Courting the Dead: the Work of Andrés Mario de Varona
When photographer Andrés Mario de Varona’s mother Mari died in 2016, he passed into a surreal existential phase that we all face once a parent or caregiver dies. With their death, an all-important referent to and in our lives — for better or worse — is gone, and we reshape our lives to accommodate that absence.
Not long after Mari’s death, de Varona, who is a BFA candidate at Indiana University, embarked on a photographic project that helped him make sense of his jarring transition to adulthood. Over time, he drew his family — two sisters, their grandparents, and his stepfather — into the project and in the process, forged stronger emotional bonds with all. Understanding the Familiar reports his family’s efforts to reconnect with her spirit through choreographed rituals and ceremonies. It is a rich visual exploration of grief and loss, of getting “close with death” against a cultural context that couches one of life’s few hard guarantees in imperfect language.
Understanding the Familiar is directly informed by 19th century Victorian Spiritualism. A product of the Second Great Awakening and a desire for passionate connection to the divine, Spiritualism is defined as “the science, philosophy and religion of continuous life, based on demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the spirit world.”¹ Though sensationalized on numerous cultural platforms — podcasts, movies, and television — Spiritualism and spirit communication offers comfort to practitioners, often tempering extreme religious and secular perspectives that frame death in the American mind. The project, however, is not spirit photography; a process purported to capture spirits on film that was popularized by William H. Mumler beginning in the 1860s. I make the distinction because, though novel and notable in photographic history, spirit photography was fraudulent, a profit venture that exploited those who sought release from grief’s grip.
de Varona does not traffic in trickery when staging or photographing these scenes. He makes no effort to obscure the mortal work required to realize each ritual, all of which makes the series profoundly relatable to those who ache for one more interaction after a parent or loved one has died. In The Night Before the Wedding (2018), a faceless family member clasps a garment hung from the ceiling, while another stands behind them providing support. Though well beyond childhood, the figure grasps the waistline of the garment as a child grasps a parent for comfort or attention. The vertical emphasis draws our eyes toward the ceiling, perhaps referencing monotheistic promises of heaven that, in this image, are tempered by inescapable gravity. Is the nightgown, innocent and relatable in its form, offered to the spirit for its familiarity, or an invitation to make contact far from that heavenly comfort?
The nightgown appears in The Last Article and Concentration (2018), and throughout Understanding the Familiar, as the series’ symbolic through-line that suggests the spirit’s presence could be courted in any environment. In Concentration, a man sits at a round table that is topped by well-worn toe shoes, VHS tapes, a ring box, and a small framed image. On the wall to his left hang a tennis racket and the nightgown. Sight lines establish a corporeal and psychological link between the sitter and the memory-heavy objects, all of which present an incomplete portrait of the missing matriarch. By drawing our attention to each tableau’s construction, de Varona reinforces the effort put into luring the spirit to this earthly plane. Though not physically demanding, the work is underscored by emotional turmoil that we are culturally programmed to play close to the chest, or share publicly only under scripted, performative, and socially acceptable circumstances such as a funeral.
The earliest 19th century photographic technology required sitters to remain still over the course of lengthy exposure times, or risk a blurry final image. “Ghostly” traces were the result of a sitter’s movement, or the presence of anyone who happened into the scene. That stillness is abundant in de Varona’s work. Sunflower Rite (2017), a dual portrait that comes closer to spirit photography in its content and composition than any other image in the series, highlights two sitters. These burgeoning women, one wearing the emblematic white nightgown, stifle smiles and inhabit stillness as the nature of the project requires. de Varona has captured not spirits, but earthly, human subjects poised on the verge of adulthood and all of its uncertainties.
Waiting (2018) features a male figure, stripped to the waist, who stands atop a low end table positioned in the corner of a room. To his left, a rough crucifix hangs on an otherwise unadorned wall. The scene is vignetted, emphasizing the figure — minus his head — in an upright pose that mimics the final repose found in a coffin. The weighty stillness of this piece reminds me of waking from terrifying childhood dreams, convinced that whatever tormented me had sprung from my dream and into the real world. If I didn’t move, maybe it would think I was dead. Is Mario’s figure courting the spirit, if not death, by this stillness? If he doesn’t move, will Mari’s presence manifest?
In a 2015 post to the British photography blog The Photographers Gallery, Australian artist Anthony Luvera explores, among other matters, the lengths we go to sanitize death and the psychological and somatic shock that death delivers to the living. No matter how prepared we are for it — chronic illness, for example, what de Varona and his family faced as his mother was slowly claimed by an autoimmune disease — we are never truly prepared for the chaos it stirs as we strive to order our lives. Photography intimates death. Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and Geoffrey Batchen — to name a few — have written eloquently on this matter. However, it is Barthes’ mournful, admittedly belabored examination of death and photography and materiality that lingers at the edges of Understanding the Familiar. “Death must be somewhere in society,”² Barthes observed, and for da Varona and his family, “somewhere” is in the home, at the dining room table over hushed invocations, and in a white nightgown that beckons the spirit come back.
¹ Defining Spiritualism (n.d.) Retrieved from http://nsac.org/what-we-believe/definining-spiritualism/
² Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Jonathan Cape, 92.
Roula Seikaly is a independent art writer and curator based in Berkeley, and is Senior Editor at Humble Arts Foundation.
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