Por Miguel Chaia (2005)

Cris Bierrenbach’s photographs are visual punches in which the body surprises us and leaves us in doubt as to the meaning of the word “human”. Each image is an enigma to be deciphered, stamping a new direction upon the aesthetic pleasure historically afforded by photography. The artist’s work registers the human body’s conditions of survival and bears a personal proposition that could be expressed in the sentence “I put myself in the world”, perceptible in the provocative tone of her pictures, particularly the self-portraits. This critical view of the world unveils the artist’s courage to expose herself and generates a visual poetic centred in the belonging-together of luminosity and darkness, itself equivalent to the paradox of the co-existence of positive and negative.

These essential characteristics make it immediately clear that her photos express the effort to shift the human body away from the control society exercises upon it and into the artist’s own sensitive domain. This issue is elucidated in the work Exibição-50940568 (Exhibition-50940568), produced in the dimensions and form of a billboard advertisement, in which she photographed her own body as boxed-in by the contingencies of social oppression. The title contains a reference to the telephone number for commercial contacts that usually appears on such ads.

The Retrato íntimo (Intimate portrait) series moves in a similar direction, with its images of surgical objects and household utensils inserted into the artist’s genitals in a visual play between biological forms and invading artefacts. Cris’ interest turns towards an intense viscerality with the series Crisbibank – preservando futuras gerações (Crisbibank – preserving future generations), with its photos of condoms containing the sperm of the artist’s partners enclosed in small cubes of ice.  This series offers a glimpse of feminine affection in the gesture of collecting, keeping and conserving the seminal liquid, thus also safeguarding the memory of the primordial act of human reproduction. However, ambiguity pervades Cris’ work and this series also harbours a fine critical irony regarding the genetic control that is placing our future generations at risk.

Looking through her work as a whole we can conclude that her concern does not come down to matters of genre, much less edit punctual realities, but is a portrait of the human being understood as a creature who must survive in the face of the obstacles the world presents. In so doing,Cris makes an offering of herself, exposing herself fully through an aesthetic ritual, one centred on the physicality of the body, in a return to one of photography’s original themes – the portrait. She opens herself up to confrontation with the gaze, concerned as she is with the reproduction of life, as becomes clear when we consider the photographic treatment given to the female genital organ invisible in, but fundamental to, the series Retrato íntimo, or the focus she places on the semen hidden in the transparencies of plastic and ice or on the brides in state of suspension, as they wait for a future event.

One could say that estrangement is the immediate sensation that emerges from contact with the artist’s work, partly because her photographs are not erotic, but nevertheless transpire a delicate sensuality, and partly because they are not realist, but are nonetheless scenes intended to critique and recreate the real. This is what gives them their surreal tone and allows them to transmit the sensations of a dreamlike and mysterious world. All of the visual quality obtained does not stem exclusively from the thematic and philosophical issues raised, but also from her systematic research into photographic techniques, which reinforces the expressiveness of her work. The work constitutes itself as commentary on the possibilities of photography and results from her learning and control over the technique and artistry of the nineteenth century, the analogical resources of the last century and the digital technology of present times.

In this manner, the theme of origins is not restricted to the Crisbibank series, but is bolstered by the artist’s frequent use of the daguerreotype technique, the very genesis of photography, to which she returns in the series Auto-retrato (bonecas) (Self-portrait (dolls)) and in the triptych Sem  nome (cabeças) (Nameless (heads)). Paradoxically, everything in Cris is photography, but more than just photography; she deals with the body, but goes beyond human individuality; she holds a mirror up to the viewer, but makes it opaque; the negative becomes positive – and vice versa.

By disturbing the gaze and subverting photographic technique, Cris has been formatting an aesthetic of estrangement, one capable of raising doubts about the all-too-human. Her photographs therefore enable us to question whether what we find before us are images of the pre-human or the post-human. These works engender a perceptual hiatus in the viewer, who, embrittled by the impact of the images, tries to understand and synthesize the world into a strand of hair, the lifelines etched across the palms of hands, the red faces that appear to scream, in the portraits of arms and heads. This aesthetic of estrangement is born of a drive to position herself critically before the world in order to obtain a visuality capable of poetically expressing the complexity of life and art.

The disturbing images Cris Bierrenbach creates move in a world of their own, shrouded in a devastating silence and suspended in an atmosphere of thin air, where they provide only hints of a dense and unattainable real.

[miguel chaia is a lecturer and researcher on the Art, Media and Politics Module of the Post-graduate Studies Program in Social Sciences at puc-sp]

cris bierrenbach was born in São Paulo in 1964. Before studying the Plastic Arts at Faculdade Armando Álvares Penteado, she flirted with geology and cinema, both at the University of São Paulo. She worked as a photojournalist for Folha de São Paulo from 1989 to 1992 and for Folha magazine from 1992 to 1996. She has since collaborated with such publications as Marie Claire, Elle, Vogue, Claudia and República, among others. She currently works for Globo publishing.

An obsessive researcher into printing techniques, Bierrenbach is one of the few artists in Brazil who has managed to produce daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography, created by Jacques Mande Daguerre (1787-1851) in 1839, when the invention of photography was officially documented in Paris. Her work, largely made up of self-portraits, rummages amongst the limits of expression in a constant intermediation with contemporary issues.

Represented by Galeria Vermelho (sp), she has held nine individual exhibitions and has been a constant presence at the most representative collective exhibitions of Brazilian artists since 1993. Her photos have been shown in Holland, Germany and France. This is her first book.


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