Provenance Unknown brings together two new bodies of work by Toronto artist Sara Angelucci, The Anonymous Chorus and Aviary, both inspired by found, anonymous (unattributed) photographic portraits that the artist purchased on eBay. These works represent a distinct shift in the artist’s practice. Here, Angelucci moves away from exploring the familiar to interrogating the anonymous; from investigating her own identity (and family lineage) to tracing the history of others. Throughout her eccentric inquiry into the “live-ness” of the photographic portrait, she performs as well the role of amateur historian, only to very different ends. In these works, she mixes analogue sources and digital techniques and combines artistic genres through collaboration with composers, singers, and ornithologists. The Anonymous Chorus and Aviary open a temporally suspended space between past and present, where the subjects of these lost portraits may come to life, once again – in a transformed state of being.
When photographs are untethered from their historical contexts and cast out into the world, unattributed, their stories are left to the imaginative projection of those who “recover” them. In this new situation, historical fact is open to poetic interpretation while clues embedded in the photograph can be explored in existential rather than purely factual terms. In Provenance Unknown, Angelucci offers a space of contemplation between what is knowable about the human form in the photograph and what can be imagined from the other side.
The Anonymous Chorus unfolds a “story” contained in a still photograph as a ten-minute video. The video probes the inter-familial relations in the large family grouping and conjures its historical context by evoking being through breathing and communication through sound. Individual voices come to life through actual singing as Angelucci matches those portrayed in the image to choral singers with whom she collaborated to perform period songs by American composer Charles Ives (1874 – 1954). This musical transcription of an American family grouping creates an uncanny period portrait as the singers vocalize through their photographic stand-ins, mediating through song on existential questions of being and loss. The shroud of song amplifies the “second death” of its anonymous subjects lost to historical oblivion.
In Aviary, Angelucci adapts known photographic genres and biological taxonomies to entirely new fictional ends. In this work she reveals “other species not yet known to any system of taxonomy,” suspended photographically in a state of perpetual becoming. Aviary’s photographs originate from several collections of popular Victorian era cartes-de-visite and cabinet card portrait photographs meticulously interwoven with details from images Angelucci took of extinct and endangered North American birds preserved in the Royal Ontario Museum’s ornithology collection. Through her magical transformations, Angelucci breathes life into these newly-forming, hybrid creatures while conjuring with flight and fancy the otherworldly manifestations of “spirit photography” beloved by the Victorian era. Aviary resides at the mysterious threshold of photographic representation, chimeric in its vivifying potential.
Provenance Unknown aligns us with the spirits of the unknown and of un-knowing, opening up new fields of vision uncannily shaped into being through symbolic re-enactment. It mirrors Angelucci’s own aleatory process of discovery through her curious journey into the past via photography’s unknown.