‘Tell me: how long could you spend looking at this sticker? And at this other one? Do you remember? And this little detail over here? Years…centuries! A whole morning…! It’s impossible to know… You were in full flight, ecstasy. Suspended in a pause. Raptured! Look!’1
The opening sentences of this text come from the film Arrebato (Rapture), by Iván Zulueta (1979). In this scene the character played by Will Moore conveys to the one played by Eusebio Poncela the tremendous power of fascination (or ‘rapture’) that an image charged with certain meanings and personal memories may have over its beholder. This fetishism, a celebration of the semiotic power of images and of the technology which records and plays them, is something which David Ferrando Giraut shares with the recently deceased Zulueta, an essential reference point for him for various reasons which we shall explore below.
The work of Ferrando Giraut (Negreira, Spain, 1978) captures the tension experienced by an artist with a Romantic spirit who must create his work in a highly technological, postmodern and post-structuralist environment. And when I say ‘Romantic spirit’ I do so with a full awareness of the clichés associated with this 19th-century art movement. If one could synthesize the three major themes in the work of Ferrando Giraut, they would be death, desire and memory. Essential themes in the works that make up this exhibition: Journeys End in Lovers Meetings (2010), The Fantasist (2011) and Loss (2011).
The image, objet petit a
But death here is something far more complex, with many more layers of meaning beyond the idea of “ceasing to exist.” For Ferrando Giraut death is a powerful symbol, an exquisite metaphor to speak of man’s drive – of his own drive, above all – to freeze changing realities into fixed images:
“When an object or idea seduces us, in an immediate and unconscious way we turn it into an image, which allows us to grasp and assimilate it. When what seduces us is a person, the strategy is the same: we turn it into an image, whether mental or physical (through a photo or any other type of recording). In this way we can reconstruct that person exactly as we wish. Thus can we also remember the person when they are not present. The problem is that, in this way, this live and organic person is converted into a fixed image, something inorganic. It is as if we were in some way killing the person as an autonomous and constantly-changing entity, turning a life, which is something organic, into an image, which is inorganic.”
David Ferrando Giraut2
The “death” which cinema inflicts is also portrayed by Iván Zulueta in Rapture, where the camera is, metaphorically, a vampire: an entity which absorbs and denaturalizes the protagonist, converting his life into images to the point where his life disappears, exhausted. That fatal attraction to images – symptom of a death drive3 – as well as a collision of two cinematographic genres, horror movies and arthouse cinema, also draws these two visual artists together.
The dead woman, so present in the work of Ferrando Giraut, thus takes the shape of a metaphor for the image. And the image, in turn, is revealed as a metaphor of desire, perhaps even as the very essential object of desire (Lacan’s objet petit a4) of an artist for whom the image, more than a mere instrument through which to work and present his anxieties, is the anxiety itself, his dark fetish. The image/death binomial, so present in the work of cinema theorists such as Laura Mulvey and Raymond Bellour, tends to be associated with psychoanalytic theories, in this case the aforementioned Freudian concept of the “death drive” being particularly pertinent: the drive towards death, self-destruction and the return to an inorganic state.
Returning to the previous idea, a cinema fetishist is, according to Christian Metz, “one who is fascinated with what cinema is capable of doing, and also by its technological tools.”5 And, indeed, a reflection on the use of the image and sound recording technologies is another of the cornerstones of Ferrando Giraut’s work.
Recording technologies: ways of seeing, ways of remembering
The idea of ghostliness or immateriality as something inherent to recording technologies is fundamental to Ferrando Giraut’s conceptual lexicon. It is an intimate and indissoluble association, with a special predilection for the record player and its inseparable vinyl record.
Already in works such as Road Movie (Perpetuum Mobile) (2008), we see how a video piece is combined with the presence of obsolete technologies, creating a tension of signifiers and offering a far more complex interpretation of the works. Road Movie presents an accident on a small roadway in the artist’s hometown (Negreira, Galicia) in a disturbing and obsessive fashion, through a dense and suspended temporal space reminiscent of the films of Tarkovsky. A vitrine contains the work Storyboard, a series of vinyl whose covers feature different scenes of cars in wild settings, creating narratives about their degradation. The vinyl seem to anticipate the future, portending what we will later see. In his seminal novel Crash J.G. Ballard created an ode to the fetishist power of the automobile over the bourgeois citizen, with the traffic accident as the maximum sexual expression of that perverse relationship. For Ferrando Giraut the choice of the accident represents a question of fetishism too, but in this case it is linked to cinematographic conventions and to the symbol of the traumatic event, of Romantic implications. This idea is reinforced by the beautiful and ominous landscape and by the presence of the vinyl, analogical (or indexical) and obsolete containers in a world that is veering towards the digital.
This obsession with vinyl as a paradigm of technological ruin repeats itself again in subsequent works such as Ruin Builder (2008), where audiences are invited to play an album on which an eerie voice makes us conscious, in a calculated meta discourse, of the temporal fragmentation experienced between the moment of the recording and the moment we listen to it. On a nearby wall another collection of vinyl, in this case referencing architectural ruins, adds to this sensation of decay.
In Journeys End in Lovers Meetings each and every one of the pieces is brimming over with technological ruin. The film work was shot in 16 mm, while the collection of Polaroids of kisses from horror movies speaks to us of a dead, and later revived, photographic format. Even the record player, where a broken Kate Bush vinyl is playing, is vintage. Journeys End… can be interpreted as an elegy to the technology which the artist grew up with, and to the audiovisual products with which he built his understanding of the world, of love, and of the image.
In Loss, his most recent work, we are shown a selection of ads for image and sound recorders and players that were widely used between the 60s and the 80s. Nearby, we find another record player, now almost a trademark item, but this time hidden in a coffin-shaped piece of furniture that Ferrando Giraut copied from a similar one he grew up with at home. The persistent appearance of obsolete technological objects reveals a nostalgic vision of bygone elements of the artist’s life which, as he himself recognizes, form an essential part of his creative process. The repetition of strategies throughout different pieces, in addition to the seriality of the elements contained (series of vinyl, ads, record players) may be understood as a subjective use of the archive: accumulations of objects and documents that speak to us of the societies which produced and consumed them.
The sociological aspect of these ‘archives’ – belonging to the mass media – offer Ferrando Giraut the possibility of taking these personal questions over to a universal level, laying down bridges for the audience, using a system of signs which is recognizable for the vast majority.
“My understanding of an artist’s work is that, although he has to be conscious of the history of Art and its traditions, he also has to be capable of creating and offering something new, related to a personal point of view on the world. My work arises from personal anxieties and emotions, but I also seek common ground with the audience. Themes such as death and desire are universal questions that affect everyone, but nobody has been able to fully explain our relation to them. I think that this tension between the unknown and the will for knowledge creates a favourable place for communication.”
David Ferrando Giraut6
Nostalgia: textures from the past and invented memories
We have already mentioned the important role which nostalgia plays in the work of Ferrando Giraut. For him it represents a powerful mechanism which functions on two separate but connected levels. On one hand there is intimate nostalgia, related to memory and individual remembrances. On the other there is a kind of collective nostalgia in which personal memories meld with the visual and mental tracks left by a sort of cultural memory – especially during the last century, due to mass media and the cinema. Thus, the human need to experience films and stories is linked to the process of generating and reliving memories.
In the work of Ferrando Giraut – and this is especially patent in works such as Natural Scenes (2006), Journeys End in Lovers Meetings and Loss– the involuntary memory (so vividly described by Proust in the passage on the muffin in In Search of Lost Time) may prompt us to conjure up our own memories, but may also evoke in us “learned” memories such as, for example, the landscapes and heroines of Twin Peaks, triggering in the artist memories of his adolescence in the lush forests of Galicia, where an encounter with Laura Palmer might not have been so surprising, but something desired.
The writer and film director Alain Robbe-Grillet – author, along with Alain Resnais of the script of the masterful study of memory entitled Last Year in Marienbad7, as well as of exquisite visual essays on eroticism and the masculine gaze – is another staunch defender of the organic and creative potential of human memory:
“Memory belongs to the sphere of the imagination. Human memory is not like a computer, which stores things. Memory is part of the imaginative process, at the same level as what we understand as invention. In other words, inventing a character or recalling something real is part of the same process. This is very clear in the work of Proust: for him there is no difference between the experience one lives – his relationship with his mother and others – and his characters. They represent exactly the same kind of truth.”
This involuntary memory is, again, the “rapture” sparked by the cards in the scene from Rapture with which this essay begins. This being “frozen in a complete pause,” in a suspended time, is inseparable from the alchemy of image and memory, produced by the human (organic) memory’s encounter with the recorded image (inorganic memory).
Horror films and mad love
In the visual and cognitive world created by Ferrando Giraut terror and love go hand in hand. His pieces at times borrow signifiers from horror films to explore questions (both aesthetic and content-related) more typical of arthouse cinema. These themes of love and desire are the bridge which the artist employs to unite the two genres, as they are fundamental questions in both. In the first part of the essay we have seen the use of the iconography of the dead woman as a sign of the act of image making. But the woman, even when dead, also represents the “beloved” in the narratives which Ferrando Giraut presents in two of the exhibition’s pieces.
Journey’s End was developed at a difficult time of personal transition full of uncertainty, and this is why the strategy of repetition is employed in the two feminine characters, and why one of them is “murdered,” thereby becoming inaccessible and rendering change impossible. In Loss, nevertheless, the heroine is unique. Her presence, or absence, to be more precise, permeates every part of the piece, appearing in different objects and characters.
“Man […] shall discover, in all the faces of those women, a single face: the last face loved. And how many times I have noticed that, under totally disparate appearances, an exceptional trait resurged, along with an attitude which I thought had been wrenched from me forever. However alarming this hypothesis strikes me, it could be that in this territory replacing one person with another, or several with several, leads to a clear definition of the loved one’s physical aspect, through a growing subjectivization of desire. The beloved, then, is she who features a series of particular qualities, considered more attractive than others, appreciated separately, successively, in all the beings who have loved each other before.”
André Breton wrote his treatise on mad and surreal love during the period in which he fell in love and began a relationship with Jacquelin Lamba, who would become his second wife. This quote evokes the sensation of ubiquity which the beloved in question acquires: the author sees her everywhere, every woman looks like her, but only one, Jacqueline, actually is. With a less hyperbolic and certainly more melancholy tone, Loss also explores amorous obsession and the images which said obsession conjures up.
Though the loss to which the title refers is multiple in nature (including episodes involving family, friends and even colleagues) the essential loss leading up to the idea behind the film is that of unrequited love, or perhaps unrealized love. Loss does not deal with the loss of contact with the loved object, but with the acceptance or assumption of the circumstances and contexts which determine that relationship, rendering it unattainable and therefore producing and thereby producing a painful but in some way enjoyable melancholy. Lacan dubbed this pleasurable pain jouissance10. In his recent study of Freud, Lacan and Barthes, Margaret Iversen for the first time introduces the idea of “anti-mourning” to refer to this intellectual process whereby the emotional wound is consciously kept open, as a catalyst for the creative process.11
One of Ferrando Giraut’s strategies, as we have seen, consists of locating this “amorous-creative” process in the context of the horror genre. This manoeuvre is clearly evident, for example, in Journeys End in Lovers Meetings, in which complicated emotional narratives are linked through the appropriation and repetition of romantic dialogues from horror movies such as Salem’s Lot, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The setting is a misty forest in which, confirming our fears as audience members, the cadaver of a murdered woman appears. But when it does, rather than sparking terror, the emotion which arises is that of tenderness, as if we were witness to a heartfelt appeal for attention, an entreaty not to be abandoned in the depths of oblivion. The dialogues, exactly the same as those spoken by the living feminine and masculine characters, take on a special pathos in the “silent” (or silenced) version of the cadaver, contributed to by Nigel Yang’s soundtrack, a progressive and highly psychological piece of music.
Ferrando Giraut confesses to feeling drawn to horror movies in a visceral and intuitive way ever since he was a boy. In his view, there is no intellectual artifice in that somewhat irrational attraction towards a genre which has always been considered to be mass entertainment. And yet, if we scratch a bit below the surface, a great number of congruous aesthetic and theoretical links can be drawn to the artist. First of all, we might say that the horror film is the contemporary manifestation of the Gothic novel, fulfilling a relatively similar cultural function. The Gothic has always maintained a close relationship with Romanticism, for example, in the way that both movements see Nature as a sublime and ominous setting. Both currents also share the idea of love with a tragic destiny, and so all the more desirable.
In addition, for Ferrando Giraut the experience of the sublime, that “pause” or state of suspension, is visually associated with nature, above all with the landscapes of Galicia where he lived until after his adolescence, and to which he often returns in his work, as in Loss, whose outside scenes are shot in the forests and by the rivers he roamed as a boy.
“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror…No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too.”
This investigation by Burke was the foundation of Freud’s idea of the uncanny, a term he coined in order to express the sensations of fear and existential vertigo produced by a patient’s repressed emotions, which were freed in an encounter with something which appears to be familiar – a childhood memory or a mental association with something known – but isn’t at all. The two concepts of the sublime and the uncanny are found, without a doubt, in the work of David Ferrando Giraut, who not only plays with present emotions but also with past memories – his childhood landscapes, his family’s Super 8 movies, or the horror genre he grew up with – to create that state of pause, both in himself and in the audience.
Despite these points of reference, however, Ferrando Giraut is opposed to a fatalistic idea of art and life. For him, art always has a social and positive use, insofar as it is to be used to come to know and improve the lives of both artists and their public:
“I am interested in sentiment as the starting point for reflection. For example, Romanticism and the Gothic, two movements akin to my sensibility, share the idea of ‘fatalism’, that things cannot be controlled or changed. But my point of view towards that fatalism has changed. Now, perhaps due to my own psychoanalytic experience, I am interested in exploring how these states of anxiety or desire can bring about understanding, and how that understanding can change one’s emotional response, altering the course of events. In this sense my work, although it does not seem so on an aesthetic level, has become much brighter.”
David Ferrando Giraut13
This essay was published in the catalogue of David Ferrando Giraut‘s exhibition ‘The Fantasist’, held at MACUF from October 2011 to February 2012.
1 Sentences said by Will More’s character to Eusebio Poncela’s character in the film Arrebato (Rapture) by Iván Zulueta (1979).
2 David Ferrando Giraut in conversation with the author. London, August of 2011.
3 The concept of the ‘death drive’ was formulated by Sigmund Freud in his essay Beyond The Pleasure Principle (1920). The death drive, also called Thanatos, finds its opposite in Eros, which symbolizes the impulse to live.
4 In the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan the object petit a symbolizes the patient’s unattainable object of desire.
5 Metz, Ch.: Photography and Fetish, an essay published in the journal October. Fall of 1985.
6 David Ferrando Giraut in conversation with the author. London, August of 2011.
7 Alain Robbe Grillet was a novelist and a proponent of the nouveau roman or ‘new novel’, a depersonalized style of literary fiction characterized by the almost aseptic description of situations, places and objects. Robbe-Grillet collaborated with Alain Resnais on the film Last Year at Marienbad (1961), which marked the start of his career as a film director.
8 Alain Robbe-Grillet in an interview with Sasha Guppy, published in the spring of 1986 in the magazine Paris Review.
9 Breton, A.: Mad Love. University of Nebraska Press, 1988. First published in French (L’Amour Fou) in 1937.
10 The transgressive act is central to the Lacanian idea of jouissance. This particular type of painful or sinister pain comes from doing something prohibited, subverting some principle of symbolic order.
11 Iversen, M.: Beyond Pleasure: Freud, Lacan, Barthes. Penn State University Press, 2007.
12 Burke, E.: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Oxford University Press, 1990. First published in 1757.
13 David Ferrando Giraut in conversation with the author. London, August of 2011.
(In September 2011, the Spanish media & video art distribution platform HAMACA invited me to curate a text-based itinerary through their extensive moving image catalogue. This is the result.)
Throughout this itinerary, I would like to navigate through the HAMACA catalogue in search of traces or residues from other times and voices. I am looking to identify the little or great homages that artists make to other “artists-legends” or to the “landmark moments” in their history (understood both on a collective and an individual level). What I will engage with here is the unravelling of nostalgic impulses in art, led by a (perhaps unhealthy?) curiosity to get to the bottom of the archetypes that have come into play in the creative process of these artists.
In his “Mythologies”, Barthes said that a myth is nothing other than a distortion of history; a new ‘discourse’, born through the appropriation of a previously existing image. This re-writing of a sign is in itself a creative act. It isn’t just a cultural appropriation, but a translation or update of meaning through time. This temporal dislocation, intrinsic to the act of incorporating elements from other socio-historical contexts, is also fundamental in this stroll through the catalogue, where the evocations of the past, explorations of the present, and fantasies of the future merge unevenly, provoking a sense of vertigo towards a continuous and never-ending present.
Love the myth. Kill the myth
Our first stop is Little Star (1994) by Clemente Calvo, a popular legend transformed into a small visual tale. Calvo, who lived in New York at the time the piece was made, incorporates a legend that amongst the Indians who lived in Manhattan before the arrival of European colonisers was a small group of shamans whose souls turned into white, seven-pointed starfish when they died. Those lucky enough to find one of the starfish would enjoy the protection of the shamans forever. The plot’s temporal dimension takes us to a particular historical moment of the 17th century, yet the piece formally looks like a homage to silent film and, in particular, to the films of Jean Cocteau. With a piano piece by Liszt as its sole soundtrack, its use of black and white and poetic images with surrealist overtones, the piece inevitably takes us back to the universe of the French genius.
Following along the surrealist trail, Espejismo (1993), by Maite Cajaraville, offers a trip “through the looking glass”, in an obvious reference to the author of Alice in Wonderland, the British writer Lewis Carroll. Yet the aesthetics of this dream, set in primary colours and geometries, are clearly those of a digital landscape. Espejismo is more a memory of the future than one of the past, and is tremendously contemporary in its hybrid mix of 3D and psychedelia with New Age overtones, all of which awaken a strong devotion in many contemporary artists who, like Cory Arcangel, are obsessed with 90s digital aesthetics.
SIS. E3 (Servidumbre de la vida y el carácter de las sombras) (2000-2001), by the Basque artist Txomín Badiola, holds the accumulation of references and symbols as one of its fundamental ingredients. In only 4 minutes, we witness the invocation of various cultural myths, placed in that temporal grey zone that lies between modernism and post-modernism, and which includes the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jean-Luc Godard, the art of Jorge Oteiza and the industrial design of Charles & Ray Eames. The piece freely recreates the final scene from Der Amerikanische Soldat (1970), by Fassbinder. Godard said that his death had been caused by “an overdose of creative obligations”, a sentence we can read on one of the stage walls in the piece. Whilst one of the actors wears a t-shirt with a fragment of La Ley de los Cambios, by Jorge Oteiza, another dons one with S.O.S. written on it. Both messages are on view while both men roll on the ground, between the Eames’ chairs. Shot 30 years after the original film was made, and using contemporary looking actors -who are however trapped in a melange of times and ideologies between the homage and the critique-, SOS. E3 appears to represent the footprint of our most recent cultural past, like a heavy embrace from which we cannot (and perhaps should not) escape.
Seeing as Jean-Luc Godard rears his head, it seems relevant to speak about El Enemigo (2010), by WeareQQ. El Enemigo is a reworking of that Godardian myth called La Chinoise (1967). The young protagonists’ endearing and pedagogic verbal diarrhoea, the film credits, the domestic interiors, and the dry humour it oozes, are inherited from the original, which is however nothing more than a shell, or an excuse, to speak about certain subjects. A stage set within which the characters -cultural agents orchestrated by WeareQQ- offer a series of porous monologues where political, economic, cultural, and even emotional critiques are intertwined.
Speaking of the critique and deconstruction of myths, we may find no example more powerful within the history of the moving image in Spain than Rocío (1980), by Fernando Ruiz de Vergara. This is a documentary where a Catholic rite -the procession of the Virgen del Rocío-, is taken apart with precision, through the use of facts, and, by extension, so are the rest of the rites of Marian devotion. This was a touchy subject for a democracy still in its infancy, leading to several fragments of the film being censored, and to its author being condemned to two years in prison plus a fine of 10 million pesetas. Rocío is still, even today, a work that is little known, and terribly underrated. A good number of brilliant shots and a wise use of archive footage hold up a brave and controversial thesis for which its author paid an unmistakably draconian and absurd price.
I also find Duchamp (retard en vídeo) (1986/87), by Eugeni Bonet, to be an essential work for a number of reasons. Not only is it a comprehensive documentary about Marcel Duchamp, it is also, in my opinion, a clear precursor of the “performative documentary” that has gained such visibility and followers since the 90s, both in the field of film and video in general, and in contemporary art in particular, with examples that go from media celebrities like Michael Moore to artists such as Mario García Torres or Duncan Campbell. In this case, a casual, humorous conversation between a couple is used to structure a narrative about Duchamp’s life, work, and impact, from his early stages as a painter -culminating with The Large Glass-, to his subsequent development of conceptual art through the readymade. Finally, it is worth mentioning that this documentary was broadcast on TV3 in 1987 as part of the TV show “Arsenal”. Without a doubt, the porosity between mass media, conceptual art and history is an exciting phenomenon, researched by the curator Chus Martínez in her recent exhibition at the MACBA, titled “Are you Ready for TV?”.
Time Distortions: Here come the ghosts
There is something exquisitely unsettling about Medio Tiempo (1964), by Manel Muntaner. Tension grows, due to an unsettling soundtrack by Schaeffer and Stockhausen, among others, as we are guided through spaces that are suspended in time. These are different rooms within a school, ‘paused’ during the summer, waiting to be reactivated by the students’ return. Medio Tiempo is a pioneer in the history of Spanish experimental film, a sophisticated metaphor of childhood within which Muntaner shows an extraordinary sensibility for composition and framing. The result is a nostalgic reminiscence of the first years of school, a time when freedom and play intermingle with fear and a castrating authority that is often only imagined, but equally sinister.
One of the qualities present in Nummulitis (2002-2004), by Isaki Lacuesta, that I find most interesting, is the fact that he renders visible the overwhelming capacity that black and white images have for creating meaning. As if sharing the same texture resulted in an alchemy that turns disparate images into analogous ones. Different scenes from a procession, a televised film, and a group of friends in a bar appear to blend into the same, strange, temporal space, in a simulacrum of continuity.
With similar ends, but completely different means, Mabel Palacín’s in Una noche sin fin (2006-2008) makes use of the two-channel installation to explore the absolute relativity of the perception of time. On one screen actions appear to be slowed down; dense, whilst on the other screen, everything seems somewhat speeded up; frantic. As a viewer, the experience is disquieting, and this is intensified by the theatricality of the installation, where the two screens are facing one another and separated by a bench where the viewer, seated, is forced to look one way or the other. The situations and speeds change from one screen to the other, so that any intention of continuity is constantly frustrated, but somehow encouraged by the repetition of characters and backdrops. The viewer’s capacity for attention, patience, and curiosity are put to the test during the 23 minutes of this work. When it ends, he may not know what he’s seen, but he can be sure he has learned to look at things differently.
In El Año en que el Futuro Acabó (Comenzó) (2007), Marcelo Expósito plays at undoing history. Looking through a viewfinder, we witness a chronologically inverted itinerary through archive footage that begins during Spain’s first democratic elections after Franco’s death, and end with the beginning of the Civil War in 1936. The inversion of the temporal axis generates questions about the (in) evitability of the events. Is there any escape from history’s repetitive and ruthless cycle? Couldn’t these skulls, found in the excavation of the final scene (remains from the republican soldiers, in fact) belong to the ghosts of a past civilisation, or the dead from the future? The key, in keeping with the inverted structure of the piece, lies at the beginning: the primary audience of this phantasmagoria is a group of children. The only possible salvation for the future therefore lies in knowing how to learn from past mistakes. As Heiner Müller says in the quote that opens this journey through time: memory is not mere contemplation, it is work.
This text was originally written and published in Spanish. You can read the original here.
English translation by Alex Reynolds, whom I would like to thank for her meticulous and considerate work.