A hole, a passage, a hyphen: Rosângela Rennó’s “Río-Montevideo”

A writer selects one image from our current exhibitions and responds to it. For our Winter 2016 programme, we have invited six students on the MA Critical Writing in Art and Design course at the Royal College of Art, London. Here, Oscar Gaynor selects an image from Rosângela Rennó’s exhibition Río-Montevideo, a project which sees the artist appropriate material from the archive of photojournalist Aurelio González.

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Image: El Popular Private Collection Reproduction Authorized by Aurelio González and Centro de Fotografía

There is a flash in the centre, and a camera—in fact, two.

There are dents in the bodywork of the car, and there is an officer with a weapon. A baton, or a crowbar, angled parallel to the direction of his glare. Both pitched downwards, both gripped.

There is a crowd; there are gazes. A forum is made on the curb, and the actors appear.

There are no consequences, only causes and effects at greater or lesser distances. The flash of course, doesn’t come from the camera, but from the sun: turning the black paint white in a bright aureole. The sheen is so strong it takes away part of the reporter at the hip. The solar flare eliminates the surface that it shines off, and leaves only a signal of heat and its potential to burn.

Celluloid in flames, have you ever seen it? It turns to liquid, blisters and then makes acrid black smoke.

This photograph hasn’t been burnt though; it’s still a solid object. Along with a cache of images taken in the years leading up to the installation of a military dictatorship, it was hidden by the photographer Aurelio Gonzalez. Hidden in the walls of the offices of the Communist newspaper El Popular in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1973. Tens of thousands were stored within the cavity. But how do you make a hole in the wall and cover it up without leaving a trace? What kind of space is that gap opened between one side and the other?

Walls make spaces by producing rooms. Or walls divide spaces, making concrete the divisions already present. There was a wall between West Berlin and East Berlin. There is a wall between the north of Nicosia and the south. And there’s a wall all the way around the Gaza Strip. Walls are meant to keep the dirt away and separate distinct activities; so that the wild animals don’t wonder inside; so that the wind doesn’t bring in the stink.

So, when there is a hole in a wall, you know that the order’s been breached, that filth is what is sought. There is the spy-hole to peer into hotel rooms, and there is the glory-hole between two cubicles. To make this image clean, think of the hyphen as the passage between two walls. In Jean Genet’s film Un Chant d’Amour (1950), the hyphen is a piece of straw. Taken from the filling of prison pillows and passed through a hole between two cells, the two inmates otherwise confined, share the libidinous breath of cigarette smoke. Or in Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) the hyphen is the line of vision; a shot of a twitching eye through the wall looking upon her judgment. Through the peephole one is witness at one remove.

Typographically, the hyphen hasn’t always signaled a relation in a straight line: Give-take, observer-observed. The hyphen is the Romanised form of the Greek enotikon: ‿ a visualisation of a tie between two things that signals continuation. The enotikon is more like a link in a chain. The relationships it binds are more oblique. Curved, refracted, largely unseen.

Composer Erik Satie, from 1917 onwards, wrote a series of scores he termed ‘furniture music’; short works intended to fade into the background of everyday life. It was sound stripped of the spectacle of its performance, the audience only a passer-by hearing an emanation from within the walls. Tenture de cabinet préfectoral (1923) was to be played between ‘the wall-lining of the office of a chief officer’ and performed by a small orchestra installed in the gap and out of sight. Satie’s music, to be infinitely looped and unreachable, niggles with its persistence.

In Río, hyphen, Montevideo, Rosângela Rennó’s gallery presentation of Gonzalez’s film slides, the projections on occasion layer on top of each other. You can see the image of the scene on the street, the crowd—reporter—officer, transposed upon two other images. The effect of the delicate transparencies seen on the walls is to overlay passages from one otherwise anonymous scene to another. Tricks of the light; their speckled edges and over-exposed reflections, when overlapped make small passages of absent content. These blanks like peepholes through a series of walls; one hyphen in correspondence with another. We see: – / – / -. Links fractured and sometimes aligning.

I don’t see the places in the photographs. I don’t know the consequences; the effects of batons upon bodies. I can’t gauge their importance or their banality. All I can see is a hole in the centre of the image, between two figures, through which comes a murky sort of light.

Oscar Gaynor is a writer based in London and co-runs @FungusPress.

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