We make to ourselves pictures of facts
Wittgenstein, Tratactus Logico-Philosophicus, §2.1
The aim of this text is to approach João Louro’s work through the idea of a critical grammar of the pictures and a stating of how that grammar implies not only a physiological conceiving of the picture, that is, the pictures are bodies and need the body, but also one which presupposes a policy. It is not a matter of a normative grammar, but of an artistic work that uses pictures as the beginnings for the exploring of human ways of embodying these pictures and through this action granting meaning to the world and to what takes place in it. It is not a matter of making this work a theoretical statement about pictures and the human capacity to depict, state and understand the world, but of showing how João Louro’s work feeds off a deep awareness that the endless human production of pictures denotes the finitude of our point of view, of our feelings and, of course, of our lives. It is for this reason that Louro is not interested in making new pictures, but rather in finding an embodiment for the existing pictures that are out there wherever we look. This is not a practice of archiving, so beloved of contemporary taste, nor is he spurred on by the idea of an archive of the present, but rather that of a deep distrust in relation to the current economy of pictures and representations. A distrust that does not make him condemn, limit, or replace the existing pictures, but which casts him into an endless activity of experiencing existing pictures. The aspects that characterise his work are three fundamental gestures: movement, activation and experimentation. He moves the pictures from contexts to the world of art, literature and the press to the centre of his works as a manner of re-activating these pictures, and creates aesthetically qualified situations in which it becomes possible to experience the different possibilities of meaning that make up the pictures. When he uses names (of artists, writers or poets) from famous works, he is not doing so in order to appropriate them and their meanings, but due to his interest in exploring what these depictions mean and what keeps them alive to us. We are here using the concept of pictures as a generic form of expressing his interest in physiology and in the politics of human representations. His interest lies in exploring the human manner of representing the world and what happens in it with feeling; that is, he is interested in understanding how pictures come to and remain in the world. And it is in this context that the chronology of these series of his does not obey any linear movement, but are undergoing permanent development.
Before entering debate as to João Louro’s work, it is of relevance to show that, according to Wittgenstein’s philosophy, when one speaks of pictures in the context of this artist one is speaking in a broader sense; that is, the modalities of these pictures have not been previously defined, but it is a matter of using the picture as a paradigm of presentation.
In a very famous book, Ludwig Wittgenstein carries out a very important and overwhelming reflection on language. That work, the Tratactus Logico-Philosophicus, stands out as a work on the limits of language, and is thus a work about the limits of thought, but not all thought, only thought with meaning. That is, what interested Wittgenstein was not language per se, but the language that efficiently comes to the world and which makes sense in that movement of encountering that which exists. Many issues about language are raised in that text, but there is one aspect to be stressed about the way that there is an isomorphism between language and the picture; that is, they complete and prolong each other, and, according to Wittgenstein, they may even mutually replace each other. But this relationship does not only exist in similarity of form, but states that only in the sense that it is a picture of the world can language make sense or not.
In this reflection on the picture — which in German is Bild: an overall concept which both applies to works of art and to mental pictures, pictures printed on pages of a newspaper, etc. — there are two movements: on the one hand pictures serve as means of meaningful representation of the world, models of reality, thus pictures as elements that mediate between thought, concepts, language and the world, its things and its events. A conception of the picture as mediation that has been a permanent factor in thought about the picture: pictures, always being accepted as creations of the imagination, are between concepts and intuitions, thought and the world, and therefore are elements of transmutation and representation, without an identity of their own, and always at the service of other instances.
But Wittgenstein’s research — and this aspect is essential for Louro’s work — goes one step further, and shows that pictures are not just between thought and the world, the logical and the empirical, geometry and objects, but, given that they efficiently reach the world and can in some case be identified with what already exists, they also have elements in common with the world of which they are a picture; that is, it is necessary for there to be a meeting point between the picture and the world, a shared element, a common form. The pictures in the Tratactus are a figuration of the real whose elements theoretically correspond to the elements of reality. As if between the fact of the picture (the representation) and the fact of the world (the thing represented) were equivalents, and thus authorised the realisation of transitions. A possibility generated by the nature of the picture, that is, the picture is not a creator, but is like a mirror of the world, and thus the picture adjusts itself to the world.
When one here speaks of pictures and of pictorial representation, one is stressing the pictorial nature of human representation of the world. In his effort to understand, state and represent the world, man produces pictures. Which are places not of passive acceptance, but places of distrust, and thus pictures are places of doubt. This distrust is partly generated by the fact that one cannot deny a picture; that is, one may say that a picture is correct or incorrect, but the picture in itself cannot be denied. Therefore it is necessary for pictures to continuously cast their shadows over the world:
One may state: here is a picture, but one cannot say whether it is correct or not before knowing what it ought to say. Now the picture should again cast its shadows on the world.
Wittgenstein, Journals, 6.11.1914
For that which is of interest to us here — understanding João Louro’s work through its critical relationship with pictures — the picture serves, as it also did for Wittgenstein, as the dominant paradigm of representation.
It is true that we may reconstruct all of João Louro’s work through a critical conception of the picture. Not that his work is a theory of pictures, nor a critique of pictures, but above all — and this is our thesis — a critical grammar of pictures. Or rather, his concern is not to identify new modalities of making or thinking pictures, but looking at how pictures are used. It is for that reason that it is of little interest to him whether the pictures are “artistic”, coming from popular culture or whether they are places of iconographical condensation, because his working matter is the way how men read, experience and translate pictures.
The approximation we have proposed to Wittgenstein was not intended to show the radiation of Louro’s artistic practice in Wittgenstein’s theses, but to show that his concentration on pictures is not due to a simple pictorial pleasure, but to disquiet with the human manner of representing the world. The tension between word and picture that runs through all of his work has to do with an attempt to make the effort to see what is really in pictures, fighting the blindness that makes up the human gaze.
Pictures, as Louro uses them, are not logical forms of representation, but, primarily, mark out a fact of the world; that is, they are presences that, like all the facts of the world, may be disturbed by the conditions of existence of time. That is, pictures are facts that may be distorted, forgotten, manipulated and altered. The way he deals with pictures shows that for Louro pictures are not decided through a binary thinking among pictures as documentaries, when they supposedly are true representations of the facts of the world, or as abstract, impressive, expressive and artistic; that is, when they are abstracted from any relationship with the facts of the world and with the intention to correctly represent them and are pure visual sensations, but for him pictures correspond to a difficult articulation between the given and the constructed, the existing and the possible. That is, it is a matter of a thought that notes the multiplicity of uses, meanings and existences that a picture may have.
Like Wittgenstein, we can state that what is at stake is a broader use of pictures. And this broader sense is relative to the impossibility of definition and this difficulty shows that when one wishes to understand pictures the only thing to do is to look at the way that men use them in the context of the practices of their daily lives. This not knowing what it is is a fundamental anthropological and artistic fact: artists insist on making or repeating pictures because we have not yet been capable of completely understanding what a picture does. As Belting states: “We distrust images whose method of creation and invention do not fit into the category of reproductions.”
This suspicion undoes the intended natural quality of the picture: no, it is not a fact that we may read, comprehend and understand all pictures. A fundamental uncertainty that, in the Platonic manner, may lead to destitution and condemnation, or, in the manner of artists, to unbridled love. Pictures place us before an impasse, and it is on the space existing between the fact of the picture — because it is not possible to deny its existence — and its sense, meaning and truth, that artistic action is exercised. And we may note the existence of this space when we realise that it is not pictures that create their own conditions of sense, meaning and truth, but these are exterior to them.
And it is in this exterior that a good deal of João Louro’s work is developed. Whether these are Blind Images, Phantomgraphs, Dead Ends or Covers, his point of view is always that of the exterior of the picture; that is, his works shift towards the place in which one attempts to make the picture say something. And his work is about this making say something. An action that is simultaneously cultural and subjective, abstract and concrete, individual and collective. Because what is at stake are the possibilities of pictures’ making sense, Louro’s works propose situations in which the spectator is confronted not only with an established meaning, through pictorial conventions, but his own body and gaze are incorporated into this production of meaning: his Blind Images are exemplary in the way they call the spectator into the picture; their reflecting surfaces (black, white or red) function as a peculiar mirror in which the spectator does not see the picture, but himself. This is a complex situation, because this group of works proposes an enigma that is difficult to solve: do the pictures hidden by the monochrome surfaces of these works really exist? Are they in the work or are they absences announced by the captions printed at the bottom of the works? And are the captions exact and should be followed or are they poetic and allegorical creations? Questions that do not make these works simple conceptual games in the heterodox style of conceptual art, but questions provoked by the physiology of the gaze. Returning to the idea of the situation, we may understand these works as proposals for situations in which the physiology of the gaze, its conventions and beliefs, are revealed.
But there is a level of complexity in these works by Louro: this is that his work, as may seem at first glance, does not immediately fit into conceptual art and into research on language, but there is an intense concern with making pictures, and, in some way this is a work of painting that, like any other strong work in painting, never stops questioning pictures, their making and their meaning as instances of presentation and expression. So these blind images are in fact paintings made not of the conventions on the pictorial construction of the gaze, but on the abyss existing between seeing and not seeing, seeing and believing one is seeing, being able to see and not seeing.
In João Louro’s work the question of the pictures emerges through an intense questioning about the physiology of the gaze in its action of seeing pictures. A action in which seeing, thinking and imagining become synonymous and invoke all the commerce of symbols, senses and meanings articulated in perceiving a work of art. Elements which emerge not only from their integration within his works, but also because Louro proposes his pictures to be seen through a peculiar point of view of blindness; that is, his works are peculiar situations of not-seeing, and it is this denial of sight that acts as a creative device of situations of questioning and critique of the pictures. It is because one does not see the pictures and that one’s gaze is confronted with an absence that questions about the modalities of existence of the pictures are generated. A peculiar negative dialectic that acts as a method of approximation to the dynamics of making, seeing and understanding the visual nature of the world.
And here this negativity means that it is possible to reconstruct this artist’s work through the articulation between the visible and invisible, and to show that his effort is not in stabilising determined pictorial forms, but in generating visual tensions that do not let themselves become made concrete or real in a determined picture, but remain as energies forming visual meanings. His Phantomgraphs show that they are a making of pictures whose ambition is not to be seen, but to pictorially materialise the moment of appearing and disappearing, as if one were following the trail of the element that calls a certain picture into life; that is, to sight, and that leads them into death, that is, to invisibility and oblivion. Works which are not so much fixed points of view on pictorial realities, but places of expectation, that is, unstable places exposed to the risk of appearing and disappearing.
The phenomenology of experience of Louro’s work is complex because it calls up not only all the issues relative to human experience with the things of art, but continuously refers back to the fact of not only the pictures possessing a physiology, but also a policy, and that in works of art these two dimensions find an important articulation.
The physiology has not only to do with the fact that the pictures perform an organic function, but also that they need a body. A need that means that the pictures need a body to exist; that is, to become visible and reach us. Through his questioning into the meaning of funereal pictures, Belting very clearly shows this need for the embodying of pictures in order for them to become visible: “to do this the lost body [of the deceased] is replaced by the virtual body of the picture. Here we capture the roots of the contradiction that will always characterise pictures: they make a physical absence (of a body) visible, transforming it into an iconic presence. The medial nature of the pictures is thus rooted in the analogy with the body. Our bodies also function as mediums, living mediums as opposed to fabricated mediums. The pictures are supported on two symbolic acts that both involve our living body: the act of fabrication and the act of perception, with one being the target of the other.”
This idea of pictures needing a body in order to be revealed underlies all of João Louro’s work. A dual need because, as is clearly shown by the blind images, pictures need not only the material body of the work of art, but also the body of the spectator, who in the final instance is the maker of the pictures. The way that the spectator’s body is generated on the pictorial surface of the blind images shows not only that it is the body which forms the pictures, but also shows the dual possibility that consists of seeing the picture and seeing one’s own appearing: as if the spectator simultaneously invented the work and through the same gesture invented himself. And this idea unites these works to the originating amazement of making art: the fact that in inventing art man was simultaneously inventing himself.
The dual need of the body and the game, between appearing and disappearing, between being able to see and not being able to see, places us at the centre of an important politics of pictures. And this politics is expressed not only in the different forms of constructing pictures, but also in their subjects and possibilities of reading, showing how invisibility is a political category in the sense that sight chooses its objects and determines its range. A politics that is so rooted in the physiology of the spectator’s body and in the body of the pictures that the limits of visibility are often confused with the limits of the possibilities of sight, preventing the constraints to which the gaze is subjected being made clear. It is not a matter of stressing the way that the gaze is always limited by its own conditions of possibility; that is, stating that seeing means putting into perspective, but of showing that the construction of the pictures does not exclusively follow pictorial criteria. And here politics is related not only to a possible ideological and illustrative function, but to the way that the possibilities of appearing are dictated by a sort of political-being that is relative to the way that the possibilities of sight are also constructed in a common and public space: the human space of the action.
What is at stake is that situation in which the limits and the possibilities are not determined by the formal or material elements of the pictures, but by the person himself, because sight is not a passive action, but results from a constructive spontaneity by the person. And that is the politics of João Louro’s works. And it is politics because it takes the person as a creating instance, and thus one taken in his freedom to act, think and imagine.
The idea in question here, and in contrast to the usual expectation that surrounds the perceiving of works of art, is that these works are above all situations that the artist creates and proposes to the spectator, never being descriptions, representations or documents of a past fact, but something that takes place and is renewed with each new experience and with each of the individual people: each body reflected in his pictures is a new body, a new identity. It is in this sense that each work can be seen as a renewed possibility of participation, possibilities which are even more emphasised by the presence of language that, instead of determining and including a sense or meaning, creates a greater range of possibilities and meanings. And language — often as captions for stock photographs used by Louro as the base for the development of his works — is not used as a principle of granting a value of truth to the picture, that is, it does not act to state that the pictures are true or false, but is a visual element that he uses like any other element of pictorial composition. In the context of his works the words are more of a visual element and do not propose any articulation with an extra-pictorial content.
João Louro’s work is moved not by a taste for the ruins of the pictures and the choosing of elements that are left over from using past pictures, nor even by the ambition of creating the absolute picture that might contain all past, present and future pictures, but by the statement that pictures are finite possibilities limited to acting in the world, but are all we have got.