History Is a Living Organism: A Conversation with Rosângela Rennó
The Brazilian artist repurposes discarded photographs to fight “structural ignorance” and the willful erasure of history.
Rosângela Rennó is not a photographer, but photography is both her material and her subject. For over 30 years the Brazilian artist has drawn from forgotten archives and anonymous photos to create artworks that bring marginal histories into focus. Earlier this year, the Pinacoteca of the state of São Paulo hosted a major retrospective of the artist, who is based in Rio de Janeiro. Rennó’s work invites us to linger on the worn surfaces and frayed edges of technological modernity and poses important questions: Who has the right to visibility? Who has the right to opacity? How are historical narratives constructed through visual culture? And what forgotten stories might be salvaged?
We recently spoke to Rennó about the distinct origins of her five works in MoMA’s collection, her research methods, and her thoughts about Brazil’s reactionary regimes past and present. This conversation is part of Giving a Body to Time (Dando cuerpo al tiempo), a series of interviews with Latin American artists whose work became part of MoMA’s collection in 2017 as part of 90 contemporary artworks donated by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. With a title that quotes from the Brazilian artist Jac Leirner, the series focuses on work from the 1980s and 1990s that center the body in experimental and conceptual practices, challenging the parameters of traditional artistic mediums. Giving a Body to Time is the third series of interviews that are part of a long-term investigation into the Cisneros gift to the museum.
Translated from Portuguese by Steve Berg.
Rosângela Rennó. Wedding Landscape. 1996
Madeline Murphy Turner: Wedding Landscape is one of the most intriguing of your works. It is a collection of negatives organized as a cascade of images shown between two panes of acrylic. What are the images we see? Where did you find them?
RR: In 1994 I went to Havana for the first time. There I acquired an entire box of negatives produced in a local studio. It must have weighed about seven kilos. The 120 and 35mm film negatives documented wedding ceremonies. The photographer who ran the studio took me to the attic and told me I could take whatever I wanted, because the studio was no longer interested in keeping them. Only small copies of those negatives had been given to the client. Since photographic material was very scarce in Cuba, the possibility of subsequently printing new copies was never considered. The negatives hadn’t been cataloged nor kept under the client’s name, thus becoming useless. I used them to create several series and two unique works, one of which was Wedding Landscape.
In general, all of the women in the negatives wear bridal gowns, although none of the ceremonies were held in churches. The documentation followed a protocol that was the same for all the couples: they were shot in traditional settings, on couches, before a mirror, etc., culminating with a shot of the couple waving goodbye from a car or a motorcycle. I no longer recall how many couples there were on each roll. What struck me was the fact that the sequence of images was identical for every couple involved.
EYC: How does the work engage with landscape—which is in the title—and portraiture?
RR: The repetition of the scenes and the monotony of the documentation in that collection of negatives was what interested me. I realized that the quantity of scenes that followed a pattern could function as a texture, and that the arrangement of these strips of negatives in between acrylic sheets would suggest the juxtaposition of planes, as in a landscape. The large format initially leads the spectator to see a mass of blacks, grays, and transparencies, made up of indistinct details. But upon closer examination, it is possible to see an infinity of “units” that repeat themselves. This uniformity was precisely what led me to think of a great landscape, in which the individual portrait is lost in the dark mass of the whole.
MMT: What do negatives, such as the ones shown in this work, reveal that developed photographs do not?
RR: In the beginning of analog photography, negatives and slides were records that seemed to most closely register the direct connection between the photographic image and the object or individual represented. This relationship is clearer and less equivocal than the many transformations digital images undergo today as they are converted into bytes and then pixels. My use of negatives represented a desire to maintain that connection with the wedding scenes reproduced on the film, and not to reproduce once more those documented moments. In deviating from the usual purpose of the negative, I could approach the idea of a frozen landscape, consisting of countless, quasi-indistinct units, confined between the acrylic sheets.
Beyond catharsis and collective memory, accounts, narratives, and archives must exist so that future generations do not make the same mistakes.
Rosângela Rennó. Untitled (America e Cristo). c. 1996–98