The opening section of Robert Bolano’s brilliant 1998 novel The Savage Detectives tells the story of a group of young artists, students, and revolutionaries pounding the streets of Mexico City. They called themselves the savage realists and considered themselves a radical response to the magical realists that defined art from the Americas for so much of the 20th century. The savage realists created their manifestos based on ideas gleaned from Jack Kerouac, Andre Breton, and Arthur Rimbaud. Bolano’s characters navigate the chaos of Mexico City, writing poetry, going to readings in bars and coffee shops, and openly rejecting anything to do with the establishment. Bolano beautifully portrays them as equally idealistic, romantic, hungry, and naïve.
The immediacy, the urgency of now remains clear, as Silveria’s work reads like a diary, a confessional, but also full of incredible confidence and charisma.
In many ways, reading through Contratempo by Brazilian photographer Romeu Silveira reminded me of The Savage Detectives. Silveira compiled the book between January and March 2020, while working as an artist in residence at La Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris. Contratempo is a frenetic visual experience of a South American artist arriving in Paris only to see it shut down by COVID-19, left to process his anxiety while exploring the traces of the city still left open. His work exudes energy and feels like a restless, romantic idealist trying to figure out what the fuck is going on. The book is a fast-paced visual journey with each page jam-packed with a collage of elements – classic street photography of Paris, sketchbook pages, barcodes, pictures yanked from the internet, self-portraits, artworks gleaned from the city’s museums and galleries, and even pictures from back home. The immediacy, the urgency of now remains clear, as Silveria’s work reads like a diary, a confessional, but also full of incredible confidence and charisma.
I came to the Savage Detectives connection incrementally, my first readings more connected to Kerouac and Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama, specifically his New York work from 1971 and his book of essays, Memories of a Dog (Nazraeli Press, 2004). When visiting New York, Moriyama didn’t speak a word of English, but relentlessly combed the streets for pictures, spending his nights developing the photographs before Xeroxing them and binding them into books. Silveira’s work feels quite similar, with each page urgently dashed out onto the paper day after day, bearing his restless confusion for all to see. Memories of a Dog is a collection of essays, perhaps better described as installments, originally published in Asahi Camera in 1983. The writings are like diary entries of a romantic outlaw, reading Kerouac while photographing Shinjuku, sleepless nights spent processing pictures, all of it smelling like bourbon, stale coffee, and tobacco.
I love Memoirs of a Dog, in all its bravado – a young male outlaw using literature and his camera as his primary tool. Contratempo has a similar bravado, a young romantic willing to break any rules for love, freedom, and good poetry. Whether you think of it like Dean Moriarity and Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s protagonists in On the Road), Memories of a Dog, or the savage realists, the basic archetype is the same – the restless poet, an outlaw on the margins, hungrily looking for new experiences and poetic forms.
La Cite Internationale des Arts makes for the perfect backdrop. It is an international residency program located in the heart of Paris, just off the islands of Saint Louis and Notre Dame, right around the corner from La Maison Européenne de la Photographie. A remarkable resource, La Cite is a large complex with over 300 studios, hosting artists from all over the world – Africa, South America, Europe, the Middle East, the South Pacific, and North America. It seems like the perfect way, if there is such a thing, to cope with the global lockdown, in isolation with other artists, and given the space, time, and ambition to explore one’s own history against the backdrop of one of the world’s greatest cities. Contratempo is a testament to these unique circumstances.