The following text is a short and edited version of the essay written about Valter Ventura‘s exhibition Light and Darkness, (“Compêndio de observações fotográficas: luz e cegueira”), produced specifically for the Lisbon Municipal Photographic Archive. The full original version was published in the respective catalog.
Several mythological narratives account for the gods’ will to punish – blinding – or to favor – restoring sight. Curiously enough, if we recall some of the famous characters in the history of literature, we’ll find that prophecy is commonly associated with blindness, as if sight were not a power of the physical order, but rather an internal and autonomous ability to “feel the light “, meaning: an ability to reach the divine through an inner image. Why do people (who are able to see) close their eyes in moments of deep joy if not to potentiate a transformation of the physical space of clarity? Perhaps vision, here understood as a total, corporeal experience, needs a certain darkness to give way to the revelation of new sensations.
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 then, before the subject, the image is again revealed. There and then, before the subject, a photograph can either blind or restore sight. Although we associate the photographic medium with the ability to make visible, we understand that this presence happens beyond the eyeball. So, we ask: where to allocate the dazzling moments that affect us?
In Light and Blindness, Valter Ventura works through the spectacular memory of the atomic and nuclear bombs. In doing so, he invites us to experience astonishment, more than to remember their destructive forces. Approaching archival images as elements with form and matter (rather than historical significance), Valter Ventura draws his own space of authorship, even if it rests on a visual discourse that could easily erase the landscape it wants to question. Between the erosion of the land, the experience of the body and the explosion of the skies, Light and Blindness offers a socially committed experience, insofar as it triggers a reflection on alienation: between the index and the referent, between the self and the other; finally, between the photographic shot and the consequences of that action.
Through an exhibition discourse that is close to the archival methodology, the observer is summoned to participate in a provocative journey that both levels the importance of documentary photographs – as historical testimonies – and questions how their selection and reframing places them in the realm of fiction and, therefore, in the field of art. Though the sequence of images does not escape a repetitive linearity, which runs the risk of exhausting its substance, it also raises questions that are both aesthetic and political: how does the cutting and enlargement deepen what the images intend to highlight if, at the same time – and through that enlargement – they gain a life of their own, with a matter than seduces and plays with the observer’s aesthetic sensibility?
When Valter Ventura chooses to invite us to his Light and Blindness with the gray textured photograph of an arm that, in tension, is about to take a shot, what will he want to tell us? What gray area is this and how do we deviate from it? Throughout this body of work, the emanating restlessness insists on pointing to the mechanics and to its fragmentation. The observer, anesthetized by the light, begins to lose his/her agency as he/she stares marveled at alternative realities. Perhaps that gray area is pierced by the author’s gesture, as he inscribes the titles with a charcoal pencil and lettering templates. Maybe so, maybe not. After all, the only mechanization that may corrupt the ethics we’re discussing here is humanity’s mechanization and one’s automated relationship with the world.
The supernatural essence of war, in general, and the magnitude of the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in particular, testify to a reality that we cannot apprehend as our own. It’s the space of the sublime, which seduces and crushes us, but also the space of splendor, which guarantees the image its iconic value. But does an iconic image (always) obscure the observer, as if its novelty and autonomy prevented him or her from entering a glade of truthfulness? Perhaps the iconic image marks the paradigmatic nature of photography, meaning: the way in which it serves a methodology of observation and research, but, first of all, how the photographic record intervenes as a prosthesis in humanity’s collective memory.
Live streaming from war has been available to us since 1990. However, this immediacy is far from marking the beginning of a visual culture associated with the extermination of the human being. In deferred, we grew to see images of crippled men and women. At first, it hurts us. We close our eyes in order not to see, but rather to be able to locate the human condition that unites spectator, victim and image. On August 6 and 9, 1945, when bombastic events put Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the map, respectively, the photographic reproductions that appeared in magazines such as Life or Time pointed not to the overwhelming dimension of the destruction caused by the bombs, but rather to the technological progress that the destruction itself made evident.[i] May the perverse nature of repetition hide beneath this manipulation? In other words, may it be that by wanting to be an icon, photography actually replaces the referent, emptying it of any content?
Perhaps the mass reproduction of photographs of war and human suffering is accentuated by the repetition of stylistic forms and the consequences of such an appearance is not the exposure of the reality those images pretend to represent, but the exhaustion of this dimension of the real and the displacement of the “evil” into a dimension presented to us as monstrous or unreal. Violence, heavily camouflaged in our everyday life, seems to have been relocated to the field of vision. We know that it exists, but we suffer from a kind of Perseus syndrome, which leads us to prefer, indirectly, to look at what “petrifies” us. Is it possible that the mediated contact (by photography) that we maintain with violence results not only in the banality of evil, but also in our dehumanization?
In Light and Blindness we feel the weight of the past. The historical dimension of archival images transports us to the place of the collective, as well as to the space of the politicized subject. But if on the archive photograph weighs the burden of democracy and anonymity, there is an intentionality that singles it out and labels it. That gesture – of bringing the aura of the collective into the art space – could easily signal the place of the author. But, then again, how does the register of violence survive when the observer is confronted with a set of images and objects arranged with the clinical rigor of dissecting a corpse with material value? Will this historical dimension make room for an artistic dimension: original, autonomous and truthful?
We project ghosts onto images. These do not appear before us, wrapped in white sheets. However, they leave a veil that weighs on the photographic discourse and that determines our physical and temporal proximity, which in turn determines our distance from the artwork’s artistic truth.
[i] Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites “The Iconic Image of the Mushroom Cloud and the Cold War Nuclear Optic”, in: BATCHEN, G., GIDLEY, M., MILLER, N. K. and PROSSER, J. (eds.) 2012 Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis, pp.135-145. London: Reaktion Books
A recent conversation between Valter Ventura and Nela Eggenberger, from Eikon magazine, can be read here.