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Portraits Survivants

Portraits Survivants
by Alessandro Trabucco

In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.”

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Human face: the shape, the expressions, the changes (both external and inner) that occur throughout a lifetime, the signs of time; the unstoppable ageing and deterioration (to the point where it loses identity); its frame - the skull - slowly emerges, like a sort of ultimate and final “backmask”.
In 1529 the German painter Lucas Furtenagel painted a portrait of his colleague Hans Burgkmair with his wife Anna. In the painting, she is holding a small mirror showing a reflection of two skulls. Their faces are slightly turned towards the spectator, while their mirror reflections (the skulls) are observing them. The skull is the traditional symbol of vanitas, of the ancient Roman memento mori which reminds us all of our mortality, of the temporary nature of human existence - of its glories as much as the sufferings - and is nothing but a vague and unidentified appearance.

Identity: the features of a face, its expression, the intensity of the gaze, are significant signs of the personality and character of an individual (not considering pure physiognomy); a person’s identity coincides with their looks (but, as everyone knows, appearance can be deceptive). The face is the body’s focal point, its centre of attraction, a magnet which draws the “other’s” visual attention and, as a consequence, predisposition (be it positive or negative). This is exactly what torments Gengè Moscarda in Pirandello’s novel (One, No one and One Hundred Thousand), whether or not he is able to see himself as he really is, as the others see him, to fell a genuine sense of surprise when he unexpectedly manages to truly see himself and to seize the moment which reveals the absolute truth.

The mask: originally a ritual object for the veneration of the dead, used to immortalise their features (whereas photography is used for this purpose nowadays), masks have been used in other fields (i.e. ancient theatre and, more recently, for the “Commedia dell’Arte”). The mask’s function, though, has gone beyond that of a mere stage prop; it has reached the point of representing dark forces, obscure and malevolent situations. Therefore, the mask has been attributed negative instances, ranging from subterfuge to hypocrisy, thus symbolising the constantly growing deceitfulness in human relations. This attitude has been denounced by the most sensitive of souls, firstly by artists of all times through their work, artists like James Ensor and his grotesque representations of bedlam.

Portraits Survivants - Surviving Portraits
Few men will survive doom where perdition, dedicated to and made of the same substance of evil, will perish.
Albert Caraco, Breviary of Chaos

The words survival and survivor are evocative of tragedy and disaster. They immediately recall someone who has survived a plane accident, a natural disaster or a nuclear war, like in Cormac McCarty’s The Road, where the main characters - father and son - must fight for their own survival after a devastating cataclysm. Anyone around them could be an enemy, thus turning the “others” into a constant threat they must protect themselves from. Even towards its end, Humankind will split into the good and the bad, into victims and executioners, and only those who possess the “inner flame” will be capable of saving it.
It is possible to survive violent and heartbreaking personal disasters, inevitable life events; all of these are obstacles one must overcome, where the only possible options are winning, or losing, but the struggle towards the outcome leaves marks both on body and soul.
Aqua Aura’s images belong to a series named, significantly, Portraits Survivants and are unusual examples of portraits, just like Andres Serrano’s pictures of the Ku Klux Klan leaders are unconventional, with disquieting, capped figures whose character we can only guess from looking at the eyes that emerge from under the cloth over their heads.
Aqua Aura’s portraits represent people in dark, indistinct places where light is essential in defining volume and depth. Their face is actually a mask, the purpose of which is not to hide their features, is not an accessory, it is - in fact - the main element of the composition, as it provides a new identity or - better - it changes it radically. It is not an addition, it actually becomes part of the body, it adapts perfectly to it, to the extent that it becomes the centre and focus of the energy expressed by the image itself.
The idea of portraying survivors, or making “surviving potraits” (portraits survivants) - that is to say, of showing people who have survived some sort of emotional or environmental disaster - is the offspring of deep reflection on primary and urgent matters, at a moment in history where the word “crisis” (intended not only as social or financial depression, but involving also fundamental values such as co-existence and sharing of experiences and emotions) has affected everyone’s lives so deeply that it is passively accepted without anyone being able to put up resistance against it.
Aqua Aura has chosen to represent it efficiently and accurately through the observation, study and elaboration of the faces’ features, seen as emotional and bodily landscapes, revealing the deepest discomfort through “stigmata” of inner suffering.
Even thought they are visibly distressed, the poses and expressions are dignified and solemn; rather than being troubled by them, spectators are stimulated to reflect thoroughly (as if recognising themselves) on their own lives and on seeing the thin line that separates what is imagined from what is real, the memories from their effects.
The aim is not to make a sarcastic and derogatory criticism of humankind, like the grotesque and tragic paintings by the afore-mentioned Ensor, dating back to the end of the 19th century, did (even though they have strongly influenced Aqua Aura’s work); on the contrary, in these pictures the masks are never ridiculous caricatures, they are quite real, plausible and slightly awkward. Their “monstrosity” coveys the idea of a catastrophe under way, that has left visible, violent marks on the outside, just like a corrosive, deforming skin/bones disease would. Nevertheless, each one of the subjects maintains a certain grace when exposing themselves fearlessly and without hesitation. In the same way, survivors who are caught in the instant just after they have been rescued from a disaster such as a sinking ship, who are not responsible for it, but are the fatal victims, become the tangible living-proof of events that have undermined permanently, both physically and emotionally, their peace of mind.
These shots represent the most intimate and hidden aspects of the self, caught exactly as they appear and without filters, similarly to what Nan Goldin does when she portrays herself and her entourage without mitigating it in the least. We are therefore dazzled by sudden glares, by polaroids of our inner selves, by crudely real snapshots that can’t be modified and that show us the innermost truth, without filters or pretence.

Metaphorical Realism: The relation between photography and reality and its alleged visual truth has always been analysed, researched and compared with painting and its autonomy from objective elements.
Aqua Aura’s works are strongly permeated by “metaphorical realism”. That is to say that when we look at the pictures, we can’t stop ourselves from wondering about what we’re seeing, so we search for the element used to alter reality; except for a single case, we are unable to find evidence of such intervention. We look for signs both of physical manipulation and digital editing of the faces’ features, in vain. The only tangible signs we can see are creases and wrinkles, skin flaws that are exterior projections of incurable, deeply- rooted scars.
The subjects of these works are society’s outcasts, like Andres Serrano’s homeless people (definitely less metaphorical), Honoré Daumier’s third-class travellers, Francisco Goya’s black period creatures, or Jusepe de Ribera’s beggars who - in the hands of the Baroque Spanish master - become great ancient Greek philosophers or Fathers of the Church.
Hence, Aqua Aura’s work raises questions about the quality of our lives and of humankind’s post (industrial, ideological, media) psycho-emotional state, unmasking the weakness, angst, fear that follow us relentlessly along the path toward becoming.

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