Farewell My Concubine

Dramaturgy, power-relations and collective imagery in the work of Carlos Aires


Much to my disappointment, I lately discovered that there is no such a thing in ancient Chinese tradition as lighting red lanterns by the doorsteps of the quarters of the favourite concubine (as seen in 1991 Zhang Yimou's movie Raise the Red Lantern). Nevertheless, I will approach Carlos Aires’ latest installation using this story as a metaphor. Never mind if its origin is not philologically or factually correct. 

When an artist is invited to exhibit work in a museum, he or she becomes the “chosen one” who provides the institution and its visitors with a thrilling pleasure (art) in exchange for their attention (audience). This concupiscent exchange might last a night or forever. Institutions, as well as the visitors they nurture, are anyhow generally quite ambivalent in their relation to artists. The realisation that museums, collectors and audiences alike are polygamous creatures (given we ourselves are hardly monogamous in our sex lives) should come as no surprise. In the arts, as elsewhere, it is hard to sustain desire. 

As lovers hectically jump from one bed to another, in their frenetic quest for satisfaction, the viewer similarly moves from gallery to gallery. Always somewhat dissatisfied by the present experience and continuously prompted by the allure of the next-available offer, the visitor navigates the exhibition spaces as though they are a harem. The institutional frame prevents the idea of a brothel. Yet, savouring at ease one room, when a multitude of other possibilities is at hand, remains incredibly difficult. Hence, we quickly comply with our marital obligations and move on…

Our concubines are always ready in their alcoves. They are waiting to be acknowledged and complacently eager to please us. Not without resentment, since (whilst they are competing amongst themselves for capturing our attention) the household the institution has prepared for their display is restlessly expanding and multiplying its offer. The wait must be incredibly frustrating and discouraging, and one can only imagine their envy when the viewer is copulating somewhere else… It is sometimes a relief to be left alone though and not to have to deal with the brutality and insensitiveness of the occasional “husband”. This notwithstanding, nobody really wants to be abandoned for another lover. 

Thus, the first wife is soon to be replaced by a second and, of course, younger one. And so is the second, when the third wife arrives. An endless cycle of history repeating. 

Over the course of the years, the master develops different intimate and emotional relations with all his concubines. On the other hand, the wives gradually begin to understand how to best deal with each other. An intricate web of correlations originates from these negotiations: each person involved in the equation dispenses favours in a calculated game of fairness and opportunism. The household eventually finds its gravitational centre and stability. 

The time viewer and concubines have spent together, mastering their relationships, ultimately becomes their only solace. Eventually, sexual drive and potency are replaced by memory. And, so, they can rest.

But tonight let us raise the red lantern to Carlos Aires, nevertheless! A trail of paper-cased lamps will guide us to the private rooms and inner world of our new concubine. 

Caged fireflies 

When Carlos Aires told me that his new installation at CAC Malaga would be comprised of paper lanterns, the ancient custom of casing fireflies in transparent containers sprang to my mind. Allegedly, these feeble temporary lights represent one of the earliest types of lanterns in many traditions (i.e. they were a common feature in both ancient China and India). I then remembered how much I loved summertime back at home as a child. That was the time when my family and I would spend lazy days at our family home on the Tuscan hills. The month of June was a much awaited: summer break at school, the solstice announcing the new season, my birthday to be celebrated and entire nights spent running wild across the fields catching fireflies. 

We strongly believed fireflies were magical and benign creatures. Besides, our parents told us that if one brings fireflies home alive and leaves them under a flipped-down glass by the bed, they turn overnight into coins. It did not matter how many we got and how often we were hunting them, the miracle of fireflies solidifying into money infallibly happened. 

The dearest memories I have of that period of my lifetime are both connected to these unusual creatures: falling asleep in the tenuous light of the fireflies’ lanterns, in the certainty of becoming “richer” the following day, and the sight of the gentle Sienese slopes covered at night with fluctuating waves of luminous dots. 

The idea that art can enrich us, enhancing and illuminating our spirit, did not even cross my mind back then. This must prove that we grow utopian (and somewhat disingenuous) with age. Nevertheless, “beauty” and “alchemic magic” were also involved in the fascination I had as a child for fireflies. These were probably the seeds of my unripe love for art.

Naturally, the Tuscan countryside (as described above) is an idealised representation of a site that has witnessed atrocious events over the course of the centuries. Noticeably, during the World War II, the bloody fights between Fascists and the Italian partisans’ Resistenza, rape and violence perpetrated on the local populations by the Moroccan/Algerian/Tunisian/French army and, conclusively, the Allies’ “reconquista”. The pacified image I have of the place cost the life of my grandparents’ generation and the legacy of those events still resonates with the memory of the survivors.

Fascism is Theatre

Looking at some of the black and white images chosen by Carlos Aires to “decorate” his paper-lanterns, I could not avoid thinking of a time when war-imagery and nationalist propaganda publicly dominated people’s lives. The festive, and yet severe and melancholic, atmosphere Aires’ installation suggests, is underpinned by the rhetoric of power. One can easily relate the artist’s work to the celebrations imposed by an authoritarian regime on a community (forcibly induced to demonstrate jubilation, pride and joy they do not experience or share), the parade only commenting on the political party’s will to show happy people. Populism, naturally, comes to mind and so collective amnesia. The artist stages here an illusion of wellbeing and optimism that, in the best theatrical tradition, camouflages anxiety, guilt and remorse.

In this popular funfair of hypocrisies (a visual or cultural reference to the setting of ¡Bienvenido, Mister Marshall! by Luis García Berlanga Martí) the viewer gradually discerns the hidden motives of this anxiety: scenes of horror, destruction, death and injustice unfold, amidst more innocuous (but not necessarily harmless) imagery. 

At first sight, the installation is pretty, in fact, “beautiful”. But, as Michel Foucault once maintained “not everything is bad, but everything is dangerous”: we must consequently be aware of the dangers that beauty, in this instance, presents to us. 

A vein of nostalgia permeates Carlos Aires’ installation, but is he seriously longing for the ‘good old times’ when the separation between good and bad, black and white (quite literally, in this case), honour and desertion, war and peace, enemies and allies, masculinity and femininity was clearly marked? Or is he, instead, questioning why this reactionary show reel of stereotypes is vaguely comforting and reassuring? 

Uniforms, military paraphernalia, virility, courage and a variety of other ‘moustached’ clichés take central stage in this autarchic theatrical representation. Image after image, the artist insinuates the doubt that although the celebration is over, the risk of a fascist resurgence is still there. ‘The Cult of the Real Man’ (a myth informed by many regimes, including that of Francisco Franco) is in full display, printed as it were on the surfaces of Aires’ farolillos, as history unfolds in front of our eyes. 

Susan Sontag, reviewing the controversial photographic book The Last of the Nuba by Leni Riefenstahl in 1974, writes: “Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death”. In Spanish terms, the toreador killed by a bull on the arena is a hero, whether his death makes rational sense or not. He is the sacrificial victim offered in the name of integrity, conformity to tradition and manhood. The bullfighter’s elegant, athletic and vigorous movements would have certainly appealed Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘photographic eye’ and taste for muscular beauty, if only the ritual he performs (that instead seduced Ernest Hemingway, amongst others) was not tinted with so many sexual, and let alone religious, connotations. 

Populism, nationalism and a collective identity constructed on antagonistic categories of belonging and exclusion transpire in Aires’ work. Randomly, more humorous images intersect this rather languorous and desolate visual landscape. There is nothing particularly merry about them, in that they simply voice the sense of displacement and uneasiness the 20th century left us as a moral legacy. 

So, looking at Carlos Aires’ work (that to me closely resembles a Funeral Parade of Roses), I would like to conclude this short essay by quoting again Susan Sontag: “National Socialism—more broadly, fascism—also stands for an ideal or rather ideals that are persistent today under the other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders). These ideals are vivid and moving to many people […] their longings are still felt, because their content is a romantic ideal to which many continue to be attached and which is expressed in such diverse modes of cultural dissidence and propaganda for new forms of community as the youth/rock culture, primal therapy, anti-psychiatry, Third World camp-following, and belief in the occult. The exaltation of community does not preclude the search for absolute leadership; on the contrary, it may inevitably lead to it”.

The images Aires has selected for us challenge precisely this sense of collectiveness (or community) and, between the lines, question our need for ‘absolute leadership’ in these times of uncertainty and loss of orientation. Each picture in Carlos Aires’ selection is not per se a profession of truth, for it may be ‘real’, because there is never a single side to a story, but as many as the lanterns that are included in this installation. 


Lorenzo Fusi. 2013