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In the Next Door Room, Javier Panera Cuevas

Preface to the exhibition catalog Lise Sarfati, Domus Artium Salamanca, 2004

The awak­en­ing of ado­les­cence has been a recur­ring theme that has always fas­ci­nated a great many visual artists: con­flicts of iden­tity, phys­i­cal meta­mor­pho­sis, psy­cho­log­i­cal insta­bil­ity, emerg­ing sex­ual and emo­tional sen­sa­tions within young peo­ple are all themes which, in par­tic­u­lar, have appeared in pho­tog­ra­phy ever since it was first devel­oped. From Lewis Carrol’s per­verse-​inno­cent” girls to Larry Clark’s prob­lem­atic Kids”, a long and tor­tu­ous path has been paved. Alongside these, the lat­est work of Lise Sarfati could also deservedly be included. A series of fifty images of mostly androg­y­nous-​like ado­les­cents, pho­tographed in 2003 dur­ing a three-month trip to the United States, tak­ing in cities like Austin (Texas), Asheville (North Carolina), Portland (Oregon), Berkley, San Francisco and Los Angeles (California) and some small towns in Georgia.

It isn’t the first time Lise Sarfati has touched on the theme of ado­les­cence: in fact in her ear­lier book Acta Est (Phaidon Press, 2000) she has already shown, tan­gen­tially, some of the most sor­did aspects of young people’s lives in the for­mer USSR. Paradoxically, although the present pho­tographs have been taken in an envi­ron­ment which is geo­graph­i­cally and socio-​polit­i­cally very dif­fer­ent, we con­tinue to find some of the more dis­turb­ing and unnerv­ing ele­ments that we did in her Russian series. These par­al­lels would seem revolve around the dis­cov­ery of strange­ness” within every­day spaces and sit­u­a­tions, appar­ently void of any mys­tery and yet which we observe with a sense of unease and sep­a­ra­tion, as we would of the unknown.

In each of these por­traits, Lise Sarfati drama­tises” the com­plex­ity of ado­les­cent iden­tity; within unfa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory – both emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally-​where the sim­plest of feel­ings become exalted and every­thing is lived with an inten­sity that adults will never again be able to feel. We are talk­ing here of a kind of par­al­lel real­ity, an inter­sti­tial ter­ri­tory which doesn’t under­stand geo­graph­i­cal spaces or polit­i­cal sys­tems, which no longer belongs either to a com­pletely real real­ity or to a con­sciously con­ceived fic­tion, but rather finds itself fed by its own rit­u­als and codes of behav­iour, where the divid­ing line between good and bad, hap­pi­ness and sad­ness, inno­cence and per­ver­sity or real­ity and fan­tasy is exten­sively blurred.

This means that these pho­tographs repro­duce real char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions, but with­out the slight­est inten­tion of being a doc­u­ment. In fact, Lise Sarfati, care­fully rations the infor­ma­tion that she gives out about each char­ac­ter, forc­ing us to decide each one’s des­tiny sub­jec­tively. Everything oozes verisimil­i­tude but none of these images is a sim­ple repro­duc­tion of real­ity. While far from rig­or­ously fol­low­ing a script, they respond to a degree of plan­ning, and I sus­pect that the acts and sit­u­a­tions in which these ado­les­cents find them­selves have been, at most, sug­gested” in order to facil­i­tate a more direct trans­mis­sion of a cer­tain nar­ra­tive essence. We say this because, although the major­ity of these pho­tographs are por­traits” in the generic sense, many of them antic­i­pate sto­ries” which con­tinue out­side the lim­its of the pic­ture, and as such are per­ceived by the viewer as pauses in the course of a nar­ra­tive”. The level of com­plex­ity that each pho­to­graph seems to have reached with its mod­els” guar­an­tees the effect of truth”.

Another com­mon aspect between the pho­tos of American ado­les­cents and the series taken in Russia is their aes­thetic clar­ity of the images, their rela­tion­ship both from a com­po­si­tional point of view and their treat­ment of light and colour, with more or less self-​evi­dent ref­er­ences to the his­tory of paint­ing. In short, we have before us a col­lec­tion of sophis­ti­cated images, nar­cis­sis­tic and aes­thet­i­cally indul­gent, pic­tures” which are capa­ble of seduc­ing those who look at them, leav­ing them emo­tion­ally defence­less.
Nevertheless, in most cases, beneath the aes­thetic beauty of each image, we can detect anom­alies”, and there is not a sin­gle attrac­tive ele­ment in which an under­ly­ing threat is not more or less implied. In fact, one of the things which makes us most uneasy is the fact that – even in the scenes of bla­tant exhi­bi­tion­ism-​most of the char­ac­ters pho­tographed seem dis­tanced from our view and there seems to be an insu­per­a­ble sep­a­ra­tion between their world and our own.

The young peo­ple intu­itively know that the severe visual intru­sion adults have sub­jected them to is linked to their phys­i­cal meta­mor­pho­sis and their sex­u­al­ity, to that ambigu­ously emo­tional ter­ri­tory where they have entered, which adults are unable to access, and which they them­selves will have to leave before very long. All this crys­tallises into an unnerv­ing game between voyeurism and exhi­bi­tion­ism that con­fig­ures an imag­i­nary space for seek­ing out the other”, the other which we all know can be found within our­selves. It is a search car­ried out through signs” that range from cloth­ing to make-up and hair­style, from the vul­ner­a­ble show of affec­tion to the brazen, obscene ges­ture, from the timidly seduc­tive pose to inso­lent exhi­bi­tion­ism…

Earlier we referred to Larry Clark in order to mark out one of the extremes to which the sub­ject of ado­les­cence has gone to in the field of pho­tog­ra­phy. However, unlike the pho­tog­ra­pher from Tulsa, whose objec­tive has always been to expose the depress­ing youth cul­ture of his home town, Lise Sarfati isn’t inter­ested in explic­itly bring­ing to light the alien­ation or tedium of American youth. She isn’t moral­is­ing nor does she give much space for us to make moral inter­pre­ta­tions, and yet her pho­tographs are tremen­dously per­turb­ing because they trans­port us to an unknown king­dom – though com­mon to all con­ti­nents – a ter­ri­tory which exists in the next-door room hardly a cen­time­tre away from the lim­its of our every­day life and prob­a­bly also exist­ing within our early mem­o­ries, or in the fears we feel when we think about what could hap­pen to our own chil­dren.

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