The dry river of images
I must admit I’ve been giving these and other unnerving questions a thought after finishing the book that has aroused them, titled Autobiografía sin vida (Autobiography Without Life). Its author, Félix de Azúa (Barcelona, 1944), makes a trip back to the very dawn of art in order to write a chronological history which turns out to be a story of annihilations rather than achievements. Paying attention to very specific moments of art history, Azúa establishes a series of landmarks that take art ever closer to its inevitable end. This fascinating text, with the pace of a short novel, shows a deep knowledge of the subject matter. Only this can explain how the author has been capable of taking a bird’s-eye view of history and drawing a line that goes from the birth of art to its decrepitude.
In the first chapter, which serves as an introduction, Azúa lays down the keys in order to fully understand the book. He discusses the fact that every society gives a meaning to its existence through symbols (images), and how these symbols change as time goes by; not necessarily because the subsequent generations deny them, quite simply because they give them new meanings. This continuous substitution of images suffered a great acceleration with the dawn of the modern age, where values such as progress and innovation have frequently become ends in themselves. In this respect, there’s a fact that is quite significant: between the first and second landmark Azúa establishes, there’s a distance of approximately 25 centuries, while between the fifth and the last of the nine there are barely 350 years.
But if this book is truly original it’s not because of a personal and random choice of key moments in the history of art. Azúa chooses these moments, and not others, because they are, in his view, the ones that mark the steps taken by art in its insatiable appetite for taking over every aspect of life. The journey begins with the horses painted on the walls of the Chauvet Cave, the moment where these animals abandon the Earth and enter a world of images. Plato avant la lettre: each individual horse has ceased to be a horse and is now simply a derivative of the prototype on the rocky walls. From the third millennium before Christ to the mid-twentieth century, Azúa demonstrates how images have gradually taken over the real world. The conclusion would be that man, in his desperate attempt to retain the life’s fleeting nature, has tried to conserve beautiful landscapes or scenes of everyday life through drawings, paintings and sculptures. This noble aspiration, however, achieves exactly the opposite: when something is fixed or immortalised, it ceases to live.
The journey ends with the description Azúa makes of the work that the artist James Lee Byars presented at the 1972 Kassel Documenta: the artwork was Byars himself. The era of image had finished. Azúa’s final conclusion leaves me unsatisfied. In some ways, this is as absurd as being disappointed with the end of a novel when the author has already told us on the back cover how it will end. Azúa’s story is one that has been told many times before, but I simply cannot get used to the ending. Firstly, because it makes one wonder what on earth he’s doing writing about what he thought was “art” every week. Maybe, I wonder, it’s not art that’s ended so much as man’s capacity to create new symbols (after all, where can we find them if absolutely everything in this world has a painting dedicated to it in some museum?). Or perhaps we just need a change of vocabulary. Or maybe the only art with a realistic future is the one made in the virtual world of the internet (this possibility terrifies me).
These are no more than desperate suppositions in search of a conclusion that will tell me that the activity I dedicate much of my time to, i.e. visiting art exhibitions, is not completely useless. It’s in moments like these that I ask myself with worry: if the last art worthy of such a name died at the middle of last century, why is it that I am deeply moved, for example, by a recent painting by Gerhard Richter?