“The Fragile Look: On Lúa Ribeira’s Subida al cielo [Ascent into Heaven]” Carlos Skliar
Translation by Maitén Vargas and Jennifer Moule. 2019-2020.
Translation by Maitén Vargas and Jennifer Moule. 2019-2020.
The act of looking, as we know it, is neither naïve nor neutral. It is not even a natural organ and seems to be an unavoidable function, even though it is often held with pins between the eyelids. Separating the visible and the invisible, there is no longer just a tension or an opposition, but rather an immense screen that slides open anywhere and allows us to see everything, absolutely everything. Indeed, the power of sight is granted as the world’s machinery is available all the time, but images last just fractions of a second, in a constant and fleeting acceleration to make way for the continuous impression between static and continuous movement, which often results in a chaotic balance, caught up in an almost indistinctive loop.
The question now seems to be not so much what we see, but how to take a closer look at something, in a way that gives us a lasting perception more than the insistence of a visual habit or the obsession with an adaptive custom. What is intended to be seen or not seen, the things that go unseen, whatever forces the eyes to see what we do not want to see, forms part of the visual landscape as much as the banality of the preconceived image. Attempting to look at what parades before us in complete harmony and total satisfaction is not only impossible, but, worse still, in a way it is cruel and indifferent, or cruel by its very indifference.
At first it is the face that attracts the gaze and synthesises the body’s unity; it is there, in that mysterious place, where everything gains some meaning or significance, although unstable and most likely misunderstood or in constant reconstruction. Faciality, according to Deleuze, enables us to conceive a difference between the face as a power of expression but also as a limitation. And it leads to that first sign of otherness, allowing us to be together or apart, love or hurt, smile or cry including all the possibilities in between, even those nameless feelings that neither imagination nor experience can support.
The face is the part of the body that prioritises the beginning or the precipice—the look—and the gain or loss of affection—the language. Perception comes before the conceptual, indeed, but standardizing cultures have invented for themselves the despotic artifice that inverts that sequence, insisting on a moral logic of dubious origin and an even worse conclusion: to smell, touch, look, listen or make physical contact—in short, to perceive—have become substitutes or obstacles for an anticipated and immediate judgement, disrupting our most political, poetic and cherished phylogenesis: that of desiring before deeming, that of loving before judging, that of looking before offering an opinion.
However, to eliminate judgement is no easy task and, despite this, is exactly what should be done, everything that would have to be done from now onwards so the world could be different and become pure childhood—or pure abnormality. That is, so it does not inevitably progress towards self-destruction, but rather, lead to the freedom of time and the precious uselessness of the actions undertaken, those actions that lie far from the benefit of profit-making and the trading of bodies and souls.
The suspension of judgement is therefore, in these times of rapid information-opinion and imposition of ways of looking through an absolute vision of the whole, the most decisive and crucial rebellion. By no means this implies abandoning the power of opinion, but rather the need to refresh in accordance with the experiences of otherness; that is to say, to continually submit our own judgement—and no longer doubt the existence of others—to the ways of feeling and thinking about the shared life that we all lead and the world we inhabit together, with its presences and absences. The world, in spite of its appearance and the imposition of the global, is merciless with those lives that seem small or dwarfed, with those bodies that believe they are incapable of fending for themselves, supposedly useless or too weak to learn and experience life, and a view much meaner still, that these individuals cannot earn a living from their own resources.
But who can be the first to throw a stone of a clear look, and not humiliate or taint others at the same time? How is it possible that the human gaze cannot take in the sheer animality of the human being? And what is the use of such a perspective, if it does nothing but bare its claws and bite the already mangled flesh of those who have been violated, frowned upon and are almost dead? There are men who stain with their gaze as soon as they open their eyes, Nietzsche said. Stain in the sense of ‘leaving a mark on something’ but also in the sense of ‘damaging the reputation or honour of a person, family or lineage’.
Well, certain people or communities have been tainted, and the fact that these stains were caused by specific or specialised ways of looking has been concealed or disguised. Stains impossible to eradicate that have been left on the bodies of others and the whitish cleanliness of the neutral gaze has been celebrated. And it has been done to such an extent that the world is now presumably divided between the immaculate and the dirty, a life divided between purity and impurity, perfection and imperfection. Wherever the eyes see the blur, there is already some form of death, wrote Georg Lichtenberg. Because certain marks never disappear and some stains remain forever. And not only do they begrime or tarnish. They also kill. They cause massacres. They are murderers.
Looking is like breathing, but with profound and long-lasting consequences on the outer surface of the observers. There are breaths— looks—that are flustered, hoarse, tight, hurried, almost without air, ones that stifle us and stifle others too. There are breaths—looks—that are forceful and forced, soft, almost fading, weakened. And there are open, lush, thundering, generous breaths—looks. In short, there are ways of looking that prevent and prohibit, and other looks that clear the way and facilitate.
There is a history in the ways of looking that may seem insignificant at first, but as we start to hear—to see—certain unique personal stories, we realise they breathe inside the body of each one of us. A history writte and engraved in blood, muscles, skin, tissue, arteries, heart and stomach. A history built on every millimetre of offence given or taken, on every second we attack and are attacked, on every step whereby our fates are disrupted, on every ragged breath we take. In the words of poet Anne Michaels:
In your hands, all you’ve lost, all you’ve touched.
In the angle of your head, every vow and
broken vow. In your skin,
every time you were disregarded, every time you were received.
In the beginning it was the fragility of the body and the word. There was not only the normal and the abnormal, the native and the foreign, or the centre and the periphery. Or if there was, it was in terms of the expulsion from Paradise, the destruction of the Tower and the Flood. Mythologies started weaving imagery to order chaos. Emerging sciences centred their attention on remote areas and observed the unfathomable in the skies an the revulsive in the seas; there, where it was not possible to see or understand. First philosophy pondered upon the passage of time and the imminence of death.
Fragility is that attribute which has always been there, from the beginning, at times unnoticed, or ignored, almost always underestimated and often confused with imminent cracking, with the inability of a body to resist its own breakage, unable to stand because it is on the verge of bursting into a thousand pieces. Fragile children; fragile women; fragile old men and women; fragile people with disabilities. Fragile those who struggle to survive, those who wrap themselves in silence, those who stumble over their own shadow, the slow, the lazy, the bizarre. Fragile those who neither queue, nor hurry along, nor follow the path to death like ants. Fragile life and fragile death.
Who could look at fragility differently, without ceasing to be fragile? What form of looking is capable of such uniformity? And how could it be possible to be stone and glass at the same time?
Fragility is not necessarily breakage or the imminence thereof, and could be seen as a common starting point; the hesitation, the doubt, the stuttering, that lucky ignorance so rare yet beautiful that it renders us speechless, not
knowing who we are or when we could become something else, what will come next and whether we can be or do what we want. And, above all, it is that mysterious and quiet confession to others that unveils the most essential and profound bonds between human beings.
Fragility is the breakdown of our own certainties and those of others, as this creates the necessary distance for us to say or do something that draws us closer together. Sharing our secret fragilities opens the way for friendship, love and communion. It is impossible to say that there is one who is fragile and another who is whole or complete, but rather pure otherness. Without fragility, essential relationships are lost, they vanish, lose their smell, taste and skin, and are capsized in desperate waters of dull virtuality. Fragility as personal charm, as uniqueness, as the source of life; in the words of Gilles Deleuze:
Life is like that too. In life there is a sort of awkwardness, a delicac of health, a frailty of constitution, a vital stammering which is someone’s charm. Charm is the source of life just as style is the source of writing. Life is not your history—those who have charm have no life, it is as though they are dead. But the charm is not the person. It is what makes people be grasped as so many combinations has been drawn.
The images presented in Lúa Ribeira’s photographic oeuvre break the norms governing the act of looking, they remove it from its comfort zone and offer the possibility of broadening and stretching the perception of humanity.
The story of these images is not simple. Under the pretext of focusing on the extravagant, the bizarre, and the exceptional, they bring to life and support the margins, the periphery, which would otherwise fade or be non-existent. Some choose to obsess over the mainstream and thereby become sworn enemies of the margins, engaging in a battle to the death with the sole purpose of not looking out of the sides of their eyes.
So... Should we look only at what is in front of us or should we look to the sides? Should we look at the goal, the purpose, the benefit, the consequence, or notice the humanity and animality that spring up all along the margins? Is life linear and the world a straight path, or is life a sideline and the world a mere crossroad? And who is to solve the enigma? And with what science, philosophy, poetry and images will they do so?
As is the case with certain good arts that fight to uphold an aesthetic point of view regarding otherness—as opposed to a legal or moralizing approach—while also introducing the singular and plural dimensions of individuals, likewise good photography would be part of those texts or narratives that improve the world in so far as they multiply the human potential without disguising or concealing their weaknesses.
Far removed from the times in which good art was eclipsed and overwhelmed by a monstrous, ambiguous and bizarre world, and subjected to the illogicalities of complacency of attributing to others a negative solitude, an unhealthy solitude; far removed from those images that only admitted the freak aesthetic as proof of a circus-like way of life; and with the purpose of distancing itself from the complete and crude visibility of vacuous social media that just illustrates an overflowing insensitivity, contemplation may now take a different path. One that is neither straight nor slightly winding, but hard and complex, in order to reveal other presences and existences.
It seems as if there is little margin for those on the margins. Current images sink in the dark waters of the mirrored self-portrait, the self of oneself. The self, saturated in repetition with no story to tell, an ephemeral mark on a muddy and boggy terrain full of on-demand comments. Neither image nor language living in the depths, but rather a superficial identity story that only wishes to reveal an ego entangled in its self-sufficient happiness, waiting to be instantly recognised. Private is public. Public is private. And all is devoid of otherness. However, in the light of day, under the ochre afternoon sun and in the darkness of night, anyone may offer their own fragile story, something that moves them, that hurts, the endless search for love and solitude on equal levels, the discomfort, the illusions, the desire for the impossible.
For the story to be offered to others as a sign of support or help, for it to share our common frailties and break away from the simplistic indifference of the silent, smiling, deceptive face, it takes more than just adorning oneself in front of the mirror to capture an immediate image, as dreamy as it is fleeting.
We need to journey and dig through time and space. Stop rushing. Create suspension, intervals, parentheses. Talk. Be, stay, remain. Find a time that is not owned and a space that cannot be filled. Capture the lives that are often pushed aside and forgotten by the mainstream, but seize them not. Lift the bodies that are thrown to the ground and trampled on. Give a specific name to generic nouns, remove destructive adjectives, cherish the lives of others without choking them, acknowledge they exist before and beyond any fashionable definitions.
It is essential that we do not fall into the trap of believing it is possible to put ourselves in someone else’s place, which, of course, is theirs; it belongs to them, it is both their refuge and their open sky, always. The place of the other is their own, and a shared destiny—or the impossibility thereof—depends on the relationship, on the emotional ties.
So, it is not a question of putting yourself in someone else’s place, which will always end up as a fake show of violent outrage and underestimation, but rather a matter of desperately finding places to share, proximity and distances that no scientific discipline may measure or evaluate. Art, on the other hand, might indeed be capable of intuition, sense and constructiveness. And the journey consists of nothing more than the conversation between two or more intimacies, those intimacies that know not only about fragility but also about untranslatability, mystery and trying to stay in your depth even in unknown territory. A non-linear journey, with images that are incomparable, that make no reference to any hidden section on standby for another part to light up, with no natural or cultural counterpart that might appease the gaze.
Images of fragility.
When fragility simply means weakness, those that are fragile are stripped of their name, their face—their body—and their personal stories, as if they could not be named without assigning mean labels, or as if they could not be seen face-to-face, as if they had no story to tell, or none worth listening to. Living beings thought of as pitiful, bereft of all desire and passion, automatons that need to be led back onto the path of normality.
And there is nothing more deceptive than the image of a supposed diversity in the other; a diversity whose etymology points towards those who have strayed from the path and must be brought back onto the right track, again and again.
The artifice of normality creates abnormalities on a daily basis—whether subtly or uncontrollably—with the sole purpose, tragic though it is, of feeling safe and protected and of drawing the dividing line and thus preserving the seemingly comfortable and safe haven of the good, the right, the intact, the civilised.
Disability is not a personal attribute but a social category, that is, a construction of normality whose purpose is, as already stated, to proudly claim for oneself a place in divine normality. It is true that disability should not be associated to a particular individual—as a lack, emptiness or loss—but that does not change the fact that the suffering is real and affects certain bodies and destinies more than it does others. Its future is surrounded by a shadow of hard-to-resolve doubts; the fierce and pretentious doubt of science that only the fragility of art could crush.
As if somehow the normal was the standard and the abnormal the exception that confirms the rule, the deviation affirming the supremacy of righteousness, the repetition preventing any kind of difference. There are no norms. All people are exceptions to a rule that doesn’t exist, Pessoa said. Normality is an invention of those who lack imagination, wrote Alda Merini. Once, I wrote: Every time someone says ‘it’s normal’, a fruit dries up and falls from the top of a tree, a child reluctantly falls asleep and a conversation is interrupted forever.
However, stating that normality does not exist is not good enough and seems like a weak argument opposing the adversity of a certain diversity. Or, to put it in other terms, following the poignant words of Herta Müller in her book Hunger and Silk: ‘the tic toc of normality’. In it, the writer implies that in each era, despite their abysmal differences, three types of individuals appear: the unbroken, the damaged and the broken.
We should doubt the existence of beings that are whole and unbroken, or rather I doubt their obsession to appear so. Yet we could think of them as people who, despite existential, social, economic and cultural crises, continue to make a universe in their image and likeness, they rule under their own whims, accumulate speculative money, persistently
create currencies, take over the media and define standards of normality and abnormality. However, there are no predetermined destinies.
Thinking about it in those terms would force not only fatalism, but also an unforgivable complicity with the power of the undamaged. Those of us who devote our lives—whether we do it rightly or wrongly, better or worse, full or part time—to the artistic, educational and political task of standing for the damaged and broken know that our ethics are based on the following set of principles: support the diversity of human life, enhance languages, usher in one’s own voice and love others; which, in words evocative of Hannah Arendt, means not abandoning others to fend for themselves, to try their fortune—misfortune.
Fortune here does not imply that chance dictates, once and for all, that the way in which you are born into the world inevitably leads to an unchangeable journey. However, it does mean that some things must be done for others in order to bring good luck and unlock other futures, rather than simply surrendering to the misleading and hypocritical barrier that divides the supposedly well born and the low-born. For I am the size of what I see and not the size of my height, Pessoa wrote. 4
What does Lúa Ribeira see, what can she perceive in this reexamination that is, at the same time, a process of being, lingering, dwelling and realising? What is the size, extent, dimension, extension and fragility of her vision?
First of all, one comes face to face with the warnings, the precautions, with everything that others deem as a delicate and complicated issue that cannot be taken lightly, rising like a safety net against those with a clear vision, who look with good eyes, as neatly summed up by Ángel de González. As if it were impossible to get straight to the point, to advance towards the encounter, to present yourself as you are and accept others as they are, as they can be. In fact, it would seem to be a challenging, if not impossible, task: trying to be anyone, viewing others as anyones and relating to them frankly, free of labels, suspicions and introductions.
This anyoneness, as pejorative as it may sound, is nothing more that the need and will of some people not to be reduced to objects of ongoing surveillance and control, to shake off that obsessive gaze that follows them wherever they go. A scream, or a howl: don’t look at me like that, don’t look at me that intently. And the impossibility of anyoneness results in infamous intermediaries, specialists of all kinds, custodians of an undue distance, watching from above.
But, of course, there are others who desire or know how to close that distance, or make it a matter of closeness as opposed to divergence, who consider that entering into a relationship means embracing affection. Such affection is a special art and not a widely known technique: a complex, and never solidified, artform, that changes with every relationship, adapts to the flow and finds common ground or conflict by looking into the eyes. Relationships that no longer pertain to one as normal—and the other as abnormal—but rather a relationship between two othernesses where both plunge—dive, swim, drown, come up for air and breathe—into the conversation.
Then, little by little, with a patient and passionate effort that can only be accomplished with willingness and attention—being present, being attentive—Lúa finds her own limits, those seemingly ineradicable, absurd, historical boundaries, and in confronting them there is nothing else to do but reimagine the prejudices that make up our life and our world with the force of law. According to the great empire of prejudice, we should seek that moment when people transform into a certain homogenous group that is assigned a unique identity and from which little to nothing is expected.
To portray these women and men, but not just that. The eyes begin to open and out of the corners they start to perceive more than just fragile women and men. To photograph freely. To change the place and power
of these boundaries, angles and perspectives. To see and be seen. To look around and help others break away from their monotonous ways of seeing things.
Subida al cielo [Ascent into Heaven] is the always uncertain and inconclusive result of an experience of the gaze, but also of the body and the language in use. In other words, of that unique, nameless place where gaze, body and language coalesce. What initially may seem lik an individual experience, which leaves little room for subtlety beyond
a certain self-reflection, in the art world ends up finding, alongside patience and artistic passion, a voice-image that speaks to others, to those who have not lived the experience, those who fear and stand aloof, those who did not confront it due to a lack of opportunity or plain apathy. Such voice-image lets us live lives we have not lived and gives us a glimpse of what would otherwise remain unknown, and thus locke in the clumsiness of affection and unavoidable indifference. It makes us more noble.
If the words of the philosopher Levinas are true, that all ethics is a perspective, then looking is not a mere natural or naturalised gesture, but, above all, a response and a responsibility for the observer. The response and responsibility involved in looking, as a gesture of hospitality and kindness; a fair look that does justice even without directly intending to.
To portray, or to return to the retractus: that is the task of Subida al cielo [Ascent into Heaven]. To revisit what has been mistreated. Or to treat with dignity those who have always been considered the useless, the forgotten, the worst cases, the dishonourable. To do justice with your eyes. To look at those who see themselves as outcasts and turn them into the true aristocrats of this wretched world of hypocrisy.