By now, those who follow ASX will have probably come across Brad Feuerhelm’s passionate article about the femicide and drugs in Mexico and d’Agata’s Codex: Mexico 1986-2016. It’s a strong piece of writing, you won’t regret taking the time to read it. When I first saw the title I suspected I would end up writing about it. d’Agata’s photographs wage a dialogue that I’m very interested in: ethics (I should really say artistic ethics, for I believe they go by a different code than the pragmatic ethics).
When we invited Brad to take part in Propeller #1 it was precisely because of his clear acute writing. He ended up doing a different exercise – that you can read here – and we couldn’t be happier. However, I have to say, this is really the sort of critic that is nonexistent in Portugal, so I find it necessary to insist upon it and now talk about Brad’s arguments (even though Nihil’s portuguese readers aren’t but a few).
During the first half of the article, Brad takes us trough the gruesome consequences of the overall drug production, trade and consumption that happens between Mexico and the USA, focusing on the femicide rates in Mexico, particularly regarding the killing and disappearance of indigenous girls and adult women. This serves as an introduction to critic d’Agata’s book Codex: Mexico 1986-2016, published by Editorial RM. I’ll go right ahead and make a note on the way d’Agata’s images appear as an illustration for the first part of the article: it seems wrong, for their nature is not informative and they’re not illustrations. Anyway, that’s not the point here, so let’s have a look at Brad’s arguments:
In portuguese there’s an adjective – “canalha” – that sums up what Brad is stating about d’Agata’s ethical stance. As he understands it, “Antoine D’Agata has made a whole career built on nihilism and self-indulgent diaristic image-making“. I can’t agree with is, not because I know the author and have an opinion on his approach to life, but because that’s not what his images convey to me. Having said this, I understand where Brad’s coming from and think it’s hard to argue against his overall nausea about d’Agata’s imagery. I guess the major difference arises from where we, as observers, position ourselves. Am I as depraved as the author for seeing these images? Is he depraved? How can I even make such a comparison after seeing an image like the one below? Even if this image will now haunt me, its dark soul will not have a direct impact on the way I relate to the reality that’s closest to me. So, going back to the idea of depravity: if his images manage go beyond an informative and judgmental tone, it may be because this darkness has become part of his world. Should we then credit him for taking the sacrifice to show us this reality? Of course not. They have no social impact, they don’t aim at triggering change or anything like it. So they, the images, are nihilist, in that sense. Is nihilism really the question here? I think it goes far beyond that.
I’ve mentioned it here before – recently d’Agata made an exhibition in Portugal, in a small gallery in the neighborhood I used to live in and I could’t understand what was happening, why those dark intimate photographs would end up in the walls of a gallery – that seems unethical and contradictory to me (not contradictory regarding the author – I could care less – but about the nature of the artwork). So, although I haven’t seen the book first hand, I immediately think that’s a better way to publish it than hanging photographs of dead girls on gallery walls – which, by the way, happens a lot, and that seems very problematic to me…
But before addressing another one of Brad’s arguments, I’d like to insist on the image above and try and compare it to one I’ve recently criticize here, regarding world press photo. I am aware I’m setting myself into a trap, for this comparison is fundamentally wrong, but let me just say something: although context is not everything, when it comes to portraying the life of others and the cruelty they endure, it does make a difference what the photograph wants to be – an illustration, a side note, etc. Should violence be captured in a way that is bearable to us? Should it be beautified, as Sontag might have questioned? And, regarding the point of view, what position am I, as an observer, assuming? Whose shoes am I stepping into?
What Brad is really questioning is “why [does] anyone give a fuck” and “why his [d’Agata’s] work is valorized“. But, come on, can’t we pretty much ask that about everything else? So is the difference here that we, as observers, feel uncomfortable regarding these images? Should we feel otherwise? Are we questioning his permission to do this? The editor’s license to publish this? Or their overall absence of social impact? Brad is addressing something extremely important here, that goes back to context and the work’s ‘marketable form’. What options do we have, really? Does an artwork need a finality in order to be shared with others? As I see it, this “nihilistic” approach is not up for contemplation; instead it bares a strong critic on our codex.
Because Brad goes on to address the author in direct discourse, telling him and his “privileged” position to fuck off, it’s difficult to go on addressing the seriousness of the arguments (is it really there?) Maybe something similar will happen to me further down the road. I think it might. The context in which d’Agata’s work appears is problematic and the critical tone I find in his work is never made clear in his exhibitions or publications. However, I think overall – his photographs and the way editors and publishers address it – is a sincere representation of what the world has become. As an author, I rather not contribute to it in such a way, but I’m also not going to prevent others from doing so. It is the theater of the grotesque, as Brad sees it. Would I ever have one of his books on my desk? No, never. But there’s no surprise in realizing that there’s a bunch of depraved people in the world and d’Agata is just another author appropriating from that universe. It’s always been done, so why turn d’Agata into a whipping boy?
As I read through Brad’s compelling fury I start to question the situations in which I’ve addressed d’Agata’s work in classes (always to address the use of the camera as an expression and questions regarding technique) and I realize that what I still find surprising about his images is how they address that last frontier of human condition and how they expose (my) idea of an artistic ethics that is not the same as pragmatic ethics. In the end, it’s clear to me that these images can only represent the total absence of empathy, humanity, vitality, hope, etc. and that is not because the author lacks those qualities, in his daily life (he might, but that’s not relevant for the case), but because the machine that allows him to stay afloat in the art market has found that to be his style. His photographic expression is now trapped inside those conditions. Is it boring? Of course it is. As it always is when authors ride the wave of what is marketable instead of searching for originality. Maybe d’Agata is as dead as his work. However, again I find an extremely revealing note on that: whose fault is this, really? Who buys his photographs and his books? Who goes to his exhibitions?
On a personal note: thank you Brad for making me rethink my understanding of d’Agata’s work!