Eugenio Viola | Removed in History

The Twentieth Century -­ the “short century” -­ with its revolutions and wars  of ideological religion, would become the era characteristic of the political commitment of intellectuals, who not only went on to defend their causes in the Anti-­Fascist and then State Socialism eras, but who werei dentified by both sides as the biggest burdens of invention in public debate.I

“Removed” translates as rimosso in Italian (removed, repressed in English), an enigmatic concept which historiography and mainly Freudian psychoanalysis have both long pondered, each investigating it through the specific approaches of their own disciplines.II  In fact, both attribute essential value to the past: the first by considering the past according to the timescale that makes it precede the present, and the second, instead, acknowledging it inside the present. Nevertheless, historiography and psychoanalysis also share other analogies: both, for example, attribute explicative value to the past and above all act as if the present is capable of explaining it. For both, furthermore, memory assumes an uncertain tendency: on the one hand, it presents as oblivion, or the loss of the past, and on the other as the return of that same past unwillingly forced to revealits actual “form”. However, historiography always appears via a place and time circumscribed for its production techniques, since every society considers -­ and defines -­ itself historically with the most appropriate tools. In this sense, representation of the past always hides a present which organises it diligently via the technical and social structure that produces and implies it.
Roland Barthes conveniently observes how history becomes a signification process which seeks meaning via the relationships established by facts and the promotion of some of these to symbols of an era.III This led to the attempt to establish categories of thinking that may include the past, via a selection and classification of the sources which is always based on evidence and subjected to ideological purposes. From this specific point of view, in the attempt to give reality coherence, historiography subjects it to a form of pretence, represented by the order of an advancement or rather an interpretation system which is always disturbed by resistance, survival and delay. These forms of resistance represent the return of a repression, the return of something which was considered irrelevant and therefore unthinkable.
The conventional wisdom that the past is supported deep down by continuity is in this way dismantled. In the same way as historiography, the present time of art has also long been committed to a real culture of remembrance. For what reason are so many artists driven to study certain moments of collective negation and repression in history, especially nowadays, since the apparently effective elaboration of such a heritage has given rise to a fully developed and deep-­rooted culture of remembrance?
I concur with Benjamin Buchloh, when he states that “a credible culture of remembrance may only develop in the measure in which it manages to fall under the harshest and most pervasive forms of negation because only there is it capable of producing authentic images of remembrance”.IV  In my mind, this observation aptly describes the strategic style of Abel Herrero, the Cuban artist who has lived in Italy for many years, and provides a particularly apt interpretative hypothesis designed to narrate the creation and developments of his latest project: Removed (2017), which studies a page of history still heavy with many question marks and which makes, amongst other things, alarming references to modern times…
Removed deals with the sorrowful bond that subordinated the intellectuals’ activity to the power structures that the 20th Century taught us to define, with Hanna Arendt, totalitarian. A long-­standing relationship that runs the length and breadth of the history of the so-­called short century (Hobsbawm) and that makes no distinction between leg -­wing and right-­ wing totalitarianism, confirming that sometimes, despite everything, (apparent) opposites do indeed attract.
Removed is a series of 15 paintings, in which the Cuban artist restores an image and a face to 15 intellectuals, “guilty” of having expressed their own way of thinking in Russia under Stalin and for doing so they were brutally silenced. Herrero’s operation is subtle. He purposefully does not portray any member of the artistic Avant-­Garde, only intellectuals whose voices he restores, exactly through their image and displays them in the hall of a library in his hometown of Havana, the capital of a country, whose cultural choices were for a long time oriented in the direction of Soviet fascination, and for this reason, those very same intellectuals, whose works were banned by the USSR, did not automatically gain a following, or even any representation, in the Havana library, where their portraits are now on display, via an unsettling symbolic restitution procedure.V Herrero’s study therefore feeds on double takes and disorientation, and moves through unusual aspects, and micro-­histories which invite reflection, via induction, ranging from detail to general fact. His study homes in on uncomfortable concepts, suspended between collective remembrance and individual memory, history and identity. In fact, the cultural and territorial sejng where he grew up and against which he now measures himself, provides direct -­ and temporally defined – ­comparison via which to create a double take on different cultural spaces, whereby the artist acts on the physical and mental superimposition of preceding material and lives, conferring another meaning onto what he appropriates, and proposes his own way of relating to history in order to reshape, adapt and then communicate it to observers. For this reason, his study concentrates on the memory that the artist appropriates and transforms to the point of adapting and subjecting it to a new temporal logic. In fact, “the 20th Century totalitarian regimes revealed the existence of a previously unsuspected danger: complete alteration of memory”.VI
From this specific point of view, Herrero is a complex artist. A sense of precariousness and suspension, distancing surrealism, pervades his enigmatic paintings: all extreme close-­ups, whose framing recalls the monumental transposition of passport photos for documents. They are all produced in black and white, to emphasise the dimension of remembrance and memory. Herrero pushes the observer to make an identity analysis using shreds of memory that restore differentiated, multifarious personalities, whose complexity the artist analyses and transposes onto his canvases, where the image oscillates between the real dimension and its symbolic output.
Herrero actually restores to us a true iconography of remembrance, in which his painting translates into creation of a kind of simulacrum, both in ostentatiously limiting himself to grisaille, and in applying pure colour, and that he allows himself via subtraction, thus declaring his irremediable mise en abîme. At the same time, the simulacrum imitation of the blurry photographic effect suspends our interpretation in perpetual indecision, wherein the processes of remembrance and oblivion themselves become the founding themes of this painting. These melancholy portraits seem to emerge from the corrosive action of time, soaring up to a simulacrum of disappearance, to an emblem of a style of painting that abandons its iconic dimension and its conventional tools to transform itself into a stamp, a brand, almost a transposition of the procedure of the photographic impression and impersonal objectivization of time, in order to rise to a solemn,
menacing palimpsest of remembrance.
Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde,VII suggests George Didi-­Huberman, to remind us of how the contemporary art space is indeed inevitably the space of the double and the paradox, of an implication (“what we see holds value -­ and lives -­ in our eyes solely for what regards us”)VIII and a passage which never leads to a definitive result, but only acts ceaselessly within the reconfiguration of an equilibrium, of an encounter and of an intermittent, always different relationship between spectators and the artwork, and between the one who sees and what is seen.
If, as Yves Michaud maintains, it is true that “art has now become the ether of life and has turned into its gaseous state”,IX Herrero controversially turns this perspective on its head, questioning again, in an age of unrestrained disengagement, the social role of art and the artist. In this sense, his work is filled with an authentic social logic and, via his chosen medium, he paradoxically sets a style of painting, the most challenging operation: by consciously reworking the codes within which he acts in an unprejudiced manner, Herrero renews spaces and territories of a medium, for too long unfairly considered to be outdated and thus not suitable for describing the suffering and anxiety of our uncertain age.

I · E. J. Hobsbawm, Italian Edition La fine della cultura. Saggio su un secolo in crisi di identità, BUR Rizzoli, Milan, pp. 205-206.
II · In psychoanalysis, repression is a mental action whereby the individual forces thoughts, images, memories and fantasies connected to urges which are experienced as dangerous for his or her overall equilibrium down in to the subconscious. Repression does not act on impulse, which is organic and biological; nor does it act on the affection connected to it, but rather on the representations (ideational representatives). Freud considered the theory of repression to be the cornerstone of the entire case of psychoanalysis, so much that early on in Italian rimosso (removed, repressed) was a synonym of inconscio (unconscious). Cf. “rimozione”; enciclopedia Treccani, (page visited 30th January 2017).
III · Cf. R. Barthes, Le Discours de l’histoire, in “Social Science Information”, VI, 4, 1967, pp. 65-75.
IV · Gerhard Richter e la dissolvenza dell’immagine nell’arte contemporanea, exhibition catalogue Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze (20 Feb -25 Apr 2010) Alias, p.34.
V · Then again, the fate of the visual artists is all in all less bloody than the one that befell the other intellectuals. “Up until the late Twenties, there were no other attacks on the Avant-Garde, even if the Soviet Communist Party disapproved of it, because, amongst other reasons, the lure that it had for the “masses” was unarguably negligible. […] Between 1929 and 1935, Stalin, leaving it the privileges acquired up until then, forced them to accept total submission to the authorities. […] the visual Avant-Garde artists mostly survived Stalin’s terror regime, but their works, hidden away in private collections and Russian mess halls, seemed to have been forgotten”. Cf. E. J. Hobsbawm, cit., pp. 237-238.
VI · T. Todorov, Italian Edition Memoria del male, tentazione del bene. Inchiesta su un secolo tragico, Garzanti, Milan, 2001, p.7.
VII · G. Didi-Huberman, Italian Edition Il gioco delle evidenze. La dialettica dello sguardo nell’arte contemporanea, Fazi Editore, Rome 2008, p. 10.
VIII. Ivi, p. 5.
IX · Y. Michaud, Italian Edition L’arte allo stato gassoso. Un saggio sull’epoca del trionfo dell’estetica, Edizioni Idea, Rome 2007, p. 69. The essay supports the thesis, for many reasons controversial, that “where before there were artworks, now we are only leg with experiences”, recognising in the artistic objects, pure technical supports that function solely to create effects. Ibid, p. 10.