Alberto Feijóo: Radical Reason
Written for my blog Vigo Expo
Crushed glass, tile shards, dusty stones, shirtless men, cement blocks, and cut bricks populate Alberto Feijóo’s latest photographic series, Punto Limpio (Clean Spot). These materials are meant for building or destroying; indeed, Alberto imagines his photos as a “construction space.” But the construction site extends beyond the industrial elements in the places he depicts. Alberto’s photographs can be “surrounded by someone;” in his sculptural-photographic installations exist somewhere between going up and coming apart, between an archaeological excavation and a construction site. When I arrived to his studio, Alberto told me that everything in his work is about the struggle between love and hate: in terms of photography, art, his life, and himself. Hence Alberto’s fixation on building and destroying. This essay reconfigures our conversation into blocks to be rearranged or broken apart again.
Alberto is originally from Alicante, a warm region in southeastern Spain. He now lives in Madrid but returns to where he grew up to shoot near his parents’ house, which he describes as being located between the countryside and the city. The photos show a dusty, rocky place with wooden and metal detritus among the dry grass and bushes. Framed straight on or at a low tilt, it’s a visual space that often feels like it can’t be entered. At the same time, the images show evidence that the place is indeed inhabited in the form of insects, cinder blocks, and mirror shards. The shards reflect a special blue shared by the Alicante sky, the glazes of nearby ceramic tiles, and the blue of unprocessed photo paper left in the sun. More mirror shards: Alberto comes from a family tied to the region’s construction industry and tile and brick factories. His series Albañil (Bricklayer) is a mix of photography, digital collage, and on-site performance documentation created from a tight radius around a remote Alicante signpost advertising a bricklayer’s services. When the fixation point is firm, Alberto’s images become portals. But they are portals that take the viewer somewhere else before returning back to Alicante.
In 1911, Giorgio de Chirico wrote on the back of his painted self portrait, “Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est?” (What shall I love if not the enigma?). This question is Alberto’s modus operandi, and it is included as a sort of epitaph at the end of his latest artist book. Enigma comes from the Greek ainissesthai, to speak in riddles. In the way that he constructs, processes, and displays his photos, Alberto’s images become riddles- they can be entered at different angles and puzzled over, but remain tantalizingly elusive. Alberto’s process is a sort of magic. Away from Alicante, his time in Madrid is spent manipulating and editing his images with a combination of digital and darkroom techniques. Alchemical experiments lead to color spills, collaged overlaps, and light inversions. The play of tone and texture is as compelling as it is confounding; it is nearly impossible to determine how the final image was made in many cases. Text plays an important role in Alberto’s work. His books feature short writings or titles in English and Spanish that are sharp, concise, but poetic enough to leave room for wondering. Even though he says that he wishes to “give all the mystery to photography,” his texts feed the work with a seduction of their own. Alberto loves the enigma, and will make us love it too. His inquietude comes against photography itself, and he talks about placing himself at the limits of the discipline, where he can jump out or shake the rules. But it isn’t that simple, either. He describes his work as his personal clavo ardiendo, or burning nail. It is an expression in Spanish that means something that you cling to even if it hurts. It is something you so desperately need that you are capable of anything. It is your last resort but also your salvation.
The “construction space” applies to Alberto’s take on photography as a practice, which for him starts as a blank page that he then fills to construct an image. This is done in layers: Alberto layers materials on top of each other on site, such as a cricket on a glass shard on a cinderblock, or oranges on a bandana on a dusty ground. He chemically and digitally layers elements during image processing, and he layers printed photos with other photos or objects in his final installations. Rather than observing and capturing, he is observing and building. In the final installation of Clean Spot, wooden folding screens look like they’ve been scavenged from a construction site or an abandoned building- again, Alberto’s work exists somewhere between coming up and coming down. Photographs are stacked on top of each other, arranged on mixed media surfaces, framed or bare, obscured by objects, and intervened upon digitally or in the darkroom. Alberto says that the panoply of surfaces is meant to test the physical capacity of the image as an object. Surface is tactile and temporal. Under Alberto’s hand, surfaces will not coalesce. Alberto’s work goes from field to darkroom to digital and then back again. Proofs of his photographic process mix with found images and web screenshots that contain their own dimensionality of time and place. His ongoing Rosetta project explores (dis)connections between where the iconic Rosetta Stone currently resides and where it was created through images he creates and finds in historical and contemporary media. Are images his or history’s?
Photography is “a fortuitous encounter between objects and techniques.” Alberto lets the biography of objects- their origin, function, material content- take him somewhere else. Industrial elements appear throughout his work as fixed emblems but also as moving parts. Bricks, glass, and stones hold action potential not just when they signify construction or destruction, but also when they acted upon in performative rituals that Alberto captures on film. Hands clutch mirror shards, a shirtless man presses his ear to the ground, and another shirtless man throws himself into the dusty background. The actions are ambiguous, desperate, and distinctly male: we see the protagonists’ shine of sweat and furry forearms. Maybe they are deciphering signals or conjuring a mystical presence, but their surroundings look like a no man’s land. They are sole survivors and their work is important...or not. Alberto’s depictions of men also carry a flavor of absurdity. The men are acting upon the landscape, bristling at it with shirts off, but working towards a questionable result. Humor is important to Alberto. It’s something he uses to confront himself, his own practice, and photography at large. Nothing is fixed, everything can change, “nothing and everything is interesting,” he says. His desire is to “banalize everything;” these photographs show that there is power in futility.
From futility to failure: “failure is a very important part of my work,” Alberto says. He turns frailty and mistakes back into fodder for his work. But beyond failure, Alberto is captivated by destruction. “I would like to destroy everything I’ve made but I can’t; I don’t dare to, it’s impossible.” Alberto bucks against parameters, even if they are the ones he has set for himself. His most recent book, Algunos consejos de supervivencia (Some advice about survival) originated from a compulsion to delete everything he ever made and begin again with “no ghost of the past.” The book sifts through all of his artistic output over the years and reorganizes it by chapters in a mix of large format and phone photos, found material, digital collages, primordial influences, and Youtube screenshots. Luckily, the project evolved from an extermination mission into a condensed and complex manifesto. If it seems nonsensical to want to hit reset after so many years of work, Alberto clarifies it for us: “art is to be radical, sometimes without reason.”