Artist: Sebastián Diaz Morales
Argentinean artist and filmmaker Sebastián Diaz Morales confronts the viewer in his short films Pasajes I and II with a continuum of ruptures, an incommensurable succession of images of various, mostly disparate spaces and places. Subjected to a subtle form of urban semiotic overload, the viewer and his perception and experience of space, place, and landscape become the observational subject of the films. Diaz Morales’s visual language is characterized by clarity, by a documentary straightforwardness, but also by subtle irony and skepticism. On the surface, his films seem realistic, but as they unfold a symbolic, metaphorical dimension gradually takes over. Diaz Morales leads the viewer into a phantasmal, quasi-magical visual realm, one focused not on escapism but on a subtle yet relentless questioning of our conceptions of reality.
Sebastián Diaz Morales’s conception of reality has been shaped by the living conditions and landscape of his birthplace, Comodoro Rivadivia, an industrial city located on the Atlantic coast, in a rugged area between the Atlantic Ocean and the Patagonian Desert in southern Argentina, where wind speeds can top 150 km/h. His questioning of reality in film, whether concerning landscape, the urban, or even the sociopolitical, has been marked from the very outset by a fundamental distrust of the belief in a single, unified reality. With Diaz Morales, the camera does not function as a medium for faithfully depicting and recording what is observed, but is an essential, even epistemic means for questioning and appropriating reality.
Diaz Morales’s examination of perception and reality is based on the assumption that reality itself is by nature highly fictional. “I am very interested in the notion of reality and fiction. (...) My work explores the boundaries between reality and fiction,” says Diaz Morales. Thus, his films do not simply transport the viewer into another, surreal, or phantasmal realm, but they strip reality of its familiarity and distort it, making it seem like something else. With Diaz Morales, the viewer’s imagination does not function as a basic counterpart to the real. Rather, it operates as a force capable of evoking space and producing it diegetically, one that, beyond generating a direct visual impression, fills in the gaps in seeing and, as the film unfolds, gradually reveals to the viewer the constructedness of what we call reality. Reality is presented here as a phantasm, as something that always eludes its defining in images. It is therefore always “a little bit ahead” of the image and the viewer’s gaze.
In Pasajes I and II, a protagonist, who goes largely unnoticed by those around him, passes through a seemingly endless series of various spaces and places. In each sequence, the protagonist is seen entering a space, walking through and then exiting it—for example, a corridor, a cellar, a museum, or a hotel lobby. While the performer in Pasajes I (2012) passes through spaces in individual scenes, Pasajes II (2013) forms, so to speak, the vertical counterpart to Pasajes I. Here the protagonist does not pass through rooms, but climbs up endless stairs and staircases montaged together in the film. The idea of ascendency not only injects an element of exertion into the film’s narrative, but also an ironic metaphorical note, the implying of an undetermined telos.
Pasajes I leads the viewer through a labyrinth of heterogeneous spaces and locations in Buenos Aires constructed via a montage of images. Initially, a few of the scenes seem interesting in themselves, but the heterogeneity of the places gradually turns into uniformity, ostensible differences become predictable, since the surprising, unexpected, and varied aspects prove to be factors included from the outset and thus constants. For the protagonist, the strict succession of various passages makes the proceedings feel like a seemingly hopeless and claustrophobic scenario. His quest, his search, must apparently be continued ad infinitum, so that the seeker here becomes the prisoner of his own intention.
The reality and authenticity evoked at first by the documentary language gives way to a visual realm of imaginary status. What initially appears to be real, increasingly degenerates into a surface phenomenon no longer sustained by an underlying context. Rather, Diaz Morales fuses the images into an optional reality that impels viewers to see what is actually perceived from a distance, that is, in an altered or even distorted relationship. “The idea behind my work and its process, generally speaking, is to find shelter in the physical manifestation of the world, without trying to destroy it, but by regenerating or revalidating it in order to create ways to explore other aspects of its reality.”
In Pasajes I and II, the artist creates spatial continuums from imaginary connections that simply depict what seemingly exists and which make so-called reality appear as a construct and an illusion. He works with documentary means, with visually faithful set pieces of reality, in order to transpose these—decontextualized and de-semanticized—into a visualized universe of expanded visual-ontological qualities. Within this Escherian spatial matrix, the real, the imaginary, and the projective become co-equal forces. If the viewer when watching film (in the sense of a perceiving consciousness) is typically assigned the position of the camera, and thus unites individual images and scenes into a spatially diegetic, coherent whole, this perceiving consciousness is, with Diaz Morales, not only subjected to a chronic overload, it appears in this function to be pushed toward absurdity, even negated. The spatial diegesis ends in architectural impossibilities and a topological collapse. The respective location not only appears de-territorialized, Diaz Morales shows us a seeing without an actual view, a seeing that has less to do with finding than ceaseless searching. Considered pessimistically, one might think that a transition would be presented here from seeing to a kind of visualization, an automated seeing that is only ever distantly and loosely tied to a subject or one that references such a subject. In memory of Plato’s cave allegory, the spatial labyrinth in Pasajes could ultimately be understood as a metaphor for how we construct reality. According to this, we find ourselves enclosed in a system of highly varied spaces, without ever being able to perceive and recognize ourselves and what is external or ontologically real.
Inherent to Diaz Morales’s narrative-documentary language is a deep-seated questioning of the ability to reproduce and capture reality in images. What is real or actual is not discernible as something external beyond the image, but rather as a synthesized reality that exists within the perceiving and thinking, aware subject. In this respect, Diaz Morales’s linking of inner and external, that is, the interweaving of inner (imaginary-phantasmal) images with external, documentary images, does not serve purely aesthetic means, i.e. for distorting, or for eliciting bewilderment. Rather, a fluid transition forms between the external and inner, the real and the perceived. In this sense, the “work” concerning reality is an unending process of constant questioning, reconciling, and reconfiguring.
Diaz Morales’s protagonists pass through spaces and places where no one lingers, places of transition that can be described as a “placeless locations.” Never arriving at a destination appears to be the protagonist’s unspecified goal, to continually shift ahead the reason for his walking and his searching. In the very progression of this ongoing search, the “recorded” reality is deformed, the signifier detached from the signified. As the film unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that it is not about a type of seeing based on documentation and objectification. Through the aesthetic processes of montage and semiotic overlaying, Diaz Morales opens up for the viewer a semi-surrealistic scenario in which the acting subject (the protagonist) appears ever-more fragile, and in some degree even fictional himself. In the separate scenes, which read as situational and documentary, it may be possible to identify the person as an individual at first, but this figure increasingly becomes a mere variable as a result of the artist’s montaging of visual space, undercutting the viewer’s identification with the protagonist. The gaze — of the protagonist and, by extension, of those watching the film as well — becomes recognizable and observable as one that searches, as a searching in motion. As theoretical subject, the protagonist, the “personified void”, ultimately proves to be a challenge for the viewer. Instead of being able to easily identify with a “real” subject, the observer is confronted with a diffuse interface of widely divergent subjectification tangents. Accordingly, he is thrown relentlessly back onto the provisional nature of his own perception and construction of reality.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Erik Smith