MAN AND EARTH
Alexander García Düttmann
From the catalogue Elogio de la Bestia, published in Pamplona by the Government of Navarra, 2010.
If the camera were moved closer to the table, as with the photographs showing delicacies such as suckling pig, grapes and apples, this might be a still-life, that is, an image of the instant separating the fresh from the spoiled, the ripe from the rotten. But the camera does not budge and the distance hardly allows us to recognize the objects placed on the table. There are several bottles of wine, one of champagne. This might be the instant prior to the arrival of diners who will celebrate an Easter Sunday picnic. But, judging by the state of the food, the diners would have had to show up some time ago. So it is more like the lapse during which the expected presence has become an irremediable absence. Let's take a look at the wicker chairs and ask ourselves what world we are in. If we are in the present world, the table laid out in the middle of the countryside appears like a relic of a world that belongs largely to the past. It is a marginal world still governed by the laws of nature, by fruitful or sterile land, by weather and wildlife. Now the vultures arrive. This may be the moment when the peacefulness and sluggishness of rural time, the care with which the table has been set, is engulfed in a looming agitation, in a swarm of birds so dazzling that we can hardly tell them apart. Their number far exceeds the amount of food available. Or it may even be the moment when the effects of a metamorphosis become apparent. In the deserted margins of the present world we discover that men have turned into vultures. Obviously, this is not a documentary about Iberian fauna. Nor is it a lesson on animal behaviour. As the title In ictu oculi indicates, it is perhaps all about time compressed between the moment of death and the moment of resurrection. Can the invisible supplement of faith change the condition of man on earth entirely?
In this sunny and raw landscape, swept by icy wind, with cultivated trees divested of leaves, flowers, and fruits, in this setting where the faraway crags echo the elevated profile of the table, there is not a single shot portraying a human being, although the table seems to have been set for a group of men and women, a family of peasants and their friends. A feast of mourning has been prepared. Man is asleep, immersed in mystery, waiting to be changed. As Ferrer Lerín puts it in the last verses of a poem: "This present world / can no longer / inevitably / must not / be / my world / our world, / and so it is." In a world impossible to share, in a world of beasts, the inevitable is no longer expressed simply in the needs of being, but also encompasses, as if doubly inevitable, the duty or need for the free act. Such inevitability is confirmed by a final ratification, in which freedom itself is subjected to this inevitability, asserted only to renounce itself.
So man has left the feast prepared for the moment when he awakens to the sound of the trumpet. His dream will only last the twinkling of an eye, as if it were a dream already dreamt, a dream bereft of images, or a dream with only a single image—that of the table set in the outdoors. There is the dreamless sleep of someone who has lived through an experience so horrifying that to relive it, even in dreams, would be so unbearable to him that he would be stricken with a profound and paralyzing depression, surrender to dementia or succumb to death. And then there is the sleep, also dreamless, of he who will have died only before dying: on the threshold he still trusts death will last no longer than the twinkling of an eye, as if resurrection could precede its own glory. For the artist, however, who is neither man nor beast because she witnesses the absence of man through her motionless camera, the wait will have put her patience to the test. Once awake, man will celebrate the resurrection of his flesh with ferocious consumption. Everything will be shared and there will be a celebration. But man also knows that his flesh will not be the same and that upon awakening neither flesh nor blood will inherit the uncorrupted body. He then wonders whether something of the decomposed flesh and the poisoned blood must not be conserved for the transformation to have amounted to an inheritance. Can a man born of his remains, a resuscitated man, be his own heir and yet bear no kinship with the man who has ceased to live? Can he bear no resemblance to the dust of his own corpse? In fact, the man who inherits an uncorrupted body must inherit an embalmed one. This is what defines the surrealism of resurrection.
It is the last meal. Man no longer prepares it in view of consuming the delicacies and drinking the wine. He prepares it without any reason or purpose whatsoever, simply for the sake of preparing it. For he knows that incorruptible clothing will cover all corruption.
The last meal is the one most related to corruption, and also the one least related to it. It is most related to corruption because everything is going to spoil. The suicidal bourgeois shut themselves up in a mansion to consecrate the loss. They celebrate a transgressive ritual of indulgence, as if they wished to approach the sublime point at which voracity and indifference become interchangeable. Man always goes further, he is excessive, whereas, they say, the beast devours its food only to satiate its hunger and survive. Look closely, it is a village feast. Tired of cultivating the hard land, man rejects the past and the future, focuses on the present moment and says to himself: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." Then he dies without keeping the date and without hoping to resuscitate, just like a beast. But if he celebrates life with abundant food and drink, knowing that it is as brief as the feeling of satiety after a feast, man actually surrenders to death while challenging it. Can death not interrupt the feast at any moment? Is not this interruption the condition of the living orgy? The festivity of life that has become aware of death is then in truth an ambiguous desire for resurrection, a nihilistic desire.
But at the same time the last meal is the one least related to corruption since it does not enable the corrupt body to subsist and does not reproduce the species. Man has ceased to be a pilgrim on earth forgetful of his condition. Then the beasts come along. The vultures are never far from the carrion. The camera, mounted on a tripod, resists the storm of the violent flapping of wings and compulsive pecking. It resembles, perhaps, a lighthouse, but it is not, given that it watches the vultures without blinking, with an impassive and therefore invisible eye, with an eye resembling the eye of Nini, that boy in Delibes' novel whose glance, always turned toward the fields and woodlands, knows the weight of things. In the blink of an imaginary eye, an eye capable of imagining and exaggerating, an eye that must belong to the visionary and tremendous sleeper we call an artist, corruption is exposed: the chairs knocked down, the tablecloth stained and torn, the plates and glasses shattered to pieces, the trays strewn on the earthen floor, the silverware warped. Everything is confused and overturned. This is an exhibition of vanity, as in Valdés Leal's painting, the clamour of a flock of vultures. How stereotypically Spanish!
Do you remember the father's sudden and purifying rage in the movie Pajarico? He yanks on the tablecloth at supper, the dishes and glassware fall off the table and smash to pieces. But nobody gets angry.
Now, if death is swallowed up in victory, man may get dressed. For the blind beasts who are the sleeping man's friends have exposed corruption. Remember that pink dress she made to wear to church on Sundays, the one that looked so pretty on her? Quite a lot of fabric was left over, so she decided to take advantage of the remnants and sew a tablecloth.
The girl is overly curious. She creates a stage set in the midst of nature. She constructs a small laboratory in the middle of the countryside. To satisfy her curiosity, she will have to be very patient and even disappear for a time, let a soft wet snow fall, let the nocturnal birds screech. Only this way will she be able to erase her tracks and throw the beasts off her scent. If she attracts them and they come, they will soon grow confident. She knows that their growls and pants precede their bodies. If she has faith, something will happen in the blink of an eye. Yet the camera is indifferent to time, it endures it without blinking.
The camera has no faith at all, as it is incapable of opening and closing its eyes. But if it is true that the time of faith is the time compressed into an opening and closing of the eyes, and that this compressed time is in turn the duration of the dream of death or absence, then, oddly, the eyes of the sleeper do resemble the eye of a camera, since he is not the one who closed his eyes, nor will he be the one to open them. Rather, his eyes were shut at the moment of death. And at the moment of resurrection they will be opened. Thus there appears to be a secret communication between the animal, the machine, and god. Absent, the girl dreams that the wild boars will open her eyes as if she were resuscitated. That is why she sings the hymn of the beast. The hunting horn resounds within her.
With what body will they come? It is difficult for her to guess, no matter how much she consults the bestiary or strives to calculate the parameters of her action and to anticipate the surprise from her distant post. For the movements of beasts are never entirely predictable. Their appearance is always unsuspected, like that of a monster or of death, in ictu oculi.
It occurs to her to place a huge and somewhat spoiled cake in the middle of the wintry landscape. She opens a pastry-shop of trust where the wild boar couple will celebrate their wedding. A light layer of snow covers the ground and the tree branches. When the wild boars discover the cake, they roll around in the sweet sticky mud. It gets harder and harder to distinguish the snow from the cream. The girl manages to transport us to the land of Cockaigne.
She had to install a strong light so that the camera could capture the spectacle. The light desecrates the darkness of this place and makes the cake look prominent. It drives the beasts away and fascinates them at the same time, thereby setting up the trap of hesitation. Hers is a post-mythological art, no kidding: she substitutes a cake that will be destroyed for the beauty who once received the beast. Instead of divine seduction, a creature's unbridled gluttony. In the beginning, the restless and impetuous beasts keep circling the cake, as if they were doubtful, or as if they must first make sure that there is no danger, or as if they used distraction to make them concentrate better. When they finally get close enough and dare to have a taste of the cake, they are trapped. Their fur is soaked with cream and snow, sugar and butter. No amount of shaking will purify it. Thus, the ravenous consumption provokes an incomplete metamorphosis: the boars are no longer wild beasts without having become domesticated animals, pets. These are the Altamira caves of our world, and this is the last work of the artist hunter.
Given that it ends without a result, the artistic rather than scientific experiment produces an uncertain feeling, perhaps the most disturbing of all. It is a feeling of contagion and corruption. The beast now belongs to the in-between space of ambiguity. When it wakens the girl from her dream, her art will leave us with eyes half-open. But if it proves impossible for us to open and close our eyes, can we then see her video for the first time, can we finally see our world, the world that, indeed, was not ours? Or is intuition postponed forever, so that her video would reveal itself to be all about this infinite delay?