Sunday, 28 December 2014
Tuesday, 2 December 2014
* Sally Mann, Jessie (1951)
The beasts from the Apocalypse looked on, with eyes of ravenous red- a girl danced within a garland of fire. She was naked, and held in her hands the staffs that could ward off any danger inflamed inexorably by her untarnished beauty. Lust and wonder abounded. The beasts looked on, salivating. For them the girl was like a candle in motion, her skin flimsy like dripping wax. Their imagination played a fatal trick: the desire came in the form of an infernal fire, threatening to lick away her flesh to the bone, and gnaw it, caressingly and persistently like a jilted lover, still hankering after the love he was denied of.
I asked the girl of her stance on innocence as virtue. She told me that it was engrained in her nature to follow a set pattern of life ordained by the divine One. Innocence was only one of the many virtues that she knew from a very young age to hold dearly of. Never excelled in the art of discussing at length a subject in admirable eloquence, she resorted to metaphor, and envisioned innocence as ghosts with pure, diaphanous bodies, who were never to be violated by either the lived or the departed. The innocent rarely laughed or cried, was not easily given to extreme emotions. No pain so piercing that ever penetrated her glacial heart; all earthly sentiments washed over her like ghosts flitting across a thorny field. Innocence was her shield against the horrors and tragedies that accompanied mortality. “It is rather a fear of vice than a love of virtue that I worship devoutly the innocent,” she confided to me.
The beasts were drunk with ecstasy. Their gaping jaws reminded me of the bottomless pit of Hell. They responded to the girl’s dance with bated breath, like that of an ailing man gasping for life lest it would be his last. Morbid lust and horrible desire stir awake the monsters in them. They were subjected to eternal vigil on account of their inner tumult that was incited by torture, and an impatient anticipation of finally attaining what they had been coveting. “Sooner,” one of the beasts told me, “the fire would extinguish. And it would be our time to feast.”
The premonition of doom never hovered long on the edge of her thoughts. She feared not and she feared none. I warned her of the inevitable danger once the fire extinguished. She smiled, and told me that innocence rendered her a child with white blood: green and unborn and undead. “Someone is destined to kill the history of me. Let them in,” she whispered.
Tuesday, 18 November 2014
* John Everett Millais, The Bridesmaid (1851)
The High Priestess dwelled in a shrine flanked by the portals of Night and Day. When I approached, she told me that her power came from the borrowed light, which sustained her throughout every sleepless hour. Never once in her life did she yield to the hypnotic spell of sweet somnolence. Her steely gaze could penetrate through the densest of fog, the most blinding of sunbeam, and the murkiest of the mounting darkness. Even the wolves were terrified of her unflagging vigilance.
Every day she saw people, large crowds of people, streaming through the portals of Night and Day. Some youths would leap through the threshold of the portal of Day with their faces all rosy and jolly, only to be led out and blindfolded to the other portal, still laughing hysterically and completely oblivious of their imminent entrapment in a nasty prank. The High Priestess would prick her ears and wait. Normally, it wouldn’t be more than five repeated tollings of bell when the deceived were suddenly awake. They found themselves abandoned on a foreign land where the comforts of warmth never touched, where any moment they expected their wretched existence finally eclipsed by an approaching, unknown menace. One individual’s cry of desperation was muted by that of innumerable others. None of those painful sounds ever went unnoticed by the High Priestess, but, already made numb by their staggering regularity, she stifled without much ado any feelings or emotions that crossed her heart.
She also told me that she was forbidden from saving the unfortunate ones from their implacable misery. They were too many, she said, and it was advisable not to bother with those whose doom was already preordained. I was taken aback by this statement, addressed by one whose head was ever encircled by a luminous halo, who was regarded as the guardian of all souls, in a manner that was nonetheless so matter-of-fact, so callous. The High Priestess shrugged. There was no crime worse than that done in the name of Loyalty, she said, I knew not any values superior to that, this Loyalty. Even if that meant she was to assume a silent tree the rest of her life. The High Priestess devoted herself to the omnipresent One.
But there were still some less tragic prospects. The High Priestess remarked that the tears of the lost ones offered nourishments to the Land of Day as they were carried over by the winds. Those in the Land of Night wept only for a season; they were mostly dry-eyed before the next, crying no tears but continually emitting a few feeble groans of pain and protest. How the High Priestess would like them to know, even after they finally disentangled from their protracted death, that their suffering did not go unrewarded. Every time a stranger entered into the portal of Day he would notice immediately how the little kingdom was blessed by eternal spring. The charity was unreciprocal, however.
If the High Priestess could have her wish granted, she confided in me that she would like to fellow sleep. Sleeping was a privilege and luxury she was eternally denied of. The strange and magical sensation of dreaming, where one was constantly slipping in and out of consciousness, would be a potent remedy for one who has witnessed with her indifferent eyes so many forgotten tragedies. Through the sweet act of dreaming her soul would finally be unfettered, and became her ghostly other. She and her ghostly other would fly to the land of the ancient fathers. And there, she said, she could finally pay tribute to myriads graves without names.
Sunday, 2 November 2014
A sense of disquiet occasioning in the viewers exacerbated when they found themselves in an exhibition room that was almost unpeopled- quite normal I suppose for a Wednesday afternoon- and under the incessant, rigid vigilance of stiff-backed guards, who seemed unnecessarily outnumbered for a show so small. Small-scale, though, there were at least 100 paintings waiting to be beholden, to be confronted by whomever that had no apprehension of what they were going to see. We felt our ignorance jeered upon, our forbearance sorely tested. The sights that passed through our eyes were atrocious, relentless, bewildering. Once we hastened out of the exit, still stunned with the horrors we could not yet comprehend, how we wished we hadn’t subjected ourselves to such ordeal, in a supposed-to-be glorious afternoon.
But we should have been cautious in advance of the ordeal, because this was a Jean Fautrier’s retrospective we were attending. Jean Fautrier, a French-born artist whose life was punctuated with calamitous events: two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Occupation, dedicated his artworks chiefly to the unique portrayals of pain and ugliness. The exhibition began with his early realism works, the result of his academic training is apparent, but from which influence there are telling signs that he was desperately trying to refrain. Fautrier had the license to rebel. There was this portrait of a concierge, her head was ill-formed and lumpy; she managed a smile that should be as innocent and genial as that on the face of an avuncular elder lady, but on closer inspection we sensed something sinister. One was reminded of that Grotesque Old Woman by Quentin Metsys. This mocked-up portrait by the Flemish master is doubtlessly more jocular; the comedy of the old woman’s overblown deformity encourages light-hearted laughter. Whereas with Fautrier’s we see no amusements. It seems almost as if Fautrier envisioned every human being to look exactly like that, like an old, gnarled tree.
No sooner did Fautrier disentangle from the throes of academicism than the style of paintings took a drastic turn towards abstraction. I lighted on a painting that was to leave in me an equal measure of shock and disturbance as those of the Hostages series. Skins of Rabbits depicts five dead rabbits dangling on a string, their skins torn clumsily from hind paws to heads. Anyone familiar with the tradition of bodegón will surely not consider the work an anomaly in Western Art, nor its luridness too appalling to scrutinise with great concentration. Lurid inevitably one did feel when one judged it for some time, and seemingly saw the trembling fingers of a pair of hands appearing through the forms of the rabbits’ legs. This still-life is not a celebration of food, but Death’s exultant dances.
As Fautrier was inclining towards abstract art, his long pent-up anger and grief burst through the stoical façade that rendered his early works so peculiarly constrained. It was almost of no surprise that Fautrier’s career culminated in the Hostages series. The depictions of victims’ heads- wrung, twisted, fractured, rent, tortured by pain- are rather more of a trenchant response to the horror of war than merely the documenting of personal experiences. Combining figurations with abstractions, the heads are not so unrecognisable as doughs of flesh- one could still dimly make out the physiognomy; the victims were not yet dusting away into oblivion. The affliction is keenly felt yet at times dubiously muted; the emotions ferocious but constrained. A rare beauty exuded from such gruesome aggression when, despite the disconcerting feeling occasioned in me when browsing through the series, I lingered for a while on Fautrier’s sculpture, Head of a Hostage, and fantasised that I saw some obscure face born out of the amorphous rock. Not until when I read Andre Malraux’s exhibition catalogue did I realise I was not entertaining a fantasy, but, according to Monsieur Malraux, the Head, which he singled out as the centerpiece of the series, did entail a hope of “incarnation.”
However I couldn’t help doubting, with one who witnessed and was forced to digest so many horrors and tragedies, Fautrier could still find beauty in ugliness. Maybe at one moment- and let’s imagine if that were the moment before Fautrier breathed his last- he finally realised what human nature was all about: that we are a self-torturing sort, we are born to be forgiving, and harbouring the idiotic notion that every vice is permitted a chance of redemption. He was tortured not because he was unable to forget, but could never hate.
Friday, 17 October 2014
Hieronymus Bosch, The Magician (1475-80)
The universal fanaticism towards a certain magician is unaccountable to many. Including me, who is neither much of a devotee nor an espouser of the occult, the art of which, however, has been worming into our society so successfully these past few years that an expanding faction has been advocating the conviction that there is nothing too inimical in the occasional practice of magic. There have even been talks about the remedy of magic being more effectual than that of any potent medicine, though I’m also obliged to remind the readers that such anecdote is not yet verified.
A dogged sceptic notwithstanding, I found myself one day embarking on this by no means unexpected journey in quest of the illustrious magician, who was described as having the appearance of a youth, dressing himself in the manner of a priest, holding in his hand a wand which he pointed heavenward whenever he felt struck by sudden enlightenment. And that was the moment when the magic began.
Our meeting was arranged in the magician’s home, which was located in a remote hamlet; the house itself was grand but aged, the interior spartan but solemn. The magician was an engaging storyteller, but such charisma was obscured somewhat by his natural sotto voce and incurable bashfulness when the interview strayed into realms that were considered too personal to be responded with convincing details. “Unless I possess of the faculty of prophesying or psychoanalysing,” the magician said, “I can do none. I only play tricks, so what right have I to assert myself as if I were a preacher!”
The “tricks” that the magician considered his stock in trade were, as I later realised, not some underhand business or sleight of hand that we normally imputed to the mountebanks. I was astounded to discover that besides performing fantastical feats to bedazzle the passersby, he was, unbeknownst to most readers I believe, committing to something charitable that should be worth noting in minuteness here.
It wasn’t without reasons that the magician would purchase this house with such capaciousness. His tone was one akin to archness when he disclosed the secret of this house- he was not the only resident. I was totally flummoxed and ill-at-ease when he revealed that the house was replete with his most trusty companions, who were invisible to human eyes and increasing in number over years. They were called “hopes,” and yes, the magician was recreationally and surreptitiously storing hopes.
The “hopes” were essentially for the disheartened, the demoralised, or whoever that felt the pressing need of them in any particular periods of their lives. Of all the clients the magician had been granting the “hopes” with, many managed to extricate themselves finally from the pickle they’d been enmeshing in from time immemorial. It was, for the magician, an absolutly joyous sight to see that sweet smile finally reappeared from the faces of those who were once too stupefied with misery that their expressions were as insipid as blank papers. But, the magician also hesitated to add that there were also a number of unlucky cases, whose new-found “hopes” were like ripened fruits that started their inevitable process of staling and rotting away before they were utilised effectively to the desirable end. They continued flailing about in their lives with no remedies nor answers for their eternally doomed fortune.
“Those are the faces I cannot bear seeing for the rest of my life, for they are a reminder of my accursed incompetence in carrying out every task faultlessly so that every human being can reclaim that happiness that we were once all entitled to possessing,” the magician said, and heaved a long sigh. “Every time I sensed those unfortunate people approaching when I was doing magic on the street, I always halted abruptly the performance and pretended I was preoccupying with fixing my props until those people finally walked away. Even with their backs I could see their faces- a painful grimace masquerading as a nonchalant smile.”
“But do you believe in eternal happiness? Do you think those successful cases, with their renewed hopes, are immune from ever happening on afflictions in their lives again?” I asked. The magician thought for some time, then broodingly he said: “Hope is only a respite designed to forestall the next horrible storm.”
Tuesday, 7 October 2014
"What the human eye observes casually and incuriously, the eye of the camera notes with relentless fidelity."- Berenice Abbott
There are heads. The display window is teeming with heads; pretty heads. Heads adorned with feathers, fancy wigs, hats. Heads with egg-shaped faces. Faces that are painted with kohl eyes, twirled eyelashes, and rouge lips. Some of the faces are half-concealed with masks; masks that are borrowed from a Venetian masquerade, or an Italian opera. The heads and faces that are so peculiarly beautiful that they can only belong to the mannequins’. The mannequins whose torsos are truncated, who are without bodies.
Berenice Abbott was reputed for her photographic documentation of New York city. In those photographs Abbott demonstrates her ingenuity in taming the immobile objects. Architecture and various urban constructions are unlike people; they are stubborn and hardened; their dogged immobility is a silent refusal to collaborate with whomever ill-advised enough to approach them like a hunter approaching his prey. But Abbott was a visionary. She detected the animal spirit stirring within the stony heart of every building, and provoked it to burst out of its fossilised shell. Buildings were stimulated into life like animals finally waken from their interminable hibernation. Abbott would approach each of them sometimes with caution, as she hid in the alleyway and only managed to capture a glimpse of its magnificent presence, or aim high her camera when she tackled the towering figure with more boldness. And once she finally conquered the formidable monster like Saint George triumphing over a dragon, she stood atop her conquest and proudly surveying the view beneath her; she would notice the mass of pedestrians that were once bustling her by as she ventured into the heart of the urban forest were now rendered tiny like ants. There is nothing more exhilarating than assuming superiority over those that were once our equivalents.
Abbott’s role as a photographer can be described as a fearless hunter on a mission to hunt down all the peculiar species. But the weapon she used- her camera- was not one designed to inspire fear in the objects she captured. Her intention never seemed to be that of imprisoning into her photographs the city of New York. She was documenting New York without asserting too much authority over her subject matters. Abbott exhibited through her photographs that a good street photographer should always be an unobtrusive observer, ceding lights to the urban vista that is the sole star of the show.
But when it comes to the mannequins, I suppose that even the most preeminent of photographers can be so easily baffled. There is no task more difficult than dealing with something that is constantly in a twilight zone: the mannequins are lifeless dolls with lifelike physiognomy, can appear to be either lifeless or lifelike depending on how one perceives them. Abbott opted for no particular angle in approaching the mannequins, but chose to give them a full-on shot. The moment she pressed her shutter was the moment the mannequins seemed to come alive. Those beautiful faces all decided to violate the demands of their instructor by defiantly turning their heads away from the lens, each of them looking at different directions, responding apathetically of having their pictures taken. Just as the photographer might be miffed at having such recalcitrant prima donnas as her sitters, she unexpectedly succeeded in producing a memorable photograph- eerie, unnerving, menacing.
And not just the line between life and lifelessness, photography unwittingly blurs many more: that between fact and fiction, past and present, subject and object. The disappearance of the line between the subject and the object was precisely the core of Abbott’s photography. Of anything on which we normally attach no more importance than merely a passing notice (an object), through Abbott’s camera it becomes something of a peculiar value (a subject). But once we cherish that photograph as an invaluable work of art, Abbott promptly reminds us that the subject matter can be the most banal of object, which invariably, yet not so astoundingly, fails to leave imprints in our memories. The photographer demonstrates that subject and object can be interchangeable, like mannequins, as well as everything else.