Aurora García

Image, time, thought: José Damasceno

In a time like the present, dominated by the vertiginous super-production of images in consonance with the frenzied rhythm of electromagnetic waves that are swamping the planet, today’s art is still capable of producing images that offer resistance to the chaotic systems for representing our globalised society. This is, however, not an easy task and few examples go against the prevailing current, in this way distinguishing themselves from images directed towards immediate consumption or towards the manipulation of information. Indeed, the continuous flood of images that we receive from all sides provokes a kind of numbness that inhibits both the exercise of reflection and the type of representation that, in other moments of history, saw the world as an enigma. The Earth has become smaller today and it would appear that enigma has disappeared or, at least faded away in the midst of a blinding clarity that, paradoxically, has led to the greatest darkness of all.

            Conceived in the urgent context of the communication of information, a good part of the images that circulate around our globalised society are considered to be a direct reflection of the universe of things. However, the correspondences that they establish with their real-life surroundings are flatter, less truthful and they therefore decrease the complexity of what is real through their calculated perspective and quest for immediate effects. Reality nowadays, as it is frequently transmitted to us, is losing the tension of the energy that exists beyond what is evident and comfortably obtainable, preferring to be situated in the field of literalness, of easy-reading. Reality is presented to us as being more and more dispersed, and more diluted as far as the richness of its true condition is concerned. The complex imaginary, however, requires more than a passing gaze and calls for the capacity to establish relationships that highlight the invisible framework holding together everything that defines our existence, including both the familiar and the unknown.

            These issues, which have an impact on the climate in which artistic production is developed, can be applied to a consideration of José Damasceno’s work. His art offers a good example of how to approach the futility of so many visual representations that limit the possibilities between what is real and what is imaginary. Damasceno belongs to that class of creators who conceive their work as a means to explore the unknown, the enigma that things enclose. He is interested in following what is partial until he reaches what is general, where everything becomes connected; in widening one’s gaze beyond habits that do not enrich our perception; in drawing out new possibilities from what the object of knowledge can offer. In this way he goes beyond the paths of conventional perceptive logic in order to produce a poetic art that combines thought and imagination together with freedom. His pursuit is the widening of not only the sensorial sphere, but also of the scope where ideas and concepts are developed.

            In his work, Damasceno continuously inquires into the nature of the materials and objects that he uses. He questions the correspondences and divergences that can exist between them, giving way to unusual representations and images that are characterised by their dynamic transmission of an energy capable of irradiating itself to the observant spectator, who is required to demonstrate a receptive attitude both in the mental as well as in the sensorial sphere. As Goethe rightly stated in his Maxims and Reflections ‘The Beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of nature, which, without its presence, would never have been revealed.’[1] Damasceno is not seduced by those types of obvious images, so frequent in today’s art scene, that glide along as fragments of a whole that is impossible to put together because the idea form which they stem never aimed to establish relations with the context that gave them their reason to be. In his work as a sculptor, he uses the multiple objects that make up these relations in order to put them into contact with one another, physically and conceptually, appealing in this way to the notion of unity from diversity, where everything ends up embedded together and where enigma plays an important role. For while Damasceno’s work pursues meaning, at the same time it is aware of being surrounded by a wide realm of shadows that resist interpretation. As Jung said:

 

When you come to think about it, nothing has any meaning, for when there was nobody to think, there was nobody to interpret what happened. Interpretations are only for those who don’t understand; it is only the things we don’t understand that have any meaning. Man woke up in a world he did not understand, and that is why he tries to interpret it.[2]

 

And in that pursuit for meaning, Damasceno is open both to random discovery and to what contemplation reveals to him. It is not unusual for the governing idea of his work, always open, to take shape little by little as a result of a discovery of a concrete object that incites ownership without him being aware of the threads of sense that it will generate in the work. Damasceno does not hurry; he knows that the working process can be slow and, for that reason, he does not wage a battle against time that would disrupt the result of his work. His aim is to build an image, looking for that sense of meaning that is always in permanent flight, or to hear – and even extend – the echoes of an object or drawing.

            Beyond the mere visual quality of immediate consumption that we often find in contemporary art, Damasceno emphasises the need for a slower approach towards the artistic object, since for him, perception, as Rudolf Arnheim stated, is a phenomenon closely linked to cognition. As the German philosopher wrote: ‘There is basically no difference between what happens when a person looks at the world directly and what happens when he/she closes his/her eyes to think.’[3]  This is also the case when contemplating a true work of art. It is not possible to establish a dissociation in the spectator between the exercise of the senses – the sensorial sphere – and the activity of thought – the mental or intellectual sphere – however frequently the perceptive faculty is interrupted in this accelerated world, however aborted its numerous possibilities of widening our comprehension. To perceive things in an adequate way requires, therefore, composure and attention in a cognitive process incompatible with a passive attitude and with the distracting interferences of every kind that exist in our society of advanced technology.

            Let us look at one of Damasceno’s latest works, which he calls Sobre o Objeto de 8º Grau (On the Object of 8th Degree, 2014) in reference to ‘La imagen de séptimo grado’ (The Image of the Seventh Degree), a short text by the Argentinian author Macedonio Fernández, whose attitude of awe towards certain phenomena and his efforts to interpret them captivated Jorge Luis Borges. In his text, Fernández describes the journey of an image of a woman’s face through seven different reflections, bouncing off diverse points in space and time, adopting certain variations in its erratic course, but remaining, in the end, intact and recognisable. The mirror plays an essential role in this process, as it does in Damasceno’s work, which comprises a number of shiny objects and a looking glass, all made from obsidian. For him, it all began in a Pre-Colombian site, Guachimontones, near the Mexican city of Guadalajara. During a visit there in 2011, he came across an artisanal object that caught his attention, an owl made of obsidian, a kind of volcanic glass used in the area centuries ago to produce cutting weapons, as well as mirrors, due to its reflective capacity. One of those mirrors, dating from before the Spanish conquest, can be found today in the British Museum. In the sixteenth century, it belonged to John Dee, a mathematician and astrologer, as well as a follower of occultism, who used the mirror for scrying. In the Aztec culture the obsidian mirror, like its name, was associated with Tezcatlipoca, a powerful god to whom rituals were offered.

It is important to underline these aspects in order to show Damasceno’s physical and imaginary journey through both geography and time from his first encounter with an obsidian object. After this encounter, he set out to develop something in line with the idea that he had already put forward in his Estudios paragráficos (Paragraphical Studies), an extensive exhibition that took place at Distrito 4 in Madrid, 2010. However, he did not hurry to carry out his project, which had to mature at its own pace. On another trip to Guadalajara he found a pencil made of obsidian in a shop, and later other objects that he would assemble together to make an ambiguous representation where chance combines with the order dictated by geometry, and starting from what is partial and fragmented, attempts to reassemble the notion of a lost whole. The stimulus for slowly putting together the fragments was his encounter with a child in the street selling pieces of a traditional puzzle made of three-dimensional geometrical pieces that formed a cube, laid out on a newspaper on the floor. That moment of ‘epiphany’ could not have been very different from the one experienced by Giorgio de Chirico – to cite an artist to whom Damasceno has referred – in regard to his ‘Piazza d’Italia’ series: his sense that when, sitting in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, he ‘was looking at these things for the first time’. The difference, is however, that while de Chirico focused on the inexplicable, the strange and the enigmatic, Damasceno does not rule out the use of logic and meaning, but combines them with imagination and intuition. The great Italian painter was attracted by the mystery of everything that existed, submerging inside it and joining together all the moments of time by appealing to memory. ‘Sometimes I go on a journey to the depths of the dark night of time and of castes. In this way I attend the celebrations for the return of the prodigal son’, he claimed.[4] If Damasceno were to embark on such a journey, it would probably be in order to try and put into motion a Dionysian experience based on a high degree of enchantment.

            Sobre o Objeto de 8º Grau affects the existing flow between what is visible and what is not. What is visible has two complementary parts here. Or rather three, if we are to include the mirror hanging on the wall. All the objects that form it are made, at the request of the artist, in obsidian and on a scale specified by him. On the floor various objects are situated on two wide felt cloths, placed a short distance away from each other. These objects come from those encounters with obsidian whilst travelling mentioned above. Arranged on the first felt pad are three-dimensional forms of a varied nature whose meaningful relationship is difficult to establish, especially if one is not familiar with the thread of the story that brought Damasceno to this point. On the other pad the pieces of a puzzle are spread out, on a similar scale, as a free interpretation of that plastic puzzle sold by the child on a street in Mexico. The puzzle is grouped into eight pieces – in line with the title of the work – each made from three parts. Clearly, he had felt a necessity to provide a channel for these diverse obsidian objects, which began to appear progressively over time; a path where thought resorts to geometric order, suggested here by the pieces of a puzzle that hint at the possibility of construction, of reaching a unity from diversity that does not come free of charge. In this sense, we should not overlook the artist’s studies of architecture. On the other hand, in the modern tradition of European philosophy, we might think of Nietzche’s comment: ‘I notice that all landscapes which please me permanently have a simple geometrical scheme of lines underneath all their complexity. Without such a mathematical substratum no scenery becomes artistically pleasing. Perhaps this rule may be applied symbolically to human beings.’[5]

Sobre o Objeto de 8º Grau pursues a temporary – and spatial – unit, where present, past and future would, according to Maurice Blanchot, be one, ‘if it were not, precisely, because the unit, by falling apart, has also modified these distinctions surrendering them to the most concise difference’.[6] Despite the decline of the unitary in today’s dispersed atmosphere, the artwork in question ends up merging the past – which guides us through its history and memory – with the present, in order to search for the meaning of both, which also implies setting the foundations for the future. And all of this from a piece of craftwork found by chance, a small object that for many would seem unimportant. However, the plural and undefined image that Damasceno constructs here points towards a conceptual unit as part of a journey where what is most important is what is suggested and implied. The enigma cannot be ignored; it remains there, occupying a prominent place in the semantic field. ‘Instead of looking for absolute transparency, it is necessary to ask about the positive aspects whilst travelling through the labyrinthine pathways of experience and thought’,[7] Mario Perniola has stated, as well as emphasising that the essence of reality also remains enigmatic. For this reason, art that focuses on the enigma is closer to the density of what is real than that which installs itself comfortably in a deceitfully superficial vision.

            It is necessary here to mention some of the sources of Brazilian art that have left their mark on Damasceno, and which have already been considered in other reviews of his work. These include Hélio Oiticica, one of the protagonists of the milestone exhibition Nova Objetividades brasileira, which was held in 1967 at the Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro and whose legacy can still be seen in many of the artistic approaches being carried out in Brazil. His Metaesquemas, irregular grids of squares and rectangles against a pale ground, which he began to develop in 1957 when he was barely twenty years old, direct us in a certain way to Damasceno’s Organogramas. However, Damasceno often goes beyond the two-dimensional aspect of these works – an aspect that Oiticica himself would soon leave behind – in order to include them as objects in installations. With reference to his Metaesquemas, Oiticica said in 1968: ‘I consider this work important today, for me and in that time, it was disturbing because of the sense of “structural dissolution” beyond the merely pictorial space.’[8] In line with this, the free-association transformation of regular structures in space and time was to become a leitmotiv in Damasceno’s work as a whole. Furthermore, he has inherited another legacy from the Neoconcrete artists of the 1960s: their effort to bring art closer to life, to history and science, without abandoning the personal poetics that had broken away from the Constructivist tendency. This allowed their ideas to become more human, breathing and expanding, but without dissolving into mere chaos.

            Regardless of his natural links to the cultural context of his country, Damasceno, in his broad view and formative concerns, goes beyond borders and periods. At times, his work could appear to be somewhat connected to the legacy of the Austrian philosopher and architect Rudolf Steiner and his anthroposophy, especially his understanding of geometry as a reflection of the order of thought and as a transmitter of an energy that has the capacity to affect what is material. Damasceno is also interested in the subject of hermetic thought, which had a strong presence in the writings of the philosopher.

This returns us to Sobre o Objeto de 8º Grau, which makes reference to the occult and the arcane, a wide tradition that has often demonstrated throughout history its compatibility with science. Emphasising this idea of the enigma in this work is the presence of the obsidian mirror, an instrument used in Aztec rituals. That shining black point on the wall of the gallery is surrounded on all levels by an enigmatic aura: from the material itself, which has been transformed in its hasty cooling off from the heart of the volcano, to the variety of other obsidian objects displayed with it. All of these, with the exception of the completed pieces of the puzzle, appear as loose fragments that belong to a utopian totality, impossible to reconstruct, that can only be expressed through the poetics of art. We are talking in symbolic terms here, because it is within this scope that Damasceno’s work is situated. The plural image rebounding through time and space is in line with Fernández’s description. However, it does not display clear features, even if it might possess them, serving instead as a metaphor for Damasceno’s structured mental exercise, his geometry of the puzzle. His image is made out of a patchwork of diverse remnants and is capable of recalling stories already broken down, whose resonance can still be felt today, since, as the artist puts it, ‘an image is a resonance that emerges in the convergence of many instances in which our spirit and vision construct spaces’.[9] It is an image where what is visible points towards the invisible, and that which is present points towards what is absent in a dynamics that flees from the fixed and determined.

What is important here is that both the mind and the senses are active whilst entering the territory of the unfathomable, or one bordering on what can be understood as fiction. As Borges stated: ‘it is necessary that a writer who writes a fable – however fantastic it may be – believes, for the time being, in the reality of the fable’.[10] Thought can be sparked by fiction, a sort of second-class, non-conditioned reality. However, in order for that flame to be ignited, it is necessary for the author to enact it both in his mind and in his flesh, as Damasceno does in his work. No image can be valuable without imagination and, speaking specifically of the image in art, it is essential to reveal with it part of its soul, in the encrypted figures of reality.[ML1]  This is precisely the aim of works like Errante (2010), installed in Distrito 4, Madrid as part of the collection entitled Estudios paragráficos. Coming before Sobre o Objeto de 8º Grau, this piece, comprising two bronze figures – a jockey on a racehorse and a dog – acquired on separate occasions in second-hand shops, is surprising because of the tension and enigma that it creates inside the space, making use of an economy of resources. These small old-fashioned sculptures by anonymous authors that serve here to construct a new image, have had to wait in order to be placed for the first time inside an unexpected context: attached, that is, to the otherwise uninhabited space of a white wall, where the artist has painted a fine, barely noticeable grey circle of large dimensions, interrupted by the corners of the room. Despite the coherence achieved by the visual dialogue between the rider of the horse, who is looking backwards, and the seated dog, which seems to be looking up at him, this piece also suggests a fable without an ending because of its lack of distinction. Its vertical, ascending position points towards an empty area barely distinguishable from the broken geometry of the circle, which suggests expansion in all senses, including that related to the concept that it actively pursues. What at first appear to be familiar objects are used here to provide ‘food for thought’, challenging our immediate conviction that what we see is simply what we see. What Damasceno is stressing here, as in other works, is that reality entails many other possible realities within its innumerable layers. ‘I am especially interested in thinking about the nature of the relation between things without anything a priori superimposing itself between them and invalidating them’, he has asserted.[11]

            The use of pre-existing objects in Damasceno’s works has frequently been remarked upon, objects that he fills with new life and new relationships and which open up many other semantic possibilities. He composes images from other preselected ones, which he diverts from their previous course in order to introduce them into new metaphorical contexts that, on occasion, can entail a certain dose of irony. Take the case of Integrated Circuit (2010), made up of a real snooker table and twenty-two semiprecious stones, which form spheres of different sizes and colours. Here, the logic of this game of precision has been broken due to the modification of the size, weight and material of the balls. The wooden table lined with green felt becomes a space of illusory connotations that stem from the variety of dimensions and material qualities of the sphere, an elementary geometrical figure filled with symbolism. The choice of semiprecious stones, also used in other works by the sculptor, is meaningful in a country like Brazil, where sites containing these minerals abound. The qualities and colour of these polished spheres originate from the bowels of the earth. Goethe had an interest in precious stones, and there were also experts in mineralogy amongst the German Romantic artists, like Carl Gustav Carus, a friend of the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt and a man of wide scientific knowledge, who would assert that in order to paint the external aspect of a mountain properly, it was important to know its internal composition. Bridging the gap between these examples and Damasceno’s concerns is the fact that his choice of materials is not fortuitous. The energy and beauty of these stones, together with the enigma that surrounds them, stemming from their long period of formation and the metamorphosis that they have undergone to become what they are, make them very much alive. And they are testimony to the numerous processes that take place in nature; a nature that has been assaulted in part by the exploitative thirst of many prevailing economic interests. The impossible billiards of Integrated Circuit becomes an image that has substituted utility for a sort of landscape of mental repercussion, or imaginary nature, articulated in the embers of a fire that originated in the idea behind the work. In the words of Georges Didi-Huberman, the image ‘is an imprint, a residue, a visual trace of the time that it wanted to touch, but also of other supplementary times – fatally anachronistic, heterogeneous between themselves – that cannot, as art of the memory, not be agglutinated. It is like ash mixed from several braziers, more or less hot.’[12]

            Not only does Damasceno create three-dimensional images by means of objects either made first hand or found, he also, and especially in his Organogramas, uses language, words that alternate, that are repeated and that cross over in a relentless flow. Along these lines, it is worth mentioning the special Organograma that, in 2008, was installed in the old façade of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, in Madrid. A work of temporary – and spatial – memory, it was executed in red lights situated inside numerous boxes that were placed in the windows of the building and which were computer-programmed to turn themselves off and on. The lights spelled out the three words ayer, hoy, mañana (yesterday, today, tomorrow) – constants in the works of the artist. Nightfall increased the visibility of the installation, in the same way as it enhanced the neon sign of the neighbouring Hotel Mediodía. But the lights turned themselves on and off randomly, without faithfully following any particular timing. This whimsical and disconcerting flow addresses the concept of time, which from the sphere of the unconscious and of poetic vision often appears in this disrupted way. For Fernando Pessoa, time is nothing but a lie:

 

I don’t know what time is. I don’t know what, if any, is the truest way of measuring it. I know that the way the clock measures time is false: it divides time spatially, from the outside. I know that the time kept by the emotions is false too: they divide not time but the sensation of time. The time of dreams is also wrong; in dreams we brush past time, sometimes slowly, sometimes fast, and what we experience is either fast or slow according to some peculiarity in the way it flows, the nature of which I do not understand.[13]

 

Time can be understood above all as a conventional measurement that situates us in history at the same time as regulating our lives and our acts, a measurement that becomes more and more altered, more and more dislocated, inside the accelerated space, full of interferences, that we inhabit. If, as Marc Augé stated ‘supermodernity produces non-places, meaning spaces which are not themselves anthropological places’,[14] it is because it is becoming more and more difficult for citizens of such places to establish roots, to belong; where everything is depersonalised, provisional and fleeting, time remains in close union with space. Beyond the subjectivity of the poetic perception that questions temporal measurement, other forms exist, both real and objective, with which to approach the great Organograma, a testimony to the chaos that unfolds around us.   

            We have brought to light some examples of the artist’s work from over the last few years, whilst being aware that there are many others that have not been mentioned, including pieces carried out in two or three dimensions, between which it would also be possible to establish relevant relations, since Damasceno’s work is like a continuous thread that forms one coordinated fabric. The underpinning idea behind the whole is to expand the names of things and of spaces, their capacity to generate thought, even if that means going beyond the conventional view. Damasceno’s approach is a valid way of departing from literalness or from semantically limiting and self-serving deviations, like those of so many images of our time, as well as creating multiple meanings that point towards what we see and, by extension, that which we cannot.

Translated by Lorraine Kerslake

Notes

[1] Goethe ref?

[2] CG Jung, Arquetipos e inconsciente colectivo, Paidós, Barcelona, 2003, p. 38. (The English version comes from The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious, ed. Gerhard Adler and trans. RFC Hull, Princeton University Press, 1980, p. 31).

[3] Rudolf Arnheim, El pensamiento visual (Visual Thinking), EUDEBA, Buenos Aires, 1985, p. 13.

[4] Giorgio de Chirico, De Chirico par de Chirico, Jacques Damase ed., Paris, 1978, p. 40.

[5] Maurice Blanchot, El paso (no) más allá, Paidós, Barcelona, 1994, p. 45.

[6] Mario Perniola, Enigmas. Egipcio, barroco y neobarroco en la sociedad y en el arte, Cendeac, Murcia, 2005, p. 19.

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, El viajero y su sombra, (The Wanderer and His Shadow) EDAF, Madrid, 1985, p.199. (The English version comes from Human: All Too Human Parts One and Two, Dover Philosophical Classics, 2006, p. 401).

[8] In Hélio Oiticica, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, 1992, p. 30.

[9] José Damasceno, Tópicos Topo-Ópticos, Seminários Internacionais Museu Vale 2009, Vitória, Brazil.

[10] Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari, En diálogo/ I, Siglo XXI, Mexico, 2005, p. 40.

[11] See Soledad Liaño and Rafael García, ‘Conversaciones con José Damasceno’, in José Damasceno. Coordenadas y Apariciones, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2008, p. 49.

[12] Georges Didi-Huberman, ‘Cuando las imágenes tocan lo real’, in  G. Didi-Huberman, C. Chéroux and J. Arnaldo, Cuando las imágenes tocan lo real, Círculo de Bellas Artes, Madrid, 2013, p. 35.

[13] Fernando Pessoa, Libro del desasosiego, Seix Barral, Barcelona, 1984, p. 390. (The English version comes from The Book of Disquiet, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2010, p. 225).

[14] Marc Augé, Non-places. Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, Verso, London, 1995, p. 78.