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.