Troppo vero!: Knocking on the World’s Door

By Alfredo Aracil. Assistant Curator

Rather than an essay, Passagenwerk or the Arcades Project is more of a grimoire*. And not just because of its posthumous quality or its prophetic, almost hallucinatory, tone but by dint of the hermetic nerve that runs through it from end to end: loosely ordered quotations and fragments, a clutter of footnotes on History that compile a kind of occult knowledge on the verge of vanishing. In one of those footnotes, Walter Benjamin drops what, at first, might seem like an anecdote yet which strikes us as critical when it comes to understanding the image’s versatility in shifting from support to support while at once taking on different bodies, forms and functions.

Passage des Panoramas in Paris was home to the studio of Prévost, an old easel painter who, following the fashion of the time, changed over to the design of panoramas. A panorama is a circular space surrounded by a canvas painted with views of cities and landscapes which, thanks to a rotating device, transmit to the spectator, located in the centre of the structure, the illusion that the fixed image is in motion. The introduction of these mobile mechanisms in the avenues of Paris during the closing years of the seventeenth century marked a milestone on the road that leads from the supremacy of the written word to the image as a privileged form of knowledge. A road that started out, more or less, in the confluence of two technologies: the printing press and the camera obscura. A direct descendent of the latter, in the nineteenth century the panorama would attain greater sophistication in terms of its ability to simulate realism, in other words, its capacity to produce reality, making the limits of the inner circle that contained the fixed image more and more transparent until it eventually became part of the real landscape. It finally managed to disassociate the image from its hitherto traditional support of the canvas, to first incorporate the definitive mobility already proclaimed in books, etchings and posters... and, then, the status of the reproducible, which arrived with the widespread use of photography and cinema, on a path that takes us straight to the current era and to the global diffusion of images in real time.

Chance would have it that in 1839 a pupil of Prévost would invent the daguerreotype, a device that would bring into the open the fight between art and technology for the monopoly of the image inasmuch as an index of the real. On one side, we had painting and sculpture, which henceforth occupied themselves with the exploration of colour and form always in relation with psychological values, what would eventually end up as abstraction later on in the twentieth century. And on the other, we had the mechanical reproduction of reality, a task that was first assigned to photography and then to cinema, while at once paving the way for a plethora of devices using different technologies, whether photo-chemical processes, magnetic tapes or granular synthesis, that were capable of recording the real countenance of the world. This marked the onset for a utopia of a brand of insight into nature assisted by the machine, that generated thousands and thousands of apparently objective documents by means of non-human estrangement, in other words, by means of the autonomy of a—in principle—neutral technology removed from any aesthetic or ideological sway.

At the same time as this major technological development was taking place, at an unprecedented speed when compared with other moments of history, the nineteenth century also witnessed the proliferation of magic circles, Ouija games, levitators, clairvoyants and all sorts of secret societies, very much to the romantic taste for the hermetic and the extravagant. Whether simply a question of changing fashion or not, in all these cultural manifestations one could perceive a certain drive towards the occult and the veiled, which nineteenth century architecture, with its peculiar relationship between what is shown and what is hidden, reflected through the constructive paradigm of transparent glass: another form of crystal twinned with the camera lens of photography and cinema. Having arrived at this point, it is relatively simple to relate the morphology of the first film machines, handmade with wood with the addition of various metal grafts, to many of the constructions of the time, for instance Crystal Palace. At bottom, we are talking about transparent spaces with a highly marked difference between inside and outside which, at once, introduced a point of view able to lend meaning to a way of looking at the world, where “seeing is believing”, a catchword that gave sense to the Scientific Revolution.

“This world as we see it is passing away” is the quotation with which Paul Virilio opens his celebrated The Aesthetics of Disappearance, an essay on speed and the construction of perception. The phrase, which the French author attributes, not without certain contention, to St Paul, is a sort of prophecy of the advent of visual culture on an admittedly eschatological level: the end time of the image or, seen from another angle, a curse that condemns us to know objects by their appearance only. This ultimately ties the impossible yet necessary knot between reality and image. To this way of thinking, looking is like an endeavour bound to failure, in other words, an impossibility. As many characters from baroque dramas complained, everything they see is nothing but a fiction, a disenchantment with the world, yet nevertheless the only way of gaining access to it.
At the end of the day, it is like a magic trick, almost a prank or joke. The images offered to film and video viewers are always torn between the need to make visible what had once been invisible and, on the other hand, the obligation not to disclose the mechanisms that enable the illusion, in other words, to hide the seams, and not make the trick too obvious. As such, we are talking about giving presence to what was absent without allowing the curtain to show, above all ensuring that it has the appearance of the real. This is borne out in the video The Magician (2003), by Yto Barrada, where the spectator witnesses the know-how of a magician able to reveal, with a simple trick, the similarities between his work and the logic of moving images. A relationship that had already been explored by, for instance, Orson Wells when he donned a top hat at the beginning of his masterful F for Fake (1973), in which he reflects on the falsifying quality of cinema itself through the story of the best forger of all time.

Furthermore, thanks to this ability to distinguish or even invent figures within systems, which humans have capitalised with the goal of shaping the whole of reality in his own image, nature has been transformed into landscape. In other words, limits have been put on the immensity of the cosmic, imprisoning its likeness in a painting or a photo. And nonetheless, the immensity of time and space overwhelm us and, when faced up against it, we are belittled. In Cinelandia (2012), Louidgi Beltrame relates this time frame with the time of human life by highlighting the indifference of the flora and fauna of the jungle towards human life. Is it us humans who see Halley’s comet pass by every seventy-six years, once or at most twice in any given lifetime, or is it the comet that that does not let us out of its sight?

In one way or another, the group of films that make up this exhibition play with the idea of illusion and fiction without ever abandoning the material plane of the image and the screen, which is also symbolic. Whether it be through the knowing nods to the very audiovisual system that includes the whole set of expectations of the spectator with the device, as happens with the movement in the videos by Zhenchen Liu, Jean-Michel Pancin and Pablo Accinelli in which the idea of the point of view is key; or from the exploration of an entirely fictional space by means of references to fairytales or to polyphonic narratives like something out of a novel, as in the case of Maider Fortuné and Beatrice Gibson respectively, or even from bare-faced exaggeration and fantasising as in the work of Mika Rottenberg.

As Adrián Melis and Patricia Esquivias show us, the imagination is, in the end, the essence of thought. Social life takes on meaning through images insofar as they are shared by a community that identifies itself in them and with them. Ultimately, as Moussa Sarr shows us in his video, identity is a performative issue, a drama that is played out semi-consciously, semi-veiled by the gaze with regards agreed roles: we are, he seems to tell us, an object that looks while at once it is being looked at. In truth, it is nigh on impossible to renounce the reality enclosed in representation, which is to say, one is aware that they are images and, therefore, do not constitute or establish the truth. And yet, when a video, by registering reality and revealing the nature of a situation—as Emily Jacir shows us documentarily, without recourses and barely any drama—is able to unmistakably point out the magical nature of the device, its symbolic and ritual qualities, in yet another demonstration of its power to transmute itself, it then becomes tremendously material and outspoken, taking on the form of a political tool that allows us to question the world.


*A grimoire is a textbook of magic. Such books typically include instructions on how to create magical objects like talismans and amulets, how to perform magical spells, charms and divination and also how to summon or invoke supernatural entities such as angels, spirits, and demons

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