A Self-Portrait (1995)
I sit surrounded by objects whose meaning or essence I have forgotten, and so everything around me exists as puzzles and omens. These objects have lost their interest because I am in every sense exhausted. The tone of this writing disturbs me for the very reason that it represents my first attempt to understand I have fallen into almost complete absence. It is like myself turning inside-out, stripping down the question of my existence to its bare essentials in order to tell that hollow centre that it must rejuvenate itself and clothe itself anew with flesh and sinews; that it must overturn memory and seek initiation into a new life-so that this writing is resigning on the one hand, urgent and compulsive on the other, because it embodies a person stripped of all graces. Every movement, every thought, is a referral to a geometric confinement-to walls that cannot be passed through, to a head with eyes that cannot be raised. I feel like a dry and withered expanse that is ready to snap into flame but never does. Everything is ready to begin, but cannot begin, because everything has lost its polarity. My actions seek their limits, or that which is left of me to act upon, while my thinking continues to function inside a mental straight-jacket, that for the moment cannot be sloughed for want of energy; therefore, in order to conserve this energy, I have claimed all rights for myself, at least in terms of a certain trial of character, undertaking a task that is prompted by inner doubt, without being sure whether such actions will grant self-renewal; for the defence of myself seems like a submission to apparitions.
When I hurt somebody, they become objects over which the projections of my inadequacies are spread. But this occurs inside myself as well: because I fail to truly understand others, I wound myself by throwing an image of another's strength onto my heart. The first strong memory of love, for instance, I kept hidden as a treasure and a shroud. This deposited image had no reason to bind me, yet I used its memory to keep myself safe; also to qualify my actions. Using this resource, I built up a workable space around me so that I was able to hear my own voice. This space was often claustrophobic, because it was unexpansive at first, so that my sense of self was stifling. The establishment of this terrain or the sight of it, which everyone dubs the knowledge of a 'self', may be something I stumbled upon, or a type of heritage which I felt I must investigate, or a particular device that I slowly pieced together, which was built (although perhaps unintentionally) for obsolescence, in that my present aspect of self will be preserved for as long as it enables me to see things, after which time this self must be pulled down and a new type of assembly built.
The extremes of this knowledge are self-neglect on the one hand, self-tyranny on the other; while the moderation of this knowledge represents that which I am raising myself up from and through-a roughly hewn reflection of myself, sometimes picking at skin in front of the mirror or at other times my self like a judge declaring:
'The only thing that stands in my way now is my self, and soon even it shall be cast by the wayside.'
Now, over a certain period of time, my energies must be directed towards self-examination. I have seen my foot caught in the snare, I can look upon the one who set the trap, now I must understand the trap and my reflection and decide what to do about them. My set attitudes constitute the trap-which has slowed my energy to an apparent stop. I tried to break free at first in nervous panic, tormenting myself with circular questioning: 'What is it that I am capable of?' Is my arm strength? My honesty strong in kind? Am I strong enough to love? To peel away my fear and shame? I searched for my limits, but each point felt like a burning cold or a fierce sting, for as yet I had not learnt that these limits represent the point where the being of other creatures takes over. So that if I wish to see further, I must learn to see through the eyes of other creatures.
It is mostly through the help of others that I am brought the site of my understanding. My self-punishment ceases when I become strong enough to put up with my great capability to hurt. For when I hurt myself, I am essentially suppressing myself, so that my self-punishment is like an exile from my own nature. What I must repair is the ability to face myself squarely again: to use my doubt to raise questions about myself, and then attempt to answer these questions. This new type of understanding will be demanding, for it will require me to make changes to myself, but it will allow me to pass my beyond my present attitudes. I must never submit to a prohibitive bond, but seek terms of discussion based on shared knowledge and not enthusiastic generalities, in order to seek a conditional agreement with others which will protect the worth of my contribution. And what I consider to be the dramatic shifts in my self-consciousness, may perhaps represent only generalisations about this knowledge, as the important changes I feel in myself are often better perceived when they are tested within my relations with other people and things-when I am able to pursue knowledge and beauty on every minute level by means of a simple, yet essentially fragile exchange, like the barely noticeable change of tone in rose flesh. This is what my perceptions must now aim towards.
Sergei Eisenstein and the Engineered Image (1995)
"Yes, we have thrown off the 'unreasonable' shackles of Franco-Hellenic art, but without knowing it, we have gotten used to finding all shackles, all limitation unreasonable. And so art moves towards its dissolution, and touches in the process (which is to be sure highly instructive) all places of its beginnings, its childhood, its imperfection, its former risks and extravagances. It interprets its origin, its evolution, as it is perishing,"
(Nietzsche-Human, All Too Human)
We may consider photography as a series of obliques that are valuable not for what they are said to record or document, but rather for the way in which they order our perception of an event, rather in the same way that a stone sheds moisture. Here, as elsewhere, this symbol could be used to represent the effect of metaphysics, which Nietzsche considered ideated 'error', which may only be deemed useful if one carves water channels along the stony surface of the prototype, whose large spherical form acts as a watershed, so that one may transplant the growth of a new science at the base of the stone, as Nietzsche did.
Most film-makers believe that the impact of cinema comes through its participation in notable events, but when the event seems too shocking to be perceived as a mere image, the imagined horror of the event forces us to react against such a displacement as cinema, and want to approach the event ourselves. This causes cinema to cease recording the event, so that it turns away from it to run along psychological tracks. No more newsreels of Coronations or even the twisted obliques of defiled humans; instead a sensational novelty that derives in part from the early idea of the studio film pioneered by the Frenchman Georges Méliès, who, for example, produced Eruption volcanique a la Martinique, a studio recreation of an actual volcanic eruption, and Le Sacre d'Edouard VII, a film of the coronation of King Edward the Seventh, made before the actual event occurred. Méliès operations were closely related to the supply and demand of the entertainment industry of late nineteenth century Paris. As it is with most computer cottage industries at present, Méliès use of the studio mean that actors and props could be quickly assembled, backdrops painted, and the abundance of scientific discoveries and historical events could be illustrated and turned into popular art. Méliès erected his studio in his backyard orchard. It was built like a glasshouse and utilised natural light, therefore filming hours in the studio were restricted to the hours between 11am and 3pm. Méliès studio was an image factory which churned out saleable product whose price was calculated per foot of film, much in the same way that computer animators today usually charge per second of screen time. Méliès' industry could be seen as the prototype of the film empire that now exists in Hollywood. Near the end of his life, Méliès burnt most of the negatives to his films and therefore most of his work now is represented in terms of still photographs.
Cinema springs from an engineering sensibility that haunts the twentieth-century soul, which propels its creations and confounds them. We wanted, through constructive notions and schisma, to process all the broken pieces of our idols, so that they could finally become sedimented. Now that much of the original use of the camera obscura is disappearing as a result of digital technology, the camera will perhaps one day only be utilised on the outskirts of film-making, but certainly not at the centre of the art as it still stands at present. Now, the artist-engineer moves in, rendering modelled facsimiles of every conceivable object, be it a computer-generated image of a stain-glass window, a guitar or a sprig of greenery. The role of the artist-engineer (aside from the filming mechanism itself) has always been present in film-making, their job being to enhance the scaffolds of actors and scenery with finishing touches, which were once called special-effects but now are as important as the live-action in cinema. For some reason, I cannot imagine making a film without the means to manufacture the frame from the outset, regardless of a camera. If this cannot be achieved, film never really surpasses the function of representing a displacement of an event or the 'mirroring' of a environment. It seems to me that cinema needs to circumvent this function of recording an event (live-action) and turn to that type of cinema which had its infancy in the cinema of Walt Disney and Georges Méliès. In short, cinema, mainly through the influence of these two figures, was able to circumvent plot and dramatics and untie itself from the documentation of an event and therefore was able to invent new events. The new film functions like pictures and appointments in a diary: an open framework in which to install images, sound, and movement. The imitation of a three-dimensional architecture is the diary template itself and an alcove in which to place still life. The architectural floor plan becomes the film script, and what is placed inside the floor plan gives the sense of occupation. Motion is introduced here only where it enhances a meaning-a type of cinematic grace note.
The films of Walt Disney and Sergei Eisenstein display certain qualities of motion, except unlike ballet, these qualities have not so much the body, but a construction of movement that is pertinent to itself. They are qualities of motion dependent on the execution of its parts in terms of an ordered sequence of drawings and the organization of film frames, rather than their expression through the immediate medium of the body, as with dance. The signature motion in the animated films of Disney is the fluid volubility of his figures, where 'moving' figures resemble shivering jelly on a plate or interlinked water sacks; and with Eisenstein the organisation of composed shots in a firing pictograms at a certain rhythm and tempo. Visible grace resides in the delay of the expected, and beyond that, one is forced to convince: it is at this point that cinema collapses. A film is something akin to a piece of paper snapping into flame-the illusion of slippage after all suspension departs. For example, one of the best shots I have seen in a film is part of Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror, where an evaporating circle of steam is left on a table after a cup is lifted from it. This snippet alone is enough to convey the idea of a historical epoch.
Sergei Eisenstein is the undisputed professor of film form. He gives us the relationship between images and conveys their striking power. (It will be noted that Agit Prop still thrives today within the television commercial). Also, Eisenstein's profound understanding of the science of composition-perhaps here cinema also contributed most directly to the art of painting; and his conception of the oblique event, the 'montage of attractions', where a multiplicity of viewpoints constitutes or refer to one centre of action that is never actually apparent, but virtual.
But there are occasional gaps in the formalist strictures through which Eisenstein expressed and restricted himself, that allow us to observe a sensitive melancholy. There is a beautiful scene in his October, where a young woman soldier, standing next to a marble grouping of interlocking lovers depicting Spring, shakes her ruffish blond hair. Here within the strange industrial mode of cinema, Eisenstein comes closest to his hero Leonardo da Vinci-as an architect of profound psychological insight which was united with a rigid mathematical vehicle. And Eisenstein, even minutes before the Bolshoi Theatre premiere of Battleship Potemkin in 1925, was still editing his film, ever uncertain of the possible range of montage, yet at every point defining everything about the technique of film editing and its dramatic potential: he was cementing the edits together with spit. This is the significance of Eisenstein-his engineering sensibility denied him little of what was necessary to effect a new synthesis. Eisenstein embodies what Nietzsche said of the educator:
"He no longer thinks of himself but rather of the writer and his public-He wants insight, but not for his own use. Whoever is a teacher is usually incapable of doing anything of his for his own good. He always thinks of the good of his pupils and all new knowledge gladdens him only to the extent that he can teach it. Ultimately he regards himself as a thoroughfare of learning, and in general a tool, so that he has lost seriousness about himself."
(Nietzsche-Human-All Too Human)
As with most artists of the early twentieth century, such as Malevich, Picasso and Duchamp, Eisenstein was always on the lookout for any new element that offered him hope of some fresh view, and somehow integrated this into what was left of the body of art. For as direct heirs to Cézanne and Nietzsche, how far from any idea of sanctioned form were these artists required to flee ! How much sorting, defiling, montage, schisma and nonsense was required to keep some means of expression open ! And the way in which these artists, such as Eisenstein, diligently shaped the 'bastard' medium of cinema, and the other disinherited modes of art. It is strange how times have changed, how careful we seem now with our artistic experiments compared to those forerunners.
The exhaustive canonisation of new form in the films of Eisenstein, both in it typage and means of communicating to an audience, resembles the strict regulation of the Russian icon. Even that quality of icon painting, common to early Renaissance painting as well, but later almost excluded from it-the use of 'inverse perspective', or the deflection of the eye of the beholder from entering into the apparent space of the work, is intrinsic to the whole experience of cinema:
"A man stands, as it were, at the start of a pathway which is not concentrated on some point of depth, but which unfolds itself before him in all its immensity. Inverse perspective does not draw in the eye of the spectator; on the contrary it holds it back, precluding the possibility of penetrating and entering into the image in depth; and it concentrates attention on the image itself."
(Ouspensky-The Meaning of Icons)
The cinema audience is not permitted to look into the film image, but only across it; and the film is switched 'on' and 'off' at certain times (an abrupt effect which is smoothed over by the inclusion of the theatre curtain-this is similar to the sound fade of popular recording: rhythm may be resolved by becoming tonal), the same way that icons and altarpieces were opened only on certain dates and at particular times; and some altar pieces, placed in hospitals, were so positioned at the end of the ward, that the sun would strike them at a certain hour in the morning, when the patients were woken. Then there are the civic arrays of television monitors at city railway stations which announce train arrival times, or the monitors in shop windows which give a display of the passing traffic.
On the one hand, Eisenstein, with severe formalist eye, saw all his subjects in terms of a truly iconographic hierarchy of size, order and scale. Here lies Eisenstein's great relation to the tradition of the Russian icon. Within the dogmatic candour of his films, Eisenstein at all times maintains an exquisite perception of an event, which is at every level ordered and to be revealed only in carefully regulated stages of disclosure. As with the coloured Suprematist badges of self-transfiguration worn by the officiators in the late family portraits by Malevich, Eisenstein's films preserve the basic tenets of the icon: that the image pave the way for future self-redemption, that it lets us see ourselves as a passage through, and that it serve as a personal tool.
During the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, the apparent surface flow created by the parallel tracking of the camera and the undercurrent of the crowd descending the steps, form together a beautiful filmic model of the relentless flow of a river. This sequence had its premeditation in Eisenstein's first main feature, Strike, where the film's last scene depicts a stampeding crowd pummelling downwards while pressed upon by advancing soldiers, interposed with the motif of a slaughtered calf-blood gushing out of its slit throat. The wild crowd flattens fences, bursts through birch saplings, until all that is left is a scattered heap of corpses. The activist film makers in Vietnam talked of making films equivalent to the placing of flowers on a grave. Eisenstein, within his own artistic progress, understood Strike as a treatise, Potemkin as a hymn.
A parallel to the mechanics of the Eisenstein film is to be found in the preparatory sketches by the American artist Robert Smithson for his film Spiral Jetty. His drawings are a plan for the flight path of a camera helicopter, in relation to the spiral of a stone jetty built out into a salt lake. These drawings of Smithson's reveal the choreography of an engineer-which is rather like the dance of the scout bee inside the hive, directing all the other bees towards the source of nectar. In the case of the script for the Spiral Jetty, the aviated camera corkscrews around the stone spiral, following the parallel figure of the artist from behind as he progresses towards the centre of the spiral, and when the artist arrives at the centre, the camera hovers above him for a moment at low altitude, then re-ascends as Smithson runs out from the centre of the Jetty, back along the whorls of its spiral. This choreography of camera movement in its alignment with the stationary structure of the spiral and the figure moving along it, conveys a specific meaning. The first part of the dance depicts a vortex-an "ear, a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in" (Blake), while the second part of the dance, beginning from the caesura at the centre of the spiral outwards, depicts the growth of crystals and plants. The two parts join to convey the workings of a galaxy or the beautiful geometry of the D.N.A. spiral, and it is the twining of these strands and the nature of their counterpoint which we are attempting to understand.
But the example of Robert Smithson is interesting for another reason, because he seems to be the first artist for whom the history of cinema forms a main influence. In fact, many of Smithson's sculptural propositions and ways of perceiving form seem directly related to cinema. For instance, Smithson's conception of the 'non-site', which he intended as a section of a much larger and more chaotic event that was occurring outside the gallery, a type of touchstone, that would allow the lazy eye of 'oceanic' vision to maintain a fix. The non-site consisted usually if quantities of a mineral substance gathered from a site (usually an urban location), which were often contained inside metal bins whose shape corresponded to the geometry of a map projection related to the site from which the rocks were taken. Robert Smithson's conception of the non-site, seems to come on the one hand from the science of geology and archaeology and their treatment of 'natural history', where specimens are removed from their geological ether and given a new pedagogical and display context inside the museum; and on the other hand the 'non-site' is related to the technique of the parallel motif in the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein, whose usage of the technique in the final scene of his film Strike has already been noted.
Worth noting here is the recent Ballet performance in Melbourne of Madame Butterfly, choreographed by Stanton Welch, where, in conjunction with the final uneasy chord and just seconds before the curtain drops, two separate blood red flags like butterfly wings are brought rapidly from opposite sides of the stage, to cross one another fleetingly at stage centre, so that the elements of the final phrase of music, the intrusion of the theatre curtain and the striking red banners all culminate in a shrill note of death. In Stanton Welch's previous ballet 'Divergence', there is a dance embodying the sexual intercourse between man and woman, where two dancers with arms uplifted whose bodies are spinning like falling seeds from the Japanese Maple or the rotors of a helicopter engine.
This multiplicity of approach differs greatly from the relative hermeticism of the cultural expression of the few preceding centuries. For example, the haiku poet, as we would understand him, could be seen as both a writer and a painter combined, or in the oriental sense –a calligrapher. If the poet formed haiku whose image was winter melancholy, then the calligraphy shivered on the rice paper. But in order to represent an aphorism from the admired text of an old master, a large squirrel-hair brush was sloshed in jet black ink and the calligraphy manifested as firm, bold, sweeping strokes. In this case, the calligraphy was an announcement. And notably in more recent times the illuminated books of William Blake, where he achieves all of the afore-mentioned qualities by means of the graver's line. For instance, his unfinished title page to a Book of Genesis, and his illuminated version of the Book of Job. Aside from the 'Illuminated Blake' (Dover Publications), most new editions of Blake's poetry omit his illuminations. Many books, however, are regaining this idea of the illuminated text: in the diagrammatic figures of educational texts, in the barometric weather chart which replaces columns of numbered statistics, and in children's book illustration.
But an illuminated manuscript combines words and images that extend each other's meaning: an illumination does not illustrate. In terms of children's books, they deserve to be given to children by the best possible artists and authors, so that simplicity should not be seen as breaking things down to all their respective and explainable parts, but as being able to express a profound fact with clarity. Just look at William Blake's 'Gates of Paradise', which elucidate an image of man on earth in such a beautiful manner that such a book finally becomes worthy of children.
For William Blake, the well drawn line stands for the deliberation and assurance of the artist. In Blake's watercolours of Milton's Paradise Lost, the line of the human figure cuts cleanly into space. It is the singular confidence of Blake's line which enables him to transcend the physical relation of a figure to its surrounding space. The expression of form comes never through a 'contour tracing', but through the sensing of a particular weight which is situated somewhere at the centre of each form, and it is the alteration of this weight that produces differences in structure. Cross-hatching marks the harrow of a chisel and is the remnant of sculptural technique. The line tucked and steered and folded is a result of the same. The form dictates the line, and form is fixed by temperament. As Blake understood it, to see only the outline is madness, but to be able to draw the proper outline is the striving of art.
Cézanne practised the definition of form through the modulation of tones: spreading arcs of colour drift outwards until they meet their tonal neighbour and the essence of this meeting gives the fundamentals of harmony and discord. Drawing in itself was not so important for Cézanne, as it was, say, in the work of Picasso. It was not the sharply drawn outline that Cézanne deliberated over-although the coloured line could be seen as his final aim-but the harmonising of disparate quantities of energy. Picasso said of Cézanne that his main lesson was anxiousness-the slow seeping reactions of his eye searched for resonance as a tuning fork held between imagined objects, its buzzing throb linking surfaces through peculiarity, moisture, plucking. For Cézanne, the physical line appears as the faint residue, like the high-water mark, that indicates the extent of the flood of colour. In the National Gallery of Victoria, there is a painting by Cézanne that depicts the outskirts of a rural village. The cluster of buildings making up the village give the general impression of a skull, in the sense that the forms of the houses seem to have been painted with the idea that they harboured life. These were not austere facades that Cézanne was painting, but forms under the condition of direct sunlight.
What is important in the work of Malevich, Smithson, Eisenstein, and, for example, the sociology of Michel Foucault, is that man is referred to only as an apparent symbol, and this symbol is activated by placing it within a certain social setting which gives the symbol its life. The representation of man has ceased in the work of these artists, to be replaced by an environmental ritual which, above all, involves the search for volatile social environments in which to install their fragments of man. It is as if we are seated in a cinema pointing to every possible corner of the room and giving each glance a name, whereas the real issue is stepping out of the theatre. However, one always wonders what artists like Smithson and Malevich gained by following Cézanne into the field. It is much the same question as we would put to Foucault in following Nietzsche's lead as an experimenter of social chemistry. One answer to the question is this, that the 'limit experience' is a way of learning to use oneself as the standard of knowledge, and teaches self-trust in the face of the unknown, because, as Smithson once said: "In nature you can fall off cliffs"; so that the issue is not so much the difference between the volatility of the studio or the field, as finding ways to achieve this self-trust, and obviously the places beyond one's normal limits of security more stringently test this apprenticeship. What Nietzsche and Cézanne demanded of themselves were documents of the health of this self-knowledge and a specific record of its encounters with its limitations and discoveries. This recalls Picasso's reply to the questioning about the dating of his work, in which the artist replied he did this because he anticipated a science involving the study of creativity.
If all this is read back into the work of the afore-mentioned artists, it could be said that within a chaotic environment representation cannot survive because the figure of nature in general is merely the experience of the psychological displacements taking place within the individual. A representational sequence can only remain intact within a strict regulation of its processes in terms of the development of a personal limit; and these offerings of image may only be brought to light after a great period of testing, as in dry country the tough husk of the seed must be scorched to activate its growth. So that our cries of 'nature' and 'ecology' are deflected references to the complexity of our own human relationships. We insist on the health of a natural system because we insist on our own well-being. It may be shown that the strength of our current environmental awareness marks the desire of our greater health.