sara angelucci: flawed memories

the perfect past: Sara Angelucci
September 15 – October 14, 2000

a response to the exhibition by Lisa Gabrielle Mark


Where memory enacts light, a presence of impossible convergence…

– Erin Mouré ¹

Sara Angelucci makes bad photographs. The large-scale, single and multi-exposure images of outdoor scenes that constitute her most recent body of work, collectively titled The Perfect Past, read as textbook examples of what not to do. She uses a mass-produced toy camera held together with duct tape, and at times it is nearly impossible to make out what has been photographed for all the blurring, light leaks and bleeding that occur. Some of the images even have numbers in them, the result of light seeping in through the back of the camera. (Oops!) Furthermore, as if to flaunt her shoddy technique, she often shoots from the window of a moving vehicle as she travels around. One might well ask: “Does she know what she’s doing?!”

The answer of course is yes. Like anything, technical skill in photography is gained by mastering its pitfalls; however, artists rejecting established ideas of “quality” continue to redefine the medium. Photographers such as Angelucci and Uta Barth make images that self-consciously pursue an aesthetic outside what is generally deemed “good” photography. They allow the accidents of the medium – blurring, under/over exposure, etc. – to become an integral part of the picture. In this way, they edge photography closer to painting despite its history of trying to distinguish itself from painting by emphasizing its own uniqueness. They remind us as well that the preoccupation with light is by no means the exclusive domain of photographers. Artists from Vermeer and Monet to Dan Flavin have concerned themselves with the pictorial and phenomenological possibilities of light. Angelucci comes to photography via painting, drawing and art history; and though she may be aware of the imperative of making a “good” photograph, she is evidently less invested in mastery than in memory. Her criteria is conceptual. Title notwithstanding, there is nothing perfect about the images in The Perfect Past. If anything, they are self-consciously anti-perfect, courting photographic error. But Angelucci’s new body of work is not remarkable simply because she’s rejected the rules of the game (we all know this can become its own status-quo). Her technical failures become mediating elements, reminders that we are looking at photographic representations. They insist that we acknowledge the contingencies inherent in meaning made by way of looking. As viewers, we are caught: half-expecting the erotic dance of seduction and the suspension of disbelief that is photography’s stock-in-trade, we are instead offered images that effectively say, “I may be a cheaply manufactured illusion, but I’m all you’ve got.”

For Angelucci, memory is a cheap, plastic camera. In the mind’s eye, people, places and things of the past are so blurred and obscured as to be something different altogether. Eidetic images bear as slight a resemblance to reality as anything taken by Angelucci’s toy camera; however, she acknowledges this not in order to reject what memory might offer, but to regard it realistically. Flawed as they may be, sometimes memories are all we’ve got.

Angelucci understands what it means to have only memories with which to contend. The child of Italian immigrants who as an adult has lived in various Canadian cities, she extends the enterprise of making a place for herself as part of her art. In conversation she admits a fascination with “being nowhere and trying to figure out where that is.” The hackneyed phrase that is often used to describe this nowhere state is “living in the moment” – coincidentally, an apt metaphor for the daily practice of photography. Her photographs, then, are an agglomeration of lived moments, hundreds if not thousands of exposures from which a few will eventually be selected for enlargement, printing and public presentation. Considered in the context of her life’s experiences, Angelucci’s photographic imperfections become visual tropes for relocation, and the sense of dislocation that accompanies it, rather than mere stylistic conceits. For example, Triple Sea might on first glance look like a blurry panorama but it is in fact a succession of images shot from inside a boat. The full frontal perspective of each frame indicates that the photographer herself has moved in the time/space between frames ­ as opposed to a panorama in which, traditionally, the photographer remains in one place and pivots.

All of the images in The Perfect Past were taken while the photographer was in transit. Many were taken on her travels across Canada and some specifically suggest that Angelucci was physically moving when she tripped the shutter. In particular, three images, Train Window (Window Sill), Train Window (Tree) and Train Window (Cloud), make no secret of their source. Instead of the picture-perfect postcard view of the destination, what we get is the everyday experience of sitting and looking out as the world passes by, of waiting to arrive. From this vantage point, the space outside the train (or boat or car) seems vast and full of possibilities. At the same time it becomes the screen for an endless procession of memories. (Anyone who has gazed out the window of a plane and contemplated life’s many good-byes knows what I’m talking about.) In this way The Perfect Past represents a conflation of past and future, of flawed memories and unattainable desires.

In several works, the window becomes a framing device for Angelucci, reiterating the framing implicit in the camera’s viewfinder and contributing to the detached quality of the images. This reinforces the idea that we are looking at a filtered reality – the fact that, to quote Victor Burgin, “The photograph abstracts from, and mediates, the actual.” ² In addition, several exposures of film might end up in the photograph after it is printed. For example, Double Farm Field reads as a quasi-diptych in which the left side shows a fleeting glimpse of a roadside farmhouse, while the right side registers an expanse of field devoid of anything but vegetation; the farmhouse is gone. These two exposures, perhaps only seconds apart, are printed on the same sheet of paper with the edge of yet another exposure making a thin band on the left. In this way, Angelucci disrupts the authenticity of the single image: what is true for one instant may not be true for the next.

Although she evinces the idea of memory in her title, these are not attempts at clinging to some long-lost moment in time through the fetishization of a personally significant place. Angelucci has first-hand knowledge of the futility of such a task. Some years ago, she moved back to her hometown and discovered that nothing was as she remembered it, nor did it even resemble what she saw in her family’s Super 8 home movies. This profoundly alienating experience is one many of us have shared: searching for our ghosts only to find them gone; or if our ghosts are present, discovering that we do not recognize them.

The degree to which Angelucci has let go and relinquished control in this work is startling; some might even find it melancholic – a gesture of resignation to a vast unknown. (Again I am reminded of the immigrant’s plight in coming to the New World and having to start over in a place where nothing is familiar, not even the language.) However, Angelucci offers other visual markers to cue us to a more playful aspect of the project at hand. The edges of several of the multiple-exposure images blur into one another and the numbers from the back of the film often intervene into the work. One work in particular, Swimmers, is studded with digits, as the back of the film seems to have merged with the front in a glorious blaze of light leakage. The numbers faintly suggest an impulse to organize infinity – to distinguish an endless array of images / moments when, in reality, they bleed into one another uncontrollably. I can’t help but think of this as the wondrous folly of photography – a medium whose imperfections suit Sara Angelucci perfectly.

Notes

1 from Erin Mouré, “The Visible Spectrum,” in Sheepish Beauty, Civilian Love (Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1992), p. 37.
2 Victor Burgin, Thinking Photography (London: Macmillan Education Ltd., 1990), p. 61.

Lisa Gabrielle Mark is a Canadian writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. She has written for numerous publications including C magazine (where she was an associate editor from 1995-2000), Artforum, Canadian Art, Poliester, and Border Crossings. Her exhibition Wildlife: a field guide to the post-natural opened at the Museum for Textiles in 2000 and is currently on a cross-Canada tour.