It seems almost an understatement to claim that Anja Ronacher’s work, generally speaking, is classical. Classical, gothic and, I would argue, timeless. And yet for all its supposed timelessness, it is timely, and, to raise the stakes of the argument, even urgent (any art that can succeed at being timeless and timely will probably always remain urgent). But just how and why is this work urgent? Perhaps before answering that question, it would be necessary to account for its so-called classicalism, Gothicism, and of course, duly, its timelessness. Essentially, Ronacher’s photography is classical because she shoots black-and-white, analogue photos which are developed as silver gelatin prints. Shooting directly, more often than not, in museums, her staged photos play with light and staging, but are not digitally modified. They are characterized by a dramatic if decidedly tenebrous chiaroscuro, to the point that point the objects depicted tend be more adumbrated than clearly marked out, either emerging from or withdrawing into the deep, fathomless darkness that surrounds them. The subject matter has ranged from the black, opulent folds of velvet curtains to all manner of cultural and religious artifact, from 700 – 650 B.C. clay vessels to 250 – 700 A.D. pre-Colombian, Alabaster, stone masks from Teotihuacan, Mexico. Preoccupied with that appendage so essential to the photographic enterprise, Ronacher has a marked proclivity for hands, having photographed those of a Buddha from the Chinese, Yungang Grottoes, Datong, 460-525 A.D.; the hanging hand of a Lamentation of Christ, Pear Wood, 1516 A.D.; and the extended hand of a Christ as a Man of Sorrows, basswood, 1480 / 90 A.D, among others. Like the vessels and death masks, these also float in a rich, black murk whose substance is visually inscrutable. All that said, if there is a gothic quality to this work, it comes more from the literary genre (gothic horror) than, obviously, medieval art, in that what Ronacher does is marked by a unique combination of horror (if that is not too strong a word) and romanticism, or better, the romantic sublime as defined by Edmund Burke, as that which is inseparable from terror. It just so happens that fear, as far as Ronacher is concerned, is a quiddity of art, being part and parcel of an aesthetic crucible, which includes the sacred as well as loss. Indeed, it is these three components, and their relationship to art, that lend the allegedly timeless urgency, which I mentioned above, to Ronacher’s pictures. For– and this is where things get tricky– this interest in fear also functions as an interrogation of the nature of art as told, in this particular case, through photography. In other words, Ronacher’s aesthetic program is indivisible from her preferred medium of photography. It goes virtually without saying that this initially plays out in Ronacher’s insistence upon the memento mori, a motif that dominates her work. Not just singly, nor doubly, but trebly. Focusing on-hand made objects, especially clay funeral urns, what she depicts both comes from the earth and is destined to return to it (earth to earth). What is more, it has in many cases, these objects having been unearth or excavated, which is precisely what lends her work its occasional archeological air. However, contrary to the archeologist (at least in part) she is not necessarily interested in the found, but in the lost, or better, loss. In the fact that an artifact has been lost, and found, and then lost again through photography. How so? As per Barthes’ “This has been”, loss is at the heart of photography, in that to photograph a given object or person is not to preserve it, but to lose it, for whatever is photographed is no longer there. This being the case, Ronacher’s photographic depictions of these objects could be said to, at least symbolically, restore them to the oblivion to which they had been consigned. Loss is indissociable with the notion of the sacred, of the sacrifice, which is to willfully lose whatever is sacrificed, making it such that the photograph, by extension, is sacred. And this of course is a timely reflection. For– at this risk of reducing Ronacher’s work to a reflection on social media, with the intention of situating its immediate relevance– at a time when the goal of the image is clearly to accumulate likes, accrue friends and multiply the self, nothing could be further from the truth of photography.
Chris Sharp 2015