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Indecipherable, are the names
Présences incongrues d’animaux à l’œil impassible, pierres brûlées au feu inconnu de la transmutation, photo d’une sœur, souvenirs extraits d’une mémoire inconnue, paysage d’au-delà du temps, dessins catapultés images de pensée et schémas transformés en gueules béantes, tout est à la fois silence et cri dans les œuvres de Sofia Borges. Car elle photographie des choses déjà installées dans un espace de présentation, traquant avec son appareil, non la vérité de la chose ou de la personne, de l’animal ou de l’objet, mais la dystopie psychique dans laquelle aujourd’hui nous nous efforçons d’exister. Double de choses déjà exposées, les images de Sofia Borges creusent en nous le vide qui s’instaure, toujours entre le corps et l’ombre, la chose et son spectre, l’archétype et l’idée, le vrai et son fantôme.
Rodrigo Moura [RM]: You are obviously interested in exhibition displays and have photographed objects in museums and in particular a series of images in which you focus on diorama paintings, converging the idea of landscape with that of imitation. In the portfolio you gave me, there are two things that caught my attention and which in some way are related: the first is this interest in the museum display and the other is the documenting of your room at the 30th São Paulo Biennial (2012). Do you usually document your own exhibitions? Have you ever thought of using this in your own work and have you ever worked with re-photography using your own images? Tell me a little about the museum-based projects you have worked on.
Sofia Borges [SB]: Yes, I am interested in exhibition displays, but before talking about this interest of mine we first need to clarify or adjust this term. What I’m interested in are the objects presented in a space of representation, rather than the exhibition display per se.
So besides a wide variety of types of museum, I have also visited zoos, aquariums and research centres. In these places, the objects are not only very often presented for their specific relevance, but also for their potential to be represented as a type, genre or group.
So they are objects which sometimes have dual roles, because they are both specific and generic. And I think that what most attracts me to these objects is something which has to do with their content... with the sense they acquire by passing through these stages of reduction and overlapping of meaning. So I ask myself... what is the difference between photographing a living rabbit or a stuffed one? And what is the difference between photographing a stuffed rabbit on the shelf of a museum and a stuffed walrus in a diorama, which is designed as accurately as possible to look like a window? Everything in there is represented to receive the stuffed walrus, which has the noble job of representing itself. And what am I doing when instead of photographing the walrus I photograph just a small piece of the landscape painted at the back of its diorama? A painting whose purpose was as a kind of landscape archetype which when combined with the artificial vegetation in front of it represented an archetype of nature, which in turn tried to be a hiatus of the real, or, in short, the diorama. These kinds of questions are important not in order to understand the meaning of these objects (even less so a diorama), but rather to understand what the photographic process is about – which proposes not only a semantic displacement (because these are objects that become images, or even, as in the case of the landscapes, images that turn into other images) – and also to incorporate into these objects a further degree of representation, and in that sense a further degree of separation from the real. But it is precisely because of photography’s capacity to “act as proof” that sometimes it so happens that all of these layers of representation that are so sharply in evidence in these objects are suddenly flattened and then the rabbit, which besides being stuffed was on a shelf in a museum, in an instant (the photographic instant – to cite Rosalind Krauss and Cartier- Bresson) establishes a close bond with the real, not because it is a rabbit any more, but because it is now a photograph. So at heart, these objects end up being a kind of study on the inherent meaning of an object and how photography subverts or erases or displaces this meaning. And despite the recurring nature of this strategy (of going to museums, zoos, study centres) in my research these days, all of it is a result of my interest in the language itself – and not in themes or subjects.
Because I am more interested on photography’s ability to corrupt or duplicate or forbid the meaning of something than in anything else. So it is not about animals, or biology, or dioramas, or portraits, or landscapes, or museums but it is about language and, more specifically, photography.
And whenever I talk about photography, in a way I feel I am thinking about the difference between a ghost and a sheet. Because a photograph has this illusory side to it – it makes us believe we are seeing a thing when in actual fact we are only seeing its referent, which is a kind of shroud, or simulacrum, or representation. But besides its referent, the photograph is also materic, it has size and surface, it is an image in itself. Because no matter how illusory, translucent and inexplicable a ghost may be, it still carries the burden of being a sheet that floats without explanation or logic. And in my opinion, what determines whether we are seeing a sheet or a ghost is, precisely, language. In reply to the second part of your question, I usually document my exhibitions, yes. I have been doing it since my first solo exhibition in 2008, but I only started to realise the importance of this for my work bit by bit. Perhaps this came about with the realisation of the importance of the idea of exhibiting itself, since in recent years the process of configuring works in “an exhibition” is as important for me as the sense of each individual work. Each exhibition I do today is like an expanded strategy, a force field, a work. So it is not about “showing” works but rather about arranging content to constitute another layer of signification that goes beyond the individual sense of each work. And I repeat, I’m not talking about theme. I usually say that my work is more about how to come up with a question than how to answer one. In fact, I find fascinating the very idea of a “problem”. Let me quote here, for its dual relevance, the final part of an interview I gave two years ago: “[...] I think my research always stems from a reflection on language, and on the absence of a sense ‘in itself’ of things, and on something when it is empty (despite the fact I sometimes think of the referent as a carcass). Increasingly, my works are structured by sets and strategies which are organised to constitute a subject. At the moment, there is no ‘conceptual thread’ organising what I do. In fact, my work has become increasingly ‘disorientated’. I make, collect, keep, look, think and at a given moment the works configure themselves, transform themselves into an ‘exhibition’. And the names point to this; they are an important part of the amalgamation process. But in a certain way it is as if each configuration of works addresses the same problem with different questions.
Before I used to think that my exhibitions (or series) were always a response to the reflections that the preceding series had provoked. It’s strange because, increasingly, I feel that I’ve always been doing the same thing. Just that, from exhibition to exhibition, all names change.” 1 So to finish my answer to your question, I photograph my works not in order to become “an other work” but rather so that the relationships, convergences and intersections proposed between them are visible and correctly recorded. But in this process of photographing a printed photograph, I end up finding other quite useful things about what a photograph is. In the same way that randomly discovering a photograph in my mother’s cupboard of my sister taken twenty years ago led me to an inexhaustible paradox. And again I ask myself what a photograph is, what a portrait is, what an image is, what a fossil is and what a ghost is.
RM: With few exceptions, I think it would be difficult to talk about a tradition of photo manipulation in Brazil. The most prominent lineage descends directly from the realist tradition of Farkas, Andujar, Rio Branco and Restiffe. Your work is much more about manipulation. Where do you draw your references from?
SB: Yes, I agree that my work is much more about manipulation if you compare it with photographers such as those, but I don’t know if I would say that it fits into a tradition of photo manipulation because I think that’s a very vague term. After all, what type of manipulation are we talking about? With rare exceptions, in my current work, there is no significant manipulation in formal terms.
The manipulation takes place in terms of content and language. And on this point, let me ask you this: in terms of the process, what is the difference between photographing a landscape and photographing the painting of a landscape? Or between photographing a person or a portrait? Or between photographing a living animal and a stuffed one? In my opinion, there isn’t any.
Everything follows the same physical, or mechanical, or electronic process of registering the light that falls on that object. In any of these cases, the photographs are normal and untouched by any type of manipulation. I was simply in a place and at a given moment I took a photo. But I agree that there are significant differences between photographing a person and photographing a portrait, or between photographing a piece of a poster in a museum and recording the room of that same museum, where not only do you see the posters but also the people passing by, or whatever. So what then is the difference? Or what is the implication of this difference in what I present as “photography”? It is these questions that my work invariably collides with. In my opinion, the understanding of what a photograph is has been dangerously reduced and in my work I am interested in constructing spaces where the boundary between what is and what is not a photo is broadened to the point where it becomes a place in itself.
I’m grateful to Barthes and Cartier-Bresson for their important photographic concepts, but in my view, you can’t reduce the discussion about a language to concepts. Language is an elastic thing, it is soft, corruptible, fluid. It holds concepts, but in my view it shouldn’t be reduced to one. Below are a few excerpts from a text I wrote that reflects on these points: “[...] I am not talking about manipulation, or technical processes, or documenting, or the ghost; I am talking about something prior to all that, as the referent is something different from the real and photography is something essentially affiliated with image and not reality. And in turn, it is image that is affiliated with the real. Based on this premise (that it is image which is affiliated with the real and not photography), it becomes easier to understand the relationship between painting, drawing and photography since in each case we are dealing with images, whether abstract or not, which relate to the real because they are images. I think that is the biggest mistake made when interpreting photography and it is based on this misunderstanding of thinking about photography as a magic which freezes a ‘fleeting instant’ forever. [...] But returning to the idea of ‘recording the real’, yes, it is possible to do that using photography, but we can also capture a ‘fleeting instant’ by using sculpture, performance art, readymades, installations, poetry, music or anything else. The problem is that in photography there seems to be a suppression of the language and so everything is interpreted based on a ‘supposition’, on a beginning which, I don’t know how, turns itself into the end. [...] It is like thinking that the beginning of a painting is when someone physically daubs a canvas with paint. So is the end (which is also an image) the proof that someone was there and created that painting? Yes, but nevertheless, when we look at a painting, we can more easily grasp that in the space between the factuality and the resulting image there is precisely a linguistic field which determines the conditions by which the image converges with the content, whatever that may be. And in the case of painting, this content seems to be able to establish whatever bond it likes with the real, or with the symbolic, or with any other thing it wants. If painting can structure itself around this neutral and elastic field, then why not photography? I have always found it fascinating to think how these matters, which are so profusely solved in other languages, are resolved in relation to the photographic image. And that is why I am more interested in art than photography specifically. I am interested in observing how the object (I include here the images) translates into the content, and also how you construct, or forbid, or erase, or reverse the sense of something.”
2 To answer your question about my references more specifically, although there are Brazilian photographers whose work I find very interesting, such as Mauro Restiffe, to mention but one, my references and interests come more from within art as a whole rather than photography specifically, since my research is essentially about the image, about the construction or obstruction of content, about language, and about art, and within these parameters it is informed by every kind of medium. But even so there are some contemporary photographers who influence me a great deal and who also work with photography in a “manipulative” way, such as Jeff Wall, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Roni Horn and Thomas Demand, among many others.
RM: You make recurring use of genres in your work – portraits, landscapes and still-lifes. Tell me a little bit about that. Is the converging of the photographic image with the pictorial tradition something explicit for you?
SB: Yes, it is. Constructing images by using genres interests me a great deal. I find fascinating the possibility of producing an image that brings within it a whole world of related images. And I think I construct these images precisely in order to understand what a genre is, what an image is, what happens to the sense of a specific object, that is depicted within these conditions of intermediation or overlapping. You could also say that my photographs approach painting in the sense of their size and the definition (or lack of it) of the information arranged on their surface, and the abstraction or precision of their subject matter. All of this does in fact resemble painting, and the more it resembles it the more comfortable I feel in the role of “photographer”. At the beginning (when I used to do self-portraits), I used to say that I wasn’t a photographer and that what I was doing wasn’t photography.
But now, the more I manage to broaden the idea of what a photograph is, using photos taken and presented in the most conventional way possible, the more I feel that what I am doing is precisely photography. And in the same way that I try to converge photography with painting. I am also interested in converging it with literature, sculpture, performance art, film, drawing, etc.. Not in the sense of mimicking another language or of illustrating an idea through photography, but rather in the sense of presenting an image that can, in itself, suggest an interdiction, or a void, or an interpretative hole. By which I mean I am not interested today in images which illustrate concepts, or themes, or narratives. What I seek are images which, in their very artifice, are able to present themselves as a problem.
RM: Can you tell us about what you are planning to show at BES Photo?
SB: Os Nomes [The Names] is the result of a visit to the Museum of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy in Paris, where I realized a big series of works. Of these I will be showing nine at the exhibition, which at most will consist of ten photos, all in large format. The sole exception to the group is the photo Coruja [Owl], which I took in 2010 at the Museum of Zoology in São Paulo. All of the others were taken in 2012 on the same day at the museum in Paris. Differing from the series Estudo da Paisagem [Study of Landscape] (also taken on a single day at a museum), the images in Os Nomes reveal significant differences between themselves.
In my opinion, some of these images are so odd that they get lost in a limbo between the abstract and figurative; they are indecipherable objects while at the same time illustrative and also material. Unlike Indecifrável #1 e #2 [Indecipherable #1 and #2], which are photos of the collages in illustrative panels in the museum, Caverna, ou Elefante [Cave, or Elephant] is a more conventional photograph in that it is not a photographic record of a surface, but rather the record of an object (the fossil of a pre-historic animal). The difference between photographing a surface and an object is that, in the latter, the object provides volume and perspective as we traditionally see in a photograph. But irrespective of whether it is more easily recognisable as “a photograph”, Caverna, ou Elefante is a very important photo for me in this set precisely because it is an enigma: because of the decomposition of the object it presents, the image also seems to decompose.
So what is going on here? It doesn’t matter if I say it is a fossil since the thing itself is so disconfigured that it is already a kind of stone or cave, or monster, or ruin, and this absolute deterrent that the image presents explains to a certain extent what language is to me. In a totally different way, La Tête du Cheval also raises important points about difference, or similarity, or the abyss between a photograph and an image. La Tête du Cheval is a photo I took of a mouldy piece of paper. This piece of paper showed a small illustration of the muscles on a horse’s head shown in a small picture frame which in turn had been discreetly forgotten about at the bottom of a glass case full of bones and small skeletons. Of all the photos I took that day at the museum, this is the only one which was manipulated in some way: all the names were erased to leave just the horse, or rather, the image of a horse, a stain and a few lines. And what I find incredible about this work, despite being a photo of an illustration, despite being a flat and mouldy image of a dissected head, despite all of this, it is still a horse which, with its glassy eye, looks right back at us.
No matter how clear it is to me what my interests are in each of the ten images I chose to compose Os Nomes, I still find it difficult to talk about them as a whole. Exactly because I think that in this exhibition I will be able to talk more precisely about what photography is; while at the same sensing that nothing will actually manage to achieve fully what it set out to do. Because they are too strange, I think these images will always be a barrier due to the very violence of their presence. These images overflow, transpose, spill over. They are aliens; they do not appear to contain history or a definitive form. Os Nomes, the title, defines for me the attempt to name something that can not be defined, which is precisely the way I understand a photograph.
Cet entretien a été publié dans le catalogue OS NOMES, paru à l’occasion de l’exposition de Sofia Borges, pour le BES photo prize 2013. L’entretien a été réalisé par Rodrigo Moura. Cette exposition a été présentée au Museu Coleção Berardo de Lisbonne, et à l’Instituto Tomie Ohtake de São Paulo.