I don’t normally write about art installations but I was so moved by Farideh Lashai’s ‘When I count there are only you… But when I look there is only a shadow’ that I felt compelled to write and this led me to think about Picasso’s Guernica, the World War 1 photographs I had seen in WW1 museums across the north of Europe and of course, Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ which Leshai’s work is in dialogue with. There is an expanded version of this search below:
All of this, a necessary context I think, brings me to Farideh Lashai’s multimedia installation, the meeting of Goya and Leshai, and how Leshai re-works Goya, (see clip above). The Installation is situated in the Prado between the room that houses Goya’s The 2nd of May and the The Third of May and the room that houses his Black Paintings. Farideh took only 80 of the 82 etchings that make up The Disasters of War so she could form a rectangle of 8×10. She then did her own etchings based on Goya’s, copying them, but removing all figures from background so that they seem to be only landscapes. These landscapes act as a kind of screen. She then did an animated film that reinserted the people onto the landscape. When the film, constructed as a circle that acts as a both iris and spotlight hits the screen, what we see are the landscapes first empty of the terror it once housed as they might now once again be in real time, now once more populated, but populated by corpses and other disasters of war it once was a sight for. The spotlight is only ever partial, the moving spotlight does not usually fully reveal what is in each individual and rectangular etching. It acts as a kind of memory. It’s fleeting, partial. The music, Chopin’s 21st Nocturne in C minor, adds to the beauty and the sadness.
Watching the installation reminded me of returning to the Montreal neighbourhood I grew up in after an absence of twenty years, something every tango lover knows leads only to sadness and heartache. I recognised every street, every building, every monument. But whereas once I walked those streets surrounded by friends and saying hello to dozens of people as I walked, I now knew no one. The site being the same had the effect of rendering me spectral to myself. I had changed. It hadn’t. My presence there was almost a ghostly one. Except for the people who, because no longer there in situ presented themselves and walked with me in memory. I walked through those real streets but now with the people I once loved, made present in my mind through their absence on the street. Lashai’s work makes one think of such things. I found it interesting that the Spanish title ‘Cuando cuento estás solo tú…pero cuando miro hay solo una sombra’, translates as ‘When I tell there is only you….but when I look there is only a shadow’. But the English Title of the installation is ‘When I Count, There Are Only You…But When I Look, There is Only a Shadow’. I wonder if that an error in translation or does the ‘is’ become ‘are’ as the installation unfolds, pluralised just as I became we walking through those all too familiar streets where I once knew so many but now walked alone?
The catalogue of the installation is prefaced by an excerpt from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land from the first section, ‘The Burial of the Dead’
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
What Leshai does with Goya is to make us pay attention to what is already in Goya but which our times might have made us less sensitive to. Her reduction of Goya’s etchings to bare landscapes only underlines, as the spotlight hits them and reveals the drama of the events, the fate of the people — the full horror. They’re settings for the cultural ‘Tragic Scene’ T.J. Clarke attributes to Picasso’s Guernica. We see, for a moment, in a glimpse, the death and vulnerability that once peopled the scene. We see it too late. The tragedy has happened. We see it as a series of spectacles through the etchings. But that ‘undefended mortality’ not only excites horror but evokes pity and terror. Leshai makes whole what time might have erased from ‘The Disasters of War’. She looks under the stony rubbish, into the broken images, extracts the shadow, and does indeed evoke in T. Eliot’s words ‘fear in a handful of dust’. The Chopin adds a serene melancholy to the watching of that which we cannot change. Even if our view now, seen though the centuries and across cultures, can only be a partial illumination. It’s a masterpiece of an installation, a dialogue between works, and by masters of their form.