Ask anyone for a record of the past 14 years of their life and it’s likely to be a photographic one, whether in video, album or on Facebook. Either still or moving, the images will document the personal memories of all that is broadly near and dear to them in time, space and identity.
But make that request of arts photographers and they are more likely to display their work as the best representation of who they are and how they have occupied that said time and space. Though the imagery may not be as immediately personal, the portraits, landscapes and narratives will be memorable for their individual expression.
Yet, if that photographer is a conceptual artist, their body of work, however a matter of personal expression, is more an exercise in how one records, computes and contextualizes something as elusive as a memory. And does so in an aesthetic one can enjoy and relate to.
Such is the case with Exiles: Resonance Boxes Revealing the Obsession of Searching, the current show of the Moving Gallery which features Mexican artist Mariana Gruener. Exiles, which continues through April 23 at the Garden of the Zodiac in the Old Market Passageway, includes 20 imaginative, yet non-descript black-and-white and color photos and five delicately crafted artist books. What at first appear to be photo journals or stories illustrating her personal history of her studies, teaching and travels over the past 14 years, the books illustrate Gruener’s connection to her world less directly and more poetically and emotionally.
In no particular chronological order, the five books are displayed on pedestals with their own limelight and a certain number of their images enlarged behind them on the walls. Viewers are encouraged to use the set of white cotton gloves at each setting as they open pages giving their perusal a solemnity and ritual as if examining rare specimens or forensic evidence.
Literally, the viewer will see in “Pininos,” images that capture car travel Gruener made from Mexico to New York. “Ciudad Satelite” traces site-specific memories in a childhood home made significant by the passage of time and its change of ownership. In “The Self-Exile,” which perhaps most references the exhibit’s title and purpose, the artist reveals her obsessive search for meaning in places she has lived for brief periods of time.
“The Deluge” concerns itself with a loss of time that is real and symbolic by virtue of flood damage in an old bookstore. Finally, “Dear Selma” reveals a more personal story through visual residue of tragic events from her extended family’s past.
Exile’s curator, artist Humberto Chavez, joint academic director of Mexico’s National Center for the Arts, describes these books as “resonance boxes” whose meaning is less about content and more about what they signify. This mix of documentation and creative interpretation is consistent with the photographic interests of both artist and her curator.
Gruener, who lives and works in Mexico City, was educated there in journalism and later in photography and alternative media at New York’s School of the Visual Arts. Currently she teaches photography and the interdisciplinary arts in several universities and cultural institutions in Mexico. Chavez, who shares and has nurtured Gruener’s interest in conceptual art, has successfully collaborated with the Moving Gallery, most recently in Sorcery, prints from the graphic studio “La Parota” in Colima, Mexico. His own work was featured in the iconic 2006 installation Tiempo Muerto at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.
The title Exiles is apt because by isolating herself from the objects in her images and then recording them in her narratives, Gruener is able to experience them in a complex, overlapping manner. First, in the obsessive search itself and the inevitable discovery of her raw material for each book; second in the photographic record as images reveal themselves to her and her lens; and last in the editing of her imagery and their recreation in said “resonance boxes.”
By distancing herself from her material as an artist, she is able to revisit and relive her “past” in multiples ways, not only for their memory but for her subjective, expressive interpretation. Her “photo albums” recall not only her role as the player/watcher of her life but as the recorder/artist as well. With this understanding, anyone’s life experience could be this rich and rewarding, rather than fleeting moments in space and time or barely remembered, let alone understood.
Chavez refers to Gruener’s boxes as an “autonomic experience” whose images belong “at the same time to (many) other books…the end of a never ending story.” As to their meanings, each book reveals only fragmentary information that is best appreciated for her aesthetic and understood by its visual motifs which offer the viewer both individual identification and interpretation. In short, one can experience each image as involuntarily as Gruener but connect to it in an individual way. For example, one can view her landscapes with their faraway horizons with the same spontaneous searching eye and sense of longing but relate quite differently to each.
The larger sets of photos are but a poetic microcosm of each book, each within its own tone and POV. The photos surrounding “Ciudad Satelite” are formal, dignified and nuanced in their shades and textures of gray. Images of doors, doorstops, doorbells and even the elusive “Sombras” leave as much of a lingering impression on one’s memory as they do on the frayed rugs and wall coverings they impact and embrace. The mood is almost elegiac.
Images surrounding the books “The Deluge (Another way to burn oneself alive)” are as fleeting and incomplete as one’s memories. “Goya,” a pixilated Madonna, the Grand Guignol-like “Moba,” a fading nude female half torso and “Libra Parado,” a curvaceous woodblock of black-and-white that used to be a book, all represent the aftermath of time and circumstance and have been re-imagined.
Other photos are lighter in mood and reflect a sense of longing or fantasy along journey’s way especially in support of the short migrations documented in her book “The Self-Exile.” These include the humorous diversion of “Cows with Bells” or a toilet superimposed over a car. More telling are her series of backlit images that silhouette her only figures, especially a little girl in deep shadow walking to or away from a deeply inviting lake, perhaps the most auto-bio, subconscious image in this exhibit.
Overall, Gruener’s imagery are like found objects that resonate less for themselves and more as they are repurposed in her books. Not unlike the way we process time, place and events less for their accuracy and more for their memories within an acquired context. It’s the difference between an ordinary photo album and a truly resonant “box.”
Exiles continues through April 23 at the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery, 1042 Howard St. in the Old Market Passageway.