MADRID — The moving image, now at the center stage of contemporary art, not only as video and film but as ‘artists’ cinema,’ was once a fringe movement at a time when recorded tapes were difficult to manipulate and even more difficult to preserve so that many of those early works are now irretrievably lost. Similarly, cinema, simultaneously the most public and private cultural institution of the 20th century, has vanished with its rituals of immersion into celluloid, to give way to an ever-faster treatment and manipulation of images (what we call today simply ‘movies’ and not ‘the movies’) that not only don’t require concentration, but also prevent it. It is then no surprise that artists have taken, not without the nostalgia of an archaeologist, to cinema and cinema theaters as a locus to site a lost sense of both the public and the private.
The decay of cinema and cinema as a ‘decadent’ art was already theorized 20 years ago, and it was Susan Sontag who wrote in the New York Times in 1996: “No amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals — erotic, ruminative — of the darkened theater.” What is dead now is not the moving image, for there had never been a larger proliferation of recorded time-sequences (smart phones, hand-held devices, surveillance cameras) but cinephilia, that kind of love that cinema inspired: It was a unique and magical but yet casual experience, and a building existed only for this reason. Similar examples would be the church and the bathhouse, but today cinema theaters have become archaeological ruins of Modernity.
Cine Bogart, a legendary theater in the center of Madrid, a few steps from Calle de Alcalá (Madrid’s longest street), is one of those buildings: Built in 1907 and undergoing several transformations until 1929, the theater changed names several times and functioned as many things, including a cinema, theater, cabaret, salon, and even a squatted building. In 2001 the building was closed without any plans for renovation or further use. This is what motivated architect and commissioner Ines Caballero to invite six local artists to document a site that was witness to the turbulent cultural life of the Madrid in the 20th century, and re-imagine the site, or re-open it through their artistic practices. The result was the exhibition Cine Bogart: Imaginar un Edificio (Bogart Cinema: Imagining a Building) that used the cinema theater as a laboratory for how to keep a city alive.
Marlon de Azambuja’s piece “Luces de Bohemia (Bohemian Lights)” (2014), takes its title from the 1924 play of the same name by the modernist playwright Ramón del Valle-Inclán, recounting the sordid adventures and death of a blind poet during a single night in Madrid. The necessity to speak about light begins with the artist’s visit to the site. De Azambuja explains:
“There was so little light so that I took flash photographs, if anything, in order to see what was there in the site, for I could barely see anything, It was a ‘first impression.’ Suddenly the owners of the building changed their mind and the locks, so that we were left with the ‘bad images,’ but we decided to go ahead, to work just from memory.”
Not being able to see directly the photographed objects in the darkened theater and making them appear only through the flash is a form of light-projection, like the cinema itself.
Set up as a table or screen, the Brazilian artist used the photographs — the only real document available — and veiled them under ‘dust’ (a very thin layer of spray paint applied from a distance) so that an effect of time having passed is achieved, only illuminated by tulipas, or the light bulbs used in the traditional candelabra that adorn theaters. The veiled photographs become ghostly, latent, nearly abstract, vanishing under the ‘dust’ of time, before your eyes. “I couldn’t stop thinking about how time buries everything … It was a whole universe that made me aware of the extend to which stories are sometimes irretrievable,” the artist says about the process. In this work projection or illumination become not sites of focus but of disappearance, a negative space of lost coordinates.
In Valle-Inclán’s play, it is the blind poet who best sees the esperpento, a specter of reality that emerges only through distortion. Similarly, in De Azambuja’s “Luces de Bohemia,” it is through the presence of time, which is physically manifest as this obscured layer, that the repertoire of memory-images reappears in an almost fictional manner. The old cinema theater wasn’t merely a building or a public activity but an experience that dictated temporal relationships between objects and histories, of which Sontag write:
The desire to lose yourself in other people’s lives … You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie — and to be kidnapped was to be overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image.
Bogart cinema is here not a reactionary metaphor for a culture already outmoded and quaint, but a ruin open to reinvention: How to remain forgotten in wonder?
Cine Bogart: Imaginar un Edificio is on view at Centro Centro (Plaza de Cibeles, 1. 28014 Madrid) through October 12.