What Remains of what was
In a cold sunny Saturday I went to the studio where Carla Cabanas was finishing her pieces that are now being presented at Sala do Veado and collected in this catalogue. Before I describe to you the reason why I was fifteen minutes late that day, let us stop for a while to consider this object that holds this text and the images I am trying to respond.
What remains of what was – before correcting it, I was writing from memory: what was written of what was… and I wonder if it could be the same thing, that just what remains inscribed (written down, described, reproduced) is what endures – What remains of what was, so far, collects two series: “Album Cabanas” and “Album Unknown”. The production dates for the works are, respectively, 2010/11 and 2011/2012, even if we can find this dating somewhat imprecise. The creative process engaged by Carla Cabanas is recurrently asking us to make memory (personal and emotional) and the technical history of photography (the use of pinhole cameras or old photos take us to that timeline) coincide. If we consider that in these two albums are gathered black and white square-type photos in white frames, and some of these images have been, to a more cautious view, fixated on glass, we come to the conclusion that these photographs belong not to this digital century, but to the beginning of the previous one, or even the final period of the century before that one: the century that witnessed the birth of photography. By a close reading of the image (landscape, architecture, furniture, clothing, posture, eye rapport, etc.) we manage to locate the images’ different times somewhere between our own recognition of collective history and the empathy we establish with each life’s events. These two sets of photos, gathered and pinned down by the artist, differ from one another in the affection that the images themselves had evoked beforehand. The original photos gathered by Carla Cabanas in “Album Cabanas” portray people, places and genealogies which, even if distant from her memory, are retraceable by the artist and in which the viewer acknowledges a familiar feel. In “Album Unknown” different eras, families, countries, are gathered. It is a completely fabricated community – a memory, a history. I don’t mean by this that it is not authentic or even that it can not deliver us a sense of familiarity. (One can actually find oneself in this geography of chance). The feeling that this set sends back evokes the Freudian notion of uncanny – something at once familiar and foreign. In fact, uncanny could replace the word photography (light+writing); the fixed image can always summon this simultaneous occurrence of such opposite feelings. A time lapse expressed in a fragment of a whole (history), isolated from its setting and not anchored to a text, holds a ghost-like presence destined to become a forgotten memory.
Let us go back to that winter Saturday morning. Carla Cabanas’ studio is located on a third floor of a building in one large avenue in Lisbon. That morning that important street was closed to traffic because it would be the passageway for a demonstration. The only restlessness that could be felt was the clanking of objects being handled in an antique market that occupy the avenue’s middle gardens. The tar carpets were (meanwhile) silent, empty, filled with my memories of people and drive-by cars. Unknowingly, this trail by different times and absent spaces, was preparing me for the introduction to those forgotten memories Carla Cabanas was bringing back to life, in her studio. A geography of chance was being mapped, right there, silently. An album we all are also, by nature, part of. While she was contextualizing “Album Unknown” within her previous work, Carla Cabanas was telling me she didn’t have that many memories. That she didn’t know that many stories about herself. Much of her previous work, on which we took some time, had started from the same drive: to record the time one takes to describe eras, memories, forgetting. Through recollection, reporting by heart, times and places were once described to the artist, by several close and not-so-close friends, strangers and not-so-strangers. In the process of inscribing the fragments of other people’s lives, or even, sometimes, changing narratives to include her own voice, the artist finds her memories in others’. That special connection to memory, to history, is a much human characteristic. We turn to memory and history to find identity. History is made of text and image, perchance in equal amounts. And even though images are as easy to forge as text, images – especially photography – have that weight, that strong aura of authenticity. Images are as if conventions of certain evidence. “Album Unknown” then places us in this mist, of authenticity, familiarity and intimacy. We can, however, trace analogies (it is comforting) between photographs: repeated elements (a window, a tree); the same people trying out their poses (around a table, on a boat); motives for taking pictures (a family trip, a photo to send the boyfriend). Relationships between images and the treatment the artist has devoted them; the many evidence there documented up against what is outlined, erased or veiled create a narrative channelling the familiarity and the oddness of these photos to a shared plane.
That Saturday, I left the studio with the feeling that the photos gathered, collected and later interventioned by Carla Cabanas were already her own text, memory and history. And ours. On the way back, I remembered W.G. Sebald’s novels, the essential duality between text and image in his story-building, the first feeling that his novels are realistic and they resemble autobiographical narratives. In his books, as in the inscription method used by Cabanas, the narrator’s voice is always first person but not always speaking with the author’s voice. Even though Sebald denies that the events described in his novels ever took place, his inclusion of evidence (images) in the text lead us back to an hesitation between what we believe is real and what we believe is fiction. And we try to restore those gaps with what is ours or with what we find of us in others. It is a known fact that Sebald would often take photocopies to enlarge or reduce an array of photos and other visual material, in the alleged intention of reproducing them in his manuscripts. In his first novels, images resembled photocopies, worn out, faded, images destitute from visual data or reference that text complements. It is the deeds of people like Sebald that help us understand why the greek goddess Mnemosyne endowed poets with the gift of memory. It is no coincidence that Aby Warburg, in early 20 th century, called his project Atlas Mnemosyne, after collecting, editing and establishing relationships between images of the most varied origins. The same obsessive need to understand the world, by drawing it, is what brings Warburg and Sebald’s projects close to one another. Coincidence, analogy and affinity also play an important role in the construction of these geographies of chance. In fact, they never really are. Because memory awakens memories from the most insignificant element; that element will always be evidence of something.
The first photograph. Exotic fruit is being served to white military men by a black woman. The photo quality takes us back to the dawn of photographic technique. We cannot tell for sure who the colonials or the colonizers are, nor identify the colony. But we can recognize, in the photo, attitudes/notions belonging to a meanwhile obsolete western thinking. Language, the world, has changed. The first of the last photos. Someone is being portrayed in the Tagus’s south bank, having both the April 25 Bridge (Salazar Bridge, at the time) and Lisbon’s vistas in the background. This is a reading made from this point of view. Somewhere else, this bridge may as well be the Golden Gate, and San Francisco in the dim horizon. Or, yet, it can be a bridge over a river where the absent person is filled in by the memory of a self. I realize, now, that before I have described these images using a paradoxical term, memories are never forgotten. They always go back to whoever reads them, in a present time.
Maria do Mar Fazenda
Lisbon, February 2012