Fine, 1996-1997, Qiu Zhijie, chromogenic print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Anonymous Gift. © Qiu Zhijie

*Gustavo Von Ha

Two exhibitions held in the first semester at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, span more than a century of photography, documenting a process that has impacted not only our understanding of contemporary photography, but also our idea of ​​Western politics and culture. Both exhibitions approach, in different ways, the notion of reenactment in photography.

The expo “Encore Reenactment in Contemporary Photography” brought together works by seven artists (Eileen Cowin, Cristina Fernández, Samuel Fosso, Yasumasa Morimura, Yinka Shonibare CBE, Gillian Wearing and Qiu Zhijie) who use photography to “re-enact” the past and thus the from it, highlight historical gaps and critically point to narratives already established in the canon of art history.

At the same time, in the room that precedes this contemporary group, there was a solo exhibition by Oscar Rejlander, the first major retrospective of this XNUMXth century Swedish photographer who also used reenactment as a strategy for the construction of his works. By recreating historical icons such as the Virgin in Prayer by the Italian painter Sassoferrato, the work loses its temporal reference, giving the sensation that all those images share the same time where past, present and future inhabit a single space, an environment created by the artist beyond those images. This perception is reinforced by a light that seems to escape the frame of the photographs, revealing that we are facing a scene, a metaphorical and real theater. But what kind of theater do these images refer to anyway?

In the contemporary artists exhibition, the works show different approaches by exploring historical narratives of art, while others reinterpret more personal stories. In any case, they all use reenactment as a strategy in the construction of those images, bringing to life texts, reports and visual records that translate the historical formation of each one. Through obsessive efforts to ensure fidelity to the original narratives, “re-enactor” artists become experts in the subjects they investigate and can impart intimate knowledge about them. Through this research, they all access an imaginary museum, as they work in the light of recognizable images within the scope of art history.

Repetition is directly linked to the human learning process, our intellectual development takes place a lot through imitation. In the field of art, we can mention the workshops in which, since classical antiquity, there was a master to teach his disciples by copying the prevailing aesthetic models and standards, in an environment where authorship had a more collective character.

These exhibitions made me look inside the game of the Brazilian art scene and all its categories that are created for certain groups today. As an artist in constant displacement, I think of all this production shown at the Getty from my own Latin American origin and training.

What all these artists have in common is the idea of ​​a narrator/performer: themselves playing a fictitious role that collides with the technique of tableaux vivant widely used in the XNUMXth century for the production of images, mostly for historical paintings. This also speaks about acting in the field of performance and theater itself. In these images, all subjects are acting as true actors. When artists reenact older “works of art”, they often add new meaning to the original themes. The new image becomes even more complex, adding to it the characteristics of the original and its objective is, many times, to criticize conventional narratives and highlight under-represented stories.

Despite the proximity between the various works presented there, there is an issue that seems to matter much more to us Latin Americans than to these artists: the search for originality. Our training ends up being anesthetized by so many images of this hegemonic world and therefore this tireless search for independence through the “new”. But the idea of ​​originality is, in fact, an illusion. According to the critic Roland Barthes, in the author's death, everything produced comes from numerous collaborations, thus diluting the idea of ​​authorship.

From these “staged” photographs, one more question arises: what would the identity of an artist really be today? To what extent can or should we use only individual mechanisms to look at the world and make “art”? The idea of ​​reenactment is also a break in the construction of the linear historical narrative, and in this way, it could point to plural modes of construction of other perspectives on history. To what extent are we artistically formed by all this visuality that crosses us all the time from a hegemonic narrative?

photography and aura

Even in large shows like these, photographs still seem to be less regarded than painting. At the Getty and almost all museums they are always displayed underground, “protected from the light”. But is that the real reason? Or is its easily reproducible nature considered minor? THE hate is related to authenticity, the unique existence of a work of art. Therefore, theoretically, it does not exist in a reproduction. But considering that photography captures a moment that can no longer be reached beyond that “click”, photography is, according to philosopher Walter Benjamin, the last instance of the aura around an image.

Fast forward to the present, in the age of Instagram, when that “turning point” is determined by an entirely different process and the shift to digital photography has made paper quite obsolete, reproductions have moved towards a democratization of culture, where the reproduced image can be accessed and produced by anyone, reinforcing this mechanism. The same image that is in the museum is also on the museum's website, in the magazine, in the newspaper, it is loose on the internet. This helps us understand how a single image can capture and immortalize a defining moment by creating an instant icon. These icons seem to compose a storytelling; they are images that sequentially form an almost linear narrative. The images produced today are inseparable from history as they continue to tell a story whatever it may be and can function as indices that contribute to the meaning of a narrative.

That set of photos is much more than an exhibition, it is an environment that immediately puts us in another time, perhaps in the time of art, the one full of aura, in the opposite direction of this fast-paced world flooded by images where everything is diluted.

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