Art Brut

“We keep telling ourselves folk tales of the end.”

—Don DeLillo

He probably hadn’t reached the age of thirty yet, but in the photograph that accompanies the letter he already has what I would later come to know as his unmistakable gaze: the eyes suspended between distraction and obsession, floating atop reddish cheekbones as if they had been put there by accident. This is the same gaze I would encounter years later when, peeking through the window of his house at Purmamarca, I would find him contemplating the comings and goings of a fly like someone awaiting the arrival of a ghost. The same gaze that in the ten days that followed I attempted to capture photographically, despite knowing that obsession is not something one is able to capture or tame.

***

This photograph, however, wasn’t taken by me. I never saw him as a young man, never saw him dressed as a soldier, never photographed him posing in such a manner. This photograph—I tell myself as I play at gathering memories around it—couldn’t have been taken by me precisely because in the man that I met everything had changed, except for the gaze. The date written in the back of the image confirms it: Hanoi, 1951. I do the math and tell myself that more than fifty years have gone by. By then, I hadn’t even begun crawling and he had already been to war twice. He had abandoned his graduate studies a year in, convinced that only military service would illuminate what his philosophy courses had failed to explain. One day, after a night out, he rose to the idea that war—a concept that intrigued him at the time—was something to be thought of in the battlefield rather than the lecture hall. That same day, he was seen packing his books, close his office, leave the campus, and disappear into the narrow alleys that surround the university. The first news from him arrived three days later, when his estranged wife told everyone what she claimed to have heard from his mother. That the young anarchist had decided to leave everything behind in order to join the gringo army. If nobody pointed out how contradictory this was, if nobody mentioned that the decision went against every single political view he had so ardently defended until then—from anarchism to separatist nationalism—it must have been because they had already gotten used to such dramatic gestures. They knew that José Gilberto Aguilar had a talent for making the most absurd gestures seem perfectly sensical, with the same paradoxical will with which he was capable of showing the nonsense that underlies our everyday practices. He was—as Jacques Truffaut would later mention when he asked me to photograph “the master”—“a man capable of upsetting the world’s order.” The truth is, however, that when he returned from service fifteen years later, he was the only one who seemed different: he barely ate and rarely talked, and when he did speak, he did so in epigrammatic phrases whose clarity got lost behind the randomness of his ramblings. Those who were there and tried to make sense of his babbling all tell the same story: they had talked to a man who was convinced to have lost control over his life, possessed as he was by millions of microorganisms that dictated each and every one of his actions. They said that he seemed like a man who was willing to let his life dwindle down to its end. Most, including Jacques Truffaut, said he would have done so if it hadn’t been for his sister, who one afternoon, tired of seeing him so taciturn and changed, decided to gift him the geography book in which, after a couple of hours, he found the picture of those colourful mountains he would later claim granted him a vision of the only possible escape. That same afternoon—as he would later tell me—he bought the airplane ticket. Three days later, seated in his rocking chair, overlooking the arid landscape of the Quebrada de Humahuaca and its multi-coloured mountains, he took out his pen and sketched what many consider to be his first painting. 

***

In that first message from Jacques Truffaut trying to convince me to accept the job, he included a colour copy of that first painting. More than five years must have passed since then, but I still remember how that night, unable to decide if I should accept the job or not, I decided to contemplate the painting, wait for it to speak its own oracular language. I deciphered no message and saw no recognizable form, just a paper filled with miniscule tadpole-like figures swimming amidst what only at a second glance I understood to be the silhouette of a dissected skull. A dissected skull which only later, while rereading Truffaut’s message, I understood to be that of José Gilberto Aguilar himself. That afternoon I contemplated the sketch with the same confusion I sometimes have staring at my children’s drawings, puzzled by the determination with which they seemed bent on painting every single space available in the paper. Horror vacui, Truffaut would explain in a second message, but that would be later. That afternoon, as I analysed the photocopy of that first painting, I didn’t know what to say or how to take Truffaut’s mad proposal, which included a payment of ten thousand dollars for a simple voyage to Argentina’s northern desert to photograph the works of a man who seemed closer to madness than to genius. I briefly considered the possibility of it being a joke—the name itself, Jacques Truffaut, sounded a bit comical in it Frenchness—but the amount of information in the message convinced me otherwise. In the message, amidst references to artists I had never heard of, Truffaut kept mentioning the project of a man called Jean Dubuffet; a project which had led to the construction of a special museum in Switzerland where the works of marginal artists—schizophrenics, children, and hermits –could finally be contemplated as what they were: works of art. A space—I remember the expression used by Truffaut clearly—for a different type of art. He then proceeded to praise my career as a photographer of artworks. Between compliments, he mentioned what to this day I consider to be the only possible explanation for his decision to choose me for the job: both me and “the master” shared “the same origin.” I remember that after reading that strange line, I took the photocopy of that first sketch and laughed, thinking that it might all boil down to the humour of a Puerto Rican lost in the Argentine dessert. The letter didn’t contain much else, only an address I understood to be Aguilar’s, his full name and some of the anecdotes that surrounded him. No photograph of the man was included. Now that I think about it, that might have been the reason behind my accepting the job, under the condition that my photographic portrait of Aguilar be shown at the museum in Lausanne alongside his works. I sent my reply the next day. Two days later the payment arrived, and a week later I was standing in front of a screen at the Buenos Aires airport, waiting for them to announce the gate of the next flight to Salta.

Five hours later, when I saw the first mountain, I knew why, out of all the places in the world, José Gilberto Aguilar had chosen that particular place to hide from the noises that drove him to the edge of madness.

***

From the voyage that took me from Salta to Humahuaca I remember only bits and pieces: the colour of the mountains, the impenetrable mist of a magnificent ridge, a house up in the mountains where, according to the taxi driver, lived an old veteran of the Falkland island war. According to him, the kid had returned traumatized from the war and instead of committing suicide he decided to leave the city and come live in the desert. He had lived in that secluded house ever since, earning a living by trafficking archaeological pieces he found in the mountains. Hearing that story, I remember thinking that that was exactly the story of José Gilberto Aguilar, but that that man wasn’t him. Half an hour later, when we finally saw the small hut of the so-called artist at the edge of the road, I couldn’t help thinking that those mountains were full of echoes.

***

Like so many others I had seen on the way there, this house looked abandoned. The small guano farmyard next to the house, empty and forgotten, highlighted the desolate atmosphere surrounding the scene. Doubtful, the taxi driver asked if I was sure someone lived there and I, out of fear more than anything else, answered that yes, someone had to be there because French people don’t lie: if a man called Jacques Truffaut had said the man lived there, then he must live there. I went around the closed house three times, I knocked on the door twice, but nothing. As a last resort, I decided to look through the rear window. And then I saw him. He was attentively watching the chaotic movements of a fly and in his gaze I believe I saw the solitude of those who claim to have seen everything. I knocked on the window three times and, finally noticing my presence, he decided to open the door and ask who I was. Hearing the taxi’s motor roar behind me, I knew I was alone. And so I answered with everything I had: I mentioned Truffaut’s letter, the interest the art brut museum at Lausanne had shown for his artwork, and even showed him the reproduction I had of his first painting. He took the reproduction in his hand, stared at it for a while and after a few seconds he looked at me and said: “I recognize that accent. Are you Puerto Rican?” Years later, thinking about the scene, I realized that Truffaut had sent me there knowing that Aguilar would only accept to work with a fellow compatriot. I remember feeling slightly proud of the fact that ten years living abroad hadn’t altered my accent. Sometimes—I thought as I inspected the wrinkled countenance of my new friend—we have to travel to the end of the world in order to re-encounter the child we once were. He asked again, I looked at him, said yes, and entered.

***

Every time that, after my return, Jacques Truffaut asked me about the internal aspect of the house, I would repeat how I felt that afternoon: the house of José Gilberto Aguilar seemed to mimic his paintings. Filled to the very top with sketches, scaled models, sculptures, paintings and objects, the house seemed to reproduce architectonically the pictoric nightmare of that first painting whose reproduction had accompanied me all the way there. Among the mess, Aguilar moved smoothly, with a stealthy mix of anxiety and happiness, as if the chaos surrounding him were merely an excuse to dance. A dance that would always end at the other end of the house, with Aguilar seating in the old rattan rocking chair where he spent long hours sketching notes and theories in a bunch of notebooks upon whose first pages one could find the same title: Landscapes of the End. Later I would understand that Landscapes of the End encompassed not only the writings and theories contained in those notebooks, but also the totality of the project, which included each and every one of the paintings, sculptures, scale models and sketches that filled the house. The same project that I attempted to photograph, piece by piece, during the next ten days, knowing all along that he had never thought of it as art, but rather as a reproduction of his apocalyptic visions. That afternoon, after talking for a bit, I was brave enough to ask him why he had decided to move there, so far away from home. His answer—which, now that I think about it, coincided perfectly with his megalomania—surprised me: “Only here, next to these ancient mountains that care so little about the fate of man, can I image the world after end of the world.” Days later, reading the notebooks, I would understand that this was precisely his ambition: to imagine the world’s landscape after the advent of a terrible ecological catastrophe which, according to him, had brought the world to ruins. Each of his scaled models—as he liked calling his works—was an attempt to reproduce that strange vision of the end he claimed to have had decades ago in the midst of war.

***

During the next two weeks, I heard him tell the story more than ten times. The story of what he, without fear of seeming grandiloquent, kept referring to as the event. Each time, I felt that he was telling the same story, but in a slightly different manner. In all of them, there was a battlefield and there was a nearby explosion, a brief instant of illumination and the sudden realization that humanity mattered very little in the face of what was to come. In all of the stories there was the image of a great ecological catastrophe—sometimes a hurricane, sometimes an earthquake, most often than not a terrible epidemic—that reduced the world to ruins. Every day, José Gilberto Aguilar would sit and imagine, in no hurry, that ruinous landscape that survived after the so-called end of the human world. He liked imagining it as an elementary landscape: he like to think it composed of tiny microorganisms that eventually turned into tiny insects walking in miniature forests of mushrooms. Matsutake mushrooms, he would repeat, as if I knew what he meant. Despite their differences each of the stories of the event lead up, in one way or another, to Humahuaca and to the megalomaniac project which seemed to absorb all of his energy. He seemed to be convinced, he told me more than once, that such a destiny had been dictated to him by the microorganisms that possessed him. And so we would spend the early morning hours immersed in theories and stories. Every single day, after an extremely brief lunch, José Gilberto Aguilar would excuse himself, explaining—with a touching gentleness–  that he had to work. Without waiting for my answer, he would disappear with his usual stealth into the room where he kept his works-in-progress and the rest of the notebooks, only re-emerging five hours later, five minutes before dusk.

***

During those five hours, I worked. I would first catalogue the scale models, the paintings, the sculptures. Then I would take out the camera and photograph each of the pieces individually. In the absence of titles, I numbered the works and speculated about possible titles. When I finally got tired I would randomly choose one of the notebooks from Landscapes of the End and begin reading Aguilar’s delirious prose. From the multiple obsessions that plagued him, one seemed to be constant: the Conquest of America. He liked to think of that event as the great historical catastrophe, or as he liked to call it, “the instant of absolute contagion.” He would obsessively sketch the scene of that initial contact between the Spanish conquerors and the natives as a great biblical plague. Looking at those notebooks I couldn’t stop remembering the reproduction of that first painting Truffaut included in his initial message; that painting in which Aguilar’s open skull seemed to be filled with toad-like microorganisms. The conquest—or the “destruction of the Indies,” as he liked to call it—seemed to be, for that man, the first cosmic cataclysm, one which would repeat itself years later, the day that, from within the battlefield, he saw the end of the world and decided to confront that terrible vision through the only means he knew: solitude and imagination. I would limit myself to reading Aguilar’s theories and proceed to take some more photographs, knowing all along that those pieces would lose their true value as soon as they were classified and framed by a French collector in a far-away Swiss museum.

***

In more than one occasion, during those ten days, I thought about conspiring alongside Aguilar against the collector. It would have been as simple as telling him that it was a total farce, that neither the man nor the works existed. It would have sufficed to tell Truffaut that it had all been the lie of a local drunk in search for money. In each occasion, one idea would stop me from taking the next step: if there was no man, there was no photograph. The idea of taking a portrait of that man who claimed to have seen the end became, during those days, my main fixation. Each day, as soon as Aguilar left his hiding place after his five hours of work, I would take the camera and move from side to side, trying to find the angle from which to capture the singular aura of his megalomania. I was searching, fruitlessly, for the angle that would make his delirious project sensical. During those days, photographing him became another way for me to save him: from his solitude, from psychiatrists, from oblivion and from madness, from Jacques Truffaut. From all of those things that didn’t seem to matter to him at all.

***

Maybe that’s why today, when I opened the letter, I shuffled through all the paper in search for the photograph. It didn’t anger me to see that it wasn’t mine. On the contrary, I was able to confirm what I had always imagined: that of this man—who had been taken to the limits of madness by war—only the gaze remained untouched. I then remembered the freezing afternoon in which Aguilar, perhaps finally aware of what was at stake, decided to take me to the great salt flats of Jujuy. We took a small car that was hiding behind the corral and three hours later we were walking amidst the hexagonal figures that salt sketches along the white plains. Only there, free from the project that seems to absorb him, did I feel that I was seeing the real José Gilberto Aguilar. He was shorter and more hunched than I had imagined and in his face I saw a calmness I had ignored until then. He first spoke to me about the small bushes surrounding the salt flats, about the way animals trembled and died when they ate them. And only then, after talking about those strange deaths, did he stare at the camera dangling from my neck and proceed to talk about the art of photography. He spoke about Niepce and that first photograph of his, where one can barely distinguish the view from his countryside house at Le Gras, he spoke about Henry Talbot Fox and his discovery of the salt print, as well as the strange relationship between the long process of crystallization the salt miners had to go through before extracting their product and the process of photographic print that Talbot had imagined. He seemed fascinated with the idea that photography was some sort of negative inversion of human history, an illustrated script that duplicated history as its spectral mirror. I still remember that he argued that photography was, without a doubt, the art of death and spectres, the art of the posthumous. I did nothing but listen to him, interested as I was more by his strange lucidity than by his ideas. A man of fixed ideas that suddenly, between the multitude of his obsessions, sees a possible path. I remember taking my camera and shooting a handful of photographs of Aguilar as he spoke, knowing that it would be among those pictures where I would find the one I would later send Truffaut. Aguilar posed without a problem, perhaps thinking that the salt landscape was in itself a photograph of a previous meeting. Then he rubbed his hands, complained about the cold, and ran to the car. Three hours later, back home, I witnessed how he immersed himself again in his notebooks and artworks, with the passion of one who knows that there is no better hiding place than an obsession. Three days later I returned home, incapable of knowing exactly what I had seen, but conscious of the fact that the ten thousand dollars I had just won would help me live comfortably for at least a good couple of months.

***

Perhaps that is why today, after receiving the letter and finding this photograph of José Gilberto Aguilar as young American soldier, I knew it was part of some sort of obituary. I didn’t even have to read, as I later did, the rest of the letter, in which Truffaut informed me of his recent death, in order to understand that it was a mournful letter. A paradox, capricious and absurd as they all are, made me laugh, however. I asked myself what happens when the man who has seen the end of the world dies. Who would be there to keep imagining possible endings? And then I saw him clearly, lucid and defiant amidst the salt flats of Jujuy, staring at the white plains, perhaps already conscious that the real end was near. And I could not help but think about the notebooks of the Landscapes of the End which were now probably on their way from Salta to Lausanne, where they would finally lose themselves amidst the gazes of a thousand and one tourists fascinated by the terrible lucidity of a simple mad man.

Contributor

Carlos Fonseca Suárez


Carlos Fonseca Suárez
 was born in Costa Rica in 1987 and grew up in Puerto Rico. His work has appeared in publications including The GuardianBOMBThe White Review and Asymptote. His debut novel, Coronel Lágrimas, was published in Spanish by Anagrama, and translated into English as Colonel Lágrimas, published by Restless Books. He currently teaches at the University of Cambridge and lives in London.

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