Introduction by Serge Fauchereau
Our everyday lives are surrounded, hemmed in, enclosed and imprisoned from morning to night by photographic images that shape even our dreams – this mouthwatering food product, that fashionable garment, this moving scene soliciting our help against poverty, this still from the latest must-see blockbuster, a flattering portrait of some celebrity or politician – clichés, clichés, clichés. And newspapers: scenes of catastrophe or war, the face of a criminal or footballer – clichés and more clichés. We look, we are interested for a moment, but we know it’s all about selling us a product, that the film will be inane and that by next month we will have forgotten the name of this hour’s hot prospect. As for the photos of war, poverty or disaster, they are only cold pieces of information; ultimately, we are not much moved. It’s just one or two images more.
One cannot blame a technique if the handsome portrait taken at the most opportune moment, clear and judiciously framed, turns out to be banal in reality, and even unpleasant when movement is added. The sanctified faces of Rimbaud, of Che Guevara, of Marilyn Monroe – clichés, clichés. They can be retouched at will. With only a few technical manipulations I can be turned into a magnificent, appealing figure of a man with handsome black eyes.
Just as easel painting is a cousin of house painting, so art photography is akin to the photography of posters and newspapers – and sometimes stems directly from it. Like painting, photography is accessible to all. Nowadays, a Charnay would no longer need to lug along sixty kilos of equipment to photograph the temples in Yucatan. Today, the thousands of tourists who travel there with small cameras weighing just a few grams can take dozens of photographs per minute, so much so that they forget to actually look at the temples. Have television, cinema and industrial photography taught them to look more perceptively through a small rectangular window?
Those who make photography an art know all this and, with even greater ease than painters, they play with formats, cropping, enlargement of details, blurring, overprinting, solarisation and who knows what else. Even when mediocre, and whether it shows a face or an abandoned hangar, a photograph measuring three metres by four has impact by virtue of its size, especially if it is artfully displayed. And if sensitive paper is still the most common support, we know now that every other kind is possible. An isolated detail, whether a pigeon’s eye or fireman’s helmet, focuses the attention and makes that detail intriguing and perhaps fascinating. Even amateurs know this, but the more widely accessible a technique, the greater one’s merit in doing something unique with it.
Surrounded by all these clichés, we should be grateful to those who free us from them and wash our eyes of an everyday reality that we could experience without so many photographs. I love those who show reality in another way (Blossfeldt, Weston, Alvarez Bravo), those who see behind the real (Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, Ubac), those who deconstruct photos (Heartfield, Klucis, Lissitzky), and even those who play skilfully on our feelings (Capa, Dorothea Lange, Doisneau)… And if we wish to look beyond this heritage, well, there are also some very fine photographers around today. One such is Gabriela Morawetz.
While she retains the option of various techniques, the best possible modes of presentation (why go without if one feels the need to use one or the other?), we can see that Gabriela Morawetz is wary of certain methods used in contemporary photography. She does not seek to impress by ostentatious means such as large formats or light boxes, or with alluring colours. Not for her constructivist framings that impose a monumental feel on the subject. When her photographs are brought together in an installation, it is done in a conventional way, like old- fashioned photos on a grandmother’s mantelpiece, with lots of small frames and, behind them, a tall photograph, like a big mirror, or like an altar to one’s dearest loved ones and memories. The colour is as sparing as the staging is simple. Gabriela Morawetz is so little concerned to impress with format that she has taken to using those small portable diptychs that can be slipped into one’s pocket. But the discretion of the presentation should not be thought to indicate that the process is easy.
With Gabriela Morawetz, the subject is frontal: by that I mean that it stands there in front of us, whether a face, a sleeper, a copse, rumpled linen or an unidentified object. It changes only if we ourselves change position: features then become distorted, smoke shifts.
Ordinary photography, even if printed on a T-shirt or a car, has only two dimensions, and that does not satisfy this artist who wants it to have at least three. To obtain depth, she has those altar-like installations already mentioned, but also those convex double images from which we seem to be watched us as if through a porthole or a bull’s eye. Other, more complex objects comprise superimposed prints on two layers kept slightly apart from each other, producing effects of filtered light in which the subject seems to move slightly.
Morawetz likes to endow the objects she creates with a fragile appearance or aspect, which in fact is perfectly imaginary, for fragility is inherent in many art objects, and the risk of scratching, breaking or deterioration is no greater here than with painting, collage or some other conventional work.
Unlike works that aim for immediacy of emotion – the weird figures photographed by Diane Arbus, the monsters staged by J.P. Witkin –, Morawetz’s photographs have a slower, more subtle and lasting effect on the beholder. There is nothing remarkable about these women and men, apart from their greater or lesser nudity as sleepers wrapped in their dreams. We have already noted that the objects are extremely banal: a bed, branches, glass bubbles, a shoemaker’s lasts, string – all everyday things that appear in dreams. Thanks to the multiple processes to which she subjects the photographs that come together in a given composition, Morawetz seems to be trying to capture the aura of the banal.
About the people who appear in the photographs, we know nothing. There is no sign to suggest anything about their social life, their milieu, their job, or their aspirations. The place is neutral, the period indeterminate. These are sleepers in their beds and in their dreams. They are lying stretched out peacefully or in a foetal position in a bare environment, or, if more tormented, rubbing their faces, writhing, getting tangled up in their sheets or sleepwalking and escaping in their dreams.
As to what they are dreaming about, all we get to know are isolated elements whose reason for being there is left to our imagination: stones, trees, bits of string and the bed itself, which for some inexplicable reason fills up with transparent bubbles or starts emitting smoke. Nothing very spectacular, quite unlike the oneiric world of the Surrealists which is often too far out of the ordinary to be truly disturbing (giraffes on fire, women’s bodies with drawers, soft watches by Salvador Dalí, become clichés once we are over the surprise).
In this instance what more readily come to mind are the photographic documents in the old books by Camille Flammarion or amateur spiritualists and devotees of other occult manifestations, showing the levitation of the sleeping medium, or the materialisation of magnetic fluids or the dead, all of which are « proved » by photographs of some astral body or of the face of some distant ancestor imprinted in plaster. With Morawetz we do effectively see smoke and light manifesting an unknown something, uncertain objects, and the shape of a human head cast in a pillow. For me this is not about magic or transcendence but the world of our dreams, with its own images and a logic that is incomprehensible to the waking mind. We hide our faces, rub our eyes and look out through our fingers. Too late – we’re not asleep any more, we’re not flying any more, we’re no longer clambering up transparent bubbles, there are no more trees in front of us, no more unexpected objects at the foot of the bed.
People often talk in their dreams. Some sleepers speak and cry out, and not necessarily in fear, and they do so particularly in the world of Gabriela Morawetz, which is disturbing but not nightmarish. On waking there remain snatches of words spoken or heard or confused memories of blurred discourses. This is exactly what the artist brings us with these texts that appear, are seen through or disappear in these photographic works. One would like to believe that these written words, these palimpsests of dream, hold the meaning of what we can see. We attempt to decipher them, and out of the seeming hubbub we pick out the words secrets, sleep, instinct, pleasure, repeated several times over, and the connection and the analogies are self-evident where sleepers are concerned, but other words also come up, which have nothing to do with dreams : properties, heritage, vehicles, trial. Most disorienting. In fact, these passages are taken from a book found by the artist. Not any old book, mind you, but a manual of judicial astrology, and not from the Middle Ages but from the twentieth century. Magical thinking and rationality come together as they do in dreams : a precious pretext for an artist.
What I am suggesting here is only one approach. There are others. I am thinking in particular of the « sense of theatre » evoked by Juan Manuel Bonet on the occasion of Morawetz’s last exhibition. We may recall here that this artist comes from Krakow, the city that witnessed the work of Witkiewicz, Kantor and Hasior, three explorers of man’s dark, complex and strange inner theatre.
One could imagine a monodrama with a bed and a single actor in the middle of the stage. Michaux’s
Monsieur Plume would turn around and note that the ants have eaten a wall and Beckett’s Winnie would sink
a little deeper into the bedding as the recalled those happy days. It is, if you wish, a theatre,but you must
devise the plot, for this is a long way from a public theatre which, like cinema or video, needs the time
dimension, that is to say, an already-made story and the illusion of life in motion.
Whereas Morawetz’s works are moments of suspension, frozen moments of an action about which we know nothing more, eminently plastic scenes, rich with multiple, veiled meanings. The play is not simple, but it is up to us to act.
Author: Born in 1939, in Rochefort-sur-Mer. After serving as professor of American Literature at the New York University and the University of Texas, Austin, became the commissioner of international exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. He later served at such institutions as the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, the Kunsthalle in Bonn, the Tate Modern, Madrid’s Reina Sofía, and carried out an exhibition of Mexican art at the Museo de arte Moderno de Lille. He has published extensively on such modern artists as Georges Braque, Jean Art, and Piet Mondrian.
© Copyright Serge Fauchereau, shall not be reproduced in any form without permission.