Thursday, June 28, 2012

Art, talisman, symbol

Three paragraphs from different parts of a review essay by Marina Warner on Damien Hirst:

The words tempus and temple share the same root; the connection suggests that the function of a sacred space is to make time stop or stretch, or render its passage palpable to the worshipper/visitor. Galleries and museums explicitly recall temples in their architecture, and they can also double as national mausoleums: they function socially in comparable ways (‘temples for atheists’), providing an occasion for assembly, for communal experiences, for finding meanings. Above all, it’s striking how crucial the idea of developing our sensitivity to time has become in contemporary artists’ work. ‘I do not think I am slowing down time,’ Tacita Dean, one of the most delicate time machinists of all, said recently, ‘but I am demanding people’s time. In a busy world, that is a big demand, but one of the many reasons why art matters is its ability to stop the rush. Art on film makes us conscious of the time and space we occupy, and gives us an insight into the nature of time itself.’
Some of the votive offerings of the past were highly wrought: their efficacy was bound up with the intricacy and technical complexity of the artefact. The anthropologist Alfred Gell, in his study Art and Agency (1998), took the prows of Papuan war canoes as his prime example of magical prophylaxis: the brain-teasing involutions of the carving were intended to bamboozle hostile forces. Gell argued that the approaches anthropologists use to understand the meaning of art and aesthetics in a culture that is not their/our own should be extended to explore contemporary art at home; and he showed that similar desires are in play when artists make objects as instruments that exert some kind of power on their surroundings, either to make things happen (to assure health, fertility, luck in love, wealth, cleanse a pollution), or to stop things happening (to prevent death, destroy enemies, ward off nightmares, avert revenge). Rather than inquiring into phenomena by representing them, as Monet magnificently struggled to do with the Nymphéas series or the façade of Rouen cathedral in different light and weather, surrealist artists and their kin – conceptualists, performers, language artists – began using mimesis according to the principles of magical thinking, as a talisman: you reproduce the horror to avert it. Hirst’s anatomies are closer to relics than to Rembrandt still lifes. His glittering medicine cabinets, now exhibiting dazzling zirconia crystals as well as pills, are tabernacles as lustrous as Counter-Reformation propaganda for the Eucharist. Even the spot paintings, which have a look of pretty minimalism (and have been much copied by packaging and fashion), reveal an allegorical higher purpose through their titles, while the reiteration, multiplicity and essential meaninglessness of the spots relate them to the processes of charms and spells – often nonsensical, always repeated.
The word ‘symbol’ has unexpected but revealing origins. It is derived from the Greek verb ballein, ‘to throw’, as in the geometrical figure of the hyperbola for a cone that’s extended far from its base: thrown wide, as it were, as in ‘hyberbole’. It persists in diabolus, Latin for ‘devil’, where it evokes the devilish work of throwing everything apart and athwart, scattering into disorder and cacophony. Symbol means ‘thrown together’, and it was first used to describe a tally, a coin, token or stick cut in half to solemnise an agreement, which would be concluded when the two parts were joined together again. ‘The one [part] in my possession,’ Eugenio Trias has explained,
is the ‘symbolising’ component of the symbol. The one elsewhere is needed to gain meaning … [and] the disjunction between these two parts … constitutes the horizon of meaning … The drama (of their conjunction) leads towards the final scene of reunion and reconciliation, in which both parts are ‘pitched’ into their desired coming together.
This site of conjunction is key to the effect of a work of art in the symbolic mode; what happens there gives the artefact a quality of presence, makes it radiate significance, sometimes quite softly, but still irresistibly and ultimately ungraspably. Then you want to go on looking, and looking again.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The end

A new visualization of the graze between our galaxy and Andromeda 2.3 billion years from now, followed by a full-scale collision 5 billion years from now is worth a look
"Prognosis for our solar system: either flung safely into space—or blasted by radiation from supernovae at the center of the new galaxy."
Death is the end but not the goal of life. It is its finish, its extremity but not therefore its object. Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.
-- Montaigne
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there...
-- Pascal

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On colour

Recent buzz around colour has included a report on research into the exceptional colour vision amoung human females, a Radiolab feature, and interesting blog posts (one, two) on colour, language and the brain.

I've been reading Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain and have been struck by passages describing colours. Here are three:
When [Cairngorm water] has any colour at is a green like the green of winter skies, but lucent, clear like aquamarines, without the vivid brilliance of glacier water. Sometimes the Quoich waterfalls have violet playing through the green, and the pouring water spouts and bubbles in a violet froth.  The pools beneath the waterfalls are clear and deep. I have played myself often by pitching into them the tiniest white stones I can find, and watching the appreciable time they take to sway downwards to the bottom.
     Some of the lochs are green. Four of them bear this quality in their names - Loch an Uaine. [The lowest of them, Ryvoan Loch] has a lovely frieze of pine trees, an eagle's eyrie in one of them, and ancient fallen trunks visible at the bottom through clear water. The greenness of the water varies according to the light, now aquamarine, now verdigris, but it is always a pure green, metallic rather than vegetable.

Once the snow has fallen, and the gullies are choked and ice is in the burns, green is the most characteristic colour in sky and water. Burns and rivers alike have a green glint when seen between snow banks, and the smoke from a woodman's fire looks greenish against the snow. The shadows on snow are of course blue, but where snow is blow into ripples, the shadowed undercut portion can look quite green.A snowy sky is often pure green, not only at sunrise or sunset but all day, and a snow green sky looks greener in reflection, either in water or from windows, than it seems in reality. Against such a sky, a snow covered hill may look purplish, as though washed in blaeberry. On the other hand, before a fresh snowfall, whole lengths of snowy hill may appear golden green. One small hill stands out from this greenness: it is veiled by a wide-spaced fringe of fir trees and behind them the whole snowy surface of the hill is burning with vivid electric blue.

The air is part of the mountain, which does not come to an end with its rock and its soil, It has its own air; and it is to the quality of its air that is due the endless diversity of colourings. Brown for the most part in themselves, as soon as we see them clothed in air the hills become blue. Every shade of blue, from opalescent milky-white to indigo, is there. Then the gullies are violet. Gentian and delphinium hues, with fire in them, lurk in the folds.
An ordinary human can perceive a million different colours. English has, perhaps, a few thousand of words to distinguish them, and in most normal speech we use far fewer.  Deploying a relatively limited vocabulary, Shepherd nevertheless achieves -- with the cooperation of the readers powers of memory and imagination -- subtlety, depth and surprise both with regard to colours of the mountain and the other things she is also writing about when she writes about colour.

Monday, June 18, 2012

'On Fear'

Mary Ruefle writes about fear:
...I asked the poet Tony Hoagland what he thought about fear. He said fear was the ghost of an experience: we fear the recurrence of a pain we once felt, and in this way fear is like a hangover. The memory of our pain is a pain unto itself, and thus feeds our fear like a foyer with mirrors on both sides. And then he quoted Auden: “And ghosts must do again/What gives them pain.” It is interesting to note that this idea—fear’s being the ghost of pain, or imaginary pain—figures in psychological torture by the cia; in fact, their experiments with pain found that imaginary pain was more effective than physical pain—poets, take note—and thus psychological torture more effective than physical torture...

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A hope for England

We need to grow...a democratic constitutionalism that calls on the tradition of Blake, the author of England’s anthem, and the Leveller Rainsborough, to take just two examples from a much larger conversation. The latter famously claimed that ‘the poorest he that is in England has a right to live as the greatest he’. He said this when he spoke in the Putney debates of 1647. Sixteen words, seventy-two characters (half a tweet), they are the first, compressed expression of modern democratic politics: asserting the moral equality of all while recognising difference, emphasising life and location not race or essence, and making a claim of right in a shared society. Spoken by a soldier in a debate within Cromwell’s army, at a turning point in our Civil War, they were and are profoundly civilian, and so are we. 
-- Anthony Barnett

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The rebirth of tragedy

Whether it is a fantasy of market freedom or one in which the market is abolished, modern politics is haunted by myths of redemption. In the prevailing anti-tragic world view, human institutions are the result of human action and can therefore be altered by human decision.

The lives that are shown in The Wire confound this seemingly obvious inference. What is done cannot be undone; history cannot be repealed by human will. The workings of necessity that have shaped the past will also shape the future. Serious politics accepts this fact. Redemptive politics only magnifies the waste of life: the drug war, which is supposed to deliver society from the evil of addiction, exposes millions to violence and chronic insecurity. Failing or refusing to accept tragedy, politics has become a theatre of the absurd.

In denying us the comfort of redemption, The Wire re-connects us with reality. When it shows human lives ending in a lack of meaning, the series confronts us with the absurd in its most pitiful form. When it shows human beings joking, cursing and carrying on despite this absurdity, it achieves something like the liberating catharsis that Nietzsche imagined being produced by ancient Greek drama. The struggles we share with the protagonists are not deviations from some ideal version of humanity that will someday come into being. Intractable conflict goes with being human. In one way or another, practically everything in current media culture is escapist in intention or effect. In astonishing contrast, The Wire returns us to ourselves.
John Gray

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The case

What has been written down is not a description of the world at all, but a description of acts of observation made on the world. All our customary scientific terms such as energy, momentum, position, speed, distance, time, etc. -- they are terms specifically for the description of observations. It is a misuse of language to try and apply them to a world-in-itself divorced from the action of an observation. It is this misuse of language that leads to problems like that posed by the wave/particle paradox. Which is not to say that the world-in-itself does not exist outside the context of someone making an observation of it. Rather, as Werner Heisenberg asserted, all attempts to talk about the world-in-itself are rendered meaningless.
-- Russell Stannard