Unreal Nature

July 3, 2015

Of All Words

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… fact becomes shadow, law becomes probability.

This is from the essay ‘Thoreau’s Vision of the Natural World’ found in The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley (1978):

… Behind all religions lurks the concept of nature. It persists equally in the burial cults of Neanderthal man, in Cro-Magnon hunting art, in the questions of Job and in the answering voice from the whirlwind. In the end it is the name of man’s attempt to define and delimit his world, whether seen or unseen. He knows intuitively that nature is a reality which existed before him and will survive his individual death. He may include in his definition that which is, or that which may be. Nature remains an otherness which incorporates man, but which man instinctively feels contains secrets denied to him.

A professional atheist must still account for the fleeting particles that appear and vanish in the perfected cyclotrons of modern physics. We may see behind nature a divinity which rules it, or we may regard nature itself as a somewhat nebulous and ill-defined deity. Man knows that he springs from nature and not nature from him. This is very old and primitive knowledge. Man, as the “thinking reed,” the memory beast, and the anticipator of things to come, has devised hundreds of cosmogonies and interpretations of nature. More lately, with the dawn of the scientific method, he has sought to probe nature’s secrets by experiment rather than unbounded speculation.

Still, of all words coming easily to the tongue, none is more mysterious, none more elusive. Behind nature is hidden the chaos as well as the regularities of the world. And behind all that is evident to our senses is veiled the insubstantial deity that only man, of all earth’s creatures, has had the power either to perceive or to project into nature.

As scientific agnostics we may draw an imaginary line beyond which we deny ourselves the right to pass. We may adhere to the tangible, but we will still be forced to speak of the “unknowable” or of “final causes” even if we proclaim such phrases barren and of no concern to science. In our minds we will acknowledge a line we have drawn, a definition to which we have arbitrarily restricted ourselves, a human limit that may or may not coincide with reality. It will still be nature that concerns us as it concerned the Neanderthal. We cannot exorcise the word, refine it semantically though we may. Nature is the receptacle which contains man and into which he finally sinks to rest. It implies all, absolutely all, that man knows or can know. The word ramifies and runs through the centuries assuming different connotations.

Sometimes it appears as ghostly as the unnamed shadow behind it; sometimes it appears harsh, prescriptive, and solid. Again matter becomes interchangeable with energy; fact becomes shadow, law becomes probability. Nature is a word that must have arisen with man. It is part of his otherness, his humanity. Other beasts live within nature. Only man has ceaselessly turned the abstraction around and around upon his tongue and found fault with every definition, found himself looking ceaselessly outside of nature toward something invisible to any eye but his own and indeed not surely to be glimpsed by him.




July 2, 2015

A Whole New Set of Eyes

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:42 am

… an editor [is] judge, jury, and executioner.

This is from the interview with Mark Livolsi in First Cut 2: More Conversations with Film Editors by Gabriella Oldham (2012):

[ … ]

Did the detailed nature of the work appeal to you?

I think there was an obsessive component, a need to make order out of chaos. The chaos of infinite options, of infinite ways of cutting, of infinite performance choices, and what seemed like an infinite amount of dailies, and turning it into one final, decisive piece of storytelling.

[ … ]

On the Prada DVD commentary, the director David Frankel said an editor is an artist and you said you thought an editor was judge, jury, and executioner.

I said that? [laughs]

[ … ]

… An editor is a whole new set of eyes for what will make the story work in the film. With that in mind, a director may be invested in and love how he shot a scene. The writer may love the way he or she wrote the scene. The actors may feel a scene was their best performance in the film. And the DP [director of photography] may think that a shot is the most beautiful one in the whole movie. But when I as the editor get the material, if it’s not moving the story forward or not telling it in the best possible way for whatever reason, then I have no qualms about throwing it out or about figuring out another way to make it work — if it can be made to work.




July 1, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:20 am

This is from the author-photographer’s ‘Introduction’ to Los Angeles Spring by Robert Adams (1986):

… We cherish intimations of mercy. I found once, in the smog, in a depression on an otherwise scraped plain beside a freeway, three kumquat bushes; they had been some farm woman’s treasure, next to a house now splintered under earthmoving machinery, and they stood that afternoon more alien than could have been the first such plants from China. Any thought that they might survive was unreasonable. It was difficult to think at all, in fact, against the noise of the traffic. They would not survive. And yet each had, untended by us, gone on to cover itself with golden fruit, as if by the most romantic script. They were implausible but real.




June 30, 2015

Monsters Found

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:24 am

… The New Guinea artist, on the other hand, tends to find his monsters more nearly “ready-made” in the very substance of nature.

Continuing through the essay ‘Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction’ by the book’s editor in “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern edited by William Rubin (1984):

… We experience the entire history of past art in varying degrees fragmentarily and largely shorn of context. Few artists who appreciated Egyptian or Japanese art knew any more about its purpose or its cultural context than they did about that of Africa or Oceania. This ethnocentrism is a function nevertheless of one of modernism’s greatest virtues: its unique approbation of the arts of other cultures. Ours is the only society that has prized a whole spectrum of arts of distant and alien cultures. Its consequent appropriation of these arts has invested modernism with a particular vitality that is a product of cultural cross-fertilization.

[ … ]

… Picasso associated the return to fundamentals with the rediscovery of that direct magical affectiveness he knew to be the inherent power of the visual arts, an affectiveness with which the Western tradition [i.e. the increasingly complex and recondite modernism] had somehow lost contact. The “revelation” of this magic had come to him on his first visit to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro.

… As all tribal art — given its tendency to frontality and symmetry — is more “iconic” than “narrative,” it is probably hazardous to distinguish between African and Oceanic art on the score of storytelling. Nevertheless, most Oceanic and all Northwest Coast sculpture (a special favorite of the Surrealists) seems to me to have a more visible if symbolic relation to narrative statement than African art. To this extent, we can understand why Cubism, which is an “iconic art,” would lead its makers to Africa, while Surrealism, which is a symbolically “storytelling” art, would lead its practitioners to Melanesia, Micronesia, and the Americas.

To put this in another form, I would hazard the generalization that, relatively speaking, Oceanic and Northwest Coast art leans toward the expression of myth, while that of Africa leans toward that of ritual. Whether ritual is abstracted from myth or, as some anthropologists feel, mythology is elaborated from ritual, need not concern us here, for simply in terms of the nature of the modes, we can say that ritual is more inherently “abstract” than myth. Thus, the more ritually oriented African work would again appeal to the Cubist, while the more mythic content of the Oceanic/American works would engage the Surrealist. This does not mean, to be sure, that mythical personages are wholly absent from African art; on the contrary, there are some examples of them. Rather, they appear in that art more in the spirit of the way they are called forth in liturgy than in the sequential storytelling manner of the myth, which — to the extent it can be accommodated in sculpture — leads to composite or totem-pole-like agglomerations such as are more common in Oceania and on the Northwest Coast than in Africa.

… While there are numerous hybrids of men and animals among African masks and figure sculptures, they tend conceptually to be further removed, further abstracted from nature than the more ubiquitous monsters of the Melanesian peoples. Relative to many Oceanic arts, African sculpture could almost be characterized in terms of a prevailing anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, both qualities of the Classic. The New Guinea artist, on the other hand, tends to find his monsters more nearly “ready-made” in the very substance of nature. Nowhere in African art, for example, do we find anything comparable to the malevolent hybrid Imunus of the Papuan Gulf region, which are largely made up of branches or roots of trees. The result of this “natural selection” is an accident-accommodating, meandering, linear object, the near formlessness of whose contours is antipodal to African aesthetic ideals.

But not to modern taste — especially that of the Surrealists, who particularly liked such objects.

Imumu or Kakame figure

To be continued.

My previous post from this book is here.




June 29, 2015

Ground-level Reality

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:19 am

… These are not just neutral, unconventional art materials …

Continuing through Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe (2006):

… more interesting and widely evident in the art of the late 1960s and early 1970s is the staged collision between order and disorder, between geometric rule structures and recalcitrant irregularity and shapelessness. This was not simply a change from one thing to another, but involved an aggressive hostility against the precedent.

… order in the work of the late 1960s is something that cannot simply be, it must be shown to be something that is imposed, contrasted, and contested.

… A prime example of this new interest is a series of Smithson works called “Non-Sites,” which involved photo-maps with realizations in the gallery of minimalist-like boxes containing rocks and earth from the various points in the “non-site.” The sites are meant to be utterly banal — Franklin, New Jersey, is one, for example — and the idea is to map out a collision between order imposed by a map and the actual gritty, nonorderly facts of life found literally on the ground. Smithson’s is a diagrammatic or didactic collision, which again involves the clarity of the overhead view versus the chaos of ground-level reality, in which minimalism’s rigidity is made evident by piling it against the rough chaos that it contains and cuts through.

Robert Smithson, A Non-Site, Franklin, New Jersey, 1968

… [In his Device of 1962] Johns has nailed rulers onto the sides of the picture, and then dragged the rulers in circular pivots through the paint on the picture.

detail from Device

… the message [here] … it seems to me, has a more complex meaning or implication than the mere opposition of order and disorder. It has to do not with the collision of measurement and chaos but with the fusion of the two things. What the Johns says to me is that creating order creates disorder. That is, by imposing one order, you must efface another, and that all acts of measure and regularity involve destructive force. There is a kind of violence to rationality itself.

Jasper Johns, Device, 1962

… We see a lot of work in the late 1960s where the promise of shaping by material, and by program and method, no longer means the geometric playing out of possibilities, as in Le Witt’s cube, but rather overtly liquid pourings and castings. But I raise Pollock in connection with this Serra piece [the thrown lead works] only to contrast them, because what I want to point out is the difference between the almost lyrical nature of Pollock’s choreography, of his dance, and the imagery of manual labor in Serra’s piece.

Giacometti once made a sculpture called No More Play, and in a certain sense that is the subtitle of Serra’s work. It is all about hot metal, toxic materials, dangerous work. And this is personal to Serra — as archaeology is personal to Heizer — in that he has experience in a steel mill, and that his father worked in boatyards. But it is also, as with Heizer, symptomatic of the time. Heizer and Smithson both work with bulldozers and earth-movers to get what they want done, and now Serra in this lead-flinging piece with its steel-mill overtones seems to say to Judd and others, “To hell with tinsmiths and custom body shops. No more hands-off phoning in the plans for anything.” Instead, they literally go to work with an earnest, hands-on, blue-collar ethic.

… Their materials are the useless end of the utilitarian world, materials with an exhausted functionality, materials that speak the opposite of efficiency, that speak instead of overflow, of a society producing too much, and consequently of waste, detritus, and garbage. These are not just neutral, unconventional art materials; they imply a combination of overflow and excess with pollution and defilement.

My most recent previous post from Varnedoe’s book is here.




June 28, 2015

I Would Prefer Not To*

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… The movement of refusal is rare and difficult, though equal and the same for each of us …

This is from the essay ‘Refusal’ found in the collection, Friendship by Maurice Blanchot (1997):

At a certain moment, in the face of public events, we know that we must refuse. The refusal is absolute, categorical. It does not argue, nor does it voice its reasons. This is why it is silent and solitary, even when it asserts itself, as it must, in broad daylight. Men who refuse and who are tied by the force of refusal know that they are not yet together. The time of joint affirmation is precisely that of which they have been deprived. What they are left with is the irreducible refusal, the friendship of this certain, unshakable, rigorous No that keeps them unified and bound by solidarity.

The movement of refusal is rare and difficult, though equal and the same for each of us, when we have grasped it. Why difficult? Because one must refuse not only the worst but also what seems reasonable, a solution one could call felicitous. In 1940, refusal did not have to be exercised against the invading force (not accepting it was a given), but rather against the opportunity that the old man of the armistice thought he could represent, not without good faith and justification.

… What we refuse is not without value or without importance. Indeed, this is why refusal is necessary. There is a reason that we will no longer accept, there is an appearance of good sense that disgusts us, there is an offer of agreement and conciliation that we will not hear of. A break has occurred. We have been brought back to a candor that no longer tolerates complicity.

[ *  << in case you can’t remember where the post title comes from and it’s driving you crazy]




June 27, 2015

And No Doubt the Price Is Reasonable

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:13 am

… we have … learned to accept without questioning a vast and growing assortment of edicts indicated by signs and lights and symbols and inscriptions …

This is from the essay ‘Roads Belong in the Landscape’ found in Landscape in Sight: Looking at America by John Brinckerhoff Jackson; edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (1997):

Which came first, the house or the road leading to the house? Medieval scholars with their love for origins and symbols may well have long wrestled with the question, eventually coming up with a theological counterquestion: Which of the two objects had been divinely ordained to be first? It could have been reasoned that if God had meant us to stay home, to be sedentary, to put down roots as farmers or husbands (a word which once signified house-dwellers), he would have first commanded us to build a house. But if he had intended us to be forever on the move — hunters or herders or pilgrims in search of an elusive goal — he would have ordered us to beat a path, to make a road and follow it.

Odology is the science or study of roads or journeys and, by extension, the study of streets and superhighways and trails and paths, how they are used, where they lead, and how they come into existence. Odology is part geography, part planning, and part engineering — engineering as in construction, and unhappily as in social engineering as well.

… Within a few decades we have learned to abandon our traditional attitudes toward the road and to adopt new driving skills, new ways of coping with traffic, a whole new code of highway conduct and highway law; learned to accept without questioning a vast and growing assortment of edicts indicated by signs and lights and symbols and inscriptions on the surface of the road itself. We have learned to drive defensively and to outwit traffic jams and lurking policemen. We have also learned to take advantage of the proliferation of highway-oriented businesses and diversions and to discover the joys of speeding, of seeing the landscape flash by at an inhuman rate. We have become so submissive that radical odologists are encouraged to propose further electronic controls within our own vehicles, further restrictions on our use of the highway, further tolls and fees.

That is the price we pay for uninterrupted steady flow, and no doubt the price is reasonable. But odologists seem to forget — and we ourselves sometimes forget — that the road serves other needs. For untold thousands of years we traveled on foot over rough paths and dangerously unpredictable roads, not simply as peddlers or commuters or tourists, but as men and women for whom the path and road stood for some intense experience: freedom, new human relationships, a new awareness of the landscape. The road offered a journey into the unknown that could end up allowing us to discover who we were and where we belonged. …

That final ellipsis is in the original. It’s followed, inevitably, in the next paragraph, by Frost’s “Two roads diverged … “. Noooooooooo … !

My most recent previous post from Jackson’s book is here.




June 26, 2015

The Latency

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:31 am

… Tomorrow lurks in us, the latency to be all that was not achieved before.

This is from the essay ‘Man Against the Universe’ found in The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley (1978):

… When I was young, in a time of boyhood marked by a world as fresh and green and utterly marvelous as on the day of its creation, I found myself attracted by a huge tropical shell which lay upon my aunt’s dressing table. … It was held up to my youthful ear and I was told to listen carefully and I would hear the sea. Out of the great shell, even in that silent bedroom, I, who had never seen the ocean, heard the whispered sibilance, the sigh of waves upon the beach, the little murmurs of moving water, the confused mewing of gulls in the sun-bright air. It was my first miracle, indeed perhaps my first awareness of the otherness of nature, of myself outside, in a sense, and listening, as though beyond light-years, to a remote event. Perhaps, in that Victorian bedroom with its knickknacks and curios, I had suddenly fallen out of the nature I inhabited and turned, for the first time, to survey her with surprise.

The sounds stayed with me through the years or I would not be able to recall them now. Neither does it matter that in my college days I learned that it was not the sea to which I had listened, but the vastly magnified whispers of my blood and the house around me. Either was marvel enough — that a shell, a shell shaped in the seas’ depths, should, without intent, so concentrate the essence of the world as to bring its absent images before me.

Emerson had had, like Darwin, an illness and a voyage — that strange road taken by so many of the nineteenth-century romantics — romantics who were finally to displace the sedate white doorstone into nature by something wild and moon-haunted, whether in science or art. He may have had, as he himself once ventured, “an excess of faith” — faith in man that may cause us to stir uneasily now, but which he expressed at a time when London was truly a city of dreadful night. Above all, he seemed to sense intuitively what Alfred Russel Wallace had believed — that man possesses latent mental powers beyond what he might culturally express in a given epoch. In Ice Age caverns he had painted with an artist’s eye; modern primitives can master music, writing, and machines they have never previously experienced.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] In the words of the eminent French biologist Jean Rostand, “Already at the origin of the species man was equal to what he was destined to become.” A careful reading of the American transcendentalist would demonstrate that he had an intuitive grasp of this principle — so firm that neither the size of the universe nor the imperfections of our common humanity distressed him overmuch. He knew, with a surety our age is in danger of losing, that if there was ever a good man there will be more. Nature strives at better than her actual creatures. We are, Emerson maintains, “a conditioned population.” If atavistic reptiles still swim in the depths of man’s psyche, they are not the only inhabitants of that hidden region.

Tomorrow lurks in us, the latency to be all that was not achieved before.

… He stands and listens with a shell pressed to his ear. He is still a child before the infinite spaces but he is in no way frightened. It was thus that his journey began — perhaps with a message drawn from an echoing shell. Now he listens with his own giant fabricated ear to messages from beyond infinity.




June 25, 2015

To Reapproach

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… Cutting is an experiment. Unless you’re willing to try new things, you never truly serve the material.

This is from the interview with Richard Marks in First Cut: Conversations with Film Editors by Gabriella Oldham (1992):

[ … ]

It’s interesting that you were obsessed — if I may use that word?

Oh you may!

— with an issue that will last bare seconds on the screen.

But it’s the cumulative effect that kind of thing has. If you make those mistakes every few seconds in a film, you’d walk out of the film twitching! Or you’d feel very uncomfortable and wouldn’t know why. You’re not dealing with reality, but with people’s expectation of reality.

[ … ]

… If you love what you do, you get so caught up emotionally that it’s difficult to tell the difference between reality and the fantasy you’re working with. I often joke that my head thinks in cuts. It becomes a way of looking at things. You do it long enough and work the kind of hours editors generally do, and you start to confuse reality with fantasy. I kid around with people that sometimes if I begin to drift off in conversation, I’ll start to shorten the conversation by cutting it in my head. I’m popping into a close-up, cutting to an over-the-shoulder.

[ … ]

… Cutting is a search to find that connection. Part of the fun for me is having the material pull me in different directions. Cutting is an experiment. Unless you’re willing to try new things, you never truly serve the material. Apocalypse Now taught me the most valuable of lessons, which is that there’s always another way to edit a scene. After three years editing one film, you learn to pull something apart and start from scratch. That’s a hard thing to do because you have your own preconceptions and feelings, and you don’t want to violate something that’s working. But sometimes by forcing yourself to reapproach the material, you just make a quantum leap.

[ … ]

… Every film has things I want to change when I look back at them after a period of time. I very rarely watch the films I cut because I want to change them. What you want to do constantly changes with your perspective. The way I would cut something right now would be different than the way I would have cut it two weeks ago or two years from now. It’s constant change and flux. Every time I look at a film I’ve cut, I remember three more options I didn’t try. Highly neurotic! I like to be quoted as saying, “Films are never finished, they’re abandoned” — I’ve probably plagiarized that quote. Ultimately you can work something forever, and at some point you say, “That’s it.”

My most recent previous post from Oldham’s book is here.




June 24, 2015

Facts Are Factitious

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… “Leaving things as they are … ”

Evans works on what is left unsaid …

This is from the essay ‘Havana, 1933, A Seminal Work’ by Gilles Mora, translated by Christie McDonald, in Walker Evans: Havana 1933 (1989):

… once the photograph has been taken out of reality, we lose sight of the references to reality, and find ourselves faced with an isolated photographic sign, deprived of the overall context from which it has been taken; stripped thereby of its meaning. If the image is a formal success, its immanence produces a reflex of esthetic contemplation, or, worse, of simple visual curiosity in the viewer. Evans is no doubt the first* to have drawn conclusions from and fully understood the importance of this inevitable displacement of the document into the photographic object (which he condemns as improperly esthetic in Stieglitz), this anticipation of the ambivalent status of the photographic image caught in the incessant whirligig between art and the document, and in the loss of information that it undergoes with respect to the reality that produced it. One will have to wait until the 1970s to find a photographer like Lewis Baltz who takes up the problem at the point where Evans left off.

… For Evans, every photographic image must return to the object which gave rise to it without detour or reverberation, without strictly redoubling it, of course (one is dealing with photography, with its specific laws), but without altering the relationship to the object; the photographic image is neither a metaphor nor something beyond the object; it is the singular trace of it.

… “Leaving things as they are … ” Evans comes close to American literary realism …

… Not only does the medium of photographs limit Evans from going beyond what is visible, but it keeps him in contact with factual evidence, the realm of appearance. In America, Jean Baudrillard comments aptly how “Americans believe in facts but not in facticity. They do not know that facts are factitious, as their name suggests.” He goes on to remark that “in this belief in facts, in the total credibility of what is done or seen, in this pragmatic evidence of things and an accompanying contempt for what may be called appearances or the play of appearances … nothing deceives, nothing is ambivalent … there are no lies.”

From this point of view, Evans is certainly not the most American of photographers.

Evans works on what is left unsaid, what is implicit, delicately emphasizing the way in which the modern environment of Havana causes such antithetical notions as nature and artifice, culture and trivia, past and present, to collide with one another. Evans‘ reflections about the way in which images, ideas, contexts, signals, surfaces, references, relate to one another protect his images from an excessive obviousness from which they might otherwise suffer.

*I’m not sure of Mora’s claim that Evans was “the first,” but if he was not, Evans was at least one of the earliest and most intelligent.




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