Thursday, 6 November 2008

An Ice Bar for Dead Souls

Roger Hiorns’ Seizure is the third Artangel project, after Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) and Gregor Schneider’s Die Familie Scheider (2004) to use a domestic London space as its canvas. It’s worth contrasting the three pieces. When Whiteread materialized the inside of a Victorian house in Bow, it was her foregrounding of the subtle traces of familial life – a scrap of wallpaper or the imprint of a light fitting – that enabled the work to speak so eloquently of the past. Likewise, when Schneider mirrored a family home across two adjacent houses in Whitechapel, the work drew much of its power from a forensic reconstruction of the details of bourgeois privacy and its traumas.

The context and procedures of Hiorns’ piece could not be more different. We move from the East End (an area of London whose poetic resources have surely peaked after years of overexploitation) to what is by comparison the Terra Nullis of Walworth in South-East London. Rather than the previous projects’ Victorian houses, one enters the courtyard of a two-story block of 12 council flats, part of the Lawson Estate, a mixed development of high and low-rise housing typical of the 1970s. As with Whiteread’s house, the block is due for demolition, but instead of summoning East End ghosts, these scrofulous facades and weed-choked gutterings materialize the decay of the dream of public housing.

After collecting your regulation rubber boots you enter one of the flats. Straight in front of you, at the end of a short hallway, lies what must have been the living room, which Hiorns has left unaltered, its atmosphere that of neglect and entropy prized by pychogeographers. So prized in fact, that it’s become a cliché, which is what makes Hiorn’s piece such a timely departure. For while walking towards the melancholic living room one glimpses to the right its absolute antithesis.

The rest of the flat is furred with blue crystals, finger-thick, poking out from walls and blocking windows so that the only light comes from small spots on the ceiling. The uneven floor is pooled with a sump of the copper-sulphate with which Hiorns coated the rooms four weeks ago, and one can hear the suck and plash of other wellied visitors. This, together with the blue aquarium light, produces an immersive, underwater affect, with the crystals seeming to crust around you like a reef of impossible polar coral. The dankness and coldness of the space thus soon belies its initial sparkling attractiveness. What had seemed a kitschy cave becomes a mineralized womb, an ice bar for dead souls.

One attempts to allay this discomfiture by tracing elements of the original room. Hence the waist-high, horizontal band of crystal must be the moulding you noticed in the living room, while this quartz rose hanging from the ceiling was once a light-shade. At every turn, however, the urge to reterritorialize the space is frustrated by the multi-planar surface of the crystals. The gaze is distracted, unable to settle, continually relayed from point to point.

Once again it is worth contrasting this tension with the hermeneutic that the Whiteread and Schneider projects, in their different ways, encouraged. Both of the latter implied a forensic, metonymic reading, with the meaning of the whole dependent upon the cumulative, incremental registration of minute traces of a lived existence. Hiorns takes the opposite approach. His crystals have colonised the flat to efface any sense of the details of lived material histories, substituting instead a sumptuous, tactile surface that activates a series of pop-cultural registers: pound-shop baroque, pulp fairy-tales, B-movie alchemy.

In doing so Hiorns successfully eliminates the dangers that can threaten work which attempts to document repressed or forgotten lives through the textures of the built environment. Pious notions of authenticity, or a pseudo-elegiac pathos of memory dissolve here in the face of the opulence and high drama of the flat’s interior. Social realism is dialectically undermined by science-fiction and vice-versa. Yet it is in this very movement, through the void the piece opens up between familiar genres and strategies, that it so precisely attends to the unfathomable strangeness of other people’s lives.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Svidrigailov's Eternity

You see, we always see eternity as an idea that can't be comprehended, as something enormous, gigantic! But why does it have to be so very large? I mean, instead of thinking of it that way, try supposing that all there will be is one little room, something akin to the country bath-house, with soot on the walls and spiders in every corner, and there's your eternity for you.

Fydor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment , p. 355.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Scholars and Vampires

'Not every question seems to me worth asking. Scientific curiosity and omnivorous aesthetic appetite mean equally little to me today, though I was once under the spell of both, particularly the latter. Now I only enquire when I find myself inquired of. Inquired of, that is, by men rather than by scholars. There is a man in each scholar, a man who inquires and stands in need of answers. I am anxious to answer the scholar qua man but not the representative of a certain discipline, that insatiable, ever inquisitive phantom which like a vampire drains him whom it possesses of his humanity. I hate that phantom as I do all phantoms. Its questions are meaningless to me.'

Franz Rosenzweig

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Local Velophobia

Walworth Road, London SE17, 20th May 2008.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Egg in my Office; Office Egg

Very busy, not paying much attention to my surroundings as the office fills up with reams and reams of paper, shifting in the Spring breeze. What everyone, even me, now refers to as The Document edges closer and closer to completion. One morning I have time enough to notice a scrawny pile of twigs poking out from underneath a chair in the corner. Pick them up, look at the ceiling, wrinkle my brow, put them in the bin, forget about them. On another, as I return from the latest meeting, there's a kerfuffle of wings at the open window. Then at last, it's over. Success. Relief. Beer. The next day, tidying the office, I notice the twigs have returned and get down on my hands and knees to look under the chair. Its only then I realize why the same mute pigeon has been visiting my sill almost every day for the last two weeks.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

A Thousand Gateaux

October 1865. The Schopenhauer experience. "A need for self-knowledge and even self-doubt took hold of me with great force. My troubled, melancholy diary entires of that time with their pointless self-accusations and desperate search for sanctity and transformation of the entire core of mankind are testimony to that entire outlook." Founding of the "Philological Club". N. gives up tobacco and alcohol, but becomes a regular at the pastry shop, where he consumes large numbers of cakes and pies.

from 'Chronicle of Nietzsche's Life' in Rudiger Sanfranski's Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, p. 356.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Smeared into Gleam

Isa Genzken's wall pieces, some of which are at Hauser and Wirth, refer fairly clearly back to the late Robert Rauschenberg's screen-prints and combines, not least in her use of the astronaut motif. But where Rauschenberg, through a process of superimposition and collage, forged a means of mapping a culture supersaturated with visual imagery, Genzken, through her seas of shining steel, dotted here and there with tiny archipelagoes of coherent imagery, does something else. Rauschenberg attempts to grasp the experience of the society of the spectacle, but Genzken is content with a notation precisely of the failure of such an attempt. The passage of the eye across the work is thus a constant glissement: the burnished steel notating nothing more than the opacity of Capital's global flows, an infinity of images smeared into a single gleaming surface, in which we think we sometimes glimpse ourselves.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Pop Cultic

We went to see Current 93's eschatological vaudeville at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last week. Like the other Hidden Reverse types - Nurse with Wound, Coil - they mine a strange but potent seam of eldritch and whimsy: though David Tibet lists among his influences both the usual Magickal forebears - Crowley, Osman Spare - he also nods to, erm, Noddy .

This emphasis on both popular and cultic elements of the pop cultural equation was evident in various ways on the night. The band came on to the frothy pastoral of the Starland Vocal Band's Afternoon Delight , which was then progressively undermined by ominously roiling industrial noise. Tibet introduced one slab of catatonic riffage and prog mewling as a cover of Sweet Caroline by Status Quo . It wasn't. Even when Anthony and Marc Almond came on to sing their respective versions of the sublime Idumae,, they were folowed by another guy (whose name I didn't catch/ recognise), who sang this narrative of spiritual yearning and dispossession as a kitsch-camp cabaret turn. The whole night was like a cross between a feral bacchanal and a morris dancing exhibition on Blue Peter. The upshot being that I came away from the evening with exactly the same feeling I did on seeing the late, lamented Coil a few years ago, where the eerie drones and sidereal sonic affects were undermined by the fact that they were generated by what looked to be hairy Teletubbies .

A formal relation between the authentic and the inauthentic, the rockist and the popist, is nothing new of course. Its one of the key dialectics at work in left-field music and takes many forms. Laibach, The Fall, Sun Ra and Black Metal all trade in it to different degrees and in various different ways. Sometimes, however, I think there is a peculiarly English strain of this Pop Cultic sensibility. Its there in Blake for example, a connection that Derek Jarman makes in his early Bankside Super 8 films (and Jarman was of course linked to this whole Hidden Reverse scene too).

But now mention of Jarman makes me think that the most obvious source is Kenneth Anger, especially those films like Invocation of My Demon Brother where he speeds up footage of occult rituals and you're sitting there half hoping half fearing that the Benny Hill theme is going to kick in. Which reminds me in turn that Coil, when they weren't busy trying to immanentize the eschaton, famously covered the theme tune to Are You Being Served?.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Philosophy and Physiology

In Barison and Ross's The Ister (2004), Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe, cigarette permanently in hand, speaks of the Holocaust as 'a catch in History's breath' while the camera slowly circles round his ashtray's nacreous crater. Dead three years later of respiratory problems .

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Elegance and Brutality

Mishima speaks of two 'contradictory' aspects of Japanese culture, which are yet 'tightly combined'. His discussion of elegance and brutality, however, with its obvious nostalgic relish for violence and force as the opposite of 'refinement', seems to distinguish the two rather too carefully. In my experience in Japan (puts on pith helmet, shoulders elephant gun), a copious social brutality is simultaneously refined, ritualized, displayed and controlled. This can range from the delicate line-drawings of ferocious sexual violence that you find in some Manga, to the total silence and order with which people pile into tube carriages during the rush hour (I have experienced this only once but it was like something had detonated outside on the platform, pushing a shock-wave of bodies in on top of me in a matter of seconds). I'm aware that these are cliched examples, but my point is that Mishima's strict opposition between an over-refined, decadent 'sensitivity' which needs to be woken up with a 'sudden explosion' of brutality seems to ignore a more dialectical relation. The irony, given Mishima's political views, is that he adopts here a peculiarly Western, zero-sum, notion of the relation between violence and its others.

Barthes' Empire of Signs essay on the Zengakuren, or Japanese left-wing student movements (whom Mishima excoriates in the clip above) is apposite here. He's commenting on the, to European eyes, strangely formalized nature of Japanese student riots:

"When one says that the Zengakuren riots are organized, one refers not only to a group of tactical precautions but to a writing of actions which expurgates violence from its Occidental being: spontaneity. In our mythology, violence is caught up in the same prejudice as literature or art: we can attribute to it no other function than that of expressing a content, an inwardness, a nature ... The violence of the Zengakuren does not precede its own regulation, but is born simultaneously with it: it is immediately a sign: expressing nothing (neither hatred nor indignation nor any moral idea). The Zengakuren riot, entirely functional as it is, remains a great scenario of signs (these are actions which have a public) ... there is a paradigm of colors - red-white-blue helmets - but these colours contrary to ours refer to nothing historical; there is a syntax of actions (overturn, uproot, drag, pile), performed like a prosaic sentence, not like an inspired ejaculation; there is a signifying reprise of time-out (leaving in order to rest behind the lines, giving a form to relaxation)"

This leads me to note a categorical distinction between the current slew of U.S. Noise bands such as Wolfeyes and their JapaNoise antecedents and influences. It also gives me a chance to refer you to a slide-show of the legendary 80s Hanatarash gig which consisted of the great Yamatsaka Eye driving a mechanical digger through the wall of the club and careening over the stage while tossing debris around (overturn, uproot, drag, pile, as Barthes says).

The U.S. noise scene is insufferably Rockist, suffused with those notions of Dionysian authenticity and violence as expression that Barthes lists in the quotations above. Looking at the slide-show of the Hanatarash gig, with the audience quietly seated in tiers, it seems to me that there was something else going on, something, again in Barthes terms, 'arranged and regulated', rather than a simple Sturm und Drang. If U.S. noise likes to think of itself as 'oppositional' in the sense of being an alternative to mainstream culture, it is also oppositional in depending absolutely on its own binary. The Japanese noise performance, on the other hand, reinscribes the binary between brutality and elegance within the itself. On the first track on the Wolfeyes Myspace linked to above there appears to be someone in the audience pretending to be a dog. In the video below, which features Eye in solo vocal screamfest mode, stick it out until the obscene gargling and howling has stopped and you'll hear some polite clapping and a single voice from the audience say 'arigato': 'thank you SO very much'.

Thursday, 20 March 2008


New posts next week

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Dismal Similes

In an old TLS I read that Borges and his Boswell figure Adolfo Bioy Casares used to enliven their Argentinian ennui by inventing deliberately banal and pompous lines of what you might call pulp poetry: “The trees standing in line like memories”, was one of Borges'. On the way out of Bioy’s flat one night, Bioy declaimed “The light remained trapped in the lift, like a bird in a cage” and Borges snapped back with “we slipped into the darkness of the night like messages dropped into a letter-box”.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

The Fez Knows

Danilo shrugged. "Here. You'd better wear these." He handed Bevis and Cyprian each a fez. Cyprian's was so small it had to be forced onto the back of his head with a sort of screwing motion, while Bevis's kept falling over his eyes and ears. "Wait, then, we'll switch fezzes." Most strangely, this did not resolve the difficulty.
"Makes no sense," Bevis muttered.
"It happens sometimes", Danilo darkly, "but more in the old tales than in our present day. The head of an infidel betrays him by rejecting the fez . Perhaps you are both quite devout Christians?"
"Not especially," Cyprian and Bevis protested at the same time.
"The fez knows," said Danilo. "You cannot fool the fez".

Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day , p. 933.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Chinese Medicine

I’m looking at a bookshelf and all the books are white. No, wait a minute, they’re not books at all, but hanks of tissue, hankies, very white, upright and densely compressed at the end of the bookshop shelf. No, wait a minute. Not a bookshop, a chemist’s shop. Is it the chemist's shop from No Country for Old Men ? Hard to tell from this perspective. I look outside, across the street, one I recognize from way back, from home, the main street of the market town in which I was born, busy, full of midday bustle.

A façade of shop fronts, and above the façade two or three Victorian stories. And above these another level, stepped back a little, a floor of more modern flats, each with a door and windows and, so it seems, a small forecourt. Hard to tell from this perspective. Five or six figures stand up there in front of the flats, men mostly, one woman. Rough looking, the men are bearded, dressed in denim and leather, the woman has a Mohawk. Cider drinkers. One of them jumps.

Thursday, 31 January 2008

Daylight Wraith

Last night the Willie Doherty retrospective moved from Matt’s austere art bunker to the louche cocoon that is The Prince Charles cinema. I’d already seen Ghost Story in the Irish pavilion at Venice during the summer and, as per my usual response to Doherty’s work, had mixed feelings about it, feelings resolved by this screening and the Q & A with Tim Marlow which followed it.

A steadicam drifts down an empty country path, swaying from side to side, unmoored from the familiar camera gambits of handheld tremble or hydraulic swoop and zoom. Occasional cars can be heard in the distance. Now and then the p.o.v. turns through 90 degrees and, while moving forward at the same slow pace, closely inspects the fine screen of young pine at the side of the path, beyond which a wide river can be glimpsed. These shots are particularly interesting, creating as they do an odd flattening of the scene, so that the two planes – trees and river – seem to occupy the same thin band of space.

This effect is something Doherty has exploited before in his 90s cibachromes, and is here, as previously, implicitly critical of the equation of depth with truth, surface with deception, suggesting instead a contiguity between two scenes, their moeboid co-implication rather than the simple supercession or superimposition of one by, or over, the other. As with Ghost Story as a whole, space is used as a metaphor for time, with the split between an occluded past and an immediate present collapsed into a single frieze. A point emphasized when the camera moves back to consider again the vanishing point of the path, where conventional perspective reasserts the familiar notion of a steady and predictable movement through homogeneous empty space towards a ready telos.

Here again Doherty plays on familiar themes, having often, in the past, used the unapproved road as a metaphor for temporal movement. Or rather the lack of such movement, for previously the roads depicted have been blocked by either security force bollards or torched and abandoned hijacked cars, the residues of paramilitary actions. The open path in this film, then, situates it as a post-conflict piece, with the road ahead representing, in the familiar robotic parlance, the ‘way forward’.

A voiceover begins, Stephen Rea’s lugubrious tones, familiar from umpteen balaclava dramas. The narrative initially follows cinematic convention by cleaving tightly to the scene before us: ‘I found myself on a deserted path. Through the trees on one side I could faintly make out a river in the distance’. Gradually sound diverges from image however, as the voice speaks first of a backward look to where spectral figures are huddled, and then describes a memory which, as Doherty confirmed in the Q and A, is a personal one of Bloody Sunday 36 years ago. 'The scene reminded me of the faces in a running crowd that I had once seen on a bright but cold January afternoon'.

Crucially the camera all the while stays fixed on the path. The voice continues: ‘The next day I walked over the waste ground which was now marked by deep tyre tracks and footprints, fixed in low relief and highlighted by a sharp hoar frost. I could find no other traces of the crowd'.

A radical disjunction occurs here between narrative description and the retinal image. A second scene forms in the mind's eye, an invisible supplement to the first. The narrator’s insistence on the traces of the event, the tyre tracks and footprints is in stark contrasts with the smooth tarmac that we see, so that the former become ever more vivid, eclipsing, for this viewer at least, the actual image onscreen. This antinomy between word and image – a kind of self-cancelling or negative ekphrasis – raises profound and troubling questions with great economy. One is forced to consider the relative ontological status of these two antagonistic descriptions. Where is the real here? Where is the virtual?

Yet to assert that Doherty is simply pitting the 'truth' of memory against the projected spectacle would be a mistake. For the viewer unavoidably supplies their own image, taking their cue from the narrator’s description it is true, but unavoidably filling it out with scenes culled from our thanato-culture's stock repertoire of atrocity.

The image in the mind's eye is thus more mediated than the one on screen. Surface and depth are again confounded. In one anecdote last night Doherty spoke of an experiment where he asked random people on a Derry Street if they had been there on Bloody Sunday and if so what they could remember of it. He then asked a group of people who had only seen the events on TV what they could remember. It must have come as no surprise to find that the accounts from each group agreed almost exactly.

The rest of Doherty’s film refers to memories not of events, but of media images: newspaper photographs, flickering television sets. These are often (though not always) set off against scenes that seem to have little relation to what is being described, so that the uncanny process of negative ekphrasis returns. While initially seeming to be yet another installment of what Badiou calls in Metapolitics the ‘unbearable, journalistic ethics of memory’, the film thus turns out instead to be a much more proposition. The effect produced in the spectator is a constant tension between two modes of experience, neither of which can be prioritized as more or less truthful than the other. Indeed it is in this unnerving formal tension, i think, that Doherty locates the truth of the act of witnessing, rather than in the substantive content of any given memory.

At one point, accompanied onscreen by the image at the top of this post, the narrator of Ghost Story speaks of the 'daylight wraith', a folk spectre that is 'usually a vision of someone who is in another place at the time of the appearance', and that manifests itself 'in a place where the living person could not possibly be'. And what else is this but a description of the hauntological Spaltung at the heart of the image itself?

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

From Shaman to Showroom

Discussion of the Santiago Sierra exhibition at The Lisson has predictably centred on the slabs of shit he has installed there. But it’s a relatively big show, and it was another piece that stayed with me. Documenting a recent installation in Venezuela, a large photograph shows four gleaming SUVs parked with engines running in a small space overlooking Caracas. Long black concertina-like tubes conduct the exhaust fumes out of the pristine space and into the city’s already polluted air, and here they are coiled on the floor of the Lisson, like the carapaces of giant centipedes, alongside bits and pieces of the packaging they came in.

Apparently in its ecological concerns Four Black Vehicles with the Engine Running Inside an Art Gallery alludes to Gustav Metzger’s Project Stockholm of 1972. I immediately thought, however, of Yannis Kounellis’s Dodici Cavalli Livi of 1967, when the Greek artist led twelve horses into the immaculate white spaces of L’Attico gallery in Rome. To an extent Kounellis was building on Joseph Beuy’s 1965 How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (above)

Six years after Cavalli, Beuys closed the circle when he spent 24 hours locked in a New York loft communing with a coyote (above).

I’ve only ever seen photographs of the Kounellis piece (above), but one can imagine its profound sensory charge and the sheer presence these powerful animals must have had in the exhibition space: the sharp percussion of hooves on tile, the pacing and snorting, the reek of dung, piss, sweat and fresh straw, all offset and intensified by the environs. One can equally imagine the affective impact of Sierra’s version, the heat that must have been generated in that small gallery, the ground bass of the four reverberating engines setting up micro- tremors in walls and floor (below).

What interests me is the distance between Sierra today and Kounellis and Beuys in the 60s and 70s. The latter two attempt to re-enchant the sequestered chill of the gallery space by forcing an encounter with the materialism of the natural world which it excludes. In this they display a vestigial faith in the gallery system that now seems quaint. Their fundamental gesture is one which obeys a logic of transgression that was looking tired even in the 1960s: a wager on the existence of a pure outside that is intrinsically resistant to being co-opted by the cash nexus, and can therefore be recruited to undermine or redeem it.

Sierra's installation suggests the opposite route, forcing the issue through a complete identification with the rapacious marketeering of the commercial gallery system. So what we get instead of Kounellis’s musky neo-classical tableau is a dead-eyed Ballardian fetishism of contoured metal and gleaming chrome. Rather than romantically renewing the space with the vitality of the natural, and despite Sierra's tiresome radical shtick in his other works, the presence in the gallery of these four quivering hulks implies that Capital has no exterior which can be mobilized against it. The itinerary then: from Kounellis to Sierra; from horse to horsepower; from shaman to showroom.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

The Most Distant Object

Beckett doodle from the manuscript of Mercier et Camier. From last year's magnificent Pompidou exhibition.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Somnambular Existence: Louise Bourgeois at the Tate

‘My art is a form of restoration’, she says, but this weekend, walking around the later works at the Tate, I was inclined to disagree with the Venerable Louise. While these sculptures and installations might be about memory, memory isn’t about restoration, at least not in the sense of an invisible repair of the worn and the tatty.

A moth-eaten brocade (to adapt Larkin), memory flaunts the traces of its own failure, avoids CGI seamlessness. Frayed edges and greasy blind-spots, a spot of cack-handed darning - such elements aren’t incidental to its form, but essential, constitutive. Bourgeois’ parents may have made a living by restoring antique furniture and tapestry, but the heavy armoires, paneled doors and wall-hangings that compose installations like Passage Dangereux don’t seem to have benefited. Shabbiness and decrepitude abound, and the overall effect of the penultimate room is that of a gallery of spalled mirrors.

In this sense Bourgeois’ later negotiations with memory are an exact reversal of her earlier tactics. Where the recent work emphasizes the trace, the indices of the traumatic Thing, the earlier work attempts the impossible task of a representation of the Thing itself.

A piece like Amoeba (1963-5, above) unnerves through its lunar formlessness, the sense of an only temporarily congealed emergence. Bourgeois’ latex polyp, budding directly as it does from the wall, suggests also a mischievous engagement with the gallery system itself, a breach in the fabric of the art-world-picture. The apotheosis of this stage of the career is probably Avenza Revisited II (1968-69, below), which takes the signature Lammela-like form out there into the realms of tentacled Lovecraftian hysteria.

Amoeba and the excrescent pieces that followed it marked a fundamental shift in Bourgeois’ work, away from the pedestrian animism and organo-surrealism of earlier work like the Personages series (1947-53). Very soon however, the amorphous quality of the new works is reified into a repertoire of standard gestures, and the radical uncanniness of the earlier pieces is lost. It’s in Room 7 that some of the most egregious examples are concentrated, and I was about to mooch disappointedly on when I decided to have one last circuit and saw this, glowing luridly in its own specially constructed space within the room, which meant I had overlooked it previously.

The Destruction of the Father (1974, above) was Bourgeois’s first foray into a more self-consciously theatrical mode of presentation, anticipating the large installations of the 90s. My reaction to it was marked by a kind of generic dissonance. Bourgeois describes the piece as a modernist, confessional version of the Freudian myth of the primal horde: a mother and her daughters have rounded off Sunday lunch by killing and cannibalizing the father. At the same time the letter-box presentation of the piece alludes to nineteenth-century stereoscopes and panoramas, and their successor the cinema, charging the piece, for me, with a pop-cultural energy at odds with the high seriousness. As I looked at it I felt a vertiginous switchback between these two aspects, one second seeing it as a visceral response to psychic pain, and the next as a pulp vision of a fantasy landscape, a Neanderthal burial chamber on the dark side of the moon.

The penultimate room contains the large installations that have made Bourgeois’ name internationally over the last two decades. Rather than Lacan, it was Walter Benjamin who came to mind as I wandered around the large, darkened space, filled with six installations. ‘Arcades are houses or passages having no outside – like the dream’, Benjamin writes, and the effect wandering among these architectural pieces contained inside one larger room is similarly disconcerting. One installation is, as I have already mentioned, actually named Passages Dangereux, and Benjamin’s description of the Parisian Passagen captures exactly Bourgeois’ choice and configuration of materials: ‘against the armature of glass and iron, upholstery offers resistance with its textiles’. Indeed the dream-life of objects that is Benjamin’s Arcades Project contains lists which could easily be a description of the elements contained in one of Passages’ Dangereux’s many alcoves: ‘the birdseed in the fixative pan, the flower seeds beside the binoculars, the broken screw atop the musical score, and the revolver above the goldfish bowl’’.

For Benjamin the nineteenth-century interior was the hastily erected redoubt of the humanist individual, a shell where the Parisian middle-class attempted to sustain the illusion of identity through the accumulations of objects and the obsessive registration of the traces of human existence. It is in pursuit of latter that soft furnishings and above all the uterine glow of red plush become the key material in interior decoration. During the Second Empire the raised nap of a cushion, or the raked imprint of fingers on a velvet curtain rendered each room an endlessly changing archive of the palpable, a machine for the production of human presence.

In Bourgeois’ late installations this machine is rigorously disabled, dismantled and retooled so as to begin functioning in a new and perverse manner. The undeniable sense of a presence that the best of these installations generate is thus a inhuman rather than human one. Such traces as there are, in the subtly foregrounded scars and scrapes on a door, or the threadbare patches on a wall-hanging, are indices of a brooding, massive but excarnate Real. As Baudelaire puts it of his ideal room in Le Spleen de Paris, ‘Every piece of furniture is of an elongated form, languid and prostrate, and seems to be dreaming – endowed, one would say, with a somnambular existence, like minerals and plants’ .

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Quotation, Quotation, Quotation.

As I expect this blog will contain lots of bits and pieces from things I'm reading, I'll begin with an apposite footnote from (the end of) Colin McCabe's biography of Godard:

"When Peter Sellars was working on Vivre sa Vie at Harvard he was struck by how many of Godard's references came right at the beginning or right at the end of books. Veronique Godard recalls her elder brother often telling her ... that you needed to read only the first and the last page of any book."

Thursday, 3 January 2008

My Education

A dream: I find myself in the middle of a familiar city and am told there is to be an exact reconstruction of an important historical event in which I will play a minor role. My performance will be judged by a famous historian who can be seen standing nearby. Before this, however, I must find the appropriate clothes.

After a short time, during which I manage to pick up a combat jacket from a much later period, I meet S. She is carrying the electric guitar she was given by a Native American who had stood behind her while she waited to audition for a musical in another part of the city. Together we wander on through the streets, filled with smoke and dust now that the insurrection has begun, S. with her guitar, me with my green jacket.