Alberto Martín
Figures in the fire
«Hell is us. Hysteria and Possession», Ed. Museo Patio Herreriano, Valladolid 2013, pp. 40-69.


El infierno son nosotros (Hell is us) is the title of Marina Núñez’s intervention in the Chapel of the Patio Herreriano Museum, and consists of a video-installation featuring seven projections onto the site’s architecture. To a large degree, the project can be read as a revision/reformulation of certain of the elements, both thematic and iconographic, that form an essential part of the artist’s career. In the same manner, a selection of older works included in the catalogue is motive for a reappraisal of years of work that connects to and enters into dialogue with the new piece, elucidating and broadening its implications. Her recognizable universe of madwomen, monsters, cyborgs, bodily mutations and spectral atmospheres is articulated in this selection of pieces through the terms Hysteria and Possession, two concepts that have been habitual in her trajectory, but that in this case, as evidenced by their very enunciation, refer not so much to a theme, to individuals or to a typology (hysterias, possessions) as to a figure that returns again and again, explored, exacerbated, intensified and stretched to the maximum.

Hysteria and Possession can be said to configure a symptomatic territory, in the sense given symptoms by Didi-Huberman, especially in his interpretation and analysis of Aby Warburg’s work. (1) It’s no wonder that almost from the start of her career Marina Núñez converted hysteria, more than into her particular subject, into her favorite and most familiar figure. Above and beyond the connection that this crucial reference maintains with the issue of gender, a connection, moreover, that has been constantly emphasized when approaching her work, it’s also possible to see in hysteria, as it’s treated by the artist, the definition of a convulsive and complex territory for reflection on images themselves along with their meaning. A long passage by Didi-Huberman, where hysteria and the symptom appear interpretively associated, can serve as a starting point and assist in centering an approach to Marina’s work, one which prioritizes not only the contexts or issues which her work might refer to, but the very history and structure of her iconography, of her figures:

“A symptom –let’s take a case of figuration that involves, from end to end, the domain that interests us, that of visibility—is, for example, the moment, the unpredictable and immediate passage of a body into the aberrant, critical state of hysterical convulsions, of extravagance in every movement and posture: gestures have suddenly lost their “representativity,” their code; the extremities become contorted and entangled; the face horripilates and becomes distorted; relaxation and contraction radically intermingle; no “message,” no “communication” can any longer emanate from such a body; in short, such a body no longer resembles itself, or no longer resembles; it is nothing but a resounding, paroxysmal mask, a mask in Bataille’s sense: a “chaos become flesh.” In the gnosological field of hysteria, the classical alienists, Charcot included, referred to this as a “cynicism” of the body, as clownisme,” “illogical movement” and even “demoniacal crisis,” thereby underscoring the disfigured, deformed, and above all meaningless character that such bodily accidents present to the eye—to observation and to clinical description.

By contrast, Freud, faced with such culminating moments in attacks of hysteria, presupposed that the accident—a senseless, unformed, incomprehensible, “non-iconic” gesture—was sovereign: and not only syntagmatically sovereign, so to speak, namely, that in such a moment the accident dominates everything and tyrannizes the whole body…that such a moment conveys meaning, engages a destiny, an originary fantasy, and this puts a structure to work. But it is a dissimulated structure… The symptom is a critical event, a singularity, an intrusion, but it is at the same time the implementation of a signifying structure, of a system that the event is charged with making surge forth, but partially, contradictorily, in such a fashion that the meaning is expressed only as an enigma, or as the appearance of something, not as a stable set of meanings…That is why it presents itself above all as something that “obscures the situation,” to quote Freud again, although it is “plastically portrayed,” although the visual existence imposes itself with such radiance, such self-evidence, even violence…” (2)

In a footnote to this passage, Didi-Huberman, citing Heidegger, explains the meaning of the appearance of something as “something that does not show itself making itself known through something that does show itself.” (3) A number of the pieces that Marina produced throughout the 90s, generically denominated, in the manner of works connected by some trait or common denominator, Madness, Monsters or Death, are focused precisely on the development of figures that act as the appearance of something, making known something that does not show itself, repeatedly designating the ghostly and strange that, however, remain hidden. In this sense, her choice of the familiar iconography of hysteria as described by Charcot is revealing; in fact, the development of her work to a large degree takes the form of a meticulous declination of that iconographic repertory, in order to delve into the figure / visibility equation through the intensification and amplification of gestures and expressions.

Marina’s choice of figuration is thus closely related to the ability to designate or construct “signals” and release meanings by means of an “extreme” attention to detail and intensification of those senseless, informal and incomprehensible gestures referred to in the above quotation. The artist herself insists on this quality in her work, remarking in an interview on her explicit intention to create “grotesque, obscene, hybrid, unstable bodies, which as far as possible avoid looking like anything real.” (4) Figurative precision, unstable bodies, release of meanings. For many years, her painting was an exercise in the creation of forms that sought a gestural language of the body able to materialize the power of the invisible, the presence of that which nevertheless remains unknown. A language that appears at once compelling, ritual, tragic, organic, grotesque and even obscene. A frenzy of forms portraying a “chaos made flesh,” as Bataille would say, but a chaos that appears before us depicting with such evidence, such precision, such inexorableness (5), so tangibly evoked, that its mere unquestionable presence makes us wonder about its meaning.

One way, the most familiar, would be the transformation of the clinical gesture, the visual reference of hysteria produced by Charcot, into a pictorial gesture. But not by annexing hysteria to a “means of expression,” to “art”, as Didi-Huberman remarks in his essay on Charcot and his photographic iconography with regard to the Surrealists’ celebration of hysteria, but rather annexing or connecting art, a certain pictorial memory, to hysteria. (6) Marina not only goes on to develop and liberate Charcot’s clinical repertory of visual gestures, to destabilize the relation between visual appearance and the expression of emotions and pathologies, but also transforms into figure, image, the secret that Charcot found impossible to describe or even confront, that is, in Didi-Huberman’s words, “the hysterical pretensions of the red mystery of the feminine.” (7)

The limitations of photography at the time prevented registering color. Marina takes advantage of this “lack” in the photographic iconography of hysteria in a double sense: by visually reconstructing the deficiency, and above all, by violently expressing what this absence of red conceals in Charcot’s images, in order to open a symbolic chasm in the impenetrability of the hysterical gesture’s meaning. Her red hysterics reveal what can’t be seen and what resists clinical description; in short, they “pictorially embody,” bestowing visibility on the enigma of hysteria.

We remarked above that Marina Núñez’s work annexes or links art to hysteria. This exercise in incorporating a vast visual memory to a reading of hysteria, has its source in a double process of expansion: one relative to the very extent of iconographic references that it puts into play, and another to the inclusion of hysteria in a broader referential context that extends toward madness, the monstrous, the pathological, the ghostly. Both “expansive” processes are related and maintain close parallels with each other. Hence, Marina deploys a vast gallery of figures in which hysterics, monsters, the mad, the ecstatic and the possessed are brought together and interconnected. All of which constitute a common territory related to the ambiguity of the body, otherness, internal struggles and the conflicts within beings themselves, to madness. Employing an inspiring expression of Michel Foucault’s, it’s a territory corresponding to “the connection of man with his ghosts, with the impossible, with bodily pain, with his nocturnal skeletons.” (8) As Foucault also remarked, referring specifically to madness, this appears as a “preserve of meaning,” as a figure that retains and suspends meaning. (9)

It’s precisely toward this preserve of meaning, or to put it in terms of our long initial quotation, toward the advent of this meaning as enigma, that Marina Núñez’s work, through her characters, points. These figures that embody our intimate coexistence with the unfamiliar, the exploration of the anomalous, the pathological, with deformation, the unfamiliar, of what is located beyond the boundary, are the artist’s vehicles for opening this preserve of meaning, to make visible the enigma that we, along with our culture, keep at a distance. This expanded territory characterized by the ambiguity of the body and the exploration of the unfamiliar other, appears plastically figured—in the treatment of hysteria, and by extension of madness and the monstrous, and which Marina realizes with an ample range of iconography shaped by borrowings, displacements, inversions and appropriations. It’s the memory of forms suggested by Warburg and the image-symptom so masterfully analyzed by Didi-Huberman. (10)

In her work we find Charcot’s iconography of hysteria, photographs from the 19th century, converted into subjects for painting and placed in relation to the tradition and memory of the pictorial medium, thus reaching an additional feeling of solemnity and ambiguity. We also find the incorporation of a broad range of iconographic references that go from religious and baroque art, to romanticism, with its phantasmagorical and spectral atmospheres, and a sensibility close to modern gothic. And we find a fusion of visual allusions moving between the clinical and the religious. The displacement operating in details like clothing, especially in the clinical attire, the impulse-driven intensification of a simultaneously physical and emotional gesturality, the stylization of body energy, the explicit expression of an internal struggle of the body in the figure of the double, the connection between physical gesture and psychic energy, the plasticity of pathologies and emotions, the metamorphosis of bodies, the visibility given to phantoms of the unconscious, the visual emphasis conferred on body parts such as the eyes, the mouth or teeth, the poignancy and affectation of expressions…all these are elements that converge in the destabilization and mutation of sense, meanings and identities. The ambiguity and mystery of beings and the body as an equivocal site where the tension between the created and the uncreated take up residence. As Clément Rosset argues, “The alloy which all bodies are made of is composed of an iota of existence and an infinitude of non-existences…” (11)

In an almost inevitable fashion, as though a consequence of this last consideration, Marina’s work, after probing the ambiguity of bodies, otherness, madness and the monstrous, undertakes an exploration of the body as an enigmatic organism capable of all kinds of transformations and open to multiple metamorphoses. (12) She thus initiates a period of inquiry into other possible pictorial figurations of otherness, which once again will be driven by the creation of an iconography with numerous and destabilizing origins: the visual history of hysteria proper, but also and especially science fiction, cybernetics, and the fantastic literature and imaginative repertoire of the 19th century.

Enunciated generically by the artist as Possession, this develops as a force or embryonic urge that emerges from within the body, or to the contrary, by invading it. Enigmatic ambiguity of metamorphosing creatures, at the frontier between the human and inhuman, the classifiable and unclassifiable, between the scientific and phantasmagoric, and dissolution and transmutation. Gesture gives way, figuratively, to energy, fluidity, light; the paroxysmal body cedes before the electrified body. We inevitably discern a new displacement toward the figure of energy, electricity, from Charcot’s and Duchene de Boulogne’s experiments, toward the realm of science fiction, between phantasmagoria and technology. (13)

Nor is it difficult to take the argument further, and see in these metamorphosed bodies the evolutionary peril proclaimed by Baudrillard regarding the end of the body and which runs parallel to the neutralization of otherness, the annihilation of the other as mirror. (14) Genetic manipulation, cloning, the cybernetic vision, embryonic prostheses, exaggerated redundancy, modeling from within and the generation of identical beings, which Baudrillard alludes to as the final prospect of a body that as a result of the transparency of its genetic, biological and cybernetic being is becoming allergic to its own shadow, and as a consequence of the sterile effusion of communications, of the illusion of contact and interaction, is losing the other as a mirror and losing its own singularity. Toward the end of his essay Baudrillard points out that “the subject, having been purged of the other, purged of its division and delivered to the metastasis of itself, to pure repetition… It’s no longer the hell of other people, it’s the hell of the Same.” (15)

Marina Núñez calls her latest project, Hell is Us, though she could just as well have used Baudrillard’s expression. Both modify Sartre’s original phrase, from his acclaimed play No Exit: “Hell is other people.” Ultimately, what we’re faced with in both cases is the need to vindicate otherness, the confrontation, not with a duplicate of oneself, but rather with the imaginative figures found inside all of us. Marina’s aim in this video installation is to focus on the preserve of meaning which we discussed above, releasing those imaginary figures that constitute us as subjects. Inside the site’s ancient chapel, she’s arrayed seven video projections that interact, recreate and merge with the different elements of the religious architecture.

The spot where the rose window would have been, the arcosolia intended for interments, and the large alter-like back wall that acts as a canvas where a drama is enacted that draws on art history, are each occupied by distinct projections. The common denominator of all of them is the agitation of bodies. On the recessed arcosolia of the side walls are projected the bodies of four women enclosed within circular flows inside of which a pulsional  choreography unfolds that clearly refers to the gestural repertory of hysterics. In place of the rose window a sphere of energy with cybernetic contours flows, within which a face emerges and dissolves. High up on another of the lateral walls a semi-transparent veil of fire shrouds another face. And finally, on the large wall opposite the chapel’s entrance, a floor-level projection which covers the entire canvas shows a large fire from which various human figures emerge from the flames, attempting to flee by climbing the walls before they melt back into the flames unable to escape.

The title’s allusion to Hell defines and crystallizes the imagery, while Sartre’s modified phrase defines and crystallizes the artist’s intentions, appealing directly to the viewer as a subject implicated in the piece. As we remarked earlier, this project is a synthesis of much of the artist’s trajectory: hysteria, pathology, the metamorphosis of bodies, embryonic energy. And also a series of displacements and inversions in relation to iconography; in this case, mainly referring to religious themes. The most significant is the large projection of Hell which dominates the space, proffered as an enormous theater wherein the wall is mistaken for the entrance to an imaginary stage, alluding to a tradition of pictorial interpretation of the Final Judgment, and especially to Luca Signorelli’s monumental fresco. Overall, however, the most relevant is the exploration and accentuation of the religious reminiscences of the space through various mechanisms, among them the reading of the architecture, the imagery itself and its themes, and the religious music that presides over the installation and its atmosphere. The religious memory of the space that, once indicated and highlighted, Marina proceeds to displace and invert, altering both meanings and sensations. All these broadly cited     mystical and spiritual references are taken to the limit and transmuted into an iconography of transgression, making visible for a moment Michel Foucault’s affirmation when he remarked that “sexuality has never had a more immediately cultural meaning, nor undoubtedly has it known a ‘felicity of expression’ as great as in the Christian world of fallen bodies and sin. An entire tradition of mysticism and spirituality attests to the fact that they didn’t know how to separate the continuous forms of desire, intoxication, penetration, ecstasy, or the release leading to unconsciousness …” (16) Hysteria’s “theater of the impossible,” as a displaced symbol of otherness, of the other in the mirror, of interior phantasms, again takes form in the images that ascend, in the drawings that blaze, in the frenzy of forms.



1.- In regard to this text and the notion of the symptom, we’ve taken into account the works of Georges Didi Huberman, Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art. Trans: John Goodman. Pennsylvania State University Press. 2005; and La imagen superviviente. Historia del arte y tiempo de fantasmas según Aby Warburg, Abada, Madrid, 2009. [L’image survivante. Histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg, Editions de Minuit, 2006.]

2.- Georges Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images, op. cit., p. 260-261 .

3.- Ibid, p. 310, n. 56.

4.- Marina Núñez, CASA, Salamanca, 2002, p. 208.

5.- I borrow this term, so suggestive and precise, from the lucid analysis that Clément Rosset dedicates to the drawings of Pierre Klossowski in his book Materia de arte, Pre-textos / Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Valencia, 2009, p. 53.

6.- Georges Didi-Huberman, La invención de la histeria. Charcot y la iconografía fotográfica de la Salpêtrière, Cátedra, Madrid, 2007, p. 196. [Invention of Hysteria. Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, MIT Press, 2004]

7.- Ibid, pp. 356-358.

8.- Michel Foucault, Entre filosofía y literatura. Obras esenciales, Volumen I, Paidós, Barcelona, 1999, p. 270.

9.- Ibid, p. 275

10.- For the concept and my argument in general, see Chapter 3 of Didi-Huberman’s La imagen superviviente, op. cit., pp. 245 y ss.

11.- Clément Rosset, Materia de arte, op. cit., p. 52.

12.- Georges Didi-Huberman, La imagen superviviente, op. cit., p. 273.

13.- On the use of electricity by Charcot and Duchenne de Boulogne, see La invención de la histeria, op. cit., pp. 262 and following.

14.- On this analysis and Jean Baudrillard’s line of argumentation: La transparencia del mal. Ensayo sobre los fenómenos extremos, Anagrama, Barcelona, 1991, pp. 123-133.

15.- Ibid, p. 132.

16.- Michel Foucault, Entre filosofía y literatura, op. cit., p. 163.