The centerpiece of “Latent Images,” Stephanie Syjuco’s recent exhibition at Ryan Lee in New York, was a 2021– work called Partial Anarchival Index (Working Platform). It comprises a modular configuration of low wooden tables, strewn with pictures printed on paper at a variety of scales and clustered into evidently methodical (if not immediately meaningful) groupings. Some of these images are sharp; others are pixelated beyond recognition. Many of them reproduce old photographs that depict the landscapes, flora, peoples, and material culture of a Southeast Asian island country. Like much of Syjuco’s work from the past three years, the installation is the product of archival research, facilitated in part by a Smithsonian fellowship, exploring the United States’ turn-of-the-century colonization of the Philippines following its defeat of Spain, the country’s previous occupier, in the Spanish-American War.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the records from this period assembled in Syjuco’s installation make scant reference to the bloodshed that accompanied this imperial campaign. The artist sometimes alludes to it herself, however, through suggestive juxtapositions. One of the image groupings, for instance, brings together pictures of a wood-handled pistol, a yellowed photograph of soldiers appearing to set up camp before a hilly landscape, and an engraving of the American bald eagle. Is this militaristic constellation an example of the “latent” imagery to which the exhibition title referred? Activating such interconnections would indeed constitute a deconstructive challenge to colonial-era systems of ordering knowledge. (Syjuco’s terminology has its origins in the poststructuralist thinking of Jacques Derrida, who employed the term “anarchivic” to describe the self-effacing impulses of the Freudian death drive. He argued that archives accordingly manifest a desire to forget as much as a compulsion to preserve—that these two functions are, in fact, inextricable.) As a whole, however, the display suggests less an effort to expose what has been suppressed than a meditation on the material and technological conditions of the archive’s present visibility. Hence the installation’s single most recurring element: the color calibration chart, a leitmotif that reappears, sometimes crumpled or tonally inverted (as in a photographic negative), in several other works that were on view.
As its parenthetical subtitle suggests, Syjuco’s “Working Platform” represents an intermediary stage in her creative process, not a finished product. The artist ultimately crafted her critical intervention in the form of large, elegantly framed photographs, several of which were also included in the exhibition. Each of these works centers on a different image—whether of a single archival object or a box’s worth—that Syjuco has enlarged by dividing the picture into a grid, printing every cell on a separate sheet of letter-size paper, and taping these components together to form a tiled, often pixelated whole. At first, these mosaics themselves appear to be tacked up within the frames, casting shadows on the mounting board behind them. Only subsequently does it become clear that one is actually looking at high-resolution photographs of the artist’s multipart compositions; that the subtly textured white space bordering the pictured printouts is not in fact a backing board but rather the studio wall to which they are affixed. The result of this perceptual rug pull is to loosen our fixation on the archival objects represented, prompting us to reflect in equal measure on Syjuco’s act of re-presenting them and what her transformations, with their suggestion of forensic investigation, might imply.
The exhibition press release took a metaphorical view of these maneuvers—presenting Syjuco’s emphasis on mediation and (as the example below illustrates) occlusion, combined with her act of “piecing together” fragmentary images to form composite wholes—as commentary on the fact that the archival “narrative” is likewise a “constructed” one that is partial in both senses of the word. Fair enough, but by now, pointing out the biased nature of colonial-era archives has rightly become commonplace. Is this all that Syjuco’s project reveals?
A work like Reverse View: KKK (2021) points toward a parallel insight. The central image depicts a stack of papers, photographs, and newspaper clippings that once belonged to an Ohio chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and now reside in an archival collection (labeled “Business Americana”) at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Syjuco has flipped most of these articles over, however, concealing whatever it was that the terrorist organization found worthy of preserving, and transforming the material instead into a layered abstraction, reminiscent of a Cubist collage or one of Kurt Schwitters’ dynamic Merzbilder. Thus, even as the work’s title connects its pictured (but pointedly censored) objects to a history of white supremacist violence that remains very much alive in the present, the artist’s intervention allows the materials to appear simultaneously as so much crinkled, fading paper. Syjuco points, in effect, to how such fragile materiality has historically determined the archive’s limited conditions of accessibility—another pertinent factor in the question of how and for whom these collections render history visible.
Syjuco’s process of compiling inkjet prints introduces another layer of materiality echoing that of her archival documents. The thirty-some pages shown in Reverse View: KKK, for instance, have begun to warp and curl. At the same time, however, the artist’s incorporation of such contemporary imaging technologies (and their pixelated products) gestures toward an increasingly digitized world that is in many ways alien to the historical objects and organizing systems she has represented. From these traces emerges another “latency” that some of her earlier projects have addressed head-on: namely, the ascendancy of the internet as an archive-like structure far more powerful and decentralized—with all the entailed potential for good and ill, accessibility and opacity—than anything the people behind a colonial-era nation state could have envisioned. What form might an “anarchival index” take with respect to such twenty-first-century information technologies? Syjuco’s matryoshka-like photographs, their nested layering of images materialized in media by turns antiquated and contemporary, do not provide an answer so much as insist with formal eloquence upon the question.