Chiaroscuro, Passion, Gestures

Chiaroscuro, Passion, Gestures
Notes on the work of Graça Sarsfield and the exhibition entitled “Mystery”

1. “At that time
He would mark the latitude of the stars
By lining up marbles
On the lawn

He didn’t know that poetry
Is so tumultuous
That it can rock
The order of the universe
I now believe.”

In “A infância de Herberto Hélder”
by José Tolentino Mendonça

“Six times more wealth has been created since World War II than in all of previous recorded history”
–    Hiromo Hosoya and Mark Schaefer, Bran Zobe, in Project on the City 2, p. 156, (Taschen)

We are living in an age of excesses, an often deadly imbalance in the psychological landscape of global, contemporary human society, A sense of disfunctionality prevails, there is something finite in the mythologies that we continue to create in the present and in the mythologies that are the result of various centuries of recording memories in our acts of creation and thoughts. This situation of an abysmal excess of information is viewed as an unlimited source of infinite possibilities, for the way in which we live, perceive and visualise the world, or even artistic creation itself. One experiences a vertical pressure that comes very close to being a universe of science fiction, which can be compared to riding up a dizzying roller coaster, where we are surrounded by images of inhospitable landscapes, paradoxes, where development and under-development co-exist side by side. However, with all our basic needs on alert, humans have never had such a bewildering array of possibilities before, of so many almost unlimited tools. And once all the premises that guide us from a philosophical, spiritual, social and even economic point of view have been thoroughly analysed, we can see that we have reached a point where we can no longer co-exist, as rational beings, with any conceivable kind of an absolute notion of truth… And the question is, how can one transmit via images / art and portray this admirable, infinitely complex world in which we live, this complex web of values and counter-values, this globalisation replete with new scientific and technological data that changes every day.

And in the landscape of this complex and multi-faceted world in which various civilisations interact and fight for survival and co-existence, it is important to closely examine legacies and cultures and keep in mind the need to withdraw with regard to the hubbub of the mundane world, it is important to seek out simplicity in things. Nevertheless, this global world is not necessarily an endless nightmare, as many would have us believe; it is a world that, with all its weaknesses and vicissitudes, has one great virtue: an enormous capacity for change and the respective tools at its disposal. And it is this desire that can make all the difference, if employed wisely. A form of adaptation that has, perforce, to begin with differences, with each individual and his or her willingness to make this change. This is the greatest strength of globalisation and of all forms of human expression, namely the capacity to create a visual and artistic language at the dawn of the new century. An unparalleled energy and an energy that is eager to change and shape the world that has never existed before in the history of mankind.

In this context, ancient countries, continents and civilisations like India are able to make us see, via their ancestral heritage, this call to a spiritual life, an unmatched example of this way of being that is vital in order to embrace changes. A way of being that this complex nation with an age-old history demonstrates in its vitality and determination to progress, wrapped in a patchwork quilt, which, at first glance, might seem to be perplexing and confusing but is simultaneously optimistic, passionate, dynamic and vibrant.

The images that we have of the world, sometimes almost from beyond the looking glass, this interpretation and the quest for realising the self all imply a relationship with complex social mechanisms. Graça Sarsfield works in precisely this dimension, often in the space of the intrinsic “self”. In her installation entitled “Gestures at the End of the 20th Century”, created in late 1998 (a title that is very expressive in itself and has an enormous capacity for evocations) we find images of a woman who covers her face in a dramatic gesture that, at first glance, seems to be a cry of helpless desperation. This woman dressed in black appears to the beholder as a performer, a woman who exemplifies struggle, in an intense physical act, in an image of almost paralysed movement, staging an immobile dance between darkness and light. This woman is partially a metaphor of the world described above, a metaphor for nature and human beings.

And in this woman who fights against this darkness with an invisible and inaudible scream one also finds a gesture capable of revealing what her face conceals, but with hope. In this gesture-face (to cite the phrase coined by João Pinharanda in his essay entitled “Gestos de Horror” in the catalogue Gestos no Final do Século XX, 1998), which reveals the personae “of death that clings to the body of humanity”, there is also the hope of deciding how to live and create in this voracious nature of modern times whether it is always with an epistemological fear of existence, or looking head on at what is in our eyes, creating a lucid self-analysis with due rhythm and respect for work and developing the best in oneself and doing the best one can do without paralysis. And the solution seems to be to act with an art of interpretation that is capable of gazing closely into the depths of things, the intrinsic nature of people, their sensibilities and a respect for everything that surrounds us, such as the serene images of people and fragments of things in the series of images presented in this exhibition entitled “Mystery”.

“Ever since then, the art of the spectacle has become a pure form of separation: from the moment in which the real world is transformed into an image and in which the images become real, the practical force separates from itself and presents itself as a world in itself.” – Giorgio Agamben, La communauté qui Vient

Images and the creation of the act of culture and its forms of expression in a world of images are and continue to be a fundamental gesture of human beings. The act of creation – that since time immemorial has been part of the processes inherent to civilisations, i.e. the act of creating totems – is the best way of visualising existential dynamics, even in a world that can sometimes seem akin to a mirage.

Artistic creation occupies this totemic place in our times, and photography is precisely one of the best media for its contemporary representation. In this context, photography seems to be one of the best ways of expressing the richness of people and things, with an immense capacity to measure harmony and pain, the pulsating rhythm of the world, irrespective of whether it is at a personal level or those of others. This artistic moment – photography – stands out from amongst other generalisations and readings as a moment of pure perception. It emerges as an art of intimate, invisible and extremely dedicated generosity, in an over-exposed world; an art made of gestures and the reconstitution of the moment, of the expression that materialises the sincerity of a natural representation, of man and nature, that unabashedly seeks redemption in a world that is sometimes overly global and hurtles along with an unrelenting and obsessive velocity. This is precisely the context of Graça Sarsfield’ s art. An extremely sensitive art that takes place under an open sky, with silences and, essentially, with gestures, to go by some of the suggestive titles of this artist’s solo exhibitions.


“It remains undisputed that the body occupies a key position in Western culture. For, to be precise, “the body” is comprised of a multitude of bodies and concepts of bodies which are all available in a modern society for the purpose of forming identity: a veritable assortment of all types which guide the strategies of body formation and its masquerades. At the same time, this perfecting process repeatedly entails a mystification of the body. Complex rules of codification determine the choice and its arrangement of body marking and signs; (…)” – Gabriele Brandsstetter, Remembering the Body, Gabriele Brandsstetter & Hortensia Volchers (eds.), Hatje Cantz Publishers, Ostfildern Ruit, p. 14, 2000.

On the limit of contemporary excesses, representations of the body demand a far more attentive and complex gaze in terms of artistic approaches, especially that of photography. One cannot view Western and Eastern bodies in the context of artistic creation without seeing all the multiplicities of this body that ceases to be merely a simple body to become a shell that is susceptible to various interpretations and voices. On this limit of textures of bodies in a truly global and image-obsessed world, where the legacies of diverse civilisations mingle together, contemporary creation implies a capacity for dedication to the silence of bodily gestures in the voracious vortex of noise. And this is the unparalleled gesture of creation in Graça Sarsfield’s work and in her photographic images that have a vital way of revealing themselves, which is brutally noisy. This artist has developed a visual process that is a kind of production of the act of screaming; images thus become a form of expression, a strong and exponential vehicle of communication in the excessive contemporary image of the body (the body as a world, the natural body and the human body). In this regard, see Gestos do final do Século XX, National Museum for Natural History, Lisbon (1998) or the series “Fleurs du Mal” (2000). The intensity of images, as a form of communication, in the details of portraits and gestures, of people and the nature of things. In the intensity of the elements that are expressed or the details of body expressions, or flowers, the eternal metaphors of this enigmatic expression in projects such as, for example: “À Flor da Pele” (Luís Serpa Gallery, Lisbon City Museum, Lisbon, 2001), which revealed the mystery of the eternal beauty of the fragility and timelessness of blossoms. The unabashed quest for beauty and aesthetics, as something that is inherently necessary and as a celebration of the intensity of the elements that are expressed in this collection of silent bodies, their portraits or details of flowers, in an age that is often afraid of sensorial and aesthetic expressions.

“It is quite significant that our body is inaccessible in so many ways; we cannot see our face, our back, our head – the most elegant part of our body” – we cannot lift ourselves up with our own hands, cannot embrace ourselves (…) thus it is essential that our body metamorphoses us in the moment of pure perception.” – Walter Benjamin

A representation of the perception of the body is transformed via this artistic creation, the creation of an image to be expressed by what we see, what we know, what we are familiar with, but what we never sought to record. An act that seeks to portray the image of a certain human condition, an image of the body, of inaccessible and invisible parts of bodies, that contain within them images of emotions. An image that contains a crystallisation of games between a play of light and darkness in scenarios, the staging of the theatre of life (inner and outer aspects). The metaphor of the meaning(s) of thought(s) that photographs capture for posterity, a crystallisation of the moment, of the act of the universal human figure.


“A photograph is said to capture and preserve a moment in time; an image created inside a computer resides in a place or time. Images scanned into a computer, then edited, montaged, erased, scrambled, can seem to collapse the normal barriers of past, present and future.” – Michael Rush, New Media in Late 20th Century Art, p. 8, Thames & Hudson, London 1999.

The photographic “medium” is ideally placed as one of the best forms of raising questions. The nature of photography, of the photographic language, of the materials, the preoccupation with scale, the attentive gaze, the maturing of images constructed in a laboratory all appear in Graça Sarsfield’s creations as distinct but unique forms that are transposed unto representations and interpretations of reality and the manipulation and crystallisation of time.

In the sequence of her photographs, installations and videos images function as an antechamber of micro-narratives of lives, a minimal extension of time that captures the moment. A sublime moment of subtlety, of intimacy via the captured image that reveals a mental image. Portraits as a visualisation of the crystallisation of this instant that contains time within itself. A work in which the image is transformed in this mediation of an almost timeless materialisation, where the chiaroscuro of time itself freezes for an instant.

Photography thus shows the staging of the spectacle of life, one can see the recording of plays, such as the sequence of photographs of the “Mystery” series that, with a lyrical and simultaneously dramatic expression experiences the human condition in all its vital pulsations (the outstanding portraits of vibrant figures that capture our attention) and the condition of nature. This series of images transforms itself into a discreet game of light and shadows and the antechambers of life’s vital movements, following a discreet trajectory until the end of the central image of the series with background lighting, a moment of pure visual magic.

In this work and in others, photography appears as a visualisation and encapsulation of movement, a desire for metamorphosis, the space where the body has a dual meaning: a singular and mythical identity as well as being a part of a whole, of that eternally tantalising mystery of the nature of the universe, such as in the video entitled “des(a)parecer” (2005).

All photography is a demonstration of one final quest for the Grail. This artist works with a figure (very often herself) that, by means of a discreet, invisible art, seeks to speak via the unspeakable and reveal worlds via unseen elements. Graça Sarsfield is a photographic artist, with an intimate lyricism that seeks out the “hidden flowers of the world” in instincts and everyday situations, irrespective of whether these flowers are representations of poppies or orchids, or even brinjals….

This artist develops an art of introspection, a contemplative art that captures the memory of enigmas in images, which can be faces or interfaces in the ambiguity of time. An art that is entirely made up of sensitivity, an artistic expression, where silence in the passion of gestures and dedication reigns supreme.

And in an age of inverted passions, of interactivity, where emotion is sometimes (often) transmitted, like a commercial value, the work of the artist is thus transformed into that of a regulator of passion, via his or her plastic demonstrations. In this world of a surfeit of images, the photographer has a task that is no longer that of a creator of more images, but instead that of a regulator of images; their creation has to be the interface between the “excess” of memories of images and the renovation of the image, to crystallise singularity from multiplicity, the iconic side of the image.

In this context, this photographer-artist participates in silence in the transfiguration of nightmares and proceeds to realise the metamorphosis of the invisible, in this world of existential chaos and social tensions. A method with which one can associate a meditative gaze, a contemplative side, a quest for the discovery of a gaze that seeks something that is more profound; in a singular mix of instinct and spontaneity. And from this emerges an image with poetic references, where aesthetics fuses with the sensorial side of things. An art of x-raying souls. An art of details, where light dialogues with colour in a sort of predestined harmony, the mystic side of nature and the place of human beings in it.

In the late 19th century, when photography first appeared, via his poetic art Baudelaire suggested new strategies of adaptation and struggle within modern, urban, bourgeois and neo-liberal society via the inherent and primordial force of the art. One of these forms was a capacity to gaze intently, with perspicacity and irony, at the excesses of this disparate world, for which it is necessary to adopt a sober attitude while interpreting modernity.

Thus, from the very outset, photography acquired the force of a powerful medium and rapidly became one of the greatest forms of x-raying society; a primordial art with a capacity to scrutinise people, nature, things, in short, serving as a means of venting a quest for and restitution of an identity. And it was this art that shaped the memory we have of the 20th century. A capacity that, with its inherent attitude of capturing for posterity, results in a medusa effect, a capacity to petrify, to freeze whatever it touches. An expression with an intrinsic capacity to petrify time and history itself, be it a personal or collective history. A way of showing diverse memories: spatial, social, internal and psychological facets.

The epistemological and ontological conditions of photography, which inherited the characteristics of painting and its age-old desire to recreate the real via the breath of creation and interventions in reality, are, in fact, unmatched. The vital energy of photography resides both in its mimetic value as well as its capacity to freeze a fragment of time. Some time later, cinema developed from photography and, in its turn, intersected with television and the plasticity and strength of video. And it is precisely in these dynamics, in this versatility and elasticity, that the image that this artist has developed is situated. It is an art of poiesis, more than a political art that, without ceasing to be profoundly civic and engagé, is first and foremost a discovery of unknown worlds, internal worlds, an image of interpretation.

And in a profoundly urban century such as the 20th century the space of the photographs, i.e. the city, becomes a portrait of a primordial, existential gesture on a secondary plane, a portrait of the simplicity of passion. And the photographs and portraits created by Graça Sarsfield – silver prints, large and small format prints, digital media, video installations and supports – help one to attain a profound awareness of time, an awareness that forces us to closely analyse ourselves and the world in which we live as well as the importance of the legacies of civilisations that have preceded us. A brand of photography that intensely records and mirrors the clash between culture and contemporary lifestyles, as is the case of the photographs presented here in the series entitled “Mystery”. The exhibition showcases a set of images that resulted from an external voyage, but which are best exemplified in a sublime capacity to reveal the heart of things and where the Oriental world, assumedly exotic and distant, draws closer to us and is transformed into a theory and the expression of passion in chiaroscuro. A world much like the Oriental posture, with a trace of Narcissus, which is simultaneously an image, or a fragment of an image of a flower that falls in love with its own beauty, but for whom this gesture is not egotism but is instead an attitude of modesty and obedience, representing one of the most sublime acts of distancing oneself from oneself (Luís Serpa, “Das ‘Flores do Mal’ ao ‘Mito de Narciso’”, in the catalogue Gestos no Final do Século XX, 1998).

Graça Sarsfield is one of Portugal’s finest photographers and has revealed an enormous capacity for work and artistic renovation over the years. Having been associated with various moments of photography and contemporary Portuguese art in recent decades, she is an artist who has worked with photography, judiciously accompanying the technological developments of the age, where her gaze portrays the most intimate nature of things and, principally, of human beings, with a delicate sensibility.

This artist’s oeuvre reveals a solid and sober construction of images – which could be a portrait or a representation of the body of a flower – that encapsulate in each representation the moment and the magnificence of a pictorial feat tempered with her profound feminine sensitivity. And in the images exhibited in “Mystery”, we enter enigmatically into a world that contains a bewildering array of myths and rituals. In a country such as India, which is a continent and a civilisation in itself, the exhibition presented here (via photographs that unveil a line of reasoning presented in portraits of individuals, in fragments of images, of flowers, fruits and the successive unfolding of photographic series) seeks to reveal, without revealing, a philosophy of the unutterable, of speaking without speaking, of touching without touching the world described above. Images that reveal an inherent simplicity. And in these images, the Western pathos serenely meets an Eastern, Indian karma.

In these images we are confronted with a chiaroscuro, where light dances in a chromatic performance of mediation. The sonority of the intimate soul appears in a passionate relationship, between an absence and a proximity transformed into a quest for truth that proves to be far more complex than a superficial reading would indicate and leads us to think about what one sees and the implications of the images.

In this artist’s photographs, the images oblige our gazes to linger and take them on a journey to the limits of perception. The body in an act of synaesthesia and as a vibrant archive of nature in which the human body is transformed into a living landscape that reveals its varied facets: generous, enigmatic, intriguing, magnificent, wild, delicate. Photographs with objective and subjective connotations, where the vitality of a moment is recorded for posterity, frozen in the photograph itself.


“Who could be so in such a quiet world,
Or who would have such unfettered thoughts,
Who would have tried, so discreetly,
After all, it is so beyond human understanding,
Whose feelings would be publicly or secretly,
Amazed and stirred,
Leaving one almost unsure,
Of having seen and observed disparity in the world?”

Luíz Vaz de Camões, Oitavas, to Dom António de Noronha, about disparity in the world.

In Graça Sarsfield’s work and in the diverse technical media that she has developed, ranging from photography to photographic installations and more recently to systematic experiments with video, one can find a poetic chord, a profoundly feminine quest for a dimension via which to enter the mechanisms that deviate from a classic photographic gaze to move towards the reconstitution of narratives. One can discern a quest to attain a dimension that is almost the uterus of things, a kind of exorcism, of phytomorphism (to cite Paulo Cunha e Silva). It is surprising that an artist who began with pure photography has gradually adapted new forms of developing images, of taking photography to the cutting edge of the art. And these games of transformation can be seen in works displayed in the exhibition entitled “Silences” in the sequences “Self-Portrait I-XII” of the “Fleurs du Mal” series (2000), (and here one returns to Baudelaire and his vision of society, his flanerie..). In this series, the artist photographs poppies as self-portraits and morphs into figures that contain human viruses and states of being within them, in their most absolute and terrifying forms: “Violence”, “Solitude”, “Silence” and “Melancholia”. A kind of contemporary revision of Dürer’s celebrated engravings.

More recently, in a film such as “des(a)parecer” (2005), Graça Sarsfield continued her efforts in a dimension in which photographic images, digitally reworked in 3D, were reunited around a small narrative, which gradually resulted in the creation of a contemporary and timeless fable. An earthy and mythical story and one that is at the same time invariable, going beyond time itself, with a poetic, lyrical and enigmatic richness in which one seeks an equilibrium in a mysterious, subterranean world. A work in which technology and a deft mastery of images unite perfectly, accomplishing a harmony that is cosmic, natural and para-natural but which, simultaneously, has tranquil and disturbing points of departure. A meta-being that undergoes a metamorphosis and is transformed into flower/s, poppies…perhaps a metaphor for the artist herself and her act of creation.

This is Graça Sarsfield’s art, an artistic demonstration realised with a profoundly feminine scream, a humble scream that is honest and heartfelt in the face of this voracious world, an art that reveals a capacity to affirm one’s identity and feelings via a unique image. At the same time it strives to achieve an experience of quiet redemption that clamours for liberty, equality and justice via the metaphor of images, the values of the human dimension and its intrinsic simplicity. Setting out from a method of an instinctive introspection of a personal and specific analysis and moving in the direction of a cathartic analysis of the creation of the image that reveals a general and universal expression.

An art of showing images via what is unseen, via the expressions of gazes…an art that is capable of collecting flashes of light from each age within the ruins of memory and its excesses, an expression that is capable of having a passion for the screams and songs of the world that surrounds it, be it via its lyricism, hate or irony, but always with the courage to confront the pathos of existence head on.

A creation of images that in black and white and colour portraits (do not forget the richness of her portraits) as well as in landscapes (that always contain a hint of an almost indiscernible but nonetheless intimate portrait of things, the intensity of a fusion between what one feels and what one sees) always denotes the idea of human convocation. A brand of photography that appears as a direct occurrence but an indirect discourse, in the amazement of “human understanding” that affirms itself, albeit often hermetically, always seeking to get to the heart of things. A portrait of hidden things, of the gestures that reveal their vitality in “such a quiet world”, in this “disparity” of human and natural colours and shapes.

This mystery that, via images, seeks a certain form of redemption for a world of “uncertain understanding”, a truly global world, be it in this nation, continent or civilisation or in portraits and the gesture scream of each part of nature and the passion of each human being.

Dinis Guarda
Lisbon, November 2006

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