Unreal Nature

April 30, 2016

Decipher the Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… Perhaps he couldn’t bear the thought of running such an exquisite plan for so long, and having no chronicler to admire the work.

Continuing through Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould (1989):

Harry Whittingham spent four and a half years just writing his first monograph on the genus Marrella. Surprise cascaded upon surprise, starting slowly with doubts about the identity of certain arthropods, and accelerating until a new interpretation jelled in the mid-1970s. This view blossomed to guide all subsequent work toward a new conception for the history of early life.


[ … ]

… The model of grab bag is a taxonomist’s nightmare and an evolutionarist’s delight. Imagine an organism built of a hundred basic features, with twenty possible forms per feature. The grab bag contains a hundred compartments, with twenty different tokens in each. To make a new Burgess creature, the Great Token-Stringer takes one token at random from each compartment and strings them all together. Voilà, the creature works — and you have nearly as many successful experiments as a musical scale can build catchy tunes. [footnote admits that Gould exaggerates to make a point].

[line break added] The world has not operated this way since Burgess times. Today, the Great Token-Stringer uses a variety of separate bags — labeled “vertebrate body plan,” “angiosperm body plan,” “mollescan body plan,” and so forth. The tokens in each compartment are far less numerous, and few if any from bag 1 can also be found in bag 2.

[line break added] The Great Token-Stringer now makes a much more orderly set of new creatures, but the playfulness and surprise of his early work have disappeared. He is no longer the enfant terrible of a brave new multicellular world, fashioning Anomalocaris with a hint of arthropod, Wiwaxia with a whiff of mollusk, Nectocaris with an amalgam of arthropod and vertebrate.

The story is old, and canonical. The youthful firebrand has become the apostle of good sense and stable design. Yet the former spark is not entirely extinct. Something truly new slips by now and then within the boundaries of strict inheritance. Perhaps his natural vanity finally got the better of him. Perhaps he couldn’t bear the thought of running such an exquisite plan for so long, and having no chronicler to admire the work. So he let the token for more brain tumble from compartment 1 of the primate bag — and assembled a species that could paint the caves of Lascaux, frame the glass of Chartres, and finally decipher the story of the Burgess Shale.

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




April 29, 2016

Through This Hole

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:29 am

… the artist is an illegitimate cosmonaut.

This is from The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment by Boris Groys (2006):

Utopia will be a long time coming, as we all know, for the construction of the ultimate utopia is a slow historical process that requires the collective effort of generation upon generation. But not everyone can live with that. And one who couldn’t was the hero of Ilya Kabakov’s installation The Man who Flew into Space from his Apartment.

[line break added] He didn’t want to wait until the whole of the rest of society was ready for utopia; he wanted to head off for utopia there and then — flying out into cosmic space where he would no longer be tied to a particular place, a particular topos, but would be in an ou-topos, a ‘not-place,’ weightless, floating free in the cosmic infinitude. So he built an apparatus that was capable of catapulting him straight from his bed into outer space.

[line break added] And the experiment evidently worked — all we see is the room the man used to occupy. … Inside the room we see the bed and the remains of the apparatus, along with some technical drawings showing how the apparatus functioned. A section of the ceiling directly above the bed has been destroyed. It was through this hole that the man shot out into space.

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment, 1988

… there was no need for this apparatus to be particularly powerful because its maker had discovered that ‘immense vertical currents of energy’ pervade the whole of the cosmos. In his view all he needed to do to get to the cosmic utopia was identify the topology of these currents and calculate the precise moment when a person could take advantage of them.

… the hero of the installation was brought up on radical Soviet atheism, dialectic materialism and scientific communism. Dreams and spirits are not enough for him. He only believes in the material, the physical, the real world. He doesn’t pray. And he doesn’t dream. Instead he constructs a device that he has designed himself on the basis of specific scientific principles, and uses it to launch himself, body and soul, into outer space.

[line break added] The only thing that distinguishes this undertaking from a strictly scientific experiment is the supreme importance of the right moment. The positive sciences regard time as homogeneous, which by definition means that any experiment is capable of being repeated. The hero of the installation, on the other hand, has to identify the exact moment when certain, otherwise dormant, cosmic energies enter a period of activity.

[line break added] This is the type of science pursued by revolutionaries and artists — it’s a matter of not missing the right moment, of allowing it to propel one into the unknown. It’s a matter of recognizing and making specific use of nameless energies that have a cosmic and a collective effect, but which generally go unrecognized.

… the hero of this installation did not appropriate and channel this energy in the same way that a proper cosmonaut would have done. He wasn’t appointed by either the state or society to serve as an embodiment of the collective dream and to orbit the earth on behalf of his fellow citizens, representing society as a whole. No, the artist is an illegitimate cosmonaut. He appropriates, privatizes and deploys global utopian energies entirely for his own ends, without previously having been selected and authorized by society.




April 28, 2016

Imagine an Eye

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

Brakhage uses the filmstrip as a furrow …

This is from The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place by Scott MacDonald (2001):

… In the famous paragraph that opens his Metaphors on Vision, Brakhage describes this state of innocence:

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye that does not respond to the name of everything, but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “Green”? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can the eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible gradations of color. Imagine a world before the “beginning was the word.”

The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) is a brief film (two and a half minutes), and as is true of most of Brakhage’s films, silent. Like the earlier, better-known Mothlight (1963), which remains Brakhage’s most frequently rented film, The Garden of Earthly Delights was produced by using what Brakhage felt, at the time when he was making Mothlight, “was a whole new film technique.” Having collected bits of natural detritus — seeds, tiny flowers, leaves, blades of grass — Brakhage arranged them as a collage along a 35mm filmstrip (actually, the materials were sandwiched between two 35mm filmstrips) and had the results printed so that the finished film could be projected.

[line break added] The experience of The Garden of Earthly Delights is as unusual as the technique that produced it: the viewer’s eye/mind is barraged with myriad particular images that often declare themselves to be what they are — imprints of seeds, flowers, leaves — in a flickering kaleidoscope that, if it is difficult to grasp in any particularity, does reveal a general overall shape: the experience begins and ends with darker, more densely textured imagery, which frames a central section of the film that, while also fast moving, reveals particular bits of seed, flower, leaf more clearly and with more light and a wider range of color. This general shape suggests the daily cycle, from darkness to day and back to darkness, and perhaps the seasonal cycle as well.

… Just as the seeds, flowers, and leaves we see in The Garden are a residue of natural processes going on in Brakhage’s backyard as he was making the film, the strip of film we see projected is a residue of the creative process that produced it. Brakhage has always spoken of his films as having been “given to him” to make, as if he, like the plants he sees growing, is simply another instance of natural process.

Brakhage uses the filmstrip as a furrow; he plants seeds, arranges ‘beds” of particular flowers, until his garden, The Garden, can be harvested (printed/projected) and enjoyed (viewed/consumed) by himself and others. The wild effusion of imagery in the completed film evokes a gardener’s fascination with the continual series of tiny changes that are inevitable as a garden is developing.

wherever motion picture imagery is assembled for/in the brain becomes — for Brakhage in The Garden of Earthly Delights — a “garden space.” In this space Brakhage “grows” exotic plants, or to be more exact, plants seeds and layers dead leaves and flowers (compost) so that through the addition of light (of the printer and projector) they are endowed with at least a momentary facsimile of life within the eye/mind of the viewer, who in this instance is as much host (in the biological sense) as viewer.




April 27, 2016

Limit-testing Phase of Picture-making

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 10:51 am

… the Polaroids reveal an evolution in his thinking and seeing.

This is from Polaroids: Mapplethorpe by Sylvia Wolf (2008):

… Philippe Garner then photography specialist at Sotheby’s in London, met Mapplethorpe and saw an album of his Polaroids in 1974. He remembers Mapplethorpe as an intensely contained individual, a man of few words who nonetheless commanded attention with his exotic personal style. The work was shown without preamble or explanation.

[line break added] It comprised tough sex pictures, which, although this was becoming a period of extended license in publishing, were unlike any photographs Garner had seen. The mainstream French magazine Photo was beginning to feature increasingly challenging sexual imagery, but Mapplethorpe’s works seemed to Garner more raw, more direct, and more personal.

[line break added] “I’m not sure I would have called them works of art at that time, and it is perhaps to their credit that they were not self-consciously aestheticized. Mapplethorpe clearly took them very seriously. They were tough and immensely powerful, had a total integrity, and were evidently an essential part of his personality.”

… Polaroid materials provided the vehicle for his inquiry into the impulses and energies that drove his desire to be an artist. while many contributed to this quest — including lovers, mentors, and friends — his true companion was the Polaroid camera, an alter ego of sorts. In addition to giving him immediate feedback that helped him to refine his skills, instant photography provided a mode of entry into his creative ambition, his sexual desires, and the art world at large.

What, though, do we make of the fact that Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids received only limited exposure during his lifetime? Are we to consider them incidental or immature?

Mapplethorpe’s own remarks about the instant gratification of the Polaroid suggest that it is unlikely he would have gotten from point A (his early collages and assemblages) to point C (the photographs that are the markers of his career) without the intermediate, limit-testing phase of picture-making with Polaroid materials.

[line break added] What may have kept many of Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids in boxes and notebooks in his studio, and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation archive after his death, is the zeal with which he embraced more sophisticated equipment and the notoriety he achieved for these later photographs. Historians, critics, and artists themselves often attend to the most recent work at the expense of previous innovation. Reflecting on earlier production may occur only after an artist’s death.

[line break added] Mapplethorpe said that his vision was already fully formed when he started taking photographs, and there is, indeed, a consistency of subject matter throughout his career, from self-portraits and flowers to sex pictures and nudes. Yet the Polaroids reveal an evolution in his thinking and seeing. What comes through in the early work is a spontaneity, charm, and toughness — an authentic artlessness that makes his Polaroids disarming and unique.




April 26, 2016

The Problems of Vision

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:48 am

… realists share a “lusting after tactility, after strongly modeled form, clear contours, and deep illusionistic space”

This is from Contemporary American Realism since 1960 by Frank H. Goodyear, Jr. (1981):

… Some see it as an obvious extension of modernism; others see it as a reaction to modernism, as an anti-Cézanne imperative. Some see it as a revival, rooted in the traditions of the past, and call it academic; others consider it avant-garde. Some prefer to think of its relationship to the real world as phenomenological, while others diminish the importance of natural phenomena, avowing that contemporary realism’s importance lies in the idea of translation — for instance, in translating photographic information into painting information.

[line break added] Some “stylistics” define contemporary realism in terms of homogeneous paint surface or a shared attitude to the rendering of form and space or to subject matter. Some affirm the value of narration, while others see formal issues as the most important. Some want realism to be inclusive, others, exclusive.

… Is the purpose of the artist to replicate reality? Does replication of its mere appearance constitute a legitimate artistic goal? Or is there a higher reality where appearances give way to more universal truths? Shouldn’t the great artist seek out this higher reality?

Historically, artists and critics have argued that the flaw in realist art has been its lack of selectivity toward nature; in other words, realism has sacrificed a higher reality for a lower one, one exclusively involved in appearances. It has been characterized by its adversaries as being a styleless style, a mirror of reality.

[line break added] Remorseless objectivity and impartiality toward its subject matter, one of realism’s strategies, have resulted, the argument goes, in an art overly craft-oriented, and this technical emphasis does not allow for the creation of paintings that can serve as equivalents to higher moral or psychological truths. Without expression of these higher truths, it is argued, realist paintings offer only the image of the real, and that image is cheapened in contemporary life by its proliferation; it is, in the final analysis, too simple and perhaps even irrelevant in a mechanized world that can reproduce reality so easily.

… So much of twentieth-century art is conditioned by ideas that we have come to take dogma for granted, and a certain amount of readapting is necessary to accept the notion of an art not predicated on ideology.

The most essential point that can be made about contemporary American realism may seem simplistic — there is a “new” realism. To think otherwise is to totally misunderstand the nature of today’s realism.

… When Malcolm Morley remarked in the mid-1960s that he was “looking for a house in which no one was living,” he was not denying his immediate past, but searching for a new way to express it. This situation was not uncommon to many other emerging realists who were looking for a way of getting away from well-traversed ground without breaking completely with their own past.

… At the heart of this philosophy is the belief that art should be about life and not about art.

… Is there a common stylistic ground? Sidney Tillim has said that realists share a “lusting after tactility, after strongly modeled form, clear contours, and deep illusionistic space” … And yet style alone is not a realist determinant; neither is a homogeneous paint surface, nor a shared approach to the rendering of form or the use of line, nor a consistent attitude to subject matter, nor a standard use of space.

… [Linda Nochlin writes] that not since the impressionists “has there been a group so concerned with the problems of vision and their solution in terms of pictorial notation and construction.”

To be continued.




April 25, 2016


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

Marino’s work … was meaning to register the intimate rhythms of movement and measure which are, said Valéry, “what is real inside reality.”

This is from Complete Works of Marino Marini by Patrick Waldberg (1970):

… Reality, for Marino, is the form which “supports the flesh like a bone-structure.”

Marino Marini, Cavaliere

… Once, when we were talking about Marino a very long time ago, I heard Giacometti say how much he admired this [Marini’s] instinctive growth, this ease. I remember that he employed the word exuberance, contrasting it with what he called his own constrictedness. Now, antinomic though they are, these two artists are comparable in their mutual fascination before the real and through their common design to give a face to human destiny.

[line break added] Giacometti attacks the real by intense concentration upon a single point, penetrating it like a drill, seeking the particles at its secret and trembling core; whereas Marino’s gaze is one that encompasses, embracing, along with the object, all the planes and horizons which condition it. And so it is that each of Marino’s works looks like a sampling of reality, a piece of reality that has been lived through, experienced, and on the basis of which it is possible to reconstruct the whole.

[line break added] In Giacometti’s work there is an oscillation between two poles, chaos and, to borrow Jacques Dupin’s phrase, an “agonizing lucidity”; and from this permanent tension arises the existential angoisse that from the outset stamps each of his gestures. But it is mistakenly that certain commentators have qualified as existential the distress expressed notably in the Warriors or in a monument like Cry.

[line break added] For existential distress, as we know, is never provoked by a determined or determinable existent, it is, according to Sartre’s own terms, “distress in the face of oneself.” No such state was present in Marino at the start; distress infiltrated his work gradually, imposed from without by mounting external pressures [two World Wars], and ended at last by giving his work its ultimately tragic expression.

[line break added] At a period when, precociously obsessed by death, Giacometti, with parsimony, was shutting up skeletons inside cages or else throwing to the ground the shattered pieces of Woman with her throat cut, Marino’s work, to the contrary, was thriving and in it he was meaning to register the intimate rhythms of movement and measure which are, said Valéry, “what is real inside reality.” From the first little terracotta nudes to the first horses and the polychrome rider, Marino was above all minded to give us the plastic effigy of the movement which quickens in the soul and makes it thrill in harmony with the forces animating all the world.

Alberto Giacometti





April 24, 2016

Or Else It’s No Good — It’s Not for You, Not This Time

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… not with dominating the real but with experiencing the limits of realization …

This is from ‘Designs in Letters, Numbers, and Words, or Painting by Ear’ by Marcelin Pleynet (1976) found in Writings on Cy Twombly edited by Nicola Del Roscio (2002):

Cy Twombly’s work sweeps away judgment; it imposes its presence without ambiguity and gains immediate support. It is already at one with the eye of the person discovering it, solicits it, goes beyond conviction. You are in that immediate relationship or else it’s no good — it’s not for you, not this time.

… It doesn’t have to do with commentary or illustration, but rather with integrating the experience of an esthetic pleasure, with realizing it. As Twombly says: “The line doesn’t illustrate; rather, it is the perception of its own realization.”

… the desire for immediacy in the realization of the experience implied in one way or another the confrontation of the program (the figure) with the gestural investment that gave it life. The artists were increasingly preoccupied not with projecting themselves in representations that were already more or less established (archetypes, etc.), but with totally committing themselves as the subject of their art; not with dominating the real but with experiencing the limits of realization (which, in a certain way, explains the dimensions of the paintings).

… It is no longer a question of the kind of drawing that allowed Matisse to tell Giacometti, “No one knows how to draw! You’ll never know how to draw either,” or “No one has ever gone to the end of anything; even the most finished views are in reality partial and fragmentary.” It is a question of the “not knowing” of the person who “does” the tight written form of what is invested and realized in the fragmentary. Of a shorthand version of the investing of space, where the body or the less “noble” parts of the body (vagina, phallus, butt, etc.) are not incidental.

My most recent previous post from this collection is here.




April 23, 2016


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:31 am

… You can’t just look at a dark blob on a slab of Burgess shale and then by mindless copying render it as a complex, working arthropod …

Continuing through Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould (1989):

Walcott found almost all his good specimens in a lens of shale, only seven or eight feet thick, that he called the “phyllopod bed.”

… At this level, fossils are found along less than two hundred feet of outcrop on the modern quarry face. Since Walcott’s time, additional soft-bodied fossils have been collected at other stratigraphic levels and localities in the area. But nothing even approaching the diversity of the phyllopod bed occurs anywhere else, and Walcott’s original layer has yielded the great majority of Burgess species.

[line break added] Little taller than a man, and not so long as a city block! When I say that one quarry in British Columbia houses more anatomical disparity than all the world’s seas today, I am speaking of a small quarry. How could such richness accumulate in such a tiny space?

… The pinpoint distribution of the Burgess fossils supports the idea that they owe their preservation to a local mudslide. Other features of the fossils lead to the same conclusion: very few specimens show signs of decay, implying rapid burial; no tracks, trails, or other marks of organic activity have been found in the Burgess beds, thus indicating that the animals died and were overwhelmed by mud as they reached their final resting place.

… A common misconception holds that soft-bodies fossils are usually preserved as flat films of carbon on the surface of rocks. The Burgess organisms are, of course, strongly compressed — we cannot expect the preservation of much three-dimensional structure as the weight of water and sediment piiles above an entombed body devoid of hard parts. But the Burgess fossils are not always completely flattened — and this discovery provided Whittingham with the basis for a method that could reveal their structure.

… What do scientists “do” with something like the Burgess Shale, once they have been fortunate enough to make such an outstanding discovery? They must first perform some basic chores to establish context — geological setting (age, environment, geography), mode of preservation, inventory of content. Beyond these preliminaries, since diversity is nature’s principal theme, anatomical description and taxonomic placement become the primary tasks of paleontology.

[line break added] Evolution produces a branching array organized as a tree of life, and our classifications reflect this genealogical order. Taxonomy is therefore the expression of evolutionary arrangement. The traditional medium for such an effort is a monograph — a descriptive paper, with photographs, drawings, and a formal taxonomic designation.

… The worst of human narrowness pours forth in the negative assessment of monographic work as merely descriptive. Scientific genius is equated with an oddly limited subset of intellectual activities, primarily analytical ability and quantitative skill, as though anyone could describe a fossil but only the greatest thinkers could conceive of the inverse-square law. I wonder if we will ever get past the worst legacy of IQ theory in its unilinear and hereditarian interpretation — the idea that intelligence can be captured by a single number, and that people can be arrayed in a simple sequence from idiot to Einstein.

Genius has as many components as the mind itself. The reconstruction of a Burgess organism is about as far from “simple” or “mere” description as Caruso from Joe Blow in the shower … . You can’t just look at a dark blob on a slab of Burgess shale and then by mindless copying render it as a complex, working arthropod, as one might transcribe a list of figures from a cash-register tape into an account book. I can’t imagine an activity further from simple description than the reanimation of a Burgess organism. You start with a squashed and horribly distorted mess and finish with a composite figure of a plausible living organism.

To be continued.

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




April 22, 2016

It Drinks Itself

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:30 am

… Night puts an end to it, and only measure remains. (I am alive, I lend my ear.)

This first from the essay ‘The Lamp and the Bell’ found in Knowing the East by Paul Claudel; translated by James Lawler (1900; 2004):

… Night takes away our proof, we no longer know where we are. Lines and colors, our passionate arrangement of the world about us (whose center we carry with us wherever we go according to the angles from which at any moment our gaze makes its report), are no longer there to confirm our position. We are reduced to ourselves alone.

[line break added] Our vision no longer has the visible for limit, but the invisible for place of solitary confinement — homogeneous, immediate, indifferent, compact. In the heart of this darkness the lamp is somewhere, some thing. It appears wholly alive! It contains its oil; by virtue of its flame, it drinks itself.

… But if night shuts our eyes, it is that we may listen all the more, not only with our ears, but with all the audition of our souls breathing in the manner of fish. Something in the vast void gathers, ripens a number that is fired like a gun. I hear the bell like the need to speak, like the resolution of our visceral silence, the very word within the word.

[line break added] During the day, with stubborn force or in short bursts, we keep hearing the sentence woven on a continuous stave by all beings bonded by the duty of the chorus. Night puts an end to it, and only measure remains. (I am alive, I lend my ear.) Of what whole is it a part? [To] What movement does it beat? What time?

This next is from ‘Rice’:

By the iron blade we sink our teeth into the earth, and already our bread eats there in the way we shall eat it.

Finally, from ‘The Yellow Hour’:

… I go up to the hills and survey the sea of grain. Between the banks of grass and the huge dry flame of the day-colored plain, where is the old dark earth? The water is changed to wine; oranges glow in the silent branches. All is ripe — grain and straw, and the fruit with the leaf. It is indeed golden; all has come to an end and I see that all is true.

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




April 21, 2016

Expanding Our Seeing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:34 am

… each pair of images has the long-range goal of expanding our seeing so that we are challenged to become aware of every dimension of every image.

This is from The Garden n the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place by Scott MacDonald (2001):

… once viewers [of Horizons] have become accustomed to scanning juxtaposed images for visual correlatives, Gottheim provides a new challenge: to recognize the rhymes in any particular four-shot fall stanza, we must remember the first image in each stanza through the pair of rhymed images that follow and be ready to recognize the rhyming elements of the fourth shot.

… While the commercial film industry continues to assume that, except for a few film buffs and scholars, moviegoers will rarely pay to see a film more than once in a theater … , Gottheim made a very different assumption in Horizons, an assumption more characteristic of painters: he assumed an ideal viewer not only with sufficient patience to investigate the film’s particulars but also with access to the leisure and the technology necessary for a sustained investigation of a work of film art.

… For viewers who have committed themselves to the identification of Gottheim’s complex rhyme scheme, the result is a new form of cinema seeing: while most shots in a commercial film have a particular “point,” a single, obvious part to play in the progress of the developing narrative, Horizons challenges viewers to scan each image thoroughly in order to be conversant with all dimensions of the image. Indeed, to understand the elements of any given pair of shots that do rhyme, viewers must be fully conscious of all those elements in both shots that do not rhyme.

[line break added] There is no foreground/background in Horizons, at least not in the conventional filmic sense: any generality or detail anywhere within the frame might be part of a rhyme about to declare itself, and if it is not, it provides the context within which the rhyming can be identified. Or, to put this another way, Gottheim’s aesthetic tactic of asking us to distinguish particular rhyming details within each pair of images has the long-range goal of expanding our seeing so that we are challenged to become aware of every dimension of every image.

My previous post from MacDonald’s book is here.




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