An assemblage of articles from The Wall Street Journal dated September 2008, a month rich in doomsday headlines culminating with the near-meltdown of the world financial system. Within these clippings, an alternative narrative emerges in the form of verses of poetry, as if decoded within the newsprint and materialized by markings in red grease pencil. Poetry revealed from within the fracture lines of a dysfunctional economic order.
The juxtaposition takes on a politically enigmatic meaning when we are reminded of a prior appearance in the media of these same verses from Paul Verlaine’s Chanson d’Automne (Autumn Song). “When a sighing begins / in the violins / of the autumn song” was broadcast on the BBC in 1944 as a coded signal to the French resistance that the invasion of Normandy was imminent. And on the eve of D-Day “My heart is drowned / in the slow sound / languorous and long” triggered acts of sabotage behind enemy lines.
Chanson d’Automne treats the drama of the Fall of 2008 with a little poetic humor, while at the same time questioning what forms of resistance, either covert or overt, remain in play at a time when capitalism is in crisis, and triumphant theories about “The End of History” are being replaced by the utter uncertainty of chapters to come.
Of Signs & Senses
Of Signs & Senses is a series of heliogravures on rag paper. The figures on the prints are abstracted forms of scratchings, details from pages of western art magazines bought as is in Japan. The blown-up offset printing pattern reveals the scale of the original material, and the titles refer to the source, the place and the time of their scratching by anonymous hands (e.g. : Artforum XLVI #7 p.241 [sic], Yokohama, 2008).
The process leading to the gravures retraces the itinerary and mutations of a form. In the beginning, there is an image, the reproduction of a work of art in a magazine. When the magazine is imported in Japan, foreign press distributors manually scratch out, page-by-page, all visible genitalia before selling it. The bokashi is the space where ink was removed from the surface of the page. The gravures sample bokashi from magazines bought in Tokyo and Kyoto in 2008.
Japan is by no means a puritan culture – pleasure in its most deviant forms is quite freely expressed, and there is a rich history of erotic representation from century-old pornographic prints through to contemporary Manga. Cataloguing bokashi is less an attempt to address the question of censorship than an exploration of cultural variations in the approach to sexual representation. The gravures function as documents mapping the figurative relationship between desire and form (or form as absence), collected into an archive of negative spaces onto which different meanings can be projected.
In Japan, sex is a militant territory: Pink Films were pornographic provocations that emanated from the radical left, and Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses was the vehicle for an ideological and legal battle that resulted in the current use of scratchings. During his trial, Oshima challenged the Japanese Supreme Court to define the notion of “obscenity” at the basis of the charges against him. He was acquitted as the court sidestepped any clarification of article 175 of the Japanese penal code banning that which “unnecessarily excites or stimulates sexual desire.” A legal and semantic grey area remains (much as it does in America where a Supreme Court justice failed to define pornography more precisely than with the famous phrase “I know it when I see it”). This vacuum of jurisprudence is what leads prudent Japanese importers to scratch ink off an Avedon or Dash Snow photograph in an Artforum advertisement. Bokashi are quite literally an expression of a universal failure to use words to delimit the boundaries of sexual representation while artists have ceaselessly explored and circumscribed this very space beyond language.
The gravures also point to a paradox: what remains on the scratched page isn’t necessarily less evocative of desire, the erotic charge of an image may even be emphasized by the partial absence of the human figure. The gestures of anonymous scratchers sampled in the gravures don’t erase, they just transform the relationship between images and senses. And the gravures in turn don’t simply reproduce the forms, they pursue their transformation (through framing, enlarging and the use of a traditional western method of heliographic print making), prolonging their journey from art to pornography back to art. A round trip journey as a literal Anabasis. And a deliberately absurd typological attempt that may fail to elucidate precisely what “unnecessarily excites” desire, but does underscore art’s ability to transcend the opposition between visible and invisible.
A series of neon-lit panels with film-stills, reminiscent of the vitrines in old movie theaters. Among the black and white pictures there is also a short text, a page torn from one of two books: That Bowling Alley on the Tiber and Unfinished Business by Michelangelo Antonioni. The texts are what Antonioni called “narrative nuclei,” ideas, fragments of stories, notes for films he thought about, but never made. They transcribe intentions that were often impossible to film, because they test the limits of cinema itself, limits which Antonioni is exorcising through this writing process.
Recontextualized within the vitrines, these narrative nuclei come to life with the film-stills that surround them, found photographs from 1960s and 1970s Japanese cinema collected by the artist during a residency in Japan. The vitrines offer a juxtaposition between an intention for a non-existent movie and real pictures that have been isolated from their native narrative context. From this assemblage emerges the possibility of a film.
The process is reminiscent of Eisenstein’s collision-montages, or Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, since it delves into the unconscious memory of images and plays on the narrative possibilities that emerge from the space between juxtaposed images. But it is very much an assisted Mnemosyne, because the orphaned film-stills are put back into movement by a text that functions like a program dictating the reading of these images. The program deliberately hijacks the stills from their original context, transposing them to a new space, filling the void left by Antonioni’s unrealized intent. What feels like a remake, is actually just a make. Or rather the traces of a make, since there is no actual movie, just a ghost of a movie behind a document attesting to its possibility – a movie that exists only in the imagination of the viewer facing the finished piece.
The vitrines collapse two times onto each other: a non-realized future (Antonioni’s), and a non-experienced past (Japanese films we most likely haven’t seen). And yet from these two tenses emerges a cinematographic experience in the present, and a sort of Anabasis – a movement that never ceases to ask itself whether it is an end point or a beginning.