Linda Fregni Nagler
Galleria Monica De Cardenas, Milan, Italy
To speak of the disappearance of the subject when reflecting on the state of photography and its relationship to reality could appear to be a contradiction in terms – especially with regard to images from the early days of the medium. In Linda Fregni Nagler’s investigations into photography and the cognitive automatisms that dictate how we perceive the world, the disappearance of reality is explored in works that operate on the boundaries between illusion, the mise-en-scène and Duchampian notions of presence and absence.
In Photographies 1985–1998 (2000) Jean Baudrillard observes: ‘For illusion is not the opposite of reality, but another more subtle reality which enwraps the former kind in the sign of its disappearance.’ The photographic illusion of reality hides another truth: the photographed object does not endure but is able to conceal itself, to ‘disappear’. The visibility of the world – which photography imparts through the spatial–temporal alienation of a fragment of life – betrays its discontinuity, its fragmentation, its artificial temporality. The visible withdraws into invisibility.
Fregni Nagler analyzes the linguistic and anthropological implications of this process. The subjects of her work are anonymous 19th- and early 20th-century amateur or commercial photographs, typically of Japanese or American origin, which she collects in great quantities. The Italian artist’s interest in these images lies in their lack of authorship and their readymade quality, as well as their historical and cultural significance. Ferrotypes, magic lanterns and albumen prints are commonly collected and accumulated and classified according to genre, date, geographical region or, on occasion, other arbitrary criteria. In Fregni Nagler’s case, however, this passion for archiving is focused more on Michel Foucault’s notion of an archaeology of the present – the image of the past reflecting what is to become of the future.
Through a faithful reconstruction of these early photographs, the artist uncovers the archaeology of an era while revealing temporal and aesthetic discrepancies. Confronted with a new vision of the past, the viewer is invited to observe not only the accumulation of time but also the effects that photography has on our awareness of being.
This is a trope that, as emphasized by the title of the exhibition – ‘Shashin no Shashin’ (Japanese for ‘Photography of Photography’) – unites the world’s illusory elements under the banner of their disappearance. Fregni Nagler presented around 20 black and white images of subjects frequently found in Japanese photography of the Meiji period (1868–1912), such as scenes of daily life or representations of Eastern myths and legends. Series including ‘Snow and Rain’ (2009–11), ‘Whispering in Parlor’ (2010) and ‘Life on the Ocean Wave…’ (2010) reference the celebrated works of the so-called ‘Yokohama Shashin’ (Yokohama Photographers), in which the expression of the female is limited to cameos in artificial tableaux vivants.
Fregni Negler doesn’t omit any detail from her painstaking reconstructions. From the furniture and painted backdrops to the costumes, hairstyles and even the perspectives of the original images, everything is reproduced meticulously so as to reveal what the picture is hiding such as the stereotypes that feed our preconceptions of exotic oriental imagery. Emphasis is given to minor details, which are the only real trace of individual creativity in images obliged to conform to a convention.
In a number of images, however, Fregni Nagler has taken the liberty of introducing some variations on the theme, with minimal deviations that invoke new layers of meaning. Such is the case with The Yokohama Photographer (2011) two versions of which are included here: one at the start of the exhibition and one at the end. The first is a precise reproduction of the original while the second is an autobiographical work in which the artist substitutes herself for the protagonist (Self Portrait as Yokohama Photographer, 2011).
The value of the photographic readymade is contemplated in the final work in the show, which was a performance Things that Death Cannot Destroy (2011), which the artist presented on two successive evenings. The work re-creates apparatus of the magic lantern, in the form of a live projection of photographic material dating from the period 1870–1920, accompanied by a commentary. Devised as a two-screen installation of slides projected onto original magic lanterns, the performance offered a continuous stream of images from a bygone era. Fregni Nagler imparted a new lease of life into the photographs through this iconographic free-association and through the reading out of the image captions – dates, places, copyrights or even just the photographer’s personal observations – by a female voice. This dual presentation of photographic image and script (in a practice located between scientific narration and theatrical representation, shown in a ‘non-gallery’ context) created a historical counter-narrative that was suspended somewhere between an anthropology lecture, an interpretation of historical documents and a surreal narrative of the past.
Translated by Rosalind Furness
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