ON MEXICO’S SHORE
Photos of Renier Otto
Text of Kelly Martínez*
Photos of Reiner Otto**
What do we expect to find when we go to Mexico? What have we been told, drawn, idealized, transubstantiated of Mexico? How is living there? Its image—contemplated from the outside, and not in vain—it’s based upon a mythology which is perhaps one of the most powerful ones in Latin America: a colorful imaginary populated with calacas (skeletons), Fridas and Diegos, mariachis and witches that transform us into pots and give us pumpkins. A town of death, not only in worship but in immigrants at the borders; or the forty-three missing students, who have come across the boundaries of pain and the news, and also a town of life. An imaginary of Pancho Villa and adelitas; of celebration that ends in tragedy and tragedy that ends in celebration, of opposites that meet. One submerged in that Fiesta (party), which in Octavio Paz’s words: is a revolt in the literal sense of the word (…) everything is communicated; good is mixed with evil, the day with the night, the holy with the damned. Everything cohabits; loses form, singularity and returns to the primordial mixture. La Fiesta is a cosmic operation: the experience of Disorder, the meeting of opposite elements and principles that provoke the rebirth of life.1 And of course, as any good imaginary, has ended up having common places and clichés. In the end, as Kundera said, kitsch is but part of man.
From the outside it’s hard to think of Mexico, to label it. We say “South American”—because we share the same language and spirit—but it actually is in North America and shares part of the Caribbean Basin. We say “North American”, but that’s not even close—neither in spirit nor in language—to its neighbors Canada and the United States. The idea of national identity terrifies (me) a little bit, for in its name countless atrocities have been committed, especially in modern history, but I dare to say that Mexico is just Mexico, a unique and particular space in the middle of a broad continent, that collects things from all around the continent, and paradoxically it escapes and goes beyond. I say it here, sitting a little further north, also looking from the outside; to understand it—that is to say, if a country can really be understood—it might be necessary to walk on it, to get to know it, and realize that it is not like the Pedros and Panchos from the silly American myth.2 I guess the same goes for every place in this world.
However, the Mexican imaginary is also anchored in literature, photography and film. The exquisite desolation of Pedro Paramo and El llano en llamas; that “cactus-filled-with-water-that-doesn’t-seem-to-be” captured in images of Alvarez Bravo, Graciela Iturbide or even Juan Rulfo’s photographs; or the visual composition in Gabriel Figueroa’s films, are related to how we have built our conception of Mexico and it seems to move in a surrealistic code: there is always an umbrella and a Mexican sewing machine that meet each other by chance. Photography—even when we know it lies, and Susan Sontag has effusively said so—still seems to carry on its shoulders the responsibility of being a mirror of the world. Somehow, what is there happened and that’s part of the charm. Also the images of Alex Webb—a distant eye—, his color clashing, discover for us a place that without a doubt still has a deep mysticism for everyone. For any photographer, Mexico is always a boundless space of surprise and discovery: a feathered serpent.3
It has been so for Otto Renier, a Venezuelan photographer who migrated to Mexico (specifically, to Guadalajara) just over a year ago. I like to think that the advantage of foreign photographers is that their gaze moves between ignorance, amazement and freshness. But photographers—especially the street photographers, miss-conceived as documentarians—see in fact what they want to see. They select and trim fragments of reality, that not only respond to the formal principles of what they consider a good image, but, and above all, to an identification process of the inner and outer reality. And to say identification is to say give a face and recognize, that always goes through a series of understandings and misunderstandings. Renier Otto’s gaze is, in his images of Mexico, built from them, a prowling gaze; to prowl, etymologically speaking, means trying to reach, and that obviously involves a distance.
That’s something that could be said of all photographers; however it’s not entirely true. There are bold photographers: close-up, front-face and grandiose-scenes photographers. And there are also photographers of the periphery, that capture what happens at the edges and is almost imperceptible. Perhaps because even the stage is unfamiliar and intimidating—as all that is new—Otto’s gaze is among the latter. Or maybe not, maybe—as his works usually announces—he has always been a photographer of what happens on the margins of the images hidden behind the images.
In Otto’s interpretation of Mexico we won’t find La Fiesta, there is no shrillness, but a tiny Mexico that could be in fact any other place in the world. No life and death neither Fridas nor Diegos, no witches nor mariachis. The Mexican imaginary we know is here refuted, distant, lost in order to bring to light scenes of an astonishing, almost boring everyday life. Anyone who looks at them searching for colors and exoticisms would probably be disappointed; because sometimes we don’t like it when things don’t look like what we’ve taken for granted. We sometimes forget that all places have infinite possibilities of being, like everything that exists. However, there is in these images—taken in different parts of the country—a rare desolation, certain emptiness and longing that lasts. If we compare them to his previous images, much more vibrant, direct colorful, we would find that the Mexican photographs are silent. That, I think, may be due to two things or perhaps both of them. First, the new migrant is always a silent being; busy in processing change, there is no containment or shape enough to grasp reality. The one who goes—to paraphrase Maria Zambrano—is at the edge of history and the border of words. And maybe that’s why Otto’s photographs are images on the border and the edge of images. Or maybe it’s just that Mexico—without the outsiders noticing—is a quiet place. Oscillating between surrender and reservation; cries and silence, between the party and the wake,4 and the foreign eye, the unaccustomed—naive— eye is capable of picking that up. Perhaps the inner and outer silence found each other. Or maybe none of this happens, and it is only an interpretation I make from my own silence, from my own edge.
In the image of children playing, as in those shadows that holding hands walk among palm trees, that which is not said seems to speak louder than anything that could be said directly. If we saw the people holding hands, the image would probably lose weight; but the shadow as a concept and symbol—that otherness—is a very powerful image: reality’s negative. And that is the same kind of loneliness experienced by the characters in a subway platform interrupted only by the kiss of the couple, or the man who passes on his bicycle in front of a clock that looks at him with the same indifference with which, possibly, time looks at us; that same loneliness that accompanies the passer against the graffiti wall, beaten by the sun, uninhabited.
And there is that tragic Christ of the window, that ultra baroque Christ only possible in Mexico because the terror of the void was filled there more than in any other place (is there a big void in Mexico? They say that the Mayan invented the zero, that great absolute that dissolves everything). There’s that woman amongst the screaming mummies, a gesture of what didn’t happened, a voice that echoed nowhere, an image of the impossible. And then that ghostly apparition, Rulfo’s girl unfocused amid high walls: an announcement of what is and isn’t at the same time. Otto’s Mexico—as the shadows—, I dare say, is the contrast of the luminous and festive image of collective and alien knowledge. Actually, one is not possible without the other; there is also an authenticity of the shadow.
It may be that this silence is an invention of mine, because writing is always an answer to a riddle, and the writing of a mysterious Sphinx. Standing in front of it, we don’t always have the right answer and something devours us. To write about photographs is also answering to two mysteries, an arduous task; but I also find that same silence on the images of Alvarez Bravo or Juan Rulfo. It might be that, being the heir to a tradition—all images are always anchored on other images—, Otto has kept unknowingly certain codes to say Mexico, or maybe not; may be after the excitement and bustle, there’s an impossible gap to fill. A Quetzalcoatl Mexico that, as in the legend, would look in the mirror to find Tezcatlipoca; something split and doubled, a snake biting its own tail.
Otto’s future work will tell me if I answered correctly the riddle of that woman-monster that is also photography. Or it may be that, one day, walking through Mexican streets, I’ll find out what the answer was. I may never know it; while this is defined, we better stick to these photographs; this Mexico on the edge of Mexico.