Eugenia Calvo

Eugenia Calvo
Author: María Fernanda Cartagena
Place and date: Buenos Aires, 2008. Published in Eugenia Calvo, Galería DPM

Tropelía, magic art that transforms appearances i

The spikenard is my favourite flower, despite causing me discomfort. Its aroma makes me ill. Velvet makes my teeth screech, it makes my skin crawl, just as cotton gloves did in my childhood, and yet to me there is no comparable fabric. Feeling its softness in my hand attracts me even though it sometimes repulses me. Silvina Ocampo, El vestido de terciopelo [The Velvet Dress] Eugenia Calvo's outstanding career is characterized by her emphasis on dealing with her obsessions. In her series we can perceive the work of someone who has stopped to investigate the contours of irrepressible worries that tend to repeat themselves. This is reflected visually in photography, video-performances and interventions and other marks in non-conventional spaces. Her work has become a solid and open corpus that feeds back and forth and diversifies in an exemplary manner, a place of intersection and interrogation of different systems, genres, periods and styles. Because of this intertextual density, politics and poetry of image and space and time converge in her work. Where is the strength and range of her images and actions located? Though several meanings stem from her series, she is impressively able to suspend and deviate the course of images that are normally taken for granted. Calvo looks more closely, interrupts and reveals. She stops the continuity of certain esthetic tradition to reveal its arbitrary nature and deny its transparency. The operation she performs is “of someone who says nothing but says a lot” which is as subtle as it is grave and as superficial as it is profound. She leaves behind all solemnity and handles irreverence with a disturbing ease. Her career could be viewed as a brief story of minor attacks against a certain density of our spatial and visual culture. As any well-aimed blow, her gestures are infallible, carefully articulated and deeply desired. As in any brief story, she privileges everyday occurrence, domestic environment, the particular, experience, emotions and microanalysis. In several scenes or settings, Calvo rehearses a domestic and pulsional guerrilla. In her 2003-2004 series titled El método tradicional [TheTraditional Method], one of her first photography series and the most prolific, she is able to boldly expose the blind spots of our vision. The key to it is looking at an image that has most likely gone unnoticed in our hands; decorated dishes with remains of food. Following the first impression of shock or bafflement, the images are not exhausted, on the contrary, they begin to activate diverse questions such as the migration of image through time; the unfolding of fine arts toward applied arts; the loss of “aura” in mass production; the subjectivities and identifications involved in certain esthetic traditions; the uses and consumption of cultural artifacts in different places and periods, and also the place of contemporary art within these processes and cycles. These crossroads are exposed through superimposition and conjugations, akin to the exuberance and complexity with which Didi-Huberman defies us to check the pulse of the image as a “montage of heterogeneous periods.” ii Besides warning of these cultural translations, Calvo's photographs actively participate in their resignification. The idealized romanticism of the scenes on the English Staffordshire China with bucolic depictions that integrated man with nature, took care of assigning fixed gender roles and represented monuments or emblematic events, tremble and lie threatened by repulsive and uncertain organic bits. A fracture is produced in what had been a promise of tradition, coherence and plenitude. A tradition that in this case is apparently questioned by negligible little things, but through Which Calvo is capable of discovering its depth and latent power. The collision of materials and meanings does not only create antagonisms, it also gathers complicities. Organic matter becomes protagonist whether by imitating, completing or establishing small contact areas with the characters and their scenes. This process brings forth what had remained hidden. With an oblique look, Calvo frees and discovers esthetics from another perspective. She draws attention toward the richness of the print grain, the graphical materiality revealed when it's transferred to china porcelain. We also perceive the displacement of color, the vanishing of cobalt blue and sepia, and the random texture of the china porcelain crazing. The artist transforms the literal representation of the sky and clouds of the landscapes into abstract streaks of expressionist or geometric pointillism. The innocuous mashed potatoes or pumpkin takes on a baroque power and plasticity, generating lights and shadows. At the same time, we notice the brightness, texture and temperature of the organic, its color, shade and even its flavor. We perceive the richness of the flaws, the strength of the disproportion, the overflow, the excess and the imperfection as liberating experiences. In this series, as in the following, the resource of photography is her best weapon: it works as a magnifying glass, amplifier and editor that manages to capture these paradoxes and singularities. The image, states Didi Huberman, dismounts history not only because it disorients or confuses us but because it disarms and deconstructs. iii Everything Calvo uses eventually becomes unfamiliar. Early on in the process of industrialization, a certain construction of femininity spread throughout the commercial world of capitalist consumerism. This visual feminine culture, hand in hand with gender ideologies, concentrated on fashion and home. The house, an environment that was to be managed by women, had to reflect and promote practices, ideas and images of the feminine. Calvo begins to investigate the fragile beauty of this universe in the 2004 series Gardening , which included photographs the size of actual bed sheets with flower prints, where folds and creases adulterate the balanced print of the designs. The 2004-2005 El drama de Victoria series [Victoria's Drama] delves into this “pre-feminist” subjectivity and esthetics, which is reflected in home design magazines that have been successfully around for a long time. To the enhancement and taste of the conservative bourgeoisie, the return to nature implies transplanting the garden into the home, with its attached emotional and sentimental connotations. An abundant investment in prints and floral designs promise to dulcify every inch of the private environment. Calvo presents the profoundly artificial and synthetic nature of these settings. The interiors become mere facades and it takes tearing it off to expose its artifice. According to Didi-Huberman, historical progress is dismounted “by yanking, in cascade,”iv a tactile and visual description these images evoke and create. Domestic interiors that contain the germ of their own self-destruction, like the fireplace that will eventually consume its own support. Similar shocks return in the 2007 series Entusiasmo y generosidad [Enthusiasm and Generosity] where Calvo intervenes with mounds of dirt, sand or debris in decorated interiors, pushing the encounter of opposites to the limit. The series constitutes an essay on the unbearable and peaceful conviviality of ornament and stone, mannerism and ruin, delicacy and roughness. Excess, controlled violence and scenery lighting construct pictures as real as they are fictitious, as absurd as sensible, as dream-like as hyper-realistic. The tourist's image of the cities as a souvenir is presented in a series of rather predictable supports: key holders, postcards, posters, mugs, plates and ashtrays. As in the image supports, these tend to repeat themselves, because renewal is also not expected. The particular meaning of these objects is also peculiar; once they're emptied of their function, they survive as mementos. In the 2005 series Se hablaba de proyectos [Projects Were Discussed] Calvo recovers these images from the base of ashtrays in order to expose the paradox between the idealization of an image and its use. Emblematic London sites where modern life peacefully flows, emerge as apocalyptic settings. Suddenly, ash becomes a protagonist and stimulates the image. Some people notice the threat, others don't. Metaphors of the gray city? Images of the unconscious or of the future of the great city? The unaccustomed character of these esthetics and settings has also merited her attention in everyday and familiar contexts. In an early action, Calvo rehearsed moving one of the rooms of her house to a public square. She was able to develop this idea by taking advantage of her parents' absence for a few days, during which she created a domestic, ambitious and quick intervention. With the collaboration of four friends, she directed the ror-like, construction of Barricadas [Barricades] in 2005, a huge parapet, classical style, formed by the furniture and other objects of her home. The (dis)assembly lasted two days and the house was open to the public for a day. The intervention activated new readings among visitors who regarded the rooms and the objects in a way highly improbable in the previous order. Transitory and intermediate space that was able to reformulate the accustomed distance with the objects. A place that was a source of , poetic images as Bachelard describes it,where “the duality of the subject and the object is iridescent, mirror-like, continually active in its inversions".v The record of this action was unfolded in an instructions catalog written in three languages, with pictures of the original rooms and their transmutation. The invitation to participate in the prestigious Gasworks residency in London came at the right moment to continue this exploration. Home Fronts in 2005 consisted of putting together a catalog-map with photos of the front view of London homes and their location, meticulously pointing out objects and materials rejected by their owners. Home front was an informal term used during World War II to refer to the part of the population that, while not actually in the battlefront, could operate from home as nearly soldiers by supporting the military commands. On the other hand, today the term is popular in home decoration magazines but with a clear orientation toward consuming. Calvo (in this action) sought to bring forth the fissures in the relief of the city that go unnoticed by its dwellers. She recovered a wide range of discarded objects and esthetics which speak of everyday practices, possessions, personalization and abandonment. The instructions catalog was carefully published and outside the notions of productivity or functionality, it reminds us of the Situationist drifts and their psychogeographic guides to discovering everyday things and events. To further the scenery-like character of domestic environments, Calvo has recently resorted to the perspective offered by the video camera and the technology that allows her to capture her performance in situ . Un plan ambicioso [An Ambitious Plan], her most successful video installation along these lines, was distinguished in Argentina's arteBA Fair 2006 Edition with the First Prize Petrobras, a significant platform for young artists. The museographic device contributed to the content of the piece. The spectator marked his transit inside a small, dimly lit room around three monitors that simultaneously presented a trilogy. The experience in front of each video was individual, close up and dream-like. In the interior of an elegant residence, we witnessed unusual actions by an abstracted, delicate and feminine young woman (the artist as performer). Brief narrations which tensed Bachelard's hypothesis that “a house is a body of images that give man reasons or illusions of stability”.vi The fixed and central frame of the shots invited us to view each location as a small painting. Windows through which we accessed the sober and refined interiors of a conservative bourgeoisie. Settings cramped with classical furniture, details and ornaments that Calvo employs to question tradition. In one of the videos, the classical style of the ambience with its various planes of deepness and the geometric motif of the flooring reinforce the composition as the central point of view is slowly shut off. With great care, the young woman disassembles the scene, taking possession of the furniture and objects to construct an elaborate barricade, great ensemble or installation. Things become materials that contribute shapes, reflections, colors and textures. Something like a visual manifest about the closure of a naturalistic space and its mutation into a modernist one. It is possible to make the rooms more sensitive from the inside by the individual who lives in the house when it becomes a playing field as we experience it during childhood. According to Benjamin, children's games are invested with a revolutionary power because they use objects in a creative way and generate new possible meanings.vii To Bachelard “while the child dreamed in solitude, he knew a limitless existence. His daydreaming is not simply a dream of running away. It's a dream of expansion.”viii Like a little girl, the young woman always performs in solitude the magical transformation of the appearance of things. All transformative child play is possible when there's no surveillance, and she knows nobody is looking at her. Who as a child hasn't hidden in a corner? In another video of this installation we witness her planned, slow retreat inside a wardrobe, into a corner, or under a table. She hides and her absence becomes a disquieting presence. Bachelard warns that “inside the wardrobe lies the center of order that protects the entire house against a limitless disorder.” He also considers it a “place of intimacy,” which “isn't opened to just anyone at any time”.ix That's why the young woman's plan has no limits. By hiding in these “poles” of stability as if they were shelters, she also agitates them and consequently shakes the foundation on which the order of the home is supported. The third video surprises us by the determination and fluency with which the young woman produces micro explosions. In this case, she not only conspires against certain objects that compose the scene, but also shatters the otherwise silent and calm atmosphere of the place. The 2006 video Juego de dormitorio [Bedroom Set] deals with a similar transubstantiation of materials and forms. A fancy set made up of a lamp and a bed is entirely recycled, cut up into wooden cubes that go on to decorate a glass shelf. The laborious rite of passage involves fractioning and loss but also enchantment. The penetrating sound of the whetstone accompanies the fantastic flight of wood shavings. After the storm and the tension, calm is restored but with a profound mutation. The windows of the house can be transformed into quite peculiar openings. In Windows (1974), one of Peter Greenaway's fictional documentaries, windows are the protagonists and backdrops of ironic, bizarre and tragic stories. In the 2007 video Caída libre [Free Fall], the window becomes a threshold that magically transforms a series of mattresses in canvases with printed designs. They bring to mind the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 70s and 80s with which Calvo shares the mission of elevating the status of domestic prints, but from a revisionist point of view. The cloy colors of the room, the tense calm that predominates in the scenes, and the surprising as well as absurd leap of the young woman compose a particularly surrealist atmosphere. In this piece, beside the surrealist ambiance, prevails the tone that traverses all of Eugenia Calvo's art and that finally provokes our nervous laughter.