Found in the road, yesterday.
… what is the most real for us is not form, or God, but matter, the brute materiality of the external world.
… This is the universe that must be navigated.
This is from the International Necronautical Society’s ‘Tate Declaration on Inauthenticity’, in Altermodern ed. Nicolas Bourriaud (2009). I am giving you only numbers 5, 6, 9 and 10 from their ten point manifesto:
[ … ]
5. If form is perfect, if it is perfection itself, then how does one explain the obvious imperfection of the world, for the world is not perfect, n’est-ce pas? This is where matter — our undoing — enters into the picture. For the Greeks, the principle of imperfection was matter, hyle. Matter was the source of corruption of form, of the corruption of the visible world. In Christianity, the imperfection of matter is made much sexier as the imperfection of the material world after the Fall and most of all the imperfection of the Flesh, which drove St Paul into such ecstasies of self-denigration or mortification (we like that), as when he speaks of ‘the body of this death,’ of the law of sin that rages in the body’s members.
6. For us — necronauts, modern lovers of debris, radio and jetstreams — things are precisely the other way round: what is the most real for us is not form, or God, but matter, the brute materiality of the external world. We celebrate the imperfection of matter and somatize that imperfection on a daily basis.
[ … ]
9. Thus our other heroes: not the Dorian Gray who projects such a perfect figure out into the world, but the rotting flesh-assemblage hanging in his attic; not the Frankenstein who would, through his creation, see himself in the likeness of God, who stands like Caspar David Friedrich on high mountaintops to contemplate the sublime — but his morbid double who confronts him there with the reality of industry, the stench of meat-packing factories; not the imperial dreams in the head of the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton but rather his blackened, frostbitten toes, which, after the white space into which he’d ventured and on which he hoped to write his name solidified and crushed his boat, he and his crew were forced to chop from their own feet, cook on their stove and eat. Necronauts are poets of the antipodes of poetry, artists of art’s polar opposite, its Antarctica.
10. In short, against idealism in philosophy and idealist or transcendent conceptions of art, of art as pure and perfect form, we set a doctrine of poetic or necronautical materialism akin to Bataille’s notion of l’informe or ‘the formless’; a universe that ‘resembles nothing’ and ‘gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or earthworm.’ This is the universe that must be navigated. And, as Moby Dick’s narrator Ishmael knows all too well as he floats on the decorated coffin that has become his life raft, navigation is a difficult art.
… Trainer of man, the hand multiplies him in space and in time.
This is from the last chapter “In Praise of Hands” in The Life of Forms in Art by Henri Focillon (1989; first published in 1934). This chapter may seem like an odd addendum to the rest of the book — Focillon mysteriously hints at this in his first sentence, “I undertake this essay in praise of hands as if in fulfillment of a duty to a friend.” In fact, he leads us to a perfect ending. I join him in mid-chapter:
… The artist, carving wood, hammering metal, kneading clay, chiseling a block of stone, keeps alive for us man’s own dim past … Is it not admirable to find living among us in the machine age this determined survivor of the “hand age”? Centuries have passed over man, without changing his inner life, without making him renounce his old ways of discovering and creating the world. For him, nature continues to be a repository of secrets and marvels. Always with his bare hands — frail weapons — he seeks to carry them off in order to make them serve him. Thus, a potent yesterday perpetually renews itself; thus, the discovery of fire, the axe, the cart wheel and the potter’s wheel all constantly recur, but without repetition. In the artist’s studio are to be found the hand’s trials, experiments and divinations, the age-old memories of the human race which has not forgotten the privilege of working with its hands.
… The most delicate harmonies, evoking the secret springs of our imagination and sensibility, take form by the hand’s action as it works with matter; they become inscribed in space and they take possession of us. The imprint of this manual process is profoundly marked even when it covers its own tracks, according to Whistler, to push the finished work back into transcendental worlds by eliminating every evidence of the artist’s headlong and feverish attack. “Give me a square inch of painting,” Gustave Moreau used to say, “and I will know whether it is the work of a true painter.” Even the most moderated and uniform execution betrays the artist’s touch — that decisive contact between man and object, that grasping of the world we believe we can see emerging gently or impetuously under our very eyes. His touch never deceives us, whether it be in bronze, clay, even in stone, in wood or in the plastic and fluid texture of painting. It enlivens the surfaces even of infinitely small-scale work, paradoxical as it may seem, in the old masters whose substances are polished like agate. The followers of David, who presumed to dictate their work to docile assistants, could not censor absolutely all these individual personalities. These pumiced skins, these marble-like draperies, these chill architectures, all taken in the bleak season of doctrinaire idealism — these betray variations under apparent bareness. An art from which these variations were completely banished would be a triumph of inhumanity. Let him try who will.
[ … ]
… One may well ask whether works of this sort, which stand at the limits of some internal strife, are not at the same time a point of departure. Such minds require landmarks. To interpret the configuration of the future, a fortune-teller must seek its first lineaments in dim stains and meanders deposited by dregs in the bottom of a cup. As accident defines its own shape in the chances of matter, and as the hand exploits this disaster, the mind in its own turn awakens. This reordering of a chaotic world achieves its most surprising effects in media apparently unsuited to art, in improvised implements, debris and rubbish whose deterioration and breakage offer curious possibilities. The broken pen that spits out ink, the shredded stick, the rumpled paintbrush [referencing Japanese art discussed elsewhere in the chapter] are all struggling in troubled worlds; the sponge sets free moist passages of light, and granulations of the wash sparkle where it is spread. Such an alchemy does not, as is commonly supposed, merely develop the stereotyped form of an inner vision; it constructs the vision itself, gives it body and enlarges its perspectives. The hand is not the mind’s docile slave. It searches and experiments for its master’s benefit; it has all sorts of adventures; it tries its chance.
… The mind rules over the hand; hand rules over mind. The gesture that makes nothing, the gesture with no tomorrow, provokes and defines only the state of consciousness. The creative gesture exercises a continuous influence over the inner life. The hand wrenches the sense of touch away from its merely receptive passivity and organizes it for experiment and action. It teaches man to conquer space, weight, density and quantity. Because it fashions a new world, it leaves its imprint everywhere upon it. It struggles with the very substance it metamorphoses and with the very form it transfigures.
Trainer of man, the hand multiplies him in space and in time.
… Since the Renaissance I do not suppose that many people had believed very seriously in the facts of a Golden Age or the perfection of a pastoral life; but these had remained, within the scope of the imagination, concrete enough to produce art and poetry. By 1850 Malthus and Darwin had made them into mere moonshine.
Continuing through Landscape Into Art by Kenneth Clark (1949), we are now up to his chapter on the “Ideal Landscape”:
Before landscape painting could be made an end in itself it had to be fitted into the ideal concept to which every artist and writer on art subscribed for three hundred years after the Renaissance. … Both in content and design landscape must aspire to those higher kinds of painting which illustrate a theme, religious, historical or poetic. And this cannot be done simply by introducing a small group of figures enacting the Flight into Egypt or the Story of Eurydice, but by the mood and character of the whole scene. The features of which it is composed must be chosen from nature, as poetic diction is chosen from ordinary speech, for their elegance, their ancient associations and their faculty of harmonious combination.
… All the unjust criticisms which Ruskin, in his weaker moments, levelled at Claude, can be properly applied to the landscapes of Brill and Domenichino. They are without joy in the perception of fact, or an imaginative sense of the force and mystery of nature, and above all, they lack feeling for the unifying element of light; and without these life-giving qualities no amount of idealization will justify landscape painting as an art form. It is by these qualities, no less, than by his sense of Arcadian poetry, that Claude can make the formal language of his predecessors still fresh and vivid to us.
Claude Gellée, the true heir to the poetry of Giorgione, was fully appreciated in his own lifetime, and has been the object of much devotion ever since; but he does not offer an easy target for the critic, and no great artist has inspired so little literature. Roger Fry, whose essay on Claude in Vision and Design remains the best criticism of his painting since Hazlitt, regarded him as a sort of simpleton who arrived at his felicities by accident, and this view would probably have been corroborated by Poussin, who lived in Rome at the same time as Claude for almost forty years and never mentions him, although we know from Sandrart that they went painting together. But the inspired-idiot theory of a great artist is practically never correct; and when we look at the enormous range of Claude’s drawings and the quantity of delicately observed fact which they contain, and then consider that he was able to use all this material in subordination to a poetic conception of landscape almost as ideal in its own way as Poussin’s, we realise that Claude, however inarticulate, was not lacking in intelligence.
He was born in Lorraine, and went to Rome as pastry cook.
… No great painter ever lived so completely within his resources as Claude. Unlike such splendid prodigals as Rubens, his pictures always suggest a tactful and far-sighted economy. At first sight their extreme simplicity may suggest a certain lack of resource, and it is only when we become familiar with them and compare them with the work of imitators, that we realise how rich is the observation which Claude has put into every branch, how extremely subtle the tonality of his foregrounds, and how delicately drawn the waves and ripples which catch the light of his golden skies. Behind these simple-seeming pictures there was an immense amount of preparation. First came the sketches from nature. These are the works of Claude in which we may see most clearly the immense gulf which separates him from the Carracci, for they show a visual responsiveness hardly different from that of the Impressionists. Sometimes they are careful studies of detail, sometimes they are entirely impressionist in their sense of light; sometimes they have a Chinese delicacy of accent.
… Finally we come to the pictures, about which there is little to say because anyone who looks at them in a receptive frame of mind must surely be touched by their exquisite poetry. They are a perfect example of what old writers on art used to call Keeping. Everything is in Keeping: there is never a false note. Claude could subordinate all his powers of perception and knowledge of natural appearances to the poetic feeling of the whole. The world of his imagination is so clear and consistent that nothing obtrudes, nothing is commonplace, nothing (least of all) is done for effect. As with Racine’s plays, which give the same feeling of devotion to an ideal whole, this is not so much the result of self-discipline — an act of will — as of natural habit of mind. We should note, however, that just as Racine conformed to the Unities and to the exacting prosody of the Alexandrine, so Claude nearly always conformed to an underlying scheme of composition. This involved a dark coulisse on one side (hardly ever on two), the shadow of which extended across the first plane of the foreground, a middle plane with a large central feature, usually a group of trees, and finally two planes, one behind the other, the second being that luminous distance for which he has always been famous, and which, as we have seen, he painted direct from nature. Much art was necessary to lead the eye from one plane to the next, and Claude employed bridges, rivers, cattle fording a stream and similar devices; but these are less important than his sure sense of tone, which allowed him to achieve an effect of recession even in pictures where every plane is parallel. Naturally he used many variants of this compositional scheme.
… This method of designing by successive planes which sometimes, at first sight, seem little more than silhouettes, gave to the shape of his dark masses a role of unusual importance. The discovery of graceful and characteristic silhouettes was, as I have said, one of the chief aims of his drawings from nature, and however refined and carefully balanced in the final pictures are the shapes of trees and rocks, they always retain their character. In spite of his extreme formality, nothing in Claude is a formula.
… [Claude’s] seaports, painted in the ’40s, may remind us of that moment when Aeneas leaves the grandeur and certainty of Carthage for a shining unknown distance. But the Virgilian element in Claude is, above all, his sense of the Golden Age, of grazing flocks, unruffled waters and a calm, luminous sky, images of perfect harmony between man and nature, but touched, as he combines them, with a Mozartian wistfulness, as if he knew that this perfection could last no longer than the moment in which it takes possession of our minds.
… The complement to the gentle, inarticulate Claude, was the stern, cartesian, Poussin. Unlike Claude, we know a great deal about him, more perhaps than we do about any painter who preceded him, except Michelangelo; and everything we know proves that the intellectual content of his pictures cannot be exaggerated. Every incident, no less than the disposition of every form, is the result of deep thought and meditation.
… Poussin … conceived that the basis of landscape painting lay in the harmonious balance of the horizontal and vertical elements in his design.
… in the great myths which Poussin painted between 1658 and 1665 this extreme geometrical ardour was relaxed or at least concealed. They are still in the fullest sense ideal landscape: as Hazlitt puts it ‘they denote a foregone conclusion. He applies nature to his own purposes, works out her images according to standards of his own thoughts . . . and the first conception being given, all the rest seems to grow out of, and be assimilated to it, by the unfailing process of a studious imagination.’ But in the same passage he says with great truth that Poussin ‘could give to the scenery of his heroic fables that unimpaired look of original nature, full, solid, large, luxuriant, teeming with life and power.’ And it is this sensuous grasp of organic as well as abstract form which makes Poussin’s latest landscapes so inexhaustibly satisfying.
… Since the Renaissance I do not suppose that many people had believed very seriously in the facts of a Golden Age or the perfection of a pastoral life; but these had remained, within the scope of the imagination, concrete enough to produce art and poetry. By 1850 Malthus and Darwin had made them into mere moonshine. And with this annihilation of an ideal past there vanished the concept of ideal landscape. The principles of composition with which Poussin had embodied his high fictions were, it is true, to be valued again. But the feeling that ‘some God is in this place’ and has given to nature an unusual perfection, was bundled away, together with less agreeable attributes of classic painting, and can never be revived.
… Knowing why it is that you recognize somebody or describing the one whom you recognize is significantly more difficult than the recognition itself.
This is from “Self-Organization and Autopoiesis” which is a translation from a lecture series given by Niklas Luhmann in 1991-92. I am finding it in the book Emergence and Embodiment eds. Bruce Clarke and Mark B.N. Hansen (2009):
… Memory is not a stored past. The past is past and can never become current again. Memory is more a sort of consistency test, for which it is typically unnecessary to remember when one has either learned or not learned something particular. When I speak German right now, I do not have to know when I learned this language and how it came to this or when I used particular words, such as “autopoiesis,” for the first time or when I read them for the first time. With respect to that which one aims at for the future in the context of expectations, anticipations, goals, etc., decisive is that which is currently on call, the current test of the breadth of the availability of structures, if you will. So far, this is a thoroughly pragmatist approach. There is a connection between the theory of memory, on the one hand, and a pragmatic orientation toward the future, on the other hand, which is always nicely narrowed down so that one could perhaps also say that memory is nothing but a perpetual consistency test of different bits of information with respect to specific expectations, be it that one intends something, be it that one is afraid of something, be it that one sees something coming and wants to react to it. This theory of memory does not suppose any kind of storehouse, which neurophysiology seems to confirm. In the nervous system one does not find a past that would be stored in particular nerve cells, but one finds a cross-checking, a testing of various routine habits at particular occasions at particular moments.
Therefore the concept of expectation suggests itself to be used as the basis for the definition of structures. Structures are expectations in relation to the connectivity of operations, be it of mere experience; be it of action; and expectation in a sense that does not have to be understood as subjective, despite a criticism of this concept of expectation that accuses it of subjectivizing the notion of structure.
… One can identify a stimulus only if one has specific expectations. One searches the terrain within which one perceives, within which one receives stimuli, with respect to expectations that one normally has or habitually supposes in a particular situation.
… I try to leave [the] subject-object distinction behind and replace it with the distinction between, on the one hand, the operation that a system actually performs when it performs it, and, on the other hand, the observation of this operation, be it by this system or be it by another system.
The concept of expectation then no longer contains any subjective component. Instead, the concept of expectation asks the question: How do structures achieve the reduction of complexity without reducing the system to merely one capacity? How can one imagine that a system disposes of a rich variety of structures — of language, for instance — without being limited by the choice of this or that sentence, and thus without immediately losing again this variety of structures? To the contrary, often structures are established without the intention or ability to determine the situation in which one will make use of them. The concept of structure has to explain why the system does not shrink when it continuously has to make decisions, when it continuously has to perform this or that connective operation — why it does not shrink but perhaps grows and gains complexity although it is continuously forced to reduce complexity. The more possibilities a system has — think again of language as the extraordinary example that demonstrates this — the more selective each single sentence and the less stereotypical speech is.
… Trivial machines dispose only of those operations that are determined by the program and the input, whereas structurally complex systems can themselves effect the learning of how to match situations and, at the same time, they can, if you will, take their own thoughts or their own communicational habits into account so that these systems have a far richer repertoire of possibilities for action. The problem consists in explaining exactly this, and for this the concept of structure — and not so much for the question of deciding between subjectivity or objectivity — is the important thing.
… Knowing why it is that you recognize somebody or describing the one whom you recognize is significantly more difficult than the recognition itself.
… In order to be at all capable of repetition — and this is once more a circular argument — we have to repeat recognition; that is, we have to be able to do two things: first, identify –that is, classically speaking, recognize essential features or clues of identities — and, second, generalize, in the sense that we can again make use of the identity in spite of the different nature of the situation and sometimes very significant dissimilarities. We are dealing first with a limitation or a condensation of something, and, caused by this, at the same time also once more with a generalization, in the sense that we recognize the same people in completely different contexts, in completely different situations, and often after many years, or we are able to reuse, in language, the same words although we use them in different sentences, on another day, in another mood, in the morning instead of in the evening, etc. [ … hello Deleuze … (scroll down the linked page)]
… The structures depend on operations because the operations depend on structures. The whole thing, however, has a flavor of paradox only because the paradox is formulated in abstraction from time, whereas reality makes use of time and can thus develop and so unfold the paradox.
See today’s other post for more on Luhmann’s systems.
… the condition of connectivity is not a condition that suffices to cause the following state.
This is from the end of “Self-Organization and Autopoiesis” which is a translation from a lecture series given by Niklas Luhmann in 1991-92. I am finding it in the book Emergence and Embodiment eds. Bruce Clarke and Mark B.N. Hansen (2009). This post is meant as a preface to my next; it’s a reminder that the systems he is talking about are not the systems you may be thinking of:
… one cannot assume as a principle the constancy of the sum that would state that as system is the more independent from the environment the less dependent it is. Many experiences indicate that highly complex systems that are autonomous to a high degree — if one relativizes this word — increase in independence and specific dependence at the same time. In modern society, an economic system, a legal system, or a political system is independent to a high degree, but it is to an equally high degree dependent on the environment. When the economy does not flourish, political difficulties arise, and if politics are unable to provide certain guarantees — for instance by means of law — or if politics interferes too strongly, then this creates problems in the economy. We have to distinguish — and this leads again back to the thesis of operational closure — between causal dependence/independence, on the one hand, and self-generated operations on the other.
I am not even so sure myself if this is convincing in the end. We all have, specifically in European culture, a strong conceptual tendency to convert everything into causality and then, for instance, to always understand such terms as “an operation generates an operation” or “production” causally. This makes it difficult to conceive of operational closure as completely separated from causal [input/output] theories. We always glide back to the conception that the thesis of operational closure is a specific thesis about the internal causality of systems. In a certain sense this is even the case. It can be converted to causality. But on principle the matter should be understood in such a way that the condition of connectivity is not a condition that suffices to cause the following state. Exactly this is the theme of the conceptual field of structural coupling.
“The effect of considering a system’s environment as a source of perturbations and compensations, rather than inputs and outputs, is far from trivial. In the latter, control-based formulations, interactions from the environment are instructive, constitute part of the definition of the system’s organization, and determine the course of transformation. In the autonomy interpretation, the environment is seen as a source of perturbations independent of the definition of the system’s organization, and hence intrinsically noninstructive; they can trigger, but not determine, the course of transformation. . . . In one case an input (partly) specifies the system’s organization and structure: in the other case a perturbation participates in the transformation of an independently specified system.”
— Francisco Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy (1979)
… You do the same thing over and over and over again, until you’re bored stiff with it. Then all your illusions, aspirations, everything drains off. And now what you see is what you get.
Continuing through seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees: over thirty years of conversations with Robert Irwin by Lawrence Weschler (expanded edition: 2008), we last saw Bob as he prepared to jump [see previous post]:
… “The thing that I now realize was happening during those years was a sort of taking assessment of my own sensibilities. I was for the first time really sitting down and asking myself some hard questions about why I liked something one way and not another. That very simple question that I asked myself, about why there were so many arbitrary things in my paintings . . . it was just simply paying attention to my own sensibility and taking stock of it and deciding that too many things in there simply didn’t make sense. Make sense on what basis? What did I mean by ‘making sense’? I really didn’t have a clear idea at that time. But I had developed this notion that if I spent long enough and allowed myself to think about a particular idea hard enough, that I would begin to gain some awareness or some knowledge about it.”
… “if I’d been smarter, I might not have been able to do it, because I’d have recognized the naiveté in it. I might have recognized the loss, the lack of sophistication. You really run the risk of inventing the cotton gin all over again in the year 1960: while it’s a terrifically creative act, at the same time, it’s totally meaningless, because it’s ground that’s already been gone over, its moment is gone. So there was a great risk in that, but even more, there was that great naiveté.”
… Irwin would sit in his closed studio, staring at a monotone, textured canvas of fairly bright color, such as orange or yellow, with two thin lines in the same color spread horizontally across the field. “I would sit there and look at those two lines. Then I’d remove one of them and move it up an eighth of an inch — I had a way of doing that that I’d worked out . . . ” And to his astonishment, Irwin noticed one afternoon that just raising the line that one-eighth of an inch changed the entire perceptual field!
… At first it was not a question of whether the change had been for better or worse: Irwin was simply amazed by the fact of it, or, more precisely, as he subsequently phrased it, “by the fact of how incredibly discerning the human eye can be.” Simultaneously he became aware that a thin crack along the wall a few yards away from the canvas likewise exerted its presence; that when he plastered that crack over and repainted the wall, the canvas itself presented an entirely new aspect. He took to cleaning out his studio, smoothing out and repainting the walls all around, readjusting the lights. Every morning, before resuming with the canvas, he would attend to the smudges on the walls and the floor left over from the day before.
The question presently became where to place the lines for optimal effect. Why did one placement look better than another, and how pure was the perceptual judgment tha ascertained this?
… The answer he found in time. He would sit and concentrate on the canvas for hours, for days, for weeks.
“I started spending the time just sitting there looking. I would look for about fifteen minutes and just nod off, go to sleep. I’d wake up after about five minutes, and I’d concentrate and look, just sort of mesmerize myself, and I’d conk off again. It was a strange period. I’d go through days on end during which I’d be taking these little half-hour, fifteen-, twenty-minute catnaps about every half hour — I mean, all day long. I’d look for half an hour, sleep for half an hour, look for half an hour. It was a pretty hilarious sort of activity.”
Irwin’s entire progression had been dictated by upsurges of boredom; bored with the figurative, he’d moved on to the abstract, and so forth. Now, he mobilized boredom itself as one of his means. “I put myself in that disciplined position, and one of the tools I used was boredom. Boredom is a very good tool. Because whenever you play creative games, what you normally do is you bring to the situation all your aspirations, all your assumptions, all your ambitions — all your stuff. And then you pile it up on your painting, reading into the painting all the things you want it to be. I’m sure it’s the same with writing; you load it up with all your illusions about what it is. Boredom’s a great way to break that. You do the same thing over and over and over again, until you’re bored stiff with it. Then all your illusions, aspirations, everything drains off. And now what you see is what you get. Nothing more. A is A and B is B. A is not plus plus plus all these other things. It’s just A. And suddenly you’ve got something showing you all its threadbare reality, its lack of structure, its lack of meaning. And then you have a chance to . . . Boredom’s great. It’s a silly tool, but finally it’s a very good one. There are possibly more sophisticated ways to get at something like that, but when you come from where I came from, you take your tools where you can find them.”
Little by little, Irwin honed his sensibility. He began to notice nuances he hadn’t seen before; his focus extended, his concentration increased.
He became convinced that if he could give himself over to the canvas, if he devoted the time, that instead of his telling it what was correct, it would tell him. “Renaissance man tells the world what he finds interesting about it, and then tries to control it. I took to waiting for the world to tell me so that I could respond. Intuition replaced logic. I just attended to the circumstances, and after weeks and weeks of observation, of hairline readjustments, the right solution would presently announce itself.”
… “On a certain level of reading,” Irwin confirms, “the pictorial elements in the late line paintings are essentially the same as in the earlier works: straight lines on a monochrome ground. On a literate level, it’s like a variation but within the same framework. But structurally speaking, on an experiential level, they are in an entirely different world. … When you stop giving them a literate or articulate read (the kind of read you’d give a Renaissance painting) and instead look at them perceptually, you find that your eye ends up suspended in midair, midspace, or midstride: time and space seem to blend in the continuum of your presence. You lose your bearings for a moment. You finally end up in a totally meditative state. The thing is you cease reading and you cease articulating and you fall into a state where nothing else is going on but the tactile, experiential process.
“One of the things about looking at those paintings,” he continues, “is that they have no existence beyond your participation. They are not abstractable in that sense.” You can take, for example, an Ellsworth Kelly, and you can talk about it as a square space bisected by a flowing curved line of a particular type (a line describing the graph of a particular equation), painted green to one side and orange to the other; and although of course, the experience of actually confronting the canvas in person is unexcelled, there’s still a large part of the experience that is abstractable. Later that day, back at home, you can still summon that painting, the idea of it, to your mind’s eye. This is impossible with one of Irwin’s late line canvases. They only “work” immediately; they command an incredible presence — “a rich floating sense of energy,” as Irwin describes it — but only to one who is in fact present. Back at home, you may remember what it felt like to stand before the painting, the texture of the meditative state it put you in, but the canvas itself, its image in your mind, will be evanescent.
… It was never that Irwin opposed the world’s conventions per se. For example, he wasn’t opposed to pictorial or articulate reading of images on any principled grounds. It was rather that he wanted to suspend such conventions as much as possible, to hold them in abeyance, to bracket them, as it were, in order to consider them and their implications more directly. His was a full-scale assault on the taken-for-granted. Just why should he take it for granted? Over the next several years, Irwin continued this “phenomenological reduction” (as his activity might have been called by more bookwise philosophers), successively bringing into question all the usual requirements for the art act — image, line, frame, focus, signature, permanence, eventually even objecthood — but in doing so, he was not rejecting them. He was precisely bringing them into question: he expected answers. At any point in the future, any or all of them could be brought back into his art activity — but brought back in a new way, as considered and evaluated components of that activity.
… biographically, the late lines constitute the fulcrum of Irwin’s artistic career. “All my activities after those line paintings,” Irwin concedes, “are a result of how those paintings taught me to look at the world.” This is true on the obvious level, that is, they taught him how to perceive the world in a new way. “When I look at the world now, my posture is not one of focus but rather of attention. There’s a floating kind of feeling when I work in a situation now.” But there was also a more subtle (and pervasive) transformation, that of his driving motive. When Irwin initially joined Ferus — the reason he left Landau in the first place — he was animated principally by ambition. He was fiercely competitive: he wanted to be the best goddamn abstract expressionist on the block. Something happened though, over the next several years. He got hooked on what he was doing: curiosity came to supersede ambition as his principal motivation. It has stayed that way ever since.
This is from an article “Trisha Donnelly: The Orbiter” by Arthur Ou in Aperture 203 (Summer 2011):
… Although the scanner produces an image that is similar to that produced by a lens-based camera, there are ontological differences between the two types. Light sensors built into the scan head sweep across the document placed on the scanner plate. The speed of the scan is often slow enough that any shift of movement on the glass will be perceptible.
Movements rendered through this process are like striated trails, resembling the distortions that are produced in faxed images.
Scanned images are also different from camera-based images in that they are direct, lens-less conversions of light (photons) into electric charges (electrons) — transformations of the physical world into digital, pixel-based facsimiles. The scanned image is a digitized index of this metamorphosis.
A series of [thirteen] scanner-made works from 2007 [by Trisha Donnelly] titled Satin Operator traces the rolling movement of a printed female figure — perhaps some starlet, though her identity is not revealed to the viewer.
When the images are seen as a sequence, the woman moves across the surface of the glass plate as though in a broken and staggered cinematic tracking shot, with details unfolding slowly, in fragmented succession. The figure seems trapped in an incantatory time lapse, forced to reside beneath the partition of the scanner glass.
There are obvious connections to aspects of performance, though it becomes difficult to discern whether its Donnelly — the ‘operator’ of the printed image and the scanner device — carrying out the performance in the time span of the scans. Or perhaps it is the young actress herself, operating within the constructed nether space within the scanner …
… Like the reflected face of an actor in a brightly lit dressing-room mirror, the various objects placed in Donnelly’s scanner-made still-lifes seem to be floating in a suspended foreground, cascading into gradual darkness the farther they are from the light source.
A scanner uses a specific lighting mechanism that is different from the refracted light through a camera lens. Attached to the scan head are fluorescent or xenon lamps, which are the necessary light source used to illuminate the document placed on the scan plate during a scan interval.
This movement of scanning across resembles walking in complete darkness, with torch in hand, where the amount of what you see is gradual, with your own movement through space building a successive accumulation of information.
… Beyond the sculptural arrangement of objects taking up the foreground (or the scanner plate) in these images, traces of the artist’s workspace loom behind.
The backgrounds in these images suggest an opening up of the physical architecture, giving hints of another dimension.
They situate the viewer not in the architecture of the exhibition space itself, but in the constant transposition between the here and there — there being the space where the artist (or operator?) works — sparkling tension between the space the viewer is standing in and the space viewed, allowing the viewer to shift into the role of the operator.
… painting — art — has always consisted in abandoning this past world, on the spot. (Was there ever any such “past world” of naïve and imaginary belief? Is this not rather our retrospective illusion, we who always want to have a past that has been surpassed, or perhaps lost . . . ?)
This is from The Ground of the Image by Jean-Luc Nancy (2005):
Art never commemorates. It is not made to preserve a memory, and whenever it is set to work in a monument, it does not belong to the memorializing aspect of the work. … If art in general has any relation to memory, it is to that strange memory that has never been deposited in a remembrance, which is therefore susceptible neither to forgetting nor to memory — for we have never lived it or known it — but which never leaves us: that which, under the name of the beautiful or the sublime, the terrible or the graceful, the radiant or the moving, is for us, since so long ago (since always?), the “splendor of the true” (Plato), that is, both its brilliance and its flash, its lightning bolt and its secret. No anamnesis rises up within it, but every gesture of art strives toward its irruption, approaches it to the point of brushing against it, and, if necessary, to the point of burning itself and tearing itself apart. Art is what always exceeds itself in the direction of that which precedes it or succeeds it, and, consequently, also in the direction of its own birth and its own death. It is always the art of sinking on this side of itself, or throwing itself beyond itself.
The immemorial is, par excellence, something that precedes birth: it is what is absent from all remembrance but toward which an infinite memory endlessly rises, a hypermemory, or rather, an immemory.
… the legend of its own origin that painting made for itself — the Greek story of the girl who traces the outline of her fiancé’s shadow on the wall as he leaves for war — should not be understood as a parable of representation. This girl is not seeking to reproduce an image of the one who will no longer be there, in order to recollect it later: rather, she fixes the shadow, the obscure presence that is there whenever light is there, the double of the thing — of every thing — and its invisible ground. Painting does not make this ground visible; it makes it invisible in light, it bears it and bears it away, invisible, in the pigments and folds of its illumination. But it is thus that it bears the truth of representation: for the latter is a “reproduction” only inasmuch as it is first, both in its essential movement and in the primary sense of the word representation, placed into presence, the intensity of a presentation in the desire to bring into daylight the presence preceding the day.
If this Visitation* by Pontormo brings together all its energies — signifying, symbolic, political, sexual, emotive, metaphysical, or aesthetic — in the whirlwind of the iridescent cloth that dances in the foreground of the scene and with which, in the end, it envelops the scene, identifying it and concealing it at the same time, this is because painting here folds and sinks into itself, falls and drapes over itself; it is a kind of clothing or curtain over its own womb, which carries the presence of an immemorial absence, to which we pay a visit in this shimmering that we touch with our eyes.
…It is not true that Christianity developed its images as an illustrated Bible for the illiterate; rather, the Christian image, joined with the no less Christian refusal of the image — an internal tearing apart and stitching back together of Christianity, and of all three of the monotheisms — bears all the intensity of the access to the inaccessible divine: to the god without a name, the most high without altitude, the present without presence, the image without resemblance, and the semblance or appearance without image, the appearance of what does not appear, the non-appearing and the suspense of all phenomenology, painting as proffering: literally, bearing forth.
… This painting proffers a this is my body: this is the exposure of the skin or the veil beneath which no presence is hidden and no god is waiting except the place itself, here, and the singular touch of our exposure: jouissance and suffering of being in the world, precisely there and nowhere else.
In this sense, Christian painting must be thought — that is, looked at, appreciated, or judged — on the one hand, insofar as it engages the totality of Western painting on the basis of Christian motifs: all “profane” painting and every mode of painting and visual or plastic art in general propagates and shares out, relaunches and problematizes this hoc est corpus meum. Each one of these words becomes pregnant with the expectations, aporias, certainties and disappointments, joys and sorrows of a “real presence” that is anything but “real” or “present,” as empirical self-assurance and religious belief might have imagined these in the world of the past. But painting — art — has always consisted in abandoning this past world, on the spot. (Was there ever any such “past world” of naïve and imaginary belief? Is this not rather our retrospective illusion, we who always want to have a past that has been surpassed, or perhaps lost . . . ?)
… How pregnant we are: how it swells and shows itself, within us and in front of us, this expectation that has its value not only, and perhaps not at all, in a coming to completion, but rather right here and now. An expecting that awaits nothing, that is beyond any submission to an arrival; a painting that paints nothing, that is beyond representation and beyond the gaze itself: a being-there of the beyond [un être-là de l‘au-delà] — of what else could it be a question, here and now?
… “Christian” painting, by ceasing to be properly religious and cultic (in the western part of Christianity) did not, for all that, become “representative” (or “realist” or determined by “resemblance”). It did not cease, through all the transformations and all the displacements effected by pictorial art and by all the arts of the image, to dig and hollow out this opening of the place that gives rise to what has no place: presence insofar as it is essentially excessive and exceeds itself. Presence, then, insofar as one does not present it or does not properly accede to it, but insofar as it is offered to a visitation that undergoes the ordeal of the invisible at its heart. And more precisely still: the ordeal of that which regards us from out of the heart of this heart, or from out of the heart of this operation that we call “art” and by which we designate nothing other than the divided and shared out access to our common presence. That through which, at times, it is possible for us to visit one another, that is, to approach and to perceive one another, we who are present, the immemorial ones.
[*… After receiving the angel of the Annunciation, Mary learns that her cousin Elizabeth has become pregnant, at an advanced age when such a thing could no longer be hoped for. She is already in the sixth month. Mary goes to visit her. (No reason is given. Everything happens as if the miracle had to be confirmed by its duplication.) The visitatio, in ecclesiastical Latin, is not merely a visit: it is a procedure for becoming aware of something, for examining and experiencing something. In certain contexts, the word also signifies that which is brought by a visit from God — ordeal or grace.]
The Corniche, Beirut’s seaside walkway, is renowned these days as a pleasant place to walk, talk and jog. It is also known as the favourite meeting place of political pundits, spies, double agents, fortune tellers and phrenologists.
To keep an eye on all this activity, Lebanese security agents set up cameras in 1992 along the strip. The cameras were manned and were placed inside the mini-van cafés that lined the strip at 18-metre intervals. Every afternoon, the operator of camera #17 diverted his camera’s focus away from the designated target and focused it on the sunset. The operator was dismissed in 1996 but he was permitted to keep the sunset video footage.
The Atlas Group was able to find and interview the operator who had sent the videotape to The Atlas Group. He stated that he focused his camera on the sun when he thought it was about to set and that he returned to his duties once he thought he sun had set. Moreover, he stated that having grown up in East Beirut during the war years, he always yearned to watch the sunset from the Corniche located in West Beirut.
From The Atlas Group Archive. Document title: I Think It Would Be Better If I Could Weep. By and/or attributed to Operator #17. Duration: 00:06:28:00. Date of production: 2000. Screening format: DVD. Colour: yes. Sound: no. [official site of The Atlas Group is here]