Thursday, July 3, 2014

finally, finally, finally, finally: Heraclitean Fragments in the Image Stream (Part One)

Today is the last day of the wonderful exhibition Fragments of an Unknowable Whole at the OSU Urban Arts Space, curated by Tim Smith.
 

This group show is not only a dizzying dose of eye-protein but it is also brain-tingling in its ambition, ostensibly exploring how artists actively engage in an ongoing questioning of the function of the image in their practice.With one dynamic curator bringing together over twenty artists, the majority of whom represented by multiple works, adding up to a total of seventy-four pieces (with each 'piece' either a 'work' in and of itself or comprising of a 'part' of a 'work'), this exhibition cannot be taken in whole, let alone explained away with any simple, found 'answer'.
 

As Tim wrote (rather poetically) in the catalog essay (beautifully designed by THE WORK WE DO):

'a certain state of unknowing for the artist creates the conditions for moving forward on an expanded path of exploration'.

He continues by (rather philosophically) extending this approach to the artists' work to his exhibition as a whole:

'The form that these inquires continue to take in the gallery space challenge our conventional models of thought about representation and reality as experienced through images.'

As I entered the gallery for the last time yesterday, a few minutes early for a scheduled meeting with Tim for him to give me the 'curator's tour', I was determined to question the open-ended nature of the fragmentation paraded in individual works and the exhibition as a whole, armed (as I often am) with an exemplary model from Antiquity. We all know that many of our most revered and loved ancient Greek and Roman texts have come down to us as so-called fragments, but what exactly is a fragment? It could be a smattering of words across torn papyri (e.g. Sappho) or a phrase that was quoted (more likely misquoted and generally butchered) by later authors. The latter are more often than not accompanied by so-called testimonia - a supporting network of witness-texts that don't claim to quote the 'fragment', but helpfully(!) paraphrase its content. Armed with this muddied image of the ancient fragment, I wanted to see what Tim had to say about his exhibition's confident celebration of all these fragmentary photographic productions in the absence of any 'knowable whole'? Unless we are dealing with the scrap of papyrus, an ancient fragment comes to us caked and drenched in plenty of claims to know - not only what was written (the fragment itself), but what it means (to those who quote it and use it). Given this context, I was especially interested to see if Tim, as the curator, would then occupy the position of the testimony or witness to the fragment (as artwork), and as such, make claims for the wonder of unknowing on behalf of the work and the artists in the exhibition. Before I report back on my findings in the gallery (in Part Two of this post), let me briefly offer an example that conveniently bridges ancient fragments and modern image-making.  


In 1841 Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a lecture before the Society of the Adelphi in Waterville College, Maine called 'The Method of Nature'. In this lecture, he announced that: 

'You cannot bathe twice in the same river, said Heraclitus; and I add, a man never sees the same object twice; with his own enlargement the object acquires new aspects.' 

In his book Mediating American Autobiography: Photography in Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass and Whitman, Sean Ross Meehan discusses this reference to Heraclitus and comments on the use of the word 'enlargement', which, while perhaps not a direct reference, nevertheless invoked the new medium of photography and Emerson's thoughts about it in his journal, written in the same year. Meehan writes:

'Like daguerrean image that represents more than one aspect in its view - that is, in fact, unique as a form of photography precisely in the simultaneous doubleness of its image, its flickering juxtaposition of negative and positive representation - Emerson's journal entry ("Were you ever Daguerreotyped?") "acquires new aspects" when read back into this context of nature's representative, inchoate identity.'

Meehan's subtle 'reading back' of Emerson's account of photography onto his description of nature (via Heraclitus), asking us to compare the image to the word, raises some vital issues for Tim Smith's exhibition as well as Heraclitean philosophy. I will get to the former next time, but for now I want to dwell briefly on the issue of the Heraclitean image of the river used by Emerson and how we can appreciate how this metaphor of (photographic) enlargement intervenes not only in any attempt to recover its source but also in how it enacts the precise experience it was written to evoke.

The famous saying 'you cannot step in the same river twice', comes down to us both in a single fragment (F39) and also through testimonia by a range of authors, from Plato (in the Cratylus and Theaetetus), the later Heraclitus of the Homeric Problems and two passages by Plutarch. Yet a closer look at the fragment, we see that it too is mediated in a similar fashion to the testimonia. Here is Daniel Graham's (initially perplexing) translation of F39:
  
On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.

http://minusplato.blogspot.com/2012/05/ian-hamilton-finlays-heraclitean-bridge.html

These words are quoted by the 4th Century C.E. Christian apologist Eusebius in his Preparation for the Gospel as part of his discussion of the Hellenistic Stoic philosopher Cleanthes, as preserved in the work of summarizing handbook of the 1st Century BCE Stoic Arius Didymus. (Sometimes this complex genealogy of testimony is described simply as: 'from Cleanthes, from Arius Didymus, from Eusebius). Now, if we expand to the context for the fragment in the Eusebius passage, we can actually find a fourth layer of transmission:

'Concerning soul, Cleanthes as he is setting out the teachings of Zeno for comparison with those of other natural philosophers says that Zeno calls the soul sensation, or exhalation like Heraclitus. For wishing to show that souls being nourished by exhalations are always intelligent, he compares them to rivers: On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow. And souls too are nourished by moist exhalations.'

So it really is Zeno on Heraclitus, from Cleanthes, from Arius Didymus, from Eusebius! But aside from further muddying the transmission, what is intriguing about the full-text in which we find this oft-quoted saying of Heraclitus is that it is part of a discussion of the soul as a kind of vapor and, as such, the association between the human and the river is made tighter. Graham's translation does justice to the ambiguous syntax wherein the term for 'same' can agree with both the 'rivers' and 'those doing the stepping in'. Here this ambiguity allows for the epistemological point raised by Emerson whereby the same subject human/river has different experiences/waters. Further down this path, we can add the reading of the fragment that emphasizes the its sibilant and alliterative sound in the original Greek (potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei) mimics the flowing river! What excites me about looking closely at this fragment and its web of testimonies, is how it still manages to maintain an internal coherence, and like so much of Heraclitus' fragmentary writing, it has an internal logic. It is this logic, I would claim, that helps to explain its misrepresentation in the testimonies of others, but at the same time, it gives the fragment its own sense of wholeness or coherence. In fact, it is this wholeness, I would argue, that transforms the fragment into an image - the image evoked by Emerson and others who recall the maxim as 'you cannot step in the same river twice'. Emerson doesn't quote the exact words of Heraclitus (who does?) but the core of the image - the fluidity and stability of both humans and rivers - is consistent and is consistent in spite of a flux of expression.

Well, all that remains is for me to bring to bear this Heraclitean discovery on the exhibition. In my experience of seeing the exhibition for the last time, with its curator, did I find the 'whole' that was claimed to be 'unknowable? Or merely a series of fragments? Or perhaps something closer to the experience of the Heraclitean Fragment and Image Stream? Watch this space - Part Two will be posted shortly. 

(In the meantime, you still have a few hours to go to the exhibition. Click on the image below for the details).

 https://uas.osu.edu/exhibitions/fragments

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Dear CS, Warmest, CS: Some Epicurean Letters

On being generously invited by Ann McCoy to contribute a brief essay to the June issue of The Brooklyn Rail that she edited on the topic of the unconscious in contemporary art, I chose to write about how the Epicurean conception of the unconscious, via the work of the Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius, can be seen to be at work in Cindy Sherman's famous Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980). You can read the essay here.

Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still #4, 1977
Now that it has been published, I can reveal that the reason I chose to use Cindy Sherman's work as my case-study to discuss the Epicurean unconscious was to offer a covert tribute to an essay written for an earlier issue of The Brooklyn Rail by the poet and artist, Christopher Stackhouse (see here). Stackhouse's essay is actually not an essay, but a letter addressed to Sherman in response to a negative review of a recent exhibition of her work by Jed Perl in the New Republic, “The Irredeemably Boring Egotism of Cindy Sherman” (March 14, 2012). The main focus of Stackhouse's critique of Perl's review is his simplistic dichotomy between form and content in Sherman's work and how her use of herself as a subject-matter shows an 'indifference to formal values'. Here is the heart of Stackhouse's defense: 

"What Perl calls your “indifferences to formal values” aren’t indifferences at all—they are conscious, direct contaminations of the gaze. Your photographs carry as signature incessant disharmony. They generally project consistent formal decisions that serve the subject and content of the photos. Some of the images are unpleasant, and I would say many convey more than subtle misandry in negative relief. Perhaps that’s what he’s responding to in your overall body of work that gives his review such bite—you know, being a man can suck, too, he might as well have said. Further, when he states, “The only works of [yours]with a genuine poetic spark are the small, black-and-white Untitled Film Stills [you] did between 1977 and 1980, and this is because the controlled format gives [your] playacting some underlying structure…” I felt like he should have just come out and said, “Cindy Sherman in her 20s was kinda’ hot.”That would have been a more honest starting point from which to assess the trajectory of your production, in terms of formal means, variable content, and your work’s comprehensive engine."

Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still #4, 1977
In this brilliant paragraph Stackhouse manages to not only uncover the basis for Perl's simplistic criticism of Sherman's later work by pointing to what grounds his preference in her earlier work (because he finds the young Sherman 'kinda' hot'), he manages to do so by correcting Perl's vague and loaded language of artistic judgment ('genuine poetic spark') with his own  informed and engaging analyses of the work, specifically how it offers 'direct contaminations of the gaze' as its 'comprehensive engine'. Stackhouse later unpacks his interpretation when countering Perl's description of Sherman as having become “a victim of the very clichés [you] embrace”. Stackhouse responds as follows:

"If you are a “victim,” I suppose his acridity pitches him a sadist. Even if your artistic powers are waning, even if your work has some built-in limitations, Perl still misses this point (in a very male, egotistical, boring dick-in-hand kind of way): many of your pictures have served to give voice to facets of more than a few women’s complex view of themselves, reflected in/refracted through an excessively male-dominated society that tends to cast women into one dimensional characters, “either/or” rather than “both/and” and more. I feel like your work made fun of the fantastical projections of male insecurity that tend to want to control or mitigate the independence of women. You took an assertive position to a willful irrationality, an acceptance of the absurd that gave permission to anyone (man or woman or child) paying attention to be so, too."

Cindy Sherman Untitled #205, 1989
But what does my own essay on the Epicurean unconscious and Cindy Sherman have to do with Stackhouse's letter to Sherman in solidarity against Perl's review? 

One connection is in the 'formal' choice made by Stackhouse to write Sherman a letter. His use of the epistolary genre has a very interesting history in Epicureanism, not only because Epicurus himself wrote letters to his followers (most famously the three letters preserved by Diogenes Laertius to Herodotus, Menoeceus and Pythocles), but also because the writing of fictional letters by Epicurus became a means to attack Epicureanism by other schools and also the medium of a counter-attack by later Epicurean initiates. 


Cindy Sherman Untitled #216, 1989
For example, we know that Diotimus the Stoic wrote as many as 50 letters, as if written by Epicurus himself, to slander him through their erotic content. Furthermore, Diotimus seems to have tailored the content of these pirate letters to the addressee, as those addressed to Leontion, the famous female Epicurean who may or may not have been a high-class hooker (hetaira), are about pimping and excessive banqueting. Yet there are cases of letters being written in Epicurus' name that directly defend him against the simplistic critique of his school (e.g. for excessive pleasure) that use the addressee to make their point. The best example is the so-called Letter to Mother in the monumental inscription of the second-century Epicurean, Diogenes of Oenoanda. In this fragmentary letter, we find Epicurus encouraging his mother to find ataraxia (freedom from pain) by following the precepts of his school and avoiding the speeches of rhetoricians. This later Epicurean disciple has used the figure of the philosopher's mother to directly transform the gendered parody of Epicurean erotic pleasure into the Garden. 

Can Stackhouse's letter to Cindy Sherman be understood within this epistolary tradition of later Epicurean apologetic? If so, we can appreciate the contested nature of gendered criticism - whether in traditions of contemporary art or ancient philosophy. Furthermore, Stackhouse's main objection to Perl is upheld by both traditions in the ways they each illustrate the inseparability of (aesthetic/literary) form from (ethical/political) content. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Almus at LACMA


"King Sisyphus, it turns out, had little on the folks at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to push a giant rock up a hill for eternity. In modern-day LA, the city's largest museum has spent months – and $5 million to $10 million – trying to get a 340-ton boulder from a dusty quarry in Riverside onto its campus west of downtown."

"The Egyptian Pharaohs would've approved. Sisyphus would be relieved. After four decades of planning and a 105-mile odyssey, the rock officially has come to rest at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it is expected to hang out for roughly the next 3,500 years."

"While Sisyphus had a mountain to contend with, at least he and his rock didn't have to navigate a 105-mile route through Los Angeles suburbs or negotiate a bureaucratic maze of city, state and county officials to obtain permits."

"The Sisyphean journey (although hopefully it won't last as long as the mythological Greek king's journey!) begins from the quarry where the artist finally found the boulder he was looking for to complete his 'Levitated Mass' project" 

"The name of Tully-Stevens appears occasionally in the margins of Michael Heizer's work as well, which credits her participation in a number of Land Art projects in Arizona and New Mexico. Heizer's private journals of the period are somewhat less generous though. "Tromp down to Rosario and south to see Mad Woman in the dunes. At all costs do not get drawn in...". Elsewhere he slaps her with the moniker "Lady Sisyphus of the grain of sand." These journal entries refer obliquely to Tully-Stevens' preparations for an ambitious project in Mexico's Baja California, where the artist would have sifted the beach to transform a 3-mile stretch of uninhabited coastline into two distinct sections of black and white sand."

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Eleanor Antin at Sperlonga: from Helen as Monster to Odysseus as Artist

Eleanor Antin Constructing Helen, 2007 (from Helen's Odyssey)
In looking for exhibitions to visit during my upcoming trip to Los Angeles, I will just miss Eleanor Antin: Passengers at Diane Rosenstein Fine Art by one day. I am especially disappointed that I will not get a chance to see her amazing photograph Constructing Helen (above) from her 2007 series Helen's Odyssey, as I recall watching her discuss of this series in general, and this work in particular, in an interview for Art21 - which you can see here. In this clip, she describes the varying manifestations of Helen of Troy in the series and how in this photograph she is a 'monster', a 'sleeping nude, waiting to erupt into an artwork'. Antin describes how the artist figures bring a sense of violence into their acts of creation, 'tweaking her nipple' as they sculpt it, and their tools are like 'weapons' as 'she is waiting for a man to tell her when to begin'. 

I found Antin's account of her work especially compelling when considered alongside what surely must have been a guiding source for its striking composition - although I have not been able to find other discussions of this comparison to back me up: the gigantic sculpture of Odysseus blinding the cyclops, Polyphemus, in the emperor Tiberius' grotto-cum-dining room in Sperlonga (below). In fact, a photograph of the sculpture's restoration - for which I sadly could not find a date - in which the two restorers an be seen occupying comparable positions to two of the artists in Antin's work, could have been the precise source for her work.

Odysseus and His Men Blinding the Cyclops, Polyphemus, from Sperlonga, c. 1st century C.E. (photographed during restoration) date unknown.
Yet. while such source-hunting for contemporary artists' engagement with antiquity is somewhat satisfying, it does not answer the bigger question - raised by the artist - of what precisely connects the ancient source and the contemporary work? In other words, what connects Helen as monster and art-work, to Polyphemus as monster and art-work? Or Odysseus' blinding of the cyclops to artists' creating a sculpture?

My answer, as so often on this blog, is grounded in a story in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Well, actually, two stories. A case could be made for the way that Antin interrogates the idea of constructing Helen as an art-work is part of what Classicist Alison Sharrock has dubbed 'womanufacture' and its prime case-study being the myth of Pygmalion in the song of Orpheus that comprises the tenth book of Ovid's poem. Even though in Ovid's version, the statue that the goddess Venus brings to life to honour the sculptor Pygmalion's devotion to her is not named, in later traditions, she became known as Galatea. Now, later in Ovid's poem, in Book 13, amid the wanderings of Aeneas, we have the story of the love triangle between a nymph Galatea, her beloved Acis and none other than the monstrous cyclops Polyphemus - years before his encounter with Odysseus and his men. Galatea's complaint about this lonely one-eyed shepherd's unwanted affections offers an aetiology or origin tale for how he became so monstrous later. In fact, her complaint is made to Scylla, whose love triangle with Glaucus and the witch Circe, would cause her to transform from a young girl into a monstrous dog-headed ship-destroyer, alongside the whirlpool Charybdis.

So, we may ask: has Antin's Helen conflated these two Galateas in her construction of Helen, just as she has fused the Sperlonga sculptures and their restoration in her staged photograph? Whatever the artist's intention, what is clear is that her work has given us an opportunity, armed with our Ovid, to not explain away the artwork, but to dig deeper and generate more important questions, such as: can we compare Helen as monster to other tales of transformations through failed love - e.g. Ovid's Scylla (also, fittingly, another part of the Sperlonga series)? Or, with artist Paul Chan, in what way is Odysseus an artist, not merely in the way he plays the poet in retelling his tale to the court of the Phaeacians, but even at the moment of cunning violence in blinding Polyphemus?

For more information on the Antin exhibition, go here.

Truth is a good dog: Zeno in Athens, Bacon on Bond Street

Francis Bacon Study for the Human Body from a Drawing by Ingres 1982-84, 1984
 "Zeno of Citium was shipwrecked near Athens and stumbled across a copy of Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates in a bookshop. He was so impressed that he asked the bookseller where he could meet a man like that and, by chance, Crates the Cynic was walking nearby and so Zeno was advised to become his follower."



"Once when I was in London in my 30s, I was walking down Bond Street, and there was a crowd around an art show. I went in, and the paintings were so good. The prices were $10,000 to $20,000, which was a hell of a lot of money to me back then, and a man told me they were already sold, so I didn't get one. The artist was Francis Bacon. I had no idea who he was at the time, but I knew he was extraordinary. Picasso still wins, though. Without Picasso, there wouldn't have been a Bacon. I'm sure of that."


 "Strolling down London's Bond Street one day in the 1960s, Francis Bacon saw one of his paintings in an art gallery window. The canvas had been discarded by him as below standard several years before. Asking the cost, he was told 50,000 pounds, then worth about $500,000. He wrote a check, carried the painting into the street, and kicked it to shreds."

Monday, May 12, 2014

To Sappho, 1959: On Twombly's Drawing & Drafting Process

Tomorrow I will be giving a talk along with Ahuvia Kahane (Royal Holloway) on the topic of ‘Cy Twombly, Modern Painting and the Reception of the Classics’. It will be part of the interdisciplinary research network hosted by the Institute of Classical Studies called TRIVIUM: Classical Intersections. Sadly I cannot be in London in person (especially as I would have loved to have visited my new nephew, Frankie, who has just arrived!), so I will by there virtually via video. If you are in London, the event will take place in Room F1, Royal Holloway Bedford Square Building ,11 Bedford Square, London,  WC1B 3RA and will start at 4.30pm.

I will be speaking about how Cy Twombly's incorporated a variety of uses for the Archaic Greek poet Sappho throughout his life's work, but especially in a series of works during the pivotal year of 1959. While we find the scribbled and half-scratched-out name of Sappho in the Poems to the Sea (1959) and some of the Sperlonga drawings (1959), in the latter we also find a transition to another use for the ancient poet. In drawings like the one below (you may be able to just make out - to the upper right of the paper the words 'to Sappho'), Twombly not only directly addresses the work to Sappho, but also starts to develop a new schematic style.
Cy Twombly Sperlonga Drawing 1959 (Del Roscio 2012, 130)
 Complete with numbers and boxes, these works paved the way for a fully-fledged drafting approach to some of his major paintings in the years to follow (e.g. Triumph of Galatea; Rape of the Sabines). Rather than simply a learned reference to the Classical poet to add to the other names of Plato, Virgil and Ovid in Twombly's work, Sappho appears to have had a singular importance for Twombly in 1959, when the Lesbian poet and her paeans to the goddess of love, Aphrodite, guided the artist's own transition to his new life in Italy, with a new wife and a new son. Sappho was a constant marker for both the life and loves of his present and also a nostalgic reminded of the life and loves of the world (New York) he left behind. This is Twombly's version of (pseudo-)Ovid's Heroides 15 - the so-called Epistula Sapphus - an elegy to a male lover Phaon, haunted by the poet's former female lovers and lyric-self.

For the details about the event and TRIVIUM in general, go here.