Fold, Staple, Embrace: The Body Alive in the Archive

New Takes

Fold, Staple, Embrace: The Body Alive in the Archive

By tamara suarez porras October 16, 2018

New Takes is a column written by emerging writers on emerging artists as part of the Art Practical Residency. One resident is nominated from a pool of recent graduates from California College of the Arts, who holds the position for one year. Our current New Takes contributor and Art Practical resident is Maddie Klett.

When a body is photographed, it becomes a body that is archived. The photographed body, Roland Barthes reminds us, is a signifier of the body in death, more than the body in life.1 Exploring photographic archives is a meditation on their inevitable entanglement with death. Photographs evoke an anterior future, in which the documentation of a body underscores the fact that the body’s time alive is finite.2 Photographic objects and the subjects within them degrade over time, particularly when discarded through the sieve of archival practices. Do possibilities exist for the body to further live through the photograph? Can photographic objects invoke life over death?

Recent works by the artists Nasim Moghadam (Bay Area), Marcela Pardo Ariza (Bay Area), and Suné Woods (Los Angeles) engage with vernacular photographic material to be reread, recontextualized, and reworked, with a particular focus on how the archived body can be transformed anew. The artists’ formal interventions into photographic material reimagine possibilities for bodies across time, while their recontextualizations of the images unsettle their origins.

In This Body Is Alive, Suné Woods’s solo exhibition at Casemore Kirkeby, paper sculptures of photographic ephemera affixed to the wall appear as if in a moment of flight. The original photographs, aesthetically pointing to periodicals of the 1960s and 1970s, morph into new beings through collage and sculpting by hand. In River Keeper, handmade gestures enliven these vintage images as a speculative landscape. Folded and sculpted paper from offset-printed magazines become forest blooms. An image of sparkling water collaged to a similar image becomes an amalgamated waterscape. White lines and dots, artifacts of folds, become constellations. Engaging with archives is a mode of imagining possible kinship: not what could have been but what could be.

Primary presents a Black femme in a sensuous repose with a lover. Hands and legs from different images are brought together in moments of caress, intersecting and interlocking to become one body. The bodies in Primary are indeed alive, subverting the notion that photographs primarily invoke death. Instead, these photographs take full breaths with new life. Organisms and photographs engage in active evolution to new selves: slickly wet plant forms affixed to the human body become genitalia, holding the body at its primal base. In another work, Estrella, bodies from different archival sources, epochs, and species connote physical touch and kinship over time through this photographic intimacy. Woods’s use of vernacular ephemera transforms their origins and reroutes them to an alternative archive, that of the art object. The work revives the body both from the fate of the discarded and from photographic legacy.

Marcela Pardo Ariza, Rosie, Cait, & Kat (1987~, 2018), 2018; installation view, Bay Area Now 8, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2018. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo: James Im

New work by Marcela Pardo Ariza in the exhibition Bay Area Now 8 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts explores intergenerational queer kinship through the physical touch of the archival photograph. Portraits of queer-identified Bay Area friends, collaborators, and artists are paired with photographs sourced from the San Francisco Public Library, GLBT Historical Society, and vintage erotica. The archival photographs are scaled to life-size and printed as objects to be touched and embraced. The diptych Bruno & Marcus (1975~, 2018) (2018), with a muscular, shirtless figure tenderly holding a photograph of a quite-similar body, evokes both the embrace of a lover and the self. The touch of those alive today brings pasts to the present, visualizing lovers, friends, companions, and elders in one space. The archival photographs thus become more than temporal markers of losses to AIDS: they are enlivened through queer community today. Rosie, Cait, & Kat (1987~, 2018) (2018) is a cascading embrace: bodies, of print and flesh, fall into each other in tender companionship, becoming one.  Pardo Ariza’s images form the bridge of queer community over time, of bodies today embracing bodies that may no longer be alive. As with Woods’s work, the photographs are less a meditation on loss or death than a celebration of what is and what could be.

It is impossible to view Nasim Moghadam’s SelfHood series without feeling the tactility of a stapler. Moghadam pressed staples into scaled-up reproductions of her Iranian birth certificate. The main image repeats over the four works in the series: a black-and-white portrait of the artist at age sixteen wearing a black headscarf, stapled to the official Iranian state document; the teenage face carries a palpable intensity. In SelfHood I (2018), Moghadam’s most assertive and unabashed piece, the face is entirely covered in staples, with irregularities indicating the artist stapled the image by hand. Through the series, stapling becomes a paradoxical gesture, unfixing the self from its official proxy. SelfHood II (2018) fills the shape of the headscarf with staples, drawing attention to a staple applied across the forehead in the original photograph. This staple affixed to Moghadam transforms the staples affixed by Moghadam into gestures intended to undo what was demanded of and placed on the artist in her youth. These staples do not harm; rather, they mark the artist’s life through the more than two decades since the original photograph was taken. In contrast to the works by Woods and Pardo Ariza, Moghadam’s work is directly autobiographical and considers futurity in an image from the past: not what was but what is and will be.

Marcela Pardo Ariza, Bruno & Marcus (1975~, 2018), 2018; installation view, Bay Area Now 8, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2018. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo: Harley Wong

In these works, Woods, Pardo Ariza, and Moghadam consider the possibilities of new lives for photographs, beyond their origins, and the lives they have already lived. The artists’ interventions, such as stapling, collage, and juxtaposition, create bridges across time and new pathways for reimagining archival material. The hand can mold new beings, relationships, and selves. These works declare that the photographed body is not primarily a consideration of death but rather the imaginative possibility of life made anew. 

Suné Woods: This Body Is Alive is on view at Casemore Kirkeby in San Francisco through November 17, 2018.

Bay Area Now 8 is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco through March 24, 2019.


  1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Noonday Press, 1981), 92–94.
  2. Barthes, 96.

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