Transformations of Past and Present:

Movement, Memory, Mourning

by Rebecka Thor

There was another beginning, another point from which I wanted to write, but sometimes there are factors that demand to be addressed from the start. Recently Swedish politics has gotten worse, which seemed impossible just this fall when the Swedish Democrats, a rightwing xenophobic party, gained 13% in the last election. Now their representative is the deputy speaker for the Swedish parliament and just stated in the main newspaper that one cannot inhabit two identities at once — it is, for example, impossible to be Swedish and Kurdish, Jewish or Finnish — to become Swedish one must leave any other identity behind. To highlight the rights and experiences of asylum seekers, marches through Sweden have been organized by undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. In summer 2013 the Freedom March went from Malmö to Stockholm, covering 698 kilometers in 34 days. One of the people walking was Runo Lagomarsino's brother, and in his shoe he carried a Swedish flag, given to him by the artist. The idea came from a story, told by the same brother, about a Bolivian man who, during a march in support of his country's new constitution, carried a US flag in the same manner. In Every Step There Is a Movement, 2014, consists of the same flag, walked on for all those miles as a defacement and simultaneously a hidden symbol of national belonging. Silently breaking the Swedish law, which prohibits keeping the flag below knee-height. From a different perspective, the flag is no longer a means of showing support for the nation, but could be seen as both opposing the current Swedish asylum regulations and laying claim to the nationality itself. In this case, walking on the flag also means walking with the flag, under it and beside it, and claiming the right to do so. Thus rejecting any idea of a stable or singular identity. Here I would like to begin again, and the paragraphs above can be seen as a necessary preface.

A friend once said: our society is prosaic. Content is given precedence, when we should instead focus on form. The political potential lies in the form. But when does content become form — what is the boundary between a narrative and its disposition? The works of Runo Lagomarsino testify to a violent past: of colonial power relations and geographic instabilities. His narratives appear as commemorations and threnodies where a seductive form is accompanied by what is sometimes violent content. Hence, form and content cannot be thought of separately in Lagomarsino's practice, since the content seems to constitute the form and the form provides a new meaning to the content. A duality, which reaches back to the beginning of philosophy, might here be considered the premise from which the works depart. In this sense a narrative may not be understood without taking its disposition into consideration. The American historian Hayden White points out that the preferred mode of non-narrative in historical writing is as much a form as a narrative account. The interpretive act of the historian must account for what was, and must keep in mind a formalistic approach. This would entail the writing of a meta-history, which in turn is what makes history meaningful in the present. When put in relation to the works of Lagomarsino, this could be an approach to understanding how the dialectics of form and content are to be thought about in terms of method. The artistic process has methodological similarities to that of the historian, since the artist, like the historian, deals with history through narrative means that encompass representational as well as conceptual qualities. The works might be seen as operating in an equivalent manner to the text of such meta-history. Through subtle transformations of how we perceive an object or a detail, the artist turns form into content and vice-versa. The materials tell the narratives of the works. It is not solely about letting the materials speak and not just about speaking with and through the material. It is rather an act where the materials are made witnesses, and are thus being given their due. Hidden qualities are brought forth, the surfaces or conventional purposes of the material altered, and a new meaning arises. Thus one should neither consider Lagomarsino's work within a strictly conceptual frame nor within a formalistic one.

In Stolen Light (Abstracto en Dorado), 2013, fluorescent tubes and bulbs have replaced the museum object in the vitrine. These lamps, stolen by the artist from the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, are organized and put on display in a both mimetic and allegorical relationship to their previous function of shedding light. It is an enlightenment that is stolen, in all its connotations. The artistic act does not spread darkness so much as remove light, in the present, and point to a historical wrong. The lamps which previously had a function are now transformed on the one hand into formal objects and on the other into content. Their status has somehow shifted due to how they are perceived, now, as aesthetic artifacts. Hence the piece on display also points to a history of minimalist sculpture and functions as such in its own right. A similar operation takes place in Pergamon (A Place in Things), 2014, another display of broken and used bulbs and tubes, but this time from the Pergamon Museum, also in Berlin. The city is haunted by its history, and certain historical layers are covered up whereas others are reconstructed without historical cohesion. At the same time that a castle from the fifteenth century is being rebuilt, on a site known in the period of the GDR as Marx-Engels-Platz, the great stone structures on the so-called Museum Island stand strong both in their physical presence as well as in the constructed narrative. Yet the city is working hard to prevent the entire island from sinking. While other museums in Europe have begun processes of repatriation, the stolen altars of Pergamon are still a point of German pride. In these works, as well as in They Watched Us for a Very Long Time, 2014, objects are both given meaning and withdrawn from function. Through these interventions in the museum infrastructure, Lagomarsino also metaphorically reclaims the power of the museums' stolen objects. Yet the works reach beyond the history of the museum into the realm of the imaginary: the lamps of Stolen Light (Abstracto en Dorado) are placed in front of a surface covered in golden sheets, creating a vibrant wall which is a reference to Mathias Goeritz's homonymous 1968 painting and the Spaniards' search for the mythical golden city of El Dorado. The act of stealing the lights, and transforming how they are perceived, rejects the idea of historical progress as formulated by the West and turns the notions of enlightenment, colonialism and historicity on their head. Hence the violence the North has exerted on the South should be seen as something that is still shaping the future, and one question of today is how to handle these historical facts, how to make amends and how to commemorate.

In the video More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors, 2012–13, the artist, together with his father, throws eggs at a monument. At first glance, the act might seem meaningless, but as the story unfolds layers are added, and as a whole it is more like an act of historical vengeance. The monument, erected in Seville to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the "discovery" of America, depicts Christopher Columbus holding a map with his three ships. It is known as "The Egg of Columbus", since the sculpture stands inside an enormous egg, although it has another title, The Birth of a New Man. The egg shape is a reference to the story of how Columbus challenged his critics to make an egg stand on its tip, when told that discovering the Americas was no great accomplishment. The twelve eggs that were thrown were smuggled by the artist from his parents' birthplace, Buenos Aires, via his present home in São Paulo, to meet up with his father in Seville. By throwin the eggs, they allegorically refused Columbus' challenge and the "discovery" as such. In the act of bringing the eggs back to Columbus, through the reverse journey from America to Europe, the deed is not undone, but issues of direction and movement as well as exile and displacement are explored. When things are moved, be they eggs or bulbs, from one context to another and used or displayed, the movement is more than factual. For example, the materiality of the eggs being brought, illegally, all those miles once more merges form and content. When moved, they are no longer just any eggs; the same goes for the bulbs, but specifically gesturing towards a context which reaches far beyond their material presence in the works.

The past is in a sense to be found everywhere, in any and all objects. History displays itself in the world as traces; as in the work ContraTiempos, 2010, where the artist searches for cracks resembling the South American continent in the paved path of Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo. Lagomarsino's personal memory is interwoven with the imaginary of a territorial outline. He is exploring and at the same time pointing to a history of exploration. Through a mimetic act, the artist both performs and commemorates, and the past and present operate parallel to each other. The relation of past and present is enacted differently in the bright wallpaper A as in Pizarro, 2010. The artist composed a pattern out of a mark that was the signature of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, since he could neither read nor write. Pizarro conquered Peru in the sixteenth century and is said to have captured the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa. His alleged reason for capturing him was that Atahualpa had thrown the Bible on the ground, a book whose words neither of the two could read. The signature is inscribed with another layer of meaning when it appears on the wall. The strong pink is deceivingly joyful. Yet, it commemorates a conflict, played out through the status of language — the two men's inability to read and of course the special status of that particular book. By taking this violent account and re-situating its mark, in the form of a signature repeated on the wall, Lagomarsino not only points to the past but to our own era. Language is still a site of contestation and at the core of the public debate. Whose voice is heard, what words are used, how hate speech operates and how language itself constructs inclusions and exclusions are topics that shape our present existence. However, what is at stake in the work might above all be a question of movement and memory, reaching from Pizarro's journey to his signature mark ending up in the gallery space.

There are no movements that do not have a reverse side, a boomerang effect of some sorts, in Lagomarsino's work. They are movements through time and over geography. There is no innocence in relation to movements in this sense; they are rather shaped by the movements in the past, as with the conquistadors. In his practice he plays with the imaginations of another time or place and brings out the implications of such imaginings. Thus he points to common ideas of an otherness, which sometimes are simply naive and sometimes filled with presuppositions. Yet these movements are rooted in memory and commemoration. Far from being linear, movements take place above all on the imaginative level and thus appear inseparable from physical representation. One can see this clearly in a work like The North Made in The South and Vice Versa, 2015, where the artist commissioned a painter in Malmö to paint the Southern Hemisphere and a painter in São Paulo to paint the Northern one on two halves of a broken porcelain plate. The contours of the continents look the same, yet are slightly displaced, still burdened by different histories. The act of drawing the map of the South in the North is one of repetition, since this was done in colonial times, whereas the drawing of the North in the South almost seems subversive. One remains caught in history. Maybe it is possible to see Lagomarsino as following the Hegelian example of learning by studying the study of history. It is not the events themselves that are fundamental; rather, how a certain course of events can be and has been perceived and placed in a larger context. Or in other words, it is a question of historiography and the story in hi-story. Still, it is not a mere questioning of hegemonic narratives, but a focus on memory and commemoration — that is, what and who is remembered and what happens to everything that seems to be pushed aside. All those voices that are not heard, all those events no one will study, all that might be lost in history, and the occasions when no commemoration seems possible. These are the instances where Lagomarsino's work seems to operate: not in the forgotten, but on the periphery of historical awareness. In relation to what one, from a Western perspective, prefers not to think about. The commemoration becomes in itself something equivalent to historiography. It might be seen as visualized in Violent Corners, 2014, where the literal corners of the gallery space are covered in gold. Gilded, these corners appear to conjure up seemingly peripheral violence and historical injustice.

The practice of historiography seems to be an inherent part of all these works. Michel de Certeau once described the writing of history as a relation to, or speaking with, the dead. De Certeau writes, "The dear departed find a haven in the text because they can neither speak nor do harm anymore. These ghosts find access through writing on the condition that they remain forever silent."1 With a minor alteration of text into work, a practice of mourning and yet giving voice seems to be in place. The transformation of past into present is bound to be haunted and the voices of the dead must be allowed to testify when thinking of the past. The ghosts are literally accounted for in the piece For the Ghosts and the Raving Poets, 2013. A single switched-off bulb rests on the gallery floor, attached by its wire to the ceiling. At closing time the staff plugs it in and pulls it up by its wire, and the light rises. A light that the gallery visitor never will encounter, the title indicating whom this light is really for. It is in this sense that the past is often present in Lagomarsino's work: as commemorative gestures and subtle acts of mourning. Or in other words: a call for remembrance and therefore a call for change. Another take on mourning could be seen in pieces that work with the conditions of the materials by exposing them to irreversible changes. The material testifies to an experience of its own materiality in works like Trans Atlantic, 2010–11, and Crucero del Norte, 1976–2012. In Trans Atlantic a solo sailor brought along sheets of newsprint on his journey across the Atlantic Ocean. When the paper was exposed to the strong sunlight, it was burned. A similar method was used in previous works such as Full Spectrum Dominance, 2008, and Horizon (Southern Sun Drawing), 2010, where nature, i.e., the sun, becomes a source of production and inscribes itself as a trace in the materiality of the paper. The newsprint also somehow loses its purpose, to be printed on and consequently act as an agent of communication. The durational character of the slow process of sailing across the sea and letting the sun burn the paper ties the everyday object to another temporality. Echoes of the same journey made throughout history are hard to ignore, as well as the almost mythical idea of the lone sailor, mastering the sea. In Crucero del Norte the sun is also what transforms the material, but the framework is somewhat different. Lagomarsino repeats his father's journey of exile in the mid-seventies, traveling by bus from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro. After 45 hours on a Crucero del Norte bus, the artist opened a package of photographic paper which he carried with him, exposing it to the sun and letting its surface turn black. The hours spent on the bus, where the paper was left unaffected, are contrasted with the single moment when the sunlight meets the surface. In an instant the paper is altered and again made useless with regard to its original function. No images will be inscribed on its surface and it will hold no visible depiction. The idea of a photograph is paired with exile: to leave almost everything behind except one's own memories. It is an act which by necessity may encompass mourning. The exile may be completed in a sense by the burning of the photographic paper, yet is forever marked by the impossibility of going back.

In my view, my friend's take on society as prosaic should neither be considered a statement of the preference for narrative over pictorial or formal accounts nor lack of form as such. Rather, it is a process of constantly neglecting material conditions, where materiality in itself is overshadowed by contextual narration. Here, in these works, the questions at hand are incorporated in the matter in a literal way — the objects are material traces and evidence carrying their own narration.

1  Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).