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Through a Curtain Grayly: Arturo Herrera’s “Les Noces”

Darby English, Associate Professor, Art History, University of Chicago


I wanted to view Arturo Herrera’s Les Noces as video art, but discovered upon arriving that I couldn’t. Answering this frustration, I devoted an inordinate amount of time puzzling that very difficulty before deciding to get over it. Why worry about what to call it? What kind of perceptual limitations did that worry betray? What possibilities and differences came into play with their overcoming? What looking isn’t also an asking? What certainty isn’t also a refusal? After all, I told myself, one enters Les Noces through a profound velvet curtain, one weighty enough to close itself behind you and banish all outside light, while also punctuating with some drama the apartness of the work’s space. The portal to Narnia. Apart from everything, it seemed, except the trouble engendered by a humorless relationship to categories. At any rate, this essay was very late, and although its belatedness is nowhere inscribed in its incarnation as hypertext, the struggle from which it sprang is a very real part of how Les Noces came to matter for me. Because: Les Noces is place that is a thing too, a thing that one comes to know more by feeling than by seeing, and thus a work that keeps knowing at bay. The threshold of play. A space apart from knowing. At the very least, it’s not enough to say that Les Noces revealed itself to this viewer slowly, because the revelations continue, and no more quickly.

The scene is an insulated rectangular room, dipped in medium gray, its two short ends bound by two large video screens spanning the room’s width and about half its height. As a matter of form, Les Noces is a bespoke environment with sound and video, the sound being the soundtrack of Igor Stravinsky’s 1923 score for Les Noces, and the views comprising passages of Arturo Herrera’s drawings, here chopped and diced into abstraction. As the drama of entry that I described above makes clear, Herrera’s Les Noces forsakes entirely the bohemian affect for which Stravinsky strove: the ballet that he scored tells of wedding rites among Russian peasants. The work reframes the music as well, which, although unaltered, is amplified in its austerity by the abstract images. Though we know it tells a story, narrative is an afterthought here. The music is no more than its harmonic, rhythmic, and sonic effects—so repurposed, the ballet is all punch and no prose.

Speaking of transformation and reframing, since I first encountered it, the space has become inseparably linked to a peculiar physical memory of standing inside a giant shoebox. I never did this. A drawing portfolio you could live in. Tadao Ando meets Dick Blick. But the habitat is a very real effect of a space proportioned and appointed in this way: we can’t really live here, so is it a habitat for drawing? At any rate Les Noces is, or has, a robust gestural ecology. In a continuous action, concealed projectors throw onto the two screens a series of black-and-white images. These are culled from the artist’s drawing archive and probably come from a range of portfolios, as they share no family resemblance and represent various engagements of the medium. Also there is something severe about their diversity. First come the easy distinctions between drawings—thinly and broadly lined, light and heavy, artless- and finished-looking, and drawings with spatial affects that are either projective or recessive. Then there are the moments when lyrical, cursive figure fragments and parts of cartoon figures appear alongside acutely abstract anti-compositions, suggesting—sinisterly—the breakage of the former by the latter.

I wonder if it’s Stravinksy’s score that makes this violence thinkable. For both artists, Les Noces’s violence is the violence of beginnings (a marriage in one case, the reimagination of ritual artistic practice in another), which cannot come ex nihilo. At any rate, the spare mise-en-scene and the hacked-apart redisplay of drawing fragments have near-direct analogues in Stravinsky’s scoring, which reduces the orchestra to percussion complemented by piano and voice, as well as develops in fealty to the terms of a single harmonic cell, rather than by thematic variation from simplicity to complexity. For Stravinsky, an arrangement that broke the musical event into its component parts was, the most concrete manifestation of his music’s involvement with the irrational, with the experience of the permanently dissembled. Stravinsky’s difference. For his part, Herrera’s orchestration is barely that at all. Here, drawn documents, their identities as wholes having once been determined by the rational decision of their creator, are dismantled and their parts surrendered to mechanical instruments—the computer, its algorithm, and the projector relaying its selections—whose automations simulate the workings of the undisciplined mind. An order that does not serve knowing. Comfort in chaos.

The abstraction already at work in both the drawings and the soundtrack is enhanced by another abstraction—the presentational scheme. Powering the alternation of images is not a narrative logic but rather an algorithm keyed to the music, a formula that selects and then sets the drawings into a tilelike scheme at staggered prompts in which they are projected four at a time (two per screen) and then refreshed. The same suite of four never configures itself twice, and though the jump cuts that shuffle the pictures are keyed to the musical score, the changes are out of synch with what we hear. The passion for the code finds no solace here. When our eyes adjust to the diminished light and begin to track the shifting gray that continually redistributes light through the space, Herrera’s drawings are only the most explicit component of the graphic environment that Les Noces becomes. Then whenever one image is exchanged for another, the density of the space feels alternately thickened or diluted.

For all its legibility as an adaptation, Les Noces eases distinctions (between form, space, embodiment, color, light) in a way that makes it just as eloquent as a paean to collaboration. But it’s more interesting as a problem. Indeed Les Noces helps us to see the contours of a particular conceptual problem—Where is the art? Whose art is the art?—by bringing us deliberately to a point of palpable uncertainty about which materials matter most to the genuine nature of the space or thing or feeling—and by keeping us engaged as we struggle through the difficulties of potential solutions to this problem. Any puzzlement we feel, and our desire to eliminate it, register a genuine, if modest, interpretive achievement. Would that this could be enough for more of us.

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