Pasajes VI by Sebastián Díaz Morales

In 2021 Ernst van Alphen introduced Sebastián Díaz Morales to H401.  Pasajes VI, produced at H401 in the House of Gisèle, has premiered in June/July 2022 at Gallery Carlier Gebauer in Madrid. Currently his video works Smashing Monuments and Sleepers from the serie Fragments (with Simon Danang Anggoro) are on show at Documenta Fifteen (2022) in Kassel (Germany)

Díaz Morales’s work has been exhibited widely at  venues—such as the Tate Modern, London; Centre Pompidou; Stedelijk Museum and De Appel, Amsterdam; Le Fresnoy, Roubaix; CAC, Vilnius; Art in General, New York City; Ludwig Museum, Budapest; Biennale Sao Pablo; Biennale of Sydney; Miro Foundation, Barcelona; MUDAM, Luxemburg; Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon; the Biennale di Venezia and Documenta Fifteen.

Pasajes VI a film by Sebastían Díaz Morales, featuring Maya Watanabe. Trailer:

Curator and art theorist David Komary contextualises Pasajes VI in the overall series of Pasajes on which Diaz Morales works since 2012.

PASSAGES by David Komary

Argentinean artist and filmmaker Sebastián Díaz Morales (b. 1975) confronts viewers in his short films Pasajes I-VI with a continuum of ruptures, an incommensurable succession of images of disparate spaces and places. Subjected to a subtle form of urban semiotic overload, the viewers and their perception and experience of space, place, and landscape become the observational subject of the films. Díaz Morales’s visual language is characterized by clarity, by a documentary straightforwardness, but also by subtle irony and skepticism. On the surface, his films seem realistic, but as they unfold a symbolic, metaphorical dimension gradually takes over. Díaz Morales leads the viewer into a phantasmal, quasi-magical visual realm, one focused not on escapism but on a subtle yet relentless questioning of our conception of reality.

Díaz Morales’s understanding of reality has been shaped by the living conditions and landscape of his birthplace, Comodoro Rivadavia, an industrial city in southern Argentina located on the Atlantic coast in a rugged area between the Atlantic Ocean and the Patagonian Desert. His questioning of reality in film, whether concerning landscape, the urban, or even the sociopolitical, has been marked from the very outset by a fundamental doubt about the postulate of a single reality. In Díaz Morales’s work, the camera does not function as a medium for faithfully depicting and recording what is observed, but has become instead an essential, even epistemic means of questioning and appropriating reality.

Díaz Morales’s examination of perception and reality is based on the assumption that reality itself is by nature highly fictional. “I am very interested in the notion of reality and fiction. […] My work explores the boundaries between reality and fiction,” says Díaz Morales. Thus, his films do not simply transport the viewer into an alternative, surreal, or phantasmal realm, but rather strip reality of its familiarity and distort it, making it seem like something else. In Díaz Morales’s work, the viewer’s imagination does not function as a basic counterpart to the real. Rather, it operates as a force capable of evoking space and producing it diegetically, one that, beyond generating a direct visual representation, fills in the gaps in seeing and, as the film unfolds, gradually reveals to the viewer the constructed nature of what we call reality. Reality is presented here as a phantasm, as something that has always eluded pictorial definition. It is therefore always “a little bit ahead” of the image and the viewer’s gaze.

In Pasajes I and II, a protagonist, who goes largely unnoticed by those around him, passes through a seemingly endless series of various spaces and places. In each scene, the protagonist is seen entering a space—for example, a corridor, a cellar, a museum, or a hotel lobby—walking through it and then exiting. While the actor in Pasajes I (2012) passes through spaces in the individual scenes, Pasajes II (2013) forms, so to speak, the vertical counterpart to Pasajes I. Here the protagonist does not pass through rooms, but climbs up endless stairs and staircases montaged together in the film. The idea of the ascent not only injects an element of exertion into the film’s narrative, but also an ironic, metaphorical tone through its implication of an indefinite telos.


Pasajes I leads the viewer through a labyrinth of heterogeneous spaces and places in Buenos Aires constructed via a montage of images. Initially, a few of the scenes seem interesting in their own right, but the heterogeneity of the places gradually turns into uniformity, ostensible differences become predictable, since the surprising, unexpected, and varied aspects prove to be factors included from the outset and thus constants. For the protagonist, the strict succession of various passages makes the proceedings feel like a seemingly hopeless and claustrophobic scenario. His walking, his search, must apparently be continued ad infinitum, so that the seeker here becomes the prisoner of his own intention.

The reality and authenticity evoked at first by the documentary visual language gives way to a visual realm of imaginary status. What initially appears to be real increasingly degenerates into a surface phenomenon no longer sustained by anything real. Instead, Díaz Morales fuses the images into an optional reality that impels viewers to see what is perceived as real from a distance, that is, in a different relationship. “The idea behind my work and its process, generally speaking, is to find shelter in the physical manifestation of the world, without trying to destroy it, but by regenerating or revalidating it in order to create ways to explore other aspects of its reality.”


Whereas Pasajes I and II (2012/2013) deal with spaces, places, and non-places in Buenos Aires filmically and spatially, in Pasajes III (2013), shot in vertical format, Diaz Morales creates an urban portrait of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta oppressed by cars. The artist has his restless protagonists drive by and through the most varied but always heavily congested streets and squares of the major metropolis. Getting around on foot is extremely risky here and something only accomplished by direct, physical effort. Frame by frame, the protagonist hurtles, so to speak, into the flow of mopeds, cars, and vans without hitting the brakes. The temporal flow, even time and duration itself, are translated in a seemingly prosaic yet also poetic manner into a technoid, car-centric continuum presented to the viewer as oppressively autonomous, even essential.


In Pasajes IV (2015–17), the female protagonist this time “escapes” the urban space of the city dominating Pasajes I and II (Buenos Aires) and Pasajes III (Jakarta). After a third of the way through the film, the protagonist moves with increasing frequency through the vast landscapes of the Patagonian Desert. Buildings, bunkers, and similar places function here as portals, as doors and thresholds leading matter-of-factly from one non-place, one desert-like non-area to another, relating them together. Immersion in the landscape(s) steadily intensifies throughout the film, until, by the end, the protagonist is seemingly exposed not only to the forces of nature in those deserted areas, no longer only confronted with the question of place and non-place, but with the question of time and ultimately of being itself.


Whereas Pasajes I through IV largely explore abstract questions of place, space, and time, the settings of Pasajes V (2018) and VI (2022) are actual places that bring into play specific historical or narrative allusions. In Pasajes V, Diaz Morales has a former inmate of the last, now abandoned, panoptical Koepelgevangenis prison in Haarlem (Netherlands), designed by Willem Metzelaar, proceed through its spaces and corridors, thus forming a linkage between them in the imagination. The sequence or choreography of spaces passed through is left up to the protagonist, thereby undermining a spatial order predicated purely on control and taking it to absurdity. The centric, panoptical angle of view leaves room for filmic-spatial paradoxes and impossibilities. Surveillance and the surveilled occupy a reciprocal relationship, keeping the original distribution of roles in a state of uncertainty. The documentary element of an “actual” former inmate subverting this very order gives the place—its original repressive function—more weight; on the other hand, however, this documentary quality itself is revealed as a construct, as a directing of the gaze that is itself subject to being directed.


Diaz Morales’s latest film Pasajes VI (2022) is set in the building at Herengracht 401 in Amsterdam, where Dutch visual artist Gisèle d’Ailly van Waterschoot van der Gracht (1912–2013) hid a number of mostly Jewish artists and writers from the Nazis during World War II, ensuring their survival. After the end of the war, van Waterschoot bought the building where she then lived and worked until the end of her life. She later donated the residential building to the Castrum Peregrini Foundation [ since 2019 named: Foundation H401 ] —Castrum Peregrini was what the group of artists had called their wartime shelter—which now functions as a cultural center. The owner and helper of refugees also purchased the building next door, which, together with Herengracht 401, eventually formed the complex and multi-layered spatial setting for Diaz Morales’s Pasajes VI. The location of this spatial continuum turns out to be highly charged per se. But here too, Diaz Morales breaks away from a simple documentary reading, without emptying or neutralizing the place of its history. On the contrary, in this sixth Pasajes film, the artist adds a decidedly temporal and mnemic level to the local, spatial dimension. Individual shots reveal signifiers of another time or times, such as archive boxes stored in the basement, or the fading in of music clearly alluding to a different era than visually portrayed. The artist asserts that Pasajes VI not only transforms the place but also time. The spatial structure explored here, through which the protagonist leads the viewer, presents not only a kind of multiplicity of spatial layers, but also a kind of “time machine” that juxtaposes and superimposes what initially appears as temporally disjointed.


In Pasajes VI, the “portrayed” place also turns out to be something other than what it appears to be or was. Rather, it forms a spatiotemporal inflection point that—even though it is an actual place—makes us think more about time, duration, and, here, about memory and history as well. This spatiotemporal interconnection, similar to the topographical and spatial-diegetic reciprocity of the traversed spaces in Pasajes I–V, is not linear or causal, but reveals itself to be intertwined and interconnected more intuitively than given. This intuitive, almost pre-linguistic interconnection does not seek to be recognized or decoded, but rather made accessible and contemplated. Space and time, as well as the past and history are not closed-off, internally coherent, given quantities, but require active reading, the situating of the relational in relationship.


In the Pasajes series, Sebastián Díaz Morales creates spatial structures from imaginary connections that simply depict what ostensibly exists and that make so-called reality appear as a construct and an illusion. He works with documentary means, with visually authentic set pieces of reality, in order to transpose these—decontextualized and desemanticized—into a visualized universe of expanded visual-ontological qualities. Within this Escherian spatial matrix, the real, the imaginary, and the projective become coequal forces. If the viewer when watching a film (in the sense of a perceiving consciousness) is typically assigned the position of the camera, and thus unites individual images and scenes into a spatially diegetic, coherent whole, this perceiving consciousness is, in Díaz Morales’s work, not only subjected to a chronic overload, but appears in this function to be pushed toward absurdity, even negated. The spatial diegesis ends in architectural impossibilities and a topological collapse. The respective location not only appears deterritorialized; Díaz Morales shows us a seeing without an actual view, a seeing that has less to do with finding than with ceaseless searching. Considered pessimistically, one might think that a transition were presented here from seeing to a kind of visualization, an automated seeing that is only ever distantly and loosely tied to a subject or one that references such a subject. In memory of Plato’s cave allegory, the spatial labyrinth in Pasajes could ultimately be understood as a metaphor for how we construct reality. According to this, we would find ourselves enclosed in a system of highly varied spaces, without ever being able to perceive and recognize ourselves and what is external or ontologically real.


Inherent to Díaz Morales’s narrative-documentary visual language is a deep-seated questioning of the ability to reproduce and capture reality in images. What is real or actual is not discernible as something external beyond the image, but rather as a synthesized reality that exists within the perceiving, thinking, and recognizing subject. In this respect, Díaz Morales’s linking of the internal and the external, that is, the interweaving of internal (imaginary-phantasmal) images with external, documentary images, does not serve purely aesthetic means, for instance of distorting, or of eliciting bewilderment. Rather, a fluid transition forms between the external and internal, the real and the perceived. In this sense, the “work” concerning reality is an unending process of constant questioning, reconciling, and reconfiguring.


Díaz Morales’s protagonists pass through spaces and places where no one lingers, places of transition that can be described as “placeless places.” In the sense that the protagonist never arrives at a destination, his unspecified goal, the reason for his walking and his searching, seems to be continually deferred. In the very progression of this ongoing search, the “recorded” reality is deformed, the signifier detached from the signified. As the film unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that it is not about a type of seeing based on documentation and objectification. Through the aesthetic processes of montage and semiotic overlaying, Díaz Morales opens up for viewers a semi-surreal scenario in which the acting subject (the protagonist) appears ever-more fragile, and in some degree even fictional himself. In the separate scenes, which read as situational and documentary, it may be possible to identify the person as an individual at first, but this figure increasingly becomes a mere variable as a result of the artist’s montaging of visual space, undercutting the viewers’ identification with the protagonist. The gaze—of the protagonist and, by extension, of those watching the film as well—becomes recognizable and observable as one that searches, as a pure searching movement. As a theoretical subject, the protagonist, the “personified void,” ultimately proves to be a challenge for viewers. Instead of being offered the chance to identify with anything, viewers are confronted with a diffuse interface of widely divergent subjectification-tangents. Accordingly, they are thrown back relentlessly onto the provisional nature of their own perception and construction of reality.

David Komary, expanded version of the text “Passages,” published in Position (Vienna: Schlebrügge.Editor, 2020).