Reality in a world of appearances is first of all characterized by “standing still and remaining” the same long enough to be an object for acknowledgement and recognition by a subject.
Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind 1
If only my materials, precariously stacked and mated awaiting judgment, had the capacity to actively stay put, my life in the studio would involve significantly more down time. The kind of down time that motivates ambitious relaxation: Listening to music judged on a song by song basis while swinging a furring strip like a golf club and pacing back and forth to test the temperature of a pot of tea.
The tea, losing steam and babysitting my sense of purpose, is entirely about a pleasure that is always on the verge of collapse. I revolve about; checking in, checking back, attempting strange encounters with myself and propositioning, with the currency of Sculpture, the cobbled objects around my studio to see how they, and I, react.
Perhaps it is my familiarity with this unruliness, of objects and objectives, that draws me to still life in the dull unpeaceful silence following my first solo show. Having fallen through the mist bridge connecting prejudice and purpose I reminisce–how briskly the rhythm of work would propel me across! I find myself looking at the above photo of my studio and encountering my own gaze.
I sit and wonder, as if in front of some new still life. I see, as clearly as I see the bowls in the foreground, the shadow of my now absent productivity racing through this maze and I want it, most of all, to answer the question: for whom or what purpose do these things exist?
This sense of being removed from my purpose in the studio has no more or less to do with failure than with success, or mediocrity for that matter: These designators hold sway for borrowed intervals–intervals given to the inescapable collapse of judge, jury, plaintiff and defendant back into myself.
Purpose evolves into and from prejudice in my experience. The automatic avowal of one impulse over another is an obscene motivator in that it works well up until its mechanisms are brought out and examined. Which is where I am today, a witness in my own studio watching with fascination as my prejudices gear about undiscerning and unperturbed.
With them I am inevitably faulty of automation. Without them I am entirely disoriented, surrounded by questions suddenly in the place of work and its instruments. I am not at a crossroads but a deposition–giving testimony whose purpose is less judgment than discovery.
The crab motion of my current thoughts, looking at still life while moving sideways toward sculpture, is the product of this and yet another encounter with inactivity: sitting for a friend’s painting and returning after months to the same position. I should add that I’ve never made a painting myself and the conversations that rattle back and forth between oneself and a canvas, or oneself and a viewer sharing a canvas, don’t arise fluently for me but rather take effort.
There are advantages to this: I sometimes paw through a thicket of my own personal requirements just to see a sculpture. If purpose evolves from prejudice then in the viewing of sculpture I am at times too purposeful a viewer.
“[A] being can retain from a material object and the actions issuing from it only those elements that interest him. So that perception is not the object plus something, but the object minus something, minus everything that does not interest us.” (Deleuze, 25)
The above statement from Gilles Deleuze’s Bergsonism, describes for me not only how perception operates but also how the meaninglessness of art appears to those who don’t know how to use it. This is an oversimplification, of course, but as a person who came to art relatively late in comparison to my peers I include myself, and in fact everyone, at least partially in this category.
Engaging with art is difficult, but that difficulty is less related to misunderstanding than people often claim. Instead of befuddlement it is anxiety that I negotiate; I ‘feel nothing’ as a response to feeling everything all at once with no subtractions or distinctions.
When I first encountered contemporary art in college my main experience was not of a kind of art but of a kind of person. My father was teaching golf at Chelsea Piers at the time and I remember walking to visit him at work and wandering up a long ramp into my first Chelsea gallery. I have absolutely no recollection what I saw, not even if it was big or small or made of canvas or cow or pig iron.
I only remember that there was a thin man sitting at a big desk who in his alienation fascinated me. I spent time with him as one does with a lifelike statute. I walked slowly around his desk. I picked up papers and pretended to read. I could not for the life of me make out what he was doing there–and I can assume that he was wondering the same of me.
Most of my perplexing encounters with art shortly afterwards were simply re-staged encounters with that desk man. I remembering seeing an untitled Robert Morris felt sculpture for the first time at the Yale Art Gallery and in my bewilderment picturing desk man enraptured by it–cast into an ecstasy by the almost total lack of stimulus. I was no desk man.
Returning to that sculpture sometime later, having spent the interim estranged from the object yet closer to its objective, I recognized that it was a single piece of material, almost entirely raw. It had six vertical cuts running up it that jammed somewhere near the top, leaving five pressure points with which the piece was hung. It was large, curiously composed, and trophy-like, but it still did not look like a sculpture to me.
My essential belief in nouns continues to feed the expectation that they must come first in my apprehension of the world. But in art and in me there is pleasure in modifying an unknown term. Which does not mean that I suddenly enjoyed that Morris sculpture, but that its rawness created a meaningful leftover for the subtractive act of my perception.
Earlier on my expectations, so diametrically opposed to what was in front of me, were too polarizing a filter for my perception; they inevitably resolved too much or too little to be of use. Today, enmeshed within a professional practice, the filter of my prejudices gives me purpose as a viewer. But purpose, like identification, subtracts from the experience of reality. These subtractions are the basis of perception and mis-perception. 2
I should turn to my friend’s painting for now in order to conclude. Spending time in the process of sitting for a painting surprised me. It was, if not exciting, stimulating just to be looked at; to give nothing to a gaze but my appearance. I felt imbued with realness. To the person in front of me I was not a bounding quicksilver of interiority but rather a thing with a capacity to look like itself.
Before the process began I had focused all of my attention on how unbearable it would be to have to sit, for hours at a time, and be still, but, strangely, I hadn’t considered the possibility of enjoying the stillness and much less the difficulty of bearing its responsibility.
For between each sitting were long irregular bouts of time; experiences made irregular by the canvas and its observations. In being called back into form I would find my place to be painted and my friend would find her place in front of me. She would move my chair toward the lamp behind the easel and I would crane my neck to feel for some memory, in the air, of my chin.
According to the canvas I was occupied by this spot; to it I and all the otherwise autonomous elements incorporated in its view had become a composite. I began to imagine myself as an object, a thin table with someone’s effects mussed on top into a pile.
As an object for acknowledgement I continued to look like myself, but I was, and had been, changing. And not simply in a numerical sense: calculably older, or some percentage more hunched. In my time spent sitting I was aware of being and becoming what Henri Bergson calls a “nonnumerical multiplicity”. 3 I had become other to that previous self, in the process of it again becoming realized in me.
The same was likely true of my friend. But whereas my sense of disorientation, like the sensation of phantom movement caused by a platform and the unexpected movement of a train, was both structural and accidental, hers was structural and essential to the engagement she was pursuing. She was, in returning as other to this composite which contained in it so many previous points of view, actively provoking parallax.
It came to my attention that I had only ever thought of still life in terms of objects, things being stilled: In encountering the leftovers of a previous night’s festivities an artist, self-struck, might find the arrangement to be oddly descriptive. And so, instead of moving those things back into circulation the artist actively leaves them in their place. 4
But this punctuation does more than highlight a meaningful arrangement of objects, it reveals a meaningful subject. In this way still life can be seen as a form of ellipsis: A subject is revealed and stranded in its moment of passage. Still lives are made still by acts of departure, awaited arrivals, subjects unreconciled.
To return to the quotation from Hannah Arendt with which I started this writing, I want to represent it here in its original context:
Reality in a world of appearances is first of all characterized by “standing still and remaining” the same long enough to be an object for acknowledgement and recognition by a subject. Husserl’s basic and greatest discovery takes up in exhaustive detail the intentionality of all acts of consciousness, that is, the fact that no subjective act is ever without an object: though the seen tree may be an illusion, for the act of seeing it is an object nevertheless; though the dreamt-of landscape is visible only to the dreamer, it is the object of his dream.
From a phenomenological point of view objects engender subjects by providing fields within which their subjectivities find expression. Taken one step further, from subjects and objects to subjective acts, it becomes clear how subjects can, without paradox, serve as the objects of their own subjective act.
This is distinct from a relation to the ‘self’ that looks uncomfortably similar to it–treating the ‘self’ as “something given, as solid, as referable as an object that lies deeply hidden under my layers of artificialities, waiting patiently to be uncovered and proven.” 5 Though both perspectives use the ‘self’ as a ground for investigation and discovery they are in fact looking at two very different things: the self as a source of intentionality, which frames both examined and unexamined perceptions, and the self as a source of reality.
To put it more simply, in Arendt’s/Husserl’s scenario the question is not: what is real and what is an illusion, but rather: what is the purpose of doubt?
For Husserl’s dreamer, an experience’s illusory nature does not preclude it from being stable, and therefore meaningful as an object of subjective response. Doubt then is a kind of safety procedure for navigating the endlessly recursive world of meaning and intention. Furthermore the purpose of doubt is not its extinction but rather its intuitive force as a representation of the unknown. 6
In an anthology of poetic works that was shown to [René Descartes] in [a] dream, he perceived “a series of small copper engravings with portraits,” which, like everything else in this dream, he wished to interpret. But he “was no longer in need of an explanation, for an Italian painter had visited the following day and provided one.” We are not told what these pictures looked like or what they meant. But they were such that a person acquainted with the visual arts, a painter, recognized them and was able to divine their significance. (Belting, 51)
I am thinking of this parable from Descartes’ life, “that he hoped would reveal his future path in the marvelous sciences,” in relation to my own. It seemed to Descartes that his dream, by speaking in a language which he in his waking state claimed no fluency in, provided a much needed connection between subjective experience and collective truth: The dreamer does not necessarily dream in a private language but rather in a dialect derived from a culture’s “common stock” of images and ideas. 7
In trying to finish this piece of writing I have kept coming back to this story feeling that it might reveal something to me, and yet the more time I spend with it the more I lose interest in its most important part–Descartes’ epistemological dénouement. Instead I stay with the visiting Italian painter longer and longer.
I think of him listening or asking questions. I imagine him on his bright solitary walk home. I wonder what becomes of this journeyman, insider, instrument. When he finds himself stranded in a moment of passage and in need of an explanation, where does he wait?
- See Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind / Thinking (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), p.45. ↩
- See Thomas S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 3rd ed. 1996) p. 62-5. Kuhn discusses a psychological experiment as it relates to the perception of anomalies and relates it to how scientific anomalies are suppressed by the very structure that causes them to arise. “In science, as in the playing card experiment, novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background of expectation…Without the special apparatus that is constructed mainly for anticipated functions, the results that lead ultimately to novelty could not occur. And even when the apparatus exists, novelty ordinarily emerges only for the man who, knowing with precision what he should expect, is able to recognize that something has gone wrong.” ↩
- See Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism (New York: Zone Books, 1991), p.42-3. “What is the subject or the subjective? Bergson gives the following example: ‘A complex feeling will contain a fairly large number of simple elements; but as long as these elements do not stand out with perfect clearness, we cannot say that they were completely realized, and as soon as consciousness has a distinct perception of them, the psychic state which results from their synthesis will have changed for this very reason.’…In reality duration divides up and does so constantly: That is why it is a multiplicity. But it does not divide up without changing in kind, it changes in kind in the process of dividing up: This is why it is a nonnumerical multiplicity, where we can speak of ‘indivisibles’ at each stage of the division. There is other without there being several. In other words, the subjective, or duration is the virtual.“ ↩
- I plan on elaborating on this in a further essay. ↩
- Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman Native Other (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), p.18. ↩
- Plato, Meno, 80D (via: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, (translated by Colin Smith) Routledge 2002, p. 431) “How will you set about looking for that thing, the nature of which is totally unknown to you? Which, among the things you do not know, is the one you propose to look for? And if by chance you should stumble upon it, how will you know that it is indeed that thing, since you are in ignorance of it?” ↩
- See Hans Belting’s, An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011), p.51. ↩