THE ARCHIVE AS SUBJECT
In 2019, Stephanie Syjuco was awarded the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship Award which enabled her deep dive investigation of the Smithsonian American Archives. Two years in the making, this research project spawned several artistic projects including the works presented in Latent Images at RYAN LEE. These works reflect upon the history of race, identity and American narrative as presented by the national archives.
Portrait of Stephanie Syjuco, 2018.
Photo credit: Kija Lucas
Shooting archived materials at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Archives Center, October 2019 - February 2020
Constrained by the limited amount of photographic equipment allowed in the archives, Syjuco photographed images and documents laid out directly on her research table. Many of the images created for the exhibition actually show the edges of the archives, sometimes with Syjuco’s hand holding an object or an image, in other cases with file folders, papers and file cabinets visible in the backdrop of an image.
Instead of seeing these things as something to crop out, I started realizing that the place of the archive itself is a backdrop or a setting for this investigation,” Syjuco explains. “What the viewer sees in the exhibition is not just the thing I was looking for or found, but everything surrounding it, the setting, the backdrop, and the context of the archive as subject.
FRAGMENTED RECORDS FOR A FRAGMENTED HISTORY
The works on view at RYAN LEE reflect the artist’s increasing fascination with looking and examining damaged images that were held for safekeeping in an American archive. As Syjuco’s research progressed, the objects selected to be included in the exhibition became interesting visual metaphors for how history is itself a mediated and even fragmented reality.
The final images that are presented in Latent Images show the arduous complexity of the American archive, and each underwent several rounds of manipulation by the artist—initially photographed by Syjuco in the Smithsonian archives, they were then segmented in 8 ½ x 11 inch office printing paper and re-assembled like puzzles in the artist’s studio. These stitched together images were then rephotographed and printed out in their final form as high quality archival pigment inkjet prints. The process of breaking down and reconstructing artifacts of American history points to Syjuco’s longstanding interest in deconstructing and adjusting calcified social narratives within American culture. By presenting pictures of reconstructed pictures of American archives, Syjuco invites the viewer to reconsider the wider, fragmented image of U.S. history as it is framed by its own records.
TALKING BACK TO THE ARCHIVES
In her most recent works, Syjuco “has been attempting to talk back to photographs.” In previous works, this effort has resulted in Syjuco blocking out certain aspects of an image with her hands, or overlaying various pictures over one another such that the subject of the photograph is obstructed.
In KKK Reverse, Syjuco chose to flip over each correspondence, news clipping, and image found in an archival file detailing the daily activities of a chapter of the Ku Klu Klan, thus sparing the viewer from the hateful legacy these documents carry.
I sequentially looked at every item in that file and once I was done with it, flipped it over to its back, and then after finishing the entire file, shot all the documents in that stack,” Syjuco explained. “That was my way of acknowledging that these things exist in the archive just as they exist in American history, while simultaneously attempting to re-narrate or consider a new way of looking at it—which is to really remove the power structure under which an organization like that thrived.
AN IMPERFECT CARRIER OF INFORMATION
Better America further illustrates Syjuco’s exploration of “the archive itself as an imperfect carrier of information.” The image depicts Syjuco’s gloved fingers holding a badly damaged slide inscribed with text that identifies it as part of the “Better American Lecture service,” a mass-produced teaching program used in the 1920s and 1930s which sought to make better Americans and to inspire greater loyalty to American institutions. They were organized by Newell Dwight Hillis, a Congressionalist minister who spent most of his career promoting religious and nationalistic propaganda. The slide, now illegible, was sent out to churches, societies, schools, and patriotic organizations to foster a comprehensive, anti-socialist national narrative across society. Syjuco’s process of producing a high-quality reproduction of an illegible slide’s snapshot draws attention to what is lost in translation as images and histories are reproduced across time—what was left behind in history, and what is still with us.
THE ARCHIVES AS A METAPHOR
The two large works Fruits of Plenty: Occidental and Fruits of Plenty: Inverted/Oriental are reverse images of one another, and marry Syjuco’s investigation of the Smithsonian American Archives with her longstanding interest in the suggestive powers of photography and color calibration. By juxtaposing the negative and positive images of a fruit basket, Syjuco converts an archival artifact of 1920s imagery into a metaphor: much like photography contains the duality of a positive and a negative, a nation’s history itself holds the conundrum of holding both positive and negative chapters.
By selecting an image of a fruit basket as a metaphorical stand-in for the United States itself, Syjuco referenced the foundational idea of America being a bountiful land—one of opportunity for its citizens.
The vision of the cornucopia is one of promise and bounty. Presenting the reverse image of that colorful, bountiful fruit basket was an attempt to look at the opposite side, the inversion of this vision of American bounty. And interestingly, it renders that very colorful image into tones of blues of white, which for me, also seemed oddly reminiscent of Asian vases and the kind of color palette of the so-called “orient.” These are loose associations, but I’m hoping to retain the poetics of the image and the work rather than it just being an academic exercise in the archives.
Reference images and prints in Syjuco's studio at Joan Mitchell Center, New Orleans, March 2021 artist residency
The original archival image of the fruit basket was itself reproduced and manipulated several times before being added to the Smithsonian’s archives and being captured by Syjuco for this exhibition. “This American bounty has gone through so many iterations and so many reproductions that maybe the big question is what does it still hold for us now, hundreds of years after the founding of the country?” Syjuco asks.
In the center of the gallery are several platforms on which are presented overlaid prints, images, and documents that present to the viewer a simulation of what it’s like to look through an archive. While the photos on the wall represent a curated selection of moments that Syjuco observed while researching the archive, the elevated platforms represent the experience of looking itself. “I’m hoping that by presenting viewers with an abundance of archival items, they’re actually able to start creating their own narratives of what they’re seeing,” Syjuco explained. “In my process, I take thousands of images which are sorted through and sifted before juxtaposing new meanings onto archival images. By presenting the viewer with this possibility of moving around the space and putting together things that may not have necessarily been intended to go together, it does kind of simulate the creative act.”