Mexican artist Iñaki Bonillas explores photography’s conceptual underpinnings. He speaks here about Words and Photos, a Web-based project commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation that digitizes the artist’s family photo archive. Bonillas’s latest exhibition, “La Idea Del Norte” (The Idea of North), is on view at ProjecteSD in Barcelona until November 19, 2014.
IN 2003, I inherited a photographic archive made up of 3,800 images that belonged to my maternal grandfather, J. R. Plaza. My grandfather was not a professional photographer, but he took photography quite seriously because he was fascinated by American cinema. When he married my grandmother, they both decided to share their respective family albums, at which point my grandfather started to paste the photographs onto black pages inside black leather notebooks, sometimes labeling the backs of them with his feelings about that photo. In the photos themselves, one sees my grandfather's family moving from Spain to Cuba and then Mexico and my grandmother’s family moving from Spain to France and then Mexico. There are family portraits and vacations, self-portraits, candid moments, weddings, honeymoons, newborns—the usual clichés. I also appear in a few. Until the day he died, my grandfather did not stop amassing these photos and arranging them into these notebooks. From printed images to slides, from black-and-white to color, one can basically track the entire evolution of photography in the archive, and this has been my main artistic concern for the last ten years.
This archive has become a sort of double of the world. When I was commissioned by Dia to create a Web project to digitize this archive, I found it enticing since the Internet is already a duplicate of the world. Because the frame was already a game of mirrors, I thought it could be profound to make another double by using words.
In a way, one cannot avoid creating some kind of narrative with this photographic material. Initially, I had invited poets, writers, and the Dia staff to collaborate on the indexing of the project—tagging words that came to mind when one of them saw an image. In one photograph, for example, a woman is crying; the impulse might have been to tag a word that describes her abandonment, but that’s maybe incorrect. That person may have been crying not out of sadness but out of joy. A plurality of meanings exist and could be derived from one’s own personal archive of words, memory, or unique family history that is different from mine.
In others, a word as obvious as narcissism for a self-portrait may not have been initially tagged. My grandfather appears as a vain man in many of these photos; he thought of himself as a Hollywood actor and took on the persona of John Wayne as a cowboy with a gun in many. But no one on the project indexed “narcissism” for these photos. That word does exist on the website, though, because at least one user searched for it. All absent but sought-for tags are automatically added to a list at the bottom of the screen. More and more, I see these words and wonder why the person chose them. What are they seeing that I’m not? Sometimes the thing that you have in front of your eyes is impossible for you to see. That’s the most extraordinary result of this project: our limitations. As Borges used to say, one can never finish describing an image for there is a whole ocean of words.
— As told to Frank Expósito