Cristina de Middel’s latest photographic work focuses on India, drawing connections with Charlie Chaplin in a characteristically whimsical style, writes Lola Mac Dougall
Adipur, in Gujarat, is a town with a Charlie Chaplin fetish. Each year, on the 19th of April, it hosts the biggest known parade of Chaplin impersonators. Since 1973, children, well-to-do middle-aged women and retired men of humble origins have been congregating there under the uncomplicated motto of “be good, be happy” to celebrate the long-lasting spirit of Charlie Chaplin, in contrast to the easily consumed and quickly forgotten blockbusters of today.
During one of her trips to India, Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel came across the news of this celebration in an in-flight magazine, and was fascinated by the way fiction had indented the town’s reality.
De Middel’s ability to inhabit a documentary photography space while letting free her exuberant imagination has become one of her trademarks. In Party (2013–2014), she filtered the text of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book—the most widely printed book in history after the Bible—till it became almost unrecognisable: she scratched out words from Mao’s well-known aphorisms and altered their original meaning by juxtaposing them with her own images of contemporary China.
Her interest in reinventing archives was again made patent in Currucucú (2016) for which the starting point was crime-scene photographs from the Mexican tabloid Alarma. She recreated these as drawings to which she added balloons with lyrics from rancheras—the popular Mexican musical genre. The result is a puzzling experience in which one is made to realise how the medium alters our experience of violence and our threshold of tolerance to it.
Who has not received one of those spam emails where an unknown person presents a dramatic situation in just a few lines to immediately offer both the possibility of redemption and the promise of immense riches? These emails—a literary genre in themselves—give us access to faraway lives worthy of plotlines in soap operas. In Polyspam (2009), the photographer used these appeals to “our mercy and greed” as inspiration for a series of portraits of the imagined senders that remind you of film shots. The results are deliberately contrived, suggesting that de Middel is both the director of the cinematic production and a con artist herself.
The interplay between the real and the imagined is apparent in Jan Mayen (2015), where de Middel revisited the story of a 1911 failed Arctic expedition whose scientific explorers, upon realising they would not be able to reach their destination—the titular island on the east of Greenland—decided to stage the landing on the shores of Iceland instead. Pushing the pretence a step further, de Middel paired the fake vintage images with her own constructed images, shot this time on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
This staging of history had already been explored in The Afronauts (2012) to great critical success. Much has been written about this self-published work, which was inspired by Zambia’s 1964 space programme. Of all the anecdotes regarding the production of this now cult book, my favourite is the one in which de Middel’s grandmother, who lives in Alicante, Spain, stitched the space suits made with African wax-printed cotton fabric produced in the Netherlands. It is amusing to imagine the grandmother as a collaborator in the creation of an African-inspired universe in southern Europe.
Perhaps in Adipur’s legion of Chaplin fans, de Middel found a similar instance of a fortuitous encounter of cultures, a geographical dislocation which had the potential to put forth more universal reflections, as I will argue a little later.
The body of photographs known as The Perfect Man is aesthetically inspired by the first 10 minutes of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). To this, the Spanish photographer adds many genre-defying visual layers while superimposing other languages: her own hand-drawn illustrations coexist with diary-like written entries as well as vintage found photographs. In fact, this idea of borrowing is precisely one of its key subjects, which also investigates labour conditions in developing countries, imperfect men and the sense of touch.
The impersonators from the Chaplin Circle—founded by Ashok Aswani, a doctor who admits to having prescribed his favourite hero’s films as medicine—imitate Charlie to celebrate the positivity of his message. De Middel, similarly, uses the artistic device of parody to comment on, amongst other things, the working conditions of the underprivileged in India (and, at times, we have the feeling that we are inside a parody of a parody). Interestingly, Chaplin shared with the Spanish photographer a “suspicion of a picture with a message”, a refusal to use images for didactic purposes that put her off photojournalism, which has only benefited the fans of her more conceptual practice.
In Modern Times, Chaplin denounced the use of machinery to subdue workers, and the missed opportunity for industrial progress to benefit mankind. It is believed that it was his encounter with Gandhi—who had never seen a Chaplin film till then—which sparked off the idea. The Mahatma, who impressed Chaplin in that London meeting of 1931 with his “will of iron”, had been campaigning against the use of “machinery with only the consideration of profit”. As luck would have it, one of the most striking images is a portrait of a cross-eyed boy (is de Middel suggesting a confluence of two perspectives, two cultures?) against a painted background of a khadi-clad Gandhi. Similarly, the abundance of portraits of parade participants whose costume is nothing but cheap, mass-produced cut-out Chaplin masks, echoes a certain alienation. The flatness of the masks, which obliterates individuality, produces—at least in this reader—a disturbing feeling of out-of-placeness. This awkwardness is emphasised by a bi-dimensionality inserted into a 3D world which, in turn, will be further flattened by its becoming a photograph.
One of the central issues of The Perfect Man seems to point to the idea of translation. The big chunk of imagery consists of black-and-white staged portraits of workers in factory settings, with their skins coloured blue. The hint at blue-collar workers will be lost on non-English speakers. The reference to the blue Hindu god Krishna will not imply, for non-Indian readers, that blue is just a convention, as the use of a darker colour would make it impossible to represent the god’s features. The above are just examples of how an apparently uncomplicated
operation, like being able to tell one colour from another, can be lost in translation when deciphered by “the other”. On occasion, the unavoidable failures of translation are mocked: the sheep that Chaplin juxtaposes with workers exiting a factory at the beginning of Modern Times become goats and cows; the quasi-mythological image on the cover, half-Chaplin impersonator, half-chicken, reminds one of the famous scene of the roast duck in the restaurant in the film.
But the insecurities any outsider must grapple with when interpreting a foreign culture become more apparent if The Perfect Man is seen as a catalogue of the myriad ways in which men touch other men in India. We see them through the hand resting on a friend’s shoulder in the vintage photographs. They are there in de Middel’s candid photographs as well as in the hand-drawn paintings of men holding hands, a sight that one so often observes on Indian streets and that have been—wrongly, in my opinion—understood by some Western reviewers as expressions of homoerotic desire or masculinity.
The Ring of the Dove is a love treatise written circa 1022 by Ibn Hazm which devotes many a page to the signs and tokens of love:
“After verbal allusion, and once the lover’s advance has been accepted and mutually agreed, the next step is hinting with the eyes that play a laudable part and achieve wonderful results. A glance can banish and attract, promise and threaten, reprimand and encourage, command and ban, look daggers at the servants, warn against spies, cry and laugh, concede and deny. Each one of these situations is reflected in a particular way in the eyes and yet, these signs cannot be defined, unless they are seen, and they can neither be painted or described for the most part.”
How graceful flirtation seems in these pages, how familiar it all appears despite having been penned by a Muslim novelist in the 11th century from Xativa, less than a hundred miles from de Middel’s hometown. How natural those thousand-year-old gestures seem even today.
Looking at The Perfect Man reminded me of that feeling since the fascination of the photographer with this “licence to touch” points towards the question of how gestures are to be read. Are some expressions of affection universal, while others remain culture-specific? Is this licence to touch—more apparent amongst the “great unwashed” and young Indian males—encouraged by a society that bans any physical contact between men and women, save those within the bounds of the family?
When, towards the end of Modern Times, Chaplin finds his voice on screen for the first time, it is to sing a song in a nonsense verse: “Se bella piu satore, je notre so catore, Je notre qui cavore, je la que, la qui, la quoi! Le spinash or le busho, cigaretto toto bello, ce rakish spagoletto, si la tu, la tu, la tua! Senora pelefima, voulez-vous le taximeter, Le zionta sur le tita, tu la tu la tu la wa!”
The first words ever uttered by Chaplin in a film are in a language made up of French and Italian-sounding words that nobody can understand but—with the help of his pantomime act—everyone can grasp, as a storyline of seduction can be discerned unmistakably from the scene. Photography, too, communicates via suggestions and associations that the viewer can ignore or shuffle around, creating meanings the image-maker is unable to anticipate. De Middel’s preference for equivocal imagery parallels the musical scene in the film: it creates a succession of images that may not be fully comprehensible, but which nevertheless convey enough for one to get a sense of what has been alluded to while laughing along the way.
The result is a book published last year by La Fábrica (Madrid) and the Images Festival in Vevey, in Switzerland. It contains two inserts with particularly intriguing photographs printed in a smaller size and in colour. Acquired by de Middel from a street vendor in Ahmedabad in the form of a slide box, they appear to be from the private archive of an orthopaedist. Most of them are medical photographs that follow the progress of patients, and the viewer becomes the photographer’s accomplice in breaching the confidentiality between doctor and patient. These are, above all, imperfect men, whose joints are being put back in place, echoing the nuts and bolts to be found everywhere in The Perfect Man. We see the patients’ scars and are made to remember the imperfect human machine. But this is no ordinary doctor, as images of late-night parties, women in underwear and a close-up of a broken bamboo shoot also comprise this idiosyncratic collection, creating a borrowed mini-narrative within the publication.
Would an orthopaedist, suffering from an occupational hazard, look at Chaplin’s bow legs without thinking of orthopaedic contraptions to correct them?
In a 1912 internal memo released by Universal Studios last year, the bosses advised that, in order for Chaplin to become successful in the United States, “the moustache must go.” He would also have to “change his name. Too easily confused with another comic, Charlie Chase. Also Chaplin sounds Jewish.” And just to show that an oversensitivity to the offence caused by humour is nothing new, the studio added: “Also, do not allow Chaplin to walk comically. This may look alright on English music hall stages but for mass audiences we must try to avoid offending people who are bow-legged or cripples.” One is grateful that political correctness did not deter Chaplin from building up his character. For what could be more universal, more inspiring, than a man making of his imperfection his greatness?
De Middel’s passage to India has produced a well-crafted work that playfully explores cultural misunderstandings and celebrates that which is fortunately imperfect.
This essay was published in Jul-Sep 2018 issue.