Barbara Takenaga and Patricio Guzmán: telescopes and other visions
Barbara Takenaga, Aeaea, 2018. Acrylic on linen, 60 x 70 inches. Courtesy the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York.
The buzz about Barbara Takenaga’s recent show, Outset at DC Moore Gallery, had already reached me by the time I got back from my summer on the Great Plains and was standing in front of her lush new paintings. As often as not, heightened expectation results in a more critical reception of an artist’s work. Instead, here, the nature of the shifts Takenaga had made in her work enveloped me, and my thoughts went in an exploratory direction, opening out and expanding with the space her paintings create.
As I delved into Takenaga’s world I couldn’t help but reflect on our being from the same small town in Nebraska. We both grew up under the light of the Milky Way, in the dark wonders that particular western landscape holds. In looking at Takenaga’s paintings I found hidden in her work a relation to the vastness of the sandhills with their breath-taking expanse both above and below. This inspired me to think about how the Great Plains had affected her work, and to excavate some insights based on our shared point of origin.
A few days later I chanced to see a film called Nostalgia for the Light, by Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán. When the film opened on images of outer space set to a narrator's explication about the observatories where they were made, I was struck by the coincidence. This was all so similar to Takenaga’s story—the Great Plains are classified as a desert with less than fifteen inches of rainfall annually—and clearly the night sky is also her muse.
Guzmán starts out his 2011 film talking about the Chilean national cultural fascination with astronomy and the suitability of the humidity free Atacama Desert on the western coast of Chile for observing the stars, how that lead to an international interest in building telescopes there, and then he begins to interview the astronomer. The subject that seems to fascinate Guzmán is Time. His astronomers explain in detail the complexities of Time's permutations when observing the stars—visible in the present moment is only the light of the past, and not a single past but a multitude of pasts at varying distances from us!
In Takenaga’s Aeaea (2018), named for the island the sorceress Circe inhabited, large areas of liquid paint expand as they run and pool over the painting’s surface. Originating in a pouring process of relatively short duration, these organic painterly fields resembling galaxies and stardust configure themselves. In so doing they often run head on into delicately executed, intricately patterned excesses. The tension that arises on the surface, between the flow of the paint and the finesse of the brush, points us to the “immediate” and the “labored” as points of collision in the fabric of Time.
My reading becomes possible when recognizing the actual means Takenaga uses to execute her mesmerizing paintings. This in turn, propels a deeper engagement of thought as the determinate and indeterminate emerge in a new dialectic for Takenaga. These terms resonate visually with Takenaga's surfaces, deep with little comet-like creatures, their tails sailing through the ether. At the same time—as in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, a law effective for particles at the quantum level—they can be used to articulate a relationship between location and movement.
Having just seen Takenaga’s paintings, the numerous images of distant galaxies and intergalactic space in Guzmán’s ninety minute documentary took on added significance. Guzmán returns to these images several times throughout his film; initially they function as images of great beauty relevant to the history of his country. As the film progresses, however, the way these scientific images play on our imagination slowly expands. After a tour of colonies of the world’s largest telescopes in the Atacama Desert, Guzmán takes us to nearby Chacabuco, the 19th-century saltpeter mines that General Augusto Pinochet used as concentration camps for political prisoners in the early 1970s. Fields of wooden crosses create a forest in the open landscape, but Guzmán focuses on an “astronomy group” at the prison, run by a doctor who teaches fellow inmates to recognize constellations in the night sky. Using a handmade device and the perfect clarity of the Chilean atmosphere, he liberates the inner worlds of his fellow inmates by gazing at the stars. Guzmán asks a survivor how he felt being in prison and looking at the stars. He answers without hesitation: “We all had a feeling of great freedom … marveling at the constellations, we felt completely free.”
What struck me initially about the coincidence of seeing Guzmán and Takenaga’s work in the span of a few days was how they shared a profound use of metaphor. Guzmán’s shows us a glimpse of life and death in the very difficult history of his homeland; Takenaga opens the possibility for us to look at our own. As Guzmán moves his camera from the camps back out to the galaxies, the astronomer explains that the presence of calcium can identify certain kinds of stars. From here, the camera moves out to the desert again to introduce a group of women who search bones to identify their missing loved ones, and who have continued to search for decades, seeking answers. Using calcium to connect the stars to our bones, he binds the metaphor to our hearts and thereby enables us to take a look into the depths of human tragedy. Relief comes when he takes the group of women to the observatory to look out at the night sky, even if one of the women wishes simply to turn the lens around to help in the search for bones. Later the astronomer asks, “Why are there astronomers and archeologists in the same place?”
Guzmán’s affinity to a macrocosmic/microcosmic vision of the cosmos is shared by Takenaga. In as much as Guzmán’s films look out, Takenaga’s metaphoric structures tend to point us inward. While tiny comet-like forms swirl on her silver ground, lilac interference pigment dispersed in bursts of color catches the light from specific angles and, as we move, locates our position within it in a flash. Her varied, allover fields can serve alternately as figure or ground, as they shift between the two. It’s not immediately clear how certain shapes in the painting evolve into being read as either the figure or the ground and on some level, there seems to be no Reason behind it. A fact that is both comforting and a challenge to the part of our mind that tends to order experience linearly or in terms of cause and effect. What then becomes apparent is how Aeaea or certain other paintings in her exhibition can present a form as a form—as a thing without resemblances, which, therefore, cannot be named. Because the form just is, it can offer an engagement with the flow of time as it is apprehended. This experience must be grabbed and taken for what it can yield in being—refreshingly singular and without attachments. In the consequent unmooring, our points of attachment reveal themselves.
The feeling of standing full face to the universe is the feeling one gets being out on the prairies under the night sky with the Milky Way sketching a path from horizon to horizon. It’s a humbling experience; its overwhelming sensation can easily render one speechless. I often rode my horse at night, alone or with my brothers through the prairie landscape; my awareness was mostly tuned to the people who were no longer there and I pondered how they had lived outside. Reflecting on the expanding fields in Takenaga’s world, I started to think about the similarity of the Pinochet concentration camps that were revealed in Guzmán’s film to the Plains Indian Reservations located to the north of where Barbara and I grew up in Nebraska. Officially registered with the BIA as “prisoner of war” camps, they hold the survivors of a people who once hunted in the land where we played as children. Incalculable numbers of people had succumbed to disease and death as the Europeans and Americans made their way westward. Our culpability, or that of our ancestors, is still an unspoken darkness below the horizon there. It haunted me that we could acknowledge Pinochet’s horrors in the seventies, even the fact that they were aided and abetted by our own government, but our own backyard remained untouchable.
I liked how Takenaga’s forms often seemed to sway like a swarm of black birds in the fall, how they could take me back to the beauty of the Nebraska landscape and still leave room for the darkness. I was grateful that she left out all Reason—the part that lets us believe in the tenor of our rationalizations—and created an experience vast enough to encompass the world we both left behind us.
Midpoint in Nostalgia for the Light, one of Guzmán’s real-life characters shares his thoughts about the Salvador Allende years. “A revolutionary attitude swept us to the center of the world… only the present moment existed.” That ended on September 11, 1973, when a CIA-backed coup threw its weight behind Pinochet. In speaking about coping with the fallout, the astronomer explains, “Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none, don’t live anywhere.”
Joan Waltemath is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.