“Nabokov repeatedly tried ... to cast a little light into the darkness lying on both sides of our life, and thus to illuminate our incomprehensible existence. Few subjects ... preoccupied him more than the study of spirits ... that our worldly doings are being observed by some other species, not yet known to any system of taxonomy whose emis- saries sometimes assume a guest role in the plays performed for the living. Just as they appear to us ... so we appear to them: fleeting, transparent beings of uncertain provenance and purpose.”  – W.G. Sebald, Campo Santo

Photography provides a record of history but also offers a unique mode of storytelling. But what happens when the history of a photograph is forgotten or when no one is left to tell its story and darkness is all that remains? In Provenance Unknown, Toronto-based artist Sara 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.

Provenance Unknown brings together two new bodies of work: The Anonymous Chorus and Aviary, both inspired by found, anonymous, and 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 and from investigating her own identity and family lineage to tracing the histories of others. In these works, she mixes analogue sources and digital techniques, and works across disciplines 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.

When photographs are untethered from their historical contexts and cast out into the world, unattributed, their stories are left to the imaginative projections of those who recover them. Historical fact is opened to poetic interpretation while clues embedded in the photograph can be explored in existential, rather than purely factual terms.

The Anonymous Chorus unfolds a “story” contained in a still photograph in the form of a ten-minute video. The video probes the intrafamilial relations in the large family grouping and conjures its historical context by evoking being through breathing and communication through sound. Individuals captured in the photograph are animated by the voices of choral singers, with whom Angelucci 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, exploring through song existential questions of being and loss. The shroud of song amplifies the “second death” of the photo- graph’s anonymous subjects, lost to historical oblivion.

In The Anonymous Chorus, Angelucci refuses the photograph’s power to silence those lost within its anonymity. Sounds inspired by the image itself, such as the rustle of the leaves in the trees and the passing of a nearby train, animate a context for the photograph. The soundtrack that emerges recreates the photograph’s inception while enveloping us in its re-presentation as immersive installation.

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. These historical documents are meticulously interwoven with details from images Angelucci took of extinct and endangered North American birds preserved in the Royal Ontario Museum’s ornithology collection.

Guided by the freedom to inhabit the spaces between history and the present, and summoning Nabokov’s story of spirits, Angelucci brings two kinds of “extinct” beings into photography’s fold: the birds, and the subjects of the anonymous, historical portraits. Through her magical transformations Angelucci conjures the otherworldly manifestations of spirit photography beloved in the Victorian era. Aviary resides at the mysterious threshold of photographic representation, chimeric in its vivifying potential.

In The Anonymous Chorus and Aviary, photography remains in flux. Its subjects and objects have the potential to adapt freely. Now, the static image becomes akin to an event in its remarkable ability to transform fixed impressions into fluid experiences. Provenance Unknown aligns us with the spirits of the unknown and of un-knowing, opening up new visual fields shaped into being through symbolic re-enactment. The work mirrors Angelucci’s own aleatory process of discovery through her journey into the past via photography’s unknown.  

Emelie Chhangur Exhibition Curator

Organized by the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) The artist gratefully acknowledges the support of the Ontario Arts Council.