Ut Pictura Poesis

by Roberto Echavarren

Brazil was a giant torpedo, green,
and several World War II soldiers at its feet.
The blowhard Brazil of the forties.
A print in a museum. The negro’s corporal punishment.
A view of Petropolis.
England and France were two rectangular bocce ball courts,
parallel, one next to the other.
Such was my preschool geography.
A diagonal ray of light comes in through the window,
it hovers, casts a shadow over the frame
and moves beyond. It lacks a center,
but follows a course, and keeps drifting.
Someone floats in a pirogue on the river
without ever approaching the right or left bank,
without skidding, at most taking shelter by the rushes.
Whomever is willing to dwell there
arrives as a replacement for the one
worn out by so many seasons.
He comes to take the other one’s place, or backs down
and flees from the river,
until poison or tar burn his insides.
A bird trapped in oil, he falls,
bogs down—our double having breakfast.
But we will go on floating,
sticking to the structure. We draw from it
illusory mimetic effects: shadow and perspective.
If light goes through the diagonal structure
we perceive its thickness; it is a sculpture casting a shadow,
its steel-gray corroded by the paper’s sepia
on the edges, almost yellow, of each box or capsule
drawn on the structure’s honeycomb.
Light suspended in the sky, adrift.
It is the most austere construction of an object.
It does not represent.
It builds a synthetic object so as to focus our gaze
A cipher of the world or the universe.
Something beyond representation.

It makes visible the invisible,
in a manner at once severe, tender, and playful.
It is a toy within an arbitrary frame.
These works are the delicacy of the spirit
unlike the delectations of the senses
because in them you can sense a striving for accuracy,
a hunger for perfection.

The stains behind the structure make an irregular background,
casual sand or matter’s random thickness.
That background moves too, but differently,
water within water, whereas a guitar hovers above
and continues its course amid the water hyacinths.

Montevideo and a bundle of numbers.
The sun to the left, less convincing than ever
in its hieroglyphic aquarium, a tumbling
vocabulary net, an image before a sound,
a trace before a word.
The harlequin is behind everything, his red, tattered hat,
and the artistic effect of his suit’s geometry.
A constructed man.
A geometrical synthesis now proposing an irregular yet angular frame
advancing at man’s step, who never keeps still after all.
He is a dancer, a trombone, a saxophone.
He dances at a round of neoclassical ballerinas
or whirls like trapezoids lassoed by a nonetheless rigid and geometric wire.
He quiets down, until no human forms remain.
Until we arrive at a garden, a bench, and the wooden blocks
a child arranges and rearranges: bars, squares, and neckties.
A trapezoid figure moves toward the upper right corner,
like a hat or a torpedo, it soars up.
But the vase, the fruit, the coffee pot,
leave us here, stranded in brown and black.

So much for that. An almost bare tarnished white canvas
with the blue and red scratches of a tiger
on the upper right corner:
are these the traces of what has passed or of new beginnings?
Of what will arrive at the empty, available rectangle,
whose opacity we will not betray?
Before its emptiness, a moving bronze ribbon articulates itself,
magnetized by a snake, it recreates the snake
suspended in the space of this room,
shimmering in certain broken, angular areas,
coiling despite its vertical display, elongated secret of the netherworld,
the closest thing from that world in this one.
It ascends up through the vertebrae’s incision points
magnetizing there the appearances
the convergence of all tissues
so the twist of the liveliest, most concentrated, orange piece of chalk
becomes central. Its curling partners two brown fragments of clay from a broken vessel.
Simulacra of earth.

Let us now proceed to the spectra of colors
arranged in horizontal and vertical bands.
Fine yellow bands
give us the time’s stimmung
the horizontal green, mauve, and black ones
are flags, places,
the countryside’s areas,
spatial distributions;
a vertical red stain, parallel to a yellow one,
complete the indeterminate design.

Sometimes we don’t like colors.
Those pastel colors of the fifties.
Sometimes we don’t even like architecture.
The simplification of the sixties.

We enter the huge canvas of a ship
displaying itself on the sky and ocean
on an overcast day
slit by fine lines often laid out disorderly,
writhing, as if concrete abstraction.
As if red tape stuck
or imprinted on the backside
of a large glass.
This is the great window:
a grid can be seen through the glass,
and through the grid can be seen
an armature, an entanglement, like tree branches on the avenue.
An innovative approach to abstract photography.

Let us now return to the driest of diagonal functions.
This function, on a court or a field, a rotating, floating square,
pits an indented square against two smaller indented squares.
They go at each other like bird beaks.
An eternal struggle, though a still one.

Then calligraphies become more subtle
across fields of green and sepia,
fine diagonals not completely parallel
intersecting with other lines forming fluctuating grids;
an elastic rhythm that we begin to inhabit.
Multiplied optical effects, technological trompe l’oeils,
dots releasing themselves from dots,
traces from traces,
a change of skin in which all is possible
and all is realistic. Or figurative.
Any semblance can be.
A Brownian movement,
an irregular distribution of wooden specks
in basic colors stuck to an ivory canvas.

Soon sound systems appear, the false eyes
of loudspeakers and sign-making machines.
Then come sugarcane stalks
vertical and painted black.
But what about the geometry of dance,
or of the snail? The spheroid display of its growth.
Curves traced with a paraboloid compass
summarize its movement.
Lattices, rags, stripes of color printed
on translucent plastic,
Seen things, which now appear abstract.
Technique produces a particular verisimilitude.
A vertigo, a maelstrom, a conical vortex
piercing the earth, and twisting inside a hole.

That puncture, asshole, or grave, commemorates a crypt,
a concrete black and white composition.
Diverticula are painted on the steel structure.
Let us go through to the other side.
A golden curtain of synthetic ropes
is lit from below.
It is penetrable. A twice traversed transparency
of steel, aluminum, and limp plastic reeds—
a multilayered penetrable curtain,
an isolated pavilion in a park, a tokonoma
to enter and dig into,
to then continue walking.
Penetrables neutralize figures.
The role of objects here is theatrical.
They require the viewers’ participation,
and are absorbent; they dematerialize them
as they merge with the work.
Carnivorous plants for art galleries.
A fascinating pictorial illusion
taking place in the real world, without distancing itself from it—
the penetrable is virtually infinite
and can adjust to any surface,
stretching itself over any topography
as if it were topological film.

Riding on a donkey through the valley I enter the penetrable.
The penetrable, a surprising homotopic prosthesis. An artificial extension in which we’re immersed
without looking out.
At a certain hour in the afternoon the penetrable filters diagonal sunlight,
The forest’s chiaroscuro,
its plastic fibers hanging as if from a willow
with clear plastic strands instead of branches,
ribbons dangling from above
swaying in the wind like freshly rinsed hair.
An optical work seen from a distance
the penetrable works like a dematerializing machine
absorbing the extraordinary sheerness
of the bodies of those who enter it.
An anemone with an emerald green heart.
As a tactile experience, it feels like the resistance that caresses rather than opposes.
You can dream of a work that would absorb the entire world.
Who would see it from the outside?

Any kinetic structure is pre-penetrable.
Vibrations. Sonic penetrables.
The pictorial plane multiplies itself and disappears simultaneously.
Volumetric structures, Plexiglas panels,
are virtually penetrable.
Remember children climbing on monkey bars.

Burlap, grain of wood,
a crate of fruit, boxes within boxes,
materials to be touched, wrung, with which to dry our hands.
Has geometry come to this?
In this informal kitchen, a square pillar of dark wood
is pierced by nails, surrounded by gnarled wire.
These are either carryovers from its previous use
or the artist’s latest addition,
all summer’s humor is crucified to the board;
from the cleft lip, the scream: how many hues in the screech
of a cat, of the game, the fun screech,
the body’s potency released from its moving mouth.

Where were we?
We were alone just then.
Music came in waves. what’s to say?
The beat says it, the voice passing through cords
modulating itself in tapping phrases…
This no painting can imitate.
Only the resonances, the quivering,
the optical effects, the creaking of the kinetic object.
An inner, translucent factory
illumined by incandescent lights

In the psychochromatic streaking
bats peak out of a fence;
it’s the shadows of Batman with his suspended cape,
so grave, so suspenseful, that not even silence could be mistaken.
Grids of fine lines, red superimposed over green,
departing from their direction
they inhabit the black hole, the bats’ cave.

It’s the height of a supreme tension
that calls, unites, and focuses us.
What, then, is an active object?
A yellow field, a broken blue line on one of its edges, or the erect peristyle of a matchbox?
Maize invaded us, an abstract, uncontainable color.

Now we can tell apart whites from whites—
the muted encounter of two different hues,
one whiter, and the other, naturally, more opaque.
The distinction of shades of the same color, saturated beige and copper.

Gridirons, shutters, lattices, could be placed in a rotating order
as if dancing. Shapes of stone and green glass.
Over an always vibrating background
extra-fine wooden sticks are laid out like a fence.
They move in waves of a liquid flotation,
and it’d seem as if every drawer had opened.
Green cloth pops out of one
as well as parched leather;
out of pockets and bags, rags spill out.
One is embroidered: “On adversity we thrive.”
And the tip of a shower cap:
“Come!” In the water spurts, in the tidal waves:
“I love you.” It means nothing,
commands you to take a piece of cloth and wipe the debris off your eyes

All this dangles like rigging,
like an entanglement of knots, something half-woven.
Before this package gets temperamental
we’ll trade it for a wall hanging of metal rods
dangling like a mobile,
or of polichrome rods of needle-fine metal
balancing themselves in the wind.
An orange ambition arrives.

The enthralling adventure of the real had ended,
but it went on exerting a subliminal influence.
Take the Moëbius strip, for instance:
if you limit yourself to seeing it, it has two sides.
But if you touch it and sense its entire length, you’ll know it has one side only.
Sight and sense produce meanings
analogous to the effects of inside and outside.
The sound of crushing rinds, the scent of coffee:
could we ask ourselves if the silent sculptural object
has as much power as sensorial stimulation therapies?

The work consists of a thin metal sheet
curled into itself, producing sensuous curves,
made even more attractive by the industrial shine
emanating from it and inviting you
to bend the metal with your hands.
Vulnerable all around,
the sheet doesn’t even have sides left—
no up and down, left and right, or front and back.
The bent metal asks only
whether it’s within or outside of something else.
It also begs the question of where it belongs.
It opted for a three-dimensional medium to create those buzzing effects of intersecting lines.
Even when exhibited on a pedestal,
the piece hardly conforms to the parameters of sculpture.
It’s an overall sense of harmony and rhythm instead.

An object shedding light on its entire trajectory.
To seduce a fact, so that it becomes an object,
going through several layers of knowledge
as a needle piercing through the wrist bone
and connecting all dynamically:
you should recognize here a new type of superiority
one without which the world wouldn’t work.
Something needs to happen so that it’s not all disagreements
but rather smiles at the beach, so that we may fall in the arms of one who loves us,
and ignores the fact that we disappear.
Birds sing after the rain.
Music never stops.
Yet the needles fatally fall;
none of them resisting
the diatopic call that makes its demands
on us, on youth.

 

Translated from the Spanish by Mónica de la Torre and the author.

Mónica de la Torre is senior editor of BOMB. Public Domain, her most recent poetry collection, is just out from Roof Books.

 

—Roberto Echavarren is a prolific Uruguay poet, novelist, and essayist. He has taught in London, at New York University, and at the Centro Cultural Rojas in Buenos Aires. Performance, a book of his collected poems, appeared in Buenos Aires in 2000. His most recent novels are Ave roc and El diablo en el pelo (The devil in your hair). With José Kozer and Néstor Perlongher he edited the seminal anthology of Latin American poetry Medusario, published in 1996. “Ut Pictura Poesis” reflects on the artworks included in The Geometry of Hope: Latin American Abstract Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, which was exhibited at the Grey Art Gallery in 2007.

Tags:
Translation
Spanish language
Latin American literature
abstraction
exhibitions
latin american art
BOMB 106
Winter 2009
The cover of BOMB 106
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