Time travels and the (de)construction of contemporary myths

(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.

'Little Star' (1994) by Clemente Calvo

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.

'Espejismo' (1993) by Maite Cajaraville

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.

'SOS. E3 ( Servidumbre de la vida y el carácter de las sombras)' (2000-2001) by Txomín Badiola

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.

'El Enemigo' (2010) by WeareQQ

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.

'Rocío' (1980) by Fernando Ruiz Vergara

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?”.

'Duchamp (retard en vídeo)' (1986-1987) by Eugeni Bonet

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.

'Medio Tiempo' (1964) by Manel Muntaner

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.

'Nummulitis' (2002-2004) by Isaki Lacuesta

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.

'Una noche sin fin' (2006-2008) by Mabel Palacin

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.

'El Año en que el Futuro Acabó (Comenzó)' (2007) by Marcelo Expósito

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.

HAMACA is a Barcelona-based distribution platform of Spanish media & video art. Explore their catalogue here.

About Lorena Muñoz-Alonso


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  1. Pingback: Time travels and the (de)construction of contemporary myths | Translados

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