Alentejo_1999_1© Duarte Amaral Netto, S.Título / Untitled, Alentejo 1999
65×65 cm Framed 105×105 cm. Ilfochrome. Ed. 3 + 1 AP

According to Niklas Luhmann’s theory of social systems, art is defined as being about communication. In his opinion, what constitutes art is defined by what its subsystem – namely critics – say is art. Meaning that art being art is dependent on the assessment of these so called experts being able to differentiate what is and is not suitable to be analyzed within the realm of art theory and art history (and let’s not even go into what “culture” really means). I do disagree with this assessment as an empirical condition, but I acknowledge critic as playing a very important role, especially if it lets people in on other layers and if it triggers our imagination and curiosity at the core of our intellect. And who cares about what anti-intellectual intellectuals have to say?

I began with this statement because it might be that Duarte Amaral Netto’s (b. Lisbon, 1976) work is suffering from the lack of good (or serious enough) critics in this country and for that his work is not reaching its full potential, simply because it’s not being fully contextualized. No, I’m not implying that I could do that; I’ll just be attempting to broaden the spectrum.

Though Duarte is not going through an identity crisis, neither is his work, “critics” seem to be either asleep or adrift amidst his non-linear approach on fictional narrative. I’m sure if Duarte had been boring us to death with chuck-closy-portraits for the past fifteen years, the art system would have no trouble “understanding” and “promoting” it. Well, but fortunately for us, consistency is more than “the quality of achieving a level of performance which does not vary greatly in quality over time!” and we can expect to expect more than what’s to be expected from Duarte. Hurrah!

If we tried to approach Duarte’s body of work starting at his latest exhibition – Afinidades Selectivas /Selective Affinities – we could be tempted to relate the core of his problematic to a question of “how personal memory operates in the cultural sphere”. (Kuhn, 2007, p.283) We’ll get back to that but, for now, let’s try it the other way round and start with Duarte’s earlier works.

In Why Photography Matters Now as Never Before, (2008) Michael Fried identifies three stages within Jeff Wall’s body of work: first comes the “fictional or staged”, then the “spectacular or indeed ‘theatrical’”, and finally the “quieter”, neo-realistic phase. (p.63) It’s not like these stages could characterize Duarte’s work, but what is important is how they give way to one another, how the most literal approach to fiction expands to questions about installation and staging in and out of the picture and how this question of staging with and in front of the viewer gives way to a play with reality that speaks to the subjective eye. You might think you know the difference between reality and fiction, you might even think that what separates these realms also defines your sanity or lack of but, in fact, if the artist is good enough you’ll give those preconceived ideas up and realize what is at stake is how willing you are to dig inside your memory.

DuarteAmaralNetto012© Duarte Amaral Netto, Homem dos Balões / Balloon Man, 2007
115×143 cm Epson Ultrachrome Fine Art. Ed. 3 + 1 AP

In his earlier works, Duarte was focusing on the everyday life as to evoke narrative, especially in the way cinematic tableaux usually do. Jeff Wall created the term near documentary, which Michael Fried then equated with the antitheatrical ideal. They both refer to the attempt to stage something that if “repeated” enough would then be thought of as always having been there before, on its own. Always well composed, Duarte’s photographs mostly portrayed wanderers, reading books, sleeping on sofas, looking out the windows, eating, drinking, taking baths. They portrayed everyday characters performing their everyday roles and that “domestic” quality was easily associated with one’s imaginary house of affections. Light hit them from two extremes – either they were dark, highlighting the forms; either they were penetrated by a very recognizable Mediterranean-light that could easily evoke neo-realistic cinematic family drama, if you know what I mean.

Following an exhibition back in 2006, curator Filipa Oliveira wrote about the importance of the “suspended moment” in Duarte’s work and how absence was evoked by the way light drew itself within the images, suggesting that “the search for light” could be a theme: “the search through the perfect illumination of the image (the literal quest, or the journey through an unknown path to attain it), and in this way the spots of light are central moments when reading the following pieces. The search for light may also persuade, by opposition, everything that is not visible and builds the image, everything that opens it to a new dimension.” I do disagree that this so-called search for light should be put forward as a theme, for it does nothing to expand the understanding of Duarte’s work outside the realm of the art connoisseurs, which will always be a problem if you keep insisting on talking about what is not there instead of what is there.

Luda© Duarte Amaral Netto, Luda, 2007
125×172 cm Lambda Print on Fuji Fine Art. Ed. 3 + 1 AP.

The real question might be related to the subjective eye and universal affections. This group of single images Duarte produced between 1999 and 2007 were seductive and had presence. What captivated me were their formal qualities, qualities specific to the photographic medium. They are beautiful, in the Kantian sense of the term – they are appealing, they trigger our imagination and our understanding and they drive us to share our experience. They have enough spirit to make them present and there is enough left in the dark to rely on our impulse to construct narratives. Of course absence is important, mainly because of what it does for the imagination, but what I want to argue is that thematic content should not be equated with what the meaning of a work might or might not be within art history’s narrative; otherwise the work is just referring back to itself, being tautological. This group of photographs live for their present(ness) without the need for a deconstruction of the symbolic nature of their aesthetic options. They speak to our everyday reality and that’s where they should be kept, in a dialogue between what we know we remember and what we choose not to.

Duarte’s photographs didn’t use to be candid; they were autonomous beyond that basic photographic quality of pretending to be an objective depict of reality. Take Luda (2007), for instances. Here is an example of an everyday scene with enough presence to have fundamental aesthetic attributes and trigger a narrative plot. I am inclined to suggest that there’s a numbness quality to all the characters portrayed. They aren’t particularly sad, or particularly pensive; they aren’t particularly bored and they are never euphoric. As the waitress portrayed in the photography above, they seemed to be captured in an instant before they make a decision. Luda is gazing at her reflect, absorbed in some sort of thinking, while behind her there’s a spot of light, maybe evoking other image planes, other ways.

Heidegger’s concept of authenticity is a very disappointing one (at least for me), since it is based on the idea that there is no human nature and there is very little space for decision-making and to act upon one’s will. On the other hand, he brought the concept of authenticity to the everyday life, by reduction it to the option to do something less conditioned, more out of the ordinary. So maybe Luda is going to drop down the tray and she is going to take off. Or maybe there is nothing so radical and she will just sit by the window for a moment and take a look at the stars before serving these coffees. Either way, according to my understanding of Heidegger, these everyday moments would be it, there’s nothing more to that. Well I say there is and Duarte’s work has proved he feels the same, so let’s move on.

essay by Sofia Silva (part 1 of 3)

Fried, M. (2008) Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, London: Yale University Press

Kuhn, A. (2007) Photography and cultural memory: a methodological exploration. Visual Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, pp.283-292

Oliveira, F. (2006) Studies for a Narrative. [online] Available at:

3 replies on “٠ Duarte Amaral Netto: It’s all real, you just need to give up on your anguish (I of III) ٠

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