The Invention of the Real

The art of the Sanchez Brothers published in The Moment of Rupture/L’Instant de la Rupture

Dressed all in light blue, a young girl gazes out at us from a platform in a beauty-contest. Seated in his workshop, a taxidermist pauses, his face pensive. In deep water, sinking, a young woman is drowned in dark shadows. Whether their inspiration draws on stories passed on by word of mouth, items found in the news, or personally lived experiences; at heart, the work of Carlos and Jason Sanchez is always driven by the real, the concrete. Family, everyday places, intimate relations –these are the subjects most favored by these two young Spanish-Canadian brothers who have been collaborating for the past few years. For them, the eeriness of the day-to-day world is in the end less frightening than it is fascinating –for here, to break one spell is merely to cast another one.

At the respective ages of 25 and 30, Jason and Carlos are part of a generation for which photography no longer needs to obtain its artistic credentials –along with sculpture and painting, it can be counted among the Fine Arts. Photography serves to represent the real, but now it is fully authorized to invent the real. The time has come for artists to profit from the mimetic nature of photography so as to better illuminate that which, in the universe of apparent phenomena, remains invisible. As André Rouillé remarked in his work La Photographie; “Vis-à-vis the photographer concerned with reproducing forms, or with the photographer-artist who seeks to invent new ones, the artist makes use of photography as a mimetic material for caturing forces,” [1] so as to, “make one see that there is something that we can conceive and that we can neither see, nor reveal.” [2]

With a suspicious attitude towards ideologies intended to question other ideologies, Jason and Carlos Sanchez fit into a new paradigm of artistic creation, evident since the 1990s, that is no longer beholden to the critical process of deconstructing images. Unlike artists who have elevated the status of photography, the Sanchez Brothers’ aim is not to critique images in themselves. Nor do they target their history for being laden with values that supported systemic oppression of sexual, racial, and economic minorities. Accordingly, in relation to the artistic heritage of emblematic figures such as Cindy Sherman, the present generation seems less akin to utopian or radical ambitions than to their modes of work and aesthetic vocabulary. In any case, if today’s artists have made their own the costly practice of elaborate mise en scène, they do so not in order to produce “signs of signs,” but to re-engage reality. Although their images can make one think of altar pieces or family snapshots, their purpose is not to attack the ideology that underlies these formats and their history, but rather to make the spectator recognize and be moved by the presented works.

Above all, the Sanchez’ expressive enterprise is essentially poetical. They are not informed by some lack of faith in reality, but rather by a desire to play with appearances. The brothers try to go beyond the mere shape of things so as to attain their essence. This aspect of their work relates it to the documentary practice that believes in “the reality of reality,” and seeks to unveil the hidden state of things.[3] Just as the myth of documentary photography relies on the idea of capturing the singular moment when the real reveals its essence, the Sanchez brothers also seem to be holding vigil for this imaginary instant where a breach opens in the crust of the visible. However, whereas the edifice of documentary photography is essentially an open and shot case, the works of the Sanchez’ are based on a particular –and protracted– method of creation.

To better understand the originality as well as the traditional traits that qualify the photographic process developed and practiced by the Sanchez brothers, two analogies come to mind; on the one hand, oil painting, with its slow and reflexive elaboration; on the other, collage, with its use of various materials and fragmentary construction. Any work chosen at random from the brothers’ corpus would probably be the fruit of entire months of preparation. The construction of sets to size, the expertise of technical advisors and special-effects workers, the odd use of a stuntman, and most commonly, friends or actors chosen for their appearance –all these factors contribute to the possibility of greater reflection on the contents and form of the piece, all in order to obtain an optimal control on the conditions of production. In the same way a painter can stand back from his easel and alter or retouch his canvas as often as he feels the need, during the production period that precedes their photo-shoots, the Sanchez brothers try to engineer the perfect images they conceive on the fly, adding, subtracting, and re-thinking their constitutive elements. For this reason, though an apt parallel can be established with the practices of film-production –in that they share a number of infrastructures and technology– the photographic mise en scène as practiced by the Sanchez’ in fact has more in common with painting than cinema.[4] Moreover, contrary to the American photographer Gregory Crewdson [5] or their elder compatriot and inspiration, Jeff Wall [6], the Sanchez brothers do not aspire to see their pieces register within the framework of cinematic practices.

Although photography and cinema have a common nature and can sometimes share expressive strategies, cinema is founded on the technique of montage, so as to create an illusion of temporal and spatial continuity, whereas photography deals with images that are isolated and frozen.[7] This is even more the case with the Sanchez’, who eschew making series of images, preferring instead to create single, unique works.

As artists, the Sanchez brothers are interested in the visual field offered by the photographic image because it allows for networks of lines, forms and colors to enter into semantic resonance. Most important is the visual rhythm and harmony of the composition, so as to develop metaphorical complexes in which any dramatic outcome remains suspended in favor of a feeling of uncertainty. Photography could well be the territory of what André Breton called “l’explosante-fixe” in Crazy Love.[8] In effect, photography labors and creates on the edges of solidified moments, in the intervals between two durations, with directions that cannot be determined. A photograph is a source of semantic proliferation that reifies and redirects itself according to the revelation of its reception. The imagination of the spectator constitutes its veritable arena, as it is thanks to –and by way of– this personal archive where meaning is always actualized and renewed in different ways.[9] Here we could cite Theodora Vischer writing about the works of Jeff Wall: “Despite the perfection of production and their saturated presence, they are in essence fragments that leave things open and unexplained.”[10] In their early works such as Pink Bathroom (2001) and While You Were SleepingPart II (2002), a narrative perspective is introduced by the insinuation of an enigma to be solved, their more recent works such as Natural Selection (2005) and Crematorium (2006) are more poetical, and adopt the spatio-temporal logic of key works of classical painting based both on gesture and the simultaneous presence of successive moments in a single pictorial space.

It is during the post-production phase, when the images are subjected to manipulation, that the second process, namely collage, comes into play. Even though photographers working with analogue photography have always had recourse to altering and manipulating their images, the use of digital tools permits an unprecedented degree of refinement. With any given photograph, if the initial production does not serve to elaborate their mental images, the Sanchez brothers are able to create them, thanks to the precision of their digital palette. Though no surface inspection could jeopardize the integrity of their spatial and optical illusions, a photo such as A Motive For Change (2004) is actually composed of four different images, selected, combined, and arranged to best represent Jason and Carlos’ vision. Without any apparent seams, their images are made up of digital collages.[11] However, whereas the genesis and apogee of this technique are part of the tradition of the historical avant-gardes –that is, critical vis-à-vis the canons of western art– the manner in which this method is reinterpreted coincides with and contributes to the return of a traditional conception of the arts, embodied here across two characteristics of the pictorial practice, accretion and dissimulation.[12]

Yet, if this semantic strategy employed by the Sanchez brothers rests on the sheer impossibility of assigning a definite meaning to their images, what is their intended point? Of course, we have the pleasure of colors, forms, and composition –take, for example, Overflowing sink (2002). Returning to the introduction of Vischer regarding the work of All. As she has written: “What makes them so fascinating is that each picture seems to tell a very special and unique story, but one that remains enigmatic and alien despite the familiarity of the subject matter.”[13] Similarly, each of the Sanchez brothers’ works speaks of a particular history, a private destiny that seems to touch us –and yet not only because we recognize familiar situations or usual places. The fact is, it is simply impossible to determine precisely when during a chain of events the depicted moment is supposed to have occurred. For example, in The Baptism (2003), is it the contact with the crown of the child that causes the water to change into blood? (Is the child cleansed of his original sin?) Or is it, on the contrary, the water running down his crown that wounds him and brings the blood gushing forth? (Would sin here then be the true act of baptism?) So it is quite possible to formulate two contradictory hypotheses. It is exactly here where we find the power of these works: they create room for hesitation that lead the spectator to experience the feeling of alienation that seems to both temper and afflict the depicted characters. Thus, unlike what Vischer seems to insinuate about the work of Wall, there is no contradiction between these subjects’ familiarity and the emotions experienced in contemplating them. The way in which the Sanchez’ represent certain familiar subjects and invent their reality renders visible a malaise so mundane that it would never make headlines. It would be too easy to relegate their work and that of others of their generation in the camp of the follower of “art for art’s sake,” of an art of “surface.” If they are fascinated and in turn fascinate us by that which is apparent in life, it is because they wish to break the spell of its façade, and in so doing, expose its depths. Without ever casting judgements, they provoke above all a desire to launch new discussions.

[1] André Rouillé, La Photographie, (Paris: Gallimard, 2005), p. 496.

[2] Jean-François Lyotard, Le Post-moderne expliqué aux enfants, (Paris: Galilée, 1988), p. 26, quoted in Rouillé, Ibidem, p. 497.

[3] This relates the endeavor of the Sanchez with a more genral tendency within the contemporary practice of photography. See TJ Demos, “Introduction: The Ends of Photography,” in Vitamin Ph: New Perspective in Photography, (London: Phaidon Press, 2006), p. 6.

[4] Here we can draw a parallel between the means by which the Sanchez brothers work and the systematic division of labor in Peter Paul Rubens workshop. John Walsh alreadt made the connection with Bill Viola’s video productions. See John Walsh, “El artista en su estudio,” in Bill Viola: Las Horas Invisibles, (Granada: Junta de Andalucia, 2007), p. 13.

[5] Katy Siegel, “The Real World,” in Gregory Crewdson 1985-2001, (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2005), p. 91.

[6] While Jeff Wall has helped to establish photography in the pictorial tradition, he calls a certain number of his works “cinematographic photographs,” a term that the Sanchez’ prefer to avoid applying to their own work. See Jean-François Chevrier, “At home and elsewhere: dialogue à Bruxelles entre Jeff Wall et Jean-François Chevrier” (Septembre 1998) in Jean-François Chevrier, Essais et entretiens 1984-2001, (Bruxelles: Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, 2001), p. 175.

[7] Numerous theoreticians have done their best to define these different categories. E.g. Jacques Aumont, L’oeil interminable: Cinema et peinture, (Paris: Librairie Séguier, 1989).

[8] André Breton, L’Amour Fou (1937), (Paris: Gallimard, 2000), p. 26.

[9] Susan Sontag, Sur la photographie (1977), transation Ph. Blanchard, (Paris: Christian Bourgeois, 2003), p. 37.

[10] Théodora Vischer, “Introduction,” in Jeff Wall: Catalogue Raisonné 1978-2004, (Bâle and Göttingen: Steidl and Schaulager, 2005), p. 10.

[11] It is important to note that during the photosessions themselves, the Sanchez’ do in fact work with traditional film. The digital process only comes into play once the photographs are digitized and then re-worked by computer with the help of a specialist.

[12] Here, collage helps creating a seamless illusion. This could relate the Sanchez’ endeavor with a type of art practice that primarily seeks to cancel the possibility of critical distance between the specator and the work. Yet, as I will argue further, thie doesn’t suppose the imposition of a specific moral or world vision.

[13] Vischer, Ibidem, p. 10.