FEARFUL ANTICIPATION: POETICS OF SPACE IN THE WORK OF OSWALDO RUIZ
By Juan Antonio Molina
But when the night wind unleashes itself and its thousands of hammers pound the earth,
the spirit returns to its origins, to its frightening beginnings,
when there was nothing more than the groans of fearful anticipation.
José Revueltas.-Human Grief
The home in man’s life supplants danger,
it multiplies his advices of continuity.
Without it, man would be a scattered person.
Gaston Bachelard.-Poetics of Space
In a brief, but indispensable essay, Martin Heidegger suggests the possibility that the relationship between art and space is conceived from the experience of place and landscape.1 The place being a site for convergences and the congregational function of the space. The place opens to things and retains them through their interdependency. The place turns into a space, precisely because of its ability to unite and retain. The place-space “guards” things as if they belonged to each other, but more so, as if they belonged to the place, and as if the place belonged to them. This co-belonging, as Heidegger suggests, reaches the point where things do not only belong to one place, but they are the place; a very promising springboard for analyzing sculpture in relation to space (which seems to be one of the objectives of Heidegger’s essay). But above all, it is important to point out that behind this vehicle of the logic of the monument, which Rosalind Krauss called “the expanded field” there is another vehicle that can be explained in more familiar terms: sculpture as three-dimensional form, and the installation, expands the space.
Heidegger himself comes to terms with, as is often said today, verbal function and concedes to the total force of the action: How does ordering of space happen? Is placement not part of it? and if it is not, then, is it a double task of permitting and installing?” Placement defines space. According to Heidegger, this creation is an act in the site. It is the site (or the installation), which becomes the site within the place, a room where the thing exists. And it is the site that propitiates the thing to be placed, dissolving the boundaries between the inside and outside, or at least, reducing its importance.
These procedures cross paths in the work of Oswaldo Ruiz, giving his photographic process possibilities that go beyond the inert representation of space. Photographs of sections of light in dark places are both installation and placement, theatrical. The photos of abandoned and crumbling houses suggest an ambiguity between architecture and sculpture, between ruin and monument. These works appear to create a tension between the places where they were built and the places we once remembered. And in that passage between origin and memory, Oswaldo Ruiz makes us intuit the fleeting and elusive whiff of catastrophe.
The catastrophe is timeless. It is something that can only be defined by a lapse of time. So beyond the story, although I am also tempted to say, that this lapse of time, this story, is beyond language. But the truth is that the catastrophe is inexpressible. This catastrophic death has nothing to do with foreboding or memory, rather the uncertainty of time. This death is enigmatic and has nothing to do with “what,” but rather “when.” Death is inscrutable, that is the mystery.
When José Revueltas says, in Human Grief, that death “…is not dying, but it is before dying, just before…” he is talking about the foreboding sense of death, like a state of mind. Death is not dying because at the moment of death (the finality of it), it is inescapable; because the only way to “live” that moment (and this is more of a paradox) is to live it before it happens, or revive it through grief.
The recent work of Oswald Ruiz has that foreboding quality about it. I dare say that the feeling is part of its aesthetic configuration, because it seems to be a prescient part of his imagination. This is not an isolated example in contemporary Mexican photography. I have noticed it before in Gerardo Montiel’s work, as well as in Francisco Larios’ digital graphics works and, most recently, in photos by David Corona. That leads me to think there is a tendency to represent catastrophe as a possibility, as something that resides in an undetermined future/past tense.
Foreboding is a function of the mind. Hence, comes, to a great extent, the psychological complexity of these works of Oswaldo Ruiz. Above all, I am thinking of those scenes that he constructs by lighting nocturnal landscapes. I like to refer to these as “islands of light.” They are scenes in which I imagine things, things that can also be ominous: a brutal and calculated violence, at times, immeasurable.
When Oswaldo Ruiz illuminates those scenes in his night landscapes, he is creating a place, in the same sense that Heidegger suggests. But that also means setting boundaries and consistent relationships between the inside and outside. Here it is not merely about isolating a piece of landscape. This is about colonizing an area by establishing a border, a frontier that creates fear and anxiety.
Gastón Bachelard says, in his Poetics of Space: “…we shall see the imagination of building walls with impalpable shadows, comforting themselves with the delusion of protection… .”2 Thus, in the photos of Oswaldo Ruiz, an island of light is a sanctuary, built with perceptible borders. An island of light is, therefore, a habitable place in the midst of loneliness and uncertainty. What they have in common with his photographs of houses is that those spaces, by way of his lighting, become, although fleetingly so, only a shelter.
And yet, when I see these same spaces in videos, I look at them, or rather I live them as unsafe places. Perhaps the first thing that should be elucidated is the difference between perceiving (or observing) and living. I do not want to present it as a condition of the medium, but videos, combining time and sound (which is also temporal) engage me in a more vivid way in the scene. In fact, I did not perceive the scene as such, but rather as an event in which I may accurately describe as being more than a witness.
Oswaldo Ruiz does not construct a video as a passage of time that makes the presence of the catastrophe more intimate. While his photos seem to be in an unyielding present, the videos, with their enigmatic vibration, make us experience the passage of time, both slowly and cautiously.
The project of Oswaldo Ruiz refers to the impoverishment of Anáhuac area in Mexico City (District 15), which the artist himself describes as a series of “contemporary tracings resulting from inconsistent economic policies and the change in the way of life in our country.”3 The photographs of houses and some adjacent lots are identified by the owners’ or former residents’ names. As a finale, there is a large format photograph of the local cemetery, where lie many of the people who lived there.
The cemetery photograph sums up the idea of a “pantheonic” memorial that is seen throughout the entire project. In this sense it is a representation of memory and grief. Although not literally speaking, the houses that Ruiz photographed are also disheartening representations. In part because an abandoned house is not unlike a tomb, a place where everything is kept forever like a mausoleum.
Oswaldo Ruiz also raises the question of our understanding that these sites are evidence of the tenacity with which people cling to as specific place, because in the end, there is an unbreakable bond between the site and people. In this context, the ruin acquires a political connotation. It is the testimony of a social frustration and symbolizes the collective fear of an uncertain future. But it is also the confirmation of an obstinate resilience.
1 Heidegger, Martin. El arte y el espacio. Fundación La Caixa. Madrid, 1994. Pp. 39-42.
2 Bachelard, Gaston. La poética del espacio. Fondo de Cultura Económica. Mexico City, 2002. P.35.
3 Catalogue of XIII Bienal de Fotografía. CENART/Centro de la Imagen. Mexico City, 2008. P. 76.