SARA ANGELUCCI is a Toronto-based artist working in photography, video and audio. Her work explores vernacular photographs and films, analyzing the original context in which images are made. Drawing attention to conventions of image making, her work foregrounds the cultural role vernacular images play in framing particular stories, creating histories, and memorialization. Angelucci’s work has developed from an examination of the family archive and immigration, to a broader analysis and interpretation of anonymous/found photographs. In recent photography, video, and audio projects, Angelucci draws from the history of photography, as well as natural and social histories, transforming found images and repositioning them within the broader cultural context from which they emerge.
SARA ANGELUCCI completed her BA at the University of Guelph and her MFA at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She has exhibited her photography across Canada including exhibitions at the Art Gallery of York University, Le Mois de la Photo in Montreal, Vu in Quebec City, the Toronto Photographers Workshop, the MacLaren Art Centre, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Richmond Art Gallery, and the St. Mary’s University Art Gallery in Halifax. Her work has been included in group shows in the US, Europe, and at the Pingyao Biennale in China. Her videos have been screened across Canada and abroad, at festivals in Europe, China, Australia and the U.S. She has participated in artist residencies at the Art Gallery of Ontario, NSCAD (Halifax), the Banff Centre, and at Biz-Art in Shanghai.
ANGELUCCI is an Adjunct Professor in Photography at the School of Image Arts, Ryerson University.
Aviaries, like photographs, sprang forth in the nineteenth century, a time of keen interest in science, unprecedented colonial expansion, and a rapacious appetite for collecting. Shooting, a word associated with hunting, also lent itself perfectly to the idea of pointing a lens and capturing an image. The same colonial enterprise that drove the Victorians to expand their rule to a quarter of the world’s land and a fifth of its population, spurred a sense of callous entitlement over its creatures, hunted for sport and captured for the pleasure of entertainments. With an increasing desire for imported goods, there came too an avid demand for exotic birds, to be held in aviaries, or preserved by taxidermists.
The growth of consumer demand for photographs was just as fervent. In 1854 French photographer André Disdéri patented a new process that would revolutionize the trading and collecting of photographs. The carte-de-visite, as it was known for its small visiting card size, was a portrait photograph that could be cheaply produced in large quantities. Almost anyone could then afford to have their photograph taken and their multiplicity made them easy for trading with acquaintances and loved ones. The carte-de-visite became a craze for portrait collection, spawning commercial studios that spread from Europe to North America. No nineteenth century parlour was complete without a photographic album replete with cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards (a larger version) of friends, family members, and celebrities.
Women were the definitive keepers of the family album, and all things related to the parlour were within her purview. The parlour became a microcosm of society, expressing the customs of the times, and the interests and desires of those who inhabited them. The parlour was where the family, with the woman of the house at its social helm, would receive visitors, and there enact the roles of civilized social exchange. The many objects on display expressed the family’s class and cultural sophistication. One could apply a semiotic translation of the codes embedded in each object. Among other areas of interest, the craze over natural history and scientific thought had plenty of markers in the parlour including specimens like shells, minerals, and fossils; objects found in nature but “processed”—stuffed birds and animals, seaweed in albums, dried flowers; and objects containing live specimens—birdcages, Wardian cases (containing live exotic plants), and acquaria. Taxidermy was seen at the time as a fitting hobby for young ladies.
Oddly, for all of its passion for science and the rationalization of nature, the 19th century was the same era that produced the Spiritualist movement, and Spirit Photography—a period when a curious belief in otherworldly manifestations and ghostly apparitions held sway. The family parlour played a central role here too, for it was there that séances took place. Directed by a medium who seemingly communed with the dead, the spiritualists believed that the dead resided in a world within reach. In the phenomenon known as Spirit Photography, images of deceased persons mysteriously appeared faintly hovering in the background of a portrait. Spirit photographs were a perfect foil to a culture obsessed with mourning. The Victorian era was a time when mourning was lavishly ritualized, and funerals were made into grand public spectacles. An entire industry developed around the funeral, making it possible to stage expensive and elaborate performances of grief. Photography, the perfect indexical form, supported this beautifully, with images of the deceased embedded in mourning jewelry—lockets, pins, and bracelets, often interwoven with strands of hair. Post-mortem photographs were also a popular way to create a memento of the dead.
The photographs in Aviary embody many themes of the nineteenth century. Born of the domestic realm, they express a conflation of interests where the family photo album, with its role of commemoration, is brought together with natural science and spiritual emanations. Made by combining photographs of endangered or extinct North American birds with anonymous nineteenth century cartes-de-visite portraits—they portray creatures about to become ghosts. Of the two extinct birds featured in the series, the plight of the passenger pigeon is particularly telling. Once the most numerous bird in North America, numbering in the billions, it was wiped out by 1914 through a combination of brutal over-hunting and habitat destruction.
So how do we read these strange human-birdlike creatures? One could at once see them as manifestations of their time: a hybrid crossover of faith in science with a belief in otherworldly beings. As W. G. Sebald writes in Campo Santo, “[photography is] in essence, after all…nothing but a way of making ghostly apparitions materialize by means of a very dubious magical art.” And, what would it mean to embody another creature: Could one then see, feel, and understand its desire to live? Might we then imagine theAviary portraits as chimera suspended in a state of empathy, and wonder what our treatment of other sentient beings might be if we could feel what they feel, or see what they see?
The term lacrimosa comes from a movement in the requiem mass, the mass performed for the dead. It has been said many times that a photograph itself is a record of death, as the image immediately fixes a time that has passed; what was of that person is no longer. Lacrimosa is originally derived from the Latin word for tears, lacrimare, and it was in this context that I first encountered it. Under the photo-ceramic portrait of a young woman on a gravestone in Ortezzano, a small village in Italy, was written the touching sentiment “Sinceramente Lacrimate,” sincerely cried for.
The photographs in the exhibition Lacrimosa were taken during a two-month sojourn in Montottone, on the central Adriatic coast, where there are living relatives who knew my great-grandparents and great-uncle, the village miller. The old mill still stands in this 11th-century Italian village, although is about to be torn down.
Days move slowly in Montottone. There is time for afternoon coffee, to sit and talk with the elderly, for stories to unfold, and for visits to the graves of the dead. As I settled into the village, I began to ask people to show me their old photographs. I wanted to understand what rural life was like during and after the war, the period before my family immigrated to Canada. Did women really carry water on her heads and wash clothes in the river? Where were the public fonts and bakery? What was life like during the war?
In the village, photographs play an important memorializing role. As most people were poor before and after the war, they had only a few photographs to show of their early years—usually taken on formal occasions. The ones they had became precious mementos of loved ones, or of the way they themselves were at an earlier age.
I photographed a number of these older villagers holding their favourite or most important photograph. In this series of women, the hands holding the image become the frame, a kind of mise-en-abyme, as the woman holding the photograph is pictured in the photograph she holds.
For my aunts, visits to the cemetery are an important part of the weekly ritual in Montottone. Here more stories unfolded as we gazed at grave portraits. The tradition of ceramic grave portraits is still thriving in Italy, as well as in many other countries. Though patented by two French inventors in 1854, the form was adopted and popularized by the Italians, who took the tradition abroad with them as they emigrated. Writer John Maturi explores the tradition of the photo-ceramic portrait and its relationship to Catholic cultures. “Within Catholic religious culture,” he writes, “…the realm of the spirit is not utterly transcendent to the world, and social and familial relationships and obligations do not end with death. Indeed, as Lisa Montarelli expands, “…the living have an obligation to pray for dead loved ones in order to speed their passage through purgatory, a transitional state in which souls who die in sin are purified. So the photo-ceramic portrait serves an important purpose; it keeps the memory of deceased persons vivid and alive.
Passing the cemetery one evening, I was struck by how it glowed like a small city; as the village went to sleep, the cemetery came awake. In many Italian cemeteries graves are adorned with a small electric light—keeping vigil in the darkness. By visiting this site at night, I was able to record the haunting beauty of these glowing portraits.
From the series of photo-ceramic portraits I photographed in Montottone and nearby Ortezzano, many stories arose. As I strolled through the cemetery with my two aunts, who have lived in the village for some seventy-five years, I heard fragmentary tales of the people there; what they were reputed to have been like, who was related to whom or the sad details of their passing. One story stood out—that of Pierina Bordacconi who died of tuberculosis in 1928 at just 16 years old. Pierina is said to have been the greatest beauty of the village, and indeed as her face shines out from her portrait, framed by schoolgirl braids, her beauty still radiates. More than eighty years after her passing, Pierina’s grave is adorned with fresh flowers from local admirers.
The images in Lacrimosa pay homage to the preciousness and importance of the photograph in the quotidian life of this small Italian town, and indeed in the lives of many people. From the few images taken during life, the family would choose the one that would represent a person for eternity. Like the lament in the requiem, Lacrimosa recognizes the role the photograph plays in ritualizing grief and remembrance, and in creating a link between the living and the dead, for generations to come.
Sara Angelucci’s Regular 8 series returns film to its origin in the still image, while turning our attention to the post-war nuclear family of the 1950s. A period characterized by growing consumption, new mobility, and a large population aspiring to middle class success, it also witnessed the spread of eight millimeter or “Regular 8” home movies. Playing on the idiosyncratic interference caused by Kodak’s punch-hole tagging system—a series of numbers appearing across the end frames of each film – Angelucci makes poignant reference to the last moments of such films, where a series of white dots dances across the screen as the action winds to a close. Preserved, yet already in the process of dissolution, as evidenced by the invading punch holes, these images describe a moment of in-between. Existing somewhere between film theorist Andre Bazin’s characterization of photography and film, these photographic moments are suspended like “insects in amber” while shifting perpetually between frames as “change mummified.”
Referencing scenes from found and borrowed films, Angelucci’s staged photographs portray celebrations, holidays, and outings – where family and friends were often recast in idealized, cinematic versions of themselves. Here, everyone dressed up for, and played a role in, the portrayal of the happy family. By arresting such moments, Angelucci both celebrates and interrupts the formation of such identities, pointing to the tensions that may exist outside of the frame. Using the qualities of analogue photography as the basis for a hybrid digital practice, Angelucci dips into the wells of multiple histories and processes. In their convergence, she captures the still revolutionary force of the “mirror with a memory” to fascinate, disturb, and seduce.
YOUR MORNING IS MY NIGHT
Your Morning is My Night is a collaborative photo and video project by Han Xu a native of Beijing, who has been living in Toronto since 2001, and Sara Angelucci of Toronto. Han and Angelucci began working together in the spring of 2006 with the intention of helping each other to develop their language skills in English (Han) and Mandarin (Angelucci). As artists, their language collaboration soon developed into an artistic collaboration. What became apparent in these language meetings was the desire to not only master pronunciation and vocabulary, but to grasp an understanding of the other’s culture. As Angelucci was preparing for an artist residency in Shanghai for the fall of 2006, they realized they would soon be living concurrently in the other’s native countries.
Situated on opposite ends of the world and time zones (there is a twelve hour difference between Toronto and Shanghai) Han and Angelucci developed the idea of both critically and literally exploring their perspectives as outsiders, taking photographs simultaneously twice daily at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. The resulting shots are presented in a series of photographic diptychs.
In addition, as food is a central component of cultural expression and can reveal so much about the characteristics of a culture, Your Morning is My Night also features a video diptych depicting each of the duo ordering and eating a meal; Han experiencing all the fixings of a hearty Canadian breakfast, and Angelucci managing her chopsticks and enjoying dinner in a popular Shanganese restaurant.
EVERYTHING IN MY FATHER'S WALLET/EVERYTHING IN MY WALLET
Everything in my father's wallet developed from the discovery of my father's wallet in a box of family memorabilia, ten years after his passing. The wallet emerged intact, as if it had just been removed from his pocket. In examining its contents, (55 items including driver's license, old photographs, heart medication prescription, etc.) I became fascinated by how these items built a portrait of this man - an immigrant, labourer, father, husband, hunter, etc.
Indeed, I began to wonder what the contents of my wallet would reveal about me. By bringing the contents of the two wallets together the work not only builds two portraits, or suggests clues of a father/daughter relationship, but themes which go beyond the individual owners emerge. For example, my father's wallet contained a Steel Worker's of America Union Card, while mine contained a University Alumni Card, my father's a hunting license and a note permitting him to hunt on private property, while mine contained cinema, gallery and library memberships. These items not only point to activity, but to ways of living. Presented in two grids of approximately 50 photographs each, the relationship between the two raises notions of generational differences, gender differences, and a class/cultural shift resulting from my father's immigration and lack of formal education, while I was born, educated and raised in Canada.
The images in the series Al Riverso ("in reverse") are made using photographs which go back to my family's pre immigration period (Italy in the early 1950s) as their source. The family photographs selected were chosen because they all contain hand-writing on their backs contextualizing the image with a story, name, date, or other cryptic information.
In the process of flipping between the image and the text on the back, I was reminded of a statement by Roland Barthes "memory is like a transparent envelope". Inspired by this idea, I placed the original photograph text side up on a light box and found that while the text became clearly visible, the image also bled through the emulsion and the paper, out of focus and merging with the text.
To produce the Al Riverso series I have rephotographed the merged image and text as it appears on the light box. This blending of the front and back creates a new hybrid image, one which attempts to reconcile all of the clues the photograph provides: the character of the hand-writing, the content of the words, stamps, dates as well as the image. While the merging of these details evokes an urgent desire to deeply connect with lost persons, a particular locality, and a broken lineage, it also reminds us of all that is unattainable, of all the photograph cannot grasp.
The series Stillness continues an attempt to reconcile a disjointed history. Perhaps its true intent is in the impossible desire for reconciliation itself. Making use of vintage family photographs, Stillness turns to them as sources of evidence, seeking clues in tiny isolated fragments of glances, hand gestures, clothing details, etc. These black and white fragments are paired with details of landscape images recently taken on visits to the rural landscape surrounding my ancestral village. The still within the still—to which Stillness refers evokes not only a sense of searching for clues and evidence, but also the mystery which descends upon these images with the passing of time. In Stillness, a fleeting glance, frozen gesture or landscape detail, evoke the desire to connect with lost persons, a particular locality, and a broken lineage.
The Timescape series is made of film-strip-like narratives marking a particular measure of time and space. Shot on the fly, during a walk or train ride, or from a car window, each strip maps a small journey: some a daily routine, others more unusual and of greater significance. Each Timescape seeks in its own way to fix a passage of time and place, while at the same time carrying a continuous sense of dislocation and transition.
SHE CROSSED THE SEA
She crossed the sea explores a motif that reappears in a number of projects over the years - a photograph of my mother taken on board a ship, surrounded by the ocean as she immigrates to Canada. The series began as an experiment to see how a photo of a photo would look. In the process of shooting, the photograph is flipped to reveal the writing on the back. Yet, in viewing the images, it became clear that something magical happened that afternoon of shooting. In the juxtaposition of image and sky - the blueness of the sky replaces the sea’s immensity, the refracting sunlight, and the vague figure a seeming tarot card, presents a talismanic presence.
THE PERFECT PAST
Throughout its history photography has been credited with its power to record, and with this established its basic characteristic as a mnemonic device. But like the mind's memory process, we know this property is selective, subjective and fragmentary at best. In this series of images, The Perfect Past, I have been interested in making visible the limitations of the memory process. These images were undertaken out of a daily practice of shooting and randomly recording daily living. This is a way I had never worked with the camera before.
Emerging from a dire sense of displacement, the daily practice of photographing became a way of confirming a sense of existence in the world, and of trying to make sense of my surroundings. When I began to make these images I had recently relocated to the town of my childhood, a place I had lived until I was six years old. This place existed only in fleeting memories, recollections from photographs and Super 8 home movies. Yet, in revisiting childhood places, nothing seemed familiar or comforting and this only served to further a sense of anxiety and dislocation.
Using the most basic means (a cheap plastic camera) became a way of trying to mimic visually what was happening experientially. Things were disjointed, out of control, and not idyllic or perfect at all, as I had once imagined them. The camera, which was badly made, randomly allowed light leaks and imprints of the film's frame numbers to occur. Through its clumsy construction, the camera created images by letting light through the lens, but also disrupting the same images by letting light into the camera. In the this way, the camera simultaneously recorded my experience and then randomly interrupted it. The camera's inability to consistently advance from one frame to the next created other forms—at times odd juxtapositions, at others a sense of cinematic narrative. Although these markings are by happenstance, by choosing this camera, I purposely nurtured the possibility of imperfections in the image. These disruptions not only speak of the limitations of the memory process, but also admit the medium's vulnerability and process.
The images selected for The Perfect Past were shot in movement, from vehicles or while walking, furthering the sense of living in a transitional state. At times the landscape images present strange juxtapositions. Often children appear, their images marred by colourful flares of light. Images with a series of frames which run consecutively create a kind of narrative, mimicking many hours spent viewing Super 8 family films. The randomly appearing film frame numbers, act as markers of time passing and make clear that this is a photograph, a mere fragment of a moment.
Throughout this work, notions of dislocation, the passing of time, disruption of childhood, and the fleeting nature of memory are all intermingled. The past, it would seem, is perfect only in the mind's eye.
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