Exhibition by Adrián Fernández. Gallery Servando Cabrera, 23 street corner to street 10, Vedado. January-March of 2018
The most perceptive writers - Benjamin, Barthes, Sontag, Berger, among others - have approached, from multiple perspectives, what one author accurately defines as the "insoluble paradoxes about time and photography"1 . It seems obligatory that reflections on photography always stop, sooner or later, at the complex relationship between this artistic medium and time. The photographic image - fruit of the analogical or product of the digital; manipulated in the frame, in the exposure of the negative, in the developing, or in the torrents of bits that flow between the microscopic quartz of the computers -, destined to capture and isolate an instant, to separate a segment of history, inexorably attempts against the passing of time, by fixing it. A fixity that is equivalent to remembering, to instilling in memory: "What is remembered has been saved from nothing. What is forgotten has been abandoned"2.
In Uses of Photography, John Berger insists on memory as "an act of redemption," while asking himself, in a rhetorical way: "Has the culture of capitalism assimilated God with photography?"3 Behind the camera, according to him, the photographer's gaze becomes the eye of God: a "supernatural eye" that "sees all events instantly. An eye that approves of remembering and punishes with oblivion. Although on the other hand, in Versiones, the poet Elíseo Diego maintained that even those who have been portrayed, if forgotten, have died: "Death is that friend who appears in family photographs, discreetly to one side, and whom no one ever managed to recognize.
Adrian Fernandez, in his varied work - and, at this point, remarkable for its extension and depth - exercises that redemptive power to which Berger referred, with the attention to detail and coherence that we would expect from the best historian. Gathered in groups or series, sometimes concatenated and complementary, their images speak of an interest in recording and documenting epochs. A record of the historical, consolidated, above all, in the material culture, in the universe of the artificial and the constructed. Until today, a characteristic of his work consists in illuminating, capturing the inanimate. If Diego himself, in another of his famous poems, set out to "name things", we could say that Adrian, for his part, has immersed himself in portraying them. Without proposing a meticulous inventory, I can mention examples of those entities, of that matter - "fragments" on which "the image is pulverized"6 - on which he has focused his lens, in the course of the last decade: the architecture of houses, preferably Havana, observed from the outside, and then explored in their interior details. Furniture and decorative objects that embody the genuinely sumptuary, or simply imitate it. The props tinsel and the shining attraction of the props (textiles, plastics, plaster, brass...), in the cabaret wardrobe. His vision concentrates on details of the costume made for the scene, and is completed with portraits of the dancers - men and women - who cover their bodies with the weight of these hallucinatory designs, and thus literally sustain the show. The manipulation of light, colour and tones underlines a continuum of sensuality, a hedonism of surface that goes back and forth from the materials deployed in the suits, to the skin of the models and to the bodies dressed for the show. These bodies, without being precisely inanimate, are undoubtedly metamorphosed, and appreciated (at least temporarily) as objects.
In addition to this incomplete inventory, there are also his photographs of printed materials, and in particular his approach to scenes reproduced in postage stamps (published in Cuba during the final decades of the twentieth century), which he magnifies and expands to the mural format. The enlarged surfaces of the seals clearly reveal the technological devices and mechanical framework called upon to manufacture these vignettes. Technology, of course, is a mark of time: an indelible date stamped on the printed object. And the exaggerated enlargement brings to the fore the aesthetic and ideological characteristics of the stamps - true archives of the historical moment in which they were created - and highlights the artifice condition of the images: exaggeration, in this case, is a resource for digging beneath the surface, and an essential tool for analysis.
With The Threshold of Uncertainty, Adrian continues the gradual expansion of the space occupied by his work, which, for now, maintains its center in the creation of photographic images. In this space, notions of the history of art, architecture and design converge and enrich each other; particularities of photography as a "portrait of objects" - a path that can sometimes be associated with the commercial world of advertising and the presentation of a product to the market; and a precise, highly capable technical deployment that informs the conception, creation, printing and installation of images.
As for the history of art, it is worth mentioning, even if it is in passing, that these photographs induce us to remember a very important area of Cuban art of the 80's and 90's, the one in which the representation of historical events and characters were fused with popular religious traditions, especially with the Christian iconography and the Catholicism of Cuba and Latin America. The sculptures portrayed by Adrian (and how much he survives from his aura, in the photographs) conserve some of the rustic force and sincerity, tinged with romanticism, characteristics of key works of those decades, such as Juan Francisco Elso's Por América (1986), and Alejandro Aguilera's Playitas and the Granma (1988). Features that multiplied in the work of other artists, through several years and different generations: from Rubén Torres Llorca and Ricardo Rodríguez Brey, to Luis Gómez and Carlos Estévez.
The link between the photographic work of Adrian Fernandez and areas of work of the artists mentioned, although verifiable, may not go beyond the superficial. In the first place, Adrian does not make works in the manner of these sculptors, who imitated and emphasized, in many of their objects, an anachronistic materiality, related to artisan traditions traceable in the colonial past of America and the Caribbean. Where Elso, Aguilera or Torres Llorca appealed to reproduce the rust and patina (not for pretending, less effective) of the ancient, and thus evoked the weight of history, to insist on continuity between yesterday and today, and provide a dramatic vision of the present (of its present), Fernandez cuts and separates segments of the historical continuum, and in fact interrupts it. He abstracts these segments, presents them with an uncertain scale, on enigmatic backgrounds that suggest the architectural as an invisible presence. He leaves in the hands of others (or of time) the evidences of artisan workmanship, and opts for a frank manipulation, for a meticulous construction of the image, as a way towards the definitive representation. Camera in hand, it goes directly to the past - which, in fact, is also a today, is its now - and there it captures, rescues, that precise image that redeems these artifacts, deserving of a registration, of a place in the archive. If these images exalt any mysticism, or if they lead viewers to the evocation of religious feelings, this would be, in my opinion, a secondary consequence, a collateral feeling derived, at least in part, from the encounter in the gallery between the subjectivities of the public and the artist. A result, above all, of the way in which Adrian manipulates the technical elements (light, colour, framing, scale...) proper to his form of expression, in order to imbue these figures with a theatricality without effective doubts.
The links with the history of art appear in another way, perhaps more promising, in this set of photographs. I am thinking of the historical relations between photography and sculpture, and of the role played by the former in the knowledge, study and understanding of the latter, especially from the traditional academic perspective. Not for nothing has it been stated that "in the history of sculpture, photography acts as a mode of critical intervention"7 . Trained himself in Cuban academies, and familiar with the history of Western art, Adrian seems to incorporate, in his recent work, some of the essential notions (dark backgrounds; the dosage and softness of contrasts; the primordial attention to light to create a sense of intimacy, capture volumes and, at the same time, accentuate drama) established by the pioneers in the field of sculpture photography - Adolphe Braun, Edward J. Moore, and Clarence Kennedy, among them from the nineteenth century onwards.
With The Threshold... Adrian invites us to consider, simultaneously, the particularities of these two forms of artistic expression, and some of the specific ways in which they interact. The exhibition is conceived from a dialogue, although it would be said that, in this presumed conversation, the photographs have the last word, for their capacity to define sculpture - to act, so to speak, as "representations of representations"8.
If photography is the gesture that stops time, to create a fixed image of what is represented, sculpture - with its traditional affinity for the lasting: stone, bronze, wood - aspires to exist in an eternal time, and naturally accepts ageing, even showing it with pride, in exchange for access to a life that does not depend on the instant and that, on the contrary, is measured in decades, if not in centuries. Not for the sake of it, before these images, we admire the traces of blows and falls, the traces of accidents, the discoloration and the breakage of the surfaces. These marks define the sculptural object as something alive, changing: bodies and faces suffered, hurt. And, since they are religious figures, for many sacred women, we are moved by their fragility: it is difficult not to see them as moderately fallen angels, victims of not only physical erosion -come at least, forgotten; perhaps expiating some unmentionable guilt.
By pausing on the evident traces of wear and tear and the passage of time, Adrian facilitates that the symbols of the supernatural become familiar, endearingly human. He achieves this, too, when he portrays the reverse, the back of the figures. That point of view, by dodging the familiarity of the frontal perspective, shows the characters in a posture that brings them closer and makes them vulnerable. This, in turn, allows us to appreciate these objects - the sacred and the ritual that they embody - with an unprecedented degree of intimacy. In this way, the figures have been lightened, to some extent, from their solemnity. Humanization is a key result of the way these photographs represent the sculptures. In this sense, I find the portraits of worn, eaten faces extraordinary. In their glass or wooden eyes, and in the unfathomable melancholy of their repainted and torn faces, I believe I see an image that perfectly illustrates Berger's beautiful idea of visibility: "The eye that receives. But also the intercepting eye"9
1 Mary Bergstein, Lonely Aphrodites: On the Documentary Photography of Sculpture, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 74. No. 3 (septiembre 1992): 475.
2 John Berger, Usos de la fotografía, in Mirar (Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 2001): 59.
3 John Berger, op. cit. (2001): 58.
4 Ibid: 59
5 Eliseo Diego, Versiones, in Obra poética (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2003): 155.
6 José Lezama Lima. La imagen histórica, in La cantidad hechizada (La Habana: Ediciones Unión, 1970): 57.
7 Mary Bergstein, op. cit. (1992): 475.
9 John Berger, On Visibility, in The Sense of Sight (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2006): 238.