on Alberto Garcia Alix

To Lise Weisgerber

I can hear Susan Sontag saying: A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a foot print or a death mask. Then I can hear Roland Barthes: In front of the lens, I am at the same time, the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.

Photography can be a truth and a lie at once, photographic portraits, a performance and an ephemeral truth. Black and white photographs often complicate time. Not all black and white photographs do so, not unbearable documentary photographs or those which consciously try to counteract the nostalgia effect, but those which infuse with gravitas the ephemerality of things. Mourning for the present is already encoded in certain choice for black and white film. If photographs in general are a trace from the real, even when this real is orchestrated, certain black and white photographs embody a hard relationship to the real, as if the real could not be disentangled from fact and its challenge, nor from representation and its tradition. Perhaps Alberto García Alix’s carefully composed photographs, mainly portraits, belong to this order, the choice of black and white being there both for its documentary feel and its promise of classicism, but also for being able to capture a present already perceived as lost. It is through portraits that García Alix documents a site of resistance. It is portraiture as story telling, story telling as autobiography, autobiography as history. They are portraits that tell stories, they are telling portraits.

Fallen angels, dogs and unmade beds. Rockers, junkies, poets, famous and famous to be, unknown artists, musicians, porno stars, people outside normalizing taxonomies of behaviour, people that in a way embody an urban angst constituting themselves into urban myths. These are the people that inhabit García Alix’s vision, a photographic vision primarily made out of frontal portraits that range from close up to medium long shot. García Alix talks about the fact that the portrayed are friends, lovers, acquaintances of his, about the fact that his work is autobiographical. Those who know him, know how inseparable his work is from his life. In this case, given the time these pictures were taken, autobiography becomes inseparable from the historical moment. They are portraits taken for sentimental reasons, they are the loved trace, the fetishized trace of a collective gaze. What kind of stories do these portraits tell? One of the stories is a history lesson. García Alix has become known as the "photographer of the Movida" through his classic black and white portraits of the 1980s and 1990s which document in a complicit manner Madrid's underworld. His photographs start around 1978, the main body going from the 1980s onwards. Franco died in 1975. The country shook off a long disease, it was anxious to explore a new lease of life. It is a time at long last liberated from the reign of a dictatorship that was nevertheless moribund during its last decade, a time of rapid changes, of a longed for democracy, of continuing a truncated project of modernity. Spain enters a democracy when the west is talking about democracy and melancholia, it embraces the modern when the rest of Europe is talking about the postmodern. It is now wide open to foreign influence again. It is a time of artistic euphoria. There is a new tolerance towards drugs and sex. There is an explosion of creative activity, a will to create from within. It is a time when Spanish rock and pop bands thrive, creating music that is nationally popular (Garcia Alix will do numerous record covers). Bands with playful names, “Alaska y los Pegamoides”, “Siniestro Total”, sound incessantly on the radio. Also, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop. The 70s still hover over Spain. For the new generation it is time to take a walk on the wild side. Late 70s, the 80s, it is the time of wide use of heroin, as if heroin was a revolutionary substance. Quite a few junkies roam Spanish cities, they are the new street characters, they embrace the myth of living dangerously, Garcia Alix documents their life, which is his life. This is the context in which "la movida madrilena” emerges and develops, a time of nocturnal life and confusion, parodic impulse, hedonism and urban angst. A counterculture constitutes itself around a life-affirming darkness. Nihilism is cool, it is the attitude to have, perhaps a pose that ends up performing people. A subculture is immersed in a project of deranging the senses. A project of deranging the senses has to entail the possibility of coming back to tell your tale. Some of those photographed by García Alix, so many of those who haven’t even be photographed, don’t entertain this possibility, immersed as they are in a sheer present that might have AIDS as its sequel. These portraits tell the story of this historical moment. They are traces, death masks of la movida madrileña. The story could be called “The History Lesson”. It could be summarised thus: a euphoric blast of creativity when a great many took a walk on the wild side, some managed quite well to tell their tale, some survived with side-effects, quite a few didn’t make it back.

Another story these portraits tell is that identity depends upon engagement in a shared system of signs. In this case a system of signs of resistance, tribal-like signs: leather-jackets covered with studs and badges like so many amulets and charms, tattoos of roses, skulls and snakes, toupees, mohicans, subversive hair styles, harley davidsons, hippie rings, death rings, rockabilly shirts, S&M gear, excessive platform boots, hell angel’s paraphernalia. These imported signs speak of an identity invented by counter-fashion, by counter-trends, about the fact that identification, camaraderie, is constructed through signs. Rockers, goths, hippies celebrate “cool capital” through signs. It is mainly the body that is the bearer of these signs. If portraiture as a genre has traditionally been linked to a system of signs of prestige, prestige is developed here through an excess of countersigns that offer a different version of history, the history of the outlaw. Rank, power, authenticity, respectability, worthiness are measured according to a street code of honour. In fact, it is the street that rules supreme in these pictures. The street, and the bed. The portrayed are often implaced in desolate streets, against flaking walls, suburban settings with graffiti, torn advertising that reminds us of decollage, bare hotel rooms with old fashioned beds, humble backgrounds that often signal decadence, melancholia, loss. Even when nature appears, it is highly mediated by an urban gaze. It is the story of an identity immersed in a collective project of resistance, a challenging identity. The photograph immobilises this defiance. Perhaps that is one of the faces of the tragic.

These signs signal a challenge, but there is also a challenge in the gaze and it is precisely the gaze that is at stake here, this is one of the other stories these portraits tell. Not an oblique gaze, but a frontal one that reminds us of the dangerousness of the gaze: its power to challenge, to seduce, to establish a non-verbal rapport, in this case a rapport between artist, sitter an viewer. There is something untamed about the gaze. There is a tradition of the confrontational portrait that has been specially cultivated amongst artists and writers. It is within this tradition that we can place García Alix’s portraits. The portrayed often confront in some way the observer. These portraits invite you to different types of duels: a hard duel, a duel of honesty, an indescribable and unpredictable duel, a complicit one. Their gaze embodies a way of looking at life, of relating to the world. It is a gaze that might say: everything is out of joint, there is no justice, the existing systems repeatedly shatter the human, we will not participate in a system of oppression, we are building a gap within this order according to our needs. We could say that with these portraits it takes three to tango. A dance is established between photographer, sitter and viewer. It is not time for lies. What you see is what you get. A hard rapport, a gentle rapport, an honest one. Sometimes wonder is put forward, sometimes it is smashed. The portrayed are asking to acknowledge a way of looking, to acknowledge their gaze. It is a defiant contribution to the social game, a game played according to a different set of morals. These portraits are acts of power, perhaps of a counter-power. These subjects expel certain orders and practices. They are of the order of the duel, the challenge. They produce frontier-effects. They make of the border their territory. They leave outside that which excludes them, that is the outside these portraits create. They are disheartening and tender at once. There is something at once life-affirming and fatalistic in their gaze. It might be a life-affirmation that doesn’t shy away from negative pleasures. A nihilistic stance that might say: If life is a gamble you might as well gamble with it. It is through this wild instant of the fixed gaze that the viewer is invited into an intimate dialogue about existence.

These photographic tales are framed within a rigorous composition. It is the sobriety of the composition, its classicism, that transform these representations into acts of violence. García Alix’s portraits are not cruel portraits, but portraits of complicity. They are idealised visual histories. The portrayed are not doing their human thing, they are posing, they are doing so according to classic rules of portraiture, with dignity. The self becomes an entity between sincerity and performance, where life in any case is seen as a performance. Sometimes the portrayed stand in high contrast with the restrained composition, other times they intensify it. It is these tensions that turn the representation into an act of violence of varying degrees. The result is a hard melancholia, a tough poignancy.

Portraits posit the questionable fiction of a unified subject. They posit an equivalence between image and subject, by default an equivalence between portrait and self, they inherit from painting both the idea that an image can be a representation of personality and the belief that the soul can be captured through an individual’s face. We are capable of epiphanic moments. Portraits are capable of capturing this epiphany. It is the miracle of certain portraits. The mystery of how can the self leak out. It is what the epiphany is about that remains a mystery. Portraits in general entail these problems. Some of García Alix’s portraits embody this mystery, they are usually close-ups of the face. So many of them, however, tell a different story. The history of portraiture is closely connected with the history of identity. As a spatio-temporal fragment, the portrait proves our existence at a given point in space and time, rather than a unified existence. We are now conscious of the portrait’s lie: it fixes that which cannot be fixed, it gives you a mere slither of our multiple and fragmented selves, it portrays one aspect, making invisible so many others, it freezes movement when life is movement. If we don’t ultimately know who the portrayed are, perhaps it is through a constellation of portraits of the same person that we could start getting a slight inkling.

A hard melancholia, the wild instant of the gaze, a gaze that is a challenge, a code of honour spoken through highly fetishized urban amulets, a history lesson where life and death are inextricably linked, tell tales about identity, but the ultimate mystery of the portrait is that beyond it you don’t know anything about the portrayed. It is through looking at these portraits in conjunction with García Alix’s self-portraits that the portrait is exposed, it is a moment amongst so many others. The self-portraits tell what the portraits don’t. They are also less severe in terms of composition. They give you a glimpse into a handful of selves that go from a hard masculinity, to a hazy distortion, to a blur, to sheer pain, to the awareness of defeat, to body parts that tell you that we are also precisely that, body parts. Perhaps García Alix most interesting self-portraits are those where face and body have disappeared to become a desolate bit of urban landscape, a used up condom, a pair of broken shoes, melancholy objects that look back with complicity. These melancholy objects remind us that a still-life is a portrait of an object, that an object, a landscape, can tell us as much about a subject as a face. Portraiture as story telling, story telling as autobiography, autobiography as history, these portraits and self-portraits are fetishized traces of existence that tell tribal tales, even those of children and old people, also outsiders in a way. There are other tales beyond these ones, but they might not be all that tribal. Lonely beds, worn out shoes, the street, a modest hotel room offer a counter-point to all these human moments, they increase their being, allowing an entry beyond the confines of the portrait. It might be through the poetics of the inanimate that these portraits extend their tale. But then, that would be another story.