The resistance of bodies: The photography of Antoine d’Agata

Le désir demeure en nous comme un défi au monde même qui lui dérobe infiniment son objet.

Georges Bataille

… to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Susan Sontag

It’s not how a photographer looks at the world that is important.  It’s their intimate relationship with it.

Antoine d’Agata

What is art if it does not express or touch our flesh?  If our bodies are not marked, even scarred, by it, what can be made of it?  Is it even art?

To say that art is political is a banality.  To endeavour to understand how it is political requires effort.  To define revolutionary art, if such a thing there is, remains an unfinished task.

Part of the answer lies in the idea that revolutionary art must challenge the alienation of artistic work under capitalism and the accompanying commodification of the art work.  The elitist isolation of artistic labour, the separation from the subject and work of art, the mercantilisation of art objects, are all dimensions of contemporary State-Capitalism.  A revolutionary art must then contest all such divisions, separations.  And to do so, it must be re-integrated into the life of the artist, and the artist’s life re-integrated into the life of her/his subjects, at the most basic of levels, the body.

Art that is not born of the artist’s own self-questioning, and which does not push, contest, in a permanent manner, the very limits of art under the reign of Spectacle, is a compromised art, a failed art.  And it is in this transgression, never final, never exhausted, where the revolutionary in art lives.  It challenges not only artistic forms, but the very life of the artist and the lives of those the art touches.

But is this not the loss of the artist/art in life itself?  Does not revolutionary art become the aestheticisation of life?  I believe the answer lines in-between, in the liminal space/time of creation, beyond simple representation: neither alienated nor lost, art, revolutionary art, exists in the precarious balance between creator and reality.

The photography of Antoine d’Agata is such an art.  His photography carries us to the limits of his own experience as artist with what he captures in camera.  It seeks to push photographic images beyond Susan Sontag’s judgement that such images “anesthetize”, that they are a kind of “subliminal murder” appropriate for “a sad, frightened time.” (On Photography)  D’Agata’s photography both assumes the risk and confronts it through the compromising of his body in that which he creates through the photographic medium.

What follows are a series of textual (some translated), video, and photographic testimony of this work …

A photograph is defined in and through the act in which it is born.  The photographic gesture becomes the equivalent of the act of perception of itself.

Through the transgression of the border that ordinarily separates the photographer from his/her subject, I have become the object of my images, constrained actor of my own scenario.

Art cannot exist in a space separated from life.  My photographic project is the coming to an autobiographical self-consciousness.

I document what I live as I live it, in the impossibility of existing outside the photography that has grafted itself to my fears and desires, and which feeds upon them as if living flesh.

As soon as I began to photograph, my images imposed themselves upon me as an intimate journal.  My photographic practice is indissociably linked to my experiences.  I cannot imagine doing it otherwise.  I photograph what I live as I live it.  I cannot photograph if I am not fully an actor in the situations that I involve myself in or provoke.  This engagement as far I am concerned the only acceptable legitimacy for the photographic act.  All other forms tend to photojournalistic commentary or voyeurism.  Photography makes possible the simultaneous development of a perception of the world and of one’s own experience.

The places that I traverse through transport me to the same and unique image: that of desolate landscapes emptied of all cultural and geographical characteristics.  The physical world is a neutral context that interests me only to the extent that I can make disappear all frames of reference, landmarks in space.  I systematically erase by my gaze all indications that can betray the secret of my itinerary.  All is effaced.  Only the colours of skins remain indelible.  In the urban jungle, the street is a space of tension and permanent confrontation but also a huit clos where solitude hunts solitude.  Those who have nothing can honour the promises of joy of bodies denied.  I only photograph brief encounters.  I don’t ask suoperfluous questions.  The trajectories that intermingle before me carry all of the same marks of infamy.  The only language is that of the body.  My only imperative is not to stop.  I cannot function otherwise.  In my memory, the names, the decors, the dates all pass.  What remains are the looks and the memories of fear.  This fear is the matrix.  It maintains me as if in suspension, it gives me access to states of grace or apprehension, fascination, the total absence of references dissolve the last barriers.  It is “my” night.  It is a lapse of time where thought is anesthetised and the social and moral norms are swept away.  The rules are exploded.  Instinct and the flesh rule unhindered.

The night, the sex, the wandering… and the need to photograph it all, not so much the perceived act but more like a simple exposure to common and even extreme experiences… It is an inseparable part of photographic practice, in a certain sense, to grasp at existence or risk, desire, the unconsciousness and chance, all of which continue to be essential elements. No moral posturing, no judgement, simply the principle of affirmation, necessary to explore certain universes, to go deep inside, without any care. A ride into photography to the vanishing point of orgasm and death.

I try to establish a state of nomadic worlds, partial and personal, systematic and instinctual, of physical spaces and emotions where I am fully an actor. I avoid defining beforehand, what I am about to photograph. The shots are taken randomly, according to chance meetings and circumstances. The choices made, considering all the possibilities, are subconscious. But the obsessions remain constant: the streets, fear, obscurity, and the sexual act…. Not to mention perhaps, in the end, the simple desire to exist.

Beyond the subject, the lost souls and the nocturnal drifting, the scenes of fellatio and of bodies in utter abandon, I seek to reveal some kind of break up through the mixture of bodies and feelings, to reveal fragments of society that escape from any analysis and instant visualization of the event, but nonetheless, are its principal elements.

The brutality of the form, the intensity of the vision obligates us, still more than images that pretend to document, to involve ourselves with the reality of what we are seeing. The spectator can exist then, no longer finding himself in the position of voyeur or consumer but as sharing an extreme experience, wondering about the state of the world and of himself.

The sense of losing sight of the subject may seem like a paradox in a documentary genre where I try to impose my subjective point of view, in an autobiography born from travels and from wandering. But the emotional strip tease, which lets me enter into the pages of this intimate, photographic diary seems to carry me inevitably towards this vanishing point.

A photograph is nothing but a lie. The space is cut off, the time, manipulated. They are two uncontrollably false appearances of an image condemned to choose between hypocrisy ­ and good conscience ­ and being fake. The language used is often one of class: dominator but alienated, unaware of the actual matter at hand: appearance, ambiguity, the imaginary. In my photographs, in my every day practice of the lie, I cannot pretend to describe anything but my situation itself ­ my normal states of being, my kinky intimacies… I can only comment on the mere insignificance of the photographic moment.

Assigned to the anthology of a reduced knowledge, of castrated experiences, the photographer appropriates himself the gestures, diverts the acts and regurgitates signals that ” indicate ” our relationship with the images and determine our perception of a reality that has become hypothetical. And so, the world limits itself to icons, an altar in direct opposition to the rituals the photographer practices. But if the liturgy, the prayer and the sermon are still instruments of a vigorous cult, then for photographers, truth and freedom are found only in the realm of confession.

I try to distance myself from a certain type of documentary photography that often avails itself of symbols that are too easy to read and assimilate in order to present a complex reality in a balance that is endlessly discussed over and over between photography as an instrument of documentation and photography as being completely subjective. It isn’t the eye that photography poses on the world that interests me but its most intimate rapport with that world.

The only photographs that truly exist are the ” innocent ” images. We find them in the family photo albums or in the police archives. Beyond serving as a simple documentation of reality or of a certain aesthetic sense, they attest to the role of the photographer, of his implication, of the authenticity of his position in that moment. The compositions of light, narrative, are no longer, for me, fundamental problems but superfluous lies. What interests me today in an image? The perspective that has justified the act of photography, the interference of the experience, of the ongoing scene, the texture, the material, the meaning of the self-portrait, of the individual, the incoherence of the unfolding sequence, the maniacal reconstruction of the random experience ­ the photographs, like words, are meaningless when isolated…

To criticize in a coherent manner, the dominant image actually demands from a photo that it is lucid in the midst of its messy situation, from the experience between a glance and a good, hard look, the camera and the unconscious, in its fundamentally tainted rapport with reality and fiction. This approach cannot conceive that within multiplicity, associating technique and practice, sometimes opposite each other in their use of the photographic language, I seek to reveal the inherent contradictions to the ” use ” of documentary photography, that should supposedly transcribe tangible reality while at the same time, do nothing more than report a myriad of experiences.

I can then make use of the world for my own ends and in a basically solitary experience, remodel it, and transform it at will, almost as if without images, the world no longer

I photograph to face the world. I engage the same inexhaustible protocol, traversing and being traversed by experiences whose common denominator is excess. Confronting the inherent contradictions to the use of documentary photography, I document what I live and live the situations I document. I structure a physical and psychic path overshadowed by risk, hazard, desire and unconsciousness in a frantic search for the feeling of being alive, being part of life, belonging to life. To give a transcription of my position in the social and physical order, to escape organic and political passivity, I invent a scenario that I condemned myself to live out, to the letter and in the flesh.


What, to you, composes the ideal photographic subject?

One cannot apprehend reality without being involved physically, without inhaling entirely, or nourishing the liberty to act, to unveil desire or lack thereof, to envision violence. The art accomplice impoverishes reality: if the photographer condemns himself to passivity, is satisfied to observe, to analyze, to denounce, to sublimate, to comment, the resulting photo practices a guilty contemplation. I cross my own limits and the ones of reality, and find a vague space between where the bodies burst, flow, crash, penetrate themselves, and invade themselves in a tentacular mass of flesh.

Do you think art can be exploitative?

The contemporary proliferation of pictures aims to regulate and neutralize the brutal instinct of the masses–through discernment and free agency. Anguish and oppression are born of abundance. The same can be said of stereotypical pictures, which are symptoms of complicity: soft, loose, cynical. They water us in speech, conventions, clichés. This kindness allows them to abuse a privileged position and cross barriers without ramifications on their social, geographic, or emotional strata.

How has your photographic immersion to varying kinds of underworlds affected your interpretation of cultural norms? How about in relation to contemporary photography?

After twelve years of broken wandering, the photographic effort was born, inspired by the marginalized persons that reinforced me in the time of many years’ solitude. The photograph was the only alternative to the emotional and social autism I took refuge in. I photograph and I live with individuals that do not have a similar power of choice. In turn, my art has the social characteristics of a pathology regulated by a severe ethics: direction. My relations with the prostitutes of Cambodia are based on a common addiction to methamphetamine. These women are the prototype of the new proletariat in a world where frantic sexual consumerism has replaced desire and memory. Their body is the strategic receptacle of the capitalist who desires the fleeting passion of the flesh. Paradoxically, the prostitutes’ compulsive pleasure, their narcotic lucidity, creates survival in a parallel economy, new zones of shadow, which undermines the foundations of the system–they prefer vice to poverty. My action is restricted, coherent, fitting, like a virus that insidiously introduces itself to a foreign body. I advance the obscurity. I risk destruction because my life only feels validated by the interpretations that I provoke. Still, an artistic practice cannot be justified in terms of its results.

Describe your attraction to depravity, or pain, or abuse?

Years of slow and reasoned self-destruction, of narcotic experimentations, of urban survival, of liaisons with prostitutes, has provoked in me a slow process of maturation on these questions. One cannot invent a destiny without developing an immunity to stereotypical morals. But still, the wording of the question is insidious. The social designation of what is indecent is an arbitrary classification that allows the system to perpetuate itself. What you designate as depravity was always, for me, an emancipatory tool. I learn every day to question prohibition and transgression. Pornography is no longer transgressive.

Do you identify with any cultural figures past/ present who similarly immerse themselves in stigmatized, misunderstood, subversive, or illegal lifestyles for their art?

Certain artists and writers who’ve fought to preserve in their work a fragile balance between intelligence and madness, rage and love, beauty and horror. Francis Bacon, Guy Debord, Antonin Artaud, Louis- Ferdinand Céline are references, but I fight to protect myself from modern culture inflation–contemporary art astonishes me with its harmlessness, its resignation, its impregnated ideologies of capitalist production. On the tracks of those that have preceded me, I try to create new forms of excess as a strategic statement against a totalitarian enemy.

Despite increased information and exposure on the drug and prostitution issues in Asia, what hasn’t the public learned of these worlds?

South Asia is an immense and inexhaustible sexual market. The American soldiers’ inalienable right of pleasure first—Western bourgeois later—has only accelerated the process. Growing cities have allowed the propagation of new artificial drugs, the appearance of more dangerous, but easier to obtain, substances. The Yaba, the Ice, are everywhere. In devastated Cambodia, as elsewhere, these molecular addictions cancel the need for sleep, lessen fatigue. The effects are not hallucinogenic but provoke a precision and concentration of thoughts close to obsession and paranoia. The uniform consumption gives rise to a slow unselfishness. I am, in turn, eager predator and fascinated witness. My photographs have the innocence to believe that it is possible to hold together all the paradoxes that clatter in the margins of the modern world, to confront them without diverting the gaze. What is beautiful? It’s only a vocabulary question. I see beauty only in the immense pain and the fleeting passion of the destinies I glimpse. Beauty remains in the capacity to surpass the conditions imposed upon us. What’s going to happen to the human race in the next 50 years? The concentration of wealth will increase and become unbearable. Bankruptcies, poverty, exclusion, and unemployment will progress inevitably. The dominating possessors of strength–the actors, the heads of businesses and states, will do what they can to rediscover a balance. But the immediate future belongs to those at the loose ends, the infamous communities. This new class will live in the lucid expectation of death, of erotic intensity. This desire will generate an energy that does not exclude a kind of violence. A time of conscience comes after one of outburst.

What is on your schedule for the coming year?

Without a base, I continue to be nomadic. My next destination is Phnom Penh. I will continue to go to the heart of the sensations, to observe the extinction of breath, the nervous system, the wear of organs. And to find the pictures, the language, and the necessary strategies to oppose the many falsifications which propagate death.


Prostitutes, can they be described as part of a resistance?

What they taught me, that to survive, they are forced to reinvent a way of being, that moves through narcotic, sexual pleasure.  It is the only means to not die in silence.  This violence turns against them, it is without a purpose, blind, desperate.

But it goes against the structures, against morality, against the fatality of misery.  When you have nothing, there is no other choice but experience.  It is for this reason that drugs are so important in this milieu.  It is the least expensive means to feel, to exist.


Other Interviews …


emahomagazine part 1

emahomagazine part 2

gupmagazine part 1

gupmagazine part 2

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