Magazine article Artforum International

Gilles Peress: Cajamarca, Peru, 1991

Magazine article Artforum International

Gilles Peress: Cajamarca, Peru, 1991

Article excerpt

It has all, maybe more than I would want, from a photograph of this world. Andre Breton spoke of the beauty of the "convulsive," a quality he didn't necessarily associate with photographs, though the Surrealists liked them. Somewhere there exists a Surrealist map of the world, and Peru figures on it as a place alarmingly swollen in comparison with its neighbors, a Peru of the mind as well as the earth, and the site of this convulsive image.

I first came upon it a few months ago, in a color Xerox made from a slides, one of about 20 such pictures shown to me by the photographer, Gilles Peress. He had returned from a South American assignment on the legacy of Simon Bolivar, for National Geographic. As visceral as so many other pictures he brought from that tour, this one immediately singled itself out as the most enigmatic. Even in Xerox the subject induced a blaze of anxiety and wonder. What was I looking at? What did it mean?

Such questions arise in photography because the camera can cut so abruptly into space as to strip a scene of its narrative context. With many, perhaps most photograhs, we expect the scene to at least intimate context, and captions to spell it out. Any breakdown in this potential suggests either that the context is esoteric, to outside viewers, and/or that the events are improbable, no matter who the viewers are. If it affords us a view of a reality beyond what we would know or guess, the improbable subject has an informational value. and if the information does not stabilize the pictorial effect, the photograph is likely to have a poetic import, perhaps even a Surrealist resonance.

In this image, everything hangs on the sense of an activity clearly described but seemingly inexplicable. Supported or possibly grappled by two men, one of whom is masked, a dark-skinned woman, in an electric-blue dress, appears to be overcome, as if in some faint or grip of pain. Her arm nevertheless pinions the head of a naked white doll, sprawled grotesquely over her front. To the left, a bonfire crackles, close enough for the group to feel its scorch. Behind, a glimpse of a crowd, banners.

I don't know whether it's the fire or the doll or the mask--take your pick--that prevents the rest from fitting together. Each point of reference is vivid, but relates to no general content we can establish. It's not as if some core of intent on the subjects' part were missing, but rather that we're furnished with too many disparate hints of it, and the quarters are overly close. Peress just thrusts in, and leaves us with the galling charisma of some strange rite. Innuendoes of cultic sacrifice and hysteria, of pageant and interracial symbolism, are whisked about with frenzy. The effect is as startling and undecidable as the image's thermal cast--at once molten and icy. The action has a certain tenderness about it, and also cruelty. Finally, a distant audience views, from behind, a performance that is conceivably either played for real or interrupted by sickness, right in our lap--and the conflict of all these virtualities keeps viewers sharp.

Peress has written of Peru: "The Spaniards have ... gone, but it is the very same colonial aristocracy they left behind that rules ... against a background of ... the absence of bar necessities like water and electricity. There, one can see the emergence of the most baroque, most violent guerilla movement in existence: the Sendero Luminoso control half the territory, which they share with narco-traffickers, amid massive emigration of a rural population to the shantytowns of the cities, a cauldron of pre-Christian sects, pagan miracles, chaos and insanity. …

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