Heaven of the Disasters Essay by Robert C. Morgan
Art as a Form of TestimonyInterpreting Cabellut’s Heaven of the Disasters
Robert C. Morgan
In addition to materials, inspiration, and technical knowledge, some works of art also require a heightened degree of courage in order to become realized. This does not happen automatically and rarely relates directly to the artist’s intentions. Nor does it happen through the appropriation of a style or the reproduction of emblems, and logos omnipresent in popular culture. The kind of courage to which I refer happens because the artist has taken a risk without knowing the precise consequences, a decisive action that does not conform to what others consider current or fashionable. Courage stands alone and functions on a very different level from what is routinely seen in highly touted art fairs. Courage is the condition of works of art that exceed or surpass the normative, even as the subjects chosen by the artist arrive from various ranks in society, regardless of class, gender, religion or race. To evoke courage in art requires extraordinary subtlety combined with an assiduous passion and intellect. It does not conform to what others think or what they believe is right or wrong. Rather it embraces the countervalent mood of Nietzsche in which there are no predictable or predetermined guidelines. Courage does not remain in the closet. Nor does it stay within comfortable boundaries. Rather it tends to reject all expectations of finding an auspicious response by overtly dismissing all that is predictable in art.
While I have written about works of art by Lita Cabellut in the past, I am never quite sure of what to say about her work, whether my words in translation will make any sense to anyone. In this sense, writing about Cabellut gives me an important sense of doubt. I am foundering in the gray zone on an uneven terrain. I have to check my footing to make certain of my balance. Am I getting the transmission of her work correctly? Am I being empathetic towards her point of view? I really don’t know. But, even so, I move forward as if there were nothing else to do. At times, my mind is in the Gobi or the undulating dunes of the Sahara. Where will my next step lead me as I examine these intensely cracked features on any given subject where a photographic likeness is dissembled, torn open, allowing no escape from the internal bleeding of the self revealed inside? Take any portrait by Cabellut. It doesn’t matter. Whether Frida or Coco, a clown or a cardinal, a singer or an actor, a saint or a sadist, or a lonely child oppressed by visions of torment, they are all part of the human condition.
In fact, the portraits in this exhibition are of children who represent the artist’s past. They are intensely dramatic photographs that will not let us go. We cannot easily turn away or avoid the emotional consequences of our feelings. By engaging with these children in the darkness, we may come to discover not only who they are, whether imaginary or real, but who we are as well. Through the act of perceiving the other, we may be seeing ourselves less from the perspective of the present than from moments in the past when presumably we found or learned our identity based on what others thought of us. For Cabellut, this would later change, transform her longings and desires, and become the other that was always inside herself. Yet early on, at an impressionable age, her identity was displaced, agonizingly pushed aside.
I recall Picasso once saying: “Art is never chaste.” Put another way, no real art will ever be safe or popular. Leave this to the seductions rampant in the entertainment industry, tourism, shopping, restaurants, and all matter of investments, in essence, any form of spectacle that pushes us away from seeing ourselves accurately. We may assume that the face we see every day in the mirror is a reflection of our self until one day we discover there is another face lingering beneath that is truly who we are. For Cabellut, this was the beginning of her process in becoming an artist, a process that might also be understood as a form of testimony, the kind of confessional instinct that goes beyond any organized religion or social institution.
The work in this exhibition is art in the form of testimony. The photographs are large and are shown as triptychs. The width of each photograph in the triptychs measures 160 cm by 250 cm high. The colors are black and white and pink. The message behind these imagined portraits holds no limitations or boundaries, only the sense of a personal freedom endowed to the artist. In these works, Cabellut is willing to speak the unspeakable, to poetically reveal her suffering in the form of an interior drama. I believe this is a courageous action. It is art, but it is also a gift based on memories of time and space, of loss and discovery, of heartbreak and transformation, of human endurance and the struggle to become the artist that she is, an artist capable of showing herself without shame, hyperbole, or pretention. This is Lita Cabellut’s most personal exhibition to date. It is the revelation of her “white silence” that for many years prevented her from speaking about her torrential past as she was isolated and burdened with a sense of guilt and shame.
As for interpreting Heaven of the Disasters, it would be problematic to analyze the origin of her experience in literal terms. Given the cultural background of Lita Cabellut, poetry is of the essence. It is the way to restore power in one’s soul. Any attempt to offer a discursive interpretation of these monumental photographs would be inaccurate and absurd.
Lita Cabellut is not a Minimalist and does not deal with her reality from the perspective of a reductive literalness. Rather she craves the ragged perplexity and ambiguity of the metaphor. She is interested in how human emotions are spurred less by what literally happened to her than by the interior remnants in another time and place when it was impossible to speak or tell the truth. Placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage during the Franco regime, the allegory shown in these photographs – the Dadaist hobbyhorse, the nightmarish assemblage of taxidermied birds woven together, and the remorseful spattering of black pigment against a white gown — offers the artist a symbolic space of retrieval between memories filled with trepidation.
In order to rejuvenate her imaginative power and thus bring to light her agonies and conflicts, she endured these acts of humiliation as memories. Ultimately these allegorical scenarios of haunted suffering children express Cabellut’s entablature of broken desire as she eventually learned to cope with the painful realities in her youthful past. Gradually she processed and overcame the guilt and the suffering through the sublimation of her art. The courage involved in allowing this positive transformation admits a quality of life embedded in Cabellut’s ability to think and to feel independently and thus to emphasize with the suffering of others, the innocent refugees who have been forced to leave their homes and histories where they must relocate and reconfigure their sense off identity in another place, different than what they once knew and felt. Children are often forced to live somewhere else against their will.
This would suggest that every subject Cabellut brings into her work is somehow a manifestation of herself, as if she were reliving the past through another, as if she had entered another world on the cusp of the spiritual and the secular, another stratosphere in which the artist’s life transforms into a perpetual persona, living a life somewhere between a boundless sense of joy and fathomless retribution. This is art in the form of perpetual testimony, a recounting of the past through empathy, through the eyes of the child who is willing to move from the past into the eternal present, the source of creation.