On Mother, A Contemporary Elegy Julio César Abad Vidal

Translated by Elizabeth Polli

And now, I would like to tell you that I love you,

but in a way that you never suspected

César Dávila Andrade, “Letter to Mother”

Ever since photography democratized the practice of portraiture, the individual and collective imaginary became aware of, perhaps in a fashion visually unprecedented until then, the graphic ravages of the passage of time, of the decadence of bodies and of the unyielding certainty that death will come to us all.  Not only do photographs endure longer than their models, but also the feelings that inspired some of those snapshots fade away, often turning the memory of a happy moment into something hurtful. It is for that reason that since its very inception, photography has become the repository of memory marked by melancholy. Jorge Luis Borges, one of the twentieth century’s most important creators –and weighted down, perforce, by the power of melancholy – had already offered an unequivocal representation of such torment in one of the verses in the first book he would publish, Fervor de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires, Imprenta Serrantes-author’s edition, 1923). The verses read: “The daguerreotypes present / a time stopped in a mirror / so that it looks closer than it is” (“Sala vacía”, 4-6.)[i] The reflection of the photograph as a sign emanating from something that has disappeared or is inevitably going to disappear is widely encountered in literature. The way Roland Barthes expressed this idea in his essay La chambre claire (Paris, Cahiers du Cinéma/Gallimard/Seuil, 1980) has been particularly influential. It is a proposal tersely synthesized in the caption of a photograph reproduced in that volume, taken in 1865 by Alexander Gardner of the prisoner Lewis Payne before he was executed by hanging, “he has died and he is going to die.” [ii] It was a stunning declaration that demonstrates the visual photographic tenacity of that which cannot be repeated in reality.

The extensive, intense project entitled Mother undertaken by Beatriz Ruibal after the death of her mother Carmen in April 2010 constitutes a memorable testimony to passion, to the affections caused by grief. The grouping, which includes various photographic series and two videos, was developed in its entirety in 2012, and affirms itself as an implicit and poetic portrait of the deceased through photo and video shots of her home and certain of her personal belongings.

In the series “Collections,” Ruibal offers a record of color photos of various jewelry boxes, as well as of small boxes and porcelain bowls, other metal or wooden boxes, trays and decorative ceramic plates. They all have the same format (30 x 45 cm) and are close ups with an identical background, all taken from an overhead perspective. The series creates monuments out of the objects, in compositions centered in what approximates a scientific catalogue, as if the need to photograph the objects were signaling to us their end. The series “Images for Memory” (Imáganes para el recuerdo) proceeds in a similar fashion. In this case, however, the photos are not of decontextualized objects but are details, in color, of her mother’s bedroom. These photos all have the same format as well (50 x 75 cm). In this series we find ourselves face-to-face with, for example, a front shot of the metal headboard of her bed, or a detail of the finial, or the handle on the door to the living room, or the upper back of a caned rocking chair or the shadows projected against the wall by the lace curtains which hang in the windows.

Two diptychs united by composition and format, are both comprised of two works each of identical size (100 x 150 cm); in addition, both present a photograph on the left-hand side and an embroidered text on cotton on the right. The embroidered texts give the title to each diptych. In the case of Time (El tiempo), the passage appears next to a photograph of a three-strand pearl necklace. It would seem that by joining the abstract term with the circularity of the choker, something of a confession is therein encoded, with the hope of reuniting with the mother after her death. On the other hand, You’ll see, summer will be here soon (Ya verás que pronto llega el verano), a photograph of the curtains in the mother’s bedroom accompanies the embroidered words. In this fashion, Ruibal evokes a phrase that her mother used to say to her, to soothe her and lift her spirits. Ruibal most likely continues this act – through the same message – with her own children, but she manages with certainty to transmit the warm-hearted charm of those who care for others and to show concern for those who approach this work.

The project does not close with this series of photographs; there are two pieces of video art as well. One of them establishes the means by which the spectator can best become acquainted with the memorialized subject of the project. I am referring to Nothing More Beautiful Than Your Image (Nada más bello que tu imagen) (2’ 52”, color with soundtrack), a declaration of love starting with the very title. In the corpus of the video, Ruibal incessantly repeats a single fragment of material taken from a 1973 Super-8 home recording. We witness a persistently repeated gesture barely lasting four seconds, in which the mother is looking at the camera radiating happiness during what is most likely a lunchtime celebration out of doors. Even though we do not see their faces, the spectator intuits the presence of a man and a woman facing the protagonist. As if there were a magic music box, a simple metallic and repetitive melody makes up the sound track. [iii]  In a reference to this work, Beatriz Ruibal reveals that her mother was younger at the time this charming Super-8 was filmed than she herself is now. It’s a declaration, which constitutes something as concise and intense as a memento mori (a reminder that we all must die). If we were to highlight a memento mori from among these photographic testimonies, it would be a photograph of photographs, a clock that separates the frames in which the freestanding portraits of two women are presented: the author’s mother and her eldest sister. Two women from two successive generations joined nonetheless, by the inevitability of the destructive passage of time.

The Spaces We Were (Los espacios que fuimos) (2012, black and white video with soundtrack, 7’ 11”) filmed almost exclusively in one single shot, constitutes the work that in and of itself offers the most illustrious statement of the groupings found in the project Mother. Beatriz Ruibal wanders through the uninhabited home while we hear a piano rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne E Flat Major Op.9 No.2. [iv] The narration, recorded in off by Beatriz, is a text she herself wrote, and is one filled with a lyricism as intoxicating as the ensemble of images which make up this impressive series focused on the memory of a deceased mother. In the video, Ruibal replicates the tour she took of the house when she was ten years old, the first time she set foot inside it. But this journey is different. She is no longer a child, the house is going to change, and her mother is no longer there. She left the world 730 days ago, as is specified in the monologue. And during this passage, in this devotion to the rooms, Ruibal lingers in her mother’s bedroom, the same room that had set the stage for the photographic series Images For Memory, the same room she refers to as “the center of the universe.” And when she comes to a standstill in front of a photographic portrait of her mother, framed and placed on a credenza, she pronounces after a marked pause the words “Paradises lost.” A threat exists, however, as Beatriz walks through the uninhabited home; it is about to undergo changes, perhaps even a change of ownership. All this magnifies the necessity of putting down roots, which Ruibal pursues through the photos and the journey captured on video. These records will immortalize the rooms that from this point on will never be identical.  At the same time, everything captured reaffirms the memory of her mother, establishing with these fetishes the conscience of her departure, of the grief, and of the very need to anchor oneself to the ruins so that one’s own memory does not collapse forever. With an obvious lump in her throat as the video is coming to an end, Ruibal concludes with a declaration of extraordinary resonance: “this will be the last time I wander through my maternal home just as it has always been.”

Mother by Beatriz Ruibal is a promissory anchoring in a contemporary artistic scene that is often weighted down by sensationalism, convenience, superficiality, hypocrisy and callousness.  Mother is comprised of a magnificent and melancholic portrait in absentia which, through its universality, permits the spectator to communicate with his or her own affections, in an uncommon and intense fashion. Mother is a major achievement of modern photographic art and a startling testimony to grief.

[i] The reference to the photograph found in these verses seems marked by anachronism. While the daguerreotype was the photographic procedure with which this innovative technique was presented in 1839, by the1870s the daguerreotype, which itself lacked a negative, would be substituted by the practice of a wet collodion glass negative and the albumen print on paper. 

Translation of the Borges fragment:  

Coleman, Alexander, ed. Jorge Luis Borges Selected Poems. London: Penguin Books, 1999. Print.

[ii] BARTHES, Roland: La cámara lúcida. Tr. Joaquim Sala-Sanahuja. Barcelona: Paídos, 1989, p. 166.

[iii] We are referring to “Belles,” the fourteenth and last arrangement on the album Break It Yourself (Bella Union, Mon + Pop Music, 2012), by Andrew Bird.

[iv] This Opus No. 9 forms part of the first group of Nocturnes published by Frederic Chopin, which consisted of three compositions. They were written between 1830 and 1831 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Chopin, who died at 39, would publish a total of twenty-one Nocturnes during his brief career, all of them piano solos, including a posthumous opus (E Minor Op. 72) and two nocturnes with no opus numbers.

 

 

 

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