Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pilgrimage to Passages

Pilgrimage to Passages, J Bowring

A bitterly cold January day. Merciless wind. Snow. Piercing rain. And there it was. The most far-flung point of my journey: Passages, the memorial to Walter Benjamin designed by Dani Karavan. More intense than I had anticipated, more 'real' ...

Giorgio Agamben wrote of the 'memorable' and the 'unforgettable' in response to Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The memorable is that which is able to be archived, stored, sorted - placed within the orthodox devices of memory. The unforgettable, however, exceeds these containers, and was applied to Eisenman's memorial in the context of its abstraction, its claims to non-representation, seeking to elude reading.

Passages is 'unforgettable'. Despite the evident narrative components, the sense of a sequence, of movement, the memorial is open, engulfing, and does not succumb to any tidy message of remembering. Instead, all of the ambiguity, turmoil, tragedy and regret are there in sensation, in the ineffability of the place ... the dark passage, seeing into the distant sea beyond, an eerie echo of some completely different environment, as Benjamin wrote of the Arcades:

The innermost glowing cells of the city of light, the old dioramas, nested in the arcades, one of which today still bears the name Passage des Panoramas. It was, in the first moment, as though you had entered an aquarium. Along the wall of the great darkened hall, broken at intervals by narrow joints, it stretched like a ribbon of illuminated water behind glass. The play of colors among deep-sea fauna cannot be more fiery.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Nigredo, Albedo, Rubedo

Black, white, red. The three colours of alchemy. Nigredo, albedo, rubedo, the words are traced onto the massive painting by Anselm Kiefer in the Louvre. And this alchemical incantation infuses a magical presence in this, the only permanent work to be added to the Louvre in over 50 years, when Braque painted the ceiling of one of the chambers.

Coming across the work was unexpected, a moment of sudden magic amidst the almost suffocating wealth of the Louvre, the exhausting, exhilarating galleries. And then, looking up to firstly see a niche occupied by Kiefer's Hortus Conclusus - the secret garden.

A small hillock with decimated vegetation, a post-apocalyptic sacred grove. Kiefer has spoken of the Hortus Conclusus as the site of Jesus's crucifixion, a gardenesque Golgotha. The Hortus Conclusus alone was arresting, but there was more ... turning 180 degrees to be hold the opposite niche with its own small garden. This one, a sunflower emerging from a leaden pile of books, was labelled Danae - who was impregnated by Zeus, an immaculate conception in the form of golden rain, the seeds of which lie at the base of the sculpture.

The most astounding moment is the third component: a painting some 10 metres high, seemingly directly on the surface of the Louvre. Athanor is an echo of Kiefer's prone self portraits, adrift in stellar spaces. The reference to alchemy is coded into the title - Athanor was the furnace that could transform base metal into gold, and by analogy make mortal beings immortal. The three alchemical elements --nigredo, albedo, rubedo --are written onto the surface of the massive work, almost submerging under the heavy surface of clay, lead, silver, gold and paint.

As though written in invisible ink, the words only appear after intense concentration - nigredo, albedo, rubedo. Kiefer's work is like a black hole, a gravitational force field pulling in the surroundings, ideas, memories, myths. Situated on the stairway between the galleries of antiquities of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the constellations of presences are phenomenal. The starry sky of the self portrait extending in the time and space of the mind back into time immemorial, the unknowable distance of which we only see hints and glimmers. The criss-crossing threads, tangents, arcs and arrows of Kiefer's work join these vast spaces, amplifying his traversing of 'boundaries' ... from Fernando Pessoa to the Holocaust; Paul Celan and Charles Baudelaire to the ancient work of the Egyptians. The depth of the work is engulfing, and to stare into the depth of Athanor brings sublime thrill, like standing on the brink of something terrifying, beautiful.

Later, wandering through the Musée National d´Art Moderne I saw in the distance what looked like a further element of Kiefer's assemblage. On closer inspection it turned out to be a work by Cy Twombly, called Thermopylae, from 1992. Thermopylae, a battle site in ancient Greece, seems to resonate with the insistent presences of Kiefer's work, a satellite swirling around his vast constellation.

Intriguingly, the next permanent addition to the Louvre will happen in around 2 years - when Cy Twombly paints the ceiling of Salle des Bronzes ...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Affective Maps

Milan, January 2009, JB

Moments, places, ensembles ... certain co-incidences of elements that carry us away. In the way that Jonathan Flateley claims for Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, or W E B Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, there are associations that provide communal forms of transport, time-travelling devices - "portable collective madeleines". The mood of such a moment is arresting, affective, and Flateley speaks of 'affective mapping' - a plotting of emotion. And through this revealing it becomes an object, something that can be recognised, seen, defamiliarised for an instant, via the "mobile machine of emotional self-estrangement."

Flateley's estrangement machines are literary, but what of the visual. How does the camera operate in its constant editing of that which beheld? In capturing, isolating, re-presenting moments of existence, both the place and the self are estranged - the 'I' that was there, in that place, of it ... a place I do not know, but which is somehow familiar. The nostalgic insistence of a place I have no sentimental attachment to.

Milan's melancholy on a quiet afternoon in winter. The anti-climax of the festive season has left the streets deserted. The oversized cobbles diminish the scale of the buildings, the datum falls away - cobbles are usually around foot-sized, they give a human point of reference to a landscape. Yet here, their massiveness adds to the surreal emptiness. It's hard to get a grip on scale, on time - the time of day or the century.

And in Paris, a bosque's arcade-like form provides a further estranged place. I feel I am looking at it from a distance, as though it is presented in a book. But it is right there. And the gulls suddenly fly towards me as though to underscore the reality. A moment of frisson, of frottage with reality, amplifying the presence of the self in the scene, an affective mapping. You are here.

Bosque, Paris, January 2009, J Bowring

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Zone du Silence

Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, Côte D'Azur, January 2009, J Bowring

Beside the Mediterranean, a 'found' space. Down a bank, past the sign advising passage privé, a trespass into silence. Descending into a place of slowness, detachment from a real world somewhere else. The introspection of the declared zone du silence is palpable, revealing a certain force's presence on this site. The small, circular terrace hangs like a balcony suspended into the space of the sea, a monk's cell, en plein air.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My Life as a Monk

Landscape from cell balcony, Le Couvent de la Tourette, January 2009, J Bowring

Pockets of silence are gifts. Places which are timeless, with infinite capacity to inspire contemplation, beyond the congestion of existence. The tranquillity of the monastery of La Tourette, near L'Arbresle in France, stills the mind. Well below freezing, the landscape is silent. This place where time is frozen becomes home for a short time, yet it feels an eternity. The atmosphere is suffused with mist, and light barely penetrates; time does not seem to pass. Mostly it is near dark; the forests around the monastery close in. The grass and soil crunch during walks across the fields. And amidst it all, Le Corbusier's brooding building, for the Dominican monastery, persists with an immense gravity.

Cell, Le Couvent de la Tourette, January 2009, J Bowring

The cell is minimal, modest, and serves to heighten the consciousness of one's self. Here, there is nothing. And the nothingness is a vast potential, as through the elimination of the 'noise' of existence there is the wealth of silence. It is not allowed to even hold discussions within one's cell. Each cell is reserved for contemplation and study, free from any incursions. To exist in such a way is daunting, exhilarating. The silence falls as a mantle, and the assumption of a contemplative state is inevitable. In the frozen valley below the curls of smoke are the only indicators that time has not come to a complete halt.

Pockets of Silence

Paris, January 2009, JB

When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing; no galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet it was a golden time, for then we had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, and consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I will not venture to discuss. But I do know that many who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where they can root and grow. We must all hope that they find them.

Mark Rothko, 1969