography. Drawing on Eduardo Cadava’s observations in Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), here I will call attention to eight aspects of photography that radically transformed the ontological status of the image in humankind’s recent history. To follow the author’s general argument faithfully, the singularity of these changes results from his supplementation of the “Theses on the Concept of History” that Walter Benjamin wrote toward the end of his life.

Cadava proposes to trade the term “concept” for “photography.” That is, in lieu of subtitling his book “Theses on the Concept of History,” he subtitles it “Theses on the Photography of History.” This change presupposes at least two registers of signification: first, that which establishes an equivalence between photography and concept, in the philosophical sense of the latter. In other words, it makes photography the quality of a concrete universal (concept). Secondly, it suggests that photography is the very medium through which a concept of history and an ontology of historicity have been constructed since the twentieth century.

From the fabric that is woven by raising photography to a concept, there results a singularity of the historical or a regime of historicity that finds its material basis for existence in photography as such. Starting from this consideration, Cadava lays out (among other things) six relationships that reveal said ontological fabric between history and photography:[1] 1) the relationship that defines the archive’s mode of existing in history after the appearance of photography: the links between image and writing, the relationship between memory, figuration and narrative, and the criterion by which they are archived and classified; 2) the way in which the document is both protected and especially disseminated, based on the reproducibility of photography and its lack of an original; 3) the supposed synchrony between photography and historiography and the problematics of knowledge that result from this supposed coincidence in order to define history’s criterion of truth and certainty on the basis of the image; 4) the instrumentalization of the material values of photography in the production of ideology, or, in other words, aestheticization as a politics of the image (propaganda, advertising, etc.); 5) the photographic instant as a caesura of the event in which discontinuous time is captured as a fundamental aporia of the photographic image; and 6) the construction of meaning on the basis of the way in which the event is inscribed as such, using the language of reproducibility as repetition and transmission; that is to say, the mediated moment that is made more powerful [se potencia] by the reproducibility of the image.

To be sure, all of these considerations may seem to be too general and an excessive frame for addressing the photographic practice of an author whose projects point more in the direction of art. But this is not the case, for at least two reasons: first, although it may be functional, the division of photography into genres and practices (documentary, artistic, social, anthropological) is epistemologically false, or at least weak. Said division results from a modification that comes into conflict with the possibilities and characteristics of the medium. If photography and the cinema have demonstrated anything, it is their capacity to blur the traditional ways of classifying representational practices. The types of images that are produced after the Industrial Revolution define another sense of the existing relationship between representation and truth that does not go by way of the division between fiction and reality, but above all they define something that disrupts the relationship between truth and reality.

The second reason has to do with the way in which the appropriation of the medium in artistic terms in some way reconfigures the photographic image; a reconfiguration that, in general terms, presupposes a reversion of the historical nature of the photo toward its poetic nature. This is not to say that one precludes the other, but instead offers a way of thinking the dialectical tension produced both within the poetics of the photographic image and in its imaginary unfolding through the relationships between editing and montage as immanent qualities of the medium. What I am proposing is that the artistic practice of photography does not cancel out the relationships between technology, time, image and history. Rather, it increases the power [potencia] of the aesthetic qualities of the medium and in so doing displaces the index of the image toward the registers of latency (drives, affects, specters) that, from their very beginnings, define and differentiate the arts produced by apparatuses of technical reproducibility, but which are made legible in their being put to artistic purposes through what I have called here “poetics of the image.” For this reason, perhaps, almost from the start the relationship between photography, desire and dreaming marked the differential quality of the photographic image in the history of modern visuality.

The point of all these preliminary considerations is to provide a theoretical context for my proposed analysis of the work of Oswaldo Ruiz. From my perspective, this artist’s recent work is a sort of deconstruction of his own poetics, which goes from a certain oneiric aesthetics of the landscape to a critical/naturalist aesthetics of the image. At issue is a journey of the photo as projection and screen toward the affective collapse of the present and past of the imaginary of objects’ modernity and their social and historical worlds.

 

First observation. On the poetics of digital photography (reinventing darkness): Powers of the instant and the logic of post-production

 

One of the recurring themes and techniques in the photography of Oswaldo Ruiz was the construction of a certain ritual and archaizing record of the nocturnal space of nature. Through the artificial illumination of the night, his first productions were characterized by a sort of system of hierophanies. In what we might call a repurposing of the two fundamental components of traditional photography —the lens and lighting proper to studio photography— joined to the concept of the constructed image, the photographer rerouted his images toward archaic symbolic forms of the likes postulated by Carl Jung in the early twentieth century. In the elemental tension between totem and space, which arrive as majestas through the artifice of light, works like Monumento a Santos Salazar (2009) and Holy Island (2010) are capable of being interpreted in terms of the way in which the elements that make them up function in accordance with the Jungian concept of the archetype; that is, as abstract, innate forms that structure the deepest levels of the psyche in accordance with what is beyond the psyche itself: life, the body and its dependence on its immediate surroundings.

Although archetypes are inaccessible in themselves, there are certain symbolizations that make it possible for the archetypal unconscious to operate at the moment of producing the meaning of an object. Much of Oswaldo Ruiz’s work functions in this way. For example, the vertical line of the totemic figures atop the horizontal line of the place where they are situated, as well as the illumination of the object’s plane of presence atop the indetermination of nature at night, are aesthetic materializations and formal strategies that set the symbolic-unconscious register of the gaze in motion in the face of these kinds of images.

I take this analysis of the photographer’s early work into account in order to show that psychoanalysis has been a fundamental tool in his artistic investigation. With this I want not only to note the existence of a theoretical register underlying his work, but also to show the way in which said register has been transforming into the scopic drive [pulsión] of his photographic gaze. It has become a structuring condition of the poetics of his images.

The high-resolution digital photographs that Oswaldo Ruiz has produced since 2013 are differentiated from his previous work by his abandonment of constructed illumination in favor of light (whether natural or artificial) as an element proper to the photographic situation. From my perspective, this change has resulted in a new semantics of his images whereby archetypes dissolve in the objects being photographed such that it is no longer the archaizing symbolic resource that defines the meaning of the images, but rather the internal tension between the latent archetypal structure and the photographic index that operates in them. At issue here is a complex strategy in which, behind the index of the image (a bridge, a street, a machine, a building), there throbs the archaic drive of instinct, affect, the body… In sum, this resource enables the primitive drive to operate as an aesthetic register in the indexical present of the image. Perhaps this is why a bridge can be a monster, a demolished sidewalk can be a contemporary allegory, et cetera.

This collapse of the archetype onto that which is photographed, to the extent that the latter refers to fundamentally industrial and urban contemporary motifs, actualizes the primitive drive in the social and political present of the images. In the manner of a Benjaminian gesture, this artistic operation in Oswaldo Ruiz’s work echoes the idea that the past appears as a flash of lightning in the material present of history; a material present that in this case is photography as a critical condition of history in the era of technical reproducibility. Although this is a recent exploration for our photographer, that does not mean that it ceases to be an artistic strategy that shows in itself how he has reflected on and investigated the aesthetic and political potential of his visual poetics.

 

Second observation. The photographic caesura: “The truth” of black and white

 

The history of photography, like the history of the artistic avant-garde in the early twentieth century, produced a series of paradoxes as part of the material condition of its technique. I would even go further and, following Walter Benjamin, assert that “avant-garde” and technical reproducibility are one and the same, at least in the ontological sense of the term; that is, there is an equivalence between the being of technical reproducibility and the ontological character of historicity from the late twentieth century until the present. From this point I would like to return to the assertion I made at the outset of this essay with respect to photography being a caesura that determines the mode of existence of the event for the historiography and history of much of Modernity. From this assertion I would like to elaborate an analysis of the recuperation, or, if you will, the drifting [deriva] of Oswaldo Ruiz’s photography back toward black and white analogue photography as a resource that has enabled him to define a condition of possibility critical to his own work.

If a narrative storyline [relato] as a traditional form of historiography is a technology of the continuum that defines the progressive character of history, photography, insofar as it is instantaneous —regardless of how long its exposure time might be— introduces the discontinuum of time as an ontological quality of the document for history. Moreover, in addition to this character of discontinuity that comes from the photographic instant, one would have to adduce that technical reproducibility brings with it a logic of repetition, not of the origin nor of the original, nor of the beginning, but of the record of the event through the photographic instant (something that no doubt lends a raison d’être to the forms of journalism and information in society today). But this paradox deepens even further if, in addition to the relationship between instant, repetition and event, we include the spectral matrix signified by the negative in analogue photography. In brief, at issue here is a paradox of technique that is no doubt fully materialized with the surrealist photography of the early twentieth century. Starting with the way in which this photographic practice captures the ghost of the past in the present, moving on through the first prints of erasures of images on top of images, and arriving at the void as a surface for printing objects in order to make them dreamlike, the beginning of the photographic snapshot in black and white finds its aesthetic condition of possibility in the caesura of time by the instant. It is atop the interruption of the continuum that photography’s grammars are built: printing, editing and montage.

Seen with the benefit of the one-hundred-plus years of hindsight during which photography has existed, I propose to regard these considerations that operate in black and white photography as the material condition of the surviving image in photography. By surviving image I mean the way in which a representational technique is transferred as drive [pulsión] to the history of the present time. Regarded thus, it would seem that, in our time, the power [potencia] of photography is revealed in the way in which black and white images function in the contemporary visual imaginary.

These considerations are fundamental to an understanding of the way in which analogue photography has been resignified in Oswaldo Ruiz’s recent work. Let us turn to it now.

In principle, the motifs, the type of shot and framing in the photographer’s recent black and white analogue photographs are practically equivalent to those in his color works from a digital matrix. Nevertheless, what seems suggestive from my perspective is that analogue photography has served him as a series of excuses that have enabled him to explore a radically different register of temporal index in his images. Perhaps without too much awareness of the inexactness that traditional photography can have at this point, it is by virtue of it that Ruiz recuperates the relationship between past, history and image in his black and white photographs, something that, because it enters into a constellation within the universe of his photographic imaginary, makes his black and white photos function in dialectical tension with those in color. What this produces in artistic and aesthetic terms is a deconstruction of the photographer’s gaze that posits a sort of archaeological exercise of his images.

If it would seem that today the oneiric space of the image is produced by digital photography, from my perspective, in the work of Oswaldo Ruiz the radical character of critiquing the contemporary photographic dream is found in analogue, black and white photography. From the negative’s mode of existence to the material relationship between shutter, light and darkness, to the texture of the instant that comes not from paper but rather from the image itself, black and white photography reveals the pathos of the historical time of modernity and contemporaneity: a sort of future anterior that is debated at each moment and in each shot with the power of the future (futurism and science fiction) of digital images, a debate that is explained by the dialectical way of understanding the oneiric potential of each photographic technique.

 

Third observation. Illuminations: Restitutions and ruinations

Can photography flee from the technical, material beginning in history? This is not a line of questioning that can be posed exclusively in relation to photography, of course. Nevertheless, this question acquires its singularity when it is put in terms of what “singularity” means in terms of technical reproducibility. As I asserted at the outset of this essay, among the characteristics of the photographic is the ideological power [potencia] of the photographic image, which results from its capacity to aestheticize the real, as well as from the way in which said aestheticization can be disseminated as a function of repetition and exhibition.

This is perhaps better explained through an example or two. First, there is the fact that the first aesthetic-artistic appropriation of photography was carried out by the ideologues of German nationalism, and secondly, there is Andy Warhol’s appropriation of the ideological dimension of the products and visual identities of the serial objects produced by the global capitalism of the 1950s and ’60s. Beyond whatever immediate explanations we might offer for these two artistic accomplishments, it is important to indicate the exemplary character that both Nazi art and U.S. pop art have with respect to aestheticization and repetition. There can be no doubt about the hyperbolization carried out by Nazi aesthetics in the exacerbation of beauty in order to provoke fascination in the face of certain values that produced an equivalence between the aesthetic and power, where force, energy and balance carried to the extreme of enthusiasm in the Kantian sense (the ethical sublime) were the vehicles that led to the masses’ affective identification with the idea; that is, to ideology. As a strategy of critical distancing, Warhol’s irony subverts the sign by making its mode of existence compulsory as a hysterical metonym of consumption.

May these two brief arguments serve to put into perspective the artistic operation that structures what in my judgment is the poetics in Oswaldo Ruiz’s photographic production. To be sure, as Benjamin would observe, if historical time becomes legible in the present it is because it is in the materiality of time, in objects, that the present time of history (one of the dimensions that define the historical) finds its condition of reading. In the case of industrial modernity, this condition is defined by the complexity of the photographic (loss of aura, negation of originality, repetition), which consists in transforming the condition of narration: the instrumentalization of the material values of photography in the production of ideology, or in other words, aestheticization as a politics of the image (propaganda, advertising, etc.) at the moment of the continuum/discontinuum of montage as temporal principle of the regime of modern historicity. (Perhaps that is why the movement-image is the most radical production of the scopic regime of capitalist and late-capitalist modernity.)

In any case, what becomes unsettling in the visual poetics of Oswaldo Ruiz’s photographic work is his wagering on the caesura as a poetic knot in which the photographic instant comes to re-inhabit, from the past of the image, the uncanny future of a modernity that is forever adrift. A dialectics of the material power [potencia] of photography, darkness and light are the moment at which the pure signifier of the image functions as a critique of myth, origin, fetish, ritual; and this even in spite of the questioning of a certain artistic beginning. Welcome to Paradise is ironic on the condition of being a montage. Welcome to Paradise is a grammar where color, put in tension with black and white, proposes minimal aesthetic conditions for rethinking the becoming of the photography of globalized modernity.

 

February 23, 2017

[1] I cannot fully address each of these six aspects here. They would merit an essay of their own, taking us beyond the aims of the present text.

STUDIO:

oswaldo.r@gmail.com
info@oswaldoruiz.net
 

INSTAGRAM:
www.instagram.com/oswaldorruiz
 

GALLERIES:

 

PATRICIA CONDE

Gral. Juan Cano 68
San Miguel Chapultepec I Secc.
Mexico City, 11850, Mexico
T: +52 (55) 5290 6345
info@patriciacondegaleria.com
www.patriciacondegaleria.com
 

HEART EGO

Lazaro Garza Ayala 511, Casco Urbano, 66230
San Pedro Garza García, N.L., Mexico
T: +52 (81) 8448 9408

galeria@heartego.com
www.heartego.com

Oswaldo Ruiz was born in Monterrey, Nuevo León, in 1977. An early interest in space led him to study architecture at the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León (UANL), a profession that he quickly abandoned in order to focus on photography. Interested in broadening his understanding of the image, he completed graduate studies in psychoanalysis, philosophy and art history at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). Later, in order to advance his explorations of visual media, he enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at Central Saint Martins College in London. From 2015 and 2018 he was the studio assistant of the Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide.

Using the darkness of night as material for his photographic work, between 2004 and 2012 he took pictures of different places along the highways around Monterrey: gas stations, convenience stores, bus stops and strange, illuminated buildings. This led him to photograph the demolished houses in the municipality of Anáhuac, a border area where his family was originally from and that had since been abandoned because of migration to the U.S. after NAFTA. Along these same lines, and as a result of artistic residencies in Dublin, Berlin and Santiago de Chile, he developed different projects with which, in a sort of archeology of the everyday, he explored the dualities of light and darkness, consciousness and the unconscious, life and death, in his series of medieval towers, ephemeral constructions and anti-monuments. The last of these series, about quiotes (the flower produced by the agave plant before it dies), was shot in the state of Oaxaca. One of his last projects Welcome to Paradise (2013-2017), shown in Centro de la Imagen in 2017 and Fototeca de Nuevo León in 2018, he portrays different enclaves of Latin American cities to deconstruct the idea of the city and extract images of some archetypes that inhabit it, where a dialogue between ruins and science fiction spaces is created. For this project he photographed from the port of Valparaíso in Chile to the Dry port of Jalisco, across Mexico City, Monterrey, the zone of The plain in flames of Rulfo, Barra de Navidad, Colombia and Dominican Republic.

He has had over a dozen solo exhibitions, including: Nostalgia de catástrofes (Patricia Conde gallery, 2018), Welcome to Paradise (Centro de la Imagen, Mexico City 2017 and Fototeca de Nuevo León 2018); Espacio que cabe entre dos tiempos (Galería Heart Ego, Monterrey, 2016); Anudamientos (Museo de la Ciudad de México, Mexico City, 2013); Frecuencia natural (Galería Luis Adelantado, Mexico City, 2011); Oswaldo Ruiz 2002-2009 (Fototeca Nuevo León, Monterrey, 2010) and Last Night (Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 2010).

He has also participated in over fifty group shows, including: Constitución mexicana 1917- 2017. Imágenes y voces (Galería del Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, 2017); Tlaxotlali: Alternancia de ciclos (Casa del Lago, UNAM, Mexico City, 2017); the XII FEMSA Biennial / Poéticas del decrecimiento, ¿cómo vivir mejor con menos? (Centro de las Artes, Parque Fundidora, Monterrey, 2016); Develar y detonar. Fotografía en México ca. 2015 (Centro Cibeles, Madrid and Centro Nacional de las Artes, Mexico City, 2015); Existe todo lo que tiene nombre (Camera Works, San Francisco, California, 2015); Dirty, Poorly Dressed and Filled with Love (Erehwon Center for the Arts, Quezon City, Philippines, 2013); El vértigo de la abundancia (Casa del Lago, unam, Mexico City, 2013); Basado en una historia verdadera (Museo Salvador Allende, Santiago de Chile, 2012); Umbrales (Instituto de México en París, Paris, 2010); Registro 02. Mirar por segunda vez (Museo marco, Monterrey, 2009) and the XIII Bienal de Fotografía (Centro de la Imagen, Mexico City, 2009).

His work has received awards both nationally and internationally, including the Acquisition prize of the XVIII Photography Biennial of Centro de al Imagen (2018), SIVAM prize (2006), the Petrobras-Buenos Aires Photo Prize (2006), and the Acquisition Prize at the 2nd Bienal de Artes Visuales de Yucatán (2004). Recently he published the book Welcome to Paradise (La Caja de Cerillos Ediciones and Fundación BBVA Bancomer, Mexico City, 2017). His work has also been published in many books, magazines and catalogues, and shown at the international fairs Madrid Foto (2011 and 2012) and Paris Photo (2006 and 2007). Since 2018 he is a Member of the National System of Art Creator, of FONCA.

2006-07

Master in Fine Arts, Central Saint Martins College, London, UK.

2000-01

Postgraduate courses in Contemporary Art and Psychoanalysis. Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain.

1994-99

Architecture, Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, Monterrey, Mexico.

2018

Acquisition prize in the XVIII Photography Biennial at Centro de la Imagen, Mexico City, Mexico.

Member of the National System of Art Creators, FONCA, Mexico.

2010

FORCA Northeast grant to do a residency in Santiago de Chile.

2009

Special Mention on the XIII Photo Biennial, Centro de la Imagen, Mexico City, Mexico.

2006

First Prize SIVAM, by the International Society of Values of Mexican Art, Mexico City, Mexico.

Second Prize Petrobras-Buenos Aires Photo 2006.

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2005

Special Mention on the VII Monterrey Biennial FEMSA, Monterrey, Mexico.

2004

Acquisition Prize in the II National Biennial of Visual Arts of Yucatán, Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.

 

First Prize in the XXIV Reseña de la Plástica Nuevoleonesa, Monterrey, Mexico.

2018

Museo de Arte de Sonora (MUSAS), Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico.

2017

Centro de la Imagen, Mexico City, Mexico.

2009

The Museum of Contemporary Art of Monterrey (MARCO).

Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, Miami, USA.

Fototeca de Nuevo Léon, Monterrey, Mexico.

2007

Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London, UK.

2005

FEMSA Collection, Monterrey, Mexico.