Thursday, April 30, 2009

Inside the Combinatorium

"Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined?"
"Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable."
Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 1993

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Venetian Stain

San Marco, Venice (2009) JBowring

Venice (1953)

long wait
from blackness
to the blue
of dawn
morning breeze
dark windows
chalk white
frozen moss
bird and man

John Hejduk

Dawn, Lake Hawea (2009), JBowring

The Venetian stain had remained for months now. A certain moment held in the mind, encountered again, in parallel, elsewhere. Dawn's pale light, Hejduk's crossing from black to blue, the chill, the water, the waiting for light. Doppelganger landscapes, experience doubled, and looping around, so that here in the high country is Venice, the stain, the taste, an essence, a homeopathic drop. Like Henry James's Spencer Brydon, one encounters one's self again, yet somehow removed, "He had that feeling that here, at last, was something to see, to touch, to take, to know -- something all unnatural and dreadful. The dense penumbra literally screened a figure which stood still in it. It loomed gloomily in the dark, it was something, it was somebody, the prodigy of a personal presence ... He was standing before someone who converted his I into another personality." The schizophrenic sense of place, here as there, is unsettling, disturbing, yet also delicious. Beyond the limits of sensibility, it enters the domain of the sublime, the rush of feeling out of place, ungrounded, out of this world. The Venetian dawn carried in the mind, then released in small doses, a contamination, a scintilla, a susurration, of else where.

"Water equals time and provides beauty with its double." Joseph Brodsky, Watermark, 1992

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Mysterious Depth

Dawn Service, April 25, 2009, JBowring

"A melancholy man discovers in spite of everything that our existence is fragile and that thus there exists in the world some mysterious depth ... and this discovery is immediately dissolved in a reverie isolating him from despair or dread." Wojciech Balus, 1998

The world brings coincidences of almost chilling resonance, and the return to studying Balus's article, in the early morning, immediately following the Dawn Service, was one such breathtakingly uncanny moment. The small crowd gathered on the dam for readings, wreath laying and the bugle call of the Last Post. Above the high mountain ranges the first rays of sun coloured the few feathery clouds, while at lake level the mist swirled in haunted swathes, concealing, revealing, re-inventing the sublime topography for a fleeting moment ... The sounds, the chill of the dawn, the pause, silence, looking backwards to loss, moist eyes behold the luminous, numinous, enveloping mise-en-scene...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Light on the edge of Darkness

Lake Hawea, April 2009, JBowring

Gloom, Not Doom

Ian Pindar in The Guardian

This thoughtful and sensitive book remains a survey of the scene rather than a definitive study. However, Bowring has succeeded in her aspiration to create something like an Observer's Guide to melancholy. Melancholy assumes many guises, she explains, each anatomised here: religious melancholy, love melancholy, the melancholy of nostalgia or of boredom (acedia), and a whole tradition of "heroic melancholy" of which Batman is a recent exemplar. There is even what Walter Benjamin called "Left melancholy", whereby a leftist with a mournful attachment to a dead idea becomes an in-activist.

Read the full review here

Thursday, April 23, 2009

On Seeing Our Not Seeing

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918

''Why did we become blind, I don't know, perhaps one day we'll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.''
Such is the denouement of Jose Saramago's Blindness, a parable of sorts perhaps, of the not seeing which is part of our 'sightedness'. The 'blindness' of Saramago's characters manifests as an engulfing whiteness, rather than a blackness which one might anticipate, and in that a sense of emptiness, rather than a plunging depth. So very different is the not seeing that comes from staring at what is in front of us, of an inability or unwillingness to discern the small beauties, to comment on them, bring them forward - so very different to staring into an infinite blackness, and seeing in that a universe ...

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1913

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Dust of Time

The Dust of Time, Theo Angelopolous, 2009, music Eleni Karaindrou

Look Both Ways

Unité d’Habitation, Jan 2009, JB

"I remember one vivid winter’s day at Versailles. Silence and calm reigned supreme. Everything gazed at me with mysterious, questioning eyes. And then I realized that every corner of the palace, every column, every window possessed a spirit, an impenetrable soul. At that moment I grew aware of the mystery which urges men to create certain strange forms. And the creation appeared more extraordinary than the creators."
Giorgio de Chirico, "Mystery and Creation" Metaphysical Painting (written 1915, finally published 1928 by Andre Breton)

Unité d’Habitation, Jan 2009, JB

"I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and thus effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by a tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised their voice the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have overcome death and returnto share our life."
Marcel Proust, The Remembrance of Things Past (1913)

Unité d’Habitation, Jan 2009, JB

"And these things that live,slipping away, understand that you praise them; transitory themselves, they trust us for rescue,us, the most transient of all. They wish us to transmute them in our invisible heart - oh, infinitely into us! Whoever we are."
Rainer Maria Rilke (C. F. MacIntyre, translation) "The Ninth Elegy" Duino Elegies (1911-1922)

Unité d’Habitation, Jan 2009, JB

"… the spirits have to be recognized to become real. They are not outside us, nor even entirely within, but flow back and foth between us and the objects we have made, the landscape we have shaped and move in . We have dreamed all these things in our deepest lives and they are ourselves. It is our self that we are making out there, and when the landscape is complete we shall have become the gods who are intended to fill it."
David Malouf, An Imaginary Life (1978)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Empathy ... aesthetics ...

Anselm Kiefer, Sternenfall ('Falling Stars'), 1995

“I entrust my individual life to the lifeless form, just as I do with another living person. Only ostensibly do I remain the same although the object remains an other. I seem merely to adapt and attach myself to it as one hand clasps another, and yet I am mysteriously transplanted and magically transformed into this other.”
Robert Vischer (who invented the term 'empathy' - originally in German, Einfuhtung, in 1873)

“Aesthetics is born as a discourse of the body. The vital distinction the term signifies for its inventor, Alexander Baumgarten, is not between art and life but between the material and the immaterial: between things and thoughts, sensations and ideas, what is bound up with our creaturely life of perception as opposed to what belongs in the mind. It is as though philosophy suddenly wakes up to the fact that there is a dense, swarming territory beyond its own mental enclave, threatening to fall utterly outside its sway. That territory is nothing less than the whole of our sensate life – the business of affections and aversions, of how the world strikes the body on its sensory surfaces, or what takes root in the guts and the gaze and all that arises from our most banal, biological insertion into the world.”
Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, 1990

Anselm Kiefer, Die Sechste Posaune (The Sixth Trumpet*), 1996

*The sixth trumpet is sounded at the Apocalypse by an angel - it is a signal to bring on the calvary, to destroy one third of humanity.

Mikhail Vasilievich Nesterov, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, 1917-22

Friday, April 17, 2009

Dark Days

Tacita Dean, Riesenbett, 2009

Goya, Reading, 1820-21 (one of the 'Black Paintings')

Colin McCahon, Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is, 1958-59

"... listening to the steady murmur of the river and looking into the blackness which now enveloped everything." W G Sebald, Vertigo, 2001

Monday, April 13, 2009

Nausea [... navigating with JPS ...]

Christchurch, April 2009

I am afraid of cities. But you mustn't leave them. If you go too far you come up against the vegetation belt. Vegetation has crawled for miles towards the cities. It is waiting. Once the city is dead, the vegetation will cover it, will climb over the stones, grip them, search them, make them burst with its long black pincers; it will blind the holes and let its green paws hang over everything. You must stay in the cities as long as they are alive, you must never penetrate alone this great mass of hair waiting at the gates; you must let it undulate and crack all by itself. In the cities, if you know how to take care of yourself, and choose the times when all the beasts are sleeping in their holes and digesting, behind the heaps of organic debris, you rarely come across anything more than minerals, the least frightening of all existants.
Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea

Christchurch, April 2009

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Antonello da Messina, Annunziata, 1475-76

"The Beautiful Form: I may find that in some icon, and sometimes in a still life -- both help me to see how something as found its form -- but also in a common or garden tool, in literature, in a piece of music."
Peter Zumthor, Atmospheres, 2006, who has just been announced as this year's Pritzker Prize winner - a triumph for beauty, for an architecture of the body.

[And for the non-New Zealand speaking readers:

"Beauty" - as in the Collins Dictionary, sense 6: "(N.Z.) an expression of approval or agreement"]

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Seduction of Light

Mark Rothko, No. 1, 1961

The Seduction of Light: Mark Rothko at the American Folk Art Museum.
Mark Rothko at the American Folk Art Museum?? In the haze of jet lag, missed flights, complete disorientation, it was a disturbing statement, difficult to process. The building was one I had hoped to see, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Recalling the remarkable spaces from a lecture of theirs I had seen, I realised it was a space that called for full immersion. Even the facade was immediately more tactile, more ... grave ... more real ... than I had anticipated.

Standing, staring at the building and wondering whether to pay and go in I was distracted by the notice about Rothko, and was lured inside. And sure enough, there amongst the tin pigs and decoy ducks, were the Rothkos. And they were 'interleaved' with peculiar, stark 19th century portraits by an artist called Ammi Phillips, from New England. The premise of the exhibition was the plotting of a duality between Rothko and Phillips as seekers of light ... as they both "opened portals to a dimension where form was suspended in an ether of suffused atmosphere, and where the mysticism of light was coaxed into being primarily through the vehicle of color." The exhibition sought to draw out, illuminate, a resonance between the two, based solely upon their coloration, the use of the darkness, and the ethereal hues. This in itself was engaging, intoxicating, as an idea.

Ammi Phillips, Woman with Pink Ribbons, c.1831
Yet, compelling as the two artists' work is, both alone and in this strange and not wholly convincing juxtaposition, I found myself always looking over their shoulder at the spaces beyond ... where the real seduction of light was occurring. Photographs of the interior were not permitted, and its interpenetrating and coalescing spaces would in any case be difficult to transpose to two dimensions. The staircases - of which there are sometimes two and sometimes only one - in themselves create a feeling of eternal unfolding space, belying the building's tiny footprint. Cut-aways link floors in unexpected shafts of space, revealing and concealing, exhibiting pure light itself. Thinking back now it is those moments of light falling on the walls, of feeling suspended in the spaces of the staircases, which remain.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Further Fragments

[Vatican Museum, Rome, December 2007]

The fragmentary & the incomplete.
All demand participation, an embedding of the self within the work in some way. In the manner argued by Rico Franses for the 'stranger memorial' - those memorials where we know none of the dead - that because the circle of grief cannot be completed, because no direct connection can be made, the visitor instead leaves behind something of themselves. Perhaps a subconscious conjunction, a spatial suture that stitches an invisibility onto an unknown. It is this space that is between the fragments which presents a possibility - whether in word or world - that is so exquisitely ... open.
Petrarch's Canzoniere, his 366 verse poem circling his ideal, his Laura, creates such vast, open, vertiginous spaces in the interregnums between the verses. This vision - of a very limited scaffold separated by vast lacunae - was an innovative form, a challenging structure. (After all, a scaffold is both a structure which may allow one to gain more height, or to hang one's self). Laura never appears fully in the poem's 'fragments', and nor is there any map or directions of what is happening in between these 'scattered rhymes. Yet, here is love in its most enigmatic and stunning form - in all that is not said as much as what is said. In the hint, in the moment, the speculation - and as with the Temple of Philosophy at Ermenonville, there is an ambiguity in the state of these scattered pieces, of how they go together, or fall apart, and who is implicated in their making.

You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes,
of those sighs on which I fed my heart,
in my first vagrant youthfulness,
when I was partly other than I am ... ... ...
En route to Auckland today, the clouds parted to reveal the surreal spectacle of the volcano Taranaki Mount Egmont, sitting in its perfectly circular national park boundary - an Easter treat ...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Dark Gaze

Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia, March 2009

"That which we see counts -- lives -- in our eyes only by that which looks back at us."

Georges Didi-Huberman

[click on image to enlarge]

Monday, April 6, 2009

Night Moves

"Dark space envelopes me on all sides and penetrates me much deeper than light space, the distinction between inside and outside and consequently the sense organs as well, insofar as they are designed for external perception, here play only a totally modest role."

Eugène Minkowski, in Roger Caillois, 'Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia'.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Transfiguration of the Commonplace

Manhattan, March 2009, JBowring

The Scene: Cordier-Ekstrom Gallery, 1963

Robert Smithson: I see you are into alchemy.
Marcel Duchamp: Yes.

Manhattan, March 2009, JBowring

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Ermenonville, November 1992, JBowring

In the countryside outside Paris is the landscape garden of Ermenonville, within which is the Temple of Philosophy. At a glance the temple appears to be a ruin, an example of the eighteenth century cult of ruins, the predilection for picturesque moments of decay. The temple is not, however, in ruin, but in a state of incompletion. It bears the inscription (in Latin), “Be this temple unfinished like the science [philosophy] whose name it bears”. This allegory of the imperfection of human understanding is further represented by symbolic manoeuvre of having six whole pillars of the temple standing, each of which bears the name of a philosopher (Newton, Descartes, Voltaire, Montesquieu, William Penn and Rousseau), and a further column lying in the grass, engraved with a question: “Who will complete it?” A further three uninscribed columns lie on the ground, emphasising that this is, in fact, a building site.

In Passaic, New Jersey, 1967, a highway was under construction, a process requiring some demolition, as Route 21 had to slice its way through the centre of the city. Staring at the processes of demolition and construction Robert Smithson imagined the whole as a kind of "unitary chaos", not the tumbling ruins of a picturesque scene, but “ruins in reverse". This uncertain and poised condition, a confounding of the temporal, comes about because “the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built." ('The Monuments of Passaic', ArtForum December 1967)

In the City of London the IRA bombings of 1992 caused massive damage, curtains flapped from the facades of skyscrapers, glass and paper rained down onto the streets below for days. Scenes fused into my memory, from the years of working in London. Scenes revived by Patrick Keiller's film London, where the static shots linger at several points of the devastation, and the narrator is perplexed by the spectacle, since the piles of rubble look as much like materials yet to be utilised, and he muses that it is difficult to distinguish the bombing sites from the building sites which had been so numerous just a few years before.

2009, just near the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia a large building site is simultaneously a site of demolition and construction. Piles of rubble, building materials, salvaged stone from historic walls, reinforcing steel seemingly sprouting from walls ... a sense of the cyclical, the riddle of the fragmentary, ruins in reverse ...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Shadow Time

Central Park, March 2009

"The other or eastern end of the isle was whelmed in the blackest shade. A sombre, yet beautiful and peaceful gloom here pervaded all things. The trees were dark in color, and mournful in form and attitude — wreathing themselves into sad, solemn, and spectral shapes that conveyed ideas of mortal sorrow and untimely death. The grass wore the deep tint of the cypress, and the heads of its blades hung droopingly, and hither and thither among it, were many small unsightly hillocks, low, and narrow, and not very long, that had the aspect of graves, but were not; although over and all about them the rue and the rosemary clambered. The shade of the trees fell heavily upon the water, and seemed to bury itself therein, impregnating the depths of the element with darkness. I fancied that each shadow, as the sun descended lower and lower, separated itself sullenly from the trunk that gave it birth, and thus became absorbed by the stream; while other shadows issued momently from the trees, taking the place of their predecessors thus entombed."
Edgar Allan Poe, The Island of the Fay