On a visit to Iran in the summer of 2009, the Berlin-based artist Setareh Shahbazi stumbled upon a vast trove of forgotten family photographs. Trips to the countryside, elaborate games of dress-up, passport mugshots – they were all there. She hadn’t seen these images in years and, in many cases, couldn’t really remember them or their contents. Scanning each photograph, she played with them – overlapping disparate forms, adjusting colour palettes, cropping in and out, messing around with composition. The net effect of these experiments was the cultivation of an almost hallucinatory air, a collision of faces, times, textures and shapes.
Late last year, a series drawn from these experiments, entitled ‘Spectral Days’ (2012), was shown at the newly opened Gypsum Gallery in Cairo. In two cosy rooms, some 40 works were simply hung – frameless and using office clips – and arranged in a motley patchwork of formats and sizes. From afar, the works assumed a slightly weathered air, as if they had been laid out to rest in the desert, accumulating sandy sediment and absorbing contact with other people, other places, other times. Often, their constituent parts – for these images are mostly born of encounters with other images – form an indiscernible tangle: faces lie over faces, eyes are cut out, backgrounds are occluded and images hold within their bounds an exploding piñata of warm, even psychedelic, colour. One work composed of two overlapping photographs results in the disappearance of the features of someone’s face; another yields a phantom nose. Each possessed of a unique aura, the assembled works seem to hover halfway between lived experience and conjecture, documentary and fiction – tracing, you might say, the mysterious manner in which memory works. (Did that really happen? Did I imagine you there? Were you there? What was I doing? I must be mixing things up.)
Stepping back, the series represents a shift for Shahbazi, who is best known for her precise, computer-generated images in Marvel Comics-inflected pastel shades that sit somewhere between the aesthetic of Pop art that of a child’s colouring book. Those works, often inspired by archival images, evoke the frame as a stage – a place of hugely unlikely encounters. And so, a lush jungle might mingle with a Corbusian housing complex, or a lion might roam around the Giza pyramids alongside an oversized naked baby. That particular image universe is a sea of moving parts, each infinitely interchangeable with the click of a mouse. While ‘Spectral Days’ also produces unlikely encounters, Shahbazi has moved away from using other people’s archives as source material (in the past she has been known to dip into the Beirut-based Arab Image Foundation’s archive, for example) and toward drawing on her own. Having jettisoned the personal for years – possibly because it seemed sappy or nakedly strategic in an identity politics-fuelled art world – she has come to mine it for the show at Gypsum. This is welcome and serves the work well.
The new work, it should be said, is different in another important way: the artist has let go of the photograph as a sacred form. For fetishists of the archive with a capital A, Shahbazi has committed the gravest of sins, estranging these ‘originals’ from their roots by hurling them into other, distant places. In this way, the works assembled here may be more akin to painting than to photography – marked by a painterly freedom, painting’s imaginative possibilities, and a state of not being tethered to any discrete reality. And like paintings – as opposed to, say, pastichey collages – these compositions exist as single works, almost as if marking a moment in time. Again, the analogy to the precise moment a memory is triggered seems an apt one.
If it’s true that taking photographs ruins the workings of one’s memory, ‘Spectral Days’ seems to point to a world in which memories, in turn, leave their marks on photographs as physical traces. Could this possibly make them more true? Could the hazy enigmatic workings of the subconscious leave fingerprints – the antidote to Roland Barthes’s argument that a photograph is a ‘mad image, chafed by reality?’ In and out of focus, these images seem to be soiled by wear, light and sundry collisions and confusions. They fray, tear and wither in time – a bit like the surface of a painting that has been left too long in the sun.