An uncanny likeness: disordering memory

Recent work by Nicolás Franco

 

Ana María Risco

Nicolás Franco does not usually capture the photographic images we see in his works. His procedure is rather to process and reuse visual objects and printed material, driven by some archivist’s obsession whose purpose is not obvious. A number of his projects between 2005 and 2015 involved reproducing photographs and transferring images from one medium to another. These images could be considered in some sense documentary, either because they actually came from archival sources or because they were tracked down in books, films or periodicals where they once served some practical or artistic purpose, rarefied now by the procedures used to restore them. This visual material usually makes some oblique allusion to recognizable cultural, economic, geopolitical and technical processes that marked the course of the twentieth century.

However, it is not the processes themselves (the bewildering smoke of events Braudel was troubled by[1]) that the artist sifts in his critical manoeuvres. Because these processes can be known only by the traces they leave behind, which bear witness to them even as they turn them into dementedly drifting, skewed and sightless icons of the past, the artist’s scrutiny is a struggle that occurs almost invariably on the material plane. Be they scientific reports on the effects of the First World War or letters that preserve the wavering handwriting and existence of the Jackal of Nahueltoro,[2] these traces are reproduced in Franco’s work from a dispassionate perspective that oscillates between formalism and conceptualism, forming a material structure where the movement of memory is warped by the agencies of the unconscious.

In recent projects such as Cortado en pedazos (Cut to Pieces) (2014), Franco has used a digital transfer method to move the image from one surface to another by contact, as though it were a thin, fragile film with adhesive properties. The process causes wrinkling and information loss in the image transferred, highlighting its depictive nature or focusing attention on the medium itself. Difficulties in the actual act of viewing, a kind of trademark of Franco’s “archivist” aesthetic, are particularly relevant in this work because of the nature of its sources. These are reports in scientific publications detailing the eye injuries suffered by soldiers during the First World War.[3] Large areas of black over the blown-up reproductions on cotton paper work like a kind of crude censorship. This conveys something of war’s power to strike its victims blind and dumb, while giving the image a constructivist or abstract cast that takes it out of the documentary register and into the experimental one of twentieth-century art. In another work like Ayer y hoy (Yesterday and Today) (2013), based on a publication produced by the Chilean dictatorship that set out to make propaganda from the cultural changes induced by the coup, the printed and formatted material is recycled in a kind of masquerade of polyvalent graphic design, with cut and folded pages from the publication depicted on a white surface. The almost playful plasticity of each figure produced in this way releases the symbolic violence structuring the editorial apparatus used as material.

In these and other of Franco’s recent works, which elevate what might have begun as a documentary exploration into a concrete object, the technique seems to be to reformulate remnants of the past that evoke the social and cultural violence pervading the history of Modernity within an abstract, minimalist matrix that serves as alibi and camouflage for the work.

**

The artist’s most recent work, Tierra sin pan (Land without Bread), comprising the installations La imagen y su doble (The Image and its Double), Registrar los detalles de un gallo blanco (Recording the Details of a White Cockerel) and San Antonio, takes as its starting point a crucial and controversial piece in the history of documentary cinema, the film Las Hurdes: tierra sin pan, usually known in English as Land without Bread, made by Luis Buñuel in 1933 and censored at the time by Republicans and Fascists alike. Shot in the remote Extremadura village of Las Hurdes, so poor that even bread was a luxury, the film employs all sorts of devices to emphasize and exaggerate the most extreme aspects of the inhabitants’ lives, mixing Buñuel’s aesthetic obsessions with his determination to produce a provocative narrative about the social conditions of his time.

The film was criticized for altering the events it depicted and for involving the deliberate killing of animals and the merciless exposure of a community, shown as riven with cretinism, hunger, malaria and incest. However, this early work has also been recognised as a remarkable piece of political film-making, tinged with Buñuel’s peculiar brand of surrealism.

In The Image and Its Double,[4] Franco uses a twin audiovisual projection to set off some sequences from Buñuel’s documentary against other images in which similar but not identical compositions work like formal rhymes. These come from the great archive now constituted by new public media such as YouTube, Vimeo and Shutterstock, which provide a platform for audiovisual material largely produced by anonymous amateurs. The unintentional visual “replicas” of Buñuel’s film thus tracked down and edited by the artist include images produced in Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, the United States, Spain, Lebanon, Kenya and Nigeria. By thus conflating images, Franco’s installation progressively depicts the boundaries and byways of a succession of wretched Hurdes whose limits are, in this case, those of an Internet-connected world. A universe of documentary forms of the most varied provenance and authorial quality thus recompose the storyboard of Buñuel’s Land without Bread and project it on to a ubiquitous present. Punctuating the double images like refrains are stills of a mountainous region (Extremadura is mountainous) and slow-motion pictures of a cockerel’s flapping wings which, in their solid 4K red-filtered clarity, show up the aged and worn cinematographic and home-recorded visual material they contrast with. The deterioration of the image, brought into relief by the high definition that interrupts the flow from time to time, introduces into the piece a meditation on the increasing deployment of technology that modulates, transforms and reorganizes the visual experience—an evocation of the technical history of the image that is crucial when images of history are considered.

**

In his recent essay “Can Photographs Lie?”,[5] Martin Jay points out that the digital revolution in photography that began around 1990 gave a new topicality to the old question about the relationship between photography and “truth”. The extension of the technical conditions for producing altered or doctored visual records of all kinds that this revolution brought, and the ability to circulate this material widely through virtual networks, have created suspicion about how much store can now be set on what is seen in processed images. Which images tell the truth and which lies about the now individualized and dismembered history of humanity? Do images contain a real history and a falsified one?

In his recent work, Nicolás Franco puts these questions into perspective by drawing on anonymous images made by authors whose documentary intent is unknown to us and by making selective use of Buñuel’s film, some particularly controversial aspects of which are picked out to form the main motif for the Land without Bread project, which homes in on the figure of the decapitated cockerel. The film was made just when the circulation of knowledge through images was beginning to speed up thanks to the spread of photography and documentary cinema. Buñuel is very likely to have drawn on the study of human geography carried out by Mauricio Legendre,[6] who with the help of Unamuno, Marañón and the ethnologist Luis de Hoyos had sought to arrive at a rational explanation of how human beings suffering from such isolation, poverty and disease could possibly live on so close to civilization.

Buñuel takes this basic material but sharpens the viewpoint. He places Legendre’s anthropological work in a political perspective and, with the help of photographer Éli Lotar’s technical expertise, brings to his images a scientific detachment that nevertheless also involves an uncompromising defence of a critical position towards forms of progress based on erasing or ignoring a human community. His camera does not just observe but intervenes, closing in on its objects to show them in detail, even if this means invading the bodies and privacy of those documented. He opens a girl’s mouth to show disease from within. He sacrifices animals to show the daily familiarity of the Hurdes population with extreme survival situations. He rummages, digs, bores[7] into the lives of the inhabitants to bring out their neediness and the dark backdrop that links this community to death, to the unyielding land, but also to the resilience and stubbornness of those who live life in the raw. In an opening sequence, he captures the decapitation of a white cockerel as part of a wedding ceremony. He films from a balcony where the act cannot be seen in all its crudeness. To make up for this, he shoots a separate close-up of the decapitation and inserts this footage into the sequence. The cockerel shudders on camera before going limp. It dies on film, as other animals are also obliged to do in the making of Land without Bread (reminding us of many deaths now brought to us “live” on various screens). Does Buñuel’s cockerel document the reality of that nuptial rite, in use until recently in La Alberca, the entranceway to the prehistoric world of Las Hurdes? In what sense, more broadly, might the foregrounding of a white cockerel’s death to serve the needs of a film production team be or become a historical document?

***

Recording the Details of a White Cockerel, another of the works in the Land without Bread project, explores the rhetorical effects of artifice as mediator for a truth that is produced rather than merely recorded.[8] The work presents a sequence of 90 photographic prints of a white cockerel apparently being roughly handled before being killed (these are Franco’s own pictures). The small framed photos are propped up one beside the other against the wall of the exhibition space on a narrow shelf that runs around its perimeter, like portraits on a table or mantelpiece. They are taken from wide-set angles, their object off centre, as though this were a discarded sequence or a set of images that had failed to make the cut for a final version of material originally meant to be informative. By constructing a narrative broken into by a number of silences or gaps, the images operate like subliminal versions, side-readings, inaccessible to a non-mechanical eye, of what the inevitably disturbing event of a cockerel’s decapitation might be like. They allow a glimpse between lines (or between frames) of what makes this event undocumentable, its mythical ramifications associated with an obscure urge to extermination that Buñuel’s cinematographic technique also evokes,[9] linking humanity to sexual struggle and death. At the same time, the exhibition format incorporates an irony around the aestheticized display of pain. Ensconced in sober black frames, like family photographs ranged around the furniture of a normal household, the images bespeak the uncanny readmission to culture of the records of the destruction perpetrated in its name, and likewise the domestication of images commemorating the violence and oppression which underlie all history (and of which the cockerel, lord and master of its domain, is also an allegory) through the social protocols of their preservation.

**

As a kind of epilogue to the Land without Bread project, Franco developed a complex installation that was originally presented in two rooms of the Spanish Cultural Centre in Santiago.[10] In one of them, two exhibition tables contain pages from a publication that breaks up Buñuel’s film into its main stills for detailed scrutiny by a reader who here becomes a spectator. Alongside the book pages, like museum object labels, are pieces of wood bearing extracts from the original film’s voiceover (“the only luxury we find in this land of poverty and pain are the churches”, “here too, famished children are taught that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles”). A disturbing presence are the plastic cords that obtrude into the museum-like montage, incorporating into it the connotations “the rope” has as a rough-and-ready tool of suffocation and extermination. Along with this material, presented like a formal museum exhibit, two videos play on screens attached to the wall, simultaneously showing mountain landscapes and the flapping wings of a white cockerel, recorded by the artist. In the adjoining room, spread over the floor and considerably enlarged relative to the size of a computer screen, the unintentional modern-day replicas of Buñuel’s film found by the artist on the Internet make another appearance. They are deliberately unspectacular, as Franco re-photographed them with plastic film interposed and with hard-to-view cuts and angles, and placed them at floor level, where they lie as though discarded.

The installation makes use of, the better to criticize, certain museographical formulas that institutionalize and normalize our controlled approaches to the past and its “events”. If The Image and Its Double has managed to foreground a question about the supposed fraud involved in Buñuel’s film, and about the truthfulness or verisimilitude of the stories now told by the hundreds of photographed testimonies to small events or minor circumstances that we all keep on our telephones or computers, the question this epilogue raises, perhaps too glibly given the scale of the task, seems rather to be about documentable time; about times whose retention and classification are the aim of policies that set out to archive and rehabilitate memory, now enjoying a period of expansion and even a boom.[11]

A peculiarity of this installation is the feeling of quietude or timelessness that the mountainous landscapes in the videos bring to the montage. Is this the result of a static quality deliberately induced by the operator of the recording equipment? Or does it rather come about because absolutely nothing perceptible to the human senses or even the camera’s eye (which is the technical projection of the seeing eye) happens on and around these splendid massifs? The detail places us in a time that is not that of cultural history or the smoke of the mere events which troubled a historian of the longue durée like Braudel. An indifferent time, inaccessible to the temporal experiences of the subject and the museum logics of preservation that are also echoed in other objects forming part of the montage, such as a tooth whose form is outlined against a light box, a bull’s horn protruding from the wall like some old hunting trophy, and a monumental agave leaf with the word “Romy” carved into it, displayed in a see-through glass case in emulation of some natural relic—the petrified body of an extinct reptile, for instance. Over all these objects looms the rope that hangs down, weighted by a drill bit, from a corner of the ceiling.

The constant references to death and, in the epilogue of the work, also to natural history, whose processes distil out into complex structures that are the outcome of thousands of years of change (such as the human tooth, an animal horn or the leaf of a succulent), give greater breadth and complexity to Franco’s documentary reflection. If the archival motivation of his work is not obvious, as we said at the beginning, this is probably because he does not confine himself to prolonging, albeit with a certain critical spirit, the memorializing urge of our time as it contemplates a Modernity in ruins, but aspires with a kind of frenetic abandon to set it against a background before which the urge to dominate, classify and even rehabilitate the past falters. A material plane, quiet, self-contained, whose temporal existence far transcends the systems of quantification of the human subject and which returns in triumph in the uncanny likenesses of its images.

 

Ana María Risco, Santiago, July and November 2015

 

[1] Fernand Braudel wrote: “Take the word event: for myself I would limit it, and imprison it within the short time span: an event is explosive, a ‘nouvelle sonnante’ (‘a matter of moment’) as they said in the sixteenth century. Its delusive smoke fills the minds of its contemporaries, but it does not last, and its flame can scarcely ever be discerned.” On History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1982, p. 27. Translated by Sarah Matthews.

[2] This was the sobriquet given in Chile to a farm labourer who became notorious for his brutal murder of a woman and her five children in the village of Nahueltoro. He underwent a kind of transformation in prison, where he learnt to read before being executed. In Circa (2014), Franco silkscreened some of his letters on aluminium.

[3] The artist tracked down the images by searching for the word “eyes” in the database of the Imperial War Museum in London.

[4] HD video, colour, stereo, 27 minutes. Presented in Santiago in 2015 at Galería Macchina and the Video and Media Arts Biennial, National Museum of Fine Arts.

[5] Unpublished lecture delivered as part of the Image Studies MA course, Department of Art, Alberto Hurtado University, 12/11/2015.

[6] Las Jurdes. Étude de Géographie Humaine, published in Bordeaux in 1927.

[7] I use these verbs with Walter Benjamin’s essay on the artwork in mind. For Benjamin, a cameraman, unlike a painter, “penetrates deeply into [the] web [of reality]. (…) The boldness of the cameraman is indeed comparable to that of the surgeon.” “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. In Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt. Schocken Books, New York, 1969. Translated by Harry Zohn.

[8] Martin Jay, who argues that images are neither true nor false and that we only trust photography because we have assumed it to be truthful in intent, says on this point: “Although defenders of the truth claims of photography may invoke the rhetoric of truth based on the adequate correspondence of an image in the mind’s eye to the object it represents, the Scholastic idea of adequatio rei et intellectus, photographs may draw their power instead on an alternative view of truth. That is, they may abet the disclosure or unconcealment of a world hitherto unseen, or truth in Heidegger’s sense of aletheia. As such, they may share a certain revelatory capacity with works of visual art, which also do more than merely report or reflect the world as it has always already been seen.” Can Photographs Lie?, unpublished.

[9] Demetrio E. Brisset says: “When it comes to interpreting its meaning [the decapitation of the cockerel and its presence in Buñuel’s film], we can recall the views held on the festive sacrifice of cockerels by old authors like Venegas (in 1565), who said that cockerels were chosen for ritual because they were ‘very lascivious, signifying the lust that must be repressed’, and like Covarrubias (in 1611), who said it might ‘signify the mortification of the fleshly spirit, since this is a lustful bird, and so furiously so that the son will kill the father to decide which of the two is to mount the hen’. Nor should it be forgotten that in Indo-Germanic folklore, ‘the cockerel is a kind of symbol of life, expeller of death, evil spirits, devils, witches, etc.’, something confirmed by widespread legends and beliefs. Thus, we [the Spanish] would come to have a popular entertainment in which the succulent animal is killed in different ways, involving a carnival cockerel king, ragging and the initiation of conscripts into adult life. Schoolyard games preserved an ancient rite of a clearly sexual character, still visible in traditions like staining girls’ dresses or putting newlyweds in charge of the public sacrifice, as in La Alberca, where cockerel runs were still taking place in the 1980s.” “Imágenes de la muerte en ‘Las Hurdes’ de Buñuel. Aproximación desde la antropología visual”. In: Gazeta de Antropología, 2006, 22, article 01 · http://hdl.handle.net/10481/7085. Retrieved 30 June 2015.

[10] Land without Bread - San Antonio, 2015. 4K video, colour, stereo, 27 min., 2 playback channels, 2 display cases 150 x 100 x 55 cm. 12 floor-mounted pigment ink prints on photographic paper, 167 x 111 cm. apiece. Human tooth in lightbox. Agave in display case, 200 x 45 x 45 cm. Green cord and masonry drill bit 400 x 2 cm. Framed pigment ink print on photographic paper, 90 x 70 cm.

 

[11] The expression comes from Andreas Huyssen, who argues that since the 1970s memory has “become a cultural obsession of monumental proportions across the globe”, claiming that “Europe and the United States have, since the 1970s, witnessed the historicizing restoration of old urban centers; the development of whole museum villages and landscapes; various national heritage and patrimony enterprises; a new wave of museum architecture that shows no signs of receding; a boom in retro fashions and repro furniture; mass marketing of nostalgia; a popular obsession with “self-musealization” by video recorder, memoir writing, and confessional literature; the rise of autobiography and of the postmodern historical novel with its uneasy negotiation between fact and fiction; the spread of memory practices in the visual arts, often centered on photography; and the increase of historical documentaries on television, including (in the United States) a whole channel dedicated entirely to history, the History Channel”. “Present Pasts: Media, Politics, Amnesia”. In Public Culture, Volume 12, Number 1, Duke University Press, Winter 2000, pp. 21-38.