SUBVERSIVE INTENSITY OF THE IMAGE NARRATIVES OF LIBERATED FANTASY
Text taken from a catalog published by Gallery 604, Pusan, South Corea
Comments on the work of Marine Joatton, Ugo Giletta and Sandra Vásquez de la Horra
Hannah Arendt’s remark “the last individual left in a mass society seems to be the artist” (1) is more topical than ever, particularly in these chaotic, confusing days of economic, political and ideological crisis and bleak disorientation, which, paradoxically, followed immediately upon the great illusions of the brief and excessive economic prosperity in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. When the crisis broke, this temporary and short-sighted, almost blind and definitely arrogant consumption euphoria in the art market, with its false, unreal, exorbitant prices and irreverent investments, speculations and manipulations suddenly seemed absurd and irrelevant, but above all ethically illegitimate. In a time of crisis in particular, artists attempt to present genuine alternatives in their work, to contextualise relevant narratives and to integrate and reinterpret alternative value systems. In this context, their artistic statements appear to manifest aspects of a resistance to the false illusions and omnipotent, manipulated simulacrum of mass society. When Hannah Arendt writes of the “last individual”, she means the creative competence, the critical independence, the individual responsibility of the artist, which focuses intensively and radically on human realities, on fundamental anthropological experiences.
In this respect, the artistic oeuvres of Sandra Vásquez de la Horra, Ugo Giletta and Marine Joatton seem particularly authentic and noteworthy, with their extremely radical concentration on the liberation of fantasy and on the contextualisation of pictorial narratives in a rich, expanding frame of reference. The excessive, provocative intensity of the sensual physical entity of these visual creations functions as a subversive, liberating, anarchic and creative force that destroys the apparent, seductive attractiveness of the empty, meaningless, superficial, manipulated simulacrum world; it makes its banal spectacularism implausible and intensifies the dynamic cultural, historical and anthropological interconnections of the artistic narrative. This complex, dense, cultural contextualisation of figures envisioned by a liberated imagination embodies the latent connections between specific, current, personal experiences and psychological, mythological, metaphoric narratives that convey certain archetypal attitude models, hierarchies, collective organisations and value systems.
All three artists make reference – directly or indirectly – to preformed, historical, conventional images, to archetypal stories, to cultic, symbolic tales, to religious, mythic, metaphoric narratives, one might say to certain magical, paralogical references, to the enigmatic, ritual practices of diverse cultures and popular traditions, to irrational, unconscious imaginings, to powerful, often anxiety-inducing, terrifying, wild, merciless images of essential, basic, fundamental experiences, which influence the basic orientation of people’s lives and are given expression in archaic, traditional societies directly, without embellishment, without sublimation. In this sense, these imaginings are extremely radical and almost unbearably grim, potent, bitter, uncompromising and merciless, in that they directly relate to the essential experiences that form the basic content of collective narratives and rituals, of folkloric magic, of archaic, cultic attitudes and customs.
In the various works of Ugo Giletta, Marine Joatton and Sandra Vásquez de la Horra, these generally archetypal, basic, magical narratives are concretised in the context of real, current, personal, immediate experiences, in psychological and anthropological moments and emotional narratives; they are personified in the context of certain deep, fundamental cultural, ideological and mythological value systems inherent in contemporary life realities. These naturally include the various conceptions of life and death, such as life after death, body and soul, good and evil, fate and accident: the forces and energies, determinations and constellations that affect each individual life. It is above all the underlying relationship to death and to the various perceptions of the forces that are related to death and that appear to determine the end of life that generate the magical, mythic narratives which – often latently, and considerably transformed – determine basic, deep-seated belief systems.
The radicalism of the figures of liberated fantasy, the immediacy of the uncontrollable psychological event, a certain expressiveness and sensuality, a confusingly provocative physicality and, at the same time, the power of the narratives of destruction, violence and dramatic confrontations, of bleak, inextricable loneliness and marginality, of unrestrained emotionalism, combine to create a hyperintensive, disquieting aura that generally pervades Marine Joatton’s pictorial world. The merciless, forceful, dramatic directness of her pictorial narratives and the corporeal, sensual, tangible physicality of her composition fill her paintings with dramatic power, with an uncompromising excessiveness that draws the beholder into the pictorial narratives completely. Joatton’s dramatic, heavy oeuvre seems archaic and at the same time subtly psychological. Her sensual, powerful figures, often engaged in brutal fighting with one another, emanate a strange, rather mediaeval or folkloric, archaic, even somewhat primitive atmosphere and at the same time convey irrational, complex, psychopathological narratives of the unconscious.
Marine Joatton’s figures are depicted in a constant, dynamic, highly complex, psychologically motivated and at the same time tempestuous and dramatic process of transformation. Animal figures and human bodies, formations found in nature and unfamiliar, unidentifiable, confusing creatures merge with one another to create totally new, surprising and at the same time disquieting forms whose basic essence is this very process of transformation – dramatic, continuous, dynamic and powerful. In this unending process of surprising transformations there are paralogical, pathological moments for which no rational explanation can be found. Its tempestuous, wild, merciless dramaturgy abounds with deep-seated events of the unconscious, obscure psychological experiences, dark memories, frightening images and destructive energies.
The paralogical, irrational, fluid and at the same time picturesque, colourful, complex pictorial narrative determines the basic spatial structure, that is, the spatial relationship between the various elements in the virtual pictorial space, which is presented in a sensual, vibrating, pulsating, constantly changing state. This relentless, tempestuous vitality is dramatic, restless, powerful, often destructive and melancholy, and allows no fixed point, no definite location, no fixed relationship to emerge between the various pictorial elements. The bodies and objects involved in the process are simultaneously firm, hard, tangible, physical and material yet nonetheless soft, fluid, contourless, unidentifiable, fluctuating, amorphous, as if their state were impossible to grasp. A fundamental, one might say mythic, archaic, powerful unrest, an objective, material indeterminability, a provocative, subversive potentiality of the diverse possibilities of development in different directions keep the artistic events of the sensually three-dimensional, ephemeral formations constantly in motion, without evoking any directions, destinations, explanations or lines of development.
This dense, sensual, physical entity of the painted figures creates a poetic intensity in which a provocative, confusing irrationality and an obsessive, vegetative, physical, unconscious dynamic suggests the perpetuity of the relentless transformation of all forms, bodies and figures. The radicalness of the sensuality and the vegetative, surprising, picturesque fertility of the artist’s creation of images, bodies and new figures allows the beholder to comprehend their inevitable, strong materiality, their irresistible, seductive sensuality as conveyers of basic anthropological experiences and their archetypal metaphors, thereby creating a poetic, dense visual and sculptural reality. This imaginary reality, driven by unconscious experiences, by psychopathological processes, evokes archaic, magical, metaphoric narratives, without making direct reference to any specific myth. Yet, at the same time, one senses a strong, albeit latent, connection with the great, mysterious, archaic stories of the collective subconscious, which convey the most painful allegorical narratives about basic human attitudes, sins and redemptions, fears and liberations, in other words, about the irreducibly manifold anthropological realities.
Ugo Giletta works consistently and almost exclusively with the human face, with an archaic and at the same time frightening, sensual archetype of the human being. His figures are in no way portraits; they do not represent any particular, identifiable persons. They are impersonal and alien, corporeal and silent. Their enigmatic foreignness prevents their being allocated to any category, classified in any system. They are simply there, in their material objectivity, without any explanation of where they belong, where they come from, what their history or their nature might be. The absence of mental and personal characteristics, or contextualisable, one might say familiar colour structures, alienate these figures from any kind of narrative. They are simply there, without any stories of their own, free of pathos and homeless.
The grey-blue and earth tones suggest something archaic and distant, something foreign and physical, sculpture-like, although the bodies are imbued with a latent but strong and irresistible sensuality. They are living beings, but they have no personifiable, concrete, graspable existence. This apparent contradiction intensifies the poetically determined, basic and indissoluble ambivalence of these figures: On the one hand, we have before us something archaic, solid, self-contained, compact, dense, simple and universal that activates the connotations of archetypal depictions of the human body as the only powerful, relevant, inevitable, basic reference of mental orientation. On the other hand, the figures take on certain immediate and psychologically perceptible, particular and specific elements of sensual being, that is, they begin to exist as something extremely and provocatively sophisticated, powerful, dynamic, poised, unique, although they are not any specific persons, not partners in any way. They assume their place in the world, they fill empty space, they are present, but their enigmatic silence, their untouchable, solid, uncontextualisable materiality makes them strangers. And yet, they seem somehow familiar to us; they are a part of our world of experience, part of our lives.
Although these enigmatic figures are placed – silent, motionless and without a will of their own – in an empty, undefined space, although they suggest a certain timelessness and indifference to materiality, they nevertheless have an inner, hidden tension, a peculiar, latent energy that appears to dominate them. As if in an eternal state of waiting, they are present in a non-location, in an undefined emptiness, and at any moment an event of transformation could take place, a fundamental, dramatic alteration of status, a radical re-evaluation of their essence and their history. It is precisely this disquieting ambivalence that makes these figures so suggestive and interesting; it is this latent potentiality of a genuine story that makes them so important for us: They carry a message inside them, they have an important significance for the beholder; despite their indifferent, motionless materiality, despite their unbreakable silence, they suggest the capacity to convey something essential. Inherent in this enigmatic, tangible, suggestive silence is something ancient, archaic, barbaric, something that reminds us of important common experiences.
In his essay “Erfahrung und Armut” (“Experience and Poverty”), Walter Benjamin spoke of a new kind of barbarism that had arisen out of the dramatic poverty of experience in the modern epoch; the tiny, fragile human body, he said, stood alone and helpless, totally at the mercy of negative, destructive forces, namely the dangerous and formidable developments of technology. According to Benjamin, this new situation presented a new challenge to contemporary artists, which took the form of a “new barbarism”. In his view, the great, committed artists of his epoch such as Bertold Brecht, Paul Klee or Adolf Loos, whom he considered contemporary artists par excellence, concentrated on the fundamental, radical quintessence of contemporariness, which paradoxically expressed itself in the form of the “new barbarism”. “This poverty of experience is not only a poverty of private persons but of human experience altogether. Is it not, therefore, a new kind of barbarism? Barbarism? Yes, indeed. We say this in order to introduce a new, positive concept of barbarism. For what does poverty of experience do for the barbarian? It forces him to start afresh, to begin anew; to manage with very little; to construct something out of very little…” (2)
According to Benjamin, “to manage with very little” means to be poor and to work, articulate, exist with this poverty as a basis. In concrete terms, the poverty of experience, as he describes it, the reduction of all life experiences to the human being’s vulnerability in the modern epoch, the loss of the diversity of experience, creates a new poverty of contemporary art that forces the artist “to construct something out of very little”. Benjamin analyses the general and powerful right of the contemporary artist “to begin anew; to manage with very little”. He stresses the connection between the dramatic, destructive, frightening lost of diversity of human experience, in other words the poverty of life, and the poverty of contemporary art, which he calls a “new barbarism” and which he evaluates positively, since the true contemporary artist unveils and manifests the true essence of the modern epoch with his “new barbarism”. Poverty is, in fact, an ethical imperative. Poverty means truth, commitment to what is truly contemporary. Genuine contemporary artists speak of the true contemporary situation of human beings; they operate with the “very little” that manifests itself as the “new barbarism”.
This “very little” means reduction, concentration, compression; it means creating a powerful, simple, unembellished and, if you will, barbaric image, which, with no embellishment or idyll, with no legitimation through traditions and conventions and above all with no legitimation through beauty, reveals that which is fundamental, contemporary per se, inevitably true. In this sense, says Benjamin, the bold, great – yes, even “implacable” – contemporary artists “… cast off the conventional, ceremonial, noble image of a human being, adorned as it is with all the sacrificial offerings of the past, and turn to the naked being of the contemporary world, who lies screaming like a newborn babe in the dirty diapers of this epoch.” (3)
This “naked being of the contemporary world” appears in the silent, sparing, enigmatically material, archaically fundamental paintings that Ugo Giletta has created “with very little”. His figures are embodiments of poverty, in that they are reduced to the most essential of human experiences; they are somewhat archetypal human images, sometimes only heads, sometime entire bodies, without personification, without details, without psychological statements. Their sole function is their presence, their motionless existence.
This poverty, this archaic quality, signifies radical, dramatic, uncompromising concentration on the contemporary per se, in other words the consistent rejection of any form of anecdotic, harmonising beautification of the state of the “naked being of the contemporary world”. It signifies a turning to contemporary realities, commitment to presenting a true picture of human beings that is no longer linked with the great legitimation narratives. This radicalism, which was positively evaluated by Benjamin as the basic attitude of the “new barbarism, is by no means solely an aesthetic category, but definitely also an ethical one, since it represents firm commitment to an authentic picture of mankind.
This produces a strong, convincing, solid, poetic coherence. Paradoxically, these material, motionless, sparingly formed, barbaric figures have a latent, hidden drama and an appealing, enigmatic evocativeness, but this emotionality is given no additional personal, anecdotic elements that could in any way divert the beholder’s attention in any direction; the poverty of the subject matter is the source of the authenticity and truth of these works. Ugo Giletta has succeeded in retaining this basic, honest, simple poverty of the image without employing any kind of banal stylisation or imitative archaism.
The poverty of the subject matter does not mean, however, that it contains no early primary experiences: fear, timidity, constraint, frustration, humiliation, distressing encounters and sad losses stored deep in the psyche. Ugo Giletta’s figures are silent witnesses of our epoch, who have been made into reality by “the poverty of human experience”; they manifest this state in their mere existence. They are like storehouses that are only viewed from the outside but hold a great deal within. Their powerful, poetic statement lies in their very silence which seems to say so much: They know a lot, they have seen a lot, they have been formed by the happenings and events of our epoch, they have been shaped by poverty. Their being, in this concrete form, bears the message, without stories, without anecdotes, without further literary concretion. Their poverty is their strength; their mere material, pathosless existence is their true, unyielding statement: They are figures of the “naked being of the contemporary world”.
Sandra Vásquez de la Horra’s drawings are alarming and frightening, barbaric and exotic, obtrusive and seductively corporeal, enigmatic, hallucinative and ghostly. They appear alien and at the same time very familiar, like a remembered experience, as intimate as if they somehow originated from our own world, our own life. This irritating, enigmatic, mysterious ambivalence seems to be one of the most importance, albeit hidden characteristics of the poetic ambience of Sandra Vásquez de la Horra’s works. This ambivalence accompanies the entire diversified, complex process of perception, which operates with extended chains of connotation; at the same time, it imbues her works with a sustained imaginative intensity.
The picturesque, subversive fantasy of these works unfolds in a dense, obscure world of malicious, unpredictable, often aggressive and violent creatures, whose physical identity, morphological affiliation, intentions and motivations remain generally incomprehensible. The beholder is confronted with a constant, unsettling, destabilising transformation of forms and figures: organic, plant-like, animal or human, they defy every effort at identification and force us to perceive them precisely in this fluid, mysterious, irrational, inexplicable state of transformation that is beyond the scope of any conventional, comprehensible logic. There are no impossibilities; it is the improbabilities that are put into sensual, organic forms, which, through the poetic competence of the magical narratives, are made to seem like completely evident, matter-of-course, everyday reality. This light, natural, even naïve treatment of the world of magic, of improbable imaginings and hallucinations, intensifies the magical, cultic, paralogical element of the narrative, which incorporates irrational connections and transformations into the pictorial event as if they were an absolutely matter-of-course part of everyday experience.
The matter-of-course presence of these irrational, fantastic, magical and surreal moments within a graspable, sensual, material, physical reality, where violence, sexuality, emotionality, irony and malice, tangible immediacy and radical fantasy are closely incorporated into the anecdotic narrative, brings the drawn world of Sandra Vásquez de la Horra into proximity with the magical, surreal narratives of folk culture, of fairy tales and folksongs, legends and poems, in which the boundaries between empiric experiences and fantastic, dreamlike, irrational improbabilities dissolve completely. Often the artist creates figures like those found in the colourful, picturesque and at the same time obscure, mysterious, irrational mental and spiritual context of conventional collective beliefs and folk culture, which in most cases reify fear-inspired visions or prevalent images of death, disease or malevolent ghosts.
The tragicomic female figure “Volcanica”, drawn in 2009, is a very good example of this contextuality, which pervades the entire complexity of the subject matter of Sandra Vásquez de la Horra’s art. In this drawing we see an old, hunchbacked, short-legged woman, leaning on a cane, in a grotesque, uncertain and at the same time almost dance-like position, her right leg raised, her head bent low, almost like a figure by Breughel. Her hunch is drawn to look like a volcano, with a crater in the middle, out of which – like an irrational vision – volcanic smoke curls upwards in a divided column to magically take the form of two ghostly animal heads. The transformation of the female figure into a volcano and that of the volcanic smoke into animal heads look totally natural, although the entire irrational event, the entire visual appearance of the figure, the entire physical presence and evocativeness of the scene convey an enchanted, surreal, hallucinative, paralogical narrative. Like a fairytale – picturesque, colourful and improbable – it communicates an intense physicality and sensual reality, yet at the same time its realistic – and grotesque, almost caricature-like, ironic and somewhat derisive, sinister – physicality is combined with a fantastic irrationality.
Something popularly archaic, something conventional, something collectively unconscious appears to be at work here. Sandra Vásquez de la Horra not only relates her own personal, particular, private visions and dreams, she also operates within the dense fabric of folkloric, magical, hidden, collective ideas, that is, in an archetypal, conventional and popular context of age-old metaphoric tales. She radicalises these insofar as she more strongly emphasises certain contemporary orientations and sensibilities, certain current concretisations, and places them in the centre of the narrative. Thus, she works with these archetypal, magical, irrational motifs in new contexts that convey the imaginings and suppositions, anxieties and fears of our age. She intensifies the psychological orientation of the narrative and presents the sexual, pathological, autodestructive implications more openly and directly. At the same time, an ironic, even sceptical, critical and subversive questioning of certain old, traditional beliefs and magical, religious ideas plays an important role in the narrative.
These inexplicable, mystic, yet sensually and imaginatively experienceable, exciting transformations and transgressions, the constant interpenetration and relentless, complicated, many-layered fusion of the respective participating elements, result in a hallucinatory, psychological, sensual intensity of fantastic, often unconscious connotations and intensify the beholder’s wish to participate in this dark, enchanted world which is not as harmless, mild and fairytale-like as it may at first appear, but is actually rife with danger and conflicts.
What we have here is an extremely tension-filled, complex and contradictory process of creation of an authentic narrative, which operates with real, genuine material from popular, archaic, metaphoric narratives while simultaneously subjecting it to subversive questioning, in other words, to constant radicalisation and reinterpretation. On the one hand, the magical, irrational, paralogical, elementary power of art is confirmed – and, thereby, art in the realm of archaic enchantment, of popular, folkloric black magic, of irrational, paralogical, hallucinatory collective experiences, is functionally redefined – and on the other hand, precisely this magical, imaginary, incomprehensible improbability is relativised as theatre, as artificiality, as an intentional – poetically shaped, teleologically aligned, subversively concretised – narrative, and the allegorical, paradigmatic character of the scenes and events is emphasised. This allegorical character, this subversive use of suggestive, folkloric, archetypal elements, frees the subversive potential of the subject matter and creates a powerful, poetically effective, psychologically and emotionally authentic narrative, in which age-old magical visions are transformed into up-to-date, radical metaphors that say something meaningful about our contemporary orientations and sensibilities.
For this reason, Sandra Vásquez de la Horra’s drawings are not to be seen as mere archaisation, even though she operates deliberately and consistently with popular archaic configurations of collective, magical, ritual, paralogical material of the unconscious from conventional, traditional cultures. She seeks ways of liberating this material and utilising its subversive potential, and, by focussing radically on the connotations of a hidden, but obviously violent, pathological, destructive world of obscure, irrational, unpredictable improbabilities, makes us aware of dangerous psychological realities. In this sense, her poetic strategy is a courageous, forceful, poetically complex exploration of the questions of competence in artistic work and the search for an effective, authentic, up-to-date narrative that attempts to convey contemporary sensibilities and orientations through the subversive reconquest and reuse of old, popular magical and irrational ideas.
The poetically powerful agglomeration of irrational, inexplicable, suggestive, aggressive, obscure and enigmatic figures in her drawing creates a fantastic, impenetrable forest of magical, ritual, paralogical connotations and associations, which is supplemented with ethnological and anthropological elements. Out of this, pictorial metaphors emerge that directly link age-old, collective, unconscious, archetypal experiences with our contemporary orientations.
Sandra Vásquez de la Horra’s powerful, dark, sensual visions of an eternal black magic practiced by unknown and unpredictable figures that control the world pour forth in an unremitting flow of images. The motions, gestures, manipulations and obscure rituals of these figures create an atmosphere of anxiety and terror; yet behind it all, a quiet, ironic voice still manages to point out that everything may possibly be just an allegorical presentation, a subversive imitation, that perhaps it is all just a form of mystic, magical theatre, even if this piece of theatre comes horrifying close to the realities of inexplicable, boundless inhumanity, irrationality and manic self-destruction.
Marine Joatton, Ugo Giletta and Sandra Vásquez de la Horra have the courage and the ability to draw attention to irrational, obscure, archaic, traditional, unconscious visions, while at the same time using subversity, irony, critical complexity and sensitivity to depict the eternal, endlessly repeating, anthropologically determined, archetypal human drama with authentic, truly contemporary empathy. Their narratives suggest a subversive and at the same time dramatic way of reading our reality.
1 Hannah Arendt: The Crisis in Culture, in: Between Past and Future, Penguin Books, New York 1977, p. 197
2 Walter Benjamin: Erfahrung und Armut, in: Sprache und Geschichte. Philosophische Essay, Philipp Reclam jun., Stuttgart 1992, p.135 (translated into English from the German source text)
3 Ibid., p.137 (translated into English from the German source text) ausreichend sein.