"If you follow a road, be careful; you'll have trouble coming back to wide openness." (2)
Stricken with myopia in my early teens, once I got over the painful idea that glasses were going to be a fulltime visual crutch, I decided to make the most of my handicap by exploiting the dual vision of things I had been vouchsafed: the sharp focus one, thanks to the transformation of silica into glass; and the other, plunging any and every distant object into an enigmatic blur and endowing me with the capacity to separate the clarity of the near from the utter haziness of the far-off.
The first segment of Luis Felipe Ortega's black and white video altarpiece Solar (2009), opens with the unfocused. Silhouettes walking in the countryside seemingly in search of something on the ground. Then the group boards a van stopped near a tree. Spotted through the back window of the now moving vehicle, the sun, on the verge of dropping below the horizon, closes this initial sequence, giving way to a new horizon: the lower two-thirds of the screen, more or less, sparkle with the waters of an unidentified ocean, while the cloudy sky of the remaining, upper third is traversed from left to right by a nonchalant pelican. The conjectural quest of the country sequence becomes more explicit here on the strand, its object now appearing to be mere seashells. I have my own idea as to what that object was the first time round, but not being one hundred percent sure, I prefer not to say. It should be noted that Ortega's people move in slow motion, creating the illusion—so agreeably, so voluptuously muted—of letting time take its course slowly, of reining in its ineluctable flight ever so slightly. During the following five minutes or so the camera turns its back on the ocean, and films from the strand two figures making their way along a dune while being threatened by an enormous, tousled angora cat: this time I have to own up to the impression of a feline that I get from a dark vegetal mass looming against the light-colored sandy backdrop. The music accompanying the end of this section reminds me of the adagietto of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, chosen by Luchino Visconti in 1971 for the death of Dirk Bogarde, alias Gustav von Aschenbach, on another beach: that of the Lido in Venice. Obviously this recollection is due much more to the unity of the two scenes than to any resemblance between their quite different melodies: one is tenuous, while the other is a moving expression of the tragic conclusion to a lover's quest. Yet they are interlinked by a certain eulogizing of slowness.
Taking advantage of the effects digitization allows, Ortega unhurriedly pixelates his way out of this scene. Once visual definition has returned, this sea shore episode closes with a trio of tableaux. The first is a line of three pelicans flying from left to right, with a conversation in Spanish accompanying the leisurely turning of the camera. The next two are static shots, one crowded with rocks on whose highest point an upright silhouette stands out, the other revealing the granitic character of the coastline with, in the background, the horizon line separating sea and blue sky. The type of rock we see is exactly that found on the coast of Brittany.
A fresh burst of pixelation then propels us into the very different ambience of a cotton mill. We're going to stay maybe five minutes, during which the camera will linger on the face of a worker with masked eyes and mouth, record the mechanical ballet of the spinning machines, and then use slow motion to confer a gentleness—a sensuality even—on the movements of the same worker as he checks the quality of the thread.
In fact grève ("strand", remember?) has two meanings in French, and I'm going to take advantage of this stopover in a cotton mill to talk about the other one. The Place de Grève, on the banks of the Seine in Paris, was where unemployed workers assembled, and the word gradually came to mean "strike": downing tools to protest an injustice, defend one's rights or demand better working conditions. In early nineteenth-century England the Luddites (named after supposed machine-breaker Ned Ludd) were textile workers who saw mechanization as a threat to their livelihood; roving the countryside and smashing the new looms as they went, the Luddites initiated the social struggles of the nascent industrial era, for which the strike would become the working class's principal means of exerting pressure.
It's hardly surprising that Ortega should visit a place like this when his avowed interest in cotton goes back to his Ocupación at Mexico City's Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros, aka "The Cube", in 2004. He also used it in Before the Horizon (2006–08), Weft Above (2008), Atarraya (2008), Breakfast for Dino Campana (2009), and a lecture-theatre presentation of this same video,Solar, in 2009.
The intriguingly surprising sound track with which Israel Martinez has so effectively embellished Ortega's images makes extensive use of crossfades. And so, as the definition of the image gradually increases to the point of revealing the mill, the noise of the machines has already crossed our auditory threshold, even though the music of the three beach scenes has not entirely died away. Similarly the airplane noise and the snatches of conversation between crew and control tower are already intermingling with the rhythm of the machines as the worker's slow, precise gestures shade over into their measured pixelation. And it's only after more than a minute of this screen interference that we can identify the location of the following scene: reversing the landing of a plane as filmed from the cabin, Ortega transforms a dusk touchdown into a kind of retro-takeoff. The runway lights recede and the moment the plane leaves the ground silence intervenes, just long enough for the aircraft to gain altitude and traverse the cloud cover. A final spell of pixelation takes us back to the setting of the very beginning, then onto the very same sandy beach. The "cat dune" is now dotted with footprints, while we listen to the sound of running water mixed with scraps of conversation clearly culled from a British radio station. A seated figure looking out to sea while a second figure moves away is the final image of Solar, which terminates, after 25 minutes and 10 seconds, when the walking figure disappears offscreen to the left.
Cat, wherever you are, peace be with you.3
So, to sum up: blurred images, near-permanent slow motion, a landing disguised as a takeoff, the rare changes of scene effected via a black screen, except for the three successive coastline shots. Most of the changes of atmosphere are achieved via variable-duration pixelation. A snatch of conversation in Spanish and an excerpt from a British radio broadcast make up the only audible dialogue: no voice-over as in the filmic essays of Chris Marker, who invented the genre with La jetée in 1962. Almost nothing but suggestive images, boosted by an enigmatic, sampled soundtrack, most often synthesized and occasionally melodic. A single natural sound: that of the running water which, almost at the end, accompanies the return to the beach. The anonymity of the players is preserved and the only face seen in close-up is masked. The moving silhouettes, rarely immobile, are mostly filmed from a distance. They cross or occupy the screen with a minimum of movement, all of them in slow motion. The recording of those movements, especially those of the quality controller's hands, is doubtless the only true moment of warmth in Solar. Note the contrast produced by the abrupt cut from a stony environment to two mechanical worlds: Solar as metaphor of a paradise lost then regained? As a variation on the theme of the eternal return?
Completed in the same year as Solar, Macapule mainly takes place in Patagonia and draws most of its subject matter from the Perito Moreno glacier near El Calafete, in Argentina, and the Torres del Paine national park, while also including Lago Grey, not far from Puerto Natalés in Chile. Mostly in color, Macapule nonetheless incorporates black and white images as well: snowcapped mountains and a lakeside scene of a young woman moving slowly—slow-motion leaves her no choice—towards a group of five other people situated lower down.
I enjoy watching the girls walking on the beach
The swinging hips…4
Regarding this splendid image-symphony to nature and, especially, to the mineral kingdom where rock, water and ice rule supreme, I should like to emphasize two events in the film. The first—more a non-event, actually, or better still, the entropic remains of a series of past events—consists of a static shot of a ramshackle assemblage of wood on piles. I recall having seen other structures in this state after cyclones on the island of Holbox in the far north of the Yucatan Peninsula. The view of this altar standing in water and topped by two crosses side by side calls up another memory: passing through San Andrés Cohamiata in the western Sierra Madre, I went into the starkest chapel I've ever seen, and my eye was briefly caught by two near-identical crosses, also side by side. Curious as to the significance of this stutter, I asked one of the locals, who told me that one cross was for women and the other for men.
An experience is always a fiction: it's something that one fabricates oneself, that doesn't exist before and will exist afterward.5
It's all the more pleasurable for me to stress the second event in Macapule in that I visited fascinating, spellbinding Patagonia in April 1997. What I retain of the experience—my receding memory of it—is, naturally, different from what Ortega offers. Observed from a specially constructed lookout, the extremity of Perito Moreno, the gigantic glacier in southern Argentina, is a spectacle made up almost entirely of waiting. But what is one waiting—and hoping—for? For the collapse, dictated by nature's whims, of columns of ice as tall as twenty- or forty-story buildings. Like any glacier Perito Moreno advances imperturbably, invisibly, which means that inevitably, sooner or later, blue-tinged ice towers break away: then the silence is broken by a long cracking sound like fabric tearing, followed by a low-pitched resonance as awe-inspiring jets of water and ice accompany the collapse.
Luis Felipe Ortega doesn't offer us one of these micro-cataclysms. After 6' 16" of filming the screen is invaded for several tenths of a second by a kind of stroboscopic effect: a group of tourists in colorful winter garb crowded together on the lookout and recreated by Ortega in a stunning, syncopated vision. The same scene, this time lasting some 25 seconds, terminatesMacapule's almost 11 minutes. And let's not forget Ortega's Km 96 installation of 2002, which offered the screening of an epileptic forest in the depths of the wood-filled trailer section of a truck. The stroboscopic light sporadically illuminating a forest in Yucatan at night actually came from lightning flashes, with the powerful odor of pine emanating from the wood inside the truck and the direct sound of a tropical forest on a stormy night providing a striking recreation of the artist's experience during the recording of the scene.
In the case of Solar the editing is relatively classical, but what are we to say of that of Macapule? Solar contains three changes of setting, but with narrative returns to the locations that are decipherable or, at least, imaginable. Solar closes a loop, whereasMacapule hinges much more on collage. Juxtaposition of relatively static tableaux or postcards—whence the notion of the passing or flow of time—is done away with, contrary to Solar in which the key is sequence, a temporal progression that puts a before and an after into perspective, even if at the close of the loop the before becomes after, with the retro-takeoff of the aircraft suggesting that either could easily take the place of the other. Macapule's two stroboscopic moments look like inserts, not to say intruders, as are in the final analysis the people who visit places like Perito Moreno: their participation is generally restricted to voyeurism, the spectacle in question being so disproportionate that our human scale, whether spatial or temporal, seems utterly insignificant.
In the third segment of the triptych, Xiriah (2010), Ortega invites us to accompany him on his quest for the ideal composition. What framing is one to adopt for a singular image combining a building, a lighthouse and the vestiges of some time-worn structure, a masonry skeleton left standing somewhere without rhyme or reason. Xiriah lasts 10 minutes and 15 seconds, three quarters of which are devoted to getting the image right in terms of framing and focal distance. At the end of a left-to-right camera movement Ortega singles out the three buildings he will gradually focus on, with the lighthouse in the centre. After a brief image in which each of the three subjects is seen in duplicate, as if the camera was squinting, Ortega zooms in. Xiriahcloses with a view of the lighthouse, now perfectly framed and alone on the screen.
Ortega has been to Guerrero Negro in Baja California twice. The first visit in 1985 resulted in no images at all. The lighthouse was still in service at the time, mainly as a guide for ships loading cargoes of the salt produced not far away. Their principal destination is Japan. When Ortega went back in 2007, the lighthouse had been abandoned. Chris Marker's Sunless (1982) is a series of comings and goings between the Land of the Rising Sun and Africa, and includes a lighthouse on Sal, one of the Cap Verde islands. The voice-over tells us that this was one of the world's last oil-fired lighthouses. I can resist the temptation to compare Ortega's and Marker's ways of making and editing video: in Solar, Macapule and Xiriah I see three filmed essays with no voice-over—practically silent, you might say; three uncommented image-propositions in which the meaning to be assigned to the subjects and their sequencing is, so to speak, free, as if left to the viewer's discretion.
He liked the fragility of those moments suspended in time. Those memories whose only function had been to leave behind nothing but memories. He wrote: I've been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me. On this trip I've tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter.6
From 1959 to 1964, Jean-Pierre Abraham was the keeper of the Armen lighthouse, off the Breton island of Sein and one of the most exposed lighthouses on that part of the coast. In Armen, his remarkable poetic account of this spartan period, he tells how bad weather could sometimes cut him off from the world for days: "There are words that burst into flame in the night. Often, in the morning, I find them in ashes. What kinds of words must we invent if they are to burst into flame each time we look at them?"7
From the series Six essays…a propos Calvino, 1998–1999
Ten Ways to Forget Gilles Deleuze, 2000
Breakfast for Dino Campana, 2009
Untitled (The exchange of notes between Kawabata and Mishima), 2009
Untitled (What Celine did not tell on his Journey to the end of the night), 2009
This is a list of sculptures, photographs and drawings by Ortega which, if only by their titles, directly reference men of letters. With this in mind, I should like to conclude with a literary triptych of my own, whose first segment is a piece by Honoré de Balzac, dating from 20 November 1834 and recounting the story of Cambremer, a sea-going fisherman from Le Croisic in Brittany, whose only son has given himself up to a life of dissipation. After one theft too many, Cambremer kills him, and a week later his wife dies of grief. In A Seaside Tragedy, also known as A Drama on the Seashore, Cambremer withdraws to do penance in a grotto by the ocean.
That glance, from two bloodshot eyes, was like the flash of fire from a cannon, and his stoical immobility could only be compared to the changeless aspect of the granite slabs that lay about him. Slowly his eyes turned towards us; his body as rigid and motionless as if he had been turned to stone; then after that glance, that made such a powerful impression on our minds, his eyes turned to gaze steadily over the vast stretch of sea.8
Himno al mar (Hymn to the Sea) was Jorge Luis Borges's first published poetic work, appearing on 31 December 1919 in the review Grecia. Years later the sea was still very much a presence in his oeuvre.
Climbing up steep sandy hills, they had arrived at the labyrinth. Seen at close range, it looked like a straight, virtually interminable wall of unplastered brick, scarcely taller than a man. Dunraven said it made a circle, but one so broad that its curvature was imperceptible. Unwin recalled Nicholas of Cusa, for whom every straight line was the arc of an infinite circle.9
Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari lives in fear of the vengeance of his cousin Said, whom he has robbed and betrayed. He takes refuge on the Cornwall coast, near the port of Pentreath, where he builds a vast labyrinth at whose center a raised room allows him to overlook the Ocean from which Death will come. Despite the explicitness of its title ("Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth"), Borges's tale leaves us faced with an enigma: was it Said or Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari who was found dead one day, his head crushed?
Marguerite Duras's The Tranquil Life tells the story of Francine Veyrenattes, known as Françou, whose icy attitude to death is highly disconcerting. Her indifference to a drowning witnessed from a beach, for example, verges on the sublime. In all its incomparable simplicity the Duras style renders the unambiguousness of time's passing.
The sea was quite rough and soon I saw no more of the man, neither his black skull nor his feet. I had been able to watch him briefly as he advanced boldly towards the open sea. Then nothing.
It was warm enough to relax in the sun. I was lying sideways, looking out to sea, my head resting on my elbow. When I could no longer see the man, I let my head drop. That way I could see the sea better. It looked greener. I did not know what to do, and I pressed my ear flat against the sand to try to hear something. You hear nothing on sand, you're up against a dead silence. On soil you must be able to hear animals nibbling and biting into roots. On sand, nothing.
The waves kept coming in in regular rows at eye-level. Coming in endlessly. I couldn't see anything but the waves. Soon they had become my breathing, the beating of my blood. They entered my chest and when they receded, they left me hollow and resonant, like a rocky inlet. I could no longer see the little extinguished lighthouse off to the left, nor the rocks nor the houses. I no longer had any relatives or anyplace to go back to. I had nothing left to wait for. For the first time I had stopped thinking about Nicolas. I felt good.
There was no one on the beach. No one had seen the man drown but me.
There was a soft light on the sea. The tide was coming in. The sun was not as hot now. The evening was about to arrive like an event, and I was waiting for it. It was going to arrive with its train of stars and moons and its motionless cavalcade above the sea.
When it got dark, I thought I saw once again the memory of the little black streak of the man's laughter nearby. I imagined him: he went down into the sea very slowly, straight down, spread with all the motionless sumptuousness of seaweed. In just a few minutes he had moved from extreme haste to extreme unhurriedness.
There came a moment of intense darkness. The sea was inky and it became cold.
I went back to the hotel.10
The fictional characters in this literary triptych, as well as the real people Ortega films in Solar—somewhere at the edge of the Ocean or observing Perito Moreno's sea of ice in Macapule, or Ortega himself working his camera in Xiriah—are without exception looking at the sea, staring at it, scrutinizing and questioning its vast expanse. The camera movements, already slow during the filming process, are rendered even more so during the editing. Caressing the landscape with his lens the way a painter caresses his canvas, Ortega brings subtle, deft brushstrokes to his creation of atmosphere, beguiling the eye as he goes. To himself and to us he offers the time needed to see things, in a transcending of the mere act of looking.
Luis Felipe Ortega practices video like a painter, and art with philosophy.
Long ago we knew the role of the philosopher is not to discover what is hidden, but to make visible precisely what is visible, which is to say, txo take what is so close, what is so immediate, what is so intimately connected to ourselves that we cannot perceive it.11
Mexico City, June 2010
1. Jean Grenier (Paris, 6 February 1898 – Dreux, 5 March 1971), Les grèves (The Strands) Paris, Gallimard, 1957. Up until the early 20th century grève ("strand") was the French word for the strip of sand running along a seashore, not yet called plage("beach"). Strand remains a literary term in English, with Shakespeare using beach in its modern sense in the 16th century.
2. Henri Michaux (Namur, 24 May 1899 – Paris, 18 October, 1984), Tent Posts, trans. Lynn Hoggard, Los Angeles, Green Integer, 1997.
, Argos Films, 1982. The quotation is a Japanese woman's prayer to her missing cat, Tora. The full English text of the film can be found on ###a href="http://www.markertext.com/sans_soleil.htm.">http://www.markertext.com/sans_soleil.htm.
, 1981. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cw_UGOy87ss
5. Michel Foucault (Poitiers, 15 October 1926 – Paris, 25 June 1984), Conversazione con Michel Foucault, interview with Duccio Trombadori, Paris, late 1978. Quoted in Lee Braver, A Thing of This World, Northwestern University Press, 2007, p. 402.
6. Chris Marker, Sunless, op. cit.
7. Jean-Pierre Abraham (Nantes, 1936 – 26 July 2003), Armen, Paris, Le Tout sur le Tout, 1988, p. 122.
8. Honoré de Balzac (Tours, 20 May 1799 – Paris, 18 August, 1850), "A Seaside Tragedy", in Christ in Flanders and Other Stories, Kessinger Publishing, 2003.
9. Jorge Luis Borges (Buenos Aires, 24 August 1899 – Geneva, 14 June 1986), "Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth", in The Aleph and Other Stories, trans. Andrew Hurley, Penguin Classics, 2004.
10. Marguerite Duras (Gia Dinh, Vietnam, 4 April 1914 – Paris, 3 March 1996), La vie tranquille (The Tranquil Life), Paris, Gallimard, 1944, pp. 174–75. This translation by John Tittensor.
11. Michel Foucault (Poitiers, 15 October 1926 – Paris, 25 June 1984), "Gendai no Kenryoku wo tou" [Analytical Political Philosophy], lecture given in Tokyo on 27 April 1978, first published in Asahi Jaanaru, 2 June 1978, pp. 28–35. Cited in Mark G.E. Kelly, The Political Philosophy of Michel Foucault, New York, Routledge, 2009, p. 129.