Reflections in the Dark

About Alejandra Prieto’s Invisible Dust

César Barros Arteaga

Since her very first artistic interventions, Alejandra Prieto has been thinking through the position, the status, of the object in contemporary everyday life. One might say that her works with coal, copper, tar, and other materials, incarnate very well what Gérard Wajcman has said about the works of art in general: that they are objects whose specificity is to think what an object is. Indeed, Prieto’s images think the object, but with different strategies and materials; they think objects not in a metaphysical vacuum, but in their historical articulations. Prieto’s works with coal in particular resurface what we could describe as “hidden in the open”—hidden in the objects of glamour or in the signs and labels that confer status and symbolic efficacy in contemporary societies. In a way, coal is the incarnation of this hidden in the open—a material that everybody knows, but that not many have seen up close. Prieto produces close encounters of different kinds with this material, producing, among other things, a sort of anxiety rising from this gap between knowledge and experience.

In Invisible Dust Prieto presents a constellation of four objects/images which establish—once again through the signifying potentials of coal—a series of tensions, related this time to the gaze and the processes which enable its enjoyment and/or its obfuscation. Invisible Dust presents a convex coal mirror, two big coal dust prints over black silk, and (the simulacrum of) a dust cloud projected over a “rustic screen” constructed with the same material.

We could consider the mirror as the vertex of this constellation. A mirror is, more than any other object, a gaze-object (its position as an allegory of art confirms this status.) By repeating-reproducing ourselves, or, as psychoanalysis would have it, by putting ourselves in the field of the Other, the mirror constitutes us as subjects. Yet a mirror is not only a reflecting surface, something that even psychoanalysis sometimes forgets, but also, and primarily, an object—historically a luxurious, decorative, aesthetic object. And perhaps one of the things that gives the mirror its unique character is the dematerialization (or de-objectification) that its functioning supposes. In other words, paradoxically, whenever we use a mirror, we have to forget for a second its object character—either we look at the object and its composition, or we stare at the reflection that it grants us. And it is this paradoxical condition which Prieto’s mirror brings to the forefront. The materiality, the texture, the color of this coal mirror makes both gazes converge into one. In a way, Prieto’s mirror bypasses the either/or; our gaze becomes a gaze that at the same time stares, enjoys, or suffers both the reflection and the object that makes it possible. Thus, the blackness of the surface and the sculptural “imperfection” produce a short-circuit in the dematerializing narcissist temptation. Coal as reflecting element then—a function that Prieto has not invented, but rescues, since pre-Columbian indigenous populations actually used polished coal for mirrors—makes these two gazes appear in one singular moment.

If the mirror is the vertex of the constellation, dust, specifically coal dust, is its master signifier. A floating signifier, one can say. Dust circulates around all the objects of the exhibit along with the ideas of repetition and reproducibility. Dust and coal come to insist on this constellation. There is an insistence of the residual then, and indeed coal has a residual status in our culture. Residual not in a practical sense—the capitalist world keeps using coal as an energy resource—but residual as a sort of invisible reminder. Coal is that mess which we don’t see or don’t want to see, as we don’t see the hard labor that extracts it from the dark guts of our sophisticated, hyper-visible, world—a world full of objects that declare themselves clean, beautiful and shinny. Prieto’s constellation draws our attention to that invisible dust cloud hidden by the cleanliness of the commodity. This invisible dust is the residue of the residue, that dust cloud which accompanies every asepsis and every aesthetics. The dust is the trace of the hand that produces and which, as Marx repeated again and again, is obliterated in the finished product.

In Invisible Dust the obscene of the system enters the scene. Of course, Prieto’s work is not about re-functionalizing exploitation for enjoyment through aesthetics. Above all, it focuses on making visible, “capturing” that dust cloud, that floating signifier, incarnating it in visible supports. It is about sweeping the dust out from beneath the rug and making it circulate in order to apprehend it. Thus, in the whiteness of the gallery Prieto makes appear that imperceptible, or rather, repressed, obscurity within our objects of desire—obscurity that the mirror reflects, that constitutes the enigmatic figures printed over black silk, and that circulates in the ghost-like projection.