[See the photographs]

Contemporary vanitas:
provocations of a series by André França

Alejandra Muñoz*

A series of nineteen color photographs composes this work by André França. Could there be anything cabalistic about this number? I couldn’t say. Considering this theme, it would be pleonastic or redundant to talk about a dive or an immersion into the image, but these are photographs that demand a perceptive exercise to transpose the superficial appearances. Firstly hair… then bodies reveal themselves… it is difficult to establish a scale… colors and patterns under a diaphanous light… brief shadows... subtle textures… but what do they mean?

To vanish means to disappear, to undergo a process of decaying or finishing. At first, I thought about what could promote or accelerate the corrosion or disintegration of a body: incineration, caustic lime, acid, bacteria, worms. But the bodies, immersed in a liquid texture, do not display any traces of chemical action or deterioration of matter. Therefore, the title of the work made me think of a brand of soap powder well known in Brazil. In this sense, the series may be regarded as another artistic contribution to what I call “pop lineage of domestic hygiene”, founded in 1924 by Davis with Odol, made big in 1964 with Warhol’s boxes of Brilho, and currently trivialized with the giveaway cans of Omo designed by Romero Britto. Nonetheless, differently from Odol or Brilho, here we don't have only the image of the product Vanish, which could have produced the foam we see in the pictures, but the action is in present continuous tense, vanishing, a progressive, still uncompleted action supported by a narrative sequence of images of objects in a foamy medium.

In an attempt to move away from a prosaic consumerist reference and, even worse, from an image of the female gender associated to household chores, the dominant color of the Vanish soap package comes to my mind: deep pink. And, paradoxically, the submersed objects now emerge in recognizable forms: Barbies… Could it be another pop allusion? Certainly… However, the perfect, rose and impersonal universe of these icons of plasticized beauty is subverted here. A macabre omen of the contemporary neurosis surrounding beauty standards? It is hard not to think about liposuction, silicone implants, steroids, botox, lifting, bulimia, anorexia… the typical catalogue of contemporary artificial alterations of a dishonest body, legitimated not by its contents but by an image that contradicts its own nature.

Generally, water is a traditional element in allusions to eroticism, particularly female. But here the water/female figure binomial has an ambiguous character, both affirming the image of the Afro-Brazilian Yemanja and physically and symbolically inverting Millais’ mythical Ophelia. The foam reminds me the iconography of the birth of Venus (or Aphrodite) from Uranus’ semen in the sea foam, as it hides, covers or reveals the Barbies, in a possible metaphor of the inception of children’s erotization through the playful universe of dolls.

Regarding what Rubens Fernandes calls “expanded photography”, the relationships between the intelligible and the sensible in photographic images, Vanishing presents a strategy of interference in the “visible world” which updates and claims the idea of still life in the present – perhaps the idea of murdered life, in view of the bodies floating face down.

The series by André França revisits a specific type of still life: vanitas, an allegoric variety of still life in which the objects represented evoke the transitory aspect of human life and material things. This denomination refers to the famous Latin verse of the Ecclesiastes, “vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas”, translated as “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. Usually, vanitas presents watches, books, jewelry, coins and other objects that refer to the transitory values of mankind. Traditionally, the presence of a skull explicitly alludes to the idea of death or memento mori (“remember you shall die”), reinforcing the finitude of our existence before any worldly concerns.

In Vanishing there is no skull: the memento mori is constructed by the repetition of inanimate Barbies and emphasized in the final image without any objects, but simply with the dubious immateriality of an aqueous medium… soap powder foam?

P.S. – The artist invited me to write about Vanishing only showing me the photographs, without commenting on his work process. I accepted the invitation and wrote the text upon seeing the series for the first time. After finishing this reflection, I met André França: the aqueous medium in which the dolls are immersed is actually ice. I have to say I was speechless: frozen Barbies! But one side effect of art criticism is surprise… at least to the author. The poetics of freezing reinforces the idea of memento mori, especially because of the connection between the essential purpose of photography – to retain a moment – and the search for eternal youth in an effort to stop or freeze time. In other words, a vanitas crystallized in the fugacity of an instant.

* Alejandra Muñoz (ahm1@uol.com.br), critic, curator and professor of History of Art at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil. Born in Uruguay and living in Salvador, Brazil, since 1992, is an architect, master in Urban Design, and doctorate student of Urbanism at PPGAU/UFBA. Since 2002 she teaches History of Art at EBA/UFBA; she published several articles on Art History and Criticism as well as Architecture; she was the curator of the exhibitions Pasqualino Romano Magnavita - 1946-2006: 60 anos de desenho de cidades (Cañizares gallery, EBA/UFBA, Apr. 2006), Visões do Labirinto (Casarão, EBA/UFBA, Nov. 2007), EBA 130 anos – EBA Em Processos (ICBA gallery, Mar. 2008), and Saccharum BA (MAM-BA, Jun. 2009), all held in Salvador.

[Translation to English: Carolina Alfaro de Carvalho]