Suspended Artifacts

About Black Tears by Alejandra Prieto

César Barros A.

Things. When I say the word (are you listening?), it grows silent; the silence that surrounds things. All motion subsides and becomes contour, and something permanent is formed from the past and the future: space, the great calm of things, liberated from desire. No, you don’t feel it growing silent. The word “things” means nothing to you—too much and thus too ordinary—and passes right by.
Rainer Maria Rilke

Much has been said about how commodification has an anesthetic impact on our experience of the object. A common view is that through commodification the object only becomes serialized and abstract, and that our approach to it is purely utilitarian. Less attention has been paid to the interpellative mechanisms of commodity objects, and to the role their formal, aesthetic, complexities play in them. Objects here and there talk to us, they talk too much; insistently they ask to be admired by the subject.

In her works, Alejandra Prieto makes visible certain objects—sneakers, globes, guns, turntables, treadmills, or scarfs—not to make them talk, I think, but to instill them with a sort of muteness. Prieto’s work doesn’t “rescue” the object in order to restore its unity prior to its serialization and circulation through the market. On the contrary, I think that in her works Prieto stages the aesthesis already inherent in the commodity object, whose effects are often ignored due to the emphasis given to its technification and reproducibility. It is not, then, about reposing that aesthetic element erased in the utilitarian approach to the everyday object, but about showing our already aesthetizised approach to the commodity that surrounds us, and about the consequences that this phenomenon carries for the production and experience of the work of art. Thus, Prieto’s work thinks the way in which contemporary commodities—to this point, the universal mode of determination of the object—have “stolen” certain classic artistic (re)presentational modes.

One of these classic modes is sculpture and Prieto has dedicated an important part of her practice to it. The artist has exploited the sculptural potentialities of a series of unconventional materials; for example perishable food or coal. Starting with her first sculptural experimentations, there has been a sort of progressive path in terms of the mediality of the presentation. In her first pieces (Modernas, Vanitas), our access to the sculpture was restricted to its photographic presentation. In these works one finds a reflection on the commodity’s transitory character, its reproducibility, and on a sort of irreversible loss of “naturalness”. With coal as medium, Prieto’s sculptures leave the photographic space. In her first coal series (Black Market), the sculptures are shown over pedestals; then, in subsequent series (The Invisible Hand) they start to “gain the floor”, just like in the present exhibition. Thus, there has been a sort of path from pure surface to the most absolute materiality; a movement, never brought to conclusion, from representation to presentation.

Coal in Prieto’s work is not simply a lesser marble or just an unusual alternative medium for sculpture. Black Tears, and other works by the artist, refer to the paradoxical visibility of this “bastard material”: although everyone knows about it, not many have had direct contact with it. Some could even know its chemical composition, but only a few know how it really looks, how it can glow, for example. And this visibility status is related also to coal’s origin and function. Coal refers historically to mining, to the industrial revolution, to worker’s movements. It is thus a sign of the (in)visible status of a subject and an activity. Coal is also, from this perspective, a signifier of production. And the objects constructed with, or sculpted in, coal become dialectic images that bring together the two poles of the spectrum of productive possibilities: both the pole of industrial production and that of artistic production.

In Black Tears we find (re)presented a chandelier lamp (lámpara de lágrimas, literally “tear-lamp”) and a great scale mirror. As is customary for her, Prieto has sculpted the coal with an astonishing realism. Nevertheless, there is an element that breaks with the peacefulness that the sculptural representation can give us—these objects work. It is not, thus, about a pure figurative realism. It is about the paradoxical line in between realism and the real. The (sculpture of the) lamp illuminates. The (sculpture of the) mirror reflects. This is a very metaphysical turn that is worth noticing, because here we are not in front of an aestheticization of the object accomplished through the usual gesture of subtracting it from everyday circulation. These objects are not ready-made, nor acquire their effect from their mere staging: the process of their production (of their sculpting) is evident. At the same time, their art status doesn’t come from the negation of the functionality of the object (the lack of functionality has been one of the notions—a very restrictive one, in my opinion—that has been used again and again to singularize the specificity of the art object). In Black Tears we are, then, in front of the (re)creation of a new object (of functional art). The dividing line in between mere production and art production, in between artifact and artifice, is thus put in suspense. 

One can thus find in Black Tears a staging of that tautological drive of art that bothered so many classic philosophers, especially Plato. The drive to create an object as similar as possible to the real object creates suspicion, a well-founded suspicion, I would add. Because, what could possibly be the sense of a perfect repetition of the real? Why not simply produce instead of simulating a production? Taking this tautology to paroxysm, in Black Tears Prieto presents us with the conjunction of phantasmal production or mimesis (the one proper to art) and artisanal production (one that, by negation, has become the locus of the specificity of the art object.) And here the material and its treatment are key to the effect. The blackness of the coal gives the objects a spectral quality, not only by virtue of its darkness, but also because by being the constructive material of both objects, it re-signifies their conventional relationship.

At the same time, it is the constructive material which enables these objects’ functionality. Coal’s reflective properties, enhanced by its polishing, enable the reflection of light. It is important to notice also that here Prieto has rescued a lost functionality of coal: thousands of years before becoming one of the most important modern energy sources, coal was used by pre-Columbian cultures as a reflective material.

Black Tears provides a sort of circularity to the aforementioned path that Prieto has generated around the object in recent years. As I have noted, this path has passed from the most pure superficiality to the most pure materiality, from photography to functional sculpture. Nevertheless, the functionality of Black Tears’ objects comes from the work on their surface, and thus the surface appears now from the object itself. More important even, the functions thematized here—we are illuminated, we are reflected—insert us as subjects reflected in this new surface, resending us from production to the experiential dimension of the object, generating thus a complex space from where we can think our relation with the objects which surround us.