The Representation of Absence: An Interview with Margarita Brum

“How do you represent that which is not there but which occupies an affective place, a place in our mind?” Margarita Brum asks. But her vibrant collages do just that. They give life to the intangible. Memories and dreams, loss, loneliness, and connection, all take root and bloom, curling and trailing off the page, and taking on personalities at once mysterious and familiar. They beckon to us into a strange, enticing world, a world where we’ll find some answers, but even more questions. We were grateful for the chance to discuss some of those questions with her.

I understand that your background is in filmmaking. I wonder how this informs your sense of composition? There’s so much movement and life in each image that it seems to extend beyond the traditional framing of a still picture, sometimes by actual embroidery thread, sometimes by pieces of narrative thread. Do you feel that you approach your work cinematically?

Many times I think of my compositions as if they were cinematographic or photographic frames, but I do not intend for the works to be connected to each other in an obvious or rational way. I think that this often happens but in a fortuitous, irrational way. Yes, there is a story that I have in my head of what is happening in the scene. It is always present in more or less obvious ways in the final result, but I think it is evident that beyond the plastic or visual game there is a little story or a small scene from a story which I am trying to tell.

Where do you find the photographs that you work with? I always feel a sense of melancholy looking at old photographs, catching a glimpse of someone else’s life and thinking what their dreams and hopes and sadnesses might have been. It feels that you somehow tap into the world within them, so that their thoughts and feelings come teeming out of them. A photograph represents a moment in time, but somehow you seem capable of showing time passing in the lives of your figures. Do you think of the people in the photographs as characters? Do you write stories about them in your head?

Many times the people in the photographs are my relatives: my grandmother appears many times, my great-grandparents, etc. Other times they are people I don’t know, photos that I find at fairs or that I get from historical archives. In the case of people I am not related to, the first thing that happens is that for some reason -the gesture, the look, the expression of the bodies- that photo attracts me and from there I imagine a context for that specific capture of people of whom I generally have no data. I agree that there is an implicit melancholy in the old photos. I think that happens because we are also aware that these people no longer exist, or that their time has passed. Nevertheless there are gestures in those photos that are funny, complicit, loving… Each photo is a story in itself. I try and add a new layer to it

I am reminded of old natural history books, with the figures pinned like butterflies, or under glass. Much of the teeming life serves to situate the figures in the photographs within a larger framework of nature—with vines and branches and flowers growing out of their heads or hearts. Can you talk a little about the idea of our place as humans in the natural world?

I think that our place as humans in the natural world has this basic problem, which is that in our minds the natural world is on one side while we are on the other. In the times we are living there is a lot of disconnection between people and nature, not from a mystical point of view but from a very practical, survival point of view. We don’t have another planet to leave to when we finish destroying this one. Therefore to continue existing we need clean air, water and a soil where the food we need grows.

It’s simple, but it’s not, because the capitalist system makes you believe that the most important thing is to own things. It doesn’t matter how they were made, how polluting their production process was, if people manufactured them in unsanitary conditions… All that matters is to own things. And with these levels of polluting production and consumption we do not give natural resources time to regenerate.

We did not have a romantic and distant idea of nature, nature surrounded us, it was there. The resources provided by our garden were used and cared for in a very practical way and there was awareness of the cycles, of the seasons… You couldn’t have figs in May.

I grew up in a beach town, not a city and not exactly the countryside, but it had something very wild about it. There were no paved streets like in a city. There were swamps full of toads in spring and the beach was close. We had a very large garden with many fruit trees, our neighbor had a large orchard and some farm animals as well. Until I was eighteen, nature was part of the context in which I lived. We did not have a romantic and distant idea of nature, nature surrounded us, it was there. The resources provided by our garden were used and cared for in a very practical way and there was awareness of the cycles, of the seasons… You couldn’t have figs in May. Now you go to the supermarket and have any fruit at any time of the year, that is also a consumer whim and the sum of all those whims causes natural resources to be depleted at a worrying rate.

Or maybe the vines and branches and flowers are something essentially human—a representation of our imagination, our emotions, the stories that we tell?

For some of the images the interpretation could be literal. Sometimes they symbolize other ideas, related to emotional knots and ties or dependencies, family bonds and such.

On a similar note, I’m fascinated by the motif of houses in your work. On the one hand it feels like a sense of security—a feeling of home. But in other works there’s a loneliness to the structures—a sense of being outside looking in. Or maybe a sense that these human-built buildings don’t quite make sense in the natural world.

Going back to my childhood, I believe that after the human figure and the sun, the next thing I drew was houses. There is a connection with feelings from childhood, from the shelter that the house means, the idea of a burrow. The house also symbolizes other things. Many times it is a place from which you have to flee because it limits, especially women for whom the house sometimes continues to be a burden, a prison, a place of confinement. Even today, when we think that many differences between men and women have been overcome, the vast majority of domestic tasks fall on women, as well as childcare. And on the other hand, the outside world is always more dangerous for women, if we think that most rapes occur against women, then there is oppression and the security of the home on one side and the danger of the outside world on the other. I am interested in those drives at stake.

Women often seem to be the central “character” in the image, and men or children seem to be an extension of them, a shadow of them, attached to them by some mysterious bond, or even some fantastical creature from their dreams or worries. Do you see your work as in any way examining the feminine or the role of women (in the home, in nature, in the family?) Or the idea of women as subject of the gaze or having the power of looking? I’m particularly thinking about images in which the tops of women’s heads are replaced with flowers or some other natural object.

I grew up in a house with many women: sisters, mother and a very present grandmother. There was also my father, friends and other male figures, but essentially it was a house inhabited by women. Women are central figures in my life and although I don’t have easy relationships with all of them, they are present links. It is also from my position as a woman that I read the world, express or censor myself, etc. I think that women are more observant than men. Being relegated from certain activities, areas or discussions for so long, there was nothing left to do but to observe. Since there was no way to give an opinion, women participated in a more silent or lateral way.

It still happens today in politics, business positions or art: power always belongs to men and the gaps that remain, which luckily are a little more than before, are occupied by us. So historically we have spent more time observing how others do and undo.

Being relegated from certain activities, areas or discussions for so long, there was nothing left to do but to observe. Since there was no way to give an opinion, women participated in a more silent or lateral way.

Speaking of fantastical creatures, many of the images contain elements that could come straight from folklore or mythology—wolf men, deer women, children in the belly of a whale. Do you take these from traditional folk tales or mythical figures, or is this a world entirely from your imagination? Do you think of some of the figures as motifs or symbols?

These are images that are in the collective unconscious. They are part of childhood, the stories with which I went to bed when I was a child. I really like children’s literature and illustrations made for children’s literature. My first artistic references are these: before meeting any famous painter or artist, the first contact with visual arts in childhood is with book illustrations. There is a part of children’s literature where forests are places as scary as they are attractive. I am especially attracted to stories that take place in forests. There are references to that childhood folklore but from my adulthood.

I love the use of connecting threads in the images—between two people, between humans and the earth or animals. There’s something vital about it—like veins or “heart strings.” Do you think of connection/separation/longing/loneliness as subjects you tackle in your work? 

Yes. The emotional connections between people, with places, with certain evocative objects are present themes. I am especially interested in the affective connections with the absent, which could be a person who is no longer there or a place that has disappeared altogether. The representation of absence is something I work on over and over again. How do you represent that which is not there but which occupies an affective place, a place in our mind?

Margarita Brum
Born 1980. Montevideo, Uruguay.
Plastic and visual artist.

I studied photography and audiovisual production between 1997 and 2003. I also took courses in serigraphy and clothing manufacturing, and I tend to use a little of all that in my work.

Nowadays I am into both audiovisual production and plastic arts. As a visual artist I have taken part in collective and individual exhibitions, social awareness campaigns and various publications.

I work with various materials, including embroidery, drawing, textile art on different supports. In collage I find a space of freedom where everything can be combined and resignified.

My work can be seen at:
Instagram: criaturacorazon
on YouTube

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