The Meteorology of Memory
by Fernando Castro-Ramirez
If by accident, illness or the simple aggression of time, we were totally deprived of memories, the beings bearing the depleted minds that would result could hardly be us. In fact, these memory-less beings would probably not be regarded as persons at all. Such beings with no remembrance of things past would more properly be regarded as automatons. Memory is essential to our lives as persons. After all, memories are the repositories of our knowledge of the world, the sparks of our emotions, the cement of our humanity. Moreover, as humans we share a strong intuition that one cannot face the present nor the future devoid of memories because such deficit terminally compromises our "selves."
Memory has been implicitly or explicitly recurring in Pablo Soria's oeuvre for years often taking a defining role in hisprojects. This remark can either be an empty platitude or a meaningful insight into this artist's creative process. If the former, it can be as harmless as the dictum that all novels are autobiographical. For the argument could be made: how can Soria's work not be about something he remembers? To show that the remark is not trivial and truly insightful, we offer this essay.
Not many years ago, when Soria was more a painter than a photographer, he painted a series of enigmatic works showing maps, books, crosses and bones (both human and animal). One of these works, Two Candles for Ana ,1993, is a painting inside a painting. It shows two candles around a painted frame of a painting of a dark room occupied by a small human figure, presumably Ana. Although candles are intrinsically consumable whereas bones are a vestige that endures death, in this painting the visual resemblance between the two is striking. The title informs us that the candles are either an offering for a live Ana or perhaps in memoriam a defunct Ana. Either way, the candles burn in order to keep Ana in mind; i.e., to re-mind us of her. Burning candles, however, mark the passing of time and eventually their light is extinguished as are most memories — if they are real candles. Two Candles for Ana draws a metaphor of the mind as the larger frame in which the smaller painted frame depicting the room is the locus of a specific memory. The light (consciousness?) of the painted candles acts as if it provided the real light under which Ana may be made visible to us. Of course, painted candles have no such power. Memories may be, as Borges suggests, willed only in dreams but really are gifts or blows of our lives awake. Whether art has the power to preserve memories better than documents or the remains of artifacts or formerly living beings is a different matter.
Due to the fact that they are intended to be used by anyone, maps and chronicles are documents aimed at collectivememory whereas family photos and letters fulfill the intent of personal narratives for a more intimate audience. Soria's work oscillation between collective memory (history) and personal memory (autobiography) generates an intriguing dialectic. In 1993 Soria painted Three Books of Memories, a very cryptic work whose title spells out the mnemonic theme while its depiction shrouds in mystery what the contents of those three books may be. The work places itself midway between history (as most books present) and personal memory — which one it is depends on the unknown contents of the books.
A path towards autobiography was drawn by Soria when he began using in his works old family photographs set in the northern Argentine province of Tucuman, the artist's native land. However, Soria did not delve long in strict autobiography and went on to produce some works with actual maps of Tucuman as their foundation; e.g., "Untitled", 1995, and Itinerary,1995. The latter is a map that shows a house in Peru, another one in Tucuman, a third one in Chile, a fourth one in La Plata and a road connecting all four. Soria's interest in Peru is made explicit in those works where he appropriated the historical drawings of Huaman Poma de Ayala, which a previous reviewer erroneously called "a Spanish account of the conquest of Tucuman." Aside from Ayala, an adopted surname, there is nothing much that is Spanish about Huaman Poma (Quechua for puma) who has carved a special place in Americanist studies because his chronicle — both linguistic and visual — is oneof the few — if not the only — of the Spanish conquest of Peru from the point of view of the conquered. Soria incorporated Huaman Poma's drawings in the work The Final Cut, 1994, and the installation El media mezquino donde nacimos, 1994. In the latter, he used Huaman Poma's Mapamundi showing the Tahuantinsuyo (mistakenly referred to as Inca Empire). Six hundred years ago, Tucuman used to be in a region of the Tahuantinsuyo called Collasuyo. The Final Cut, on the other hand, includes the depiction of the severing of Atahualpa's head, an act that gave rise to the myth of the Inkarri. In 1995 Huaman Poma's beheading of Atahualpa and a third drawing depicting the evisceration of a traitor together inspired Soria's works like Here is where I dream, There are mirrors that scare you, Untitled, My empty dream. It seems clear from the way Soria has used Huaman Poma's drawings that he wants the viewer to remember more than his personal memories, i.e., he wants us to recallpainful historical facts of his birthplace as well as his culture. One is almost tempted to say that Soria wants us to remember things differently; in other words, to revise history.
A 1994 installation by Soria bears the text "La formula del imborrable olvido" (the formula of non-erasable forgetting) repeated n times. The text is somewhat paradoxical, for if forgetting is — by definition — erasing memory, what does it mean for forgetting itself to be nonerasable? That it never fails to erase? Can we forget to forget? This installation is the most Borgesian of all of Soria's works.
However cryptic Soria's formula for forgetting may have been, his formula for remembering was quite specific. He started with the common notion that family photos — even if not produced by him — connect him to specific moments of his own life. Only later, a notion of memory as a blend of yearning and desire emerged from his work. As he began producing photographs himself and these photographs, rather than collages, turned into the end-products of his artwork, the connections to the past became more fetishistic. In / long to build my house in the cathedral of reeds (1997) the images become a sort of emblematic memory — a memory that is a desire for what the past should have been — a logical incongruity that is nevertheless frequently entertained.
Soria's immigrant experience in the United States rendered his penchant for memories at once more urgent and personal. Under a grant of the Miami-Dade Cultural Council, he conducted a series of interviews with recent immigrants one of whose aims was to find out if in their memories of their homelands there was one particular object they remembered most vividly.
Even though by the end of the 19905 Soria had become a full-fledged photographer, he continued to include several aspects of his painterly life in his photographic phase: the self-portraiture, the insides of the human body, the nudes, the assemblages, etc. Notwithstanding his painterly past, Soria rigorously abided by the constraints of straight photography and produced visual effects by staging and the technical means of inherent in the medium.
In many of Soria's previous works and their titles, there is an unidentified female interlocutor — take, Four candles to theindelible memory of your name, 1993, or I will no longer be able to find you in the same rooms, 1995, for example. Moreover, the body of a naked woman appears in every work of the series, The Yearning of the Body, 1998. Is it a heterosexual male perspective? Is eroticism the point of this nudity? Although unabashed the nudes are not sexually enticing, their nudity is almost ritualistic. Furthermore, even though a specific body is the intentional object of yearning and the memories, the non-individuating way the models are photographed promote the particular body to an archetypal female.
Soria's photographic phase also brings into prominence self-portraiture and the screen. Both go hand-in-hand. The screen is a translucent curtain that precludes the viewer from a direct viewing of the artist's and occasionally the model's naked body. Metaphorically, the screen is also the filter that distance and time imposes upon memories. Applied to a self-portrait, it is a barrier that separates us from our own memories — forgetfulness being the most benign filter. In the series of self-portraits titled / already lost the empty words in the whiteness of these sheets (1998), Soria appears trapped behind a barrier he cannot penetrate and through which he (and the viewer) can barely see.
Soria's most recent works have taken the format of diptychs which play one image against another. The objectsphotographed are arrived at using the same kind of mental exercise Soria provoked in his interviews with immigrants. The title La Religion Permanente of one the works in this series is reminiscent of Leon Trotsky's famous phrase "la revolu-cion permanente" whose predicate was to build socialism through the worldwide spread of Marxist upheaval. Perhaps the title is a comment on the globalization of Christianity even against entrenched native religions. In fact, the theme of local religious beliefs is taken up again with the use of pre-Columbian funerary urns from the Santa Maria culture of the Calchaqui valleys. In What did you take with you? 2000, one such funerary urn faces a body that crouches so as to mimic its shape. The body is covered with soil, suggesting a connection with ancient religions of the earth. It is also a reflection about the common matter that constitutes the urn, the body and the earth. What one takes at the end of life is that common substance, part of the land that nourished and made the body and spiritually, the mind. A different kind of body faces the funerary urn in The Guest, 2000: a famished body. The title suggests that this body ravaged by illness or malnutrition is coming to its end as a guest of life. The body as a vessel containing life is an ancient metaphor.
It would seem that with these new works Soria has abandoned the topic of memory in favor of religious themes like life and death, the cult of the dead, the cult of the earth, etc. However, it must be remembered how powerful Soria's appeal to collective memory has been in his quest for personal definition. The incorporation in these diptychs of Christian religious statuary —like the virgins and saints of "To whose hope it is to become pearl or turn into a shell once and for all," "For one who no longer looks at time or "'You are a virgin to me" — is not a eulogy of religious practice but a sort of archaeology of familiar places and objects. Soria revisits familiar places in search of objects that bring about memories and sensations; or vice versa, certain objects transport him to loci of memories.Of the many questions we may have about memory — where they are stored, why they are lost, how they come back, how they surreptitiously influence our conscious lives — one that is often ignored perhaps because it is so transparent that it is almost invisible is: how do memories make us what we are? The question vanishes when we live surrounded by the people and things we have always had near but it becomes particularly poignant when we live in exile of our native land and those people and things are far or gone. Pablo Soria's works make that question and some answers to it once again visible.