A Poetical Work of Indistinction
El Borda - Eduardo Gil. ArtexArte Editions. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2023
In Valeria Luiselli's novel Lost Children Archive, the protagonist discovers a unique form of photography in the portraits and landscapes of American photographer Emmet Gowin. It involves a sustained exercise of an extended gaze, positioned between approach and delay, that transforms everyday observation into an experience. It is said that Gowin took his time to observe things rather than impose his point of view. As a result, his photographs only take on their true meaning when viewed over time. As the narrator explains, "like when we're driving through a tunnel and out of superstition everyone in the car holds their breath and then, when we reach the other side, the world opens up in front of us, immense and ungraspable". Similar feelings of openness and slow revelation are evoked by the photographs in the essay El Borda, taken by Eduardo Gil between 1982 and 1985 when he attended Borda Hospital to run a weekly workshop for the patients. These visits were a transformative, vital and existential experience, in which photography was only a pretext made to foster an exchange of feelings, sensations and narratives among the participants. In an extensive series of photographs, Eduardo Gil meticulously recorded the characters, spaces and stories that inhabited the hospital. His photographs reveal a way of relating to the world in which there are no hierarchies between what is or is not worthy of inspection, between subject and object, or between image and language. This indistinction creates an aesthetic and political commitment in which entities merge on the basis of the perceptions, emotions and sensations that the photographer experienced in El Borda. The proper name of this series of photographs, produced through direct photography without retouching or manipulation, is written in capital letters and without qualifiers or adjectives. This allows for diverse interpretations, unbound by the most prestigious humanist documentary readings that have historically been revealed when approaching such forms of otherness.
The Borda Hospital photographs played a crucial role in Eduardo Gil's career. They marked the beginning of a long-term project that culminated in the book (argentina), which, in his own words, is "a metaphor for the country's state since the end of the dictatorship until the present day." Gil's work at the hospital was motivated by a series of professional and personal experiences that had a profound impact on his artistic sensibility and political commitment. These experiences included his involvement with the avant-garde group Contacta in Peru during his first trip to Latin America in 1979, whose manifesto proposed a total integration of the arts into mass practices and everyday life; his time studying sociology at the University of Buenos Aires; his participation in photographic aesthetics workshops; and the extension courses he taught at the University of Buenos Aires's Faculty of Psychology. During these years, he also participated in the Siluetazo, which, together with the series on the hospital, constitutes an essential photographic record in Argentine visual history and an aesthetic-political event that became a symbol of the disappearances during the dictatorship. Gil's photographs are embedded, in their own time and as mediators, in the debate about what can be represented and how to bear witness to absence. His work in the hospital was, to a large extent, an experience that motivated him to offer his body for the purpose of charting the silhouettes of the victims' corpses. His involvement in Plaza de Mayo in September 1983 was inspired by the people at the hospital who participated in the marches of resistance led by the mothers, relatives, and grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo through the Mental Health Solidarity Movement.
In general terms, the series could be described as a photographic essay. The images that make up the series form a voluminous and coherent body that seeks to narrate and document social issues related to oppressed sectors, collectives or minorities. This interest is intertwined with ethical, political and aesthetic aspects. Eduardo Gil, in his exercise of understanding humanity, weaves a story in which photography, criticism, analysis and editing are combined with an implicit understanding of the viewer, who feels challenged by the photographer's perspective. At the same time, Gil challenges certain boundaries in the way he sees and relates to the world he photographs. He breaks down the hierarchies established by a social and consensual order that expects a committed and sufficiently detached gaze as a necessary condition to be able to appreciate what was photographed. In other words, Gil's gaze manifests itself as an aversion to any form of representative art that speaks on behalf of others or proposes too direct an approach to what is presented. This blurs the boundaries between art and life, as well as between reason and sensibility.
In his early work on Latin American enclaves and communities, Gil demonstrated a sensitive approach that foreshadowed his later focus on the quality of each event from a perspective that decenters his subjective positioning. To achieve this, Gil draws on an ethical experience of disidentification, transferring or multiplying his identity to the different modes of existence of the world he relates to, including people, objects, spaces, and affective and luminous atmospheres. In El Borda, several aesthetic registers intertwine, including the suspension of the parameters of adequacy between background and figure, image and text, and reality and fiction.In principle, the detailed descriptions of the photographed environments do not aim to depict inmates in the overcrowded and degraded conditions that typically characterize life in public psychiatric institutions. Instead, in Gil's scenes, there is a subtle interweaving of the figures with the background, so that they do not take precedence over the spaces or objects; they blend together. Borda Hospital serves as a complex community that relates people, spaces, zones of light and shadow, which represent the passage of time. For example, the austere and symmetrical pavilions have the same meaning as the people who pass through them, as do the makeshift still lifes of everyday utensils and the sunlight streaming through the windows of the interior corridors. These images embody Walter Benjamin's famous statement that "it is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye". The difference is that photography captures the whole scene simultaneously, whereas the human eye is biased. The camera is a liberating device based on the principle of indeterminacy. In this sense, Eduardo Gil submits to the logic of the medium.
Photographic essays typically follow a highly codified scheme, where certain fixed signs unambiguously convey the intended message. However, Gil's photographs transcend this correlation between facts, ideas, and visuality through a unique exploration of the relationship between words and images. Instead of explaining, clarifying, or complementing the images, the words emerge as urgent and localized signifiers, begging to be read within the blurred boundary between art and life. The series of anonymous, collective graffiti on the hospital walls, including "I'm a man - can I have a family?", "I wish I could leave soon", "What we need are relatives to visit us", "Love is nice," and "What now?" weave a narrative that expresses the voice of an ordinary man, with his desires, fears, worries, and hesitations.
El Borda's photographs exist in a space between documentary and fictional records, blurring the line between the two. On the one hand, they serve as testimony to events that have taken place, confirming the photographer's presence. On the other hand, they offer a glimpse into the many possible worlds of the imagination, based on the blurred line that separates reality from fable. Photography, which is literally attached to things, paradoxically asserts itself as a mise-en-scène, a sober yet undeniable theatricalization. A whole series of events and stories take place in the photographs. Characters such as the marshal pose in front of the camera wearing their insignia, and there are homemade sets, choreographies, and costumes for the Spring Day celebrations, as well as outings to such incongruous places as the educational park República de los Niños (Children's Republic). Eduardo Gil's gaze does not shy away from the discomfort of this scene, which unfolds with the disconcerting strangeness that only good stories can convey. The story is about how an eccentric community experiences a kinder world in a fantasy scenario, a world that has been taken away from them by confinement. Photography can truly be a state of exception.