“… as much as there is nothing new under the sun, so there is not anything stable, perpetual, or permanent, for everything goes through continuous mutability.”
Rodrigo Caro, Works, 17th century
“At the games of plague and life, human beings cannot win anything but knowledge and memories.”
Albert Camus, The Plague, 1947
When earthshaking historical events come to pass –having a deep and shocking effect on human everyday life-, our collective imagery is transformed, but also the way in which we understand those images: a paradigm shift occurs, and it affects not only the production of the former and their systems of representation, but how said images are received and consumed as well. Such was Theodor Adorno’s conception after the Second World War and our encounter with the sheer horror hiding behind the high clouds of smoke over Auschwitz. Once this harsh reality was laid on the table for all to see by means of photographs, films, bones, as well as objects made with human skin or hair, and with identification numbers tattooed on survivors’ forearms: after all that, was it still possible to write poetry? Was it legitimate to go on producing the same images in identical ways? During the cold post-war period, painting went through a comprehensive reshaping with the rise of European informalism and abstract expressionism in the United States. Both trends brought to light the impossibility of creating imagery by means of a figurative art that could hardly match the strength or the radical nature of those actual images, which sent the shivers up the spine of the entire planet and shattered the illusion of Western Civilisation in the middle of the 20th century: an illusion concealing the fact that there were people willing and able to skin a fellow human being while listening to a partita by Bach. This was not exactly the time for aesthetic or contemplative delights; thus, artistic discourses went on the search for new ways of expression.
Needless to say, we cannot compare the harshness of a world war –which shared time and locations with several ongoing genocides- to the situation that the global citizenry have experienced in the last months. After a lengthy confinement triggered by a mostly unknown illness –about which we still understand precious little half a year later-, something we have realised in next to no time is that to overcome this crisis we need not only ready cash, but also science –always despised and under-financed- and, most of all, common sense. Common sense may save lives. In Europe, the cradle of the most privileged denizens of the world, many people –among whom I count myself- have gone through this pre-apocalyptic situation as if they were playing the leading roles in a B-movie about disasters. And yet we all have done so by almost reverting to a vegetative state, by slowing everything down to a halt, fully supplied in our sofas, and stupefied by streaming media services. Then again, reality has made sufficiently clear that those comforts and avoidance resources have not been enough to fill the emptiness provoked by the uncertain future, by this fucking Nazi of an illness that ravages those who are more vulnerable, by death hiding in doorknobs or in the hand of your own child like the minuscule and invisible ecumenical foe it is. The 2020 pandemic does not simply impose an acceptance of the new images that comes tinted by our personal experience, but also –as I was able to understand straight away- sets up a rereading of the works produced before the current crisis.
At the beginning of May, right in the middle of lockdown, UMH’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Culture proposed that Greta Alfaro and I developed an exhibition project. The initial limitations turned shortly into a paradoxical ally: given that producing new work was out of the question, we were compelled to come up with a project that read anew the works created by the Navarrese artist in the last few years. It had to be a retrospective, for which we would only use a part of her output: the part that might enable our discourse, an alternate narrative that should mirror the astonishment and the uncertainty we were going through. As a curator, my perception of Alfaro’s works was shaded by the day-to-day experience of the overwhelming silence in the streets, which one incongruously noticed from the balcony, the only window to chance events available. The majority of her works appeared to have a connection with an unspecified idea of cataclysm –which indeed exists in Alfaro’s work-, updated each and every day.
The exhibition that we have put forth does not go through the motions of the usual retrospective format, which is to say, it has nothing to do with the same old chronological reading that links any given piece with the one produced right after, and follows the unifying thread of the artist’s arc. Furthermore, the production of a new narrative based on the encounters among different works –which is what lies the foundations for the general grammar of expography- would not have been possible without Alfaro’s approval and collaboration, especially profound in this occasion. Therefore, the curatorial work that stems from these principles must be understood as a collaborative effort between the artist and yours truly carried out in a frequent back-and-forth dialogue, whose development we have watched on a cold computer screen for the time being.
The resulting narrative has a strong storyline factor that we hope will be perceived at UMH’s exhibition hall, and we have combined asynchronous works based on discourses linked to concepts of disaster, of uncertainty, of the futile destruction of beauty, of the violence of patriarchy, of the fear concealed in everyday rituals of sociability, of the perversion underlying some religious ceremonies, or of the entropy that seems to be the goal of our invasive way of inhabiting the land. Without a doubt, this show and its inherent discourses are dystopian, something that underscores one of Greta Alfaro’s lines of force. Unfortunately, there is little room for optimism not only after our experience, but also when facing such a ravenous consumption of images: a gush of them spurting out from every corner of the planet, making evident that even though the privileged classes of the first world have an undeniable ability to act with sense and solidarity, they rarely do so. Because the others –the tatterdemalions, the unprivileged, and the wretched of the earth- do not have much of a choice: either a likely illness or unequivocal starvation, if not both. To paraphrase Camus, there is nothing else to do except understanding that the best outcome we can get from the plague is knowledge: to know ourselves, both in the greatness budding in unexpected places and in the miseries that we have learnt to disguise.
In this sense, this project is not just another exhibition for us: without a doubt, it is the exhibition of the confinement, of the pandemic. The fury, the unfettered and sometimes enraged criticism in the face of what I hear what I see, the pain for the people I have lost, the sadness of ascertaining that my expectations of a better world are nothing but empty thoughts, determining how preposterous is our going through the motions day after day, or decrying injustice: all of the above clings stickily, like honey, to Alfaro’s works. Indeed, this is a moment that highlights the context more than ever before.
The first time I talked this exhibition over with Greta Alfaro, I told her about my feelings of uncertainty and about the dystopian flavour that, in my view, most of her works gave out. I was particularly interested on the many references to Baroque culture – some times with regards to her imagery, other times in terms of updating its grammar. No one will fail to notice the references to Clara Peeters, Juan Arellano or, above all, to Valdés Leal (and his exceptional mixture of anguish with playfulness) in a work as full of unmistakeable flamboyance and contrast as is El cataclismo nos alcanzará impávidos [The Cataclysm Will Catch Us Undaunted] (2015), in which the objects show more than metonymy and acquire an anthropomorphic nuance, leading them to be raped and destroyed by a phallus that does indeed become a metonymy for patriarchy. In the distressing video titled In ictu oculi [In the Blink of an Eye] (2009), Alfaro uses allegoric language as a primordially Baroque system of representation as well. This work was created right at the beginning of the economic crisis that just a decade ago laid waste to our still budding Welfare State. However, it can be seen as a prologue for our current predicament in a time continuum that has given us nary a chance to take a brief respite. Baroque theatricality is also at the back of a piece like Honor y gloria [Honour and Glory] (2016), with a minimising use of elements and a sort of Carthusian, stripped down, and plain composition: something that we can find in the paintings of Zurbarán or Sanchez Cotán. The attraction exerted by this aesthetics –which some of my colleagues have also underscored in their essays on Alfaro’s oeuvre- is subsequently more than noticeable in her output: in works such as Invención [Invention] (2012) or Fall on Us, and Hide Us (2011), she appropriates architectures originally designed for catholic rituals –which had been erected in Mexico and Spain- as the setting for her work. In Invención, carried out in the Mexican location Ex Teresa, she drives the idea of ritual to its last consequences in a country whose complex gastronomy –as Italo Calvino sharply analysed in Under the Jaguar Sun– has some hidden flavours: such as the taste of blood from anthropophagic and sacrificial rites. (It is by no means a coincidence that this work encourages collective rituals, inciting its viewers to devour the very architecture –religious in origin, mind-, covered in white meringue that has been toasted golden by fire.)
Nevertheless, what I find most mesmerising is her use of a suspended time concept, which Greta Alfaro skilfully contrasts with the idea of pattern repetition that lies beneath each and every ritual, be it religious (Honor y gloria) or social (Budapest y Viena, 2009.) In a somewhat dystopic way, this is a concept that harks back paradoxically –that is right, paradoxically- to a particular philosophy of change whose origin, in my view, once again can be traced back to Baroque culture –“Nary a thing remains still in Nature”, argued Saavedra Fajardo-; but in Alfaro’s work this leads entropically to its very beginning, to be repeated time and again without a chance of resolution, knowing full well that a change of the situation seems unlikely (Decimocuarta estación [Fourteenth Stop], 2019.) Very much like our age, the 17th century was riddled with plague, starvation, and a devastating economic crisis that became exceedingly cruel in the lands comprising what was known then as the Spanish Empire. Moreover, during our working process we dug out more recent pieces that were also imbued with a Baroque spirit and seemed to have gained an unexpected timeliness: such was the case of Terremoto in palazzo [Earthquake in the Palace], which Joseph Beuys carried out in Naples in 1981. This piece has been at all times on my mind, like a mantra, all through the last phases of confinement: it was an installation of old trinkets and fruit jars whose inherent instability goes together with the fraught knowledge, now more than ever before, which reveals that the frantic wingbeat of a chiropteran on the other side of the world has unchained a cataclysm that has made all of us stumble at the same time. As in a Baroque vanitas, this has placed every individual, poor or rich, in the same circumstance: that of being well aware of our own helplessness.
The power of the world has alighted on the wings of a bat.