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Nomads, phantoms and images
Nuno Cera by Nuno Crespo
“But where there is danger, grows / Also that which saves.”
I. The Nomads
“Pascal, in one of his gloomier pensées, gave it as his opinion that all our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room.
Why, he asked, must a man with sufficient to live on feel drawn to divert himself on long sea voyages? To go off in search of peppercorn? Or to go off to war and break skulls?
Later, on further reflection, having discovered the cause of our misfortunes, he wished to understand the reason for them, he found one very good reason: namely, the natural unhappiness of our weak mortal condition; so unhappy that when we gave to it all our attention, nothing could console us.
One thing alone could alleviate our despair, and that was ‘distraction’: yet this was the worst of our misfortunes, for in distraction we were prevented from thinking about ourselves and were gradually brought to ruin…
All the Great Teachers have preached that Man, originally, was a ‘wanderer in the scorching and barren wilderness of this world’.”
Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines, Vintage Classics, London, 1998
Nuno Cera’s work does not try to construct, and nor is it built on any kind of existential metaphor. Indeed, his work is inscribed more within a logic of urban construction than within a logic of prolonging life in art. His photographs and videos have existence as their condition, but they assume that the action of existing is related to a burying of the subject in the things that are out there, that exist and that happen. A non-existentialist existence in which it is the losing of oneself in things and paths that allows an encounter of the subject with himself and the discovery of the ingredients of which he is made. An inward gaze that stands as a moment of discovery of an infinite number of things: objects, people, colours, forms and landscapes. Cera’s work, which is neither modern nor romantic, is a fruit of experience of the urban condition, and above all of experience of the person who in the major cities – the realm of skyscrapers and sterile concrete high-rises – finds in the idea of life itself the most permanent and inescapable nostalgia. It is a private feeling: it is not a lament or the anticipation of a loss, but it is the stating, as Chatwin writes, of the “natural unhappiness of our poor mortal condition”.
This feeling of urban nostalgia is not seen as a condemnation or punishment, something that could be taken out of the body with great suffering. But it is an excess – architecturally, sentimentally and rhythmically – in that everything that is emerges as being of an outsize greatness. A greatness in relation to which the body feels crushed, and the feeling is not that of recovering past time – the ideal, imagined and desired Arcadia – but a feeling of terror. The experience is that of the confrontation and the permanent state of violence in which the subject feels that all his blood is being sucked out. And it is this loss of vitality, this loss of blood and of breath – for the ancient races God breathed a soul into humans through their nostrils – that Cera tries to transform into image, texture and movement. It is not that the urban and cosmopolitan city is the place for the experiencing of a new sort of sublime; the terror, horror and dizziness of this artist’s work are motivated by the increasing feeling of the lack of a solution: for art and for life. Nature itself, a supposedly inviolable, serene and tranquilising entity, is transformed into a place of trauma and devastation.
Flight from infelicity stands as an unstoppable, incessant and continuous movement. Cera’s Berlin – a Super 8 Movie is the best presenting of this movement: the landscape of the city is made up of the juxtaposing of many different images of it (about 4,200 photographs mounted at 24 images per second). The frenetic rhythm followed by the images shows a state of permanent flight and search for new spatial limits: it is that human incapacity to remain still in the same place. But if those people who in Berlin are always moving – immersed among the architecture, the cars and the other people – this means that they are always being transformed into something new: transformed into Nomads of the city, they morph into their own paths. The possible drawing that the body draws up in the space becomes the action of gazing within oneself and the experience of amazement at oneself. It is the confrontation between the self and the other – an experience of the alterity of which someone else’s face and the landscape are examples – that gives rise to the dichotomies that are felt in all of Nuno Cera’s work. The first of these is formal and has to do with the in no way pacific relationship between contemplative stillness and movement (photography versus video) and the second, from our point of view essential, is that which exists between human construction in opposition – to the lack of a better concept – to natural construction (architecture versus nature). If these oppositions are the base for Cera’s method – it is out of them that his way of seeing comes – the archaic element is located in the identification of the transitions and ruptures between the different terms of these relationships. Thus it is not so much a question of the establishing of oppositions, but rather of an essential polarity similar to that which exists between inspiration and expiration.
If permanent movement is a cause of unhappiness – and often of terror: The Lost Soul and Unité D’Habitacion – being stopped or still, as a moment of pacification of the forces of the state of unhappiness, is a consequence of the previous movement: the movement of life is always followed by the eternal stopping state of death. But Nuno Cera’s Nomads – who are all of us – are beings of metamorphosis, lords of the art of transformation, a radical art in which everything can be everything and everything can be turned into anything else. They are, above all, hunters of the signs that announce life: they search in living matter and dead matter, in the visible and the invisible. For this reason they are path-makers. Chatwin’s Nomads are desert beings, from scorching and sterile landscapes; Nuno Cera’s are mutants, living off the spatial alternation between the beatitude of the landscape and the traumatic experience of desolation (Dark Forces and the photographs Lost, Lost, Lost). But the human condition we have here tried to describe is that of always walking in a direction about which one only suspects the destination: the discomfort is originated at the moment of discovering that after traveling the Path there is no more than more Path to travel.
Beneath the sign of nostalgia, the paths to be travelled are multiple – hence the polyphony of Cera’s work – and it is because we are always losing and returning to the beginning that these images are vibrant. Their originating element is the expectation of redemption, and this, one knows, when it is possible, is so through the – incessant and continuous – repetition of the gestures, of being lost, of returning and never stopping: Cera takes photographs continually, he films endlessly, shot upon shot; unstoppable constructions of the field of vision, meticulous organisation of the cosmos (see the drawings). In his complete obsession not to let anything escape him and to record everything, the artist is the person who always moves from the outside to the inside and from the inside to the outside: in one stroke he constructs the universe outside and the fabric of its inner condition. For this reason the Nomad is a good image to speak about the artist, because it presents the possibility of the work itself being bicephalous: sensitive and abstract, universal and subjective, of the artist and of the world, being the one who treads the path and the Path itself. And the artist is that wanderer of Chatwin’s, with the difference that for him the world is not a scorching, sterile desert, but is the possibility of the existence of aesthetic constructions.
For Cera – like for some mystical thought – the desert is the possibility of vision and the supreme place of all dangers: we may reconcile ourselves or lose ourselves forever. A non-real desert (except for Being Anywhere), but a metaphorical and possible one. Speaking of the desert is a way of stating the desolation into which we seem always to be plunged. And the image that the artist thinks is the most fitting one for this desolation is that of architecture: deserted buildings, heirs to the souls that have forever been lost in the endless corridors of human constructions, houses that are stripped not to reveal their insides, but to be integrated within themselves and to devour the bodies of those who pass through them (Prora Complex).
Corresponding to the despair proper to the person who looks within himself and feels an enormous emptiness is the discovery that – unlike the expectations of Pascal and of Chatwin – there is nothing left to lose; that is, our mortal condition is such that it can deteriorate no further. Everything is lost from the outset and there is no possible distraction. The possible landscapes are those of the fires (Dark Forces), the houses are ruins, and man is par excellence a condemned being. The fact that life is a condemnation makes all of us wandering, lost souls, disembodied ghosts who desperately seek a body, a time and a place: to be born is to be condemned to life, to the sterile desert, and to the vale of tears. And redemption is a sort of remedy made up of images and words that attenuate the pains of those who, havinfg been transformed into the path to follow, can do no more than remember the long and enchanting travellings through the corridors of Nuno Cera’s architectural complexes (Corridors, The Prora Complex, Unité D’Habitation, among others).
II. The Ghosts
“In Islam, and especially among the Sufi Orders, siyahat or ‘errance’ – the action or rhythm of walking – was used as a technique for dissolving the attachments of the world and allowing men to lose themselves in God.
The aim of a dervish was to become a ‘dead man walking’: one whose body stays alive on earth yet whose soul is already in Heaven. A Sufi manual, the Kashf-al-Mahjub, says that, towards the end of his journey, the dervish becomes the Way not the wayfarer, i.e. a place over which something is passing, not a traveller following his own free will.” B. Chatwin, ibidem
Wandering or ranging in the darkness of searching, which in artistic terms means wandering in the forest , is one of the main lines of Nuno Cera’s work. And the forest is that place to which those who discover the terror of being alive go to and in which they wander. As the forest is a place of banishment , it to some extent complements the images of the desert and of the city. It is a possible place for the nomad: “in steps in the forest the human being discovers himself in the indivisible and indestructible substance” and, concludes Jünger, “this encounter drives away the fear of death” . And in this manner wandering forms a sort of exclusion of the meshes of the tranquilising and pacifying images: the field of vision becomes made up in a different way and that which one sees motivates fear and shuddering. It is an encounter with oneself that means the expulsion not only of the fear of death but also of the terror of the person who discovers he is alive. This discovery suspends judgement on the world and leaves the human being in a suspension: as if he were a tightrope walker trying to find the Archimedean point of balance and stability. The destruction of illusions – which is the discovery that the meaning is the path and not where it leads to – refers not only to man but to all sensitive objects and to factual reality. An awareness that locates the subject in the place of an immense darkness in which the horizon is infinite and the visual field has no bounds.
To wander, to walk and to range are thus the only possible actions, and they stand as a sort of category of artistic action or vocabularies relative to the attempt to understand the poietic action of forming images, recording movements and capturing textures. To fix a determined experience within an image – all photography is conceptual in the sense that it presents concepts – is the task imposed upon the artist. It is not a matter of intention or a desire to do. For Nuno Cera the works are always constructions because reality itself is a construction: layer upon layer, stone on stone, sign over sign. This is one of the reasons why his videos have become more dense and complex: from the simple experiments with the sensitivity of the camera and the movement of things to the type of cutting and editing, until the recent need of a script (Unité D’Habitacion). If in his first video works – Untitled (Snow) for example – it is the poetic, sensitive, delicate and nostalgic construction that is at play, in his latest works, both in video and in photography, he tries to go to the limit in the spectator’s sensitive capacities. Terror – in The Prora Complex, Unité D’Habitacion and, above all, The Lost Soul – found a sort of new language in order to deal with certain zones of human sensitivity that the artist wishes to explore.
It is important for one to pause here and clarify that the artist never really wants anything, at least not in the more usual sense in which someone wants or desires something. It is not a matter of establishing a thesis in which plastic construction always presides over a very strong factor of intention or an attempt at determining and ordering the world, its facts and objects. When there might be intention in art it has to be a second moment, a sort of element that is only understood after the painting, sculptures and photographs exist. Artistic objects – and Nuno Cera’s case is precisely this – are not theses about a certain type of problem: rather they are approximations, mediations, leaps and presentations. In this manner one avoids the construction of works whose internal logic results from pre-determined effects (one knows that the results of an art based on a logic of effect are a disaster). What artists want is not of the order of desire, but of need: a sort of imperative or aesthetic inevitability.
Coming back to Nuno Cera’s work, the multiple metamorphoses we may see always have to do with the demands that the real makes on the photographic and/or videographic object itself. The real – the multiple facts and objects – is recognized as something inevitable, and in this context the images appear as being motivated by a sort of attempt at manipulating the real: their form is that of a subtle manipulation of time – stopping it, accelerating it and calming it. Here there is no abstraction on the nature of time. What exists is an attempt at encounter with the different types of movement. For this reason Cera’s work has so many different velocities. In this context photography has an archaic role: it is the place for contemplation and forming of the gaze. Photography as a stopping allows perception of detail and the understanding of the world as all the elements – from the most significant to the most transparent and discreet – contribute towards the construction of that precise image: it is then that it becomes possible to realize that each photographic object corresponds to an experience, a time and a reality.
If each of Nuno Cera’s projects is associated to a series of photographs this is due to the need to safeguard the very images of the movement of the video (24 or 36 images per second). Because if on the one hand conquering movement means conquering another dimension of time, on the other hand it may imply a certain lack of attention to the image in favour of action, thread and event. This is an internal procedure that is a praising of the static, immobile and nameless element of human perception: the experiences follow on from one another at a great speed, but there is an element that resists and remains unaltered and untouched. Finding it means the conquest of a possible way of seeing and the transformation of the point of view.
The coexistence of video and photography in Cera’s case is not just a simple juxtaposition of elements, but a response to the specific needs of his work. In any of these cases the premise from which he starts is the awareness that the real cannot be denied and, as states Macbeth, “what is done, is done”. The ghosts appear when one tries to escape from the destiny that is here reality itself. Flight turns out to be a sort of intolerance in relation to finiteness and mortality. If we recall all the folk stories about ghosts we know that in the great majority they are souls which have not been able to acknowledge their own death, which refuse to accept the transformation of which they have become victims; that is, they reject the metamorphosis from living to dead that life condemns all of us to accept.
If the nomad is the person who endlessly walks because he can manage to identify the different ingredients of the real and presents no resistance to that which the different paths demand of him, the ghost id the one who vehemently denies that same reality and transformation. The horror and repulsion we may feel in some of Cera’s more recent works is an experiment with the limits of our tolerance of the world. As Clement Rosset states: “The real is only accepted in certain conditions and only up to a certain point: if the real abuses and seems unpleasant, tolerance is suspended. A stopping of perception places consciousness under the shelter of all and whatever unpleasant spectacle.” And it is in this unpleasant spectacle that Nuno Cera has been insisting in his work.
III. The Images
“The essence of the sensitive object is that of never being able to be repeated, meaning, never being able to be reconstituted in a different space or in another time. Indeed, this impossibility of repetition sums up the essence of the sensitive and stresses its finiteness at the same time.” Clément Rosset, ibidem
A possible path for Nuno Cera’s work may begin with his works in which it is the conditions of vision that are at the forefront. In the exhibition Fantasmas, the first piece is a video (Untitled [Iris with Tropicamida]) in which the artist’s eye is projected with a dimension of 2.25 m diameter: starting an exhibition like this means that the path through his works may be understood as entry to his own mechanisms of construction of the visible. And it is the representation of these mechanisms – real, possible and imaginary -- that Nuno Cera makes in many of his works. Also important in this sense are the photographs in which the camera – an indispensable and elementary tool for this artist – is the central element (Being Anywhere, DK, etc): juxtaposing the camera sets up the evident and inevitable metaphor of the gaze as a mechanism that can be adjusted and manipulated. But it is off these operations – sometimes mechanical and other times poetic – that lives the work of the demiurge of the images.
The vertigo is to believe that the reconstitution of the sensitive object is possible through the image: a dizziness that is revealed as an obsession through the coincidence between the photographic/videographic image and the real. Which is extended to all types of images. The situation in which we find ourselves is that of being continuously aware that between the image – always understood as a reflection of the sensitive object – and the real there is a permanent lack of adjustment. The images may possess correctness, but they never absolutely portray or replace the sensitive object. When we establish comparisons what happens is that we immediately realize there are many lacks of adjustment. Namely the immediate nature, which is so fitting to the empirical object, is annulled: the immediate experience is an experience of the present time and these images refer to a time that is not this one.
Cuttingly, and amplifying Barthes’s reading, “photography” (to which we may ass video and film, aware that one of the great differences resides in the strength and type of illusion that is greater in the latter in that they simulate movement) “is like a primitive theatre, like a living painting, the figuration of the still, painted face on which we see the dead.” This vision of the dead is the same as the view of all and any possible experience. If only the present and the immediate is alive – and we know that this is the case – then the art of images is in fact a way of characterising time as a time that endlessly runs towards death: the nomad becomes a living dead and the ghost finally disappears (Ultra Ruhr). The great illusion is that photography and video are always showing the dead as if they were alive, but if this characteristic is their crown of thorns, it is also their crowning glory: to make the absent present, to signify the invisible with the visible. A metamorphosis made possible, up to a certain point, given that everything can be turned into an image.
But in no way are Nuno Cera’s works about the possibility of the medium – photographic or videographic medium – but rather about the way that focusing and blurring are carried out when applied to life itself. His genius is that which, without granting it a name, attributing a concept or founding a theory, manages to construct landscapes fertile in contrasts and zones of sensitivity, in which, without using a single word, he says almost everything that has to be said.