I met Duarte and Valter when doing my undergrad in photography. Both were my teachers and tutors and for quite some time that was the role assigned to them.

In September 2008 brief notes were made about both of them. At the time, Valter was working with José Nuno Lamas, exploring landscape, performance and play. Duarte was finding his singularity in the world of staged photography and true photographic language. I don’t remember this being in any way planned, but it so happened that 5 years latter I made posts about them again, with few months apart. Valter was flying solo, venturing into a new conceptual language, very close to literature and our collective memory. Duarte had a couple of intensive years prior to 2013, with different projects, exhibitions and so on, so I wrote an essay about that journey.

Five years forward and I thought maybe it was time for another post, but something makes this quite complicated nowadays, for our relationships have changed. Duarte and Valter have been friends for a long time. They are also colleagues in different settings: they still teach in the same undergrad course and together with João and Rodrigo they have found a school – Hélice – and a magazine – Propeller. They are now producing artistic work together (Spectrum), and that is worth signalling. I’ve been their student and spectator, their colleague (teaching at the same undergrad) and their critic, and am now their partner in crime – the crime being Propeller. This shift in our relationships hasn’t really affected my ability to relate to their art, but has made me more aware of their potential and fragility and, in that sense, their artwork became less autonomous and more difficult to critic.

Valter recently challenged me to write for the publication that resulted from his latest exhibitions Light and Blindness (compendium of photographic observation), where he thinks about the spectacular memory of the atomic and nuclear bombs. In this particular project, archival imagery plays a very important role, raising questions about photography as historical testimony. Those images were then complemented by a new set of photographs addressing both the scopic field and the (violent) nature of light. Regarding that exhibition, curator Sofia Castro noted the following:

Attention is drawn in particular to the series entitled Light and Blindness and London Atom test. The first of these is a series of portraits that synthesizes the paradigm of light as a factor of blindness, seeing in the latter a characteristic that has the nature of fascination and enchantment, but also of unawareness and ignorance. On the other hand, in the series London Atom test (generated through the recovery of the image ‘London Atom test – Flash powder from 1953, United press’), we witness a “rearrangement” of the original image, involving the selection and enlargement of some details that reintroduce a more abstract view of the moment initially recorded in the photograph.

London Atom test – Flash powder from 1953, United press’, in Valter Ventura “Light and Blindness”, 2018.

As for Duarte, since 2016 I’ve come to know a project that I particularly enjoy and that is yet to be made public. He entitled the project Cratera and part of it was developed while he was attending the European Master in Fine Art Photography (IED, Madrid). In Cratera, the shadow is treated as an animated entity that is both revealing and deceiving. As Duarte states, this project is a fictional recreation grounded on the following scientific predicament:

A group of scientific researchers, in the early 90’s, develop lab tests and experiments to try to explain and prove, what they believe, will become a new natural disaster only compared to the one in the Cretaceous era. This group was formed by some elements that took part in the 1980’s Luis and Walter Alvarez research team that led to the theory of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. Their research was later supported by the discovery of a large impact crater off the coast of Mexico.
This new theory was based in the fact that variations of electromagnetic radiation would affect gravity thus leading to a new period of comets and asteroids approaching earth.
Underneath Siberia and Alaska, in the outer core, runs an iron river speeding up since its discovery.

© Duarte Amaral Netto, Untitled “Cratera”, 2016.

* * *

As photographers, Duarte and Valter share common interests. Their discourses, on the other hand, are quite different. As they rehearse representation strategies and experiment with concepts, I’d suggest Duarte is more open to chance and Valter is more driven by conclusions. Either way, the nature of both their investigations bares traces of a scientific research methodology. Both their artistry reveals the importance of persistence, rigor and technique. However, both their imagery often hides play, as an aesthetic quality. Although play makes its presence in their narrative structure, as a linguistic element, the severity of their skills, as photographers, often fails to let that play penetrate the visual arena. In Artistry of the Mentally Ill (originally published in 1922), Hans Prinzhorn dedicates a considerable amount of space to thinking about play as an active urge:

The active urge first appears in physical movement. In it we see the simplest indication of animal vitality. Without considering the play of animals and the theories about the meaning of their games we turn immediately to the playful activity of men. We know it as a specific mark of the life of the child. On the other hand, it fades from the behavior of the adult the more he devotes hirnself to his life’s work, i.e. subordinates his actions to purpose. But we are concerned here only with the question about the role assumed by the playful attitude generally in creative processes of all kinds. It need hardly be said again that we do not have in mind the distinction between play and seriousness, but rather that between aimless activity, in which nevertheless the whole personality resonates sympathetically and which in any case passes over into intuition, and purposeful activity. The contrast parallels that between the realm of expressiveness and that of measurable facts.

Prinzhorn then goes on to give a set of examples of the sort of playful activities he has in mind – doodles, graffiti, making shapes out of bread, etc. – in order to suggest that what these activities “have in common is that their primary purpose is neither a practical aim nor any meaning”. By proposing this “essential trait”, what he intends to make clear is the following:

In reality another tendency immediately mixes itself into the playful doodles: every shape, no matter now undefined and unobjective, demands interpretation. Even if this demand makes itself felt with different urgency to the observer and the drawer himself, to a child or an adult, to an artist or a scientist, it undoubtedly belongs to the basic phenomena which affect such playful activity. The interpretative impulse is very convincing in the case of the last example, where one of the grooves in the rock, a line resulting from physical labor, is interpreted to be a part of a figure and completed accordingly. The validity of playful interpretation can be illustrated easily enough by other examples as well which have no connection with activities but which involve the interpretation of quiescent objects from the surroundings.

© Valter Ventura, ‘Flash! Bang!’, from “Light and Blindness”, 2018.

Regarding the morphology of the images created, a particular bridge signals Valter and Duarte’s proximity, but also their distance. As I write this, I understand I’ve set myself into a trap from which I can hardly escape. But, of course, I’ll try. With no surprise, that bridge would be where I locate authenticity, but to make this simpler I suggest we see it as the author’s placement – where originality and singularity participate.

Both authors appear to have acknowledged that brightness threatens photography’s autonomy, in the sense that it draws attention to the efforts and the aims of the photographer. We know that photography has a physical-chemical nature: different areas of clarity and shadow arise as the spectrum of light is reflected onto the image, but that image is first and foremost created by how this luminance impacts the experience of the observer. So, as we enter darkness, one also strengthens the profound nature of the symbolic order. As Prinzhorn once again notes, the symbolic figure struggles to be emancipated from its material form:

The idol is itself a demon. It is personified, in other words, and considered to be in possession of all magic powers; a rock, perhaps resembling a person, a tree, or a carved figure amount to the same thing. This tangible demon is conceived of in such a personal way as to be subject to abuse if he does not perform according to his owner’s expectations. […] lt is essential in all cases that emotional and preconceptual complexes be materially incorporated in the natural object or picture. This alone gives them their importance, while the spatial creation of a “motif,” be it man or animal, is secondary or (…) has not even anything to do with the magic significance evoked in it only by circumstances. […] An idol is magic power; the symbol implies it. What is described as a fetish in the narrower sense is always an idol. Idols exist only in primitive forms of thought. The symbol, on the other hand, remains alive with minor transformations to this day, together with analogous actions in popular customs and church ceremonies. A scientist used to thinking simply of causes and effects may easily fail to note how these remains of magic preconceptions retain their vitality in naive heads even today.
Fully conscious of this fact are mainly people who are able to discharge their feelings for life into artistic configurations of all kinds. It is indeed the readiness to rescue symbolic thought from enlightenment that seems to open the doors to creativeness.

© Duarte Amaral Netto, ‘Untitled’, from “Cratera”, 2016.
© Duarte Amaral Netto, ‘Untitled’, from “Cratera”, 2016.
© Duarte Amaral Netto, ‘Untitled’, from “Cratera”, 2016.
© Duarte Amaral Netto, ‘Untitled’, from “Cratera”, 2016.

Whatever the case, vitality needs to be present in any creative form. This can be expressed in the form of rhythm, tensions, colors, shapes, forms, etc. I’ve recently listened to an art professor saying that he rejects the word “aesthetics” from participating in his classes and I was quite chocked. I was puzzled by the stigma he was assigning to that word, but the thing is that this particular professor is also a scientist and I like to think that maybe he has a hard time thinking about the spiritual nature of philosophy and art. That’s not my case, so it’s easy for me to suggest, with no further intentions, that authorship and artistic value are only emancipated from the process of creation once they let themselves be informed by the affective impact of the restlessness that permeates that very same process. Finite objects can have a very long shelf time, but their life is that of inanimate things; their magic is that of fetish…

I guess if we’re left in the dark, there’s a good chance we’ll see the light!

Civilian VIPs, Operation Greenhouse Marshall Islands, April 7th, 1951 (Everett Collection), in Valter Ventura’s “Light and Blindness”, 2018.
© Duarte Amaral Netto, ‘Untitled’, from “Cratera”, 2016.
Trinity Nuclear tests, 1945, in Valter Ventura’s “Light and Blindness”, 2018.
© Duarte Amaral Netto, ‘Untitled’, from “Cratera”, 2016.

* * *

As I wrote this, I struggled to find a language that was both sincere and understandable. Whatever the case, observers and readers are the ones with the power to decide whether they want to go along for the ride. If an author like Valter or Duarte tries to lift up the observers, challenge and guide them through their singular world; the role of the critic is a very different one. Maybe the critic should come to terms with the fact that he/she is a gravedigger, but don’t get me wrong: the corpse in this situation is not the artist, but the artwork. Maybe the grave will be left empty, but that hypothesis should always be there, in case one finds no artistic value in the author’s work.


Note: In June a decade will have passed since I first started Nihilsentimentalgia, so for the next few months I will be revisiting some of my early posts, which were poorly done.

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