Contributions

The symbolic use of objects by Veronica Cordova de la Rosa

                                                                 Before the destruction

This rose has been cut for me. It was in the garden alive with other roses, but it was given to me to make me happy and to make me feel alive. I am holding the glass with the three flowers inside. The one in the middle is the one I cannot stop smelling. It is already death, but still smells nice. It has some sort of aroma. This is such a gentle rose that even death it fights to be enjoyable. This rose fights to keep me alive even though it is death. The more I smell it the more I know it has gone forever and it will never come back. The artificial death rose is the most beautiful of all, it will always be beautiful, but I know it is not real. The rose on the left still keeps its shape. It has the same structure. It has not changed.

Introduction

In this essay I am going to describe and evaluate the symbolic use of objects for artistic actions. First of all, I will clarify the general understanding and my own understanding of the words: symbol, object and action. Secondly, I am going to quote some artwork in the history of western art where these concepts are present in relation to the notion of beauty. Finally, I will relate this concepts and western artworks to my own artistic practice.

Symbols, Objects and Actions

According to the ‘The Oxford English Dictionary’ a symbol is a mark or character used as a conventional representation of an object, function, or process, e.g. the letter standing for a chemical element or character in musical notation. It is a shape or sign used to represent something such as an organization, e.g. a red cross or a Star of David. And a thing that represents or stands for something else. Especially a material objects representing something abstract: the limousine was another symbol of his wealth and authority. For me, a symbol is a cultural constructed idea that is shaped into a volumetric or non-volumetric form. Thus people can visualize it. People learn to recognize symbols and the ideas behind them. Some communities may understand the ideas behind the symbols in different ways or identify them with new ideas.

There are different types of objects, but in this essay I will focus on the domestic ones and contemplative ones. The Oxford Dictionary describes objects as a material thing that can be seen and touched. For me a domestic object has a function and it is used in the homes and a contemplative object is a material thing that also can be seen but not always touched. The sculptures are contemplative objects that can be seen and not touched if these are placed in museums. They cannot be touched due to health and safety reasons or for conservation purposes. In contrast to these two first concepts, an action involves movement. An action can be a simple gesture or a complex activity. In contemporary art an action made by an artist is a common strategy to transmit an aesthetic experience. In my artistic practice use objects in actions to symbolise violence.

In my artistic practice I use different types of objects as images and domestic objects such as brooms and brushes. I alter their appearances and create an action with them. I alter the appearance of brooms or brushes by taking off the bristles and by replacing them for roses. Thus, I am not only changing the appearance of brooms and brushes, but also I am varying the use of flowers. In general, flowers are considered to be beautiful and some are cultivated in green houses. In my work, the use of flowers is not only related to a conception of beauty, but also to suffering and pain. As examples I am going to describe three paintings that have triggered my interest in the use of flowers in my artistic practice.

The first instance of flowers is found in the Pre- Raphaelite’s painting, Convent Thoughts[1] by Charles Alston Collins, in which we can see a nun holding a passionflower. Her body is covered with white clothes and we can only see her face and her hands holding a flower and a book of images. A well-designed garden with seasonal flowers and a beautiful pond surround her. This is a masterpiece that shows how well he has observed some flora specimens for long periods of time before painting them. The woman despite being all covered in a white dress, looks young. Being dressed as a nun suggests that she had probably decided to devote her live to Jesus Christ. Her contemplative posture contrasts with the image of the Crucifixion of Christ. From my point of view, the flowers are symbols of freshness and purity. Although we can observe that the nun’s body is there, we do not know what she is thinking of. On one hand, the accumulation of flowers and the extreme detail in portraying them astonish us, but on the other hand, her body position sets the limits of her privacy. What we see in her is not her beauty, but her silence.

Another case of the use of flowers is seen in Gentle Spring by Frederick Sandys[2]another beautiful painting[3]where a young woman is surrounded by nature. Trees and flowers are blossoming around her. Colourful flowers are by her feet. The freshness of her body is highlighted by her surroundings. Both images are about springtime and open spaces. After all, these masters of paintings express both flower’s and young women’s freshness. The painting, ‘The Deposition’ by Anthony Van Dick[4]is highly appealing to my art practice too. In this painting there is a crown of thorns, a hammer and pliers by Jesus Christ’s feet. Jesus is a young body with traces that shows he has being tortured and has been killed with those tools and all that it was left is a young body without life. The colour of the blood is very bright and the scene is very dramatic. During this time, the author may have faced some criticism to his work because of the brutality of the scene and the depiction of the tools of torture. Artworks such as these paintings illustrate how the use of objects have been depicted to convey certain ideas like beauty or pain and how in reality people have used them for different means and also for transforming them into something different.  The thorns in this painting were used to make a crown that was used to torture a body. The painting has been created to talk about an atrocity, but also it was conceived as a contemplative object.

Artistic Practice The making of images into objects. 

As a fine artist, I sketch very often, and the making of objects happens during or after a previous reflection upon an action.  I started performing a simple action with my hands and roses and I used the photocopy machine to record my actions. The machine witnesses what I am doing with the flowers. The flowers are not longer alive, but they still look fresh. I touch them, and as if I were testing my own strength in front of these fragile objects, I play with them until I start separating them into pieces by hand or with a knife. In my artistic work, the flowers symbolize women who have perished under extremely violent conditions during the drug war in Mexico.

I also have a series of drawings in which I draw roses coming out of my fingertips and photo collages in which the images of my fingers are cut into pieces. When I did these drawings I imagined and sensed to have these spines coming out of my fingertips.

I just wanted to have this spines growing out of the fingertips. A human body part coming into something different, it may be something gross, like those sensations when you think you are growing an extra nail, it is something very uncanny that is growing up in you and you do not know why it is happening. Parallel to this action process, I also engaged with free writing: ‘time is passing by and I can feel it in my hands. I can feel there is little I can do, but I am feeling the sensation in my hands that something is growing up. I only have some tools to convey this feeling that is unknown in its environment. It may only recognize himself inside himself.

I do not even know if categorizing this unknown force into masculine or into feminine. It must be masculine because it cannot resist being unknown. Something is coming through the body through the skin, layers of forces repressed in the skin that limit my body from the outside.’ These series of work took me to the next written reflection: in order to manipulate any object, the firs organs you use are your hands. The hands can touch any object and that object can convert immediately into something violent, even if it was not designed with the purpose of inflicting pain into someone else. As result of this process, I thought my hands could be organs of consciousness.

The repetition of an action, using a photocopy machine to register it in a visual form, and the further process of deleting them have been a primary fundamental process that gently led me to the idea of cleaning an image. As I mentioned before, I use different types of flowers and mainly roses in my actions.

In Indian Mughal Paintings, peacock feathers brushes are depicted; usually they are used to clean the floors, these brushes are used as brooms. I choose to work with roses and collocate them upside down and start sweeping images with them. I used a set of images and started sweeping the images with the roses. But a series of questions were crucial before doing this action. What image needed to be cleaned? How can an image be cleaned? The actions I do are sweeping images, all different types of images, including images from the Internet.

The process of selecting images from Internet and using them as objects is quite problematic due to the characteristics of the images and where they come from. I have taken screenshots from a ‘you tube’ video about an execution that was recorded and posted supposedly by the drug cartels from Mexico. These images are understood as archives and as objects, even though they are dimensional. I did not see the video, but I saw the first image of the video because a social network Facebook user posted the link to this video. There was no time to watch it, because there was no warning or censuring of the images.

It is relevant to comment on this phenomenon because it shows how the creators have no control of what type of visual material is being uploaded in the social network. The BBC has recently informed that a video of the decapitation of a woman in Mexico posted in Facebook was reported, and the social network had to download it after several requests.[5]

These types of videos are not rare or invented in Mexico by drug dealers. This is a well-known war strategy to disseminate fear in the population through the Internet, the fastest way to communicate worldwide. This kind of event has been denounced by journalists such as Jon Lee Anderson from the New Yorker, in one of his articles he states that this type of filming and dissemination of war atrocities were for the first time used by the terrorist group Al Qaeda.[6] I took a photo screen and printed the image in black and white. In a desperate moment I photocopied the image several times and deleted it by photocopying the photocopied image several times until the machine captured no images to be reproduced. The image degrades momentum to momentum. These series of videos use a language that summarizes information, codes of vulnerability and destruction. It traps a world that cannot be revealed in this reality because there is a screen that separates that violent world and the world of the observers. The photocopies I work with are the repetition and degrading of images, it is an echo of a drug war that degrades society. Walter Benjamin says: ‘Art is the apparition of something distant, however close it may be.’[7] I quote Benjamin because in my artistic work the reality of the victims of this war drug is distant and even the images of their bodies appear in the paper, it is not real. When I printed the image in black and white I created a new object, an image of visible forms, humans about to be killed. The image is a moment that captures them in a vulnerable body position just before being tortured and executed. I relate to the bodies because their bodies look like mine. The people to be executed are all young women. The absence of their corporality is replaced with the volume of my body. In the paper there are only spots of charcoal imprinted by the light of the machine, as in lithography or as in an etching. But in my mind my body is there because I recognize myself with the shapes printed there. In just a moment, when I see the image, I can imagine what has happened, what is happening and what will happen to the women’s bodies. Their experience transfers to my body’s memory just by recognising my body structure in theirs.  Unavoidably, I raise the questions: Does the time of contemplation prompt my imagination with a morbid anticipation of my own death under the same circumstances? They are unknown people, I personally have never met them, but still I can feel empathy and affection for them. They, the real people who died, cannot produce speeches from beyond death, then I who is the one observing the image can talk about them, I as them can produce speeches or some sort of language from my experience of survival, I am the one who is one of the survivors of that war. The ones that can talk about an experience, but not the death experience, but a life experience is ‘I’.
‘The paradox of presence extends to language here, for the nominated speaker (‘I’ ego is absent, unable to speak from beyond death, but is rather, articulating death in advance or having someone else speak in his name. Because since it will be dead, because therefore no longer a subject, since death is an experience that cannot produce speech, the subject can only anticipate a future in which all its subjectivity is bound up in proleptic statements concerning its ability to communicate.’)[8]  The making of objects into images. After watching videos that have been censored somehow in you tube about people being tortured, I decided to do something to stop the introjection that the image caused in me. As a feeling of messiness, I decided to clean my body with the brushes and the image with a broom. The act of cleaning involves movement. Strength and concentration cause you to need to hold the broom or the object you are cleaning with and then to search for spots. But there are no dirty materials either in my body or in the images. I create an image on an image; I create an image of me sweeping an image. I cover the primary image with myself, as an attempt to stop the complex process of introjection that these images can instigate. I have presented these actions in artistic spaces as galleries or pop up-galleries and recorded these images in videos. The act of sweeping is a symbolic act to clean the memories of extreme violence perpetrated in women’s bodies by drug dealers. I am a survivor of the drug war happening in my country back in Mexico that is giving testimony of what I have seen and what has been transmitted to me through the open Internet media. I appear in the arena to perform the obliteration of the introjection of these images. I appear with my body in people’s imaginary as other women have appeared in my imaginary too. At this point I am not looking for the dissemination of terror but its obliteration. I sweep the images with the broom with flowers; sometimes the flowers are fresh and are red roses, other times the flowers are dry roses. The image I sweep is the one taken from the drug dealers’ video. The red roses are beautiful and fresh as the beautiful an fresh women from the Pre-Raphaelites paintings, or as beautiful as the red blood that is dripping from Jesus Christ’s rib in Van Dick’s painting ‘The Deposition’. Beautiful are the red roses in front of my eyes and repulsive is the image enlarged of the women execution.  When these two objects are in contact, when the roses touch the image, when I create the image of these two objects together, the result is a morbid use of the red roses seen as objects of contemplation being destroyed against the image of anonymous people kneeling on their knees waiting to be executed in front of the camera. People in the context of the city of Oxford, do not know where this image comes from or who are these people or why they are in that position, why murderers have their faces covered and why the victims bodies are naked. But people in Oxford can recognize a broom and the flowers.

People know of the beauty of red roses and its symbolism in western culture. Red can be related to the colour of blood and a broom to the act of cleaning. Thus, the act can be an act of cleaning an image from the dirtiness of looking at the image, a self-inflicted punishment to the act of seeing or to the act of living. If I am the survivor who is talking about the experience of survival I am destroying the possibility of creating valuable visual resources of this current human tragedy. After cleaning I destroy the objects I had made. Yet, after I perform an act of cleaning and destruction I carefully recycle what is left after the act. I pick up all the thorns and pieces of the crashed roses and smashed broom. I write about the roses. I write about them before and after their destruction. I do these actions in galleries or pop up artistic spaces. If we take the roses as symbols of freshness and beauty I will be playing the roll of the murderer in this act of destruction. This act is an artistic action that brings and experiences aesthetics and a concept all-together in an artistic space as an art institution or a public gallery. I use elements of composition as color, contrast and juxtaposition. The result is an aesthetic experience for the audience. But it is problematic because it can also be as an illustration or a repetition of an act if not put in the art context of a gallery space. This act is a symbolic act of destruction and it is fictional. It shares some characteristics with a ritual because it has a certain visual structure, but it is not religious or intended to be narrative.

My performances can be seen as fictional representations of torture as ‘Kaftka’s ‘In the penal colony’ where the lethal apparatus is an enlarged and elaborated sewing machine, it records the fact that the unmaking of civilization immediately requires a return to a mutilation of the domestic, the ground of all making. This world unmaking, this uncreating of the creating world, which is an external objectification of the psychic experience of the person in pain, becomes itself the cause of the pain.’[12] 

This last paragraph read in the book ‘The body in pain’ might make me reflect upon the introjection that these videos of torture filmed by drug dealers can cause in people’s psyche. According to the Oxford dictionary an introjection is the unconscious adoption of ideas or attitudes of others. In my artistic practice one of the intentions is to think beyond the symbolic acts of destruction. My artistic actions could be making visible the introjection of the anticipation of the experience of the women’s pain during the executions. The roses may be the only pure beautiful objects that can be in touch with these painful images. This could be also taken as an artistic poetic act of human contact between survivors and as a visceral work that try to make sense of the unmaking of civilization that is happening in rooms, sceneries, spaces, outside the artistic civilized spaces of the first world; for example, in the City of Oxford. As an overall process, I am also working towards the audience’s impossibility of awareness of other people’s lives including my own.

After the destruction 

Some roses are bent. They did not stop moving. When the rose is already bent,
there is no beauty in it because it is broken and it is rotten.
   Footnotes   

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