José Jiménez: «The fire of vision»
«The fire of vision», Ed. Comunidad de Madrid y Artium, Centro-Museo Vasco de Arte Contemporáneo, Vitoria-Gasteiz, 2015, pp. 15-21.
1. Flows of stares
What do we see when we observe…? What attracts our attention in an overpopulated world of scattered images which enter our sensitivity and our mind, hardly allowing any time or space for us to attain in-depth knowledge of what they are, what they intend, what they transmit…?
The question of vision, in the complex and hybrid universe of overlapping technologies in which we live today, is the central motif of the artwork by Marina Núñez, a thoroughly mature artist who raises contemporary issues as well as equally expressive contemporary formulas and approaches. What is decisive, the decisive element is that the image of our time does not stand still, it restlessly moves in constant motion. And Marina Núñez responds to this ever-changing global image with the intensely dynamic expression of her works.
The turning point came when she developed her own language and themes in 1992. Since then, she began to explore the symbolic and imaginary realms of exclusion, creating a language with an intense creative power, one of the most personal and characteristic features of today’s art, with echoes of doubt and irony: Can we be sure of what we exclude and why we exclude it? Dense, split images, whose flow has been depicted in the series: Madness, Death, Monsters, Sinister, Science Fiction, etc.
The role of women occupies a central space in this map of exclusions, a way of using an image to highlight the place which has been traditionally assigned to the female gender in the history of our culture. However, what is decisive is the split personality. Insane women who return from the drama of hysteria are duplicated in a floating mirror, without a frame or profile. Suspended objects above figures, skulls superimposed on heads, incisions in the flesh, one body inside another. The face which directly stares at us from the bottom of a cyborg’s brain.
Marina Núñez reveals what we usually do not know how to see, yet configures us as what we truly are. Because, evidently, the projection of the rejected self springs forth from ourselves. The monster spawns within our mind, Frankenstein is our own creature. This romantic sensitivity constitutes one of her central motifs: there is no «I» without its doppelgänger.
What is most fascinating is the poetic twist, the personal tone. Despite their anomalies, Marina’s excluded figures always embody clarity, a purity of lines, an unsettling yet serene beauty, which are never convulsive or torn apart. Actually, her aim is to show how exclusion is primarily based on ignorance. However it is also founded on repressed desire.
There is also a specifically modern and contemporary treatment of the image. An avid reader of science fiction, Marina appropriates dreams, latent desires and needs which are expressed in this universe of consumer literature as well as film and television which are even more relevant to define the characteristics of the virtual universes than what we might think at first.
In the alien, the being from another world in science fiction, and just like the monster, what disturbs and yet irresistibly attracts us, is that we know that this creature is born inside us, within our own body. Thus nudity, a transgressive strip-tease, is also important in the figures of Marina Núñez, which extend into anatomical discovery: into the inner depths of our body, both imagined and lived.
It is then that we notice the intensity of these figures, which bearing the sign of exclusion, tell us about an alternative world, the possibility of going beyond the repetitive, alienating and banal certainties which comprise the universe of the indistinct image of mass society. The question of identity opens into the experience of metamorphosis: I am me and my other self. Body and image, beyond the body. Masculine and feminine. Sane and insane. Normal and monstrous. Native and foreigner. Human being and machine. Earthling and alien.
2. Bodies, machines, minds
What type of representations of human beings are viable today in the universe of plastic arts? Over a century ago based on avant-garde art proposals, the traditional, figurative and mimetic traditions of representation gradually lost validity to end up dissolving into plurality and uncertainty. In turn, photographic and electronic media of the image gave way to parallel simulated figures, images which aim to be even more real than the anthropological construction which we call reality.
Norbert Wiener (1948, 1961), the father of cybernetics, stated that we have modified our environment so much that now we must modify ourselves. In a recurring cycle, humans continually shape our technologies but our technologies then end up shaping us. All the above implies a process of profound cultural change, a new definition of the human being in a technology saturated environment.
And obviously, these radical mutations of humans and their environments lead to a logical redefinition of their representations. The autonomous subject of Western culture has always been represented by a literal and symbolically closed, impenetrable body, which has well-defined borders with the world, frontiers which are traditionally marked by the skin. However in the new cybernetic paradigm, the human being is part of an integrated system and the human organism can be viewed as a type of permeable membrane through which information flows.
The man connected to communication systems expands the reach of his sense organs: he is able to converse with inhabitants from other geographical lands and cultures, he can witness the development of distant events in real time, he can operate at a distance by means of a remote control robotic arm, etc.
When defined by data flows and feedback circuits, rather than epidermal surfaces, the subject ceases to be an isolated and self-sufficient entity and becomes a system susceptible to assembly and disassembly.
Hence, from the image-model of the human being, the canonical man, as represented by Leonardo for example, engraved inside a square and a circle which contain and limit him, we now have a post-human image whose neural network is continued by the global network of digital telecommunications.
Exactly as the classic diagram of the city as a walled site, in which closure and borders were the defining factor, ever since the second half of the 19th century, the diagram of the city has become the communications network (the metro map, the motorway grid), in which the connections and flows are the decisive data, we now enter the stage of telepolis, the global diagram of the digital city. The networks comprised by circulatory flows and intersection nodes are the paradigm of this new space of expansion and connection which defines the human and urban condition of the 21st century.
Consequently, what is happening to the image today in a civilization which increasingly lives in a digital and virtual framework, in Internet and cyberspace? Marina Núñez explores these issues in her work, structuring her drawing and painting with diverse forms of electronic creation and digital imagery, and using the most varied means: satin, tarpaulin, canvas and linen, as well as experimentation with new materials: metal, light, plastic. Using these expressive media, she performs the task of rescuing images and procedures characteristic of digital mass culture; however she redefines them in unusual subversive situations.
Marina uses the same images from this massive everyday universe: literature for mass consumption, design, graphic illustration, film. However she transcends them. She appropriates them and conveys them into an interior intimate space where she establishes a radical interrogation about what we possess and what we lack, about the fate of our civilization.
One recurring question in her work is the deep transformation of identity patterns, ever more intensely configured as a hybrid, «mestizo» dimension in our age. Both in the sense of a mixture of anthropological behaviour patterns as well as the synthesis of corporality and technology. Thus the latent dreams and needs of our culture are unveiled: a world in which the image of a human being is profiled in an increasingly intense process of crossbreeding and hybridization, which mingles «strangeness» with what is non-human, extra-terrestrial or machine.
In fact, hybridization, crossbreeding and mixture have been inherent to mankind since its origins, despite the immoral aspirations of diverse types of racism. However in today’s world, characterized by a hyper-intensive globalization process, hybridization is not only ethnic, but also the bodily and mental along with the artificial products of technology.
Marina Núñez’s artwork allows us to glimpse these new facets of the self and the singularity in this age of acute transformations. Metamorphosis, multiplicity and reverberation of the image, which circulate like an astral body melting what is human: its trail, its tracks, with the technology which increasingly dwells inside us; ultimately, all cyborgs, whether we like it or not.
The term, cyborg, is the English abbreviation of cybernetic organism. It was originally used in science fiction to express the idea of the replacement of human body parts with artificial components, until the final step in this process is reached: the replacement of a carnal brain with a digital brain. Something which has been encouraged in recent research which seeks to achieve the dream of immortality by transferring the human brain into a digital format.
Unlike the automaton, the cyborg involves mixture, a synthesis of body and machine. It is important to bear in mind that the appearance of this idea implies the development of modern technology. And hence from this perspective, the “monster” created by Frankenstein (and Mary Shelley’s literary imagination), the new Prometheus of modern times, strictly speaking, should be considered as the first cyborg. Obviously, the “idea” of a cyborg has acquired a new impulse with the implementation of digital technology. For countless ages, medicine has used prosthesis in its diverse “care-taking” procedures of the body, yet never in recent decades has it achieved such an intense degree of usage in all types of prostheses and the growing synthesis of artificial and body components in therapeutic practices.
Today in a greater or lesser degree, we are all mixed, compound organisms: cyborgs. And we will be even more so in today’s accelerating future as we can already glimpse. Thus, Marina Núñez (2002, 115-129) has been able to personally speak of “We, the Cyborgs”, and draw attention to this fusion of the body with technology which represents “a substantial identity change”, as well as the creation of “a new type of subjectivity”. This is the horizon of her works, and this is the source of the strangeness, the uncertainty of the stare, which her figures cause: Are they us?
In Marina’s haunting yet beautiful characters, we can trace several of the dense latent myths which serve as reference for today’s nascent digital age. Cyborgs are changelings, metamorphic beings. Labile, as this term was introduced in science fiction by Samuel R. Delany in his short stories, called The Edge of Space, published in 1969. In biology, “labile” is the name of a cellular structure which changes or quickly breaks after being examined. Delany uses this term to express the rapid changes of mood or attitude sensitively harmonized with changes in the situation or the environment. We could say that cyborgs are spontaneously “interactive”.
When we say labile, changing or metamorphic, this is particularly suitable when we wish to express the intense drift of contemporary personality: the split personality or even the plural diversification of character. In turn and depending on the contexts, we are hard and soft, cruel and tender, merciless and compassionate, masculine and feminine. And ever more interactive.
The latter aspect is especially relevant in the cyborgs designed by Marina Núñez, which at first sight, appear to be “asexual”. However, the question goes even deeper to involve the “sexual” lability.
Immersed in this universe of new sensations and experiences, beyond the classic tradition of representation, Marina Núñez’s artwork appropriates these latent images of widespread popular consumerism and usually neglected by the solemn self-sufficiency of the so-called “cultural elite”. Because here, precisely in these images, we can notice the negative traces of our desire, that which we distantly glimpse as attainable, precisely because we lack it.
In her work, Marina deploys a new type of political and moral commitment within the artistic activity. It opposes the supposedly «genius» artists, who stand apart from their historical time and institutional context, solely installed in their own subjectivity. Yet it also takes a stand against the “professional” artists, who conceive their work as yet another business, the mere production of consumer items in the commercial chain of mass culture.
Intelligence and commitment, instead of superficiality and cynicism. Without aiming to resume the proposal of a global transformation of society through art, characteristic of classic avant-garde movements, Marina Núñez is situated in line with the “transformation of the symbolic”, of struggle “in the field of representation”. And, she states, this may “not be a political transformation in itself, however it is evidently involved in political transformations.”
3. Seeing is being, seeing is burning
“I is someone else” (“Je est un autre”), Arthur Rimbaud lucidly and boldly wrote, in a definitive rupture from the rational aspirations and moral repression of a substantive identity, the idea of a self-sufficient and permanent self in the planes of consciousness (mind, knowledge) and conscience (moral). Rimbaud. In the same letter, he went on to state: “I want to be a poet and I am working to become a Seer (…). It is a question of reaching the unknown by the derangement of all the senses.” And above all, just before exclaiming, “I is someone else”: “It is wrong to say: I think. One ought to say: I am thought. – Pardon the pun.” (Rimbaud, 1871, 249).
Far reaching lucidity: “It is wrong to say: I think. One ought to say: I am thought.” This was the first formulation of the crisis of subject, many years before the theories of psychoanalysis and subsequent approaches of structuralist thought. My self is not autonomous or self-sufficient: it is constructed in the interaction with others, in whose mirror we see ourselves.
This split identity in the reflection or the rebound of the stare has intensified to a paroxysm in our day and age, particularly due to the expansion of the global media image and even more recently through the digital networks.
Did Antonio Machado, a French professor, ever read this letter by Rimbaud…? The verse echoes in the reflection, eye to eye:
“El ojo que ves no es
ojo porque tú lo veas;
es ojo porque te ve.”*
(Machado, 1917, 626).
*(“The eye that you see is not/an eye because you see it;/it is an eye because it sees you.»)
Eyes, eyes, eyes… The images of human eyes proliferate with such intensity in Marina Núñez’s artwork that it is difficult to avoid feeling that one is being stared at as we draw near to look at them. Engraved in the mirror of representation, these are eyes because they see us, as Machado wrote. They have an influence in the configuration of our self, as Rimbaud wrote.
In their movements, their dynamic turns, these eyes stare at us from the outside. However when they do so, they fix our gaze and our self flows, it is transformed. Metamorphosis of vision, of identity. From eye to eye, deployment and flow of eyes, which form a part of what we are: hybrid, interactive, labile, changing and fleeting beings, reflections in others’ eyeballs.
Hence arise the flame, the fire, the desire. In the beautiful film, Dolls (Muñecos) , by Takeshi Kitano, based on the traditional Japanese theatre called Bunraku, in which puppets are manipulated in the audience’s view, one of the characters, the pop singer, Haruna, expresses this in a song:
a fire lights up”.
Precisely this: the fire of vision. This is the centre of gravity of Marina Núñez’s work.
Thus we arrive at what is essential: there are stares and true stares. In Marina Núñez’s artworks, eyes move and flow, especially in fire, they inflame figures and spaces, which are seen as inhabited by flames. We now see stares which blaze with passion, and because of this, they spawn and procreate. They create open, hybrid identities. They are reflections which observe us as we observe them.
In this digital age, in which everything is image, the fire of vision leads us to the roots of philosophy, to revisit Plato once again. In the Platonic dialogues: the interactive expression, the equally hybrid thought, gave birth to the scale of Eros. Essentially in the Banquet and in Phaedrus. The path to wisdom and knowledge of the ideal forms or ideas, located in a celestial space beyond this sensible world, begins in the fire of desire which ignites our gaze when we observe the fiery reflection of transcendent beauty in the gaze/mirror of the beloved.
If whoever beholds this reflection advances towards wisdom through the flow of the memory when his soul saw the ideal forms, before incarnating into a body, “first, he feels a chill, and afterwards there is “a change which makes him sweat with unusual heat”, the result of what we may call the heat of the flame.
What does this change consist of, then…? In a new germination of the soul’s wings, lost in the sensible world and recovered at that time. This is what allows the lover, the wise man, to fly up to the height of the ideal forms and true knowledge. As we read directly in Plato: “The beholder feels warmth as the emanation of beauty enters his eyes, which revives the growth of the feathers. And once heated, the edges of the feathers’ roots soften, which theretofore remained closed because of the effect of the hardness which hindered their growing. But when his nourishment is spilled onto them, the quills of the feathers swell and grow from their root beneath the entire shape of the soul; since the soul was once all feathered.” (Phaedrus, 251 B.C.).
In Plato’s descent to earth, into the sensible world of hybrid beings which we as humans are, we understand the raising flames which ignite the fire of vision. The inflammation of the gaze, guided by desire, as the core of what is vital: eroticism, the production of life, and present in the mirrors of stares and the creative synthesis of the arts. Vision which unveils and reveals, the movement and transit of the human in the course of life, in the swift passage of time. Staring, burning.
– Antonio Machado (1917): “Proverbios y cantares”, I, in Poesía y Prosa, Tomo II, Poesías completas, critical edition of Oreste Macrí; Espasa Calpe – Fundación Antonio Machado, Madrid, 1989.
– Marina Núñez (2002): “Nosotros los Ciborgs”, in José Jiménez (ed.): El arte en una época de transición; Diputación de Huesca, Huesca, 2002, pgs. 115-129.
– Platón: Fedro, translation, introduction and notes by Emilio Lledó, en Diálogos III; Gredos, Madrid, 1986, pgs. 289-413.
– Arthur Rimbaud (1871): “Lettre à Georges Izambard”, 13 mai 1871, in Oeuvres complètes. Édition établie, présentée et annotée par Antoine Adam; Gallimard [La Pléiade], Paris, 1972, pgs. 248-249.
– Norbert Wiener (1948, 1961): Cybernetics, or Control and communication in the animal and the machine; The M.I.T. Press, Massachusetts. Spanish translation by Miguel Mora Hidalgo; Guadiana, Madrid, 1971.