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Friday, 26 June 2015

Moisés: A book where you feel the pain.

Moisés by Mariela Sancari seems to be a modest affair. It's not too big, there are not so many pictures and the pictures that are included have an unspectacular quality to them.

At the same time, it's not at all modest. It's a project book, an installation book, that is both a visual portrayal of the grief Sancari felt for her dead father (he's the Moisés of the title), and an attempt by Sancari to come to terms with that grief, a grief complicated by the way in which Moises died.

When Moises killed himself, Sancari and her twin sister (who were 14 at the time) were not allowed to see the body. Was it because of the 'sin' of suicide or because of Jewish burial law. We can't be sure.

But already there is a huge amount of emotional energy invested in the story and it is this energy that Sancari brings out in her pictures. Because after he died, the family never talked how Moisés died, about the non-seeing of the body, about that layer of a grief that was laden with both anger and guilt.

Sancari set out to confront this silence through her art. She put an advertisement in the newspaper asking for paid volunteers answering to the age (he would be if he were still alive) and appearance of her father to model for her. Several people answered the ad and she photographed.

Moisés the book is one end result of this process. It has a triptych cover with double spines, so the pages fold out left-right, left-right, left-right rhythm. The first pictures are fragmented images of her father. You see him in bits; a jaw, a hairline, an ear, fragments that mirror Sancari's half-buried memories.

Then you open up the pages and you see the first volunteer in three frames; a quarter back profile, a full profile and a two thirds profile. The model stands there with his stern mouth and his swept back hair and he probably looks nothing like the real Moises, but he's wearing his old cardigan. There's a touching point, a hook.

The next model is bald, has a moustache and collapsed cheeks where his teeth used to be. He looks nothing like the first one. Fold the pages out and the third is a wide-mouthed man with a thatch of grey hair. We get four pictures of him and he's wearing the same cardigan as the first man. The models change, the clothes repeat, each could be Sancari's father, each most definitely isn't. There's a mix of social types, of projected futures, of degrees of aging. And then we get to the end and a man is combing Sancari's hair, the memory of the past brought into a counter-intuitive present.

The final page shows the ad that Sancari put in the paper. And finally we see what Moisés 'really' looked like in a photograph.  A caption reads, To go back, begin from the right. So we go back and we see it differently; a neck, and another neck, and the neck again, red-raw, with abrasions. So that tells us something. And the men come back, but it's all a different view and the sad eyes, the brittle hair and the aging skin become something else again.

It's a slow and touching book. If it were a film, it would be Amour. The design fits the purpose but you need to know the story before you start which might be a barrier. Maybe that's why there's a slipped-in brochure with a text by Erik Kessels highlighting those projects that get to the emotional core of the big themes of life; Araki's Sentimental Journey, the work of Seichi Furuya or Fusco's Funeral Train.

Sancari's book gets to that emotional core. It's love, guilt and grief wrapped up in a quiet and apparently simple book. Sometimes you get the feeling that for photography to be good it has to be difficult in some way. You need to go through a pain barrier. You can feel that Moisés was difficult to make and is far more complex and multi-layered than it first appears. It's a book where you can feel the pain.

 Read more about the project here

Buy the book here

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