The triumph of art is to remember, even when erasing

Imbéciles, je vous pardonne; mais ressouvenez-vous que sans les sens il n’y a point de mémoire,

et que sans la mémoire il n’y a point d’esprit.

Aventure de la Mémoire (1773), Voltaire


The first step toward oblivion is the tiny erasure gestures. The second step is to do it again. The third is the repetition of the previous two. Compulsively, unintentionally.

To forget what is unwanted; what one is not fond of. To forget that persistent, humiliating and harmful memory.

To forget by erasing the physical image is easier than the act of forgetting the image inscribed in the mind’s concealed spots. The former ends in the object itself, the latter is attached to never-ending contexts and variables that can hardly be eradicated.

AnaMary Bilbao’s exercise in O último brilho da estrela que morre (The last gleam of a dying star) is an outstanding essay on the act of forgetting. A single piece only represents paradoxical unveiling of a need to forget, something so endemically human. And this statement is uttered with the strength of every word deployed. The act of forgetting is more important for the human being than the one of remembering.

Or so it seems, because the opposite is also necessary and thus the ambiguity of memory.

Modernity takes hold of Voltaire’s tragicomic tale, The Adventure of Memory, in which every action of the modern individual is an attack on Mnemosyne, on memory, on the short-lived. We wake up every day with an erased yesterday, so that we can surrender ourselves to the urges of sensation and the basic spirit.

In her exhibition at Uma Lulik__ gallery, Bilbao presents an array of images, which, at first glance, appear to be engraving stains – clouds or murky waves in thin black and white splashes. But, after an attentive look, the dark spots are the remnant of a photographic memory, where we can identify some textures and objects. The dark is the information eagerly subtracted to the image, the photograph’s negative. Only the landscape sky, corresponding to the white of AnaMary Bilbao’s image, remains.

And the gaze keeps scrutinizing. Curiosity dresses itself with the forensic capacity for astuteness. When talking to the artist, we realise that the geographies firstly portrayed and then obliterated are not innocent. The land is often the face of what one wants to forget. To clear the record of cruelty is double cruelty.

“The negatives were gathered in Johannesburg from minefields that were being prepared for gold mining. And the Johannesburg’s land has an odd behaviour: the land keeps absorbing the information and all the vestiges of this estraction of gold disappear. It appears that the place’s history has been erased by the terrain erosion and, then, by the buildings that have been established on top of it”, the artist explains.

And, in this case, photography, as the last gleam of a dying truth, is worked towards its own demise.

In a different perspective, but also focused on the notion of displacement of content, signs and meanings, which derive not only from the notions of geography (physical and human), but also from the whole exegesis of photography as a medium and imaginary vehicle (as mentioned by Bruno Marchand, the author of the exhibition text), Bilbao reveals a small series that enunciate a narrower scale than the one of the territorial landscape. In nine small records, the artist works on albums of houses under eviction in Portugal. The tension of the final image, amid several erasures, is the vibration of a previous, if not concomitant, political, familial and emotional tension. Compassion can only be imagined. After all, there are no faces, no bodies and the forms that survive the erasure are scarce and unnoticeable.

Shortly put, the most important is precisely the significance of memory – a notion that, for its obviousness and truism, we forget. And, just like the characters in Voltaire’s tale, confronted with the magic of the arts and the muses, we can now only recall, before AnaMary Bilbao’s work, the problems of oblivion, obliteration and obscuration of brains – whether by our own willingness, collective will, voluntarily or involuntarily – but also of its necessity – otherwise, we would consume ourselves in a painful vortex of pasts.

To be seen until January 26, at the Uma Lulik__ gallery, in Lisbon.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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