Archival Scars: Notes on Milagros de la Torre’s photography

María Gabriela Rangel | The Americas Society
Since the emergence of conceptualism in the 1960s, the archive, as a system of classification, data recollection, organization, and distribution comprising a corpus of knowledge, has been a source through which artists intervene or interpret the order of things. Milagros de la Torre has mined these different potentials of the archive in her artistic practice, concentrating on photography, its histories, and the pressing question of the construction of new forms of citizenship in situations of extreme violence. Her images explore a broad range of issues, from meditations on the blind spots of the nation-state and the barriers to inclusion therein, to critical ruminations on post-Fordist mechanisms of power. De la Torre’s work also mines the history of photography through an examination of its techniques and materiality, as well as more recently, the elements of design on which photography draws. Over the course of twenty years she has achieved a cohesive body of work, beginning with Bajo el sol negro (Under the Black Sun, 1991-1993), a series that critically appropriated the procedures of street photographers in Cuzco, Peru who were able to bring a form of racial compensation to their underprivileged clients by lightening their skins with Mercurochrome. If portraiture brings a face to a nation, De la Torre’s appropriated and re-worked portraits of the peoples of Cuzco examined its racial and class make-up. Her artistic research has shown the disturbing matter that tethers private fears to public transgressions.


Key to de la Torre’s investigations is the ambiguity of images pushed to the limit of their meaning. She added texts to some of her works to overcome the gap between an image and its fugitive sense of the world, as if an image could not reach its complete reality until described through “factual” information. In the series Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps, 1996), for instance, she made use of the feeble and unstable quality of images through her photographs of pieces of criminal evidence stored in the Palace of Justice in Lima. Her iconic recuperations of forensic materials, including a belt used for murdering an assassin during interrogation, a letter written to an evicted prostitute, and fabric torn from a victim’s attire, among many other pieces of evidence, were accompanied by their correspondent stories, summarized in deadpan captions written by the artist following the archivist’s testimony. De la Torre’s practice points here to the ontological incompleteness of images and their recurrence of discursive strategies to achieve some ethical ground.

De la Torre came to age as the daughter of a military expert of anti-terrorist techniques in Lima, Peru. Bringing this biographical background into a present characterized by military paranoia coupled with the social, political, and civil unrest of "Occupy Everything," her images do not claim a pretended autonomy: they are interdependent with other images. Jean Luc Godard had insisted that images are almost-images, and their existence is always ruled by a dialectical order: one image has its counter-image and so on. In addition, the nomadic circulation of images in the age of the Internet blurs the boundaries of their making and copyright, threatening border patrols as well as state security. Their anarchical seed is planted everywhere, as they do not have a determined path of flow and distribution. De la Torre uses images as liquid elements caught in their fast track of circulation as unpredictable objects avoiding stable positioning of the public and private spheres and collapsing the binary distinctions of fiction and documentary.

Archival order and provenance itself become focuses for de la Torre in the series Últimas cosas (Last Things, 1997), in which madness and institutionalization are the ghosts dwelling in the everyday objects that belonged to inmates at the Larco Herrera Psychiatric Hospital in Lima. Presented as enlarged black and white prints with a patina of wax applied to their surface, these images strip off the marginal condition of the patients who used or wore these objects and emphasize the abject as a deliberate condition. But these objects also claim their status as documents.

While some contemporary critics believe that images reproduce exponentially in a Malthusian logic, Ariella Azoulay insists that the proliferation and ubiquitous presence of them in the world also creates a civil encounter between the photographer, the person photographed, and the camera. Rather than producing anomie or fatigue in the spectator, the pervasive and continuous exposure to images can rebuild citizenship weakened by the repressive mechanisms of the nation-state or commodified by the persuasive forces of the market. It is not accidental that Azuolay’s defense of photography as a space for public debate and a mnemonic device with a social political agency begun after the second Intifada in Palestine. Azoulay's work calls for a political sphere that is reconstructed through the civil contract in which photographed persons are participant citizens. However, such an encounter is a theoretical fiction possible only under certain premises, which are linked to trauma and the creation of a new definition of citizenship and the peripheral role of the nation-state or the market within it. It is not accidental that de la Torre became a photographer during the years of terrorism in Peru.

Like many people living in the West Bank in Israel, de la Torre lives with the memories of turbulent and violent times—years shadowed by the activities of the Maoist guerillas group the Shining Path as well as its brutal aftermath in the form of Alberto Fujimori’s “fujimorismo.” Her work developed in tandem with the efforts undertaken by Allan Sekula, Miguel Rio Branco, and Alfredo Jaar, among others, to recover photography as a collective and individual device of memory with an emancipatory potential.

De la Torre relocated to Mexico City when it became an international center for production of contemporary art, following the NAFTA agreements of the early 1990s. The Mexican megalopolis offered a productive cultural lab, which allowed her to undertake a close inspection of violence as the anthropological foundation of contemporary art. Within that context, de la Torre’s approach to the archive shifted from a focus on its relation to the nation-state to post-Fordist structures of production such as outsourcing and immaterial labor. She turned her attention to the design of violence in Blindado (Armored, 2000), a series of photographs of locally improvised armored vehicles. Together with the Bulletproofs (2008) costumes, these images constitute a catalogue of private thoughts and fears. In this same period, de la Torre traveled in Spain, where she found ancient books at the University of Salamanca marked with the stains of censorship on their pages (Censored, 2000) as well as unseen views of the dictator Francisco Franco's private rooms and his personal belongings in Madrid, images that fold and unfold mechanisms of collective and individual memory and trauma, which also make visible a social spatiality articulated by the notion of citizenship. Throughout these works, de la Torre’s use of the archive shows the scars on the body of the nation.

Gabriela Rangel received an M.A. in Curatorial Studies from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, an M.A. in Media and Communications Studies from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, and a B.A. in Film Studies from the International Film School at San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba. She is currently the director of Visual Arts and curator at the Americas Society. Prior to this position she was assistant curator of Latin American art and program coordinator for the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She has curated exhibitions on the work of Marta Minujin, Gordon Matta Clark, Paula Trope, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Juan Downey, and Dias & Riedweg, among others. Rangel has also made catalogue contributions to Arturo Herrera (Transnocho Arte Contacto, 2009), Arte no es vida (El Museo del Barrio, 2008), Da Adversidade Vivemos: Artistes d'Amérique latine (Musee de Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2001) and Liliana Porter (Centro de Arte Recoleta, Buenos Aires) and co-edited A Principality on its Own (Americas Society-David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard, 2006).