Bruce W. Ferguson
(Pubilshed in the monograph “RAÚL CORDERO”. Turner Books. 2010)
In 1989, the most significant global political event since World War II took place. Casually referred to as the ‘Fall’, but obviously intended to highlight the religious implications of its biblical antecedent, the momentous occasion was, of course, the ‘end’ of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall’s forceful and heroic collapse symbolized the transformation, and a self-conscious historical media process ensured its singular meaning. The liberation coursing through Central and Eastern Europe was epic and, retrospectively, like all historical watersheds, actually incomplete. For it is more, in the words of Susan Buck-Morss, ‘The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West”[1. Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 2000). David Sterritt (ed.), Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998)]. In other words, it is as much a death on both sides as a release into the world after the sins of communism. While the reverberations of ‘the Fall’ move slowly in the direction of a dialogical democracy, its fuller reverberations and legacies are more complex and contradictory; the transitions more painful; and the results, in terms of freedom, are uneven at best.
Prior to this, another watershed had come into existence in 1959: the Cuban revolution. Cuba does not fit the pattern of stifling Eastern communist domination and is a Caribbean contradiction to official Western requirements for nearby legitimate nations. Castro’s Cuba is and always was someone’s “paradise lost” (including the Mafia’s): a small piece of island geography whose propaganda value as a contested property of ideology is worth more than anyone’s recognition of its autonomous national or social or civic status. Cuba is not only “other”, but it is the postmodernist romantic “other”, probably even to its citizens. Cuba is over mythologized, both internally and externally, as a set of representations of identities too fragile to carry the weight of everyone’s frantic desires.
From 1959 onwards it remained, stubbornly, “other” to both the West and the Eastern bloc, two shifting empires of power that were habitually irritated by Cuba’s separate presence. It was as though this tiny island and its population were a substantial threat to greater powers or an insufferable insult to the very notion of imperialist interests in general. A country constantly assaulted by meanings larger than it is itself, and now producing a “…curiosity [that] has reached pathological and morbid levels. Cuba’s poverty has become folkloric and its ruined capital a kind of new aesthetic experience for foreign eyes’’[2. Cristina Vives, “Contemporary (Not Exactly Cuban) Art”, Art Press, 249 (Paris, December 1999)]. This is not to reduce Cuba to merely a postmodern “play of signifiers”, because its everyday reality for the Cuban people is more than that. But it is to say that the “play of signifiers” is significant because its results are critically important to so many players.
As Cristina Vives correctly asserts, Cuba is now part of a media revolution that turns it into a cacophony of rhetorical market devices of which art and artists are two noticeable figures. So how to separate the art and artists of Cuba from its official and unofficial geopolitics? How indeed, when the political religiosity of the discourse that surrounds it always threatens to overwhelm the vernacular secularity of the art? Vives has suggested, correctly again, I think, that the production of art is agnostic (not her word but her sense, I think) rather than derived from a set of pre-constructed beliefs.
And, for Raúl Cordero, I think the model is an artist and an art practice that has always avoided countries in favour of the kingdom of art. One clear model for Cordero is Jean-Luc Godard, the mercurial artist of filmic thinking who uses language as image, image as language and every device in between to avoid the easy categorizations of nationhood or ethnic iconography or genre codification. In an artist like Godard, there is the possibility of a material criticism and a restless oscillation between and among forms of communication: words and images, cinema and video, documentary and narrative, imaginary and realistic. It is Godard, for instance, who famously realized that in trying to make Breathless as a realistic genre film in the film noir mode, he had, in retrospect, made Alice in Wonderland instead. This is true agnosticism: a retrospective understanding that the fictions used to construct reality are interchangeable and peripatetic.
“To me”, says filmmaker Jean Luc Godard, “being a human being is being between two places. It’s the movement that’s important, not the remaining in one place”[3. David Sterritt (ed.), Jean Luc Godard: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998)]
For Cordero, the idea of movement or more precisely, oscillation, is key to making works of art which demand an autonomous response, outside of curatorial and critical indexing of his work as a necessary identity reflection of place. And this does not mean only the physical oscillation between Cuba and America and Europe, which is, of course, part of Cordero’s subjective psycho-history; it also means his movement between and among references, images, contexts and cognitive modes. This oscillation, which is the dynamic condition of immigrants and of emigration itself—the hopeful passing from port to port—and is both a legal and cognitive condition, is always fraught with historical legacies and the tensions of new freedoms. By using the analogy of emigration as his controlling aesthetic principle, Raúl Cordero has found one vital response to avoid a discourse too willing to apply singular, monolithic applications of interpretation. With its implications of contradiction, heterogeneity and multiple transitions of styles and media, genres and techniques, Cordero’s body of work displaces itself from established ethnographic discussions and pre-nostalgia.
It may only be a coincidence but it is an interesting one that in 1959 Godard made Breathless, a film which was, even then, seen as another kind of revolution which can equally be measured as a form of continuing resistance. A movie, even an early Godard film, is not a political event per se, of course, but over a period of time a movie, an image or a cultural object of substance can have the longevity and influence of politics itself. I am arguing, obviously, that works of art change the world just as decisively as political events if they are allowed the full charge of their meanings. By that I mean that if it were decided collectively to acknowledge the importance of cultural forces as social transformation, against the media, financial and political interests which control and determine the priorities of “history”, the idea of history as more than the recognition of official events would alter substantially. Thus art, for instance, as exemplified by progressive performative acts of society would be seen to be equal to any official version of ghettoized institutional meanings. It is here in the imaginary that Cordero has situated his practice in order to avoid the “Cuban” nomenclature which would suffocate his art the way it did pre-Fall Eastern bloc artists. By choosing a model like Godard, for instance, Cordero can concentrate on relative subjects (or even the subject of relativity) to produce a web of ideas, images and implied sounds that confound manipulated questions of identity. Instead, he can produce questions of identity which are much more complex by virtue of their aesthetic force than by their narrow referential links. If cinema, the pre-eminent form throughout modernism, is characterized as the manipulation of time, then Cordero can use cinema as his starting point, ironically, to make paintings and to make “video without video equipment”. Cordero uses film as a collective space already understood in order to reverse the time of culture and its determinations.
For instance, he changes the “time” of his “videos” by making them into photographs. A matter of economy when he returned to Cuba from Europe, the photographs force stillness into what was moving images. They force contemplation and consideration. They, if you will, slow down the culture. This isolation of an image by image reading forces attention to both the form and the meaning of the original video, now disassembled, without sound. Like a memento mori of the original, the “video” is now edited by virtue of an audience’s perceptions and potentially reassembled by virtue of a subjective reading. Regardless, the cultural rhythm of the video has been altered and a parallel translation has taken place. The videos-cum-photographs memorialize the moments but take away the audio context and return the images to the imagination. In this subtle, but commanding, dissociation, meaning is regenerated and re-imbued.
To attempt to redo, reshape original material and transform it subjectively is not necessarily an oppositional position in the style of the traditional historical avant-garde. Instead, it is a method to circumvent official and restrictive meanings known through pre-determined familiarity and to redress them to the geography of the imaginary and the unknown. As Godard has said, “pictures are made to make seen the unseen”. A more forceful use of ‘video without video equipment’ is Forward and Rewind (1999), where video stills are printed on two rolls of canvas which move in asynchronous directions vertically. An encounter and a farewell are set up as parallel events in which the narrative order is unclear. The time – importantly, the psychological time that is cinema’s proper subject – is distressed and displaced. The creaking of a simple machine reminds you of the nature of memory and the persistence of vision. The emotional power of two simple contradictory acts performs an ambiguous circle of desire and possibility and of desire and division. Video becomes mechanical and the images act like a slow painting of a film. The unseen is seen through a painter’s lens and its potent associations are brought to the fore.
In Three Marks on the Skin (1999), Cordero has equally and promiscuously produced a painting which inexplicably has a bovine diagram of its parts as the backdrop for an image of three women, one of whom is showing her abdomen to the others. On her stomach are three more images that are backlit photographic transparencies. And the one painted female viewer has diagrammatic lines with arrows to indicate the scope of her vision. This painting is a Möbius strip of influences, cross-indexes, genre mixes and self-conscious recursive references. Not only is it not “Cuban” in any immediate or direct sense, it is about the nature of spectatorship and the gaze, a “nature” which is provocative and pre-mediated. It is, in fact, about the “nature” of the real. Which is more authentic? The diagram of the cow, the “painted” girls who probably emerged from a photographic reference, the backlit transparencies, the dotted view lines or the Spanish language categorizations which cause the human image to be seen from behind a transparent layer of language? All of these or none? It is, I would suggest, a remainder, a left-over from cultural spills of image pollution chosen by Cordero to make sense of an otherwise overdetermined external world.
And this is his connection to Godard and to the culture of the Club DJ that also inspires and informs him[4. See Ulf Poschardt, DJ Culture (London: Quartet Books,1998). The aesthetic of DJs is described thus: ”The DJ occupies exactly the same ambivalent place between the destruction and preservation of the idea of the artist. He radically unmasks his material: his record box is the starting point of all his production. He organizes material that has already been created and builds artworks into a new whole. He is a second-level artist.”(p. 16)] Cordero takes images seriously (by painting them or transforming them) but also takes them subjectively, which is where he varies from a fully postmodern irony. Cordero uses the productive aesthetic of sampling—of choosing images promiscuously—as a form of highlighting absence and presence, the very core of the photographic meaning. By this I mean that he convulses syntax; he confuses expectations and the hierarchies of image meaning. Banality confronts excess confronts waste confronts importance. If a DJ (or Godard) can mix and match and remix and rematch, why not the painter? The result, in Cordero’s hands, is a firm statement that memory (and thus history) is subjective and relative, not objective and stable.
In The Last Supper (1995) or Historia (Fragmentos I-IV) (1995), two views or more produce two or more images. People appear or disappear or the background changes. Like actors and actresses whose performances end up on the cutting-room floor, the “history” or the narrative told in the painting depends on the images available. Thus history is a fiction told by the authority who inscribes it. By making available simultaneously more than one history, Cordero evokes the way in which memory itself narrativizes or psychologizes its images and its understandings in ways that are profoundly subjective. In A, B, or C: Get the Real Taste, the absence of food on the plate is humorous as the ‘food’ is diagrammed as in a balloon dream above the boy’s head, but the message is serious too. ‘A. Earn, B. Eat or C. Else’ is a condemning litany not to be disregarded even within a pop image from advertising. By introducing the ‘Earn’ into the image, the act of eating is both politicized and made “realistic”.
The use of a dotted line to indicate absence or presence or a haunting of either is at once a recognition of the pathos at the centre of every human encounter and a distancing device from the actual emotions enacted[4. Cordero has used the dotted line in performance events as well. Painting the dotted image of a ‘missing’ person on cityscape spaces such as a park bench, Cordero then photographed people’s relation to and uses of the image over a period of time]. Like the police outline which replaces the body as a representation of death and forensic possibility, the dotted line is an easy but disturbing method for reminding us that the painting’s subject is not its image. It is its image’s meaning in light of a context.
This transparent dotted overlay which is now virtually a Cordero signature produces surprising and productive results. For instance, in 395/359 (1997), the original referential image is from an American Express advertisement. For those of us who know, the original photograph was of the actors Hugh Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, famous celebrities who were married to one another. The first change in the painting, of course, is scale and the second is that the images are now painted (necessarily imperfectly, whatever that means in relation to photography and reality). The context of advertising is removed. Then the two figures are separated into a diptych form. Then each figure is given a number, one that contains the same numbers but in a different order (thus the title). Then each figure removed is outlined as an ‘absence’ in the image where the other “was” in the original. An advertisement which played on old age as brand loyalty and fame as celebration in and of itself has become an image of projected loss, of pathos and the possibility of separation—even death. Hugh and Jessica are now humanized, defamed with their aloneness in front of them. Whose number will come first?
3 Suicide Guys/Sleeping Persons (1997) points again to the “nature” of images. At an image level, the difference between sleep and death and the representation of either is not a clearly delineated one. Boys sleeping may be boys dead or may be boys eroticized. Guys committing suicide may be movie images (and thus complete fictions) or may be images of theatrical performances. Images tell us little but are used to argue much. The title alone gives these images their veracity. And the title may be misleading. Cordero seems to be enjoying the paradox of the relation between image and language precisely to give us the doubt necessary to understand history itself. Sound is implied and film is once again referred to by context. But the subjectivity Cordero provides as a necessary “defect” to historical narratives is in itself a way to understand history; to understand it not as a series of events but as a series of interpretations, available again for reinterpretation.
In putting doubt at the centre of his enterprise, Raúl Cordero reestablishes the freedom of the artist from any country to pursue desire beyond preexisting categories; to find questions rather than answers; to find images with possible meanings rather than meanings with possible images. This scepticism – this agnostic approach – closes down the god of politics in favour of the muse of mutual possibility. Not a mirror of reality but the telescopic microscope of an image mercenary. Such is the poetry of materialism.
Bruce W. Ferguson, June 18, 2000