Over a month has elapsed since Gabriel García Márquez’s passing on April 17th. The following day I decided to pick up his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, widely considered to be the author’s magnum opus.
The book chronicles the lives of seven generations of the Buendía family living in the fictional town of Macondo. Its renown consists in part of its being a pioneering work of magical realism and its anticipation of the upsurging popularity of Latin American literature in the 1960s and 70s. Mesmerizing for a number of reasons, the book intimately entwines dreamlike and fantastical elements with serious documentation of a recognizable and real world.
Márquez’s book must have been on my mind as I visited some of the galleries participating in the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival taking place throughout May all over TorontoAlthough we frequently talk about the content of literature or photography as being magical, I don’t think we recognize often enough the magical properties of art itself; specifically, those arising from the relationship between art and reality.
There are three possible relationships. First of all, it is clear that art can mimic or recreate our reality. Here, the photo or the book doesn’t do anything but re-present things which occupy the reality that we ourselves occupy. The page is as flat and depthless as the surface of a mirror.
Hendrik Kerstens, Aluminum Foil, March 2012.
Danziger Gallery, New York.
But to say it’s depthless is not to say it’s without meaning; it’s to say that its meaningis contingent upon things outside of the four edges of the page, specifically things that occupy our reality. Consider Henrik Kerstens ’ speculative photograph. Its subject is recognizable as a thing from our reality. In an immediate sense, it is a girl with an aluminum hat; on a more profound level, it is reminiscent of a 17th century Dutch portrait . It is speculative insofar as it presents an image that we do not regularly encounter, yet it is composed purely of the elements of our reality and, as such, functions within the limits of what is possible in our reality.
Conversely, consider Mary Sibande’s A Terrible Beauty is Born. It is immediately evident that the subject matter is not bound to the laws of our reality. It contains plant-like sentient curlicues that both appear to be part of a dress and are unaffected by gravity. The subject also defies normal notions of space and time. Despite the shadows on the ground, there is no horizon line or any background distinguished as such that would ground the subject in a certain location. Moreover, the pastiche costume—consisting of elements of a uniform of a domestic servant, Victorian-era upper-class fashion, and carnivalesque embellishments, all in a brilliant fuchsia—defies historical location. This photograph constructs a reality of its own.
Mary Sibande, A Terrible Beauty is Born, 2010.
By positing this second relationship I do not mean just the creation of an alternative reality, but more generally the creation of a reality that does not already exist as our own. The photograph presents a reality that exists in its own right. To find the meaning we must look in the art, not outside of it.
Márquez demonstrates the ability to nimbly negotiate back and forth between art and reality. The book’s focus is familiar to us: people with recognizable traits performing recognizable activities. Úrsula is an ancient grandmother who knows everything about everything, yet is not immune from the children who play pranks on her. Fernanda’s religious modesty leads her to speak in euphemisms, causing everyone to believe she has gastrointestinal issues rather than gynecological ones. Mauricio and Meme are a young Romeo and Juliet until a guard shoots him and she is sent to a convent.
Yet Úrsula speaks with ghosts before she dies and Fernanda consults invisible doctors who are able to properly diagnose her. Yellow butterflies follow Mauricio everywhere he goes. They follow Meme even after his death. Cards forecast the future. Nomads import flying carpets. The town experiences rain for many years without stopping. Yet One Hundred Years of Solitude never descends far enough into its own reality. It constantly flitters between our world and its own world. It doesn’t set roots in one reality at the expense of the other, but perpetually draws upon elements from the two. This is the essence of magical realism, the hybrid cousin in the family of speculative genres.
On a more intimate level, the book affects my understanding of love, solitude, family, war, and the like. For instance, the more times that Amaranta rejects the men who fall in love with her, the more I become convinced of the potential hardness of the human heart and expand what I imagine to be the human capacity for indifference. When José Arcadio is tied to a tree, I learn how an obsession with knowledge can lead one to madness.
I don’t necessarily have to believe that I will endure or witness these kinds of experiences myself; it is enough that my understanding of these concepts has changed so that now whenever I talk about love or solitude I have a new understanding of the nature and possibilities of these notions.
This is the power of art itself: the capacity of an inanimate object to alter the reality of a human being .
I acknowledge that I have taken the definition of reality for granted here and that there is more than one facet of reality with which a work of art engages. However, addressing these facets would not contradict the relationships I’ve outlined, but would only make them more intricate and interesting. Nevertheless, my hope is that what I’ve said so far is enough to convince the reader that when considering any genre or medium of art, it is imperative for us to recognize the magic of art itself, not just the magical world that it portrays.
More information on the ongoing Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival can be found at http://scotiabankcontactphoto.com
-contributed by Alexander Pytka