The Distance Between Reality and Image

September 3, 2015


Julia Zurilla, from the series París-Texas (2000). Manipulated slides
Julia Zurilla, from the series París-Texas (2000). Manipulated slides

Examining the visual memory of the Holocaust, Didi-Huberman argues that today “we live the image in the period of the torn imagination.”[1] According to this maxim, our era is one in which the imagination has been torn, has been shredded, has lost some of its capability and its potency. In other words, in this world absorbed by the image, assailed by the constant circulation of signs and representations, it would seem that the image has become something that is lived but that, precisely because it is lived, excludes or fragments the imagination and its diverse modalities of constitution along with its powerful mediation strategies. If indeed our approach to reality has always been mediated by images and representations (by the imaginary), it would seem that in the contemporary world, as Baudrillard put it, we have arrived at a state in which “the image can no longer imagine the real (…), it can no longer transcend reality, transfigure it or dream it…”[2] Two questions arise: first, what are the particular characteristics of the contemporary image and representation that detach it—emancipate it—from the imagination and its locales, and second, how does that emancipation involve a “living” that eludes imagination?

Starting with the second question, and simply for the sake of delineating the space of this reflection, we can say that “living” the image is exactly the opposite of thinking it, reading it or contemplating it (imagining it). It is an absolute form of experience that, due to the very mode in which it is produced, has no causality or justification other than its own occurrence. Because of this, “living” the image involves making the image without dedicating time to work, or to reflection. Thus, an operation that is destructive to the image itself occurs, an operation in which the eventuality becomes act, and in which images are solidified and eliminate their remainders, presenting themselves as solid, complete, free of time and place. Images are unchained from the imagination, having annihilated it in order to appropriate certain characters of completeness that never belonged to it.


Julia Zurilla, Abandonar el exterior (2001). Installation
Julia Zurilla, Abandonar el exterior (2001). Installation

In the art world this omnipresence of the image (and this omnipresence in the image) has had a number of consequences, one of the most widespread being that it charges contemporary artistic practices with the paradoxical task of intervening in that constant flow of signs and representations that are incapable of transfiguring reality, in order to twist or rupture it. In other words, they have been given the task of producing an “other” image capable of being used against itself, that can damage itself and that, by the same measure, at least momentarily restores the dialectic between image and reality. This is a complex dialectic that, per Sartre, is marked by the fact that the image is essentially unrealizable: “to posit an image is to constitute an object in the margin of the totality of the real, it is therefore to hold the real at a distance, to be freed from it, in a word, to deny it.”[3] A dialectic without resolution, without synthesis, which persists in a continuous double movement: every imaginative process (of image production) simultaneously involves the denial of the reality that it represents—precisely because it transfigures it from a determined point of view—and that presentation of the hiatus, of the insurmountable distance that this negation erects in the figuration it inscribes. This is a dangerous task, since it aims to reestablish the immanent potency of its own impotence, its failed condition, and therefore it must scrutinize those fissures, impurities and uncertainties that allow it to produce a break with the real, and some growth in meaning.

On many occasions, this difficult task has been undertaken by contemporary art, albeit in a rather naïve manner, by way of a sort of extreme realism that attempts to fracture the supplementary reality imposed by the constant flow of representations through the staging of pain and the re-presentation of violence. Such artistic practices play with tearing apart real bodies or things, re-produce bloody events, recreate empirical violence while stripping it of any kind of mediation, of any imaginative possibility. In the attempt to dismantle the necessary distance between the image and reality, what appears is a spectacularization through which violence—or pain—is presented as banal rhetoric. These works do not fail because of their extreme realism, nor because the brutal violence they re-produce is converted into mere rhetoric (into pure discourse), but rather because their objective—that of restoring a certain dialectic between image and reality—is definitively cut short. In effect, in the transition to the work of art, reality itself is shown to be completely mediated, and thus while the opposite may appear to be true, reality in fact eludes the cruelty and pain that constitute it, which simply results in a new version of the metaphysical enterprise. This realism achieves the opposite of what it proposes and, paradoxically, it presents another metaphysical project, camouflaged now by the mask of blood, flesh and the body. Although it may attempt to do the opposite, this hidden idealism ends up dressing up reality more than stripping it down, covering and adorning reality rather than displaying it outright.


Julia Zurilla, from the series París-Texas (2000). Manipulated slides
Julia Zurilla, from the series París-Texas (2000). Manipulated slides

The dialectic between image and reality has its fundamental inflection in the fact that images, above all artistic ones, never show everything, but rather present evidence of the distance, the hiatus that divorces them from the real. Because of this, a sort of silence is created therein, a kind of strategy of absence, that without falling into any discourse about the disgraceful (or the sublime) rehabilitates a space for imagination and its strategies. As Sartre would say, the potency of the imagination is on the side of reality, it is its accomplice. Therefore, illusion and appearance are necessary insofar as they allow for the elaboration of strategies of silence that, completely distanced from the discourses of absence, can more clearly express the cruelty of the real, as well as its fragmentary, shattered nature.

Understood in this way, the image is neither total nor absolute (excluded from any extreme realism), neither pure revelation nor trickery, neither true nor false, but rather simply a fragment out of which the imagination’s work can blend, amalgamate, and above all turn thoughts into actions. The image seen as a fragment, as a twist, reveals its potency as well as its limitations: it is not everything or nothing, but rather the spark of an act, the vestige that unwaveringly demands our attention. Precisely because of this, Didi-Huberman proposes “montage” as method, since he claims we cannot see the image as a total and independent unit. In so doing, he reemphasizes that we should interrogate the image as a fragment susceptible to combination with others, to being coordinated and put into constellation with other images, but also with the word and with other texts.

Extreme realism has cast aside the support of the imagination, but without that support—without fantasies, illusions, appearances, fragmentations—it is difficult for it to restore any sort of productive relationship with reality and to intervene therein while bringing about any increase in meaning.


[1] Didi-Huberman, G. Imágenes pese a todo. Memoria visual del Holocausto. Barcelona, Paidós, 2004. P. 263


[2] Baudrillard, J. El complot del arte. Ilusión y desilusión estéticas. Buenos Aires, Amorrortu, 2006, p. 34


[3] Sartre, J-P. Lo imaginario. Buenos Aires, Losada, 1976. P. 271

Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen.