Rocío de la Villa
Portraits of abjection
“Retratos. Marina Núñez”, catálogo, Universidad de Jaén, 2009, pp. 19-25.
The creation of faces and portraits generates the inventiveness of Marina Núñez and is the crucible to which she returns time and time again to feed her creative process. Throughout almost two decades of work, from the first to her most recent creations, the review of the main portrait typologies is constant: from the most archaic findings coming from ancestral rituals lo the portrait itself as an artistic genre linked to the questioning of identity.
The origin of the portrait, the plastic representation of a face, is rooted in the human necessity to create images and is dated by archaeologists to some 30,000 years ago. In this genesis, the first portraits (dated to approximately 7,000 years before our time) marked a point of inflection in the function of the image. Skulls covered in mud or lime which are molded and painted in an effort to preserve the features of the deceased. In this way, “the flesh eliminated from the bone was substituted by the image, thereby covering the bone again” 1. The findings were made in the Middle East area and belong to the Pre-pottery Neolithic B era, a revolution which saw the emergence of the first sedentary society. A ‘skull culture’ is developed in these burial sites, the oldest death ritual we have knowledge of. With this portrait adjusted to the head of the deceased, the image states its ultimate meaning: the representation of something that has disappeared. In other words, the image represents that which cannot be present in any other way 2.
Actually, as far as the very notion itself of image goes, in mimesis an inversion takes place. The portrait becomes a catharsis before the horror of a human being who, on dying, becomes defenceless and is converted in an image; albeit an unstable image subject to decomposition. By substituting the disfigured face by a portrait, an ontological transformation occurs: the image now depicts the deceased: “it presents the deceased, not death” 3. In our Greek-Latin tradition we find matrix images similar to the convergence between ritual and matter in the funeral masks, like the imaginum pictura described by Pliny which, despite their deceptive name 4, were duplicates stuck to the face: a mold was made from the direct contact between the plaster and the face, and was later filled with wax.
Nevertheless, these archaic procedures that try to get as close as possible to the original, up to the point of physically replacing it, appear not to be able to fulfill the meaning of the portrait. As pointed out by Jean-Luc Nancy, if it is true that the function of the portrait is to “maintain the image of a person who is no longer here”, that doesn’t determine that the portrait, by definition, has to be governed by its similarity to the original model. It isn’t a two-dimensional representation either, on the contrary. The portrait as a genre of artistic representation is independent of the model, as can be confirmed in the ‘Mona Lisa’, an archetype portrait whose identity and even sex remains uncertain. That is to say, the absence of the model is more important than its recognition. “A portrait is in absentia” 5 and the quality of its likeness must be limited to that absence 6. Therefore, the function of the portrait is to “present the presence of absence” 7. Absence which, long ago, finally identified itself with the memory of the sacred but which, without intending to transcend the limits of its ultimate spiritual meaning, we would interpret more specifically in stating that the portrait presents “death at work at the height of life, in full figure and in full view” 8.
Thus, the invocation that provokes all representations of a face, from the most archaic representation that replaces death through to the portrait itself, representations that link the ultimate meaning of the image to the presence of death, is extended in the fascination for the enigma of images right up to the present.
Amongst the latest portraits produced by Marina Núñez we can find her fossils with microorganisms. They are mutant skulls from future archaeology. Unlike normal fossils which, having been encapsulated, remain intact, these skulls appear to have been preserved in shapeless matter, and yet have lost nothing of their expressiveness. There is something even more disturbing about them: the evidence of the findings of another life within the stony metamorphosis of their deceased.
The artist’s image creation process has always pivoted around portraits associated with death. From the future to the past, from the cyborg to the ex-voto, as is the case of the oil paintings of heads made only of skin, like reversible gloves. Not to mention the multiple polyurethene heads that hang decapitated, revealing the inheritance of old rituals present in some Catholic churches, similar to the ‘boti’ in I’Annunziata of Florence which were of so much interest to Aby Warburg who, on seeing these wax figures hanging from the vaults, authentic copies of corpses which prolong ancestral rituals, spoke of the ‘magic fetishism linked to these wax figures” that would have been at the origin of the alto-relievo realist portrait and the painted portrait 9. It could be said that the production of images by Marina Núñez as a whole is related to the imagery of the Catholic tradition which is a funerary tradition based on the memory of the example given by the deceased. This is confirmed by the majority of the representations of the body created by Núñez, similar to the sculptures of saints: only the head, often covered by a false wig, is visible or, at the very most the head and hands which are meticulously sculpted as they are the only parts that emerge from the cloaks or tunics that hide the basic frame they are fixed to. It is the image of death that predominates her work.
From the outset, at the beginning of the nineties, through her serviettes series, we discover that this collection of faces are in fact Veils of St. Veronica’, as is later confirmed in the Holy Faces series; that is to say, images similar to the cloth with which, according to the legend, she wiped the sweat off Jesus Christ’s face leaving his image imprinted on it. But in these cloths created by Marina Núñez, what has remained is the imprint of the announced death of the history of the representation the artist aims to subvert. Most of these portraits are appropiations of the faces of female characters belonging to a history of art in which women were traditionally objects but not subjects. Marina Núñez takes over these heroines. Reviewing our own particular western history, the artist appears to trace a path very similar to the milestones set in surrealist poetics, between the mannerism movement and the visionary symbolisms, whose main legacy was the understanding of the importance of the collage and incongruous visual associations to destabilize the rancid inherited systems of beliefs. The artist’s deconstructive intention joins the tendency of artists in the last decade who have converted themselves in subjects of new representations, also based on criticism of canonic history of representation from a visual cultural perspective. It’s hardly surprising that an impregnated image of those times be one of that young girl who, with the devotion of a faithful dog, bites the hand of the master, taken from The Golden Age’ of Buñuel. It is also, however, an ambiguous image; there is so much anxiety in that innocent look. It’s as if the emergence of a new subject is insinuated from within the sevice to the master. Meanwhile the image as a whole works as the inverse metaphor of the bite with which Marina Núñez defies the history of images.
What at first is intuition and investigation of plastic resources to express something sinister, soon becomes the creation and application of new strategies that develop the poetics of abjection, which will become the ground on which she developes her future. From the very start, Núñez isolates and developes the most disturbing details: the orifices, for example, in the attention to the mouth of Flora that bites the branch; the hair that is prolonged at will; the empty eye sockets. On other occasions we are dealing with the opposite: total baldness, black faces. Elements that acquire some sort of autonomy which, as it unfolds, permits juxtapositions like the former spiritual emanations of the look that have turned into hair emerging from the eyes, and which accept the adhesion of new elements in the shape of protuberances, such as birds and fish.
The fixation for phaneros, however, becomes more accentuated. They gather importance. The term ‘phaneros’ is used to designate all those elements that are protrude from the body’s epidermis, hair, feathers, scales, claws, nails, teeth…, in short, all the body’s relics that “long after the flesh has turned to dust, continue saying who we were” 10. In the vanitas paintings by Marina Núñez, skulls appear, jaw bones drop open, and there is an invasion of eyes. Meanwhile, her celluloid heroines remain indifferent. They don’t look at us, they don’t look at anything. Really, they look at nothing, thus confirming their role as portraits of absence itself; although, in this case, in which the naturalization of hegemonic history is questioned, absence is considered the absence of a woman subject.
Woman as a dead subject. The corpse is the height of abjection, the most repulsive waste matter: “it is a limit that has invaded everything” 11. For some time, the Inside and Outside remain in her portraits. The figures are silhouetted faces onto which that which has been rejected is superimposed. The artist also superimposes the instruments of torture that accompany her investigation into madness, or, more specifically, hysteria, consequence of the submission imposed on women during Modernity.
But we are soon to return to the previous confusion of hair covered faces, erased mouths, with deforming anamorphosis and new emanation formulas and, with them, the exteriorization of the abject inside. And, at the same time, ambiguity which “neither abandons nor assumes prohibition, a rule or a law, but diverts it, throws it off course, corrupts it” 12. Filaments and veins grow on the heroines’ faces, veins, ducts and lymphatic knots become visible while they exhale electrified breath. The abject emanates from the inside, rejected but at the same time forming a part of oneself, as repulsive as something external we would react against to protect ourselves: “imaginary surprise and real threat which bekons us and ends up submerging us” 13.
Given that it is rooted in the ultimate desire of the Other, Julia Kristeva finally states that” the abject has only one quality, that of opposing the ego” 14. For that reason, the abject “does not cease to defy the master”, and is a perfectly adequate strategy for those who stand up to the rules from the criticism of the isolated, homogenic, constant, complete and automous identity, and “to the individual as an abstract, raw essence” 15. The abject dilutes the limit between the Ego and the Other”.
There is no departure without return. In the animated portraits of the Red y Conexión (Net and Connection) videos, veins emerge from the face like independent malleable cables in the same way as strange amoeboid lumps start appearing beneath the skin of the smiling character.
The images created by Marina Núñez are located in the place where ghosts are made; where the separation of the sense of touch and the sense of sight merges. The repulsion provoked by the abject emerges at the intersection of this synesthesia. Touch and sight, complementary yet opposing senses since, according to Aristotle, sight without touch is impossible, and touch is what constitutes the escathon of sight: it’s limit. Nevertheless, as Didi-Huberman suggests 16, the fascination for the contemplation of plastic representations can, perhaps, only be understood if we accept that for vision the sense of touch is also its telos; to look at a representation is like using the vision’s sense of touch. Obsessive pulsion along with phobic desire, that is the experience that the abject indicates with particular precision.
However, as the latest series by Marina Núñez demonstrate, the experience of the abject can also, at present, be provoked by more simple elements. The phaneros which, for some time, were used in the history of representation to symbolize woman, cruelty and evil, gave way to delicate, magnetic sparkles designed by new digital representation media. The thickness of the archaic face-mask has been reduced to the point of converting it into a film and screen, if not into an almost transparent, movable net whose most alarming quality is its epicentre from which it appears to generate itself. In others, the spectral transparency of the head itself, in the form of an indelible membrane, allows us to see zoomorphic and aquatic activity. But even the mere multiplication of irises (as in Multiplicity) or artificial eyeballs evoke the experience of the abject as an “exorbitant inside”.
In her latest Imago, Marina Núñez limits herself to the epidermis. Making use of highly polished, glazed prototypes of mutant heads, she includes the spectator in the image, whose reflected surprise is fragmented and faceted amongst the anomolous volumes like the distorting mirrors found in fairground attractions, almost reaching the (impossible) exaltation of the abject. It’s as if she emulates the image of Victor Hugo with which Kristeva begins her Powers of Horror, “no eye so vile nor abject that brushes not against lightening from on high”.
1 Hans Belting, Antropología de la imagen, (Bild-Antropologie:, 2002,) Katz Ed., Buenos Aires, 2007, p.188.
2 Ibid, p. 179.
3 Jean-Luc Nancy, La mirada del retrato, (Le regard du portrait, 2000), Amorrortu, Buenos Aires, 2006, p. 54.
4 George Didi-Huberman, Ante el tiempo. Historia del arte y anacronismo de las imágenes, (Devant le temps, 2000), Adriana Hidalgo Ed., Buenos Aires, 2008, p. 112.
5 Nancy, p.45.
6 Maurice Blanchot, L’amitie, 1971, cit, Nancy, op. Cit., p. 37 : “A portrait is not a likeness because it is similar to the face, the likeness begins and exists only with and only within the portrait; the likeness is the portrait’s work, it’s glory or its downfall, and it is manifest precisely because the original is no longer present except through the likeness itself”.
7 Nancy, op, cit., p. 54.
9 As pointed out by Gimpel, op. Cit, p. 70, Warburg continued the research started by his teacher, Julius von Schlosser, who, in his work Historia del retrato en cera, after studying the mimetic representation of portraits arid busts of courtesans, had pointed towards the manifestation of a magical power linked to the image.
10 Jean Gimpel, De inmundo (De inmundo, 2004), Arena Libros, Madrid 2007, p. 67.
11 Julia Kristeva, Poderes de la Perversión, (Pouvoirs de l’horreur, 1980), Siglo XXI, Buenos Aires, 1988, p.10.
12 Ibid, p, 25
13 Ibid, p. 11.
14 Ibid, p. 8.
15 Marina Núñez, CASA, Salamanca, 2002, p.8.
16 Didi-Huberman, La pintura encarnada, La peinture incarnée, 1985, Pre-Textos Universidad Politecnica de Valencia, 2007, p.68.