32 X 32 in
Accumulations is a contemplation on, and response to his acclaimed Suburbia Mexicana project, a long-term documentary project, rooted in the artist’s own experience living and working in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey. Suburbia Mexicana sought to tell visually the complex story of the region’s rapid growth, looking at the causes and effects of unhampered and unplanned development on the people and the landscape, including the environmental consequences.
Accumulations is a bold departure, formally, from Cartagena’s previous work. The culmination of years of research and thinking about how to picture adequately the important issues it explored.
The exhibition features two large abstracted monochromatic circular installations that are comprised of hundreds of small individual photographs Cartagena took of the sky. These photos were taken from his roof when the air quality officially registered as ‘bad’. They are arranged concentrically and held in place with magnets. There are also 10 new photomontage works—the source material for which are photographs from Suburbia Mexicana—cut-up, reassembled and likewise held in place with magnets.
The circle motif, echoed in the use of small black disc magnets, are both a formal allusion to the invisible particles that are in the air and to various concepts in optics that have a direct bearing on visibility—f-stop, ‘circle of confusion,’ focal point, blind spots, etc.—metaphors for photography’s failure to reveal this otherwise quantifiable fact of pollution.
A large black circle shows the sky at night, where nothing, because of the lack of light, is visible. “You can’t see them but the contaminants are there”. As Cartagena explains, there were reports of an increase in clandestine night-time emissions by various companies circumventing regulations.
The magnets themselves are a significant element or device in the work—at once visible but progressively less seen as they assume their function and you look past them.
The use of magnets in the photomontages is deliberate (while they easily could have been, these were not made in photoshop). Here they provisionally hold in place the various image fragments to create new images, speaking to the fragility and tenuousness of the ‘bigger picture’ while also implying that it might be changed, that looming disaster could be averted, and the fractured image just might be restored.
For those who are familiar with the undeniably exquisite and powerful photographs that make up Suburbia Mexicana, Cartagena’s move in this suite of new photomontages, can at first blush, appear to be a destructive if not nihilistic move or breakdown—literally cutting up his own work, rearranging and reconfiguring key images—but upon reflection this move makes sense and fits in terms of both his approach to documentary photography and his more recent trajectory and focus on the possibilities of the photobook.
Cartagena’s approach to documentary has always been multi-faceted—a bit cubist. He comes at his subject from all angles while insisting on maintaining the complexity of the narrative in his efforts to raise awareness of the larger interrelated issues. Here he is confronting Mexico and, in particular, his home city of Monterrey about irresponsible and unsustainable development, while trying to be a catalyst for the creation of a better future for the region’s inhabitants.
The story is never contained in the individual image but rather in their sequence and juxtaposition, a larger vision is offered by way of these deliberate collisions and the flow from one to the next. This is why the photobook, something he’s been experimenting with, is so appealing for Cartagena.
This new work however does something else. It is an immediate and visceral commentary or self-reflexive critique of his earlier work, an expression of the photographer’s ambivalent relationship, if not frustration, with his chosen medium and its ability to inspire change.
It is certainly, as Cartagena admits, an expression of his feelings of frustration, disappointment, disillusion with the lack of any real change or improvement around the issues he’s been exposing for more than a decade—but also with photography itself, its failure to truly capture the ‘whole picture’ so-to-speak, and ultimately its limited efficacy.
“I’m tired of pointing fingers, its more an expression of feeling… There are no answers here. I don’t even now if there are questions anymore.”
But it is not the duty of the Artist to solve our problems. Accumulations is a painful and passionate expression of outrage, albeit beautifully and articulately rendered.