First published on REORIENT
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Wednesday, November 07, 2012
First published on THE MANTLE
[L'empire des lumières, 1954]
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” –Oscar Wilde
A jocular story was told about the Belgian painter René Magritte: He went into the grocer’s shop intent on buying a few slices of the traditional Dutch cheese; when the saleswoman moved on to grab the block on cheese on the display to cut the slices for him, he objected. What is the problem? Asked the saleswoman. Magritte responded that that block of cheese had been stared at the whole day. This anecdote sums up succinctly the impetus of the eye in Magritte’s paintings: Objects transform into other objects merely by seeing them. He aimed not at an eye of knowledge or interpretation but at a Cyclopean eye – once confidence is lost in optical illusions, all what remains is a fleeting moment of anguish in which the impossible dissolves into the possible.
The temptation of the impossible is not realized in the absent subject of abstract painting in which only the vague voice of consciousness blends in with the brush of the painter – as for example in the paralyzing color-fields of Mark Rothko – but in visualizing wholly visible and real objects as impossibilities. The painter roughly classified as a surrealist – perhaps because of a period convention and association with prominent names of the movement – defies the illusion of the surrealists in positing that what interests him is not the world of dreams, for two reasons: Firstly, dreams have a time-movement quality that is only available to films; secondly, for Magritte the dream in painting is trivial and unimportant if it is not fully tangible.
What Magritte wanted in his paintings was not to translate dreams, but rather to present a world in which rather than sleepwalking through images and representations, one stands before primal objects, at an interlude in which interpretation is not possible. Full wakefulness without reference to dreams as if in a procedure similar to that of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: “Through all these scenes glide similitudes that no reference points can situate. Translations with neither point of departure nor support.” What does it mean to be awake? That seems to have been the real question that haunted Magritte. It is not persons or landscapes what he wanted to see but objects as they appear to us without standards or possible interpretations of reality.
Paul Cézanne comes to mind when he says: “Well, no one has ever painted the landscape, man absent but entirely within the landscape”. Is it perhaps a re-configuration of both the still-life since its appearance in the Dutch paintings of the 16th century and of the pictorial space of the Italian 15th century? “The lived object is not rediscovered or constructed on the basis of the data of the senses; rather, it presents itself to us from the start as the center from which the data radiate.” Magritte’s interest was not in objects as compositions but in doing what his predecessor Manet would do – and whom he deconstructed in his own work – not in inventing non-representative painting but rather picture objects or painting objects.
Magritte wanted to represent things: “I just painted the paintings I thought to paint and did it. There’s nothing behind it. It is the picture I wanted to paint, and you see it. You don’t have to look for a symbol in there.” Franz Kafka, in his posthumously published Blue Octavo Notebooks (set to music in 2004 by German-British composer Max Richter), had a literary image for the kind of wakefulness that Magritte demanded: “Everyone carries a room about inside them. This fact can be even proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one’s ears and listens, say at night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.”
What is this mirror? What can be seen through the mirror or through the window?Schlegel had the idea that the problem with mirrors or windows is that they become obstacles between spectator and landscape, however, there’s no real landscape in Magritte because he has left the pictorial space and is not content with representing. Sarah Kofman tells us in reference to a painting by Greuzedepicting a crying girl and entitled “The Broken Mirror”: “The bird is always already flown, the mirror is already broken, cracked, and it is this shattering of meaning that the girl is crying over –the loss, along with the mirror and the bird, of all reference and thus of all discourse.”
Kofman tells us that the painting does not mean to say anything at all and explains further: “Between the figurative order of the painting and the discursive order of language there exists a gap that nothing can bridge.” Similar is the demand of Magritte when he calls himself an objective painter and rejects both the arbitrariness and the lack of distinction between crass objects and art objects in modern art – exemplified by the practices of Dada, Surrealism and Duchamp – and yet says: “Don’t search for hidden images in my paintings.” He considered himself more of a thinker in terms of images than a painter and objected the notion of art for art’s sake: “There is thus no art for pleasure’s sake alone. One can manufacture objects that are pleasurable by linking ready-made ideas in a different way and by presenting forms that have been seen before.”
Magritte’s point of departure, if any, was a painting by Giorgio Chirico, “Chanson d’Amour”, a proto-Surrealist academic study in free association of images that opened a possibility distinct to that of the totality that was being practiced and experienced by the painters of his time. In between the objects themselves, there seems to be a lot of empty space, a room of anxiety and uncertainty. Magritte is the painter of the absolute absence, faces covered with blankets, objects that come to life only in their dislocation, and life that emerges out of a syntactic chaos that is yet composite: “The presence and absence of the painter, his proximity towards his model, his absence, her distance, finally all of this would be symbolized by that empty space.”
It is said that Monet and Magritte’s project of painting the impossible culminated at the limits of Impressionism when touching at the edges of the inhuman character of things to bring forth the human world of alienation, highlighting a devotion to the visible by contrast. This is the courage of his art, as Hélène Cixous speaks of Monet: “And the greatest kind of courage? The greatest kind of courage. The courage to be afraid. To have the two fears. First we have to have the courage to be afraid of being hurt. We have to not defend ourselves. The world has to be suffered. Only through suffering will we know certain faces of the world, certain events of life: the courage to tremble and sweat and cry is as important for Rembrandt as for Genet.”
This is why Magritte finds redemption in the wholly and absolutely visible: “I think that the world is a mystery and we cannot say anything about a mystery. It cannot be a subject of fear or hope.”
[Le Retour de Flamme, 1943]
 Ellen Handler Spitz. Museums of the Mind: Magritte’s Labyrinth and Other Essays in the Arts (New Haven: CT, Yale University Press, 1994): 48-49.
 Michel Foucault. This Is Not a Pipe (Berkeley: CA, University of California Press, 2008): 52.
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty. “Cézanne’s Doubt” in The Merleau-Ponty Reader: Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy(Evanston: IL, Northwestern University Press, 2007): 75.
 Michel Foucault. Manet and the Object of Painting (London, Tate Publishing, 2012): 79.
 Sarah Kofman. “The Melancholy of Art” in Selected Writings (Stanford: CA, Stanford University Press, 2007): 210-211.
 Sarah Kofman. 2007: 211.
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 2007: 78.
 Michel Foucault. 2012: 77.
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 2007: 70.
 Hélène Cixous. “The Last Painting or the Portrait of God” in The Continental Aesthetics Reader (London: Routledge, 2000): 591-592.
Friday, November 02, 2012
|Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, "Circle of Confusion", 2010|
For R. & T.
Drowning in familiarity. It's an everyday scene, with an added quality of stupor: A half-tilted tryptych hanging from a porous wall, and the waters uniformly painted in between blue and white, lacquered on the surface. Rather than giving the effect of water, the texture is absent and nothing seems to move. The painting seems to stand well among other objects, without being so much an object as a mirror of the surrounding. There are other things too, not as yet objects: Sofas mounted on tables, a mural being painted on the floor, an old-fashioned stereo, oil paintings disappointed with themselves, vases holding immobile plants that grow only sideways, an assortment of keys on a hanger. There's even a dartboard affixed to the wall, parallel to the tryptych, beneath a lightbulb. Do random objects exist outside a composition? What distinguishes crass objects from let's say, an installation? Imagine this to be a museum... Your entire life on permanent exhibition, or, at least, the external objects that once carefully delinated its topography. There's no composition. The sounds are so sterile, conversations, conversations that never become. Every word becomes smothered by the absence of other words. Forget the museum. Imagine throwing a thousand-piece puzzle in the open ocean.
What really is an everyday scene other than a pictorial imposition? Did anyone ever find himself in an everyday scene and claim a feeling for himself? The aspirations of art are sometimes cruel: An everyday scene is the highest degree of abstraction; photographs and standstills thrive on them. It's a still-life. It was much better when you imagined it, when you had - while far away - the sensation of what home would feel like. "Is this it?" was the question of a saint as he walked into a holy city and found the streets littered and flooded in nauseating smells from decomposition of matter. It looked much better in the painting. Paintings do not speak; they have no need to articulate anything. The mirror is already broken. What was ever so exceptional about this? So comfortable? Perhaps exceptional and comfortable are not compatible. Do you want to hide or to disclose? But disclosure yet seems so simple, it can all be fit into a three-word phrase. How often can it be uttered? How long until it dissolves and drowns in the familiar? Why would one want to be back? The depiction of objects should never be like in dreams, because of the time quality associated with them as they unfold. The true nature of the object is awakefulness, hence, radical whatness.
The whatness of an object in a painting isn't thingness, rather, the opening of a world in itself. Worlds are composed by objects, self-referent and self-contained. Can objects be moved from one location to another? Does it matter in a painting if the view can be alternatively rotated? Adjusting points of view, manifold times, this is what seems really important. But how do you call something a point at all from a position of permanent dislocation? I occupy a privileged place, a space, without texture or topography, without mapping, without true perception; it's constantly fleeting, a mere reminder of a possibility that never quite materializes. Perhaps everything would be better than the collision between this free floating space and the curse of familiar topography. You can touch over and over, test your limits, tune your judgments, and yet feel nothing at all. How to escape from what you never were? I would like to recover something more fundamental, more fundamental than conversations and images, something on the back of memories. Something so primal like the puncturing smell of detergent one felt in the bathroom of somebody you once loved, that breeze of the summer that only invades desiring bodies at the ocean, the texture of unshaven skin in the morning.
Did you ever walk in a souk? The ideal museum of the mind, that is. Everything is an object, everything is a thing, and everything is in a composition, a composition of perception rather than of order. This is what I'm looking for: composite and yet irreducible feelings, in lieu of sterile memories. How to assemble one crass object next to another without losing their quality of crassness and yet forming a unity that is not a totality but more like a sequences of monads? Totality is perverse: there's no entrance or exit. Crass, like "interesting" is not an aesthetic quality or a degree of intensity in appereance - in appereance there's always isonomy and equality - but rather the negation of the possibility of a phenomenon, it's the anti-phenomenon: The illusion of durability without appereance - pure thingness. But pure thingness is also the negation of creation, that's why crass objects create the illusion of anti-art, nevertheless, "This is not a pipe", writes Magritte in his own painting. I want an inventory of memory populated with things, with primal things, and not with photographic memory; photography is the fulfillment of the contemporary illusion of death, of a transient death, that happens over and over.
I want it to happen only once, like the moment of love. I want to be able to die. I want to be able to live. I want to be able taste. I want it to happen only once. It's the reenactment of memory, the reenactment of feeling, what causes the perpetual distortion, as if one were forever willing to return to a primal moment of intensity that was never experienced in this life, a vault of memory that remains closed for as long as one lives. That's why I'm so attracted to thingness. Caressing the cheek of a sleeping T. and feeling at the simple touch the years of absence between the longing and the moment of love, the water of glass atop the piano tiptoeing carefully around the notes, the smell of letters, the pearly texture of mussels, intoxications of mint and basil, the skin of blue cheese, imagining what Kuwait looks like from the Portuguese Fort, an I love you in the Arabic language. Those are the things I love. I am reminded of God, should he happen to be. He didn't describe feelings, he didn't see images. He only named things. Isn't that what Klimt did in his paintings? Think of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The sleepless nights our lips cracked. Familiary is a curse, so is the everyday. It's like an installation. I want the excitement, the endless possibility, the strangeness, of what can never be had.
|Gustav Klimt, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I", 1907|