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Against the Wall

A new project by e-flux highlights an extraordinary archive of photographs amassed by Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros

In 1933, in a pamphlet devoted to Ejercicio Plástico (Plastic Exercise), the mural he had just completed at the home of an Argentine newspaper editor, the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros wrote: ‘Until now only “snapshots” of movement have been made (the formidable Paolo Uccello, for example). There has been a failure of the plastic [arts] to develop movement itself, for such a thing as movement could only be the job for our epoch.’ Siqueiros had in mind a kind of painted cinema. The influence of film on his art was already obvious — he conceived of the mural as an exercise in montage and movement, as jarringly dialectical as the films of his friend Sergei Eisenstein. Motion was added by the mobile spectator, whose viewpoint was submitted to the artist’s ‘polyangular perspective’.

Just as crucial, however, was the role photography played in the conception, composition and execution of Siqueiros’ murals. In the course of his career he amassed a huge archive of images intended to inspire the content and form of his works. Since his death in 1974 the collection has remained almost untouched: over 11,000 prints are still carefully divided among 20 folders currently housed at the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros in Mexico City. Each folder corresponds to a distinct category of image, among them: People and Historical Figures, Misery, Models, Workers and Industry, Objects, Landscape, Animals, Painting, Religion, Sculpture, Architecture, Religious Architecture, Archaeology and Personal Photography. Many of the photographs themselves are in poor condition, but they are in the process of being revitalized by the New York-based art information bureau e-flux: part of the archive can already be seen at www.e-flux.com.

The title that organizers Lauri Firstenberg and Anton Vidokle have given the project – An Image Bank For Everyday Revolutionary Life, with its echoes of Henri Lefebvre’s classic Marxist study Critique of Everyday Life (1947) and the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967) – is a reminder, before we consider Siqueiros’ radical intent, that photographic archives are never politically innocent. Comparable artistic arrangements could be the hoard of photographs assembled by Bertolt Brecht during World War II and later published as War Primer (1955) or August Sander’s ‘People of the 20th Century’, a sober reflection on a society about to vanish. But the images that Siqueiros acquired (or commissioned: many were produced as deliberate models for elements in the murals) have a specific sort of historical charge. Bodies are arranged in militant poses; Siqueiros’ archive is a veritable typology of revolutionary gestures.

The images are derived from disparate sources: newspapers and magazines (there is a strain of National Geographic-style imagery), postcards, popular prints of national heroes, private collections, the several series the artist had specially taken by the photographer Leo Matiz in preparation for specific murals. These last are among the most striking: photographic avatars of the Renaissance technique of foreshortened perspective known as scorciare – pictures in which the artist himself, his wife, Angélica, his brother Jesus and a number of assistants strike attitudes designed to embody revolutionary enthusiasm. Angélica, bare-chested, rages at the sky above her; Jesus flexes like a wrestler; Siqueiros’ clenched fist is thrust at the viewer in a rehearsal of his most famous self-portrait. At the same time these are figures whose physical incarnation of radical ideals is drawn from everyday life and settings: they are consciously the formal antithesis of the proudly privileged moment frozen in Stalinist depictions of the revolutionary body.

Elsewhere in the archive a large collection of photographs, drawings and engravings (probably acquired by Siqueiros on a visit to the Soviet Union) shows actors taking the parts of a series of 19th-century stereotypes: the bumptious bourgeois, the meticulous dandy, the poor man, exhausted, retiring with a bottle. And at another historical extreme a succession of snapshots shows an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Los Angeles in 1970, during which, notoriously, the Mexican-American journalist Ruben Salazar was killed. The counterpart to the images of single figures striking righteous poses is the recurring motif of the crowd. Time and again Siqueiros has alighted on just that moment, at a rally, a strike or a celebration, when the force of the crowd begins to tell, when something historical begins to surge forward.

All of which suggests that An Image Bank For Everyday Revolutionary Life is a rich seam of radical imagery that is about to see Siqueiros’ hope for it come true: that his archive should serve as source material for other artists. (Among the artists commissioned are Ken Lum, Martha Rosler and Daniel Martinez; exhibitions are planned for Mexico City and at REDCAT, Los Angeles.) But there is a danger, too, that the archive may become merely one more reified instance of recycled radical chic, a set of manoeuvres inherited from the last century. It is to be hoped, in other words, that the Image Bank expands to fulfil its originator’s vision: ‘Nothing can give the artist of today the essential feeling of the modern era’s dynamic and subversive elements more than the photographic document.’

Issue 95

First published in Issue 95

Nov - Dec 2005
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