Unreal Nature

May 31, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

This is the essay ‘The Radio’ by Julian Beinart found in Evocative Objects: Things We Think With edited by Sherry Turkle (2007):

… in the early 1960s, I remember how shocked I was when I saw something I had not noticed before. Walking down a street in the middle of Durban, South Africa’s most racially mixed city, I passed a boy carrying a wooden transistor radio. It was about six inches long and two inches wide, with a wooden handle and a hinged wooden dowel antenna about two feet long tapered to a small knob at its end. On the top of its body, one of three square wooden buttons was pressed down. A slit of broken glass covered a rectangular dial behind which was a piece of an old paper calendar numbered one to twelve. A red pointer was stuck on three; it could never move. Although it looked like a Braun transistor radio, this object never produced sound. I asked the boy about it and he said: “It can’t play music, but I sing when I carry it. One day I’ll have a real one.”

From that time, quite suddenly, I began to see objects that had been invisible to me before.

… Everywhere there were objects of emulation and imagination. Often they were copies of sophisticated machines now made by hand out of recycled, thrown away material: Honda motorcycles made from panels of sheet tin taken from Castle beer cans; a dark green Isuzu Trooper 4×4 made out of a single piece of wood; wire Volkswagen Beetles with engine covers that lifted up; a snout-pointed fighter plane with a South African flag on its rudder; a large helicopter made of wire with a working AM radio in its belly. In the mute transistor radio family, there were silent wooden Sony cell phones useful only for dreamed conversations.

Cheaply available, highly visible, and linguistically subtle, material from products carrying popular brand names and out-of-context messages (Coca-Cola, Sprite, and Fanta, among others) adorned tin lunch pails, cloth jockey caps, miniature delivery trucks, and almost everything else.

I’m kind of shocked that Beinart was shocked; he’s never noticed toys before? Or maybe he has never noticed the power of toys before.

My previous post from this collection is here.




May 30, 2014

This Seriousness

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… It was both too holy and too decorative.

This is from the 1998 ‘Interview with Mark Rosenthal’ found in Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961-2007 edited by Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist (1998):

When did you first see Rothko’s work?

It was sometime in the early mid-1960s. The paintings were a shock. They were so serious, not wild like Warhol. Rothko’s attitude with regard to painting and the job of the painter were particularly impressive to me.

Mark Rothko [image from WikiArt]

What did you perceive his attitude to be?

I think it was the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid-1950s that has made a classic view of Rothko’s images popular, as it says that one tends to enter into his canvases — not merely to look at them.

When was your next confrontation with the work?

That occurred sometime in the late 1960s, when I visited the Tate Gallery, London, to see the large series there. I came with great expectation, but the experience was a bit strange, like visiting a church. It was more an experience about mystery than about painting, I thought. Although I wasn’t disappointed, I didn’t identify with Rothko’s work either.

[ … ]

During the 1970s, as you yourself came to work more consistently in an abstract fashion, how did you feel about Rothko?

At that time I really felt quite mixed about his work. It was both too holy and too decorative. Although the paintings apparently had a transcendental aspiration, they were used for decorative purposes, and looked overly beautiful in collectors’ apartments.

Did you feel you understood Rothko’s intentions?

The work had a presence that suggested a transcendental approach. While I certainly prefer that to cynicism, at the time I felt it was almost too easy to look serious and holy, just by painting dark works. There was a kind of science fiction coming from Rothko’s darkness that was Wagnerian or had a narrative side, which bothered me.

The dichotomy between the holy and the decorative seems to haunt abstract painting and painters. How did you solve this dilemma, theoretically and practically, and how did your approach to this issue differ from Rothko’s?

Rothko’s enormous, calm paintings with their floating rectangles, where any trace of chance is removed, have something extraordinarily meditative that seems magical and mysterious. This deepness has got something religious. I myself distrust this message. This means I try to avoid every similarity with Rothko’s art.

Mark Rothko [image from WikiArt]

So I take it you have never related your work to Rothko’s, that his attitude toward art was somehow traditional or old-fashioned?

I only identified with this seriousness, which was absolutely to be admired. At that time, in the 1970s, Barnett Newman, with his non-hierarchical structures, his non-relational color-field painting, seemed more interesting because his work was less pretty.

Was beauty to be abandoned, then?

No, no, not at all. We need beauty in all its variations.

[ … ]

Do you concur with the conventional view of Rothko as a Romantic?

Oh no. For me Romanticism is the likes of Philipp Otto Runge, that is, an artist who presents a tortured view of himself.

Mark Rothko [image from WikiArt]

[ … ]

How do you view Rothko’s legacy?

He was a man who created a special art for us, and no one else will do such paintings again. I believe Rothko will be important for centuries to come.

[The art images that I use on this blog are often from WikiPaintings — or what was WikiPaintings. Today I find that they have changed their name (and link address) to ‘WikiArt.’ Hopefully past links will remain functional.]




May 29, 2014

Phantom Sound

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… The pullulating and vibrating surface that we see produces something like a noise-of-the-image.

This is from Audio-Vision: Sound On Screen by Michel Chion (1994):

Tarkovsky, whom some call a painter of the earth — but an earth furrowed by streams and roads like the convolutions of a living brain — knew how to make magnificent use of sound in his films: sometimes muffled, diffuse, often bordering on silence, the oppressive horizon of our life; sometimes noises of presence,cracklings, plip-plops of water. Sound is also used in wide rhythms, in vast sheets. Swallows pass over the Swedish house of The Sacrifice every five or ten minutes; the image never shows them and no character speaks of them. Perhaps the person who hears these bird calls is the child in the film, a reclining convalescent — someone who has all the time in the world to wait for them, to watch for them, to come to know the rhythm of their returning.

… there are in the audiovisual contract certain relationships of absence and emptiness that set the audiovisual note to vibrating in a distinct and profound way.

… Suspension occurs when a sound naturally expected from a situation (which we usually hear at first) becomes suppressed, either insidiously or suddenly. This creates an impression of emptiness or mystery, most often without the spectator knowing it; the spectator feels its effect but does not consciously pinpoint its origin.

Now and then, as in the dream of the snowstorm in Kurosawa’s Dreams, suspension may be more overt. Over the closeup of an exhausted hiker who has lain down in the snow, the howling of the wind disappears but snowflakes continue to blow about silently in the image. We see a woman’s long black hair twisted about by the wind in a tempest that makes no sound, and all we hear now is a supernaturally beautiful voice singing.

[image from Wikipedia]

An effect of phantom sound is then created: our perception becomes filled with an overall massive sound, mentally associated with all the micromovements in the image. The pullulating and vibrating surface that we see produces something like a noise-of-the-image. We perceive large currents or waves in the swirling of the snowflakes on the screen surface. The fadeout of sound from the tempest has led us to invest the image differently. When there was sound it told us of the storm. When the sound is removed our beholding of the image is more interrogative, as it is for silent cinema. We explore its spatial dimension more easily and spontaneously; we tend to look more actively to the image to tell us what is going on.

… If there exists a dimension in vision that is specifically visual, and if hearing includes dimensions that are exclusively auditive… , these dimensions are in a minority, particularized, even as they are central.

When kinetic sensations organized into art are transmitted through a single sensory channel, through this single channel they can convey all the other senses at once. The silent cinema on one hand and concrete music on the other clearly illustrate this idea. Silent cinema, in the absence of synch sound, sometimes expressed sounds better than could sound itself, frequently relying on a fluid and rapid montage style to do so. Concrete music, in its conscious refusal of the visual, carries with it visions that are more beautiful than images could ever be.

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




May 28, 2014

Murky or Glinting with Desire

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… Binariness and arbitrariness … removes the total set of symbols from the complex, continuously changing social life, murky or glinting with desire …

This is out of From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play by Victor Turner (1982):

… because from the outset I formulate symbols as social and cultural dynamic systems, shedding and gathering meaning over time and altering in form, I cannot regard them merely as “terms” in atemporal logical or protological cognitive systems. Undoubtedly, in the specialized genres of complex societies such as philosophical, theological, and formal logical systems, symbols, and the signs derived from their decomposition, do acquire this “algebraic” or logical quality, and can be effectively treated in relations of “binary opposition,” as “mediators,” and the rest, denatured by the primacy of specialist cognitive activity. But “les symboles sauvages,” as they appear not only in traditional, “tribal” cultures, but also in the “cultural refreshment” genres, of poetry, drama, and painting, of post-industrial society, have the character of dynamic semantic systems, gaining and losing meanings — and meaning in a social context always has emotional and volitional dimensions — as they “travel through” a single rite or work of art, let alone through centuries of performance, and are aimed at producing effects on the psychological states and behavior of those exposed to them or obliged to use them for their communication with other human beings.

… Binariness and arbitrariness tend to go together, and both are in the atemporal world of “signifiers.” Such a treatment, while often seductively elegant, a frisson for our cognitive faculties, removes the total set of symbols from the complex, continuously changing social life, murky or glinting with desire and feeling, which is its distinctive milieu and context, and imparts to it a dualistic rigor mortis. Symbols, both as sensorily perceptible vehicles (signifiants) and as sets of “meanings” (signifiés), are essentially involved in multiple variability, the variability of the essentially living, conscious, emotional, and volitional creatures who employ them not only to give order to the universe they inhabit, but creatively to make use also of disorder, both by overcoming or reducing it in particular cases and by its means questioning former axiomatic principles that have become a fetter on the understanding and manipulation of contemporary things.

[ … ]

Brian Sutton-Smith borrowed a term which I had earlier applied to “liminality” (and other phenomena and events), namely, “anti-structure” (meaning by this the dissolution of normative social structure, with its role-sets, statuses, jural rights and duties, etc.) and related it to a series of experimental studies he has been making of children’s (and some adult) games both in tribal and industrial societies. Much of what he says, mutatis mutandis, can be transferred back to the study of liminality in tribal ritual. He writes: “The normative structure represents the working equilibrium, the ‘anti-structure’ represents the latent system of potential alternatives from which novelty will arise when contingencies in the normative system require it.”

… What interests me most about Sutton-Smith’s formulations is that he sees liminal and liminoid situations as the settings in which new models, symbols, paradigms, etc. arise — as the seedbeds of cultural creativity in fact. These new symbols and constructions then feed back into the “central” economic and politico-legal domains and arenas, supplying them with goals, aspirations, incentives, structural models and raisons d’etre.

My previous post from Turner’s book is here.




May 27, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… as long as he … stuck to his own immediate experience he could be great …

This is from ‘Painters’ Roundup: Review of Three Portfolios of Illustrations’ (1948) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

… The consensus of critical opinion, with which this writer enthusiastically agrees, holds Ingres’s portraits, whether drawn or painted, to be far superior to his “subject” pictures — and, indeed, it is my own feeling that the latter represent an aberration on the master’s part, imposed by extra-personal considerations, that had little to do with the real nature of either his talent or his insight. Even the five preliminary sketches in this portfolio for details of subject pictures, as exquisite as they are — and granted they were not intended as finished works — fall far short of the sublime clarity and emphatic precision that characterizes every one of the portraits.

[image from WikiPaintings]

The fact of being confronted with a segment of reality that the artist had only to take in and get down on paper — instead of having to idealize, invent, project, and arrange, as was the case with his anecdotal pictures — seems to have induced a complete and unconscious change of attitude. A portrait gave Ingres occasion to interpret only his own experience, and as long as he, like the eminent painters who followed him, in his century, stuck to his own immediate experience he could be great. But when, in his mythological, allegorical, historical, and religious canvases, he summoned up visual ideas with which he himself had never had contact, then this great realist fell into affectation and staginess.

[image from WikiPaintings]

What continues to surprise us in Ingres’s drawings is their abstractness. In the earlier drawings this demonstrates itself in flat, ornamental patterns full of arabesques and tight flourishes — patterns that make decorative the clothes and furniture of his sitters but exempt their faces.Later on the abstractness becomes broader, more profound and functional, the page more unified; physiognomy is no longer a special chore requiring the artist to interrupt himself, but becomes one with the page and everything else it shows. But in both early and late drawings the penciled line, by the incisiveness of its application and the justness of its placing with relation to the margins of the paper, flattens out the areas it encloses and gives them a life independent of volume, depth, or figuration. The result is some of the greatest draftsmanship of all time.




May 26, 2014

Which Brings Us Back to the Waters

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… as opposed to the athleticism of Expressionism, this openness of the eye so lacking in hubris, this relinquishing of theatricity which brings us back to the waters …

This is from ‘New Look: Abstract-Impressionism’ by Louis Finkelstein (1956):

It was only a few years ago that Monet was considered pretty much a dead issue among most abstract painters. Yet in the Museum of Modern Art we now have the great delicious expanse of the Nymphéas looking for all the world like something hot out of a New York studio. The label comments on how abstract (unreal) it looks, yet it seems also to work in reverse — making a number of abstract paintings look more real, and itself looking real by virtue of the vision created by Abstract Expressionist works. This gives us the opportunity to re-examine our assumptions in this regard, as well as the work of a number of painters who, having grown up in the environment of Abstract Expressionism, have assumed a direction more closely related to the specifically visual character of Impressionism.


… When Cézanne said of Monet that he was “only an eye, but God what an eye,” he was, besides defining a part of his own position, expressing a kind of artistic authority which in the course of recent development has revalued itself.


… Doubtless the sense of all stylistic change is that the underlying view of the world changes. But the artist does not proceed by gathering up these changes, be they provided by science, theology, or politics and then erecting, in a systematic fashion, a vision tailored to meet their demands. The activity of the artist as distinguished from the theoretician proceeds from a recognition of the world of the sense, and the work is authentic only when these antecedent premises are bound up with rather than imposed upon vision. For the artist perception always challenges concept.

[all three Monet images are from Wikipedia]

… In general the works of the new Impressionists are landscapes or interiors which permit a generality and continuity of spatial activity which separate objects usually impede. It is this generality and its sense of contemplativeness, as opposed to the athleticism of Expressionism, this openness of the eye so lacking in hubris, this relinquishing of theatricity which brings us back to the waters of the Nymphéas (or even perhaps to the mists of Mi Fei). For at the end of his life Monet transcends the optical realism of specific objects in a conventional assumption of space for the reality of the space itself as a mystical essence, divorced from its specifics, a pervasive flux “linking,” as Laurence Binyon put it, “the human heart to the life of the earth, the waters and the air.”

Mi Fu (aka Fei), Mountains and Pines in Spring (part) [image from Wikipedia]




May 25, 2014

But Not Everywhere Indifferently

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

This is from the essay ‘World’ found in The Sense of the World by Jean-Luc Nancy (1993):

… “God’ was the name of the transformation of the world into a work. The “man-god” was the name of its transformation into an operation. The “world” is henceforth the name of that which neither operates nor is operated: the sense of the “there is.”

[ … ]

… We do not have to ask if there is an infinite causal chain or inaugural spontaneity: there is one as the other, one in the other, it is necessary to stop trying to put it like this. There is: sense is there.

… Everywhere, then, from one end to the other of a world that has no ends. From birth to death, all the way across the spacing — that is to say, across the time — of existence. But not everywhere indifferently: for existence spaces itself, singularizes itself in accordance with an infinity of rhythms of arrival, rhythms of decision to exist.

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




May 24, 2014

Touch It

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… The paper was very thin.

This is the essay ‘The Archive’ by Susan Yee found in Evocative Objects: Things We Think With edited by Sherry Turkle (2007).

… There were newspaper clippings. I remember finding one where his design was critiqued. Right on the clipping he had written “Idiote” in a vigorous and powerful hand. I could trace the precision and force of the incision into the newsprint. I felt his frustration, his spirit.

One day, I asked to see the overall plan drawing for his unbuilt design. I was escorted to a special room where Le Corbusier’s largest drawings were viewed and waited for the curator to bring up the large rolled drawing. I waited in silence as the curator opened the scroll. It was so large that it spilled over the edge of the table. I had to walk around the drawing in order to see it. I expected to be given gloves, but I was not. I felt awkward. I stood there more than timid, almost paralyzed. I didn’t know if I could or should touch it. And then the curator touched it, so I went ahead and touched it too with my bare hands. All I could think about was that this was Le Corbusier’s original drawing. It was meticulously hand-drawn, but the drawing was dirty. There were marks on it, smudges, fingerprints, the marks of other hands, and now I added mine. I felt close to Le Corbusier as I walked around and around the drawing, looking at the parts that I wanted to replicate to bring home with me, touching the drawing as I walked. The paper was very thin.

[ … ]

… On my last day at the archives, the curator approached me with pride, “Oh, you’ll love what we’re doing now. You won’t ever have to come here! You won’t ever have to look at these drawings anymore! We’re putting them all in a digital database!” She brought me to an adjacent room and showed me the exact drawing I had been looking at, the drawing around which I had been circling for days. It appeared on her computer as a small icon. If you clicked on it, it became larger.




May 23, 2014

To Know What Is No Longer Possible

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:32 am

… escaping from falsehood is always a good starting-point.

This is from the 1993 ‘Interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist‘ found in Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting; Writings 1962-1993 edited by Hans-Ulrich Obrist (1998):

[ … ]

It’s a surprise that you never mention Magritte.

He’s too popular, too pretty for me. Wonderful calendar art, village schoolmaster’s art. ‘This is not a pipe‘: to me, that’s just not a very important piece of information.

What seems important to me is his recurrent doubt as to the names of things.

Perhaps it got excluded because I could already see that I was in danger of painting something a bit too popular. I notice that at exhibitions: I get a very good reaction. The doormen and cleaning ladies think it’s all great, even the abstract paintings. It’s actually the ideal state of affairs, if you do something that everyone likes.

The Modernist rejection of any ‘Art for All’ sprang from a feeling of resentment, because painting had lost all its representational functions to photography. The ease with which you use photography puts the boot on the other foot — though without reviving the old unity between observer and object, or reverting to direct experience of the object. The construction of the picture now appears in a shattered mirror.

The image of the artist as a misunderstood figure is abhorrent to me. I much prefer the high times, as in the Renaissance or in Egypt, where art was part of the social order and was needed in the present. The suffering, unappreciated Van Gogh is not my ideal.

And his pictures?

I like Courbet’s better.

How important was Beuys for you?

Mainly as a phenomenon and as a person. When I first saw the work, I wasn’t all that interested; it was too eccentric for me. I’m increasingly in favor of the official, the classic, the universal.

Along with Manet and Ingres, Beuys is the only other artist who hangs in your studio.

Because he still fascinates me as a person more than anyone else; that special aura of his is something I’ve never come across either before or since. The rest are all far more ordinary. Lichtenstein and Warhol I can take in at a glance; they never had the dangerous quality that Beuys had.

Gerhard Richter, Station [image from WikiPaintings]

[ … ]

Roland Barthes says ‘To be modern is to know what is no longer possible.’

What is no longer possible is everything that has already been said, and all the attendant stupidities of substance and form, pseudo-intelligent messages and dishonest intentions. If you try to avoid all that, it’s hard at first, but eventually it works.

This avoidance is something you once described as ‘escape’; and in your earlier pictures this referred mainly to the choice of motifs.

Like Beuys’s hare*. He was always on the run too. How shall I put it, escaping from falsehood is always a good starting-point.

Joseph Beuys, from performance of How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965 [image from WikiPaintings]

[* “One of the artist’s most famous performances, Beuys covered his head first with honey, and then with fifty dollars worth of gold leaf. He cradles a dead hare in his arms, and strapped an iron plate to the bottom of his right shoe. Viewed from behind glass in the gallery, the audience could see Beuys walking from drawing to drawing, quietly whispering in the dead rabbit’s ear. As he walked around the room, the silence was pierced by intermittent sound of his footsteps; the loud crack of the iron on the floor, and the soundless whisper of the sole of shoe.” — from WikiPaintings]




May 22, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… Materializing indices can pull the scene toward the material and concrete, or their sparsity can lead to a perception of the characters and story as ethereal, abstract and fluid.

This is from Audio-Vision: Sound On Screen by Michel Chion (1994):

… A common perspective to which we made reference in the preceding chapter, which might be called naturalist, postulates that sounds and images start out in “natural harmony.” Proponents of this approach seem surprised not to find it working in the cinema; they attribute the lack of this natural audiovisual harmony to technical falsifications in the filmmaking process. If people would only use the sounds recorded during shooting, without trying to improve on them, the argument goes, this unity could be found.

Such is of course rarely the case in reality. Even with so-called direct sound, sounds recorded during filming have always been enriched by later addition of sound effects, room tone, and other sounds. Sounds are also eliminated during the very shooting process by virtue of placement and directionality of microphones, soundproofing, and so on. In other words, the processed food of location sound is most often skimmed of certain substances and enriched with others. Can we hear a great ecological cry — “give us organic sound without additives”?

Occasionally filmmakers have tried this, like Straub in Trop tôt trop tard. The result is totally strange. Is this because the spectator isn’t accustomed to it? Surely. But also because reality is one thing, and its transposition into audiovisual two-dimensionality (a flat image and usually a monaural soundtrack), which involves radical sensory reduction, is another. What’s amazing is that it works at all in this form.

[ … ]

… A sound of voices, noise, or music has a particular number of materializing sound indices [m.s.i.], from zero to infinity, whose relative abundance or scarcity always influences the perception of the scene and its meaning. Materializing indices can pull the scene toward the material and concrete, or their sparsity can lead to a perception of the characters and story as ethereal, abstract and fluid.

The materializing indices are the sound’s details that cause us to “feel” the material conditions of the sound source, and refer to the concrete process of the sound’s production. They can give us information about the substance causing the sound — wood, metal, paper, cloth — as well as the way the sound is produced — by friction, impact, uneven oscillations, periodic movement back and forth, and so on.

… In many musical traditions perfection is defined by an absence of m.s.i.s. The musician’s or singer’s goal is to purify the voice or instrument sound of all noises of breathing, scratching, or any other adventitious friction or vibrance linked to producing the musical tone. Even if she takes care to conserve at least an exquisite hint of materiality and noise in the release of the sound, the musician’s effort lies in detaching the latter from its causality. Other musical cultures — some African traditions, for example — strive for the opposite: the “perfect” instrumental or vocal performance enriches the sound with supplementary noises, which bring out rather than dissimulate the material origin of the sound. From this contrast we see that the composite and culture-bound notion of noise is closely related to the question of materializing indices.

… An m.s.i. in a voice might also consist of the presence of breathing noise, mouth and throat sounds, but also any changes in timbre (if the voice breaks, goes off-key, is scratchy). For the sound of a musical instrument, m.s.i.s would include the attack of a note, unevennesses, friction, breaths, and fingernails on piano keys. An out of tune chord in a piano piece or uneven voicing in a choral piece have a materializing effect on the sound heard. They return the sound to the sender, so to speak, in accentuating the work of the sound’s emitter and its faults instead of allowing us to forget the emitter in favor of the sound or the note itself.

Bresson and Tarkovsky have a predilection for materializing indices that immerse us in the here-and-now (dragging footsteps with clogs or old shoes in Bresson’s films, agonized coughing and painful breathing in Tarkovsky’s). Tati, by suppressing m.s.i.s, subtly gives us an ethereal perception of the world: think of the abstract dematerialized perception of the dining room’s swinging door in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.

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




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