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  • Jorge Macchi – The Anatomy of Melancholy

Jorge Macchi – The Anatomy of Melancholy

Gabriel Pérez Barreiro, Catalogue of the Monographic Exhibition at Santander Cultural, Porto Alegre, Brazil, Mercosul Biennale | 2007

“Show me slowly what I only know the limits of”
Leonard Cohen

1. The Anxious Object

Encountering Macchi’s work for the first time creates a disconcerting sense of a low-grade but powerful uncertainty hidden somewhere within or behind an object that initially announces itself as something formally pure or innocuous. Simply put, Macchi’s work can be understood in terms of the difference between how we understand the world logically and how we feel about it. In the words of Clarice Lispector, “Pensar é um ato, sentir é um fato” [Thinking is an act, feeling is a fact], a wonderfully concise expression of the interrelation between thought and emotion. In an early work like Escalón [PLATE X], the simple act of presenting a single step removed from a staircase shifts our reading of the object to suddenly see it as an irregular and bizarre coffin, while still remaining a stair that leads nowhere, a step into the void. This kind of conjunction of meanings around a single object is typical of Macchi’s search for multiple layers of resonance, almost like an echo chamber surrounding the object in which personal memories can collide with philosophical ideas. For this resonance to occur, the object must maintain a basic quality of stubborn silence, by which I mean that its intentions cannot be declared too explicitly at the risk of the work becoming didactic or illustrative.

Macchi’s avoidance of the illustrative or didactic is both a personal preference and a symptom of a historical moment. If the term Post-Conceptual Art exists, it would apply perfectly to Macchi’s work. Growing up in 1980s Buenos Aires, the artistic panorama was split between the inheritance of earnest political Conceptualists grouped around Jorge Glusberg on one extreme and the large-scale expressionist painting epitomized by Guillermo Kuitca on the other. At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, we could say that Macchi brings together the expressive and psychologically-charged content of the painter and the pure and clear visual language of the conceptualist. But of course where his work is different is in the non-narrative nature of his expression. Rather than create dramatic scenarios or tableaus, Macchi’s work waits for the viewer to bring associations and create his or her own reading. By not relying on a staged scenario or on a conceptual pre-text, the work runs a much higher risk of incomprehension or of being accused of hermeticism, but it is precisely this tantalizing sensation of grasping at an image that seems to float in the ether that makes Macchi’s work so thrilling and so hard to classify.

Much has been made of Macchi’s connections to the intellectual spirit of Buenos Aires and to the philosophy and poetics of Jorge Luis Borges. Much less attention has been paid to the formal operations present in his work and to the difficulty of establishing any kind of stable reading of the works. In his most successful early works, such as Untitled [PLATE X], in which a pillow is covered with broken glass, or Pentagrama [PLATE X], in which a pillow is fixed to the wall with five ropes, the readings can range from comments on political violence, to the agony of a sleepless night for an insomniac. The important point here is that no single explanation can exhaust the possibilities contained within the object, and no text can substitute the experience of encountering the object.

In this regard, Macchi’s choice of everyday objects is significant. Through the simplest of operations, these objects undergo a process of de-familiarization to the point where the obvious becomes remarkable. It is almost as though the split-second between perception and understanding has been slowed down and filled with content. In this sense, his work bears parallels with that of Waltércio Caldas who achieves a similar sense of disconcert, albeit in a more formal language as opposed to Macchi’s more emotional and vulnerable sensibility. This need to slow down and complicate the gap between an image and its meaning is partly a response to the increasing complexity of the visual messages that surround us. Jimmy Durham quotes Gabriel Orozco saying that art can no longer aspire to be thrilling, as Benetton will always do it better. The path for certain contemporary artists has been to start at the other end of the spectrum by looking at the everyday and trying to re-establish meaning and complexity through the mere act of careful looking.

2. Parallel Lives

In two works called Parallel Lives, two accidents occur simultaneously and impossibly. In one [PLATE X], an open box of matches reveals an identical pattern of matches in two compartments, something that could certainly happen in the realm of theoretical statistics, but we would never expect to see. In another [PLATE X], two panes of glass are broken in exactly the same pattern. The relationship of chance and accident is a constant in Macchi’s work. On one hand, it is possible to read this in metaphysical terms, as a proof that the universe contains and foresees every possible act, and so finding two identically broken panes of glass is ultimately only a question either of time, luck, or patience. This is the universe so elegantly described in Borges’s La Biblioteca de Babel. However, Macchi’s choice of title, Parallel Lives, immediately introduces a personal and emotional note beyond the intellectual conceit. The search for the perfect match is one of the clichés of everyone’s sentimental life, the tantalizing belief that the perfect soulmate exists if only we knew where. At the same time, the image we are presented with in both cases is an accident, something that disrupts the expected order of things. The broken glass immediately leads us straight into another emotional cliché: the dramatic landscape of the traumatic breakup. Once again, contradictory and emotionally charged contents are placed in conflict with one another, in both cases through objects that have barely been touched by the artist.

The works in the Parallel Lives series, perhaps more than any other, show how different Macchi’s logic is from a Hegelian or Platonic model in which the purer the object, the closer it is to an abstract archetype. In Macchi’s case, the simpler and cleaner the object, the more references it contains, and the more personal and sentimental those relationships are. The strategy of oblique and concentrated looking could be included in the list of media for Macchi’s work, as could a refined and dark sense of humor. The matchbox and broken glass are almost dumb in their lack of pretension and elaboration, yet they are also far from the intentionally clumsy or adolescent work of many of his contemporaries on the international contemporary art scene. The essentially adult nature of his work, its resigned and wistful air, are all the more remarkable for being made by an artist who was in his early 30s when some of his most significant and delicate work was produced.

3. Incidental Music

When Macchi left Buenos Aires in 1996 looking for new horizons, his first stop was the Duende Initiative in Rotterdam, in what would become several years of moving from residency program to residency program in Europe. This move can be understood as both a push away from the limitations of the Buenos Aires scene, and a pull toward a desire to test himself in a new context. The sense of dislocation, vulnerability, and creative misunderstanding that always happens in a new location was to become the central factor in his work over the following years.

One of the first works produced on this residency, Accident in Rotterdam [PLATE X], was a breakthrough towards a more conceptual practice and away from the more sculptural or object-based works produced in Buenos Aires. In Accident in Rotterdam, two toy cars collide on the intersection created by the shadow cast by a window on the studio floor. Once more, the references range from literature (Edgar Allen Poe) to the anxiety of a recent breakup, and an overwhelming sense of bad luck as accident and chance meet again in an unlikely place. This work, perhaps more than any other, suggests that there is a parallel world to ours, and if we only look hard enough we can find it. Here we have a shift from Macchi as producer of anxious objects to Macchi as the seer of a mysterious world that that lies just under the surface of banality. This ability to find the meaningful in the everyday has very little to do with a formal language and everything to do with refining a sensibility and an eye for the remarkable within the commonplace.

While on residence in London, Macchi’s eye was caught by the bizarre, violent, and apparently meaningless stories that appear in the British popular press. These were stories of random tragic accidents that evade any rational explanation, but that register the most important moments in certain people’s lives. In his 1998 exhibition at the University of Essex, Macchi took one of these small stories on the inside pages—the story of a drunken babysitter who fell asleep on top of the baby she was supposed to be watching—and magnified it to the size of the large front window of the gallery. The huge scale of this story, its amplification out of its literally marginal position in the newspaper into a public display forced a moment of coming to terms with the ridiculous and tragic nature of this story, and with the transgressive feeling that this story didn’t belong anywhere in the world, or even worse, that it was somehow funny. Once again, only by focusing the eye on something that seems insignificant does its cosmic significance and ability to destabilize expectations come to life.

Macchi calls this type of news ‘incidental music’, referencing the movie soundtracks that contribute to creating a mood but need to always be in the background. His 1997 installation Incidental Music was a breakthrough in articulating this shift from background to foreground, and also represents his first use of music as an essential element in the work. Incidental Music consists of three large sheets of paper onto which are collaged a large selection of these stories of random accidents and acts of violence from the popular press. The stories are laid out in straight lines to form a musical staff. The small gaps created on the lines where one story ends and the other begins are the basis for a musical composition that plays through headphones suspended from the ceiling. As the viewer listens to the tranquil Satie-like composition through the headphones, a perceptual cycle is created between the formal beauty of the work and the bloody and random nature of the stories. The music itself is also caught in the tension between intention and accident, as the notes are generated by a decision that has nothing to do with the laws of composition, yet we want to find a purpose and system to the music as badly as we want to find a reason to explain why these stories exist and a way to justify or rationalize them.

Macchi’s use of music again marks a fundamental difference from the modernist trope of music as the perfect and purest artform. By generating music from sensationalist stories of violence, from tenuous strands of human hair [A.B., PLATE X], or by dissolving notes with drops that could be rain or tears [La Tempestá, PLATE X], Macchi takes music almost as a cultural readymade, a magnet for personal and collective stereotypes and attributions. In the 2006 work Time Machine [PLATE X], the endings of 1940s Hollywood movies are looped to create a horror movie soundtrack from the heroic culminations of the original films.

4. Rotterdam or Anywhere

Macchi’s 1996 move to Rotterdam was critical in his move toward a more flâneur-like attitude to the world around him, acting as an antenna tuned to the absurd potential of everyday life. Through the Monoblock series [PLATE X], Macchi had discovered the poetic power of removing text from printed sheets to leave a heavy absence, if such an oxymoron can exist. In his series of cut maps, he again created a visual metaphor of a world of absence and longing. The aptly-titled Guía de la inmovilidad [PLATE X] is a guidebook of the city of Buenos Aires from which all of the city blocks have been removed, leaving only a skeletal remnant of a city. At one level, these removals reflect the inversion of foreground and background that runs through most of his work at some level. In this case it is at both a formal and content level. The transparency of the paper creates visual contamination of the missing blocks while the reversal of expectations also results in the path itself becoming the destination once there are no buildings or landmarks, only paths of connection.

The idea of a psychological map or path through the experience of a city was realized in Buenos Aires Tour [PLATE X], a collaborative project with the poet Maria Negroni and the composer Edgardo Rudnitzky, who was to become a frequent partner over the following years. This project marked Macchi’s return to the city of Buenos Aires after many years in Europe. This alternative guidebook of the city of Buenos Aires was Macchi’s way of renegotiating and rediscovering his city. Rather than being an empty city, Buenos Aires Tour represents a path through diverse neighborhoods and intense experiences. While mapping has become something of a cliché in contemporary art, Macchi’s approach to his surroundings owes more to finding a structure to hold his ambivalent responses than trying to illustrate a particular social or cultural phenomenon. The guidebook in Buenos Aires Tour subverts everything we would expect from a tourist guide, even including a facsimile of a suicide note found on one of the walks.

At about the same time he was working on Buenos Aires Tour, Macchi was engaged in another body of work that involves walking through the city and picking up references. Víctima Serial [PLATE X] represents one of the strongest examples of a sensibility let loose on a city. Various forms of signage are photographed to produce a violent, paranoid, and threatening message. The implication here is that everyone is out to get you, it’s just a question of knowing how to read the signs. This selective filtering of functional or commercial text into highly emotive content also occurs in several works with cut newspaper where a single phrase is left hanging in a void of paper [PLATE X].

5. From Here to Infinity

From his earliest video La flecha de Zenón [PLATE X] to the more recent Vanishing Point [PLATE X], Macchi has been interested in representations of infinity. In the video work, Xeno’s Paradox is elegantly translated into the countdown at the start of a movie, the subdivision of the final second delaying the start forever. A similar principle applies in Vanishing Point, where the pattern on the wallpaper seems to disappear into the corner between two walls. In both cases, the logical understanding of infinity is simultaneously explained and contradicted by what we see in front of our eyes.

The visual representation of infinity is one of the great questions that has plagued scientists, artists, and philosophers for centuries. The impossibility of finding a visual equivalent for the idea of a continuous never-ending extension of our physical space shows that any attempt to do so will immediately be limited and incomplete. These works where Macchi sets up the mental structure to make us think of the infinite while seeing the finite, pose one of the central questions in Macchi’s work. If we cannot trust our eyes to tell us the truth because knowledge can not be proven through vision, how can we aspire to organize the world visually if we are torn between what our mind knows and our eyes see? Macchi’s work would seem to suggest that while it is true that we can not trust what we see, at the same time, that is all we have to rely on. What you see is certainly not all that you get, but it is as good a place to start as any other.