Hands that gather and forget: Ana Luisa Bernárdez Notz and Sebastián Rodríguez y Vasti
by Alex Lepianka
I perform a series of manual gestures leaving the gallery: a parting wave, a pump of sanitizer, one curt pull to open the door, another to unmask, and a plunge into my pocket to retrieve my phone. My touches continue as I walk away from Xpace and its artworks, unpausing a podcast or sighting my phone’s camera on the spectacles that beckon me home through Toronto’s west end.
This procession of gestures moves me away from Hands that gather and forget, an installation work by Ana Luisa Bernárdez Notz and Sebastián Rodríguez y Vasti, which showed at Xpace in the fall of 2020. Hands comprises an archive of images selected from a merged collection of photographs taken between 2015 and 2019 during the artists’ annual trips to their family homes in Venezuela. Printed on silk organza, the scenes—embraces, portraits, seascapes, and domestic interiors—hang by their corners, dispersed among a cloudscape of white gauze. The fabrics confront the viewer as a diaphanous mass animated by currents of air, inviting the viewer to enter, brush aside the immensity of the archive’s blanks, and pull an image up by its corner. Even then, the photographs that stand out against the countless absences barely register on the silk whispering in the din of the gauze.
As I walk home, the city’s immodest scenes begin to fray my nascent impression of the work. At some point, my eye catches a thread of white gauze clinging to the breast of my coat. Despite my care while moving through the archive and handling its records, my sense-making was a disturbance into the archive that loosened its weave. Pinching the thread, I begin to appreciate the gravity in the gestures that Hands invites. My interaction with Hands was part of an unbroken movement of the day’s acts. It existed not only as an archive to be viewed, but as a reality to be lived through, calling on the same kinds of gestures through which I grasped at door handles, tapped my phone, or embraced lovers. In this haptic archive, the act of memory takes on a concreteness, as manual labour. At the same time, this gesture becomes intimately bound up with the unravelling and absence of the world it intends to recall from the archive’s burdened records— an intrusion which the viewer’s self-awareness only intensifies through their act of looking.
At the end of September, I meet with the artists via Zoom to ask about their documentary practice, and the work of materializing the resulting archive in Hands’ sculptural form. Bernárdez and Rodríguez speak of a shared compulsion to register their affective experience of place on their yearly visits home. The artists describe how, like memory, their photographs emerge as an unpremeditated gesture that arises with the fullness and impermanence of feeling. As the young artists persistently assert in their growing bodies of work, familial AND documentary objects ambivalently measure this fullness, but also the loss, of each vital moment that they register.
As a sensory response to precarity, too, the artists’ documentary practice shoulders the immense uncertainty of Venezuela’s political situation, a crisis whose magnitude is reflected in the vastness of the artists’ archives. The scale of their archive amassing under these precarious circumstances made for a daunting, melancholic task of sorting through the images, a stationary labour only recently afforded to the artists by the pandemic and its temporality of pause.
Handling the photographs, I sense how these contexts loom over the installation, woven not only through their scenes but in the physical form of the installation itself. Like the ongoing pandemic, Hands’ tissues hang in delicate suspension, demanding that the viewers navigate with a heightened awareness of their intrusion, their touch and presence. Yet, this intensified sensitivity also resonates beyond the pandemic’s epoch, arriving out of a broader sculptural tradition concerned with generative ruptures in ordinary sense-experience. Originally coined by Carter Ratcliff to describe early installation works in this tradition—notably Bruce Nauman’s corridor pieces of the early ’70s— the notion of an “adversary space” helps account for Hands as a provocation within, but not of, the gallery’s sightly environment. As the viewer-participant moves into the installation, Hands pressures them with a heightened sensitivity which, along with the demand for—or anticipation of—movement, lends the installation sculptural texture. If the gallery or photographic archive is a primarily sight-based situation consisting of diaphanous screens imaging distant times and places, Hands opens itself differently. It registers what it activates: a gesture, a performance of awareness, and a haptics of inspection.
Considering how it dismantles the archival object into a sensuous performance of gestures, Hands also recalls the work of Lygia Clark, who gradually divested her sculptural practice from the production of objects. Midway through her career, Clark self-exiled to France in 1968, during the height of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Having gained proximity to French psychoanalytic milieux, she produced a late body of prepositional works in which she used a variety of objects to provoke bodily sensations in private sessions with participants. However, as the psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik notes in an interview with Lars Bang Larsen, Clark’s mobilization of sense-feeling as the primary artistic and therapeutic medium made documentation of these experimentations difficult. Her sessions were inherently intersubjective, processual, and, in a way, too private to be captured. Nevertheless, Clark did not work in isolation from the gallery or, for that matter, the broader social and political contexts of individual feeling. Within these contexts, Clark asserted her art/therapy hybrid as an intervening poetics of sensation.
Like Clark’s late work, Hands also refashions the documentary object as a means to a sensuous experience, particularly one of memory. In one regard, the diaphanous images deny outright the possibility of a clinical revival of experience from the photographs.
Yet, this denial also advocates for sensuous immersion in a fraying archive, even demanding that the viewer perform a labour of remembrance to animate the weave of memory and interstitial absence, regardless of the outcome of these gestures. As Hands shows, remembrance comprises both a holding-to and a holding, as if the two are the same gesture applied with the soft force of the hand.