Imaginary beings


Carla Cabanas (1979, Lisbon) appropriates part of the title of Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings (created in collaboration with Margarita Guerrero), originally published in 1957 as Manual de Zoología Fantástica [Handbook of Fantastic Zoology] and expanded in 1967 and 1969, for Seres imaginários, an exhibition/installation that opens its doors, on the one hand, to the private world of the artist’s memories, and on the other to a speculative sphere concerning what (the constructions of) these memories could be.

Continuing her inquiries into the roles of memory/memories and photographic images, particularly those taken from the family photo albums she finds or purchases, in the construction of identity narratives, Carla Cabanas uses exclusively, and for the first time, photographs of herself and her family in Seres imaginários. Using methodologies she employed previously, in such works as I don’t trust myself when I’m sleeping (2018-19) and I don’t trust myself when I’m sleeping II (2020), a series conceived during an artistic residency in Berlin, the artist works on the photographic images, concealing certain parts of them and adding new elements in order to create new characters and meanings.

When we enter the Gallery, we are received by a small-format photograph – such as could be found in any family photo album – in which we can see (or perceive) four people that become a golden, four-headed being through the artist’s application of the kintsugi technique. In that Japanese method of ceramic repair, broken sections of an item are stuck together with urushi natural lacquer, after which the fissures are covered in gold, thus highlighting them to celebrate the faults and physical alterations the passing of time and accidents cause in objects. Carla Cabanas’ images combine different elements into a variety of characters, beings and stories. In this specific instance, the image of a grandmother, a mother and two children/grandchildren takes us into the Lacanian concept of the mirror stage, a time (around an infant’s sixth month) when the child’s relationship with its mother, as well as the whole outside reality, undergoes a change. The mother is now sensed as a distinct being, separated from the child, an independent entity that is a source of good and bad experiences. In the picture, mother(s) and children are – once again – a single entity, united by fissures and vestiges that act as visual metaphors for the passing of time, as well as for the (re)construction of memories.

In the Gallery’s side room, three rusted metal grids, their presence evocative of a house in ruins, cover large photographic prints, creating the impression of confined bodies that try to escape through the openings in the grids. The near-scenic effect of Seres imaginários is similar to what we experience before such works as Juan Muñoz’s The Prompter (1988), a stage occupied solely by a box designed to conceal a person tasked with whispering to the actors any lines they might have forgotten, thus creating a space that can only be filled by the viewers’ imagination. In this work, Carla Cabanas generates an ambiguous relationship between the viewer and the scene she has created. When all is said and done, we find ourselves excluded from the memories we see in the Gallery’s rooms.

In the Gallery’s main room, we find more small-format photographs from the same series and a set of four sculptures: golden metal structures on which large-format photographic images are placed. While the golden elements play a unifying role in the small-format photos, in the sculptures/photographs these elements – the golden poles – gain the structural quality of supports. As we enter the room, we have the feeling of being confronted by four spaces – just like in the tent from which these poles came, which was divided into three rooms and a living room – to which we are given only limited access. The photographs that rest on the structures, just like those memories (we believe) we have, have been manipulated, folded and creased. Through her manipulation of the photographic paper, Carla Cabanas focuses on the corporeal side of the images, in the fragments of the bodies. The paper is treated like a skin, a sensitive surface that preserves the marks of time, much like the photographic emulsion preserves an image. In other words, as is the case with the kintsugi technique, the passing of time is highlighted and elevated to place of construction with a space and body of its own.

In Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings, a sort of modern bestiary, we read descriptions of a large number of strange beings created by the human imagination. Each one of these creatures, combinations of disparate references, is the product of humankind’s dreams, desires and fears, or else born from the minds of such writers as Franz Kafka, Lewis Carroll or Gustave Flaubert. In Carla Cabanas’ exhibition/installation, the physical manipulation of the photographs – with incisions, applications of gold, folds and creases – has the purpose of showing the abyssal gaps between a supposed objective reality and its depiction via memories and the images we construct of these memories. Seres imaginários is more than just a careful gathering of imagination-created memories. This exhibition/installation shows how far can imagination go, how much it superimpose itelf on facts to create new entities and places that offer a unique knowledge, which we could never find in reality as (we believe) we know it.

And it is precisely out of this place between memory (the photographs), construction (the kintsugi technique) and trauma (the folds and creases) that Seres imaginários emerges to create narratives and look for new concepts of what is accepted as (hi)story. At first sight, these are new narratives of Carla Cabanas’ family history, made up of personal stories to which we have limited access. However, by showing us pictures from a family photo album that, due to its normality – or humanity –, could be our own, the exhibition/installation transcends the sphere of individual, non-transferable memories and attains the realm of collective, shared memories. In both cases, telling what is real and what is fictional appears an almost impossible task.


Luísa Santos