Sofia Borges for Unseen Magazine

Mendes Wood DM published an interview that Sofia Borges gave to Unseen Magazine in 2019.

Unseen Magazine
How did you first become involved with photography (or the arts more broadly)?

Sofia Borges
Since my first works, in 2005, I was always interested in the ways a photographic image could distance itself further from the idea of a natural image, providing that the real in the picture could appear more as an object, as an issue, than just as it’s faithful representation of that that I understand to really be a “natural image” (the ones forming in the back of the eye).

I was interested in understanding the transformation that occurs in relation to the meaning of an object when this stops being a natural object (that is, seeing by the eyes) and becomes its own referent, it becomes an image. In my view, this transformation from real to its referent determines a certain state of suspension for the meaning of the object photographed.

There is, in this exercise, an attempt to deliver to the objects represented another state in which everything gets new possibility of meaning, or fades away in any direction. This having nothing to do with current digital manipulation of an image, it comes from a philosophical questioning about what reality actuallyt is.

UM
What does a typical day in your studio look like? What inspires you, and how do you keep working when you’re not inspired?

SB
What I consider to be my studio practice can be divided in two main sectors: when I’m in São Paulo (where my studio is) and when I’m in traveling or based in another city (which tends to happens for at least some months during a year). For many years when in São Paulo I use to have my studio in my house, which maked it more difficult to separate life and work. To be precise there was almost no separation at all, after becoming an artist I realize now that I spent most of the time living inside my research. Only this year I moved my studio out of my house and that is bringing me great learnings about what and how to use my time and space in general. Also I have been strugling to learn how to separate what is the bureaucratic -practice of an studio and what is really research. All to protect myself from the mistake of spending hours just sorrounded by: stuff to do (not easy challenge let’s face it).

When I manage to be in the studio for researching is about thinking, looking, writing and doing experiments. Time passes like a blink in those circunstances, I forget to eat and I’m happy as a child. But it’s its not so simple to arrive daily to that because of this modern everyday olympic-of-burocratic frontiers to cross. My strategies to do this: meditation, doing less instead of more and having the help of a team of people that do what I don’t really need to be the one doing (it seems obvious, but it took me 10 years of doing everything myself to learn how to do that). And finally, the ultimate studio strategy is what I’m doing right now (and have being doing for years having Paris as a second home base): simply going away from everything. Having way less to deal with. Travelling to somewhere else gets me protected from the need of so many things related to owning/talking/meeting/going. To be able to stay more aligned with the things that I really can’t adress to anyone else, and that is: creating thoughts, emptying the mind, studing and learning. It shouldn’t matter the place I am nor the circuntstances, I wich I could do this anywhere I’m trying to create this, but while I’m learning how… being away helps a lot. it clears my mind, empty my agenda and instead of having a big studio to mess around, leave me only with my ideas and then I have only my books, my studies, my writings and a computer as a studio.

UM
How does it feel to be working as an artist in Brazil today? To what extent does your setting inform your practice?

SB
São Paulo is a place with strong contemporary art. I am lucky to be able to hang out with friends that besides being my friends have incredible practices. But this includes people also from other areas such as educators, philosophers, movies makers, musicians and some others.

But in a wider perspective, as I was saying earlier, I realize that more than living in Brazil or anywhere… is how to live in a place and how to deal with political, cultural and historical circunstances. And also gett rid the practical-emocional-mental issues that follow us everywhere we go. Being a bit of a nomade also tought me to keep my people and my learnings always close. Also I have been getting more out of “art scenarios” to give myself time and space to study other things that, in the long run, also defines me as an artist. In the next months away from São Paulo I intend to focus only on studing alchemy and taoism. Let’s see what will come from there.

UM
You have mentioned in the past that your practice is guided by the question of ‘what is an image?’ What first drew you to this question – was there a moment, an encounter, or even a particular artwork, that brought this issue to life for you?

SB
Over the last years I believe that my photographic research has being developed more as a philosophical exercise. With the use of photography, I have being trying to understand the problem of image, of seeing, of depiction. Still, the more I would work the less I was able to solve those problems. Finally I realized that since the beginning my works were not about answering a question, but about raising one. What is an image? What is the meaning of an image? What is a photograph?

To better understand those questions I have being looking at things over the light of a “photographic negativity”. It’s a search for abstraction, but not in terms of form, I’m looking for abstraction in terms of comprehension. THE SWAMP is the culmination of seven years of that research. In this book I tried to deliver everything I have learned so far in photography. Like in a poker game, I put all in. The Swamp contains nothing but a metamorphic material, this philosophical mud: meaning images melting into other meanings, impossible to differ, to speak, and to flow. Like in my exhibitions, the book tries hard to stay away from narratives and thematics. It was chal- lenging to put together so many different types of images. Besides the metamorphic relations that arrange the flow of images through the book, the only thing giving rhythm is a minimal text that appears broken along the pages.

A poem strangely written that point towards a blank. A gap suspended between legibility and abstraction. The failed and absent language, trying hard to, without being really able to. Being always intentionally heavy, each image tries to be problematic enough to always erase the previous one from the viewers mind, Under this “blank strategy”, there is the attempt to collapse the path of memory construction moving towards comprehension. I wanted to make a book of aliens, but each one from a different galaxy.

UM
Your photographs rarely feel straightforward; there is always a strong sense of intervention or manipulation. I’d love to know more about your working process – what makes you take a photograph, and how do you decide what to do with an image once it’s been taken?

SB
There is no manipulation in my images in the sense that I add or remove things that were not there. All that are in my images is really what I have photographed. I treat the images usind Camera Raw and not photoshop, there is treatment for the image to be able to get definition in large size, I use camera raw a lot to create contrast of content in terms color and density constrast, but I don’t create content that is not there. There is one exception from 2013, La Tete du Cheval, a picture of an old depiction of a the muscles of the head of a horse, from that picture I removed some writings with photoshop.

But there is a lot of intervention in terms of questioning what a photograph is. I think I’m always trying to look in the frontiers of this question. I have a poem, inspired by Gertrulde Stein that says “images are images are images are images”. Collage helps me to create sometimes images od second, third, forth even fitth degree-images. Images that I had photographed, then I printed, them cropped the printed paper and them t puot all together, sometimes draw over, or do a performance like putting fire on it (as I did in 2016 from a project at Foamfotografie Museum). And it was like that last year I ended up doing a “performance to become a photograph”, where I invited artists to perform with human size crops of old images of mine, having large scale printed photographs as background. From this performance there are five new series of works, from which so far I only showed two images from one of these series. Along with photographs of drawing-collages, of ancient masks and of this performances I did my latest solo show this march in Brazil, called The Ashes, The Mirror, The Reverse of Brightness and The Becoming of Fire.

I understant that somethimes my images look more like drawings, or look unreal, but they are not, they are photographs in the most tradicional sense of it.

UM
A lot of your photographs are shot in museums, zoos, aquariums, archives…why are you drawn to these spaces?

SB
what I seek to photograph is a state that inhabits things but is not the thing itself. Either objects resting in museums,  scratches in ancient walls, images in books, animals in zoos, fossils in study centres,  portraits inside pictures or pictures inside paintings: those are just the marble while abstraction and the negativity of meaning is the Venus. So my muse is not the museum but the existing object itself, the matter, the marble, the clay, the plastic, the paper. And that can be found absolutely any where, not necessarily inside museums. But  just as the difference of a naked person and the role him or her plays in society. In some specific circunstances objects are acting their meaning with more precision.  For instance, in museums objects hold many different layers of time, history, use, symbol, depiction. It’s easier to recognize those layers in an object that has already being separated from the blankness of reality, they are there just to inhabit those meanings. Like that, it’s somehow easier for me to distinguish those states to show the very myth: the myth of meaning, the myth of comprehension, the myth of reality.

UM
If you could create a new institution of knowledge – perhaps one that can better negotiate this gap between representation and reality – what would it be and why?

SB
I’m already trying to do that, I have been precisely trying to do that for years. I am strugling to understand and eventually to create this: an image.

UM
What kind of projects are you working on at the moment, and what can we expect to see from you next?

SB
For a few years I have been thinking about theatre and how to mix that with this unanswarable question about what an Image is. I am reasearching about alchemy in the same sense. Let’s see what will come from that.

UM
Alongside your artistic practice, you have also worked recently as a curator. Could you tell us a little bit about this experience? What were the challenges you encountered?

SB
So far I had done two curatorial projects. The first one was very experimental, a happening that lasted for 10 days envolving contemporary dancers, musicians, visual artists and philosophers, all engaged to do a metaphisical investigation about the fact that “every object is an enigma”. This was called No Sound and it was a consequense of the imense impact I had when entered prehistorlcal caves. After this first curatorial experiment, that I did because felt, as an artist, that I needed more help (of other types of researches) to investigate about this that I’m (still) trying to understand.This was in 2015 and at the time I already knew that my second curatorial project was to do a Tragedy, not a real one, a conceptual tragedy to investigating the bases of language. From step one that was to reject language at No Sound, as a second project I knew I needed to investigate it. So when I was invited to individually curate a large section of São Paulo Biennial I already knew what I wanted to do: a tragedy. But had absolutely no idea of the imense challenge disguised as 987.578.980 of steps, issues, problems, decisions, deadlines and paradoxes that I was about to face. I was an artist requested to behave like the curator of a Biennial and had no idea that that would include enganging in one hundred roles, suddnely I had to become a bit of an architect, of a producer, psicologist, poliglot, secretary, histerical boss, departmentalist guru, cacique of calmness, mailwoman, chief of bureaucracy, sub-chief of bureaucracy and slave of bureaucracy.

The space I had under my responsibility was of 2.400 square meters, almost an entire floor of São Paulo Biennial. In that space I created a labyrynthic arquitecture, worked with 28 artists and almost 200 art works, it was really a huge project  and huge teamwork to get it done for tha opening. But , just like that 10 days’ happening named as No Sound, after the opening of the Biennial that tragedy would keep changing along the months. I had no idea that changing a Biennial along months was a Biennial per si. The name of this show was “The infinite history of things or the end of the tragedy of the one”. I’m still trying to understand it and integrate this back to me. It changed me drastically and I’m only starting to fell the consequences in my artistic practices and questionings.

UM
Do you think it’s possible to answer the question of what constitutes an image?

SB
I’m working on that.


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