Apparent Position


Paloma Polo’s project for the “Fisuras” (Fissures) program at the Museo Reina Sofía emerged from research into expeditions undertaken in various parts of the world during the colonial era that sought to observe and document astronomical phenomena.
At first glance, her work addresses issues related to the connection between scientific knowledge and the imperialist projects of the European powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but Apparent position also gives rise to less immediate reflections and relations between events that seem to intersect at a given time and place, in the manner of an eclipse.

The starting point is a historically and geographically verifiable event: Sir Arthur Eddington’s 1919 expedition to the island of Príncipe, a Portuguese colony in the Gulf of Guinea, to observe the effects of a total solar eclipse. This voyage, however, was not engraved in history with the epic dimensions of other expeditions of the colonial era. Although there are precise reports on the calculations and conclusions of the expedition, there are no photographic records of the experience. Only a stone stele mounted upon a whitewashed plinth at the approximate spot where the eclipse was observed reminds us that Eddington’s achievement signified the verification of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

It is here that the “apparent” nature referred to in the title makes its entrance. The purpose of Eddington’s expedition was to confirm that light altered its linear course when in contact with a powerful gravitational field (like the sun), an aspect of the General Theory of Relativity demonstrable only during a solar eclipse. The position of the light of the stars is presumed to be “apparent,” and only a parenthesis in the astronomical process—a black eclipsed sun—would allow that deceptive position to be photographed and the degree of deviation of the light to be calculated, an event of extraordinary scientific importance. And yet, in spite of the claims of the commemorative stele, Eddington’s expedition does not appear to have been the touchstone in the verification of Einstein’s theory. Later research indicates that its scientific results were rather poor, and although Eddington’s expedition “officially” legitimized the validity of the theory of relativity, such confirmation actually came only two years later. Paloma Polo’s proposal is presented in three formats: a 16-mm film transferred to digital video, photographs on glass, and a printed book. The three formats are traditionally associated with the documentary impulse, the rush to chronicle potentially historic events. And yet Apparent position makes no attempt to document or inform. It starts instead from a threefold position: the acknowledgement of a known fact; the awareness of the absence of precise historical documentation; and the intervention on site, which reveals not an alteration of reality but a way of framing new relationships with the surroundings and with history itself. The first images depict a silent scene that might well have taken place at the time of the expedition—photographs on glass illustrating the appearance of the expedition’s surroundings during the eclipse. As Einstein pointed out, numerous variables enter into play: the peculiar light of an eclipse; the procedure for making a printed record of it with a photographic camera; and the constructed nature of such images. The images in question are virtual reconstructions of a space from the standpoint of the present. They seek to recreate as exactly as possible the look of the instruments, the furnishings, the decoration, and the architectural features of the epoch under the momentary penumbra of the eclipse, all recreated with the greatest possible precision after research and consultation with various experts. The scenes represented in these photographs are not documented, and if they ever did exist there is no record of them. Nothing is left today but the architectural remains on the premises. These new images are not meant to replace them but to assume a position of apparent veracity, of verisimilitude. Polo’s intention here, unlike other artists who work with the fake “found document,” is not to play a historical trompe l’oeil, nor to reveal the possibility of manipulating the documentary evidence that configures it. Rather, her photographs are the depiction of a possible history frozen in time, in contrast to the motion of the video that completes the core of her proposal.

We can imagine the tremendous mobilization of resources in any scientific undertaking rooted in imperialism. Its present-day parallel represented in the film is both evocative and eloquent. Local residents, operating according to their own organizational model and division of labor, rip an architectural element out of the ground and haul it off with chains and an unassuming truck. The projection shows the moment in the summer of 2011 when the stele commemorating Eddington’s achievement was moved at the artist’s suggestion, and with the support of the regional government of Príncipe, to the exact spot where, according to her research, the astronomical observation “apparently” took place. This was but a few yards away from the original position on the same farm. If Paloma Polo’s intention is to draw a historical parallel, it is a deliberately sterile one that is set up as a testimony to a loss. The film does not restrict itself to merely documenting the relocation of the stele and fixing it in time. Above all else, it concerns itself with the status of the audience and its position with regard to the experience it is witnessing. The viewer never comes to have a clear sense of the space (the camera seems to situate the viewpoint in a position that is revealed in the next shot to have been merely apparent, while tracking shots tend at the same time to distance the viewer from the object or to dwell on details). In addition, the introduction of sounds foreign to the scene distances the viewers from the events depicted, and jump cuts prevent them from quantifying the passage of time. It is not made clear where the stele has gone, how much time it took, if the workers went around in circles, or whether it was moved a few meters or several kilometers away. Time and space are alternatively suggested and disappear. The viewer has to construct them from his or her own position, and is thus obliged to relativize them.

Position emerges as the basis of the project: the position of the objects involved; that of the sun and the moon; that of the viewer; and, ultimately, one of more complex articulation, the ideological “positioning” that might emerge from the whole. The position can thus relativize all the information obtained. That is what Einstein proposes in his revolutionary theory of space and time, the verification of which was sought by the expedition to the island of Príncipe. The new location of the commemorative stele just might alter the variables from which the place and its history will be viewed from now on. The relocation proves futile—just as the 1919 expedition proved controversial from a scientific point of view—because its results are of a different nature than its presuppositions. Eddington did not manage to convince the scientific establishment that he had confirmed the theory of relativity on his expedition, but he did contribute his own exploit to the efforts of colonialism’s dying breaths. Paloma Polo’s project, in turn, is not based on a hypothesis, nor does it try to restore a memorial or resignify a site. The results of her act of relocation will be judged by what the island’s inhabitants wish to do with it from now on, as existing reality or as remembrance.

This project bears witness to an absence generated by certain aspects of the handling and transmission of information. The documentation is missing, and so are those who produced it. The document (photographs, drawings) was replaced by the monument (stele), and discourse was thus imposed on dialogue. The absence revealed is that of the colonial powers that supported expeditions like Eddington’s. Their position and presence were not always transparent, but they did establish a single point of view about the world. Their power was not completely visible, but it was rigorously exercised, and the constant presence of chains in the film can evoke the dark memory of slavery. Their new use as a tool for moving the monument gives rise to new forms of relations in which the position of each subject is transcendent. A complex network allows the relocation to take place, and in the intervention of each participant, there arise different modes of reappropriating space and history, from pure presence to physical labor, indifference, humor, exertion, and pain. These participants are the generation that witnessed the independence of a country that remained a Portuguese colony until as late as 1975. Their grandparents’ center of political gravity was thus thousands of kilometers away. The photographs have restored what does not exist, and the film has relocated something that was not in its position, “in its place.” Reality has not been altered by any of these acts, but their futility is telling: Príncipe remains a remote corner monumentalized by an astronomical accident, and continues “to not exist.” In the logic of imperialism, Edward Said declared, knowledge is power, and the accumulation of knowledge automatically signifies an accumulation of power. The world maps drawn by the colonial empires are associated with a control that is both symbolic (the act of drawing a map) and real (movement—that of people and the stars—is known and controlled). Faced with the diverse propositions of Apparent position, there re-emerges the image of the unique position that inspired the colonial fever: an empire on which “the sun never set.” “Fisuras” is a program that reveals interstitial spaces in the Museum and allows visitors to discover the narrative possibilities of intermediate zones, spaces of conflict, or areas of a hybrid nature (landings, stairwells, underground passages, connections between buildings). In Apparent position, this “fissure” also touches on levels of discourse other than the spatial, since by addressing aspects like the theory of relativity and shifting viewpoints on an undocumented historical event, it reveals the caesura between reality, our perception of it, and the possibility of constructing and reconstructing it, of revealing its absence, of “positioning ourselves.”

Carlos Martín.