The animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves,
mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man.
Alessandra Sanguinetti has been unfolding a tale of animals and humans, of their interaction and dependence. On the Sixth Day is set in the countryside within the province of Buenos Aires. Since 1996, she has been photographing a fragile terrain where the lives of the animals and the subsistence farmers share a practical and ritual space. The scenes are by local roadsides, fields and nearby woods where the farmers live, often within the property of the larger landowner for whom they work.
Sanguinetti’s photographs make visible a dialectic of transcription and invention. While her photographs embrace the contemporary circumstances of documentary practice, her art is committed to, but not hindered by, an obligation to represent literal truths. She discloses situations that invite the viewer to confirm the simultaneous appearance of natural, social and symbolic phenomena. Sanguinetti infuses her parable with the direct power of simply being there. Her images offer an intimate vision we share as witnesses.
Chickens, ducks, horses, pigs, geese, dogs, cows, lambs, cats, and rabbits populate these images. We see them as subjects caught in a dance of life and death. They service those who raise and sacrifice them for food, or modest income. This is a countryside where past meets present, and where the relationship between the everyday and the mythical can be unveiled by careful, empathetic observation. Often the myth is in play with the real.
In describing her images Sanguinetti has said, “This project interprets the people and animals inhabiting the Pampas, their relationship with each other and the land. In the rural farmland of Argentina, this relationship is part of everyday life. Small and open land farming, unlike intensive and factory farming, has resulted in a language of traditions that persist over the years, where the cycle of life and death is present every day, from dawn to dusk.”
The tendency in fables is to endow animals with human qualities. Our memories include domestic pets that are “family,” and the acts of heroism, gentleness, fear or cunning that each animal story embodies. Our real and imaginary relations with animals disclose social conditions while offering messages or promises. While we live in parallel universes, in these images animals and humans double for each other. The animals stand (and fall) for us, increasing in
significance, from the fact that their tragic conditions are sensed and lived within different perceptions of time and history. The animals cannot foresee their future, they cannot amend the present by understanding their past. This awareness is a challenge for human subjects, the viewers for whom these images are intended.
Sanguinetti’s pictures of death and carcasses interrupt the sentimental imagination with a psychic violence, an unblinking acceptance that questions our position in the cycle. Many of the images are taken from the vantage point of the animals, placing the viewer in their midst and in close proximity. She is acutely aware of the gaze of the animals, and how their looking at us is at once plaintive and wary. This interplay between scene and gaze can be haunting and unsettling. We are brought closer to the transformation from living beings to material substance.
Sanguinetti states, “To portray an animal is to name it. Once named it acquires a new life, and then, is spared death. Each sacrifice gives us back a disturbing image of the border we cross when we end a life, and what it means to turn another living creature into a source of food. It is possible that by exploring the fine line that separates us from what we rule, we may reach a better understanding of our own nature.”
By returning over time to the surrounds of the farmhouse, the nearby lands and the sites of daily labor, the photographs indirectly chart a path to our notion of origin or home. Allegories of modern, post-industrial, urban society are silently thrown into relief. The images allow us to consider the implications of being seen by the animals as we look upon them. They provide the animals and the inhabitants with something their individual lives could not offer, that we remember them.
Chair, General Studies Program
International Center of Photography, New York.