by Manu SharmaSep 23, 2020
This is not a book; this is a pocket-size museum. This is not a book; this is a trove of memories. This is not a book; it is a film in static images. This is not a book; it is a time machine. To evoke René Magritte when describing Still Life - Mirrors And Windows - by Mario Santanilla is an attempt to put into words the multivariate nature of this artwork which only happens to imitate the physical aspects of a book. You can hold it in the palm of your hand and explore its depths by turning its pages, but the journey you are invited to embark upon spans geographical borders, places in time and ways of seeing.
Still Life is, if you want to strip it down to essentials, a mixed bag of images and thought trains directly extracted from Santanilla’s experiences and interactions with existence. The Colombian artist’s practice plays with a range of media from video and photography to installation and sound. These influences are vividly translated into the more traditional form of a book as the artist explains, “My practice develops from research to form; each project’s research reveals certain technologies and mediums in which to formally explore those topics. Over time, I have had an inclination towards photography and video, since I use photography to question representations of space, video to expand the experience of space, and sound to dislocate time in space. In terms of the book, it was very connected to the previous mediums in the sense that I use writing, editing, and montage to interweave different perspectives on reality. These allowed us to see Still Life - Mirrors and Windows - as an extension of the process in which we could keep playing with time and reality by interweaving the formal and conceptual elements of the book."
A single copy of Still Life is less than 200 pages but can be experienced in about 500 ways. Conceptualised to allow multiple entry points, every time I opened it, I took away something different from it. The form of the work itself also allows for every viewer to have a different perspective of it. Unlike a site-specific installation or a large format painting which are usually confined to the four walls of a white cube gallery, Still Life allows for a multitude of meanings and narratives to be derived from it based on the viewer’s environment at the time. For some artists this might feel terrifying, as it takes away a significant amount of control of the variables at play. In Still Life, this intent plays out in alignment with the values of the work itself as it examines the role of context and boundaries. Sarasija Subramanian and Nihaal Faizal are the founders of Reliable Copy, an Indian publishing house which supported the inception of Still Life, and worked closely with Santanilla to bring it into being. The artist says, “Ever since I met Nihaal in 2017 when the publishing house was just an idea he had and he was working towards figuring out all the logistics of it, we kept talking about books, publishing, the medium, the market, our projects, and we organically started thinking of working on a project together. Later on, we set aside the time and space to work towards it. Right before leaving to India to work on this project, I was in Beirut, where I had been invited to present a performance that was unexpectedly cancelled due to the social uprising that had begun there. So, it was really the perfect moment for Still Life as a publication to develop - something really timely - where ‘if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain’. Unlike a performance that one had to go to, the book comes to the reader and can be viewed, opened, read, whenever the setting is suitable for it. It has a different temporal function than an installation or a video that needs space or equipment to function, while this remains ready - having achieved complete form - to be engaged with”.
The artist explains the process as one which placed emphasis on sharing the grounding feelings of creation itself, “One of the key elements that the book’s editors and I wanted to foreground was the idea of sharing the process behind my practice. I usually undertake very lengthy research and develop complex systems of approach for each project. These usually never become visible to the viewers of the final outcome, and that was one of our intentions in producing this book - to be able to share and extend that part of one’s artistic process. The making of the book itself became a very enriching process - it was a leap of faith on all our parts, that brought about a lot of emotions and also a constant feeling of having to trust each other to bring to life something whose outcome we couldn’t exactly predict." While the work is remarkable in the way it pushes the normative notion of books itself, it would have been fascinating to see it explore and experiment with form and texture. This may have served to break down the conventional structures of a book even further, guiding the reader to a new plane of interaction. That being said, it is a work I am as yet not tired of leafing through, as it presents itself freshly with every new afternoon, evening, rainy day and cold night.
Still Life is available to be purchased through the Reliable Copy website. It was launched and published in early June 2020.