The image that condenses an event of history

(Above: Claudia Fontes, Reconstruction of the portrait of Pablo Míguez, Water reflections from the Río de la Plata on mirror-polished stainless steel figure, 170 x 50 x 70 cm, 2000/2010, Floating on Río de la Plata, coordinates: 34° 32, 3660 S / 58° 26, 2575 W)

By Syd Krochmalny

Translated from Spanish by Alexandra Goldman

New generations of artists are required to have an excessive confidence in order to achieve an image of the present that gives meaning to history. Just as living beings demand rights, so does the past. The artist, like the flowers that turn their corolla to the sun, turns into a flash of light that illuminates the sky of history. But more than the sun is a lightning bolt that flashes in the final moment before the truth vanishes. With the necessary tools and in the kairos, an image is produced that, in the instant of being revealed, looks toward the void. To capture the image of history is not to recognize it as it is, or has been, but rather to take ownership of it. To grasp the present is like going through the moment of danger of sudden death. The artist combs history against the grain.

There is a way of making art in which its procedure can be defined as the image that condenses an event of history. It is the image which is capable of capturing the state of exception as that of a catastrophe; that of a heartrending event. But this condensation is not a representation, nor an illustration, but an interpretation. It is not an understanding of an external derivative, but the ability to produce a visual event. It is in the articulation of historical forces, language and visibility when a significant work of art is produced. In turn, this image is not linearly related to the meaning of a historical fact, but rather, establishes a poetic in the relationship between the image, its materiality and its process.

Some examples of this type of work are the Reconstruction of the portrait of Pablo Míguez by Claudia Fontes that condenses the horror of forced disappearances, especially with the case of a 14-year-old adolescent named Pablo who was abducted on the morning of May 12, 1977 by an operative group of the Argentine army that went to look for his mother and her partner, militants of the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP). Once they were all gathered in the clandestine detention center known as “El Vesubio,” in the Buenos Aires county of “La Matanza,” Pablo was transferred to the ESMA. Afterwards, his course was ignored. Nobody heard anything more about him. Pablo Míguez never appeared. To this day the Armed Forces must be accountable for an explanation.

Tomás Espina, June 26, 2002 or Los Fusilados (Homage to Goya), Gunpowder on canvas, 2002.

Another example is June 26, 2002, or Los Fusilados (Homage to Goya), by Tomás Espina that recovers, in an instant, one of the worst moments of the history of Argentine democracy: the savage police repression of a demonstration by piqueteros groups that concluded with 150 detainees, four seriously wounded with lead bullets, another 90 injured with rubber bullets, and with the assassination of Darío Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki at the Avellaneda railway station during the interim presidency of Eduardo Duhalde.

These works are the figurative condensation of an entire set of relationships between the aesthetics of materials, procedures and contextual elements that, like a kaleidoscope, produce new constellations of meaning. Images are not facts that exist by themselves, they are produced by artists who throw them into the sea as a message in the bottle that must be translated because each image is like a hieroglyph that must be interpreted. The image, as a constellation of meaning, can condense a “monad” that allows for the emergence of an object. The object needs to open itself in a monadological insistence that reveals the meaning of the story. The monad reveals the non-identity of the object, and the story expresses itself through its negative revelation. Images can disappear like dreams, or can be objectified to condense the singularity of a revealing historical event. This way, a memorable fact is constituted that articulates history with its anguish.

Syd Krochmalny is an artist and writer. He published “Journals of Hate” by n direcciones, “Weak” by Pánico el Pánico, and edited and introduced “Dreams” by Gino Germani in Idilio Magazine with photomontages by Grete Stern, Caja Negra, 2017. His recent exhibitions include Lo prometido es deuda at Centro Cultural de la Memoria Haroldo Conti, Museo de la Memoria y de los Derechos Humanos, Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 2019-February 2020; Proyecto Casamario at Subte, Montevideo Uruguay April-July 2019;  Hate in America curated by Alexandra Goldman, SENA Space, NYC; Arte Bebo, Gallery 50, New Jersey, August 2018; Assemblage #10 Engager le corps, Paris, February-March 2018;  Useless Landscapes, Gallery 50, New Jersey; Guiñadas Gráciles: Looking Out for the Queer in Latin American Video Art, organized by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard (October 23, 2017 to April 10, 2018) and curated by Joaquin Terrones, Preceptor in Expository Writing at the Harvard College Writing Program and Lecturer in Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies at MIT; VIA VIVA, Los Angeles, Curated by Alina Perkins, etc.

Pedro Zylbersztajn: brickwork at Americas Society

Above, L to R: Gabriela Rangel and Pedro Zylbersztajn at Americas Society.

This article was originally published in Arte Fuse.

I love to give a work of art the benefit of the doubt that I normally wouldn’t; when something seems so obscure that I can’t figure it out. It reminds me of my first post ever on Artifactoid, and my initial purpose for art writing: to break boundaries, expand thought, contribute to the active dialogue of the field, and hone taste and values upon which to better understand both art and humanity. I recently experienced a work of performance art at Americas Society that returned me to this original idea. The performance was brickwork (2017) by Pedro Zylbersztajn, a Brazilian artist who works with technology, sound, publishing, and other media. brickwork is defined as “a physical record of the process of re/construction of language.”

When I first arrived at Americas Society for the performance, I was handed a four-page pamphlet with sections of ambiguous poetic text printed in black ink on black pages. It was difficult both to visually read and comprehend.

I then walked to the room in which the performance was being held. The performance was unintelligible, like the pamphlet. It entailed the artist sitting at a desk in the center of a room. Viewers lined the surrounding walls, looking in. There was a record player placed upon the desk, and for about 15 minutes, the artist deejayed transparent, white records on it, playing the sound of words being spoken with extremely low sound quality, almost as if the voice being sounded aloud was under water.

Witnessing this was a perplexing and frustrating experience. The words sounded aloud on the records were the artist inaudibly vocalizing the illegible text written on the pamphlet.

Zylbersztajn continued to swap out one record disc for the next in silence, until all the text had been sounded aloud in scratchy, low quality. When he placed the final disc on the player, it played the first line that the audience could hear: “this will not be my last sentence,” over and over again, until it stopped. The performance had ended. My reaction was a hope that the Q & A to follow would provide a thorough explanation, because I didn’t know how to feel after witnessing it.

Thankfully the Q & A, led by Americas Society Chief Curator and Director of Visual Arts Gabriela Rangel, revealed many intricacies of Zylbersztajn’s brickwork and contextualized it within his body of work as a whole. Rangel shared that she discovered his work while conducting studio visits at the MIT Art, Culture and Technology program, from which Zylbersztajn commenced the following day.

brickwork has to do with the process of re/construction of language. For Zylbersztajn, this relates to his “interest in the perpetual shifts and slippages in the use of language, an object [he assumes] to be individually and socially constructed and reconstructed with every new utterance, which is where this metaphor of language as a permanent building site comes from.”  Words are like bricks, which can be both building blocks and political weapons. Zylbersztajn also notes that “the text references the Tower of Babel quite a lot, and this relationship of building, bricks, mortar, and language is very present in this story.”

Zylbersztajn’s idea of the black pamphlets printed with black ink as difficult to read, and his idea of the bad quality of the records as difficult to audibly process, were intentional choices. These step-by-step blockages of comprehension, via different media, each in relation to distinct senses, were part of a structured process created by the artist.

This structure (order, reception, method, execution) and texture (printing quality, recording quality) in each part of the performance were two of brickworks‘s core elements. Zylbersztajn noted that the Brazilian poet João Cabral de Mello Neto once said, “we’re people of much texture and little structure” (referring to Brazilians). It is interesting that this quote was a factor that inspired Zylbersztajn to create an equivocal artwork that isolates structure and texture.

Additionally, the audience’s discomfort, related to both the inability to read the text and the inability to hear the recorded sound well, is representative of the artist’s emphasis on the idea of opacity, another central element of the piece. Opacity has a tradition in poetry, and it is also a political concept. It was the element that created a tension in the performance. Zylbersztajn notes, “opacity, illegibility, and the borders/limits of language are very much in the center of this work and my practice in general.” Conceptually, brickwork confronts the importance of opacity in an age of transparency, in which we are all publishing our lives via data sharing. We are accustomed to living transparently in 2018, and brickwork demands another type of interaction.

An unexpected note that Rangel’s Q & A revealed was, that the final repetition of the last line of the text, “this will not be my last sentence,” was a much more profound choice for the artist than initially perceptible. This line was inspired by a poem that the artist read following 9/11 about the tragedy’s victims, by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, called “Photograph from September 11,” which ends with the stanza:

I can do only two things for them—

describe this flight
and not add a last line.

According to Zylbersztajn, “this sense of impossibility and futility in that statement, which is technically a paralipsis, was something I was thinking about when I wrote my own ‘not-last-line’ or ‘not-last-sentence.’”

The artist’s choice to study at MIT also had a specific influence on brickwork. The artist custom created the records using a laser cutting technique developed by fellow MIT student, Amanda Ghassaei. Zylbersztajn explains that “regular records are made by cutting the grooves onto a wax plate, in an analog process of translating the sound to movement. Zylbersztajn explains that “regular records are made by cutting the grooves onto a wax plate, in an analog process of translating the sound to movement. This plate is then used as a matrix to create vinyl copies that have the same grooves which can be ‘read’ by the player’s needle. The process that I used, which was developed by Ghassaei, converts digital audio into lines that simulate the movements of the analog grooves, and these lines are then laser etched into a surface. The needle reads it in the same way, but the material, the definition and the digital-analog conversion don’t allow for hi-fidelity, and there are some other interesting quirks, such as the fact I explored of the decaying sound quality in function of the radial dimension of the record.” Zylbersztajn decided to utilize Ghassaei’s records for this performance piece as the vehicle to play his own voice recording of the text in the pamphlet in an indecipherable and degenerative way. This comments on the materiality of the records, and presents them as objects that mediate communication. Also a professional publisher in Brazil for many years, Zylbersztajn is interested in abstract forms of publishing, and the giving and receiving of information through the manipulation of various media.

brickwork conveys Zylbersztajn as thinker, publisher, DJ, poet, and researcher. This performance piece comprehensively showcased the artist’s ability to create something unique and challenging. Regarding his future endeavors, Zylbersztajn also mentioned that he is particularly interested in the concept of “art as research” and “research as art,” which is emphasized in his MIT program.