Saturday, 26 December 2009

With feet on the ground

This image always astonishes me, not only for what it shows, but because of where it is. It shows a female figure, well over life-size, her hands tied behind her back, her pants/skirt around her ankles, serving as the support for a giant pair of feet, presumably male, bearing down on her shoulders. It's called 'Con los pies en la tierra', ('With feet on the ground'). It is very prominent, permanently installed in an arch in the centre of the big opulent downtown shopping mall, the Gallerias Pacifico, surrounded by Tiffany's, Polo Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, Lacoste, Hugo Boss... The Gallerias, which also houses the four extensive galleries of the Jorge Borges Cultural Centre, also has a basement, part of which was used by the military as a detention and torture centre in the late 1970s.

The painting is by Carlos Alonso, one of the most respected Argentine artists. He was in London in the early 1960s, and his drawings and paintings remind me a bit of the work of the late R.B. Kitaj. In 1976, at the beginning of the 'proceseo', his daughter was among the 'disappeared', and he fled into exile in Europe for some years.

It's a very powerful image, with the intensity and imagination of a vision by William Blake. It doesn't describe a moment, or an event, or a temporary, superficial appearance: rather, it sums up a lot of history, experience, psychology, in a terrifying and very moving image. The message is direct: it's a warning to all who see it. & it's beautifully, vigorously painted, very solid. I don't know the history of how it came to be there: I assume there's an explicit link with the missing daughter and the previous use of the building.

& it occurs to me that there's probably not a shopping shopping mall in the UK that would tolerate an image like this under any circumstances. The traders and the local council would see to that. Perhaps the fact that it is so prominent here suggests the extent to which Argentina still sees itself as a European country with an enlightened, liberal attitude to creativity, and a respect for the European tradition, it's own tradition, of the arts. Perhaps it's a country perpetually in exile. & it worries me that this liberal attitude is threatened in the UK, if not elsewhere. We need warnings, and we have to trust creative minds to deliver them.


Anonymous said...

"We need warnings".

As Orwell said - "To see what is in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle. "

Otherwise it succumbs to the greatest threat to humanity - forgetfulness of history. El olvido.

msHedgehog said...

Well - I wouldn't want to see it in a public place. I don't particularly want to see those ads on the Underground either that show a young woman weeping, with a message to the effect that if you get in a minicab and get raped you'd better not bother to report it, because YOU are the criminal. I don't like having such things around because they create a climate of violence and fear and teach women to be continuously afraid: you have no right to exist without fear, they say. Of course I realise that in reality it's just some artist saying his thing: but I wish he would say it without threatening me.

Tangocommuter said...

I must say I have some problem disentangling this one. The authorities warn young women not to take unlicensed cabs: I don't quite follow how this 'creates a climate of violence and fear'. In any case, fear is self-protective. Aren't we are better off if we fear than if we are fearless? Would a young woman, Ms Hedgehog, say, be safer in an unlicensed vehicle if she feared nothing? Sadly, I doubt it. We are also warned not to cross busy roads or to put our fingers into electrical sockets. We may not need the warning, but it's perfectly reasonable that it is given. People create suffering for themselves by doing stupid things. Perhaps the tone of the ads is wrong, but not the message.

But surely that has nothing to do with what is going on in this painting. If I read it right, the artist is one of tens of thousands of parents who lost children in the military dictatorships in Latin America in the mid-20th century. (I always want to add that they were American-supported, trained and inspired, in case anyone thinks there's something Latin American about dictatorships.) I think he's created an image of great tenderness that deals with suppression, helplessness and human loss, and which I find both moving and terrifying. Perhaps that doesn't come across in a thumbnail: among other things you simply can't see the way it's painted. & of course I posted it to see what other people think, so thanks for the comments.

You wish the artist would speak without threatening you. Shouldn't you ask: in whose mind is that threat? Who, if anyone, is threatening you? The artist certainly isn't threatening you.

Sorry if I didn't quite get your point. After all, I'm '...just some artist saying his thing', to use your words!

Tangocommuter said...

@ Anonymous: Orwell, clear and precise as usual! Branford Marsalis said something similar. 'If you forget your past you lose your future'. He was talking about creating music, of course, but I think it could be read politically as well.

msHedgehog said...

The thing about the ad on the Tube is that I feel it might be effective in its immediate purpose, which is lowering the reported crime rate. I don't feel it's effective in its higher purpose, which is lowering the incidence of rape, because I don't really believe that it's possible for women to prevent rape by changing their own behaviour, which is almost always already sensible in terms of the risks and the choices they really have. The person who made the ad obviously disagrees with me, assuming that they've made that distinction at all. Probably they think that women underestimate the risks of that specific behaviour compared to the alternatives. Essentially I'm just unconvinced, although I'd become convinced if I thought there was valid data. What it actually conveys, in practice, is very simple, a threat plus an order not to do something you wouldn't do anyway unless you thought the alternatives were riskier. And that in itself is annoying in a minor way.

If I had a choice between shopping somewhere where images of violence against women are put up as education or entertainment, and shopping somewhere where they aren't, I would shop where they aren't, since it's not something I really want in my head. Assault - minor (for the lucky ones like me) or major - is routine and unpreventable and something women generally accept as part of life. That the way we avoid that making us continuously afraid is by dismissing the idea from our minds and not thinking about it. So some of us get irritated when active steps are taken to prevent us doing that. Most of the time I just ignore it, though.

It also strikes me that, on the working assumption - which of course I do work on, like everyone - that we can prevent violence by not doing risky things, hanging around in places where public images of violence against women are routine is the kind of thing that would clearly come under "risky behaviour" to avoid. It goes straight to the back of the brain as a pretty straightforward announcement "this is not a safe or welcoming place for you, get out".

But I tend to just see the most superficial content of the image. I'm not likely to hang around long enough to look at the details or appreciate it as art. For that it would have to be presented in a context where that was made possible by other means, including privacy.

Tangocommuter said...

Many thanks for that. Saw the poster on the tube this morning. In trying to emphasize violence it actually sensationalizes it, possibly makes it attractive to the wrong people. A simple message in large letters would be much more straightforward and effective. But I think it's aimed against careless behaviour; as you say, it's something no one would do in their right minds, which unfortunately isn't always where they are. It seems the lesser evil. But to sensationalize violence is plain stupid.

When it comes to the painting I think the story becomes vastly more complex. There are actually four paintings by different artists on the sides of the central pillar. They look as if they were commissioned at the same time, probably when the old building, which was designed as a Parisian superstore, was renovated and turned into a shopping mall. Two are rather bland, one is interesting, and then there's this one. I've no idea if it was ever controversial, and I'd be very interested to know what local attitudes to it were and are. Incidentally, I think Carlos Alonso ought to be better known. I know that Latin American artists complain that they are unjustly ignored and unknown in Europe. If they come here and work here, like Ana Maria Pacheco, they become acceptable, but not if they stay at home.

Concerning the viewing context, as a painting I think it might look more at home in a gallery, where you could sit and look at it and think about it in the context of 'painting'. But I'm not averse to seeing it where it is. It has a personal and historical context there, and I admire the use of 'real art' in public places. & maybe it's not a bad idea to have a bit of a reminder that the world is unstable, alongside the shopping for luxuries. Perhaps it's actually dangerous for comfort zones, feeling safe, to become too much a habit of mind. This painting goes way beyond being 'a bit of a reminder', but it does seem to be remarkably well assimilated where it is.

It occurs to me that there's also the context of Spanish/Italian culture, where images of violence, to men and women, are often more graphic and acceptable than in northern Europe. That post-reformation requirement to be as realistic as possible in crucifixions and martyrdoms, for instance. A lot of that seems vaguely (or not so vaguely) pornographic. But think of Titian's Flaying of Marsyas, almost 450 years old and still violently shocking. Without being told, you become aware of Titian's horror at casual cruelty. Or Goya's etchings. I don't think there's any way these images would encourage anyone to go out and do likewise. I certainly hope not.

The main thing I think about this painting is that, like the images of Titian and Goya, it doesn't in the least sensationalize. It states very clearly and directly something unacceptable but sadly still with us, and sums up a lot of cultural and political history. I think it's a very honest image, and very tender, and very sorrowful too. To me, it's moving rather than shocking.