Through a Glass Darkly
by Illeana Marcoulesco
It is strange how, at the end of this century, photography is still considered to be "photographic art," optically realistic imagery. It is of course only a "question of taste," prevalent though it may be; but for this very reason, it should not be mandated, imposed, preached, universalized.
Photography as a medium is a complex set of procedures for manipulating light whereby another reality than what theordinary visual sense can provide is presented to our attention, as if created ex nihilo. Nobody denies that reportage photography is a medium of discovery/ uncovery of aspects in the world not seen or only heard of before and that it is apowerful tool for social knowledge, ideological persuasion, moral instruction, let alone for sheer visual delight and that it is here to stay.
Yet paralleling modern experiments in art, whether in the direction of abstraction or of the "lived concrete," photography dares now go in the direction of the non-representable, non-figurative (not necessarily abstract) image. In Luis Mallo we encounter, this other version of photography, pushed to the extreme, as conveyor of intimate, if nebulous, feelings merely occasioned by objects as support for meditation — sometimes metaphysical, sometimes psychological. It is an art of allusion barely geared at the referent but far more apt at revealing the subject's feeling of inadequacy vis-a-vis perceived reality.
In the case of the Reliquiarium1 the objects were mostly classical or medieval sculptures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They occasioned a peculiar feeling transmuted into a chiaroscuro so intense as to project us into a world of myth.
Mallo's is an ambitious attempt at translating philosophical meditation in its eternally critical aspect into images — or lack thereof — at fighting once more, and variously, the illusionistic fallacy. His images are not easily penetrable, joyfulexplorations or discoveries in the realm of visual form. On the contrary, they are sorrowful and even anguishing reflections on the deficiency of our beliefs in the solidity of perception. What you see, even when surrounded by great art, is not the is-ness of things, and we are forever condemned to err on the side of taking appearances for truth.
Roland Barthes speaks of "traumatic photographs," in front of which language has to be silent. He had in mind worldlycatastrophes: fires, shipwrecks, violent deaths, captured "from life as lived." About these, there is very little to say; the shock speaks of itself. Barthes enunciates then a kind of imaginary law: "The more direct the trauma, the more difficult its connotation becomes." 2 Couldn't it be, though, that an artist will experience inner catastrophes: of doubt about knowledge or the truthfulness of perception, of uncertainty about artistic vocation, about what it is that one is doing while photographing: trying to show, trying to convey? This sort of crisis is not an idiosyncratic attitude affecting some disturbed individuals. I believe it is endemic to whomever, in the field of creative arts, tries to think, be truthful to oneself, authentically make sense. The difficulty here is much rather with denotation than connotation. For, given the obscurity and veiledness of Luis Mallo's takes of mirrored artifacts, what is being represented becomes uninteresting, if not outright useless.
Barthes also spoke repeatedly of a photographic message and the ways of encoding/decoding it. Avowedly, it is in the nature of any human communication to deserve deciphering. Perhaps, however, Mallo's mature style purports not to communicate but to half-reveal, half-conceal, barely suggest a remnant of meaning. It is the sheer conveyance of a pessimistic mood that colors or discolors our most precise views of objects and experience of events.
The parameters of classical photography, categories like valid contrast, clarity, sharpness of focus, high resolution, the abundance or paucity of detail, the vivid-.ness or dearth of ideas, count for little. I contend that they are part of the realisticillusion which Mallo debunks without being properly abstract. Neither realism nor abstraction, certain minds or souls are apt at recognizing, and being moved by, another version of form. Mallo's pictures are far from abstract even though one may easily connect them (and is also invited to do so, by the subtitle of a series in the show — Inside the Cave) with Plato's doctrine of Truth, as expounded in The Myth of the Cave (Book VII of The Republic). Now, if anything is not, or is only incipient, abstraction in philosophy, it is this cornerstone piece of philosophizing, a myth or a story that has ruled centuries in the western European tradition and found an echo in all cultures which had an access to it. The gist of Plato's theory of truth as contained in the Allegory of the Cave is that we will forever be sent back from the light of the sun into the miserable cave that we perforce inhabit. We would be in a sense fortunate to see and compare shadows. Mallo's work is primarily composed of shadows: delicate profiles, round faces, square jaws, closed eyes of the statuary, regular but dead hairlocks of an angel, Plexiglas boxes encasing heads from three angles. One notices that the glimmers are artificial; they are mirrored effects from metals or windows while the penumbra truly invades every single object as its natural medium.
The Allegory of the Cave tells a story. Men are hypotheti-cally portrayed as living in a cavernous space that has an entrance to the light at one end and a tunnel leading underground at the other. Chained so that they cannot move, all these man can see are the shadows that a fire located above the ground helps produce on a wall standing in front of them. Their world is reduced to that of moving shadows thoroughly scrutinized and commented upon. Suddenly released from their chains, Plato further hypothesizes, some of these men would turn around, be blinded by the sun's light and nonplusedby the shapes of things which they had never seen before. They would consider themselves utterly happy for a while. Yet forced to go down in chains once more and able to look again only at shadows in a darkness to which they would hardly readapt, they would curse the moment of truth experienced before and would never advise anyone to undergo such a frustrating experience. With this, the story ends. The true things seen in the light of the sun are, in Plato's theory, the blinding ideas; the sun embodies that which makes them possible, the Idea of the Ideas — the Idea of the Good.
After World War II, Martin Heidegger gave an illustrious reinterpretation of this allegory.3 According to him, Plato's storywould have a paideic meaning: to show how men get educated throughout life into looking at truth. At some stage of this education process, they can see only shadows and take them for the only unhidden thing, for truth itself. More truth is reached at the second stage when they are released from their chains! At the third stage, the same men can walk out into the open and see things more essentially. Yet not before they will turn towards the source of light in an inversion of their previous stance will they attain the veritable truth. In this fight for life or death, some (even Socrates) are bound to succumb. Heidegger's brilliant yet tortuous argument concludes in saying that most of the time, being in the light of truth, far from access at an ultimate illumination through ideas, is inextricably linked with being caught in the shadows of the cave.
Those who revel in so-called Cartesian clarity and the infinite versions of "realistically reproduced reality" will have trouble with this interpretation. Yet here is an artist — not a reporter, activist or even an aesthete — who, while borrowing the platonic metaphor of the cave, does not see truth or unhiddennes (aletheia) in a glorified ascensus towards the realm of ideas. Rather, he remains stubbornly caught in this "lower" degree of truth and beauty that is the photographic chiaroscuro, where shadows, manipulated by mirrors, walls, partitions and frames, offer all there is to see, to know. A pessimisticand utterly un-Platonic view of things, yet an enchanting approach, for it relieves the viewer from the obligation to judge the truth of things as useful, telling, instrumental, good or bad, according to socially acceptable values. At the same time, it depicts at least one facet of the human condition that of having to intently gaze into the obscure, the effaced, the seemingly worthless residue, to dwell in more than uncertain ways on this planet. There is no correctness in this viewneither "photographic" nor political. Mallo preaches no right way of looking at things in their unhiddenness or truth, no infallible viewpoint, no privileged abstract or perspective approach, if not veiled or indirect.
There is enormous deliberation in these takes of half-profiles of persons, in the semi-opened windows and doors, among barely intimated facets of columns, contours of familiar objects of furniture, and blurred gauging of lapidary volumes. It speaks tomes about uncertainty, blurredness and even the blindness of ordinary perception.
Very few of these pictures lend themselves to even minimal description. No. i is an almost hideously symmetrical headwith the conventional locks of an angel and a dead expression, floating amidst fluted columns and light pipes of an invisible organ; some symbol for truth and beauty, subverted, however, by each subsequent image. I found No. 35 which catches part of a bedroom with a richly carved period bed in juxtaposition to a spot of blinding light coming from a rectangular window, particularly "familiar;" the glimpse of a comfortable sleeping place wrested from its lavish security by the crude, invasive morning light as a cruel reminder of diurnal duties.
In No. 41, half a statue projects a full size shadow and appears as a veiled figure inside the tridimensional enclosure of a cage as if explicitly showing how a majestic outside statue is transformed into a shadow by the rigid limits of our spatial perception! No. 45 shows two pairs of plump feet of different sizes engaged in a rhythmic dance or walk, letting you guess whose unison was thusly marked.
Mallo did not want to append a "parasitic message" to his images by giving them individual titles. This may pose a difficulty for the spectator or the critic. But in the final end, the decision is justified. Not only do the numbers indicate a progression in depth, but they also emphasize the futility of deciphering, the difficulty interpreting, or, in quasi-mathematical terms, the fuzziness of our perceptual sets. •
lleana Marcoulesco is a freelance philosopher and art critic who is presently curating a surrealist show for the Menil Collection.
1.Reliquia in Latin means remains, with a shade of pious remembrance as in relics of the saints, miraculously preserved and therefore worthy of venera
tion. I would claim, however, that in spite of the title, one should not too quickly attribute religious meaning to these enigmatic works. Mallo's pho
tographs are not sacred relics but residues from the perception of classical artifacts, traditionally consecrated in the Museum as Ideal Beauty.
2.Introduced by Susan Sontag. The Photographic Message in: The Barthes Reader (New York, Hill and Wang, 1982, pp. 209-210).
3.Plato. Lehre von der Wahrheit (Francke, Bern, 1947, pp. 5-22).