Edgar Martins: The Diminishing Present

by Angus Carlyle

Note from the Director of the Moth House Established in April 2002, the Moth House is committed to publishing a wide range of photographic and artistic work by established and emerging artists from Britain and abroad. The Moth House is dedicated to publishing work that continually redraws boundaries between the particular and the universal. We aim to be instrumental in laying foundations for a physical and ideological revolution of the book format. In April 2005, we will be launching a new limited-edition monograph by Portuguese artist Edgar Martins entitled The Diminishing Present. Martins' work encapsulates the essence of our editorial program for it has a strong thematic basis, deals with contemporary issues, and reassesses historical themes and perspectives. Furthermore, it looks beyond traditional forms towards innovative ways of using photography and extending its vocabulary.

Edgar Martins' work deals with urban spaces and geographical categories, non-spaces and liminal spaces. His photographs use the rhetorical forms of observation, perspective and vivid color schemes to produce a sense of allegorical alienation which celebrates a loss of certainty. Unvarnished, unpremeditated, his "landscapes" seem to call into question the complexity of a collective unconscious. Martins' practice has contributed to the development of photography as a cultural form, challenging the aesthetic boundaries of the medium. His images explore the concept of landscape as an idea and a form and produce a disquieting conjunction of reality, hyper-reality, fantasy, and fiction. Martins' work portrays a permanent ambivalence between poetic-failure and the promise of success. In The Diminishing Present, fragile landscapes stage cultural dramas.
Andre Montenegro, Director, the Moth House, www.themothhouse.com.

Editor's note
This text was originally commissioned by Anamnese, a digital platform on contemporary art from Portugal (www.anamnese.pt). It is reprinted courtesy of the Moth House.

"We sow corn, we plant trees, we fertilise the soil by irrigation, we confine the rivers and straighten or direct their courses. In short, by means of our hands, we create a second nature within the natural world," Cicero 1.

"Today our sight is weary, burdened by the memory of a thousand images . We no longer see nature, we see pictures over and over again," Cezanne 2.

"Ruins: Induce reverie; make a landscape poetic," Flaubert 3.

At the private view for Edgar Martins' solo exhibition The Diminishing Present (Photofusion July/August 2005), guests could be observed adopting the stance that has come to characterise the stereo-typical gallery-goer: hands clasped at the small of the back, feet shoulder-width apart, the torso gently inclined towards the object of scrutiny, eyes narrowed in conspicuous concentration. Although such a posture has its absurdities—vulnerable to exploitation by the more physical comedian—it nevertheless possesses something appropriate as a way of navigating the world constituted by Edgar Martins' photography.

In that world, the image cannot be accommodated by the glance that grasps things wholesale; instead, we are compelled to occupy the terrain identified by Vilem Fluss where "wandering over the surface of the image, one's gaze takes in one element after another and produces temporal relationships between them. It can return to an element of the image it has already seen, and 'before' can become 'after'" 4. Encountering a sequence of Martins' work in a gallery setting exacerbates this process of scanning beyond the boundaries of the single frame as the viewer is induced to engage with elements between separate images, establishing yet more complex relationships of Fluss' 'before' and 'after.' As Martins has steadily accumulated a public body of work, this relational viewing has correspondingly intensified, with junctions and disjunctions emerging between distinct series of images, for example, between those of The Diminishing Present collection and those ofBlack Holes and Other Inconsistencies.

Confronted by a Martins' photograph there is always the temptation to succumb to the vertiginous sensations afforded by such scanning of the surface, a temptation heightened by the opportunity to shift scale; to pass from a close exploration of the interplay between elements within the frame, to a more remote navigation of the elements that diverge and convergence between frames, to, ultimately, pulling back to explore the intersections between disparate series of images.

Whatever the immediate and sensual pleasures to be derived from such scanning, this form of analysis does not exhaust the potential embodied in Edgar Martins' work. Back at the private view, the attention of viewers could be seen to occasionally migrate away from the images themselves to focus on texts mounted on foam-board or vinyl-lettered on the gallery walls. The text that was interspersed amongst the large format prints and light-boxes was neither a personal statement of the photographer's intentions nor the choice citations drawn from the pool of approved philosophers that so frequently adorn exhibition spaces. Instead, this was an extended and intricate meditation on Martins' work conducted by the cultural critic Peter D. Osborne, author of the influential Travelling Light. The carefully-positioned presence of this text—paralleling the discursive commentaries on Martins that appear in his monographs and in the publications that feature his images (Daylight, Eyemazing, Hotshoe, etc.)—signals the need to augment a relational scanning orientated towards decoding the visual density of Martins' work with an equivalent negotiation of the ideas with which it resonates.

Among the striking compositional aspects of the Martins' photograph included here is its delicate disruption of the conventions of vanishing point perspective. The coarse arrangement of the walls that border the path falls out of configuration with the lines of projection that are expected to run parallel to the lens axis. This subtly disquieting effect is aggravated by the refusal of the trees that frame the image to conform to the vertical axis; the trees list to either side in ways which, when explored with Fluss' wandering eye, defy easy assimilation. The predicted vanishing point is itself deferred from the image, any potential horizon obscured.

This displacement of vanishing point perspective works to attenuate the anticipated dimensionality that such composition normally introduces. This is an image that contracts, lending it the tenor of a photograph of rigorously coordinated film set. The impression of a cinematographic image—of an artificiality derived from being flattened in projection and from having its elements orchestrated—is further worked through by the aberrant gradations in colour tone from the left to the right side of the image and by the equally anomalous restriction of the presence of the fog or smoke to its background.

In the world of Edgar Martins, such interrogation of the grammar of photography is neither casual nor cold. Not casual because this image joins a body of work already distinguished by a willingness to patiently examine the moribund dogmas of perspective (Hidden) or composition (Black Holes) or portraiture (The Reluctant Sitter). And not cold either because, while the presence of art historical reference may be as discernible as conceptual context, this is not work of closed calculation but of open imagination, of questions asked and asked again rather than answers bellowed in finality.

In these images, shot in the immediate aftermath of the terrible wildfires that caused such death and destruction in Portugal in the summer of 2005, are condensed some of the questions that have animated Martins' projects. Questions about borders and boundaries: the collision of the human and the natural, the presence of a second nature within the natural world, about the guilty poetry of ruins, about the limits of reason and, ultimately, the limits of representation.

Dr. Angus Carlyle is a writer, Co-Director of CRiSAP (Creative Research into Sound Arts Practice) and Senior Lecturer in Humanities at the LCC (UK).

End Notes

1. Cicero, De natura deorum, in John Dixon Hunt, "The Idea of the Garden, and the Three Natures," in Zum Naturbegriff der Gegenwart, Stuttgart, 1993.
2. Paul Cezanne cited in Jeremy Melvin "Meaning, Mapping and Making of Landscape," Architectural Review, January, 2004.
3. Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pecuchet and Dictionary of Received Ideas, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976).
4. Vilem Fluss, Toward a Philosophy of Photography (1983) (London: Reaktion Books, 2000).