Fer-nos eterns (Making us eternal), by Pere Formiguera
We have often considered photography to be an aide-mémoire. A stimulus of what we remember fixed on a piece of paper. A fragment of life trapped in time, which we tend to keep in a drawer at home imagining that it will be useful in the future. And, in a certain way, that is what it is. Years later, when we find the old picture, though perhaps now half-faded, it seems like a flood of sensations and memories flow into our brains and we are taken back to times long-ago that we had almost forgotten. We are thus reminded, as if it were today, what our streets used to look like, our grandfather’s reticent smile, things we have no idea what happened to, and we are even able to feel once again the warmth of a landscape that no longer exists. Pictures awaken a whole range of feelings that were asleep in our memories, but waiting for a stimulus to bring them back to life. And sometimes, they can even make us weep.
Just because of that, we should be grateful for photography.
Memories are important and help us to put together our own personal histories. But there is more. Photographs are great providers of other uses and advantages and we need to get used to using them in the best possible way, for our own good and for that of all the other people that live around us.
Art, however it is viewed, has a utilitarian purpose, and exists to serve us. To build a bridge for communication and reflection that helps us to understand ourselves better and to situate ourselves as individuals within a group that makes us spiritually richer and that aggrandises us as people.
And it is precisely in the assimilation of this social context in which each one of us moves, and in the very comprehension of the same, that we can measure ourselves as people, better understand our reality and, in short, feel freer.
Photography also helps us with this. And does so a lot.
I would say, leaving aside historiographical and documentary aspects, we take photographs in order to possess. And to know where we are. Where we are moving and what relationship we have with our surroundings. We take photos to know where we live and how we interpret our everyday landscapes. To understand everything that surrounds us and coexists with us. To make us aware that we are alive and that we occupy a determinate and determinant space and place.
We take photographs in order to understand ourselves. And, in this regard, photography enriches us and makes us wiser.
* * * * *
One fine day, not so long ago, Massimo Cova came into my studio and showed me a series of photographs of Arenys de Mar. He did not know (and I didn’t want to tell him) that one of my earliest childhood memories of being beside the sea was precisely in that town, when I was only very small and went with my mother and brother to spend a few days there in the late nineteen fifties. Some friends of my parents had lent us a little white house right in the middle of the town. It was late June, and there weren’t many holidaymakers yet and, as far as I can recall, there were even fewer tourists from elsewhere.
My brother and I were two kids from Barcelona, which in those days meant that our only idea of the sea was the occasional trip to the port in the city and perhaps the odd trip on those toy ocean liners called golondrinas, which took you out for a boating trip amid enormous ships and over filthy, oil-stained waters. For our summer holidays, we always went to a family home up in the Plana de Vic, so the sea, or what is really meant by the sea, was something we had only ever seen in the movies.
Now that wonderful discovery lives on in my memory in an idealised haze. Like a child’s dream. I remember that, accustomed as I was to swimming in a narrow river that ran close to Taradell, the sea was something absolutely huge. Flat and short. All that water reaching way beyond my expectations. And the sound of the waves – I don’t remember now whether it scared me a little or whether it struck my ears like a nursery song. I remember that expert catchers of river crabs like my brother and me could not get used to the sea crabs that, instead of fleeing backwards like river crabs, skilfully slipped sideways out of our hands. And not to mention the fear of treading on a sea urchin, a creature that didn’t exist in our river. And there are other things that I’m not sure whether I remember or just think that I remember. Because we didn’t take any photos of that summer in Arenys. And now that I am a photographer, I know perfectly well that I cannot solely rely on memory. I also need the document. A piece of paper that is able to stimulate my brain and make things more precise. An image that clears the cloud and turns something into history.
I am perfectly aware that all these digressions about my first encounter with the sea, about crabs and everything I have just mentioned, may not seem too relevant in the context of the presentation of a book that is not exactly my biography or anything like it for that matter. The thing is that this book by Massimo Cova seems to me to be a kind of passage through life written in a symbolic manner, precisely in order to avoid the idea of a personal biography and to fit instead into the more generous realm of collective biography. And, viewed thus, it feels like I am the protagonist, just like any of you could feel, those of you who love Arenys and for whom the town has become part of your interior landscape.
There is a child playing on the beach. A dog chasing him, and the sea awaits. He has yet to dive in, but he’s running towards the sea as if running to his mother. This is birth. The birth of life, that comes from the water as it does in the purest classical Botticellian iconography, and the birth of friendship with nature as suggested by the playful dog that so wilfully guards and protects his young companion.
There is also a tunnel. The perfect symbol of the path to initiation. Of the passage from darkness to light. Of discovery and growth. A tunnel that leads both there and back again. That enables us to choose the path we want to take, that offers us the opportunity to turn back the other way whenever we feel like it. Is it not true that every time we go down to the sea, it feels a bit like becoming children again? We are almost naked when we go there, almost as we were when we left our mothers. And the same tunnel presents us with a pathway back to into our everyday realities without it ever breaking, our dream always being open to us.
And then there are people playing. Bicycles that make us fly. Bike rides that bond us in fellowship. Firelight that approaches the water and that, by night, seems to fill our souls with the white magic of the affable unknown. The fires are not lit for fear of the dark. They are lit to share it as we look into each other’s faces and are able to sing and dance with friends who we are seeing for the first time and with whom we can share, for one night, a slice of cake or a glass of cool cava that we drink as we listen to the beating rhythm of the waves as they break on the beach.
And all of a sudden, these abstract ideas, of life, play and friendship, are contextualised. They are situated in a certain place. The author places the ideas on a specific stage that is none other than the town of Arenys. He does this first in a festive tone, portraying the street parties. A certain controlled excess that was already suggested by the immediately preceding photographs. The people are now born, begin their lives and learn to be together, and what’s more, they do so in Arenys de Mar. And this sense of belonging to a group introduces to them a new notion of nature that enables them to recognise each other as a whole.
Massimo Cova then paves the way to reflection. He starts to roam his town alone. As if he had stumbled across a ghost town. The people have disappeared from the streets, as if it were midday on a Sunday. Each photograph is a silent vision that now waits for the stones to speak. At first sight, and knowing that the author is an architect, it may seem to be an inventory of streets and squares made for merely documentary purposes. But I believe it to be much more than that.
Taking photographs of the space that we frequent every day is an excellent way of rediscovering it. Of knowing how to live it and unceasingly mutate it. And an understanding that we are what we are to a large extent because we live where we live. Because this habitat around us conditions us and also determines our spirit and our way of being individuals as well as part of a group. The shadow of the tree that is cast over the façade of the house is a fine example of this coexistence between stones (worked by men, let us not forget), and the fleeting nature of the life that lives within them. For me, these photographs were not made as a reportage, but were conceived as a portrait. Or what’s more, a self-portrait. Because we are also part of the landscape and it is not too hard for us to appreciate that.
I press on ahead, looking at the photographs. And I say ahead because I believe, and most especially in this case, that we should respect the order chosen by the author, for that order forms part of the piece as a whole. And I find that it is now time for archaeology. In order to understand the present that until now we have seen in human terms as well in those of our surroundings, we clearly have to delve a little into the realm of history. The ancient Casa Calisay is the pretext that the author chooses in order to cover this aspect of his photographic chronicle. He enters on tiptoe. As if not wanting to disturb anything. And he explores it with respect, capturing the full magic of the building. Evoking its splendid past and recreating it in the magnificent dignity of its decadence. And he cannot avoid the temptation of making a self-portrait. A modest self-portrait, though, as we only see his shadow cast on the ground. As if the present is being projected onto the past in an attempt to bring it to life.
We then find that this fusion between the past and present appears in the form of new uses of the old factory. What was once a workplace is now a place of culture and leisure. Where the sound of machines was once heard, we now hear the notes of jazz and the voices of singers and actors. It is as if the clock of time, that had stopped here for so long, is working again to guarantee the immortality of the monument.
With fewer historical pretensions, but of no less archaeological importance, the house is presented to us. The photographic approach is now much more intimate, and collective history becomes a private history. A warm light illuminates an old, half-open door that invites us in. The rooms are empty. Or almost empty, to be more precise. There are still some remnants of furniture that must have been left behind by the previous occupants, most probably because moving them would have been too cumbersome. These small elements lend vitality to the abandoned home and give the effect of a certain state of hibernation. Not quite entirely dead. In one corner, an old mirror leans against the wall. A mirror that has reflected the past and the present and that is waiting to be hung up again in order to continue reflecting the future. Indeed, the old house is alive. It is merely waiting to be dressed again for a new family from Arenys to able to love it.
In the evening, at dusk, the cemetery is portrayed as the silvery background for a calm sea. The visitor is welcomed by cypress trees, symbols of hospitality. Massimo Cova does not offer a sad image, or even a funereal one. It is a comforting image in a place of rest with views over the sea. The cemetery converted into a garden. Into a public park where we can take an unhurried stroll as we enjoy the calmness of the place. It must surely have taken some time to get a photograph of it without showing the tourists going to visit the grave of Salvador Espriu, in posthumous homage to the famous poet, whose legacy to us was some of the finest literary images from his mythical world of Sinera.
And in an amicable gesture of complicity, the author takes a photograph of the poet’s place of rest from behind. He does not need to show any written epitaph on the marble tombstone. It is enough just to know that he is there, as he and so many other people of Arenys will be in the future, though much more anonymously and without any kind of stridency, as they share the tranquillity of the space.
In the church, the atmosphere seems to be made of velvet. Just a few traces of light clarify our view of this place of rest. We know that we are in a temple because the camera makes us understand it to be so. And this is not an exclusive temple. It is a Christian building, just as one dedicated to any other belief could probably be. It is a holy place that once again invites us to meditate and to continue with our constant struggle to find out more about ourselves.
Having looked at all the photos, I believe that their greatest virtue (aside from the technical excellence, which is too evident for me to need to comment on), is that they so emphatically portray the great circle of life. And do so by passing from the purest abstraction to the most radical concretion. Arenys de Mar is not just a place on the map. It is a privileged location, and many people live precisely there and not at any other point on any other map. And this book has helped me to understand that. If only every town and city in our country had somebody so able to portray it like this. To make us see that each one of us has our own personal story that we configure day by day, that our collectiveness has no beginning and no end and that a town’s past and present history will be projected into the future as long as we know how to use the right tools to capture it and send it forwards. And that makes us eternal.
Close to Salvador Espriu’s resting place, a young girl walks with a little child in a pushchair. This little child is the future. His name is Pol Cova. And he is the final symbol in this essential book.
Sant Cugat del Vallès, March 1999.