recreating a life

Photographs of San Francisco by Manny Reyes

Scapular Gallery Nomad

Notes by

Judy Freya Sibayan

Exhibit Curator

This essay was originally written in 1998 in conjunction with the Scapular Gallery Nomad exhibit of Recreating A Life:  San Francisco Photographs by Manny Reyes.

 

Recreating A Life was presented by the Scapular Gallery Nomad from May 13 to June 30, 1998.  38 inkjet images scanned from Kodachrome originals and printed on textured card paper measuring 3 3/4 and 4 1/8 inches made up the exhibit.

For this 20th anniversary web edition, I've written some commentary to accompany the pictures featured in this essay.  To see my complete collection of San Francisco Kodachromes, click on the link at the end of this essay.   

Manny Reyes

How to realize the substance of your own life

while retaining some perspective

on the flow of, well, history…

 

Times change, people move.

There is the question of ego.

“Mobility.”  The development of self.

The self, learning to cut itself off from 

others,

look for its best setting, like a jewel…

 

The problem is how to live your life

while recognizing the scale of history.

 

Martha Rosler

from Constructing a Life [1]

Manny Reyes is going through a very interesting stage in his life at present, a phase so severe that many who have been in this situation before have failed to surface from its pull, for to survive it, one has to go through a thousand deaths and like the phoenix, rise from the ashes; or refusing the call to journey into the loneliest, darkest, heartbreaking, groundless and terrifying interior landscape, the choice is ironically, a life lost to anxiety, to a constant dread of not finding one’s way home.

His is the classic journey.  Disillusioned with the local cinema, leaving his passion as a filmmaker to quietly construct a life forsaking many of the people, many of the things he held true to his heart not so long ago, the call was to leave a social situation, move into his own loneliness and find the jewel, the center that is impossible to find when one is socially engaged. [2]

Although Manny’s work for Scapular Gallery Nomad was created at about the start of his self-motivated exile, the idea came to him seven years ago.  Through it, we can get a glimpse of the character of the inner work that he has gone through so far.  Seven years ago, he did not feel like doing anything about the idea.  The earlier enthusiasm for photography was just not there and the problem of not creating for any specific audience by way of an exhibition gave him all the reason not to pursue his work.

Seven years ago, he was thirty-one, just about the right time when the first stirrings of discomfort, a sense that things are out of control, out of synch in one’s life, occur.  Critical events like the death of a loved one (in his case his mother and many of his mentors) or the non-attainment of recognition from one’s community will exacerbate this feeling of discord.  Devastating events happening within the course of three years, they eroded Manny’s sense of security in terms of his identity as an artist who was not alone, who had the support, love and respect of his family and friends.  Losing those who cared for him unconditionally, he started to see that many of his ideas were not appreciated or shared by those he respected or the systems where he chose to contribute his artistry.  He started to withdraw. 

Manny’s move from creating within the scale of the collective and a very public endeavour like a commercial film to the level of working alone on small, fragile almost invisible images is analogous to the kind of disengagement required if one were to go to through the critical process of individuation.  Manny took leave of his social self and embraced what Joseph Campbell refers to as the “creative-life adventure, its criterion of achievement being the courage to let the past, with its truth, its goals, its dogmas of meaning, and its gifts; to die to the world and come to birth from within.” [3]

To make room for the crucial work, this process begins with the act of leave-taking from the security of what used to work for/engage us in almost all essential aspect of our life.  If we were to go on as before, we would feel ill-fitted to what we have become.  If we have the courage to find what will fit us better, the work required via negativa will be done not amongst people or for others but with and for oneself alone.  There will be no external signs of the progress of the work, no guides, text or existing paths to follow.  One will journey quietly alone, fearful fragile, vulnerable, and isolated to extreme loneliness.  One will put up a good fight not to let go of the safety of the safe and familiar.  Time and space imploding, they no longer behave the way we experienced them before.  Time will be very slow and the only space that seem to matter is within our aching minds and hearts as we are turned inside out, tormented by the relentless demand for attention.

Digitally created using his desktop setup in the sanctuary of his bedroom, these small delicate images based on photographs taken four years ago within the course of two years, are an homage to master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.  Manny:  “I followed Hitchcock by retracing Vertigo in San Francisco”; and to a city he truly loves, “San Francisco is my favorite fantasy city.  I love how its light breathes,” not a surprising perspective considering that cinematography and photography are all about the emanation of light.

MANNY REYES:  Vertigo (1959) tells the story of a San Francisco detective named Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) who has a terrible fear of heights.  He falls in love with the wife of his friend, a mysterious woman named Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), who is convinced that she is possessed by the spirit of a woman named Carlotta Valdez who killed herself decades before.  Like Carlotta, Madeleine tries to commit suicide by jumping into San Francisco Bay.  Scottie saves her.  But despite his affection for her, she tries to kill herself a second time by jumping from a bell tower.  This time Scottie fails to save her owing to his fear of heights. Scottie is distraught. Later he encounters a woman named Judy Barton who is not much to look at but strangely reminds him of the deceased Madeleine Elster.

MANNY REYES:  For anyone who is a fan of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, it is almost absurd not to make the pilgrimage to Fort Point at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  Fort Point was an army fortress built to defend the entrance of the Bay Area.  It is now an army museum.  

MANNY REYES:  This is the spot outside Fort Point where Madeliene Elster (Kim Novak) attempted suicide by jumping into San Francisco Bay.  In reality, if one were to jump over the chain fence, one wouldn’t fall into the bay.  Instead, one would fall on very large rocks and probably end up with broken bones.  Hitchcock knew this so he hid this fact from the audience and instead he cut away to a shot of Kim Novak floating on water that was obviously shot in a Hollywood studio.  When I revisited this spot in 2010, I was dismayed to discover that this picturesque location beneath the Golden Gate Bridge was now off limits to the public. Ugly plastic drums have been placed behind the chain fence perhaps in an effort to keep away Kim Novak wannabes from injuring themselves while trying to reenact her famous suicide scene in Vertigo.

Manny moved away from work seen by a mass audience to one with a very small number of viewers; from producing thousands of frames making up a “moving picture” project lit flickering from a distance as spectacle on screens in dark huge public spaces to a few small quiet images printed on paper termed “stills” hand-held, viewed within isolated, intimate oftentimes fully lit public spaces; from a very public project of working with a text, to the freer more spontaneous experimentation of working in private with a new medium still being learned; from being exposed to critical opinion or worst, the indifference of an artistic community to not having critics at all but himself.  And in the aspect of self-awareness, he has started to move away from a sense of security and self-worth based on this definition and standard of others and on received ideas, and onto a sense of integrity acquired through the liberating act or process of becoming differentiated into an authentic self.

At the time Manny took the photographs, he had no idea what the work was for (as in an exhibition) or when he was going to work on them again.  But he has become more discerning about the tools needed to survive this stage of his life.  Unearthing them two years later, he understood why he took them, what the images needed and why he needed to do this particular work at this particular time of his life.  Exhibiting them was still not part of the plan.  In fact he has now become wiser to the fact that having the chance to work in this mode is enough recompense; that in recreating the images, he is recreated in return.

The change of scale is the key to and a leitmotif of the new self that he is constructing.  He now learns to work and intuits the reason for working within a very, very small scale (the space he works in, the new user-friendly technology, the size and number of images, the high probability that no one else would see them, the body alone, almost immobile, seated facing a box lit with impalpable images manipulated through hundreds of small movements, the body working deep into the quiet of the night for long stretches of time).

Keeping him still and humbling him, the process helps prepare the artist to listen to deep silence within and enter the refuge of solitude.  “For there is in fact, in quiet places, a great deal of spiritual quest and finding now in progress of this world, outside the sanctified social centers, beyond their purview and control:  in small groups, here and there and more typically…by ones and twos, there entering the forest at those points which they themselves have chosen, where they see it to be most dark, and there is no beaten way or path.” [4]

MANNY REYESVertigo appear to resonate strongly with San Francisco’s gay community.  Vertigo’s 1996 restoration had its premiere at the historic Castro Theater in the heart of San Francisco’s gay district. I was present during that Saturday night screening and I could tell that audience knew the movie by heart.  The crowd regularly erupted in laughter at the movie's dialogue such as when Scottie presses Madeleine for answer as to where she plans to go for a drive, Madeleine replies rather suggestively, "One can be a wanderer but two people have to be going…somewhere."

I suppose that in these promiscuous times, nearly everything has a sexual undercurrent.  Moreover, Scottie's cruel demand for shop girl Judy Barton to change her appearance to match his sex fantasy is something that the gay crowd could relate too.  After all, as the pictures above reveal, dressing up as exotic women is something they enjoy doing during Halloween.

I am no stranger to Manny’s extraordinary pain and joy as he recreates a self away from everything that made sense to him before.  And it will take him years before he can “bring life back to the wasteland.” [5]   It took me seven years.  With Scapular Gallery Nomad, I brought life back to the wasteland.  A direct result of and a devotion to my own process of individuation, the work logically takes its cues from this very same process.  Ten years ago, forced to leave my post as director of the most powerful, most well endowed contemporary art museum for not having the prudence to wield the power attendant to the position,  I withdrew from the artworld.  After five years of not making art, I came to the conclusion that one need not make art at the centers of art creation, reception and circulation.  One need not be an artist “of the center.”  In fact I became very comfortable outside of it, and precisely, Scapular Gallery Nomad is about working away from the center and creating my own self-validating, non-commodifying autonomous system.

Disillusioned like Manny, I came to the conclusion that there will come a time when the making of art in the contemporary tradition may no longer hold interest for, not spiritually engage an artist.  I ceased to make art in the belief that the devotion to a creative life, the practice need no longer take this form.  But the practice of arriving at this point was marked with great tension.  I went through seven years of malaise; the tension between being the person who has decided to be an ordinary non-artist and being the anointed artist; the shifting of one’s loyalties from the canonized self to the self seeking its own realization and fulfilment with the definition of self coming from deep within and no longer from without; finally the entrapment within the comforts of the past versus the painful shredding of these trappings.  Despite all the anguish, I was renewed and transformed.  A different person after seven years, I made art again mostly works that investigate the problem of how persons are defined and canonized as artists by structures external to the individual.  But more important, work that allows me to create outside of these structures' co-opting force

Hence, Scapular Gallery Nomad is the most appropriate context for Manny’s images with respect to both the works' histories.  This gallery, a powerful response to the all powerful culture industry, is located away from the center, away from privileged spaces of art production, circulation and reception.  By wearing scapular-like pouches containing work by artist-friends, daily for three years, I deal with the possibilities of an alternative practice that gives me the freedom, “the speed, the immediacy and fluidity”[6] to create an intimate, constant ever present (when in public) body based artmaking.

Exhibited within a “performance art gallery,” Manny’s work is presented in the context of Scapular Gallery Nomad, a gallery that investigates the issue of scale, the politics and ideology of museums and galleries.  Having been an insider to these systems (as curator, museum director and as exhibiting artist myself) I saw the problems of artists as they depend on these structures which privilege and exclude, which will never be equitable considering their limited resources and their “concept of quality based on the hierarchy of value with the ideology of industrialized west legitimized as superior - controlling and determining this hierarchy.  Concepts of progress, continuity, totality, mastery and the universal claim to history are accepted as true.”[7]  Artists constantly compete for these resources since it is the most effecient way to be validated.  But only a few will access them and ironically a great amount of energy will be expended and consumed just to validate an artist.

Thus the economy of scale of Scapular Gallery Nomad challenges the politics and ecology of gallery and museum systems.  It’s resources are conservative:  viewership is intimate; it is on a one-to-one basis; its infrastructure - the human body.  The gallery is not rooted to one place.  It is mobile, nomadic.  Its audience is anyone I meet in my daily life - the taxi driver, the guard at the bank, sales ladies, family, friends, my students, my colleagues at the university, shoppers in malls, immigration officers at airports, and other artists at art openings, etc. The container of the artwork is a piece of clothing worn daily.  Its maintenance and integrity are limited to the daily living of one person.  Artworks can be transported to the gallery and back to the artist through the mail.

Scapular Gallery Nomad therefore offers an iconoclastic alternative to the monolithic praxis of infrastructured museums and galleries.  With this performance, it is my hope that other artists explore the possibilities of their responsibility, to conserve rather than to consume, to be self-reliant and autonomous of, rather than be dependent on the power and dictates of commodifying apparatuses. 

In performing Scapular Gallery Nomad, I have been called a fool by those who love me.  I appreciate the image for the fool is who Manny and I are as we leave the infirmed center and by placing ourselves in the periphery, we humbly endeavour to restore some form of health by inverting/subverting the perverted order.

notes

1  Martha Rosler, Constructing A Life, in Blasted Allegories, Brian Wallis, eitor.  London:  the MIT Press, 1987, pp. 134-137.

2  Joseph Campbell, Reflections on the Art of Living, A Joseph Campbell Companion, New York, HarperCollins, 1991, p. 77.

3  ibid., p. 72.

4  ibid., p. 76.

5  ibid., p. 81.

6  the words used by artisit-friend Adrian Jones to describe his work, The Missing Room, a personal space organizer for nomadic art workers.

7  Marcia Tucker, Who's on First?  Issue of Cultural Equity in Today's Museums in Different Voices:  A Social, Cultural and Historical Framework for Change in the American Art Museums.  Association of Art Museum Directors, New York, 1992, p. 11.

Castro Street San Francisco
San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge

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