This is not the first text I have written on the works of Ana Maria Pacheco and nor, dare I hope, will it be the last. The exhibition, or more precisely the installation at Chichester Cathedral takes the form of a work so extraordinary that, as it comes towards its end game in mid-November, I couldn’t help but revisit its mesmeric and brooding presence in this extraordinary setting.
The figures of Pacheco are well known to us, but rarely does the global context of migration and suffering resonated so entirely with a work of art of this scale and sheer auratic presence. The 12 assembled figures are generally carved, each at great physical expense, from a single massive lime tree trunk before being coloured and detailed. The detailing in itself is extraordinary: Pacheco uses outsized quartz glass eyes which fixedly shine and stare as the hollowed eyes of the dead, whilst the dentures are sub-scale and are comprised of (real) human teeth glued into the wooden maws of the clustered, cloaked figures. As if this work was not haunting and powerful enough, the composition of the processing, perhaps wandering figures, demonstrates the same kind of directionless hopelessness we have become over-familiarised with through the global window of television on the various refugee crises.
Much has been made of the works depiction of a scene from Virgil’s Aeneid, and of the fact that the tableau’s two key protagonist (Aeneas and his father Anchises) are symbolically formed from a single (familial) piece of wood as the elder is piggy-backed from the burning ruins of Troy. However, there is so much more going on here than is conjured by this narrative; the hairstyles of the figures are outlandish, obsessive and entirely fitting; the facial expressions are hypnotic, haunted and surreal, and the drapery of the figures as well as being a great sculptural conceit, are supremely plucked and drawn from the material.
Amnesty International have been astute in both seeing the opportunity the work presents and asserting some branding credit over it, but just watching the audience, I can confirm that Ana Maria’s work transcends the obvious by exerting a trance-like state over the passing trade. Frequently I innately want to recoil from works of art located in places of worship, not out of any religious belief or deeply held doctrinal preference, but simply because of the history of painting and sculpture is (for me) fixed and encased by the likes of Vasari and Gombrich. I would further assert that it is almost impossible for contemporary art to bear the weight of such religious expectation/significance or to live up to Renaissance comparators even if on a level playing field – and this just within the context of the Judeo-Christian. There are, after all, many art histories and many religions that hold us to account.
This installation burns as a photogram into the retina and sears the memory like few others I have seen of late, the Greek dressing of literature is but that; the heart and soul of the work is in its human dimensions, even if those are extraordinary and they are not the physical dimensions of humanity. As a writer who deplores exaggeration for effect in arts commentary, I never thought I would use the term ‘timeless’, but maybe this expression, reminding us as it does of recurring diaspora, is as close as we may ever get. Sadly human suffering, and our collective capacity for protracting and renewing it seems inexhaustible, let us hope that artists’ ability to engage with such subjects also remains undiminished. See it and weep.