WHAT CAN BE SUSTAINED AND REPEATED WITHOUT EMPTYING OUT?
I am with Garcia Lorca in many things, especially when he says he does not believe in creation but in discovery, doesn’t believe in the seated artist, but in the one who is walking the road. The imagination is a spiritual apparatus. Unable to invent the world, it does the next best thing, and that is to assemble it piecemeal, ugly and strange, bright and clear, and dumbly discovered.
FEAR OF REPEATING ONESELF, OF REPEATING ONESELF
may be the greatest bugaboo of late capitalist society. The fear has been marketed so effectively that a will to sustain attention on any one thing can be cancelled out easily in favour of the latest distraction. I am to serve this economy of perpetual replacement that cancels out consideration of a continuum of things and ideas and attentiveness which might constitute a thing in itself. Ursula Leguin speaks about “the form conferring power” of words, and I would extend this to all manner of attentiveness.
MATTER MATTERS LESS WITHOUT YOU. An artist may sustain a body of work as an ecosystem, in which every part is used to every advantage, not consuming any part without regenerating it. This approach suggests a fictional level of attention and attentiveness, bordering (romantically) on surrender. But, in purely practical terms, if you ever want evidence of what kind of artist you are, or even the kind of person, you need look no further than how you spend your time. The ecosystem of discovery/making/discovery hinges on one’s attendance to unique experience, transposing behaviours and reactions and events into useful projections (objects, images). Naturally, patterns emerge through repetition, and repetition yields up a type of discovery that reveals everything about itself, especially its sorry limits.
BUT I MISS EVERYTHING.
Less than a month after my friend Peter had his ashes cast into the ocean near the Louisburg lighthouse on the southeast coast of Cape Breton, I heard a philosopher on the radio, saying that he would bury his beloved dog on the farm she so enjoyed, but would stop short of erecting a headstone on the burial spot. This would “sentimentalize” the relationship in a way that took dignity away from the dog. “Animals must be animals,” he said, and this seemed a sentiment he could live with. And I wondered about how we are able to reflect on matterlessness and mattering, and about the associative values of affixing a monument of stone, making a private grave from earth alone, or burning and diffusing remains using wind and water. Stone, earth, and fire, wind and water, in these gestures, all produce an idea of ongoingness, if not permanence, joined as they are to the gesture and memory in a living body.
Peter had a large commercial print of a painting. A few days before he died, he had a friend bring it from his apartment to his room in palliative care. It hung on a wall at the foot of his bed. He loved this painting, of a shadowed room with windowed doors flung wide open to the sea and sky, curtains billowing inward, a glowing wood floor that dropped off into space below the water’s horizon. I said, “That’s really beautiful, Peter.” He shrugged, pointed to the painted horizon, and said, “It’s where I’m going.”
LAST YEAR I BEGAN A WORK ENTITLED MIDNIGHT READER,
to be executed in an edition of six. (The idea of editioning, of repeatability, is slippery here, as you will see; ongoingness is less of a problem.)
Midnight Reader is, at the end, a video nightlight: a tiny LCD screen embedded in a wall in the home of someone who speculates that they may want to live with it. Day and night, the small screen displays a DVD copy of a slow walk I took through the home in which the work is sited.
I walk, slowly, in the dark. My right hand is illuminated by the beam from a light mounted on top of my video camera. It feels its way, making a single, continuous line through the house, over the surfaces of walls, perhaps over drawings made by children, windows, books, tables, foodstuffs, clothing, beds, pictures, trophies, sinks, possibly a piano. The fingertip tracing, made while walking, ranges from eye level to thigh level. I don’t crouch, I don’t stretch. The line I make plays out my natural range of touch as I walk.
THE WORK IS TO BE LIVED WITH,
and, while the “real” time of the performed drawing is intrinsic to the video material, I believe that this “living time” is the time of the whole work.
There is no public venue ever. When I lecture on or write about or show Midnight Reader to potential collectors, I show an “artist’s proof” of the video/performance/drawing—that is, evidence of a fingertip tracing which I performed in my own home, but which was never installed there. I make a curious separation here: I may show a slide view of the video nightlight as installed in someone’s home, though I cannot (and would not) show its moving contents (These are too moving—for the owners, certainly, and moving still in me). In this pastiche representation I cobble together for the public – partly maquette, partly completed work, you and anyone else can only imagine, from far off, the real anticipation and participation of those who might be living with their own Midnight Reader, even as I write, even as you read, even now. Even I cannot speculate as to what it is like to come upon the thing, in the middle of the night, while making one’s way to the kitchen, barefoot. There the hand is, inching its way into the youngest child’s bedroom ten years after s/he has left home, feeling a kitchen towel, sifting through long defunct material details, day after day, years from now.
Before making this work, I had only conceived of a formal way of making a continuous line drawing out of light and time. Starting inside the front door of a house, my hand on the doorknob, I would trace with my fingertips the interior surfaces of the house. The house would be cast in darkness, temporarily emptied of its inhabitants. My hand, what it touched, its singular path, would be illuminated by a narrow flashlight beam and recorded on video.
The light drawing would be both representative and invisible, I reasoned: a continuous trace always disappearing into darkness. I had thought that the force of the drawn line, whether seen or not—this commitment to continuity— would override our inattention and forgetfulness. I had thought that the visibility of the performed line would emerge beyond vision, able to be held (to be beheld) in the mind of the viewer. Objects requiring detailed exploration would create a pause in the walk, both a density and a hole in continuous time.
I HAD THOUGHT THAT THE WHOLE LINE COULD BE HELD IN THE MIND.
But I fear that video, like my selectively illuminated darkness, and like too much of my waking life, is a world of sporadic connection and dim memory, emerging from darkness and concealed again by darkness, an amnesia that is amplified by remembered details, as episodic as any narrative: once you have moved on, that is where you are.
AND I HAD CONCEIVED OF MY HAND AS THE SOLE WITNESS.
It turns out that this hand (like the video apparatus and like many other witnesses) understands exactly nothing; it dumbly records its touch only for those who supply instant recognition of what is touched, because they live there. As I walk and work to bear witness, it turns out that the only reliable witnesses are those who are not present, for whom these surfaces are the outer skin of memory. For them, I did not record only what I touched; what I touched were mere signs of life lived in the house. It is the difference between touching a lightswitch and touching a hot lightbulb.
TO PAUSE ON THE MOMENTARY IS TO HOPE TO ELONGATE PRESENCE, DELAY DYING.
Presence is momentary, contingent on what is actually unsustainable: a perpetual wakefulness. Representing presence pulls at the momentary but always leans into memory. No way around this, I’m afraid: “The moment I notice the camera on my left shoulder, my eyes are drained of use; the loss is sudden and frightening…”
Thinking about the moment is already the outer limit of “now,” but this is so intangible, your hand goes right through it. If presence involves representation, it must certainly be larger than the momentary (the shutter’s click or the almost instantaneous digitization of light), so that presence is made roomy enough for memory.
Here is what presence looks like when manifested as a performing, authoring body:
1. Drawing (direct notation, reportage “from the field”, connecting from without, from adrift, from “not in the fold,” from discomfort, but not disenchantment)
2. Diagramming (the most direct form of an idea, performed)
3. Editing (cutting details adrift, losing details in transit)
4. Reading (witnessing, as a marker of provisional or nominal presence)
5. Gathering (almost noiseless selectivity)
6. Passing through (inscribing time, death, not dying)
I go looking for these, as follows.
One Year of Mourning:
From October 15 1993 to Oct. 15 1994, Paula Levine cried every day, a self-prescribed act of mourning for lost loved ones. There were simply too many lost in simply too short a time, so that grieving became a state of loss, rather than an articulated act.
A CONSTRUCT OF TIME IS AS SOLID AS A STONE.
The time of one year describes a period of mourning she was familiar with from Jewish tradition. When grief is shapeless and sprawling, the embrace of tradition and its known forms makes a construct of time as material as stone, earth, fire, wind and water.
THEY WERE THE FIRST THINGS SHE SAW EACH DAY.
At the beginning, she elected to keep the residue of her ritual, an excess that could not be discarded: each bundle of tissues she used, each day, bagged and dated. These small bodies came to fill the walls of her studio. They were the first things she saw each day when she came to mourn, so that the tissue-bodies themselves became things to be mourned. This diagrammatic act produces an inadequate database of loss, and measuring the immeasurable tends to multiply loss. The cumulative form of the memorial—normally one, fixed marker— became “two thousand, four hundred, fifty-two clusters of tissues, collected, dated and stored. Not to hold on to sorrow, but rather to mark the path through it.” (Paula Levine)
In the end (not the end of grief, but the end of mourning) One Year of Mourning assumes several forms—installation, photographs, writing, video. These forms seems eventual rather than final; their ephemeral qualities refute their finality as artefacts, documents, certainly as monuments, as an end to anything.
Her isolated and continuous acts of mourning are not represented in the video, though they are far from invisible.
A LOOP AND A LINE ARE PERPETUAL BY NATURE.
The video “monument,” which incorporates liveness (her living hand) does not return us to a past moment, but forever re-enacts inescapable loss in the present, and the inescapable loss of the present. Her hand enters the frame, in silence, to place one of the wadded white tissues on a white ground. They are clouds, planets, birds, wreathes, smoke, stones—from moment to moment we must find out, again and again, what they are.
For all we know they are points in a process that has no end, except the nominal margin of one year. Perhaps (and more likely) the temporal bracket is a lifetime, however long or short that turns out to be. The video we watch could as easily be a loop as a line, perpetual by nature, each stop a point of return—both the eventual kind (acting as a site for the projection of our own mortality), and the instantaneous (small cues for the sharp pang of memory).
The Dark Horses
Alison Rossiter is taking apart the moment of the photograph. That moment is plainly indivisible—the shutter being an only nominal or arbitrary marker—and so she draws instead.
DRAWING TAKES PLACE IN A DELAY OF TIME
(before the image is an image, before it finishes and dies) and so suspends the unendurable– drawing, drawing out. What I mean is that, while the shutter closes upon the death of the image, drawing with light keeps it from quite dying.
A statue of a horse, drawn with light, lives in a twilight: a stone-cold monument of a hero’s horse – plainly of the past but pedestaled among the immortal – is made to move and breathe in a dying time that is most likely ours. They are incongruously modelled not on living, breathing horses, but on monumental statues of horses: massive iron and bronze and marble equestrian and equine figures, famous and obscure, pedestaled and fountained, codified in each aspect of lifted hoof, all over the parks you have walked in New York and Italy and beyond. Alison Rossiter photographs them, or finds photographs of them in books. The origin of the photographs seems not to matter. They are references, notes, for her eyes and hand, to be consulted in the privacy of her darkroom, which she transforms into a drawing studio.
WHY DRAW IN THE DARK?
In the red-dark of the darkroom, she sets a photograph of an equestrian statue on an easel so as to watch it while drawing. The unexposed photographic paper emerges from a shallow bath of developer, animate, latent, clear. As she withdraws it from the bath and lays it down, it is all potential, pulled into line by her hand and a palette of penlights—some penlights make broad sweeps, others have been masked off to trace details with a tiny pinprick of light.
Here, the time of the shutter is replaced by the time of the hand and the breathing body. If there exists a moment of departure from this time, it is the moment that the light drawing enters the fixative bath. Otherwise, there are no partitions. A drawing might take fifteen minutes, with several returns to the developing bath, but it is also an imperfect memory of historical time, a weak shadow of the immortality that is conferred upon the stone monument. And there are many, many failures of the present, many Dark Horses that die from too much drawing, too much light, too much time.
The arcane study of equestrian statuary is both a bow to history (the codes of this form are portals into the authoritative histories of martyrs, heroes and victors) and a reminder of the death of language—the disappearance of such codes being not unlike the disappearance of the defeated ones from recorded histories. Though the monuments continue to exist in public space, it is not social space, insofar as the monument is composed of dead signifiers that transmit their embedded information only to those who have consulted the authoritative texts.
THOSE WHO ARE PICTURED WILL LIVE FOREVER,
and it is perhaps this immutable fact (rather than any superstition) that gives rise to the fear that the soul can be stolen by a photograph. The Dark Horse light drawings, then, are the ghosts of souls stolen by and for history.
Living forever in the moment of the photograph does not ensure that one will be remembered. When Rossiter is not drawing in the dark, it is no coincidence that she can be found searching in junkshops, rescuing family photographs that have been cut loose, by death, from their families, from their recognizability, and from their significance. This is unacceptable loss, and what is especially poignant in this gathering pursuit is the fact that Rossiter has gathered a family in life in much the same way, in the face of unacceptable loss. Having lost her mother at age twelve, her brother (and only sibling) in her late twenties, and her father a few years later, she now gathers and remembers others.
Though Rossiter has been making photograms for twenty years, the direct ancestors of her shadowy, undying horses can be found in the work she did for Site Santa Fe in 1990. For one series of many in this elaborate photographic installation, she collected clam shells on the New Jersey shore. What is remarkable about the photograms she made of these shells is that they are individual death portraits. Each shell she collected and placed on a sheet of photographic paper has the distinguishing feature of a tiny hole, which becomes a pinhole lens, illuminating the body of the shell with a voluminous and ethereal glow. It is this light that brings the clamshell to life in the photogram, and it is a shattering irony that the same hole was produced by the entry of a parasitic worm which caused the clam’s death.
THE ARGUMENT ADVANCED BY A SCEPTIC IS MOST PERSUASIVE.
I sometimes sustain focus on a word and its associated meanings, and in this ruminative time, if I do not look away, nobody dies. Even where I find contradictions, nobody dies.
The word trope is commonly used to describe figurative language—that is, words used in other than their proper sense, in order to persuade. Oddly, in philosophy, trope describes an argument advanced by a sceptic.
The articulated presence of the artist may be just such a philosophical trope. Of all forms of evidence, that provided by the experience of touch may be most expressive of our latent scepticism, and yet the image of touch, the trope of touch is the most reassuring, the least arguable.
The place where the hand comes to rest announces, “Where I have been, you are now.”
And we are helpless to disagree.
for Peter, November 11, 2004