“Marina Núñez. Ciborgs”, catálogo, Galería Salvador Díaz, Madrid 2001, pp. 49-63.
I have a sister who paints. Since I was small l’ve had a painter sister who paints and has painted me obsessively. That she’s my sister is mere chance. What is not chance, is that since I gained the use of reason I have felt myself constantly observed and interpreted in images.
l’m far from home now, and I don’t think anyone could find me as things stand. I have chosen to leave everything and go into hiding. My purpose in writing these words is to decipher how I got into this mess and, above all, to find some meaning in the events leading up to it.
Today, I was about to call the family and say please don’t worry about me. But finally didn’t dare step out of the alienated state I have been driven to by over thirty years of observation.
My memory starts with Marina’s drawings. Notebook after notebook of drawings, that my little sister made of her then role model, though I was just two years older than she. I always adored Marina, the smiling blond presence in my home who followed me round from the time she could walk. My mother, intuitively, would always put us together. I shared a room and friends with her. We were closest in age of my brothers and sisters and though our personalities moved apart over the years, fate dictated that we would go on sharing more and more experiences. My life, as I have said, could be written, not in words, but with the drawings my sister made of me from the age of little more than two. When she drew a family group, I was as big as all the rest put together. I was always centre-stage in her naive way of seeing and I liked it. She was my little girl, who looked at me through millions of lines traced in coloured pencils. Marina has always been a painter. She was always top of the class in handcrafts or pre-technology as it was officially known. She developed a singular ¡nstinct for looking at things and reading them with her gaze. At secondary school, she won various certificates of excellence for drawing and it was there that her favourite object of study, that is, me, began to note something beyond the immense affection she had always borne me. One day she arrived home late. She was breathless and excited, and said she had something for me that I was going to love. We went into our room and sat down on the bed.
-Here you are. Take it. It’s the first copy off the print and I think it’s fantastic.
She handed me a cardboard tube. I opened ¡t and pulled out a large poster announcing the school’s week of cultural events. And almost dropped dead when I saw that the poster was a painting of my face surrounded by books. I was shattered. My wholly recognizable features would be pasted up in all the cafeterias and shops of Palencia. I sat motionless for an instant, then finally reacted when I saw that my little sister couldn’t care less. She had wished nothing but the best for me, but had chosen not to consult me. I was going to be plastered over every wall, and would forever be the girl on the poster. I tried to make the best of it and not argue with Marina, but that night I couldn’t sleep for thinking of the public image I was now condemned to. Thus began the nightmare which led to my present isolation, an nightmare in which I have been both accomplice and victim.
The years went by and Marina, as expected, enrolled in the fine arts faculty. Though I was still her model for thousands of exercises and projects, I at last found peace in her last year of study when she opted for a new non-figurative style. Everything abstract, and not a trace of my or anyone else’s presence. Marina created abstract paintings which shortly decorated the homes of almost all the family. Not only that, they began to sell and appear in published catalogues. Things invariably went well for her. Marina had a convincing smile, which I have always seen as her passport of authenticity in the tough world where her vocation took her. She held her first exhibition in a small space near to our house. Obscure, geometrical paintings with no sign of me. I still remember the feeling I got from these paintings: it was as if my sister had finally freed herself of her big sister and broken the bond which her constant observation of my face and body had forged between us in our shared life. I felt something akin to a sweet sadness, and, above all, the vacuum of no longer filling the space that had once been mine.
-Marina -I told her half way through the opening view – you’re grown up now.
l’m sure she didn’t understand me. No more were the words out of my mouth than I regretted my absurd comment, betraying a certain nostalgia for our past childhood. But what I was mainly saying was that I felt jealous about not presiding these canvasses, which I could never see as other than pure decoration. That night we went to dinner with all our friends and Marina, who normally doesn’t drink, had a few glasses. Later, in a bar, she hugged me, her marvelous smile more exaggerated than normal, and said:
-Carmen, you’ve got to help me. Next week l’m going to start on some paintings I’ve been thinking hard about, and I know are what I really want to do. The stuff in tonight’s exhibition doesn’t convince me.
So I would be back there again. Ready anew to be contemplated time and time again in what was to be my sister’s definitive work. Marina had always been radical about questions affecting women’s place in society. She never swallowed the standard equality story and, above all, was constantly hitting out at the conventionalisms assigning women particular roles. I shared a lot of these ideas, but was never prepared to carry a flag for them as Marina did. My specialty, mathematics, secluded me in a world of logics which were never quite so, and invariably imprecise exactitudes. We were opposing sides of the same coin, but facing inwards to observe each other, as if the world could be reduced to just this small circle. Marina took the order I investigated in my studies and turned it into chaos through her painterly arts. Marina, at that time, was beginning to adopt a solid, coherent position that would allow her ideology as a women rebel to find expression in her work. Everything began to flow and, most important of all, I was once more the object of her study. Through Marina’s works, my image became that of women’s place in western society. My face was transformed hundreds of times into muse, prey, prostitute, monster, torture victim, trapped, enlightened, dead, mutilated and, above all, mad. While I got on with deciphering ergodic theory, my image was transformed by my little sister’s brush into all society’s desired images of women. The complicity between Marina and I reached unhealthy extremes. I started to feel the paintings were mine and get involved in discussions which triggered new ideas and new images for which I would pose and be observed to the point of satiety. I was never closer to my sister than at this point. I understood that, rather than a muse, I was the perfect excuse for my sister to project a true self-portrait of herself as a woman. My body, though Marina’s technique, became hers before the world. I used to visit her exhibitions with all the nerves properly felt by the artist, and, above all, I took any critique as something personal, though I tried not to show this to Marina.
Just two years ago, everything changed and complicity turned to torture. Marina, satisfied or just tired with depicting the woman as given, decided on a turnaround; concluded that the future was waiting out there and it was time to construct the new woman, a self-made woman who had learnt and assumed the lessons of humiliation and was now equipped for autonomy. Woman would now be a laboratory of herself, the bearer of a new idea about her future role. She began by eliminating all useless attributes and stripping the body of its history. Again it was my skin where the experiment was made flesh. I, who had patiently served as image for the historical humiliation of womankind, was uneasy about donating my image to some futurist experiment. I began to realize that my image as an individual was wholly distorted by the relationship with Marina. Even so, I stuck with her. But something occurred which I could not define and far less control.
Some friends of mine had come to Palencia and I was showing them round the town. I took them to the cathedral. Inside, I began to feel something which confirmed my suspicions. I was pointing out a marvelous painting of the virgin’s annunciation and suddenly felt something weird. I stared closer at it and noticed a kind of shivering echo. I was frightened but also moved. In the afternoon, I returned to the cathedral alone. I went right up close to look at the shining face of the virgin with her blue cloak; and the feeling reappeared, more intense than before. I backed off and knocked against a wooden figure in the choir representing some father of the church, and the echo was even stronger.
I moved round the church amazed at my own sensations, which were magnified every time I looked at or touched human representations. I felt the vertigo of time’s echo in the lives of so many men and women reproduced in their day, and who now stood there as representatives of a history which had long forgotten them. I wanted to turn and run, but submerged myself instead in the church museum. There, the echoes multiplied and pressed down on me until I fell in a faint. That’s the last I remember. I woke up in hospital, and as I opened my eyes saw Marina there with the rest of the family. They were all looking at me, and I realized for the first time all that Marina’s gaze had robbed me of. I remember I fought for breath and ended up screaming and crying. I had discovered something new, which would make me a lifelong slave of the remnants of time. My image, through the eyes, mind and hands of Marina, would be a source of future echoes felt way beyond my own existence. Nothing I had given was left to me. How was I going to get back all the substance I had lost so unknowingly by letting myself be seen and interpreted.
It took me a few days to recover I decided not to tell anyone what I was going through. The best thing, I thought, would be to speak to Marina and try to escape her world without hurting her. I never had any doubt that her guilt was involuntary, but I also knew I could not bear more contemplation, and the idea of a return to the studio filled me with terror.
-Marina, this new work of yours gives me a cold feeling. I don’t know what it is, but l’m uneasy about what there is of me behind these images.
-I now what you mean, I feel something similar, l’m doing this without knowing exactly where it will end. But the cold I feel keeps me more awake than ever. I think what l’m painting is possible. These paintings are for an uncertain future, not for a routine present creaking on the axis of history.
-OK, but maybe you don’t understand what’s happening to me. Yesterday I saw the painting you did last summer in a magazine, the one with the black background and the open brain, and it moved me more than ever.
The energy that flowed out of my head disturbed me more than anything in your earlier works. It wasn’t a good reproduction but I felt a kind of vertigo and I want to talk to you, because I have to rest. I can’t be the image of what you’re looking for any more. I hope you understand.
-No, Carmen, I don’t, but the decision’s yours.
I felt Marina didn’t understand me because I wasn’t brave enough to be sincere. But the fear I felt was of not recognizing my body in the mirror of everyday life, and above all, of becoming an echo that would resound beyond my death. My skin was tired and I wanted to rest. I would give nothing more to images. That same day I had my hair cut and spent huge sums of money on clothes I have barely worn since.
The argument with Marina didn’t blow over. Instead the distance got bigger day by day until I started to avoid her and ignore her insistent phone calls. One night, when I got home after a particularly hard day at the faculty, I even found myself ¡n the bathtub, burning one of her most recent drawings of me. I ended up crying with rage at knowing why I was doing this, but I kept on burning every one of the books and catalogues where my face appeared as interpreted by Marina. After hours of this I had had enough. I called and told her to come round. I started to scream at her, demanding that she destroy everything she had ever drawn or painted of me. I told her I had the right to own my own image and even threatened her with suicide ¡f she didn’t give in. We ended up crying together and falling sleep. When I woke up, I didn’t ask her forgiveness but told her to go. She refused and I threw her out the house. But I didn’t stop there. I went to her studio, knowing she wouldn’t be around, and destroyed the thousands and thousands of photographs and negatives she had made of me over countless years. I saw her a few days later and we didn’t exchange a word. I remember she didn’t look at me with the rage I expected, but with sad, desoíate eyes. I felt absolutely no remorse.
My family couldn’t fathom what was happening. The coin we had formed had split edgeways in half and we drifted apart to the consternation of my other brothers and sisters and especially my mother, who tried her best but didn’t understand me. I needed to get away for a few months and organize my thoughts. So I spent the summer in Tokyo, where I was able to develop a part of my research and, above all, take a rest from being the mutating ¡mage behind the work of the new “in” artist. A week before my return, switching channels in my little apartment, I was dumbfounded to see myself in an item on women and the future. It was me again ¡n a new painting of Marina’s, but at the same time its wasn’t me. My sister always painted from a direct physical presence. She would normally photograph me first then transport the form to the canvass. She would never try to invent my body, or start a painting without studying me first. I didn’t know what was happening, but I again felt the fury that had transported me to the other end of the world. I tried to travel home earlier but it wasn’t possible. Finally, I arrived back after a long flight, unable to sleep for the rage that turned me into an extreme being without understandable substance. I went straight from the airport to the studio. I rang the bell and it was Marina who opened. She said nothing, and I walked in slowly looking at all her new canvasses. I was the figure once more, but again felt it wasn’t me.
-I really missed you. I need you and l’m very sorry about what happened. I love you more than anyone and need something from you that I can’t explain – Marina told me.
-You’ve been stripping my skin off, scale by scale, for years and I let you get away with ¡t, even took part in the game. Can’t you see how you’ve stolen part of my soul, my vitality, brushstroke by brushstroke? Do you know why hundreds of cultures in the world forbid the representation of the human body? Do you know why millions of people will not let themselves be photographed? Do you know that right now the talibans in Afghanistan are destroying all the statues and images in the country? Have you ever stopped to think there might be something in all that; something we don’t understand but that affects us in just the same way? Don’t you realize that you’ve been wearing me down little by little?
-The talibans kill any woman who shows her face. Men can show theirs and don’t need a veil -said Marina.
We couldn’t go on with this conversation, each of us transmitting in opposing directions. A silence fell during which I looked more closely round the studio. I went up to the table and carne across various fragments of photographs. I recognized my lips, my eyes, my hands, my chest. All of me was there but in unconnected pieces. But I didn’t recognize the ringing sensation I used to get when I approached my own image. For a moment, I thought my strange hypersensitivity to images had disappeared.
-And all this, why? Why won’t you let me rest? -1 asked her. -It’s not you. I look for you, but it isn’t you. -What do you mean?
-It isn’t you. Those are Ana’s hands, they always resembled yours. The eyes are Eugenia’s, the arms are Yolanda’s, the hips belong to Inés….. Since you left, l’ve been searching for you in all the bodies that have something of you. l’m trying to refill the vacuum you left. You’ve no idea how much I need you. It doesn’t matter if you’re here or not. I can still bring you to life in my paintings without you. I don’t need you to get the echo.
The echo. Her last word resounded in my mind like a gunshot. I realised she had always known what she was doing to me. At last I understood everything, only too late. I stood stock still, gasping in pain and fury at something that went beyond treason.
Marina stared at me, full of some incomprehensible power. I thought she might hit me, but no; she closed her eyes for a few seconds then started to laugh like she had never laughed before. She had always known what her glance was taking from me. There was something mad about her scornful laughter. I looked at her then and she was almost unrecognizable.
Amid the humiliating and compulsive laughter, she looked physically changed. She was a monster laughing ceaselessly, making fun of the poor little girl so fearful of the echoes she had begun to feel. I shrank away sobbing and tried to run. She grabbed me, but I fought back and tore off her dressing gown. She stood there naked, still laughing, by now totally unknown to me. I couldn’t recognise my sister in that white body stained with paint amid that infernal laughter that went on and on. She seemed in ecstasy or like one possessed in her own creation, her own trap, her own situation. I managed to rush out into the Street and hail a taxi that practically ran me over. As I was getting in, I heard a shout.
Driving away in the taxi I watched her running after me naked and broken. The image I conserve of that moment gets mixed in with the photograph of the Vietnamese girl at the height of the war, running away with her back burning. Marina was both that girl and the monster I had seen for those few minutes.
l’m in hiding. I don’t know what happened. I wanted to phone but don’t daré leave the building because I know she’s out there.