January 18, 2014

Photographer Flora Borsi Comes to the Museum of New Art

by Jim Welke


The work of Hungarian photographer Flora Borsi comes to the Museum of New Art (MONA) Detroit, Museum of Contemporary Photography and New Media annex (2501 Rochester Court, Troy, MI 48083) on February 23, 2014. She will visit Detroit for the opening, her first trip to Motown.

Photography holds a unique position in the disciplines of art. Photographs confront us everywhere. They appear in advertising, news, science, medicine, snapshots, propaganda, pornography, and art. At one time, drawing and painting played the representational role photography does now. Before we mass-produced cameras, travelers on grand tours carried sketchbooks. Only the most momentous scenes warranted preservation on paper.

advertisement -- 1871

advertisement — 1871

Before industrialization and consumerism, advertising focused on the qualities of the product for sale. Ads did not seduce with appeals to self-image and ego, they announced the virtues of the product. Drawings and paintings supplemented the ad copy with relatively straight on representations of the merchandise. When industrialization came along and populations migrated from farms to cities, labor saving gadgets for harried urban inhabitants were soon ubiquitous. Deplorable though they were, sweatshops made fashionable attire accessible — necessary even — for urbanites clawing their way up the social ladder. At about the same time, photography came along. With the ease of image capture that photography offered, ad agencies were quick to adopt it. Ad makers took the opportunity of abundant imagery to sell more than the myriad, confusing details of competing products. They sold lifestyles, status. Photographs, with their implied realism, let buyers embed themselves in the pictures of ease and opulence before them. Carefully constructed still life images presented accessible, idealized worlds only attainable with the purchase of the product therein. Consumers bought it.

As film and cameras got cheaper and easier to use, everyone wanted one for keeping a visual, visceral log of their existence. Snapshots of weddings, baby pictures, graduations, religious milestones, and vacations overflowed from albums and scrapbooks.

Newspapers, magazines, and academic journals all adopted photography to document events and elucidate concepts. Government propagandists co-opted advertising technique to sell ideology with the same subtle seduction as wristwatch advertisers. Commercial photography and photojournalism offered solid careers.

And right alongside these fast-inflating realms of photography, artists worked in parallel to add universal messages and meaning to photographs. Photography branched into the art world — but not without resistance. Some viewed photographs as ephemeral kitsch — mainly those who painted and drew pictures. It was thought that photography with its rigid documentary qualities could not embody the vision and intention of an artist in the same way painting or drawing could. Yet fans soon realized photographs could present portraits, landscapes, still life, and abstraction with depth of interest and point of view comparable to other media. And as cameras improved, photographs froze moments in time to create art like no other medium.

The problem with photos, of course, is that they can be reproduced ad infinitum. For advertisers and journalists, that’s a virtue. But for artists, it’s a problem. How do you sell something that can not be an original, one of a kind work where the value comes at least in part from its scarcity of one. But this problem plagues print-makers, too. The same solution solves it: limited print runs, with numbered and signed prints. Still, in some precincts, photography seems to hold a less elevated position among the visual and plastic arts. Often in ads or the arts section of newspapers, the words “art and photography” will appear as description of the contents of a gallery or exhibition, as though you would see art, and alone in another room you would see the abused stepchild: photography. (This happens with music, too: art and music.)


And then along comes an artist like Flora Borsi who brings a unique eye and well-tuned technical craft to photographs that do more than document or seduce a consumer. Her images do seduce, but not your materialist impulse. They engage your soul and intellect equally, like a perfect lover; like art. She follows the footsteps of a long progression of fine art photographers, but happily carries the banner to new territory.

The show at MONA’s newest annex, the Museum of Contemporary Photography and New Media, will offer thirty-two large prints of Ms. Borsi’s photos from various thematic series spanning her career. She shot her first art photo in 2007, so her career to date is brief. Twenty years old, she lives in Budapest, Hungary where she attends classes at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design. She intends to earn a BA in Photography Studies.

Brief career or not, it continues, and the work of Ms. Borsi evolves. On her website, you will find seven series of works plus a section for recent work. The MONA show selects works from all of these, plus a few others. The series range from Des Monstres to Time Travel, which appears to have garnished the most attention and was selected by Yahoo as a 2013 favorite after a feature in Shine. Time Travel re-imagines historic photographs with the added superimposition of Ms. Borsi, costumed to fit the context, but she holds a camera as though she skipped back in time to document the notable occasion and stumbled into the original photographer’s viewfinder. The photos provoke that universal wonder and wistfulness we all feel about time travel. And they amuse with their fanciful premise. They set a mind to wondering what it might be like to dart back in time to witness, even alter, historic events that captivate or horrify us.

Des Monstres presents Ms. Borsi in deep contrast silhouette, draped in gauzy veils blown askew like reptilian appendages. She hurls herself to and fro as though in the grips of mythological gods to imbue these images with a sense of magical realism. The kinetic energy they project infects the viewer with an impression of buoyancy. These photos, despite their edgy darkness and stark hues feel like fun for the photographer and viewer alike.

The collection titled Lookbook suggests Houdini suspended from a coat hanger. Or perhaps the photos reveal a more existential crisis. The figure in the photos, Ms. Borsi, finds herself entangled in a garment suspended from the coat hanger. The garment, a tank top, wife-beater shirt, a little raggedy and threadbare like the one Brando wore in “Streetcar Named Desire,” envelops her face and torso. In the sequence of photos she seems to struggle for comfort within the shirt without ever donning it in the expected fashion. This feels like an interior struggle against angst projected outward, dramatized with props.


Identity consists of six photos, three of which show Ms. Borsi modeling a blue turtleneck and black, bobbed wig. The images form pairs, with Ms. Borsi in the first, absent in the second One pair begins with her head, partly obscured by a vertical partition. The second shows a panel comprised of blocks of color taken from the wig, the turtleneck, and her flesh, as though a distillation of the model’s essence in the preceding scene; as though the exterior surfaces define her.

The second pair begins with her holding a white plate aloft to eclipse her head, with her face partly revealed. The second image shows the wig and turtleneck on a table beside the plate.

The third pair shows Ms. Borsi standing erect with a vacant doll-like expression. She stands in front of a clothing rack, one hand clasped over the rack, with the horizontal bar seeming to pass through her head. The second image shows the wig and the turtleneck suspended from the rack.

The intent might be a skeptical, ironic study of consumerist grasping for off-the-rack, corporation-vetted identity. As though identity can be browsed, tried-on, and bought rather than cultivated.

Asphyxia begins with a definition of the term:

asphyxiation (from Greek α- “without” and σφύξις sphyxis, “heartbeat”) is a condition of severely deficient supply of oxygen to the body that arises from abnormal breathing.

The photos capture Ms. Borsi underwater, face pressed against a glass surface. Her expression shows amused detachment, but provokes in the viewer a disquieting sense of dread. This can’t end well, one thinks while submerged in primal fear of asphyxiation by drowning.


The Real Life Models pose Ms. Borsi beside well-known paintings:  “Gelber Narrenhut (yellow fool’s hat),” Rudolf Hausner; “Portrait of a Polish Woman,” Amedeo Modigliani; “Woman with Green Hat,” Pablo Picasso; “Bust of Woman,” Kazimir Severinovich Malevich; “The Corn Poppy,” Kees van Dongen; and “the real life models” from “American Gothic.” Her photos in this series are precisely staged, with the real-life Ms. Borsi on the right, and the original painting behind her on the left. She wears the clothes, the hats, and expressions (except for the Malevich, where she shrouds her head in a red stocking). The effect startles, and testifies to Ms. Borsi’s chameleon-like persona as well as her deft use of image manipulation software. These images delight. The one “unstaged” photo, or so this writer believes, is the last, the “American Gothic,” which seems to represent the prototype for the series.

“Photoshop in real life” plunges Ms. Borsi’s altered countenance into the editor window of Photoshop image altering software. In each photo, she holds aloft in one hand a sketch of the software pull-down menu that pertains to the alteration therein. The series humorously pokes fun at our vain aspirations and eagerness to alter our own appearance, to normalize our distinguishing but imperfect aspects. You can laugh, but don’t frown. That causes wrinkles.


Ms. Borsi’s “Recent Work” shows varied portraits, some playfully surreal like her head in a dome-shaped birdcage, door open, a bird resting on her upheld hand; some unsettling such as an image of her, shown twice, one figure machine-gunning the fleeing image of the other. Golden hair streams behind them both, but from the victim’s head, a cloud of butterflies emerges. Another image that seems to sting the viewer by just looking at it presents Ms. Borsi curled into a near ball on the floor, head tucked under her torso, one hand emerges tentatively grasping the string of balloon, while gruesome thorns grow from her back and sides. Suggesting a commercial fashion shot, another image shows her emerging from a gaudy seashell, all in washed out, artificial, almost sepia-toned hues of brownish gold.

While Ms. Borsi’s work appears tightly bounded by her target concepts, her photos always express creative tension; you sense the narrative playing in her mind and funneled into her work. One also senses ambivalence about the world around her, a desire to challenge viewers to think and act differently if for no other reason than the excitement of it. That ambivalence might spring from youthfulness, and one hopes it does not harden into cynicism, the bogeyman of truth and beauty. She may veer into more ponderous themes, or choose fanciful, magical angles on reality. Her images to date suggest a capacity for both. If she proves to be as astute as her work suggests, she will learn well at university what paths not to follow, and veer away from the pitfalls of early acclaim and well-intentioned but toxic advice.


Q: Your website bio states that you began shooting photos in 2007. Did you practice art in other media before that?

A: I drew a lot digitally, and manually as well. I’ve been interested in visual art since I was a little kid. I tried to develop my abilities — I’ve always wanted to become an artist and do what I love.

Q: Why photography now? Are there photographers whose work you admire; who inspired you to pursue photography?

A: My biggest inspiration is Tim Walker. I really like his dreamscapes, the atmosphere of his masterpieces.

Q: Do you have a favorite artwork, perhaps something in a museum or public-square, that captures for you what art is all about — the power of art?

A: Art is everywhere. Art is freedom. For me, all beauty symbolizes the power of art.

Q: What will your degree in Photography Studies from Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design allow you to do that you can’t already do? In other words, what have you taught yourself that you will not learn at school, and vice versa? (Keep in mind that this writer urges you to continue your studies regardless of your answer!)

A: The field of art is wide, and my teachers explain only some of it, so I try many styles of photography on my own. I’m always curious and open minded.

Q: Do you have more ideas for photos to shoot than time to shoot them, or do you experience dry spells without inspiration?

A: I’ve been so many times without inspiration. Sometimes I need to refill myself with good experiences. These times are very hard for me. While it happens, I’m afraid it will never end. But it always does!

Q: Do you use different cameras for different work, or stick mostly with one model? Do you ever use film instead of a digital camera?

A: I use only one camera; I don’t need others. I don’t need the smartest camera, it’s only a tool to make an image. The moment I capture depends on me. Applying too much “technique” could go wrong. The most important aspect is what I hope to express.

Q: Given a plane ticket to anywhere in the Universe, where would you go and what would you photograph?

A: Definitely into a superhero’s mind. I’ve always wanted to try out levitation, or duplicate myself.