The Last Summer

María Gainza, catalogue of the exhibition La ascensión, Argentine representation at Venice Biennale | 2005

Sometimes the works of Jorge Macchi seem like a long love letter. The kind you might find hidden between the pages of an old book in the library of a house rented over the summer. His works are about the fragility of things, the remains of the day, distant flutterings of quivering beauty. They are made of absences that command the scene as powerfully as any presence. Sad images that represent that essential condition of being locked inside one’s own head known as solitude.

In Macchi’s work, the key word is dispossession. Macchi starts with very little, with what the waves leave behind after breaking on the shores of our conscience, and ends with even less. He is an artist of loss and nostalgia, who has built a body of work that provokes the sensation of being in an absolutely private and highly secret place and suddenly feeling that someone else is there. Like a lover whom we haven’t seen for years. Or, better yet, like his ghost.

Or the instant the wave grows

There are things in this world that make you think of Macchi: the gushing white trail left by a plane as it disappears into the clouds, the circles trembling in the water once the little stone has sunk, the evaporated perfume that remains stuck to the walls of a glass bottle. It’s more an effect than a result. If it were smallpox, it wouldn’t be the marks on the skin but the feeling of weakness in the legs from staying in bed so long. It’s what remains, vibrating. Every work of Macchi’s captures something that has lost solidity.

It’s a substance that slips between our fingers in the very moment we try to close our hands. In Macchi, it is never the form that makes the space but rather the space that breaks up the form, pulverizing it. The pages of an obituary in Monoblock have been soaked to the point of erasing each and every word. What is left are thread-like grids shivering on the wall, buildings, cities, cemeteries evoking the emaciated specter of existence.

And yet the ghostly element, the breath on the back of the neck in his works, is barely scary. There’s nothing terrifying or uncanny, simply because they weren’t brought forth in fear but in sadness. In Mar Muerto, the shadows of glasses containing salt lurk against the wall, like a melancholic X-ray recording an illness. In Vidas Paralelas, two glasses are broken in the exact same way: birthmarks, lines in the palm of a hand that open up and heal at identical points, rivers of pain that run in twin beds. If man is, irremediably, an island, these couples don’t seem to be so much characters separated from a single life as elements of a tandem reality, in which neither could exist without the other. In Still-song, the lights thrown by a silver ball twirling in a room have pierced the wall with holes. These are the footprints of a party that is over and won’t happen again. Maybe also of a happiness that lasted an extra minute, or of a light so strong that it overexposed the memory on the wall, as when the sun burns circles in the grass.

In order to find their most achieved form, all of Macchi’s works have needed a minimum displacement. The kind that occurs when, suddenly, the wave starts to climb. It’s not the big cataclysms, nor the abrupt changes of pressure nor the colossal imbalances that produce his images, but rather an imperceptible shake. A silent displacement, inoffensive in appearance, yet implacable, like the needle on the clock that pushes the days along in millimetric leaps.

There’s a rainy atmosphere, an eternal Irish rain, like the one in Beckett’s Mercier et Camier, that acquires in Macchi’s work the status of a metaphysical idea. A mysterious tranquility, a gravity or calm. A second before, everything seemed to be falling apart. A second later, the situation has stabilized. In Les feuilles Mortes, the lines in a notebook seem to be sinking away. Rushing toward the floor, they capture the irreversible tendency of bodies to pass from order into disorder and then, possibly, to fade into thin air.

And, nevertheless, in The Speaker’s Corner, where the quotation marks swing along the wall as they embrace empty quotes, in Blue Planet, where the continents of the map have been swept over by water, disorder doesn’t emerge as the negation of order but, principally, as the ordinary condition of every movement: the result of a random and automatic mixture of loose molecules floating around. The strength of Macchi’s world lies in being born precisely in the same instant in which imbalance takes charge.
Curiously, Macchi’s work is not only the record of an emotion, but the mental space in which a struggle is progressing: between the destruction of the image and the search for a possible image. The poet Jacques Dupin, used to say: “In the forest, we are closer to the woodcutter than to the solitary wanderer. No innocent contemplation. No high forest crossed by sunlight and the songs of birds, but their hidden future: cords of wood. Everything is given to us, but for violence, to be forced open, to be almost destroyed -- to destroy us.” As if the image could only be born when all the other chances for life have been destroyed, Macchi explores the margins, the endings, the debris, what’s left behind. It is a question of keeping a silent vigil over the world until the last moment, when it begins to break apart under the pressure that’s been placed on its shoulders. And so Macchi picks up the smithereens.

Or the sound of water breaking against sand

If one of the strong points of Macchi’s work is the swiftness and dexterity of his thought – the way he unifies two poles of an idea without the pulse quivering and with no need of a fencing foil – the other, to tell the truth, is its inexorable consequence: why, having been reduced to the essential, deprived of ornament, Macchi’s works give the same formal pleasure as music. And so it becomes clear that the artist is actually interested in problems that extend outside the field of visual arts and that what he embarked upon, a number of years ago, is an enormous poetic project.

For this reason, in his works, as in poetry, we encounter crossroads between the visual image and acoustics. There are silent works that allude to music in a direct way: in Nocturno the nails on a stave seem to be the desperate attempt to cling to a melody. There are openly musical works: in La Ascensión, an elastic bed placed below a Venetian fresco registers the Ascension of the Virgin Mary and, like the taut drumhead of a bass drum, evokes the blow of a mallet, while the music of a viola da gamba sadly recreates the effort of a human being to gain immortality: the awkward jump, its brief stardom and inevitable fall to earth; and finally, there are works with neither musical accompaniment nor direct references that, even so, appear to hide a silent metronome marking an interior rhythm. Fuegos de Artificio captures the explosion of a shoe’s footprint: one of these works in which the pauses and visual hiatuses, rather than breaking the musical cadence, appear to occur under its influence. Or else Horizonte, where the springs that hold up a photo of the sea become the waves of a mysterious string instrument, and the horizon, a fermata, the notation in a musical score that suspends or prolongs the sound beyond the established time.

When we were children, we were told that if we brought a conch shell to our ears we could hear the night murmur of the sea. Later, we understood that what was actually occurring was that the shell was amplifying the vibrations of the fainter sounds of a place: the air that stirs the leaves in a garden, the breathing of a sleeping dog in the sun, the mowing of a lawn far in the distance. Macchi’s works are just this, amplifiers that capture and reproduce sounds that the human ear would ignore under normal conditions. Works like nights that propagate over kilometers the softest whispers, the grazing caresses that forgotten things provoke, the surrounding music of the universe.

Or what remains when the surf pulls back

The philosopher Richard Wolheim used to spend four hours on the clock in front of a painting. He wrote: “I developed a way of looking at paintings that took up enormous amounts of time, but was immensely gratifying in its way. I came to understand that it generally took me at least an hour to get rid of all the dispersed associations and faulty perceptions. From that point on, the more time I had left over, the more I felt that the painting was delivering its secret to me.” Macchi’s works on the other hand do not demand so much time face to face because more than an intense look they are images that require absorption. And in this they come ponderously close to literature. So much so that you finally begin to get a sense of the artist as the creator of visual fictions.

Days after seeing them, his works grow in your memory. They bounce around the rooms of your mind in slow motion like objects inside a space ship. They are images that could be book covers in their power to condense stories, but are rather more like what we would find in opening a book if we could, literally, distill the tale to its essence.
Each person with a coherent identity is, in every moment, telling himself the story of his life, following the thread of his own story. In forgotten love, time that won’t turn back, kindred souls, detective stories, landslides, building collapses, chance encounters and accidents, Macchi finds images to tell the stories that haunt him. And in the process, he captures something of their old scent, in the same way that certain stories of Bioy Casares and Cortázar smell like the wilting flowers at summer’s end.

But good stories do not have a beginning, a middle and an end, rather they have a beginning that never stops beginning or an end that never stops ending. Old country bells that resound in the distance. In the Happy Birthday message published in the diary of Love Story, the memory floats abandoned, a little paper boat in the ocean of time; the bag over the mirror of an armoire hopelessly tries to capture a reflection without realizing that this same gesture will end up suffocating it. Because Macchi’s work is without a doubt a fiction that meditates on miscommunication, on places where, beyond language that reflects a conception of the world and supposes human relations, all that remains are singularity, the inexplicable, the unspeakable. But also the incontestable reality of existence.

The universe is made of stories not of atoms. So Macchi’s works seem to murmur. In Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman tells how in 1905 an office clerk in Berna who is about to finish a job which he calls Special Theory of Relativity has a different dream every night for thirty nights: in each one of the dreams, time functions in a different way. In one, time is circular, people repeat their triumphs and errors over and over again; in another, there is no time, only frozen moments. It is a book that examines the nature of possibility and chance, ideas that also keep Macchi awake. But far from the pragmatism of Lightman’s protagonist, who describes sadness as “nothing more than a little acid transfigured in the cerebellum,” Macchi has decided to live in a place where an emotional truth can have the same solidity as a scientific truth.

Or turning your back on the sea

Macchi’s works are what begins when a woman leaves the room. What an instant afterwards becomes past. In an episode of the series Twin Peaks by David Lynch, the mad brothers Horn, thrown in the berths of a prison, recall their childhood. They lose themselves in the cloudy image of Louise Dombrowksi, a girl with a fluttering lantern in her hand, who dances like a bewitching candle flame in a darkened room. This memory that goes on hypnotizing them years later is the fantasy of love. And it is this which makes one of them ask himself the same thing that we ask ourselves each time we pause in front of one of Macchi’s works: Oh, brother, what has become of us?


Translation: Maxine Swann