viernes, 24 de agosto de 2012

Flowers, ruins and simulacrum

The only flower from César Pérez Herranz on Vimeo.

Flowers, ruins and simulacrum
Rubén Pardiñas

There was a time when even the most beautiful flowers withered until they rotted, a time in which, despite their legendary glory, cities became ruins. It was the story of the world, and ours too.With its dying roses and violets, its dimly lit skulls and other emblems of human futility, the Baroque Vanitas strove to verify these truths, which for millenniums we accepted with resignation. And though the venerable crumbling walls painted by Hubert Robert or Piranesi showed us the sublimity in the disappearance of the bodies (the transcendence of souls), the great Enlightenment ended in the most prosaicway: by the shadow of the guillotines, drowned in its own blood.

The destruction of the past, just one hundred years later, also symbolized the somewhatdelirious promise of a better future: those were the days whena race car seemed more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace andwhen Avant-garde was causing a cataclysm in line with its own dreams.Staying in what was sanctioned by history was no longer an option, and a fresh start was imperative. Setting out, in fact,on a flight without end. Through different paths, the ancients and the moderns had always gone in search -more or less desperatelyof the same thing: eternity.

Rebellions against human finitude and the burden of the past –against Time– always have something heroic about them. They often end up the same way many heroes did: crashing like Icarus or cruelly punished like Prometheus. Reaching the frustrating conviction –we are mortal and always will be, neither more nor less than a flower or city walls– sometimes leads to a third path, the one a thimble rigger would choose, a type of escape far less honourable than dying while pretending to be God. Some called all this postmodernism. Others just capitalism. A big patch, which, far from satisfying our thirst for immortality, degraded us –it still does– to unsuspected limits, though it is not often heard of it - such is the efficiency of simulacrum.

The truth is that nowadays nobody denies that Tradition is a made-up tale, not to a lesser extent than the Avant-garde. Nobody claims the validity of the latter, which the myth of progress, today recycled as productivity, can no longer encourage. Our future in the world has stopped responding so much to the never-ending comeback of births and expirations as to that incessant escape towards who knows where. The feeling that defines us today –and which also captivates us– is that of stopped time. Apparently harmless experiences certify it, as when one cannot tell the difference between the latest indie pop hit and the music produced in the sixties. Or when we find out that Umberto Eco is having his best-seller The Name of the Rose published again, now skimmed of a few passages that the author himself feels are too cumbersome for new readers. These and other examples of recent cultural history would be an anecdote if it were not for the fact that they are the paradigm of a whole system designed to replace reality with its image, more or less retouched, more or less updated.

It had to be in China –that place deprived of freedom, where capitalism romps as it wishes–where the revivalist perversion reached its maximum peak, with Beijing by the Olympics as a standard. If originally the Olympics suspended wars between civilizations, today they reactivate, every four years, the war which speculators have spent decades fighting against the memory and the identity of entire cities. In 2008 it was the turn of the Chinese capital (in truth everything began seven years earlier when the city was awarded the organization of the Games).

Until then, Quianmen had been one of the neighbourhoods of the old part of Beijing which had forged its idiosyncrasies between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, so full of monumental constructions as it was deteriorated due to government neglect. The most remarkable bit was not even that many of the houses and shops of this historic area constituted an urban heritage of incalculable value. Old houses and streets formed a social fabric that had succeeded in bridging the gap between the Internet age and the Ming Dynasty. The fascinating thing was that Quianmen was alive. With important ailments, but it was still alive. And this is also what was especially inconvenient, what is really annoying nowadays, since life is not just limited but it is above all else, imperfect. Yes, a city also falls ill, as does a person, or a dog or a garden… unless of course, its flowers are plastic.

Life –true life, the one which has memory and falls ill- was removed from Quianmen, by the unquestionable procedure of the simulacrum. The neighbourhood was demolished and replaced with modern buildings that reproduced intheir façades traditional Chinese styles of architecture. That was how Quianmenbecame the giant set of a past that had never existed; a complete Jean Baudrillard Hutong. Zombie folklorism at the service of mass consumption multinationals, which once the construction work was completed, occupied what was nothing more than a theme park for the enjoyment of the millions of tourists who love the neo-chinois.

The fact that we are unable to distinguish relevant differences between a rose and its plastic copy, between a home of the Ming dynastyand its concrete replica, shows the power of the simulacrum. Ours isalready a culture of revival, a continuous remake that needs an audience to whom the historical context does not matter in the least, viewers for whom a simulated experience is as worthy as the original. And this is howwe believe we have outwitted time. It is, of course, an apparent immortality. Quianmen -and increasingly more neighbourhoods and cities around the world– is nothing butan immense souvenir. An image, one of many in the empire of images understoodas commodities. But as Jules Renard wrote, What is the good of souvenirs, and even photographs? It is sweet that things die too, as men do.” For twilight can also be sweet, as is the sunset when the day reaches its end. Even murder can reveal greatness, as it does so often in art. Supplanting is what is particularly ignominious; this farce that has mesmerized us, perhaps forever.

(Translation from Spanish by Cristina Bulmer)

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Rubén dijo...