Luis Molina-Pantin. The participant observer

Julieta González

To collect photographs is to collect the world… Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.
Susan Sontag, On Photography1

Inventories seem to have a significant place in the work of Luis Molina-Pantin, whose oeuvre is featured as a sort of atlas containing an array of elements that range from postcards and photographs of airplanes to soap opera sets, common objects, books, and bizarre and everyday architectures, among others. It denotes an interest in the “construction” of genres such as landscape and still life painting, but also in ideas linked to archaeology, archives, and collecting.

The work of Luis Molina-Pantin does not only involve photography, and through the different topics it examines, it points towards meanings that are not actually contained in the images represented, articulating on the basis of these images a reflection on subjects as diverse as photography and the tradition of modern art in Venezuela, among others. The presentation in series of his works lends strength to this type of “allegorical” operation, for it is in the group or the “collection” of these images that their ulterior meaning consolidates.

We may distinguish different perspectives in his work: one is intimately linked to certain aspects of Venezuela´s local reality, which we may appreciate in series such as Inmobilia (1997), Best- Sellers (2001-2004) or The apartment of Osmel Sousa, President of the Miss Venezuela Organization (2000); another relates, rather, to a questioning of representation, which despite its more universal nature, evidences the artist´s interest in an ethnographic gaze, implying at the same time an interpretation of the conflicting traditions of landscape and geometric abstraction in Venezuelan art, in series such as New Landscapes (1999-2000), Confort 1996-2000 (2000), Chelsea Galleries(2001-2006) and An informal study of the mestizo architecture Vol.1 , -The narcoarchitecture and its attributes to the community-, Cali- Bogotá, Colombia, (2004-2005).

In his Inmobilia series, Molina-Pantin features an inventory of soap opera sets, articulating a commentary on the symbolic constructions of media such as cinema and television, and in particular, the genre of soap opera, which has become the reflection and exportation mark of the country´s “culture”, together with the “misses”, the “Bolivarian Revolution”, violence and extreme poverty. Although it is clear that these “interiors” do not belong to actual constructions but are television sets, there is an allusion to the architectural stereotypes corresponding to the different social classes, which are in a high state of tension in present-day Venezuela. On the other hand, by making their status as TV sets evident, they allude to the ideological and media apparatus that produces these discourses. In an essay on the work of Molina-Pantin2, Coco Fusco compares this series with works such as Shapolsky et al, Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System as of May 1, 1971, by Hans Haacke, establishing a parallel between the institutional criticism carried out by Haacke and the criticism of “control over collective imagination by a corporate conglomerate (in this case, Venevisión, belonging to the Cisneros Group) through the metaphorical display of real estate”. In a similar tone, although the subject is no longer a television set but a real dwelling, the trio of photographs of Osmel Sousa´s house in Caracas confuses the viewer, reflecting once again certain intrinsic aspect in the “culture” of the Venezuelan national and his cult for ostentation, artifice, and superficiality, which far from disappearing in these “times of revolution”, takes on even more exaggerated and parodic dimensions.

The questioning of representation and the “Borgesian” game with the “different versions of reality”, are the most salient aspects of the New Landscapes series, which shows an inventory of everyday objects decorated with landscapes. It is important to highlight that the ideal conditions to view this series of photographs are those offered not by a publication format but by the space of a museum or gallery, for the exaggerated scale of the photographs, where the object acquires a monumental dimension that does not correspond to it, practically makes it disappear from the viewer´s perception, and what remains as the main image is the landscape contained within the object in the foreground.

Series like Confort 1996-2000 and Chelsea Galleries reflect the artist´s fascination with an austere, well-designed, effective and corporate modernity, very different from the tropical modernism of Latin America, the basis for fantasies of “order and progress” transformed, rather, into “disorder and regression”. There is no doubt as to the ethnographic character of the Confort 1996-2000 series –comprised of photographs associated to the German airline Lufthansa (for years, the artist, who is an avid collector, gathered together all sorts of paraphernalia belonging to this airline –brochures, blankets, bags, cases, advertisements, etc. – which he showed alongside the photographs, video and objects at the exhibition of the same name). It might be perceived as a sort of Humboldt´s journey, but in the opposite direction. Molina-Pantin, however, travels towards a cold and aseptic modernity; towards a world where “time is money” and comfort has a price. The world of the Chelsea Galleries is not too far from the world of Confort 1996-2000; the rigorous lines, the serialization and repetition of the shelves and archives of these galleries, many of them among the most influential in the world, seem to allude to the Puritan work ethic of the American people, which resulted in a modernity that is very different from ours. His most recent series, entitled An informal study of the mestizo architecture Vol.1 , -The narcoarchitecture and its attributes to the community-, Cali- Bogota, Colombia, also shares this ethnographic character, but this time the journey is not headed towards European or American modernity, but once again towards a reality more akin to ours. Some photos of this series have been shot in a bizarre funfair (Parque Jaime Duque, near Bogotá) that sets itself up as a reduced and somewhat schizophrenic version of the history of the “civilized world”, and hosts attractions ranging from a gigantic Brontosaurus, through a 1:1 scale replica of the Taj Mahal (1:1 only in scale, not in facture), to an aquatic diorama representing Dante´s Divine Comedy, and a museum of “dresses” that includes a collection of Barbie dolls wearing traditional Colombian costumes. It is perhaps in this series – in which the “monuments” in papier maché, dismal under the grey Bogotá sky, reveal to us the pathos of our current social, economic, political and historical reality –, that we may grasp the true nature of Molina-Pantin´s allegories.

1 Translated by the author.
2 Modernity Deferred: The work of Luis Molina-Pantin en catálogo Confort 1996-2000 Luis Molina-Pantin, Museo Alejandro Otero, Caracas, 2000.