TRANSFORMATIONS OF THE REAL
REFRAMING ARCHIVES OF THE PORTUGUESE DICTATORSHIP IN CONTEMPORARY VISUAL ARTS
Ana Catarina Pinho
Empires emerge from narratives based in fictions. They perpetuate dominant discourses engaged in structures of power and control in which images play a significant, if not determining role in shaping the collective imaginary. Although images may fall into oblivion, stored in archives and other repositories, traces of its embedded imaginary are passed on through generations, thus perpetuating the spectres of oppressive regimes of knowledge. This is the case of the Portuguese dictatorship, which fostered a mythical historical narrative of the nation that gave the present its meaning. This troubled and distorted relationship with the past, together with a politics of silence established by the regime, remained even after the Revolution (1974), leading to an 'image problem' (Lourenço) associated with the perception of national identity that still emerges in the present.
This practice-led research aims to explore such 'image problem' through the artistic appropriation and critical reassessment of archival imagery produced during the time of the dictatorship, examining how it unveils and contests the ideological purpose behind those images, and analysing whether it contributes to addressing and answering the Portuguese ‘image problem’. This will be developed through an interdisciplinary approach that includes research, editorial and curatorial activities which inform this study's progress and final outcomes. As a conceptual background, this research articulates the notions of ‘dialectical image’, ‘now-time’, and ‘spectrality’ (Benjamin, Derrida), as a way of exploring photography's impact on the perception of historical events and the critical reconstruction of memory through a ‘living on’ with spectres.
In this framework, it explores the ambivalence of the photographic image and its limits of representation, while questioning the notions of truth and objectivity associated with documentary practice and archival structure, from ‘power-knowledge’ devices through which a ‘politics of truth’ is established, and into a productive space of reflection in which a ‘politics of memory’ is critically approached (Foucault, Tagg, Sekula, Rosler; Barthes). This provides an understanding of documentary as a performative act based on fictional strategies that establishes credibility by exploring its own failures and uncertainties (Solomon-Godeau, Bruzzi, Rancière), and the archive as a site of meaning construction that works as an agent that shapes memory and identity (Assmann, Bal, Van Alphen, Winter), in which documents become the object of a spectral reality (Kossoy, Rosset, Richter, Didi-Huberman) that potentiates dialectical relations between images through critical forms of aesthetic engagement that leads to an open-ended transformation of the real.
The case studies examined in this research contribute to demonstrating the significant role of contemporary visual arts in destabilising fixed orders of knowledge and clarifies how the debate on historical events and its different interpretations revolves around archival data, the ideological building of accounts, and the fiction entangled in the creation of new meanings that fill the blanks of history, therefore showing how important a critical engagement with the image of the past responds to the urgencies of today.