FOR YOU, FOR THEM: THE ONES THEY ARE AND THE ONES THEY AREN'T (YET)
We are at the end of July. New York’s muggy heat surrounds me as I struggle to put myself to work. It's morning. I glance at The New York Times. The front page offers a photograph of city employees watering grass. I am surprised to see people spending water on what looks like an already dead piece of greenery. Heat warnings are spread over the city and water use is restricted. I read the legend: “Water Is Getting Scarcer Than Paint. Trying to make parched grass appear lush, workers have been spraying green paint on brown grass near Newark International Airport. This July has been the hottest on record in New York City, and the past two months have been the driest in the East in more than a decade.” (1) The news casually reports this bizarre scene to introduce an article on the dramatic consequences of the heat wave (I wonder what kind of paint they use. Perhaps more dramatic consequences are to come.) Here is odd testimony of where the pursuit of appearances leads us; an example of the cultural phenomena of simulacra (2). Representations evolve beyond their original and graduate to an independent state, alienated from the actual reality. The workers are replacing the physical dying grass with the image of lush grass.
The one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and a moment later, is possible no longer. Italo Calvino (3)
The way the green spraying obliterates reality reminds me of postcards I sent from Bacau, Romania, several years ago. I never encountered the bright green trees, glossy red tulips, radiant blue and dazzling orange cars depicted on the cards. In fact, Bacau was bleak. And the photographs had been retouched. A similar process is at work when workers paint a verdant lawn on dead grass. Both acts rigidly impose their view of (and on) reality. One driven with political motivations, the other pressed by cosmetic concerns. In our Western societies, appearances becomes propaganda. As media fiercely beam fantasies into our lives, we have to remain aware that what disappears from sight, might soon disappear from our consciousness.
"Do come in," said the shark, and he ate him. The shark was a man-eater, but the era was polite. Henri Michaux (4)
It is already grounded in our daily experience that the image of a thing is more important than the actual thing; that images overpower reality, as we decipher in the casual act of painting over a brown lawn. Reality is rewritten and transformed to conform to the cliché. And soon the cliché becomes our reality, over-writing our experiences. A flat substitute for reality. Stripped of content. (That idea gives me the shivers.) Again I look at the picture in The New York Times. I want to believe somebody has subverted that image for the sake of meaning; that I see a disguised David Reed satisfying his desire to be an "airport painter." (I recall David Reed's piece in which he digitally inserted one of his painting into a bedroom scene from Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo, satisfying his stated desire to be a “bedroom painter”)
"We have not finished thinking, imagining, acting. It is still possible to know the world; we are unfinished men and women." Carlos Fuentes (5)
As much as I enjoy reflecting on reality and its representation, I do worry about the advance of clichés. We know they gain ground. They were once framed by the screen of our TVs. Today, we watch them shamelessly frolic in our gardens. All aspects of our lives are threatened by standardization and the authority of images. The media don't merely manipulate our vision, they create it. They produce simplistic interpretations of the world. To reach the largest audience (and gain the largest revenues), complexity and variety are not made more accessible, but more simple. Complexity and variety are deadened, superseded by stereotypes. And stereotypes do not open a dialogue; they are thrust on people. A bit like the green paint sprayed over the brown grass. Context and perspective are lost. Then, it is easy to be carried away and sprinkle your neighbor. "He was not quite matching my image of a neighbor", you would say afterward.
"I write to go through myself all over. Painting, composing, writing: going through myself. That is the adventure of being alive." Henri Michaux (6)
We must revive meaning and seize our singular density. We are more than visible entities, breathing billboards. Our existences are vast and variegated. There are ways to open a breach in the conventionality of our lives, to guard our existences from becoming hollow products, narrow pathways. We can maintain our vitality by colliding the known and the unknown, by fervently defending plurality, searching beyond appearances. It is our responsibility to remain discerning of our cultural environment. To counteract the narrowing forces, it has become ever more critical for us to respect distinctive voices; to recognize and appreciate our own, and that of others. The very core of our lives, our potential to know the world, is endangered.
(I imagine we are surrounded by territories and are territories ourselves. There are familiar ones and others foreign.)
As I muse on the flattening of meaning, a work by Liliana Porter comes to my mind. Liliana is an Argentinean-born artist based in New York, who is concerned with problems of identity and representation. This year, she created For You/Para Usted7, a video that features wind-up and squeeze toys, ceramic saints, kitsch souvenirs, plastic luminaries. The film includes 22 sequences (ranging from 3 to 30 seconds) in which the figurines move across the visual frame, on a white background and music by Sylvia Meyer. The film opens with the following tale:
“One day when all the hands of the village left for a long expedition, I decided to run away.
An older man left behind saw me leaving and began to scream, asking me to come back.
But I ran as fast as I could, until I was out of sight.” Unknown
That spirit of disobedience is recognized in Liliana's penchant for subverting the order of things. She appropriates icons and objects from mass culture and challenges their conventional nature. Interviewed by Ana Tiscornia, Liliana once said: “The toy is the recipient of our subjectivity. Therefore it is an entity capable of becoming, through us, either banal or significant. Every emotional relation with a toy is our creation; its sense, its intention and its weight depend on us.”8 We observe that drawn in the realm of the artist the still lifes are clothed with new possibilities. Soon they embrace a new role and even engage in a dialogue between themselves. Isolated in the white of the background, they appear sad, lustful, awkward. Their stillness melts in the ambiguity of the images. They show ludicrous smurks or perplexed faces. The toys become mutable. Their performances carry their unstable identities, the uncertainty of their nature. A continual change of context that relays the multiplicity of human experiences.
He walked into the tatters of flame, but they did not bite his flesh-they caressed him, bathed him without heat and without combustion. With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he realized that he, too, was but appearance, that another man was dreaming him. Jorge Luis Borges (9)
What impresses me most in the scenes she creates is the mingling of differences from which emanates a poetic dialogue. The toys bear a quivering attraction for the unknown. I watched the rushes of her next film. Among the sequences was a strip tease by a knitted poodle that finally revealed an empty bottle. At the end it was neither a knitted poodle, nor an empty bottle. Both objects took the life of the incident. Both unstable from their encounter.
Everything is not hard in the crocodile. His lungs are spongy, and he dreams at the water's edge. Henri Michaux (10)
(Wavering ground. Possibilities of knowing. Mobility of mind. Consciousness of being) I gravitate towards activities that extend experiences, awaken meaning. Meaning: a vast land to inhabit with the creatures of our choice.
Sur une grande route, il n'est pas rare de voir une vague, une vague toute seule, une vague à part de l'océan.
Elle n'a aucune utilité, ne constitue pas un jeu.
C'est un cas de spontanéité magique. Henri Michaux (11)
On a highway, it is not rare to see a wave, all alone, one wave separated from the ocean.
It is absolutely useless, does not constitute a set.
This is a case of magical spontaneity. Henri Michaux
Je vous laisse. Il fait chaud. Je vais me promener sur la grande route (12).
1 The New York Times, July 31, 1999.
2 See Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and simulation, 1981. The author developed a theory of contemporary culture in which he uses the concepts of the Simulacra--the copy without an original--and simulation.
3 Italo Calvino, "Cities and Desire 4," in Invisible Cities. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1974, p.33. (In Italian) (Le città invisibili. Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1972)
4 Henri Michaux, "Slices of Knowledge," in Facing the Locks, published in Darkness Moves. University of California Press, 1994, p.172. (In French) (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1954)
5 Carlos Fuentes, "How I started to write," in The Graywolf Annual Five: Multicultural literacy. Graywolf Press, 1988.
6 Henri Michaux, "Observations," 1950 in Passages (1937-1963), published in Darkness Moves. University of California Press, 1994, p.330. (In French) (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1963)
7 Liliana Porter. For You/Para Usted , 16mn, video shot in 16 mm film and transferred to digital video, 1999. Music composed and performed by Sylvia Meyer. For You was shown at ARCO, Spain and Annina Nosei Gallery, New York, February 20-March 19, 1999.
8 Jorge Luis Borges, "The Circular Ruins," in Fictions, published in Collected Fictions, Viking Penguin, 1998, p.100. (In Spanish) (Ficciones. Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1944)
9 Liliana Porter in conversation with Ana Tiscornia, Atlántica, no. 12, Winter 1995-1996.
10 Henri Michaux, "Slices of Knowledge," in Facing the Locks, published in Darkness Moves. University of California Press, 1994, p.174. (In French) (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1954)
11 Henri Michaux, "Au Pays de la Magie,” in Ailleurs. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1967, p.130.
"In the Lands of Magic," in Elsewhere, published in Darkness Moves. University of California Press, 1994, p.121.
12 "I'm leaving. It's hot. I'll have a walk on the highway."
Published in TRANS>arts.cultures.media, volume 7, 2000.