"Spying on Sparrows", Intellectual Birdhouse, Koenig Books, London 2012
A few years ago I wrote a little book on artists' writing (Svenungsson 2007). As a writing artist myself, I wanted to address the aims and means of those who express their ideas and desires both visually and in words. Having discussed Giorgio de Chirico's 1929 novel Hebdomeros, I concluded: 'In this text, I find a kind of moral imperative which says that you may talk about anything, in any manner, as long as you do it with a maximum of precision' (Svenungsson 2007: 54).
These are bold words, and in context they seem to make sense. Decoupled from that context the statement still resonates - but what does it really mean? What, indeed, is 'precision' in a text? Is it any different from the precision involved in the making of an image? And how did I come to think of 'precision' in relation to Hebdomeros? This is an excerpt from De Chirico's novel:
Though the district was now unquestionably elegant and so much more lively, Hebdomeros shunned it in favor of the park where the pine trees grew. They were martyred trees, for a strange epidemic was raging among them, these attractive, friendly trees, so healthy and tonic. Each one bore a stairway made of white wood, twined round its trunk like a giant snake; these spiral staircases ended in a kind of platform, a regular torture-collar which choked the unfortunate tree, on which the man known as King Lear to the habitues of the palace amused himself by spying on the birds, hoping to catch them in little-known poses and expressions. He watched out especially for sparrows. Lying down on the platform, as motionless as a log, he no longer looked like a human being. [...] This strange man looked more as though he were petrified, which is why he brought to mind the corpses uncovered at Pompeii. Through
lying so long on the platform, he was finally becoming part of it; he was becoming platformized; he was turning into something like a large piece of undressed wood, hastily nailed in place to hold up the floor so that it might withstand an impact which would never come. That was why the platform looked upside down as he lay upon it in watch, for a crossbeam meant to strengthen the possible weakness of the planks could only be imagined as being nailed on underneath. Seen from such close quarters, the sparrows looked really monstrous. (De Chirico 1992: 15-16, Italics in original)
One result of the 'precision' employed in this writing is that, from the first time I read it, it immediately coalesced into a powerful image in my mind one I've never forgotten. Even so, although this passage has the form of a detailed description of something seen, for me it never translates into a clear visualisation. It's an 'image' which lives on in its exact wording and does not fully cohere into a picture. Which is irritating and a promise, all at once.
Can 'precision' be an expression of the unfulfilled?
Expressing something unfulfilled is what the best art works do. They create within us a space of irresistible ambiguity, never closure. They contain something we cannot understand completely. Still, what we do understand is that this something is there, that it has the potential to be understood. Because of this promise, the work attracts our attention and curiosity and we continue thinking about it. On a practical level the work is an answer to a question the artist has advanced or which has come from outside. But this answer, to be meaningful, must, on a fundamental level comprise a new question ... leading to an endless generation of interpretative activity. It must never provide an explanation. Thus, resolution is a promise never fulfilled; and the impact art makes on people is, to a significant degree, based on its ability to create confusion. Is it much different for text?
Today, text has become a dominant presence in the space surrounding visual art. It is a necessary component of artistic research. Unfortunately, there is much production of discourse, also by artists, that does not recognise the fundamental ambiguity of art. It is ultimately not possible to answer in a text, the question that a visual expression has raised. What most interests me is the artist who experiences a sincere need to express him or herself in addition to visual work, in words. A need which goes beyond the strategic demands of the art system and is not intended as an explanation of the visual. The question is raised: In what ways can words and images be complementary? Indeed, visual work may contain any number of words and texts, but within such work they too tend to become image.
Typically (always?) in a work of visual art, several language structures, both symbolic and literal, exist side by side. Think spatial organisation; sound; touch; colour; light; smell; shape, line and volume, all in two or three dimensions; photographic and filmic idioms; art historical and political references; materiality; temporality; digitality as well as words and written language. These are just some possibilities. This multiplicity of means is obvious in, say, the admirable chaos of an installation by Thomas Hirschhorn, but the argument can also be made for most paintings or film installations. Approaching a work, whatever it is, our eyes flicker over its surface (its space), negotiating multiple entry points, messages and triggers, all the while deciding what to do with what is at hand. (That is, as long as we haven't allowed our response to the work to be remote-controlled by a didactic text.) Even as we make our choices, other stimuli will continue to beckon for us to switch perspective and consider something else of what is available to our eyes and ears and touch. If the visual work includes writing and texts (or even whole books, as is often the case with Hirschhorn), these will be seen much more than they will be read.
A work of art serves up a range of alternative starting points and these exist on a basis of equality.
It is different with text. One is conditioned to start reading at the beginning and to proceed along a track which has been laid out by its author, within the language of his or her choosing.
For practical reasons, a text has to take place within one single language (wilfully ignoring some experiments of a poetic nature). I will not suddenly switch to Swedish here just because a certain idea comes to me wrapped in a better phrase in my native tongue. My personal experience is that the limited language of writing allows for a freer approach to subject matter. In the initial stages of writing a text, I can throw around ideas and impulses in preliminary drafts without fear of losing contact with 'the reality of making'. The straitjacket of the chosen language, coupled with my sense of propriety during the editing phase, will eventually take care of reconnecting my text to a coherent line of thinking. Writing can be a very chaotic process only because the form demands such a high level of final discipline.
In contrast, in the studio I always need to start work with quite a clear idea of what it is I hope to make. Here there is too much potential for play. A plan is needed in order not to get lost among all the possibilities of language available. During the development of the work, all sorts of mistakes and deviations might influence its outcome. These are even necessary for the work to happen, for it to acquire independent meaning. If the initial idea were to be carried out in a straightforward fashion, without any surprising developments along the way, it would perhaps be successfully illustrated, but not fertilised. There would be no promise of anything else.
In preparation for this present text I opened Hebdomeros again and slowly leafed through it. It felt like returning to a city where I had once lived, spending an afternoon strolling its familiar sunlit streets, while the shadows grew longer. Here and there, I recalled events having taken place, knowledge gained, mysteries still remaining. The text reminded me both of what I had once learned ofits author's position on certain issues, as well as the experiences and lines of thought I'd had on earlier readings of particular passages.
I wanted to find another short passage to quote. For the reader of this, my new text, I wanted to demonstrate the double capacity of De Chirico's writing. How he's able to both elucidate his ideas (mainly through visual evocations) and to inspire thinking processes in the individual reader. This is a book written in one chapter, with very few paragraphs. It is difficult to break the flow of De Chirico's large blocks of text, to isolate a fragment without significantly lessening its impact.
There is a contradictory impact-making-mechanism at work in Hebdomeros: no argument or evocation is ever clear in isolation. Before finishing with one line of thought, De Chirico always introduces another, so that they overlap. Consequently, the reader always finds the conclusion to a certain passage somehow lacking, as though the train of thought is already well on its way to the next station. As a reader I have to scramble to make up the connections for myself, rather than being able to relax in my padded chair and see the thinking laid out pedagogically before my eyes.
The eponymous hero of Hebdomeros is on a quest which is never articulated, but which seems to have as its aim 'to understand'. He seems to attain something of this goal on two occasions: during the overheated lyricism of the final pages and earlier, during an evening of 'tableaux vivants', to which Hebdomeros has been looking forward with nervous anticipation:
Up to the last moment one had hoped for an "act of God"; something that would have prevented the performance from taking place: an earthquake, a revolution, the passage of a comet, a tidal wave; but, as always in these circumstances, nothing happened; everything took place in calm and perfect order. Hebdomeros mixed with the crowds that filled the restaurants; he still hoped for the "unexpected"; he questioned the people around him, read the papers, lent an attentive ear to the conversation of his neighbors at the next table. Nothing; not a cloud on the horizon; plain quiet everywhere: in heaven and on earth. So he had to bow before the inevitable. That evening, surrounded by his friends, he attended the performance and understood everything. The riddle of this ineffable composition of warriors, of pugilists, difficult to describe and forming in a corner of the drawing room a block, manycolored and immobile in its gestures of attack and defense, was at bottom understood by himself alone; he realized this at once when he saw the facial expressions of the other spectators. (De Chirico 1992: 92-93, Italics in original)
Towards the end of the 1920s Giorgio de Chirico painted a number of peculiar and jarring canvases featuring strange 'blocks' of gladiators and warriors in rooms. These figures were characterised by such striking distortions that even today it is difficult to decide whether the draughtsmanship displayed is 'bad' or 'bold'. Fear of ridicule must have been far from the artist's mind.
I have no problem accepting Hebdomeros' word that he was alone in 'understanding everything' about these scenes provided that the scenes discussed in the text are related to these images, which obviously we cannot know. All through Hebdomeros there are such situations, where suddenly my memory of the author's paintings are triggered by some action or setting in the text. That said, the text is also autonomous. These virtual 'illustrations' are there only if you know enough to recognise them.
For the writing artist this is a most potent possibility: that rather than attempting to explain the visual work, one might reflect it in another form, use it as an implicit reference.
For the attentive reader it is easy to see how close De Chirico the writer sometimes follows in the traces of De Chirico the painter. This extra knowledge does not, however, in itself explain the quirks of the novel's narrative. There is no way to know exactly what is supposed to be taken away and learned either from text or image.
Hebdomeros is alone and suddenly he understands everything, yet he is not willing or able to specify what it is he has understood; and it does not matter, because if we don't make this up for ourselves it will be meaningless anyway.
'Precision' in either form of expression, visual or textual, is the tool which will bring us to this point of uncertainty and promise.