From Icon to Splendor

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, like an icon that mediates the relationship between the singular and the universal.

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. Perhaps those who see can do nothing else but experiment with images.

But how does photography address the space of visibility? Before a set of archival images, can one encounter new
acoustic images? 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?

Light and Blindness, Valter Ventura thinks about the spectacular memory of the atomic and nuclear bombs. In doing this, he invites us to astonishment, more than to remember their destructive forces. But what is the “true nature” of this project? And does the photographic memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki determine what we experience? How can we see, feel or think about this light and blindness without locating the historical dimension to which it refers?

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?

A substance seems to evade this foray into seeing. Given the photographic record of violence, we are both agents and victims. However, whatever place we end up occupying, our human condition is always (and also) defined by the way we experience the violence of what is excessive: light and knowledge, as well as their opposites. We look, we capture, we observe, but when images obfuscate us we’re turned into targets. We see the magnitude and the sublime, but not always the humanity in the gesture that shoots, that launches, that explodes.

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 mechanic 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 nature 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.

For the author, there is no greater challenge than truth. Creating new images never ceases to be unsettling. Trying to solve problems, new hypotheses arise. But how does the author make visible, if the nature of what he creates is dependent on such a deceptive sense: vision? In other words, how does photography ceases to be an icon to become a symbol? It is the iconic status of photography that makes it replace what it represents: instead of labeling the violence that the images portray as "monstrous", photography itself becomes the "monster".

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. Today, we ask ourselves whether photography is still capable of conferring dignity to the corpse of someone who once lived.

Among other purposes, the photographic record of an archival nature is meant to inform. Although those images appear under the mantle of originality, illustrating "new" events, their circumstances is what gives them value. In other words, photography illustrates nothing but the authors' discourse.

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. 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?

Already a few years ago, in the series
Compêndio do Nada, Valter Ventura ventured into the space of invisibility. It might be said that he was looking forward to the moment when a strong light gave way to clarity. But if this set of images – Prospecções (2011) –, had already announced a political dimension, implicating the subject who chooses to see and keep on looking, how can we ignore, now, the political dimension of this Light and Blindness?

Recently, in
Tangent Observatory (2017), the author confronted us with the complex apparatus of hunting devices, asking the observer two distinct things: 1) on the one hand, to connect the dots and think about the different types of violence in action; 2) on the other hand, that such connection be done despite the fact that this violence appeared completely disguised, camouflaged in the discursive strategy or sunk in the cotton fibers of the large format prints.

Once again, 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?

Perhaps in
Light and Blindness the only trace of material violence is printed on the archival photographs – through dust, scratches, tears and fading. On the other hand, perhaps the author’s original photographs start revealing themselves precisely at the moment when we begin to feel alienated from the orderly, clean and stratified matrix that questions the shot.

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.

Sofia Silva (professor and researcher)
for the exhibition "Light and Blindness"
Arquivo Fotográfico de Lisboa. 2018