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Written by Juan Antonio Molina   


From the body photographic to the photographed body

(variations of a discourse regarding spirtuality in contemporary photography)

by Juan Antonio Molina



Probably the objects of a religious, moral, aesthetic and logical

sentiment are just at the mere surface of things

- F. Nietzsche -




All the concepts appearing in each title of this essay, which indicate its contents, seem to be in a crisis. They refer us to a language that is already out of the critical and theoretical discourse. At times, it seems that they never belonged in there anyway. However, these are terms that -when translated to the language of critics, art theory and contemporary cultural studies- refer to processes -such as subjectivization and ideologization, playing with the structures and signs, and anthropological, ethnographical or psycho-analytical methodologies- to the almost political criticism of representation and the “ “performatic” ” existence (or insistence) of the work of art.


It is fortunate that my starting point is a series of works belonging to the same collection. This will help me focus on my subject matter, placing it in a specific context of circulation, consumption and referred to particular values. In fact, the works I have selected to demonstrate my hypothesis have been produced in a ten-year span (1994-2004) by Latin American photographers. This particular time-space stratum allows me to uphold my lines of research and speculation regarding contemporary photography.


In consequence, the collection can be seen as a sort of laboratory in which I can corroborate certain theoretical propositions. A space in which the aspirations of consumption, value exchange and even the “cultural” value of the work of art, become real. This is an ambit where the work recovers -or at least fulfills an aspiration to recover- that controversial “aura”, which basically has to do with its own historicity, with its reminiscence, and a kind of new rituality in which it will get involved.


Although I see the concept of “emphasis” in the direction that goes from the author to the work, I can’t help to be attracted by the possibility to relate it to this magical dimension, which establishes a flux that goes from the work of art to its origin. An origin in which we will find the author, but also the circumstances that define the current existence of the work itself. In this essay, I will take on this mythical dimension -even though indirectly- to recover, as part of the emphasis, the connection of the work with the representation processes, which somehow reproduce certain archaic relationship structures between the subject and his material and spiritual reality.


To talk about the spiritual in relation to photography entails two risks, the spiritual sounds far too abstract, while photography is seen as being far too concrete. First, I will try to approach both concepts through the two aspects I find to be the most interesting: Today’s need to approach the spiritual as subjectivity incarnated in the object, and the possibility to approach photography as objectuality dissolved in the middle of emphatic processes of subjectivization. This will lead me to comment not only about the body of the photographed, but also about the body photographic, a double approach that I deem substantial to every analysis of representation, in any mode or bearing.


But before, I’d like to digress about something I think is necessary to put my analysis in context. My interest in marking certain zones of the Latin American photographic production through its references to spirituality is related to my own ponderings on the subject in the last few years. This attempt includes the analysis of the relationship between the representation of the body and a certain kind of subjectivity, and considering this relationship as the one that defines the features and content specific to the contemporary Latin American photography. The references I have made to photography as a “weak object” are sustained mainly by the detection of these elements of subjectivity that contribute to a sort of explosion of the photographic object, undermining its monumentality and solidity. I believe that without the detection of these elements, any analysis would be incomplete or biased by the historical and circumstantial aspects of the photographed object.


In consequence, I will lean towards commenting about a group of works marked by a certain anthropological intent. These are images resulting from the reformulation of the concepts of document and evidence. These are propositions based on autobiographic research or the game played between history and biography. Several variations of the representation of the body or the reference to the corporal, but above all I will highlight the fact that all of these variations coincide in an intense game played between the subjective and the objective. And in the fact that this game of correlations responds to the contemporary manifestation of a critical spirituality.


If we pay attention to the judgments made in other disciplines (such as psychoanalysis, sociology or anthropology) we would be talking about spirituality in crisis. Julia Kristeva -who reveals the “transfigured” soul in the contemporary psychic life- puts the problem with a lucid skepticism. The first pages of “The new illnesses of the soul” are a recap of what seems to be the symptoms of a social disease rather than of alleged individual pathologies.


Even when she describes the contemporary subject as being “saturated with images”, it is in a world where “there are no longer boundaries between pleasure and reality, between the truth and the lie”1, she seems to describe a panorama similar to Baudrillard when he evaluates the moral and ideological consequences of living in a world of simulation. In this sense, what is more interesting for the purpose of this text, is that Kristeva’s analysis is, if not a criticism of representation, at least a criticism of its discourse: “ …Is there a “you”, an “us”? The expression is standardized, the discourse is normalized, that is, Dou you have a discourse?” 2


This subject with no precise identity and no discourse to configure it, could be the subject liberated from emphasis foreseen by Nietzsche. The irony of destiny is that the utopia of the free and blissful man returning to his natural state (which is mostly amoral) has been substituted by the reality if the individual diluted in the mass of consumers, who is closer to the image than to nature. Paradoxically, the image is the haven of emphasis; we find it in the soap opera, in the news, in the political discourse, in the commercials, in propaganda and in art.


Although rescuing the confrontational side and the liberating utility of emphasis in art is still a praiseworthy task, it doesn’t imply a precise hierarchy in relation to the rest of the media. Any attempt to distance art from the mass media would be not only incomplete, but also incongruent with the reality of contemporary art. However, beyond any moral judgment implied in any comparison (Nietzsche himself puts the question of emphasis beyond morals), it is possible to detect a healthy energy in the most “emphatic” art, which challenges the powers that be, undermines the totalitarian discourses, that refutes the current state of the aesthetic discourse and vindicates individuality, challenging the pressures of the standardizing impulse of the mass society.


As I’ve suggested, in the case of art in general and photography in particular, the meaning of “emphasis” inevitably leads us to an aesthetic object filled with subjectivity, yet “emphatically” impregnated, this is, having a rhetorical density superimposed to the “natural” quality of the object. “Emphasis” as I put it here, is also self-referent, is a demand for attention on the object itself and on its emphatic character. This means that it does not only affect the structure or the content, but also establishes the surfaces, conditions the aesthetic reception of the object and brands it as an aesthetical object.


I believe that the surface, in the case of photography (as in other bi-dimensional arts), it is particularly important to these subjectivization processes. The surface of the photo is crucial to attach the sign to the referent. It is there where the processes of intervention and obstruction take place, and should weaken this relationship, which establishes the identification effect that seems key for photography to function. Any manipulation of the body of the photographed will go through a manipulation of the body photographic, either adding a new layer of meaning or infiltrating a texture of meanings, an ideological plot (in the end meta-linguistic) that modifies and multiplies the attributive unity of the photographic sign.


The sociological and anthropological references of Baudrillard, the psychoanalytical and linguistic references of Kristeva or even the philosophy of Nietzsche give a nuance to my questions about the function of photography in the current circumstances of the critical relationship between subjects and history. When I talk about a kind of photography in which critical spirituality is manifested, I also refer to an exercise of representation that preserves the traces of a pathetic relationship with history, something that seemed to be lost in the conditions of a mass society and that many times seems to survive transfigured in neurosis, specially if we realize that this kind of artistic production no longer seeks its stability in meta-accounts but is concentrated in micro-structures that touch, move and sometimes hurt the relationship of the subject within reality and with himself.





The presence of Ana Mendieta in an exhibition or in a photography collection is always a good excuse to revisit the theme of the importance that performance art and ephemeral art have had for the inclusion of photography in contemporary art, from the time of Conceptualism to the present. This was how a crack in its alleged specificity and the autonomy of the photographic language was generated, which was first seen in more complex and plural aesthetic systems. In the context of this analysis, it is also a good excuse, to illustrate with concrete examples, the recent increasing contamination of the photographic image by this spiritual element I have mentioned.


If I were to mention a strong and indisputable precedent of this close and problematic relationship between the representation of the body and the intuition of the sacred in the current photographic practice, I would definitely comment on the work of Ana Mendieta.1


I understand this intuition of the sacred as a key for the unfolding of much more dramatic affective relationships between the subject and his reality. This affective, dramatized -or sometimes-ritualized- component gives a very particular nuance to methodologies that apparently are so close to the anthropologic investigation.

Regarding photography, the work of Ana Mendieta is a good reference for the revision of the representation processes, for the reformulation of the place occupied by the body in those processes. And specially, for the contextualization of a  ““performatic” ” element that is crucial in a big part of contemporary art.


© Ana Mendieta


I want to understand “performatic” in two senses. First, referring to a procedure character of the work of art, which puts the very concept of work in crisis as a definitive object, and thus static. From that point of view, even when facing photography as a definitive object, we are forced to invert its logic and locate the elements of the process that construct it and give dynamism to its time-space structure within its structure of meanings.


To do that, it must be understood that such elements constitute an exercise of representation previous to the photographic act, although they infiltrate photography, preventing it from stabilizing and becoming a definitive object. The staging, acting or representations of what will be photographed, constitute aesthetic and ideological constructions. These events will charge the photo with an internal energy that will also decrease its autonomy and self-sufficiency.


Secondly, the “performatic” refers precisely to such energy, which is also directed to the re thinking of the traditional statements by which the photographic was evaluated and defined as such, but also as an art. In fact the “performatic” can be located in that trend and that possibility that contemporary art uses to evaluate, criticize and define itself. This is something that is also a process and also resists the logic that might be imposed by the definitive object.


In both cases the “performatic” is a privileged way for the fusion of subjectivity within the objectivity of the work of art, and one of the mechanisms by which the ideologization of the contemporary artistic object has been constructed. The relationship with a photographic image that reproduces the apparently sculpture-like results of a “performatic” process would include an imaginary dissolution of the photographic object and an inclusion of the performance art among its referents. It would force to live the process and the acts previous to the photo imaginarily. To quote Rosalind Kraus, we could say that if in the “expanded field” of the sculpture we can find the installation, in the expanded field of photography we can find the performance art.


This is basically the way in which the work of Marta Maria Perez operates, in which is not difficult to find connections with the work of Ana Mendieta. In Marta Maria Perez ‘s work the “performatic” element not only belongs to a pre-photographic moment, but it is also included in the picture as a technical moment and as a structure of meanings (as a text we might say).


This shapes the work in a way that invites us to get closer to it through more complex ways than those accepted by the traditional documentary photographic work. The works of Marta Maria Perez not only renounce to define themselves as documentary photos, but also to make the statement of being testimonies of a strictly photographic technique. Then, the value of the photo as an object, does not depend of its capacity to exhibit the marks of a refined craft or technical proficiency in an inert manner. Its meaning would be incomplete if its “performatic” element were not accounted for, which suggests the potential social operativeness of the work that is outside the traditional limits of the photographic object.


That operativeness no longer has to do with the ways in which the photo reproduces the image of a subject or an object, but rather with its capacity to reproduce relationships between subjects and objects, established coded relationships that are, in a way, ritualized within a specific cultural context. In Marta Maria Perez’s case, it has been mainly about the magical-fetishist relationships that Afro-Cuban religions operate with. In the case of Maruch Sántiz, we would be talking about the importance of the taboo to establish order and give meaning to the subject-object relationships in certain communities. Another variety is Milagro de la Torre’s, who began in the object-evidence, in which the primary function is to identify, but also to accuse. In the end, it’s an imaginary reconstruction of an absent subject, starting from the detection of the subjectivity in a residual objectivity.



alt"The lost steps" © A reporter's shirt murdered in the massacre Ucchuracay, 1996



I do not witch to get to speculate about the feminine role in the symbolic re-thinking of objects and bodies, but especially in the case of Maruch Sántiz, she defines the gender of objects, functions and meanings she works with. At any rate, if I were to stress that other variety of emphasis, I should add the names of Cirenaica Moreira and Priscilla Monge, who do explore the social and symbolic function of the feminine, the sexist paradigms of representation and the dominating role playing in the consumption of the image. They turn such exploration into a provoking and confrontational resource, but also into an exercise of self-enunciation and an experience of identification. I should also mention the work of Maria Magdalena Campos, but stressing that her representation of identity, as a visual construction, is always perceptible in her record of her racial identity.


That is why the work of Maria Magdalena Campos can have coincidences with a work such as Rene Peña’s. Notwithstanding the differences in methodology, or the fact that one artist is male and the other one female. Both have worked simultaneously, very worried that racial and sexual stereotypes that determine the consumption and even the production of images. Both have played with staging and the simultaneous dissolution and reaffirmation of their identities.



The right protection 1999 © Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons alt


















The term “neo baroque” has a specific meaning and use, particularly when identifying the style of certain zones of Latin American art. It’s a terminology that is very well adapted to some manifestations of the figure within this type of art, and connects it to literary, historic and mythological precedents. I’d like to evoke that term to refer to that part of the photographic production in which emphasis is expressed through the rhetorical construction of the figure and the ideological construction of the body, resulting on the quasi-pictorial construction of the photo.


The coincidence of these three variables is preceded by a dynamics that acts upon (acts, updates, stages and simulates) the aesthetic function of the object through the aesthetic function of its making. The expressivity of the surfaces, their illusory textures, their condition of dramatized matter, would refer -almost with nostalgia- to the contact, to the making and presence that were in the origin of each work.


The final appearance would refer to a sort of abundance, not necessarily determined by the proliferation of visual elements, but by its intensity. And by the way, that intensity of the visual stimulus invites the most sensorial part of the reception of each work to have pleasure. This lust of sorts can be concentrated in the photographed body, but also in the body of the work. It seems to me that the emphasis in the surface of the photograph is the bearing of a particular eroticism that affects the photographic image.


There are works by Victor Vazquez where this effect is appreciated in an especially acute manner. This value that comes from craft, is also stressed in the work of Luis Gonzalez Palma. Some critics have interpreted it as “New Pictorialism”. In reality, it is about playing with tangential relationships between photography and iconographic paradigms, already coded by the history of painting, or rather by the history of representation in Western Culture. I believe certain reminiscences of Christian religious models can be seen in these iconographic paradigms. These models have been transformed, subverted or even parodied, but they still are active, almost clandestinely, giving more aesthetical effectiveness.

"Bodegon Yemayá" 1994 © Víctor Vázquez


I find these references in the way Gonzalez Palma has represented “angelical” figures, or in the way Marta Maria has recuperated the theme of the stigmata in her most recent work. But above all I think about the work of victor Vazquez, who has worked with the duality of naked body/tormented body, as a metaphor of pain and pleasure, since they compose the plenitude of flesh. Bodegon de Yemaya (1994) is an exemplary work in this sense, since it duplicates the eroticism of the flesh in the eroticism of the artistic object, and this process is a manipulation, and an aesthetical re-making of the sacred1. I’d even say that the sacred is evoked from the representation of the body is somehow annulled by the representation itself.



This effect has its own implications in photography, which seemed historically destined to sacralize what was represented and making it an object of cult. The different varieties of the representation of the body in photography, uses aesthetic procedures that sometimes reverse the fetishist logic of the represented, by amplifying the erotic/aesthetic quality of the very photographic object.2 The best work of Victor Vazquez, Juan Carlos Alom, Marta Maria Perez, Mario Cravo Neto or Gerardo Súter have implemented this transitional effect, which re-thinks and even questions the tradition of nude photography, by implying a self-referential dynamics, which is a premise for the critical relationship with the very act of representation and the resulting objects.




On the other hand, the absorption of the sacred by the aesthetic, bestows that very subtle vibration given by the rubbing between desire and prohibition. Even in a work such as Nestor Millan’s, which is totally aesthetic, the representation of the body has that ambiguity between cult and desire, repression and sublimation. Perhaps this is why in many of his pictures, the body seems to be submitted to a sort of violence that results in a gloomy and anxious tone.


"Change of skin III" © Nestor Millán




All of these variables are self –referential. Not only regarding the fact that photography seeks attention for itself, but also because the author seeks attention for his identity, either by showing it or concealing it, but always representing it. The photos that have driven me to make this analysis are the result of a journey from the interest for the collective configuration of identities towards the interest for the conformation-dissolution of individual identities.Even in the mentioned examples, which in a more or less parabolic manner deal with the collective determination of meaning, we can find self-affirmation procedures, which leads us to think that individualism is one of the strongest ideological trends of contemporary photography.  This is remarkable but only in a context such as the Latin American, where individualism implies a criticism and a resistance to accept the representation/identity/militancy coordinates of the guild.Self-referentiality is unavoidable in a practice that seeks the intangible and the untraceable. Let us remember that many of these pictures are more about subjectivity than about a subject. But it is in that diffuse subjectivity where we get closer to the author’s self. But while the subject remains latent in some corner of the weft of meanings of the work, subjectivity is expanded as an aura surrounding the aesthetic object, supporting it and building it. It is the self as subjectivity, and not the subject as a figure, which in the end is revealed in each one of these images. Fantasy, dream or revelation are expressions of such subjectivity, and also memory, so insistently evoked in the works of Eduardo Muñoz, Graciela Fuentes, or Albert Chong. All of these authors seem to be marked by a particular experience of transit, migration or displacement. In consequence, memory becomes a resource for anchoring, seeking and rescuing the origin or just a testimony of a passing. Photography recovers its primal commemorative function and dramatically exhibits its documentary quality.More than nostalgia, there seems to be a critical revision of the past. There is a sort of tension between the present and the past, which is heightened by the ideological construction of the photo by opposites: biography and history, private and public, individual and collective.  In a visual level, these opposites meet in a texture of montages. All of it has an effect of abstraction, made by a superimposition of plains and moments.It is also an effect of inter-textuality, which helps photography to show itself as a self-reproductive object. For them, the personal history is a history marked by visual experience, especially in the work of Chong and Muñoz, the location and relocation of documents implies a reiteration of the acts of looking and reading. This is achieved by amplifying the reproductive possibilities of the photographic image.


1995 © Albert Chong








In Muñoz’s case, quotes can vary from individual to more “cultivated” sources that explore the history of contemporary photography or cinema. Albert Chong uses more melodramatic referents, such as a kitsch element that is relocated in the structure of his work. Along with the recuperation of biographical evidence and reconstruction of the affective universe, the ornamental is also infiltrated, with the purpose to reconstruct a very personal aesthetic experience. Apart from the meaning of this eclecticism in terms of the relationship of several cultural referents, I also see it as part of a quasi-therapeutic condition characteristic of this kind of autobiographical work.


These photos show a dynamic surface, with a strong expression and powerful capacity for visual, psychological and emotional impact. The work of Graciela Fuentes is an eloquent example of that coincidence between the body photographic and the photographed body, which is based in the representation of images projected on a human body. In these pictures, the skin looks like both a surface and atmosphere. That is the evidence of subjectivity, but also its context giving the body human a territorial quality in which the signs of placement and displacement. Tatiana Parcero makes a similar attempt by superimposing maps over the body or parts of it. Although her results have a much more cartographic character, and the superimposition of plains does not have an effect of tri-dimensionality and atmosphere like the work of Graciela Fuentes.








We live in a time of pragmatism where art is forced to adopt strategies to find its place, ways to be disseminated and realization as an artistic object. Art seems to be understood as strategic, as mainly discursive, even as propaganda. The utilitarian and effectist vision is dominating, in the sense that an effect or result is sought and can be traced to the very origin of the production of the artistic object. Because of this, contemporary art rejects leisure. The work of art is expected to drive to an experience outside of the artistic object. Political, sociological or economical, it is outside of the traditional spaces assigned to the artistic experience.


In such a context, production, reproduction and spiritual expression are seen as exchangeable values, but also as being too abstract for the political and pragmatic purposes of the discourse of contemporary art. In fact, spirituality is something to be intuited instead of perceived. Something that is beyond the physical construction, even when language makes an effort to construct it and configure it.


Another not less profitable possibility for the new ideological order that prevails in contemporary art, is that a kind of photography like the one I have commented about here, has only recognition as a folkloric asset. That it will be consumed thanks to its marks of a real or imagined collective identity, an evaluated for belonging to an exotic geographic, cultural and artistic environment.


Facing such risks without concealing the existence of local specificities and features might be a challenge, not for photographers but for art critics and that other strategic manifestation that is curatorial work. The result could even help to understand the coherence of these photographic practices and the more critical and propositional zones of the current art. In that sense, an optimistic vision is valid. A vision that in these aesthetic productions, looks for a critical spirituality instead of spirituality in crisis.



Juan Antonio Molina
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