Dust to Dust
Dust to Dust. Self published, Madrid 2014. 240 x 340mm, 40pp. Softback with dustjacket
Photography as “Vanitas”
Francisco Calvo Serraller
Barely two centuries old, photography has nonetheless found time enough to shake off the conceptual shackles that constrain any new media format, with the first of these being the need to earn the recognition of being artistic. In order to overcome this hurdle, a false dilemma was created, which still drags on to this day, between photography as art and photography as a document.
Yet behind this, lies another hidden one, of even greater historical import, which has weighed heavily upon art since the very beginning, namely, the fact that its nature as a craft, ranging from the traditional practice of depicting an object through to being a paid professional metier, hampers its conceptual dimension and, therefore, its creative freedom. In the specific case of photography – a relatively recent technical invention – such dilemmas have given rise to even greater perplexity as, considering its very nature, this quandary has proven to be of an infuriating nature. How, indeed, was one to ignore as appropriate the inevitable part played by a machine in the development of the image? Likewise, how was one to draw a line between its documentary and artistic nature? How, therefore, was one to detach the photographic image from its inevitable contamination by reality?
Adrian Tyler has so far seamlessly combined his professional duties as a photographer with the work he has pursued at his own behest and on his own account, and he has done so in such a way that we cannot affirm that the latter has in any way been more or less artistic than the former. Nonetheless, a personal and intimate vision is always revealing a particularly essential quality for a technique based until only recently, if I may be permitted the pun, on developing. In either case, technique or aesthetics, I like the term developing because of its ambiguity, as it can indistinctly refer to “reveal”, its more common use, and also the one that fuelled Heidegger’s development of his argument on art, but also, taken literally, the “unveiling” of a mystery with greater brilliance to accentuate in this manner its magnetic power, its fascinating potential.
The observation and depiction of transience has a romantic pedigree and, in the case of painting, it constituted a subgenre, as practised by the Neapolitan rovinisti. There has always been an elegiac poetics on ruins, but the Romantics made their depiction something that was indeed picturesque. Approaching this world from a photographic perspective complicates the matter, as it is a technique in which time is not captured in an allegorical way, but instead, as we might put it, realistically; in other words, time is captured by a timer, by means of a time machine; that is, as if illustrating the saying “only time will tell”, a temporal reduplication, or, why not, a mechanical development of the passage of time. Would it not be fair to say that “only time will tell” could be the equivalent of the work by Tyler called “Dust to Dust”
Tyler has produced a dichotomy between the artificial and the natural, although if we consider the matter from an architectural perspective, they both merge originally in the primitive model of Vitruvian abode, built with tree trunks. Timber, furthermore, as I have heard it said by the great Spanish engineer Javier Manterola, is better suited to building than stone, as it is a more pliable, lighter and more flexible material, without noting, I should add, that it is “alive”, since being organic it perishes only when it is burnt, and, above all, when it is reduced to dust. Dust brings us to the crux of the matter, for this is the effective manner in which wood dies, for it does not expire in any way when it is cut. So this is where Tyler finds the source of his elegiac inspiration.
Can it be said that organic, mineral or artificial matter dies or disappears? In truth, in any one of the cases, rather than die or disappear, it is transformed. Let us therefore not forget, for example, that wood is used to make paper, which has become the main medium for recording human memory in writing, involving not only inscribed or printed characters, more or less faded by the inevitable passage of time, but also other unpremeditated marks, which encode their eloquence even on a blank sheet of paper. With the series “Dust to Dust”, Tyler records the corrosive action of time on paper and, in particular, on books, where we can detect all kinds of physical mishaps, even those that evoke their condition as a three-dimensional object, whereby not only can we see the patina that darkens their texture, but also what remains of them as sculptures.
Tyler enjoys a considerable visual return from photographing the remains of this “book-wreck”, which exudes a melancholy beauty, although no less dazzling for it. Nonetheless, he gains an even greater symbolic return from this catastrophe, as from the wounded memorials that are these now almost illegible books, mere objects whose substance has withered, Tyler manages to express a moral lesson, which transforms his photographs into true Vanitas, one of the primary intentions of this artistic genre that would later be called the still life. In my opinion, precisely at this time of moral gravity, Tyler’s photography achieves its most profound beauty and above all, or if you wish, more so, his most complete understanding of what this art has become in our days, so defined by time; so, indeed, “dust to dust”, “only time will tell”. Is this not perhaps the finest testimony to our beauty?