Autobiography and Photography
Autobiography and Photography
One can’t speak about visual diary in relation to Luca Gőbölyös’s photos, and practically it is impossible to treat them as self-portraits in the traditional sense either. However, all of her photos and series are full of autobiographical elements and impulses. “Clearly, literary approaches that focus primarily on linguistic patterns, metaphorical allusions, and traditional aesthetics standards remain inadequate for reading those positioned as the other, who must steal the language.” If we consider self-representation as a form of self-analysis we are getting closer to revealing her works also, at least another layer will be brought to light than via traditional methods.
In the last decades referenciality of autobiography and photography became the focus of the related discourses, that is, in which degree could be both genres considered as documentation of reality. In the seventies, driven by romantic nostalgia, Roland Barthes argues for the existence of a coherent, authentic self and its representation in his seminal piece, Camera Lucida, while lamenting on the inevitable gaps and losses that arose from the transformation. As for the autobiography, the adherence to an essential, stable, and centered self, a notion inherited from Enlightenment, resulted in a classification into the category of non-fiction, as a subgenre of biography. In the nineties both fields acted as the principal focus of critical theories (cultural studies, post colonialism, feminism, and psychoanalysis) providing very fertile soil for analysis of self-representation of marginalized groups. All the critical theories, although from different angle, emphasized the constructed nature of both genres, the attention shifted from accurate documentation of reality to gaining control over self-representation and to the anxiety and fear about loss of control. “Autobiography is itself an exertion of control over self-image, for in writing an account of one’s own life, one authorizes the life, claiming a kind of privilege for one’s own account.” The shift from the illusion of the authentic and transparent picturing of reality brought up to the surface those desires that lie behind any self-presentations. Both, autobiography and photography are mostly about self-desires for self-determination. Nowadays, it would be problematic claiming self-portraits as innocent reflexions of what artists see when they look in the mirror, as well as to approach autobiography as a bare documentation of facts. This especially applies to the cultural “other”, women, people of color, and ethnic groups, who never really owned the privilege of coherent self. “Posing involves a dramatic struggle for control and authenticity, a struggle between intentionality and convention, the essential and the objectified.”
Both fields are rather to be defined as a clash between what is culturally prescribed and what is forbidden, as a constant border crossing and transgression for aiming to renegotiate one’s own position within those axes. This presupposes a fluid, constantly changing, and newly positioned subject without a definite core, consequently the cultural critic is not concerned with the “real” person behind the representation and is not for scrupulously comparing one’s own lived life with its representation, but rather to analyze the self that unfolds in the text. S/he is interested mostly in the desired self, a self produced for public consumption and self-promotion.
Sarah Lucas in an interview declared in relation to her extravagant images that “I define myself by what I don’t want to be.” The approach is applicable to Luca Gőbölyös’s early photo-series as well, in which she systematically defines those signposts marking out the territory within which she intends to position herself as a sort of visual mapping of the terrain still acceptable for her to construct the desired self-image, behind which lies a foreign country for her imagined self.
From her marginalized position as a woman, she envisions her emerging self via series of significant others excluded from the mainstream cultural narrative, not on whom she models herself but rather against whom she defines herself, that is, groups with different sexual orientation, the old woman associated with death and excluded from the idealized social image of women, and the overweight woman evidently having lost the control over her body.
There is a professional consensus that neither autobiography nor photography is born in cultural vacuum. Ageism is a term used for prejudices and marginalization on the base of age, the phenomenon behind is rooted in the down of modernity, in the “ideas of Anglo-American forefathers for whom old age was a chronic illness, which was an embarrassment to the new morality of self-control.” Freud tenets – seeing old age as a tragic loss of productivity as well as the ideas of capitalism by valuing only people who are productive in the narrow sense – have contributed to American youth worshipping tendencies, that infiltrated even Eastern Europe by globalization after the political changes. As all the ideas different from the established cultural norms, infiltrated all of a sudden from the cultural centers into a culture on the margins, this one is also localized in its brutality and rawness.
Women are headless and are present as truncated body parts in Gőbölyös’s early photos in correspondence with the cultural topos that considers the isolated, universal self, representative of spirit, privileged to men. “Isolate individualism is an illusion. It is also the privilege of power. A white man has the luxury of forgetting his skin color, and sex. He can think of himself as an individuum.”
In our culture the existential, essential selfhood as a result of an intellectual search is secured for man. A woman, connoted with nature and body, would bump into borders and limits trying to reach her own bodiless existence, larger than herself. “There are no masks to uncover because paradoxically there are only masks, only roles and communal expectations. She cannot find herself as an universal man does in his romantic journey inward to the core of his being, except through those social roles already defined for her, the very masks romantic man would define, penetrate, and discard. And if she claims her own equal powers of self-conscious reasoning, she implicates herself in postures of carnivalesque monstrosity.”
Historical roles of women grew out from the fragile, uneasy balance on the thin border between conformation to the prescribed roles and the imagined ones that are tailored similarly to those of men’s. The terminology of “double consciousness” is an account for the dual viewpoint of sensing one’s own self likewise from outside and inside, which applies on those excluded from the dominant narratives, whose consciousness is squeezed between socially implied, prefabricated and secured by different legitimizing and naturalizing mediums (like law, culture, education, religion, and science), and between claimed self-mastery and self-agency. “Women develop a dual consciousness – the self as culturally defined and the self as different from cultural prescriptions.”
This dual consciousness comes from the position of the “second-rate” self, kept out from the privileged site of the self-contained individuum reserved exclusively for (white, western, straight) men, and means of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others. The difficulty lies “in confirming to a female ideal which is largely a fantasy of the masculine, not feminine imagination.” The double voice in narratives of women is a constant divergence between the representation of the idealized and the invisible self. The double-voiced structure embodies the tension between the burning desire for narrative authority, and for asserting power and control in self-representation, and between the compulsive urge to live up to the expectations. Process of alienation from the historically imposed image of the self is detectable in any group’s identity existing at the margins of culture, however, this very alienation “is what motivates the writing, the creation of an alternative self in the autobiographical act” – argues Susan Stanford Friedman, to which we can add self-portrait as well having the same drives behind in minorities’s hand.
The built-in self-reflectivity of the critic coming from the margins could influence her own relationship to the object of study, that is, in what measure she is influenced by her own desires and her own relationship to the permitted and prohibited roles, if she is interested in policing the borders and gate-keeping or rather supporting transgressions of boundaries and subversive practices. The unconscious urge to brush aside the critic’s own fears of slipping into degraded categories connected to femininity can greatly determine the direction of her interpretation. Retrospectively, in my own reviews I read interpreting these early works of showing tolerance and empathy as a sign of positive discrimination from my side. However, I just realized that the other reading, voicing the fear of being identified with homosexuality, obesity, and old, and by that, slipping into multiply marginalized position, could be equally relevant.
In her further photos, along with the negative references, also men leap into the spectrum of the emerging self, in connection with whom all “otherness” is determined. However, contrary to the social roles and positions dedicated to man, conceived almost as natural, men in Gőbölyös’s pictures are rather objectified substitutes instead of being essential, authentic, and heroic individuals. As if the 19th century taboo were still haunting, a taboo against drawing from the nude male model, and the “prohibition for representation” would be taken ad absurdum.
Yet, in these substitute-portraits the gender roles are reversed and the men in the woman’s life are those who fall in line in fetishlike mutations. The objectivating male gaze is obstructed and is projected back onto himself. The men lack of identity (they have only first names), lack of flesh and blood reality, but do not hold possession of the privilege of substantiality either. Instead, they are present in the form of ghosts (With as well as Without You), of mug-transformations (Life is Beautiful in Couple) and of dummies, window dolls (substitute personalities and voodoo objects) and of superstitious practices to get hold on them or to discard them if it is needed (I Want to Get Married!). This transformation dynamite the social connotations of the spaces as well; the mug-men and the dummies populate the kitchen, culturally designated to women, and even the kitchen, a domestic space with female connotation goes through a transformation, becoming public space via media publicity.
In the meticulous process of fabricating the self, the Shadow Traveler is metaphoric in double sense; it symbolizes the hopeless and diffuse wandering for searching of the “true” self, and at the same time stands for the secondary, shadow existence of lacking self-awareness and wholeness. These are the first “real” self-portraits, still they are not wholly those. They not occupy leading roles in the pictures, they are just “accidentally” happen to be in the background, nobody notice them, they are only bothering elements, messing up the idyllic tourist pictures of others, making them unable to function as proper memorial sites of the travel. The photographer is the one who is watching and who is watched, she is the flâneur and part of the anonymous crowd as well, an outsider, just a shadow.
By the lenticular pictures, the fabrication of the self is momentarily interrupted: they are making time travel back to the past, to childhood. The process of identity building gets into stagnation, stuck in the idyllic childhood, as if the self were unable to proceed further from this early phase of the self, unable to leave this pre-adult position, when socialization seemed to be genderless despite the different sexes of the twins. However, today’s reception of the adorable girls faces associates them rather with the Lolita phenomenon and not with the innocent and neutral childhood, providing a voyeur position to the spectator. At the same time, the life with a twin-brother provides a great opportunity for subverting gender roles as well. Having in mind the forefathers, as Duchamp, Warhol and Murimura in creating female alter-egos, the presence of the twin brother could be interpreted as an opposite sex alter-ego for the female artist. This notion is supported by the text written on the picture …: “Once in the city park a woman rebuked ourselves. ‘Girls do not bounce in the paddle!’ Kristóf answered, that ‘Mister, do not rebuke us!’. ”
In the series of Sundaygirls the faces of the adult artist have already been captured, but even they are not reflecting that coherent, self-conscious artist ego, let alone that existential seriousness, that the male counterpart’s self-portraits are full of. There are no carefully staged grandiose poses, only on the fly shots of passing away moments, and body parts as if they were accidentally have been flown into the pictures. There is a contradiction between the obsessive and narcissistic production of self-images and between the title of the series, which instead of considering the duty of the photographer as some serious profession, treats it as a hobby practiced at the weekends, in correspondence with the other 19th century topoi, that did not take seriously women artists, degrading them into the category of amateurs as opposed to the male artist heroes. Instead of being girdled with the attributes of the profession accompanying the artist, flowers and representations of flowers surround the fragments of the body and face of the artist.
Looking in the mirror (and taking self-portraits in the mirror or in reflecting surfaces) refers to the cultural tradition that vanity for centuries personified as a woman looking into a mirror. Contrary to this, man was seen as the mirror of his times, and it was assumed that history can be told as the story of his self, that is, he was assumed as identical with all those disciplines (science, religion, culture) he embodied.
From the very beginning both photography and autobiography were identified with death and memorial functions. Autobiography as a memorial marker, photography as dilating a moment of life, that have passed forever, revealing a body that no longer exist, a body frozen in time. Luca Gőbölyös healed her pain and loss felt over the death of her partner in the series of With as well as Without You using the photography as self-therapy. In this series one can definitely track referenciality between her life story and her art works, however, fragmentation, overlapping pictures, fluid fusion of different persons are not telling narratives at all, but rather take forms of repeated, intrusive hallucinations and dreams. They fall short to the nature of traumatic memory, not being articulated in verbal, linear narratives, but rather in “vivid sensations and images”.
In the project I Want to Get Married! the artist comes to the front from behind the curtain and the masks she has been wearing and shows up herself in her blood-and-flesh reality, as an adult woman who is about taking her destiny into her own hand and even exercises in giving advices for fellow travelers. Still, this step into the adulthood is connected to the social institution, which traditionally designates the place of woman in marriage, and next to her man. All the female archetypes participate in this cat-walk: the housewife, the kitchen fairy, as well as the witch, the femme fatale, and through them, all cultural topoi of the sinner and the immaculate tied together without clear diversification. Consequently, the interpreter either is unable to take the easier path, and to take sides, as the roles are totally confused.
On the cover of the catalogue/cookbook of the project it is not the beautiful, but wicked queen who offers poisoned apples to the innocent Snow White in the course of their rivalry and jealousy-drama, but rather the demonic and angelic artist altogether presents her pool of men, equated with apples for selection, they are referred to by their first names. The biblical apple of fall and the low-grade lust of body is projected (back) to men with all the connotations that from the moment of genesis created hierarchical order between man and woman, as of taking revanche in this fragile constellation of her life and art. In the peculiar and grand moment of confirmation to the expectation of the society, the apple of Paris gets into female hand. In this very moment, not the selection of the most beautiful woman is at stake (or is it? wishfully entering the competition by presenting a narcissistic self-image), but the selection of the One, next to whom the endless wandering and search of the self could be settled down.
Pictures of Luca Gőbölyös, most of all, are metaphors of the multivocal women’s voices. They are not clear confirmations of and not strict resistances either to the prescribed women roles, but rather divergences in between the polarities, (re)negotiations of women’s positions while trying to gain control of their self-image and maintain power of self-agency.
Luca Gőbölyös in her early works was concerned with the lights, shadows, and the strange views of the city. Perceptibly, she is familiar with and derives from the history of photography. She has learnt to perfectly control the technique, to compose, to observe and catch the moment, to grasp the essence of it, and to construct such a perspective that gives food for thought. Although she has completed her education, the issue of how to become a photographer has perhaps remained a question even for her. In the course of her career, Luca Gőbölyös, who started as a photographer in the aesthetic sense of the word, has been becoming more and more the artist who employs the photo as her medium. Her skills, way of seeing things, acquired knowledge of photography at a professional level, and technique explicitly separate her from the (photo-) conceptualist artists’ use of photography.
There are often texts, familiar sentences, banal words and story fragments in her photos, and with the exception of her earliest works, she does not forgo entitling them either. The title helps us to see and tells us what we are looking at. It protects us from wandering away and contributes to semantics. The signs placed on commercial photos encourage particular activities, shopping, and obtaining enticing attitudes; image and text cooperate here. The visual references of the picture, the aroused, often unconscious associations cannot be left alone; the text, even if it is merely a brand name, fixes the meaning. Yet text and textuality are needed to define those pictures as well that are without a concrete label. According to Allan Sekula, the photo is a fragmental message whose interpretation is based upon the system of discovering external factors and assumptions, context determines meaning. A photo is capable of declaring something by evoking an underlying or hidden text, so this text or the covert linguistic propositions bring the photo to the land of interpretation, the photo is framed by language.
The photo is a codeless message, and it does not create such a systematic “language” where an indicating method would consequently prevail, yet, in everyday context, it is common to talk about the language of a photograph. A photo can serve several functions: cars can be sold with its help, family gatherings can be recorded, memories can be evoked, etc. Luca Gőbölyös for instance, uses the language of a commercial and fashion photographer on the pictures of homosexuals and transvestites in the series titled Untitled (1996). The pictures are complemented with decorative and picturesque interventions on their surface; professional fashion photography and attributes of abstract pictorial quality meet here. Fashion photography is “maddened” a little bit by her treatment of the surface, and we have to observe members of a subculture through this curtain-surface: men who wear the features of masculinity or femininity as a mask in an extreme, exaggerated manner. Luca Gőbölyös works with two types of media here; fashion photography (applied) and art (painting). As if she was referring to the ancient dilemma as to a photograph or a painting enjoys priority, or to what extent can a photo be considered art.
After fashion photography, in her work titled In the Track of … (2000), the medium is evidence recording, which she does with the aid of a professional police expert. Because if she herself cannot use the given function, the language of medium with deceptive accuracy and without a mistake, then she passes her instrument to someone else, as she can also exercise control without having the actual tools in her own hands.
In the works of The Shadow Traveler (2002), we can immediately recognize the genre of the snapshot. She perfectly identifies with the photos in a family album and the amateur desire seen on picture postcards. At the same time, she “ruins” the pictures of amateurs because she steps into their composition, and “ruins” the text as well: This is Heroes’ Square, not Tokyo, Japan! The text removes the tourist photo from its place; text and picture contradict each other. The redundant text turns into a disturbing device – why write “Eiffel Tower” below the picture of the Eiffel Tower? It turns into such a text, which urges us to come up with stories about the pictures so that we can see the “ruined” and interrupted pictures by many tourists as a whole and as a sequence, and so we can construct an imaginary trip in the family photo albums of the world in ourselves.
A conveying of meaning must be accomplished between the connection – that is, contradiction – of sight and sign, even in cases when she complements a found object. The line Fresh as a Flower is an advertising slogan written on a cleaner’s cloth-hanger. The wearily hanging petticoat, with its stitches drawing an aging female’s body on the coat rack, connects the flower to the metaphor of the rapidly fading and perishable (female) beauty. Here the advertising slogan becomes an untruthful metaphor that directs the attention to the world full of invisible stereotypes of the everyday.
The signs of the cut-out figures in the series of Our Seasonally Patron Saints (2002) – “Restaurant”, “Mediterranean Restaurant”, “Open 06–22”, “Pinocchio Pizzeria”, “Coffee Capuccino”, etc. – are banal and crudely goal-oriented messages. Their inventiveness and value in terms of providing information is minimal, they can perhaps be compared to messages, such as “dishes from the Dish store” or “shoes from the Shoe store”. The collecting, systemizing, and serious consideration of these figures placed alongside the road is such an ethnographic activity as collecting superstitions before the I Want to Get Married! cookery show. The Our Seasonally Patron Saints puts on the veil of ethnographic photography. However, we cannot find anything in the place of the Stranger and the Other; the gaze of the voyeur remains unsatisfied. It is cheap, and even if it’s fun for a few moments, it doesn’t even have the value or patina of sign-boards; emptiness stands there, where the roadside patron saints stood earlier.
A structure appears where the picture is complemented by a story, when Luca Gőbölyös uses her own family photographs (Lenticular Images, 2008). She even adds “good-to-know” information and memories to them: for instance, under her twin brother’s and her own ID photo she writes: “It was kind of weird that for a short period of time when I was 13, I became almost a foot taller than Kristóf.” The text here is similarly haunting as the voice of the omniscient narrator in movies. The narrator, who is looking back towards the past, and speaks in first person singular; the artist evaluates her past self.
The “scripts” of Life is Beautiful in Couple (2005), are personal stories written on mugs which include their ghost image stills. The project and the catalogue of the exhibition titled I Want to Get Married! (2010) is a “cookbook”, and even the cookery show is a professional mimicry of the media. The two works depict the free lifestyle of the young adult women of the day, the ones who can freely choose between men, who are emancipated, and professional. In Life is Beautiful in Couple, the mug becomes a replaceable item, a fungible wasting asset, on which one can take (subconscious) revenge. It is the woman who can decide, who is active, and utilizes the achievements of feminism. In the meanwhile, in the project titled I Want to Get Married!, she pretends as if all she would want to do is to conserve traditions, to follow the female gender role, to marry and to be pretty. She appears as a woman who doesn’t necessary want anything from feminism. In the spirit of post-feminism, she finds the achievements of feminism natural, but also breaks away from its unpleasant and embarrassing connotations. All this meets with the local neo-conservative ideals of society. The strategy to excessively identify with the woman figure that guards over the traditions is also extended to the medium. Her humor, lightness, and the professional use of the medium delivers the message almost unnoticeably to those it is aimed at. Due to the exaggerated features of the medium, it loses its explicit meaning, its invisible naturalness. In order to achieve complete dispossession, Luca Gőbölyös uses her family photos, passes her camera to others, and invites professionals to cooperate. She wants to step out from the invisibility behind the camera; she wants to own both places at the same time in order to become both: the subject and the object.
Indeed, the photographer works with exactly those genres of photography – such as advertising, snapshot, tourist photography, family photography, documentary photography, mug shots, food photography and ethnographic photography – which fall far from “art” photography. These are hybrid, not clean, “applied” and undervalued areas, where texts, scripts used for identification and textuality are all present, and the photo itself is seen only as a functional instrument.
Due to the media professionalism of Luca Gőbölyös, everything seems real; her cookery show, her amateur tourist photographs or the documents of the police “investigation”. She puts on these mediums as masks. Rosalind Krauss investigates the transformation of photography in her essay written in 1999 titled Reinventing the Medium. According to Krauss, the photo-conceptualist artist makes good use of a feature of photography; that it changes its clothes easily, it can put on the coat of press- or amateur photography. For the photo-conceptualist artist, it is an inspirational source to put on the appearance of the art-outsider, the zero degree of style. Luca Gőbölyös drags these old meanings – the ideological contents attached to the medium – with her with the application of the medium. The deceptive, perfect identification is an element of mimicry; however, the exaggerated identification with “the media as the source of wisdom” is also a criticism of the medium. She uses her freedom of choice, she is diverse, however, she remains professional at all times. She does not want to cast her anchor by any identifiable style or medium; not even on the level of technique or type of media application. She is a fashion photographer, an advertisement photographer, a tourist, and a show presenter. The same type of unfixed, incoherent, not-closed self appears in her application of media, as in the choice of roles she takes on. And of course, a part of it is that she wants everything at the same time.
The Medium of Time
The Medium of Time
If we try to imagine it, there are two possible ways to travel through time with a machine. One of them is the classic Wells-type time machine, which can fly one to the distant past or future. The other one is more modern. It is a philosophical apparatus, or rather an ability which enables us to move within the story of our life. The first type allows us to get an inside view of other people’s destiny, or it can be a fantastic chance for intervention. With the second one, we can relive – or experience in advance – our own life or own desires.
The photograph as a time machine – a theoretical commonplace for half a century – may work in both ways: it can be set to both past times or the imagined future, and it can even fulfill the function of being a subjective projection of desire. Within this, there are just as many possible settings as many different concepts of time there are: besides reconstruction, replay, or appropriation, placing portrait photographs next to each other or retouching a single image can also act as an apparatus of time travel. Visualizing the layers of time is the oldest and the most common instrument of photographical time travel. Its simple form is the double exposure and in contemporary photography the computer (multimedia) manipulation. Even two instantaneous imprints are enough for this, and the possible time layers in between will be filled out by the recipient.
In the works of Luca Gőbölyös – in her photographs, videos, objects and installations – leaps in time become visible in a seemingly classical way in the form of layers placed on each other. Both base forms of time travel appear in her works: The Shadow Traveler becomes a part of other people’s photographs; the With as well as Without You tries to summon the unrepeatable of her own life. Her instruments are also manifold. Depending on the given medium and form of expression, time layers appear in their visual reality as metaphors or almost as tangible things; from physical surrounding to the counterpointing of modern medium and to counter-positioning two physical conditions or by recalling images burnt into an object. If we take a look at the works made by Luca Gőbölyös in the past ten to twelve years, it can be recognized that the layers are not there to depict time in an autotelic manner, but rather, desires are materialized in time through them.
Although time, as a main theme, only appears in the 1997-98 Objects – which were made in Brighton, this layered construction is also typical of her earlier works. The interpositions of Painted Still Lives – similarly to several other series by Gőbölyös – can be traced back to the inner construction of the image and the traditions of avant-garde photography. In her series on trans- and homosexuality from 1996, the light applied to the black and white portraits strengthens the expressive nature of the images, although the colorful layers of light and the layer of ghostly mottle removes the character from the fabric of the original environment. Besides the new approach to depict gender roles, the fundamental feature of Luca Gőbölyös’ perception of images also becomes apparent: the reaction and deliberate counter-position of the imagined inner-space of photos with the real physical film-layers. Setting out from this foundation, the photo can be utilized freely: it can be transferred to other objects as a film-layer, it can be mingled or partially covered – these interventions and transformations, and the contradictions created by them allow for a free expression.
In the case of Objects, the placing of physical and visual layers onto each other is clearly aimed at depicting time. The (sleeping) old women’s portraits on the pillows are the tangible allegories of evanescence, melancholic time-images. The naked light bulb hung above the pillows evokes the images burnt into the object with merciless sharpness, while the face of the lady cannot be seen completely due to the change in perspective. The nude photos applied to the see-through mannequin torsos placed in an old wardrobe show a strong sense of time besides depicting the masculine, feminine, and neutral signs of gender. The unraveling of the medium’s time layers continues in the object titled Fresh as a Flower made in 2001. The wrinkles stitched into – by Gőbölyös – the refashioned pink slip hanging on a contemporary clothes-hanger show the shape of a female body, and this works the other way around as well: the garment is inscribed on the body. The stitching in this case is equal to the methods of photography: it is a process which takes place in time, and it visualizes the passing of time. The wardrobe installation titled Gender, exhibited in 1997, and Fresh as a Flower create the frames for visual time, and a tension between present and past by applying and counterpointing old and new objects. The tension based on counterpoints is even more obvious in the three-piece untitled photo series made in 2000, where a young and an old woman’s body appears; two nudes printed on foil, molded together with synthetic resin. The cut-out is the same in size as the one on Gender or on Fresh as a Flower, that is, the body can only be seen from neck to mid-thigh. On the one hand, this view serves to emphasize gender characteristics (and therefore merely physical ones), while on the other hand, this does not allow the viewer to receive a complete picture of the body. The lack of the face makes even the portrait pupal. The skin – in its tightness or looseness – appears as the outer shell of the puppet. The bearing of the two half-figures is also pupal. Their movement phrases recall the eternal cycle; the combination of the two overlapping translucent velamens – similarly to the portraits appearing on the pillows – is a contemporary memento mori, or the graveyard of desires projected on the body.
The body, as a transformable and tailorable cover appears even more directly in the images of Fitting of Clothes from 2002. A strange, distorted woman’s body can be seen on the photo placed under the convex lens, who also lost her completeness. However, in this case, it is not the face or the leg, but part of the plump hip what is missing; an illusion seemingly caused by the pink threads stitched into the black and white photograph. The round figure becomes unnaturally slender thereby, just as if it was a take in on a dress; the image of the fashionable body appearing as a desire depicts the sudden metamorphosis caused by the time leap.
The figures and spaces exposed on each other in her 2005 photo series titled With as well as Without You show an apparent similarity to her earlier multi-layer works. However, it is only the visuality of the instrument and the intention to depict desires which these works have in common. Luca Gőbölyös’ photo series made after the death of her companion is a conjuration of spirits; mourning is a tool in the hands of the photographer. Indeed, the word medium receives a double meaning in this case: the photo becomes the carrier of sorrow, and the means of creating a connection with another world. A constant conflict between time and space is tangible in the photos of Gőbölyös, however this conflict also means an interaction at the same time. The images of past and present written into each other fill the once common space: the layers of time fill in the physical space. The past body placed in this space tumbles the linearity of time, and at the same time it shows the recoverability of time with the help of images. With as well as Without You – which originates from the overwriting of outer and inner images on each other – is the most subjective type of time travel.
On the contrary, The Shadow Traveler, made between 2001 and 2002, intervenes in other people’s pictures and destiny in an objective way. The photographer dressed in black clothes, walks into the photos of others – tourists – at different points of Budapest and New York, and then has someone to record this with her own camera. In this way, she becomes a part of other people’s memories, while the tourists become a part of her project. The photographer appears as a model on these photos, almost as if she would step out from different time and space conditions (creating the suspicion of computer manipulation in today’s viewer) mounted on the picture.
Preceding the photo obsession of social websites on the internet, Gőbölyös has created a peculiar type of personal web, which in a given situation – considering that someone has made an incredible image recognition system – allows her in the future to find her own portraits in someone else’s private database. In her project from 2000, titled In the Track of …, the photographer focuses on her own time-space coordinates. Luca Gőbölyös moved into a room fitted with white furniture for a day – a public gallery for the time of being – and had the traces left after the day documented by a team of crime scene investigators. The two levels of the project – the time experienced and visualized there personally by the photographer and the events seen and documented according to professional procedure from the perspective of the police – are presented in an overlapping manner. Lynn Hershman’s 1972 Dante Hotel could be the prototype for this parallel project built on the traditions of neo-avant-garde and Spurensicherung. The American artist – who took her similar project to the internet later on – furnished a hotel room in San Francisco as a gallery, where the visitors could reconstruct the personality and story of an imagined character from the surrounding environment and the objects found there which were continuously changed. (Finally, one of the visitors – suspecting a crime – called the police, and the objects found at the location were confiscated.)
In her In the Track of … project, the artist displays her own time, and with the help of outside visitors, she searches for the most objective point of view of these events. The 2008 photo series titled Sundaygirls turns this self-critical logic once again into a personal one, where Luca Gőbölyös catches a few moments of her own Sundays. The snapshots of the events are similarly uninteresting for the viewer in terms of the occurrence as in the case of In the Track of …: the photographer doesn’t do anything else, just fixes her situation in space. However, the images show fragmented spaces once again: the proportions of the body are distorted in the mirror or due to the perspective, the glance is blurred, the gaze is blocked out by a plant. There are no clearly drawn spaces, just signs – suddenly the message on a run down dishwasher appears – and unimportant seconds, from which, nevertheless at the end, the time spent on Sunday is assembled.
Her series titled Lenticular Images, is assembled from complete images, however despite this it gives a blurred overall picture about the past. Gőbölyös places three childhood photos of herself next to each other according to the working of the so called “blinking valet’s” flipsign-like mechanism – a popular item for her generation that burnt into the memory of many as the ultimate embodiment of (childhood) desire. Therefore, there can only be three pictures seen simultaneously, with a childhood scene. The three juxtaposed pictures present three perspectives of a life story for the viewer, as separate layers with a short subjective commentary accompanying. The photos taken from the family album and presented to the public don’t just mean a time travel to the past of the artist or her entire generation, but together with the text added as another layer – similarly to the series With as well as Without You – it is a kind of conjuration of spirits. The visual and textual comments relate to past just as the recalled memories relate to the evoker’s present in Berlin Childhood by Walter Benjamin. However, remembrance here is melancholic and extremely sober at the same time. As a result of the mingled layers, the individual pieces of the series give the impression of a comic strip in a poetic biography, where the private photo used only shows to the slightest possible degree that the flashback happens in the era of mass- and multimedia.
One of the themes of I Want to Get Married! from 2009, is indeed about the relationship of mass-media and traditions. In the presentation of love practices, we find the visual preliminaries of Gőbölyös once again among the classic photo-stills of the 1920s-30s; the carefully arranged antique tools are from this time – or rather from the earlier piping days of peace. The other visual parallel is the food photography of the recent years, decades. Besides the feminist, media-criticism, and photo-history levels, the photo series and the accompanying video is mainly about desires once again: the spelling practices and the traditional advices sometimes strengthen and sometimes disguise the desire-fulfilling function of pictures.
Looking at the foregoing works of Luca Gőbölyös, starting off from the concept of time, the important conceptual junctions can be disentangled, and their visual representation can become graspable. The physical nature of the human body and its changes, identity, the memory written into the body, space, objects, and remembrance – where they can also be read from – the visualization of desires, the conjuration of spirits – timeliness lays at the bottom of all the fundamental concepts in Gőbölyös’ works delivered through different mediums. Thoughts appear in a varied way in between the counterparts of hiding and self-revelation, blurriness and blinding sharpness, torso and a yearning for completeness, poesies and construction. And there isn’t one single consequent system behind the diversity. Pale doesn’t always mean the past, sharp doesn’t always point at the present, the constant is merely a photo-principle of placing layers onto each other.
Genre Criticism and the Critical Use of the Medium
Genre Criticism and the Critical Use of the Medium
Luca Gőbölyös finished her studies at the former University of Art and Design, Institute of Design in 1992. She has established her connection to photography as a medium with her graduation project. Her series titled Painted Still Lives shows it well that she does not want to accept the customary procedures without criticism; rather, she wants to experiment with photography in such a way that in the meanwhile it remains attached to the traditions of art history.
There are rather few in contemporary Hungarian art who would reach out to the medium of photography in this way. On the other hand, we could even find archetypes of this among the American and European artists of the earlier decades. What really differentiates the creating process of Gőbölyös from others’ is the way she expands the horizon of possible interpretation of the chosen subject with the help of technical solutions. She also accomplishes a kind of meta-critique by choosing the characteristics of the genre, and by applying those in a deliberately inadequate way.
Her works so far can be viewed and interpreted from many different angles; from that of contemporary art, female art, reading it from the angle of the body as a medium, or from a personal, autobiographical point of view. Finally, it can of course also be read from the angle of genre criticism and the critical use of medium.
Luca Gőbölyös takes notice of the limits of the technique, within which the quality of photography is in close connection with the technical parameters, and which compose an important part of the image’s aesthetical appearance. However, she steps over these limits, and ignores the technical aspects as aesthetically constructive elements of the work. Indeed, at times, she establishes new qualities exactly by breaking these technical rules. She also questions the validity of these rules, she steps over them, she establishes “new” rules or malpractices, and she defines the ignoring of these rules as a peculiar rule.
The critical usage of technique also means that the options of the photographer are traditionally limited in certain genres. In this case, we are no longer talking about a mere technical question, but also about a query of genre. Nevertheless, the emphasis is mainly on how she can break away from these traditions and how she questions their validity approaching the creation from the direction of a much older tradition, and stepping out from the substance of narrowly interpreted photography. By this later one, we mostly mean that never canonized but generally accepted principle which states that certain technical aspects always need to come across. Such aspects can be the sharpness/blurriness, the depth of field, the richness of tones, or their deliberate reduction, the handling of light, the handling of casted shadows and shadows of the self, certain compositional principles, the definition of image sections, etc. Although these limits have been forced open after the “anti-photography” era of pictorialism in the 1920s, that period later proved to be mainly a short transition, merely an episode. There have always been deliberate and provocative violators of rules in Hungarian photography – who mostly remained within the limits, and doubted the universal validity of these rules – but only in the rarest occasions did they want to reach over the limits of photography.
Gőbölyös, on the other hand, observed these rules from an outside position while she relied on art history traditions. She established her relation to them by sometimes accepting them, at times deliberately violating them or simply leaving them out of account, considering them non-existent. In this way, she shakes off the pressure – even if it means denying them – to conform to them.
Genre is not a unequivocal concept in contemporary photography. In both applied photography and art photography, the traditional labels borrowed from the art of painting appear, supplemented by such new categories as fashion and editorial photography, documentarism or narrative photography. However, such labels – which concepts can also indicate a kind of style – as private photography or new documentarism, cannot be left out of account. It is questionable, how relevant the separation of these accepted genres is today, as they can appear for instance within the aforementioned documentarism or within the so called narrative photography. Just as it can happen the other way around; documentalist – as an indicator of genre – can be referred to works within the circle of genres that are considered traditional. Although genre criticism cannot be consequently traced back in all of her works – it cannot be considered a general principle which defines her creative process – nevertheless, there are several works that were created by her in the past two decades which are worth examining from this angle as well.
Luca Gőbölyös does not only use the genres known for professional photography. For her, the tourist’s photographic memories, the police investigator’s documentary photos, or the documentary photos which also follow the methods of ethnographical research, and even recent new genres/trends such as those digital images which are intended for internet diaries are just as important. In a way, we could include the use of those found photographs here as well, as a more and more prevailing new “genre” (within which of course we will find the traditional genres of art, such as the portrait, the landscape and the genre picture, or even the still lives which appear in other ways as well in Gőbölyös’ s art). She places the genre itself – or indeed, the unconventional choice of the genre – in the middle, in such a way that she questions the general framework of interpretations of these genres, or by pointing out the contradictions within them (e.g.: in the case of blogs or tourist photographies). Indeed, these frames of the genre merely act as frames for the questioning which is formulated in her works.
One of the most mature and most complex works of Luca Gőbölyös – in terms of its technique and its possible interpretations – is her constantly growing series composed of lenticular prints. This technology has been in use since the end of the 1940s, and in Hungary we mainly remember it form the so called “winking valets”. The essence of the technology is that we see a different picture depending on the angle of the gaze. These images can be completely different from each other, or they can produce an illusion of motion. Gőbölyös chose the earlier option, that is, she used such images which at first glance only have one thing in common: they are all related to the childhood of the artist. There are old family photos, group photos from the school (class photos), portraits, ID photos from old transportation IDs, so called private photos, and images taken for a representational purpose. Nevertheless, the pictures of the family album and the photos from school are there mainly to help remembering, they function as a “memory-prosthesis”. The artist refers back to this by employing these old photos while moving within “this genre”. The fundamental questions of the work are: what exactly is the memory of the individual, what is its relation to the collective remembrance of society, how do we remember, and how can we remember something which is composed of moments of our own life? Also, in connection with these, it also questions how we can understand these snippets of memory, these fractioned images, and how they are assembled into unified memory. After a while, we are unable to decide which ones are truly ours and which ones are the ones that we learnt about from others or through the photographs, to assimilate them as our own. The question ultimately arises; how should we or how are we allowed to remember, that is, how do photos direct our memories, to what extent do they strengthen or refute our own memories, to what extent are they coherent? Gőbölyös ties her own memories to the photos, and tells short stories with them – some of which she could only have learnt about later on. The text becomes the commentary of the image it interprets and contextualizes them within explicit borders. No matter how personal these photographs are (if such family photos can even be considered personal at all) and no matter how official and formal the group and portrait photos are, they clearly indicate the visual memory of that era, its visual world, and the system of relations which characterized the time when they were taken. They are the visual self-representations of that era’s society.
That is exactly why technique plays such a key role in the meaning of the work, and why it is not merely arbitrary. Several of the images can be see one by one from a certain angle, and all of them can be seen together from one peculiar angle. Due to this, the memories which can be identified by certain photographs and the short textual “remembrances” accompanying them can be viewed either independent of each other, or simultaneously together; thereby conforming the act of viewing to the act of remembrance. As memories are revived, and by time as they are projected onto each other, they melt into a consistent image, supplemented by verbal information and by the memories formulated by the individual. On the other hand, these images which are projected onto each other, and which can be seen together simultaneously, never become a single sharp image. There is something constantly present which interferes with our perception. The image is perplexed at times; it is not easy to understand what we are seeing. It is also the case with memories as well, where it is not certain that we can clearly recall something, or separate our “memories” coming from different sources from each other; distinguishing our own snippets of memories from those ready-mades received from others. And from the viewer’s point of view, he has a chance to play a game, to try out how his own remembrance works.
In the case of her series Untitled from 2000, the aspects of technique and genre are woven into a unified texture in a similarly complex way. Two bodies – the bodies of an elderly and a young woman – can be seen simultaneously in the mounting of the see-through synthetic resin. However, we are only confronted with the bodies on these six nudes, the faces and the rest of the heads remain invisible to us. The identity is unimportant. It is not someone’s body that is in the limelight, but the notion of aging and beyond that: the female body. As in the case of family and school photographs, the memory reaches back to the images of the past, in this case as well, there is a potential citation and connection of the past with the present through the photograph. The relations of these two images cannot only be interpreted from the angle of remembrance, but it can also be understood as a kind of projection which points towards a possible future. The body carries the signs of time with it in the form of transformations that come with aging.
The skin on the human body – besides its essential functions – in this case is a cover, an overlay, an outer layer, just like the emulsion over the base. Luca Gőbölyös uses this emulsion in such a way that first she gets rid of the original body, and then provides a new place, a new body. It was a widespread procedure in the 19th century to transfer the emulsion dissolved from its original base to another substance. Not only does Gőbölyös apply the emulsion to a new surface, but she also embeds it into the new material. It is therefore no longer just a mere surface, because hidden inside the material it is preserved from outer impacts; it is conserved. The material – synthetic resin – is transparent, and it allows us to see what is inside. It contains it, but it does not hide it; it does not restrict its presence. There is something absurd about this. The base of the image is present in such a way that it basically remains invisible, and the presence of the material is only explicit in a specific light. The image is present in such a way that the medium, the base – as the body of the image – can be completely disconnected while perceiving it. It demands attention through this lack, which it insures through the conflict created by the body of the image and the sight of the image. Gőbölyös plays a tricky game here with the medium (in all senses) and our perception. She strips off the “skin” from the film in order to conserve it, to preserve it from decay, from aging. The base stands naked in front of us, just as the body on the picture.
The play with the medium as a base, as material, and as the body of the image gets an especially important role, and thereby, she makes her attitude to the different interpretations, and to the photograph as a medium, clear. By doing so, she secures an intensive presence for the medium, due to which we are constantly forced to take notice of it. The viewer cannot forget about the fact even for a single moment, that he is facing an image. An image, whose base material is present in the work with at least the same intensity as the spectacle itself.
This relationship to the “material” of the image can be traced back even in earlier works of Gőbölyös, but the earliest example is her series titled Painted Still Lives, where she does away with the familiar and unambiguous transparency of the base of the photograph (its body) by the “modification” of the emulsion and by coloring. She does similarly with her portrait series of transvestites, when she ravages the raw material and thereby the image itself. Her works made while in Brighton could also be mentioned, where the material, the chosen base (schematic human shaped coat-hanger, bed-linen) is always in close relationship with the question which is asked by the artist. What really differentiates the images of Untitled from the technical procedures of her earlier works is that she terminates the base here; she separates and makes the image independent of it. It is exactly through this lack that she prompts the viewer to realize the necessity of the presence of the medium itself, without which the image cannot exist. Gőbölyös makes use of the possibilities that the lack of the medium provides in an even more radical way in another one of her works. The original documentation (the photographs) of
In the Track of…, and the installation of which the images were once taken, no longer exists. Only that another one is there, which proves the existence of the previous and the one before that. Therefore, only the memory of the body’s image remains, which could be helped to recall by other photographs, but those no longer carry this original body with them. The qualities of that are dissolved in these newer images; they became identical or equivalent to them.
The images of her work titled The Shadow Traveler were made in New York in 2001, and then as a continuation in Budapest in 2002. The most popular and sought-after tourist destinations are presented in both cities. It is by no mistake, because the main concept of Gőbölyös here is to walk into the field of the photos exactly when they are taken by tourists. The tourist will not even realize anything of this action in some cases, as in most cases masses of people walking in the background appear on their photographs anyway. What is important to them is to fixate their folks and the motive chosen for a background. In reality, these carefully composed pictures – ones which do not overwrite the conventional schemes, but they accept them and use them – are in fact considered spoiled images, because a disturbing factor intrudes the clichés, which the family members on the images will only come to notice once they have seen the picture themselves. The image, which was taken to help recall the moment, is complemented by such a new element which – despite of the intention of the taker – directs remembrance in a different direction. In the case of Gőbölyös, this is expressed by the fact that she introduced herself to those, whose photographs she has ruined. Therefore, she and her entire concept became a part of their memories, placing the family images into another dimension.
Not only did the artist undermine the ritual activity of the tourist through her carefully arranged action – by disturbing the customary and routine procedures of the photographing and posing people – but she also provided an opportunity to make them or the viewers of the shots in the future aware of the notion which attracted even the surrealist artists to the procedures of photography. At the moment of the exposition, there are numerous things that can become part of the photograph, and the picture’s taker is not aware and cannot be aware of the presence and existence of these things. She can establish a relationship with the other motifs of the image; a connection which can only be considered existent in the context of the photograph, however, through these, the different elements can receive another meaning. Therefore, the viewer of the image only learns about the presence and the constructive function of the artist, as well as his own role in the creation of the work, with a delay. The artist, on the other hand, becomes a part of the family story and the memories of the travel that are formulated in the future.
The work however, does not take its shape in the form of the photographs taken by the tourists. It is because during the action, another person was present whose task was to take a picture of the moment when the traveler makes an exposure at the sight. The world seen on this instructed photograph is – theoretically – absolutely synchronous with the one on the other picture – although the two images cannot be completely identical. While the work itself is not identical to those that document the action, the art product would not be accessible without these for the viewer. Nevertheless, not only can the presence of the artist be seen on these documentary shots, but also the family photograph itself with its immediate context (the person taking the picture as well). From Gőbölyös’ point of view, besides the action, the connection-building and the opportunity for a fictional travel, the question of authorship also bears importance. She doubly documents her own action; with the help of the traveler’s photographs and with the pictures taken by the person who is helping her. One of them is a documentary photograph and the other is a family picture.
At the end, it is only the former one which is accessible to the visitors of the exhibition, the later one is scattered around the world, waiting for the attention of a different kind of audience. The photos that look deliberately like an amateur picture do not just simply refer to the captions of the travelers. At the same time, they also cite the principles of schematic composition, the impression of the archetypes by the choice of location, the technical deficiencies and the lesser and greater faults as well. The photograph as image, as an independent work, is pushed into the background compared to the composition. It becomes portentous; they only wish to depict the situation, to show the image as proof of presence. In the meanwhile, it is also about the main gesture of photography; the act of taking a photograph, about “immortalizing”, about the desire to fixate the moment experienced with all of its contingencies, which contains schematicness, and which is about that magical effect that the finished picture has on the viewer. At the same time, it denies that certain visual qualities would necessarily point out the place of photography in the field of arts, and that these qualities are indispensable in order to decipher the work in this context.
The same kind of ambition can be observed in her series Our Seasonally Patron Saints – which she has been constantly composing since 2000 – and Domestic Animals from 2007. In both cases, the liberating feeling of spontaneity (or the semblance of that) is paired with the passion of collecting, while the author also questions the conventional interpretation of a finished work. That is, these series of images can be expanded at will with new elements, and they can be exhibited in different selections according to the given preferences. We encounter a similar situation in the case of Sundaygirls as well, which talks about the personal experiences of a woman in the weekend in a potentially endless series. This series also points it out how photography changed in recent years due to the diversity of possibilities in digital photography, and due to the changed practices of circulating and sharing images in digital stocks (as the taker of the photograph – in a direct or indirect way – captures her environment and thereby herself as well). Instead of the world surrounding the taker of the photograph, the existing other, or the taker herself – just like those stories where she is the protagonist – becomes more and more present in an emphasized way within the designated space.
It could be interpreted as a kind of visual diary, however, the chronological sequence is completely uninteresting, and it is impossible to reconstruct it. Nevertheless, we encounter obvious references to the photographs of the rampant blog-sphere, and to the visual world of the “photographs” that appear on social networks.
It is by this exactly, that this series complements the images and the artistic program of the lenticular series. At this later one, the artist recreates her former self within a given social structure by placing memories next to each other, and by complementing them with other people’s memories, data that are considered historical facts, and additional information. She reassembles her own representation by having her own image reflected by others. However, in Sundaygirls, she creates this (in reality, the representation of a fictional character) with the help of the reflections provided by the great number of surfaces found in the surroundings of the artist. Thereby, she also calls attention to the notion how different correspondences and differences are manifested in the way we see and display ourselves compared to how we would like to see ourselves.
These reflections are directly accessible; the insertion of the camera only provides the deceitful impression to both the taker and the viewer that these images are objective. The photograph has always been a suitable tool for the individual to help recreate his own representation (an image as one thinks about himself) for himself and for his surroundings. Here however, what becomes the center of the ambition is how we strive to create these self-images, how we try to look after and maintain them, and how we try to expand their range through the use of available technology. What’s new is of course not hidden in the way one dresses, acts, tries to identify himself with the help of adopted habits, or tries to create his own identity. Rather, it is hidden in the way how he proclaims these abroad, and makes it accessible to others through the World Wide Web. Whether we are talking about a continuous role-play, or about someone immersing in a fiction for a weekend, both of these mainly hold significance to the self. The initiation of the “audience” only becomes indispensible for her as an acknowledgement. The images in the Sundaygirls series bring these essential motifs to the surface in such a way that they show them within the frameworks of different genres.
Gőbölyös points out the peculiar nature of these (photographic) situations from different aspects, with the use of the characteristics of body images (such as nudes), images of memory, private images, and snapshots. Her central motive is the play with reflections, and that she always counts on the inevitable appearance of this reflected image.
These reflections are also the metaphors of the artist’s creative ambitions and artistic program, with a constant reference to that reflexive relationship which pervades her actions, whether we are talking about the medium which she uses or the substance in which she works as an artist.