One of the finest romances written by the Englishman Graham Swift is "Waterland". It is set in the Fen Country of East Anglia, a little more than a thousand square miles surrounded by the limestone hills of the Midlands to the west, and the chalk hills of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk to the south. This land was reclaimed from the North Sea and to this day still summons the movement of the sea. Little by little, the water receded, giving way to the accumulation of silt. “Silt: a word which when you utter it, letting the air slip between your teeth, invokes a slow, sly, insinuating agency. Silt: which shapes and undermines continents; which demolishes as is builds; which is simultaneously accretion and erosion; neither progress nor decay”.
In Graham Swift’s own words, there is an “equivocal operation of silt. Just as it raises the land, drives back the sea and allows peat to mature, so it impedes the flow of rivers, restricts their outfall, renders the newly formed land constantly liable to flooding and blocks the escape of floodwater.”
I suppose it was 1996 when I saw an exhibition by Daniel Blaufuks in site (and not in the form of reproductions or more or less critical echoes). This happened in Paris, at the Portuguese Cultural Center of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and the occasion was the Mois de la Photo. Daniel Blaufuks showed a series of huge photographs he had taken in 1995, in Tübingen, based on the play Torquato Tasso by Goethe, staged by a German theatre company "Based on" is just an expression. Daniel Blaufuks steps into the logic of the performance photographing a number of ancient statues, which were kept in a municipal warehouse, in the process of being restored.
Entering the exhibition, I couldn’t help but think: this is the waterland. Covered in straps, black tape, plastics, and veils, as if waiting brides, these beings that hang from the timeline fight between sea and silt, between the Roman verticalness of memories and the deadly decay that surrounds them. In this waterland one walks in silence, overwhelmed by all the shifting blues of an endless sea. As always, I believe that in Daniel Blaufuks’ case everything occurs in a kind of short-circuit between the moment and eternity.
Speaking of Delacroix’s father, Baudelaire said that he belonged to that “breed of strong men, the last of whom we knew in our childhood” the followers and disciples of Voltaire and Rousseau, and who participated in the French Revolution. This proposition can only be read in a single way: the strong men are always the ones who came before us, our childhood is the seafront from where we can still glimpse them; they will forever be connected with the waterland. Thus that empty look, like a struggling fish, thus the scream muffled by the slime, but also the silent austerity of their bruised bodies, of their ranting poses in a theatre in ruins.
I think the word "ruins" makes sense in the context of Daniel Blaufuks’ work. Not literally, as direct figuration (although that also occurs), but as a prevailing aura, in the fashion of Walter Benjamin, tutelary figure of this enterprise in more than one way. On one hand, Daniel Blaufuks collects signs, marks and footprints, the submerged traces of a culture, of an epoch, of a dream - and he collects them in their essential pain, like injuries in time, wounds that healed only apparently. The subject of the journey is, above all, the narrative thread of this melancholy inventory. That is the reason why what it shows us is almost always uninhabited: the water didn’t retreat, the human did. When the human survives, it is in the rigid form of a statue or a mannequin the lighted hand on its waxen silence touches the nocturnal transparency of a door in Saint Petersburg. The figures that appear in his travel-journal are in stamps, icons, publicity and historical illustrations. Or as a man reading a newspaper. Or an intimate dormant glance that survives the dense blackness of the picture.
With the exception of the instants when the author himself steps into the scene. In the series I am speaking of with the title Uma Viagem a São Petersburgo and published in the context of the Encontros de Fotografia in Coimbra, wonderfully organized by Albano da Silva Pereira there is a moment when Daniel appears, only his head visible in a tub filled with ocher water, the back of the neck lying against the cold tiles, all accompanied by the following statement: "When I die, I shall grieve for all the places I have never seen". If, one day, somebody investigates the status of the subjective inscription in the oeuvre of Daniel Blaufuks (this trace of light of a crepuscular individual), one may analyze the curious narcissist oscillation in this sentence: will Daniel grieve for not having seen some places or will he grieve the places that were never seen by him? Those who, in the dispersion, keep their focus on the romantic vocation (Daniel Blaufuks is certainly the antepenultimate romantic, and I refrain from saying the last of the romantics because he deliberately avoids the extremes) can understand that the radical urgency of art favors the second hypothesis: only the places I saw, only the things I photographed survive. Romanticism can be defined in these terms: alone on the earth, perplexed remainder of a flood, the artist finds himself in the limit of a drift, and is saved only by the fact that he concentrates on what he sees and what he feels while seeing. Even though acknowledging the ultimate lesson of death: we are born, we live, we die (quoting Daniel Blaufuks), and I add, all we have seen, all we have hastened to see yet, was seen, is seen, will forever be seen for nothing.
In this waterland, the photographic work corresponds to a clearing project the removal of silt, debris and slime to render the land habitable. But there are two hesitation lines. One is that the memory of waterland can not be erased: for some, that is the land every memory refers to. As Graham Swift puts it, "forget, indeed, your revolutions, your turning points, your grand metamorphoses of history. Consider, instead, the slow and arduous process, the interminable and ambiguous process the process of human siltation of land reclamation. Is it desirable, in the first place, that land should be reclaimed? Not to those who exist by water; not to those who have no need of firm ground beneath their feet."
Secondly, the visual drainage is a never-ending story. Daniel Blaufuks tried everything including freezing, something he is obviously fascinated with. Daniel Blaufuks dreams of an anti-time machine, and he thinks a photographic camera may come near that dream. David against Goliath, Daniel against time. Some day he may photograph the royal face of the emperors with a fragile Polaroid camera. But every photograph that drains the land is one more piece of debris that covers it; each image that tries to fasten a face is one more gap in the substance of the body. Daniel films the breaking of the ice: the return to the human frailness. And then he congeals he would like to congeal the film itself. To maintain life, he turns to the weapons of death. He uses them to kill death itself. In the words of Ruben A., quoted by him, "death lay untouched on the bottom of the sea". But, between ice and silt, life goes on, and all the travels express nothing but that.