“They look at us when we see: from/to the camera in Adrián Fernández’s photograph” by Antonio Eligio (Tonel). Artist, Art Critic and Curator.

The most insightful writers-Benjamin, Barthes, Sontag, Berger, among others-have approached, from multiple perspectives, what one author accurately defines as “the insoluble paradoxes of time and photography” 1. It seems necessary that the reflections on photography should always stop, sooner or later, in the complex relationship between this artistic medium and time. The photographic image-the fruit of the analogical or digital product; manipulated in the frame, in the exposure of the negative, in the developing, or in the torrents of bits that flow between the microscopic quartz of computers-, destined to capture and isolate an instant, to separate a segment of history, inexorably attempts against the passage of time, by fixing it. A fixity that is equivalent to remembering, to instilling in memory:”What is remembered has been saved from nothing. What is forgotten has been abandoned “2.

 

In “Uses of Photography,” John Berger insists on memory as “an act of redemption,” while he asks himself, rhetorically,”Has the culture of capitalism assimilated God with photography? 3. Behind the camera, according to him, the photographer’s gaze becomes the eye of God: a “supernatural eye” that “sees all events in an instantaneous way” 4. An eye that approves of remembering and punishes with oblivion. On the other hand, in “Versiones”, the poet Eliseo Diego maintained that even those who have been portrayed, if forgotten, have died:”Death is that friend who appears in the family’s photographs, discreetly to one side, and whom no one has ever been able to recognize” 5.

 

Adrian Fernandez, in his varied oeuvre-and already at this point, notable for its extent and depth-exercises that redemptive power to which Berger referred, with the attention to detail and consistency we would expect from the best historian. Gathered in groups or series, sometimes concatenated and complementary, their images speak of an interest in recording and documenting times. A record of the historical, consolidated, above all, in material culture, in the universe of the artificial and the constructed. To this day, a characteristic of his work is to illuminate and capture the inanimate. If Diego himself, in another of his famous poems, launched to “name the things”, we could say that Adrian, for his part, has become immersed in portraying them. Without proposing a detailed inventory, I can mention examples of those entities, of that matter- “fragments” in which “the image is pulverized” 6- on which he has focused his lens, in the course of the last decade: the architecture of houses, preferably habaneras, observed from the exterior and then explored in their interior details. Furniture and decorative objects that embody the genuinely sumptuous, or simply imitate it[Fig. 1]. The props tinsel and the attractive glow of the props (textiles, plastics, plaster, brass…), in the cabaret wardrobe. His vision concentrates on details of the costume made for the scene, and is completed with portraits of the dancers-men and women-who cover their bodies with the weight of these hallucinatory designs, thus literally sustaining the show[Figures 2 and 3]. The manipulation of light, color and tones underscores a continuous sensuality, a surface hedonism that comes and goes from the materials displayed in the costumes, to the skin of the models and the bodies dressed for the show. These bodies, without being precisely inanimate, are undoubtedly metamorphosed and appreciated (at least temporarily) as objects.

 

In addition to this incomplete inventory are his photographs of printed materials, and in particular his approach to scenes reproduced on postage stamps (published in Cuba, during the last decades of the twentieth century) which he magnifies, expand to the mural format[Fig. 4]. The increased surfaces of the seals clearly reveal the technological devices and the mechanical framework used to produce these vignettes. Technology, of course, is a mark of time: a date indelibly stamped on the printed object. And the exaggerated enlargement brings to the forefront the aesthetic and ideological characteristics of the stamps – true archives of the historical moment in which they were created – and highlights the condition of the artifice of the images: exaggerating, in this case, is a resource for digging under the surface, and an essential tool for analysis.

 

With “The threshold of uncertainty”, Adrian continues the gradual expansion of the space occupied by his work, which, for now, maintains its center in the creation of photographic images. In this space, notions of the history of art, architecture and design converge and mutually enrich each other; particularities of photography as a “portrait of objects” -a path that can sometimes be associated with the commercial, advertising and presentation of a product to the market-; and a precise, highly capable technical display that informs both the conception and the creation, printing and installation of images.

 

As for the history of art, it is worth mentioning, albeit by the way, that these photographs induce us to recall a very important area of Cuban art from the 1980s and 1990s, that in which the representation of historical events and characters with popular religious traditions was merged, especially with the Christian iconography of Cuba and Latin America. The sculptures portrayed by Adrian (and what survives from his aura, in the photographs) retain some of the rustic force and sincerity, tinged with romanticism, characteristic of key works of those decades, such as “Por América” (1986) by Juan Francisco Elso, and “Playitas y el Granma” (1988) by Alejandro Aguilera. These traits were multiplied in the work of other artists, over several years and generations: from Rubén Torres Llorca and Ricardo Rodríguez Brey, to Luis Gómez and Carlos Estévez.

 

The link between Adrian Fernandez’s photographic work and the work of the artists mentioned above, although verifiable, may not go beyond the superficial. In the first place, Adrián does not make works in the way of these sculptors, who imitated and emphasized, in many of his objects, an anachronistic materiality, related to artisan traditions traceable in the colonial past of America and the Caribbean. Where Elso, Aguilera or Torres Llorca appealed to reproduce the rust and patina (not by pretending to be less effective) of the old, and thus evoked the weight of history, to insist on continuity between yesterday and today, and provide a dramatic vision of the present (of its present), Fernández cuts and separates segments of the historical continuum, and in fact interrupts it. He abstracts these segments, presents them with an uncertain scale, on enigmatic backgrounds that suggest the architectural as invisible presence. He leaves in the hands of others (or of time) the evidence of artisanal invoicing, and opts for a frank manipulation, for a meticulous construction of the image, as a way towards the definitive representation. Camera in hand, it goes directly to the past -which, in fact, is also a today, it is its now-, and there it captures, rescues, that precise image that redeems these artifacts, worthy of a record, of a place in the archive. If these images exalt any mysticism, or if they lead the spectators to the evocation of religious feelings, this would, in my opinion, be a secondary consequence, a collateral feeling derived, at least in part, from the encounter in the gallery between the subjectivities of the audience and the artist. A result, above all, of the way in which Adrian manipulates the technical elements (light, colour, frame, scale…) typical of his form of expression, to imbue these figures with a theatricality without doubt effective.

 

The links with the history of art appear in a different and perhaps more promising way in this set of photographs. I think about the historical relations between photography and sculpture, and the role played by the former in the knowledge, study and understanding of the latter, especially from the traditional academic perspective. It is not by taste that it has been affirmed that “[i]n the history of sculpture, photography acts as a mode of critical intervention” 7. Trained himself in Cuban academies, and familiar with the history of Western art, Adrián seems to incorporate, in his recent work, some of the essential notions (dark backgrounds; the dosage and softness of contrasts; the primary focus on light to create a sense of intimacy, capturing the volumes and, at the same time, accentuating drama) established by the pioneers in the field of sculpture photography-Adolphe Braun, Edward J. Moore, and Clarence Kennedy, among them-from the nineteenth century onwards.

 

With “The threshold…”, Adrián invites us to simultaneously consider the particularities of these two forms of artistic expression, and some of the specific ways in which they interact. The exhibition is conceived on the basis of a dialogue, although it would be said that, in this alleged conversation, photographs have the final say, because of their capacity to define sculpture – by acting, so to speak, as “representations of representations” 8.

 

If photography is the gesture that stops time, in order to create a fixed image of what is represented, the sculpture -with its traditional affinity for the lasting: stone, bronze, wood- aspires to exist in an eternal time, and accepts with naturalness the aging, even shows it with pride, in exchange for access to a life that does not depend on the instant and that, on the contrary, is measured in decades, if not centuries. Not for pleasure, in front of these images, we admire the footprints of blows and falls, traces of accidents, discoloration and surface breakage. These marks define the sculptural object as something living, changing: bodies and faces suffered, injured. And, since they are religious figures, for many of us sacred, we are moved by their fragility: it is difficult not to see them as moderately fallen angels, victims of an erosion not only physical – they have come to less, forgotten; perhaps expiating some unnamed guilt.

 

Stopping on the obvious traces of wear and tear and the passage of time, Adrian makes it easier for the symbols of the supernatural to become familiar, endearingly human. He succeeds, too, when he paints the back of the figures. That viewpoint, by dodging the familiarity of the frontal perspective, shows the characters in a posture that brings them closer together and makes them vulnerable. This, in turn, allows us to appreciate these objects-the sacred and the ritual they embody-with an unprecedented degree of intimacy. In this way, the figures have been lightened to some extent from their solemnity. Humanization is a key result of the way these photographs represent sculptures. In this sense, I find extraordinary the portraits of worn, decaying faces. In his glass or wooden eyes, and in the unfathomable melancholy of his painted and torn faces, I think I see an image that perfectly illustrates Berger’s beautiful idea of visibility:”The eye he receives. But also the eye that intercepts “9.

 

Vancouver, January 2018

 

 

Notes

 

1 Mary Bergstein,”Lonely Aphrodites: On the Documentary Photography of Sculpture”, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 74. No. 3 (September 1992): 475.

 

2 John Berger,”Usos de la fotografía”, in Mirar (Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 2001): 59.

 

3 John Berger, op. cit. 2001:58.

 

4 John Berger, op. cit. 2001:59.

 

5 Eliseo Diego,”Versiones”, in Obra poética (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2003): 155.

 

6 José Lezama Lima,”La imagen histórica”, in La cantidad encantizada (Havana: Ediciones Unión, 1970): 57.

 

7 Mary Bergstein, op. cit. cit, (1992): 475.

 

8 Mary Bergstein, op. cit. cit, (1992): 475.

 

9 John Berger,”Sobre la visibilidad”, in El sentido de la vista (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2006): 238.