Agustín Fernández Mallo
“Who Can Cut Up a Ghost”
“Phantasmas”, Ed. Fundació Es Baluard Museu d´Art Modern i Contemporari de Palma, Palma de Mallorca 2017, pp. 56-59.
Cars, stones and the sun are things made up of pieces of other things. Also monsters epitomise the container where all sorts of parts, which in fair correspondence may be separated, even recycled, have ended up – typically Frankenstein. On the contrary, a ghost cannot be fragmented; its occurrence is always net and indivisible. It is impossible to imagine a ghost divided in its parts, its materiality extends in a single and continuous organ. A ghost is therefore a creature contrary to microscopy, it can never be studied in relation to its details. A ghost is a whole or is not.
I descend the stairs that take me to the door of an underground hall, similar to a church’s nave[i]. Nave comes from the Latin navis, locution we also find in the Greek, naus, the root of which comes in turn from the Indo-European nau, and it means the same in all languages: a cavity erected in the open air or dug in earth. But in Spanish it also means the receptacle which can house a person’s body in order to travel by water – a ship. Such travels take place through the help of the engines or other systems of propulsion of the ship itself. That is precisely my case when I cross the threshold of this underground ship, the cistern of the Es Baluard Museum. Vaulted ceiling, walls of sand-coloured stone and colossal dimensions. Centuries ago the cistern stored the water which supplied part of Palma (Mallorca), and today it houses the exhibition “Reproductibilitat 2.3.Phantasmas”, by Marina Núñez.
At this early hour of a Saturday morning I am alone in this cistern, it’s just me and a few ghosts that are the colour of the stone – since ghosts, as opposed to paintings, embrace water’s malleability, adopting the colour of the wall that accommodates them. And I have the feeling that these ghosts have been brought here especially for me. Continuously moving phantoms form and dissolve on the walls themselves; such movement speaks to me. Flaming bodies ascend and disappear, but never burn down completely. At the back, on two separate walls, two ophelias lie at the seashore, while water dissolves from their faces the drive of life and death that a stunted Art History had reserved for them. Other faces appear and vanish on the floor, I walk on them, I step on them, they open and close very quickly, as flowers do at dawn. They are holes, apertures – the day must be dawning somewhere.
A ghost approaches me and says: “the opposite of life is not death, but nothingness.”
All things in the Universe can be classified in accordance to this simple criterion: 1) those that may be separated into their parts, and 2) those that may not. Books, for example, fall into the second category because a book is not something that may be cut up in its parts, and if we do cut one up, more autonomous books, with their own identity, will appear. That and no other is the ingenious, artistic trick of literature; hence every book has a phantasmatic essence, the ability to be a blurred mass, to activate successive worlds within it. This is why, in the same way as ghosts, every book is a cloud of probability, anything can come out of it. Books copy the ghosts, and not vice versa. And now I want to cut up one of the ghosts of this tank: I watch it, I imagine it in its parts and I can’t, I can’t even isolate some ghosts from the others. I also remember that once, when I was small, so small that I didn’t even believed in ghosts, I tried to find 1 cm that was isolated and alone, a centimetre that was alone in the World, and I could not find it. All centimetres that I found, as if they were waves reaching a beach, were bathed by other centimetres, which were at their side, inseparable.
A ghost approaches me and says: “I have come out of the wall, but I’ve brought the wall with me. You are not alone.”
Everything in general and maths in particular are founded on axioms, self-evident truths which do not need demonstration. One of these axioms is the Axiom of Choice, so trivial that is almost laughable: “given any set of objects, it is always possible to choose at least one of them.” You open a pencil case, pick up a pencil and, that’s it, the axiom is satisfied. But it is not so easy, there is a trick to it. If instead of containing a certain number of pencils, there would be infinite pencils in this case, paradoxically you could not choose one of them anymore because, by necessity, next to that pencil you have chosen, infinite pencils would come “stuck” to it. Mathematicians, who – as is well-known – are crazy, have been discussing this matter for over a century. The indivisibility of a ghost, the impossibility that it be thought in pieces and to choose one of those pieces, ensures that it doesn’t meet the Axiom of Choice either, which means that the ghost is an entity consisting of infinite elements. And this is an important result because it is that infinity that has helped the ghosts to escape extinction, to reproduce themselves indefinitely since the beginning of times, and it is also such infinity that will cause that they be with us forever. Of ghosts (as happens with Eskimos and seals or with Spanish people and the pig), nothing goes to waste for us humans. There is no daily or exceptional, wonderful or common situation in which we don’t refer to that legion of beings that accompany us. When an artist is inspired by the authors of the past to do her work, we can think that this living artist is resorting to the dead to do his work, but we could also think that the dead are ghosts who revisit their own works through the living.
A ghost approaches me and says: “I’m all inaccuracy and yet all effectiveness. You are not alone.”
A memory is never a copy of what happened, a memory generates a present and autonomous reality, and cannot therefore be cut up either. Has someone ever managed to separate a memory in its parts? Impossible. A memory is always contrary to the data and the file, a memory is constructed in the present and speaks of the present, of the moment in which it is formulated, a memory is a mixture of certainties and inventions that turn what is evoked into a living and current organism – updating at every second –, organic matter in which any attempt at fragmentation is also vain. Memories are, so to speak, the indivisible elementary particles, the quarks, of our life experience. And the most immediate mechanism to generate memories is smell. It is known that there are smells such as that of bread, freshly mown grass or shopping malls that instantly awake feelings of homesickness, evoking in our brain images whose provenance we ignore, but whose presence is so overwhelming that it affects our body. The skin tightens, the hair bristles and our blood, which was previously travelling at constant speed, rushes now through our veins. What does this cistern of Es Baluard smell of?, I wonder. It is only logical that art shows do not usually address smell as an exhibition theme, it is not by chance that these practices are called “visual arts” or “plastic arts”, but I wonder what this tank smells of, and I realize that these ghosts are so indissoluble and so attached to these walls that they smell of the humidity of their stones. These ghosts are burning, they are burning in their own essence, but they smell of water.
“It is the same water that was given to humans to drink centuries ago”, says another ghost that approaches me from behind.
The beloved person cannot be cut up either, the feeling of love is the universal glue, we cannot think independently of an arm, a leg, an eye or the sex of the beloved body. The beloved has that ghostly quality, yes, but now I want to think it the other way around: it is ghosts that have qualities of the beloved. It could not be otherwise. They have not been crossing the centuries hand in hand with us for nothing. When we eat a dish of fish, meat or vegetables we don’t stop to consider that perhaps those bits of food come from different plants and animals. The right leg of a pig that grew up and died in a Galician farmhouse next to the left leg of a pig that grew up and died in a Brazilian land; a carrot from a Murcian vegetable garden next to a carrot from a Dutch orchard. Or fish that even being of the same species do not belong to the same seas, perhaps their waters have never even mixed. Different beings are now mixed on your plate, turned into a Frankenstein, a monster ready to be eaten. This is why the drama of the monster has always been and will always be not knowing to whom the pieces with which it was created belonged. For the monster DNA tests are useless, it lacks identity. The function of the sauces, spices and other fluids in our dishes is to give unity to the dish, to create a common smell for the dish, to unite what was a monster, to generate an inseparable entity: a ghost in our mouths. We eat ghosts, yes we do.
“Here united by water”, says another ghost that appears out of nowhere and startles me.
Yet another question comes now to mind, and in fact I realize that this is the question I had been wanting to ask, the question to which, without my being aware, everything was leading me: does a ghost see ghosts? In other words, does a ghost generate, is a ghost source of its own Phantasmagoria? The question seems trivial but it is not so, its implications go far beyond the world of the dead and the living, call upon the very fact of the connection between two seemingly irreconcilable cosmos. If, as I believe that it has been made clear, when you cut up a ghost what you end up with is no pieces and subparts of the ghost but more autonomous and full ghosts, this is equivalent to saying that, firstly, ghosts are fractal objects: you cut up one and on the smaller scale the new ghost remains identical to the one you had at the beginning. But this seems too obvious, so I move on to a second result, more wide-ranging in my opinion: cutting up ghosts has a close relation with this other activity that we may call “humans in reproductive mode”. Indeed, only through reproduction can humans create other autonomous and full humans – giving birth. In Spanish we use the expression “to give light” for this act. Not surprisingly, we also say that ghosts “come from the light and lead us into the light”. This being so, we humans are also ghosts immediately after birth, entities created in an indivisible and nonfragmentable way. And now, in this water-smelling tank, now that I am treading on faces from a piece of art called Phantasma, faces that like roses or primordial holes form and dissolve under my feet, things start to fit into place: we have behind us all past humanity, a legion of dead accumulated behind our steps, a legion we follow because we are also their dead, their ghosts. A ghost sees ghosts: us the living. It is important to come to understand it.
Agustín Fernández Mallo, September 2017, original text in Spanish
[i] The Spanish word ‘nave’ may refer both to a church’s nave and to a ship.