Fallen Leaves by Guadalupe Gaona
She looks again. Nowhere to be found—to her amazement or terror—are the beautiful buildings constructed with huge concrete Legos, the paved streets with geometric forms scattered between walls and roofs or the lines mankind utilizes to make architecture that functions as guide and organizing force for our gaze, telling us where to walk, where to sleep, where to eat and where we should relate to one another. None of that; now, everywhere she turns, there is a thing called «nature».
For two months Alejandra Urresti lived in Suomenlinna, an island in a far-off country: Finland. With her large format camera in tow, she photographed the surrounding landscape. The large format conditioned her way of looking: «There are things that, if it weren’t for the time it takes to set up the camera, I wouldn’t have been able to see» she explained to me. As we know, images are not the simple result of a subjective point of view, but of a complex tension between the eye that looks and the photographic device. The large format camera played a part in how she saw the island landscape, and brought her body into play (the camera is heavy and unwieldy). Just the same, Alejandra went walking about the island, photographing with her body, and the time for looking was different. But, what photos can someone who has only photographed space, architecture and the city take smack in the middle of nature? There she was, surrounded by trees, grass and water. And although the landscape was like a continuation of the island houses’ yards, for Urresti nature never seems all that domesticated; neither there nor in her own house, where the plants grow at times just because and at others, just as simply die. The only time that Alejandra attempted to contemplate a non-urban landscape it was on a milk carton. In «Larga vida» (2003), she appropriated a series of bucolic landscapes, images that secretly inhabit supermarket shelves, to then bring them into the art gallery
Beginning with her first project, «Refugios» (2000), a series of black and white photographs of empty spaces that emerged from a trip to Chicago and New York, her reflections have always been focused on space. The time she spent studying in the Architecture department [at the Universidad de Buenos Aires] was not in vain; she continued to be interested in architecture, from the most outlandish to the most banal of its manifestations. The point of departure for her itinerary was photographing large buildings such as libraries, museums and auditoriums in «Refugios», moving on to «Interama», a project on the Parque de la Ciudad, completely empty and shot with a Lomo camera, shown in 2003 in the photo gallery of the [Centro Cultural R.] Rojas. From there she went on to «Escenografías», a series of photos of sets used for cable TV shows, where she portrayed those disposable architectures, fictional spaces designed for a short shelf-life. It was the first time she decided to use a large-format camera, in order to obtain obsessively meticulous, frontal, symmetrical images of the highest quality—inversely proportional to the objects photographed—in an attempt to rescue the maquettes from their submission to a certain cheap television logic (no less attractive for Urresti). The 160 x 120 cm prints show the sets with clarity and precision, turning them into aesthetic objects in their own right.
Empty spaces have been a constant in her work, spaces that defy their own common sense in the absence of human figures. The framing is also consistent, with frontal images organized according to the pre-existing lines that organize space. What changes between the first series and the last is the move from black and white to color. This change inclines more toward the perception that the images are the result of an objective gaze, more neutral and more clinical, as if they had emanated from the structure of the objects themselves. Lastly, the use of the large format camera is a decision that winds up delimiting Urresti’s work within that zone of contemporary photography where it dialogues with that of students of the German duo Bern and Hilla Becher: Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff, among others. In The Photograph as Contemporary Art, these photographers are grouped within one same style, which Charlotte Cotton calls deadpan, in reference to an impassible aesthetic that results in clear images—clarity heightened even further by large scale prints—that reflect a degree of emotional impartiality in the gaze. The deadpan style moves the photos beyond the terrain of hyperbole, sentiment and subjectivity. The emphasis is placed on photography as a way of seeing apart from the limitations of individual perspective.
Without having to force a coincidence between all the particular forces at play in Urresti’s photography—which pertains to this side of the world, and as such, does not share the same social, political or artistic context—and that of the photographers previously cited, it is possible to speak of them as «references» (blessed references, since it is always so soothing to find one). In the end, Alejandra’s work can be considered along these aesthetic lines.
«Finlandia» brought Urresti face to face with nature, and, grazing a romantic manner of contemplation, she went from one end of the island to the other with her large format camera, asking herself, how do you take pictures of this?
The response is close to the typical images of autumn found on jigsaw puzzles: houses, or to be more precise, homes, surrounded by yellow and red trees, or grassy hills that still conserve the green of summer. She surely saw all this, but her gaze went on further and came to a halt beforehand. The images are not those perfect paintings that landscapes can offer, upon which the gaze concludes after having roved about as the most harmonious point on which to rest the eyes. It is prior to or following that point, a lateral point of view that provokes imbalance. There is a degree of discomfort that allows us to view the beauty for less time. There is some small error or another in the composition that recalls the crop of a snapshot taken with a pocket camera, and it is something that Alejandra consciously sought, looking for long periods of time using the large format camera. Alejandra went around several times without leaving the island and looked at the landscape, set up her camera and composed strange images; she settled on the exact point where things showed themselves to the same extent that they didn’t allow themselves to be seen. Naturally, the conclusion is not the antique Polaroid between nature and civilization, city versus country. Returning to nature—or going there for the first time—has not liberated us from anything. Roads cut through the images like traps for the eye, blind alleys that cut them in half. The photos have too much ground, almost the same proportion as the sky. The trees, rocks and houses are poorly positioned, they are pieces of that lovely jigsaw puzzle but now they disturb, they do not let us assemble the landscape, the dream home in which we would all like to live. Instead, the images are sad pieces that confirm the impossibility of happiness: there we are, in the place to be in order to be happy but we are unhappy just the same. Nevertheless, faced with this panorama, so new to this fanatic of geometry, her gaze unraveled, softened around the edges and let emotion seep into the territory of the image. As a result, it isn’t only about the simple passage of someone who used to photograph the city and its architecture and now photographs this shapeless terrain. Urresti could no longer go on seeing with a clear, clinical eye. It may be the slightly lateral point of view or the small error that makes everything more confusing, leading the eye to a far less defined disappearing point.
At the same time, the photos are impeccable, precious and beautiful. The somewhat darkened colors are soft and conserve detail even in the shadow areas. And yes, they are solitary landscapes. Urresti, alone, looked at them for a long time, in the same way that the viewer is now obliged to look at them. This is because there is no excess; and in spite of the fact that the quality of the format allows for a large print—two meters is a standard measure for prints made from negatives from this camera—Alejandra preferred—and on this point she goes against the grain regarding those named as her photographic references—to make copies 50 x 60 cm., so that the link with the viewer would come as close as possible to what she herself experienced. This size obliges the viewer to come close to the image and also, to look at it by him or herself, with no distractions. There is no sense of the gigantic, no landscapes that cover the wall in such a spectacular way that they completely envelop the viewer along with their friends, wineglasses in hand, within the image. «Finlandia» is a tour for one passenger only.
For this we have «Tu vida no es una película» (Your Life is Not a Movie), a projection that replicates the gaze of the tourist in chronological order. It goes back to the old ritual of sitting in a group to look at slides, which in many cases was a celebration but in as just as many others plunged us into endless boredom. It is similar to when a family would return from a trip to Europe and hook us into a long sequence of pictures of places we’ve never been and people who mean nothing to us. I’m not talking about those images in which we would at least see our loved ones holding a beer, smiling for the camera, but those that attempted to capture the place in all its totality, boring landscapes accompanied by the gesture of a hand pointing something out that is lost to view along with phrases such as «Ah, there behind that hill is where our hotel was», «That’s the ferry that we would take every day» or «This is the first day it snowed».
Alejandra’s attentive eye sought to assemble a chronology of light, always obliquely grazing that country so far to the North, as it moves from autumn to winter, and as a result to capture changes in the climate and modifications to the landscape that was green at first and then turned yellow. Just like an album cover, this projection is an homage to photography. The noise of the projector as it changes from one image to the next finally shows us the same landscape, completely covered in snow.
Following «Finlandia», if we go back and look at Urresti’s photographs, from the cable TV show sets to «Interama» to the empty cities, something similar to what Pascal said happens to us: «Since true nature has been lost, everything can be nature».