In the Presence of Absentees
Marco Silveira Mello
Published in the catalog of the artist’s exhibition at the XXIX Bienal de São Paulo, in 2010
[…] is not absence the most effective,
the most tenacious, the most indestructible,
the most faithful of presences?
I have never asked how it came to him. Certain things just seem perfect. We simply accept them. Without question or objection. They are there and that is all. They carve their space. Some years ago, sixteen to be precise, Daniel Senise presented a series of works under a title I consider exceptional: Ela que não está [She who is not there, p.13]. I did not see the paintings at the time, and would only do so later through reproductions, when they were published in a book under the same name.1 I don’t remember why I could not go to see them, but I got wind of the title around the time they went on show. We usually look at the works first and then at the names they were given. That was not what happened here. The name came first. Seeing the images, the given name struck me as very appropriate; I regret not having had direct contact with them at the time. Nevertheless, the recollection of the name always presents itself as an event apart, and not only because it reached me first, though this is certainly relevant. Had it not been so, perhaps I would not have paid so much attention. There is something in the title’s structure, an internal play performed by the words that I can catch and understand, but which keeps echoing, in suspension, as if floating, as if the title were a work in its own right. Writing on Senise’s art I now realize that there is nothing amiss in seeing it like that. The title, this one in particular, really presents itself in that manner. Its structural form is similar to that of its designee, and of many other works by the artist. And there is more to the story: its few words sound reflexive, as a comment or note on some aspects which preside over this production; a short confession of artistic conduct. Could it be the key to accessing the most nebulous occurrences of his poetics?
Daniel Senise’s participation in this Bienal de São Paulo is made through two works: a painting and an installation. Both are presented in a space which measures about 323ft2, formed by four walls about four meters high. On the outside of the front wall, we see Skira[pp.44–45], a 102x177in painting made out of the pages of books from a collection dedicated to art2. The pages are cut up and arranged on a flat surface in such a way as to make us see a sequence of niches which occupy the entire expanse. Though this is the only image, several pages carry numbers and short texts. These snatches of information were once page numbers and captions to the images they contained. In the corner of that same wall there is an opening which allows entrance to the construction. Inside, the partitions are fully taken, from top to bottom, by plates reminiscent of wall paneling. Equally white, each plate measures 20x20x0.8in.
This second event would be totally uniform were it not for two orders of occurrence. Closer examination reveals that each plate is distinct from the others, through minimal, almost imperceptible differences. The technical description that accompanies the work informs us that these plates are made from pages taken from art catalogues and books and invitations to exhibitions. In other words, the materials that normally bear witness to artistic events are here recycled and processed. Witnesses on the verge of erasure. Nevertheless, their fleeting traces are strong enough to reveal some craft, testify to a former existence and lend a certain singularity to the surfaces. In addition, one of these walls offers a rectangle in relief; the other three are flat. The relief is achieved by the use of slightly thicker plates — a mere two centimeters thicker. Like the first–mentioned distinction, this too teeters on the brink of imperceptibility.
The conjugation made by these works is unusual at least. After all, here are two representatives of different sorts– which is eccentric in itself (why two?) —, one of which is an installation, something not at all frequent in the context of the artist’s accomplishments. If I am not mistaken, this is only his second piece of that kind.3 Moreover, each seems to be entrenched in its own determinations. One is here, the other there, broadsided, turned inwards, as though ignoring the other’s presence.
The treatment given to these works is not the same. The painting is exposed to less committed, more inattentive glances: it is well located, but not mounted as a primary attraction. The installation, on the other hand, seems to deserve all the care, clearly denoting that, in this scenario, it performs the leading role. And yet, even this prominent condition is apparently unable to satisfy its ambitions: it aspires to be the only presence; relegating any other to mere extravagance. Concerning the canvas, its participation in its own right arouses a symptom of lack — the absence of other counterparts. So why not just present the installation on its own? Why are no other paintings placed alongside Skira, to keep it company?
The fact that these works feature similar materials is not sufficient in itself to justify this arrangement. The most reasonable hypothesis, at least at first sight, is that the painting placed in front of the room, although it presents itself on its own terms, takes part in this conjugation with a view to stimulating a perception among the public: that the shared realities should be inflected according to its influence. It is there not only to be seen, but to help in seeing the other. Offering itself as the primary fact, it reminds the viewer that the artist’s field of action is painting and that the nature of what is being presented next is committed to that. It therefore prepares them to be aware of the surfaces and to see — in the small vestiges on the plates and in the homogeneous or salient arrangement of the walls — pictorial occurrences reminiscent of the completion of the painting.
We are used to associating the artist’s production with surfaces fraught with events and with the unequivocal constancy of images. Nevertheless, the second work — conveying itself through containment and the lack of images — resists this understanding. Facing the circumstances, the query is unavoidable: does this work hinge upon similar motivations to those we have come to expect from the artist? Or has it been only an episodic action? The painting seems to be there to legitimize a bond of familiarity. However, if it does so, it does not do it emphatically, allowing the event to remain nebulous.
As I said before, we are accustomed to seeing the work of the artist this way. Would it be totally right? At least the most recent pieces have shown different configurations. It is a fact that, in the beginning, his pictures were laden with symbolic meaning, with immediate citations of other works and with the accumulation of items on the surface. But, little by little, the surfaces became more economical, the practice of citing more accessory and the symbolic elements gave way to the indicial (and the iconic) — more akin to the current sociability. The work shown at this Bienal may well be the pinnacle of this process. However true that might be, that it may indeed be proper to consider this poetic through its most recurring feats, one thing is certain: dealing with absence is nothing new to his production process.
Nor, for that matter, to any expressive economy. Every artistic object or operation of meaning is always more than what it provides.4 In this economy, there are facets which seem too obvious to mention. Sometimes, it is exactly in view of the absence of a determination, or through its veiling5, that the operation of meaning succeeds. Besides, it is by dealing with the lack — as we have learned to see through the movies, not to mention other artistic expressions — that the field of the viewer–work relationship guarantees stronger cohesion. The gap stirs the imaginations of the viewers.
The title Ela que não está, in which a presence is founded through its absence, is revealing in itself. Senise not only plays openly with these mechanisms,6 but also deals with them in a reflexive dimension. But, is this concern embodied in his poetic core, unfolding over the course of his work? Or is it, once again, just an occasional happening?
So that we might better evaluate the articulation of presence/absence in his oeuvre, it strikes me as fitting to show the different stages of his productive process. Before that, however, I emphasize: there are some passages which do not regard the artist alone; actions that may be found in different artistic operations, as well as in practices related to other contexts which are not necessarily artistic.
In order to develop his operations, Senise appeals to images from the most varied sources. Nevertheless, they never appear in his works as they presented themselves to him. They are always unstable, lacking in properties, mutilated. The efforts made to endow them with that loss are multiple and developed pari passu with the works. Whether fractions large or small, what is shown is only ever a part of the former event, causing much of the earlier system of reference and signification to be excluded or erased — a term the artist might prefer. After that, the fragments from other orders of signification are joined together in such a way as to form a new visual unit. In this context, the fragments do not make themselves available through undisturbed arrangements. His works make use of two or more quite prominent elements, equally affirmative, placed in opposite flow, each pulling the gaze in its direction. The operation organizes varied and even antagonistic meanings in a territory which is common to all. With each part pointing to its own meanings, the outcome will present itself as if endowed with density and in the form of a paradox — when the elements of the work act in open opposition.
By setting up this tension, the images made by the artist may retreat from the shallow, immediate aspect that surrounds images in general — so that his artifacts may be seen as belonging to the art field. In our belief system, in our culture, in our grammar of seeing, image and art may have much in common, but they position themselves in different ways. We confer upon the image the value of reference to something distant. Concerning art, we also consider that it refers to something else, but with the complement that this referent other it makes us see is itself. These differences are so deep–rooted in our belief system that even when the artistic phenomenon manifests a complex reality, before the perception of these features, our understanding of what we see shifts from one point to the other. In the making of an image, experiences are required in order to found the presence of an element capable of referring to something or someone that is not present. In the making of art, the experiences are coordinated with a view to promoting a new reality of belonging, a presence not yet available in the context of art.
So as to make it all look natural, i.e., to hide from the viewer the disjunctive character of the images he makes, Senise resorts to a series of expedients. One of the most frequent is to use figure/background relationships, making the elements which stand out in these functions available. In fact, his backgrounds never behave like secondary creations, as if playing a supporting role. They only pass themselves off as such, but are really protagonists just like the figures with which they share the spotlight. If we cover the figures in his paintings, it is possible to notice his fondness for another aspect of the pictorial tradition: the presence of qualities compatible with abstract painting. Endowed with these qualities, theirs is a close–run race. When the figure sits in relief and tries to pursue its functional quality — its being–image fate —, the background blocks its way and distracts the gaze away from it. And when the background tries to fulfill its destiny, the figure responds in kind. Acting in this particular manner, the figure/background relationship engenders a state of permanent tension in the field. The background is always ready to shift, pushing the figure forward or throwing itself backwards; creating depth of field in shallow, almost flat circumstances, and looming large in situations already denoting distance. At times, as if it were not enough to cause that conflictual atmosphere, the conflation of figure and background gives birth to a new figuration.
If in some pictures the push–and–pull is sufficient to conceal the disjunctive character and block the perception of the manipulation of the image, in others, however, more variety is required. The artist resorts to the empathy between forms, or chromatic values; to metalinguistic expedients. He requests the participation of grammatical elements encumbered with more than the structuring of the picture, but actually its concealment, as in the use he makes of perspective — which captures the gaze and takes it for a walk through the picture along routes of the artist’s choosing.
The best comments on Senise’s works can be found in the works themselves. In one of them [p.17], the artist collects an endless number of nails and by causing their oxidation produces a line on the canvas. It emerges from the bottom left or right–hand corner of the picture and keeps on searching for the opposite corner at the top. Along the way, it performs pirouettes and, before it can reach its destination, returns by a different path to the starting–point. Out of this line derives a figure, shaped like a boomerang, while the line that made it describes the course of a boomerang in space. In the same body three figurations take place: the presence of the nails, the boomerang and the movement it describes in space. One might say that there are even more meanings unfolding there. The nails cite some of his earlier works, in which he used the same subject–matter, or technique. On the other hand, the description of the flight of the boomerang causes us to see the movement of his poetic. There, the images, or their vestiges, act as the lines drawn by the rusted nails in this work: they seem to go somewhere; they whirl around, perform pirouettes, seem to be free, but in the end are doomed to return to exactly where they started from. But the whole movement is not in vain; on the plane of the picture, out of these vicissitudes, another image emerges. Nevertheless, this one is also precluded from showing itself as an image and the obstacles are the very elements that took part in its creation. They resist being completely blended and insist on exhibiting their own former meanings, calling our attention to them. And just when they seem about to succeed, they are thwarted by other items in the picture. Thus, incessantly, it is all about an eternal movement of affirming and annulling — an image that returns in another work.
Senise’s oeuvre always summons a complex set of layers in its structuring play. Layers that unfold by creating several narratives out of one and the same fact. One is seen one minute, and another the next. When the one makes itself available, the other is absent, and vice–versa. Perfectly evincing this operation is the painting Despacho [p.18], in which the profile of a figure is mirrored and set facing itself in such a way that the gap in–between assumes a vase–like shape. If we focus on the figures, the narrative evokes a connection to the image repertoire of art history — the image is associated with the painting Portrait of the artist’s mother, by James Whistler. If the gaze tends toward the vase–like figure, Gestaltimmediately springs to mind. Although both of the facts refer to art, two different instances are placed there, with distinct histories and characters.
Regarding the nature of the short–story, the writer Ricardo Piglia has developed a series of theses, the first of which is that this literary variant is not composed by one, but two narratives held in the same structure.7 In another thesis, he established a distinction between the classical and the modern structure of the short–story. In the classical structure, with Edgar Alan Poe as an example, narrative 1 is placed in the foreground while narrative 2 is built in secrecy. The art of the short–story writer is in weaving the second into the interstices of the first, down to the denouement, when it emerges on the surface, causing the surprise effect. According to Piglia, on the other hand, the modern short–story assembles the narratives as if they were only one, assuming the tension between them and never resolving it.
Undoubtedly, in such a disposition, where a fact performs two, it is necessary to recognize the role played by the reader. It is him who notices and takes up the occurrences which the latent weaves into the gaps of the manifest, or that appear allusive–like to the condition of a second narrative. Incidentally, conscious of this participation, Hemingway articulated the “iceberg theory”, according to which the most important part in a story is never told. This task of gleaning it is left to the reader’s imaginative action.
Piglia’s theses are relevant, but are by no means restricted to literary production.8 The same occurrence can be seen in the other artistic fields as well. Senise’s production invariably explores this procedure. In addition, it increasingly requires the participation of the public. The more items are subtracted from the structures of the work, the more is required of the public. The artist takes for granted that the participants of the artistic circuit, mainly those who follow his production, are equipped with references that enable them to fill in the gaps.
In the series Ela que não está [p.13], a form that is difficult to define with any measure of precision can be seen. However, some years before, Senise had developed a series of works which looked like peeling walls — an effect achieved by painting and peeling the layers, opening cracks, and flecking off parts — and recollecting this older series helps us read the newer one. We see the works in Ela que não está as supported by these other works and therefore we accept that we are standing before the representation of a wall, or a painted surface, which has started to peel. These flaked off patches hint at a form when some absences which occur in their outlines are supplied. It must be added that this form is the result of the artist’s appropriation of stains revealed during the restoration of Giotto’s fresco Death of St. Francis.9 From one of these patches Senise selected a detail suggestive of a rectangle and, consequently, of a canvas or a frame, and placed it at the center of each of the pictures in the series.
Now, what stands here, in the several versions of this set, is the image of the elements they lack, namely, what is seen is exactly the subtracted portion of something. This is one of the narrative threads that run through the work, but there is another, in parallel: is the image not itself a phenomenon that typifies an absence? In addition to that: does not a frame which surrounds nothing denote the lack of a picture? To sum up, concerning these works, there are several narratives endowed with varied characters which state the same fact: lack. Or that declare themselves as founded on the same event.
They also disclose the opposite. The painting is the expression of a presence – that of the blotches. The sequence of marks presents the image of a frame. The background image, acting like a painting, seems to endow the frame with the aim that it lacks.10
To say nothing of the fact that these marks, which suggest an event related to painting, refer to an item of the history of art, a fresco by Giotto, although these patches do not originally belong to it. Crowning all these narrative layers is one more: the title of the series.
Altogether, the series aims at engendering, through some few visible expressions, a varied number of meanings. Nevertheless, it can only be achieved through the participation of the one which is not present there: the viewer.
By analyzing Senise’s oeuvre we may find, in different ways, the same order of concerns repeated, indefatigably and in progression. It is a quasi–obsessive behavior. Suffice it to say that one of the most emblematic references to the artist is the fact that he paints without using the regular means, but rather a technique of his own devising, called Sudarium(Shroud), through which the paintings are made by capturing vestiges.
In 2009, at Centro Cultural São Paulo, the artist presented, if I am not mistaken, his first installation. The work, entitled Eva [p.27], consisted of bricks piled up around a sculpture by the artist Victor Brecheret11,until it was completely blocked from view. The bricks were made out of such recycled materials as folders, invitations and catalogues produced by the institution to promote its cultural calendar.
The brick wall was raised over a period of several days, so that the public could follow its gradual making, up to the point that the certainty of the presence of the sculpture no longer derived from the evidence of the visible. Yet, we know that it is there. The actions arranged by Senise do not unfold as a single narrative. Enclosed in its construction there is another history, pensive and filled with its own events, which acts as reminiscence. It is through the articulation between the volume that shows itself, but does not stand as a figure, and that which stands as a figure, but remains concealed, that the work actively means to be accomplished.
One of the works on–show at the Bienal shares several affinities with the work presented at Centro Cultural São Paulo. Notwithstanding, before commenting on it, we had better examine its partner. After all, it is the painting that reaches the public first. Some of its distinctive features have been already mentioned. It is made out of the pages of books from a collection on the arts. The pages were cut and pasted on a surface in such a way as to make us see a sequence of niches. This view can only be experienced when the viewer takes some distance from the painting. When seen up–close, the sunken image vanishes and, in place of the dent, the events posit a flat condition, making it possible for us to see how the structure was built. Proximity makes the original marks manifest: numbers and references hark back to a former life. What was seen as the borders of the niches, what acted as the outline, now can be seen as hollow; as part of the surface that was not filled in. On the other hand, the pages now have an inner aspect: the references available. Some of these items claim the presence of images that are not there, but that might be brought about through the viewer’s imaginative activity. As can be seen, the work is structured over dispositions with similar contents, but derived from distinct causes and stated through the same items. When one of these dispositions makes itself present, the other retreats, and vice–versa.
Before Skira [pp.44–45] we face the absence of the other work that makes up the set. This other work’s title — O sol me ensinou que a história não é tão importante [The sun taught me that history isn’t everything, pp.52–69]12 — acts in quite a puzzling way.13
Before the viewer comes to the installation, the picture has already whispered some clues and reminiscences. “Be aware of the facts related to my presence” — it seems to say. Coming into the installation startles the viewer. In the inner part, something distinct from what was expected takes place. The public faces a series of rectangles, plates distributed from top to bottom in such a way as to fill out the room. It is a silent event. Just like a wall. Four walls.
In the beginning it seems that the event can be reduced to this disposition. Nevertheless, a closer look allows us to examine other occurrences. In one of the walls, as already mentioned, several plates are in relief, revealing a rectangle — a geometric shape reminiscent of the imaginary of the painting. Realizing this metalinguistic circumstance makes room for reconfiguring the whole set through the same prism. In our imaginations, the walls also act as analogues to the painting. Historically, before drying upon canvases, paintings dried upon walls. Besides that, under the modern condition, painting, formerly a window that opens onto the world, imposes itself upon the viewer’s sight as a barrier.
And, if these walls comment on painting, this extension of white rectangles, flecked with faded dots over the surface, likewise presents itself as such, as a huge painting that encloses the viewer in its core.
There is another fact shared by the picture and the installation. Skira was made from pages torn from a collection of art books. The plates stuck on the partitions, on the other hand, do not consist in a common paneling, the kind found in hardware stores. They were laboriously manufactured, one at a time, from the reprocessing of a material that is not suitable for this end — they are made of paper. But not just any paper; paper from graphic materials designed for promoting art shows: invitations, folders, catalogues.
Being built in such a way, these walls lay out new concerns. The purpose which organizes them cannot be summarized as the intent to display plastic facts over a surface. There is another dimension being pursued here. Standing out as a huge collection of testimonies of events similar to the one being acted out, in addition to contemplating their plastic propositions, these walls allow the viewer to feel, in equal measure, the invisible presence, to an indefinite degree, of other occurrences related to art now taking place in memoriam. However, I had better stress that the reminiscences which might endure here are no longer within reach. They were erased through this construction process. They only remain as a shadow, a spectrum of other lives, which implies that history — or those histories — is not properly embodied in the plates made by the artist. To say that the walls represent history, art history, would be more accurate.14 The documents related to art materialized here do not disclose their contents, their feats, but endeavor to express — to manifest — history as a solid body.
Collating art history has long been among Senise’s procedures. In his most recent works this issue has been amplified. It is a matter of endowing this invisible body which stands over any work of art with some visuality capable of granting meaning and judgment. Facing a work of art, the viewer does not see only what is placed immediately before him. He sees and appreciates these elaborations from the determinations of culture, which turn up through his imaginative capacity.15 It is through this process that these achievements become complete and can be valued. Daniel Senise’s installation aims at providing a body to this incorporeal presence, this narrative shadow which interposes itself to any pretended artistic fact, summoned together by our imaginations. It makes us see that in the same way it makes us see walls endowed with the proper nature of painting. A painting that discloses on painting. All conjugated in the one and the same experience of the visible.16 And why not the invisible?
1 MESQUITA, Ivo. Daniel Senise: ela que não está. Texts by Ivo Mesquita, Dawn Ades and Gabriel Pérez–Barreiro. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 1998.
2 Responsible for these editions was Albert Skira, André Breton’s partner at the newspaper Minotaure. These publications had a peculiar trait that proved decisive for Senise’s choice: besides being publications focused on art, the text and the images were not printed in one go. In fact, the pictures were added afterwards, individually pasted onto the pages above their respective captions.
3 The first installation was Eva [p.27], which took place at Centro Cultural São Paulo in 2009.
4 Every artist handles presences and absences which correspond to the understanding of a purported viewer they create themselves. A work of art depends on this participation. If the viewer does not make himself available for this relationship and come armed with compatible references, the play grinds to a halt, or is at least somehow impaired.
5 In the movie Rear Window, by Alfred Hitchcock, there is a great example of this. In the middle of the night, Jeffries’s neighbor leaves his apartment followed by a woman. The image is not seen by Jeffries (James Stewart), who is asleep at that very moment. It is the lack of this image which nourishes the character with certainty about the murder. The viewers, on the other hand, though they may identify themselves with the main character, do not share such a strong conviction, as they have not witnessed the event.
6 To those who, just like him, act in the field of the image, it is mandatory to have this knowledge and to deal with it, for, whether or not the image brings a presence, it is also a phenomenon related to absence.
7 PIGLIA, Ricardo. Crítica y ficción. Buenos Aires: Siglo XX y Universidad Nacional del Litoral, 1993.
8 Another constraint is that we perhaps have two stronger, antagonistic stories, alongside other sub–narratives.
9 Fresco at Bardi Chapel, Church of Santa Croce, Florence.
10 The purpose lacking to the frame and that might be provided by the representation of a wall is not attained by the way both of them are configured. One image does not join the other; rather they compete against each other, as two events of distinct orders would.
11 Brecheret’s sculpture is also entitled Eva.
12 The title is an adaptation of a fragment from the foreword to L’Envers et l’Endroit[Betwixt and Between; also translated as The Wrong Side and the Right Side] (1937) by Albert Camus: “le soleil m’apprit que l’histoire n’est pas tout”. In: CAMUS, Albert. [Essais. Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Plêiade], 2002, p.6.
13 It is worth noticing how the sentence of the title behaves. It gives us some important clues on the way the artist’s acts take place in that fragment, where two elements of distinct orders are disposed — the sun and history —, one related to the natural world, the other, to culture, performing respectively as subject and direct object, in a statement wherein the mere expression of the presence of the first lowers the status of the second. No other evidence takes part in the sentence in order to substantiate the predicate. Yet, the sentence sounds downright ultimate. Before it, I found myself unable to counter–argue, to advocate for history and state its validity. Any discourse I may resort to seems unsatisfactory straightaway. It thereby hangs sovereign. What is the secret posited here in order to instruct this framework? The conjunction “that” foregrounds the occurrence of two clauses in the same sentence. The first: “O sol me ensinou [The sun taught me]”. And the other one: “que a história não é tão importante [that history isn’t everything]”. The latter takes part in the sentence as a sub–clause, filling in with the meaning lacking to the former. After all, whoever teaches, teaches something to someone. But this completeness only happens in the formal structure of the sentence. The conjunction only draws the two distinct sentences close, but they keep on playing their own parts, as parallel formations. This fact remains concealed. The void held by the first clause supplies the structure of the sentence with more strength. The reader provides continuity to its development, giving shape to the emptiness, through the facts of his experience.
14 Or the art circuit.
15 Art history is an invisible wall upon which we “hang” works in order to see them properly.
16 The installation combines two narrative fields, placed in opposite flow, in such a way that it seems they are in close connection.Back