Unreal Nature

October 9, 2015

Warm Water

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… In life it plays the role of a bead on an abacus; in art it’s a texture.

This is from Knight’s Move by Viktor Shklovsky (2005):

… A man couldn’t help being happy there where everything was softer, where people were beaten with soft pillows and drowned without fail in warm water, but the road to yesterday was, of course, closed.

And so a man runs to the theater, to actors. In that way, according to Freud, in coping with a psychosis, we hide in some sort of mania as in a monastery, that is, we create for ourselves an illusory life, an illusory reality, instead of the hard reality that is real.

[ … ]

… blasphemy presupposes a religion that hasn’t yet perished.

There exists a “church” of art in the sense of a gathering of those who feel it. This church has its canons, created by the accumulation of heresies.

[ … ]

… Art is perceived as a series of hints, a series of algebraic signs, as a collection of things having volume, but not substance — texture.

Texture is the main feature of that special world of especially constructed things, the aggregate of which we usually call art.

The word in art and the word in life are profoundly different. In life it plays the role of a bead on an abacus; in art it’s a texture. We have it in sound. It reverberates and we listen to it in its full potential.

My previous post from Shklovsky’s book is here.




October 8, 2015

Stepping Out of That Comfortable Space Behind the Lens

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… You know this is part of a bigger problem; how do you address it? Do you address it?

This is from the author’s interview with Ed Pincus and Lucia Small (and Jane Pincus) in Avant-Doc: Intersections of Documentary and Avant-Garde Cinema by Scott MacDonald (2015):

[ … ]

Lucia Small: … Personal documentary is one of the most challenging forms, at least for me; you’re constantly considering how much you can reveal about your family and about yourself. I’ve produced and directed other, more traditional cinéma-vérité films, but The Axe in the Attic created an unusual mix of the public and the personal, and was one of the most challenging things I’ve done.

Ed Pincus: We tried to have two viewpoints in the film and to create a sense that these viewpoints were not those of experts, but of people with the same complex relationship to life that viewers have.

Small: When you’re working in observational cinema, you usually understand what the filmmaker feels and how you should feel while watching the film. We wanted to challenge that safe space in a social documentary. Of course, tackling the subject of Hurricane Katrina and the diaspora it created, by inserting ourselves into our film about the disaster, was very risky. We met a hundred and fifty people, many of whom were in an acute state of crisis. But we felt that within this context it was important to look closely at the relationship between filmmakers and subjects. We wondered if you could get to a greater truth by stepping out of that comfortable space behind the lens.

[ … ]

MacDonald: I assume some viewers thought you were self-indulgently making this tragedy into your personal problem.

Small: Yes, some people have been really angry about it. I’ve gone through a range of emotions about this, often questioning myself, but in many ways the discourse the film created is exactly the kind of thing you hope for with this kind of film. We wanted to engender questions about our responsibility as filmmakers and as citizens of the world, both within the filming situation and in relation to the systemic problems in our country that Katrina was/is a microcosm of.

We wanted to evoke that feeling of uncomfortableness that you have when you’re on a subway and someone is asking you for money: do you give or not? You know this is part of a bigger problem; how do you address it? Do you address it?

The next is from a separate, earlier interview with Ed Pincus:

[ … ]

Pincus: … I remember getting into a big argument with Stan Brakhage at a conference on autobiographical film … [in 1973]. Robert Frank was there and a group of New York experimental filmmakers. I felt totally out of place. Brakhage had said, “Everything you see on the screen is exactly what happened” — and I think he was talking about Scenes from Under Childhood [1967-70]. I argued that understanding the world has to do with other senses, and in particular sound.

Granted, most of the things that people say are stupid. During the editing of Diaries, I would think, “God, did I really say that? Did she really say that? But stupid or not, what we say is an essential part of who we are, and to pretend that you’re capturing reality in a silent film is a fantasy.

[ … ]

Pincus: I think of some of my documentaries as experimental films. In fact, experimentation has been more important to me than any traditional sense of documentary. When I was growing up, the practical function of documentary was to interrupt the boredom of public school, but the documentaries we saw in school created another kind of boredom. I hated those documentaries, and even once I was older, it didn’t seem to me that some of the famous documentaries were from life.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Even in The Plow that Broke the Plains [1936] there seemed little connection between what you saw and heard and people’s real lives. WPA* photography was much more influential on my thinking and my films that the 1930s documentaries. Even though some of the same people who did those documentaries were WPA* photographers, there seemed to be a difference in how they were imaging life in photographs and how their imagery was used in the films.

Ricky used to love to quote a line from Jean Renoir about the change in film brought about by sync-sound shooting. Renoir said that traditionally the camera has been this altar that you had to bring reality to; and now all of a sudden, you had a camera that could go into reality itself. I thought that was a perfect metaphor.

[*I think he meant FSA not WPA]

My previous post from MacDonald’s book is here.




October 7, 2015

Holy Trinity

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… what is immediately striking in these images is the omission of direct, ongoing human presence in favor of the highly contradictory choice to record, and remember, the faces of people who appear flickering for brief seconds or minutes before disappearing into the flux …

This is from Lee Friedlander: The Little Screens by Saul Anton (2015):

In February 1963, Harper’s Bazaar published a four-page picture essay by Lee Friedlander titled ‘The Little Screens.’ Accompanied by a short text by Walker Evans, it comprises six black-and-white photographs of televisions that look, within the relatively small format of the magazine, like glowing postage stamps illuminating empty rooms. In each picture, a 1960s-era television set — made by companies today long gone, such as Andrea, Belmont, Crosley, Electromatic, Farnsworth, Kuba, National, Philco, Sightmaster and Viewtone — fills the space it occupies with cathode-ray light.

The splash-page image is of a sparsely furnished bedroom in what looks to be a modest middle-class American home. The viewer looks past the expanse of a neatly made bed and a curved wooden footboard to a small television sitting on a table against a wall. What immediately captures our attention in this image is the intensity of the face of a young child looking out at us from the television screen.


Friedlander’s family narrative is extended by the two pictures that appear opposite the splash page.

… The story that Friedlander composes with these first three photographs is well known. The man-woman-child holy trinity of the nuclear family served as a foundation of post-War American life …


… In the brief copy that accompanied ‘The Little Screens’ in Harper’s Bazaar, Evans presents Friedlander as unabashedly hostile to the newfangled apparatus: ‘The pictures on these pages are in effect deft, witty, spanking little poems of hate.’ Evans goes on to say that ‘the wan reflected light from home television boxes casts an unearthly pall over the quotidian objects and accouterments we all live with,’ underscoring the clinical and detached quality of the images. While this is certainly the case, the photographs themselves suggest that Friedlander’s conception of television did not end there — that in fact his photographs represent an evolving, playful and serious contemplation of the significance of the new technology.

…This is the story of the uncanny double of photography, a masked impersonator that is as seductive and amusing as it is sinister and dangerous.

In other words, The Little Screens does something remarkable: it considers and treats a ‘classic’ photographic theme — the family, the home, domesticity — but links it to a reflection on the implications of the emergence of television for photography and on the relation between the two media. What do we make of Friedlander’s encounter with television?

… That Friedlander was pointedly exploring what many believed to be photography’s natural and universal realism is evident in his choice of images for reproduction in ‘The Little Screens.’ Photographs of individuals on screen rather than of the people who inhabit middle-class interiors alongside their television sets appear perhaps as odd today as they did then. In fact, what is immediately striking in these images is the omission of direct, ongoing human presence in favor of the highly contradictory choice to record, and remember, the faces of people who appear flickering for brief seconds or minutes before disappearing into the flux of cathode rays — the electronic versions of Charles Baudelaire’s woman passer-by in nineteenth century Paris.




October 6, 2015

Memory of that Source

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… we are meant to enter it, to sink into its atmosphere of mist and light or to draw it around us like a coat — or a skin.

Continuing through Modern Painting and Sculpture: 1880 to the Present at The Museum of Modern Art, edited by John Elderfield (2004). This book uses extracts from other books to comment on the featured artists (I’m extracting from those extracts… ) If that text does not refer specifically to the MoMA art that is shown in the parent book, I may choose to use some other work by the artist to illustrate my post. Today’s first is from The Meanings of Art by John Russell (1981):

Willem de Kooning, Painting, 1948

… They were not so much painted as laid on; and they related to the signs which had been devised by [Jean] Arp and [Joan] Miró to echo the human body without actually naming it. “Even abstract shapes must have a likeness,” de Kooning once said. And in pictures like his Painting, 1948, every shape has its likeness: its familiar companion, which stays within hailing distance but does not come forward to be identified.

As [Thomas] Hess has remarked, the black and white paintings are “packed to bursting with shapes metamorphosed from drawings of women which have been cut apart, transposed, intermixed until they were abstract, but always with a ‘likeness’ and a memory of that source and its emotive charge.”

The following is from Mark Rothko by Peter Selz (1961):

… Holding tenaciously to humanist values, he paints pictures which are in fact related to man’s scale and his measure. But whereas in Renaissance painting man was the measure of space, in Rothko’s painting space, i.e. the picture, is the measure of man.

This is perhaps the essential nature of the viewer’s response to Rothko’s work: he contemplates these large surfaces, but his vision is not obstructed by the means of painting; he does not get involved in the by-ways of an intriguing surface; these pictures do not remind us of peeling walls or torn canvases. The artist has abandoned the illusions of three-dimensional recession; there is not even the space between various overlaid brush-strokes. The surface texture is as neutral as possible. Seen close up and in a penumbra, as these paintings are meant to be seen, they absorb, they envelop the viewer. We no longer look at a painting as we did in the nineteenth century; we are meant to enter it, to sink into its atmosphere of mist and light or to draw it around us like a coat — or a skin.

But, to repeat, they also measure the spectator, gauge him. These silent paintings with their enormous, beautiful, opaque surfaces are mirrors, reflecting what the viewer brings with him.

… They are paintings whose reds are oppressive, evoking a mood of foreboding and death; there are reds suggesting light, flame, or blood. There are pictures with veil-like blues and whites, and blues suggesting empty chambers and endless halls. At times the color has been gayer, with greens and yellows reminiscent of spring in its buoyant, almost exultant delight.

Mark Rothko, No.3 / No. 13, 1949

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




October 5, 2015

The Circle Never Closes

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:58 am

… For Picasso there is no fixed center; the circle never closes, and the second beat is never struck.

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

… Caricature was Picasso’s mother tongue. His first recorded drawings are all caricatures. (In this case, the codices are textbooks that he doodled in during dull hours at school.) The notebooks of his early years in Barcelona are filled, alive, with caricature.

… The absolute division between what you were allowed to do in a notebook and what you were allowed to do on an easel must have seemed to Picasso genuinely peculiar.

Picasso’s deeply idiosyncratic use of primitive art — for he alone turns the schematized codes of primitive art into a language of likeness, a language used to define particular individuals — was in one respect a way of bringing the latent potential of the caricature into vanguard art. The search for likeness in the grotesque and unfamiliar that had long been embedded in the caricature tradition could be integrated into Picasso’s finished portraits only after it had first been reimagined as primitivism.

… A vocabulary of primitive form is first absorbed and then transformed into a new language of likeness. In a masterpiece like the self-portrait of 1907, Picasso created a new kind of monumental caricature in which the firm contours and quick sure insights of the notebook jokes are given a new weight and unforgettable plastic intensity.

Self-Portrait, 1907

… what Picasso was doing was, in one sense simply a brilliant extension of the tradition that we have chronicled: searching an unfamiliar vocabulary of seemingly non-mimetic form, he found a new and startling kind of mimesis. What Picasso found in his own notebooks wasn’t a style so much as a way of proceeding, an instruction to look at stylized, exotic form and make it real. That instruction, as we’ve seen again and again, that way of proceeding, is exactly what the caricature tradition has always insisted on — that process, that injunction is, in a sense, all that caricature is.

… By orchestrating a very complicated set of effects — by taking up totally unfamiliar stylizations, like those of “Iberian” art, that were exotic but also in some ways oddly classical, by infusing graphic caricatural elements into otherwise “painterly” pictures — Picasso showed that you could take up the strategies of caricature without being forced into the “marginal case” logic of humor. Are these faces masks? “Platonic” truths about the sitters, or journalistic ones? Aggressive or generous gestures?

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Caricature had in the past really been a two-beat process: first, surprise at the strange equivalence, then reintegrating laughter as we put it in its provisional place — the strange equivalences discovered on the margins of art at once expanding our horizons and reaffirming the normality of the center. “Laughter,” Bergson once wrote, “appears to stand in need of an echo. … It can travel within as wide a circle as you please; the circle nonetheless remains a closed one.” For Picasso there is no fixed center; the circle never closes, and the second beat is never struck.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




October 4, 2015

What a Strange Work

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… in which no chain of facts can be irreversible and whose form is always capable of many transformations.

This is from the essay ‘Mallarmé and the Novel’ found in Faux Pas by Maurice Blanchot, translated by Charlotte Mandell (2001):

… The poem, like any work of the mind, can only denounce the danger that language represents for man; it is the danger of dangers; it is the lightning flash that reveals to him, at the risk of blinding him and striking him, that he is lost in the banality of ordinary words, in the community of social language, in the quietude of tamed metaphors. Essential language shines suddenly in the heart of the skies, and its brilliance attacks, consumes, devours historical language, which is compromised but not replaced.

The following is from Blanchot’s essay ‘Enigma of the Novel’:

… We will restrain ourselves from undertaking an examination of this word real, as, in their endless arguments, the theoreticians of the novel suppose it. All that seems useful to emphasize is that, as great as the excesses of imagination may be in a novel, the book can present them as expression of a reality, as fragments of a world that has a right to subsist. Even if this world, completely unreal in comparison to the ordinary world, still tries to question itself, to reveal itself manifestly impossible, this very abnegation, this unreality that it evokes, becomes the main foundation of its new reality and guarantees it elements that are sufficiently stable so that everything that happens in it can take on a certain quality of history.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] On the other hand, there is no realistic novel in which the reader is not regularly warned that the actions of the characters should not be confused with actions that actual people might do in their place, because it is a matter of merely possible acts to which the art of the novelist could give the look of necessity but never the structure of real acts. Paul Valéry wrote that there should be no essential differences between the novel and the natural narration of events that we have seen and heard; yet there is still a difference: it is that the narrative has to do with things that took place, the novel with things that never happened. The novel plays between the “possible” and the “impossible” and seeks to transform them into “necessary” values. That is what we call the “real.”

It would be easy to find in the law of verisimilitude the same ambiguous imprecision. If critics return so often to this demand, it is because they perceive the monster that a prose narrative could represent, composed of a mass of interchangeable details, in which no chain of facts can be irreversible and whose form is always capable of many transformations. What a strange work the novel is, which seems to be what it is only by chance, and which is susceptible to being modified without change!




October 3, 2015

To Be Made New

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… There has to be some gap, some lack, which provokes people to spend 20 years, 30 years, making drawings …

Finishing up with Six Drawing Lessons: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 2012 by William Kentridge (2014):

… [Entropy] can be most easily described as a tendency for order to dissolve into disorder. It refers to the breakdown of something that leaves its site of generation as a coherent thought, a coherent object, a coherent image — and gradually disintegrates, becomes fragmentary; so that when it reaches its site of reception, what arrives are shards and fragments.

[ … ]

… In the lecture here, a note:


This won’t happen; we will have to continue.

[ … ]

… At the end of the last lecture, we left off with Rilke’s poem “The Panther,” and in particular the lines describing the panther’s walk around his cage as “a dance of strength around a centre where a mighty will was put to sleep.” There is no avoiding it. … Trying to stop the stupid, limited words that keep on arriving, endlessly, the same phrases, the same words. On the one hand hoping the walk itself will produce new words, on the other hand the walk itself lulling the words into a familiar and over-familiar pattern.

The circle is also the zoetrope, the action that continuously returns to where it began, and repeats itself. Again, pushing an expectation never realized, that the image will escape the zoetrope and take us to some new land.

… But to get to the center itself. To approach from a different angle. How or why does one become an artist? Again here we go back to Rilke’s panther, and to the radical insufficiency, the radical gap in the center. There has to be some gap, some lack, which provokes people to spend 20 years, 30 years, making drawings, leaving tracings of themselves.

[ … ]

… A new sheet of paper. All the energy waiting in the arm, gathering for its decision. While the shards are in the air, there is the possibility of … of … of …


All that we wish could be. And there is the torschlusspanik, the fear that with decision, each final arrival of the image, all the other images are cut out, the door to other possibilities closes behind us, and we turn in panic to the sound of that closing door.

[ … ]

… We return to the beginning, ready to enter the cave, this time carrying the rusted bicycle frame, the box of broken pottery, the bones of the last rhinoceros. Ready to take our place in the procession, to throw our shadows onto the wall of the cave. We come to the dark center of the panther’s circle.

… Entropy forbids all elements from entering the black chasm. As an object approaches a black hole, its wavelength lengthens, slowing down, becomes redder and redder; the information and attributes separate from the object and remain as strings — vibrating strings, twists, knots, cat’s cradles of information, vibrating and circling the edge of the event horizon. The bank at the edge of the River Styx, where Charon deposits those headed for the black darkness of Hades. He keeps in his boat the attributes they have shed. A suitcase of teeth, a pile of shoes, a sheaf of words, an old stone discus. Held in trust on account, waiting to be decoded, for the shards to be rearranged, to be made new.

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




October 2, 2015

An L-Shaped Manner

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

… it’s wrong to view a samovar with an eye to making it pound nails …

This is from Knight’s Move by Viktor Shklovsky (2005):

… the knight is not free — it moves in an L-shaped manner because it is forbidden to take the straight road.

… — don’t think that the knight’s move is the coward’s move.

I’m no coward.

Our tortuous road is the road of the brave, but what are we to do if we see with our own two eyes more than honest pawns and dutiful kings.

[ … ]

… If you take hold of a samovar by its stubby legs, you can use it to pound nails, but that is not its primary function.

I saw war. With my own hands I stoked stoves with pieces of a piano in Stanislavov and made bonfires out of rugs and fed the flames with vegetable oil while trapped in the mountains of Kurdistan. Right now I’m stoking a stove with books. I know the laws of war and I understand that in its own way it reorganizes things, such as reducing a man to 180 pounds of human flesh, or using a rug as surrogate for a fuse.

But it’s wrong to view a samovar with an eye to making it pound nails more easily or to write books so that they will make a hotter fire.


War — privation — reorganizes things in its own way, which is terrible but honest. However, to change the meaning of things, to bore through a door with a spoon, to shave oneself with an awl and, at the same time, give assurances that everything is going well — that’s not honest.




October 1, 2015

What Was That?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:56 am

This is from the author’s interview with Robert Gardner in Avant-Doc: Intersections of Documentary and Avant-Garde Cinema by Scott MacDonald (2015):

[ … ]

Gardner: … when film does teach, it doesn’t do it because the filmmaker means to, it does it because it can’t help it.

[ … ]

Gardner: During the years when I was involved with Channel 5 and Screening Room, I suggested to the station manager that we do some non-commercials. I told him, “We have lots of commercials by why don’t we try having non-commercials? That is to say something that lasts just a minute but doesn’t sell anything!” I remember the blank stare I got, but in the end I was allowed to make a few. “Policeman” was one which aired, and people must have been very perplexed by it; there were calls to the station, asking “What was that?”




September 30, 2015

Without The Safety Net of Form

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… [At the end of his life, he became] willing to allow his approach to be guided simply by the subject as it presented itself to his camera, without the safety net of form …

This is from the Introduction by Gilles Mora to Edward Weston: Forms of Passion (1995):

… The standard repertoire of “modern” objects never really appealed to him. He quickly tired of the few he did photograph (Egg Slicer, 1930 and Bedpan, 1930) and thought them unconvincing, facile stylistic exercises (“the egg slicer, one of my worst”). … He learned about the photography of the Bauhaus and László Moholy-Nagy through the modernist avant-garde set he cultivated in Mexico, but was underwhelmed by its “trivial mannerisms.” That may shed some light on his reticence about Germany’s New Photography. Despite the fact that both Albert Renger-Patzsch and he were interested in larger-than-life, clinical observation of objects at close range, Weston was concerned not so much with objects in themselves as with their form.

[ … ]

Henrietta Shore hit the nail on the head in 1927 when she told him, “I wish you would not do so many nudes — you are getting used to them — the subject no longer amazes you — most of these are just nudes.” Then again, take away form and Weston’s nudes are just this side of obscene. (Weston, who feared that most persons saw his Nude of Fay Fuquay, 1928 would “only see an ass,” realized this.)

[line break added to make this easier to read online] But that is not what made his approach to the nude so triumphant, no more than did unabashed display of pubic hair (which he once wryly misspelled “public hair” in an antipuritannical outburst sparked by Beaumont Newhall’s efforts to negotiate its removal from prints the public would see at the 1946 Museum of Modern Art retrospective). His triumph lies more in the compelling give-and-take he set in motion between form and desire, order and chaos, and in the resulting tension between them. In this respect, Weston’s nudes are very much in keeping with his general photographic take on the world around him.

When viewed in his ground glass, the merely physical presence we call an object emerged from the chaos of nature. Order/chaos: to Weston these were two sides of the same coin. Since nature is “crude and lacking in arrangement,” order separates out from chaos only through the process of human selection. If one object is chosen over another, it is primarily and fundamentally because it is formally significant.

[line break added] It is form, and form alone, that allows an object to stand out from the background and become expressive. … At the same time, however, Weston became increasingly aware of its pitfall: abstraction. … [T]hose who succumbed ran the risk of lapsing into what Weston quickly concluded were “intellectual juggleries” once he had tried them out himself in Mexico. Continuing in that vein, he feared, might drain objects of their very objectness and lead to the purely formal.

Instead of eliminating abstraction, Weston held it in check by redefining its role in photography as “elemental form” or “simplified form” and by underscoring the essential, ubiquitous part it plays in the natural order. He gave form its due, using its offshoot, composition, as a way to validate it and intensify its presence. In so doing he turned the photographed object into a photographic object. There was little to lose (because of the medium’s unerring precision) and much to gain (because by making an object’s form visible, photographic art expresses its “inner necessity”).

… [At the end of his life, however … ] Little by little, cracks began to show. There as a noticeable transition to less methodical composition, starting with the landscape photographs from the West (1937). Interest shifted from the emptied center of the image (San Carlos Lake, Arizona, 1938) and collected at its edges, setting up a boundary which, though uncrossable, might easily extend beyond the picture frame. Elsewhere, he gave his subjects more context; no longer do they seem to float in a sidereal void (William Edmondson, Sculptor, Nashville, 1941).

… With the coming of age and experience, Weston seems to have gained a deeper understanding of cosmic uncertainty, for it was around this time that he shed the photographic inhibition of composition. He was now willing to allow his approach to be guided simply by the subject as it presented itself to his camera, without the safety net of form: witness the Point Lobos photographs of cliffs, kelp, and debris. As his life drew to a close, Weston became absorbed in the same issues that preoccupied Walker Evans late in life: absence of form, the province of a pure photography beholden only to the laws of entropy and of the medium bearing witness to it.

Eroded Rocks, South Shore, Point Lobos, 1948 [the last photograph Weston ever made]




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