Alicia Ventura
Chimeras
“Demasiado mundo”, individual catalog, Ed. Generalitat Valenciana, Centre del Carme, Valencia 2010.

 

I have always been fascinated by the work of Marina Núñez. Back around 1997, at the beginning of eight wonderful years I spent in Barcelona, I was toying with the idea of directing an art gallery. By that stage I had already been interested in her work for some time and I found her flat canvas paintings of madwomen particularly unsettling.

We were introduced by a good friend in common, Ángel Marcos, another great artist, and ever since then I have followed her career even more closely, if possible. From that moment on, her openness and proximity gave me the chance to reach the point where I find myself today. It was a long-held desire of mine to do something side by side with her and her work, or with her work and her—I’m not sure which comes first.

Núñez’s work lends me an occasion to explore two highly intangible fields yet which nonetheless rub up against each other, and always from a twofold perspective: death and life, to die and to be born. What is life if not that? Everything is destroyed only to be born again, and why not? Isn’t this what we read in the Bible? We are born, we sin, and it is only through death and resurrection that we atone for our sins and finally reach paradise, a new world, another life.

There is no doubt that the exhibition space of a former convent could not be better suited: the Convent of El Carmen in the city of Valencia, currently known as Centro del Carmen, is a place of constant births and rebirths.

In a book by Dolores García Hinarejos recounting the history and transformation of the Convent of El Carmen in Valencia, we can read:

The Convent of El Carmen traces its origins back to the 13th century and the establishment of the Calzado Carmelites in Valencia following the death of King Jaime I. During the anti-clerical expropriation of the 19th century, its large church passed into the hands of the Santa Cruz parish and was saved from demolition because the Academy of Fine Arts defended its preservation and moved its museum there. The Convent of El Carmen is built around two cloisters … A square hall, probably the former chapter room, opens up off one of them and it was called Chapel of Life in honour of the image of the Virgin of that name venerated there.

The Carmen Museum opened in October 1839. It initially comprised the gothic cloister, the refectory, the Chapel of Life and a few other areas. Every wall of the old institution was covered with expropriated convent art in no particular order. The San Carlos Academy, located within the university at the time for want of proper museum space, had built up a collection of 500 paintings which are described in an 1842 inventory. The Academy took over the management of the Fine Arts Museum and eventually decided to move to the Carmen building in 1848 with its holdings… In 1859, the Convent of El Carmen was by then the headquarters of the San Carlos Royal Academy and Museum of Fine Arts and, when the Vich Palace was demolished the elements that could be salvaged from it were moved to El Carmen convent. The pieces remained there for 50 years.

Despite the renovation, the museum continued to prove inadequate. The Academy director, Luis Tramoyeres Blasco, began further renovations from 1900 to 1914 with the architects Luis Ferreres and Francisco Almenar.

The Renaissance cloister and the off-lying rooms were allocated to the Fine Arts School, although the galleries exhibited archaeological pieces and elements of Roman, medieval and renaissance architecture.

The ongoing enlargement of the museum continued apace with the incorporation of a courtyard next to the Martinez Campos room between 1923 and 1924. The design by the architects Vicente Rodriguez and Luis Ferreres included the creation of a large central gallery with skylights and four adjoining rooms on either side. The new classical structure, clearly influenced by the main gallery of the Prado Museum, not only provided a better exhibition space for the paintings but also managed to keep in step with the current innovations in the field of museum development. This surely played a central role in solidifying the reputation of the Museum of Fine Arts of Valencia as the second most important museum in Spain.

During the Spanish Civil War, the museum was used to store works of art and some of its holdings were transferred to Madrid and deposited in the Prado Museum. After the conflict, the museum director, Manuel González Martí, began the process of recovering the paintings. The damage was, in fact, widespread and the Ministry of Education chose to move the Museum and the Academy to a room at the Pio V Seminary.”

Today the former Convent of El Carmen is a living, present place, a contemporary art centre in continuous process of change and restoration, soon to be extended with further exhibition areas. The Centro del Carmen is now one of the city’s most emblematic places and forms part of the network of cultural venues in Valencia, a place where everything can be different, either harking back to a nostalgia for the past or a starting point for incursions into a utopian (and perhaps feasible) world.
In point of fact, this project is conceived to underscore the space in itself, to transform it through a new vision into a dreamed-of place, whether unreal or not, that is perhaps to come or might never exist at all, but which underpins the imagination of Marina Núñez.
The vicissitudes of the building over its lifespan so far have left their mark on it. Marks which are perhaps invisible to the eye, but not to the soul of the place. The exhibition by Marina Núñez will give us another chance to view its Sala Ferreres in all its splendour, to stroll through it and its classical austerity. It is only the people who dare to peep through the doors who will see other worlds: Demasiado Mundo, too much world. The sounds of silence lead us to the outside world. Inside the hall we are protected, but outside the convent walls too many things happen, things that seem removed from the aesthetic of today, scenes which are quasi-futuristic yet—and why not?—possible.
By means of nine (video, infographic) installations Marina Núñez posits a dystopian world that goes on outside the protection of the central hall. In the video projections, some closed doors gradually open up to show us the world outside the convent. For the space of one minute this fictitious world, perhaps future, perhaps impossible, actually exists. They then close with a bang, rudely awakening us and bringing us back to reality.
Outside the convent, the world is in ruins. Buildings from the past stand alongside others from the present. Cities with skyscrapers, industrial buildings next to medieval and classical ruins. Desolate landscapes, crumbling ruins, the remnants of buildings in which we can see human remains, chimeras, that compose enigmatic scenes. A romantic world in form and light. Landscape in upper case.

Against this apparently immobile backdrop we are trapped by an explosion. One being arises from another being, a new life immediately springs forth. Mutant heads with uncontrolled, excessive growth are joined together and trapped. Organic. Sometimes they bring to mind the ectoplasms in film iconography.

A figurative violent music produces a sense of unease and invites us to walk around the hall to continue discovering more things. Finally, in the last two rooms, a series of women with extremely foreshortened bodies (in ways reminiscent of her madwomen) yet endowed with movement, carry the burden of a new modular birth, once again uncontrolled. Will they die while giving birth to new life? They are a new landscape, a new territory, a new mountain. They are the cause of devastation yet at once are new life. They colonize the landscape, yet they are the ones who have brought about the disaster. A disaster that can only be the seed for a new renaissance.

Throughout the parcours we can observe in the iconography of Núñez’s work a continued presence and use of the chimera: illusion, fantasy, utopia, delirium, vision, dream, ecstasy, imagination, invention, myth, monster, hallucination. The word comes from the Greek khimaira for she-goat and in heraldry it refers to a fantastic creature with a woman’s head on a goat’s body. If we are to consult the dictionary, it tells us that it is an imaginary fire-breathing monster which, according to legend, has the head of a lion, the body of a goat and a dragon’s tail. It is often used metaphorically to describe things that have attributes culled from various different sources. For instance, in genetics, an organism or tissue with two or more genetic compositions. In short, what is created by the imagination as possible or true though not existing in fact.

A chimera is as infinitely possible as the human imagination will allow. Núñez’s use of this element reminds me of a story told by one of the great geniuses of the cinema: The Gold Rush, whose Spanish release was evocatively titled La Quimera del Oro, literally the chimera of gold. Chaplin’s magnificent movie was both an ode to love and a parody of greed. The plot situates us at the beginning of the century, when thousands of people set off for the most inhospitable of places, to confront themselves with nature in all its raw savagery, looking for a “chimera of gold” which the film narrates from two very different angles. On one hand, we have the hero’s logical anxiety to find sustenance and a way out of the most absolute poverty. On the other, the desire of some to impose themselves on others, to gain wealth by just simply finding it and thus achieve recognition and privilege. However, the moral fable is only a part (albeit the core part) of a film in which the genius’s visual and comic inventiveness shines through in all its splendour. It contains some rightfully famous scenes like the one in which, frozen with the cold and famished with hunger in a log cabin, he mistakes his companion for a chicken, a situation masterly resolved with the appearance of a bear. Equally mythical is the moment when he eats his shoe, or the sequence in which his humble abode is about to fall over a cliff, one of the seminal scenes in the history of film.

Marina Núñez’s journey in search of a fairer, more just, noble and beautiful world seems to induce her to reflect on and visualise unreal mutant beings. It leads her to think of the destruction wrought by humankind, of a world overly transformed and intervened. Her eyes visualise other beings, existing only in her mind, which makes them real. A new genetics manipulated by man. Her chimera of gold presents us with a fable of life only through death. Of continuous hope.

Going over some notes I had jotted down some time ago, when we were beginning to prepare this exhibition, I came across a quotation by Leah Abraham. His dialogue between Love and Want goes:

I once had a dream in which Love spoke with Want.

Want asked Love

“Why are you so eternal?”

And Love answered with great patience.

“Perhaps it’s because I own nothing.”

Want answered “that’s impossible, “you own all things, like me. Are we not the same?”

“Do you think so? Then tell me, what is it that you have?

Want replied, “like the lover who possesses the loved one, the politician who possesses power, the religious man who possesses faith, I possess whatever I want.”

Wise old Love said,

“Don’t you see how you answer yourself? When I love I do not possess what I love. I love a butterfly in flight, I love a flower with its fleeting time and I love the man whose life is like the flight of a butterfly and the fleeting time of a flower.”

Highly indignant, Want replied.

“That’s a chimera.”

In his endless patience Love replied.

“The world is a chimera. What do you think I am?”

 

            This quote is a personal dedication to Marina, the creator of this exhibition.

 

If we were to return from the dream of the chimera to situate ourselves once again behind the doors, not only would we feel trapped by strange beings, by the force of bodies but instead, when observing the little scenes of the worlds posited by the artist, we would be hypnotised by this strange, shining light that creates landscapes already glimpsed in iconographies from other earlier works. A world somewhere between Poussin and Friedrich: medieval buildings in ruins, unreal mountainscapes coupled with Gothic ruins and threatening climatic phenomena.

Analysing the work of both these artists we will see how the landscapes in Friedrich’s works were separated discretely into foreground and background, a widespread recourse in landscape painting at the time. We will see that through the doors that open up to us in Sala Ferreres the spectator looks out onto other worlds of an unreal filmic size that foregrounds the chimera, the explosion, death and birth, against a ground of landscape that takes on a perspective invigorating the space while inciting curiosity and a sense of disquiet.

Despite the fact that his work is relatively homogenous, there are many different Friedrichs according to the different periods and, above all else, according to the geographical places he depicted in his canvases. One of the compositional devices the historic painter uses is precisely the tense contrast between terms, provoking sentiments similar to longing. Nothing closer to the reality of the artist we are dealing with here. Backdrops, nostalgic landscapes in slight motion which attempt to evade the gaze despite the explosion of new life that hypnotises the spectator.

Friedrich opposes Mediterranean light with the leaden grey Baltic sky of northern Germany; the ruins of classical Antiquity, of Gothic cathedrals, perhaps as a kind of Germanic emblem, or from the medieval age, the ideal era for the romantics. The execution of all the landscapes by the German artist are underpinned by meticulous drawing of an almost hyperrealist precision. Marina Núñez places her early paintings in the present moment with a carefully delineated drawing, though now transformed into infinite hours upon hours in front of a computer screen.

Friedrich’s work, Landscape with Graves and Landscape with Grave, Coffin and Owl created between 1835 and 1837, pay testimony to how, in the latter years of his life, the artist was obsessed by the theme of death. These works are riddled with a morbid and overwhelming anguish and, unlike many of his previous works which were so eloquently religious, there is nothing in these late works that signal a divine presence. Any sign that might perhaps suggest Christ’s victory over death has long disappeared. As far as the landscape is concerned, it is desert like, almost crazy. In it, death is sometimes represented in allegorical form and other times as real. On occasion it hangs over a desolate wintery forest in which we see the phantasmagorical ruins of a monastery or a cathedral. It was one of the escape routes to be readily found among the more exasperated romantic spirits. That said, I would dare to claim that Marina Núñez is one of the 21st century’s most romantic artists.

These scenes of architecture and landscapes will be accompanied by a layer of light that transports us to the French baroque and the work of Nicolas Poussin. The stillness of his landscapes is offset by a latent or explicit threat of the irruption of misfortune, with a certain theatricality in the expression typical of the baroque.

The landscapes painted by Poussin in later life, the blue skies reflected in still lakes, the faint golden sun of late afternoon illuminating the side of a classic temple or a castle, filtering through the leaves of gigantic trees that dwarf the human figures by comparison, are replaced in Núñez’s work by industrial ruins, Gothic architecture, and seas bathed in golden light. But revealing that this stillness of the landscapes always has its counterpoint in the fleetingness of time, the latent or explicit threat not now of the slow ruin of things but the appearance of misfortune. In one of Poussin’s paintings, Orpheus plays a lyre in the presence of various other figures who are either paying attention or looking elsewhere, and a little further away ordinary life goes on completely indifferent to his music, which wafts gently in the air. A female character turns in panic towards something that frightens her: we have to look very carefully to understand that this women is Eurydice, and that what she and only she has seen—we too are just as distracted as the other characters, or as Orpheus himself, lost in the selfishness of his own art—is the snake that is slithering towards her and about to kill her with its venomous bite. Pain and death make their entrance in the midst of seeming normality, remaining invisible to those who are near at hand but not affected by them. Just one step away from the most terrible drama, the calm day rolls placidly on and the people go about their business; not even the person who will most suffer the loss can even guess what is about to happen. We too must also wait in front of the door with the calm of our time, of observation. On the other side, this calm will be transformed into turbulence so that, after the explosion, it will return to a new life. A life that at the same time carries implicit within it another life, and another, in an endless chain. At the end of our parcours, oppressed creatures, like gestating animals, are developing new beings, their own doubles. They split in two without being able to avoid it. And the only thing that is new appears, the only and immense thing, a living landscape and an identical being to that which gave birth to it.

We ought not overlook the fact that, similarly to what happened with the romantic movement, the artist finds in horror literature a source of inspiration for the issues that concern her: the struggle against death, the freedom of the mind, the fear of the unknown or the relationship between science and ethics. To my way of thinking, the myth of Frankenstein contains the essence of the romantic movement. In any case, the danger comes from man himself. Mankind wishes to dominate the world, to create a machine that will become a danger for him. I often imagine Marina Núñez making a new version of Mary Shelley’s famous Frankenstein. A new film with a great philosophical charge: chimeras, cyborgs, madwomen, monsters to be created; but full of idealism, sincerity and mental purity, qualities praised despite the radicalism. This will lead nowhere but to a new madness. Perhaps an evolutionary action towards a grotesque race towards madness. If we take romanticism to its ultimate consequences, it ends up as a form of insanity.

The original work by Mary Shelley contains in itself a large part of the new romantic values. Quoting Isaiah Berlin, in romanticism “we create our own vision of the universe in the same way that artists create their work.” And inversely, we could well say that the creature that Frankenstein creates is in fact a work of art, a fantastic creation, formed from a vision of the world.

Mary Shelley created her monster following a nightmare. After having given it life, in the introduction she wrote for the later 1831 edition, she said “I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper”. The progeny did indeed prosper, and went on to become one of the first new myths of celluloid. Two great filmmakers, Branagh and Whale, interpreted the story from their respective viewpoints. Similarly to the lives of Byron’s characters, Frankenstein’s monster is also born from disdain, falls into vice and then into crime, into terror and then into desperation.

Branagh’s film highlights the arrogance of the scientist who wants to emulate God, the manipulation of life and the acceptance of death. The film also seems to reinforce the story of the love which Frankenstein tries to sustain beyond death with terrible consequences, in this way influencing the usual relationship between love and death. Besides the struggle to overcome death, we have the freedom of the mind and the fear of the unknown, science and ethics, the creation of life, rebellion against the established order and the fear of punishment, maturity and repentance for the ideals and excesses of youth, the limits between sanity and madness, the need for affection of the monster and of social outcasts, social rejection as the origin of criminal behaviour or the rebellion of the child against the father and of the creature against the creator.

Whale’s movie, on the other hand, is nothing if not a moralist adaptation of Shelley’s work, a glorification of the bourgeois order at the expense of human ambition and creative desire, with Doctor Frankenstein as the genuine representation of the scientist craving for power who dares to compare himself with God and who, in the end, must recognise the error of his ways and return to the fold with his head bowed low.

We could claim that Frankenstein contains the foundations of romanticism: the will, the fact that there is no structure to things and the opposition to all conception that tries to represent reality with some form capable of being analysed, registered, understood, communicated to others or dealt with scientifically. In this regard, the settings are much more appropriate: dilapidated cemeteries shrouded in mist, derelict towers on hilltops dominating the surrounding landscape, empty hamlets inhabited by victims-to-be and a place in which life and death live side by side, like the very projection screen.

I now have my long-desired version of Marina Núñez for Mary Shelley’s myth, with an enviable stage setting. The premiere is in Sala Ferreres at the Convent of El Carmen in the city of Valencia. Join us for the performance and, if you wish, you can join the cast and play the part of extras, as legendary soldiers in the fight against Death to save Princess Earth.

Alicia Ventura

April 2010