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THE PULP OF MEMORY


Text by Laura Bivolaru
A dialogue with artist Darío Gil Cabanas
 

Many aspects of how our mind functions remain a mystery today. The metaphors we have used to imagine its workings throughout history reflect the cultural position or technological advancement of the time, from ‘static mud animated by divine will’, to complex hydraulic automata, electricity as life force or, the analogy of our time, the brain as computer. [1] However, a small number of researchers are moving away from this representation, however, and propose that the brain is, in fact, empty. [2] We have long believed our memories are stored in neurons, so if the brain is not the memory bank we thought it was, that raises questions not only about how we understand ourselves biologically, but also about our being in the world from social and cultural perspectives.


In this sense, artists have always experimented in the epistemological gaps opened up by science. The multifaceted subject of memory is the central interest of Spanish visual artist and artisan Darío Gil Cabanas. In his practice, images, much like memories, are insufficient on their own, and need to be contextualised, framed in handmade installations and supported by textual fragments.





© Darío Gil Cabanas, La Batallita del Abuelo, 2018.



La Batallita del Abuelo departs from the family archive, which Cabanas uses as a prompt to reflect on his grandfather’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease. The vernacular image comes together with historical documents from the General and Historical Archive of Defense in Madrid, testimonies and conversations with his grandparents, as well as personal letters and documents. The first form of the project is that of a handmade book, covered with a thin cover which is ripped here and there. Multiple portraits of the grandfather have been printed on it in a grid, each photograph a testimony to the passing of time. Most of them are casual, showing the grandfather laughing or making a funny face, but a few are formal, picturing a suited figure in studio lighting; one, in fact, bears a part of an official stamp. The first picture on the last row shows the grandfather holding a toddler, presumably his grandchild. The montage is a raw demonstration of 20th century life, where hardly any year passes without adding to the collection of photographic representations, showing two parallel transformations - that of the body, and that of photography, both changing and ultimately fading in their own way. In a way, this condensation is anxiety-inducing – life is preciously and terribly short if it can be boiled down to only a few pictures. Perhaps it is this realisation that provokes the artist to consider extending the understanding that images offer, to root them both in his grandfather’s own account and in historical sources. After all, the book starts with a reflection on how a family has memories buried deeply within neurons, which can also act as an invitation to ponder strategies to unearth and to decipher this inheritance.




© Darío Gil Cabanas, La pulpa del tiempo, 2021.


In Cabanas’ work, memory is a relationship – between neurons, between generations, between recounts, between past and present. It is also volatile, with thoughts diluted by time, or strong recollections. It is also volatile, with thoughts diluted by time, or strong recollections, which don’t necessarily equal truth or fiction. In the later reiterations of La Batallita..., this instability starts to be more visible in connection to the self. The artist includes a new motif, that of the bird, as well as recently made wooden boxes, that house a nest, or soil, archival photographs and feathers. Two pieces of text that resemble haikus contemplate how a bird in flight shapes space and how the self cannot be understood in the absence of the trail it leaves behind. The question that arises is not only what happens to the sense of self when affected by a disease such as Alzheimer’s, but also how the entire family is affected when elders lose access to their own memories and, hence, to their selves. The diminutive in the title (batallita) indicates, on one hand, a return to a state of childhood, of innocence and of unknowing one’s self, as it is often the case when the disease progresses, and on the other, the family’s endearment and tenderness in approaching an increasingly unrecognisable loved one. Therefore, it is not only memory that is like a bird in flight, but the very idea of one’s self.




© Darío Gil Cabanas, Frames de vuelo, 2021.


In a way, Cabanas’ grandfather stands for an entire generation of grandparents who lived not only the horrors of the 20th century, but also radical technological transformations that altered society beyond a point of no return. Their world was once the seed of ours, and their first-person account of it, regardless how subjective, can act as the trail we so much need to make sense of the present and to imagine the future.



ON THE ARCHIVE...

I began to incorporate the archive in my artistic practice aiming to investigate the relationships that can be produced from it within the terrain of reality and fiction. I try to generate discourses that speak of the construction of memory and stories through the archive, as a way to explore it conceptually. However, I am convinced that, treating it from different perspectives, can lead us to productive reflections on our past and on how we construct our present.

The archive is usually in the foreground of my work, being the beginning of a project and then intertwining with the rest of the elements that make up the work. Since part of my artistic practice is the construction of handmade supports, I try to ensure that the archive becomes a source of inspiration for their development and that it is absorbed within the larger body of work, often managing to generate the structure on which I build my artistic discourse.


© Darío Gil Cabanas, La Batallita del Abuelo, 2018.




ON THE LAST 10 YEARS...

I started working with the archive in the wake of a project based on my family archive, about six years ago. At first, I thought it would be useful to tell a preconceived story, but later I discovered that it could become a practice of reflection and discovery of how interpretation turns the archive into a material with infinite conceptual possibilities. I am currently reflecting on how, starting from a fictional perspective, we can place the photographic archive in dialogue with records and traces of the past.




ON ARCHIVE FEVER...

Since the first time that I appropriated the archive, I haven’t been able to stop approaching it in my artistic work. I understand this archive fever as an impulse to play with or enter into it, being aware of the power that the interpretation of a document gives, and turning it into a testimony or an interpretation, depending on how we address it.




© Darío Gil Cabanas, La Batallita del Abuelo, 2018.



ON DISCOVERIES IN THE ARCHIVE...

The main turning point in my work with archives stems from family research and from imagining that I would find in it a way of telling a story that subsequently surprised myself. As I delved into the photographs and found traces of something that altered my perception about the people I knew personally, I discovered the beginning of a journey through the archive as a way to represent identity. In the case of my first project, I used it to reflect on Alzheimer's disease, approaching it from a position of uncertainty and acknowledging that those documents lacked the nuances of the identities of those depicted. I discovered that if I extrapolated my experience to a more collective level, I found in the interpretation of the archives the way to maintain the memory of those renegaded by history, unveiling small stories that contribute to a more inclusive experience.




 

[1] George Zarkadakis, In Our Own Image, Pegasus Books, 2015.



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