Maria José Palla, Arquivo, at Appleton Square
I enter a large room, with high ceilings. On the walls I find Maria José Palla’s self-portraits brimming with expressions. We can see in them the artist’s squints, reflecting tiredness or lightness, depending on the situation. Inward-looking thoughts, frowns, attempts to groom herself, and also moments or interludes, between hurries, between bustles. We sense the familiarity of the everyday and mundane in the artist’s life.
The photographs were taken with a Photovision camera, at Porte d’Orléans station. The artist methodically photographed her face while she was in Paris for eight years. She shows us her authentic ageing, without manipulations. We can easily imagine what happened in between each photo. The city’s hustle and bustle, the station’s typical sounds, the travellers’ footsteps, the artist’s thoughts at every moment when she was portraying herself in the small, claustrophobic cubicle. What could she be thinking?
In some portraits, Palla is wearing a scarf around her neck, others she wears brightly coloured lipstick, or even fleetingly painted eyes. There are endless difficulties in dealing with the inevitable. Perhaps at that moment she was thinking about ageing? The artist, in the exhibition text, deals head-on with the voracity of time, and how it blinds and transforms bodies. Moreover, when she photographs, she seems to confirm Sontag’s idea, that is, “photography is the supreme opportunity for self-expression”. Or then an over-thought-out photograph stunts spontaneity. Or “the autonomy of what is photographed” or even “the authenticity of what each one feels in relation to life as a whole”. What other approach would allow to represent so accurately the transformation of the body, its truth, if not through chance? The artist has photographed as faithfully as possible her state at each moment. She seems to have used the same law as photographers of old, when, roaming the cities, they would record the shadows of dirty streets, and without warning, the camera would stumble upon an elusive cat. Bresson, quoted by Sontag, used to say that photography should be “thought about before and after, never while photographing”.
Palla’s photographs invite us into the artist’s intimacy. In her tired, sometimes narcissistic face, we can find in her gaze the places she travels, the daily tasks. That side beyond the image’s register is what may be more interesting.
The story is beyond the image or invoked by the image. Today, more than ever, the representation of the female body is worked on and transformed. Through social media, filters, aesthetic manipulations, the aim is to postpone the body’s inevitable, its ageing.
The notion that a woman only has a place in society when she is young, beautiful and docile (according to Foucault’s term) still exists. And now she should also be a skilled professional and carry out domestic responsibilities. The solution to solving the rejection of the natural aging of women may lie in the re-education of people in society. Educate to change the idea of beauty, redefine its standards. To change the way we think about beauty, to deny the belief that a woman’s mission objective is to be beautiful. According to current beauty standards, this means youth, something impossible to sustain throughout one’s life. We need to change feminine references for older women. Where wrinkles or greying hair are not taboo. The masculine can show his ageing to the world. The female hides her maturing at all costs.
In Palla’s images, we see our own ageing. We look at her portraits, reproduced in the gallery in small subtleties. However, it is our mirror that we see, our time, the time of loss, melancholy, which appears and disappears in successive frames.
We recognise our body and its changes through someone else’s body. We grasp the notion of the self through the relationships we establish and the confrontation with others.
In searching for the truth about femininity, we find the “body as object”, its exteriority, and the way society recognises it, enforcing its codes and rules as matter. But, recalling Merleau-Ponty, we have forgotten that we only have the option to live the body, because it is the body that defines us. As spiritual beings, we are also bodies. Therefore, and behind the filters used by Palla, perhaps we recognise what we unveil about our body. And, about intimacy, we can say that we are what we reveal or what we hide.
Arquivo by Maria José Palla, until May 12, at Appleton Square, curated by Manuel Costa Cabral and Pedro Tropa.