Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Iosif Király

The Decisive Moment
On memories as archived emotions with Iosif Király
by Cristina Stoenescu

[Interviul în limba română este publicat online pe site-ul Dilema Veche]

Cartier-Bresson announces in his famous 1952 book, ”The Decisive Moment”, a new plasticity in photography, resulting from simultaneous lines creating  movement in front of the camera lens, lines that the artist intuits before they even fall into balance. In the post-digital, post-humanist era, Iosif Király extends this instinctive wait, postponing the decisive moment until he can converge the images into a reconstructed scene, in order to accentuate the uncanny relationship between memory-making and photography.

Letting the days go by, flowing water underground is the title of his latest solo show at Anca Poterasu Gallery, inspired by one of the artist’s favourite bands, Talking Heads. The chorus ”Same as it ever was” echoes throughout the exhibition, exploring the many ways in which photography operates on time – documenting and selecting images according to a complex reality nuanced by memories and emotions. ”Same as it ever was”.

One of the best well-known artists in Romania, Iosif Király is the co-founder of the Department of Photography and Dynamic Image of the National University of Arts in Bucharest. In the 1980s, he activated in the mail-art movement, inspired by the underground Fluxus group. Since 1989 he starts exhibiting individually, or as a part of the subREAL group, or otherwise in other collaborative projects with architects, visual artists and writers.

Panoramic view of the exhibition ”Letting days go by, water flowing underground” / Iosif Kiraly

Cristina Stoenescu: There is a famous photo with Malraux, selecting photos for his imaginary museum, with rows upon rows of multiple art reproductions spread out on the floor. That’s how I remember working together with you as we were installing the exhibition “Letting the days go by, water flowing underground”. Hundreds of images from the installation “The act of seeing” were lying in front of us, out of which we could only select 228 frames, while keeping them in order for an image sequence of sorts. In the installation, they showcase your process on the ”Reconstructions” series, linking to the image we see on the main gallery wall, where there is a theatre-like scene in front of the entrance to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

How does Iosif Király turn hundreds of images into a script documenting a silent performance that never takes place? It’s as if you have at hand a concentrated space of representation through which you then manage to materialize, (actually direct) another reality.

Iosif Király: Reality, as I perceive it, is also composed of many fragments of images, sounds, sometimes tactile, olfactory sensations, etc. They produce more subtle or intense emotions, which are then compressed and stored somewhere in the brain. After a while, due to external stimuli, often unexpectedly, these archived “packages” or “documents” (to make a possible analogy with how computers work) are decompressed, interpolated with experiences, states of mind that are acquired in the meantime. But they are also intermingled with some experiences of the present moment and reappear under the form of memories.
I am interested in the process itself and I try to give it a visual dimension and share it with the viewers.

C.S .: The works from the “Synapses” series in the exhibition present images made in documentary projects, especially in post-industrial cities in Romania – Oltenița, Turnu Severin, Hunedoara – photography projects carried out over several years. Horizon lines disappear and others add in as the former factories have fallen in disarray.

What is the distance between you and the subjects you photograph, between the documentary practice, that of archiving images and the expression of the visual connections you make when recomposing the image?

I.K .: My practice as a photographer is carried out on several levels (practical, theoretical, educational). The practical part in turn consists of recording images and processing, exposing them in various forms. I have had an uninterrupted documentary activity since the early 1990s.
The camera is with me at all times.
This documentary project, which is made up of tens of thousands of photographs, is called “Indirect”, a kind of photographic diary whose title suggests that understanding a situation does not occur instantly, it is rather a process that needs subsequent reflection on its details and consequences. The same happens visually. The eye and the brain cannot record the whole complexity of a moment and many details go unnoticed until revisiting that moment through the photographed images. Then time seems to expand, as does perception, but this is an indirect relationship with reality, mediated by photographs. I discover details that I hadn’t noticed in “real time”, just like the famous character-photographer from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (but in a more modest and less cinematic way).

The “Indirect” project is made up of snapshots, personal images captured on camera throughout Romania or places where I have travelled and lived over the years. A part of it refers to the changes that Romanian society has gone through and the natural and urban landscapes as they have changed since the fall of communism. But this is not about the dramatic or spectacular moments of the photojournalistic approach. I refer more to the everyday banality that can be as complex and as interesting, full of details and meanings as any so-called grand, heroic moments. In order to differentiate the documentary and social projects from the more personal approach in my artistic practice, these have carried out different names, depending on their specific focus: RO_Archive, Tinseltown, Triaj, D_Platform, Work, etc.
But because I’m still human (not a surveillance camera or a Google car that travels the streets around the world and records continuously) and I have thoughts and feelings, even when documenting industrial platforms, I can discover certain aspects beyond the documentary, to reverberate with the general interest I mentioned before, on memory, synchronous situations, connections between people, things and events, etc. So, after a while I can extract from these very projects initially made for documentary purposes certain images and details with which to build personal narratives and situations, which can express more than what initial images contain. The social context becomes a background for small events or meetings in which people, animals, objects can participate, creating emotions and meanings that would not exist were they not related to each other.

Synapses, Turnu Severin, 2016 - 2020, mixed media (analogue photomontage and digital photomontage printed with archival pigment, fixed on dibond, nails, coloured metal strings), 80 x 160 cm, unique

C.S .: None of the works in the exhibition claim to be on a 1:1 rapport with the world shown in the image. Photography becomes more and more complex and layered: you choose fragments from different perspectives, using both digital image processing techniques and visible collages with analogue prints, precise interventions in the photographs where coloured metal wires are anchored as image reading vectors, such as the “Synapses” series. What are the codes of reading / analysing the photographic image that you propose?

I.K .: The language of contemporary art is more ambiguous and versatile than – for example – the Morse code or even a classical or a modern language. Through the coloured threads that link different photos I suggest possible connections and non-linear narratives that could be built among them. But the viewer can make other connections and find different interpretations. A work of art is many times considered to be good if it allows for more interpretations. Snapshots are used in these works as a writer employs words or different grammatical constructions. Often with the same words you can build sentences or phrases with very different meanings.

C.S .: There is a time of recorded memory and a personal, more intimate time of those who go through historical events together, immediately, present towards one another. In the images from the series “Old people feel the change of weather in their bones” there are also photos from the family album, some made by your father himself, accompanied by macro details of the surface of aged skin, abstract landscapes affected by irreversible time. You choose two ways of archiving, of presenting the images: the method of exhibiting them as diptychs, a joining of photographs and another one, a presentation of an archive file, with superimposed photos, like a personal dossier. What motivates this arrangement and re-arrangement of your photographic pieces alongside the family album images?

I.K .: This project is perhaps the most personal one out of the entire exhibition. How to use the photos from the family album in relation to skin texture details (of the same people, respectively my parents, but after an interval of 50-60 years) was primarily determined by visual considerations. I experimented (throughout the whole show) with different visual formulas in order to convey certain ideas. One would be the large diptych in which both images are black and white, where the one selected from the family archive is scanned from the negative. The second is the photo montage version in which I used for each of the five pieces, a small black and white vintage photo, with a sometimes serrated edge, from my personal archive, superimposed over a colour image with macro details of the skin. The body of the old man photographed in detail (macro), with all the wrinkles and traces left by time, seems very beautiful and spectacular. Most of the time, although the images contain a lot of visual information, they become more and more abstract; like some landscapes on distant planets. On the other hand, these photomontages can also be read in political terms: my parents and many of the generation born in the interwar period, at their prime, suddenly found themselves prisoners in a political system: hostile, lying and absurd.

Their parents were labelled as some sort of kulaks, and they had their work-cards marked with specific stamps that meant they could not get hired anywhere. They had to flee and try to lose their track in a working-class city where no one knew them, they had to begin rebuilding their lives from scratch. They lived their youth in that context. When in the 60s the regime relaxed a little, they tried to adapt and be happy, to go on road trips around the country, to be as useful as possible at work, to meet the requirements of their new jobs. And then some day, suddenly, when they were 60 years old, they woke up again in another reality, where they saw on TV that some people were shouting that “the dictator has fled, freedom, democracy!”. They spent their last years (9 in my mother’s case and 12 in my father’s) together in the same apartment. They had everything that the elderly in an above-average social condition could have wanted. They were not alone and living together with their family, they could see  a wonderful grandson growing up before their eyes, they could watch over 100 TV channels, they could have any food they wanted on the table, they could speak their minds freely; they should have been very happy. And yet I have never seen them in all these last years as happy as they appear in the small family-album photos in the family, when, in the terrible 1950s, they were riding motorcycles with other friends and colleagues on the roads and in the forests around Resița. I wanted to introduce in these images an equation with several variables: age, freedom, happiness, dictatorship, young bodies, but also aging ones.

Exhibition View / Old People Feel the Weather in Their Bones series 2016 - 2018

C.S .: When Baudrillard publishes the famous phrase “The Gulf War did not take place” in 1991, he does not question the historical reality of the war. He questions the whole way of representing political, social and military actions in a context with new technological means that affect the writing of history at the same time as they record it. Photography, the archive, they become inherently political. There is in fact a single image in the exhibition which connects directly to a certain time in history, “Echoes_Libertate 2B”, in the sense that the 1989 moment is clearly recognizable in the photograph of the snowman built by the guards near an embassy in Bucharest. The inserts with details revolve around the big image, a carefully built collage with only four other images depicting other post-1989 moments.

I.K .: In the case of this work I used some black and white photographs from the ”Indirect” series, taken over a period of about 25 years. I used a certain type of vernacular composition that I have often seen in different homes of elderly people: an important family photo, (which usually marks the moment of marriage), is framed and put in a place of honour. As the years pass by, grandchildren appear, other weddings and family events, smaller photos also start being added to the large ones, stuck on the inner contour of the frame, most often over the glass and over the initial photo.

The central image with the snowman, the military helmet and the Romanian flag with a hole in the middle was made in the days after the revolution of December 1989. I tried to suggest through some connections and juxtapositions how the enthusiasm and significance of that period were altered by years of long hesitations and numerous political disappointments, of social convulsions followed by mass emigration, unsuspected and undesirable consequences in those initial moments of euphoria. The question I would like the viewer to ask herself is whether the meaning of a photograph remains constant or whether it changes over time as the context shifts?

Echoes_Libertate 2B, 1989 - 2017, photo object, 129 x 90 cm, 1989 - 2017 photo object, edition 1/5 + 1AP, framed
Echoes_Libertate 2B, 1989 - 2017, photo object, 129 x 90 cm, 1989 - 2017 photo object, edition 1/5 + 1AP, framed

C.S .: A barge named PRESENT passes (on a canal in a city in Belgium), in front of the camera. In the University Square, in 2014, the snow powder moves graphically, strangely so, in a changing wind. Your father is lying on the bed and breathing imperceptibly while at the window the cat’s tail and the pendulum of an old clock on the wall record time differently. I describe here a series of video works, displayed in a loop through the gallery space, as strange déjà vu’s. Only after we finished installing the show, did I realise how present their sound is and the relation it established with the surrounding images – the wind sounds like winter, the rocks are grinded slowly and randomly, the pendulum clock measures the time outside of its own containing world and becomes the sound of the exhibition room. Why did you start exhibiting video now, for the first time? How do you see the different flows of time in your photographic works in relation to the moving image?

I.K .: In my long relationship with photography, I sometimes felt a certain limitation and the need for some scenes to be better filmed than photographed. In those cases, the concept of the artwork could be better served using the moving image. However, the approach is photographic, with the video camera fixed on the tripod. All these films are made to be watched in the gallery, possibly in relation to other works and not from the armchair of a screening room. Of the 4 films in the exhibition, one is somewhat site-specific and requires a more special presentation; it is projected on the floor and due to the texture and of the unevenness of the surface, the work creates a feeling of trompe-l’oeil that must be seen and experienced in person. This vertical presentation, which reproduces the way the filming was made, was suggested by you and describes the good collaboration we had for the realization of this show. Thank you.

Intercity 593 No.2, 2003, photomontage with analogue photography, 23.3 x 69 cm, unique / framed

The cultural project “Letting the days go by, water flowing underground” is co-financed by the National Cultural Fund Administration (AFCN). It does not necessarily represent the position of AFCN. The AFCN is not responsible for the content of the project or the manner in which the results of the project may be used. These are entirely the responsibility of the funding recipient.

See more images from the exhibition here