Archaic Contingency : Catalina Swinburn at Cromwell Place, London

6 - 31 October 2021

I have been following the work of Catalina Swinburn for some years now. I have witnessed the long creative moment of a work in which the body was placed at the centre; a body tamed by the metaphor. The word is dangerous, for it assumes the existence of the access to culture from a condition of deficit. The metaphor has always operated as a garment.

Here I am, after a few years, in front of her work, focusing my critical attention on the dismantling of the metaphor through a process that exhibits all its literality. There is no better procedure to belittle all hope than to subject oneself to words; the printed word, I would add.

Catalina’s father did not travel. He collected books on architecture, cities, ancient cultures. She was reared in the mediation of the printed image, in editions produced in a publishing industry whose technology is now obsolete, as if it had existed only to fix the images of excavations aimed at reconstructing major collapses in the history of human culture.


Turning a collapse into a work. Such is the challenge. Conceiving ruins as a condition of knowledge. The printed image itself is the condition of a ruin. Swinburn reaches the "history of the beginning of history" (Sumer) through printed material, which at this point belongs to collections of books discarded from public libraries. For a long time, she has devoted herself to recovering these books from the ruins of the publishing industry and converted them into a complex raw material emerging from their disappearance as objects, initiating a regressive process that obliterates the representation of the image and the letter. It should not be overlooked that the bound books Catalina recovers in alternative markets resemble Mesopotamian terra cotta brick blocks. But such a likeness fosters misunderstanding because it conceals the execution of a crime.

My starting point is the fact that the book has sculpted our civilisation, underpinned our philosophy, and even invented our religion, for everything is attached to the commentary on a sacred scripture, where everything has already been plotted, recorded as a narrative, and archived. For this very reason, she had to alter the materiality of the book in its own making, dismantling what makes it an object. There is no act of greater symbolic violence than the un/binding of a book, especially if it has a hard cover. The loose pages have been torn out and placed back as heaps of shredded paper. Once upon a time, the printed material was designed to have a certain number of folds, which in turn dictated the thickness of the booklets. Here, they expose the nakedness of their binding and gluing spine, severely compromised in their ability to maintain the unity of the object. In this scrapping, the covers are recovered in order to be reinvested and to adopt an attributed meaning, that of a totem in this case. With the covers of over a hundred battered books, the artist manufactures a cult object that allows her to return to take revenge related to the manifestation of corporality, as though it occupied a pre-political place.

Sumer captivates the West in its possibility to build the fiction of a history out of the missing spaces at its convenience.  To some extent, what Catalina Swinburn does with the pages resembles sewing moulds, as she makes cuts that facilitate the binding, that is, the maintenance of a precarious link between the parts out of which she creates a ceremonial garment. She must have had to dismantle the history on which the letter has been drawn up so as to disregard the narrative space and confirm the question Marx asked himself: why do men force themselves to dress in garments of earlier times to accomplish the mission their time requires of them?


Justo Pastor Mellado

Paris, August 2021