To Dream, to Collect

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I began with no memory,
I began with no future,
But I looked for that moment
When the mind was halved by an horizon."
Derek Walcott, Names

In the east, maybe: The world sung by Derek Walcott, the Homer of the Caribbean, is made up of mulatto bodies, the Creole language and landscapes that come together in an undefined spot, crossing the ocean from opposite shores; his visions, like those of all uprooted people, mixed-race people and authentic travellers, describe something that has no real citizenship in another place and in another time but which possesses a substance that is hard to define, a “quiddity” that does not recognise “the cry of history” but belongs to the here and now. It is the same quality that pertains to every art experience, both to its conception and to its perceptible form. The existence of the work can be experienced only in the present, by those who create it and those who stand in front of it in the role of incidental third-parties: the work becomes part of our time, whenever it may be that we come into contact with it, but only in the physical space in which it receives us at that moment. Yet art requires spatial and temporal distance, which flows tumultuously from a metaphysical East into the present condition, and here acquires meaning. The Antillean writers, descendants and last witnesses of ignoble deportations, have their east in continents that they themselves have never seen, on African coasts and in Indian villages, and its persistence balances and remixes the legacy of colonial culture: it is a textual interpretation of the East, with its meaning of origin and birth, and it is an interpretation that also submits to the lure of a remote geographical origin and a fantastic elsewhere. Elena El Asmar has always had her east in a literary place that includes the epic of Gilgamesh and the crusader knights, the sparkle of A thousand and one nights, the name and a piece of family identity; the deities have all run away and the temples are in ruins. Almost nothing is historic and there is almost nothing that really happened. In the series of works collected under the title L’esercizio del lontano, Elena evokes Arabic calligraphy, city, lights and shadows, revealing step by step the artifice of memory that presides over every artistic invention. Screenshots and compositions of ordinary materials, the images of the East by El Asmar bring every thought back to the West (that place where, exhausted by the long distance they have travelled, things become extinct, fall over the horizon and mark the prelude to a new beginning). It is here that the artist has been nourished and thus, in turn, she nourishes her work, with the possibility of using useless things, like faraway or invented places and ages, to determine her time. Time – what time? – it is the raw material used by Elena in the slow work of weaving, masking and fortuitous scenes, which methodically emerges on paper and on canvas.

That time: Memory, therefore, is a creative act, it has much more to do with the present than it has to do with the past, which tends to be deformed, or with the future, the consistency of which is of no interest to her, unless it is for amplification. All those, though not artists, for whom memory is also a coercive act know very well that, from among the many possible forms of history, they impose one legitimate version; all writers, poets and artists know equally well that they invent time when they discover it. The time that lies at the centre of art is the result of a voluntary action that is conceived as an exception to any need for accuracy. Going even further, Elena El Asmar interprets the practice of memory as a commitment to emancipation from the past: she publicises a memory but moulds a mental image that is the result of the contingent moment. When she superimposes textures, swathes of colour and ink, when she combines incongruous materials with each other, the artist is persevering in this distant exercise, which now goes under other names but she does not give up that transformation: a betrayal of the original shape of things and thoughts that awaken them from some shaky drowsiness, giving them a new, unexpected lease of life.

Things lost: There is a real element at the origin of all the works by El Asmar, a physical matrix used to form the shapes and prints on the media she uses each time; or there is an object among the many lost things that crowd a disparate collection of cheap and precious small parts, something selected and observed as it lies on a surface not far from the artist’s gaze as she is working. Immersed in a procedure of an artistic technique (painting, engraving, weaving), the elements lose their adherence to reality, they are separated from it, and their simple original shape is replaced by a new one created in the process, which cancels out yet contains the old shapes, just as the memory in its invention of time both erodes real time and takes it in. El Asmar’s seeks to develop the process as an extenuating conflict with shape, in an attempt – one could say – to take away its solidity, increasing the vibration at its boundaries to the point of making it not immediately recognisable. Creation is the description of a journey around a fixed idea, and the outcome of this experience is a portrait in fragments of her own body and mind. To fuel this conflict, the artist subjects herself to an ambit of signs, she observes the point where the gesture and the eye converge, combined with the alchemy of the material and the medium. Each of her aesthetically accomplished works bears the traces of this conflict that has always been unsolved; the overlapping items involved and the layers of colour do not pacify it, rather they contribute to leaving it open, as if leaving visible cracks on the surface of the work and thereby guaranteeing its continuity in the present.

τέλος: Paraphrasing the apparent paradox of a story that is narrated silently, Elena El Asmar alludes to shapes by dissolving them and illustrates time by denying it. Thus, in the environment that envelopes the artist, her work and the observer, there is only one tense which is “here and now”. The past and the future crash against it unabated.

 

       

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