Walter Benjamin called optical unconsciousness that remarkable capacity of photography to “apprehend in its unconsciousness what the conscious eye—educated in the domain of representation, as José Luis Brea clarifies—finds inapprehensible: the very register of the difference and the event.”1 It could be said that the visual world of photographer Brunella Costa (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) travels precisely along these coordinates, roaming through the borders that delimit our capacity to perceive and, hence, to know our environment and the things that dwell therein. From the macroscopic space—a universe inhabited by whimsical figurations of shapes and colors—to the overwhelming record of unspoiled nature, devoid of any human presence, her images lead us from the amazement of encounter to sheer astonishment. They confirm the existence of a world as mysterious as it is fragile, whose ephemeral beauty seems to find not only charm, but also refuge in the photographic realm, away from the danger and indolence of human predation.
Series like Immersion and Reinos de color bring forth suggestive figurations on particular elements of flora and fauna, captured in a record distorted by extreme close-ups. In Immersion, the photographer focuses on the tiny Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendes) in her aquarium. She portrays them in generously detailed close-ups, in the full exuberance of their vibrant shapes and colors. The same occurs with the flowers in her garden, in the series entitled Reinos de Color. If photography is “a social rite and a protection against anxiety” as stated by Susan Sontag, the artist finds an area of comfort and creative introspection in the tranquility of her domestic space: “I don’t work quite well as a photographer in wide open spaces, crammed with traffic and people. I need to close that door to the world and find myself in my own place,” asserts Costa.
However, in many of her images, the artistic will is also manifested as an abstract drive, or as the intention to transport the spectator to another place, towards a reality alien to the object itself. This exercise coexists as an apparent binomial with the decidedly realistic description of certain areas of the image, which are amplified in sharpness and detail under the scrutiny of the macroscopic lens. In such cases, the represented objects are multiplied by association with other images, yielding alternative relationships with the real and with a new empathy that overcomes the straightforward appropriation of the object through photographic endeavors.
In Reinos de Color, for instance, the figuration of flowers and their intense coloring evoke different associations or equivalences, a termed coined by Alfred Stieglitz—one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century—to describe the relationship between abstraction and figuration in his well-known clouds series. As in Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, the long pistils crowned with stamens and the sinuous cavities defined by the petals evoke not only the corporeal sensuality of the vegetable world, but also the presence of creation and the origin of everything that is alive. The capacity for abstraction in photography—like Mathieu Harel Vivier points out—is also manifested as the purpose to visualize a part of the real world previously abstracted (subtracted) from its totality. Certifying the presence of the medium—there are no doubts whatsoever that these are photographs—while opening a parenthesis of reflection on the image and its possibilities, expands the perceptual field from the obviousness of the referent to the authorial speculation pertaining to artistic practice.
Coincidentally, abstraction as well as photography share from their own realms of study many of the contradictions and similarities that define them today. Quoting Briony Fer, author of the volume On abstraction, researcher Cecilia Fajardo points out that “(…) from its inception, abstract art was characterized by duality: ‘the relationships between matter and idea, presence and absence, the visible and the invisible, have always been contradictory and even strained, like a magnetic field of attraction and repulsion.’” But in series like Immersion and Reinos de Color, figures don’t just hide or reveal themselves in the sharpness or blurriness of their lines and volumes. In this reciprocal game of evidences and intuitions, color has substantive weight. It is a call to attention—perhaps a warning cry—but also an invitation to plunge into the infinite palette of the natural world. Brunella Costa’s color is vibrant, with strong and pure tones. Color participates with other resources in the endearing playfulness that animates her images and rescues, in complicity with the spectator, the fascination of the gaze against the indifference and stress of everyday life.
Other series still in progress like Colores de la soledad and Historias de Pescadores rely on the chromatic range. On the other hand, From the Earth gathers a set of black and white images that return to the contemplative dimension of intact landscapes and the ocean, seen from the genre’s modernistic tradition in photography. These works are momentarily added to the abstract drive of the image through the use of blurriness as an expressive resource, or through formal patterns found in nature and reinterpreted in framing and shooting, thus generating arrangements and cadences of volumes and lines.
If every photograph were in its own nature a memento mori—as Sontag says— these images by Brunella Costa would be a confirmation of our arrogance before the beauty and frailty of the kingdom of this World. From the ambiguous borders of the unperceivable to grandiose natural settings—passing through the examinations of common men present in her documentary series—her pictures build up the imagery of a re-charmed space, intertwining each one of its parts into a coherent, homogeneous whole. This world of shapes and colors evoke humanist Alfonso Reyes’ words when he asserts, rescuing ancient Oriental wisdom: “The spirit of life sleeps in the mineral, dreams in the vegetable, awakens in the animal and becomes consciousness in man.”
1 Brea, José Luis. “El inconsciente óptico y el segundo obturador. La fotografía en la era de su computarización”, Antroposmoderno.
2 Harel Vivier, Mathieu. Photographies, abstraction et réalité: l’agencement comme processus artistique. Thèse Doctorale| Université de Rennes 2, France. Novembre 2014.
3 Fajardo-Hill, Cecilia. Abstracción Contemporánea en Latinoamérica.