A Confrontation With Falling

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Miles Allinsonhttp://www.blogger.com/profile/02557884090367589862noreply@blogger.comBlogger276125
Updated: 5 years 38 weeks ago

3 poems

Tue, 2014/03/11 - 11:04am



Twenty Minutes


Twenty minutes before
I have to be somewhere
I open the window, open
a beer, smoke a cigarette,
think these thoughts.

The rain has stopped
light grates on the top’s
of things. This is happening,
this is happiness I think

all twenty minutes of it,
or ten, at least, or maybe
not even that, maybe just
the moment it takes
to think it.



If it is True

If it is true and if
for an hour
all things were possible and
in this hypothetical world
rain bent towards us, trucks
rocked us, the highways
turned us round
so that we drove for hours the other way –
light of lights on us
if all this is true
if by chance it came upon us
light of the lights of far suburbs
if that was real



The Barest World

the barest world is enough I’ve heard it said
just one old man driving along the highway
the white cabin of his mind, its purr and loneliness.

The barest world
the rain falling into my espresso
is not enough, ever, I know:
in mist the white sky
the white southern ocean
beyond this heavenly
apartment block.

Image courtesy of Matthew Monteith

Where is the mystery? Where are the distances? Victor Segalen and The Exotic Imaginary.

Tue, 2014/03/11 - 11:04am

“I am a citizen of the world” Socrates claimed. This notion, pursued subsequently both by the Cynics and the Stoics has come to define a certain attitude towards difference, best described by the political philosophy of Cosmopolitanism. Being a citizen of the world, nevertheless poses certain difficulties. In what ways can we travel through the world for instance, and how do we experience and react to real difference? Can this experience, moreover, be an aesthetic as well as an ethical one? The French author Victor Segalen gave much thought to these questions in his posthumously published, but unfinished Essay on Exoticism: an aesthetics of diversity.

Exoticism is diametrically opposed to nationalism, as Tzvetan Todorov has shown. Where nationalism seeks to praise that which is known and familiar, that which is not the other, exoticism performs the opposite process by praising what is unfamiliar simply by virtue of its difference. In both cases there is a relative value judgement, here is better than there, or vice versa. Whatever the case may be for nationalism, there is a paradox at the heart of exoticism, because exoticism is a value judgement based on ignorance. Knowledge is fundamentally incompatible with exoticism since whatever is known and familiar cannot, by definition, be exotic. And yet, as Todorov makes clear, the absence of knowledge is irreconcilable with the admiration of others – we cannot rightfully admire something we don’t know anything about.


Nevertheless, exoticism, as a form of self-criticism has offered numerous writers a means of critiquing their own society. Todorov traces this tendency as far back as Homer, to Book 13 of the Iliad. At that time the most remote population known to the Greeks was the Abii, who, Homer proclaimed, are “the most righteous of men”. “At the bounds of the earth”, Homer writes, “life is easiest.” In Greece, the implication runs, men are greedy or cruel and life is hard.

During the 16th century, European naval exploration, and the European discovery of the Americas in particular, provided writers with a ready-made image of the other onto which they could project the enduring ideal of an imaginary Golden Age. Amerigo Vespuci’s description of indigenous North Americans , in which he outlined a peaceful and sexually liberated society without laws or rulers or temples or private property, offered a startling counterpoint to European society. It was descriptions such as Vespuci’s that established a model for the subsequent notion of the noble savage, and upon which Montaigne’s portrait of ‘cannibals’, in its turn, was based. “This is a nation”, Montaigne wrote:

... in which there is no sort of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name for a magistrate or for political superiority, no custom of servitude, no riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupations but leisure ones, no care for any but common kinship, no clothes, no agriculture, no metal, no use of wine or wheat. The very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, belittling, pardon – unheard of.

Despite the radicality of this passage for 16th century France, such a description nevertheless operates by virtue of a particularly reductive or negative sort of reasoning. The exotic exists here only by virtue of what it is not. There is a fundamental absence in this picture – an absence which seems essential to any portrait of the exotic and which is perhaps both an ignorance and a lack of interest in the reality or life of the object beyond its symbolic value. Similarly, the early photographic portraits of indigenous people, such as those taken by Edward Curtis of American Indians, or Antoine Fauchery’s photographs of Australian aboriginals, describe an essential absence, a posed and de-contextualised Noble Savage. This de-contextualization was abetted, at least in part, by the long exposure times then required of still photography. As the critic and essayist Elliot Weinberger has explained, early photographic portraits during 19th Century required that the subject remain posed in isolation. The resultant images speak of difference perhaps, of curiosity or desire or a particularly truncated form of strangeness, but not of lived reality.

By the end of the 19th century, the exotic places that Montaigne could only imagine were becoming increasingly accessible for European travel, trade and tourism. Even men with as little money as Paul Gauguin had in 1891, could find their way onto ships headed for various colonial out-posts in the South Pacific. For Gauguin, European society represented "everything that is artificial and conventional." 19th century exoticism can be seen therefore, in the context of both Marx and Nietzsche, as a response to precisely this feeling of lost authenticity; a response to the loss, in other words, of clear or immutable value in the face of the relativising power of capitalism. According to Harry Harootunian “exoticism must be seen as an attempt to redress the imbalance between quantity and quality.” As the market increasingly determined what and to what degree things had value, the desire grew for a time and a place where those seemingly eternal values – the good, the beautiful, the natural, still prevailed. For Harootunian furthermore, 19th Century exoticism fulfilled a further psychological role, performing a crucial displacement by inventing a tropical, distant and relatively harmless other, to replace Modernity’s conflicted relationship with its true other: the industrial worker.



Victor Segalen

In 1904, Victor Segalen, a twenty six year old French doctor, author and critic, began writing a series of notes towards a possible essay on Exoticism. Segalen, whose article Gauguin dans son dernier décor had been published earlier the same year, was certainly entranced by the exotic experience he recognised both in Gauguin’s paintings, and in Tahiti itself, where he visited Gauguin’s hut and interviewed those who knew him. Segalen aspired to the exotic, but he came to despise the popular, and to his eyes, debased iteration of the term – its colonial presumptions and its exclusively tropical connotations. “Clear the field first of all.” he wrote in a note to himself, in 1908:

Throw overboard everything misused or rancid contained in the word exoticism. Strip it of all its cheap finery: palm tree and camels; tropical helmets; black skins and yellow sun; and at the same time get rid of all those who used it with inane loquaciousness … my study will not be about programs offered by travels agents like Cook, nor about hurried and verbose travellers … what a herculean task this nauseating sweeping out will be!

But Segalen never finished his notes, and had barely begun the essay itself, when his body was recovered in the woods, near his hometown of Brest, in 1921. The likely cause of death was a haemorrhage caused by a deep cut near his ankle. Between his first and last entries, eighteen years had passed.

In his posthumously published Essay on Exoticism Segalen sought to separate exoticism from the practices of an earlier generation of colonial travel writers, a cast of tourists he called the Pseudo-Exotes, or “the Panderers of the Sensation of Diversity. Moreover though, Segalen’s task was to sever exoticism not only from its tropical fixation (there’s not much arctic exoticism, he noted, but also, more importantly from its geographical, specifically colonial definition. Exoticism, he thought, must be about time as well as place, about the past and the future, about the exoticism of living in this epoch and not another, an exoticism that offered “an escape from the contemptible and petty present.” Similarly, an essay on exoticism should include the exoticism of nature and animals, of men and women, of aliens and other worlds. For Segalen, Exoticism should be understood as “nothing other than the notion of difference, the perception of Diversity, the knowledge that something is other than one self.”

Most importantly though, Segalen understood exoticism as an aesthetic experience; the aesthetics of difference. “Exoticism’s power”, he wrote, is nothing other than the ability to conceive otherwise.” This experience was something that could be willed, it was an artistic predisposition that belonged, in the Nietzschean sense, to the great artist. To this artist, the artist as traveller, Segalen gave the title Exote. By sheer force of personality, in other words, the Exote is that individual who revels in the “eternal incomprehension” of difference. Exoticism, Segalen wrote, “is therefore not the kaleidoscopic vision of the tourist, or the mediocre spectator, but the forceful and curious reaction to a shock felt by someone of strong individuality in response to some object whose distance from oneself he alone can perceive and savor.” The true Exote, accordingly is “the conscious being … who finds himself face to face with his own self”, which is to say, the Exote is the artists who recognises, in the other, his own otherness, even from himself. “In conceiving of himself” Segalen’s final note reads, the thinking being “can conceive himself only as something other than he is. And he rejoices in his diversity. In this sense, Segalen foreshadowed the surrealist project which sought to promote and create the shock of difference, the marvellous in the everyday – an ambition exemplified by Leautremont’s famous dictum: “As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”

While Segalen attempted to sever exoticism from its colonial impulses, and from the processes of industrial capitalism, which threatened to absorb or destroy difference itself, his notion of exoticism as an aesthetics of diversity nevertheless remained rigidly amoral. In fact, Segalen proposed a chapter entitled The Exoticism of Moralities, in which he intended to celebrate “the moral shocks” and “the great dramas and beautiful agonies of races.” The great cosmopolitan ideal of multiculturalism, in which numerous cultures live harmoniously together, was anathema to Segalen’s exoticism. Instead he favoured disharmony, inequality and incomprehensibility, the “impenetrability of races” and “the treason of languages”. Furthermore, Segalen distrusted democracy and espoused an “absolute condemnation of feminism” which he considered “a kind of monstrous social inversion”. “Let us proceed from the admission of impenetrability”, he wrote. “Let us not flatter ourselves for assimilating the customs, races, nations, and others who differ from us. On the contrary let us rejoice in our inability to ever do so”.

True to the spirit of the times, Segalen’s exoticism remains trapped by its own extremism, one verging at times on paranoia. He equates difference with sensation, and sensation as the purpose of life itself, and yet, as Todorov has pointed out, it is perfectly reasonable to enjoy and promote difference, without resorting to a philosophy that privileges this difference above all else, including universal equality. Furthermore, by broadening exoticism to describe the experience of all difference, even the difference of minute variation, the term itself threatens to become meaningless.

Despite its contradictions and its many ethically problematic assertions, Segalen’s “Essay on Exoticism”, as his translator Yaël Rachel Schlick has rightly pointed out, nevertheless retains a distinctive and important place in the ongoing dialogue around ideas of globalization, post-colonialism and difference. Todorov, singled out Segalen as the person in the first half of the twentieth century, who “gave more intense thought to the experience of exoticism than anyone else in France”. Indeed Segalen’s notion of the Exote has come to occupy an important place in Todorov’s thinking. As a conclusion to his chapter on Exoticism in his On Human Diversity, Todorov outlines ten portraits or types of travellers: the assimilator, exemplified by the missionary; the profiteer or businessman; the tourist who prefers monuments to people; the impressionist – a type of “perfected tourist who nevertheless remains “the sole subject of his experience”; the assimilated or immigrant; the exile – an immigrant who avoids assimilation; the allegorist, who like Montaigne’s example above, speaks of foreign people in order, merely, to describe his own; the disenchanted who believes that everything worthwhile can be found at home or, by extrapolation, within oneself; the philosopher – a sort of hypothetical subject position in which there is both a lesson to be learned and, simultaneously, a lesson to teach, and the exote, after Segalen, a type of traveller characterised by his or her fragile lucidity, by the “precarious balancing act between distance and identification”.

And yet I wonder if there is not something Todorov overlooks in his critique of exoticism, something Segalen himself circles around and approaches but almost loses sight of in his attempt to turn diversity into an abstract universal principle. Why, I wonder does Segalen persist in using the word exoticism, when surely “difference” or “diversity” would have done just as well. In October, 1911, whilst travelling in China, Segalen asked himself the same question. The word exoticism, he wrote:

is now so bloated that it’s about to explode, to burst, to empty its contents. It would have been wiser to avoid such a dangerous term – a term charged and yet so ambiguous – and to forge another in order to reroute or break with these lesser meanings. But I preferred to take the risk and keep this term, which still seemed good and solid to me despite the bad uses to which it had been put. After giving it a thorough delousing, I wanted to try and restore to it – along with its initial value – all the primacy it once possessed. … Exoticism. It should be understood that I mean only one thing, but something immense by this term: the feeling which Diversity stirs in us."

But what precisely does the word exoticism confer, which the word diversity alone cannot? The answer to this question I think, lies in exoticism’s particular, constitutive absence. It is the absence of knowledge after all, which turns something merely different into something exotic, just as it the absence of context which renders Antoine Fauchery’s photographs of Australian aboriginals exotic. And yet it is precisely this absence which grants exoticism its power, its primacy, and, as we will see, its mystery.

On the one hand, an absence of knowledge can pertain to simple ignorance, to laziness or inattention. In another way however, at a cosmic level, absence of knowledge is a defining human characteristic – an essential, unavoidable and potentially creative position, a precondition in other words, for curiosity, religion and art and the site, precisely, where possibility exists. Segalen’s exticism gives us a way by which we can begin to distinguish between these two types of absence. It is the Exote, as Weinberger insists, who “transforms the merely strange into mystery” . Absence of knowledge as mystery, in other words, is the point from which the imagination is unfurled.

In June 1911, Segalen lamented the discovery of a round earth. “On a spherical world” he wrote, “to leave one point is already to begin to draw closer to it!… This is where tourism began! From the moment man realized the world was a sphere.” Elsewhere he makes another, exclamatory, somewhat aphoristic note to himself: “Where are the distances? Where is the mystery?” In Shanghai, 1917 he returned to this idea: “the first voyage around the world must have been the most disenchanting”, he writes. “Luckily, Megallan died before his return. (…) There was no longer any utter Remoteness in the World.” The heart of Segalen’s exoticism, it seems to me, is not diversity or difference per se, but rather the experience of the unknown, an aesthetics of mystery. Understood as such, mystery is an absence that points beyond itself. In this sense, Segalen’s exoticism is not simply the confrontation with incompatible realities, but the point at which the human imagination meets this incompatibility.

It is worth recalling Todorov’s first example of exoticism. For Homer, The Abii symbolise, surely, not only an imaginary counterpoint against which he could judge his own society but also an idea about distance and knowledge, about the limits of the world, about the people who stand at the very brink of the boundless, the otherwise unimaginable. To invoke the Abii, is to begin to imagine what exists beyond the Abii.

At an aesthetic level then, Segalen’s exoticism points towards an absence that lies beyond the limits of one’s own world. In a world as thoroughly mapped as the one we inhabit today, an aesthetic approach to Cosmopolitanism might ask, indeed: where are those distances, where is the mystery?





In Between Worlds

Tue, 2014/03/11 - 11:04am
Innovators 2
@
Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts

Saturday, 30 June 2012 - Sunday, 29 July 2012

Maryanne Coutts: Asylum. Watercolour on Paper.
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Hermione Merry and Henriette Kassay-Schuster don’t really look the same at all. They have different coloured hair, different accents, different ways of articulating their ideas, and yet I had the uncanny feeling, when I met them in Carlton the other week, that I was talking to Siamese twins. This is worth mentioning not only because their installation HH is a kind of theatrical self-portrait, but also because it’s concerned, at a fundamental level, with the idea of the double, the doppelgänger.

HH is an extension of a previous work in which the artists filmed themselves listening to a fractured and reassembled recording of D.M. Thomas’ controversial novel The White Hotel, a book that charts the violently sexual fantasies of a young Jewish woman in the years preceding World War II. In this footage, projected in HH onto a strange, smoking pyramid in the middle of the gallery space, we watch the involuntarily responses of the two artists; the minute, twitching movements of their faces as they register in their own, otherwise inaccessible way, the shock of the text. We can think of this footage as a type of unconscious, double-self-portrait, an attempt to register those involuntary, internal, private reactions. And yet these projections are not so straight-forward. The two faces, seen upside down, merge into one another. They shift and bend in the smoke, they change as we move around them and they pass through the walls of the pyramid into the space beyond. Nothing seems stable in this work. Are we looking at two real women or at many versions of a single, imaginary character?

The rather uncertain connection between public and private ideas of self is crucial to Merry and Kassay-Schuster’s work. We hear for instance, the sound of their voices intoning, repeatedly, their own names. These utterances work in at least three ways. Our names, after all, are a type of portrait or mask with an indeterminate relationship to our own identity. Similarly, to hear our own voice is to register the excruciating unreality of our own sense of self. Finally, to say one word again and again is to drive language to the point where it breaks down, the point where it becomes something else: incantation, or delirium perhaps, or dream.

Kat Clarke’s work is likewise concerned with this tension between public and private notions of self. In Clarke’s videos we see people responding to a series of questions, and yet we’re not sure exactly what those questions are. We see the dull corners of their rooms, their home furnishings, the inelegant, utilitarian shapes of their furniture and bathroom cabinets. We watch them twist awkwardly or we hear them struggle to articulate something. They seem both restrained and impelled by a set of criteria that remains hidden from us. What are they trying to tell us? What are they trying not to tell us? What are the rules of this weird game? There is something tragic to these portraits, something almost horrific watching these people who are suddenly aware of themselves as beings. I want to cry and laugh at the same time.

In her recent work, Clarke has taken, as a site of investigation, the share-house – that space not quite our own, in which, poised between dependence and self-sufficiency, the most intimate parts of our lives are shared with near strangers. In a previous work, Clarke put herself through a series of share-house interviews, those vaguely traumatic encounters in which we confront, not only a panel of polite, interrogatory strangers, but also our own self, or – more accurately – the self-we-sell-our-self-as. In the present exhibition, Clarke has turned the camera toward other people. Is this an interrogation or a kind of perverted therapy? And who does it serve? I think of that wonderful scene in I Heart Huckabee’s, where Jude Law’s traumatised character keeps repeating: “How am I not myself? How am I not myself?”

Clarke’s interest lies in the exposition of these hidden selves, in the unarticulated spaces between these selves and in those seemingly arbitrary and discreet characteristics – desires, secrets, petty irritations or the choices we make at IKEA for example – which combine to form these selves. Alongside the videos, curiously, she has installed an agglomeration of heavy, steel frames; minimalist forms around which the audience is forced to navigate. I’m struck by how jarring they are in comparison to the intangibility of these videos, how definitive and unanswering beside these fleeting half-thoughts, these almost arbitrary images and these words that simply disappear. They are like architectural skeletons or rooms that have not yet been possessed by our uncertainty, meaningless forms that are somehow waiting to be filled.

Bonnie Lane’s video work explores precisely this uncertain territory between meaning and its opposite. In one room we see a series of projections in which the ritual of packing and unpacking is repeated ad nauseam. In those ordinary moments between departure and arrival, the tedious and the exhilarating exist side by side – the promise of the unknown interlaced, more often than not, with the achingly familiar. It is perhaps telling as well, that Lane is currently occupying an artist’s residency in Los Angeles. In the Age of Terror, (if that’s what we still call it) there is also something threatening (and threatened) about these videos, a distinct element of surveillance or paranoia or voyeurism awaiting revelation. But what do we hope to find among these ordinary, intimate belongings?

In another room we see a series of observed vignettes collected during Lane’s various travels around the world: simple, everyday moments filmed in New York, North Melbourne, Berlin, New Mexico, Utah and Los Angeles, but which could just as easily be from anywhere. A man lies sprawled on a bed for example, asleep amid the ordinary, domestic chaos of his room. We can just make out his breathing, the almost indiscernible rise and fall of his body, but nothing else moves except the fan on the ceiling above him. In another video, two shoes hanging from a telephone wire twist in the wind. These moments are almost nothing, just ordinary, random movements, like any other. And yet, seen like this, they seem to breathe with significance. In my favourite video of all, a hot-air balloon rises ever so slowly above the rooftops of a city. Perhaps it happens every day, who knows, but when I watched it, my heart leapt into my mouth. As it gradually turns in the blue sky, we are able to read, written across this improbable contraption: DIE. Then: WE. Then the full German sentence: Die Welt. The world.

There is a very thin line between everything and nothing, I realize. This is also the space from which Maryanne Coutts’ Throng arises. In particular, Coutts’ work confronts our paradoxical relationship to the media image, to those scenes of immense tragedy, which are inevitably rendered ubiquitous and unreal. “That abominable and sensual act called reading the newspaper" Proust once wrote; "thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe … are transformed for us, who don’t even care, into a morning treat.”

Coutts’ remarkable 180-piece watercolour painting depicts a boat on fire off the coast of Australia. We understand at once where this image comes from and that the people in this picture are asylum seekers. At the same time, therefore, it is an image, which is both abstract and specific, referring both to a real event and also to a wider, geopolitical situation. And yet Coutts asks us to look at this image in a way that is different from the way we might look an image in a newspaper or on the internet. To begin with, we are looking at a painting. A painting cannot pretend to be reality. Furthermore, we are asked to see this image as an accumulation of specific detail, as a system of information. The elements of the picture, like pixels, are here made apparent. But why is this important? And to what does this picture aspire, if not reality?

John Berger has suggested that every good painting attempts to create a tunnel between the artist and the object being studied. The relationship that is enabled by this passage, he argues, is a reciprocal one. In other words, every object, be it a tree, or a fish, or a photograph of something else, actually wants to be seen. Just as Magritte’s pipe was not an actual pipe, equally, Coutts’ painting is not a painting of a sinking boat, but rather a painting of a photograph of a sinking boat. In a world of three billion people, amid the 24 hour throng of trivia and suffering we call the media, perhaps it is enough that every now and again, one of these news images is accorded the dignity of actually being seen for what it is.

The relationship between painting and technology is also a useful way of understanding Lachlan Petras’ work. Next door, in the smallest room of the gallery, Petras has installed a rotating wheel fitted at three points with video screens. The screens play footage obtained from The Singapore Aeromedical Centre, in which we see high-performance aircraft pilots subjected to Human Centrifuge Testing, a collaborative simulation used to gauge responses to the effects of extreme acceleration.

Petras makes objects or groups of objects that I hesitate to call installations. They are more self-contained than that. Left to my own devices I might have called them scenarios; scenarios which, at one level, extend and interrogate the idea of painting. These scenarios ask us to bare witness to something he describes as “painting’s battle with the machine”. Petras calls these scenarios “The Site”, which is a better term, calling to mind, as it does, The Zone, from Tarkovsky famous 1979 film, Stalker.

In Petras’ art, the Site is a test space, a self-contained area for experimentation and play; think for instance of a doll’s house or, indeed, an art gallery. But the Site is also a zone of action where strict formulas or propositions are enacted in the real world – where abstract principles are asked to become material realities: a laboratory for example, or a nuclear test site. Chief among such Sites is the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, where protons are made to collide with one another at enormous speeds. And it’s here, in the search for something nicknamed the God Particle, at the point where general relativity meets quantum mechanics, that knowledge begins to break down altogether. Petras’ tiny paintings depict this moment, the violence of enormous force working on miraculously infinitesimal matter, the point where form begins to gives way. It’s no coincidence that these images are the size of icon paintings; that’s what they are.

The work of Chris Jones is similarly preoccupied, I think, with the nature of the Site. But whereas Petras seeks to contain these spaces of heightened intensity within strict boundaries, Jones’ very irreverent art tends to defy such limitations: it leaks out in all directions, it migrates between mediums and genres and locations, and it spreads like a virus or a rumour.

In 2010, when Jones won the $10,000, Duke Art Prize, he unleashed upon himself a storm of such hysterical criticism that he may as well have dumped a severed dog’s head on the gallery steps instead. The winning piece, a text-painting that worked like a misread newspaper headline: THE LIVER IS THE BUCKET KICKED THE RABBIT wasn’t just incomprehensible, it wasn’t really visual art either apparently. What’s more, it was a bad example for children. And these were just his fellow artists talking – the hate mail had other things to say. And yet this controversy was precisely the sort of thing Jones’ work feeds off. All of a sudden an artwork, concerned in part with the declaratory absurdity of the newspaper, was being reproduced – in newspapers.

For the Innovators exhibition, Jones has suspended a banner across the front of the Linden building: Happy Birthday Coach Oppewall. In order to ask what this work means (if such a thing is ever possible) it’s necessary to ask where it operates. What is the site of the work? What is its relationship to the gallery in other words and to the street the gallery looks out on? Consequently, what is its relationship to an audience – to those in cars, or those walking past, at night perhaps, alone or together or drunk? Furthermore, if someone was to seek out the significance of this phrase (certainty not a difficult task in itself), where is the artwork then? Jones’ art has a particular ability to double back on itself and to actually produce its own space the way a labyrinth or a type of infinity can be cheaply made between two mirrors.

the solstice, five years ago.

Tue, 2014/03/11 - 11:04am

It was about three a.m. when my mother called from the hospital. I was asleep in my parent’s bed. She spoke very calmly and said that he had died. My first thought was that I should go back to sleep for a few hours, but my mother told me no, that now was the time to come. I got up and woke my sisters one by one and said: “Dad just died”, twice, softly and then we drove together through the empty streets.

My mother was sitting beside his body, stroking his cheek with the back of her hand. She had lit candles. That she had thought to bring them surprised me and the shadows of flowers loomed and bristled in the firelight as we moved around the bed. A set of rosary beads lay beside a vase and the machines that had kept him alive had been switched off and pushed into the corner of the room. His mouth had fallen open and would not be closed and his lower teeth seemed odd and small. They reminded me of the teeth of a fish. And I remembered that my father had cooked a fish on my parents first date. Here is a man who can cook, my mother had thought, and was fooled because he never, really cooked again. But as I looked at my father lying there, at his soft, cold skin, at the tattoos on his arms that had lasted forever, the wolf and the skull, I felt grateful to that fish that had given itself up in the service of that dinner, that had helped my mother to believe in him. That I owed my whole life to a fish didn’t, at the time, seem absurd.

At the moment of death, according to the Tibetan tradition, the life-force is thrown backwards, and the intermediate state, The Bardo, dawns and continues to dawn for a period roughly equivalent to the time it takes to eat a meal. Then, the one who is guiding the death stands face-to-face with the one who is dying and says: “O nobly-born so-and-so, listen. Now you are experiencing the radiance of the clear light of reality. Recognise it.” It is a light that can be heard, a “liberation by hearing.” And yet, such spiritual efficiency is so rare that the dying person is more often than not unequal to the task. They cannot bear to remain in the presence of the Clear Light or they cannot hear what they need to hear or they hear it perhaps, but they do not understand the language. In this case, they are condemned to descend lower and lower through the various afterlives until they are reborn into the cycle of suffering. And if a blind turtle was to swim in an ocean, rising to the surface for air only once every hundred years, the chances of this dying person being reborn as a human, would be roughly equivalent to the chances of that turtle putting its head through a small golden ring that happened to be floating somewhere on the surface of the water.

From Night with Horses

tomorrow

Tue, 2014/03/11 - 11:04am




















I know
I have
somewhere
important to be
tomorrow.
I know that
if I think
a little harder
I will
remember.
But it is midnight
and silent
beneath
this tree.
The sky
is purple
and I
would like
to dwell
a little longer
in this not
knowing
as if I am
not me.

letter home

Tue, 2014/03/11 - 11:04am

It rains on the city of Melbourne - more like mist than rain and more like a town than a city. The tallest buildings have been halved by cloud and the trams come out of the distance with their shoulders hunched, spurting water and sparking - it seems like a dangerous combination, and surely more Melbournians die of electrocution than we are told about. Perhaps their corpses are thrown into the brown river that sluggishly divides the city in half, that is almost impossible to cross sometimes, and which may or may not be full of crocodiles. In the gardens, bright and strangely green in the rain, the last yellow leaves are like light bulbs, strung up and abandoned after some peculiar, local celebration. Surely it had something to do with football. Everything here has something to do with football - its what's gives this otherwise very reserved, this very private city its strain of anarchy. Last night I watched the end of the match in a pub that seemed to breathe in and out with the fluctuations of the game - filling and emptying and finally filling again for the last 20 minutes of abandonment and desperation during which time grown men threw themselves at one another on the small and silent television above the door and we all yelled. A large, exotic flower on the bar kept knocking me on the head. The rain outside caught in the headlights of the cars going up and down Brunswick st. and a line half a mile long formed mysteriously at a place across the road where the only indication of entertainment or advantage was a large sign saying Hamburgers.

There are bats here, who live upside down in palm trees and large rats called possums who are not afraid of anything and die in great numbers of, in fact - electrocution - as they leap from one wet power line to the other. The air smells of rain and smoke. I don't think it will ever stop raining and i am happy for that, even if it means parts of Melbourne are to be washed away. I want the churches to come sailing past, or the terrace houses of Carlton to get caught in the reads at the bank of the river, like muck. I would like to set fire to a street of rose bushes.

One last thing: yesterday, or perhaps the day before someone called me by accident from a number I didn't recognize. I heard them moving around from inside their pocket I suppose. They were listening to a violin concerto. I don't know much about these things, but it was very beautiful and so I put the phone on loudspeaker and set it on the table while I ate my Vietnamese noodle soup. Eventually they turned the music off and moved about for a bit and then left the house. I heard them walking down the streets. I couldn't tell whether it was a man or a woman, but then I heard them open another door, climb the stairs and enter another room. If they had of seen the call in progress and spoken, I don't know what I would have done. I would have hung up, I suppose, like someone who is caught out, like a teenager. After fifteen minutes they hung up without saying anything. I have been thinking since then, of putting a record on, The Koln Concert perhaps, of calling them back and leaving my phone on the table. Or of setting fire to something in the rain, and letting them hear it burn.

you and the lord

Tue, 2014/03/11 - 11:04am



firekeeper

Tue, 2014/03/11 - 11:04am

for k.

morning

Tue, 2014/03/11 - 11:04am
Morning. Us fallen
or rising. Either way.
Rain pours
into the building site
below my window
into the clay
beneath the city
filling the world
with unspoken
happiness.
I have forgotten
almost everything
that happened
last night.
It is peaceful.
I love the traffic and
the grey polluted sunrise
and the screaming
teams of crows
that gather and part
on the mountains
or the chimneys.
I love you too -
does this make sense?
You are breathing
somewhere.

opening

Tue, 2014/03/11 - 11:04am
Scream of bird or cat or
rusted gate: a single note
opening in the night, in the rain
opening and unreplied to.
Wind and wind,

calling out and listening (an invisible city)

Tue, 2014/03/11 - 11:04am


for Hammo and Anja

By train from Budapest

Mon, 2014/03/10 - 3:46pm


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A small white dog.  His owner gets down onto her hands and knees and pries him out from between the legs of fellow passengers. 


A flock of almost yellow sheep beside the train tracks. Two black dogs and a shepherd on the fence. They watch us go past, like a single thought.


Alone in the trance of the dining cabin: desolate servant of happiness. The past being sucked away.



What I carry within myself is materialized – all terrors, all expectations. All the inconceivable that will nevertheless happen. *


At the next station it has been raining. The concrete and the stones on the tracks have changed colour, have become darker and more beautiful. We do not stop but the Station Master – with his red hat on his head and his signaling tool like a truncheon under his arm – has stepped outside to escort us towards, this comes next, a flat and soggy field in which the grey sky lies reflected in the puddles. Then there is a ticking sound and little elongated plumes of rain begin to sprout on the window.


Fields of damp, tender grass you want to lie down in, or run through as a child.  



Everything points towards the sky.



Hills of wild lavender, goats, old men, satellite dishes. 



The smell of dust or concrete, which is the smell of certain trains all over the world in the rain. 



The train picks up speed in direct proportion to my happiness (!), so fast now that the birds that race 
against us give up as if they have blown a tyre.


The train slows and comes to a stop at Szolnok, where the weeds look like dead corn. It has stopped raining. A man stands with a sledgehammer, like a communist statue. Train-yards as far as the horizon. Nothing moves except for the leg of a woman in pink tracksuit pants who is waiting for a train that will never come. Sound of nothing, as if even life has fallen asleep. With a jolt the train takes off and restarts my heart.



Goats and rivers we pass over. Gravestones sinking into the long grass as if the dead might desire still more oblivion.  Bouquets of wild flowers arranging themselves.


We stop for no reason bedside some sort of power-station hidden amongst the trees. Nothing moves, not even my soul.


At the borderline: large policemen, weeds, a black cat among the poppies. The hills are covered with rubbish and sheep and they undulate so gently you could rest your head on them and sleep.


I think I might love this old tea-lady who pushes her cart of snacks up and down, who takes my coins, like the boatman. She speaks no English but accepts three currencies. She peels vegetables and cackles. We give each other knowing looks.  Now she is doing something that sounds like the sharpening of knives. 


I have low beaches. If death rises six inches I shall be flooded.*




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The old man from five minutes in the future

Mon, 2014/03/10 - 3:46pm
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The square at the centre of the district they call Little India has a sad and very exhausted atmosphere. At a place called Food Joint:  colourful plastic tables beneath decrepit canvas umbrellas, piles of plastic chairs stacked away, rows of faded flags - even the pigeons seem unusually ugly.  Groups of young Indian men sit, filing their nails (?), smoking, letting their arms and legs rest gently against each other. Humid smells of cooking. Sound of someone spitting. Where is everyone? No women at all.

“Little by little I am discovering myself.” That only means little by little I am finding out what I am not. (1)
A television is playing from a corner near the ceiling. I keep thinking I hear the voice of the channel 7 newsreader from Australia. In a place like this, one might easily fall in love with a newsreader (an idea for a story, or one that has already been written by someone else?)

I’ve been around the world a number of times, and all that interests me now is banality. (2)
A very thin, old Chinese man walks past and says something I do not understand to the person standing behind me. He is carrying a plastic bag tied at the top. I look down, perhaps because I think he will ask me for money, and when I look up again I realize he is completely saturated, dripping a trail of water, as if he has just emerged, fully clothed from a river. Then, as I am writing this, it suddenly begins to rain. Has this man just come from the future?! He pulls a (miraculously dry) cigarette from his pocket and sits down to watch the news.

“Reality” – a euphemism for anything that prevents one from living. (3)

In the rain, the square clears. It is suddenly dark and comfortable here, as if I could fall asleep. I am comforted by the fact that no one has come to take away my rice, that no one cares about me at all. 

Two Indian men walk languidly across the empty square in the rain. They are holding hands very gently, one finger entwined with another. Then one of them takes his hand away to scratch his crutch. 
Later: the thunder still bristles, but the rain has eased. The smell of peppery braised beef. Old men are drinking cans of Red-Bull beside me. In relief, I realise: I don’t want to create a theory of anything!

Shouting: I look up hoping to see a fight.







[1] Peter Handke[2] Chris Marker[3] Peter Handke

friday night

Mon, 2014/03/10 - 3:46pm

























On friday night
the light went slow
and the drunks circled
the three kilometre radius
of my life, doing
what I do, but better
I think, effortlessly
blazing in their youth.
Did I ever blaze
like that? The three-beer
sky glowed, unblue,
on the first day of
autumn, so bright and
dying I wished I didn't care
what the future held,
but I did, I do.

Underwater Life

Mon, 2014/03/10 - 3:46pm























We arranged to meet at four in the morning, which is the hour when the alcohol wakes you like clockwork.In the morning it will all seem like one long dream in which it rained all day. I would remember waking to the storm for a few seconds, the house silent again after the party, the tree moving in sound out the window, a rinse of green streetlight coming through like underwater life playing on the empty pillow.
                                                *
In the end I would like to watch the film of every time I said goodbye to someone, each scene laid end to end in a long perhaps twenty-four hour loop. Like the time in Rome when we said goodbye at the Terminiand turned into the rain.Someone must have been filming that, surely. Or the approximately thirty-seven-thousand phone-calls I’ve put an end to, saying the same thing over and over again with my changing hairstyles across the decades.

                                                *
In one long shot we are descending very slowly. I write to you from a window at which a branch is tapping,  there is snow on my boots, there are children in the snow calling out one another’s names in German, we are driving an old white car through a land-scape, you are reciting your  dreams in a bar in --- in a hallway that ---you are speaking French, no German no, English but I still have no idea what you are saying, you are undressing on the other side of the world, back in time, no, you are probably sound asleep, after all its 2:45amwhere you are.
*
We argued till we were blue in the hills, sadly tromping through the old undergrowth to a sign that said welcome to paradise. I caught your hand. At night you would wake shuddering to the sound of a fadingnightmare, fading like the sound of a car fading into the distance around the bends of the mountain where I see a cliff and a little spot to stop where we stop and look down hand in hand at the sad surf which keeps on coming, like, someone said you said, a question addressed to no one through all eternity. 

CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN: notes on progress and architecture - for the occasion of the Place of Assembly Exhibition, in advance of the demolition of the building where my sisters went to school.

Mon, 2014/03/10 - 3:46pm




1. At the Institute of Contemporary Art in London a couple of years ago, visitors to Tino Seghal’s exhibition were greeted at the entrance by a small girl who couldn’t have been more than eight years old. “I’ll be your guide”, she said and led me into the middle of an empty room where we stopped. I looked around nervously at the bare, white walls. “How would you define progress?” she asked.
2. In Carlos Fuentes’ novel Distant Relations, three men are looking at some Aztec ruins. “Civilizations do not die completely,” one of them says, “they endure, but only when they do not progress.”
3. In Fellini’s Roma, whilst excavating for a new underground train line, workers stumble across a concealed cavern decorated by ancient Roman Frescoes. These exquisite, still brightly coloured paintings cannot endure for long in the open air, in the light of the present, and they vanish before our eyes as if they had never been.
4. In Acland Street, a new clothes-shop opened recently. In the front window is a sign listing the shop’s previous occupants. Before it became a clothes shop it had been a florist. Before the florist, apparently, it was a butcher and before the butcher—no one can remember that far back. Down the road, there used to be a little cafe called Scheherazade, about which Arnold Zable wrote a book. At Cafe Scheherazade you could eat excellent, alarmingly coloured borsch from bowls that didn’t match. This too is a clothes shop now, called FCUK—(fashion, I half recall someone saying, is our defence against civilization). Between these two clothes shops is a building site, where you can look up toward a sky now, which has not been there for years, and which will be something else soon: new apartments, the shadow from new apartments. Walking through such streets I imagine a slide show with that distinctive, anachronistic clunk, as each new image is drawn into the light, only to be clunkingly replaced. Each slide separated by a moment of darkness by an empty shopfront or cavernous pit, by a pause, by a brief ruin.
4.1 The futurist Marinetti would have loved Melbourne today: “We love only immense, shifting, passionate scaffolding!” he proclaimed. “Scaffolding symbolises our fervent passion for the becoming of things. Away with completed things, with things already built bivouacs for sleep and cowardice!”
5. During the construction of Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, an aboriginal skeleton was discovered in what is now the forecourt . For the historian Frank Vitelli, this event underlines how, from the start, the Shrine’s implicit intention was to replace one history, one sacred site, one set of memories, with another. The memory, in this case, of a foreign war fought for obscure reasons and memorialised by an architecture that was intended to express Europe’s continuing relationship to its classical past, to ancient Greece, to Rome, to the Renaissance. Where St Paul’s Cathedral is now, Vitelli notes similarly, there stood Melbourne’s last original tree. It was an important place for aboriginal corroborees and meetings. So too the south bank of the Yarra, a site William Thomas mentions in his notes. “By what I can learn”, Thomas wrote in his role as the Assistant Protector of Aborigines:
long ere the settlement was formed the spot where Melbourne now stands and the flat on which we are now camped was the regular rendezvous for the tribes known as the Waworangs, Boonurongs, Barrabools, Nilunguons, Goulburns twice a year or as often as circumstances and emergencies required to settle their grievances, revenge, deaths.
6. Architecture is public memory, except of course when it’s not. When it’s public forgetfulness.
6.1. Or is this the same thing? Can memory exist without forgetfulness? And what is the price of memory? What do we lose by remembering? What is lost, other than memory, by forgetting?
6.2. Whose memories?
7.Qin Shi Huang, the Emperor who unified China in 221 B.C.E, standardised law, currency, measures, weights and the written language, and commissioned for himself a private army of some 8000 terracotta warriors to accompany him into the afterlife, decreed that all imperial archives inconsistent with his own historians, be burned. The Book of Odes, The Book of History, the discourses of the hundred schools were condemned and destroyed and those who failed to comply were executed or exiled to the north where they were set to work building an enormous wall that would one day be seen from space.
7.1. The wall, built to keep the barbarians out, was perhaps less effective in reality than in myth, and was just as likely meant to keep the Chinese in, to reinforce the idea of a civilization necessarily opposed by barbarous outsiders. As the Australian writer Patric Holland suggests, the great wall is a dream “disintegrating ever since its conception—dreamt by an emperor who intuited that there are two ways to destroy a thing: kill it, or blur its edges until it is in danger of becoming something else.”
7.2.Visiting the wall in the 1970’s Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote: “This is how the world’s energy is wasted. In complete irrationality! Complete futility! For the great wall is also proof of a kind of human weakness, of an aberration, of a horrifying mistake; it is evidence of a historical inability … to communicate. To confer, and jointly determine how best to deploy enormous reserves of human energy and intellect.”
8. Joseph Beuys famously recommended that the Berlin Wall be elevated by 5cm, for aesthetic reasons. The East German Painter Neo Rauch famously stated that the Berlin wall protected him from Joseph Beuys.
9. According to Carl Jung, Architecture is a confession of faith, in stone. Of the tower he built for himself in Zürich, Jung wrote: here “I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself. At times I feel as if I am spread out over a landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the plashing of waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons. There is nothing in the Tower that has not grown into its own form over the decades, nothing with which I am not linked. Here everything has its history, and mine; here is space for the speechless kingdom of the world’s and the Psyche’s hinterland.”

9.1.“In shopping mall design,” according to Wikipedia, “the Gruen transfer is the moment when a consumer enters a shopping mall and, surrounded by an intentionally confusing layout, loses track of their original intentions. The Gruen transfer is the moment when consumers respond to ‘scripted disorientation’.”
10.According to Italo Calvino, the founders of Zobeid each had a similar, almost identical dream in which they pursued a woman through the streets of an unknown city. They woke and set out to find the place, which did not exist. Instead they found each other and together they built Zobeid—each according to their dream, arranging the streets so that the woman, if she ever returned, would not escape this time. New people arrived, changing the streets to accord with their own dreams until eventually, the woman was forgotten altogether. Visitors, Calvino attests “could not understand what drew people to Zobeide, this ugly city, this trap.”
11.A city, according to Michael Sheringham, “is a memory machine. Cities need their histories,” he says, “as proof of their dynamism. Outside cities, in forests and plains, myths hold sway.”
11.1.The Steiner school that once existed here, where both my sisters studied, sought to incorporate these two realities: history and myth. My sister, Hester recently gave a speech remembering those days. When they practiced spelling, she recalled, these small children learnt the names of every Greek and Roman god, the Vikings, the Norse Gods. In Dictation, she said, “we wrote poems in Ancient Greek, or stories about Melbourne tram routes and the neighbourhoods and communities we passed through.” If the summer heat made it difficult to concentrate they would walk the back streets of Abbotsford instead, directed by their whim. They would “peer in the windows of the shops on Victoria Street, at the glossed ducks hanging forlornly behind the glass” or attempt to order a strange fruit in Vietnamese.
11.2 The gardens where those kids use to play are still here, for now. There are apple trees you can sit beneath on warm nights, which blossom in the spring. There are the chafed floorboards in the halls, where small children performed Shakespeare, terribly, giggling the whole time. In these halls too, monks once prayed – strange bastions against some much-faded demonic dream.   In the classrooms now, where dictation, thank god, is finished, there are artists and actors and musicians and architects and film-makers and writers who have worked to build another community. I’d like to think of these people as larger, almost fully grown versions of the small people who used to run around these playgrounds like maniacs, throwing apples at each other, playing shop, nursing imaginary families, plotting their revenge. I’d like to think of them as saner monks.
12. Finally, I think of those children wandering the streets around here – the ghosts of those children – and of that little girl in London who led us, one by one into the empty gallery and asked us to define progress.  And I imagine the story of the Pied Piper, though played in reverse. In the original myth, a musician leads the children away from the village, like rats, to their doom. I don’t see this. Instead I see the children, leading the teachers, the adults, back into the world.



________________________________________________






With thanks to Lizzy and Alice at the School House Studios, for having this in their excellent book.



silence

Mon, 2014/03/10 - 3:46pm

























The sound of something catching on fire
behind me the sound
of breathing smoke, of wind,
of traffic, of the dog
clinking in the hallway
on the other side of the door,
of my voice reading aloud, or yours
if I strain to remember yesterday,
weeds, shadows, trams which catch firein the rain for a second, the nightmares
you woke from, the trees,
the darkness of spring, the sadness
of a spring morning betrothed in sunlight.






part of a poem i think

Mon, 2014/03/10 - 3:46pm


















After he died my father would come back a little

mangled in dreams, standing in doorways and
always about to leave at any moment. We were ready for that.
He would never speak or I don’t remember 
that part of the dream, but once he came to pick me up 
from the train station, carrying a bunch of flowers as a joke. 
They were already mine, I had picked them the day before 
when I was awake.













first summer

Mon, 2014/03/10 - 3:46pm






















Returning from the mountain
no pilgrim,  but through fist-fulls
of pollen anyway.

The sound not of frogs
but the bedlam
of the first summer night tonight,

sea smell, hot rubbish and chips
and the smell of my youth
which I could almost drink,

which is the smell of the past
becoming the future,
which is still the past.

I almost miss that lone mosquito
eating us asleep in some room
or another, some you or another,

the view of the castle or
whatever it was,
out the window or

just the distance of light,
in the photograph
from memory.

And from the distance
I hear the sound of dogs
but not anymore.

I don't miss you, I can't
you see, but
you are what I miss now.