Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Portrait and The Sublime

What follows is some musings about the relevance of the principles of my portraiture project to the concept of the sublime, as described by Lyotard in The Lyotard Reader, Blackwell Pulblishers, 1993 and based on my own engagement with the ideas of presence and awareness which form the basis of how I engage with each subject in the studio in creating this work.

Barnett Baruch Newman was one of the first artists to re-engage with the concept of the sublime in the early sixties when he produced three sculptures entitled Here I, Here II and Here III. He also painted canvases called Vir Herocious Sublimis and 'Not over there, Here', 'Now' and 'Be' and wrote an essay entitled The Sublime is Now. Art critic and commentator Thomas Hess wrote that the 'Now' Newman was concerned with was that of the Hebraic tradition, the there, the site, the unknowable. Lyotard in 'The Sublime and the Avant Garde' writes;

"Newman's now which is no more than now, is a stranger to consciousness and cannot be constituted by it. Rather, it is what dismantles consciousness, what deposes consciousness, it is what consciousness cannot formulate, and even what consciousness forgets in order to constitute itself. What we do not manage to formulate is that something happens."

This thing that happens or occurrence which the philosopher Marin Heidegger called ein Ereignis, is a difficult term to define in practice. A recent translation of the word by Kenneth Maly and Parvis Emad renders the word as "enowning"; in connection with things that arise and appear, that they are arising 'into their own'. Thought is an obstacle to experiencing this now, this arising 'into their own' and must be disarmed. It is a barrier between the pure subjective experience and the event itself. If thinking is dominant, if the occurrence is being analysed as it is experienced, it is not being experienced in it's entirety. Kant takes this idea further when he claims that this agitation of the mind, referring to the activity of judgement by the cognitive facilities, is only possible if something remains to be determined. As a relationship to time it presupposes that after each event, each theory, each work of art, each sentence; another follows. There is more to know, to develop, to create. But what about the possibility of nothing happening? With this concept the first link to Sunyata, or emptiness is seen, which forms the origin of this project.

The possibility of nothing happening, of suspense and waiting has been given a predominantly negative value in modern discourse and is associated with feelings of anxiety. But as Lyotard points out it can also be associated with pleasure in welcoming the unknown and joy in the intensification of being that the event brings with it. It is a contradictory feeling in which the event or occurrence discussed above, the 'it happens' becomes a question, 'is it happening?'. The mark of the question according to Lyotard is "the 'Now', now like the feeling that nothing might happen: the nothingness now". It is the basic fundamental boredom and familiar anxiety that anyone who has sat a Vispassana retreat knows only too well, as the habitually agitated mind settles into a more alert and present state. We have arrived at the Sublime, the name given to this pleasure/pain, joy/anxiety dichotomy in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe.

When Newman therefore sought sublimity in the here and now he was seeking to bear pictorial or otherwise expressive witness to the inexpressible. Quoting Lyotard again, "the inexpressible does not reside in an over there, in another words, or another time, but in this; in that (something) happens." Longinus, quoted in Lyotard has attempted to analyse the sublime in terms of rhetoric. He claims that "there is a sublimity of thought sometimes recognizable in speech by it's extreme simplicity or turn of sometimes even takes the form of outright silence". Boileau writes, "The sublime is not strictly speaking something which is proven or demonstrated, but a marvel, which seizes one, strikes one and makes one feel'. Therefore imperfections, distortions of taste and even ugliness as Lyotard argues have their share in the shock-effect. It strikes me that this is where Pierre Gonnord's work succeeds so brilliantly; in taking those who live on the margins, who are often considered ugly via defiguring illness, scars, deformity, homelessness etc and yet depicting them in such a way as to reveal their majesty, the majesty of the human condition per se in it's rawest form. The viewer is torn between awe and revulsion, socially conditioned prejudices and unexpected admiration. In other words the contradictory feelings of the sublime.

Lyotard also references the work of Burke published in 1757 entitled Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime, in particular his assertion that the sublime is kindled by the threat of nothing else happening. Beauty gives one kind of pleasure, a positive kind but he believes there is a pleasure bound to a passion stronger than satisfaction, and that is pain and impending death. To call this a pleasure is problematic to my mind but the associated terror he goes on to describe is relevant, terrors linked to privation; of light, of language, the terror of silence, of objects, of emptiness, of life and ultimately death. Burke believed the sublime is achieved when this terror and pleasure intermingle but it is also essential that the terror causing threat be suspended and in this lessening of a threat or danger there is the pleasure of relief. The sublime therefore can be characterised according to Lyotard as;

"a very big, very powerful object threatens to deprive the soul of any 'it happens', strikes it with powerful astonishment (at lower intensities the soul is seized with admiration, veneration, respect). the soul is thus dumb, immobilized, as good as dead. Art, by distancing this menace, produces a pleasure of relief, of delight. Thanks to art, the soul is returned to the agitated zone between life and death, and this agitation is its health and its life. For Burke, the sublime was no longer a matter of elevation, but intensification".

Contemplating the sublime is particularly interesting with respect to the information age we now live in, and the capitalist ideologies which permeate all facets of modern existence. The potential richness of the human experience becomes delineated across ever narrowing parameters; profitability, self affirmation through success and satisfaction via acquisition. Our relationship to time is not what it was even a generation ago; we are always 'on' and connected. The private and public sphere demarcation is dissolving. We live in an age where the mantra is speed and the information society perpetuates the myth that all things can be known and are at the tip of our fingertips. The contradictory feelings of the sublime are hinted at in vernacular discourse. We describe wanting to 'get away from it all, to slow down' yet many people find themselves ill at ease with silence. We want space but feel lost if we are without our mobile phone for twenty four hours! We want to plug ourselves out of the matrix and yet there is an underlying discomfort at the thought of doing so, because it is in the 'nothing happens' that existential anxiety is encountered. It is my sincere belief that this dichotomy, as described above and which is at the heart of the sublime, is most readily experienced in our postmodern society when things are stripped away to their essence, when silence is encountered amidst the usual bombardment of noise and particularly in disarming simplicity.

With relation to this current project, the techniques I work with ask subjects to be partially naked in order to strip away a layer of protection, amongst other rationales. They are in a dark studio, there is silence, I talk them through techniques to come out of their heads and into their bodies. Focus on the breath. Centre themselves, empty their minds as much as possible of the ceaseless agitation. To be in what Vispassana circles is described as "here, now". When they are 'Here' they let me know by turning to look into the lens, mindful not to project outwards but remain fully located within themselves. The image is just that moment, framed against a black background. I am now starting to also work with this same process in video, although there are a few teething problems. The subject is seen focusing, relaxing, breathing, coming into themselves and then, turning and simply looking at the camera. The only thing that should be audible is the breath, unfortunately the only thing that is in fact currently audible is the air conditioning. It plays with the tension described above, the anxiety of nothing happening, it is just an ordinary person, silently looking at you via the medium of a screen. I hope that it is disconcerting because of this, we are not used to seeing people doing nothing in this way but also, that there is a beauty within it which is the inherent beauty of each human being that is part of the inexpressable; they are alive, they have consciousness, and we do not, despite the greatest efforts, know what that is! Ideally the 'is it happening' question which might arise, even subconsciously would lead to a recognition of 'being', which is what I sense in the work of Pierre Gonnord and is why it continues to speak to me. The silence takes us out of our comfort zone and is an intensifying experience in this regard. I did not set out to frame this project in the discourse of the sublime but I think there is certainly elements of it here.

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