Portrait of the Artist as a Hieroglyph - Bérénice Reynaud
This current exhibition is presenting a focused choice of works mapping out a prolific, richly paradoxical career that spans several decades, spreads over two continents and encompasses many avatars of the recorded image – still, moving, shot with time-lapse devices, dipped into tonal solutions, or reprocessed – and the written word – spoken, printed or coded. In a way, even though he spent forty years in New York City, Leandro Katz has always remained an inhabitant of the luxuriant “literary jungle” of Latin America. Scratch the surface of a mean New York street, and you will unearth a pre-Columbian artifact, left there by a drunken Inca on his way to Coney Island. No wonder that Katz’s world is constructed around sedimentation – one layer covering another layer itself covering another one – and cryptic meanings. The drunken Inca, let’s not forget, never made it to Coney Island; he was murdered by Conquistadores, a “civilization” was built on his corpse, but he left behind these strange codices that, in shame and in guilt, in everyday oblivion, modern man keeps attempting to decipher.
The post-Columbian condition, while it has opened a fertile terrain for anthropology, also digs an abyss
within the speaking subject. The split is not so much, as in the Saussurian model, between the signifier
(visuals, sounds, movement) and the signified (the “meaning”), but between the mundane surface and
what is hidden beneath it. Every subject is an archeological field, in which are buried entire civilizations
whose languages, while lost to us, nonetheless address us.
Starting his career as a published poet in Buenos Aires, then as poet/performer/translator/publisher of
artists’ books wandering throughout Latin America and ending up in New York via San Francisco and
New Orleans, Katz got involved in photography through his interest for the Puna beads in Ecuador – an archeological find he investigated through his use of a formal system. Shortly afterwards, he produced S(h)elf Portrait, a sequences of photographs, in which his New York studio is transformed over time by the building/reorganization of shelves and the variation of light. Shifts in the camera position and in the grain of film reveal different aspects of the space, and, as the sequence unfolds, the previous photographs are pinned on the wall, creating a structure en abyme. At about the same period, Katz started his first experiments with super-8, and shot Los Angeles Station in Guatemala, Crowd 7 x 7 in Ecuador and the first two “moon films,” Twelve Moons (& 365 Sunsets) and Moonshots. In a radical move, the work is already constructed as an archeological site – that would be brought to light, later, in different contexts. Shot in the early 1970s, Katz’s first four films are dated 1976, the year he transferred them into 16mm for a show at the Millennium Film Workshop in New York. His filmwork is currently undergoing another metamorphosis, being archived, restored and digitized, as if it was “found material.”
And S(h)elf Portrait became an artists’ book in 2008, under the aegis of Katz’s independent press, Viper’s Tongue Books and with the support of Henrique Faria Fine Art. So time is encapsulated not only in the work’s original design, but in the way it is, so to speak, unearthed, exhibited and re-presented years after its making.
This is not the post-modern recycling of everything past, but a slowly emerging strategy of the sediment. Post-modernism, whose best-known trope is “the empty signifier,” gears toward the eradication, or the flattening of meaning. For Katz the meaning is buried, cryptic, a labyrinth within a labyrinth, a universal language of half-erased signs, and the signifier, no matter how obscure, is a sort of echo chamber of words once spoken by now-dead people (Native American populations, Che Guevara, strikers murdered by the police). A signifier, said Lacan, represents a subject to another signifier.
A hieroglyph tells another hieroglyph “there was a man there once,” and to receive what is being transmitted to him, the artist has to turn himself into a hieroglyph.
The wealth, the allure, the seductive mystery of Katz’s work bear witness of this successful alchemy. The artist is no longer an “author,” he is one cipher in a chain of ciphers over which the passing of time keeps shedding new shades of light. Crowd 7 x 7, once a formal exercise into the rhythmical relationship of the cinematic image to the off-screen space, acquires new gravitas with the completion of The Day You’ll Love Me: the hidden object of the crowd’s gaze was Che Guevara’s features. In Paris Has Changed a Lot, a heroic experiment in which the image was shot and projected sideways, a busy Manhattan stretch wa spresented as a fragment of film found, maybe, in a time capsule or in somebody’s attic; now it is a true period piece, remnant of a city that is no more, New York in the 1970s.
A longstanding obsession, the moon has inspired some of Katz’s best known works: four films, a series of objects and installations (including The Lunar Typewriter, which combines a now-antiquated device with an endeavor to turn the different phases of the moon into a secret code). The moon shines over archeological ruins, over the blurred outlines of modern cities drenched in smog; it was the first spectacle, the first reflective screen that communities would gather to watch. The desire to lovingly capture on film the light transmitted by the moon, its aura, its changing shape, its evolving relationship
with passing clouds and with the colors of the sky, leads to another form of alchemical transformation:
light turns into light, the sheer beauty of the filmic spectacle into a pure signifier.
From the earth, one face of the moon will always remain off-screen. Katz’s work is as much structured
around what it does not show as around what it shows; his object is the partial vision, the trace, the halfburied codex. In Crowd 7 X 7 and The Hours, he foregrounds the gaze, eliding what the crowd sees. In S(h)elf Portrait, he turns himself into a ghostly presence, a blurred shadow tantalizing the frame, a sortof afterimage or afterthought. A hieroglyph among hieroglyphs.