MS, Mémoire Souvenir
Kosme de Barañano - 2020
The current exhibition by Marina Sagona shows her work Ubi Consistam, a visual ensemble that consists of 30 small sculptures divided into two series (Organs and The Five Senses), 16 printed drawings titled Passport, and a video titled Self-Portrait. Ubi Consistam works as an essay, that literary genre, written in prose, in which an author develops his or her ideas about a specific topic with a personal character and style: a short piece of writing on a particular subject, often expres- sing personal views, according to the dictionary; always with a critical spirit.
This essay, Ubi Consistam, is a composition that turns a coherent set of ideas (the here and now of papers, objects and a film) into a story about one’s sense of identity (both personal and national). It is not a linear essay, but a reflection on three levels and in three diverse techniques. It does not lead the reader or the visitor of the exhibition along a structured path following a linear logic, but rather to a perspective that goes from the document (the passport that ascribes us to a nation and to a territory) to a series of reliefs, some of which can be clearly identified with parts of our body and others with our senses and their respective organs—an ear, a nose, etc., and finally to a film that includes six interviews.
The three components of Ubi Consistam are not sections or chapters of an essay. They are more like argumentative movements, what we would call adagios in music, around the same topic. The group of prints titled Passport consists of 16 images based on the double pages of a US passport, which have been enlarged (to 61 x 45.5 cms.) and modified. Each of the 16 pages of the passport is illustrated with an American landscape, some sentences by American Presidents and quotes taken from the Declaration of Independence. It is the artist’s own passport, which she received in 2017, having lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan for 22 years. The US passport is a new (bureaucratic) identity that is added to an Italian identity, the artist’s experience of her family home, located in Rome but still impregnated with the air of Tripoli.
Over the illustrations on those pages, the artist prints her initials M.S. in green and red. The position of those two letters, M and S, on the different pages is not random. Sagona places or uses them to highlight certain specific words that, out of context, form a new independent narrative. The term passport—whether in English, Italian or Spanish—comes from the French word passeport, made up of the verb passer and the noun port. During his reign, King Louis XIV of France granted certain travel documents to some of his subjects. The document was called a passeport, which literally means “passing through a port”, because most journeys outside of France were made either in sailing boats or through the gate (also port) of a city. Historically, a passport is then a document that identifies us in order to leave or enter “our” territory.
Sagona makes us reflect on this document, now with her initials superimposed on sentences and landscapes. We sometimes forget where things come from. What is a passport? Until the 1st World War, passport were not generally required to travel within Europe, and crossing a border was a relatively simple procedure. Today’s passport somehow appeared in conjunction with the railway in the 19th century, when trains started moving thousands of people around at a new speed, thus overwhelming the European system of passports and visas. For this reason, France abolished passports in 1861. By 1914, this kind of document hardly existed. But the war brought about a renewed concern for international security, so passports were required once again.
The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, which was passed in 1914, clearly defined the notion of citizenship and issued a passport in the form we know today. It was valid for two years and, in addition to a photograph and a signature, it included a physical description, including details such as the “shape of the face”, the “build” and “other features”. Many Britons complained about the “nasty dehumanisation” of a person being described by a civil servant. In 1920, thanks to an agreement by the League of Nations to standardise passports, the famous “old blue” passport was issued. This was an iconic image of the British traveller until it was replaced with the maroon European version in 1988.
However, the origin of the passport or safe-conduct can be found in the Bible, in the Book of the Prophet Nehemiah (2:7-9), which dates back to circa 450 B.C. Here it is said that Nehemiah, a public servant under King Artaxerxes I of Persia, asked for permission to travel to Judea; the prophet, who worked as a royal bartender, wanted to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Artaxerxes granted him permission and gave him a letter “for the governors beyond the river”, requesting a safe passage for him while he travelled around his lands. In the 20th century, the safe-conduct went from being a travel document to becoming a key tool of identification as a security measure both for crossing borders and for the Government to recruit men. A travel document that certifies the identity and nationality of its bearer, a document that protects, becomes a document of control, of submission.
These questions about one’s nationality, and the submission to a passport, reminds me of certain reflections in Jours caucasienes (1945) by the writer Banine (1905-1992), a pseudonym used by Umm El-Banu Asadullayeva, who was born in Baku, Azerbaijan. Jours caucasienes is a mémoire of a young woman who grew up in that territory of perpetual contact between East and West, between Islam and Christianity, between Arab and Russian, who, after experiencing the luxury of Berlin and Budapest, ends up in Paris. A woman who is always pursued by the need for a passport in order to be free, to be herself. It also reminds me of that note on the blog Apuntes e Instantáneas [Notes and Snapshots] by another nomad who settled in Barcelona, David Mauas, author of the film Goya, the Secret of Shadows (2011, Spain, 77 mins.). In a note from November 2010, he writes: “Colombian consulate. Visa process. One woman tells another: «giving up your homeland is like giving up your mother, my land is my land.» The woman notices my attention. A reproving, condescending look.”
In Sagona, the mother country is the home, her manual is to be happy behind closed doors. Paradise is each person’s home, and the home-refuge has to be an emotional fort; but she does not give up her mother country. All her registers, from Passport to Self-Portrait, are stamped with the colours of the Italian flag.
The second core element in Ubi Consistam is a double set of sculptures, two series titled Organs and The Five Senses (2018), made in plaster and covered in enamel, in the three colours of green, white and red. The first series, called Organs, consists of five pieces (each one measures 5 x 8 x 1 inches) that represent the trace or print of five organs in the human body: the brain, the trachea, the liver, an intestinal tract and the heart. The second series, called The Five Senses, are negative prints of a finger, a tongue, two eyes, an ear and a nose. These reliefs represent touch, taste, vision, hearing and the sense of smell through the negative space of the corresponding organ.
The 30 small sculptures are shaped from the desire to give form to a vacuum, to an identity derived from a lack of definition. They all have a physicality, a feel. They are templates of human features, of their organs and viscera, but they are also empty spaces, the memory of what they once were, the negative space of what they really are. Each series repeats itself three times in green, white and red (the colours of the Italian flag).
As I have already mentioned, these colours are also present in the initials MS in Passport and in the tones of the video Self-Portrait.The formula of the flag, playing with its three colours, is like the caro amico or the apostrophe “fra ‘Guittone” in Trattato d’Amore [Treaty of Love] by Guittone d’Arezzo (c. 1230-1294).
I am referring to the manuscript Escorialense di rime italiane antiche (Latin codex in parchment me.III.23 in the Saint Lorenzo Royal Library at El Escorial, Madrid). The poet reinterprets, in a moralist way, a long literary tradition, which lasts from Ovid’s Remedia Amoris to the troubadours, until the poets of the cosiddetta tradizione ‘veneziana’ delle rime dello Stil novo. Guittone transcribes poems and analyses them, while he reinvents or “reinitiates” them by explaining their images, by modifying them, as Sagona does with the prints in Passport.
Besides poetry, Guittone reflects on the importance of the poetic and meta-poetic interrelation between the written word and the image, because the dynamic relations within a singular text and those of the text in space (the material space of the handwritten book and the metaphoric space related to its production, distribution and reception) are also shown as a lyrical and iconographic representations, as complementary parts of the author’s macro-tex- tual planning.
In Sagona’s series of sculptures, Organs and The Five Senses, we also see this medieval hermeneutical practice for the various degrees or levels of meaning: from the figurative (literal, pictographic), to the figurato (metaphorical), to the figurale (moral). In the field of the interpretation of writing, this is equivalent to «secundum historiam, secundum allegoriam, secundum tropologiam». Let us remember that sculpture is an ars mechanica in the system of medieval arts, of a docere per Visibilia (teaching through the visible), which belongs to the sphere of the literal, in the figurative-pictorial sense.
In Sagona’s work, a human being’s senses are described as a relief, as a “figure” or shape. In other words, as an image.
The third storyline or core element of Ubi Consistam is the video Self-Portrait (25:55 mins.). It contains six interviews with six different women about six different topics. One is the artist herself, who talks about co-dependence and abandonment. Another is her daughter, who was born in New York and talks about the different ways of growing up in one country versus the other. The remaining four interviewees are Judith Thurman (writer), Ingrid Rossellini (professor), Giovanna Calvino (author) and Anna Funder (writer). Three of the female protagonists speak English and three speak Italian. These women’s discourse shapes a portrait of the artist in that she selects certain words said by the others and inscribes them on the screen.
The montage of the interviews and the underlining of the others’ words in the video editing form and confirm Sagona’s visual thinking. There is an element of nostalgia in all the interviews. The word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek vocables nostos (returning home) and algia (pain). The term was recovered in the 17th century, when some Swiss doctors diagnosed a strange new contagious disease in mercenary soldiers. The treatment for this mysterious “nostalgia” included the use of leeches, hypnotic emulsions, opiates, and a trip to the high mountains of the Alps. During the 19th century, the term was used to refer to a greater evil, a melancholy felt by many human beings, a destiny, a kind of passing illness.
Nostalgia turned historical and became the sickness of the century.
In The Future of Nostalgia (2002), Svetlana Boym identifies two types of nostalgia, each of which emphasises one of the two roots of the word. The first type is inescapably linked to the home. It longs for a return to the mythical place located on the island of Utopia, where a “greater homeland” will be rebuilt. This nostalgia is collective and has a reconstructive function; it is a “restoring” nostalgia, which is so characteristic of nationalisms that formulate and fabricate custom-made historical myths. The second type of nostalgia emphasises the act of yearning in particular; it is a feeling of loss and displacement, but also a romance with one’s own fantasy. It does not seek to rebuild the lost mythical place and it takes pleasure in distance. It does not search for a reference, because nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship.
This is an ironic nostalgia, fragmentary and unique. This nostalgia considers exile in a double exposition or a superposition of two images: home and abroad, past and present, dream and daily life. As soon as we try to force it into a single image, Sagona sees it breaking the frame or burning the surface. Moreover, with an ability to penetrate into detail as Walter Benjamin did, Sagona is, in Ubi Consistam, a stroller, a flâneuse, who moves around the essay between Das Passagen-Werk [The Arcades Project] and Einbahnstraße [One-Way Street] (1928).
The interviews are additionally coloured in three hues: the first two in green, the third and fourth in white, the fifth and sixth in red. That is, once again, the colours of the Italian flag, like the colours on the casts of body organs or in the initials MS that are printed on the drawings in Passport. At heart, the interviews also reveal a vision of the nature of identity. The most emphatic expression may be found in the words of the Australian writer Anna Funder: “I didn’t want to be a window frame with the wind blowing through it.”
The theme of identity was already in Sagona’s work as a book illustrator or in previous exhibitions, such as her exhibition titled La donna al plurale [The Woman in Plural], presented at the Tricomia Illustrator’s International Art Gallery in Rome in 2011. The artist’s works were inspired by the poem Song of Songs by the Czech poet Vitlezlav Nezval (1900-1958) in the book La donna al plurale (Einaudi, Rome, 2002). And the theme of one’s roots had also come up in her picture books for children, such as Voglio essere un albero (Einaudi Ragazzi, Rome, 2007).
Ubi Consistam means stable point (a fixed base or location) and it is part of the Latin translation from ancient Greek of a phrase Archimedes allegedly uttered after discovering the law of the lever: “da mihi ubi consistam, et terram coelum- que movebo”, which has been translated into that hackneyed phrase “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth”. It sums up a human being’s need to have, or start from, a stable point, a solid foundation, from which to create his or her world and existence; an existence, a vital force, not only of a physical nature, but also of psychological needs. It is a reflection on one’s self, in terms of the body (our senses) and of paperwork (the identity a passport gives our existence).
The physical self and the citizen self, the body and its number plate to travel the world. It is ultimately a reflection on the unique human history, of how the individual is represented, identified by a piece of paper. As a whole, Ubi Consistam is a project about how we build ourselves an identity and how our own identity is sometimes blurred. It is not about (physical or psychological) changes in oneself, but about how we are changed by the context we live in (whether it is due to social forms or to that a priori that is our passport or ID card, the paper that certifies and affirms our existence).
A passport validates our organs, the body we inhabit, with which we perceive the world. Our perception is determined by our organs and by our senses. And our memory is printed in those interviews, which are so diverse and yet so similar. In a way, the real (the passport) indicates to us the orientation of the false (I am Libyan, Italian, American). For me, that identity manifests in other spheres: the land of birth, the homeland, takes place within the self, inside oneself, in the involuntary memory in food and in the voice, or rather the tone of voice; in how it is modulated and how we hear certain terms, such as pentola, chiodo di garofano, etc., in Sagona’s extraordinary 6.17 minute video Cousous (2020).
Couscous is a short video that is structured like a diptych. On the right side of the screen, various clips of family footage are shown, while on the other side of the screen, we see short, linear information about the artist’s father and family over a background of the color of hummus. Born into an Italian family that had lived on the island of Malta for over 200 years and then moved to Libya during the Ottoman Empire, the father, Oreste, gets married in 1966 and moves to Rome. The rest of the family does so in 1969, after the Gaddafi coup.
Malta is populated with people from Italy, an island that Ferdinand of Borbon, King of Naples and Sicily handed over to the British Empire in 1816, after the signing of the Paris Treaty in 1814 and the Vienna Congress in 1815. Since Italian was banned as the official language of Malta in 1936, many Italians then moved to Libya. They cross the Mediterranean, as wandering Jews had done before them, with resignation but also with vitality and good intentions. What nobody can take away from them are those times that are their very own, as much as those others of inherited years and centuries they carry in their blood and their memories, and in their homeland, so to speak, the one that has never been a physical place but a mental place. Couscous condenses a memory of happy survival.
French philosopher Henri Bergson distinguished between two memories, or rather two ways of analysing what we call memory or recollection of the past: the memory that comes from, or is stored through, the mécanismes moteurs [motor mechanisms], is attained with the effort of will; the memory that comes from, or is stored through, souvenir independents [independent memories], is a spontaneous recollection, an image that becomes present. Years later, Gilles Deleuze would make a distinction, from a different perspective, between mémoire-souvenir (souvenir pur) and mémoire-contraction (souvenir-image). The first type of memory, which is voluntary, is stored in the brain (matter). The second type is stored in one’s consciousness (life, mind).
With the help of perception, the brain reviews or scans the memories-recollections and selects those that are needed for the action of living or surviving. Automatic memory, which is preserved in the body, so to speak, with its automatic reactions to situations that arise in life, has been translated into English as “habit formed memory”, “habitual memory” or “pure recollection”. This second type is the enduring memory of each person, which consists of their individuality, in the entire mix of a person’s past and present. Bergson calls it independent, because the images that are stored in it are always intact as such, regardless of the situation an individual experiences. This is known as “pure memory”, a memory that comes as an image that one preserves of oneself, like a contraction that evokes a certain moment and shapes our present.
This can be seen practically in the six interviews in Self-Portrait. The time of consciousness is not spatial, reversible time (it cannot go back and repeat the experiment like in science). Its basic feature is duration: the self lives in the present with the memory of the past and the anticipation of the future, which only exist in the consciousness that unifies them.
In Passport, Sagona not only stamps her civil data, but also landscapes and quotes. Passport is also the impression and the trace of that tangle of experiences Sagona gradually sketched out later while waiting for her nationality.
In his posthumous book Time Regained (1927), Marcel Proust said that we also retain the smell and taste of beings and objects of the past, whose memory sometimes lasts much longer, like the smell of madeleines: “Remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
In Couscous, this edifice of memory is built by Sagona, not just with the memory of what was filmed, the beaches, the streets, the architecture of Tripoli, but also with the sound, the voice of her father explaining a culinary recipe. The saxophonist Gato Barbieri, in his album Caliente! (1976) claims: “The images of memory have a sound. With cinema, we realised that images have music. With music, something older and more intimate happens; when it really touches you, you can invent your own images and dream of things you didn’t know you were going to dream. Music is like a jungle (as is memory); it has limits, but we don’t know them. Music is the memory of dreams.”
The visual diptych in Couscous is complemented with an Italian-speaking voice that explains the recipe for couscous. Food is the means of communication through which her father expresses himself: describing or breaking down a recipe he likes is his way of expressing his love and explaining his roots. In every recipe, there is a linear aspect (the number or list of ingredients), but there is also a timeline aspect, the code to combine those ingredients (how to cut them, put them in the pan, and the timing). A cooking recipe is a language that has no other translation than its making. Here, eating (satisfying one’s hunger) becomes food, and food becomes nourishment, loving food, nutrition. This term comes from the Latin word nutrire, which is also the root of the word nurse, and from the pre-Indo-European term nutri, which allows us to swim, to flow.
In the video Couscous, in the flow of Oreste’s voice, we watch the pan being filled, not with ingredients, but with experiences. That cooking pot, as a familiar territory, is a sensory place as well as an emotional epicentre. Every nation has limits or it limits, but the place does not. Neither does food.
This subject of food is already present in another one of Sagona’s works, from a negative perspective, in the children’s book No – Anna e il cibo (Orecchio Acerbo Editore, Rome, 2006). The story of a “no” by a girl who does not want to eat becomes, day by day, step by step, little by little, a “yes, I do want to eat”. The book narrates the story or the path of a mother and daughter who transit toward a positive view of eating, which is growing and living together. It is a book toward the future, whereas Couscous is a mémoire-contraction, a souvenir-image, pure memory.
The film follows the logic of the condiment, of cuisine, to reach the feeling and the memory of a native land, that space we grew up in. The voice of the father rolling out the ingredients and their order in preparing the dish, as well as the dish itself, are what provide the true look at who we are. They are not mere madeleines but, as in Proust, it is the preparation of a dish that brings back the involuntary memory. In that act of cooking, land and love are both summed up and reaccepted.
Although Ubi Consistam is an essay, Sagona does not follow the genre’s typical academic rule: a comparative analysis. She simply presents us with some objects and directs our attention to what they represent, manifest, symbolise and, above all, determine. She shows us a geography registered at three levels (paper-reliefs-video), as if providing a map to be able to travel a path that leads us to a vantage point from which we do not reflect upon the landscape, but rather upon our own identity and the safe passage that places us in a given territory that we call nation. Sagona structures her thoughts on identity through her bureaucratic identity, through some reliefs that refer to her body and through taped interviews with women surviving in a foreign country.
Ubi Consistam can be read as a civil history, as a non heroic saga, and as a simple visual story, without adventures, whose core idea and engine is the fight for personal freedom, desire and happiness. Despite the colours of the Italian flag in the initials MS on the American passport, despite the three hues of the film, there is neither a nationalist’s pride nor a sceptic’s sadness in Sagona’s visual storytelling. We are human beings and there is no belonging to the species, no homeland for the species. The same language, the same past, do those things unite us? Does our community, does our family, unite us? We are more united by our interest in living in peace, in being able to develop and feel comfort, in simply enjoying the scenery where each of us is at each moment.
Sagona goes beyond that in Ubi Consistam: she points to who we are and what the political reality is, the reality that gives us a distinguishing feature, our passport, the absurdity of nationality and the nostalgia of our native land.
Ubi Consistam, like a mémoire-souvenir, seeks a profound, hidden meaning behind the paperwork of the errors that float above what we call civilisation.