Alexandra Germàn : clouds as doors to the unutterable

Galerìa Patricia Conde, Mexico

Photography has a long and glorious tradition in Mexico, which is unsurprising given the particular relationship which this culture entertains with reality; given a context where reality somehow finds extensions in realms of experience which seem to belong elsewhere, in fantasy, among the dead, in quasi-magical patterns of behaviour, in odd combinations. Reality being more flexible, so to speak, this entrance door to reality which is photography often uses unexpected encounters and metaphors to penetrate its object.

Mexico was also home to a history of talented women photographers, which extends from Natalia Baguedano who opened her studio as early as 1898 to Tina Modotti who, although Italian, is a major figure of Mexican art, from Flor Garduño to Graciela Iturbide, from Cristina Kahlo to Teresa Margolles, to name but a few.  Among them, a young artist by the name of Alexandra Germàn specializes in clouds, and her work has produced some very powerful images.

We are not talking here of a mere observation of interesting cloudscapes, as so many have been shot including by thousands of air-travellers. The classic cloudscape is an attitude of the artist waiting for the image to form, and to reveal itself in a configuration which could not be expected ex ante, but which the artist recognizes – as if meeting some previously unknown person – as one providing a certain aesthetic pleasure, a support for the wanderings of the mind, or the vehicle through which feelings may be conveyed, depending on the shapes and colours of the clouds, such as threat, peace, or elation. Thanks to their infinite variety, clouds and cloud formations can easily engender, manifest or reveal moods, inner states of ours; there are no two identical cloudscapes, as there are no two identical feelings because each person, in the context of her own life, experiments her consciousness differently at any given moment. The cloudscape acts as a mirror of a “soul-scape”.

But precisely because of this, what each individual projects on any given cloudscape will differ, and the abundance of such images will easily nurture a sentiment of banality and repetition when there is no meeting of the cloud and soul, so to speak.

Another feature of clouds is texture. Each category of clouds has its own dynamic, its own universe of potential forms, its own perceived texture, and its own meteorological meaning.

In more than one sense, the clouds could be perceived as metaphors of photography itself: revealing a state of mind which direct observation will perhaps not convey as clearly, and doing so by cutting out a fragment of sky, with a texture of clouds and an instant of natural light which all reflect the concepts of frame, texture and lighting found in photography.

The pioneering cloudscapes of Alfred Stieglitz (1864 – 1946) were never quite matched, because most of what could be inferred from such an art experiment seems to be already there. His series Equivalents has been read by some as a modernist intent which transforms a “natural sign” into an “unnatural sign, into the cultural language” of modernism, in the words of Rosalind Krauss (Stieglitz/Equivalents, 1979), thus exposing the chasm between representation and referent in order to focus on the inner structure of the form and its equivalence with – as the title of the work suggests – other aspects of the world, not its representation of any particular reality or idea.  

Another interpretation insists on the transcendental idealism of the work, a reflection of what Stieglitz himself called “God in some form or other” (quoted in Jay Bochner, An American Lens: Scenes from Alfred Stieglitz’s New York Secession, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2005).  Andy Grundberg is an example of this approach when he states, in a New York Time review of the 1983 retrospective of Stieglitz’s work, that “The Equivalents remain photography’s most radical demonstration of faith in the existence of a reality beyond that offered by the world of appearances… they express a desire to leave behind the physical world, a desire symbolized by the visual absence of horizon and scale clues within the frame”.   

The question may be clarified by considering the equivalences proposed by Emerson in The Transcendentalist (1834), an essay where he discusses the relevance of clouds and skies as an image to help address the two opposing attitudes of materialism and idealism when asking the question “what am I?”: he suggest an equivalence between self and sky and thought and clouds, and he crafts the concept of the transcendentalism which seems to mean an unmediated taking in of the world, of its elements, of its forces thanks to an attitude of radical openness and receptivity, thus echoing to a certain extent Stieglitz’s own insistence of the patience and chance required to obtain the desired image. A way to address the co-mingling of the ego, the emotions, and the impersonal universe in which they take place. Stieglitz himself viewed the Equivalents as “the beginning of photography as expression”.

When Emerson writes that “every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact” (Nature, 1836), he expresses the idea of a continuity between the worlds of the visible and the invisible, the observable and the perceptible, a rejection of some radical dualism. The clouds are not some abstractions crossing the sky of consciousness, but could perhaps be read as the permanently mutating experience of the “I” throughout its life experience, until it dissolves through death into some wider state.

Constant-Alexandre Famin

As a mere observation, we would point out that Constant-Alexandre Famin, a French photographer who worked mostly between 1860 and 1880, had approached the photography of trees in a manner not unlike others have of clouds, a point which might perhaps deserve closer examination.  Each group of trees is akin to a different psychological state of the observer, each isolated tree is treated as a portrait.

Alexandra Germàn opens a new perspective, without repeating in any manner the seminal work of Stieglitz. She extracts the cloud from the sky, and compels it to an immutable, chosen configuration which seems the very negation of the idea of an unpredictable stream of shapes and states of mind, of coalescing and vanishing experiences, that clouds have hitherto conveyed. The artist manufactures cotton clouds which are then set on a scene, as if they were characters perhaps, and these clouds which we can obviously see as non-clouds emanate a physical, quasi-hypnotic presence which they otherwise would not have, up there in the skies.

The Miracle of the Snow,
Masolino da Panicale

The spiritual dimension of a space devoid of any reference, of the idea of a beyond which pervades any image of natural clouds, as so magnificently exemplified by the Miracle of the Snow (1428 – 1432) by Masolino da Panicale, where clouds separate the world of the Creation from the world of the Creator, the spiritual dimension of an absence which calls for a presence, is both discarded by the manifest construction of the cloud image, and secretly evoked by the odd presence of a symbol of the above or of the inside, set within the Cartesian orthogonal spatial system provided by the angle of a closed room, or hanging over some recognizable objects.     

Let us remember the title of one of the most famous guides to contemplation in the European tradition, the Cloud of Unknowyng, written in English – probably by a Carthusian monk – in the 14th century. The book is written in the tradition of Christian Neoplatonism and in opposition to the then-dominant scholastic theology, and represents an attempt to provide a glimpse of a mystical path separate from the mere conquests of intellectual effort (“And if ever thou shalt come to this cloud and dwell and work therein as I bid thee, thou must, as this cloud of unknowing is above thee, betwixt thee and thy God, right so put a cloud of forgetting beneath thee, betwixt thee and all the creatures that ever be made” (Chapter 5)… “And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge”).

The artifice is not hidden: the ropes which maintain the cotton clouds suspended above the floor are perfectly visible. These are stage-clouds, if you will, which would naturally belong to the machinery of a theatre as was much in favour in the 17th or 18th centuries; however, they do introduce into the cartesian setting which represents in our culture the real world, in the sense of the one which follows the laws of physics, an odd and worrying presence, a form of intrusion from some other place. This exogenous element seems domesticated: it is tied, immobile, tamed. Or is it ? It modifies the light as it brings in all these shades of grey, even perhaps of pale yellows; it appears to contradict, or to question the established rule, the “rule of the square”, that of calculation and certainty. What is the Cartesian orthogonal spatial system if not, precisely, the tool which allows to model the world, to bend it to the laws of rationality, to penetrate its inner workings, to experience it with the mind, to submit it to the Number and therefore to be able to act upon it and force reality to obey our will ? The way in which we transpose the actual world into a ordered universe through the tool of the linear perspective also contribute to our organizing the world in accordance with an abstract geometry which allows for its visual transformation: enlargement, positioning of objects, deformation, projection over the plane, hierarchy of visible objects…

Le Faux Miroir

The cloud is a disruptive element : nothing in it is orthogonal (let us remember that the right angle was always a symbol of rationality), nothing seems to be permanent, nothing offered to a form of capture by the mathematical tools of reason. It is a part of the above – the “spiritual” – or of the inside – the unconscious ? – or of the unpredictable – chance – which reflects in any case the unfathomable which brings discomfort into our world-view. We already find this use of the cloud as a sign of strangeness, oddity or unknowable in a large number of paintings by Magritte, in particular when clouds fill in the body of the figure, or in the drawing of the Nuage à l’intérieur, for instance. And the Faux Miroir (1928) picturing clouds on the eye’s iris is not without some implicit reference to the eyes as “mirrors of the soul”: the soul-scape directly expressed as a cloudscape… The indication “le Faux Miroir” (the false mirror) could both mean, in typical Magrittan way, that the eye is not a mirror of what it sees but of what it expresses, or that the mirror of the soul is itself an illusion, the mirror of an inscrutable inner world.

Some more recent work by Alexandra Germàn consist in constructing fantasy worlds which are again designated as fantasy by the presence of clouds which separate the imaginary from the real, not unlike the painting by Masolino. Here the cloud is not the sign of the unfathomable, it supports or hangs over a scene which is itself out of the universe of rational possibilities. The cloud acts as a border, or the sign of a border, between a beneath and a beyond which do not need to be of spiritual nature, but has a deep-rooted psychological significance.

The artist seems to be saying that the unknowable is always present at the heart of rational thought or of experimental observation; there remains hidden a beyond which makes us want to go forward, to discover.

In another series, Alexandra Germàn has photographed and grouped together the upper part of a number of paintings, the part of the sky precisely. This reveals of course the infinite variety of the skies in the history of painting, precisely because of the clouds: if all skies were blue, of the same blue which a perfectly cloudless day would allow us to see, there would be no difference to be noticed other perhaps than the time of the day. And each one of these skies does contribute a certain mood to the painting, a certain tonality.

A very recent work by the Brazilian artist Laura Lima, made out of tulle and cotton strings, provides a comparable impression when seen from afar, set against the corner of two white walls: a floating cloud descended among us. Similar, but certainly not identical as the materiality of a three-dimensional tulle “sculpture” imposes a presence which varies from angle to angle, and from light to light; but at the same time, the eeriness of the photography has disappeared: here is an object which pleases without intriguing. The hypnotic effect of the photography is not felt in the same manner, or with the same force, despite – or perhaps because of – the physical presence of the tulle cloud. A distance is needed for the hypnotic effect to manifest itself.

In the work of Alexandra Germàn, clouds seem visible doors to un-narrated, yet unexperienced, perhaps unutterable worlds. She does not say which worlds, not does she show any particular path; she merely hints at the doors. And metaphorically, at the doors of what may be perceived or felt beyond, or by means of, the visual object which the photographer captures.    

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