Image Degree Zero
In the beginning, photography was black and white. In the beginning, there is an image, taken from above, in a half-empty city. At the top, a highway cuts across diagonally; below, the cement traces out a strange mechanism of irregular sidewalks, white pedestrian cross-walk lines, traffic lights and signals, street lamps; further below, a tiny man, stepping lightly with his eyes lowered, escapes the image through its lower edge. Taken in Boston in the '80s, the photograph speaks of the city and also of the gaze — and of its slow descent in Alberto Goldenstein's work, until it nearly skims the ground in his color shots of Miami. It speaks of how and what to look at in a city: the back entrances of restaurants, the typography of certain obstinately American signs, the mishmash in a window shop that collects a Chinese vase, a little porcelain dog, and a bust of Elvis. And also of the life that produces its interiors, those small apartments that impel us to inhabit the terraces, to sit in the window frames, to find some place that allows one to be inside and outside at the same time. Connected by the stamp of travel — of displacement, of foreignness, but also of transformation and learning — the Boston photographs weave together the threads of different histories: histories of a person, of photographic technology, of visual composition, and the history of the city.
In the personal history, they are the first chapter of a story that could be called "How I Became a Photographer": the twenty-year-old youth who is educated as a photographer abroad and returns anxious to find his place in the (art) world. It´s precisely because of this that Goldenstein's return to the country is a return to what is absolutely local: not to the easy and "exportable" places of "Argentine-ness" — gauchos, mate tea, rural life — but to that story of bodies, affections, and joys that appear, at moments, on the underside of the official neoliberal consumerist culture of Menemism. Back in Buenos Aires, he takes a series of photos that make of Porteño nightlife, the '90s underground, not only a subject, but also a form. There are people talking, kissing, smoking, meeting in public spaces like the Bolivia bar, but also in houses. There are nightlife habitués and recognizable personalities like the photographer Alejandro Kuropatwa chatting with Roberto Jacoby, or the painter and sculptor Pablo Suárez lifting weights without ever putting down his cigarette. They are also images taken with the light that enables the place, shots cut where the person's face maybe remains outside the frame or is interrupted by someone else's hand. They are twisted self-portraits in the pre-selfie era, images of a nightlife regular, who wears sunglasses to get in and is submerged in a crowd at his back. Now they're photos that recover a certain will to look at one's own tribe — a certain sensibility that moved Nan Goldin, for example — and makes us feel inside and part of the image, surrounded by friends, parents, lovers, bars, and ash trays.
Goldenstein maintains this perspective even when he leaves the instantaneous and the photo of the underground scene to focus on individuals. He takes a series of portraits that he shows at the Centro Cultural Rojas in 1993 under the title El mundo del arte [The Art World]. The production rules for these images are consistent: the depicted person occupies the photo's center and poses in an environment that, for the photo's meaning, is as important as the person. Marcelo Pombo, in a Hawaiian shirt, smokes in front of a background of trinkets, in a composition as flashy as the Argentine pop of his work; María Moreno, author and well-known feminist, poses for the photographer in front of the repeating washing machines of a neighborhood Laundromat.
In these portraits there is a light and slightly impish irony. For example, in the image of Oscar Schiliro in front of a shop window crammed with pretentiously elegant lamps and oriental fans that evoke the decorative pastel-colored plastic objects that the artist makes, objects that could be described as kitsch, but that instead of situating themselves comfortably within the adjective, question the dubious "good taste" of those lamps gilded and bedecked with crystal or glass beads in the window. There is a taking responsibility for the distance that separares the art piece and the decorative object, from the "fine" object and the trinket, but also an emphasis on the institutional or hermeneutic impetus that erases these very differences. Goldenstein maintains a droll perspective with respect to the construction of the artist's persona, like a collage between a work and a pose, that is to say, the result of a personal and public narrative or a way of inhabiting the art world (or the world in general).
The last decade of the twentieth century was a test period for neoliberal recipes, a short party of nouveau riche squander and an illusory entry into the world of global wealth, whose consequences revealed their full harshness during the 2001 crisis. In that context, in which neo-conceptualism established itself as the global aesthetic language and the "overcomer" of formalism, abstraction, and systems of aesthetic autonomy, an aesthetic sensibility emerged that can be located around the Centro Cultural Rojas, but that permeated many other personal and group projects. Jorge Gumier Maier, artist and curator of the Rojas art space, refers to the "domestic curatorial model" as the principie of attraction for a series of works and interventions. This model, which also finds resonance in other projects, like trash opulence - in the Sergio de Loof's sets- or the joy of the homemade —in Belleza y Felicidad [Beauty and Happiness], the gallery-bookstore-publisher and party space founded by Fernanda Laguna, Cecilia Pavón and Gabriela Bejerman-, continued to develop as a denotative and plebian aesthetic.
A white duck on a black background; a reproduction of some classic stamp, framed and hung — crookedly — on floral wallpaper; a dog on the sidewalk in front of a mirrored building: images of something as banal, everyday, simple as the world. Photos that, in their prudent denotation, produce an effect similar to that of still lifes: they leave us a little mute, a little astonished, and declare a certain meaning alert. They provoke doubts: is what we sea what it is — a duck, a dog, a crooked painting — or is there some other thing, some other "discourse" —be it social, political, or historical — that would calco our hermeneutic anxiety? 'The recurrent anxiolytic always circulares around zones bordering on kitsch, but Goldenstein's camera positions itself as far from Martin Parr's Saxon satire -to reference one emblematic example - as Marcos López's globolocal irony, to cite another.
His images don't distance themselves, with cruelty or elegante, from what they observe; nor do they sustain that — more or less cynical — pleasure for the cheap that distinguishes filo-kitsch passion.
In place of the precarious equilibrium that the game of fascination and distance proposed through irony and its variants, Goldenstein asserts an absolute compassion for the part of an image that becomes material. Compassion for the thousands of bathers packed into a small part of the Atlantic coast, compassion for the lady with a fake leopard skin coas who visits a neighborhood shoe shop, for the old man or woman in a pink tee shirt who leans out of the train in a scene reminiscent of The Titanic. Compassion roo for those cars that beg for a visir to the body shop, for the beach umbrellas abandoned during a thunderstorm at the spa resort, compassion for that wall in which posters for limousine services, techno parties, and strippers fight amongst themselves for a bit of visibility. Although perhaps more than compassion, its about knowing that one is part of that plebian world, part of the Buenos Aires underground, part of the art world, but also part of the urban middle class, of the masses who wander around the city center or who vacation on the Argentine coast. Perhaps it's also about a way of inhabiting this common world: with more interest in looking at what it is, what is there — and in sharing this perspective -, and less interested in speechifying for or against it, in fixing a stable position among the things and people.4 Far from the stories of documentary photography or the compositional inheritance of modernism, but also from the logic of the non-belonging demanded by parody, Goldenstein composes a portrait of the quotidian world, without grandiloquence and without serious-ness, and also without renouncing a waggish touch: in front of the marquee that announces the premiere of The Matrix, the technological end-of-the-century film, in the historical Metro theater, the camera detects an old Ford Falcon parked out front and a man walking by in a sweat suit. Even if the images don't totally escape the humorous — a stamp near to but nor the exclusive patrimony of the ironist — it's because perhaps Alberto Goldenstein's most distinctive hallmark might be, finally, a certain implacable optimism in the face of the world that he inhabits with his camera.
The City and its Signs
For almost three decades, Alberto Goldenstein doesn't return to the United States. In 2011 he travels to New York to buy a digital camera. His return to the country where he was educated punctuates another initiation: now, into digital photography. Of course no one — much less a photographer — travels to New York for the first time. Because of this, his camera doesn't eo searchine for snarks of urban chance or snontaneirv, hit cryle ign't the geometric discovery of landscape or unexpected composition. He focuses on those emblems that constitute the collective visual imagination of the city: the saturation of digital advertisements in Times Square, the infinitely photographed Flatiron Building, the Village's brick facades. Goldenstein practices a fictional documentarism; he maps a world made out of remnants of previous images; more than discover, he reviews. His work inter-rogates the places that ignited photography's momentum and asks how the visual repertoire of a city is made. What does a corner riddled with signs say about the experience of living in this geography? What sociability is possible in a place with these facades, these parks? The photos speak of the visual codification of a space, of the way we are familiar with a place without ever having been there, of the way that we occupy it, guided by an iconography that sifts the perception of the plazas and the materials, the streets and avenues. They also speak of the way a piece is composed. In Goldenstein, the impulse towards the essay lives alongside the distraction of the archive. There are series by Goldenstein that are guided by the insistente of the visual essay: photos of Mar del Plata that depict the city as an ecosystem of middle-class leisure, photos of the '90s Buenos Aires underground scene and its characters. There are other series, like this one, motivated by the archive: in them, the photographer understands — and we with hico — that this photo returns to a motif that was created in a previous image, separated perhaps by decades, and that this first one started something unknown but persistent in subsequent images. Because of this, this return of Alberto Goldenstein to the United States is also a return to his own work; beginning with these photos, the photographer revisits the images that he took in Boston and puts together a show he calls Americanas. In it, Boston and New York, black and white and color, his initiation in photography and the analogous world, all live alongside one another.
With this imprint, it's also possible to walk through all of Goldenstein's cities and enjoy the visual cartography traced by his work. From the Boston of the 1980s to the dazzling Miami of 2015, passing through Buenos Aires, Mar del Plata, New York, and other places, we are immersed in a story that was ordained by the black and white geometry of Boston — with the aerial shots in which we spy on ovo guys who pass by a snowy sidewalk, where a Kung Fu academy and a bar live side by side — that thickens on a Buenos Aires corner — saturated by a railroad crossing and a series of signs that announce a brand of sneakers, a store for rent, an adult secondary school —, is polished in the bucolic stamp of some young people in front of the Central Park lake, and is offered as a candied fruir in the red of some Miami armchairs against the rabid yellow of a parked car.
Cities are, for Goldenstein, places where what is legible becomes thickened or diluted. What traverses all his work is the textual dimension of the urban artifact: signs and rypog-raphies, statues and store windows. Urban nature and the urban design of what is natural —what stands out in images of floral arrangements or certain fragments of vegetative density that register as artificial composition. And also those places and hybrid practices where the interior — of a museum, for example — mandares a sociability similar to that of a city, with bodies that circulare, connect, touch, or pause, lost in thought.
Alberto Goldenstein doesn't enjoy the normal photographer topics of conversation. He doesn't like talking about cameras — in an interview he says with coherent levity, that he has an instrumental relationship with them and because of that he considers them almost a household appliance —; nor does he enjoy conversation about copies, nor the technical acrobatics that are required to obtain a difficult shot. In this sense he is a thoroughly contemporary artist: he coincides with an era in which the conceptual imprint imposes itself aboye the construction of the aesthetic object, whether it's a novel or a photograph. His images of objects and people, urban remnants and interiors marked bv the imprint of the public oronose a perspective that is more excited by the genuine than by the original or distinctive. There's something of an adolescent impulse in them, of an angry outburst before a new world that opens with its range of possibilities. A pope put in the here and the now, that it is our turn to live, flashes within them. This impression permeates all of Goldenstein's work and it condenses in the joyful images of the time that is lost, of the image that is enjoyed, of the kids who swim at the beach or play in the river, of the curve of a back against the sun, of the seconds in which we let ourselves live, balancing our feet seated against the window frame. It's about an optimism that gets along very well with that calco which is at times apathetic and a little spacey, which, with innocent provocation, only sees what it sees, what is there. Thus, Alberto Goldenstein explores a degree zero of photography, a wandering in search of pure denotation that takes the form of an adventure: a stepping out to look at this world that is ours. This photographic adventure smells like teen spirit.
Paola Cortes Rocca
Received her PhD in Romance Languages from Princeton University. She has taught at the Uni-versidad de Buenos Aires, the University of Southern California, and San Francisco State University, where she was chair of the Foreign Languages and Literatures Department. She is currently a researcher at CONICET and a professor at the Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero. She is author of El tiempo de la máquina [The Time of the Machine], coauthor of Eva Perón: Imágenes de vida, relatos de muerte [Eva Perón: Images of Life, Stories of Death], and coeditor of Políticas del sentimiento: El Peronismo y la construcción de la Argentina moderna [Politics of Emotion: Peronism and the Con-struction of Modern Argentina]. She has published essays about photography and aesthetics in the journals October, Mosaic, Iberoamericana, Journal of Latín American Cultural Studies, among others; as well as about the work of photographers like Andrés Serrano, Alejandro Kuropatwa, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Eduardo Gil, Marcelo Brodsky, and Gabriela Liffschitz.