Liliana Porter The Square (1973)
During the time Liliana Porter collaborated with Luis Camnitzer they coined the phrase “arte boludo”, which translates as “dumbass art”. She said the following about it: “You pick things that mean nothing (which we know is impossible) and opt for the least mysterious elements in the world, even though in fact they end up being mysterious. Look for the most neutral, least expressive things: a little hook, a shadow, a tiny thread” (Porter in ‘An Argentine in New York: Identity Experiences’, in Katzenstein 2013). The term boludo is tongue-in-cheek, and self-deprecating. Porter uses comedy in much of her work, particularly in the miniatures. Camnitzer wrote in 2006 “‘the principal quality of a good arte boludo is the non-emission – or, at least, the minimum emission – of information. The work must have an undeniable presence, even aggressive at times, but it should not say anything” and that it “requires a formalist instinct that will help do away with the form; a conceptualism void of concept; and the skilled craftsmanship to self-erase to a carefully defined minimum” (Luis Camnitzer, ‘Hacía una Teoría del Arte Boludo’, Ramona, no.58, March 2006, p.74.)
The Square (1973) is a photo-etching, and the choice of that medium seems very deliberate. I had to look up the process. Photo-etching is a normal negative image that is then etched onto a metal plate. From the plate multiple copies of the image can be made using a printing press. This for me seems to speak specifically of breaking the chain of light that can be imagined in the normal production of a photograph. In a normal negative/positive print light hits an object (in this case, hand, paper, ink square), and is bounced then focussed through a lens onto light-sensitive film, making a negative through chemical interaction. Then in the darkroom, light is again passed through this negative, making an image chemically on light-sensitive paper. For me there is a consistency to this process, that imbues the final image with a kind of direct proximity to the original object, through the touch of light. It requires an element of self-delusion, but one that we all seem to do subconsciously – it’s what makes a traditional print feel “more real”, than say, a digital photograph. With Porter’s approach, a wall is placed between this transmission of light, the metal plate. For me this wall is Porters intervention in this mystical quality of the photograph. She has in essence removed the one thing that made it feel “more real”, emphasising it’s now mechanical representation. This fulfils the requirement of a “formalist instinct that will help do away with the form”. She has used form, to annihilate what is unique about the form.
By placing her hand in the frame Porter has also declared herself in the image. This again is demystifying in action. This is not an object that has come about in an almost alchemic way, but is the output of an artist’s hand, literally. Then we come to the squares themselves. We know that she cannot have drawn them with the hand shown, her other hand must have been involved. This then refers us out of the frame, both physically and temporarily. In doing so she brings into the experience of the image both the world beyond it, and time beyond it. No longer a magical moment in time then, these further formal decisions have again in effect taken away what is unique about “photography”. This is then inherently anti-formalist in stance.
Porter herself has stated her interest in what lies between the object, the representation, and the mind. I find this work starts to allow me into this space, this breaks the wall between the maker, and the object, unifying them and yet isolating them at the same time, this allows me to consider the square on many levels. The square physically overlaps the page and the hand of the artist. It must have been made – or performed perhaps – in order to have manifest, and as such takes us into the concept of the making of the object, both referencing the maker who is mainly outside of the frame, and the moments before the image was taken, both of which expand into infinite space and time with nothing to hold them there. We have escaped the representation. Further she then annihilates the magic of the medium by adopting a photo-etching process. The work is in series, with the square migrating around her hand, ending up fully drawn in her hand. It is narrative but tells no real story, only the story of a representation.
It is refreshing to still be able to find such layered concepts in what appears at first to be simple work. It is ultimately the most satisfying kind of work for me, not least because the square so fascinates me; I have 3 of them permanently tattooed on my arm.