Although at first sight, art and science may appear as totally separate fields, imagination bonds them together and causes them to interact and enrich one another in subtle and mysterious ways. Many visionary artists and scientists were perceived as “strange” by their contemporaries and throughout world history there are many examples of men “ahead of their times “. Such is the case of Zeno of Elea, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who foresaw modern time quantum physics discoveries more than two millennia ago, while being considered a fool by his contemporaries. One of the most famous ideas linked to Zeno is that if the observation period is divided into the shortest instants possible, then time freezes. Taking the example of an arrow in flight, his paradox states that since an arrow is not seen in motion during any single instant, it cannot possibly move at all. Paying tribute to the Greek philosopher, the Quantum Zeno Effect is the name given to the discovery made by two physicists George Sudarshan and Baidyanath Misra of the University of Texas in 1977. The experiment proved that in a situation in which an unstable particle is observed continuously, it will never decay.
The human mind is wired to perceive reality in sequences, like the frames of a movie. Our eyes perceive snapshots of reality and afterward it’s our mind’s job to put them together and interpret them as time and movement. Art is the only way in which we share with others our subjective perception of reality. Photography is the capture of one single frame, of one single instant. It is considered the most “realistic” form of art because it’s a direct transmission of the reality of the author to the viewer, unlike other forms of art where the reality is altered by the author’s subjective input. Without photography, we wouldn’t have motion pictures, but no matter how far the video technology has advanced, the same principle of binding the frames together has preserved. We still have no means of capturing time and motion except for linking snapshots. What the photographer Bogdan Ater brings new is the ability to condense the flowing time into one single concentrated shot.
When I first saw Ater’s photographs, they seemed extremely bizarre and confusing. Although the photographs were beautiful images harmoniously composed, they caused a certain feeling of discomfort just like when one is faced with something unnatural or unknown. I later understood that the feeling was caused by the fact that the mind was faced with an already assembled image. As it is always used to sequencing and reassembling frames, my mind was puzzled by the unexpected stillness of Ater’s photographs.
When trying to decipher an artist, the biographical data always provide a good starting point. Bogdan Ater was born in Bucharest, in 1980. From a very early age, he became interested in photography, after receiving his first camera from his uncle when he was nine years old. He held his first individual photography exhibition when he was only 15 years old. It is interesting that he pursued painting and not photography during his student years at the Faculty of Fine Arts. After finishing his studies, after a time of wandering throughout Europe, in Berlin, Paris and Lisbon, he finally found a place where he felt “at home”- Madrid – as he himself stated in an interview.
Another element given by his biography and perhaps the most important key to unlocking some of the mysteries of his art is his Greek origin. It’s an element that has never been the focus but it’s omnipresent and entwined in the fabric of his entire artistic vision.
The etymologic origin of the word photography is the Greek “photos” meaning light and “graphos” meaning “drawing”. Bogdan Ater has taken this literally and he actually uses light as a tool in his photographic works. In order to understand the difficulty of this process, I would like to emphasize that Ater never uses computer photo manipulation programs (like Photoshop, for instance). Considering the complexity of his photographs, a very high level of technical skill and mathematical precision is needed in order to achieve them without any other aid.
This technique, called “light painting”, is used by setting the camera on long exposure, the subject being immersed in darkness, and the photograph is composed only by using moving hand flashlights to inject light into the scene. In 1935, Man Ray was the first known art photographer to use this technique called Space Writing.
In this way, the photograph is composed, not “taken”, because the flashlight is virtually turned into a paintbrush, getting much closer to painting than photography. In modern day photography, reality is just “snapped” and in most cases, the author becomes more of a technically gifted and lucky observer than a creator. But the photographs taken using this technique must firstly be composed in the artist’s mind, who then brings them to life, using the tools of photography instead of painting.
If we were to extrapolate the Texas experiment and bring it to our daily world, we would face two challenges, both of them impossible to overcome up to now: to function with particles greater than an atom and to be able to observe it continuously. Until science turns this into a reality, we can rely on imagination and art for that. In his studio, Ater makes an artistic recreation of the 1977 Texas experiment. Using light as the continuous observation during an increased time of exposure, minutes even, he manages to unite different frames into one single, uninterrupted image that concentrates the flow of time over a given period. In the Texas experiment, continuous observation prevented the particles from decaying. Similarly, Ater’s continuous light over the subjects manages to freeze time by forcing it to contract into one instant, keeping the subjects in the same unaltered state. Ater’s photographs are concentrated flows of time, unlike a normal photograph which is only a snapshot of a single moment in time. This manipulation of time and movement is what shocks the observer and makes him feel uncomfortable. Our mind is used to patterns and classifications and when something escapes the natural laws we abide by, for example the sequenced way in which we perceive reality, we experience a lack of balance while the mind is trying to offer us a reasonable explanation.
In Ater’s portraits, the subjects are transfixed in a carefully guided light, set against darkened shadows, which encapsulate the essence of their being within a halo of darkness. Technically speaking, the shutter of the camera remains open for a much longer time, giving the artist time to choose exactly the parts he wishes to lighten or darken. Usually, the shadow is created by one source of light, but with Ater, since there isn’t one central beam of light, the shadows can expand and encompass the subject like a black aura as if the subject emanated from the light itself, instead of being only a surface that the light reflected upon. Ater manages to capture the essence of the person, called by so many religions soul, anima, ruach as a spark of the primordial infinite light. In its journey from the Infinite Light, the soul descends and undergoes various stages of self awareness and levels of revelation and concealment, like a dimming light. The soul enclosed within the body is still part of the original light, a reflection of the divine form, according to the teachings of the great Jewish mystical text The Zohar. Ater manages to bring to the surface one’s very essence – you may call it soul – the spiritual mold of a person’s physical form, linking his body and mind, transcending the mere reality that can be captured with a camera and offering a glimpse into the inner psyche of his subjects. Here lies the extreme violence of his photographs, from the clash between the realistic expectations of the common observer, the one who expects the comfortable layers of reality he is used to see in photography and the undiluted depictions of a human soul he is suddenly faced with. There is a confrontation between the two planes, the realistic, exterior one of the spectator and the sensitive, inner one captured in the photographs.
Although aesthetically beautiful, Ater’s photographic work doesn’t call for a peaceful and pleasant contemplation. The spectator is violently swept away from his everyday reality where he is protected by his flesh armor and deals with other equally shielded people on a superficial level and is instantly submerged into the depths of another man’s soul. He is compelled to look at the sheer nakedness of another human being, possibly for the first time in his life, and, by doing so, he eventually starts to see himself. Being forced to look at the one thing he always hides, one’s innermost being, the spectator experiences acute emotions like shock, unease, distress, and desperately tries to find to rational explanation to why he is so overwhelmed with emotions at the sight of a beautiful and aesthetically balanced image. The reason behind this concealment of our true self is fear. The fear that we might get hurt, be misunderstood and the most human and present of all fears, the fear of death. The sudden encounter with the soul, regarded by religion as the only immortal part of us, triggers all sorts of questions, fears, hopes about life and death, the existence or not of God and the meaning of our life. One glimpse at Ater’s photographs makes us exit our comfortable explanations that we usually like to feed our mind with and forces us to contemplate our own transitory existence and unavoidable death.
In the foreword to the book MIEDHO, Ater himself writes about the work of another photographer underlining the power that fear holds on us. “What is, I ask you, the motor of progress, before need, before curiosity, before hunger, who is the master of ceremonies in the game of evolution? Fear is and always has been the trigger. In this regard, reduced to essence, we are not so far away from the cavemen who drew on the caves of the wall. Fear of the darkness outside and the beasts that dwell within in it, gave us the need to capture it. Any fear once said, drawn, painted, sung – it could be understood, or at least given a more bearable form.”
Fear is something that both photographers, MIEDHO and Ater constantly deal with in their work. However, there is a great difference between the manner in which they choose to approach it. There can never be a separation between an artist and his cultural heritage, even though it may linger on only at an unconscious level. MIEDHO is an outspoken, fiery Spanish artist, coming from an explosive culture that values intensity and passion, emotions that translate into his flaming photographic work. He consciously aims to shock his public by offering them explicitly violent images that involve blood, knives, and dark gothic elements. Ater defines himself as having a Greek Soul, in his self-portrait with a skull. He approaches life and art from the position of the observer, the philosopher, the mystic. In the article Bogdan Ater-ido por la emoción plástica…, Diego Vadillo López identifies several traits that may be viewed as a definition of a Greek soul: “Bogdan Ater, overcome with artistic emotion, wanders along introspective alleys in search of a formula, if not definite, at least soothing. (…) Bogdan Ater is living within himself artistically in a shameless manner, without the brutal exhibitionism which so many of us surrender to. He is a meditative monk who recreates himself lingeringly in the ephemeral.”
Ater’s works are meditations, introspections; he asks the questions but doesn’t give the answers, leaving that to the public. He tries to erase himself as much as possible from the scene and allow the observer and the observed to interact. In an interview, the artist states: “It is not my truth what I want to show, I left painting and I have preferred photography to express my art because it allows me to see mankind and nature without imposing your own way of thinking, it is much more objective, less big-headed. I dislike being the protagonist of my art. However, I like to create worlds, fantastic worlds which reflect Man’s feelings and possibilities. I like to see things more than once; I like to fix them, to share them. Photography is still a young art, it needs a dialogue with the past: Dalí or Caravaggio have served me to abandon my selfish thoughts and enter a fantastic kingdom of colors and shadows, which produces laughs and worries, transparencies and shapes: new worlds, with a new technique, built over the old ones”.(Yareah Magazine)
Another specifically Greek element in Ater’s art is the emphasis he puts on the human being. Going back to the roots, Greek art is known for putting the human figure at its forefront. Starting with the depictions of the Olympian heroes, Greek art has always been focused on detail, be it in sculptures or paintings – the human body being portrayed in a realistic and anatomically correct manner: the details of muscles, bones, both in natural and athletic poses.
These Hellenistic-inspired techniques are evident in one the photographic series appropriately named “Alchemy of the soul”.
“The things I want to express are within the human being, I’m not interested in anything outside of Man. The body is the most expressive thing as I know, given that it is what we best control and understand, through which we express ourselves and what impacts us the most. When working with it, unlike working with the word, you can convey whatever you want. I don’t need no make any references to the external, since everything is already reflected within the individual. No need of decorations, or accessories, just the human being, the person. These are the ideas the series “Soul Alchemy” is based on.” (Bogdan Ater – interviewed by Yana Klotchkov Kuznetsova)
The character of the series is given a fallen god status, reminding us of the Olympian heroes once portrayed by the ancient Greeks, by the sculptural quality of light, which almost makes him three-dimensional. The series depicts a journey of evolution and transmutation, the subject battling the demons dwelling within himself, the ever present darkness, only to emerge into an all encompassing light that seems to dissolute and transform his essence.
Ater manages to combine the mundane – the body – with the sacred – the soul -, to recreate a spiritual essence from the very mold of matter, of bones, muscles and skin. With the light of the soul shining through it, the human body regains its center place in the universe as a vessel of higher substance and the human being is finally re-assembled as body and soul united.
The name of the series “Alquimia del Alma” meaning Alchemy of the Soul is a key that unlocks one layer of mystery. Many valid and interesting points have been expressed by various critics that linked Ater’s photographs to alchemy and the alchemic process.
Bogdan Ater used the same tool, the light, in the building and remodeling of the venue Espacio Niram Bar & Lounge in Madrid. Together with another artist, Romeo Niram, Ater designed and built the furniture pieces manually, created the wall decorations and all the interior design of the place. The result is an organic space that constantly changes shape, composed by elements that fit together harmoniously, united and continuously altered by the juxtaposition of light and shadow, reality and perception. The space is constructed following the same rules of composition of his photographic works. We have the subjects – the furniture and statues, the setting, the observer – the public and the light which is constantly moving and illuminating different angles. The dark ambiance is illuminated by carefully placed dim lights that reflect on specific spots. Light is attracted to metallic, reflective surfaces and this is what gives the space its “shifting” feeling. Specific elements, such as statues sculpted into the tables, chains, figurines, mirrors, silver letters on black leather, all sorts of metallic ornaments set in heavy draping fabric, leather armchairs and sofas, are brought to life or vanish according to where the lights are placed. One simple change in the position of a flickering candle can reveal new, unnoticed aspects even to the recurrent visitor. Another element that can also cause changes in the ambiance is our own eyes. Sometimes, we tend to be more attentive and perceptive; other times we barely notice the world around us. Our travelling eyes can reveal or conceal from us the very reality that surrounds us. Thus, reality is changed by the observer. Suddenly, new meanings start to appear by means of light and perception; consequently, we can recreate our own reality. The pulsating rhythm of light and shadow that flows in the space designed by Bogdan Ater, when combined with the selective focus of our eyes, creates a reality that is in constant change, subject to our own moments of attention and emotions.
Mere observation is scientifically proven from a quantum physics point of view to alter the observed reality – in 1998, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel conducted a highly controlled experiment demonstrating how a beam of electrons is affected by the act of being observed -. Even more, constant observation has been determined to put matter into a state of equilibrium and non-decay (The Quantum Zeno Effect). Although we can only apply this knowledge at atomic level and use it no more than theoretically, the fact that is true at this tiny scale should inspire us to pursue the impossible. Ater’s observing light immortalizes the subjects within one condensed frame of moving time.
Art, as Bogdan Ater shows us, can be an effective playground for new and bold ideas. After all, “imagination is more important than knowledge”. (Albert Einstein)