Interview – Ilana Lichtenstein

This week we interviewed Ilana Lichtenstein who has just recently released her first photo-book “Ponte dourada sobre rio noturno” (Golden Bridge over Night River) in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Ilana recently lost her mother. Prior to that, she had an experience in Japan. In the book, images of her mother are placed side by side with these memories from a distant land. Even if one does not know any of the family connections present in the book (which you will read about here) the work is  powerful on its own – in a very subtle way.

The interview is also an ode to all of those who love art – with or without “traditional” artistic aptitudes.

This interview was translated from the original conversation in Portuguese.

I2: How did your artistic trajectory start? Because you started as a journalist, if I am not mistaken.

IL: I started with Law actually! You know, on that limited and limiting concept that people who like to write should study Law. When I got there I realised that the content was really specific. It related to a mode of being which wasn’t mine. Or didn’t’ become mine, the more I read, saw movies and looked, really, at the world.

And this is natural. I still studied political sciences, philosophy, journalism…. I didn’t know what being an artist meant, I didn’t have this reference from home. To me, the way I was educated, maybe like most of us, was that an artist was one who created masterpieces.

When I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam I was taken aback by the journey, the fact that he started reproducing, in his own way, what existed around him at that time, then the Japanese engravings…. And then, just in the last room at the museum – which is organized chronologically – you get to the Sunflowers and Starry Night. It’s an explosion, but it’s also the result of a journey.

During this whole time when I was studying, photography was weaving itself as a “reserve”. A space for silence, in contrast to all the words that I liked to write and read. Something both light and deep, intimate, linked to the sharing of some pictures, very carefully chosen, on Flickr and so on. It didn’t have this character of a museum/gallery curator. It was a process in art, exchanged between people, and I am very grateful to the internet for it. For being able to connect with these people and the embryo of their work.

Then came a time when I was working in Estadão (e.n: one of Sao Paulo’s main newspapers) as a journalist, writing, and I looked inside and saw that the picture was indeed this reserve. It came to me the image of a forest reserve even; you know? An unspoiled, idyllic place, that while it was so I could not live there. So I had to resign. This was back in 2011, and there I decided to build a house – in photography. A small house, which inevitably undermines some of the pristine beauty of the place, but allows me to live in it every day. Since then, photography is my job.

I2: Tells us about your experience in Japan

IL: The first time, in 2010, I went only for 12 days and even as a vacation from the newspaper, I was looking to meet somewhere in the world to “not understand”. Where references were different. My search has a lot to do with it, to keep – in the form of photography, or sometimes phrases, described images – small memories of things that have surfaced, called attention to my eyes, but I did not necessarily understand it. In general, not really. As I did not understand the language or the signs, nor the codes, it was a great silence. A blessing for the gaze.

Then in 2013, I decided to go live in Kyoto. I have a certain passion for distance – “passion at a distance” as my mother wrote to me on a letter, and I was thinking about the ambiguous sense of it. And, at first, that was it, the other side of the world, the non-understanding as a propellant, full of meaning. The teacher on the first day of school asked what was the “hobby” of each one of us there, and I said mine was to look at the plants. She thought I meant gardening, and I did not know how to correct it, but above all it was just to look. Over time I also saw that it was the existence of a deep beauty that I think the Japanese generate endlessly, that I went out to find there.

In 2015 I went to Japan again, already amidst the book making process, seeking images of Japan that could accompany the images of my mother, since I wished that she could get to know Japan and it never happened. Anyway, I only took a film camera and followed this trance, trying to find somehow the impalpable sense of everything that one cannot capture, and from which photography is only an indication, an index.



I2: Why photography as a medium?

IL: I never knew how to draw, and I say that with some sadness for our most common education is that drawing is only for those who have “talent” in art class, and it is not taught to us all, as a tool. No one is allowed to stop writing, but almost everyone along the way, stops expressing themselves visually.

Photography then came out of luck, as a way to store, from a machine, sparkles, incomprehension, textures. To create this collection and transmit sensory experiences without a manual skill for it. That goes for everyone, even for photography with mobile phones, I find it beautiful. It is really a visual “literacy”.

This is no disparagement to photography! Various artists deal with it through impressive technical skill. But for me, it is very generous in order to also allow a record that is not too lucid.

In this trip I took to Japan for the book, I decided to take only the film camera, so that I wouldn’t immediately know the content of what I was doing. The blurs, colours given by the film, the mistakes: all match a sensitivity state in which I found myself which I would not be able to express without counting on photography’s unpredictability.

I lost several rolls of film in this process because, mystically, the machines would break, rolls and rolls of film turned into the darkroom, and I once again had confirmation – of something I believe in – that there are things that cannot be photographed.

My work is just a hint of those that could be (photographed), of all that is between heaven and earth.

I2: Looking at your book it reminded me of a Panofsky concept which says that we invent the future out of fragments of the past. How was the process of choosing then to place side by side picture of a past you didn’t “live”?

IL: That’s beautiful. I did not know that thought. Funny because, when reading this question your I thought, “Wait, I don’t think I made myself clear, I lived this past. Or almost: ‘I am’. Maybe because when my mother died I started to feel her getting stronger, physically even within me.

Or because, fidgeting in this box of photographs from the past I began to live with these photos, live them. I’m actually in their presence for an extended time.

My maternal grandfather, who made her pictures, has already died – and he was an amateur photographer in the most beautiful sense of the word. From love itself, passion for images. And there is a connection between them, in the gaze between father and daughter, which goes through me when handling these objects.

In this sense time moves to all sides, there is no order. I thought about Bergson’s Matter and Memory and remembered that since my grandfather was alive, which is already eight years ago, I wanted to create something involving him and relating to time.

I remembered this now, because of your question. He had Alzheimer’s, and in fact at that time the simplest explanation we had from a neurologist was that, in my grandfather’s memory, the cards were all there, but out of order. Rough and tumble time. Pieces of time that came up whenever they wanted.

I2:To create a book is a completely different experience from creating an exhibition. What was the motivation then to place this work in this particular format?

IL: I wanted, in fact, that my mother and Japan coexisted, even existed, in one place, since they didn’t. Now, with the finished book, 300 copies printed, I have a feeling that in those 60 pages they are together, close.  The search was for creating this space-time, slightly fictitious, but very important to me, this union, this seam, this link. The space then takes place in the presence of the book and the time, pace, it occurs in the rhythm of each reading, when the book is opened individually – and probably in an unrepeatable way every time.

I2: Who inspires you right now?

il: My sister! She is 22 years old and was the one who made the book’s graphic design, and is very clear to me that it could not have been different. When I was working with about 70 images, going around in circles, she arrived with the news that she would take an elective on  book design in the college where she was studying in the United States. It was so perfect, because everything flowed in the right time, the way it needed to be. I think my mother would have been happy to see how the book came about. It is an intimate book, and she lived through all of this with me. She was the only one that immediately felt like she was an intrinsic part of it, and it was not an ‘outsider’, to exchange ideas on project roads.

But above all she inspires me, being seven years – a cycle – younger than I, because she has a freshness of the youth, a smart head that expands the possibilities, the paths for all livelier sides. It is very beautiful to accompany. Her name is Tamara Lichtenstein.

I2: Can an image change the world?

Um, I think not. I think in a way images do not exist. They are cuts, settings, visual organizations, our inner worlds. Could be sounds or undefined sensations. What I think can change it is only this inner world, always, and never definitively.