Presenting the unrepresentable
Fernando Broncano. 2017
The human body is many things, but among others it is a source of information and a barrier to communication. We are social and not merely gregarious beings because our body is a boundary across which what is exchanged between our minds has to pass: states, emotions, thoughts, desires and convictions, projects, affiliations and loyalties, lies and betrayals, loves and disenchantments. Of the many kinds of information flow, knowledge of pain is probably the most disturbing and paradoxical.
In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry reminds us that “when one hears about another person’s physical pain, the events happening within the interior of that person’s body may seem to have the remote character of some deep subterranean fact, belonging to an invisible geography that, however portentous, has no reality because it has not yet manifested itself on the visible surface of the earth” (p. 3). Pain, she tells us, is not shareable; it is as if it could neither be denied nor confirmed. Wittgenstein had explained it previously: I cannot say that I feel your pain, but neither can I say that I do not feel that you have pain. There it is; that is what ultimately unites and reconciles us as humans, while at the same time separating us with a veil of mystery. It arises from the paradox that what most ties us to earth, the body we inherit from our mammalian evolutionary stem, becomes mysterious to us when we examine the phenomenology of our existence.
Like many sensations and emotions, pain has no simple correlate in language. It is unsayable, however easily showable it may be in a scream, a facial expression or the curve of a back. And precisely because it is not directly communicable it becomes the subject of ritual and art, the domains where the invisible is made visible. They are not places of re-presentation where what is already common to us is imitated; on the contrary, they are spaces in which our concepts and recognitions of pain are constructed. So when the sentry guarding Polynices’s corpse informs the tyrant that Antigone wailed as a bird does on finding its nest empty, he is not describing but contributing to our understanding of Antigone’s pain in a way that her cry in itself would not be able to communicate to us, however much it might terrify us. In a very strict sense, Sophocles is a mediator between the skin and the way we understand certain kinds of pain.
If art centres on the paradoxical nature of the emotions that make up the human condition it is because of its mission to educate humanity aesthetically, that is, to educate our sensibility so as to enable us to understand at the same time as we perceive with our senses. Art therefore illuminates the dark corners of existence, and by transforming material substance it transforms our understanding of the minds of others. In Lidó Rico’s work this role of art as a mediator producing transmutations in perception by shaping the inert is manifested with pellucid clarity.
The fact that his own body is at once the instrument of creation and the model in many of his works refers us back to, and immerses us in, this mysterious paradox of representing pain. Lidó Rico sometimes works with his body, on his body and from his body. The body is his body and the expression is his expression, but along the way it has been estranged and frozen in a plastic material, which sometimes in-corporates (I should say “embodies”) organic bodies, giving rise to a kind of interpellation of the viewer: “listen, look, my body is your body, my pain is your pain, and we all share the same matter as dry leaves.” When we stand before works like Cuando el cuerpo quiere quedarse [When the Body Wants to Remain] we understand this strange fracturing of the human, which inherits the pain and emotions of its evolutionary organic material but is capable of turning a pure animal cry into a constellation of meanings through which we come to draw up a topography of our feelings at each historical moment.
The body as a reality and as a symbol runs through Lidó Rico’s work in its manifestations of life and death. In Encrespados [Inflamed], the suffering body is confronted with the traditional symbols of death, in a kind of vanitas in which polyester and human hair are joined in a symbolic alliance: the organic and the technical, the living and the dead, passion and its expression. It is a fusion of materials that gives form to the tense content of a piece unfolding between paradox and recognition of the tragedy of the human condition. In Lidó’s works culture bursts upon the scene, turning the body into a battlefield, as in Estiramientos [Stretchings], a polysemous title alluding to the desire to survive, to overcome time, and to the exercising of violence on the body that has characterised the history of pain. Écorchés or flayings have been customary representations in the history of images to signify both a teaching purpose in anatomy and the infliction of the most unbearable pain that can be produced in another human being. Stretchings refer to that tradition of bodies turning on themselves in their contradictory life and death impulses.
Orthogonally intersecting the epistemic paradox by which emotion is immediately understood and yet incommunicable in Lidó Rico’s work is another of the subterranean currents that fuel our contemporary culture, in which we give a name to the various feelings and emotional expressions of our bodies in the socio-historical contexts in which we happen to live. This is the foundational yet tense relationship between the technical and artefactual context in which our existence is played out and the subjectivities in which an understanding of what happens to us is manifested. The evolution of the human species took place under the pressure of forces that were not purely natural in origin. Previous species had already developed in artificial niches, products of culture, in which new evolutionary forces formed, and these forces selected the specific biological endowment of humans. In our species, the technical context is not something external that we inhabit, but something that has inhabited us from our earliest beginnings, producing our particular personal and group identities.
Artefacts are the material culture of the human species. Light bulbs, telephones, receptacles, weapons, and so on, are something more than mere objects; they are producers of subjectivity and not just functional systems. A weapon is a weapon is a weapon, we might say to ourselves, knowing that we mean many things: it is not a tool but a relationship that has two poles. At one pole is a consciousness, and at the other there is also a consciousness. A weapon cannot be conceived in terms of instrumental rationality without turning the other into an object, while at the same time stripping the person using it of consciousness. We see numerous cases in which artefacts acquire this bipolar quality of weapons: objects that communicate consciousnesses and sometimes destroy them: telephones, everyday consumer items, microchips inserted into skulls…
The continuity between the body and the artefacts among which it is born, develops and dies is a defining feature of Lidó Rico’s work, as is his exploration of the suffering body. A new kind of exploration of the human domain is therefore added: a systematic examination of its hybrid nature between the natural and the artificial. Just as pain would not be expressible or comprehensible without the representations by which we give meaning to the pure cry, human cruelty and solitude would be incomprehensible without artefacts, which are the modes by which bodies are related, and even constituted. We speak of mental cruelty, as if cruelty could be purely mental and were not translated into material forms in acts and objects that cause harm. Equally, solitude is not mere isolation from bodies but a product of the walls erected by our artefacts, in the same way as a weapon, a telephone or a computer are bipolar relators that raise barriers to communication and paralyse the voice in their paradoxical function of conveying it. So we see this mapping of the contemporary world, which is the silent solitudes of its inhabitants, on the walls of the exhibition.
Art is heir to religion in its ritual power produced through a material culture of spaces, icons, sculptural images and practices of self-absorption. Through their artefacts artists produce flows of consciousness which circulate among viewers, who are reconciled to their emotional condition while sharing the aesthetic experience. This production of sensibilities is what characterises art that is neither mere decoration nor staging. It pertains to what is most profound in our modes of relating: those that keep our communities united through gestures, objects, acts, abandoning their material function to acquire a symbolic function. Like the embraces and kisses with which we greet each other, to remind ourselves that our emotions remain intact, works of art rise above their materiality to the symbolic domain in which the most profound strata of human sensibility are produced and reproduced. An exhibition is always an exposing of bodies. The artist’s body is exposed and the viewers expose their bodies to the flow of relations generated by the works exhibited. It is a communal rite that reaffirms the highest part of human culture, in which we are reconciled to our position as fragile beings who entrust their existence to others. In this profound artistic sense, Lidó Rico’s work is pure exposure of bodies to their destiny of also being symbols of fragility in the presence of other bodies. Art and life are thus reconciled in their position as exposed beings.