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Make the image speak in silence and solitude

Reading essay on Smoke Signals de  Patricia Viel

Marcela Arpes

May 2020

*The text has been published in the book "Collection of Signals". +VIEW

  1. Photographs

Roland Barthes has written in his lucid essay (like the camera that shot him) that "What Photography reproduces to infinity has only taken place once: Photography repeats mechanically that can never be repeated existentially" (1990:31)

However, the photographic series Smoke Signals, made up of 36 images created since 2017 by the artist Patricia Viel, seems to defy the Barthesian assertion. 

The work is not the photographic set, the work is a performance that has been recorded by a camera lucida as the only witness to the act and as the only gesture of expectation.

The launching of a flare in the desolate Patagonian space, in a precise here and now, is the work. Therefore, the work as an ephemeral event only has the moment in which it is photographed for its duration and exhibition. The repetition of the mechanical act is the guarantee and the memorable gesture of the incessant existence.

It doesn't matter which flare was thrown first or which space was the first to intervene, the photographic series unfolds not as an archive but rather as a collection susceptible to being altered, disordered and elusive from classification.

The photographs give an account of a fatal act in which the materiality of a landscape has been subjected to disorder by someone who chooses such an instant, such an object, such a setting and not another. So, the mechanical act of photographing cannot be separated from the existential act of someone who insists on inhabiting a landscape and throwing a sign there and fixing a trail there.

Smoke Signals seems to play with the paradox of representation, worrying about the nature of the referent. At the same time that the photographic series says tautologically (desolate territories that go from the mountainous heights to the shores of rivers and lakes; from the snowy forest to the windy steppe crossed by colored smoke) also, something of the meaning escapes and remains suspended in the void of interpretation. 

The work is the absent performance, that is, the performance of a subject who walks to a territory lights a flare, waits for the moment, throws it more or less impetuously, watches the smoke unfold due to the effect of the wind, watches the color change due to the effect of the wind. of light and finally chooses to fix the moment (an oxymoron) captured by the optical device. 


  1. bodies

Photography, says Roland Barthes, is connected, more than with painting, with theater (1990:71). And certainly, Patricia Viel's series is presented as a spectacular semiosis in which the landscape as a stage houses acting bodies present and absent on the scene.

A semiotic and poetic universe unfolds around the body of the flare in the middle of the natural landscape. Nature as a theater of the primitive and ancestral is suddenly assaulted by the technical artificiality of an absent body that can only be seen, behind the scenes, through the weightlessness of red, green, pink, blue and yellow smoke. In this way, the presence of the trace has already generated the dramatic conflict. Sometimes concentrated, other times dissipated, the body of smoke creeps, rises and expands, substantially modifying the scenery and configuring a topography of the natural and the artificial as a living whole.

A vestige in the snow, the perspective of an elided eye, the corporeality of smoke, call two fundamental bodies to the stage: the one that throws and the one that receives. Who, inhabiting nature, launches the urgency signal and a body more or less close to that point that, interpreting the signal, must act. Between act and act, the dramatic wait.

The co-presence of the performers builds a theatrical tension between the erotic and thanat sense of the scene that  transits between the beauty of nature and the drama of survival until the tragedy of imminent total destruction. .


  1. messages

The flare itself and as a pyrotechnic device means nothing. For meaning to happen, someone must activate their universal code: the lighting of intense and brilliant colored light rising in space. Traditionally, whoever activates a flare wishes to emit a message associated with help, the presence of a threat or survival and waits until someone else receives it, deciphers it, deduces it and acts accordingly. 

Semiotics has been concerned with theoretically defining the signal as a communication pact between those who have agreed on a meaning. More precisely, smoke signals are symbols that refer universally readable messages in singular contexts.

The work Smoke Signals, appropriating traditional communicative action, produces a deviation from conventional logics, generating an effective disturbance of meaning. 

Who throws the flare, why does he do it? what danger awaits him? what urgent message do you want to communicate?

Who sees the sign, what does he interpret? what should you do? what is expected to act?

What if Smoke Signals was just an unexpected event? 

If it were only the pure creation in the void for the occasion or the reason for living an experience?

If there was neither help, nor waiting, nor action y 

Only the return to solitude, 

Only the face of being in front of nature,

Only the question, somewhat desperate, about the  self-salvation?

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