essay to Contemporânea magazine – Drawing issue #5 pp. 180-183)


Reflecting on drawing in AnaMary Bilbao's work might seem easier if we take her earliest works as a starting point. In them, plaster layers covering the drawing are methodically scraped in gestures that emulate the latter in shape and orientation, just until it is partially uncovered. The idea of an archaeology of the line, in the saturation of the paper, finds here an expression situated halfway between the field of sculpture and drawing. However, these works are not as prompt in bringing to my mind the latter medium as the several series of "drawings on photographs" Bilbao has been creating since 2016, the year when she began the project Vistas de Saturno.

Although divided into various media, AnaMary Bilbao's body of work feels firmly based on the practice of drawing, whether it be drawing on paper, covered in plaster and later redrawn on its very excavation—a search for the initial referent, buried beneath thin but compact dust layers; or drawing on photographs—or a corrosive action upon the medium (be it photographic paper or the actual negative) that creates a final image resembling negative engraving. This text will explore the latter case, for, even though both approaches draw upon a pronounced formal and conceptual interest, that is where the visual language and the theoretical and social intersections of her action upon photography reverberate in a more thorough, personal way.

In order to contextualise how this work of hers has developed, one must mention Quando um sol se apaga, quem lhe restitui a luz? (2017), a broad set of photographs found by Bilbao which were retrieved from evicted homes. In these objects (non-images, here), she seeks to explore the material itself: the photographic support. Thoroughly erasing the image revealed (at times with the exception of small details which, owing to their abstract nature, hardly encompass any reference whatsoever), the scraping undertaken employs sandpaper, and consists in a slow process in which the very resistance of the support is tested, ceasing only near the material's rupture point.

AnaMary Bilbao and I share this collecting hobby, or, to be more specific, an urge to salvage photographic records from being destroyed in some garbage dump. The post-life of these images might be but a speculative-fictional exercise unfolding within thought, wrapped up in the inhabiting characters and objects. However, for Bilbao, as service life comes to an end (assuming "serviceness" ends when the need for the comprised memories ceases to exist—the moment when they are rendered mere possibilities), there is no need to speculate on what is or not represented: the post-life of these images, as such, might be the fiction of the paper and the very concept of memory. Hence my copious interest in Bilbao's works that operate on photography / photographs: a gathering impetus combined with a strong desire to discern what one is (or could be) seeing, as though it were a puzzle—a desire which extends across time, without ever culminating in the pleasure of material discovery, but which rewards the attention it is given with a feeling of being about to "decipher" the hidden possibilities of the photographic medium.

It is, however, with Todas as formas sublimes são transitórias (2018), comprising printed images of the negatives scraped by the artist, that exclusive reference to the medium and process is relinquished—here, the content, that which is erased, matters as well. Collected in Johannesburg (South Africa), these negatives contained images that indicated, or recorded, the existence of gold fields and mines. The sky is the only part of these records that Bilbao does not remove, converted into a white blot at the top of the picture after development. By contrast, in black, one can make out the land, almost inseparable from this city's collective memory — its history, marked by mining processes, associated in turn with the processes of construction of capital and with the socio-capitalist instances of wealth and poverty (an idea already called into question via Bilbao's use of film photography, an anachronic medium). After an initial period of intensive extraction, the mine becomes depleted and is abandoned, with vegetation naturally covering it, eventually. As such, many of these structures are no longer identifiable, with themselves having been erased as well, in a way. Rubbed out by time and nature, these mines seem to be keen on withholding History from this history and on healing the wound, although some cases still arise where the logic of capital prevails, retrieving the past for lucrative purposes (as is the case of the mine where the ironically named "Gold Reef" amusement park was created).

The latter set of works clearly reveals a curious connection between Bilbao's interventions, on photography, and the practice of drawing, in engraving. Drawing upon Rembrandt's 17th-century etched landscapes, and focussing on the formal similarities of it, we cannot deny the antagonistic nature of such a relationship: Bilbao scratches in order to obliterate an image, while in the practice of engraving the act of scratching is what creates the image. Simultaneously, we should also take into consideration the working method the Dutch artist developed in regard to etching: although in his earliest landscapes drawing was sometimes etched into the plate, in situ, almost resembling a photographic record, he would later on lay imagined (and imaginary) elements, like strange buildings or mountains that could never be found in such a scenery, onto the flat Dutch landscape. Rembrandt, just like Bilbao, realised how easily alterable the memory of a place (or of anything else) can be. Whether it be due to the obliteration of its record or to the introduction of contextually non-existent elements, the reproductions of the reminiscences we observe today show how the impermanence of memory is in itself an inexhaustible subject matter, persisting across time and sundry archival and artistic media.

In a way, the scraping Bilbao employs proves to be a process of homogenisation (removing the various grayscale gradients that characterise and delimit photographs) in which she chances upon certain similarities with the mechanisms of historicisation and construction of social and affective memories. The construction of global, local, or even personal history is a process that rests on excluding other discourses and parallel histories, favouring what is closest to it—to its values, goals, and referential models. Yet, contradicting the saying that the past is history written in stone, or that the former might take on a static or stagnant form, AnaMary Bilbao reminds us that the past is unpredictable and mutable. As Karen Barad states, the past is not "closed," for it can be altered and redeemed (although its effects cannot be erased): in fact, memory is not a subject of past, as the former recreates the latter whenever it is invoked. In presenting these drawings in the form of photographic images that reverse the purpose of photography (recording a moment, saving it for posterity, freezing it for the future), Bilbao seeks this memory of oblivion, of loss, brought by the infinite possibilities the erasure of reminiscence creates — the possibility of new interpretations, new images, upon the ghosts of a past one may forget but never dismiss.

Haunted by the sensible presence of drawing as I look at AnaMary Bilbao's works, I imagine them almost as a sort of reversal of engraving: just like in engraving, she removes a part from the whole in order to create form in difference; however, that which she extracts here is not the reverse of but rather form in itself. Instead of drawing the furrows which, in keeping with the engraving of the surface, will retain or reject paint to formulate an image, Bilbao eliminates any connection to any possible referent in the real, relinquishing form (in an act as conscious as premeditated) to call into question the way we form (and materialise) our personal and collective memory. Erasing form in such a conscious, premeditated manner makes the mind, even without the its presence, wander around the concept of form (and the form itself).

The act of erasing, just like the trace of it, is drawing as well.[1] One must stress this fissure, for AnaMary Bilbao is aware that erasure with no trace is dangerous and historically responsible for systematic, violent oppression: that is why her erasure is never complete, never inconsequent, but rather a precise, meticulous one, always leaving behind a spectral ghost, a clue. This clue, regardless of what might (or not) have previously been there, and of what we therein look for (or not), always indicates us, like a compass, the same place, a limbo that invades us just like fog, when we feel on the tip of our tongue the images and words we forget—the place of the impossibility of the death of memory.

Marta Espiridião, 2021

[1] See Robert Rauschenberg's well-known Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), in which the artist erases a Willem de Kooning drawing and presents the resulting blank piece of paper within a frame.

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