«Marina Núñez, from hell»
«Jardín salvaje», Ed. TEA, Tenerife Espacio de las Artes, 2019, pp. 40-51.
Marina Núñez’s work is rife with porosities and undergrowth, with liminal spaces that call into question the normative discourse, wherever it comes from or whatever its political intentionality. This artist always speaks of what is common to us, of what pertains to us all, however much it might seem, like those who mistake accent for language, that she only speaks about some. The appropriation of her work, or any self-serving classification as women’s or feminist art, might perhaps seem germane depending on the context, yet it is still a rather stereotyped simplification of a creative universe whose strength lies, quite to the contrary, in transcending the boundaries of identity, in challenging the gaze of whoever only sees themselves, or what they believe to be themselves, reflected. After all, it is just as absurd to believe that origin conditions the discourse of everybody as it is to claim, conversely, that the history of some is not part of the history of everybody; a history that affects everybody and interests everybody. One is as much a prejudice as the other. Both approaches share in an exaltation of the particular, when not the unthinking anxiety of identity, in other words: both shape the radically totalitarian and profoundly xenophobic stereotypes and boundaries that Núñez’s work questions with elegant brutality. One thing for sure, here there is no mawkish sentimentality or kid gloves; we cannot look the other way or remain neutral. There is no way we can avoid feeling questioned or challenged because what is at stake is not just what pertains to us all, but also what we all are. And we are all also a feminine we. We are all hysterical, mad, deformed bodies, monsters, hanged and crucified. We are that line that waxes and wanes, that is pushed and pulled, we are the androgynous and hyperbolic, contradictory and diffuse body with which Núñez has always challenged and questioned us.
Nonetheless, let’s take it one step at a time. Without slighting other interpretations, many critics have underscored all that this artist from Palencia, who works between Madrid and Pontevedra, has done in furtherance of the visibility of the boundaries dividing classes, strata and genders. Even today, her works are still often read in keeping with a way of thinking that aligns her art with feminine stereotypes or with forms of male domination. Perhaps some of the responsibility for these interpretations can be pinned on Núñez herself and her recreations in the 1990s of the visual universe of the famous images of hysterical female patients hospitalized in Salpêtrière in the late-nineteenth century. By dint of some kind of cultural conjunction, her work appeared to endorse the view, adopted from various different positions, of the history of hysteria as a perverse form of (male) domination over the frail bodies of the female inmates. The essays in the first books dedicated to her work clearly sanctioned this view. Her practice, illustrated and analysed with texts by Dianne Hunter or Rosi Braidotti, originally published in feminist journals, questioned the cultural ordering of sanity, traditionally associated with rationality. On one side we had the male (patriarchal one would now say) gaze, and, on the other, the mythology of the objectivised woman. The main drawback with this reading was not historical, but rather political. All in all, why should the representation of the body of hysterical women refer exclusively to hysterical women? Under the aegis (and sentence) of literality, the feminist reading of Núñez’s work divested it of its power to suggest, reducing what was always the concern of the whole to the problem of just a part. Trapped by the logic of the Aristotelian theory of representation—in which things are only what they are (and what they should be)—the tormented, intangible and volatile body became a symbol. And, yet, those of us who are too the hysterical women at Salpêtrière, those of us who also have a body that floats and writhes, a body that disputes the boundaries of our skin and which prefers a distorted grimace to an obedient gesture, also feel we belong to this universe of aberrations. We, all of us, are summoned by Marina Núñez’s visual universe, and not because we are women or men, old or young, men or machines, animals or human, but precisely because we are not, nor ever wanted to be, any of that, because we understand what her work reflects so emphatically: that identity is a prison sentence or, worse still, a living hell.
All Núñez’s work has always, or almost always, engaged in a questioning of identity boundaries. Its political power lies in the forbearance of a proposal that cannot be upheld from any partial figuration, except at the price of falling victim to the most absurd contradictions. Marina Núñez leverages the woman’s body not to speak of the body of women, but to speak of the body. In the same way that she uses the body not to speak of the body, but to speak of its dissipations, its virgin territories and its indeterminate spaces. The characters in her works are in a state of decomposition, sometimes quite literally, they regurgitate remnants of their own past or rush headlong into their future; they flee from the stereotyped places where they were placed by the social conscience; they flow and, even worse, return, rebound, and tirelessly reproduce the scene which they try in vain to escape from. It is the titanic condemnation of one who clings to the sphere of a marginalised world: to repeat oneself, to understand oneself in one’s own liminality.
Given the visual and conceptual wealth of the work of a universal artist, in the sense of the universality of her remit, there is no room for a partial philosophy. On the contrary, the power of her art consists in mitigating consciences, shaking up identities, crossing boundaries; showing us, like in her latest Wild garden, what is inside that indeterminate space to be found between the before and the now. Framed in the context of an uninhabited landscape, Núñez returns to the forest of presumably dead bodies, hanging from a tree, which have returned to disturb us, like players in our own story. We, the ones who always were, have come back, though this time we are not depicted, just merely suggested. We occupy the place of the beholder one minute after our image has vanished. The gaze, our gaze, is so much part of the work that nobody who puts themselves before it is free from the dual vision that gives rise to all neuroses. They will place themselves on one side and the other of the boundary. Both subject and object of their own greed. They will miss themselves, if such a thing is possible. But yes, there we are. That is who we are. We are in the space left empty, in beds dishevelled at dawn, in landscapes engulfed by shadows, in jars in which we have collected fragments of the natural world until turning them not only into still lifes, but into the last glimmer of our wretched vanity.
Continuing one step at a time, Marina Núñez’s work explores three kinds of boundaries: one between species and genus, another between kingdoms, and one between imagination and memory. To begin with, her work brings together all the major references of the teratological depiction of the modern world, but with particular emphasis on hybrid productions which come from the breakdown of normative order in which we all, and not just women, are trapped. Akin to many other treatises on the matter, her monsters err on the side of excess, by excess or by transposition, but her interest lies above all in those interspecific productions that seem to call the normative universe into question. Particularly interesting are the figurations with an excess of parts, or indeed a want thereof. Or even those that possess the elements of other species, but the panacea of moral questioning lies, above all, in the false copulation, in unions completely lacking in similarity. On one extreme, excess comes from the conjunction between the natural and the artificial, between the personal and the alien. In both cases we are trapped between a sense of belonging and estrangement. Was that what we were? Were we like that? Were we made of veins and arteries, of lymphatic networks that could be illustrated in an atlas of anatomy or exhibited inside a display case? Could the model body, shorn of all its signs of identity, be kept in an urn? Would it be possible that, once the problem of skin colour, nationality, genitality and sexual orientation has been resolved; once eviscerated, cleaned up, ordered and dyed, we could shine in a glass urn as if we were a specimen in a royal collection?
In her Jardín Salvaje, Núñez returns with newfound impetus to one of her pet themes: the exploration of encased worlds and enclosed spaces. Here, domesticated nature, one of the major prerogatives of the modern world, wreaks its well-deserved revenge. However, it is no simple retribution, a quid pro quo, but a literal, designed, carefully planned revenge, bent on the weaknesses of the delinquent rather than on compassion for the victim. Nature not only shows itself, but also adopts some of the prerogatives of the beholder: beauty, of course, but also the coldness of objectivisation, of that which is only ridiculously true. Like in the atlases of anatomy of old, all that is left of the corpse of the prisoner dissected to act as a model, are blued remains shorn of every shred of animality. The name and memory have been flayed like the flesh from the bones, leaving uncovered the tracks of the lymphatic vessels, the place through which, in life, the emotions circulated. All that is left, inasmuch as human gesture, is the gaze. Our gaze, also sentenced to act as a witness to a circular conception of existence, of a beginning that has no end, of a drama without a denouement. In the context of this new scented garden, the drama of experience is not built on a before and a now, but on the continuity of a story without a beginning in which flowers and trees grow and die.
The history of humankind would not be the same without their long shadow. From the apple tree in Eden to the timber of the Cross, many different things have hung from trees, including the corpses of hundreds of women and men who one day offered the gift of their necks, sometimes voluntarily sometimes not. Phaedra, we know from the version of the tragedy left to us by Euripides, took her own life by hanging herself. The same happened to Jocasta, the mother (and wife) of Oedipus of Thebes. As if it ran in the family, Antigone, the daughter of both, also hung herself from a tree; and also Helen of Troy, at least in some versions of the legend. Ancient Greek and Latin sources are full of this terrible image in which the most varied witnesses provide testimony of a practice enacted a thousand times over. Diogenes Laërtius, the celebrated compiler of the work of the Cynics, claimed that some of the most famous members of the school of Cynics strolled nonchalantly through the hanging bodies of dozens of young men without paying the least attention to their corpses; perhaps with the same indifference a passerby today would show to a group of beggars huddling on the sidewalk. And while there is no possible redemption for the body hanging from the tree, which has been denied a burial, the tree itself stands unscathed, crowning Calvary. However, it is cursed. It will join the forces of arbor infelix, those which will never bear fruit or whose shadow will never grace any Paradise.
This is one of the most defining characteristics of Núñez’s work: her ability to recreate asphyxiating scenes. Her relationship with hell goes back a long way. One might even think that she has been there and back many times. Having said that, her work does not reek of sulphur nor is it bathed in blood. She does not give in to the temptation of the Roman rabble, whose only entertainment was cruelty and barbarism. The place her proposals lead to is not to be found in the great beyond not indeed in the here and now, but in the indeterminate space from which our signs of identity come. False, like all signs of identity. Monstrous, like all of them. The word «monster» originally did not mean any other thing. Derived from the Greek teras, the monster was a warning whose mere presence was able to show the imminent danger. It was a signal or more literally a sign. Marina Núñez’s work is a true reflection of those signs. It is a philosophy of warning, from someone who has been to and returned from the infernos to bring us the memory of our numbed arm that we did not feel as if it were ours, of our deformed face that we did not know was ours, of encased nature we thought we possessed with the same naivety with which we wished to pour the water of the ocean into a cup. Hell, Núñez tells us, is not a place, but a process. It is sequential, repetitive, and further still, it is iterative: like the drop of water that bores through the stone.
Ever since hell entered the European imagination back in the twelfth century, artists began to fill it with content, to look for similitudes and likenesses. Like Núñez’s, the late-medieval inferno was populated with hybrid beings and intermediary spaces. The swamps of hell are full of amphibian animals, frogs, salamanders, snakes. And also the wretched and the damned, all those poor souls who paid for their terrible pasts with their horrible presents: the lecherous were consumed in boiling water; the gluttonous swallowed rats and snakes; the envious writhed in a frozen sea; the bodies of the proud were nailed to a wheel, and so on successively. The punishment takes the form of an eternal species, in such a way that the penitent can never grow accustomed to his fate. The rats have to be swallowed, producing the same effect as the first time for all eternity. The pitiful procession of the damned corresponded to the parameters of what the anthropology of experience once called a “social drama”: a process dotted with breakups and reconciliations. Just like in the ceremonies proper to birth, marriage and death, the road to hell begins with a physical and moral separation from family references and from community bonds. Once they have crossed the boundary of separation, the living dead inhabit a limit between the worldly and the supernatural; mutilated, dismembered, fragmented, they float between two worlds. This intermediary place, taking the form of a vast foyer, was characterized by disorder and disproportion. The true and the false, the real and the immaterial, the natural and the supernatural, and the living and the dead all coexist.
Like the more conspicuous representations of the modern inferno, Núñez’s also depends on the application of rules which must be obeyed. First of all, and most importantly, hell is not a customized place. Everything that happens goes way beyond everyday experience, although, from the first figurations by Van der Weyden to the most sophisticated by Hieronymus Bosch, the impossible is conveyed by means of the everyday. In late-medieval art, this omnipresence of the everyday was narrated above all through the world of the kitchen. The metaphors (by the Catalan philosopher Raymond Lull) to pots in which the unjust would be boiled are added to other sets of elements related with the art of cooking, depicted in a plethora of frescos, boards and illustrated manuscripts. Whether fried, roasted, poached, boiled or grilled, the bodies of sinners were submerged in large pots and cauldrons watched over by all kinds of devils and demons. The preparation of these stews almost always followed the precepts of the master chefs of the late middle ages who used to recommend, like they still do today, moistening the flesh before cooking so that it would not burn or get tough; a similar description to Augustine of Hippo, who believed that in the flames of hell “the flesh may burn without being consumed.»
Núñez’s vision of hell does not share the same taste for stews and hotpots, but it is built from ordinary everyday elements. With the magnificent input of the music by Luis de la Torre, Jardín Salvaje conditions our way of looking at the spectacle of encased nature on plasma screens in which blossoms bloom and vanish in an underworld without hope. This must be what the flowers of hell are like: apocalyptic dreams that take away with one hand what they hold out with the other. The image is by no means new to us. After all, we have seen these gardens many times before. They are not completely unknown to us. On the contrary, they are gardens of abandoned childhood, of breached trust, of unfulfilled promise. They are the flowers of what seemed alive and was dead, of what was only a mirage, of a will without commitment. Núñez’s inferno, like the medieval one that may have been a source of inspiration, is made with the estranged known. Her bodies and spaces are all familiar. We were there. It is where we come from. Who could deny it? Therein lies part of the fascination aroused by her work. Like tourists who are seeing for the first time in real life what they have seen so many times before in books, or like travellers who think they remember a place they believe they have been to before, we let ourselves be persuaded by images that have a disturbing familiarity and which, in their own way, seem to be made from our personal memories, forgotten or not.
After all, who has not felt that their body was shattered into a thousand pieces or that another being inside you, throbbing under the skin, began to take on a life of its own? Who has not seen how their face was squashed and fossilized by the force of their own hands? Who has not looked in the mirror and seen their pupils divide like a cancer? Who has not felt naked and prey to their emotions, to their feelings, to their ideas? Trapped like an insect in a box of samples or hanging, by invisible strings, in a blackened and unrepentant place? This familiarity has a name: it is called, since Freud, Unheimlich, which has sometimes been translated into English as «the uncanny», but it is not the word that matters. What matters is the way in which one learns the force of the everyday that becomes estranged. This is the pastry with which the worst nightmares are baked and the worst infernos built: that of the body which seemed alive and was dead; that of the friend who turned out not to be; that of false love; that of the arm which has gone numb and we cannot feel. Estrangement produces this mix of fascination and rejection, which forces us to avert the eyes and turn our head to one side. Could it be true? Could this be the case? Could it be that the island and mangroves, that our sacred and magic mountains have finally been confined in a kind of thurible, as if they were remains of a shipwreck? And so, here we are: like the dead contemplating his own death. And naturally without tears. There is no place here for judgements or curses.
Inside the amphora, Núñez has placed some emblems of the natural world: the tree, of course, but also the mountain, the mangrove and the island. Three colonized, sacralized, desecrated objects, without which some of our cultural references could never have existed. Not the ascensions of Petrarch or St John of the Cross nor the utopias of Thomas More or the elucubrations of the satirical writer Jonathan Swift. They are not just any objects. On the contrary, they share a taste for the faraway, for the mysterious, for the terrible. It is no accident that they were sacred objects submitted to the cult of the symbolic. Núñez reduces them to an exercise in melancholic contemplation with no concessions to nostalgia or to sentimentality. There is not the slightest whiff of romanticism in this caged nature. If anything, the opposite is true. Similar to a tableau vivant, nature has been encased, although it would not be fitting to refer to these figurations as «still lifes». Here there are no darkened lemons or rotting oysters. There is no dead rabbit or tarnished silver. Nor is it nature that revolves, but the viewer who contemplates in rotation: these forms do not speak of vanity, but of greed, the frustrated desire to possess, of the world turned into death.
In the representation of the drama of experience, Marina Núñez continues to make use of the representation of harm that has been etched in our collective imaginary. Freed from religious usage and mystical promise, in the twenty-first century bodies still inhabit dystopian geographies. Some of the most emblematic images of our visual culture share this characteristic. Their differing cultural value does not preclude their iconic similarity. Quite the reverse, we have learned to represent our pain in an inherited framework, full of values and practices that we no longer recognise as ours. Our ways of representing violence, grounded in the technological reiteration of harm that cannot be explained from any logic nor justified by any ethics, keep on showing a place without hope or a way out, with the reiteration proper to the distinctive features of hell. Marina Núñez has had a good look at it. Her world is our world. We can recognise it as ours because we have seen it so many times. The great success of this wonderful artist is that she forces us to look at what we don’t want to see. What else is art?
Institute of History, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)