23 October 2009

The Past is Not What it Used to Be

The walk to the Centro de la Imagen, on the Plaza de La Cuidadela in central Mexico City, took me past 20-foot-high temporary steel barricades and hundreds of police in riot gear, in preparation for a massive protest the same day.

The main exhibition, titled Presencia Flagrante, showcases the work of contemporary photographers Marcos Lopez and Ruben Ortiz Torres. While I’m already a fan of Lopez’ colorful staged scenes, commenting on consumerism and Latino stereotypes, Ortiz Torres’ work was new to me.

This body of work, titled “El pasado ya no es lo que era,” focuses on archeological treasures the photographer has uncovered around the world, including Mayan ruins, an egyptian sarcophagus, and Roman baths. Except that they are fakes.  Upon closer inspection, the Mayan Temple turns out to be a waterslide, part of an amusement park with a historical theme.

While it is clear that these these objects are not authentic, Ortiz Torres printed them in a monochromatic brown tint, that gives the images a museum artifact quality and seriousness.

Ortiz Torres explains on his blog that his intent was to challenge our claim to knowledge about familiar archeological monuments, which he calls a “false truth.” “While the original ruins present us with a false truth,” he writes, “the copies of them are truly false.” In other words, the archeological relics in his photographs are doubly fake, as they are copies of originals that only exist in our imaginations — they mimic not the actual artifacts, but our own dreamlike ideals of lost civilizations of the past.

Ortiz Torres also comments that digital images are made into tangible prints in order to legitimize them as art, fitting conventional expectations. But to limit digital techology to the reproduction of photographs, he writes, is simply to pursue another form of historical reconstruction. Digital technology has vast artistic potential that has only begun to be utilized by fine art photographers. But isn’t Ortiz Torres himself guilty of the same sin? Indeed, he utilizes digital technology to enhance the historical character of his photographs, so that they invite close inspection and seem more at home in the museum environment.

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