Photography defines a true epistemic category, irreducible and singular, a new form, not only of representation but more fundamentally, of thought, that introduces us to a new relationship with signs, with time, with space, with the real, with the subject, with being and doing.
The representation of the city is a recurring topic in the history of Cuban art –as is in the visual production of other latitudes. Since the colonial period to the present day it has been a source of inspiration for creators of the most diverse fields of the arts. At the same time, in the artistic development of our nation the urban framework has gone from being assumed as a simple landscape pretext to becoming a metaphor for socio-cultural problems, as it functions as “a true semiological system,”1 in consequence to the diversity of meanings of its monuments, its architecture, its streets…
Contemporary photography, especially that one which is the heir of the so-called New Documentary that broke into the nineties of the last century, finds in the city an unlimited source of symbols and expressive possibilities. For this reason, many photographers have taken the image of its architectural and urban components and made it their own with the purpose of revealing its essence. That mutation of the gaze –when questioning the city– coming from an intelligent and provocative documentary look, can be seen in Salidas de emergencias (Emergency exits), the first series of the photographer Laura Díaz Milán, exhibited at Fototeca Nacional de Cuba (March 23-20 April, 2018).
According to José Antonio Corraliza: “…first, people build the city and the buildings; then, the city builds people, that is, it determines their way of thinking, feeling and acting;”2 perhaps that’s why the creator felt the “urgency” or the need to go out and photograph her city, that one which, in its dissimilar and complex realities, offers countless messages. Although one should not rule out the possibility that sometimes the image reveals itself only when the lens finds it, it gives the impression that Laura DMilan is aware beforehand of how she wants the photograph, or rather, how she does not want it. Only a curious personality by nature is able to observe how this creator works. She, rather than exploring remote places, redirects her gaze. Hers is a sharp and restless look…
That is why the selected places –the Capitol dome, the vaults of the Superior Institute of Art (ISA), the Bacardí Building, the Panorama Hotel, the José Martí Memorial in Plaza de la Revolución– are not as surprising as the way in which they are captured. Exquisite angles, manipulation of the photographic lens or the selection of fragments –unimaginable for many– are some of the resources the author uses to get the viewer’s eye out of the habit. A very subjective vision reveals in these photographs. They, rather than mimicking a reality, evoke it.
Laura DMilan, in her role as radiologist and interpreter of her context, travels the city (like a traveling artist of yesteryear) to immortalize the fleeting moment when smoke and clouds embrace the ancient planking of a factory; the altar of a church seen through the draft of its benches; one of the many collapsed buildings anchored to a scaffolding; the spiral structure of a chopped staircase, the kiss of two cornices; the abstract play of the volumes of a hotel, a fragment of the Bacardi seen from a suggestive crevice; the dome of the Capitol and the walls of the Superior Institute of Art (ISA), apparently protected by tree branches; the top of the José Martí Memorial behind a sea of trees; the perfect symmetry of a rope hanging from a hole and its reflection; the intriguing tunnel illuminated by small sources of light. These images, for the multiple directionality of their angles or the singularity of the fragment, distort the architectural referents and our notion of them.
The urban environment or the building as a whole doesn’t seem to be of the author’s interest, but those fragments whose aesthetic consistency and rarity seduce a viewer eager to identify what she sees do. Photographs, which cannot be labelled as abstractions –since they are taken from an immediate and recognizable reality– incite a state of ambivalence between the way we see our city every day and the way Laura DMilan’s imaginative vision sees it. We think we know these spaces, however, it becomes difficult to recognize them through the photos. In this sense, the de-familiarization of the look, the ambiguity and the double meaning, are key elements to decode the photographic result of these emergency exits.
A conceptual dimension lies in this series, and so the works go beyond the level of mere narration to become metaphors or metonyms of more complex cultural constructs. Their value as a true document enlarges because they are the result of a specific point of view and subjectivity. The wear and tear of the cities, the proliferation of dilapidated space and the material consequences of the relentless pass of time, is a way to meditate on our own history, utopias, moral crisis, indolence, loss of faith. In this way, the physical state of the city and its monuments shows a social, psychic and moral condition.
In its multiplicity, Salidas de emergencia inscribes in that field of contemporary Cuban photography for which ideo-aesthetic experimentation becomes a fundamental principle. Far from seeking a homogenous or unidirectional reading, the author proposes a plethora of messages, while at the same time proving that the city continues to be an inexhaustible muse for photography and art in general, as long as one can see.
–Flavia Valladares Más
1. Yusleydy López and Liudmila Torres, “Trazos de La Habana” (Art History Dissertation, Faculty of Art History of the University of Havana, 2001), 6.
2. José Antonio Corraliza, “Vida urbana y experiencia social: variedad, cohesión y medio ambiente” (Human life and social experience: variety, cohesion and environment), consulted April 10, 2017. http://hábitat.aq.upm.es/boletín/n15/ajcor.html.