Ohio-based artist Ann Hamilton is completing her Arte Público intervention at the Cabo Rojo Light House. I have had the chance to exchange a few ideas with her on the project. What follows are some theoretical sketches written under her spell.
1. Collections and inventories: monumentality of place — The Cabo Rojo Lighthouse belongs to a collection: the collection of prestigious places considered “historical”, chosen as sites for the Arte Público project, but that have become useless with time. Arguably, the Lighthouse of Cabo Rojo is what Jean Baudrillard describes as an “ancient object”, whose sole purpose is “to signify”; it is completely devoid of functionality in a strict sense. Ancient objects are “obsolete” and stand as bearers of the meaning of “time”, a cultural concept. What does “time as cultural concept” stand for? Basically, I say, it stands for the Roman idea of “Terminus”: the ancient object marks the beginning and the end of Time, tracing its limits and abutments. Origin and Death. It seems that the Arte Público Project has chosen places that are significant in this sense, thought they are out of the way; these places are “symbolic”, but are no longer intelligible; maybe what they mean no longer matters because society has just moved on. In fact, the call for proposals circulated by Arte Público clearly states the project´s purpose of restoring meaning to objects and places that seem deserving because of their singularity or monumentality, but whose cultural meaning has been lost (one is reminded of the arcane mystery that surrounds the statues of Easter Island, whose meaning has been completely lost apparently forever because no memory is left of how to “read” them…). Of course, the Arte Público project, in its insistence on permanence and the sturdiness of the works and interventions, is focused on Origin, rather than on Death, but, as origins go, the project is inviting artists not necessarily to archaeologically retrieve whatever meaning has been lost, but to reinvent new meaning, a meaning that would allow past and present to meet half way. It might be said that, in the Arte Público project, the ancient object has become a sort of tabula rasa. Any old meaning no longer decodable just serves to foreground the prestige carried by the seniority of old things over new. What matters here is the authority of the old --a blind, usually groundless, authority. (The famous or infamous dispute between ancients and moderns…)
The Lighthouse belongs to a collection of tabulae rasae, clean slates waiting to have their surfaces completely spattered with meaning. The obsolete character of the Lighthouse —what makes it “historical” and useful only as a marker for “memory” (it reminds us of memory as an activity, though a memory without precise contents) that actually stands for “past”, the “past” being always “monumental”, “awesome”, “revered”— is what makes the tabula rasa work as a site for invention.
Thus, as a site for an Arte Público project, the Cabo Rojo Lighthouse is redundant. The work of art placed in or on the Lighthouse will have the primary purpose of “signifying” an object (the very Lighthouse) whose basic purpose is to “signify”. And this is just not an act of signifying, but an act of celebrating, of glorifying the past supposedly represented by the Lighthouse. Let us not forget that, ostensibly, the Arte Público project is political in its will to invent a glorious political past. This leads us smack onto irony: the new work of art —precisely because it is new, and precisely because it freely “interprets” the Lighthouse— threats to “deface” the monument’s prestige: the very existence of the work of art that signifies the monument seems to affirm that the monument needs an overhaul of meaning, a “meaningful makeover”. If the ancient object stands for time —the Time of Origin, the time of the origin of history, of nationality, of a prestigious past, all of them metaphors of “origin”— the new work reminds us that passing time depletes memory, and memory must be inflated back into existence.
As an obsolete object whose meaning has been fixed by tradition —even if the tradition has been forgotten and only the ancient object remains as its depleted marker—, the “monument” is “eccentric”, unlike the places we experience in our everyday lives. It seems too complete, too full, its prickly corners too sanded down by the passage of time. Thus —and again I quote Baudrillard— this ancient-object-as-monument seems weird, false, foreign to our experience: when we stand before it, we feel swept away to a world that is not our own, a remote place. According to Baudrillard, this feeling of “inauthenticity” (of “otherwordliness”, I would say), stems from the fact that the “monument” is being interpreted within a framework that is not guided by authenticity, but by “a calculated relationship and the abstraction of the sign.” I would add that the fact that we intuit a difference between trashy old objects and ancient (“classic”, “prestigious”, “collectible”) objects dramatizes our will to choose some over the others, and marks the (slight) difference between scientific archaeology and cultural cliché.
The Lighthouse itself is physically and actually “eccentric”. It is far from town, located at a basically deserted place on an awesome landscape. Its actual purpose is to indicate “terminus”: the frontier between the land and the sea, the threshold between the sea and terra firma. It is the bearer of the concept of frontier. It separates at least two media (land and sea), two universes, two activities, two realities, to places, two perspectives, two desires… Mircea Eliade has aptly described such places as “sacred” because they somehow function as a revolving door between origin and death, endowing life with a sense of order. The Lighthouse, as the Delphi Oracle, could be considered an “omphalos”, a “navel” of the world, the point of departure and the point of return.
The Lighthouse, as a marker or “terminus” and as a real (although obsolete) “terminus”, marks also the place where things are defined as “things”, where they become meaningful to become a part of the (meaningful) world. The process of classifying objects that are washed ashore is one of the best allegories of the process of constructing meaning. In fact, objects are endowed with meaning when separated from the water, from the sand, from any other debris. Separation is the basis of meaning. There is no meaning without limits, frontiers, “terminus”.
As a place where things come into being (that is, “into meaning”), the shore marked as “terminus” by the Lighthouse (the Lighthouse stands for the shore, for the coastline itself) becomes a huge shelf where objects —the new objects just created by meaning— are displayed as tokens of the fact that the world is made of things. Making an inventory of the things that “populate” the space surrounding the Lighthouse would constitute a narrative of origin, insofar as creation (as an activity of separation, of endowing with meaning) is performed by the very act of naming. There resides, I think, the overwhelming beauty of the Genesis narrative of the creation of the world.
But“terminus” also stands to mark dissolution, death. As a threshold, it implies transformation. At the “terminus”, things are resignified, redefined, recaptured. We catch things in the process of becoming, in the process of extinction. In this sense, does it make sense to inventory the actual things that exist at the Lighthouse? There, the sea is always gnawing at the shore, retracing the coastline; all things washed ashore have endured the erosion of the waves, have been redrawn, redesigned. The threshold is, technically, what anthropologist Marc Augé calls a “no-place”, like airports and train stations, storehouses of matter about to become.
Instead of naming the collection (of things at the Lighthouse), it might be necessary to signify the Lighthouse (as marker, as standing for “terminus”) as a transformation machine. Hamilton´s idea of foregrounding the sea and the wind in her intervention at the Lighthouse is excellent because what we call “the elements” are, precisely, the Tools of Transformation (please do mind the capital Ts…). Technically speaking, there can be no “inventory” of the things at the lighthouse in the sense that, in order to be meaningful, inventories cannot be infinite. Since nothing that falls prey to the Lighthouse comes away unscathed, the constant additions to the “inventory” defeat the very purpose of inventorying as a meaningful and meaning-giving activity. In fact, the erosive action of the place itself defeats the very act of naming (as creation, as separation) since things are in constant transformation. The very impossibility of the inventory —as a bureaucratic imitation of the act of naming and creating by separation— seriously questions the Lighthouse as a standard-bearer of reified meaning, of monumentality. Here I follow the first few scenes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. His is a carmen perpetuum” (an endless song) because things are in constant transformation: history and nature are in perpetual change (set in motion by the perpetual metaphorization of poetry, carmen).
This does not mean, however, that the idea of “collection” or “inventory” should be pushed to the backburner. For starters, as Baudrillard aptly remarks citing the Littré dictionary’s definition of “collection”, “tout ce qui est la cause, le sujet d’une passion. Figuré et par excellence: l’objet aimé.” [“Everything that is the cause, the subject, of a passion. Figured and par excellence: the loved object.”]
In this sense, the Arte Público project has a passion for nation-building, for things that could narrate the past; for objects that invent the community. Since the nation, the community, are elusive beings at best, reiteration is of the essence: in order to exist, nation and community must be repeated endlessly, insisted upon.
Of course, when Hamilton talks about “collecting” or “inventorying” as activities foreground in her intervention, she is not referring to this openly political project of Arte Público. What could be, then, the object of Hamilton´s passion? Images, sounds, narratives of place and time: it seems to me that her core images convey once and again the idea of transformation, the constant shift between unintelligibility and intelligibility. Hamilton collects as pirates do (as the pirates who entered the island of Puerto Rico at such an awesome and lonely place: the Cabo Rojo Lighthouse): changing aspect, changing meaning, challenging identity. Hamilton seems to have a passion for metamorphosis and for its tools: erasure, confusion, restatement, counterfeit, defacement… Hamilton seems to love the very objects of change.
Ann Hamilton´s Cabo Rojo Lighthouse intervention has the beauty of the undefined, of the about-to-be-defined. It is so blatantly rich in possibilities of interpretation. It points to the act of separating, naming, creating at the “terminus” by the drawing of a line that could be interpreted in so many ways. The “reader” of that line drawn by anybody’s hand could actively participate in the endowment of meaning; the reader could become part of the transformational activity at the threshold of meaning. The voices speaking out fragments of poetry texts somehow imply this transformation too. On the one hand, poetry is based on “metaphor” as privileged trope —the very trope of transformation, of going beyond the act of utterance. On the other hand, each poet uses words in a deliberately different way, confounding and debilitating the very act of naming as a strong patriarchal act. We could speak of the coastline according to Keats, to Neruda, to Julia de Burgos, to Pedro Salinas. Poetry appropriates things to show them in an everchanging light. It is the very genre of transformation.
Hamilton´s project stands out for its openness and its interpretative generosity towards the reader, for its extreme, outrageous richness of meaning. Instead of naming or inventorying, meaning could prove more eventful by underlining the tools of transformation, the tools for construing. Let everyone who visits the Lighthouse unleash his or her capacity to inventory. Thus, the project emphasizes not the permanent, but the ephemeral, the passing of time through the threshold of the Lighthouse as “terminus”. Writing and erasure.
2. The soundtrack of the project:The voices of poetry? It would be interesting to explore vocalizations instead of articulated voices as the “soundtrack” of Hamilton´s piece. Maybe the hand drawing a line on the wall could now and then “form” a word, a verse or a first line (I like the idea of listing first lines of poems pertinent to the piece…). Or maybe the opposite would be best: having the hand almost drawing a discernible word, but having the voice spelling out the poems. Or maybe voice and hand could take turns at making “sense”. Somehow they would be imitating the action of the wind (voice), and that of the tongue of the sea that licks the shore and thus (re)traces it. Even if voice and writing can be clearly gendered, such an exchange would comment on the constant transformation of one into the other, and their respective virtues and limitations could be discerned. It would be beautiful to let the Lighthouse be the threshold between the articulate and the inarticulate, between orality and literacy, between wind and the sea, with the meaning-giving action of the human language.
3. The gaze of the Lighthouse — The Cabo Rojo Lighthouse beams its light on sea and land, tracing the very horizon. While that happens (if it still happens), a beam of light in the interior of the building will turn constantly on itself projecting the image of a hand drawing a line on the walls. The beam that calls the seafarer’s attention traces the coastline and the horizon seems to be doubled by the projector inside the building. But there is another reading of this: while the actual light maps (separates) the land-sea threshold, literally traces it, the projector moves around in a space that recalls the womb. The Lighthouse pretends to order, to map (a phallic pen doodling the land-sea-scape —in Spanish, lighthouse is said “faro”, a mere letter away from “falo” or phallus…—; The projector inside the building lights up the womb as the scene of transformation (remember the theories of “Incarnation” that form the basis of so many splendid paintings from the 13th to the 17th centuries, depicting the Annunciation?). Inside the phallic lighthouse, you have conceived a womb. In so many ways, Ann Hamilton seems to be coming back to the idea of transformation, to transcience, to metaphor… If the Cabo Rojo Lighthouse, as a deterrent against pirates, as a tool for man’s mastery of the seas, is blatantly patriarchal, the lighthouse as womb, is not! Interior and exterior challenge each other.
4. Simplicity, complicity— When I read the original description of Hamilton´s project and saw the digital film of the drawing hand whose action of tracing a line produced a sound just like that of the waves and the wind, my mind was literally blown away by the suggestiveness of it all. In her Cabo Rojo intervention, simplicity is strong and relies a lot on the reader’s very act of interpreting nature as alluded in the work. Treating a monument as a threshold can bring about the uncanny (in Freud’s sense), just the feeling that announces the dawn of the new and the demise of the old.
Lilliana Ramos Collado is a poet and essayist. She teaches literature at the University of Puerto Rico. Río Piedras.