The Resting Place of the Railway Sleepers
Introduction. Contemporary Ambitions.
I face the complex work of Enrique Ramírez taking into account two notes on contemporariness: one by facing the work of art as devoid of metaphysical fundaments and one considering it beyond the circle of what is purely aesthetic-formal, outside classifications based on techniques and the materials they employ.
Art is always in a problematic situation. This is not strange if we think that the foremost artistic operation is the problematization of the world, be it to intensify its experience, trying to change it or detecting that which is inexplicable, which makes its comprehension muddy and projects distressing shadows. Extent of an a priori concept of art and therefore lacking substantial fundaments, modern times faced the need of naming what lies outside the sphere of art from the pure reign of language. With the borders isolating that kingdom being half-open at the same time, contemporary impulses enjoy a larger margin of looseness in order to peek into the abyss of what is really impossible and manifesting certain aspects of reality, reflecting on them and even to intervene its consequences.
But contemporary art pays for this authority by suffering the neglect of the outside and the risks of any contingency: once the walls surrounding that which is properly artistic were raised, the beautiful shape no longer delimits a proper terrain nor raises a protective barrier. Thus, art runs the risk of not counting with a firm base, as well as having unclear boundaries; and lacking the contention shapes provide, it finds itself exposed to breaking its bottom, to diluting itself in the reasons of the concept, in the torrent of pure narrative and documentary content or in the sole practice of political and social activism.
Assuming these challenges requires complex movement. A approach the work of Enrique Ramírez by positioning it before two of them, which mutually imply themselves and involve many others. Firstly, the task of escaping the determinism of technical media: tearing down the fences constraining the diverse procedures of working in independent reserves (the dogmatic “specificity” of painting, cinema, installation work, photography, etc., enjoying jurisdictions and sovereign laws). Secondly, the need to assume the discursive, critical and poetic dimensions of art without losing a minimum of aesthetic-formal framing capable of guaranteeing its basic position: the one which makes the work of art appear before the glance. I will briefly refer to the first task quoted in order to better focus on the second one, implied in it.
“I do not make films”, Ramírez declares, “I only use discipline as one more form of expression among thousands of narrative, plastic, political and poetic elements”. This montage operation allows it to avoid the absolutism of technical and material procedures. An absolutism which, inherited from the modern autonomy of the media, pretends for these to define the distinctive particularity of each category of artistic work, pigeonholed in a list of compartments, careful about marking its peculiarity. Thus, each medium, catalogued as “cinema”, “video”, “photography”, “engraving”, “installation”, “objectual art”, etc., claiming its sovereign jurisdictions as if the work was not the product of contingent operations involving the meaning, but the foreseeable outcome of pure instrumental devices.
That is why the Los durmientes (the railway sleepers) piece can not be exhausted in it being cinema or video, nor defined as an audiovisual installation or “mixed media”, active components, nonetheless, of its constitution; the work builds itself as situation and drift of confusing imagination processes, as well as complex articulations of heterogeneous media. The various audiovisual productions are distinguished by their particular pragmatics (its social uses and effects) and by the contingency of its own glance: the specific space and time at its disposal and the conditions of its installation (attention to their parergon, to that which frames and surrounds the work and at times invades it, to that which is out of frame). They establish themselves through contaminations and crossed resources that qualify the unstable place of difference. Nietzsche says it directly: “There are no pure means in which the truth begins with two”.
The very well known sentence by Adorno according to which after Auschwitz there could be no poetry installs a central issue of modern art in terms of a reduction of the absurd. How to name that which transcends any measure, that which escapes all possibility of symbolization? How to name that which is real, in Lacanian terms: that which cannot be covered by language? We may descriptively speak of extermination camps, the military death flights to drop bodies into the ocean, of those tortured and made to disappear, but language, the symbolical order will always be at fault with that which is enunciated and will end up diluting the intensity of what it names and therefore compromises its truth.
How can Ramírez work on traumatic memories, the endless violence of the fact that the bodies of those politically persecuted into the ocean? Art cannot directly deal this excessive content. On one part, because the literal exposure to any event makes it transparent, devoid of a body and shadow, lacking folds and opacities, which are indispensable art files. The mere description fixes the fact onto the event and obstructs its opening up to knowledge: the dimension of that which cannot be closed down in an already fulfilled fact. Thus, criticism become a propagandist denunciation or an exemplary illustration and is lost as a stake for meaning.
On the other hand, art refuses to be used as a messenger of a clear communication. Art is a bad communicator because each of its statements includes the pairing suspicion of what was affirmed. Its unavoidable negativity allows it to consider the other side of things (their otherness, their difference, the other thing of itself), but it also pushes one to distrust any certainty in the presentation of such things, whose images shows and hides; it makes them briefly appear (as if seen in the flashlight of a lightning according to Benjamin) pushing the reality of what was sighted to the edge. That is why art cannot be political but through its own play of showing and subtractions, because when proclaiming a slogan, it is simultaneously negating it. Its political character is given by its faculty of including the difference of itself, of marking its limits, exposing its space of lacking: that which it cannot say. Hannah Arendt states that it is the duty of poets “to say what cannot be said”. That is why perhaps the only thing one can do after Auschwitz is precisely poetry. One can denounce the fact, name it and exactly register the remains of torn apart memories, but only poetry, art, could account for the nocturnal and silent side, there where memory does not rest.
I am basing myself on a specific piece by Enrique Ramírez, Los durmientes, in which images, echoes and sonorities from other works of his inevitably resonate throughout. I understand that Los durmientes seeks to denounce an execrable practice in the history of Chile; of the history of the Southern Cone to be exact: The Plan Cóndor (Plan Cóndor, as in the a large Andean vulture), subscribed in Santiago in 1975 with support of the U.S. in order to articulate the repressive actions of the military dictatorships in the region, exerted an unmasked State terrorism, responsible for the murder and disappearance of tens of thousands of opposition members. Within this context, the method of throwing prisoners into rivers or the ocean (as well as into a lake in the case of Paraguay) was employed. Denouncing such a fact, due to its excessive nature, exceeding the reach of any possible symbol, it requires rhetorical strategies and intense poetics, careful talking around the issue, daring plays, lateral approximations and exact distances. Ramírez cannot confront an exorbitant event with the clear language files; he, then, has to resort to images. Images show and hide, tell too much and not enough, they suggest that which does not entirely appear or that which is not completely gone yet. They point out that which is on the other side, out of the frame of representation. Lacan says that symbols are unable to account for reality, which which is un-representable due to its excessive, unknown or traumatic character, but that images can indirectly, briefly approach it. They can give evidence of what occurs in the nocturnal depths of the sea. They allow making out the absolute horror, which has no name. And they are capable of recovering a moment memory is trying hard to store away.
Los durmientes is stated by means of three screens on which video images are projected. One shows the sea as seen from a helicopter flying over it, a second one shows unsteadily floating crosses, forever shaken by the water and a third one, placed dead center, projects an old man walking towards the seashore holding a fish with both hands. Sound images also erupt: the voice of the silent man, perhaps searching for a cipher washed up from the sea bottom; the buzzing of the helicopter over the breath of the sea, the thunder of time standing still. A radical silence coming up from the deep and the submerged voices, before or after having been screamed forever.
In order to tie this previously described potent content as well as orienting the whims of the images, Los durmientes has to articulate diverse aesthetic-formal and expressive instances. Its figures –obsessed by the sea and its abyssal bottom, its trenches, its veiled graves- act in tension with the concept on one hand and with the inevitable game of forms, on the other. The set up here turns out to be a key device; it is to be able of articulating diverse technical media, segments of memories and certain facts of the history of the signs of incomplete language, with sensible modes through which things are shown, such as the emptiness poetry installs and even, with the beauty shinning against the horror, raised as an imminence or as a beginning of the disturbed memory.
Setting up is not putting fragments together in search of a totality or any other order but to question any intent of synthesis activating conflicts, gaps and displacements of what is heterogeneous and thus seeking to enable a more complex analysis of the glance of what cannot be explained transparently nor be remembered as a whole. That is why the three screens are irreconcilable among themselves: if there is no inscription plane capable of accommodating its surpluses and faults on one level only, as there only one space-time dimension that can host that which has not finished occurring nor occurred at one location only. The staging introduces the wedge of what is different, of an otherness, so the image cannot rest in a fixed way and oscillates, rowing, as the crosses sustained on the sea or as these same waters, disturbed by the remains of the hecatomb. And also, the image staggers as the man’s steps, wanting to belatedly return a fish lacking any place possible or trying to take him out of the scene.
The setup demands looking outside the scene. There lies that which is hidden or eliminated. The remains of what which has already been, the imminence of something that could come to be. The framing establishes the undecided limit between what is visible and what is not, between what is beyond the rectangle of representation right now and what might appear at any moment. And if it does, it would no longer appear as the object or fact, which exists outside the scene, but under the phantasmagorical mode of the image, which, even if always differing from a full presence, may allude to what is missing by means of what is incomplete. The images of Los durmientes remit to the crime scene taken off the scene. In tragedy (specifically Greek tragedy), Comolli says, “Horror is the out of field, the hiding of the crime under the modality of an essential secret which has to be stored away”. But even the best-kept secret reappears in the remains, the thrust of the sea or of memory, or in the guilt of the murderer who confesses the crime and gives a vital lead.
And the shadow of crime reappears in the work seeking to remember submerged parts of a memory, fragments affixed to the bottom by a traumatic weight that does not allow them to emerge to conscience: the burden that does not allow to be turned into memories and entering the present time. Only poetic imagination can assume these amnesic points, not replacing what is missing, but making for a beginning of different significations out of absence (oblivion, disappearance). An incipient redemption, in the sense Benjamin employs the term: redeeming history is stopping time, returning on its misfortunes and rectifying them by means of a radical gesture to open them up to the promise. Los durmientes lends itself to awake the lasting powers, latent, in omitted situations, turned into blind spots resisting the action of memory.
Benjamin again, unavoidable when dealing with this issue (as well as others): “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’. It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger”. As lightning, the “dialectic image” allows to -brief but intensely- making out the imminence of an extreme situation. That shine paralyzes the scene during the minimal non-time, necessary for it to offer itself to the glance. The movement of the helicopter is stopped, the crosses disturbed by the open graves calm down and the drift of the man holding a lost fish is interrupted. The cinematographic representation of movement allows the action of the images stopping it. And that detention once more remits to the outside of painting, the crime scene first, which can no longer be represented but through the violent force of its own absence.
Tied to railway sleepers, the bodies of the political prisoners thrown into the sea from helicopters of the Air Force have remained subjected to bottomless memory. Some bodily remains and railway fragments have reemerged, reinstituted by the dirty conscience of the sea or a disturbed repressor. But that crime scene will no longer be able to be reconstituted, since the occurrences in it became an event, un-representable in a consumed time and a fulfilled scene. “The worst crimes, simultaneously moral and artistic, that can be committed when it is a question of realizing a work dedicated to the Holocaust is to consider the latter as past”, says Lanzmann. That is why Los durmientes does not expect to mark an already consumed disastrous moment, but setting off memory for the past to enter in between tension, crossing or conflict with other times or mistimes. This anachronistic staging opens up the utopia of memory and keeps it available for political action and ethical commitment.
Images have stopped not to close down what is shown, but to reactivate what is hidden, that which crosses the threshold of what is represented and overflows time towards other directions that include the dimension of what is possible: that which did not happen in purity but could have happened, which still may happen; the way leading to fearing the return of what must not be repeated. But, also, the one leading the promise, the redeeming action, in Benjaminian terms: to the work that makes the misery of the past appear before the responsibility of the current moment or the times that are coming or the ones possible (or even of the impossible ones), which are never separated from their sovereign frontiers.
Asunción, April 2016
January 27, 2021