Friday, May 22, 2020

"When we with Sappho"—further notes from a time of global pandemic

Watching an American poet contribute an online performance to the newly virtualized Riga Biennial of International Contemporary Art brought home to me again just how much the pandemic has accelerated a worldwide cultural process that we might once have described as already moving at warp speed, before that fossilized metaphor was ruined by recent history.

It made me realize with renewed melancholy just how much is going to be lost for no better reason than that nobody can make sense of it in terms of their own very different experience—although we can hope it will be a broadly planet-spanning experience, there are reasons to suppose it might not be. Some things will be lost without anyone noticing, no matter what happens next.

This has happened before, however, and for more reasons than I want to cite, attention spans being what they are. Most of Greek and Roman literature got dropped when the literate classes stopped buying scrolls and started buying the newly developed codices that connected separate pages between covers so you could jump right to the part of the book you wanted without having to roll that one big long sheet of papyrus from one rod to the other rod.

That, plus changing tastes in literature, probably had more to do with how Sappho’s poems got lost than the burning of the library of Alexandria or deliberate censorship. But that’s why we have a wonderfully evocative set of little quotations pulled from later grammarians’ commentaries on how weirdly the ancestors contorted their poems. Will large parts of several thousand years of global literature survive similarly because they were transformed into internet memes and ascribed to the wrong writers in the process? Or will they be captured as bits of online performance arbitrarily preserved in future media, and extracted by later generations who will spend years finding out who actually wrote what? It is pointless to speculate.

Kenneth Rexroth wrote an amazing erotic poem called “When We With Sappho” that starts from an epigraph of one of those evocative little ancient fragments, but I’m going to make you look it up instead of providing a link to the surprisingly numerous sites on which you can read his poem.

Monday, April 13, 2020

What one does while waiting out a pandemic: a note meant to be more provocative than it appears



I wrote this as a friends-only post for Facebook, the method I typically use to address a large but quite specific audience. Circumstances make me believe there is no way to post this there in the midst of immediate personal tragedies without seeming monumentally insensitive, so I am semi-concealing this meditation on Counterforces.

I write this right after listening to an NPR interview with a nurse who drove from Boise, Idaho to Harlem Hospital to volunteer for the Covid-19 ward, and feel more than ever my incompetence in the face of a tragedy that demands the simplest and least reflective responses, such as sewing cloth masks for those who need them.

On the other hand, I have been remembering recently the Polish émigré poet Czeslaw Milosz’ account, in his autobiography Native Realm, of being suddenly pinned down by the machine gun fire of the unanticipated Warsaw Uprising while walking to a friend’s house to discuss the project of translating T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into Polish, and then crawling to another friend’s house where he spent two weeks, hiding whenever the SS searched the building. He used the time to read a comprehensive history of the Polish peasantry, an activity that stood him in good stead when he became a cultural attaché in the foreign service of the Communist government installed by the Red Army. But that, as usual, is not the main point of this post.

I am probably the only person in Atlanta (not the only one in America, I feel certain) who has currently felt the need to reread, if not Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, then Kenneth Rexroth’s commentary on it in More Classics Revisited, pp. 115-117, which I was able to find online. Gary Shteyngart’s 2006 recommendation of Turgenev’s novel (https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5684676) withholds the salient episode to which I want to refer, and which Rexroth makes central to his argument, so consider this a spoiler alert.

Fathers and Sons was the first Russian novel that Western European writers of the 1860s took seriously. It presents the tensions between well-off, socially and politically liberal fathers on their estates in the countryside, and their socially and politically radical sons Arkady and Bazarov, back from university, sneering at their fathers’ insufficiently radical political and social views and identifying with the peasants, who regard the kids as a couple of buffoons.

The sons end up taking over from their fathers, Arkady becoming an enlightened landowner and Bazarov, more intransigently radical, becoming a country doctor who dies from accidentally infecting himself with typhus during an autopsy. Rexroth identifies this as a key episode in the greatest of Turgenev’s “ecological tragedies,” in which, according to Rexroth’s hypothesis, “Turgenev’s heroes die in the midst of their biota. In the final analysis that is why they die, not because they are political outcasts, impotent rebels, or superfluous men, but because something has gone wrong with their interconnectedness with the living world.”

Rexroth ended his analysis with this paragraph: “The years since Fathers and Sons have been years of revolutionary change and search for the meaning of life. The critics of each generation have concluded by saying, ‘Fathers and Sons is peculiarly appropriate to our time.’ Today we live at a moment in history of unparalleled incoherence, with ‘an old world dead and a new powerless to be born.’ …We are out of phase with the living world around us. We are all Bazarovs. Unlike him, few are innocent.”

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

A Prolegomenon to Any Future Art Criticism, with Apologies to Readers for the Allusion to Immanuel Kant



Olafur Eliasson’s “I Grew Up in Solitude and Silence” is a simple work of art that, like so many simple works of art, reveals more about the perceiver, the person who experiences the artwork, than far more complex works ever could.

As photographed in 1991 in Copenhagen, the work consists of a white candle fixed to the center of a circular mirror. In this photograph, which I encountered as a shared image posted without commentary, the lighted candle is thus the only thing reflected in the mirror against a nearly uniform background. Other iterations, shown in other photographs on Eliasson’s website, were situated in more complicated surroundings.

Seeing the photograph, I immediately thought of “burning the candle at both ends” and wondered if the idiom exists in other languages. Many other associations flickered across my mind: the doubling of the light by the power of reflection, for one; but above all the image conveyed what Eliasson’s title (which wasn’t attached to the photograph I saw) conveys: a poetic isolation in which the only thing mirrored is the candle and its own light.

Eliasson’s webpage (https://olafureliasson.net/archive/artwork/WEK101839/i-grew-up-in-solitude-and-silence) contains a quotation from a catalogue essay that is in many ways the quintessence of art criticism (I assume that the description in the following paragraph is Eliasson’s, and the passage in quotation marks is by Biesenbach and Marcoci):

A candle situated at the centre of a circular mirror burns slowly, gradually reducing in size. The reflection extends the candle into virtual space with flames burning at both ends.

'Here one’s perception is split between the experiential narrative of watching the candle slowly burn and the projected narrative of anticipating different scenarios about the object. According to the philosopher Henri Bergson, the mind tackles duration as a simultaneous process merging past memory and future projection within a continually unfolding present. Looking at the flickering flame, the viewer thus experiences three overlapping temporalities: memory, actual perception, and projected narrative. The latter is essentially an amplified, fastforward version of what happens in the present, but it summarizes any number of likely scenarios (the candle gradually becomes shorter as it burns; the wax drips on the mirrored surface; the mirror gets too hot and cracks under the candle’s increasing heat; viewers approach the work to look more closely and see their reflections in the mirror). At once absorbing and analytical, the work exists only for the duration of the burning candle, yet it calls up a roster of prior experiences and corporeal states.'

(Klaus Biesenbach and Roxana Marcoci, 'Toward the Sun: Olafur Eliasson's Protocinematic Vision," in Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, 2008, p. 190)

—This passage from Biesenbach and Marcoci is valid as far as it goes, in that it describes what they experienced when they looked at the artwork. There is in fact “memory, actual perception, and projected narrative” going on when a viewer looks at this artwork (and further complexity is added when the viewer knows the title of the piece). But the assumption that the viewer experiences only “projected narrative” is too simple. My immediate response involved memory (of the commonplace saying) and a series of less than fully formed associations, any one of which could be followed in metaphoric directions. Not one of them involved the future state of the candle, although that would have come into my mind soon after the awareness (which I did have) that for the viewer to stand in a position in which they were reflected in the mirror would change the artwork and add a new layer of possible meaning. In a photograph of the work, of course, this cannot happen.

None of this has anything to do with what Henri Bergson was talking about, and reflects the fact that Biesenbach and Marcoci were perfectly capable of writing as though the first thing that popped into their profoundly educated heads was the only possible interpretation of the viewer’s experience of the artwork.

But the more likely immediate experience, which I suspect was not only mine but that of the person who posted the photograph on social media, is “Oh, wow.”

In other words, whether in a photograph or, I suspect, in situ, the immediate experience is of a simply arranged set of objects that evoke unconscious associations with emotions attached to them. Only afterwards does the experience of wordless wonder (or inarticulate expressions of amazement) give rise to thought.

I also suspect, though, that this artwork is more difficult to stage than I initially assumed; the candle would have to be a dripless one in order to remain for more than a brief moment in the condition seen in the photograph, and this would ensure that the imagined outcome of wax dripping onto the mirror is a hypothesis of a future that can exist only in Biesenbach and Marcoci’s imagination. But this is how we experience not only the imagined future but the perceived present; we make our best guesses of what it is we are experiencing, based on what we remember of what happened in the past. Our best guesses are quite often wrong. My own guess here, based on the photograph of pristine perfection I initially saw, was itself wrong; one of the work’s other iterations, in visually cluttered surroundings, features a candle that is already dripping wax down the side. But that means that the pristine moment of aesthetic amazement captured by the photograph is an artwork that belongs to the realm of photography, not to the realm of installation art in which such elegantly ordered permanence is always a fiction.

The question is, do art critics have any business explaining all this? Should they sound so smugly magisterial when they do it?

Is art criticism limited to commenting upon the gasp of admiration when we first see the image or the work itself—with, at most, the further notation that different viewers will have radically different experiences of the work once they are done with gasping admiringly? Art journalism, certainly, has column inches enough to say no more than that. But how far ought the critic to go in awakening the viewer to the potential depths of their first simple experience?

I’ve spent more years wrestling with that than I care to think, and I still don’t know the answer. The temptation is always to say “Oh, wow,” and settle for that.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

Beat Generation anniversaries and autobiographical reflections

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These vintage photographs of City Lights Bookshop, Grace Cathedral (both in San Francisco) and the house in which Jack Kerouac died are representative of what others have called the Ebay Aesthetic—photographs haphazardly rephotographed not quite in focus against the background of the scrapbook from which they were removed for the occasion. But the occasion in this case is not Ebay but the solution to a minor mystery.

After a Facebook friends-only post requesting reminders of which 2019 anniversary it was that people had told me I should curate a show to commemorate, I have learned that the impetus in question was the upcoming fiftieth anniversary (on October 20) of the death of Jack Kerouac as a disillusioned 47-year-old curmudgeon taking care of his invalid mother in Saint Petersburg, Florida. I now realize I would rather prefer to honor the hundredth birthday (on March 24) of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who as of this writing is anxiously hoping to be present at his own party, but either way, this is a great year for anniversaries of significant figures of the Beat Generation, of whom some are still with us and others flamed out before their fiftieth birthday.

I eventually realized that Beatness was an American version of neoromanticism ramped up to warp speed and that I probably had more in common with their precursors and near-contemporaries in England, or with Kenneth Rexroth, who was oldschool bohemian but emphatically not Beat, as he never tired of reminding us even as he celebrated the surviving Beats and brought them to UC Santa Barbara for his Poetry and Song class fifty years ago. (I vividly recall Gary Snyder discussing the transformative aural quality of Asian mantras while seated informally on the edge of a desk in a carefully de-geometricized room of standard-issue classroom furniture.)

On the other hand, Ferlinghetti has recently produced the two volumes of Americus, a highly allusive epic of our contemporary moment that is so suffused with presupposed knowledge that it probably requires extensive annotation for most readers under the age of fifty, and a good many of those over it. The Beat Generation was always a literary generation, presupposing enthusiasm for the work of extremely educated rebels who knew and subverted the standard curriculum even as they managed to be as streetwise as they were capable of managing.

Feeling frustration that I had missed out on its classic moment by virtue of having been only between five and ten years old when it was happening, I read with fascination the accounts of it in John Clellon Holmes’ Nothing More to Declare, which extracted the best lines from Kerouac and Ginsberg, the latter of whom described himself as “a great rememberer, redeeming life from darkness” and whose watchword was “Widen the area of consciousness.” I still follow the latter admonition, but went on to discover other great rememberers who have proven more lastingly compatible with my embarrassingly reticent temperament. W. G. Sebald trekking the Sussex coast and thinking about the traumas of history turned out to be more my speed, once he got round to doing such things and writing about them in his tragically truncated life.

Nevertheless, I’ve had a peculiar experience of reframing the Beat Generation, in the sense of George Lakoff’s notion of “framing” as putting ideas and events in a different surrounding context. All at once Ferlinghetti’s lifelong version of anarchist-tinged literacy seems like one valid version of Beatness, nicely complemented by Gary Snyder’s authentically Buddhist sojourns in an environmentally threatened wilderness. (The branch pursuing the barbaric-yawp side of Walt Whitman’s legacy has its own validity, but its devotees mostly proved ill-suited for surviving the long haul, as witness their variously early departures.)

I had been thinking about pursuing a series of essays on polymathic pilgrims searching for definitively final answers to life’s persistent questions (figures from Guillaume Postel to John Ruskin to Jean Toomer, fated to fail in their quests in ways ranging from tragic to pathetic, but always leaving behind lasting moments of insight attained en route)—but now I guess I have to detour through the folks who influenced my youth, without whom I probably wouldn’t have chosen to do graduate school in California to study with Mircea Eliade and thereby meet Kenneth Rexroth in the same academic year. (Joseph Campbell and Owen Barfield were lecturing regularly up the coast in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, so the theme of Dreams of a Final Theory was definitely my major topic then, as it is, whether delusionally or no, to this day.)



Friday, March 1, 2019

A prolegomenon to any future review of Benjamin Britton's "Desire, broadly," at Marcia Wood Gallery, Feb. 6 - March 2, 2019


Sometimes the three-week limit imposed by gallery schedules results in remarkable injustices. Benjamin Britton’s “Desire, broadly,” which closes at Marcia Wood Gallery on March 2, should get a substantial, detailed analysis combined with ample time for viewers to visit and contemplate for themselves what is at stake in these remarkable paintings. Instead, this is as good as it gets.

Britton is working with visual metaphors for the manifestations of memory and desire, especially with the ways in which desire manifests as desire for the impossible, for a time and place that perhaps never was and in any case is not to be had in the way that desire wants to have it. As Marcel Proust put it, referring to emotionally charged associations of memory in his monumental multi-volume novel In Search of Lost Time (a.k.a. Remembrance of Things Past in the classic English translation), “the only paradise is the paradise we have lost.”

Proust is to the point here because the phenomenon known as Proustian memory is one of the starting points of paintings that include trompe l’oeil representations of actual pages of Proust’s prose. The fragmentary texts, themselves evocations rather than representations of coherently formed moments, combine with futuristic, motion-filled abstraction in which the swooping lines terminate in almost photorealistic details of bits of landscape Britton terms “wormholes,” borrowing a term from contemporary physics for what Wikipedia piquantly calls “a transcendental bijection of the spacetime continuum” that “can be visualized as a tunnel with two ends, each at separate points in spacetime (i.e., different locations or different points of time).”

Wormholes, in other words, are the physical equivalents of what Proust visualized only as fantasy, and if they exist (which is in question) they could presumably actually link an observer’s fantasy-laden brain with the object of its desire. The only problem would be that the object of its desire wouldn’t correspond exactly with the shape of the desire formulated by the observer’s subconsciously modulated consciousness. What the Germans call Sehnsucht and the Welsh call hiraeth is a wish for a home country we have never inhabited, or a landscape more perfectly answering to unspoken wishes than any landscape on earth ever has or can have done.


Some of these paintings derive from a residency in Ireland, a territory particularly amenable to the generation of wishes impossible to fulfill or even to articulate. The discovery of actual representations of townscapes or trees and fields in the tiny representations of circular openings in what looks like a sci-fi illustrator’s version of cross-dimensional geometries evokes an indefinite sense of pleasure that is not only undefined but well-nigh indefinable. These works of art, in other words, brings forth the emotion it seeks to render and investigate in their combination of imagery.

In a better world than this one, such marvelously titled paintings as Unsettled fascination on the edge of seasickness and The moment held so loosely that it precedes the thought but not the feeling would receive an extended, work-by-work analysis. As it is, the notion of such a comprehensive examination will have to remain an object of unfulfilled and unfulfillable desire. Which, come to think of it, kind of fits.

Monday, November 13, 2017

We Know in Part or Not at All: A Review Essay Based on "Knowing and Not Knowing" (Beth Lilly retrospective at Swan Coach House Gallery) and "Medium" (Zuckerman Museum of Art)


Several writers have suggested that today’s America is trapped in an “epistemic crisis.” What the writers mean is that America is divided into groups that do not accept one another’s sources of information as communicating anything that could be called knowledge, or even evidence that could lead to coherent knowledge. There are no generally accepted authorities whose investigations cannot be called into question as “completely fake.” The paradoxical result is that completely fake stories can become widely accepted in a matter of hours; made up out of nothing by an online writer, illustrated with miscaptioned photographs stolen from unrelated articles, a fantastic tale will be repeated as truth so often that it becomes the top result in a websearch on the topic.

Of course, this dynamic played out in past eras, only more slowly. Before the invention of photography, woodcuts provided visual confirmation for the bizarre tales that circulated on broadsides, and before that, oral tradition elaborated ever more fantastically on fabricated narratives. Wise souls long ago learned to ask whenever possible for first-person confirmation, or “I’ll believe it when I see it,” which wiser theorists of knowledge almost as long ago corrected to “I’ll see it when I believe it.” What we see is partly determined by what we expect to see. Therein lies a larger issue, quite apart from the specific crises in knowledge today, that deserves the exploration that it has received in the autumn of 2017 in two Atlanta art exhibitions. (Actually, there have been at least two other exhibitions that raise the issue by implication; for my response to one of these, an Agnes Scott College exhibition on artists’ response to climate change, see—as of November 13, 2017—here.)

These two or three independently conceived but intimately related shows should have dominated artworld conversation, but life and larger epistemic crises tend to intervene. As it is, the exhibition that closed on November 8 stirred almost no conversation, and the one closing on December 3 deals with such vast hypotheses that its central thesis remains elusively but enticingly out of focus.

Beth Lilly’s “Knowing and Not Knowing,” a midcareer retrospective curated by Marianne Lambert at Swan Coach House Gallery, incorporated our central theme in its very title. And yet the title yields several different meanings, just as does “Medium” at the Zuckerman Museum of Art. But let the Zuckerman’s tales of mediums and media remain untold for the moment; we have an epistemological journey to make with Beth Lilly and the limits of story, history, and photography.

Lilly tests the limits right up front with The Oracle@WiFi and Every Single One of These Stories Is True, both of which series have been published as books as well as the individual prints from which the photographs on exhibit were extracted. Taken together, the two offer an impressive range of reflections on evidence, imagination, and rules of evaluation.

The Oracle@WiFi came about as an outright fiction about divination, but one enacted in real time. Lilly stated outright that she made no claims to oracle status, but would play the role by taking three photographs in response to a question not yet asked, when the questioner phoned to request a reading. After taking three photographs in quick succession in her immediate surroundings, Lilly would transmit them to the questioner while asking what question they had had in mind. Oracle and querent would then discuss the possible meaning of the photographic outcome. Often the images would bear an uncanny relationship to the details of the question, as when a question about “choice” resulted in three photographs of situations in which choices had to be made among multiple objects or options. Often the images were more ambiguously related to the original question.


The process of interpretation involved extracting meaning from images created without prior knowledge of the situation for which they would be asked to provide data. What is of interest here is less the mind’s ability to project meaning into any unconsciously assembled pattern (for Lilly was not snapping pictures randomly, but rather seeing subtle patterns in the world around her, as any photographer does), but rather, the uncanny parallels between Lilly’s arbitrary pattern and the words in which a large or quite specific topic had been expressed. The correspondences were enough to make any of Lilly’s pronouncements seem prophetic, even as she made no claim to actual knowledge of the future.

The ambiguity expressed in this postmodernized version of prophecy is reinforced by the staged re-enactments of Every Single One of These Stories Is True. Lilly holds firmly to the veracity of every story told in the handwritten text framed alongside the staged version of the episode, even though—and/or because—all the stories have the air of tall tales. Lilly’s great grandmother knew all the details of a road mishap before the men to whom it happened had arrived home to tell them. A toy red elephant seen in a dream appeared in reality years later, in a bowl where neither Lilly nor her housemate had placed it.
These tales are placed under suspicion only by Lilly’s presumably forthright confession of possibly unreliable memory and outright mental illness in family members. One of Lilly’s aunts believed that any lost item had been stolen by the hippie she was convinced was hiding in her basement.


Lilly herself recalls that her earliest childhood memory involved finding her cousin’s birthday gifts wrapped in black paper. “Later, I asked my Mom why she’d wrapped these in black paper. She said that had never happened. She said it must have been a dream. Maybe, but she has schizophrenia so I’m not sure I can trust her memories.”


This witty double spin on the reliability of memory—each party casting doubt on the accuracy of the other’s recollection—foreshadows the games Lilly will later play with the theme of “knowing and not knowing”—not, be it noted, “knowing or not knowing.” All of us know and do not know at the same time, although what is known and not known shifts according to the situation.



Sometimes this involves simple obliviousness, as in a hilarious set of staged and photocollaged images in which happy families are photographed against a green screen and scenes of impending or already present disaster are inserted behind them, creating a comic tableau of “What, me worry?” as their world collapses without their knowledge. Other obliviousness is captured documentary-style, in photographs of drivers in their cars on the Interstate who are clearly encapsulated in their own private worlds, unaware of the gaze of others.


Lilly titles these latter images with texts from Chinese fortune cookies (e.g., "You are headed in the right direction. Trust your instincts."), linking them to her fascination with our need to define the future, or if possible, to foretell it with certainty.
Lilly also has photographed her own partial view of things seen from the road, or of landscapes at night where what is concealed by darkness creates a sense of uncertainty that translates more often into pleasing mystery rather than threat. Once again, what we see depends on what we believe. A suburban street can seem poetically placid or harmlessly spooky, but the same scene looks considerably different with the prior expectation of lurking intruders or predatory animals.

This sense of shifting perceptions or intrinsically blurry contexts for perfectly clear visual images carries over into “Medium,” the Zuckerman Museum of Art’s approach to our experience of the invisible world and the evidence by which we discern its existence or the aftermath of the ways in which we interact with it. “Invisible” is not always the same as “unheard”; the ambiguities of the auditory are so much a part of this exhibition that its catalogue incorporates a vinyl record alongside a poster documenting the essential facts about the artists and archives that appear in it.

Here it’s best to divide the subject matter into categories in a way that the exhibition itself doesn’t. The fact that the categories will still overlap, or that it will remain uncertain whether one work should be consigned to this category rather than that one, will serve as confirmation of the exhibition’s complex hypothesis about the indefinability of human beings’ transactions with the world of spirits, regardless of whether the spirits are real entities (or evidence interpreted as real entities), traces of past events turned into immaterial memories, or conscious fictions turning immaterial perceptions into material form.

The most documentary portion of the exhibition is, in fact, a collection of fictions intended to deceive, based on the search for hard evidence of spirit encounters in which the investigators for the Society for Psychical Research firmly believed but wished to authenticate. The manifestations of ectoplasm by purported mediums all proved to be hoaxes. Less easily documented phenomena, however, proved to be elusively but persuasively convincing.

This is why later recorded testimony of peculiar encounters and poltergeist phenomena (from the University of West Georgia research program that succeeded J. B. Rhine’s laboratory at Duke University) appears on the LP that serves both as the exhibition catalogue and as an independent piece of sound art, edited/created by Ben Coleman. The paranormal occupies a complex and unstable epistemological space; it skitters off when subjected to laboratory conditions, but manifests anew under circumstances that seem both unpremeditated and genuine. It is frequently difficult to disentangle from imaginative experience.

One of the artworks in “Medium,” by Carrie Mae Weems, responds directly to the nineteenth century’s magic-lantern phantasmagoria or projected images by which ghosts were made to appear, for deception or for pleasurable entertainment. Another work in the show, a complex sound-and-object installation by T. Lang and George Long, evokes the experience of their respective ancestors and the parallel but distinctively different experiences of blacks and whites in the South of yesterday and today, and raises the question of memory and imagination in a more “dematerialized” and/or symbolic form. (Persons wishing more extensive discussions of these artworks can find them in reviews here and here.)

At this point, we may begin to discern the repeated themes of “Medium,” which are those of the dialectic between the deepest parts of historical experience, the role of imagination in mediating between sensory experience and memory, and the insufficiently theorized margins of sensory experience at which we may or may not begin to experience—something else. But what?

A deliciously comic metaphor for all these processes can be found in a historical phenomenon that otherwise seems out of place in the exhibition, the “bone records” of the Cold War era in which music aficionados in the Soviet Union imported contraband styles of Western music by etching the forbidden recordings onto used x-ray sheets in lieu of cutting them onto vinyl blanks. The readily available substitute material thus becomes an inadvertent multilayered metaphor: forbidden knowledge is smuggled past the censor by making use of a material that reveals the depths of the human body, thus permitting the dematerialized experience of music, in which the air around us is altered through the interaction of two objects which in themselves are not music (the record and the record player, the instrument and the body of the performer, the patterned software and the hardware altered by it). The imaginative leap that made the bone records possible and the experience of forbidden knowledge that came from playing them constitutes the contribution of what used to be called “the human spirit” or “the human imagination.”


What happens to that spirit upon bodily death, and whether that spirit co-inhabits the world with other spirits that are not human, is the subject of the history of religions, although that history overlaps significantly with the history of art, thus making “Medium” a feasible exhibition. The show begins in medias res historically, with the rise of spiritualism in the nineteenth century as a way of channeling what had previously been contained within religious strictures dissolved by newfound skepticism. The Society for Psychical Research and its counterparts in Europe arose as efforts to bring a scientific spirit of analysis to the exploration of the margins of the human experience. Today’s firm demarcation between experience restrained by religious dogma and denied by professional skeptics has relegated the paranormal to the realm of popular entertainment, as P. Seth Thompson’s overlap of movie stills from Poltergeist indicates (while giving us a glimpse of how the medium of the movies operates on our inward spirit). In this cultural climate, artists such as Stephanie Dowda are left to create their own visual metaphors with which to cope with the traces left in memory and history in the wake of a mother’s death. Dowda’s photographs of landscapes intersected by overlapping straight lines are curiously reminiscent of the photographs in which the late Gretchen Hupfel made visible the currents of energy carrying the invisible signals of our information media through the atmosphere. We live in a torrent of data of which we are unaware until it finds a channel.

Whether we leave invisibly charged traces on the objects we have used, and whether perceptives can be the channel by which to translate those traces, is explored by Dan R. Talley in his juxtaposition of photographs of ordinary objects with the information that psychics extracted from them at his request. Or rather, they are juxtaposed with the story about extracting that information; as with the nineteenth-century pseudo-mediums whose faked ectoplasm is both ridiculed and transmuted into a different metaphor in Lacey Prpic Hedtke’s contemporary photographs of the female body, we have no way of knowing whether Talley is giving us a total fiction. (Fernando Orellana’s elaborate machines for detecting the presence of ghosts who might be drawn to the object from their past contained in the machine seem far more like a playful put-on with serious head-scratching at the edges; Talley’s dryly analytical account of his concept-laden process feels authentically earnest.)

Any account of any experience, whether backed up by ambiguous physical evidence or not, is potentially fraudulent. (See: “epistemic crisis,” at the beginning of this essay, regarding what happens when this epistemological truth rots the shared sense of trust on which society depends.) Hence it is important that “Medium” includes artwork from two encounters with the spirit world for which we have trustworthy observer data regarding the felt authenticity of the artist’s experience. For the sake of moving towards a phenomenology of the encounter with the invisible world, it seems equally important that they come from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and of almost every other conceptual spectrum one cares to create.

J. B. Murray’s “spirit writing,” which he deciphered by reading the revelations through a jar of water drawn from a well on his property, eventually morphed into quasi-figural imagery that he interpreted as illustrating the punishments waiting in Hell for the unrepentant. Illiterate and rural, Murray believed himself “in the hand of the Holy Spirit” (to quote the title of Mary Padgelek’s book about him) after “the sun came down” and the sun plus the rainbow from his garden hose (cf. the 17th century German mystic Jakob Boehme’s “light on the pewter dish”) gave him the power “to see what other folks can’t see.” Although the spirit writings acquired their vivid palette only after artist Andy Nasisse made art materials available to Murray, there is no reason to believe they fail in any degree to reflect the visions of the inner world in which, as Murray put it, “Jesus is stronger than hoodoo.” At the same time, they are deeply creative expressions of Murray’s own spirit (or personal psychology); no other visionary in the rural South produced drawings/writings exactly like Murray’s.

Shana Robbins produces a glitzy response to her own encounters with the spirit world that she has experienced in ayahuasca sessions in actual South American jungles and in self-invented sites for spiritual encounter from Iceland to downtown Atlanta. There is no reason to suppose her creative mythology is any less authentic than J. B. Murray’s. If we have difficulties with any aspects of Robbins’ practice, it is because we have difficulties with the aesthetics of the social milieu from which her practice arises.

Is the practice itself, regardless of the aesthetic terms in which she chooses to cast it, sufficiently efficacious to have penetrated at least the margins of the phenomena, phenomena to which the history of religions gives abundant testimony? How can we do justice to the question of whether or not someone’s practice is efficaciously transformative, rather than dismissing it ipso facto as a simple piece of theatre? Might we be able to assert responsibly that the contours of such practices cannot be adequately mapped by cheap reductionisms? Can we make such an assertion even though we claim (as we must do as moderns) that the phenomena encountered in such practices, phenomena of which most of us have had no direct experience, are given to practitioners through cultural and biological filters—and that these filters make it difficult to discern, whether from the inside or the outside of the practice, whether there is anything authentically “other” occurring?

Can we compose a theory that acknowledges the role of imaginative discourse and composition in the creation of spiritual experience as well as of all forms of art, without reducing the former to a version of the latter? Can we, as Ben Coleman’s catalogue essay/liner notes imply, devise a method of investigation that fully incorporates aesthetic and spiritual experience in a theoretical format that does justice to the full dimensionality of both?

This epistemological issue is what I find most interesting, but it isn’t the only one that curators Justin Rabideau and Teresa Bramlette Reeves have pursued. As I have implied by word choices here and there, we are “haunted” by history, memory, and the gender and ethnic categories into which we are born. There is a reason that the metaphor of ghosts and haunting is used so often to describe personal obsessions and personal and collective trauma, and the show is as interested in that as in the ontological status of disembodied visitors. A catalogue of considerable dimensions could have been compiled that unpacks all of these implications and cross-connections.

However, the vinyl record (with optional digital download of its contents) that constitutes the exhibition catalogue is not that sort of document. It incorporates the show’s auditory aspects (the things that have historically been left out of hard-copy exhibition catalogues, except in those few catalogues containing a supplementary CD or DVD) into a creative anthology of sound art in which documentation blends with experimental compositions. The spectrum of responses that runs between raw experience and refined artworks is thus honored, even as it is obliquely analyzed in the liner notes. The show’s visual aspects are illustrated in the folder of artist statements and biographies accompanying the album. This one-page format allows for the concurrent perusal of the entire range of aesthetic and evidentiary material in this remarkable exhibition, and thus permits the formation of hypotheses along the lines that I have here suggested.

I still would have liked to have a conventional catalogue full of scholarly essays with footnotes and bibliography. But had Reeves and Rabideau gone that route, this present essay would have been impossible. It is far better that they chose not to foreclose our options on a topic on which the options ought to be left as wide open as responsible analysis will permit.

—Jerry Cullum, November 12, 2017




Saturday, July 8, 2017

a provisional, belated review of Kirstin Mitchell, "Midnight at the Oasis," Hathaway Contemporary, Atlanta GA

Hegel famously wrote regarding philosophical reflection, “When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a form of life grown old. Philosophy cannot rejuvenate it, but only understand it. The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the coming of the dusk.”

The tropical sky colors that dominate one end of Kirstin Mitchell’s “Midnight at the Oasis” are those of dawn, not dusk, although the nearly monochromatic painting on the wall to the left could be taken to represent the blazing color of a tropical sunset. In any case, gray on gray has nothing to do with it.

On the other hand, the diptych of rosy-fingered dawn flanks a pedestal containing a black egg-shaped sculpture, an archetypal image that leads in so many different contradictory directions (you could look it up) that we had better try not to overinterpret. At the very least, however, the dark interrupts the light for a reason. That it happens to be an egg, as dark as the midnight at the sort of oasis that is the source of life in the desert, would probably provide myth-oriented critics with a fairly rich vein of free association from which to extract more meanings than Mitchell ever intended to put there.

What is entirely intentional, however, is the faceoff between the paradisal brightness at one end of the gallery and the dark of Limousine at the other end. Here, too, however, the combination of elements is meant to defeat any easy retreat into symbolism; the dark-gray rubber sheet that forms a drape against the even darker panel is robbed of any purely funereal associations by the title, which evokes fashionable luxury as well as solemn occasions of state (although it also happens to be the proprietary name of the pigment found in the painting, which itself is a much more complex interplay of modes of darkness than it seems to be at first distant glance).

What is deliberate also is the use of rubber in lieu of woven cloth in the drapery that dominates the majority of the large wall pieces. The tensions between the sensual, industrial, and, not incidentally, tropical associations of rubber could easily lead critics off into yet another feast of free association, one that could fill volumes.

The tone of depth and sophistication established by the conscious arrangement of work on the gallery walls is undercut by the anomalous comedy of two vaguely fruit-shaped sculptures perched upon a chunk of Styrofoam flotsam in the center of the highly polished floor. The dark reflection of Limousine stretches towards the shore of this odd interruption, an oasis of humor in a conversation of color and form that encodes more serious matters than might first appear. (A blue cube also lurks in a corner between a purely white work on the left and the not-quite-black dark of “Limousine’ on the right, almost daring us to find symbolic meaning in a piece that may be there simply because it adds to the visual rhythm.)


Any doubt as to whether we are meant to engage in intellectual free play as well as sensual enjoyment and formal appreciation of spatial arrangement is dispelled by Mitchell’s artist statement, which consists of artfully selected etymological passages from dictionaries, dancing adroitly among historical associations of the words used in the titles of the works and of the exhibition. We very quickly notice the presence of body fluids, social relationships, practical activities with symbolic implications, facts from the sciences, and enough other suggestive linkages to keep attentive readers busy for longer than they might wish.

At this point, you have very little time left to view the exhibition ("you" meaning those of you reading this on July 8, 2017, within feasible distance of Hathaway Contemporary, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.) in something resembling tranquility. If at all possible, you should attend the closing reception, which includes artist talks by Mitchell and by Karen Schwartz, on July 11.

All photos in this review are © Kirstin Mitchell.

Counterforces and Other Little Jokes