Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Palimpsests and tapestries

And so, if 'reality is a shell game' ... as Michael Taussig observes below, where's the pea? Is there one? Where is the art of history, and the contingency of fact, not to mention the science of fiction? After all, as Artemis Cooper writes, in a deftly wrought piece on Matrin Edmond's Luca Antara, "history is more than a series of facts laid out in the right order."

Patrick Wright strolls across my vision, bearing his A Journey Through Ruins, where he 'accumulates' history as a montage. In an interview, for the Strangely Familiar group's book The Unknown City, Wright conveyed his task of tacking between the real and the not so real, "It is quite true that I combined objective description with occasional disappearances into rhetoric and even fiction. I never faked the archive, but I did sometimes allow my perceptions to override reality or to twist it a bit. I would justify this on several grounds. To begin with, it is a way of saying that this street, in this incarnation, doesn't exist except as I put it there. ... Obviously, you can't fix a street. The minute you've finished it it's gone, although actually it's you that's gone, not it."

It is a cliché to call history a palimpsest, yet it remains an apposite term, evoking the obscuring and revealing that filters the reality of the past. The flatbed, as in the work of Robert Rauschenberg (who died last month), is a palimpsest of sorts, an accumulative surface, where things collect. The flatbed enlisted the idea of the printing press of that name, where the plate was wound through the press, squashing and compressing the gathered fragments together, changing their form, and their relationship to the other collected pieces. And the filmic sense of montage, of cross cutting, jump cutting, and the like, plays the shell game too, of undoing certainty, of leaving lingering doubt, of just where that pea is now.

The places where memories inhere vibrate with potential, whether fictional or factual, or somewhere in between. Pierre Nora's magisterial study of the landscape of France, the lieux de mémoire, maps the palimpsestuous terrain, of remembered and misremembered sites. Nora moved from the idea of milieux to lieux to mark the shift from a shared, collectivity of memory sites, to the more particular, place-centred sites. He began his seven volume Les Lieux de Mémoire in 1984, and the project took eight years to complete. A year before this, in 1983, Benedict Anderson had written Imagined Communities (a new edition of which has recently been produced with an intriguing retrospective essay by Anderson in which he carries out an acrobatic self-critique ... a fascinating reflection on the effect an author can have on the trajectory of thinking), and Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger published their The Invention of Tradition, another insightful work, which charges straight to the wavering line between fact and fiction. While all of the above works have, in turn, been subjected to extensive critique, their important contribution lies in their agitation of the taken-for-granted associations between history and story telling, and the untying of the neat knots of the past...

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