all images by Luís Branco
I have been considering my collaboration with Luís Branco in the recent project “about water / sobre água” and how our work process effects the meaning of the images. This new work was carried out in a more conjoined way than in our previous work titled and exhibited in Portugal and the U.S. as “Reencontrando-a / Meeting Her Again.” The new work is more instinctually collaborative and, I think, it blurs the traditional boundaries of subject / object and observer / observed, as well as the conventional limitations of masculine / feminine viewpoints. The interworking of a conceptual artist and a documentary photographer, a foreigner and a native, has created a powerful dynamic in our work together. Here, I’ve been able to delve into other aspects of feminine space, those captured through a mirroring that singularity often voids.
We began with an open and ambiguous premise “about water / sobre água.” This determined the sites where we worked. Water offers many implied meanings – emotional, physical, spiritual, ecological, aesthetic. And there is an implicit feminine aspect of water as well. In Portuguese, water / água and earth / terra are feminine, where as air / ar and fire / fogo are masculine. Luís and I discussed the relationship of the feminine in the new work with water as well as in the previous work which was more earthbound. From the start, I have felt this connection to the feminine in the landscape (and now waterscape) of the Alentejo of Portugal and consequentially an expansion and manifestation of my own feminine identity in this work.
Water as a theme or site and the feminine body as a theme or site have natural interpenetrations. In the work from 2015, with Portuguese conceptual artist Helena Almeida as an inspiration, the older feminine body (my body) emerged from within abstract cloth installations in an almost revelatory way. I gradually became comfortable performing the feminine and revealing the aging female body (my own). In the landscape works this “older feminine” and “mythical feminine” materializes clearly, particularly in the Canyon of the Bells / Pego do Sino work of 2016. These new works “about water / sobre água” are an even more unabashed depiction of an older woman’s body (and face) in the waterscape / landscape and there is an expressed sensual quality as the female form blends with water. The images have become more personal as I allow myself to be more and more revealed in these situations.
So how did this recent work emerge and what does it mean? People have asked how we set up these photoshoots, do we have a script or a series of shots or poses in mind? In fact, the process and collaboration are very fluid (ha!). We choose a site or series of sites and we have objects and fabrics available – a chair, various fabrics, and clothing for me. In these recent images, I introduced the mirror and the frame. I had envisioned─in my imagination and in dreams─ the mirror in connection to water and my body, so when I got to Portugal in September I found a perfect oval mirror and also a wooden frame in the antique store in Evoramonte.
Working with Luís and the camera is a reciprocal process. The chair becomes a way to initially occupy a given site. The fabrics─black, white, red, transparent and opaque─reveal and extend the feminine body. The objects─the mirror, the chair, the frame─become a point of reference and reaction.
We both respond instinctualy and viscerally to a chosen site. In the water there is the possibility of immersion as well, which I did quite a bit of! The shoots are always dependent on the light. We will set up and wait for the light to be right. Luís will instruct me to move myself or the object or the fabric. I will do what he says, then begin moving and gesturing of my own accord, improvisationally. He takes ALOT of shots, framing in different ways – there is a ritual of mirroring and echoing in this process.
We discussed this idea of “echo” at the beginning of this project. In Gaston Bachelard’s version of the story of “Echo and Narcissus,” the story, traditionally told as a morality tale of vanity and self-love, is turned around and expanded. Bachelard speaks of a “cosmic narcissim,” where there is an identification of the self in the reflection or echo of the other that is not a separation but a fusion, an echo of the self in the other.
This gets into the whole philosophic question in my work and in our work together of who is the subject and who is the object. In traditional terms, a “subject” is an observer and an “object” is a thing observed. Although I find it difficult to articulate, I am extremely interested in this question of self and other, of subject and object as presented in Continental and Buddhist philosophy, as well as in feminist theory. Simply put, in sexist and art historical terms, women have been the “thing” observed, the “object,” while the male artist is the “subject” or observer. I propose that, in our work together, although I am one of the things being observed and Luis, with his camera is the observer, our collaborative process turns this subject / object relationship into a process of mirroring and echoing or a fusion of subject and object.
I have been re-reading parts of Gaston Bachelard’s Water and Dreams. Here is a quote from the introduction:
“Water is truly the transitory element. It is the essential, ontological metamorphosis between fire and earth. A being dedicated to water is a being in flux. He dies every minute: something of his substance is constantly falling away. Daily death is not fire’s exuberant form of death, piercing heaven with it’s arrows: daily death is the death of water. Water always flows, always falls, always ends in horizontal death. We shall see that for the materializing imagination, death associated with water is more dream-like than death associated with earth: the pain of water is infinite.” – Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams, pg 6
I see this implication of death in many of the images. This was not a conscious decision, but I think it transpired because of the echo of the water…
The work at Santa Susana has an eerie and magical beauty that is very conscientious of the dearth or death of water. This reservoir is usually full and the Roman bridge covered by water. This last year, because of the extreme heat and draught in the Alentejo (and most of Southern Europe and many other places as well), the reservoir was almost completely dry and the bridge exposed. There are many good images from this site but in the images below the mirror seems to frame the infinite as the frame mirrors the finite.
There are more than 2000 images to cull and sort through. We hope to eventually produce this body of work “about water / sobre água” as an exhibit in both Portugal and the U.S.