|Dalice, 2006 (still image), dvd video, 4'3'' (endless loop) in 2 monitors facing each other|
Dalice by Brazilian artist Célio Braga is a portrait. A beautiful portrait of a middle-aged woman. A close-up against a white background that leaves no opportunity for distraction. Just a face. The portrait classically believed to be the genre that requires our presupposition of the reality of the sitter and his or her identity to the image. Gadamer called that relation of image to reality the ‘occasion’. And to be sure, the woman we see does exist in reality, and there was an ‘occasion’. There are two of these portraits, two identical videos positioned opposite each other, so that the viewer must stand between them. Stand, not sit. They are on eye-level, on dark grey pedestals. One wonders why this video is presented as an installation, rather than as a simple one-screen film.
I contend that the installed videos produce an architecture of a qualified, in a sense disenchanted intimacy that enables an ethical engagement with the migratory ‘otherness within’ contemporary culture. This argument will move through three theoretical motives that converge in the face: The architecture, or, in terms of theatricality, setting of the installation works and by extension, the exhibition as a whole; the inevitable mirroring that insinuates itself when one moves through space with multiple videos screens; and the specific sense of space that emerges from the combination of these motives.
With a hand-held camera Célio Braga has filmed his mother’s face, in her own home. He filmed her during the long minutes he observed her inward-turned grief, her loneliness while engrosses in the task of absorbing the horror of her daughter’s death. The moment of mourning was, we could say with Gadamer, the ‘occasion’. The son witnesses his mother’s grief, is grieving himself, we can assume, and yet, all he can do is film that silent face, himself invisible. The hand holding the camera is visually holding his mother.
Of this portrait itself, it can be said that it is gripping, moving, and utterly simple. The woman is impressive, beautiful, but clearly, neither shot nor shown for those features. The only barely visible feature that distinguishes it from countless other portraits is the slight movement, inevitable in hand-held camera-work. This movement, once the viewer is standing there, concentrating on that face because there is nothing else to see – it is slight, slow, and a-centered. While facing itself – looking someone in the face – is centralizing, the movement, the movement in this video is visible exactly at the edges of the face.
Dalice as it is to be installed, raises many questions: of the portrait, medium, the face, and the possibility of empathy, of intimacy. It raises these with urgency, because the bare facts alone would easily bring up an unease related voyeurism. This, in turn, is connected to the issue of ‘documentarism’. The portrait made by a camera is undeniably “occasioned”, but how important for this work is that sense of documentary that this concept implies. The actuality of the occasion could barely be more convincing, dramatic: a mother grieving, one week after. But strangely, there seems to be a tension between these two reality factors. The portrait is less a portrait of this woman, Dalice, than of the emotion that weights her down. And this is where the specificity of video comes in. The near-stillness of the image ask what a video portrait is, as distinct from a photograph. The slight movement of the face that seems to be the only difference between these two mediums of portraiture – eyes blinking, turning upwards – has a companion in the slight movement of the image caused by the hand that holds the camera.
The hand, reduced to its bare essentials through the medium, caresses the face-as-image. When the face moves on its own, the image presenting the face moves. Small, barely visible, secondary movements are the inevitable consequence of hand-held shooting. This produces this double movement and through it, powerfully states the poetics of video intimacy. It asks if it is possible to read the face, to see grief? It asks if it is possible to empathize with an unknown woman across the gap, first, of her aloneness, second, of her son’s absence due to his migration, conflated here with death (the death of the other child); and third, across the gap of our belatedness, our incapability to make contact. Can we see that this face is one of mourning, or do we need to have this intimate knowledge?
This is where, for Dalice, the installation aspect specifically comes in. The viewer is forced to stand between the two monitors, the two pedestals that are body-size. Only then one can face Dalice in the first sense, and witness how she faces her loss. But while facing the woman is enforced on those who wish to see this work, so is turning one’s back to her. It is impossible to face her without, uncomfortably, also realizing that she is behind you, looking at your back turned to her, as if sending you away from the intimacy of her home. This double position is doubly moving, then, in the emotional sense of the affect of viewing. It is important to realize that at no time the viewer is trapped. The distance is enough to look away and walk away. But once you decide, freely, to look Dalice in the face, you have to face that you must by necessity also turn your back on her.
The silence of the work adds to this double affect. Especially since the background noise of other works is as audible as street noise would be once the door of the house is closed. The small space is both inside and outside. The viewer-visitor is both admitted as a guest and not asked to stay. Dalice invites you in, and sends you away; she invites the intimacy of the encounter and stipulates the ineluctable strangeness that remains. Due to this installation – as distinct from a single-screen showing – the woman figure is empowered, the face given agency, and the viewer’s voyeurism held at bay.
… a fragment from Mieke Bal ‘Double Movement’.
The work by Célio Braga, Dalice, goes deeper into this notion of untranslatability, in this case, untranslatability of pain. His work shows the face of the artist’s mother after having lost her child, forever in this case. We see a silent, impenetrable face. There is an expressionless grimace, which -while revealing nothing- says everything. It is the expression of a loss. But, above all, it is the unstranslatability of one’s pain to others. According to David Le Breton, one of the characteristics of physical pain and psychological suffering is their impossibility to be communicated: pain is a failure of language as it ‘causes cries, groans, moans, tears or silences, in other words, a breakdown of words and thoughts’ (1999:35). The face in Dalice, offers silence as a screen that expels the subject, which frustrates his intention of understanding the other. There is something in the woman’s suffering which we are sure is there but to which we have no full access; an emptiness that we cannot fill, a blind spot that breaks any plenitude we could try to find.
At stake in the way the work is displayed is also the question of ‘inhabiting distance’: two monitors face each other at eye-level, and between them there is a distance where the viewer stands. The two monitors show the same image, an denaturalized image: a familiar-yet-strange image (unheimlich, or ‘uncanny’ in the Freudian sense). Between these two images, in which the same face is repeated, a kind of ‘paradoxical space of condensation’ is created, inhabited by a viewer who is constantly looked at by eyes in the monitor, which, however, do not seem to be paying attention to anything outside themselves, they are immersed in their pain. In this place the audience feels uneasy, restless, mobilized and thrown inside the whirlpool of the image, between two times which never actually happen, which are always arriving and which never really begin. We might have to think of the space between those faces, that literal interface, as the paradigm of a migratory dwelling, the paradigm of a double movement: the perpetual raft.
… a fragment from Miguel A. Hernández-Navarno ‘Little Resistances. Contradictions of Mobility’