Much has been written about the figure of the flâneur, unconcerned and erratic, who wanders, his attention floating around our great cities; an attention and a gaze that capture the signs of the times, small quotidian mythologies that encapsulate their dispersion rather than their meaning. The flâneur emerges as a symptom of modern life precisely between the two catastrophic wars of the first half of the 20th century. But this stroller is not necessarily just an urban figure, the usual image we have from Walter Benjamin, or from the short gem by Joseph Roth, “Going for a walk”, in What I saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933. If we normally imagine the flâneur gazing into shop windows or crossing great commercial galleries and arcades, it is because citizens’ lives had recently experienced that cataclysmic upheaval we are still paying for.
In W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, the narrator is also a walker, but one whose wanderings lead him through other non-urban spaces. His ramblings, also subject to a capricious logic rather than to any preset method of investigation, take him along the roads of Suffolk, on the east coast of England. However, what appears before the eyes of this rural flâneur on his walks is not merely the present, nor simply nature, but rather a historied landscape full of signs and footprints from other times: “Near Brighton, I was once told, not far from the coast, there were two copses that were planted after the Battle of Waterloo in remembrance of that memorable victory”. The landscape is thus presented as a constellation of remains that as vestiges —not only materials— allow him to trace a network of unexpected connections between elements which only seem to be distant and unrelated. Aspects of and events from the history of Europe —and of actions far removed from there and their perverse effects on other peoples on distant continents— that make up a suspected but unforeseen reticule. Sebald’s perspective is not incoherent with that of Roth, to whose strolls I have alluded. While Roth’s writings are guided by his distracted gaze as a flâneur in Berlin, at the end of his chronicle he finds himself at the edge of the city where it meets the countryside; but again, not the natural world of which romanticism speaks: “At the edge of the city, however, where they say nature begins, nature itself is not to be found, but rather the nature of textbooks”.1
Sebald’s book, like his other publications, is strewn with black-and-white photographs. These are anonymous photographs, the origins of which we are rarely told. Many are landscapes; others depict events or people connected in some way to the landscape —remote, more often than not— in time and space. These photographs have no captions, but Sebald’s writings serve as explanations. In any event, these images do not illustrate the text; they might be better described as hinges on which the narrative hangs. We might say that Sebald’s narrative is no other than the decompression, the unfolding, of what is cryptically condensed within the photographs.
As though some sort of pre-established harmony were at play, Sebald’s writing style is accompanied by a certain photographic practice. What unites very dissimilar authors, without connected biographies, is the current widespread prestige —not only gnoseological, but also moral and even political— enjoyed by memory of the past, also known as postmemory. This is not a completely new tendency, although it is now widely shared, which suggests that chronicling what we are today necessarily entails references to what we were in the past. This was not always the case; neither was our relationship with time, nor with past time, nor how we think of our identity in close connection with it. For this reason, memory and oblivion have turned into a battlefield.
Campos de Batalla (Battlefields) is precisely the name of a well-known series by photographers Bleda and Rosa. This tendency, however, which we might call archaeological, is also found in the early work of Axel Hütte or in the industrial landscapes of Bernd and Hilla Becher, to give just a few examples. They clearly cannot be reduced to one and the same thing. While traces of the romantic perception of landscape and ruins can be found in Hütte, the Bechers prioritise analogy and formal analysis of the tectonics of artefacts from the second industrial revolution, now icons associated with their name. However, perhaps the work of the two photographers Maria Bleda and José Maria Rosa, contemporaries of Pascual Arnal in the School of Fine Arts of Valencia, best express this tendency, which has sharpened over the years. While in their Campos de Batalla series they approach the greened-over silent spaces that antonomastically represent the sites of historical mythologies, in their subsequent series this archaeological perspective has become literal. What they seek in the Origen series are the landscapes where enquiries took place to decipher the process of hominisation from the 19th century onwards. Thus, forests and bleak uplands, valleys and ravines bear names such as “Hombre de Java”, “Paranthropus boisei”, “Mandíbula de Sitges”, etc. But perhaps the Ciudades (Cities) and Memoriales (Memorials) series are where the camera most thoroughly serves the purposes of historical memory enquiry: the social frameworks of memory, its monumentalisation, its embodiment in spaces and cities, the conflictive relationship between memory and oblivion, the latent trauma underlying the fabric of cities paradigmatic of the horrors of contemporary wars… All their images are steeped in this determination, so contemporary, to scrutinise the ways by which we constitute and use the past. Gradually one comes to believe one is witnessing the debates, expressed in images, in recent historiography on the uses and abuses of memory.
Pascual Arnal’s Containers bear no trace of this perspective. The first reaction they provoke is one of a certain awe, an interpretive bewilderment. While it is true that they include some landscape photographs —or images of architectural features in Les paraules— that might easily be found in the works of some of the aforementioned photographers, the meaning he sets out to convey is completely different. What distinguishes these photographs is their relationship with past time, with memory. In one sense, as Michel Frizot argues, it is true that by its very nature every photograph is “of history” in that it creates a particular type of document, which is the substance of History, not of the flow and evanescence of life. But we must distinguish between history (as past time) and History (as a discipline that provides knowledge about past time). And it is certain that although the relationship between photography and History goes back a long way, it has not always been the same relationship, nor without its particular conflicts. While German historicism set out to curtail the temporal continuum, photography at that time endeavoured to render an account of the spatial continuum. But, and rightly so, when the historiographic conceptions changed, this ambition was regarded as sterile and therefore out of place.
One of its critics was Siegfried Kracauer. In his invaluable article on photography in Frankfurter Zeitung in 1927 he states that photographs did not enable one to know the past, but only the spatial configuration of one instant: “But were it not for the oral tradition, the image alone would not have sufficed to reconstruct the grandmother”2. And in his essay two years later, The Salaried Masses, he returned to the theme: “a hundred reports from a factory do not add up to the reality of the factory, but remain for all eternity a hundred views of the factory. Reality is a construction”.
That reality is a construction, not something handed to us, is one of the unavoidable acquisitions of all the new History from the Annales school. For this reason, Pierre Nora made the extreme claim that photography not only continued to provide documents for History, but it had become the analogon of our relationship with the past; a relationship, he argued, of discontinuity, composed of a mix of distance and approximation, of radical remoteness and disturbing face to face…: “what we ask of the photographer or the historian is of the same order: a short-circuit effect, a hallucination”.
However Pierre Nora’s claims are perplexing if we take into account the effect of reality that the photograph usually entails. As R. Barthes’ happy formula puts it, it seems that “the referent adheres to the photograph” (Barthes 1980 p80), as though the copy and its referent were stuck to each other. “In photography,” he continues, “I can never deny that the thing has been there”; the noema of the photograph seems to be a “that-has-been”, and indisputable synthesis of reality and truth. The exact opposite of an effect that leads us to suspect that reality is a construction.
How, therefore, can it be said that photography is the analogon of our recent historical relationship with the past? Isn’t the new History characterised precisely by its questioning of the referentiality of historical narratives? Or put another way: faced with the aspirations of historicism, in Ranke’s words, to show “how things really happened” isn’t the common thread running through the new History the conviction that brute facts do not exist, that no “fact” exists that has not been elaborated, constructed, categorised and interpreted? That there are no facts other than those which provide the backbone for and constitute the thread of the narrative?
Specifically, the randomness of the subjects of Pascual Arnal photographs, the diversity of their spatial-temporal origins —taken since 2005 in Tokyo, Berlin, London, New York, Madrid, Barcelona and his hometown of Vila-real— the diversity of his subjects, the plurality of genres they might fall within (landscape, portrait…) and the differences in how they are captured (posed and unposed) produce that short-circuit effect Nora referred to. It is difficult here, given the heterogeneity and juxtaposition of their context, to find a narrative thread on which to hang them, and therefore the referent is suspended, the reality effect diminished and the “that-has-been” left floating, tainted with uncertainty. We could say “Yes, that was, but what was it?” Hence, the sign is underlined and the meaning left in suspense.
Pascual Arnal has said that while not objecting to the beauty and delicacy of the work of Candida Höfer, who studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher, what he does not share is her aspiration to objectivity; an objectivity that, paradoxically, wanted to avoid the objection Benjamin made in his Short History of Photography to his inaugural predecessor, Renger-Patzsch in Die Welt is schön. There, Benjamin states that advocates of New Objectivity perform a type of photography that can introduce any box of preserves —in other words, any object— in space, but that it does not capture the human relationships in which it is embedded. However, Candida Höfer’s photographs do not generally place any object in space; rather space itself is the subject of her theme; moreover, it is the spaces (historical libraries, stages…) in which specific relationships between power and knowledge have been forged, that might satisfy Benjamin’s objection. However, her aspirations to objectivity are demonstrated in her stated wish to include the norms of reading and interpretation in the scene of the photographic presentation itself, in such a way that, without doubt, the gaze is firmly fixed only on the singleness of what is set before it. Yes, here there is an aristocratic library in the enlightened Weimar in the times of the Grand Duke Karl Augustus, in the reign of Frederick the Great; yes, the enlightened society was a court society; yes, power begets knowledge… we tell ourselves knowing, learnt beforehand, the lesson of Foucault.
In contrast, the photographic composition of this book does not allow for this type of reading; it shuns previous patterns, and their imposition. Neither when seen individually, nor together in their combined layout do these images afford such semantic security. What predominates here, I repeat, is not a singleness of meaning but rather interpretative uncertainty. Expressed in classical terms: fantasy. The fantasy of each individual, which triggers meaning in numerous directions.
In other words, here it is pertinent to refer to what R. Barthes says in a very different context; to the thread of his criticism of what in Mythologies he calls Photoschocs. On seeing some horrific photographs in an exhibition, Barthes stated that each time we see this type of photograph we are divested of our judgement; let’s say that it is felt, thought and judged for us. The photograph has left nothing for us; all that remains is subordination to acquiescence. Loaded with what Barthes calls the artist’s “over-indications” we can no longer come up with our own reception, since it has been created entirely by the photographer. Lacking ambiguity, the perfect legibility of the scene prevents the viewer from receiving the image in all its profundity: “reduced to the sate of pure language, the photograph does not disorganise us”, Barthes stated.
Before the last continent was discovered, maps referred to the lands assumed to lie to the south of New Zealand as Terra australis incognita. Terra incognita or terra ignota were the terms used to denote unexplored areas of the planet, and as such, unmapped territories; in other words, devoid of a representative order that would allow codified reading. Next to these on the maps, dragons or impossible beasts were drawn, which tended to be outlandish syntheses of what was already known; that is, projections of fantasy. Pascual Arnal’s Containers, as regards terra incognita, leaves us clearly on a perceptive threshold of our entire responsibility, of our freedom it would be fair to say. This is the short circuit, the hallucination of which Nora spoke. The story we construct will indeed be fiction, but it is down to us to construct it, he simply proposes. Each one of us should take the (interpretive) risk of exploring it.
Nicolás Sánchez Durá
1 Translated from the Spanish version of Sebald’s book.
2 Translation by Thomas Y. Levin. Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Spring, 1993), p. 423, The University of Chicago Press.