“The story of Manuel Blanco Romasanta is indeed shocking. Known as one Spain’s more notorious serial killers, Romasanta was described in period nomenclature as the “Tallow Man”, known for making soap from his murdered victims”
I can hear the chewing of cattle-the wet grass macerated grass between the large heft of their jaws. Them, whose bovine mass are destined to the jagged outcrop at the reaches of the field where their calcified osteo-artifacts will bleach white in the final throes of the August summer in futures forthcoming. Here, all seasons are definite and winter does weigh heavily. From the stone trail at the top of the village, I can see the great billowing smoke of the home hearths from under the rain soaked brim of my limp and brooding leather hat. A great repetition bounds in my ears from the obnoxious but necessary clank clanking of the bells tethered to the great necks of cows within my fold and the rope in my gloved hand makes further sonorous stretching and chaffing sounds as we plod the well-worn dirt and stone path, homeward bound with my shrunken self bent inward, a torso at war with its own inwardly perched and angular shoulders.
It is later than it should be for the herd’s collection and I am tired. Within six steps towards the ever-distancing loom of the stable gate my leather boots groan and suddenly a great rattling of the underbrush above me on the hill produces a panic within my chest. At this hour and under this full miasma of a moon formed from the milk of God and cosmos blares above my rugged head its opacity looms engorged to a capacity unimaginable. Its illuminating embrace is worn heavily on the brow of the villagers. I feel panic gnaw the fabric of my being. Queer and unusual movements such as these from the periphery of occipital lobes paralyze the children and the aged of the village alike. Stories trespass the beating heart in the chest cavities of all forlorn people. And if I allow my mind to wander, to conceive, to interpret this proposition, it surely ends in the imagination as a unpaged manuscript of my worst fantasies.
Stories are handed, rather shoved down by tongue from generations of the past to the imaginations of the citizens. They are mini-histories associated with the great terrors that our collective imaginations pursued on moonlit walks in the dead of winter scorned by the clouds and moons above and we are remanded for our custodial position above the herd due for eventual slaughter. Every collected utterance of danger, every discontinuity of security is embraced without so much as lament cast from the wellspring of nefarious mean. We become rendered as suet for the tallow to cleanse future generations of life without despair and we fail. Our legacies are left littered to the floor by snapping jaws and amorphous claw.
I have been familiar with Laia Abril’s work for some time. I think my first encounter with her work was her publication “Thinspiration”, which is a book about female body horror and the way in which it is made spectacle via traumatic conditioning by society, food and the Internet. I remember having a feeling of sincere interest in the book, but also a feeling that the work, though attempting to demonstrate a rational observance of the crushing oppression of ideals fed young women had somehow taken a u-turn and became a display of enforced aggression and possibly secondary exploitation of the focus group. I had decided that I would forgo any conclusion on the matter until I saw more of her work.
The last time I encountered her work was not in person, but through the Internet. I was intrigued by her Foucault inspired title “A History of Misogyny, On Abortion” that was exhibited at Les Recontres d’Arles and I had also read Sean O’Hagan’s Guardian review. This time from what I saw, I concluded that the work had been sincerely upgraded in presentation and concept and that the obvious horror to the work (despite the title) had taken a more objective outlook while still catering to a very sensitive and deeply contentious subject. There were testimonies, an archive if you will, of women who had abortions along images of clinics, tools and the implements of abortion practice in all of its often times unpleasant form. Abril had researched her topic deeply without much of the unnecessary harvest of working with second hand images and loosely sourced Internet material. It was direct and the work seemed to have matured. The archival documentary impulse of the unseen and the way in which the text was laid congruently on the walls as part of the image’s affect was something that I had seen in Taryn Simon’s work previously- not to imply that Simon owns that particular display outright, but Abril handled the matter as effectively. It also spoke of hidden power structures, rule and influence. I was much more convinced, but not fully.
At Parisphoto in 2016, I picked up a copy of a burgundy red book with a hole in the cover with a title that I thought was in German called “Lobismuller”. I have a thing for blood red and also applications to the horror genre and who can resist another book with a hole in the cover? Opening the book, I was struck by the stark feel to it. I was not particularly blown away by the images within though I was positive of possible soft intentions underlying something more potent in their form and I couldn’t help but feel that there was a haunting mechanism about the work as the images were drained of colorful vitality for a certain reason. The pages alternated between brooding monochromes of red, white and black making me question the GERMAN-NESS of it. Flipping through the book, I became drawn to its hauntological quality and was completely sold on what I had seen halfway to three quarters of the way through the book. I remember feeling that the archival material within was possibly unnecessary. This was likely because my Spanish was incredibly weak due to not having been to the country for some time. I had previously lived in Barcelona, but also an area of Galicia called Pontevedra. Of note is that I had also decided not to look at the title page or spine to seek an author while “reading” the book.
“We become rendered as suet for the tallow to cleanse future generations of life without despair and we fail. Our legacies are left littered to the floor by snapping jaws and amorphous claw”
As I continued to page through the book, my desire to leave looking at the spine or title page for later was at a contemptuous level. I wanted to absorb the work before I gave into the pressures of pre-conceived knowledge, but I also wanted to know who had made the work. At about the ¾ point of the book, I was put into a position I was hoping that I did not have to find myself in. There was a grave change in the book’s imagery and visual climate. It had shifted from a dismal metaphorical and almost mystical landscape where the possibilities of narrative were suggested, but unenforced to something more abrasive. I was no longer allowed the space to imagine or to draw parallels and possible assumptions about the work. The book confronted me with medical/sexual imagery of hermaphroditism. I was immediately reminded of Nadar’s images of a particular hermaphrodite and the previously adored subtle nature of the book had given way to a groan within my mind. “really?”. I remember asking myself why. At this point, I wanted to know what artist had disturbed my reading of their work with this gesture that pandered to shock.
Shock tactics are something that I understand but deplore. They make things obvious. They are the heavy swinging axe to the oft-mentioned scalpel and they often fail to conjure up their intended weight instead rouse a beguiling and mirthful ridicule in the back of my throat. They become humorously easy and often CATHOLIC. As a tactic, they break the sequencing of a book if it is loaded as “shock surprise” material and greatly diminish the imagery before or ahead of it depending where it is placed.
The story of Manuel Blanco Romasanta is indeed shocking. Known as one Spain’s more notorious serial killers, Romasanta was described in period nomenclature as the “Tallow Man”, known for making soap from his murdered victims. He confessed to 12 murders at the time of his apprehension and had verified that these acts were precipitated upon by some enigmatic situation of him turning into a wolf from time to time-lycanthropy is so old testament. It is also suggested that his birth name was Manuela and that there was were some disorientating effects to the potential subscription of his gender. The story therefore reveals that it had been possible that the mythology of Romasanta was of no gender or both genders or genders confused. This is important as it qualifies the author’s position on the topic of the feminine of which she is familiar to working with. It aligns Abril’s interest in the demonization of women through the use of a historic tale.
The book presents the tale of Romasanta in a gifted and well-intended manner with text illustrating the story at the bottom of the book’s pages. There is a careful crafting of Romasanta’s feminine traits though one is pressed from reading just the book to observe its qualification rather than the press release to be told what the relevancy of those traits are to the story. The hermaphrodite material is where the spin of the book occurs to an effect that still sits sadly within my consideration. There is some conjecture about femininity or inter-gender politics that are being forced in the latter quarter of the book. It is noted in the press release that Romasanta possibly lived his life in a stasis of inter-sexuality (from Abril’s website) and that the feminine and hermaphrodite characteristics described in the book may ascertain their position within that possibility. This is not apparent from the text in the book, though it exemplifies the employ of the visual hermaphrodite material, which to my mind is forceful and unnecessary. It seems to be an afterthought that might tie the desire of the author to push an agenda or to keep in line with themes of previous bodies of works. The inclusion of the hermaphrodite material solidifies the desire to remit political will to popular myth through the device of shock and in doing so, begs further questions of authority, author fetishism and the potential to convolute very important contemporary sociological identity concepts for a look backward without the reading glasses.
My overall consideration of this book is mixed. On one hand, I think it is incredibly strong, well conceived in design and the project and story are fascinating. My contention lies in the forceful and unnecessary use of shocking material to push an agenda that was not always there. I feel like Abril is screaming “Do you get it” at me? It makes what could have been an exceptional project digress into a possible parody of itself if I am overly critical. I felt that this book was the strongest offering from Abril. It connected her political interests in the body and the state machine against it and delivered a project with sincerity that almost passed for maturity, until the hermaphrodite entered the equation. Everything she was interested to express was there all along.
In 2017, shock value has morphed from photographs to economic worry. Photographs of shock value have become less pertinent. The fear of the image and its employ as this sort of device does not feel as relevant and it no longer exists under the skin, but atop to be brushed off with the sweat of capitalist anxieties. I am positive that if Abril would step back from pushing imagery like this, her work would find a much more powerful and cerebral product. The themes are relevant, her work is relevant, now if she can find a way to deliver it in a non-obvious matter, I will be completely sold on her voice. This is not a negative review by any means. This is a review of heavy agitation due to my own desire to want to communicate with Abril and her work on a level, but it feels underdeveloped between us and exaggerated by the use of shocking images to do the heavy lifting. I am greatly looking forward to seeing the next work from her and though it might not be obvious, I thoroughly enjoyed and HIGHLY RECOMMEND this book despite my critical capacity to disagree with 25% of it.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Laia Abril.)