(essay written for the solo show Lighted by a Searing Light at Travessa da Ermida, Lisbon, Portugal)

Lighted by a Searing Light (2018) is a video installation presented by AnaMary Bilbao at the Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Conceição, in Lisbon. The images depict something next to the ground but lead our eyes towards a light in the background, high behind the foliage. Our gaze hesitates; between alarm and enchantment, our attention is pulled into some other place, far away from where we stand. Lighted by a Searing Light is an expression that describes the glare of a potent light, one that injures and seduces at a time. Light is presented as a force of nature that can be the bringer of both life or death, but also a metaphor for something that can overpower and subjugate a subject.  The truth is that we cannot stare at the sun, its incandescence burns our eyes and blurs the image of what we are trying to perceive. The blindness induced by the images, the bubble of light that comes and goes, all denounce this enthralment and reinforce the video’s circularity (in loop). The sound we hear is a great argus bird (Argusianus argus), whose song defines the duration of the video and corresponds to a cycle of thirty-eight calls. The bird’s name refers to the hundred-eyed giant in Greek mythology, Argus Panotpes, the “all-seeing”. Argus was Hera’s servant, and his defining task was to guard Io from Zeus, who had fallen in love with the nymph.  Zeus sent Hermes to free Io; he sang Argus to sleep and killed him. Honouring Argus service, Hera had his hundred eyes preserved forever in the feathers of this sacred bird.

Considering how the artist articulates image and sound, we are reminded of the book The Eyes of the Skin - Architecture and the Senses, in which the Finish thinker Juhani Pallasmaa explains the different mechanisms of each of these senses.
(1) Pallasmaa writes that vision is what focuses and manages our attention. When we focus our sight on something, there is a resoluteness that guides us to what we observe. We chose to look at it rather than at some other thing. Contrarily, we are approached by sound, it comes to us, it convokes us. As such, if sight is something that projects, scrutinizes and measures distances, to impair vision is to mar the capacity to exert control. And, if hearing is a sense that demands proximity, what we hear has the power to bring us closer, to render us more intimate with any given situation.

AnaMary Bilbao’s video operates between the proximity convoked by sound and the distance managed by vision. Similarly, it also tells us about a process of physical and psychological distances where will and reason alternate. The song sang on the shade, the mesmerizing sun and the fascination of the intensity of its light propose a continuous dance between who controls and who is controlled. This register is based on the constant transformation that underlies action and passivity, attraction and threat. Between sound and image, human and nature, bird and light, AnaMary Bilbao offers us a perspective that oscillates between a place of shadows populated by the echoes of a wavering presence — which, nevertheless, desires to affirm itself — and a space of clarity where there is the risk of seduction, exposure and hazard. This dilemma, which is present throughout the video, is transformed in the confrontation at the last instant, mesmerizing us. The process ends as the roles switch, and the dominator becomes the dominated. In that moment, in the vortex of the struggle between what we desire and what we avoid, reason submits to will and everything goes back to the beginning, only to be repeated once more. Similarly, as we enter the Ermida, we see the reflection of something moving in the shadows. A glimpse of light and the bird’s song invite us to walk in — but it is only inside, as we walk through the space, that we see the projection and the world that it draws us into.

(1) “Sight isolates, whereas sound incorporates; vision is directional, sound is omnidirectional. The sense of sight implies exteriority, whereas sound creates an experience of interiority. I regard an object, but sound approaches me; the eye reaches but the ear receives.” Pallasmaa, Juhani (1996), The Eyes of the Skin – Architecture and the Senses, Academy Editions: London, p.34.

Sérgio Fazenda Rodrigues, April 2019
Translated by José Roseira

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