One work in the exhibition stands out as dubiously sculptural:Nocturno de apalancados (Sluggards’ Nocturne). This composition of a large number (100) of images on acrylic fixed on wood, each measuring 80 x 110 x 2.5 cm, is emphatically different from the other works in the exhibition. Its surface is quite large, 6.5 m x 14.5m x 2.5 cm. By all accounts, these images are flat. They are paintings, rather than sculptures. As paintings, they have perspectival depth, the figure being glued behind a depicted table, from which they cannot be distinguished. Rather, they seem to emerge from the table top, which thereby becomes simply another plane, rivalling the flat paintings. However, their materiality questions that flatness in a variety of other ways. First of all, they are installed in a chapel, which gives them a spatiality that is different from paintings hung on a flat wall. The small chapel with its semi-round arch above suggests a depth that is different from the depicted one in the paintings. This depth is materially there: one can see the bricks that make the walls protrude and the niche recede. Also, their seriality differentiates them from the usual uniqueness of paintings. Again, as with the sculptural installations, it takes a second, longer and closer look to see the differences among these paintings. Once we take, or give them, that time, we notice that all these figures, or busts, harbor frightened faces, open mouths, eyes looking sideways as if to compel us to follow their gazes and see where the danger lurks. The hands are actively pushing the head into a knot, as if incapable of staying straight. But then, they are not identical at all. For, most importantly, these hundred figures, similar and different, are all hand-made, painted with the artist’s fingers. That mode of painting leaves a trace, a fingerprint, which adds a layer to the spatiality of the installation. A fingerprint is an index, which points to someone else, now absent, but whose trace remains embedded in the layer of pigment.
Through these material and spatial details, this work participates in what I have contended above that Lidó Rico’s sculpture does: raise questions, confuse our preconceptions, compel bodily as well as affective movement, and activate our wish to understand. But that understanding is not (only) an intellectual exercise. Here, I consider the aesthetic aspect of this art. Integrating body and mind, this work solicits an understanding in the aesthetic sense developed by mid-eighteenth-century philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten. To squeeze a 900-page treatise written in Latin into a single sentence: for him, aesthetics is based on an experience of three aspects: 1) binding 2) through the senses 3) in public space. These three aspects work together. This view contributes to the value of, specifically, exhibitions as the arena of the thought-image of the contemporary. Baumgarten published his Aesthetica in 1750. Aesthetic: rather than an academic philosophical discipline, which was Baumgarten’s context, I am taking it on as an effect-/affect-oriented, shared experience. An art exhibition would then be the most characteristic instance of a site where such experiences are facilitated. But the condition for this to happen is the effectivity of the art as aesthetic in Baumgarten’s triple sense. In this respect, the sensorial aspect of his view of aesthetics is key. This is why I began this reflection with the idea of active, hysterical material. The disgust that the self-portrait of El soplador seems to emanate is not an expression of disgust but an effect that cannot leave the viewer indifferent: an affect. Similarly, the hundred figures in Nocturno de apalancadosdo not express but convey their terror.
The question this raises concerns the conception of political art, how art can be politically effective. I situate that question as based on the difference between activist and activating art. The former is an attempt to persuade us of something thematically specific; a political issue such as, for example, the danger of climate change, the sexism built into power structures (#MeToo), or why racism is wrong (Black Lives Matter). This leads to what we tend to call “political art”, in the activist sense. Useful, necessary and, indeed, urgent as these artworks can be, the risk is that their activist tenor turns the artwork into something that comes dangerously close to propaganda. The risk is that the work ceases to function as art, and thereby loses its affective effectivity, as well as its power of ab-straction, of taking away the obvious figurativity. We cannot avoid the great dilemma, leading to an irresolvable aporia, that was put forward so long ago by German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno in his essay on “Commitment”: art that seeks to speak of politics becomes propaganda and ceases to be art – it loses political efficacy; but art that only wishes to be art is political in its refusal of politics. Instead, political art, in order to escape that aporia, would do better by aiming to be activating, rather than activist. This, I contend, is what Lidó Rico’s sculpture does. It is in this sense that his sculpturality is mobilizing, activating, as I have been insisting so far.
This fragment of thought requires another step in the de-unifying moves I am proposing. In terms of persuasive discourse, the first step is to undermine the domination of language-based speech. But if we simply reject the linguistic in favour of the visual, all we achieve is to keep the distinction in place, including the oppositional tendency cultural practice has attached to these two culturally central media. Instead, French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard has introduced a concept that provides a possibility to develop a new vision on the language-vision tension. He calls it “the figural”. This concept is of crucial importance if we seek to understand art and its aesthetic effect, including its affect, without making the medium itself central. The philosopher and cinema scholar David Rodowick begins his book devoted to this concept and its affordances with a quote from Lyotard, who wrote:
A good book would be one where linguistic time (the time of signification and of reading) would itself be deconstructed: that the reader could start wherever s/he wishes and in whatever order, a book for grazing. (1971: 18)
A book for grazing: this metaphor says quite precisely what the importance is of taking time for, of giving time to art, whether it is literary or visual art. I like to think that Lidó Rico’s serial installations, be they primarily sculptural or, as in the case of Nocturno, rather painterly, or as in his Autorretrato soñando gigantes (Self-portrait Dreaming up Giants), are made from polyester resin and metal and, I like to add, shadows. Shadows as material: this adds to the idea of hysterical material, as it is an augmented reality where light and its disruption participate in the materiality.
The concept of the figural pertains to semiotics, the theory of signs and signification that frees artworks and other cultural utterances from the opposition between words and images. It is also a social theory in that it contests the appropriation of art and aesthetics by the predominance of commodity fetishism (Rodowick, x). Significantly for Lidó Rico’s work with materiality and spatiality, the figural is capable of negotiating “the expressive and the visible” in three conceptions of space, all relevant for Lidó Rico’s work, and all undermining the language-visuality opposition. The first is correlative space. This is space where speech and image can be associated together – not merged or confused, but put in dialogic contact. Whether or not visitors come together to the exhibition and thus, can talk about their experience, the sheer thinking that the seeing compels, as I have argued, facilitates this correlation even within the subjective experience of a single visitor. The second sense of space that the figural harbours is complementary space, which, as Rodowick writes, “establishes relations between discursive and nondiscursive spaces as the institutional basis of power”. The third figural –created space would be collateral space, where “enunciation is defined by specific mutations of plastic space and linguistic reference”– what we habitually call figure and text. Rodowick argues that it is due to the impact of electronic media that these older distinctions and even oppositions no longer hold.
Productive as the concept of the figural is in our attempts to shed the medium-essentialism so ingrained in our cultural consciousness, in one specific aspect it is so relevant for Lidó Rico’s work that it is almost as if the artist had been experimenting with this philosophy. That is what emerged briefly from the work Nocturno de apalancados: the artist’s fingers, the traces of which are ineluctably part of the artwork. We can extend that idea of the trace to many of the other works in the exhibition, in particular, all those where hands or fingers participate in the sculpturality, the materiality, as well as the play with scale. The trace is the most characteristic instance of what in semiotic theory is called the index. This important concept is bound to the idea of psychic space. Psychic space is anchored in the real, existential connection between the subject and the space around her. Hence, we must understand the place of the index as inherent in the concept. The index is a sign that is physically or causally connected to its meaning. Linguistic deixis is a specific form of the index. Deictic words are those words that have no meaning if there is no subject uttering them: here or there, today, yesterday or tomorrow; but also, I and you, the two partners in the flight to which Lidó Rico’s title invites the visitors. There is no I without a you who recognizes the status of the I, and vice versa. Deixis is bound to the subject, as his or her extension.
For the concept of psychic space, Kaja Silverman offered in her book a theory of the formation of subjectivity and the place of the body therein. Silverman argues that “one’s apprehension of self is keyed both to a visual image or constellation of visual images, and to certain bodily feelings, whose determinant is less physiological than social” (1996: 14; emphasis added). The word and the idea of key appears again. This explains how the relationship between the subject as individual and the culturally normative images we interact with is bodily. Thus, this relationship is both materially solid and subject to change. If the subject can change, and if that change can happen in the social domain, then art can contribute to such change. Artworks perform an insistent interrogation of the indexical relationship between image and viewer on the basis of cultural memories and myths mixed with contemporary realities. They frequently allude to elements of this mixture. They work with the possibility of bodily interaction “from within” subjectivity with the outside culture, and thus address psychic space as material. This insight undermines the media-essentialism that posits a sharp border between literature and visual art. It adds to the importance of the finger-painting in Nocturno.
This brings us back to the hysterical character of matter. Silverman mentions how the subject feels his or her position in space. What we call “feeling” is the threshold of body and subjectivity in interaction with the outside world. For French philosopher Henri Bergson, who wrote a crucial book on images as early as the late nineteenth century, the external images we see are “attached” to the subject’s existence, which is experienced as bodily, locked together, through feeling. In the musical sense of the word “key”, the external images and the body are adapted, harmonized; one is set into the tonality of the other. But the word “to key to” can also be understood as “code”, the key to or ground of understanding, comprehending, communicating between individual subjects and a culture. All these meanings and functions of psychic space join forces in the affective effectivity of Lidó Rico’s sculptures.
This is best understood through a brief consideration of the title Autorretrato soñando gigantes, which is best translated into English as Self-Portrait Dreaming up Giants, rather than Dreaming of Giants, which in Castilian would require the preposition “con”. The dream creates the giants. But what or where, then, is the dream? The polyester resin self-portrait on which the iconic figure of Don Quijote stands, shaped from welded wire, is again the main character, including the hysteria visible in the figuration of the thick fingers that hide the eyes. The thinness of the wire fits well with the emaciated figure of the most famous Spanish literary character, as we know it from visual images, made on the basis of artists’ fantasies derived from reading. The Knight Errant who never existed is more recognizable than any other literary or visual icon. Thanks to the shadow, cast by theatrical spotlights, the figure is doubled. But we have by now learned to bring that second look to the work. Not only are there two of these figures. The second one, produced by the shadow that is the light-produced trace, is smaller, and seems already to have stepped off the head. And while the head below them is bent lower, the two knights look up so sharply that they seem to look at the sky rather than the windmills that, according to Cervantes’ novel, Don Quijote took for giants. The sky, then, is where the dreams are forged.
Above I mentioned delicacy, the finesse that is needed especially in drawing. The delicacy of the wire figures, and even more of the shadows, questions the cliché that Don Quijote was simply mad. Most peculiarly, the windmills are even invisible as figures, only existing as textual memories. They become, perhaps in the sense of Deleuze, what they seem to be thanks to the shadow effect only. They are, in this sense, clearly dreams, not real. But whether this is due to Don Quijote’s alleged madness or to the profound reflection on space, materiality, and figuration is a question Lidó Rico’s work declines to answer. We can speculate what we like: we only “know” about the madness, allegedly due to too much reading, because we, too, are readers. Otherwise, how would we know this? Lidó Rico’s work opposes to this readerliness a figural scene. The two putti shaped from fat-looking resin blow as hard as they can to make the wings of the windmills turn. Quite a heavy job, as their blown-up cheeks and angry looks suggest. Of all the works in the exhibition, this relatively small and, at any rate, thin work offers the maximum number of thoughts on the figural. The dreamy quality, the almost un-material substance, the indexical shadows, and the ephemeral, unstable image, together with our literary memories of the source novel, make this a key example of the figural as an innovative artistic language that firmly stays beyond the word-image opposition.
In order to grasp the consequences of this view of space as image, and vice versa, in relation to the author-viewer connection, our experience of space is best summed up as deictic, an indexical form. This means that the subject can only see the images-in-space in relation to her own self, body and mind together. As Rodowick phrases it: “indexicality gives us a formed space” (7). This leaves the question of the political effect of images, their potential to move us to action; an effect for which the author remains accountable, but to which the reader-viewer must be porous. This becomes clear through a later account of Bergson’s view. In 1907, he coined the term “creative evolution” to describe the type of movement that is both emotional and social, and thereby becomes political. It occurs when understanding and action are imbricated. This produces readiness to act, which lies at the heart of the political potential of literature and art, figured in the image through the force of the figural. A subject willing to be in the world and to care, to be porous to the deictic ripple effect, and to be willing to cast his or her own shadow on the work and the space in which it exists: such a subject makes the work politically meaningful through becoming its affected, infected co-author.