Transcript - Episode 85: Mariela Sancari
Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 85. Today’s guest is Mariela Sancari.
Hey everybody, welcome to the show. Today on the show I’m talking with photographer Mariela Sancari. Mariela Sancari was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has lived and worked in Mexico City since 1997. Her work revolves around truthfulness and fiction in images, using personal narratives to explore the boundaries of the scope of photography as a means of representation. It refers to the affective dimension, yet not sentimental, of autobiographical work, as well as formal explorations of the medium, through questions related to staging and self-referentiality in photographic practice. Her work has been included in solo and group exhibitions in Mexico, Argentina, the US, and many other countries, and has won a number of awards. Her first book Moisés was selected by several curators and reviewers, such as Sean O'Hagan, Tim Clark, Erik Kessels, Jörg Colberg, Larissa Leclair, Yumi Goto and Colin Pantall, among others, as one of the best photobooks published in 2015.
It’s through that book, Moisés, that I was first introduced to Mariela’s work. She gave a lecture at the Medium Festival of Photography last October where she presented that work. I’d like to read you her artist statement for Moisés if that’s OK. She writes:
“Thanatology asserts that not seeing the dead body of our beloved ones prevents us from accepting their death. Contemplating the body of the deceased helps us overcome one of the most complex stages of grief: denial.
My twin sister and I were not allowed to see the dead body of our father. I never knew if that was because he committed suicide or because of Jewish religious beliefs or both.
Not seeing him has made us doubt his death in many ways. The feeling that everything was a nightmare and the fantasy that we both have that we are going to find him walking in the street or sitting in a cafe has accompanied us all these years.
I once read that fiction’s primary task is to favor evolution, forcing us to acknowledge and become the otherness around us. I think fiction can help us depict the endless reservoir of the unconscious, allowing us to represent our desires and fantasies.
Moisés is a typology of portraits of men in their 70´s, the age that my father would be today if he were alive.”
In the photo series, she includes both those portraits as well as the advertisements she used to find her subjects. It’s a series that I found very potent, there’s this tension between the images representing the men as themselves but also representing them as a sort of approximation of her father. You can see this kind of connection running through the portraits, and then also the way the different men seem to have different emotional qualities about them, it all just really grabbed me.
So then these images, they became the book that I mentioned before, a book with an interesting double-spine design, where some pages are attached on the left and some on the right, and these pages are interleaved with each other, which prevents the reader from just flipping through the book or opening to a random page. Instead you’re forced to take them in sequence. And as you know, books where the form is chosen with intention to create a particular experience for the reader, that’s something that I try to do with my own work and something that I’m really interested in seeing from other artists as well.
But then rather than just taking a series of images on the wall and turning them into a book, she actually kept going and kept making new things out of it. Instead of just exhibiting the pictures in sort of the standard way, Mariela did things like print hundreds of photocopies of the portraits and then used those to make site-specific installations where the copies are attached to the wall in patterns that form landscapes. And when her book went out of print, rather than just letting it go she actually put the book dummy on her website with instructions on how to print it out and create your own book out of it, and then she called that Moisés Is Not Dead. And so that creates this form of audience participation that brings this whole new aspect to the work, which I just found fascinating.
So I’ve put links in the show notes to those various iterations of Moisés, as well as her other bodies of work that we discussed in our conversation, and I do recommend taking some time to check those out, it’ll give you some more context for the conversation. Also, for those of you who are photobook fans who might find yourself in Mexico City this spring, Mariela is organizing a photobook festival called FOLIO, which is in its second year this year. That will be in Mexico City from May 13th to the 18th. I’ve put a link in the show notes for that as well, where you can see information about the previous festival, and where you’ll be able to find information about this year’s festival very soon.
All right, let’s get started. As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPhoto to live-tweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Mariela Sancari.
Mike Sakasegawa: So how are you today?
Mariela Sancari: I'm fine, thank you. How are you?
Mike: I'm good. So obviously we met at this past Medium Festival of Photography, where I got to see your lecture and, you know, I was just really interested in so many things about your work, and then taking the opportunity later to sort of investigate your website and see some of the things that you didn't present at Medium was really interesting to me. So you have a whole bunch of different series on your website and there's a couple of different things I had in mind that maybe we could talk about with these various series. And the first one was this idea of collaboration, because it seems like many, if not maybe all of your work has a very collaborative aspect to it. And I was sort of wondering what for you is sort of the appeal of collaboration and how does it... What does it bring out for you?
Mariela: Thank you for asking me. So I think it's a really interesting subject. For instance, would you consider the people that I photographed my collaborators as well?
Mike: Well, I feel like in your statement it's sort of presented that way.
Mariela: Yeah. Yeah. I'm saying this just because I do, actually, and whenever I say that my work has a very strong performative side to it, I do refer to this. So I do collaborate in many different aspects. For instance, the very last thing that I did, it's a book with a writer, that's Adolfo Córdova—he's also my husband. And in that particular project, it's a book called Mr. And Dr. And it's an appropriation of the classic horror story of Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And what he did was working with the text and I was working with the images. I'm saying this because in that particular project it's very obvious that we were collaborating, kind of like the traditional collaboration between a writer and an image producer. But for instance, in Moisés—or rather iterations that I did related to Moisés—there are different ways in which other people come into the project or do different things that I also consider them collaborations. And even what I'm doing now that—I don't know if you got to see it because I just uploaded it recently to my website. The new project is called The two headed horse. Reenactment in ten acts. And just super briefly, I'm rephotographing the images of a previous series that I did, I think like five or six years ago, that they are all self-portraits with my twin sister. That's called The two headed horse. And I rephotograph them using non-professional actresses and actors that needed to be sisters and brothers among them. And then after that with those images and some short videos, I did a theater play. So it's... I actually have a dummy of a book that will eventually be published as a kind of like illustrated script to be played upon. The very first time that I'm showing this is next month in a gallery in LA, and it's an actual representation in a theater play. So the actresses that I hired will represent or reenact my pictures. So if you take that as an example, for instance, of course it's a collaboration, no? And we actually kind of have to think about it in terms of theater. And in theater... I think even, for instance, the director or the screenwriter would never think of a collaboration because it's a given, you know what I mean? But yeah, if we think about that way, I'm definitely not only depending on what the actresses do and bring in, I'm also kind of like expecting that. And part of the proposal for the performance exhibition is kind of like a hybrid between a performance and an exhibition has to do with what comes out of this first time that we're doing this. So I'm recording the whole thing and probably the outcome of this very first reenactment will inform the layers that I am doing in other galleries or other spaces. So what I'm trying to say also is that I like to think collaboration also in terms of how it not only informs but how the work in a way adapts itself to the idea of being a collaborative project. And for the one that you mentioned, for Moisés, the people that I photographed that were all men around 70, whenever we set up a meeting for me to take the pictures, I would tell them about the project and everything related to it in terms of my own personal history, but also what it was trying to do in my practice. And, yeah, there would definitely... I would encourage somehow for them to bring their own... I would say emotion to it. But they might have brought in other things too. But yeah, I think I'm really interested in collaborative work. And I think it also for me has to do with this ancient discussion that photography and art are two different things, or that photography is isolated from other disciplines in the arts. And I think it's totally futile and ridiculous. And, I don't know, here in Mexico we still have these kind of arguments and I found it really exhausting and pointless. And so whenever I talk about photography, I talk about images and whenever I talk about photographers, I refer to them as artists. And for me there's no difference. I think also collaborating with other people, and also relating to other disciplines, for me it responds probably to this need of not being isolated. And also, you know, it is true that photographers tend to be loners because of the specificity of the medium, but it doesn't necessarily have to be that way, or at least it doesn't need to be defined that way. I tend to talk a lot. I'm sorry, please do interrupt.
Mike: No, I'm here to hear what you have to say. That's the whole point. I mean I think what's really interesting to me about the idea of collaboration—you said like ten things that I would love to respond to, but just to follow this one a little further—the thing that I find really interesting about collaboration is exactly the thing that you were just saying about photographers being loners, because I find that to be in general pretty true. And not just photographers, but visual artists in general. And even not visual artists. Like writers, for example, often are very solitary while they're working. Even for somebody like me who, I tend not to set up my shots, I don't work in the studio really. I tend to be just sort of more out in the world and seeing what I can find. But even then I find that there is an aspect... If I'm working entirely by myself, then I have a pretty large amount of control over what I'm doing and what will be in the image. Whereas if you're collaborating with someone else, then there is an aspect of having to give up that control to some degree, which I find a really fascinating idea. It's something that I'm really interested in doing, but I've never quite gotten there with my own work. You know what I mean?
Mariela: Yeah. I think what you just brought up is really interesting because it could be both an assumption but it's also true. And I have to say that you just reminded me that actually I began collaborating with other artists and other people because I am super obsessive with my own work and I tend to do everything at the point of being almost like a monologue that's really impossible for other people to grasp. So I think that was one of the first motivations. But then, for instance, you can also keep... Just to try to deconstruct some ideas that I think we have, especially if we haven't tried it—and I'm talking for myself. I think I still got the chance to be in control in a way. Also collaborating. And I think this control that you referred to that I totally understand and I think it's really necessary because I think if an artist really wants to convey an idea, she or he needs to know exactly what they want to say and how. Although that exactly could be liquid a bit.
Mariela: I don't know. But so what I experienced is that you do get to experience control in a way that is somehow enriched by what other people bring in. I don't know. I think it's really fascinating and I just... I learned also a lot from my husband. As I was saying, he's a writer and he's really solitary when he's writing. But then, for instance, he would give his manuscript to the editors or the illustrator because he's specialized in books for children. So most of his books have illustration. And then he would just kind of like forget in a way about the work for a while and let the editors and the illustrators work. And at some point they will get together again and see how... But I was really amazed at him—or writers in general—being able to do that, you know, to somehow... I'm not saying that we all have defined tasks, but understanding that editors need to do what editors do and illustrators need to do what they do and that eventually his own work, my husband's, would be transformed by what the others did and gathering again and see how the work already changed and adapt from that. I thought that was fascinating and I've never seen many photographers do that, or not even myself. That's why I wanted to experience that. I don't know, I think my experience has been really gratifying, and what people bring in is sometimes really surprising and it's things that honestly I haven't foreseen. And to me that is fascinating. Being able to as an artist react to that, kind of be fluid enough but still hold onto the original idea so that it really evolves from what you had in mind into something else. But, I know, I'm also aware that that might not happen every time. And I have to say, to be honest, that there are some things in which I find it really difficult to collaborate. For instance, designing my books. That is something I'm still not able to do. You know, I've never worked with a designer yet and I always say when I grow up, I would love to because that I find super difficult. I think it probably has to do with me being unable to communicate to a designer the idea that I had for the book. So although I know very little about InDesign, I tried to do everything myself. And I don't know, it's just that area of collaboration, I find it really difficult to materialize. I don't know, it's either I didn't find or meet any designer that I feel that I could work with yet or... I don't know, there's something there that it makes it super difficult for me, but in other areas that has to do, for instance, more like we were saying about the creative part in terms of the content of the work, that I find it easier to show. Yeah.
Mike: Yeah. I mean it's interesting, when I said that I don't typically work in the studio, one of the reasons for that is because for me it's really hard for me to start with the idea and work towards the idea. Usually it's more like I have to start with something else and then find the idea in it. One of the things about collaboration I feel like is that it sort of opens up that process for me, because to me one of the most paralyzing things is this idea of a blank canvas or a blank page, you know? Because there are so many choices and I don't really even know where to start. Whereas, you know, the thing that you were saying about reacting and being fluid, that to me it's easier, even if I have an idea beforehand, it's easier to find the idea in something that's already been presented to me instead of having to just completely make it up. Does that make sense?
Mariela: Yeah. I work pretty much the opposite direction. I do definitely need a very strong, clear idea in my mind first. I am, as opposed to you in a way... I am able to react based on what I've already been doing, but as opposed to you, I never, ever go out with a camera. I find it really difficult to somehow get inspired by something I see and relate it immediately to a picture. For instance, if I am, whatever, walking down the street and I see something or hear something, it first needs to be an idea that has a strong concept behind to after that become anything else. I am totally unable to just by contemplating, create something that's not an idea first. Yeah, I think that's fascinating because you know, really artists, they work in so many different ways at friends. I really admire people that just go out and take pictures and then they print them and then they make sense out of what they see when they begin to edit. I'm always like, wow, I feel I'm totally unable to do that.
Mike: I'm the opposite. I always find it impressive when somebody can know what they want to do and then just do it. You know?
Mariela: We should give ourselves tasks to do exactly the opposite that we usually do. Me, myself, I work with instructions. Yeah, I need to have a frame of mind and know what I'm doing. And I might deviate, of course. But just begin from nothing? No, I couldn't.
Mike: So one of the other things that I found really, really fascinating about your work, it kind of touches on something that you mentioned a little bit ago when you were talking about the discussion about whether or not photography is separate from the rest of art. Something I find really interesting about your work is how you're a photographer and your work is very, very grounded in photography. But you're doing things with your work that are not just photography, if that makes sense.
Mariela: Yeah, yeah.
Mike: So like whether it is something like with Moisés, how you took the xerox prints and started making installations out of them, or with The two headed horse, how that went from being a series of images to then a reenactment that will become a book but also a play, a performance. To me, one of the things that I... Because I also find that question about, you know, "is photography really art?" is just very boring.
Mike: But also there are ways in which I feel like that question really limits you from... Like if that's your mindset, that things have to be in their little boxes and categories, that it really limits you from being able to explore different things that you could be doing with the same—you know, taking this thing that you already did and then repurposing it and making something completely new out of it. To me that's a really interesting idea.
Mariela: Yeah. Yeah. No, I just... I remember vividly once I saw a documentary about Louise Bourgeois—I probably pronounced it very badly, I'm really sorry. She is a French artist—she's dead now but she lived in New York most of her life. She's the one that did the huge spiders, I don't know if you've seen that. Anyway, she had a work that's called I do, I undo, I redo. And I remember when I heard that and she explained that, she's just very... She was very much into psychoanalysis and all of her work was autobiographical and related to her childhood. And when I heard that, I was like, "Yes." She expressed in this beautifully composed sentence what I think artists actually do. They have an idea that could also be called an obsession. And they go deep into understanding this idea/obsession by doing, undoing, and redoing it in many different ways. So if you analyze the work of some great artists, all they do is go around seeing this very same idea from different angles and aspects, and that includes mediums, different mediums. So I think it's totally natural to let photography relate and evolve—I don't mean it in terms of evolution, as if photography needed to evolve. But just, you know, the practice evolving into other things. I actually find it unnatural to separate it from the rest. And I remember when I started as a photographer, much of my environment here as a photographer—I was a photojournalist when I started and much of my environment told me that photojournalists don't do art and that kind of stupid thing, no? And they were laughing at me, you know, doing self-portraits or whatever. And I found that it was so repressing and so limiting and so out of insecurity, you know, not letting it just really flow naturally into whatever it needs to be. And also when I was working as a photojournalist many years ago in Mexico, I met with an artist here. He's a conceptual Mexican artist and he was working a lot with photography, but he didn't know how to take pictures. So a friend of mine and me, we'd do the pictures out of his very precise instructions, but then the work would be his, you know? And I was like, "Wow. So this is amazing." He's not limited by not having the skill to use a four-by-five camera or whatever. But if he feels his work needs to be a photograph in these terms, he hires a photographer to do it. And I thought, you know, to me that was amazing. And I don't have the skills that I would love to have in terms of sculpture or stenography, for instance, now that I'm doing the play. But I find it really amazing to be able to hire other people that do that [which] I need and also learn from them. And again, as we were saying [it] becomes a collaboration and it's really interesting. Although, you know, the work is still mine and they do their thing and I do my thing. And I think it has to do with both these ideas, that we shouldn't really be limited by the technical skills that we have. And also, as I was saying, again, to me it's the natural thing. Also, as I was saying earlier, I think in terms of images, not only in terms of photography. And in that sense, it's kind of logical to try to see photography in a wider picture. Trying to see it belong to something bigger than the medium itself. And that bigger thing might be, I mean, not only the arts, but other disciplines that it is informed by or that it needs to work with. I hope I explained myself.
Mike: No, it's perfect. And you know, to me.. I mean like I have absolutely nothing against—in fact, I actually have great respect for people who just want to do photography, you know?
Mike: But one of the things that always really irritates me about some of the conversations around photography, that to me it seems very specific to photography. Like I never hear painters or sculptors saying the same thing where they get really hung up on, "Well is this really photography?" Right?
Mariela: I know.
Mike: Photographers are always talking about "Is this really photography?" as though that's the question that matters.
Mike: And I feel like what really matters is, what are you trying to communicate with this work? And what is the best way that I can make something that will communicate it to the audience? And I feel like it also gets to some of the things that I really found interesting about your book, for example, the Moisés book. That it's very clear that you've put a lot of thought into "Why is this a book?" You know, because I feel like photographers, all art photographers for the last at least five or ten years, have been really gunning to have a book. Like everybody wants to have a book, but not every work is really appropriate for a book.
Mike: And definitely also that the form... Seems like photographers don't tend to put... Some do, but a lot of photographers don't really put a lot of thought into the form of their book and making sure that the form of the book really supports the concept.
Mike: I feel like that's something where, again, it's that really limited viewpoint where you're like, "Well I'm a photographer so I only take photographs," as opposed to thinking about it more broadly. You know?
Mike: It's very limiting.
Mariela: Yeah. I think, just like you said, it happens the same with books. Books are an experience, or they need to create an experience for the reader, for the viewer. So yeah, having the same logic of "I'm a photographer, so I take pictures," into the book will be pretty much like putting all the images on the right page, you know? And many photographers do. And I think it's like the literal translation of the series into the book format without really understanding that the book is an object and it has a logic by itself and it's something else, not just the literal translation as in a catalog. And the very, very first thing I ask participants whenever I'm teaching about photobooks is "Does your work need to be a book?" That's the very first thing I think we need to ask ourselves. And, you know, it could be difficult because we all want to do a book, because it has to do with, you know, legitimizing the work and there's this kind of photobook boom now that's not really so real. But I mean, it's not something bad, you know, not every work needs to be a book. Or not every work will work as a book. The very same that not every work will work as an exhibition. But we all tend to do exhibitions and we all tend to do them in the very same way, also. And I think that's kind of like laziness of us. You know, you just, for instance, they invite you to show somewhere and you just send the very same pictures everywhere. Right? And you don't think about the specifics of the space or many things that you could do, like iteration. So how can you reread your own work in terms of the new space where it will be held? I think that is certainly necessary and it might be super obvious, but not everyone does it. And it's exactly the same—
Mike: I don't think it's obvious to most people.
Mariela: Yeah. And it's the same with books, you know? And now there's these kind of like photobook formulas that everyone is doing, the fold-ins or the different kind of papers and it's just... It looks very nice, but it's very flashy and sometimes it totally takes from the work. And if you've seen enough photobooks, you can tell it's a kind of fashion tendency or whatever, a tendency that people are doing and sometimes I think it's out of really not being so sure how the images will work in the book. You know, the book understood as an object, as I was saying. So they just put everything they can in it so that that, you know, sometimes hides a bit the lack of content or the lack of concept. And as you were saying, other artists with other disciplines don't work that way.
Mariela: There's these systematic things with photographers that tend to do the very same things every time. They work in series, they work in series the same way every time. So, for instance, that's why I don't like thinking about my own work in terms of series and every new work that I do is informed by the previous one. As I was saying, it's this idea of delving deeper into something instead of just jumping from one subject matter to the other. I'm not saying it's wrong, of course. I'm just saying it's not for me, I'm totally unable to do that. And I think it also has to do with sometimes the pressure of, you know, having new series all the time and having something new to show. And I think we artists shouldn't really listen to all of that and really trying to make more profound work.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Why don't we take a quick little break and then we'll come back and do the second segment.
Mariela: Let's do that.
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which could be whatever you'd like to talk about. So what would you like to talk about today?
Mariela Sancari: I was thinking... It's in my mind now, and it's been for a while. Also, you know, kind of like following what we were talking before—the relationship between photography and references. In particular literature now, because I'm curating an online show through a website called Photographic Museum of Humanity. They invited me to curate an online show and I proposed something that's... It's a working title yet, but it's going to be "Intertextualities." So the idea is to showcase photographic work that is informed or refers somehow to literary works. So I'll give you some examples now, but this all began because last year I was invited by a small independent publishing house in Buenos Aires called Asunción Casa Editora, where I am originally from, so I know the editors for a while. And they invited me join the editing group for the work of an Argentinian photographer called Cecilia Reynoso. It was a very, very interesting process because the work of this photographer is very well known in all Latin America and it's been exhibited in Europe. And so it's this kind of work that you feel that you've seen all of it, you know what I mean? And then when we were faced with the task of turning that work into a photobook—with the artist included it was four of us: the two editors, the artist, and me. We were really thinking, you know, how to bring that body of work into the book without it being the obvious option of pretty much doing the very same thing that she's done in exhibitions in the book. So we thought about it a lot, and after many talks and Skype conversations and all, the artist, Cecilia, she came up with the idea of relating her work to the unconscious references that informed her images. And I thought it was fascinating. She studied cinema and so she found out... So it was really kind of like an archaeological process because she found actually many stills off movies from an Italian filmmaker called Luchino Visconti that have the very same composition of her own images. And we thought that was really fascinating because whenever she was taking—the pictures of her work are all portraits of her extended family. And they are—we always describe them as really noisy. You know, it's always these images where you see a large family celebrating or it's Christmas or having dinner and there's a lot of children and it's really kind of like noisy and loud and they are all laughing and hugging each other and... So it's an Argentinian family and most Argentinians descend from Spanish and Italians. I'm generalizing but there were many, many Spanish and Italian immigrants. So this is kind of like a typical family of immigrants in Argentina. They're very, very loud and they do a lot of gestures and it's kind of like very dramatic. And so all of her images are like that. And then she would find specific stills, that she would do screenshots from the movies, most of them black and white, as opposed to her color images, that have the same composition. So anyway, I don't want to spend too much, sorry. But so the idea for the book was to refer to this world of references—unconscious, invisible, silent references that we all have—and highlight those references and make them conscious and available and visible. And the book is published now, you can see it online if you want. But so after that it was a very joyful process of working. Like we were saying before, a little bit outside the strict photography box, you know? Relating photography to other things. Also doing a book that's a portable look that doesn't only necessarily refer to the content of the work of the artist, you know what I mean? Because many people do their books to have their work presented, right? And this book, I think it was really risky in the way that it was not really about the artist's images only, but more to the relationship these images have to something else. And I thought that was fascinating. And from that time, it's just, it's something that it's in my mind. And so now that I'm doing this, I'm curating this online show of photo works that are informed by literature, I'm finding really fascinating work that maybe loosely refers to a work of literature through the title or that is a very specific visual adaptation of a poem, for instance. I don't know, that's kind of like in my mind now a little bit.
Mike: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the things that is really interesting about art is, you know, I'm always saying on the show that art is about communication. And usually I'm talking about that in terms of the communication between the artist and the art and the audience. But there is this whole other aspect too of how every work of art is in conversation with every other work of art as well. And that is something that I've always found really, really fascinating. It's an idea that a literature professor introduced me to when I was in my first or second year of college, that I hadn't really ever considered before, but as I think about it just makes so much sense, right. That at this point in the world, we're all... We have 10,000 years of art history all building up to this moment. And so everything we do is informed by something that we've already seen. I just, I think that sort of teasing out those connections is not just interesting as an audience member, you know, to understand the message a little better, but also as an artist if we're able to understand what... Because a lot of times those references that we're making aren't things that we're doing on purpose. And if we're able to understand them a little better, it really deepens the work, I think.
Mariela: Definitely. I think nowadays anything we do is definitely informed by something else we've seen, either conscious or unconsciously. What I'm trying to do is make this conscious, and I think particularly this book, it does it very well. And I think in a way it was... I was writing a review on this book the other day and it was interesting also because I was writing the review also acknowledging I was part of the editing team. So one of the things that I think this book brings in is that it inscribes itself into a subgenre of books, of photobooks that don't necessarily deal with the content of the image, but with pretty much anything outside of it, if we can say there's something outside of it, you know what I mean? And I think that is fascinating. That is like, it's really... So, and as you mentioned this now, we are all seeing images all the time and bombarded by them and producing so many and exchanging, so on. And instead of thinking about exactly what we're seeing and trying to describe that, kind of like highlighting how that relates to everything else. I find it fascinating and somehow responds to what we're living now in terms of how we exchange and produce images. It's kind of like, you know, somehow making visible the invisible net of cross references. I think also, you know, like we were talking in the first segment, talking about the isolation of photography that doesn't really make any sense and all that. I think so, you know, it's funny because if you end up thinking... It's like I only had one idea in my mind now and it reflects in everything I do, from what I'm doing with my own work to what we're talking now to what I just did with these other artists where I'm curating online. It's just like we were saying, you know, sometimes it's not like we're jumping from one subject to the other, we're just seeing the very same thing from different angles. And I think I'm focused on that now. I think I would describe it as photography and its references. And, yeah, I find it really fascinating. And you know, researching, for instance, for the online show that I'm curating now, I found a lot of photography work that I didn't know about that somehow refers to other works of art. It's really... I mean, not only pretty much any statement you read has a quotation from some philosopher, not only that, but pretty much... It's just, it's everywhere. References in the photography world. And I think of course not only photography, but since we're talking about this, it's everywhere. We all, most of the time quietly, but sometimes really openly referring to other work.
Mike: I think one of the things that's really interesting about this online exhibition that you're curating is how the references are specifically towards literature. Because I feel like it's fairly common.... I feel like among photographers, the most common thing when people talk about references amongst photographers, they'll talk about other photographers. You know, like maybe they'll say, "Oh, I'm really influenced by Robert Frank," or "I'm really influenced by Alec Soth" or something, right? But yeah, that's one thing. A little less common but still pretty common is that they'll reference some other visual medium. Like Alex Prager, for example, always talks about how she's really interested in cinema. And a lot of portrait photographers I know will reference Caravaggio. But this... I feel like that too, that there's the idea that we can be influenced by non-visual, like our work can be influenced by non-visual art forms, like literature or music or something like that. For me, I know one of the biggest influences on both my writing and my photography is John Steinbeck. And obviously there's no visual component to Steinbeck's work, but something about the way Steinbeck thinks about and presents places, and specifically the place that—he and I are both from the same place. And that informs a lot of... How he thinks about that place is very similar to how I think about that place. And that definitely comes out when I make work about place, you know? So I feel like that is a place that I... Like everybody has read literature to some degree, even if it was just in school. So I feel like that must be in there for all visual artists, but it's not something that gets talked about quite as much, you know?
Mariela: Yeah. Yeah. And I think again, it's super natural because whenever you're reading anything, you're creating pictures in your mind, right? So words translate into images in our minds. I was recently reading about the phenomenology of reading and the many ways words and sentences and paragraphs and the whole story or novel or whatever translate into really complicated and intricate images in our minds. And how specific strategies that writers use create either blurriness or definition or other kinds of things in their own mental images. And I think that this is fascinating and I think... So, like you were saying, it's actually more there than we are maybe aware of. Any time you're reading, you're picturing it in your mind and it's really, like you were just saying, I think it's really fascinating. For instance, reading something that someone wrote that's born in the same place that you are. And, for instance, describing this very same place that you've seen and how his or her or description can sometimes be as your own or different or it can be connected or... So the different images that we create. I was reading recently a book that I found it really fascinating, that would talk about Anna Karenina, right? And how we—how many different people picture Anna Karenina in their minds based on the descriptions of the book. I thought that was really fascinating. You know, the very same words work in different ways in everyone's minds in terms of creating images. And so I think it's there, it's the overriding relationship between words and images. And how words definitely are creating images in our minds and images are understood or made sense by words. You know, we're describing images and that's the way we make sense out of them. So there's something there, you know, like this circle, really intricate and complex but really with a lot of richness.
Mike: Yeah. I hadn't really thought about that before. How... I mean I thought about the direction of the words describing the images but not about words creating images mentally. That's an interesting... Yeah, I hadn't really thought about that before, that's interesting.
Mike: To me, one of the things that when I think about connections and references, to me it's that ultimately all art is referential in some way just because the thing that's important about the art is emotion of it. And that's not something that you could ever embody perfectly in words or images or sounds or anything.
Mike: So, but if like John Steinbeck and I are both feeling something similar and trying to communicate that in the work, to me that makes sense that I might recognize and be motivated when I see that emotion, when I experience that emotion reading his books and then want to take that and put that into a medium that I'm a little more comfortable in.
Mariela: Sure, sure. It is fascinating isn't it?
Mariela: Yeah. And I think also in terms of the current moment we're living, we're seeing the world through images because now, like we said so many times, everyone takes images and shares them and blah, blah blah. But we still make sense out of them through words. Although, like so many philosophers and academics and all are talking about how difficult it is, increasingly more to make sense out of images. How complex they become and how it's pretty much impossible to make sense out of them without a context. So even there, you know, words and images or language and images, it's so intertwined, it's so mixed that it's so difficult to separate them. So I think I really celebrate the consciousness of that complexity, you know? So for instance, whenever a photographer refers consciously to some piece of literature, I really... I think there's something, there's an acknowledgement there of this intricate relationship that I think it's really worth looking at.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. So there's one question that I like to end with and that is if there is a piece of art or literature or creativity in some form that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.
Mariela: I just read a fascinating book by a Mexican writer. So I'm pretty sure it won't be available in English, but can I tell a bit about this?
Mike: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Mariela: So it's, it's called... In Spanish it's No contar todo. That in English would be "Not telling everything." And it refers to the story of the author's grandfather, his father, and himself. The very, very funny thing is that, without me knowing the writer—he's called Emiliano Monge—he talks about the story of my husband's paternal family. So it's really funny because these are stories—again, talking about references and so on—these are stories I heard my husband's grandmother tell, you know, a hundred times at Christmas or, you know, any celebration that we would all meet and they—you know how sometimes grandmothers and grandfathers tell the very same stories a hundred times. So I would hear this very same story told by her many times. And then I read it from the point of view of one of the members of this family, but that is not really close to my husband or anything. So in that term it was already fascinating me because I knew what they were talking about, like the actual facts of what the novel refers to. But also I find it fascinating that the writer, so he's telling these three stories, right? His grandfather, his father, and himself. And he uses different grammatical persons. For instance, when he talks about himself, he writes it in the third person.
Mariela: When he talks about his father, it's in the second person. As in a dialogue, but without his own replies—it's just his father talking. And then whenever he talks about the grandfather, it's in the first person, as in a diary. I thought that was a really, really fascinating way of, through the use of language, addressing autobiographical issues. And also it's masterfully written and it's really entertaining. And, yeah, I think that book... I just, I read it and it's a pretty long book but I read it just overnight. You know, when you have a book in your hand that you don't want to go to bed, too, because it's so good, but then you are happy because the next day you wake up to a really good book again. So yeah, I thought that book was really fascinating. And also, since all my work is autobiographical, I really enjoy reading or seeing autobiographical work done by other artists of whichever discipline. And kind of like analyze the strategies they use to do that. Because, you know, sometimes autobiographical work could be a little disregarded. You know, like, it has a bad reputation. Like so many people go like, "What do I care about your life?" Or "It's just too sentimental." That's why, you know, I'm really interested in how other artists address those issues in different ways. So I recommend that book although it is in Spanish, but anyway.
Mike: Well, thank you so much.
Mariela: You're welcome.
Mike: I'm going to brush up on my... It's been a while since I have read anything serious in Spanish but, I don't know, maybe I'll make the attempt again.
Mariela: This is a good one, so if you want to try it.
Mike: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it and I had a great time. Thank you.
Mariela: Me, too. Thank you so much, Mike.
Mike Sakasegawa: OK, so if you’d like to see more of Mariela’s work you can check out her website at marielasancari.com, there’s a link in the show notes there and you will also be able to find news of any upcoming exhibitions or events there. Do check that out, and don’t forget to check out the FOLIO festival in May!
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