English translation, with summary
Detail from Grey on White (photographed on March 30th), 2011
Summary of Palimpsest
In the twenty-four aphorisms that make up Palimpsest, Carsten Madsen engages in a dialogue with Peter Olsen and Jonas Georg Christensen’s collaborative work of art, the series Paintworks (2010-18). Due to the time span of almost ten years and the improvised nature of the work of art—primarily borrowing from the genre of graffiti street art—the text does not offer pictorial or visual analyses in the traditional sense. Rather, Carsten Madsen proposes to read the signifying practice in Paintworks (2010-18) as temporal gestures made at whoever is passing by, in the fleeting moment of a now and here, or, perhaps, whoever stops in front of one of the graffiti dispersed across the cityscape and appearing in unsuspected locations. The aphorisms are thus an attempt to emphasize the graffiti’s function as unique artistic constellations of place, color, shape, language, space, time, building, city, paintwork, and spectator.
Palimpsest literally proposes to read the painterly gestures, as it contends that they appear to express simultaneously linguistic and visual qualities and thus to function within a literary realm as well as that of visual art. In other words, a central premise for the reading of Paintworks (2010-18) is that an essential element of the visual art form only becomes fully understandable in comparison with literary aesthetics. As noticed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, such a comparison is possible when painting and language “are detached from what they “represent” and are brought together under the category of creative expression.” Because of such a lack of illustration or represented content in Paintworks (2010-18), the graffiti’s materiality, artistic context, and creative gesture become the focus of the reading.
Each graffito appears at a self-effacing wall or surface as a seemingly random, unfinished square or squiggle of a monochrome color, directing the first-hand impression towards its abstract qualities. The language of these graffiti thus manifests itself in the spatium that emerges through the dialogue between background and sign, i.e., the exchange between the surface, which seems carefully selected for its unassuming location, and the simultaneously articulated linguistic and visual signs of the graffiti. This language does not refer to a recognizable world, but rather takes on the form of pure enunciations, sudden apparitions of color, which in the moment of the expressive act seem to refer to nothing or, indeed, to nothingness. The reading thus can concentrate on the artistic constellation of grafitto, background, and location as it appears in the temporal immediacy of the creative act.
In addition, the reading of Paintworks (2010-18) observes an array of gestural and painterly characteristics that—albeit differing from one graffito to the next—all indicate a unifying signature. Graffiti artists usually create their work in anonymity, and, dispersed throughout the public sphere of the city, their work signals a transgression of what is typically considered the public order. However, through the very photo documentation of this book, it becomes possible to identify the artists as well as the coherent aesthetical traits that make Paintworks (2010-18) into a work of art. The particular traits of the individual graffito, which constitute its actual but in principal anonymous signature at the specific location, paradoxically only become readable when the graffito is observed out of place and the different graffiti are aligned next to each other. At their location, however, they are engaged in a dialogue with the uniqueness and particularities of the place. This dialogue is transgressive in nature and involves a silent exchange between the artists and the person(s) holding the proprietary rights to the painted surface. Indeed, the recurring buffs, i.e., the removal of or painting over a graffito with a flat color, and the reiterated paintings at the same place serve to accentuate and intensify this dialogue.
Even though each graffito marks its presence with an anonymous, discrete gesture, they all seem based on the same interpenetrating relations between material and artistic context. The materials of the individual graffito are all basic, consisting of a surface, a monochrome color in a hue appropriate to the selected background and a dynamic gesture in the form of an apparently improvised distribution of paint in rectangular shapes or lines, sometimes wiggly or in zigzags. These material characteristics all point towards a completely two-dimensional flatness, offering no figural shape, perspective, or trompe-l’œil, which seems to bring to mind qualities from avant-garde painting, predominantly from the period between Cézanne and American abstract expressionism, but also qualities from avant-garde prose writing attempting to represent a two-dimensional universe. In other respects, the graffiti become readable as variations on the aesthetic of readymades,bringing to mind Marcel Duchamp. A few graffiti seem to assume calligraphic qualities, as seen in Zen ink paintings, and, from a certain point of view, some graffiti display qualities from the sort of poetry that refers to, or is absorbed by, its own poetic space, as demonstrated in the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, Wallace Stevens, or the Danish poet Per Højholt.
Due to their improvised, dynamic character, the gestural movements behind the inscription of these graffiti seem primarily temporal in nature, and in this sense time functions as a constitutive—and consequently, artistic—precondition for the gestural movements when they, in stolen moments, will have created the graffiti. At its most fundamental level, the ambition of the aphorisms in Palimpsest is to read this temporality. Paintworks (2010-18) is thus presented as expressive writings and imagery of time as such.
Even though the aphorisms attempt in this way to develop a coherent aesthetic in dialogue with Paintworks (2010-18), these condensed philosophical fragments can be read both independently and as small doodles or graffiti in the margins of the work of art.
I. – Something very fundamental takes place whenever we halt our movement on the way to somewhere or interrupt our absorption in our daily activities in some other way. That movement and absorption in daily activities are focused on a goal, but when we halt and interrupt our endeavour to realize the goal, albeit only temporarily, something other than that goal-oriented activity takes over. Admittedly, of course, a movement can be without a goal, just as an absorbing preoccupation can be casual or fruitless in its gestures and hence apparently aimless. By the same token, a movement with no clear goal can be an end in itself, as is the case when we go for a walk, a stroll or set off on some other form of ramble purely for pleasure. But when a halt is made to that goal-oriented movement, the aim shifts from far to near: the place then becomes a goal in itself. For migratory birds, the goal of the autumn is to return to warmer climes, but where they come to a halt on their passage, a place with its own determination arises. The place itself then turns into a resting place, a place to find food, a place for the flock’s cackling chatter and for cultivating their communality of purpose. When we humans halt along our way, something additional takes place at the place where we halt: we arch a space around us, perhaps in the shape of a shelter, a temporary dwelling, or maybe in the form of practical activities, more developed efforts to inhabit the place where we now happen to find ourselves. At the same time, what happens is that we speak to one another about the ongoing journey, future goals or the new residential habitat that only now, through the act of speech, encompasses us, taking on the status of space.
II. – Just now, a human being has halted at a text in a book that has been opened at this very page, drawing attention to itself here by its linguistic gestures, referring to its place, the space from which it is speaking to the reading person. We find such a situation written out in a poem by Wallace Stevens, where in the first two stanzas the reader encounters the words: “The house was quiet and the world was calm./ The reader became the book; and summer night// Was like the conscious being of the book./ The house was quiet and the world was calm.” The poem, which takes its title from the first line, gradually unfurls its universe: on a material level a house, a world, reader, book, page, summer night, words, calm and quiet; on a spiritual level a consciousness, truth, thought, perfection, significance and an absence of meaning. This poetic universe is unfurled through a language that can only rebound on itself, until the reading person can no longer refer to a place or a world outside of this language. Since the poem refers to its reader directly, “the reader leaned above the page”, the reader as reader becomes a mere effect of the poem. The reader’s world is reduced to the words being read, and the world read out of the poem simultaneously reads its reader, so that “the reader becomes the book”, thereby being transported to a distinctive inner world: “The truth in a calm world,/ In which there is no other meaning, itself// Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself/ Is the reader leaning late and reading there.” In that way the poem seems to realize the poetic notion which an older poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, has expressed: “Everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book”. Such texts, which only seem to speak of themselves, are sometimes called, to use vague technical terms, ‘metatextual’ or ‘self-referential’. But are the texts in question here merely ones that have halted at themselves as their own goal and, shrouded in a monadic space, leave the world to pass by, leaving things to their own devices, shirking more urgent matters so as not to speak of anything other than their own speech?
III. – The paintworks on walls in the public urban space, which together with the photo-documentation of their process-based creation make up Peter Olsen’s and Jonas Georg Christensen’s work Paintworks, appear to speak for themselves of themselves through a plurality of voices. The work consists of anonymous, diffuse expressions or enunciations without a tag or scribble, the traditional stylized signature of graffiti art. The paintworks are non-figurative and make no statement, they denote nothing and they contain no symbolism. In a number of respects they can at once be regarded as a processing and a continuation of a ready-made aesthetics and of the common graffiti art in the urban space. Nor do they give the appearance of decorative embellishment or destructive vandalism; they neither beautify nor disfigure the unassuming buildings against whose backdrop they appear. And for the hasty passer-by the paintworks might perhaps seem to have arisen as if out of nothing, overnight, haphazardly, aimlessly, clandestinely – a barely heeded act performed with a covert, nocturnal gesture.
IV. – In the essay entitled Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty refers to an observation by the author André Malraux that “painting and language are comparable only when they are detached from what they ‘represent’ and are brought together under the category of creative expression. It is then that they are both recognized as two forms of the same effort.” Viewed from such a non-representational perspective that accentuates the abstract qualities of art, therefore, architectural, sculptural and painterly expression, whose materiality has chiefly been processed on imaginative and spatial premises, will be no less lingual than linguistic expressions created on the premises of writing and speech. And based on this view, we should also be able to regard Olsen’s and Christensen’s Paintworks as a language that manifests itself in a spatium between linguistic and visual signs, and for want of something represented appears as a “creative expression”, a speech primarily concerned with its own expressive practice.
V. – Faced with such expressive practice, the beholder tends to fall short, because it rejects the traditional understanding and appreciation that she tries to invest in the encounter with it. Consequently, the paintworks come across with a kind of unfamiliarity, prompting characteristics by their expression other than those evinced by ordinary expressive practice. As articulations in the urban space, we might perhaps expect them to make some form of statement about the space and the place where they are expressed; but as is characteristic of literary forms of expression preoccupied with their own expressive practice, these painterly expressions can also be taken as being oriented towards the time that constitutes the condition for their creation.
VI. – According to such a view, the language of artistic expression no longer appears against the background of a pre-existing world, but in a certain sense creates its own world by manipulating the familiar one and exhibiting it anew as something yet unacknowledged. Artistic language then appears against the background of distorted linguistic expressions, as on a parchment palimpsest (Gr. palim, again, and psestos, scraped), where the new text is superimposed on top of a scratched-out text, which to some degree may still be made out and interpreted behind the new one. In terms of a speech act, linguistic expression here uses the ‘usedness’ of language as a ready-made, a paintwork painted on an already painted or in some other way finished surface, a graffito on the ethereal surface of the prevailing order. This speech is at once additive and subtractive; it wrests significations out of existing significations, removing them with the same gesture. This is what takes place when in his work from 1958, Erased de Kooning Drawing, the young Robert Rauschenberg scratches out a drawing reluctantly made available by the older, already acclaimed artist Willem de Kooning: the existing artistic signification voided of sense, its value depleted and recycled, now borne solely by the gestural act of signifying. Each in their own language, the poet and the visual artist speak with such an enunciation.
VII. – But how to read the time in artistic expressions whose expressive practice does not commit itself directly to statements about time but appears completely liberated of anything represented? This is one of the main challenges which Olsen’s and Christensen’s Paintworks poses to our imagination, and one additionally complicated by our perceptions naturally seeming to prioritize space over time. In order to understand and speak about time, we are inclined to stop it and unfurl it into spatial notions like a stretch of time, timeline, point in time etc. What is more, those difficulties are compounded, as visual art is typically viewed as a spatial expression. The issue is that Paintworks does not speak about time, but in its enunciation manifests time as a premise, i.e. the work of art renders time tangible through its speech. The work thereby reconciles its material awareness with a contemporary artistic and philosophical tradition whose interpretation of time we can beneficially outline as a backdrop to the exegesis of time in this work.
The gestures of time in language and image
VIII. – Viewed from a time-based perspective, a space can never remain the same; it will always appear in constantly new guises, like kaleidoscopic pictures that do not depict anything but, mutating endlessly, generate ever new notions. Time will already always have transformed the space, temporalized it, independently of anyone who might inhabit it, and without intervention from anything other than the duration of time itself. Space is subordinate to time, so like anything else it can never possess a self-identity: the notion of X=X, that a space is identifiable because, above all, it is (equal to) itself hinges on an illusion brought about by the notion of copula, the verb ‘to be’, which pre-supposes a being in the world prior to any language usage will have carried over this supposition. And although space appears by spatializing the time it takes for it to come into existence and through which it simultaneously changes, until it no longer resembles itself, efforts to give time a more prolonged provisional state above and beyond the simple transient now will be doomed to fail. If space could be identical to itself, it would be precisely because it was able to retain time in a point, a local place in space, as if sub specie æternitatis (through a universal perspective). But is this not precisely what art has always striven for, albeit in vain: to suspend the time to which its creations are inextricably linked, thus constituting the condition for its gestures in space? “Retain thy present, my soul! Try to taste/ The moment that is!/ O, fetter the fickle, restrain it/ With powerful emotions”, as Johannes Ewald says in Hope and Recollection. Or the ardent desire to hang on to the most fleeting of all, when Goethe’s Faust, addressing the moment, says: “Tarry a while, thou art so fair!”; or Shakespeare, who in Sonnet 18 clings to beauty with the spatial figures of speech: “But thy eternal summer shall not fade,/ Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;/ Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade/ When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:/ So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
IX. – Time will always come first, before space, which is implicit in its very nature. This prerequisite makes it difficult for any expressive practice that seeks to focus on the time that constitutes the very condition governing its creation. A speech, of course, is subordinate to both temporal and spatial terms, but the temporal terms of speech mean that time interferes transformationally in the space in which speech unfolds. Space, then, is not something merely given, something immutable, in which the expression of speech takes place; but in a sense, speech thus creates the space in which it unfurls. So although time comes first, speech about time creates a space in which it can render our notions of time intelligible. Speech about time thus produces a spatial form of intuition for our understanding of time. That is what takes place in the philosopher Kant’s epistemological account of time and space as conditional for all our experiences, saying on the one hand that the temporal form of intuition comes first. On the other hand, however, in order to say this he must first produce the spatial form of intuition. In the section “The Transcendental Aesthetic” in The Critique of Pure Reason, he asserts that time is an inner sense, an a priori given form of intuition that takes precedence over the corresponding outer form of space: “Time is the formal condition a priori of all phenomena whatsoever. Space, as the pure form of external intuition, is limited as a condition a priori to external phenomena alone.” Whether or not the intuited is something external in space, all our notions first run through the inner state of the mind, which on the whole is the condition of the sense perception and the condition of the ability of realization; and since this is temporal, therefore, “time is a condition a priori of all phenomena whatsoever”. But he describes this determination of time’s form of intuition only after he has described the spatial form of intuition. The consequence, however, is that time is an indispensable term for anything and everything that potentially takes place in our minds, and therefore also a term to which external phenomena in space must necessarily be subordinate. Even for the spatial artist par excellence, the sculptor – who after all is reduced to crafting the movement of a body as an immutable gesture in space – time lays down a condition for both the conception and the representation of reality: “in reality, time never stops”, as Auguste Rodin puts it in Art: Conversations with Paul Gsell.
X. – So how to speak about time and space without contemplating the time and space of speech at the same time? Strictly speaking, for example, it would be more correct to say that time comes rather than goes, for when time comes, it is in the process of unfolding ahead of our presence, which has to await its advent. Conversely, it leaves us when it goes, as if we were already present, now, here, as an immovable first. Indeed, it belongs to the most difficult things to talk about, which is also why Augustin, as is well known, says: “What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.” One of the problems with talking about time involves our ontological inclination to refer to it with spatial figures and to illustrate it with spatial analogies, as when the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus wants to illustrate the priority of time, that everything submits to a constant becoming, with the image: “You cannot step twice into the same river.” It would seem then as if first, in rebellion against that which is temporally first, we have to have speech produce a space in order to be able to illustrate time’s qualitative duration for the imagination by giving it a quantitative materiality related to things in space. But if it is correct that time comes first, one of our crucial problems will then be to find an attitude towards time that is creative on the same terms as time’s qualitative duration enables movement and change. And if we take a temporal outlook on our existence as the basis, then we have to disregard the spatial pre-suppositions of ontology. However, this calls for a distinctive expressive practice like the one familiar to us from poetry and the visual arts, in which time, as an antecedent, can be experienced through the temporal unfurling of the expression.
XI. – Through our reading of the following prose poem from the late Danish poet Per Højholt’s collection Practice, 8: Album, tumult, we are able to experience how time and speech unfold each other:
“Not very far into this piece the event occurs: a fresh now is introduced and vanished. Since this preterite included the now and not me, nor of course any possibly upcoming now, I must have been alive when I was using it and thus surely also capable of using this new and fresher now to note here the name of Søren Kierkegaard, even though he has long since been installed in a similar preterite.”
Here the linguistic expression’s play with time seems to derive its possible signification from the course of events constantly forfeiting its fleeting presence in the now to the pastness of the past. The verbal forms first mark the passage of time from 1) a present tense (“occurs”) for the yet future now, to 2) a passive voice (“is introduced”), where there is no agency that brings on the course of the now, up to 3) its closure as a completed event in the past tense (“vanished”), confirmed as something past by virtue of the word’s enunciation. Preterite (from the Latin praeterire, to pass) is the grammatical expression for the verbal form of the past with which we express something that took place or was in evidence in the past. But the text is very complex, because in its statement about the passage of time that occurs alongside or during its enunciation, a splitting of time takes place. On the one hand the text retains time in the words’ representational content, linguistic allusions and references to a world of varying recognizability for the reader relating to life and death, present and past, the time of note-taking and the time of the finished note, the I and Kierkegaard, and possibly also Kierkegaard’s concepts of the Repetition and the Instant. The words retain the linguistic image of the bygone and ephemeral world in a preterite, the testamentary epigram of writing on the presence of the living present in the moment. On the other hand, the text simultaneously produces the temporal progression in the unfolding of the action that will have written it down in its inscribed materiality. The text produces time as a term for its enunciation, but this time is not directly connected to any representations which the text’s statements about time might evoke in the reader. The text at once produces time as a representation and as an experienceable progression, during its duration, and moreover is itself a product of the time that determines its representation. The temporal condition for the enunciation is repeated by the reader while reading is happening, thereby making it an experience on purely temporal terms other than that of the represented time rendered in the representational content of the words: the experience thus experiences itself as an effect of the otherwise inexperienceable time. With each new reading, the reader repeats the time of the enunciation, which in its capacity of a temporal and productive gesture links to the act of writing that will have produced it in a bygone present. Thus the text at once becomes a statement about and an enunciation of the time, in which the act of writing will have taken place, in a now where the I must “have been alive when I was using it”.
XII. – The term used by Højholt, inter alia in The Grimaces of Nothingness, for the manifestational act of writing that produces signifying writing or speech in space, is the substantival infinitive or gerund writing. [Ed. The Danish word “skriven” can thus be translated as “the act of writing”.] Such an act of writing is in itself a temporal gesture, but by means of graphic or acoustic engravings in space, it produces the material conditions for linguistic expression, some of which we grant the status of literature or art. In traditional literature, as in standard language usage, the writing produced is the vector of a linguistic expression that refers the reader to a recognizable world. This is the ontological commitment, instituted expectations, formal conventions and rhetorical topoi with which tradition fixates literature and the reader, exacting from literature statements about our existence, the world in which we feel at home. Literature may well differ from standard language usage in as far as we expect it to uncover aspects of our existence which we were not or could not be completely familiar with before that, regardless of the linguistic expression used by that literature. And with the triumphant credo, “plunge to the depths of Heaven and Hell,/ to fathom the Unknown, and find the new”, with which Charles Baudelaire greets farewell in Le voyage, the final poem in Les Fleurs du Mal, poetry and art become ontologically committed to a truth and authenticity to which we summon poets and artists as witnesses and guarantors. But a fundamental shift takes place in poetic practice when the act of writing that usually produces writing or speech merely as a vector of signification, i.e. the material conditions for language’s commitment to an assumed being, begins drawing our attention to writing and speech regardless of the ordinary expressive practice, enabling a connection to be read from expression, between the act of writing and its written work, actual speech and its speaking. This is the gesture of time with which speech seems to speak solely for the sake of speaking, apparently preoccupied merely by its own expressive practice. It comes to the fore where reference is no longer made to presupposed being, but now only to the action or writing that will have produced it as it was unfurling, and which we now, here reiterate through our reading. No longer is the being then something pre-supposed, uncovered by language, but something it produces as its effect, as if from nothing. We may well perceive that language instinctively refers to something, but in an expressive practice like Højholt’s the aesthetic gesture dismantles the ordinary reference to being as expression’s prerequisite in favour of a manifestation of being as an effect of language and the unfurling of time. Even if such expressions appear to speak only about themselves, they can bring the reader’s ontological view of being as something presupposed into a critical dialogue with the experience of (one’s own) being as an existence subordinate to the course of a duration.
XIII. – Long before modern literature, modern visual art changes its expressive practice in such a way that its works cease to persuade solely by means of representation, rendering spatial reality by means of representational content – in the case of painting as a spatial illusion on the surface of the canvas. In the classical creation of painting, representation will seek to hide its illusory play in order to be able to function as persuasively as possible on the same sensuous conditions under which things appear in the world. Persuasio, the gesture of persuasion, depends on the sympathetic insight of the audience, here as in any other representation whatsoever. Just as in the case of a classical drama, the audience for a speech or the representation of an aesthetic expression of a particular reality must empathize emotionally and intellectually, completely and utterly, with its assertion of what is real in order to realize what is being presented or performed before their eyes as real. The audience must enter into a contract that it is willing to play along with an illusion, to allow itself to be seduced, cf. the Greek goddess Peitho, who was the personified spirit of persuasion, seduction and ingratiating speech (corresponding to Suada in the Roman tradition, cp. suadere, to persuade). Even Constable and Turner start to undo this illusory play, each in their own way drawing a hitherto metaphysical firmament over onto the physical surface of the canvas. And rather than reproducing a sensuous perception of the sky by the use of colours, they make the materiality of those colours accessible to the perception. The colours refer to colours rather than to the sky, and by means of their own materiality they achieve an architectural solidity and strength. Since Cézanne in particular, therefore, modern painting has increasingly attempted to explore the aesthetic possibilities by insisting on its own material thingness, where the canvas acts as a surface that represents nothing, signifies nothing, which is tantamount to saying that it signifies nothing, it interprets, expounds or elucidates the nothing that is.
XIV. – When, in the nineteenth century, visual art begins to represent the temporal terms for movements and transformations in space, this starts out by taking place as deformations of the motif represented. Certainly, neither movement nor transformation defines time, on the contrary, it is time that makes these possible and thus defines them. When art seeks to represent time in images, then, its effects unfurl in space in such a way that things no longer appear in the order in which we would generally expect to find them. We can observe elements of this development of the pictorial in the mutual inspiration and exchange that takes place between the French scientist and photographer Étienne-Jules Marey and the eccentric English photographer Eadweard Muybridge. As proof that a trotting horse has all four hooves lifted off the ground for a brief instant, Muybridge is able, after many experiments conducted in the 1870s, to produce a series of sequential photographs and thus reveal a hitherto hidden temporal aspect of being: like a Pegasus, the horse raises itself off the ground briefly. This photographic full-stop to the doubt that had prevailed until then says nothing about time per se, admittedly, but it does act as a statement on movement as a temporal effect. When asked by a duly impressed Marey whether his camera can also capture a bird in flight, however, Muybridge has to admit defeat. In return, Marey himself succeeds in capturing the movement of flying birds with the aid of a chronophotographic technique he develops during the 1880s. But unlike previous eras’ attempts at snapshots, his pictures of birds’ flight are not frozen stills but staggered stages of the movement captured on a single photographic plate, seeming to reproduce one successive movement. This can be found amply documented in the work Le Vol des Oiseaux from 1890. The capturing of the movement does admittedly result in the birds’ figures appearing fuzzy and the contours blurred, but the deformation of the motif has no influence on the space in which the movement is captured. The space remains intact as a framework for the reproduction, succumbing discreetly to the representation of the motifs. But if the space remains a local framework for the present of an instant, the physical movement through space must necessarily appear distorted by the passage of time, precisely since the latter cannot be localized in an unambiguous and fixable present in space. So, although the matter is represented in the form of a paradox, that paradoxality appears in an immutable and in a way unaffected space.
XV. – The art of painting deals with the same problem, but the issue is now subjected to aesthetic terms in appreciation of the fact that the creative gesture, the act of writing as a signifying gesture, is subordinate to time, and this productive time cannot be kept apart from produced time. The problem particularly preoccupies Marcel Duchamp, and in a work as early as his Nu descendant un escalier n° 2 from 1912, inspired by Muybridge’s series of images from 1887, Woman Walking Downstairs,the various stages in the represented figure’s walk down the stairs superimpose one another with a visual echo effect that fills out the picture frame. In so doing, the relationship between space and figure begins to dissolve, and so the picture represents an incipient deformation of the actual space in which the movement is reproduced. The space no longer succumbs to the movement through it, but itself now becomes subordinate to time. The same consequences could be drawn from Umberto Boccioni’s 1913 sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, where the deformation of a walking figure propagates an advancing motion that injects dynamism into the negative space of the sculptural form.
XVI. – However, the deformation of the pictorial space is much more consistent in Duchamp’s incomplete work, Le Grand Verre (1915-23), in which the dynamic course of time in the productive gesture engages in structuralizing different aspects of the extraordinarily complex and, in principle, unfinishable work, which indeed Duchamp himself finally has to declare “definitively incomplete”. The glass-painted work in no way allows itself to be captured by an aesthetic glance that might seek to view it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The work allows for no subordination to any one gaze, not least because its status as a work is disrupted by the explanatory book published later, La Boîte Verte (1934), not as an afterthought, a supplement to the work, but as part of it, a graffito on the work. And because it thus comes about over time, it remains just that: unfinishable and hence indeterminable. The book contains “eight years’ ideas, reflexions, thoughts”, as he says, connected to the work on Le Grand Verre, and includes 93 written notes, sketches and photographs with visual and linguistic motifs. Furthermore, the originals of this were published as 320 lithographs (in twenty cases, together with a single original document) which, like Duchamp’s different ready-mades, are instrumental in undoing both the work and the autonomy of the category of work. In addition there are replicas in Sweden and the UK authenticated and certified by Duchamp himself, not as copies in the traditional sense but as simulacres on a par with the ‘original’ work. A number of replicas have been made since Duchamp’s death in 1968, and together with the book and the lithographs they all continue writing on the work, just as comments like this do too, as a constantly changing palimpsest. It can scarcely be any wonder, then, why the Mexican author Octavio Paz in Marcel Duchamp or The Castle of Purity regards Duchamp as a poet and his expressive practice as literature rather than as painting: “The direct antecedent of Duchamp is not to be found in painting but in poetry: Mallarmé”. And with reference to Mallarmé’s great typographical experiment, the permutational prose poem from 1897, Paz concludes that “the work which most closely resembles the Large Glass is Un coup de dés”.
XVII. – But the gesture of time can also be read from the painterly art that turns its aesthetic expression inwards, towards the surface in more traditional material and sensuous terms. This becomes clear when comparing a still-life by a 17th-century Dutchman or Chardin with a still-life by Cézanne. Where the classic still-life subordinates its motif to a fixed point of view and point in time, in a calm, indifferent and almost abstract space so that it appears to reproduce its motif with eternal hesitancy, this is where Cézanne dissolves his motif in surfaces reproduced from different points of view and made at different times with motivic distortions as its result. The shapes of the motif seem to be regarded as if through the eye of a fly, a multifaceted gaze that views them from different angles simultaneously. Rather it is the bygone time in which the motif was produced that has been painted into, inscribed into, the painting as a still-active time, leaving it to the beholder to embody its time. The beholder is drawn into the surface of the pictorial space and for the duration of the observation unites the various points of view and points in time, in and with the body’s own indivisible and continuous time, and consequently, in the words of Duchamp, “the viewer makes the picture”. In some traditions within modern painting, however, the additional consequence is that the gestures of time begin to take over its works, until the motifs will have faded away entirely and the canvases no longer reproduce anything, as it can be construed from Mondrian, Malevich or American abstract expressionism. Such expressive practice no longer represents anything, but has completely yielded to the materiality of its physical condition as an expressive surface, whose only signification is that the gesture of time, the act of writing, will have produced it.
XVIII. – On the face of it, Olsen’s and Christensen’s paintworks on walls and other surfaces scattered around the urban space do not cause a great stir; they are neither frilly nor fussy, neither blot nor bling, and do not appear alarming or intrusive. Particularly in those instances where they have been designed as a square surface with slightly contrasting colourways or a colouristically well-matched shade in relation to the painted wall, they comply discreetly, almost elegantly, with the buildings’ unostentatious architecture as a natural part of the walls’ otherwise silent expression. In such instances, rather, they give the appearance of a buff, a pre-existing graffito painted over with a flat colour that attempts to restore the anonymity of the wall surface. Yet in a way, they are graffiti on graffiti, buff art, the parodic palimpsest on the narrow-minded buff of niceness. Thus they seem to be in the simultaneous process of imbuing the buildings with a voice, allowing them to speak, or even sing, such as the French poet and essayist Paul Valéry talks about in Eupalinos or the Architect, a pastiche on Plato’s dialogues. Valéry has Eupalinos say that, of the city’s buildings which are populated, “certain are mute; others speak; and others, finally – and they are most rare – sing.” Buildings, then, express themselves through different forms of enunciations, not because it is “their purpose, nor even their general features, that give them such animation, or that reduce them to silence. These things depend upon the talent of their builder, or on the favour of the Muses.” But once the master builder has abandoned his building prematurely and has left it to live out its life in anonymity, it is down to the graffiti artist to raise it to life, to give it a voice by allowing the graffiti to erase its silent expression and rehash the building, not as background to his own expressive practice, but in dialogue with it. When, now, here, in a book or at an exhibition, we view the scattered paintworks as a whole, they appear to be subordinate to an unfailing pattern, the projected aesthetics of dialogic expressive practice, which has gradually come to disclose an artistic signature, though the graffiti of the individual paintworks in their scattered locales constitute their own autograph.
XIX. – Even though a number of paintworks, by means of iterative scorings on wall surfaces – in the form of zigzags, vertical and horizontal lines or wavy, arabesque-like doodles – approximate to the written characters or ideograms of the alphabet, in their sign status they remain devoid of significance and leave no references in the ordinary sense. In a way, the paintworks do respect the aniconistic prohibition of idolatry, which is a defining factor in the arabesque’s relationship with figuration. The paintworks’ approximation to figuration does not represent anything, does not invoke any iconicity, does not resemble anything and does not reproduce anything pre-established: by drawing their expression out towards the materiality of the scribbles as a writing surface pure and simple, they represent nothing, or one is forced to read them as enunciatingnothing. What we have here is the form of anti-mimesis which Niels Egebak, in his book by the same name, qualifies as a more authentic mimesis, which emphasizes the creative element (poiēsis) of artistic production rather than the imitative aspect dwelt on by traditional mimesis interpretation, carrying on from Plato. Representing (imagining) nothing is a destruction of the ontology that considers itself capable of asserting a natural connection between word and thing, image and world. At the same time their abstraction and suspended balance endows the paintworks with qualities evoking recollections of classical Zen Buddhist calligraphies. Unlike the western understanding of calligraphy as fine handwriting, the calligraphy in Zen Buddhist pen-and-ink drawing, as in these paintworks, is characterized by an improvisatory expression consisting of dynamic movements, asymmetrical markings, rhythmic vitality in accordance with a sense of spontaneity and articulation of the spatium between the ‘flesh’ and ‘bones’ of the strokes, as the Zen calligraphers put it, conducive to the harmony and balance of the expression as a whole. Paradoxically, the spaces thereby produced as a result of the paintworks’ speech are captured in the surface as speaking gaps, spatia, in dialogue with the expression of the painted wall, which has thus far been silent.
XX. – The same balanced expression manifests itself in the substantial surface paintworks, which, like palimpsests, are applied to the different buildings’ often voluminous, but in themselves mute surfaces. Paintworks thus primarily scans for aspects of the surface’s dimension, taking into account its distinctive potential for expression. The paintworks speak throughtheir surfaces about the surface, as speech. In that respect they form a unique variant of the kind of linguistic expressions concerned with their own expressive practice. At the same time, they submit experimentally to the aesthetically productive possibilities associated with making such expressions invoke and reflect on their most immediate materiality: colour, shape, surface, paint stroke, background and locality. By insisting on their own flattened character, in the form of rectangles and signs devoid of significance, the paintworks initiate a dialogue with the walls’ flat background, thereby drawing these into the foreground: the walls here are not more or less neutral backdrops for graffiti, but through the paintworks’ differentiating movements on their surface the walls suddenly leap forward from their insignificant background and assert themselves as the paintworks’ spatium. In so doing, Paintworks is still in touch with the trend in visual art from Manet and Cézanne to American abstract expressionism, in which the correlation between background, middle ground and foreground is gradually dismantled. Already in Cézanne’s many portraits of Mme Cézanne, where the background is represented with the same passion as his wife’s face, the emphatic ground levels out the depth of the picture: a convergence of figure and ground shifts the depth in the picture over towards a spatium. We find a similar interpretation of space as spatium, rather than illusionary space, in Paintworks. Here, in dialogue with the walls, the artistic expression represents a spatiality that stresses intensio rather than extensio. The walls appear in their own right as an articulation of an extended, uniform, optical space, slipping into the background of the emptiness of the urban space, but the dynamic effect on the walls generated by the paintworks produces an intensive, affective, haptic space, a spatium. So the visual expression in the paintworks also seems to display a kind of elective affinity with the obscure novella, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, published by the schoolteacher and theologian Edwin Abbott Abbott in 1884 under the pseudonym A Square. Flatland is designed as a systematic investigation of its world’s two dimensions through descriptions of nature, climate, houses, inhabitants, the irregular figure, the sense of sight, the painting practice of the ancient world, colours, visions of a Lineland, a visit by Sphere from Spaceland and a two-dimensional world’s issue with a theory of three dimensions. Evidently, Paintworks portrays its own Flatland, which investigates the dimensions of its world on the terms of visual expression, but such a stipulation still relies solely on the formal constraints of expression based on a strictly spatial point of view. In adhering to a spatial outlook on these paintworks, we are surely in excessive thrall to the ontological aesthetics of conventional art interpretation, which has always found it hard to retain and document the art of happening, land art, environmental art, art in the urban space and other art forms whose expression is linked to the locality of the place and subordinate to the temporal conditions of its very creation.
XXI. – The rhythmic dynamic improvisations in Paintworks are subordinate to the temporal process in the significant gestures with which they are made. Despite having been made over some length of time, according to the photo-documentation, the paintworks stand out for their expression of immediacy, now, here, not as something given, but in accordance with kairos, the opportune moment, as something seized at the right time and place, a seizure of the place, the locality in front of which we have stopped. The temporality of improvisation can be read directly in the paintworks where the wet paint is running at the bottom of a painted field or from an apparently rashly applied stroke of paint, or where the field appears unfinished or where the calligraphic characters figure on the canvas of the walls with a sudden and surprising effect. Through the documentation, it is possible to read the temporal creation taking place over time. Even more essentially, however, part and parcel of the paintworks as graffiti art is that they appear with a temporary expression that offends against an order and will therefore be removed again, typically when the buildings’ authorized managers attempt to restore the broken order that comes about as a result of the paintworks’ unauthorized action. That way, painting and painting-over, or removing paint at the individual location can be repeated in several goes until the paintwork seems to have sufficiently approached the nature of completeness, although it never finds rest on a permanent expression. A dialogue herewith emerges between forces which remain invisible to one another and refer back to two quintessentially different but mutually dependent, signifying gestures, which in turn interlink and conflate two approaches to time, implicating and complicating time through their changing actions. We are dealing with two forms of palimpsest here: 1) the addition in the form of the paintworks that initially enter into a dialogue with the walls’ silent expression, but next time round enter into a dialogue with the efforts to remove them, and 2) the removal, which is no less significant than the paintworks, even though it seeks to neutralize them, but in so doing also ends up involuntarily dialoguing with them. The removal indirectly makes up a part of the work and contributes to its suggestive nature, as it is potentially capable of being present and absent, and is actually so at the same time. This gradually unfurled effect of the work, however, is only evoked clearly through the montage technique of the documenting photographs, albeit they seem to create a new palimpsest with the same gestures.
XXII. – Paintworks thus plays on the duality of being and not being at once, as we can also read in Mallarmé’s sonnet, Toute l’âme résumée, in which the final couplet reads: “Le sens trop précis rature/ Ta vague littérature” (“A too precise meaning erases/ Your vague literature”). The end rhyme rature-littérature marks the duality of the aesthetic palimpsest: it both eliminates and generates, it both is something and is nothing, something nothing. The removal of paintworks attempts to establish a spatial state where time stands still, or at least does not appear operative in the urban space whose changes and decay time nevertheless brings about. It is what we generally call ‘niceness’, even though several of the localities selected for painting basically stand out as examples of the dreary vacant sites of post-industrialism. However, the removal of the paintworks is subordinate to the paintworks’ gestures, which initiate the dialogue; and by evoking changes in and of the urban space this same gesture becomes subordinate to time by the same gesture. The paintworks open up the urban space, not in the form of beautifying urban regeneration but in the form of a game or through playing with the walls’ surfaces, thereby making the local urban space become active in a dynamic way. Where previously the walls merely hinted at the surroundings’ space, there the paintworks endow them with voices and enable the architecture involved to articulate the space and make it its own thing as an urban space. In this way, through the temporality of this expressive practice, the paintworks’ gestural significatory act, or its act of writing, initiates a critical dialogue and negotiations with the structurally hidden forces that assert themselves in the local ontology of the urban space.
XXIII. – For us passers-by, occasioned by the paintworks at an indeterminate locality, halting in our targeted movement on the way towards a destination, the locality becomes a place in its own right, and as a place it arches a space around us, thereby opening up an opportunity for conversation, perhaps about the place, about Paintworks or about other issues brought on by the work. Such gestural significatory acts in literature and art, then, encourage people to halt at the place of the work, allowing us to bump into it, so to speak. When we can bump into such works and the place where they unfurl, it is due to them asserting themselves with a particularly vigorous rhetorical persuasio or architectural solidity, which first draws attention to itself before being allowed to draw attention to anything else. It is this temporality that we cite as an antecedent in any expressive practice whatsoever, as a speech speaking about itself, a discourse (Lat. discurrere, to run back and forth) that dwells on the progressive movement of its enunciation before it can step out beyond itself and deliver statements about the world. Only on that basis can we now, here determine the locality a little more accurately as a vital significatory component in Paintworks. The work evidently does take care of the place where it unfurls. It displays a sort of ethical consideration towards the local place, which is instrumental in allowing the beholders at the locality to assign the work ethos, i.e. character. But what is the locale that Paintworks gives occasion to consider in this way? It actually makes no sense to speak about a local place or a local place, in as much as a place is always defined by its locality, which also means the locals residing at the place, and the whole of whose presence in the situation is linked to the place. Those who are made to stop in a place become present; they are assigned a Presence by means of that place and a communality with one another. That is why a work like Paintworks bears an ethical responsibility in its invoking of the passers-by, which is to say that the work opens up the urban space and renders the passers-by present. Above all else, then, the locale (Lat. locus, Gr. topos) constitutes its own, proper place – not as familiarity, as homeliness, for the stranger is also welcome in a strange place, in the ethically responsible locality, but in the form of the proper, the prop-rietary which those present become capable of ap-propri-ating by remaining at the place. It is this appropriation of the proprietary which is made possible by the local work in the urban space, and which Paintworks bestows upon different, select localities, which have not already made themselves remarkable by their properties.
XXIV. – In a sense, the gesture of graffiti is always to appropriate a place by adding features to it, a local colouring, possibly just in the form of a tag, regardless of whether it is all city, the more permanent landmark, the banal ʻKilroy was here’ or the spectacular Banksy, who seems to subject himself a little too willingly to the ontology of conventional aesthetics. But it is a different kind of interaction with locality which we find in the various and scattered Paintworks, because they do not represent something in the same way but, on the contrary, represent nothing, say nothing. They have no desire to bring down the ‘walls of Jericho’ or have us ‘see the handwriting on the wall’. Rather, in their signifying gestures, they appear to be the remnants of an act of writing that did not have its expression as its aim, but accepts it as an involuntary circumstance by allowing the gestures of the act to unfurl in their space. All the more do they assume the nature of the instant, which we have repeatedly highlighted as a now, here that defies localization anywhere other than in a unique locality. A now, here is not generalizable, it is not comparable with anything other than itself, and as such it is just as much a nowhere. In English this duality is expressed as a now-here, which is simultaneously a no-where and in that sense becomes important for the title of Samuel Butler’s utopian novel Erewhon, or Over the Range, from 1872. Although the letters h and w are reversed, Butler understands Erewhon to be nowhere spelt backwards, and as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze notes in Difference and Repetition (1968), “Butler’s Erewhon seems to us not only a hidden no-where but a disguised now-here.” It is such significance of the locale that manifests itself with Paintworks; not as statements about the particularity of the empirical urban space or the city’s abstract universality but as graffiti about graffiti, a speech that speaks merely in order to speak, and thus gives voice to the place. Indeed, how do the localities take up place in these paintworks? Like the place in Mallarmé’s typographically orchestrated Un coup de dés, when, across several pages, with a typography of their own, he spreads the words: “RIEN // N’AURA EU LIEU // QUE LE LIEU // EXCEPTÉ // PEUT-ÊTRE // UNE CONSTELLATION” (“Nothing // will have taken place // but the place // except // perhaps // a constellation”). Spread around the space of the city, at select localities, Paintworks marks a place where we halt and bump into the place as place. The work opens up the place as a place which now, here does not stand in place of anything but itself.
Translated by Tim Davies, London