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Concrete Allegories. On Yto Barrada’s work

In the work Yto Barrada has made in the last decade in Tangier—the city that, along with Paris, witnessed her growth and training as an artist—photography is used as an instrument of experience and exploration. Meaning emerges from the confrontation between form and concept, contact and distance, imagination and reason in this precise space and historical moment. For Barrada, Tangier is not a storied site within the modernist imaginary but the place of a complex experience that vacillates between two irreconcilable situations: emigration and mass tourism. The city is at once a waiting room for the endlessly longed-for departure to the European paradise and a coveted location for real-estate investors who seek to turn it into a tourist resort (at least until the current economic crisis). These are the extremes between which a relentless transformation of the city takes place, a compulsive movement that the artist attempts to represent in dense and meaningful—but not decisive—moments. These instants propose some sort of truce, a calm in the fall, and a possibility to understand the historical, social, and cultural density of an over-mythologized city.

In an age when millions of images circulate—and are ceaselessly reappropriated and resignified—on the Internet, Barrada undertakes a mode of operation that restores the photographic image as an enduring composition, an instrument of reflection and a way of reading the configuration of the world. “To make the order of the reality external to the image visible through the order of the image” was one of the aims put forth in the 1930s by photographers such as August Sander, Walker Evans, and Albert Renger-Patzsch, who wanted to go beyond “objectivity” to find a more active form of legibility in the presentation of the world. [1] Barrada indisputably partakes of that tradition although she tends to show us the disorder of life in images that confront us with a less exoticized vision of reality than that provided by television or advertising. COLLINE DU CHARF (2000), ROUTE DE LA UNITÉ (2001/2011), and BRIQUES (2003/2011) bring to mind images by Renger-Patzsch or Evans, although in Barrada’s work the motley and industrial landscape of the 1930s Ruhr valley or the American South has become the ravished landscape of late capitalism. As the photograph BUILDING SITE WALL (2009/2010) seems to suggest, the recent economic debacle has turned many former tourist sites, and even the advertisements for them, into premature ruins.

In these photographs with barely a human trace or civic interaction, the city comes apart; it ceases to be a place of confrontation and exchange and begins to look more and more like a model—one not very different, for that matter, from Barrada’s motorized sculpture GRAN ROYAL TURISMO (2003), in which a procession of official vehicles crosses a city that is transformed in their wake: Enormous colorfully painted walls and palm trees emerge as if by magic, blocking sight of the fragile lives that take place behind them and creating a hygienized landscape. The work’s elevated point of view, medium distance, and close horizon flatten the image and heighten the claustrophobic effect despite the landscape’s open forms.

Barrada’s images reflect an understanding that landscape is, as a German geographer wrote in 1930, “the most responsive and objective expression of a society, one that reacts like an instrument sensitive to each transformation in the state of culture.” [2] Because landscape takes shape in almost “unconscious” fashion, its effect is all the more deep and enduring. The palm tree, a veritable leitmotif in the artist’s work, is a symbol of Tangier’s self-exoticism and folklorization: Actually a foreign import, the tree has been planted throughout the city, homogenizing the urban space. In numerous photographs, such as OFFICIAL VISIT PINK GERANIUMS (2007), Barrada deals with how native plants such as the iris are replaced by others that serve a more postcard-like vision of the folkloric.

The palm tree also ensures the survival of certain unconstructed sites in the city, because a municipal ordinance in Tangier prohibits building on any lot of land with a tree. In recent years, Barrada has photographed a great many empty lots. While the unbridled urbanization of the past decade in southern Europe and northern Africa has meant the disappearance of the nonurban outskirts of cities, once the home of vagrancy and the forbidden— the kind of place where young couples go to kiss each other as in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini—the downtown areas of these cities have grown increasingly deserted. Buildings are torn down, people are displaced, and another empty lot lies like an open wound, awaiting another speculator.In these empty spaces, in the luxury buildings and hotels for tourists, in the Rif mountain landscapes, the views of the Strait, and the abandoned fields of Calamocarro, Barrada formulates an inventory of the places that delimit the space where life ensues. When people do appear in her photographs, they are kept at a close but firm distance; but while their backs may be turned to us, they seem to know they are being photographed. HOLE IN THE FENCE (2003) is complex in terms of composition and layers of meaning. The photograph shows an urban soccer game, in a field in front of a group of buildings. In the upper left corner is a small stretch of sky, the image’s only vanishing point. In the foreground, a teenager wearing a blue, red, and white tracksuit jacket stands with his head turned toward the interior of the photograph; he marks the vertex of a triangle defined by the players in the field and a linesman at the far end. Out of this classic composition, two other figures emerge: a boy who is crawling through a hole in a fence and the threatening shadow of the tree on the right, which is cast on the empty space. Everyone in the image looks to the left, but the action, the play, takes place off-camera. In photographs such as this, Barrada forges a synthesis between a conscious documentary vision and a meaningful fiction that underscores the presence of her characters. These moments rendered on the flat surface of the image “seem to ensue in the present time of the frame,” as art historian Jean-François Chevrier has said of Jeff Wall’s work. [3]

Time is a complex aspect of Barrada’s images. While her views of the city often seem to show a future past—that is, a vision of what will very likely disappear—they also capture a sense of anticipation, of a time to come. The city of Tangier, so often characterized by a feeling of stasis and waiting, is here the site of a clash between a past that never fully disappears and a future that does not belong to it, between a desire held back and a premature ruin. This is evident in the photographs of VILLA HARRIS (2010), a Club Med in a state of decay that still maintains vestiges of its past splendor. EMBALLAGES À LA FRONTIÈRE (1999/2001) is another example of this collision of times, spaces, and even cross-border economies: It shows the “staging” of a heap of empty boxes next to a dilapidated stairway. Although we don’t know where they lead, we imagine that the stairs provide access to a progress that awaits above while leaving a heap of detritus in its wake.

Barrada has long photographed such unconscious distributions, residues, and tracks. She often trains her lens on posters and painted pieces of paper, still lifes, facades, blackboards, and walls. These frontal and flat compositions seem to show crude facts, slices of the real without explanation or predetermined meaning. [4] But rather they are meaningful moments salvaged by an eye used to seeing tears in the quotidian. A crease in a paper tableau depicting an idyllic mountain landscape (WALLPAPER [2001]) is a gesture of insubordination, an acknowledgment that paradise is only a mirage. These symbols of rupture are everywhere in Barrada’s work: hollows in the landscape, pavements in ruin, stairs that lead nowhere, fences torn open. When life is lived restlessly at the border, the only thing left is action, rupture with accepted behavior, the possibility to survive differently. The title character in Barrada’s video THE SMUGGLER (2006) is a metaphor for a world that deploys strategies of resistance, subversive tactics, or forms of sabotage that, although precarious, suggest other ways of inhabiting the scenes of life.

[1Franz Seiwert, founder of the “Cologne Progressives,” in a letter to Pol Michels. Quoted in Olivier Lugon, El Estilo Documental. De August Sander a Walker Evans 1920–1945 (Salamanca, Spain: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca/Focus 11, 2010), p. 197.

[2Nikolaus Creutzburg, quoted in Olivier Lugon, El Estilo Documental. De August Sander a Walker Evans 1920–1945, p. 234.

[3Jean-François Chèvrier, “Jeff Wall: Los espectros de lo cotidiano,” in La fotografía entre las bellas artes y los medios de comunicación (Barcelona: Serie FotoGGrafía, Editorial Gustavo Gili, 2006), p. 337.

[4Éric De Chassey, Planitudes. Historia de la fotografía plana (Salamanca, Spain: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca/Focus 10, 2009), p. 211.


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