Miraculous Images: The Work of Teresa Ascenção
Working in a variety of media that includes video, photography and documentation, Teresa Ascenção’s work addresses some of the ideas exemplified in Clement Greenberg’s groundbreaking essay, “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” from 1939. In this crucial text, Greenberg noted the relationship between cheaply-produced popular imagery and the work of the avant-garde as a response to contemporary culture and the urge to create meaningful objects. Through her photographs, Ms. Ascenção adapts toys and eye-catching methods used in advertising to her works that address larger issues around gender, religion, performance, popular culture and expectations.

There are a number of other significant elements to Ms. Ascenção’s work. Both historic and contemporary, the artist’s work addresses the construction of gender as influenced by her own cultural perspective. She emphasizes the relevance of these themes by using out of the ordinary technological and methodological approaches. Evoking elements of 1970s and 80s performance art, her Kodak Catholicism project takes the spectator through the experience of a pilgrimage. On September 9, 2007, the artist set out, among a group of 20 pilgrims, on a visit to Aylmer, Ontario. The Virgin Mary had been said to appear to visitors at Greensides Farm in Aylmer. Photographing each step of the event, these series read like performance pieces in which the participants are each taking part in the development of an important event.

The project takes its title from a scholarly article published in 2004:

Since [1905], Catholics have increasingly utilised the photographic process in the hope of documenting supernatural phenomena, creating sacred proofs, and being in contact with the divine. This practice, also known as “miraculous photography,” has become especially prevalent and important in the post-Conciliar period among Marian devotees and other Catholics yearning for external signs of their Catholic religious faith.

For her own part, the artist developed Kodak Catholicism by drawing on her thoughts about gender construction and how this has also affected the history and development of religion as well as the media. Her journey through the photographic process has been, in part, a search for the woman who is held up as the pinnacle of perfection, the Virgin Mary. Inspired by Daniel Wojcik’s essay, Polaroids from Heaven, the artist has made a concerted effort to document religious pilgrimages in the hopes of capturing one of her own “miraculous photos.” According to Wojcik, the practice of miraculous photography grew out of a folk religious practice that adapts the most significant aspect of the photograph—the belief in its authenticity—to document miraculous phenomena. This aspect of photography, its ability to present what is believed to be an image of reality, of actuality, of immediacy, inspired the artist to explore the boundaries of the camera as a standard bearer of truth. In her words, she sought to “go beyond what I thought might be camera optics and perceptual illusion.”

Ascenção notes that, given the preponderance of digital and disposable cameras in contemporary culture, anyone can potentially record a miraculous image. With her project she created a photographic blog, allowing visitors to her site to upload their own miraculous photos. She became inspired and influenced by believers who held that the Virgin Mary herself had called on the artist to undertake this project. Other serendipitous occurrences reinforced these ideas, such as when the artist encountered an abandoned religious plate decorated with the image of the Virgin of Fatima. A plaque on the plate noted “I prayed for you in Fatima, Portgual,” underscoring again the uncanny coincidence between the artist’s life, her art, her background and the spiritual underpinnings of her latest endeavors. With the blog, viewers are encouraged to share their own images of miraculous phenomena and to post responses to the Ascenção’s images.

By documenting her pilgrimages to Marian apparition sites, Ascenção participates in larger art historical movements that have valued experience and the documentation of an event as much as the art objects themselves. As such, her images of Sun Miracles combined with her implied presence at the other end of the camera underscores their dual function in representing both a participant as well as the recorder of the event.

Ascenção also has made video works addressing religion and its power. Her Glowing Madonna video blends aspects of pop music videos with religious imagery and allusions to nature as the location for miraculous events. Faint visions of the Virgin’s features are seen through a mass of leaves, dramatically silhouetted against the sky. We then see the emergence of a contemporary Virgin Mary, dressed as a young celebrity fit for the red carpet. Her arms float slightly away from her body, adding to the sense that she hovers in the air before the viewer. Surrounded by a glowing greenish light that alternates with kaleidoscopic flashes of stained glass window-forms, she becomes a vision upon the video screen. Floating down from the heavens, the modern Virgin Mary lands in the middle of a church nave, the altar at her back. She beckons with her soft voice: “I am with you, I am you, Superstar . . . . Come into the light; Now step away, See what you have created.”

Ascenção’s Maria series of lenticular photographs also address the fraught relationship between gender and religion. The artist encourages audiences to simultaneously participate in the reading and enjoyment of her works, becoming part of the spectacle itself. Because of the movement recorded in the photos and revealed only through the lenticular screen, the spectator must move in a bowing motion before each of the richly colored works in order to get the full effect of the image(s). Thus, the movement in the work becomes significant, as does the motion of the participant, as though revering each image individually.

Lenticular images are created by merging each stage of an animation into a single photograph, which then has the lenticular lens screen applied on top of it. The image, when viewed through this screen, appears to move. As a rhetorical strategy, the lenticular photograph underscores the artist’s ability to convince and to encourage the viewer to participate in the realization of the work.

The universal literacy allowed by religious images from the middle ages onward made great advances in terms of conversion of masses, the spread of Catholicism, the identification of the individual with the religion as a personal response to narrative, linear imagery and to individual representations of saints and other holy figures. Relying on the legibility of this kind of image, the artist has taken these images one step further in re-presenting the image of the Virgin Mary in the background of the everyday experiences of a doll also named María. As the little María doll makes her way through the day, she is accompanied in each frame by an image of the Virgin Mary in the background. Describing her concept, the artist notes:

In Portugal, María is the most common woman’s name. I named the series to refer to every woman and I placed the Virgin Mary in each scene, both as a reminder of how it came to be that María is a common name for women, but also as a reminder of how a woman’s behaviour is constantly being monitored by a society influenced by religious beliefs.

In effect, this is the gist of much of the artist’s work, where the construction of gender and expectations about women’s activities are influenced by a variety of social and religious ideas. The playful titles of the series are a reference to children’s games and are meant to imply unfinished sentences and banal acts as a striking contrast to the images themselves. As part of the artist’s larger body of work, these whimsical images emphasize her continued interest in popular culture.

--Rocío Aranda-Alvarado