Between Asserting and Denying

Even as I would try to grapple the memories to
permanence, I would expose the futility of the
attempt: make plain how each new scrap
of experience alters the order of things and how
meaning is both conferred and denied
by the same claim.

MAGGIE CARDELUS – April 1998.

For a long time I wasn’t sure why Maggie Cardelús’ tagli had roused in me the memory of Shih Huang Ti, the chinese emperor who ordered the construction of the Great Wall, and the destruction of all books written before him. The legend of Shih Huang Ti his narrated by Borges in a short [1] story in which he offers several hypotheses that might explain the motivations behind an emperor who felt compelled to embark on two enterprises, which to this day stir feelings of awe anxiety in the reader. Shih Huang Ti’s orders dictated that history begin with him. It is possible to wiew the titanic construction project of the Great Wall together with the burning of the books as an effort to enclose space and arrest time in an attempt to ward off death. But one might also hypothesise, writes Borges, that the two ventures werw not simultaneous; that the emperor had begun by detroyng, and only later decided to preserve all that was to come. Another suggetive hypothesis is that which views the Great Wall as a metaphor for vast and futile constructions, such as the past, whose precariousness is threatened by the whim of a future amperor, who, like Shih Huang Ti, dares to challenge the memory of everything that came before him.

In the face of all these possible interpretations, Borges concludes that, most likely, what is fascinating about the story of the mythical chinese emperor is “che quest’idea ci tocca da sola, indipendentemente dalle congetture che permette. ( La sua virtù può consistere nell’opposizione del costruire e del distruggere, su un enorme scala). Generalizzando il caso precedente, potremmo inferirne che tutte le forme contengono la loro virtù in se stesse e non in un ‘contenuto’ congetturale.”

Why does Borges put an emphasis in cursive on “all form”? Perhaps to suggest that any action, because of its ability to stand out with inaugural character against the undefined ground of the possible, belongs to the realm of “giving form.” And at the same time, every form, the power of every form, lies in its ability to hold together the opposition “del costruire e del distruggere.”? Perhaps this could be a key to the reading of Cardelús’ work, whose tagli, created by a gesture that simultaneously eradicates and transfigures, take us to the threshold between separation and union, problematizing the opposition between creation and destruction. Only when I had the opportunity to see Cardelús’ at work, and follow her careful movements that made a photograph disappear in order give life to a form, all my previous “conjectures” regarding the meaning of her pieces left way to a com-prehension of that dramatic gesture that lies at the opposite pole of construction: destruction.

Maggie Cardelús is by no means a performer; she does not put herself in stage, if not on the exceptional occasion, in the act of creating a piece. Her tagli, though, defer directly to the hand that made them, to the intervention of the artist, to the per-formative character of an act capable of evoking disturbing archetypes. The clearly sexual valence of the in-cision, the knife’s blade that gives origin to one form at the exclusion of all other possible creations, is accompanied by a strong sense of loss. It is true that this holds true for every moment of creation, and may be said about any work of art, but in Cardelús’ work this takes on a sacrificial dimension. The medium the artist cuts-out is the photograph, reproductions of snaphots of her family: her mother, father, sisters, husband, son: instants secured onto film- mirrors of an uncertain or self-satisfied memory that sees itself reflected in tangible images-that are lost, although transformed into a work of art. the photograph that is cut-out is reduced to a linear construction or a mass of paper folds expertly organized into a new form. In this way the original flat photograph is extended into space, becoming sculpture.

In her first tagli, the cut-outs were combined with other objects. In the three installations shown together at the Galleria Fucares in Madrid in 1997, in which she used photographs of her wedding, Cardelús used wine glasses which she placed directly over the cut-out photos. Using a base to support a piece, or capturing and trapping a cut-out in a glass, gave the pieces a definitive, final form. In more recent pieces, such as Taglio: L’Origine du Monde(I) and Taglio L’Origine du Monde (II), attention shift away from the form to the gesture that gives origin to the form. The photographs used are large scale and pinned to the wall, without other elements. The artist begins to work on them in a random and open way, as though she were trying to dialogue with the photograph, “listening” to the image. Her movements seem to proceed without a pre-defined project, with a gestural expressiveness and inspiration that over time take on an almost ritual character. The apparent tranquility of the hand seems to mask and control the emotional tension involved in the the destruction of highly charged images of loved ones. Rythmically the artist oscillates from one side of the photograph to the other, repeating the same gestures and retouching her own work as though guided by a need for symmetry, a nees for order that impression that there may be no end to the toil of a Penelope armed with an x-acto knife; that another cut is always possible; that there is no definitive conclusion to the work, which continues to exist awaiting the next incision.

In the piece Taglio: L’Origine du Monde (I) –presented as a performance, or better, a never-ending work in progress carried out in a gallery space for one day, in which the artist demonstated how she cuts, gathers and transforms the work—the viewer was captivated by a situation of expectation, held in cadenced suspense, awaiting the imminent next metamorphosis of the piece. If in installations such as Dispersal, the finished form priveleged the static dimension—and therefore spatial—of the sculpture, in the later pieces, without ‘frames’ or elements that might contain their developement, one witnesses the possibility of a continuous modification of their morphology that accentuates their temporal and dynamic character. The fragility of the material used for the pieces, and the impermanence of their forms, which when transported, have to reconstructed be time after time, allude to the vanity of preserving the memory of those dearest to us by reducing them the level of objectified, concrete ‘things’ (portraits, photographs…). The iconoclastic tension of Cardelús’ work is an invitation to bypass the appeal of these tangible traces so familiar to all of us, in favor of “ri-cor-dare” [remembering], which in italian and in other romance languages sounds like “ridare-al-cuore” [give back to the heart], referring to a more intimate memory capable of countering the relentless passing ot time.

This continnuous doing and undoing, this oscillating emergence and disappearance of form, is in part reminescent of De-Kooning’s process of painting and over painting on the canvas. In Cardelús’ work, though, such a gesture is taken to an even more radical extreme: the photograph incisions are like an unravelling of the medium itself that does not offer an opening towards other possible dimensions, as in the case of Fontana’s Tagli, whose cuts are carried out clearly within the edges of the canvas. Cardelús’ tagli, instead, trasform the flat object itself into an abbundance of mounting folds that suggest incessant accumulation over time. The repetative and dynamic character of the artist’s technique reminds one of the obsessive, rythmical writing of Hanne Darboven: in both cases, the artist’s moves become self-consciously measured markers of time; rythmical repetitions of a gesture; reconfigurations of memory. In Cardelús’ work, though,this purification and reappropriation of memory is not obtained through the obsessive reiteration of signs that have lost their meaning, but through a gesture that aims at the reappropriation of the past through an intense and violent dialogue carried out with an image of an instant of time captured on film.

The quality that seems to be attributed to photography as providing objctive witness to the past is challenged and dispersed by an action whose ambition it is to reappropriate an image by cutting it and making it explode into three dimensions. The significance of this work of creation obtained through dispersal might be better understood remembering Bataille’s writings in his noted 1933 essay on the notion of dépense in relation to the production of art. An activity that obeys the logic of dépense is an activity that takes on all the more meaning the more is lost through it. In the case of art, this logic of dépense can, writes Bataille, be denominated “poetry”: “le terme de poésie, qui s’applique aux formes les moins dégradées, les moins intellectualisées de l’expression d’un état de perte, peut eutre considéré comme synonyme de dépense: il signifie, en effet, de la façon le plus precise, création au moyen de la perte. Son sens est donc voisin de celui de sacrifice.”[2] What is dispersed—or one could say sacrificed – in Cardelús’ tagli, is the integrity of an image meaningful to the artist, the only witnesses to a past forever gone. The title given to the 1997 Madrid installations, Dispersal, underlines the importance the artist gave, even in her very first cut-outs, to the theme of loss or expenditure.

For part of the show at Galeria Fucares in Almagro (fall of 1998), these themes return having undergone another change. The tagli (Cues to a Monologue), are no longer disruptions of the two-dimensionality of the photograph, no longer alterations of the rectangular perimeter of the paper, but have been transformed into a lace-like, dense weawe of lines whose ornamental design derive from an object that screens or veils another form, such as an organza shawl, a knit sweater—that is elaborated across the entire surface of the photograph. A single detail becomes the prototype on which are based all the other tagli [cuts], giving place to a dialectic between the detail and the image as a whole. The repropositioning of a figurative element, decontextualized and represented hyperbollically in an intricate composition, results in the giving up of the recognizeability of the original photograph in favor of an elevatiob of ornament to a formal value that is autonomous. The incisions on the paper transform a nondescript family snapshot into a ornamental vistuosismo that grows like an echo from the chosen object. It is as though the artist were wanting to make visible to the viewer the fascination of an object and snapshot that would otherwise remain unnoticed. Cardelús writes: “What I see you can never see, but I want you to understand the importance of what I see.”

The emphasis placed on ornament in this work seems to obey a ‘rhetorics of ornament’ of sorts, that interprets in an original way the role of narrative. Putting herself, her family, her things, at the center of her work is an autobiographical starting point that ends up disintegrating, giving way to certain forms that nevertheless do not cease to point to her origins. And it is simply looking at these forms and at their insistent appeal to the hand that made them, that one encounters the artist and the invitation to not lose sight of that place of origin, that unstable balance between creation and destruction, constituted by her tagli: a place that does not precede meaning that “is both conferred and denied by the same claim,” but is a delicate equilibrium that gives origin to it, and continually affirms (itself) and continually denies (itself).

[1] J. L. Borges, “La Muraglia e i Libri”, in Altre Inquisizioni, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1966; Otras Inquisiciones, Emecée.
[2] G. Bataille, “La Notion de Dépense”, in Ouvres Complètes. I, pàg.307.