So Near [a conversation] So Far
… even as the refrain is building up a little house, it is also making overtures towards the no-man’s land – the not exclusively human land – beyond it. This is the third effect of the refrain, a slight twinge or tic of dissonance … in other words even the home locale (“milieu”) is alive with movement and change. 1
Jane Bennett The Enchantment of Modern Life
Responses to the works themselves might include the following …
… that Deborah Gardner’s large sculpture Nomadic Territory elevates mundane bedroom materials and other everyday objects (stools) into an unstable space somewhere between a makeshift altar, a model landscape, and a bed. The small dwellings it sprouts suggest that we might read it is generative, a natal reverie from the littoral of an uneasy mind. That it sprouts uncanny, blanketed (embalmed?) forms – shrouded houses (and figures?) – suggests, as one enters the larger space, that this work might also be the original imaginative site from which the other sculptural works have departed – or else one that they might remember. Some of these other works evoke correspondences between, on one hand, a sense of uneasy nostalgia evoked by the draping of old furniture in empty houses and, on the other, a particular dread of “looking back” in all its complex ramifications – a dread that takes its point of departure from the story of the transformation of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt in the founding Judeo-Christian narrative.
Andrea Thoma’s pairs and triads of abstract paintings that, nevertheless, surely derive their evocative power from their visual proximity to highly particular and specific qualities of light. As it is seen to fall, for example, on intermittently occluded surfaces. Here what were once fleeting impressions somehow appear as finally and fully material as, say, temperature registered by the body. A complex of sense impressions that later became the basis for studio meditations on states of being/becoming, developed through the layering of coloured pigments of visual/tactile equivalents for remembered qualities that include those associated with times of day. The results, never given as single images, have a visceral sense of light and colour that, thickened with memory and reflection, evoke the passage of time, into and out of, moments of stillness. A sense given by the play between two or three linked images that evoke something that is both more and less than, say, the intensity of a slatted twilight blue glimpsed from a dark interior; more and less than the mid-day bleaching of shadows on hot red stone or cool yellow cement walls.
Jane Millar’s small paintings – quietly matter-of-fact when viewed from a distance – might have their origins in the imaginative tension between the frozen, flattened space of film stills and the endless unspooling of lived memory. Or else in those talismanic photographs we took long ago and can never quite bring ourselves to thrown away – an exotic parrot, a section of plastic mesh fence, a woodland glade, distant mountains. But the same paintings, seen close to, reveal intricately hand-stitched beading that mimics or counterpoints some section of what is represented through paint in another, altogether more immediately tactile, dimension. The cool, shiny, mosaic-like qualities of a beaded surface that, despite its stylisation, can evoke the optical shimmer of light on a distant mountain where the passage of clouds animates rocky outcrops laced with snow. Elsewhere tiny clusters of beads, seen close to, take on the toxic colouring of pills, fragment the logic of the original image.
Andrea Thoma’s video Inntal specifically reproduces the flicker of light/water on a windscreen of a speeding car through which we might imagine glimpsing those same distant mountains as appear in Millar’s paintings, setting up a play of resonances with them and with the mountainous sculptural forms of Nomadic Territory and Peaks and Mounds. But also, and in a sense more directly, with Millar’s Binding – a spooled, filmic “ribbon work”, carried across the surface of the wall on sticks that emphasis its fragility. The result is a dense net of analogies for, and diffusions of, sense-states that, once apprehended, suggest uncanny paradoxes that run like quicksilver through the spatial logic of the gallery’s architecture. (Another video – Dreamcatcher – shows that object’s gentle movements filmed against the light, provoking more oblique resonances of the unreliability of time and memory as categories, resonances common to the exhibition as a whole. As such it raises psycho-spatial implications that, while impossible to draw out productively in the limited space available to me here – requiring as it would a psycho-geography of the exhibits as a space/place – cannot be simply ignored.
So one response to the exhibition is to reconsider its potential – via a fleshing-out of Andrea Thoma’s notion of Thought Dwellings – within the often derided “white space” of the gallery itself. That is to reconsider the possibilities the specifically new space brought into being by this exhibition afford us. The nature of these possibilities is suggested by Doreen Massey’s conceptualisation of “place” as ‘meeting place rather than as always already coherent, as open rather than bounded, as an ongoing production rather than pre-given’ 2 . There are, in consequence, parallels that could be drawn out between the uses to which Gardner, Millar and Thoma have collectively put the space of the gallery – the alignment of works not only with other works but also with doors and windows, and something of the way that, according to Frances Yates, Renaissance thinkers practiced the Art of Memory 3. (Parallels that, once again, I do not have space to develop here).
Arguably this sense of an open, affective space created by Gardner, Millar and Thoma is predicated on a collective understanding of the function and possibility of reverie in relation to our relationship to being ‘culturally and economically rewarded for enduring the “wrong” place’ 4. Discussions of Gaston Bachelard’s use of ‘reverie’ rightly stress that it ‘is not merely daydreaming; it is more the free play of the mind around objects, “centred” on objects’, and so altogether distinct from the ‘night dream” as ‘pure subjectivity, unconsciousness of the world’ 5. Experiencing their organisation of works in the light of both this understanding of reverie and the radical feminist phenomenology of Geraldine Finn, who insists that we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us, I feel required to reconsider Bachelard’s claim that all attempts to make conceptual and imaginative activity cooperate ‘are doomed to disappointment’ because ’the image cannot give matter to the concept; the concept, by giving stability to the image, would stifle its existence’ 6.
In this context I want to suggest that the three artists deliberately set out to play two alternative positions in relation to our understanding of space off against each other. Firstly, we are invited to open to the silent propositions offered by visceral, material reverie and, secondly, to ponder conceptual concerns.
That is, the exhibition provokes two contrary conversations. One is wholly interior, a reflexive “playing through” of something like a musical refrain (given that an active “hearing” is the best analogy for the sensuous mode of response invited); an ongoing registering of a shifting, reflexive awareness of bodily attention in response to the unique orchestration of the specific qualities of particular works in a particular space. This conversation, while mute, corresponds to intensities of felt near/farness that every body knows intimately; the near/far of communicative tactility, of deeply felt bodily interactions and, of course, of their loss or absence. We “know” this fullness – more accurately have it provisionally confirmed as shared – through the formal sensuousness of images (in their most general sense) as apprehended prior to the necessary categorizations that name and divide both the work and the world.
The second, normally dominant, conversation is that to which this writing belongs – a writing that, inevitably, is articulate through and for others in terms of the niceties of linguistic/ discursive enumeration and evaluation via the conventions of critical and aesthetic discourse that surround the practices and reception of art. Discourse that is, as Miwon Kwon reminds us, finally inseparable a reward system that compels us to accept an ever greater degree of professional nomadism within the global economy of art 7.
(The above distinction may or may not also relate to W B Yates’ suggestion that prose is the result of our quarrel with others, poetry of our quarrel with ourselves).
Against the grain of the economic compulsion to nomadism, I want to suggest that Gardner, Millar and Thoma have wagered the possibility, perhaps even the necessity, of our undertaking an intermittent return to that other conversation – as a temporary home-coming. An intermittent return can never wholly dispel ‘the inconveniences and psychic destabalizations of ungrounded transcience, of not being at home (or not having a home), of always travelling through elsewhere’ 8, but that can, however, provide us with a necessary respite, a psychic counterweight to those same destabalizations.
Arguably it is only this return to the temporary shelter of this mute conversation – the availability of which is predicated on attending to the lived nuances of the bodily and its beyond through reveries centred on objects – that makes possible our recognition of ‘the conditions of our own estrangement’. A condition that can only result from our having to leave behind ‘the nostalgic notion of a site and identity as essentially bound to the physical actualities of a place’ 9. It is this awareness that places us in space-time as a particular, open-ended ‘mix of order and chance’ that is characterised by inclusion of ‘the loose ends, the elements of chaos, the meetings without merging’ 10 in which memory – particularly memory grounded in the body – has a central role. And, vis a vis the second form of conversation noted here, we might note that without such awareness all intellectual claims to participate in a genuine openness to the otherness of the world become empty, ungrounded, rhetorical – “so much empty talk/text”.
I want to suggest, then, that we might re-member this exhibition in the here and now of a reading of this text as a group improvisation around a series of mute, visceral, material refrains that counterpoint – meet without merging – what is also a dynamic conceptual conversation between three individuals. The exhibition created a temporary reflexive place in Doreen Massey’s sense. A resonant space-in-process in which evocations of “near” and “far” were (and were not) “ready to hand”, met and missed each other in an open-ended dance of felt enquiry, visual call and response and, implicit in this, tentative mappings-out of “next steps” in terms of the artists’ shared aim of ‘gauging the relationship between distance and proximity and the impetus that gives for philosophical consideration’ via ‘focus on space, both actual/physical and pictorial … in relation to the body’ 11.
All of which is, in the end, perhaps only to suggest that we might re-member the exhibition in terms of one of those baggy, meandering, more or less obsessive conversations that ebb and flow between old friends who are also (sometimes) intellectual sparing partners. Conversations that may run on intermittently over hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, even lifetimes. Conversations that, when overheard, touch us most deeply through what is implicit, their tone and unspoken implications, regardless of their specific content. More particularly – and altogether appropriately in the presence context – conversations that give us a visceral sense of the playing out of, for example, “near” and “far” in all forms of relationship between the animate and inanimate faces of the world. A playing-out that can be felt to take place beyond what is assumed in these terms as ‘abstract designations’, where they become ‘one single form of being in a situation’… that presupposes ‘the same face to face of subject and world 12 ’.
(The image of conversation here also reflects something of both the working relationships between the three artists themselves and between them as a loose group and others who, like myself, dip in and out of this erratic, ongoing conversation).13
Bristol, December 2007
- Jane Bennett The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics (2001), Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press p. 167
- Doreen Massey “Landscape as a Provocation: Reflections on Moving Mountains” Journal of Material Culture (2006) p. 34
- See Frances Yates The Art of Memory (1966) London: Routledge.
- Miwon Kwon One Place After Another (2002) Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press pp.156-7.
- Mary McAllester Jones Gaston Bachelard Subversive Humanist: Texts and Readings (1991) Madison: University of Wisconsin Press p. 95
- Gaston Bachelard (edited Colette Gaudin) On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (1971) Dallas: Spring Publications Inc. p. 6
- Miwon Kwon op. cit. p. 156.
- Ibid. p. 156.
- Ibid. p. 164
- Doreen Massey For Space (2005), London: SAGE Publications [emphasis mine], p. 126.
- Quoted from the artists’ initial written proposal to the Kunstverein Ebersberg.
- Merleau-Ponty quoted in Edward Casey Getting Back into Place: Towards a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World (1993) Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press p. 72.
- A number of Jane Millar’s images in the exhibition are, for example, reproduced in the first volume of my collaborative book project Debatable Lands, 2007, Wild Conversations Press, where they constitute an important part of another, not entirely unrelated, conversational refrain.