Tag Archives: “Memoirs of the Blind”

A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 5)

Ah!  Wherefore with infection should he live,

And with his presence grace impiety,

That sin by him advantage should achieve,

And lace itself with his society?

Why should false painting imitate his cheek,

And steal dead seeing from his living hue?

Why should poor beauty indirectly seek

Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?

Still readable under the artist’s painstaking whitewash, these lines from the sixty-seventh of Shakespeare’s sonnets afford a point of entry into a body of work that borrows them, with respect, for purposes of its own.  Their consecutive rhetorical questions begin insistently to develop – like a photograph, perhaps – some of the whys and wherefores of the work that inscribes them:  matters of invention and imitation, truth and falsehood, blindness and insight, life and death.  Not reducible to themes, these concerns operate rather as the pivotal topoi around which each component of Andrews’ Sonnets, positioned in a complex constellation with the others, turns.  Each work in this series, while retaining a singular and idiomatic status, offers itself to the viewer as exemplary:  irreplaceable in its form and effects, but addressing (as Shakespeare’s sonnets address, even as they are addressed) broader concerns of a theoretical as well as a practical order.

For brevity’s sake, then, one image (if it is one) may serve as example:  the 1994 diptych that Andrews calls “Picture This,” a composite gouache portrait layered over partially whitewashed photocopies of sonnets forty-eight through sixty-nine.  For the viewer who is of necessity also the reader of this characteristically palimpsestic text, the title’s imperative translates as a pressing question that is not rhetorical:  Picture what?  For the digitalization of the photographic “original” that preceded its systematic manual reduplication in a subtle palette of greys and yellows renders the question of what appears – the who, what, when and where of reference – indeterminate.  In fact, what we see (or think we see, for even at first glance one’s perception of this work depends to an extraordinary extent on one’s relative proximity to or distance from it, fostering a distinct skepsis or doubt) is an effect of the artist’s superimposition of two images, an act that collapses space as well as time in the diptych’s two dimensions.  A photograph of director Jonathan Demme on the set of the 1993 AIDS-themed film Philadelphia, reproduced in the New York Times, is projected, as in a dream or a hallucination, onto a Polaroid portrait of Andrews’ late lover and muse that was staged in the artist’s studio.  The hands, then, do not properly belong to the head, or with it.  They do not reach out in advance of the unseeing eyes, feeling their way forward through space, anticipating some possible contact to come.  [I am indebted here to Derrida’s analysis in Memoirs of the Blind of the function of the hand in a range of drawings of the blind:  “These blind men explore – and seek to foresee there where they do not see, no longer see, or do not yet see.  The space of the blind always conjugates these tenses and times of memory – but simultaneously” (5-6).]  Rather, they frame the gaze of an absent other.  What may first appear as a portrait that, however mediated and manipulated, retains a mimetic relation to its model, emerges instead as an invented tableau.

Most notoriously and explicitly debated in the second preface to Rousseau’s epistolary novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, the relation between portrait and tableau has generally been presumed, in the western aesthetic tradition at least, to be antithetical, mutually exclusive.  According to this conventional wisdom, an image or a text may imitate a particular referent – a person, place, object or event – and so constitute itself as a portrait of sorts.  The tableau, on the other hand, can lay claim to no specific extra-textual referent and hence is fictive, primarily self-signifying.  Underlying the terms of the distinction is the largely uninterrogated faith of the reader in the possibility of determining the referential status of the work at hand.  When we read an image or a written text, seek to understand it, we assume knowledge of and control over its referential and rhetorical modes (as we do when we read the question in Shakespeare’s sixty-seventh sonnet as rhetorical, rather than as real, and possibly urgent).  As Paul de Man argues in his analysis of the prefatory debate over whether Rousseau’s novel is a portrait or a tableau,

The innumerable writings [and images – Ed.] that dominate our lives are made intelligible by a preordained agreement as to their referential authority; this agreement is merely contractual, never constitutive.  It can be broken at all times and every piece of writing [and every image – Ed.] can be questioned as to its rhetorical mode.  Whenever this happens, what originally appeared to be a document or instrument becomes a text and, as a consequence, its readability is put in question.  The questioning points back to earlier texts and engenders, in its turn, other texts which claim (and fail) to close off the textual field.   [Allegories of Reading, 204]. 

“Picture This,” like the other components of the Sonnets sequence as well as the portraits in Facsimile, unsettles not only the question of its own referential status (in a way that does not allow for the closure of a final reading), but the very logic of mutual exclusion, the either/or that has long governed our understanding of the distinction between portrait and tableau.  No less than Rousseau’s novel, “Such a work can be read as the ‘portrait’ of its own negative gesture.  It follows that, if the work indeed represents objects qui ne sont point, then it is the ‘portrait’ of the subject’s initiation to this knowledge…the portrait of an impossible tableau”  (de Man, Allegories of Reading, 199).

It may be that Andrews’ own initiation to this knowledge is legible in the allegorical self-portrait incorporated in the series under the title “W.”, the cryptic initial that serves as his self-inscription and signature.  It is allegorical in that it “portrays” a certain blindness on the part of the artist to the predicament figured in the work.  Like the beloved in “Picture This,” the bereaved lover depicted here is unseeing, whether wittingly or not.  In this instance, it is a question of neither the “dead seeing” nor the “false painting” cited in Shakespeare’s verses.  Rather, the work is rigorously true to the terms of The Draughtsman’s Contract, enunciated by the draughtsman himself in a memorable speech that draws upon the “ambiguous evidence of an obscure allegory” in Peter Greenaway’s film to situate the figure for the artist “in the space between knowing and seeing.”  It is a contract that proves binding for the viewer as well:  “Painting,” like drawing, “requires a certain blindness…. Perhaps you have taken a great deal on trust”  (London, BFI, 1982).

 

 

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 3)

If at the time of the portraits’ rendering the models were absent from the artist’s field of vision, they were vividly “present” to his memory.  Indeed, Facsimile makes a compelling case, by and for example, for locating the origin of drawing as such in memory rather than in perception – or more precisely in a perception that partakes, from the first, of memory, “an intense effort of memory that evokes and calls back to life – a memory that says to everything ‘Arise, Lazarus'”  (Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind:  The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, 1993, 48).  Baudelaire agrues the same case in “L’art mnemonique”:  “tous les bons et vrais dessinateurs dessinent d’apres l’image ecrit dans leur cerveau, et non d’apres la nature” [“all good and true draughtsmen draw from the image written in their brain, and not from nature”].  The conceptual figuring of memories, including those of past perceptions, as images inscribed in the mind leaves little room for nostalgia and its attendant pathos, and Andrews’ portraits are remarkably free of both.

A number of further mediations involved here, to which the series’ title likewise recalls us, remain to be reckoned with.  Prior to undertaking the first part of Facsimile, the artist was absent from Toronto, away from home and his habitual locus of production, and he first received the source images via transatlantic fax.  The painstaking sgraffito portraits are thus copies (the drawings) of copies (the faxed images) of copies (the photocopies), of copies (the newsprint) of copies (the half-tones) of copies (the snapshots) of an ever-receding original, and indeed their deliberate visual recitation of already degraded images conveys to the viewer an unmistakable sense of the wearing-away of what they nonetheless powerfully evoke, and with it a reminder of the inevitable lapses that compromise the work of memory.  As critic and curator Annette Hurtig observes,

The likenesses thus produced repeat the inadequacies of the faxed images.  Their imperfections protest memory’s failures.  Andrews’ loving, meditative replications, with their varying degrees of image degeneration, make Facsimile a figure for the unreliability of memory, as well [as] a metaphor for and an enactment of grieving.  A visual elegy for friends, loved-ones and a beloved lost to AIDS, Facsimile laments the way the limitations of memory leave us doubly bereft.

“Facsimile,” then, also designates the technology of reproduction and transmission that inhabits the portraits, both in their resemblance, especially from a distance, to the fleeting registrations of a laser printer, and more fundamentally as a condition of their very possibility.  Andrews’ series thus inscribes a long history of thinking technology as prosthesis, on the model of an extension of the human body, a supplement to its physical limitations, as well as the ambivalence that has shadowed this history.  The technology that extends the body’s force, provisionally compensating for its frailties and shortcomings, of course also confirms these failings, recalling them to reluctant and fallible memory.  The ultimate vulnerability of the body is death, that limit with which technology has always been intimately linked.

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 10)

Because, as Jarman attests, “we don’t lack images – just good ones,” because “The image is a prison of the soul, your heredity, your education, your vices and aspirations, your qualities, your psychological world” (Blue, 15), Blue forgoes visual imagery, presenting its viewers instead with a blue after-image sustained beyond its ephemeral lifespan for seventy-seven minutes:

In the pandemonium of image

I present you with the universal Blue

Blue an open door to soul

An infinite possibility

Becoming tangible  [Blue, 11]

The supplanting of image by the “infinite possibility” of Blue is further linked to Jarman’s own history, and specifically to his ambivalent sense that (like Yves Klein’s) it is drawing to a premature close:  “Some part of me dares this blindness to progress, it says I’ve seen enough” (Smiling, 230).  It is perhaps the same part of him that seeks relief from the “cacophony,” the “pandemonium of image”:

Over the mountains is the shrine to Rita, where all at the end of the line call.  Rita is the Saint of the Lost Cause.  The saint of all who are at their wit’s end, who are hedged in and trapped by the facts of the world.  The facts, detached from cause, trapped the Blue Eyed Boy in a system of unreality.  Would all these blurred facts that deceive dissolve in his last breath?  For accustomed to believing in  image, an absolute idea of value, his world had forgotten the command of essence:  Thou Shall Not Create Unto Thyself Any Graven Image, although you know the task is to fill the empty page.  From the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from image.  [Blue, 15]

Saturating the screen with “the universal Blue,” Jarman releases his viewers from image as an affront to sore eyes, but not from the obligation to read.  His caveat to the commandment invokes the ongoing “task” of writing, and with it the inevitable, invisible images in the language enlisted “to fill the empty page” and destined for our ears:  the images we hear rather than see in Blue.  As Derrida reminds us in his Memoirs of the Blind,

One must always remember that the word, the vocable, is heard and understood, the sonorous phenomenon remaining invisible as such.  Taking up time rather than space in us, it is addressed not only from the blind to the blind, like a code for nonseeing, but speaks to us, in truth, all the time of the blindness that constitutes it.  Language is spoken, it speaks to itself, which is to say from / of blindness.  It always speaks to us from / of the blindness that constitutes it.  [Memoirs of the Blind, 3]

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 8)

Waves of icy sulphadiazine breaking on the farther shores after we have crossed over in a blizzard of pills, a rainbow-coloured confetti of serpent poisons, sharp-toothed as the adder.  Words, no longer strung out on the lines of narrative, escape and hang round corners waiting to jump out of the dictionary, restore primal disorder.  The emerald apple sits on my bedside table, its perfection disordered in my mind’s eye…. Apple of my eye.

Someone else says losing your sight must be frightening.  Not so, as long as you have a safe harbour in the sea of shadows.  Just inconvenient.  If you woke on a dark day, had only the mind’s eye with which to see your way, would you turn back?

My drip ticks away a long afternoon.  The sulphadiazine battles with the cysts to bring me second sight.  By tea time the migraine takes over.  They play the ‘theme tune’ from Death in Venice as I enter the brain scan….

My eyes are back, I can read.  Though the grey shadows circle at the periphery, and the drugs make me dizzy and disorientated…. I could be out by Saturday.  I’m stronger, have put my weight back on; but feel like an invalid.  I can’t believe I’ll ever be well again.  The drugs have brought on a rash.  I’ll be on them for life, and how long will that be?

The lilies Lynn sent me have lasted eight days.

A woman leads a blind child slowly down the stairs.

In the vision field you gaze for an eternity at small bright lights and press a buzzer each time lights flash on and off.  It is confusing and my eyes, heavy with antihistamine, fall asleep.  An eye for an eye.  I return to the waiting room….

I wish I had brought a video and recorded these last weeks here….

What the eye doesn’t see the mind doesn’t grieve for….

The day of our death is sealed up.  I do not wish to die…yet.  I would love to see my garden through several summers….

I view the world through drunken eyes….

The horizon has closed in….

X-rays take an age.  I hate this waiting room…. A sign says Come Early, Save Time.  [Modern Nature, 304 ff]

The language of these journal entries and others like them affords an opportunity – and imposes a certain obligation – to read Jarman reading, as it links the threat of blindness posed by HIV not merely with a de rigueur clock-watching “during the long hours” in hospital waiting rooms and wards, but with an imperative to read the time even as he continues to record “across the empty page” a time that is “all awry” (“My weakness is my inability to grasp that literate and intelligent people could do anything but agree that this time is all awry” [Smiling, 111]).  And the responsibility to read the time is not Jarman’s alone.  Indeed, its urgency is not confined to those already suffering the incalculable effects of the virus, among them the foreclosing of life’s horizon.  The journal’s intermittently apostrophic mode – here, “If you woke on a dark day, had only the mind’s eye with which to see your way, would you turn back?” – directs the imperative not only to its eventual readers, but more generally to all persons of voice:  first, second and third.  By way of a question that, once again, is neither simply rhetorical nor strictly hypothetical, the prospect of blindness evokes the perhaps compensatory and certainly allegorical figuration of a supplementary “vision” (the “mind’s eye,” “second sight,” an “eye for an eye”), allowing for the possibility that “blindness may be a blessing, even the gift of poetic and political clairvoyance, the chance for prophecy” (Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, 1993, 128).  All as the drip delivers the drugs that Jarman will be on “for life, and how long will that be?”, even as it “ticks away a long afternoon.”  Appearing three years later, his last film will allude (again apostrophically) to the long duration of the brief time remaining:  “This illness knocks you for six / Just as you start to forget it / A bullet in the back of the head / Might be easier / You know, you can take longer than / The second world war to get to the grave”  (Blue, 26).

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