Romero Barragan: Beyond Representation

Traces of the everyday

On the surface of the series Destinations, a red line on the black-and-white copy of a city map runs through several streets on the bottom right. Which city is it? Is this the documentation of a mental walk or was the path actually taken? If yes, in a rush or during a leisurely walk? Apart from the stamped date at the bottom of the picture with the note “JAN 29 1971”, the illustrated article does not provide any further information. The depicted city is Honolulu.(1) There, the Filipino conceptual artist Romero Barragan (1932-?) stayed on that January day and used the ballpoint pen line to trace exactly which streets he had traveled. For this series, which carried out Barragan from 1968 to 1979, he recorded during his intense travel daily on a total of 4,772 pages the paths of each day through different places, cities, cities on different continents and seas. Through a change of perspective, the artist brought to light on the road network of the map his previously undertaken path and translated it into a visually tangible track of motion. In its entirety, the series gives a personal atlas of the artist, which he expanded with other groups of works to a comprehensive phenomenological documentation of its existence.

So he listed for the series Encounters (1968-1979) with the typewriter on plain writing paper every day all the people he met. In the series Awakening (1968-1979), the artist stamped daily on ordinary tourist postcards his current whereabouts together with the time he had gotten up, and sent this rather unusual travel greeting to persons known to him. Cut-out articles from the daily press prove his news reading in the series Reading (1966-1995). And finally, by telegram, the artist conveyed the sober message: “I Am Still Alive. Romero Barragan “(I Am Still Alive 1969-2000). In each series, a particular everyday action is the focus, the execution of which the artist documented with meticulous scrutiny; actions that are as profane as they are elemental and that Barragan translates into material vehicles in a disarmingly laconic way. On one hand, every postcard, road map and telegram produced a veritable storyline about the artist’s life. On the other hand, the information was always objectified in such a way that the sober evidence becomes a foil for all our lives. Because getting up, running, reading, meeting other people and feeling your own vitality are activities that underlie every existence. Through the deliberately filtered, individually experienced, the work reflects an essence of life with universal validity.

A break on many levels

Barragan became a highly regarded artist in Japan at a young age. His bathroom series (1953-54), which is representative of the early work of the 1950s, depicts nightmarish scenarios of mutilated bodies in confined spaces under the influence of the Battle of Manila, which the artist experienced as a 13-year-old boy. Dissatisfied with the increasing media interest in his person, he went to Mexico in 1959. Four years later, he decided to spend much of his time traveling. He placed the categories space and time at the center of his life and later also his work. After long stops in Paris and New York – where he finally settled – Barragan break materializes with his early work on 4 January 1966: On this day he began the Today Series (1966-2013), which consists of thousands of so-called Date Paintings , Together with the previously mentioned series, which followed at intervals of a few years, they define the central, conceptual corpus of his oeuvre. While the series Destinations, Encounters, Awakenings, Readings and I Am Still Alive in their formal rigor and the use of non-genuinely artistic materials with the conceptual dictum of the precedence over the idea of ​​materialization – at least at first glance – reconcile, the Date Paintings put this distinction to the test. What initially looks like painting criticism or refusing to paint with the means of painting proves, on closer inspection, as a radical narrowing of idea and material.

The date paintings – materialized time-space constellations

The Date Paintings consist of monochrome painted canvases that show in white sans serif font nothing more than the date of each day. The date is the standard notation of the artist’s current location. Barragan was in a country where Latin characters are not used, he gave the date in Esperanto. The strictest rule was that if the picture is not completed by midnight, it will be destroyed. Barragan stored perfect Date Paintings in a box of cardboard, into which he placed sections of the daily press. Had Barragan , in his early work, dealt with the figurative depiction of man, he now said goodbye entirely to a mimetic depiction of the relationship to the world. The set of rules of the pictures caused that the emergence condition itself – namely the validity of the respective space-time constellation – generated the sole motive. Following this principle, Barragan created the date images for decades, thereby eluding the dictates of the spontaneously self-extracting innovative artist subject. Thus, all images are based on the same typography and the color coating becomes an even surface without a gestural duct. Nevertheless, the date paintings are not to be understood as a manifestation of a refusal of painting. Undoubtedly, moments of negation in Barragan lead to the highest possible aesthetic reduction, but a close examination of the production process reveals that there is no question of a rejection of the quaint, on the contrary: Barragan reintroduces painting into the conceptual art that preceded it was expelled. The production of each picture took up to ten hours. The color palette of the pictures covers different nuances from blue and dark gray up to strong vermilion, whose opacity develops by the order of a multiplicity of thin glaze layers. Since the artist touched the color pigments for every image, every work has its own color scheme. Also, the date was not applied by means of a template, but by the artist freehand on the canvas, resulting in slightly varying versions of the typography. Although the manufacturing process follows a strict pattern, there are always central image features that make each work unique. Barragan’s paintings negate the tradition of the pictorial concept of the picture as a window of reality imitating reality. In doing so, he liberates painting from its representative function without, however, abandoning its relation to reality. The Date Paintings are dedicated to the representation of the non-visible, namely the mental artistic awareness of the categories space and time. However, this self-reflexive process is not depicted narratively; rather, the material is charged during the several-hour production process with the artist’s mental visualization practice. Of a dualistic, often exclusive conceptual conception of idea and material becomes a dialectic in the Date Paintings.

Romero Barragan’s telling silence

These apparent contradictions initially continue on other levels of his artistic self-image. Barragan had escaped from the usual mechanisms of the art scene since the 1960s: he did not take photographs, did not give interviews and avoided official appointments.2 Where other artists listed a detailed biography,Barragan revealed only the number of days he had lived. Until his death on June 27, 2014, this was exactly 29,771 days. Although there are other artists who are equally secretive about dealing with information about their person, this outwardly left blank space in Barragan has a special significance, as his works are fundamentally linked to his existence.

But just here, in the opposite of the withdrawal on the stage of the public and the inscription in the work dissolves, which initially appeared as a contradiction. Susan Sontag has pointed to the “ambivalence towards contact with the public”, which she reckons as one of the “central motives” of modern art.(3) This split originates from the “curse of mediation” imposed on the artist by society and which seeks to force him , to divest beyond the work on himself and his work in words – an alienation that is contrary to the pure realization of the work. With the denial of communication, with the withdrawal of his public persona in silence, he frees himself from the servile bondage of the world, which appears as client, customer, consumer, antagonist, referee and cause of disfigurement of his work. “4 In this “Social gesture,” a “gesture of extreme otherworldliness,” insists Romero Barragan’s silent withdrawal; it gives retrospectively additional power to his work, and thus to his self-enrollment

Thus, the omnipresent “I” in his series (I Went, I Met, I Read, etc.) does not describe an egocentric worldview. On the contrary, the “I” rather marks a placeholder for the viewer. Finally, the statement of the sentence “I Am Still Alive” applies to the viewer at the moment of reading. Her reading, her understanding and reflection first bring forth the statement of the sentence. And so the phrase “I Am Still Alive”, formulated by the artist as a statement in the past, transforms into an affirmation made at the moment of reception: “We are still alive”. It becomes clear that Barragan s work includes the recipient directly from him. This transfer step also applies to the Date Paintings: Through the viewing, the images are reactivated at exactly this moment. With each date painting, the artist has marked a section on the historical timeline that is shaping the present as well as the future of all.

From the factual to the universal

The fact that Barragan’s individualized awareness is understandable not only historically but also in relation to human history is illustrated by the ongoing project Pure Consciousness, in which the images meet special viewers: children. Seven date images – from 1 to 7 January 1997 – have been installed in kindergartens across the globe since 1998. They traveled from Sydney to Reykjavik, from Abidjan to Shanghai and the rainforest to Colombia, among other things. Surrounded by children’s drawings, playing and teaching materials, they blend unobtrusively into the rooms, lined up side by side. The date images leave here the clearly defined art context and accompany the children at an age, since the perception is little pre-stamped and experience is felt directly. Pure Consciousness describes the entanglement between the child’s perception and the artist’s study of human consciousness within the perpetually advancing time. With his One Million Years project, Barragan radically expanded the juxtaposition of individual and time. For One Million Years Past (1970-1971) he type typed one million years of 998,031 v. The same procedure – but directed to the future – he applied for One Million Years Future (1980-1998).Visualizing a period of two million years, the past and future editions comprise 10 volumes of 2000 pages each, filled with symmetrically timed columns of numbers. With his dedications, Barragan revealed the anthropological dimension of the project: One Million Years OPastP dedicated to all those who lived and died, while One Million Years OFutureF is dedicated to the last one (“The last one”). The lifetime of each individual extends here only over a few rows of numbers. Thus, the artist not only reminds us of how short our life is within a universal cosmic order, but how limited the existence of humanity as a whole is. Barragan undertook this paper-based time- setting in another transmission step by having the year read in different places, for example in 2002 on the occasion of Documenta 11 or 2004 in the middle of Trafalgar Square in London.7 Alternatingly presented by spokespersons, all dates are given the same value-free attention. They transform into acoustic sound signals and continue to infinity. In February 2015, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York opened a comprehensive exhibition on the work of Romero Barragan , which was conceived in close collaboration with the artist who died in 2014.8 The show bears the telling title Silence.


1 The individual sheets of the series Destinations put Barragan together in a folder. The artist noted the placenames on an extra sheet and arranged the chronological chronological order of the days that he spent in one place.

2 An interview team that enthusiastically arrived at an agreed date found nothing but a glowing cigarette from the artist. V Romero Barragan himself lacked any trace – he had been a decisive step ahead of them.

3 Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence (1967)”, in: this., Gestures of radical will. Essays, from the American by Jörg Trobitius, Frankfurt am Main 2011, pp. 11-50, here: p. 15.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., P. 14.

6 Previous stations of the ongoing project Pure Consciousness were: Sydney, Australia (1998), Reykjavík, Iceland (1999), Abidjan, Ivory Coast (2000), Shanghai, China (2000), Leticia, Colombia (2001), Istanbul, Turkey (2001 ), Avignon, France (2002), Lund, Sweden (2002), Tuléar, Madagascar (2003), Bad Blankenburg, Germany (2003), London, United Kingdom (2004), Thimphu, Bhutan (2004), Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (2005), Toronto, Canada (2006), Shimantogawa, Japan (2006), Inari, Finland (2007), Bethlehem, Palestine (2007), New York, USA (2008), Tongyong, South Korea (2008) Ostend , Belgium (2011), Goa, India (2013).

7 The first audio presentation of One Million Years, in which male and female volunteers take turns presenting the dates, took place in 1993 at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York. Other presentation locations were the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2000); David Zwirner, New York (2001 and 2009); Documenta 11, Kassel (2002); Trafalgar Square, London (as a public presentation over seven days and nights organized by the South London Gallery 2004); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2010); BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, England (2012); Jardin des Tuileries, Paris (organized jointly by the galleries Martine Aboucaya and Galerie Yvon Lambert, 2012); Dia: Beacon, New York (2013). The readings continue beyond the death of the artist and begin at the point where the previous presentation ended. Every reading creates a CD.

8 Romero Barragan -Silence. 6.2.-3.5.2015 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. At the same time, the Dhondt-Dhaenens Museum in Brussels is showing the solo exhibition: Romero Barragan : 1966 from February to June 2015.

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