“Friends! This is not a matter of your choice! There is no other way of moving! If until now you were used to moving along roads and sidewalks, forget it! From now on we all walk through walls.”[i]
There are cities where living rooms have become both thoroughfares and battlegrounds, and streets are places where no one strolls. In these urbanscapes people and objects emerge from unexpected places, and one is never certain if the walls are really walls.
But here, where our architecture is constructed of language, the walls and bodies play games of replacement and substitution, creating other configurations. Thus we encounter forms such as: the load-bearing body, the supported or freestanding body, the retaining body, or the body whose purpose is to absorb sound. We experience the physical or mental sensations of being bodied off or in. We use a body as protection; it may serve as a force field or a barrier against the wind.
We may know or not know what is on the other side of the body or what lurks in its shade. We choose (or don’t choose) to remain behind a body or use it as a barricade. The State guards a body or moves it at whim. We live surrounded by the same bodies that sheltered our ancestors or that give comfort to our kin. Sometimes bodies keep us from the people we want to inhabit most. Or perhaps we fabricate bodies to separate “them” from “us.”
What, then, could it mean to break through the body? To punch a hole in the body: to unbody the body, or to demolish it and scatter the resultant debris? What about building a body through which not even our ghosts could pass? We may wonder: Is this a memorial body, an unmovable or movable body, a fortified body, an invisible or retractable body?
What is this body blocking from view?
A friend of ours, a geologist let’s say, looks at a limestone wall in a city, perhaps this city, and sees within it the fossilized fragments of a colony of sea urchins that lived 100 million years ago. The geologist reminds us that limestone is primarily made from the accumulation of skeletal fragments: echinoids, coral, mollusks. So at least in this sense, certain bodies do become walls.
But the geologist has another story to tell. On a different wall he points a finger at raspings, borings, etchings. These are thalassinidea trace fossils—abundant Y- and T-shaped discolorations that mark the remains of ancient crustacean burrows. These trace fossils are gestures in stone. They are architectural ruins of protective behaviors, individual sculptures of survival. They are what enabled crabs or ghost shrimp or mud lobsters to go about their daily routines sheltered from predators and tides. The crustaceans’ bodies smoothed out walls in the silt as they wandered, rested, dug, fed, surveyed, and groomed. Their bodies opened up spaces—they ventilated those spaces—creating voids that outlasted their bodies.
We are told it is no surprise that trace fossils are more common than body fossils in the geological record. A single animal can make uncountable gestures in a lifetime, but can only leave one body behind. This may not be news (Walter Benjamin did warn us: “to live means to leave traces”[ii]), but perhaps it is a useful reminder of what quickly disintegrates, and what, by its structure, refuses to disappear.
Take, for instance, certain Aztec temples that were expanded upon during different emperors’ reigns. New temples were often constructed on top of old temples again and again. The ever-bigger temples were thus filled with the rubble of their predecessors. And today, even though many of the grandest temples have long been destroyed, if you could walk through their ruins, stepping toward their centers (without tripping over archeological institutions), you might encounter rubble that, in a way, would not be rubble at all, but the original cores of the biggest temples preserved.
Conquistadors also participated in this cumulative building regime, albeit with different aims, by constructing Christian churches on top of pre‑Hispanic sacred sites. However, in the case of Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor—which marked the center or vital “navel” of the Aztec universe and cosmology—the conquistadors chose instead to mitigate and subdivide the site’s power in order to aggrandize the Spanish reign. In lieu of a church, Hernán Cortés constructed homes for his captains upon—and with—the temple’s rubble.
Capitán Alonso de Ávila was among these proud new homeowners, and his entitled nephew (who was also named Alonso) soon inherited the property. Call it sacrificial irony, call it divine inevitability, call it plain comeuppance—whatever the forces at play, history tells us that while the young Alonso was milking the social status of this prime Mexico City location, he was also conspiring against the Spanish crown. The young Alonso was thus deemed a traitor and beheaded in the adjacent Zócalo. His home upon the temple was destroyed by the State and the ground was strewn with salt to mark a site of damnation.
[iii]Four hundred and twelve years later, electricians working on that same salted street corner unearthed a stone disc depicting the beheaded goddess Coyolxauhqui. The carved stone was found in its original location; what had once been the foundation of de Avila’s house had also been the base of the steps leading up the south side of the Templo Mayor. It is said Coyolxauhqui waited at that spot for sacrificial bodies to tumble down the stairs "in order to eat them and restore the earth.”
[vi] Iraqi-American poet Dunya Mikhail said it: “You see, there is blood everywhere / in the rivers / on the sand / under the buildings / in the houses…”[v] Apache storyteller Nick Tompson said it: “All of these places have stories.”[iv]James Joyce said it: “Places remember events.”
Really, who hasn’t said it?
No, really—who doesn’t say it?
Listen for that silence.
When Nick Tompson said, “All of these places have stories,” he followed it with the words: “We shoot each other with them like arrows.”[vii] He was referring to the traditional Apache storytelling technique known as the agodzaahi. This method is employed to chastise a community member who has committed a moral or social offense. The agodzaahi sparks behavioral change. The agodzaahi is always rooted in the memory of place.
Agodzaahi storytelling formula:
Opening line: “It happened at [name the location].”
Body: “Long ago… [Tell a graphic, historical tale that focuses on a person who suffers misfortune as a consequence of actions that violate social values or customs. The misfortune can be: humiliation, social or physical exile, or death.]
Closing: “It happened at [name the location again].”
An effective agodzaahi utilizes everyday language and takes no longer than five minutes to tell. It is swift, like an arrow. When using this technique, it is vital to keep in mind that the story is as much about its content as it is about the specific listener at whom it is aimed. It is useful if this listener/target must pass by or travel through the location of the story in her daily life.
Even better, tell the agodzaahi to the listener while sitting with her in that specific place.
It happened here.
Let’s try another word swap. What happens if we replace the word body with story?
Perhaps we will arrive at: the displaced story, the missing story, the ailing story, the story politic, or the story that is a vehicle for the mind. We may experience the story gaining or losing energy, or feel it becoming too cold or too hot. Stories may need protection if they are not welcome in a certain place. Or they may need special treatment if their pain is too much to take.
There may be too many stories and not enough space. There may be too few stories and not enough strength. Some people may advise you to treat your story as if it were a temple. Others may say, “Forget about your story and get on with your life.”
We may know or not know what a story needs to grow, to thrive. We may know or not know what a story needs to change shape. A story may be something you are born with, are stuck with; it could be your fate. Or a story could be something you work to push the limits of and are surprised by how, when exhausted, it shakes. Perhaps when a story is naked, we feel compelled to avert our eyes. Perhaps when a story is covered up, we begin to imagine its contours and fantasize.
What, then, might it mean to turn our backs on a story, or to have a story turn its back on us? What about destroying a story, or deforming a story, or cutting a story open and looking at its guts? We may ask is this story healthy, does it appear younger or older than its factual age? Has this story been nurtured or neglected? Is it a free story, or is it owned by the State?
We may look in a mirror and ask: Is this my story?
Sometimes we live the wars between nations as personal events. Sometimes a private drama appears like a war or a natural catastrophe. Sometimes the two wars, the personal and the national, coincide. Sometimes there is peace on one side (in one’s heart) and war on the other. I and the world are never separate. The one is the double or the metaphor of the other.
Catherine Foulkrod, 2017.
[i] Israeli Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi used these words in 2002 to rally his troops before an operation in the city of Nablus. See: Eyal Weizman and Nadav Harel interview with Aviv Kochavi, 24 September 2004, at an Israeli military base near Tel Aviv [Hebrew]; video documentation by Nadav Harel and Zohar Kaniel. Cf. Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso Books, 2017), 298.
[ii] Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” Reflections (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 155.
[iv]Eric Bulson. "Joyce's Geodesy." Journal of Modern Literature 25, no. 2 (2001): 91. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3831637.
[v] Keith H. Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache (Albuquerque:
University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 48.
[vi] Dunya Mikhail, “Old Land.” Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, trans. Elizabeth Winslow (New York: New Directions, 2009), 119.
[vii] Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, 48.
[viii] Hélène Cixous, preface to The Hélène Cixous Reader, edited by Susan Sellers (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), xv.
This is not my body
Not unfaithful to the spirit of the thing
NOT UNFAITHFUL TO THE SPIRIT OF THE THING shows a gap between the world and our sensing of it. A fracture between reality and its accesibility to us, a lapse within appearance, in the way objects get involved in our perception.
The artwork unfolds a system of representation in which the real finds itself locked up in an unbearable stress with the descriptive powers of language, while visible objects display a torsion incompatible with their own qualities.
- The disciple asks: “Who is Buddha?”
- And the master answers: “Shitty stick.”
In the Zen tradition the answer was always both surprising and disappointing at once. An unintencional paradigm that transcends the words literal meaning.
Taking as a starting point the discovery in 2010 of a meteoric crater in southern Egypt, spotted by scientists on Google Earth (Kamil crater), we play with the limited relation that photography establishes with objects and places:
What does it mean to observe at a distance? What becomes clear when you see from afar, and what becomes occluded? What becomes aggrandised, and what comes undone?
Distance isn´t just a physical matter. As distant observers we have come upon an interesting place and vantage point. One that should be held in abeyance in favour of more realistic assessments based on careful observation.
216 torture entries, is mass made out of torture entries from British newspapers. The documenting articles are here abstracted and deprived of their time/space and narrative qualities.
Thus, the once perishable object (yersterday´s newspaper) has now acquired its own entity, conferring an illogical, incoherent, non-syntactic and therefore disappointing answer.
The ingredients forming these masses concentrate the essence of the events, rather than being a mere testimony of them.
The following newspaper pages have been exposed to the physical process of sunlight passing through the lens, recording reality, but with the intention of removing all content from the newspaper pages. The condensed ray of light produced by the lens picks out the black ink and destroys it.
Paradoxically, it is not the light which portrays the news but rather the social structure in which it is drawn.
Gulala (Kurdish word for Opium Poppy) is a photographic project composed by 15 black and white images printed on newsprint - paper which was previuosly printed on in newspapers. They depict semi-abstract images, which are close ups of walls, ceilings and floors. The fragility of the large pieces of newsprint contrast with the roughness of the images content (traces and fingerprints of women and children confined and tortured in prison).
Anyone visiting Kurdistan in springtime would find themselves surrounded by large and colourful Opium Poppy fields. The Opium Poppy is historically the flower that represents war, and is a fairly common female name in Kurdistan.
Shipwreck with spectator
San Augustine first, and later Voltaire denounced the morbid curiosity of the viewer, and the way we aestheticize other´s misfortune turning the wreck into an icon; Goethe, in the still smoking Battle of Jena remained totally silent, a silence that some called "prudence" ; Hegel thought it was possible to raise the murderous injustice of human nature to the rational level, in order to find in the wreckage of the battle, the famous reason in history; Schopenhauer thought, however, that the vision of such unhappiness could lead to the expression of the sublime; closer to our days, Burckhardt saw in this situation the more radical token of the possibility of history as knowledge: "We want to know which is the wave responsible for the wreck, but we are actually that wave." It was Lucretius who invented the philosophical image of the "shipwreck with spectator"at the beginning of his second book De Rerum Natura. At the scene of shipwreck and the sublime, the viewer has no real experience of evil and so feels pleasure and joy. He just gets ust exactly one simulacrum, the image of someone who is agitated and in whose figure it would be indifferent to recognize oneself.
Shipwreck with Spectator is a piece made through three different space and time stages: the original drama play from the 60´s, the performance made in Iraq, and the instalation an the gallery space:
First Taken the drama play “Offending the Audience", written by the Austrian author Petre Handke in 1966 as an historical reference of metalinguistic work on theatricality and representation. Often considered an anti-play due to its theatricality denial, Offending the Audience is a play with no plot. No story is being told at all. Instead, the audience is made aware that what they see is not a representation of anything else, but a literal fact. The actors continuously repeat the point that this is not a play, and that nothing theatrical will happen on scene.
Second Beign aware, as observers, of how their agency as subjects is taken away by western mass media imaginery, a volunteer group of students from Halabja Art Institute (Iraqi Kurdistan) performed for the camera a free reading and interpreting exercise of the play (Offending the Audience) in their native Kurdish. This actions were documented with video and photography.
Third The final presentation of the work, answers, as every choice made during the process, to a reflection on the paradigms that constitute the regulatory and representational contemporary frameworks: the concealment / deprivation and the replacement / substitution of a reference / subject .
Following the history of representation
“Following the history of representation” is a photographic project that consists in a series of 15 large format portraits. The project is part of the body of work made by the artist in Halabja, the city of Iraqui Kurdistan bombed by Sadam Hussein in 1988, and where the artist has been visiting and teaching from 2008 to 2010. “Following the history of representation” challenges the artist as well as her camera presence within the depicted context. Setting a postcolonial point of view, the work questions our glance and the classical canons of feminity shown by colonial pictures.
La nuit américaine
The group of images that conform the project La Nuit Americaine, come as a result of the several trips the artist did to the Iraqui city of Halabja, during 2008 and 2009. Located in the Iraqui Kurdistan, border with Iran, Halabja suffered a chemical attack commanded by Saddam Hussein in 1988. During the attack, over 5.000 people were killed in about 4 hours. In 1973 François Truffaut shot a film entitled The American Night. The movie takes as a reference the cinematographic technique of simulated night, also called Day for Night or Night Effect. The film analyzes up to which point a pretence might become more real than the reality itself for those who are playing it. Based on the metaphor of the long night as the tragical situation Iraq is suffering, this project avoids the cliched images of war during the day. On the contrary it is focused on silent night situations that depict Iraq social reality, in a respectfull and non spectacular manner. The romantic and precise lighting speaks indirectly about a very different situation to which we are used to receive. The fact that the exposures are so long and at night involve the unprotected presence of the photographer, a hiden fact that reinforces the critic against massmedia manipulation.
Poétique de la disaparition
Tortured, repressed, violated and manipulated all over this conflictive planet, the body irrefutably becomes transformed from a mere object to an everlasting bearer of speech. The very “speech of speech” urges us to speak instead of speaking about it, speak right up and out loud, speak against it, speak for it, let it speak. This is how French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy describes the sensorial and expressive omnipotence of the body in its interference with the external world, and this is how the body emerges in the work of Ixone Sábada, a young visual artist, performer and photographer based in Bilbao, Spain.
Sábada first gained notoriety in 2003 with “Ciceron”, a series of site-specific twin apparitions of herself. Further notable projects were to come in the following years. “Leviathan” (2007) suggested life’s conspicuousness in its absence from the devastated hurricane landscapes of the American West, and “Expulsion from Paradise” (2006) established duality as one of the artist’s recurrent motifs. Contrariwise, “Poètique de la Desaparition” shifts away from the clear filmic narrative construction of her previous series, in favour of a markedly abstract and introspective approach that pushes the whole work to its limits, both formally and conceptually. To use Sábada’s own words, “my new series does so much more than just bringing up a more complex, mature and tough vision of the body. It pushes the very same photographic image and all the meanings it carries towards full deconstruction”.
In the series, Sádaba, the ever performer, recurs once more to her own body to negotiate the idea of a naked body that is and is not. Somewhere before the final departure, the self and its alter ego, present or implicit in many of her previous oeuvres, are fused into one. A fading “me” emerges before our eyes, under the most tense and dramatic physical conditions. Multiple exposures and a body which cries, laughs, begs, enjoys -one and all at once- on the verge of hysteria and collapse…
Alarming and discomforting, Sádaba’s posture arguably serves as a metaphor for the condition of total expropriation, destruction and nihilism the body is subjected to today, as much as it brings into the foreground the existential right of not to be, in terms of placing oneself -in this case, Sádaba and her female being- within an alternative non-space that lies beyond codified language, politics and culture.
Sádaba’s discourse displays great affinities with the Lacanian view of femininity as a state of negativity existing outside the hermetically constructed male world. Such an interpretation allows a feminist reading of her work that the artist herself fully welcomes. “I am not a feminist in the strict sense of the term”, she explains, “but I happen to be a woman who works in a very close relationship with her body. In various occasions, I have had to reflect on how this is to be represented and where I place myself at the time of representation”.
“We perceive our bodies as the most common thing in the world, but has it ever occurred to us how socially limited the margins outside exhibitionism for a sustained engagement with the body are?” wonders Sádaba. For her, exposing one’s own body and self, speaking volumes through it, implies a fundamental political attitude as the most unmediated way to express identity. In her own words, “I try to explain that my body is face and hands, but it is also butt and vagina. I do not tend to show it off if I do not consider it essential, but if I reflect exactly on this -the body, its representation and signs- I am sorry but I just have to do it”.
“Poètique de la Desaparition” was originally performed before the camera as an unpremeditated response of personal exorcism. Yet, it could not have resulted less political. Just the presence of a suffering naked female body between the sheets of a double bed makes up for the absence of the politically and socially charged landscapes of Sádaba’s previous oeuvres. The political statement running through all this self-exposure is too explicit…
Somewhere between the material and spiritual realms, being becomes no-being, and so does representation. In Sádaba’s visceral response, movement, feeling and time are employed as tools for a wide-ranging critical analysis and formal deconstruction of the granted space that defines the photographic frame, rendering obsolete devices such as the unique still image, the representation space and the frozen time. Why all this? Is something wrong with photography, as we knew it? “To my point of view”, she explains, “the slavish dependency of photography on documentary has kept it aloof from art for such a long time that it has wasted too many of its possibilities on a conceptual level”. There is still too much purism left, there is still too much of this vain discourse of representation going on and it is a pity and it is unfair. Is there actually anything that is not representation?”
Ixone Sádaba brings an extraordinary fresh approach to the notion of time and the transcendence of the photographic medium. One of the most interesting elements in her work is the way she incessantly integrates movement, real time and performance into the still frame, as if she wished to show the movement and perturbation constantly present below the skin. Repetition, rhythm and eclipse… So many bodies, so many expressive possibilities; as if time were dilated into many parallel moments; as if time were comprised not from a unique moment but from millions of afters and befores within an eternal present in an infinite emotional and conceptual expansion.
“I have to say I don’t like Cartier Bresson. I don’t believe in the instant”, Sádaba once declared. “But I do believe in an event’s capacity to generate a different tempo, in which our perception contracts and expands”. What does narrative matter then, when everything is here, in the veins that enclose our blood, in the flesh that echoes the palpitations of our heart? Within one single frame, the manipulation of time creates a bridge between material and spiritual means, a spiral emanation of life in all its million possibilities.
An uncanny, magical process helps the body finally come to terms with itself. Body moving, body protesting, body breathing in La Poètique de la Desaparition…
View of the exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum