A side exhibition of ARCO Madrid this year, was Atramentos by Oscar Muñoz, that explored ideas of of photographic memory without the presence of any physical photographs. Yavuz Erkan shares his thoughts on the Muñoz exhibit.
After fulfilling an eye-wearying marathon in Paris Photo, I motivated myself to check out the photographic scene from ARCO Madrid, whose guest country of honour was Columbia this year. Despite the exponentially growing amount of interest and every kind of photography conceivable in the 21st century, I was perhaps naively taken aback by how non-photography continues to dominate the conventional arts scene. Photography as art, or art as photography as previously debated, everybody as photographers or what is photography nowadays; albeit these sparkling assertions, the medium is still a minor adjunct to a fair’s foundational formation and its society of spectacle. But instead of dissecting medium-specificity or meta-market capacity of an art fair, I rather introduce you with some thought-provoking insights from a space I appreciated being in and seeing through.
Running as an associate exhibition of its Columbia focus, Atramentos by Oscar Muñoz shows no material photographs, but exposes the sensibility of photographic memory and how its fixative mind-image relapses in thought. The title of the exhibition (atramentous: black as ink) calls to mind the following question: when the ink touches a surface, or a photograph is taken, will it become a document (to remember) or not? Evidently, Muñoz is an artist interested in the image as a document, or rather the document that which consolidates an image. His works are not photographs but of photography, and they disconnect the materiality of the document from its physical reality. If photography is a technique to preserve, and an archive is a means not to forget, Muñoz’s works interrogate how we remember. Photographically speaking, this moment rejects the fixative image, and rejoices its volatility. Negated faces and collected memories entangle, and Muñoz exclusively exploits photography to reveal ‘what remains’ in the vortex of socio-politics of everyday.
Óscar Muñoz exposition at Tabacalera (Old Madrid’s tobacco factory, now a cultural center). © Santiago Fernández
How many times have I entered a room and felt the flux of energy in the air? Hereby, an aura of constantly dissolving/flickering faces, resonant silence of the flowing liquids, and the traces of deposited black ink were all in effect to collectively shroud the always-faithful photographic image. For those who are familiar with his artistic oeuvre, works from this exhibition might seem uncannily site-specific as well. Rather than being displayed in a white box, these hypnotic videos & spatial interventions conjure the haunting atmosphere of the former Tabacalera (Tobacco Factory of Madrid). Such a spectral container for memories now functions as an autonomous social-cultural center. Inside, I shivered not of Madrid’s brisk winter weather but of corporeal absence emanating from the desolate showers, toilets, and sinks that were once used by the now faceless factory workers. Welcoming this certain kind of somatic disorientedness, I experienced the works on display immanently – free of curatorial authenticity or artistic reason.
Like an intangibly affective apparition, a deliberate choice of (visual) ambiguity salutes you at the entrance and continues throughout the exhibition space. I cannot quite make of what it is, but Cortina De Baño (2015) is a charcoal imprint/impression on a shower curtain, mimicking the run-down bathroom that it curtains. In passing time and with water tampering, the image decomposes. Likewise, Relojes de Agua (2015) and Lagunas (2015) are both conceived around the concept of time depleting and water vaporising. In these water clocks and lagoons words and faces dissolve in liquid suspension only to reappear and reform in sediment. Muñoz allows time to create the image that he initiates with charcoal powder on the surface of liquid gathered in the shower beds and washbasins. The result is an evolving set of ephemeral works that evoke different stages of remembering and forgetting. The recollection of these texts or faces is only ever so complete at the split second that an image is formed, and memory resists total obliviousness. Whether it is a photograph or a personal belonging, what was once firm becomes a remnant/deposit not to be forgotten, even after it is gone.
Sedimentaciones, 2011, 2 video projections (HD), sound, 1:42:27 & 2:41:42 min. Image courtesy of Mor Charpentier.
Next in line is a quartet of head-on video installations that render the face as a pictorial common ground and the ocular hand as a commanding agency to identify. If the mind is set to resist forgetting in spite of a biological death, then the most disembodied likeness of the deceased becomes the image of a face in our memories. The photographs used in these video works are a mixture of worldly faces, but above anything one can clearly discern post-mortem imagery or already-gone figures. In Sedimentaciones (2011), personally the key work from the exhibition, silver gelatin prints of portraits repetitively appear and disappear inside the two development sinks that fill up and drain down respectively. Emblematic as a causal nexus of life & death allegory, it is closely related with the abovementioned problematic, that instantaneous moment of chemical (or digital) fixation and whether we affix a memory to the photograph in our minds or not.
Editor Solitario (2011) and El Colleccionista (2014) also operate relatedly, the former being a selective hand’s arrangement of image icons as data indices, the latter being an individual’s mind (dis)locating photographic remembrances back and forth, near and far. Both mask and unmask the face, perceptually complicating the timeline of a linear narrative by repetition, variation and cover-ups. Henceforth, these videos present convergent powers of photography as a document. If the representation of a face is an indexical trace of being or existing as a body, then a facial photograph is a mnemonic device. It triggers a past without fully recalling the instant that the photograph is taken. Like the mechanical eye, the solitary hand makes things (in)visible; editing and assisting the mind towards a collective consciousness concerning what (not) to remember. Yet, the collector weaves a non-public archive of images from this pool of conflicting, fading, or stimulating faces. In both cases it is near impossible to comprehend the logic of the hand, and this is where photography’s power lies beneath. This ambiguity, its ability to blur truth with fictive memory, acts both as a threat of and a promise for the power of the photographic image.
Ciclope, 2011, video projection (HD), sound, 12:00 min. Image courtesy of Mor Charpentier.
In Ciclope (2011), exemplary of this recollective oblivion, we see the same hand expunging photographic faces until the whirlpool becomes completely atramentous. Even ubiquitous faces do disappear these days, and Muñoz is scrutinizing photography to the extent of tempting the memory to inquire further about ancestral loss, unidentified assassinations, and political kidnappings as a social reality.
For a collection of video excerpts from the artist’s works, please visit https://vimeo.com/user14394326/videos
Yavuz is an emerging photographer currently completing his MA in Cultural Studies at Bilgi University in Turkey. For more information on Yavuz and his work, please visit his website.
Banner image: Editor Solitario, 2011, video projection (HD), 36:19 min. Image courtesy of Mor Charpentier.