Essay by Desa Philippi
Published by Camden Arts Centre 1997
Click to read Sarah Kent’s Time Out review
forgets the snow.
On a summer day you follow the path into the forest. The ground is dappled with sunlight. As you walk along the undergrowth thickens, blackberry bushes and other dark green shrubbery, the smell of moss and mushrooms, an occasional plastic bag, bird song. You can hear the wind rustle in the tree-tops as you move, aware now of the rhythm of your steps because you have stopped talking to your companion. When you reach the point where another path forks off to the right, suddenly you both look up. In the small clearing you can see the sky through a hole in the canopy of branches and leaves. You tilt your heads back and look up through layers of green which are almost black in places, almost white in others, thick or transparent, suffused with light they almost disappear, then again opaque and shadowy. After a moment (just before your neck begins to ache) the whiteness of the sunlight presses the sky down through the branches which move upward, become mobile and float. Suddenly you too are floating; your eyes seem to have become detached from the rest of your body. Still looking up you reach out and grab hold of your companion’s arm. That contact made, you can bear to look a little longer. Later it is difficult to establish what you saw. You try to describe it but what you say is always self-evident or beside the point.
Another time you are walking down a busy street in the city. People hurry along with shopping bags; a traffic warden issues tickets. In the entrance of a closed down shop two homeless youths are sitting on a sleeping bag with a dog lying across their laps. And as you wait to cross the street, preoccupied with calculating how long it will take to pass by the cash machine, go to Boots, and stand in line at the post office, you catch sight of a woman and a young boy. They are on the other side of the street and they are laughing. Each time one of them stops, the other says something (you can’t hear what) and again they burst out laughing. Just now the woman has dropped her handbag. A man picks up the bag and hands it back to her which prompts another fit of laughter and leaves him bewildered, shaking his head.
We all recall incidences when the perception of our surroundings and our place within them is momentarily jolted. For an instant we become aware, often very physically aware, of the outside world as interrupting the seamless integration of our experiences into understanding. Sometimes such interruptions are experienced as pleasurable; more often, we try to avoid what cannot be absorbed into concepts and fitted into causal chains. In short we rationalise, and whenever an experience resists our efforts to transform it into knowledge, it is either simply ignored as meaningless, or it is labelled irrational/mad/out of bounds, which is to say it then fits the definition precisely of misfit. The only institutions where experience as the excess of expression over and above the rules of meaning and sense can be rendered pleasurable, as well as being sanctioned as culturally valuable, are the institutions of art. In the Western tradition at any rate, from romanticism onwards, art has become the proper locus of the imagination.1 Hence the emergence of the relation between art and life as a question and an increasingly consequential problematic in art, a question that would never have occurred to Poussin say,’ or to Chardin. How to formulate this relationship became ever more important once a discontinuity between the experience of art and other kinds of experience was recognised. And to the extent that artists today still attempt to formulate that relation – variously translated in recent decades into happenings, installation art, site-specific work, and performance – they also, knowingly or not, grapple with this romantic legacy.
Since the late nineteenth century, the relation between art and life, the aesthetic and the extra-aesthetic, has been articulated in a number of ways: affirmatively, in the utopian aspirations of the historical avant-gardes and in the celebration of chance; negatively, as an absence of relation in the insistence on a constitutive difference between artistic and other expressions (“Art is art and everything else is everything else,” Ad Reinhardt reminds us); as well as ambiguously and ironically (‘All art is quite useless,” Oscar Wilde famously insisted. Its justification lies alone in the admiration it inspires). What unites these seemingly disparate attitudes is the premise of the irreducibility of aesthetic experience, its difference from everyday experience and scientific experiment. This is particularly obvious when science, philosophy, politics, or the everyday become the subject of art.
The work of Antoni Malinowski relates to this history in a number of ways. When we encounter the large-scale paintings glowing with colour, with shapes hovering on the canvas then sinking into it, or when we follow the intertwining lines of the drawings, their appeal is first of all emotive and to the senses. At the same time, the work does not present us with a subject to be emotional about, in fact it does not present us with any readily discernible subject at all. We respond to something, recognise something, but it is not clear what we respond to – the colour red? the shape of the floor drawing? lines? light? or for that matter what we recognise – a feeling? an experience? At this point the work turns reticent and hermetic. Surely we all recognise feelings; we take this for granted and not only that, we take for granted that the recognition of emotional states implies that we know, even if only partially or unconsciously, what those emotions signify. In his art Malinowski seems to wholeheartedly embrace this assumption; in his paintings the emphasis is overwhelmingly and emphatically on colour, the very element that in the history of European painting has signalled the sensuous and emotive in contrast to the analytical qualities associated with drawing and line. But just as assumptions concerning the relation between recognition and understanding with respect to our emotional responses turn out to be less than straightforward as soon as we pause to examine them, colour quickly emerges as the unspeakable par excellence in painting, unspoken in direct proportion to the countless theories which tirelessly attempt to produce colour as a knowable object. 2 Despite these theories, we still recognise the situation described with irony and wit by Rimbaud when he wrote that “I invented the colour of the vowels! – A black, E white, I red, 0 blue, U green. I regulated the form and movement of each consonant, and with instinctive rhythms, I prided myself on inventing a poetic language accessible some day to all the senses. I reserve translation rights.”3 Nowhere in art does the distance between intuition and understanding, experience and knowledge appear greater than when we begin to attribute meanings to colour, especially in abstract painting.
In his choice of rare pigments, in the use of colour modulation, tones and contrasts Malinowski plays out an entire repertoire of the ‘purely visual.’ His paintings present what we have learned to think of as radically anti-narrative only for as long as we ignore the fact that abstract art, just as any other form of visual representation, sets out and sustains a particular relation to language and to the discourses which formulate the visual.4 Using a painterly vocabulary contiguous to the less geometric kinds of modernist abstraction, contiguity to rather than continuation of those concerns that I have called the romantic legacy characterise Malinowski’s work.
Early Autumn –
rice field, ocean,
For several years now Malinowski has produced what he calls floor drawings alongside his paintings. These ‘drawings’ have been realised in different sites; in a chapel in Bath for instance, and in St Pancras Station in London. Each time, they take as their point of departure the relationship between an architectural structure and light as the intersection of natural and cultural orders. In interior spaces, the floor drawing will typically be placed near a window, the changing conditions of natural light helping to determine the exact shape the piece will take. Elsewhere, corridors and entrances are preferred sites. Once the shape and size of the drawing’ have been decided, Malinowski covers the designated area with small parallel marks, usually in white, directly on the floor. Originally the marks were derived from military maps with their particular symbols for different kinds of terrain, shelters, and fortifications, but increasingly these symbols have given way to bands of parallel brush strokes which suggest the activity of mapping rather than the totalising abstraction of the map. While the floor drawings correspond to the space, they do not represent it.
More clearly than the paintings, these installations emphasise the time element in Malinowski’s work. Even a quick glance at the finished piece prompts us to imagine the artist crouched on the floor for hours on end, repeating the same brush mark thousands of times over to produce a work that will exist only for the duration of the exhibition. This particular marking of the floor in the patient repetition of a single gesture simultaneously registers the time given to making the drawing, and its short-lived existence in the space that contains it. It is both a form of transit – enter a room, occupy it according to its possibilities and leave a temporary trace of that occupation – as well as a form of habitation, a repeatable gesture to inhabit a space, something that can be carried over from one situation to the next: another time, another place. In this we recognise the conditions necessary for an expression – a gesture, a speech act – to become meaningful: a context which contains and limits the potential arbitrariness of the expression, and the fact that the expression can be repeated elsewhere. Malinowski’s work, and particularly the floor drawings, prolong the moment when we experience a situation before we rationalise what that experience consists of. And in the slowing down and drawing out of this moment it becomes clear that recognition has to start with our physical body as it is formed and situated in the encounter of particular situations, and the demands those situations make on our ability to communicate and to remember. Wary of ready-made explanations and pre-established truths, Malinowski’s art seeks to put us in a place where we cannot easily take up the role of the knowing subject which appropriates the object of its gaze. For a while at least, we are left in that peculiar state where physical sensations are felt most acutely precisely because we cannot yet fully integrate them with the image of our own body and its surroundings.
There are many instances where we become aware that in order to experience something as pleasurable, or even to have an experience at all, paradoxically we want to transform it into something else, into something we can know and place in advance. A typical situation: we listen to a piece of music on the radio and immediately want to find out what we are listening to. The very act of listening turns into the anticipation of a movement or a theme we may recognise. And if that doesn’t happen we suddenly can’t wait to hear the announcement at the end of the programme. By the same token, who would go to museums if the exhibits weren’t labelled? Elsewhere labels assume ever greater importance. When it comes to the objects we surround ourselves with, the clothes we wear – consumer items in general. The more sophisticated and anonymous commodity production becomes, the more we need style, design, a look, to identify and appropriate what modern technologies of production and reproduction render monotonous and in-distinguishable.
According to a well rehearsed argument we have become less and less able to communicate our lived experiences; we no longer cultivate forms of expression that would allow us to integrate our own and others’ embodiment in the world into a (self) knowledge that remains close to the experiences from which it arises.6 In the wake of secularisation, the rise of modern science and technology, especially the ever faster dissemination of information, the gap between the reality of discourse and lived reality has widened considerably. We routinely deal with this disjunction by reducing the latter to the former, thus turning the world into a text to be deciphered and lived experience into an act of reading.
Walter Benjamin famously regards literary modernism as a creative response to, and expression of, the shock that results from the inability to integrate experience into a lived continuum. Where consciousness once worked to transform experience into the more or less coherent narrative of ‘a life,’ its function has changed to that of a screen against stimuli, “the more efficiently it does so, the less do these impressions enter experience (Erfahrung), tending to remain in the sphere of a certain hour of one’s life (Erlebnis),” he writes.7 The logical consequence of this argument is that access to communicable lived experience would entail an interruption of consciousness, a respite from knowledge. This is what we find when the argument is considered in the context of the history of philosophy. “Anyone proposing to recover traditional experience today would encounter a paradoxical situation. For they would have to begin first of all with a cessation of experience, a suspension of knowledge,” Giorgio Agamben elaborates on Benjamin’s thesis.8
Benjamin and his commentators regard this paradox as historical, and this historical view helps us to understand why certain forms of Eastern thought and practice, Zen Buddhism and Yoga prominent among them, are not merely becoming more popular in the West, but also hold considerable attraction for certain contemporary artists. The basis of these practices lies in detachment, in developing a meditative concentration that begins with a suspension of experience and knowledge to develop a relation to the world which is not primarily governed by the pressures of immediate sensation, and the rationalising reflexes of the self. From the work of John Cage and Nam June Paik to that of Marina Abramovic, Wolfgang Laib, Antoni Malinowski and others, we recognise a desire to engage with sense perception in ways that allow expressions of wonder and openness towards experience rather than the anxious policing of the borders where knowledge may falter. Unlike the historical argument about the destruction of experience, the work of these artists seems to indicate that the kinds of experience called traditional may still be accessible to us. Malinowski’s work certainly suggests that perception produces meanings which remain irreducible to the discourses of art, history, psychology, and so on. It puts us in a situation where instead of matching what we see with the conventions of what we know, we start with the work as “hole in the plenum of the world” as Merleau-Ponty puts it, a place where perception can become a “primary operation which first constitutes signs as signs.”9
a whitefish, with an
inch of whiteness.
Many of Malinowski’s recent large-scale paintings take the form of diptychs. In each of them, two canvases complement and complete each other by means of the empty space left between them. This space both bridges and separates; it produces a single vision by means of a gap between the component elements. The diptych not only sets out a particular kind of formal organisation, it also calls attention to a tradition usually associated with religious painting. In fact the format of the diptych can be traced back to the writing tablets of antiquity. Originally made as secular objects for daily use, the tablets consisted of two panels which were hinged together and had their inner surfaces recessed to hold a wax coating. These diptychs were made of wood, metal, or ivory. A shift from utilitarian to symbolic use occurred in late antiquity when ivory diptychs were used by Roman consuls to commemorate the commencement of their term in office. The carvings on these diptychs included images along with the text. Like other secular objects diptychs, and the more elaborate three and five part derivations, were adapted for ecclesiastical use. What is interesting about this history is that the diptych links the format of the book with that of the painting. Medieval altar pieces and smaller devotional diptychs are still hinged together and can be opened and closed. Images are combined with writing. Historically, the diptych is both looked at and read. In its original secular and early devotional forms it is a mobile format, a travelling picture that can be taken from place to place like a book. In later centuries diptychs get larger and become stationary. The hinges are replaced by fixed frames until the frames too disappear. From a utilitarian object for writing it has changed into a format of visual art, from the religious context it has returned to a secular one.
Malinowski’s work relates to this past as a living tradition rather than as a historical format that is simply quoted. The diptych in its present form still evokes its history because in the changes – in scale, and into a horizontal format – it participates in and continues that history.
Religious diptychs represent biblical scenes – the annunciation is often shown in that format – or they refer to particular narratives such as the life of the saints depicted and named in the pictures. In this tradition the visual and the written go hand in hand, and the format of the diptych underlines their reciprocity. One of the questions that arises when we look at Malinowski’s transformation of the diptych into enormous abstract canvases is how we may think that reciprocity once it is removed from the iconography of attributes and symbols.
When we look at the paintings, especially the large red diptych at the centre of the present exhibition, we notice first of all a glowing red shape that seems to sink down from the top part of the canvases towards the bottom. In the canvas on the right it has already moved down a little further, the gap having turned into the interval between its two ‘states.’ The other elements have shifted accordingly. But such a looking is already a particular reading that proposes a movement from left to right as in a book. It also assumes that the red shape is somehow heavier than its pink ‘background,’ that in fact we are dealing with foregrounds and backgrounds, figures, shadows and so on. Immediately we begin to order the visual field into some kind of composition. But nothing in the work itself suggests that what we see as part of a round red shape moving downwards is any such thing, or that the blue elements are related by anything other than their colour. And what about the darker red, and the intersection of the different planes? However we attempt to explain these paintings, whether we imagine the hugely enlarged detail under a-microscope, the distant view of a planet, or simply the arrangements of different colour planes, we project our own patterns of interpretation onto the work. As soon as this is realised, it no longer makes much sense to start by assuming a configuration which we relate to previously seen configurations, and yet by looking at this work we become aware that this is invariably where we start and cannot help starting. We see and we correlate, not because this work in particular demands it, but because it is the way we make sense of ourselves and our surroundings: we look, listen, touch, smell and correlate our perceptions with what we know. We can do so because we have language and we speak. When Merleau-Ponty considers perception as a primary operation which first constitutes signs as signs, he does not mean that perception arises ex nihilo. As human beings we are born into language and into a linguistic community, and we have learned to speak. Only on that basis can perception be privileged as primary, as that which enables us to first relate signifiers to signifieds. “Like the visual field, an individual’s linguistic field ends in vagueness, because speaking is not having at one’s disposal a certain number of signs. Speaking is possessing. Language as a principle of distinction, whatever number of signs it permits us to specify,” Merleau-Ponty writes.
Malinowski’s work relates to language as a principle of distinction that allows us to privilege the process whereby perception constitutes signs as signs. In his paintings we see different kinds of marks, washes of colour, fields made up of small parallel brush strokes, painted lines. These elements are set in spatial and temporal relations to each other but we cannot specify these relations with any certainty. To start with, we cannot establish the depth of the pictorial space in front of us, and consequently we cannot be sure whether what looks small in relation to a larger shape is in fact small or, on the contrary, a large element seen at a great distance. Equally we do not know whether what we look at is a frontal view or something seen from the back, from above or below. Do the elements we see in the paintings exist in the same moment, or could the small red dot on the canvas on the left be identical with the large red shape across the two paintings? We are presented with a whole range of possible temporal and spatial relations – before, after, in, on, over, under, near, distant, etc. – which are simultaneously given like words in a dictionary.
Linguistically, prepositions bridge the gap and specify the relation between other classes of words such as nouns and pronouns. Like personal pronouns they do not refer to lexical entities but mark the transition that occurs in any speech act, any expression, from language as the potential to form meanings to meaning as it is made manifest in the use of language. Unlike ‘house’ or ‘mountain,’ ‘I’ or ‘before’ depend entirely on somebody saying I and specifying an A before B.
Language has been understood by artists and writers as well as by linguists and philosophers in terms of a division within language. It allows us to express our experiences but also to transcend them. It is both human and beyond the human. Merleau-Ponty reminds us that “there can be speech (and in the end personality) only for an ‘I’ which contains the germ of a depersonalisation.”
The library described by Borges is a place with multiple centres and an inaccessible circumference. Presented with the possibility that” books signify nothing in themselves,” the reader gets lost as s/he tries to find a place within that dimension of language where “for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences.”10
Saussure thought the separation which constitutes language as language lay in the relation between its synchronic and diachronic dimensions, langue and parole. In the wake of Saussure this thesis has been elaborated in different directions. Merleau-Ponty distinguishes between sedimented language and speech, Le langage parlé et Le langage parlant; Emile Benveniste differentiates between the semiotic and the semantic. In the arts, this structuralist heritage is put to use but its emphasis has shifted as artists refigure the embodiment of cultural and personal memories and traditions. Malinowski’s diptychs are titled Synchrony, but synchrony here cannot be reduced to the understanding of the term in structuralist linguistics. Like the images, the title points in a certain direction, towards a condition or a ground which propels us towards meaning. This condition forms part of our experience, but whatever name we give it we are put in a place where the name remains close to the nameless from which it issues. Instead of an abstract totality that cannot be experienced, synchrony in the diptychs emphasises the timeless movement of expression from the potential to mean towards signification. “Language leads us to the things themselves to the precise extent that it is signification before having a signification,” Merleau-Ponty reminds us.
No hat, and cold
rain falling –
In her poem ‘Conversation with a Stone,’ Wislawa Szymborska imagines an encounter with something both commonplace and radically different from the curious and enquiring human mind, a stone.11 It is an encounter with what the philosopher might call, following Kant, das Ding an sich (the thing in itself). Except that in this instance, the (well chosen) thing “BURSTING WITH LAUGHTER, YES, LAUGHTER, VAST LAUGHTER, ALTHOUGH I DON’T KNOW HOW TO LAUGH,” leads us to the bedrock of poetry. Needless to say, things look rather different there. The poem takes us through a series of failed attempts to enter into the reality of the object. The stone resists, it is matter-of-fact alterity through and through.
GO AWAY,” SAYS THE STONE.
I AM SHUT TIGHT.
EVEN IF YOU BREAK ME TO PIECES,
WE’LL ALL STILL BE CLOSED.
YOU CAN GRIND US TO SAND,
WE STILL WON’T LET YOU IN.”
In alternate stanzas the poet pleads and the stone refuses. The poet admits her human weaknesses; she is curious, she is mortal. The stone in turn displays stoniness.
I’M MADE OF STONE,” SAYS THE STONE,
“AND MUST THEREFORE KEEP A STRAIGHT FACE…”
But the poet doesn’t give up easily. She hasn’t come to take anything away from the stone, she says. She doesn’t want to stay with the stone either, doesn’t seek refuge.
… AND MY PROOF I WAS THERE
WILL BE ONLY WORDS,
WHICH NO ONE WILL BELIEVE.”
The stone remains unconvinced but in its severe and stony manner it does concede that the poet may gain some knowledge even though that knowledge will never be thorough. And this is because:
“YOU LACK THE SENSE OF TAKING PART.
NO OTHER SENSE CAN MAKE UP FOR YOUR MISSING SENSE OF TAKING PART.
EVEN SIGHT HEIGHTENED TO BECOME ALL-SEEING
WILL DO YOU NO GOOD WITHOUT A SENSE OF TAKING PART.
YOU SHALL NOT ENTER, YOU HAVE ONLY A SENSE OF WHAT THAT SENSE SHOULD BE,
ONLY ITS SEED, IMAGINATION.”
The poem tells us that we can take the stone apart but that we cannot take part in it, at least not as a subject defining an object. The reason for this is made perfectly clear. It is assumed that the stone’s essential’ stoniness’ can be examined and known, given the right circumstances. But in order for that exploration to be possible, an image of the stone has to be already in place, an image that understands the object in terms of something else, a house with an inside and outside and, most importantly, with a door linking the two. “I KNOCK AT THE STONE’S FRONT DOOR,” is the line which situates the poet’s speech each time she addresses the stone and finally, after much to-ing and fro-ing, the stone comes up with the perfectly obvious answer: “I DON’T HAVE A DOOR.”
In its own way Antoni Malinowski’s work stages this rather comical dilemma. In fact his art suggests, as does Szymborska’s poetry, that this dilemma is part of what makes us human with all the horrors and pleasures that entails. In these works, imagination may indeed be the seed of a sense we cannot know because it draws us towards taking part in the world rather than surveying it from a distance. Certain experiences of art but also other kinds of encounters may enable us to relate to and to cultivate an awareness of the limits of our understanding in ways that do not automatically register as indifference, loss, or powerlessness. On the contrary, they may intimate a sense of taking part in a world which is part of us without being introjected into the interior of our minds and projected onto the screens of our consciousness.
A farmer’s child
Arrests his hands
To look at the moon.
© Desa Philippi
The Haiku poems throughout the text are by Matsuo Basho (1644-94), selected from two collections of his poetry in English, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, trans. Nobuyuki Yuaso, Penguin Classics, London 1966, and On Love and Barley, trans. Lucien Stryk, Penguin Classics, London 1985.
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1 It should be noted that the concept of the imagination itself had changed by that time, From a broader notion of human inventiveness that both aids and hampers people in dealing with the tribulations of their everyday existence, it was elevated to the idea of creative imagination which finds expression first and foremost in the arts. Montaigne, for instance, was perfectly happy to write one of his essays ‘On the power of the imagination’ without mentioning art once. Instead, the essay addresses issues of the physical body: how to counter impotence, how to deal with various sorts of ailments and imaginary illnesses, and so on. By the late eighteenth century this would have been unthinkable.
2 The number of studies of colour, primarily in the fields of physiology, physics and psychology is mind boggling. The particular idea that colours relate directly to emotional states became fashionable with romanticism and was fully articulated in Goethe’s Colour Theory in Part VI ‘Sensual and Moral Effects of Colour,’ where he states that “colours excite particular states of feeling,” and goes on to specify which feelings are produced by certain colours, e.g. yellow-red: vigorous, convulsive; blue: cold. These ideas have proved amazingly persuasive, not only in art but more generally. Colours are still frequently described as being warm or cold, cheerful or neutral.
3 ‘Une soison en enfer’ in Rimbaud Complete Works, Selected Letters, trans. Wallace Fawlie with introduction and notes, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1966, p.193.
4 For a discussion of the narratives which represent abstract painting in terms of pure visuality see WJT Mitchell, Picture Theory, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 1994, chapter 7.
5 These installations were part of two group shows: Present Continuous, Both 1991, and Northern Adventures, London 1992.
6 This argument is often associated with the work of the Frankfurt School and in particular the writings of Walter Benjamin. Relevant texts by Benjamin include ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History,’ ‘On same Motifs in Baudelaire,’ and ‘The Storyteller’ in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. with an introduction by Hannah Arendt, London 1970.
7 ‘On some Motifs in Baudelaire: ibid., p.165.
8 Giorgio Agamben, Infancy & History Essays on the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron, Verso, London 1993, p.23.
9 All the quotes from Merleau-Ponty are from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Prose of the World, trans. John O’Neill, ed. Claude Lefort, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1973.
10 Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Library of Babel’ in Labyrinths, New Directions Books, New York 1962.
11 I quote the English translation in Wislowa Szymborska, View with a Grain of Sand, trans. Stonislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, Faber and Faber, London 1996, pp.30-32.