Sleep, Death and a Photograph
“I dreamt about a statue, the Statue of Light. There was a storm and the statue sank slowly. I started getting anguished and distressed. I tried to save it, by pushing it by the head. The head split from the body and I was left with it in my hands. Right at that moment, the statue sank completely and I yelled “No”. In that exact same night I thought about a photographic project in which I would face the lense of my camera saying: “No”.
Referent to the series “No” (1996), this short text by José Luis Neto, moves on from that chain of images of a dream to the production of a single image, a photograph (actually, a serial work).
From an ontological standpoint, the dream is a photographic experience, considering that its origin is grounded in an obsessive1 image of desire that works our life from the inside and is especially manifest during sleep. In this work, the relation established between image and dream points out a desire to establish a continuity between both of the states (asleep and awake) as if the Subject would face the image of anguish that stalks him or her, transforming it into a daytime image, a visual representation, and through this manner— of dialogue — would be able to “tame it”.

One of the characteristics of the production of José Luís Neto’s work is the ingeniousness of his projects. Either they start off with a thorough research on the history of an image, as in 22474 (2000), or with the residue of a bullet on the curtain that holds it in a firing range (Carreira de Tiro, 2000); or even, as in O Beijo (1996) or Não (1996), now published as an object to handle, if it is about obtaining an image by modifying the way the camera itself shoots, we face a process of production not that far from scientific invention.
If, as affirmed by Freud, art is intimately connected to magical activity, what both share, particularly in the case of the work of José Luis Neto, is a great similarity to the idea of ritual, which demands a lot of patience and involvement, even a kind of obsession around the idea that moves him. This obsessiveness, strongly disseminated through all of the works — also, or mostly, evident in the referred issue of the chosen dimension for most of the works — is intrinsically related to the unconscious need of refusal: on a metaphorical plane, to an indiscipline of desire, corresponding to an excess of discipline (one of body and mind), that finds its way through curiosity and ingeniousness.
The photographer is, therefore, comparable to Dédalo, the maze engineer, whose métis (slyness, for the Greeks) allowed him to make it away from the maze where he would be imprisoned due to his wise construction of the wings.
However this engineering is not gratuitous, it’s beyond a childish hobby, which would beguile from the dense questions of existence (love, death) posed to the Subject from the moment of his birth. It is always, somehow, aimed at the most recurrent semantic cores in the work of this photographer, and are generated in the intersection of the problematic of identity and self-figuration and the one of desire, bringing to light the tensions resulting from both.

With this continuum of images, laboriously constructed, that completely deconstructs figure, José Luís Neto allows us to access the dramatic dimension that inhabits his universe, one prepared with the narration of the dream, since the start. The dream is dramatic — it is a nightmare —, and its drama is insinuated in the images in a completely opposite way. While in the narration of the dream we’re confronted by an incurable catastrophe feeling, the sequence of images takes that catastrophe to a shared plane, turning an unbearable private experience into an intense aesthetic one. The connection between the two levels (dream and representation) assures by itself the communication of the dramatic element: the deliberate confusion between internal images (from the dream) and externalised/ objectified images (the photographs), reflects an extremely important issue, characteristic of the contemporary experience, marked by the blurring of boundaries between real and unreal, empirical experience and imagination, by a mixture of reality and fiction. It’s in this sliding of boundaries, that body and face, as identitary supports definitely start losing their precise contours, therefore, becoming, the centre of artistic discourse from half of the Twentieth Century.
This hybridism of the contemporary experience is central to the work of José Luís Neto, particularly in this published series. Não, configures the siege life/death where the Subject and any of his or hers discourses are entangled; by questioning the boundaries of reality the unsettlement of the conscience of such a siege is also brought into play. 
Putting this question on first plane is the only way to lucidity.

Margarida Medeiros
Lisbon, 6th of November of 2004
  1. This obsessive image manifests on a tendency to repeat in dream the unconscious ideas.