What Remains of What It Was
What remains of who Isu was? Almost nothing.
For those who care about this kind of things, he was king of the eight dynasty – of the Egytian empire’s 31 dynasties – in a time of crisis, over four thousand one hundred years ago. For some reason, his enemies were deeply committed to making him disappear. “Disappear”, notwithstanding, is not here a euphemism for “death”, because Isu would die (as we all will) sooner or later. “Disappear” meant to cross out, to scratch off his name until it was fully erased. By eliminating «Isu» from a statue pedestal, that large piece of stone became a huge monument to anonymity. What remains of who Isu was? Just a feeble graffito on a wall that, merely for having endured, granted immortality to a man we know nothing about that could add to what was so far stated here.
Our drive to perpetuate memory is as strong today as it was over four thousand one hundred years ago: we go by trying to avoid, with small gestures, the day of our disappearance. “Write a book, have a child, plant a tree”, is a meme we hear constantly and that puts us in tune with the ancient fear of finitude. As far as intention goes, a “Cajó was here” is equivalent to a bust of Napoleon, as a “Marco loves Soraia” is to Tristan and Isolde, a “Benfica rules” is to an arch of triumph and a family photo album can be browsed with the same solemnity and usefulness as the “Chronicles of the First Seven Kings of Portugal”. We try to defy mortality by eluding Chronos, a god of time so merciless that he ate his own son.
And so, in special days, we continue this ritual. The family photo album is rarely visited in solitude. For the album to fulfil its mission one needs to identify living and dead alike so their names don’t fade away, to attach a story to each photo so that they can be remembered, and to teach the young so that memory can perpetuate. These objects, so common in the old days, sustained the roots of a family tree that – from one generation to the next – was to be pruned by forgetfulness: “I don’t know who the lady next to your grandma is.”
The images in What Remains of What It Was were pruned and transplanted. We look at those people portrayed and we do not recognize them, but we do identify their poses: the way they want to be remembered fills them with solemn majesty.
Once again, Carla Cabanas evokes memory’s volatile imprecision (this has been the subject of her previous series), this time by erasing and damaging images she has found and collected. Each portrayed figure is fading away in each scratch, just like Isu did, four thousand one hundred years ago. Shape and background merge until they can no longer fulfil their task of perpetuating a name. The photographic emulsion ripped off – accumulating at the bottom of the frame – is what remains after the information on places, contexts and characters has been eliminated. Just as we unknowingly eliminate them from our personal history, until they are nothing more than ashes and dust from times past. “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”