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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 10)

It is fitting, then, that the final sequence of “Untitled” (2000-2001), subtitled “the future” (deliberately rendered in the lower case), should take the form of a multiply-mediated citation of Derek Jarman:  a series of blue frames traversed by the scan lines that Andrews produced by videotaping a vacant television screen, photographing the resulting tape as it appeared in turn on his monitor, then photocopying and transferring the frames onto the mylar strips.  The last part of “Untitled” is thus readable in part as a homage to Jarman, as Blue itself is readable in part as a homage to the work of Yves Klein.  More specifically, Andrews’ photocopy transfers stand as so many mute (or “still”) commemorations of the eloquent testimony in the voiced soundtrack of Jarman’s final film, which is pointedly not reproduced, but rather entrusted to the viewer’s fallible memory and unpredictable sense of responsibility.  Attesting to the distance, the mortal difference between Blue‘s provenance and its own – “Untitled” (2000-2001) is of a time that Jarman did not live to see – Andrews work proffers a series of afterimages of what is itself an afterimage:  “the future” figured, poignantly, as “a short sequel of sorts.”

In the context of this blog’s trajectory of readings, Andrews’ inexact visual quotation may also evoke one of Seneca’s own citations in “De brevitate vitae,” enlisted to substantiate his claim that life, whatever its duration, “is long if you know how to use it”:  “so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets:  ‘It is but a small part of life we really live.’  Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time” (Seneca, trans. Costa, 60)  [adeo ut quod apud maximum poetarum more oraculi dictum est, verum esse non dubitem:  “Exigua pars est vitae, qua vivmus.”  Ceterem quidem omne spatium non vita sed tempus est].  Because, as the philosopher’s English-language editors and translators acknowledge, “The quotation has not been identified,” what Seneca bequeaths to us is but a “prose rendering of an unknown poet” (Seneca, ed. Costa, 117 n4).  The erstwhile “greatest of poets,” relegated by time to the rank of unknown, lies degraded in the compost of cultural memory, surviving in and as a prosaic paraphrase of a brief remark, partaking of the shared fate that Andrews’ work never lets us forget.

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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 2)

The critical force and historiographical import of Andrews’ project may be traced to Facsimile, a four-part series begun in 1990 and first exhibited in 1991.  A consideration of what the title itself gives us to think affords one opening onto the complexity of this work and the challenges, even the imperatives, it continues to pose for the viewer.  “Facsimile” is first of all the making (from the Latin facere) of a copy or likeness (similis), the work of imitation constitutive of portraiture.  Read through Andrews’ title, the images ranged here are understood to refer themselves to models that they reproduce or represent by way of a particular medium and material:  in this case, drawing on bleached beeswax tablets coated with oil and graphite.  From the first, however, these portraits trouble conventional premises about the fundamentally mimetic relation of art to nature, image to model.  For these “copies” are made not at one, but at several removes from their “originals,” and remarking the specificity of the resulting distances, spatial as well as temporal, is part of the project here.  The “Proud Lives” to which these likenesses recall the viewer are those of men and women now dead, commemorated in a regular feature of that title in the Toronto bi-weekly Xtra!, which publishes photographs of and tributes to members of the community lately lost to HIV-related illness.  Andrews’ images, then, have their antecedents in these photographs, snapshots donated by the survivors.  The multiply-mediated gazes that look out from these portraits do so from a then and there that is divided from our own here and now not just by the passage of time, but more radically by death.  They address the viewer from that other time and place, from a past that remains, in ways to be elaborated and analyzed, determinant for our present and our future.

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‘what history teaches,’ part 6

The epigraph to the essay “Some Haunting,” dated 1994, cites the Joyce of Ulysses alluding to the Shakespeare of Hamlet:  “He is a ghost, a shadow now, the wind by Elsinore’s rocks or what you will, the sea’s voice, a voice heard only in the heart of him who is the substance of his shadow” (66).  The quotation opens Shurin’s evocation of his own ghosts (if they are his):

I’m no longer afraid these AIDS apparitions might be real (they’ve lost the advantage of surprise), but my subsequent clench at the gut or failing of the knees shows a terror more truculent than fear of the Impossible.  (The Impossible?  What, anymore, is that?)  These particular visitations – these “voices heard in the heart of him” – pursue.  They know my name, and my whole shaken body responds to their address….  The ghosts who walk in my city (my ghostly city) are cast as vividly as any childhood stored in a dipped madeleine – with that fleeting precision memory affords, and the rubbed-out edges it requires.  And they rise just as suddenly….  They flash and seize….  These visions are gone in the next shift of wind, of course….  Too late for me, who have been stuck by recognition, a madeleine-rush of memory that comes, alas, too frequently to be savored, but whose measure is too steady to be ignored.

I am haunted.  [66-67]**

The ghost, the shadow, the wind, the sea’s voice – always just gone – that pursue Shurin and address him by name again figure a demand made by the past on the present:  pay attention as if your life depended on it, recognize as your own concern what threatens to disappear irretrievably.  The sheer force of this demand disrupts the complacency of memory and amnesia alike.  As William Haver observes in the context of his own consideration of Unbound, “The ghost is the figure of what we can never quite forget altogether, but also of that which memory can never satisfactorily recover:  the figure of the impossibility of forgetting what we have forgotten.  The ghost is the figure of what disrupts every attempt at historiographical pacification” (unpublished ms., 12).  And the same claim might be made for citation:  for example, the citation of the past readable in a photograph of the author and his friends at the Gay Freedom Day celebration in Golden Gate Park in 1975.  Contemplating an image of the past twenty years later under the title “Shifting Paradise,” Shurin writes:

…one no longer knows the actual from the iconic – the icon becomes the actual!  Where physical distance blurs temporal distance refines.  This much has not shifted:  on a shelf a lucite frame encodes the past in a photo – unregenerate – as a paradise of pure loss.

But something has shifted:  the resonant image, gingerly holding its chemical colors against the fading power of sunlight, remains the same, but the very nature of paradise has changed.  Even while – eyes dewy – focused back on primal beauty, the unforeseen – HIV – transfigures sight, beholder and beheld.  “This sceptered isle,” Shakespeare’s Gaunt has said, “This fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection.”  The magic island is flooded in a breakaway recursive tide; what did not hold – infected – returns to the image of origin.  (78)***

What follows this reflection on the fading photograph that cites a paradise now irretrievably lost is a parenthetical quotation from Gertrude Stein, the concluding lines of a remarkable poem with the hypothetical title “If I Told Him” (and the more assured subtitle “A Completed Portrait of Picasso”):  “Let me recite what history teaches.  History teaches” (78).  This history lesson, in the form of a citation that itself inscribes, or performs, citation, quoting itself as it unfolds, delivers not meaning, but what Unbound elsewhere terms “enactment” (35), demarcating the properly ethical dimension of its poetics and its historiography.

__________

** The haunting of the survivor is powerfully figured by John Greyson in “Overtaken,” Alphabet City 7 (“Social Insecurity”), 2000, 68-79.

*** In In the Event:  Reading Journalism, Reading Theory, I propose that “the photographic image takes place in the mode of a pledge:  Everything may be preserved for history.  But if what is preserved is in the process of disappearing, perhaps what is kept is only the promise”  (Stanford UP, 1999, 3).

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“And our faces, my heart, brief as photos”: recollecting John Berger

After running across John Berger’s lines about poverty in our century in the context of a blog post on Haiti (cf my previous post), I was prompted to return to my favourite among Berger’s books, And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, first published in 1984.  This volume has been by my side in times of great sorrow.  It opens with the following poem.  

When I open my wallet  

to show my papers  

pay money  

or check the time of a train  

I look at your face.  

    

The flower’s pollen  

is older than the mountains  

Aravis is young  

as mountains go.  

    

The flower’s ovules  

will be seeding still  

when Aravis then aged  

is no more than a hill.  

    

The flower in the heart’s  

wallet, the force  

of what lives us  

outliving the mountain.  

    

And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.  

John Berger

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