Greta Alfaro

El cataclismo nos alcanzara impávidos

Fri 30 September - Fri 18 December, 2015

DÉPENSE, PRODUCTION, DESIRE AND CATASTROPHE around the critical parable of Greta Alfaro: El cataclismo nos alcanzará impávidos

Then perhaps the forms of the voluptuous emotion will reveal their simultaneously secret and tragic connection to the anthropomorphic phenomenon of economy and exchange

Pierre Klossowski

 We know that disaster will strike, but we do not believe what we know

Jean-Pierre Dupuy 

Hominem te esse cogita[1]

(Think that you are (only) a man)

El cataclismo nos alcanzará impávidos brings together a series of photos of still lifes, an installation with mobile phones and a half an hour-long video projection, as the backbone element. They were made by Greta Alfaro during her stay at the Academia de España en Roma, as part of a research project revolving around the iconography of martyrdom.

In the course of this research, an element of the Counter-reformation martyrdom doctrine became the centre of interest, as it felt strangely contemporary: the way in which the sacrificed has to accept the punishment. An apology of the indifferent expression during sacrifice that called for injustice, arbitrariness and violence in the exercise of power as a necessary complement.  Hence the title of this project –El cataclismo nos alcanzará impávidos– The cataclysm will take us undaunted is an adaptation of the verse, impavidum ferient ruinae,[2] which, as an example of the stoic ideal, was taken by the Baroque martyrdom discourse as being emblematic of the martyr’s exemplary attitude. On the other hand, the anecdote that serves as an excuse for the project was remotely inspired by the legend of Saint Anastasia.[3] Finally, all the imagery used to stage this project is taken from the Dutch still life tradition. Greta Alfaro rigorously composes a Baroque pronkstilleven[4], taking into account the compositional structure and the symbols inherent to it: the burning candles, that allude to the briefness of life, the peeled lemon as the bitterness of existence discovered behind tinsel, the flowers… the beautifully produced scenography of a bountiful banquet, a mise-en-scéne at the service of a profanation; of the strange, irreverent, obscene and wild irruption of desire. A parodic and tragic dramatization deprived of a narrative progression nor an end, which beautifully and in slow motion, transforms painting into a critical parable about desire and its bonds to the commodity dictatorship.[5]

But this will not be the only profanation. Not only nature and matter are affronted here, but also the very image of the profanation is in turn profaned. Thus a game of mirrors is created; the structure of meta-language is rendered complex in order to speak about Baroque through a Baroque language, and about image throughout image. The meticulous production of the main video exhibits its backstage from the perspective of the “witnesses” who, situated in a second scene at the back of the action, record the event on a mobile phone. This video has been filmed, edited, sent and exhibited on mobile phones. It refers to the debate on the possibilities of democratic production, access and creation of ideas promised by the poor image and to its condition of testimony of the catastrophe; as well as to the nature of the image as minor and bastard, of questionable truth and object of consumption. The dialectic between the main video and the image captured by the mobile phone is inserted on the problem of the current statute of the image.

In any case, it would seem natural to ask oneself the meaning of these relationships: Why bring Baroque iconography into the present? What does this ritualised representation of a transgression tell us? What are the images of El cataclismo nos alcanzará impávidos questioning?

In my opinion, there are four (inseparable) aspects that bring us near to the perspective from which this project looks at us: 1/ The current-day relevance of the Baroque; 2 / The symbolic power of the “still life” 3/ La dépense (the waste, expenditure or squandering as referred to by Bataille) 4/ Catastrophe and indifference.

1/ The current-day relevance of the Baroque

The reflections on the notion of the Baroque as a way of approaching present times, based on the analysis of its logic, its ethos, or its resonance, have (controversially) intensified since the second half of the 19th-century.[6]

It is from the 1960’sa that criticism to the Capitalist system, the culture of the image and a radical reflection on the question of representation establish a correspondence between our times and the notion of Baroque, aimed at advancing in the search for an aesthetic comprehension of reality.[7]

War, conflicts between nations, the economic recession, the rupture of a civilizing project, the epistemological and social crises, and the disturbances these gave rise to, all forced the powers of the Counter-reformation to produce an apparatus of physical repression and penetration into the consciences, a semiotic machine, a vast generator of propaganda and control over imagery.  The situation of crisis and the central importance of the spectacular image in preserving a sovereign power seem to build a bridge between the 17th-century society and today.[8]

It could be said that if the ethics of Baroque and current-day representation present a parallel regarding the will to control the symbolic production, they may also do so when it comes to the possibility of disobeying the “state culture”.

2/ The symbolic power of the “still life”

The Baroque Dutch still life progressively lost its condition of vanitas. Despite its moralistic disguise, which was theoretically proposed for domestic painting and aimed at restraining a consumerist desire, the truth is that the pronkstilleven is clearly a celebration of abundance, the victory of flaunting material goods. The representation of this entire production of objects grants them sense and meaning, giving form to a symbolic world. To produce, represent and consume objects is to produce, represent and consume meaning. The layout of a banket of raw and cooked products, of elements coming both from nature (wild fruits, game, etc.) as from agriculture speaks about the domestication of the wild, production capability, mastery of culture and appropriation of nature as merchandise. It is a display of the virtues of consumption, the victory of the bourgeois society and the economic and trade power of a capitalist economy such as the Dutch in the 17th century, which was cynically supported by the slave trade.[9]

3/ La dépense

The link established by Greta Alfaro in El cataclismo nos alcanzará impávidos between martyrdom, desire, acceptance and the production of goods raises numerous questions around “the way power makes itself loved”.[10] Are there libidinal ties that establish a voluntary subjection to disciplinary power? If desire lies at the core of this social submission, how do consumption and spectacle act in this scenario?

The irruption of “the perpetrator” in El cataclismo… as the human action over nature and production, generated by frustration and frenzied and meaningless desire, may refer to two ideas by Bataille: La dépense (squandering, wasteful spending)[11] and “the heterogeneous”. Wasteful spending, squandering, understood as sovereign behaviour, emancipated from its function or any utilitarian interest, are present in the subversive idea, in the ostentation of luxury and in erotic perversion. The heterogeneous dimension in Bataille, according to Habermas,[12] is that which resists the bourgeois ways of life. The heterogeneous would be: inebriation, fantasy and the drive -which fight the norms dictated by convention-; the pariahs, the mad, the troublemakers, the revolutionaries or the poets. But also fascism, which feeds from the forms of affective life.

But when more products than ever are desired, produced, consumed and disregarded, when the crowd is split because the dreamed-of world is now just a private conquest and it is specially dedicated to you…  are the heterogeneous and expenditure not fully incorporated into the destructive mechanics of crazy consumerism? Has the provocative gesture not lost its rule-breaking ability once accepted as a celebration of the system? Is the notion of excess not fully fulfilled in the accumulation of goods? As Klossowski says, “the accelerated pace of manufacturing must constantly prevent inefficacy in its products, against which has no resource but squandering”.[13]

4/ Catastrophe and indifference

In the face of catastrophe, we attend destruction as witnesses,[14] like those two figures at the back of the image. They gaze and transmit a reality that is always mediated, conditioned by technological devices interposed between life and its perception. Devices created to be part of the consumption chain. Witnesses as “third parties”, as if this were not about us. As explained by Agamben[15], there are two words in Latin to refer to the witness. The first, testis, which would etymologically be the person who positions themselves as the third party (terstis) in a dispute between two contenders. The second, superstes, refers to the person who has experienced a certain reality and therefore is qualified to bear witness.

Dominated, subjected to power because of desire, and simultaneously subjugators. Perhaps we do not even hold the status of witnesses anymore. We bear indifferent to the destruction of the world and to the pain of others, insensitive in front of Apocalypse: Auschwitz, Hiroshima-Nagasaki, endless wars, the world wide industry of death, the climate change, the exhaustion of resources, the environmental collapse… The knowledge of the threat is ignored as such.

Günter Anders[16] speaks about “blindness in front of Apocalypse”. For him we are in a blind spot in which we do not see that we do not see. This is the consequence of both the “gap” between our capability to produce and our incapability to perceive the effects of our production, and our insistence in confusing what we can doo and what we must do.


Bataille[17] writes: “The moral of Sade, according to Maurice Blanchot, «is based on the primary fact of absolute solitude. Sade said it, and repeated it every possible way; by nature we are born alone, there is no relation between one man an another. Thus the only rule of behaviour is to prefer what affects me favourably, and not to care at all about how my preference could be harmful to another one. The biggest pain of others will always be smaller than my pleasure. It does not matter if I have to buy the most insignificant pleasure with an unheard-of amount of misdeeds, for pleasure is enjoyable, is inside myself, while the effect of crime does not affect me, is outside myself»”.

I think that the ironically exposed concerns in El cataclismo… are neither about nature, nor about human nature, but about what it means to nature and human nature to be subjected to human action. The situation represented in El cataclismo nos alcanzará impávidos is as strange and disconcerting as the enormously unfair social and historic facts that evidence the dominion and incomprehension of some men towards others, and which are truly difficult to understand.

Nacho París

Valencia, 2016

[1]Hominem te esse cogita: emblematic sentence that proves an entire dialectic stance in opposition to the Cartesian motto Cogito ergo sum.

[2]Si fractus illabatur orbis / impavidum ferient ruinae  (Horatio, Odes III, 3,7-8) meaning: “if the entire world falls to pieces, the ruins will find him fearless”, or destroying the Latin conciseness to get a better understanding of its meaning, “Though, reduced to rubble the whole world should fall on top of him (the fair man), the ruins will wound him without making any mark on his soul”. We thank Tomas Pollán for his translation and comments on the translation of these verses that we have so briefly included here.

[3]The legend of Saint Anastasia, that describes the libidinous outburst of a Roman prefect in a kitchen when his desire is refused by three young Christian ladies, can be consulted in: De la Vorágine, Santiago. La leyenda dorada, Madrid, Alianza Forma, 2008.

[4]Pronkstilleven: Luxurious still life in which the presence of ostentatious objects stands out.

[5]However much it has been rebutted, the interpretation remains limited to a correspondence in line with the author’s intention. This text offers a specific perspective, just one of the possible interpretations of a polysemic work. On the relation between the author’s intention and interpretation, the following work can be consulted: Curry, Gregory. “Interpretación y pragmática”  Artes & mentes, Madrid, Machado, 2012.

[6] Either from more formal or historicist analysis, restricting Baroque to its artistic expression or to a given time, or, on the contrary, from a perspective of return or contemporary resonance, analysing it on a broader sense. The list of authors is wide: Buckhardt; Wölfflin; Weisbach; Worringer; Riegl; Nietzsche; Bergamín or the Generation of 27 (vindicating certain authors such as Góngora or Lope de Vega); Benjamin; D ´Ors; Lezama Lima; Carpentier; Echevarria; Sarduy; Ortega; Lacan; Deleuze; Calabrese; Buci-Glucksmann; Buck-Morss; Bifo…

[7] Cornago Bernal, Óscar. Nuevos enfoques sobre el Barroco y la (Pos)Modernidad, Dicenda. Cuadernos de Filología Hispánica, 2004.

[8] In this respect, the following work should be consulted: Maravall, José Antonio, La cultura del Barroco, Barcelona, Ariel, 1975.

[9] See: Buck-Morss, Susan. Hegel y Haití. La dialéctica amo-esclavo: una interpretación revolucionaria, Buenos Aires, Norma, 2005.

[10] Legendre, Pierre. El amor del censor: ensayo sobre el orden dogmático, Barcelona, Anagrama, 1979.

[11] Bataille Georges. “La noción de gasto” La parte maldita, Icaria, Barcelona, 1987.

[12] Habermas, Jürgen. El discurso filosófico de la modernidad, Madrid, Taurus, 1989.

[13] Klossowski, Pierre. La moneda viva, Valencia, Pre-Textos, 2002.

[14] The word martyr from the Ecclesiastical Latin martyr deriving from the Greek μάρτυρας (martyros) which means witness; he who would give account of his faith under torture.

[15] Agamben, Giorgio. Lo que queda de Auschwitz. El archivo y el testigo. HOMO SACER III, Valencia, Pre-Textos, 2000.

[16]Anders, Günther. La obsolescencia del hombre, Valencia, Pre-Textos, 2011.

[17] Bataille, G. El erotismo. Scan Spartakku. Revisión, TiagOff