Carnival of Dreams
There is a very old and oft-repeated saying in the history of photography: A portrait always represents the struggle between the photographer and the sitter. A kind, or not, polite, or not, combat mediated by the camera, in which the artist’s eye and the model’s ego try to impose on the other what each of them wants to reveal. From Nadar to Richard Avedon or Humberto Rivas, many portraitists made this dictum a central part of their work, regardless of who won those “wars.”
But there is another tradition, one that goes back perhaps to the pictures of Lewis Carroll, one that sees the art of portrait-making more as a playful adventure. It’s a game that employs both actors in the staging of a different reality, as if they were mounting and blocking, in a more collaborative effort, a theatrical play: A performance that involves disguises, loads of makeup and a lot of confidence.
This is the approach that Gaby Messina took with her work Lima, Kilómetro 100, now being exhibited at gallery Elsi del Río. For two years, she traveled every week to Lima –- not Peru’s capital city but rather a small rural town by the same name that hosts the biggest nuclear power plants in Argentina — to make portraits of its inhabitants. “Lima” is a portrayal of a place that seems much farther away than indicated by those mere hundred kilometers that separate it from the city of Buenos Aires.
The photographs employ a sort of proto-surrealist humor. The characters are depicted within a stylized milieu that mixes fake solemnity with nervy sexuality and all of it in Technicolor. Much like in a masked ball, the presence of the camera allows these people to become someone else, to dress-up as something they normally do not pretend to be, to act as if they did not care. All of the prejudices are left aside, or more accurately perhaps, are fully displayed, as if to exorcise a curse.
A middle-aged red-haired woman in a white swimsuit with a deep cleavage rides a fake camel made of packing tape; a formally dressed couple sit in a living room-turned-henhouse in a kind of solemn wedding ceremony for chickens; two hyper-sexualized girls share their bodies, their makeup and their chewing gum in front of an auto shop; a half-naked man with bunny ears offers condolences to a younger shirtless guy in an empty bar; two women in a curious kidnapper-meets-hostage game defiantly look into the camera. These are all just possible readings of the ambiguous images that Messina and her Lima crew have created.
The photographs manage to appear at the same time both familiar and foreign, funny and serious. They show a world blended from the fantasies and the realities of the inhabitants of the town. People that dared to, as if they were participating in a carnivalesque parade, not just wear, but also to embody their masks. They dared to be an other.
Perhaps what they want to say is that “I” is always an other, a projection, a performance that’s never quite real.
Text by Ariel Authier
Photos © Gaby Messina
Lima, Kilómetro 100
Through October 15th