Unreal Nature

February 19, 2016

Low of Ceiling, Thick of Wall

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:32 am

… his characters and narrators live … within Umwelts that they constitute from themselves …

Continuing through Beckett, Modernism and the Material Imagination by Steven Connor (2014):

… In his writing of the 1920s and 1930s, Beckett tries everything he can to assert a retreat from what Murphy calls the ‘big world’ into the ‘little world,’ the fine and private place of the head. … These acts of miniature mundation are anticipated towards the end of The Unnamable:

make a place, a little world, it will be round, this time, it’s not certain, low of ceiling, thick of wall, why low, why thick, I don’t know, it isn’t certain, it remains to be seen, all remains to be seen, a little world, try to find out what it’s like, try and guess, put someone in it, seek someone in it, and what he’s like, and how he manages, it won’t be I, no matter, perhaps it will, perhaps it will be my world, possible coincidence.

… his characters and narrators live, not within ‘the world’ or worlds as such, but within Umwelts that they constitute from themselves, or that are constituted from themselves, not voluntarily, but unavoidably. As he wrote in Proust, ‘Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals. … The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day.’

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



February 18, 2016

Hard to Take

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… A cut, camera move, slant of light, the texture of a wall, the posture of a character — all become more prominent, and afford the pensive spectator rare insight and pleasure.

This is from the Introduction to Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action by Ira Jaffe (2014):

… Obviously contemporary slow movies, whether foreign or domestic, fail to meet criteria of speed and spectacle the predominantly youthful US film audience has come to expect. Yet America cannot just be “about speed, hot, nasty, bad ass speed,” as Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) in Adam McKay’s NASCAR satire Talladega Nights (2006), suggests is the case. Nor is it desirable that most movies favored by Americans boast the blockbuster dimensions cited by Manohla Dargis: “big stars, big stories, big productions, big screens … big returns … and all manner of cinematic awesomeness.”

There remains a further obstacle to the embrace of contemporary slow movies: even mature audiences prefer to avoid the understated emotional pain in this cinema. “America, as a social and political organization, is committed to a cheerful view of life,” wrote Robert Warshow. Possibly a similar commitment to optimism prevails in mass culture everywhere.

… Yet the mastery of form and acuity of feeling that distinguish works of art, even when the subject matter is painful, have an uplifting rather than depressing effect on spectators alert to form and feeling. Such is the case with Picasso’s Guernica, Munch’s The Scream and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance, and to some extent Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool and Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life.

[line break added] Yet in such movies the viewer also confronts the frequent repression and indeterminacy of feeling, in contrast to the overtness of Guernica, The Scream and Hamlet. In other words, slow movies are hard to take not simply because they portray feelings contrary to optimism. Rather they also inhibit the expression of such feelings, just as they restrict motion, action, dialogue and glitter.

[ … ]

… not just time looms larger as action is displaced or diminished; cinematic form itself comes to the fore in a new way. A cut, camera move, slant of light, the texture of a wall, the posture of a character — all become more prominent, and afford the pensive spectator rare insight and pleasure. Hence the formal artistry of slow movies belies their indications of human incapacity, of nothing happening, of time as empty or dead.

To be continued.




February 17, 2016


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… someone is pretending to be everyone, or to be anonymous …

This is from ‘Arielle Pelenc in Correspondence with Jeff Wall‘ found in Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews (2007):

[ … ]

Jeff Wall: One of the problems I have with my pictures is that, since they are constructed, since they are what I call “cinematographic,” you can get the feeling that the construction contains everything, that there is no “outside” to it, the way there is with photography in general. In the aesthetic of art photography as it was inspired by photojournalism, the image is clearly a fragment of a greater whole which itself can never be experienced directly.

[line break added] The fragment then, somehow, makes that whole visible or comprehensible, maybe through a complex typology of gestures, objects, mods, and so on. But, there is an “outside” to the picture, and that outside weighs down on the picture, demanding significance from it. The rest of the world remains unseen, but present, with its demand to be expressed or signified in, or as, a fragment of itself.

… Journalistic photography developed by emphasizing the fragmentary nature of the image, and in doing so reflected on the special new conditions created by the advent of the camera. So this kind of photography emphasized and even exaggerated the sense of the “outside” through its insistence on itself as fragment.

[line break added] I accept the fact that a photographic image must be a fragment, in a way that a painting by Raphael never is, but at the same time I don’t think that therefore photography’s aesthetic identity is simply rooted in this fragmentary quality. In the history of photography itself there has obviously been a continuous treatment of the picture as a whole construction.

[line break added] This has often been criticized as the influence of painting on photography, an influence that photography has to throw off in order to realize its own unique properties. But in my view, photography’s unique properties are contradictory. Imitation of the problematic completeness of the “naturalistic Baroque” is one of them.

[ … ]

JW: … The violence you see in my pictures is social violence. Milk or No derived from things I had seen on the street. My practice has been to reject the role of witness or journalist, of “photographer,” which in my view objectifies the subject of the picture by masking the impulses and feelings of the picture-maker. The poetics of the “productivity” of my work has been in the stagecraft and pictorial composition — what I call the “cinematography.”

[line break added] This I hope makes it evident that the theme has been subjectivized, has been depicted, reconfigured according to my feelings and my literacy. That is why I think there is no “referent” for these images, as such. They do not refer to a condition or moment that needs to have existed historically or socially; they make visible something peculiar to me.

Jeff Wall, No, 1983

[ … ]

JW: … The beauty of photography is rooted in the great collage which everyday life is, a combination of absolutely concrete and specific things created by no one and everyone, all of which becomes available once it is unified into a picture. There is a “voice” there, but it cannot be attributed to an author or a speaker, not even to the photographer.

[line break added] Cinematography takes this over from photography, but makes it a question of authorship again. Someone is now responsible for the mise-en-scène, and that someone is pretending to be everyone, or to be anonymous, in so far as the scene is “lifelike,” and in so far as the picture resembles a photograph. Cinematography is something very like ventriloquism.




February 16, 2016

Having Nothing More to Lose

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:58 am

… Having nothing more to lose, he can indulge in the intoxication of self-surrender …

Continuing through Art Brut by Michel Thévoz (1995):

… It has often been thought surprising that so many inmates of psychiatric hospitals should suddenly begin to draw, usually without having had any artistic training, and sometimes reveal unsuspected gifts. To be accurate, one would have to say that they begin to draw again, since they are only taking up anew an activity which all of us have practiced in childhood.

[line break added] What has actually happened, in every case, is that there has been an interruption in the practice of drawing. But then the real matter for surprise is rather that this interruption should prove to be final in “normal” individuals.

… Detention is particularly propitious to imaginative creation. It may be likened to a state of drowsiness. It involves a social estrangement and a decline of the “reality principle.” The surrounding world ceases to be envisaged in an instrumental sense, and the emotional investments, on the basis of which it was originally built, stand revealed for what they are.

… While prison aims essentially at impressing his responsibility on the inmate, the psychiatric institution does everything to exempt him from it. The mental patient, as soon as he is designated as such, ceases to be listened to — except with a view to diagnosis or in a climate of therapeutic solicitude that rules out any reciprocity.

[line break added] Since he is now deprived of any interlocutor, his utterance, his power of expression, no longer has to be regulated in terms of a desired result: it becomes an end in itself. Disinterested, having no direct object, it can play freely with itself. Usually it will regress towards stereotypy. But it may also develop and open out, without regard to any standard of communication.

[line break added] The psychiatric inmate, having nothing to look forward to, having no idea when he may be released, if ever, is in a position to prefer the shadow to the prey, as André Breton put it. The advantage he reaps from his dereliction is that he is free to express himself gratuitously, and he is exonerated from the anxiety of human relationships and social responsibilities.

[line break added] No longer having to use language as an instrument, since his faculty of so using it is challenged, he can make play with it for its own sake, he can let himself be lured away by the plastic density of the signs and their intrinsic symbolic energy. Having nothing more to lose, he can indulge in the intoxication of self-surrender and untrammelled freedom which is so favorable to imaginative creation.

… I do not by any means claim that detention in itself is apt to arouse a man’s faculties of invention. It would be preposterous to credit the psychiatric institution with the works that see the light there. The “secondary gain from internment” to which I have referred — rare at the best of times and now largely eliminated by the advent of chemotherapy — can in no way compensate for the essential inhumanity of the mental patient’s position in our society.

[line break added] The fact remains that in a very small number of cases, and these are the ones that concern us here, institutional care has happened to have a positive effect, in so far as it represented an alternative to a social existence in the outside world which was felt to be still more intolerable.

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




February 15, 2016

An Exclaiming Joy in the Epic Intensity of Everyday Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

… It is a “seen before” style for things whose claim on our imagination lies precisely in their having been seen so many times before.

Continuing through High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990):

… When Pop appeared, it had the force of a call from home [for Elizabeth Murray]. From Warhol she took what was perhaps the most far-reaching and easily overlooked part of his inheritance: his American palette, all bright make-up and Day-Glo colors. Yet Pop for her, more than a style to learn from, was a series of permissions, injunctions even, to look at life whole. The importance of Pop for her was to lead her back to James Joyce and Jasper Johns.

[line break added] In Ulysses she encountered, instead of the austere difficulty that she had been led to expect, an exclaiming joy in the epic intensity of everyday life. “I expected something distant, and it turned out to be about taking kidneys and newspaper ads and making it into The Odyssey,” she has said. “It was about the epic power of dailiness, and about the tension between what you experienced right this second and everything that everybody else had experienced all along.”

Elizabeth Murray, Just In Time, 1981

… The banal image — the coffee cup, or flag — releases the artist back into the primary act of painting, and the primary act of painting ends by breathing new life into the banal image.

Murray is drawn to the cartoon because it registers both the ordinary thing and the ordinary way of seeing it. It is a “seen before” style for things whose claim on our imagination lies precisely in their having been seen so many times before. Hers is the art of a poet struggling to take experience whole, kitchen tables and picture planes together; an art in which remorse for a parent takes the form of a remembered comic image.

The desert sighs in the cupboard
The glacier knocks in the bed
And a crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
[W.H. Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening”]

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




February 14, 2016

Something Has Happened

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… there is no luck but by desire and … desire is the only luck …

This is from The Step Not Beyond by Maurice Blanchot (1992):

[ … ]

He remembered the first steps, the first warnings, the first unforeseeable signs of friendship, the first temptations that he hardly noticed. “Where did you leave them?” What are they looking for? What are you looking for?” No search, and the room — with the tables placed end to end — freed him from the desire to find anything. “The name that would fit … the book that has been opened … the streets where they walk … ” It was a murmur, the deceitful entreaty. And all of a sudden: reflect. “I have reflected that we love the places in which something has happened.” — “You mean, things that one could tell about, could remember.” — “We’re not that demanding: something.” — “Something that would reduce or enhance the feeling of boredom.” — “We’re not bored.” — “We’re not capable of it.”

[ … ]

… Would transgression not be a less compromising way to name “transcendence” in seeming to distance it from its theological meaning?

[ … ]

… Desire is always ready to affirm that there is no luck but by desire and that desire is the only luck: which conforms to the “law” of desire and to what is left of the law in desire — the non-desiring. As for luck, even if it does not renounce its relation with the mortally desiring passion, it is only to affirm it in another way: desire must desire luck, it is thus that it is pure desire.




February 13, 2016

No Matter What That Is

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:31 am

… art moves us when the point of view, no matter what that is — provided, as Orwell says, it is not insane — is strongly, finely, richly, subtly, poignantly or in whatever way, embodied in the piece.

This is from the essay ‘The Tenses of Landscape’ found in Nature and Art Are Physical: Writings on Art, 1967-2008 by Rackstraw Downes (2014):

… My paintings are executed from start to finish on site in the landscape ant take months. When you work outdoors, you surrender a lot of control over your subject and that is what I like about it. It is the opposite of starting with a clear-cut idea and projecting that into the work. You learn about the site as you proceed; no matter what thoughts or opinions I may have about what is there when I begin, what comes to concern me as I work are the things themselves, not any sense I make of them.

[line break added] I made an oil sketch one April in response to the huge scale of a scrap metal pile towering over the fence in front of it. When I returned to the site with a large canvas made to proportions that would give me room for those two leading players, the pile was gone, sold to the Japanese. Did that mean I no longer had a subject? Well, no: it meant I followed what was now actually offered in the site (A Fence at the Periphery of a Jersey City Scrap-Metal Yard, 1993).

[line break added] The ground, bare in spring, produced a fine crop of weeds as summer wore on, and the fence became a subject in itself; perforated by tiny holes that let the wind through, it allowed you to sense mysteriously the semi-visible operations going on inside it. So, working from nature is not a technical issue; it has to do with letting the realities of the outside world impinge on and steer the activities of your own artistic world.

Rackstraw Downes, A Fence at the Periphery of a Jersey City Scrap-Metal Yard, 1993

I’ve talked a lot about “imagery.” This term, like its sibling “narrative,” is almost unavoidable in aesthetic discussions today. That’s okay, provided we recognize these words for what they are: x-ray terms. They look through or past the artwork’s body. But in art it is often the body more than the imagery that really signifies.

[line break added] In his essay about Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels called ‘Politics vs. Literature,’ George Orwell deals with the role of “imagery” or “narrative” in works of art, and the question of our endorsing, or not, the point of view expressed by them. He says Gulliver’s Travels has always been one of his favorite books, he’s read it eight or ten times, and he believes his taste in this is not aberrant because the book has never been out of print since its first publication and has been translated into some twenty languages.

[line break added] But, he says, the point of view of this book, its attitude to life, could not be more antithetical to his own. He hates its know-nothing attitude to science and knowledge, its disgust with the human body, its belief in an over-organized state based on a kind of slave population. So how can he love it? In his answer he does not praise its formal beauties; he says, rather, that the point of view it represents is something that is a component, even though only a small or partial one, of what we all feel, sometimes.

[line break added] There are days when any of us might wake up having thoughts like that about life. I would extrapolate from this and say that nothing could be more disappointing to me than to go to a show and find that it contained nothing but works expressing a point of view about landscape similar to my own; and that art moves us when the point of view, no matter what that is — provided, as Orwell says, it is not insane — is strongly, finely, richly, subtly, poignantly or in whatever way, embodied in the piece.




February 12, 2016

Art and the Academy

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

… For the Beckett of the 1930s, art is the name for radical immediacy — that which cannot be approximated, expropriated or unseated from itself, precisely because it has no self-subsistence.

Continuing through Beckett, Modernism and the Material Imagination by Steven Connor (2014):

… The struggles to be and say that absorb Beckett are regularly represented as struggles to learn and know. Through the length and breadth of Beckett’s writing, the pretentiousness and vanity of scholarship are routinely mocked. In Malone Dies, Saposcar toils ineffectually to become the academic high-flyer his parents wish for.

[line break added] Called up on to think, Waiting for Godot‘s Lucky produces a panic-stammering, Tourettish outpouring of vacuous philosophical jargon. In characterizing the relation between The Unnamable‘s Mahood and the ‘college of tyrants’ who struggle to impart to him the lessons of how to have been a human being, Beckett glosses his own condition as a writer, in which pedagogy is always an issue:

[T]hey gave me to understand I was making progress. Well done, sonny, that will be all for today, run along now back to your dark and see you tomorrow. And there I am, with my white beard, sitting among the children, babbling, cringing from the rod. I’ll die in the lower third, bowed down with years and impositions, four foot tall again, like when I had a future, bare-legged in my old black pinafore, wetting my drawers. Pupil Mahood, for the twenty-five thousandth time, what is a mammal? And I’ll fall down dead, worn out by the rudiments.

… Nobody could ever accuse Beckett of wearing his learning lightly. Where Joyce was an unabashed pilferer and pillager of ideas and arguments, Beckett wrapped his allusions up in an air of patrician mystery. Where Joyce’s writing honestly invokes and invites the ingenuity of the crossword-solver, at one point even invoking the name of Beckett in his encouragements to the perplexed reader — ‘Bethicket me for a stump of a beech if I have the poultriest notion what the farest it all means,’ Beckett’s erudition is intended to mock and lock out ‘the great crossword public.’

… Prior to his imperfectly executed policy of noncompliance with criticism, Beckett formed a kind of credo designed to keep his work clear of the avaricious clutches of the academy. This is the argument that, because art is of the order of the irrational, it has nothing to do with ‘doctoracy’ and the vulgar agonies of the dissertation. This creed seems first to emerge in Proust, and then to be articulated in splinters through the 1930s reviews, finally being informally formalized in the Three Dialogues.

[line break added] The claim for the irrationality of art is designed most of all to establish a kind of sovereignty by subtraction. Art is what is left after the work of explication and making clear has surrendered or receded. Not only is art ineffably untranslatable into any terms but its own, this undefinability is the only definition left of it. Poetry, Beckett writes in his review of Denis Devlin’s Intercessions (almost as though he were denying the title of the collection) must be ‘free to be derided (or not) on its own terms and not in those of the politicians, antiquaries (Geleerte) and zealots.’

[line break added] What matters most about art is its inexplicability, its incomparability, its nonexchangeability with anything but itself. Hence Beckett’s remark after a quotation from Devlin, ‘If I knew of any recent writing to compare with this I should not do so.’ For the Beckett of the 1930s, art is the name for radical immediacy — that which cannot be approximated, expropriated or unseated from itself, precisely because it has no self-subsistence.

[ … ]

… There is a striking parallel between the great theme with which modernist writers and artists wrestled, namely the question of what kind of distinctiveness or autonomy art might be said to have in a world of commodities, consumption and corporate power, and the academy’s self-reflections. What is more, the two are intertwined.

[line break added] Art and the academy are twins as well as antagonists. The autonomy and the sovereignty of the artist on the one hand and the academic on the other are maintained through a reciprocally defining distance; the artist is free of the encumbrances and accountabilities of the academic; the academic is free of the unknowingness, that is, of the false freedom of the artist.

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




February 11, 2016

Easily Taken In

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… photography helps us to simplify, and to lie to ourselves about the world.

This is from the essay ‘Misunderstanding Images: Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’ which is an interview between Morris and Joshua Oppenheimer, found in Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence edited by Joram ten Brink & Joshua Oppenheimer (2012):

[ … ]

Joshua Oppenheimer: In Standard Operating Procedure I have this feeling that you’ve done something that is quite profoundly similar, but also different than The Thin Blue Line in that it’s we, the public, who are the people who have misperceived the evidence. And that misperception of the Abu Ghraib photographs, which was encouraged by the government, has led us to misperceive ourselves and our own complicity or involvement or engagement in what happened, and what was continuing to happen when the film was released.

Errol Morris: One thing that’s absolutely clear to me is that the photographs worked to the advantage of the administration, and you would say, well, how could this possibly be? Wasn’t this one of the worst scandals in American history? The answer is, yes it was, but in the end, it focused attention, I believe inappropriately, on a very small group of people who were responsible for little or nothing, and directed attention away from people who were far more complicit in what happened in that prison.


[ … ]

JO: Subjected to the wrong interpretive framework, the photos themselves slip into the blindspots that lie between them.

[ … ]

EM: … it’s interesting that in order to deal with history, and it probably goes well beyond photography, we have to de-contextualize it, we have to simplify it, we have to put it into some narrative form where we can understand it, because the complexities of history are just unfathomable otherwise.

… We don’t want to see a story as being grey. We want to see it as being black and white; we prefer to leave it that way, because it offers answers to our social concerns. And history, of course, falls victim to that kind of thinking, history becomes a kind of cartoon, a gross simplification of what is really happening, or what really happened. And photography helps us to simplify, and to lie to ourselves about the world.

[ … ]

EM: … the job of documentary, if there is a job, the job as I see it is to capture; you can’t ever be successful at doing this, so the futility of the attempt is also of interest, but it’s to try to the best of your abilities to capture the complexity of reality. Of incorporating something of the real world, and its complexity, that informs the story. And if you do that, that’s a noble enterprise. Simplifying things crudely to some ordinary kind of narrative doesn’t particularly interest me, because then it doesn’t really do anything different than the expected. Particularly with the narratives that will be the least controversial, and the most easily taken in.




February 10, 2016

Sinister, Neurotic, Bitter, and Ironic

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:00 am

… we often feel humiliated when we observe soberly the way we do live.

This is from ‘The Interiorized Academy: An Interview with Jeff Wall by Jean-François Chevrier‘ found in Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews (2007):

[ … ]

Jeff Wall: … Today I think that each artist has become his own academy. He has internalized commands that used to come from a real social institution to which he was directly subjected without the mediation of the market. It is a kind of spiritualization of the premodern situation where society — the court, for example — had a direct use for art. Since than, the utility of art has been ambiguous and indirect. Now, you have to build a kind of institution inside your own psyche, something like a superego.

[ … ]

Jean-François Chevrier: Where is the humour noir in your work?

JW: It is everywhere. Black humor, diabolic humor, and the grotesque are very close to each other. Bakhtin talked about the “suppressed laughter” in modern culture. Things can be laughed about, but not openly. The fact that the laughter is not open gives it a sinister, neurotic, bitter, and ironic quality. It’s a kind of mannerist laughter that is similar to Jewish humor, Schadenfreude, and gallows humor. I feel that there is a kind of “suppressed laughter” running through my work, even though I am not sure when things are funny. Humour noir is not the same as the comic, although it includes the comic; it can be present when nobody seems to be laughing.

[ … ]

JW: … If you are a slave, you must always at some level wonder what it would be like to be free. In The Storyteller, for example, I attempted to create an image of a way subjected people might try to build a space for themselves. I imagined the picture as a speculative project. All my pictures about talking, about verbal communication, are in fact about the ways people work on creating something in common, about how they work to find a way to live together.

Jeff Wall, The Storyteller, 1986

[ … ]

JW: … Bakhtin emphasizes the fact that an utterance derives not from one isolated individual but is already a response to the words of others. Thus the storyteller is not a hero separated from others by a special relation to language. I like your reference to antiquity because I feel that my work is in fact both classical and grotesque. Ancient art imagined the good society but was also open to the concept of the deformed. That is, it was able to recognize that it was not the society it could imagine. Now we are living at a moment when we have already imagined, and even in great and excessive detail, better ways of life than the one we are actually living. As a result, we often feel humiliated when we observe soberly the way we do live.




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