In the Chains of Events
– from index, through a no-thing, to appendix
Ed. Txt Critique
Lyotard notes that, as the work of art may claim a status exceeding that of the cultural object (“even if it is also, and always has been, such
an object”), it is afforded the capacity to “insist itself as the promise of an infinitude of forms and commentaries”, thus producing itself as “a profusion, a transportment, a mass of latent associations exceeding all provisions of its ‘reception’ and ‘production’.” And this attitude towards holding up the character of art as event has deleterious effects on efforts to inscribe the works in an art history understood as a chronological history of art. “The continuation of the promise exceeds the chronology”, Lyotard writes, ushering in “a time of expectations and fulfilment, which is beyond calculation.”
This is an interpretation. And thus it is also a story. In making this, I’m working with and reanimating the past so as to be able to imagine different futures. This text was written and published in relation to an exhibition of works by Kristian Sæderup (1981–2021), a brilliant landscape photographer and educator, and a dear friend, who sadly died of cancer last autumn. He left his archive of work in the care of his brother and fellow artist Mathias Sæderup to curate – a term borrowed from the Latin word cūrātus, cognate with the verb to educate. Shortly before Kristian passed, he wrote me a letter and sent me a link to a documentary about the photographer, curator, historian and critic John Szarkowski. The letter contained exchanges, or interchanges, which I will seek here to answer, dialogically.
Through writing about his relationship to time, his thoughts and feelings regarding time in both his private life and his work life, Kristian wrote about the relations between his private family and work life (as I understand it). He also wrote about Walker Evans and the traditions tied in with Evans’s work. One of these is the Western landscape photography tradition, a tradition into which Kristian’s work inscribes itself. Doing so (again, in my reading and interpretation), he coupled his work to traditions stretching at least as far back as Romantic landscape painting through to the modern traditions of landscape photography, including cityscape and urban photography.
I understand my own photographic work to draw on similar themes and traditions, and have been meditating on these, among other things, writing this text. The schema below offers a way of entering both the text and the process of beginning to give a possible explanation – or, I emphasize again, a reading and interpretation, of what follows.
According to the schematization I’m ready to propose today, photo-graphy can be viewed as, and thus understood in terms of, abstraction. That is: through interpreting photography as photo-graphy, we may understand it as an abstract gesture moving and circulating what has been perceived, through an abstractive gesture of one’s perception, into one’s history. This history we may understand as one’s perception of one’s recollection – erindring. In my view, this relates it closely to the question of ‘the landscape’ and the problems related to working with and thinking about representation within the field of the visual arts.
So. What, then, is at stake in the publication to which this text is an appendix? Something operates echoing the logic of jokes. That is, my photographs can, also, function as visual jokes. And, like jokes, this is serious business. When trying to understand my photographic and on-going project “DOCUMENTED OBSERVATIONS” or DO. OB. (Danish: DOKUMENTEREDE OBSERVATIONER or DOK. OBS.) one should, first of all, approach it as a praxis. A praxis that seeks to be self-critical, clinical, and, in this sense, theoretical. A praxis set in the context of artistic research, contemporary art, modernism and the modern project – including a (self-)critique of Enlightenment theories. After adding that it’s a photographic project, I’ll point out that I’m trying to work with photo-graphy in a way so as to be able to demonstrate a kind of ‘nothing’ – in the tradition of a modernist like Mark Rothko, who, in his late work, worked with painting in a way where he sought to make empty – or ‘bare’ – paintings, thus portraying, rather than representing, a no-thing. In my view this visualized nothing is best understood as an artistic vision of the notion of nature. (Nature taken as that which we perceive to be untroubled. That is, when ‘it’ is analysed and perceived through the use of ‘a basic human emotional register’ as ‘it’ unfolds within our contemporary culture). We can thus place it in opposition to an artistic rendering. This corresponds to the opposing positions which can be explained as 1) making use of an anti-mimesis approach, and 2) that of an approach, to working with images, which upholds the idea of a mimetic representational logic.
The No-Thing of the Image
What’s a nothing? What’s a no-thing? It is a some-thing with the quality of emptiness. I would use the Danish noun tomt, a ‘nouned’ form of the past participle of the Danish verb at tømme, ‘to empty’. A kind of void. The English language is poor here. Words like blank or vacant are available. But empty it is! What is empty is empty in a way making it available for the holding of something (basic human emotions for example) when taken into use. Which, then again, because Rothko succeeds in creating this kind of tomt, which may – only – be used if you can use it, can eventuate in (that is, not simply depict or represent, but bring to the fore) the use of one's basic human emotions.
Asked in 1949 what he was interested in, Rothko answered: “I’m not interested in relationships of colour or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on.” And through my praxis, to all that modernism, I add some serious humour. Because even though I admire Rothko’s methods, his sensibility and his rigour in terms of drawing upon this, I add what characterizes my view on things – my view of the world. I’ll describe it as a critical kind of awkwardness enveloped in the discomfort generated by living the experience of being alive in this era. A critique, expressed through ‘observing’, and thereby through reading and making an interpretation of a possible structure, what I would call the desperateness and accompanying plain stupidity of this structuring – I guess also still late-modern – condition: the oafishness (tåbeligheden) of the extrapolated (beregnede), resulting in the over-planned. Our public spaces in the cityscape, for instance. Thus the work both carries a critique of late-modernism and capitalism. I find this ‘expressed’ in, or, rather, to be able to be brought about through photo- -graphically drawing on what I stumble upon – what I call, what I interpret – as cracks, cuts or relations in-between things in the cityscape.
About Urban Spaces, through Urbanistic Analysis, not Urban-ism!
For me, to be able to relate to the urban landscape as an existing actual space requires that ‘it’ be studied, and thus used. Through engaging with the cityscape, and the theories of the urban – the landscape. This means that my work is located in the traditions of painting. From pre-romanticism, by way of modernism to the questions that the photographic tradition entails. All dealing with landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes, which, again, are inscribed in traditions. One of these is Neue Sachlichkeit; another New Topographics. Both involve, by virtue of the modern sense of this term, the man-made landscape. That means a focus on the banal, which I propose can be traced and thus produced as ‘everyday findings’ (hverdagsfund). Whatever that is… whatever this might be able to mean to us today, as we head into tomorrow. Of course there are a thousand ways for one to go into and get on to that.
Writing the Sense of a Place
The artist’s book to which this appendix is attached is called Byens skrift i mine øjne – ‘the writing of the city in my eyes’ or ‘the city as written in my eyes’. Giving it this title I’ve sought to emphasize that the work I do as a photographer isn’t to translate, trans-scribe, or simply mediate the writing – or scripture – of any specific city. Through this book, I’m arguing that my reading of such a ‘writing’ must, of course, be an interpretation. Do you read me? Or do you not read my way of interpreting our world(s)? It’s an interpretation of what it is that I see. This would be the case even if I didn’t want to know about it – if I did not consider my reading as an interpretational act. A gesture. Which would be to imply that I were ‘simply’ viewing the world ‘as it is’. But, I assert, this is not an option – and thus to answer the questions posed would be to exceed both the limits of this text, and where I’m placed in relation to my work right now. Even so, I can allude to some aspects, as I do here. Which of course is also what – I wish – is to be manifested through my mode of photographing and of presenting the photographs. Although there will be no field, no exact centre… not, at least, until we begin to use a specific place… then, and only then, can the relations and the ways of relating be brought to the fore. This is what I hope that you, as another, will also be able to see. So, to ‘round it off’, to round this section off – because it can’t be rounded off, but will only be able to be continued, through being brought forth – I’ll continue below with a few, still rather speculative, suggestions.
Cities as Relational Structures
I suggest that we think of the city as a structure. Any city can be considered so, of course – but only because of the ways in which the relations of this one particular structure forms something (Danish: danner noget). In other words: it’s not that, as in the Danish formulation du bliver hvad du spiser, “you become what you eat”, but, rather, hvad du spiser, det er du: “that which you are, you are eating”. So. Is this related to the mode in which I relate to continuing a photographic praxis? Yes: I believe that moving through a city, while ‘observing it’ through taking notice of its vibrant and various movements, is part of its structuring. And so by photographing (what I perceive to be) the traces of activity within this dynamic structure, I’m seeking to add to the ways in which it can be written and, thus, it may be read. All this I try to do as privately as possible. So, that it may be made as generally as possible. In my view this is a modernist notion. That one – me, you, anyone and everyone – can use this method where one’s ‘material’ is metaphorized through the use of the personal, so that it might transcend the private, arriving in the realm of the general. For my last artist’s book (in the DOK. OBS.-series) I borrowed three poems from the Danish poet, dramatist, translator and critic Peter Laugesen. Among other reasons, this was because he has, through his praxis, worked in these ways with this kind of method. Here I’ve taken the liberty of translating, and reusing, one of the poems:
What there is
that it is
as it is
in the form
it gets by happening
I claim (and claim to show) through my ways of working with the photographic, that what there is – as it is – only acquires the shapes it takes on through its ways of happening. Happening through acts. As a photo-graphic act ‘it’ is added to our world(s) ‘of things and no-things’. Through ‘its’ happening ‘it’ acts, thereafter – in the now – acting as a document (the value of which, again, is related to the ways in which it remains able to be circulated). For as long as we can read it. Only in these ways – as ‘observable’ and ‘document’ – functioning as some-thing, we view and perceive as a phenomenon (within the realities of our worlds).
Interlude: De-Scribing My Perspective on Kristian Sæderup’s Photo-Graphic Work and Praxis
Where, then, do I find other examples? And how can the comparisons I make be written? Here I’ve worked with a schema to give a sense of the way I understand the impredicative logic the schema shows us. I use it to propel my preliminary reading and interpretation of the work by Kristian Sæderup: what is important in the work is time; attempts to use a relational approach to time. Both as a central theme, metaphor, and thus as the non-material subject matter – which again, in my view, is the ballast of Kristian Sæderup’s oeuvre. I read Kristian’s work through the working experiences I’ve had with reading and editing my own photographic work, together with comments on its inherent seriality I received from Kristian. That is, what became a dialogue between, and about, my work and his. Thus in some way here mirroring the ways in which he and I both seemed able to read our own work, through speaking about it with different artist colleagues. I understood Kristian’s approach to be phenomenological: he was for instance interested in Levinas’s theory about a ‘face-to-face’ relation (rapport de face à face) – but also as seeking to go beyond those ontological logics inherent to phenomenology.
In my view, one theme is definitely present in all his work: questions permeating the relationships arising from the relation of being, one among others. In my reading not necessarily part of a whole (in the sense of an abstracted, great totality; the Whole) but, rather, knotted into a web full of holes. Regardless, ‘being’ – in the sense of being among others – in a structuring of the social. In ways that, while they might today seem unfamiliar to us, are nonetheless something that enables our sense of subjectivity, not to say the possibility of subjectivization. Taking part in a collective and its processes. That is, when read as, indirectly, dealing with the question of subjectivity, as one of the central questions of our late-modern era, which again involves questions about man's relation to – and thus the logical reason for – calling something God, a spirit, or anything else that seriously engages with det åndelige: ‘the spiritual’.
(Abstraction as) Gestures of Abstracting.
Reading as interpretation
læsning som tolkning
Which brings me to the schema itself. Which – when one ‘follows’ the Möbius strip it makes as one walks along and through this structure so as to actually make use of it while ‘it’ simultaneously envelopes – using us – and thus unfolds the logic of that which I’m seeking to name: the photo-graphic. The schema is an attempt to move beyond questions of moral and normative value and proceed into the ethical. I’m here using and thus proposing to understand the ethical through, and as related to, an aspherical logic, as readings of Lacan’s work, it seem to me, have succeeded in developing (udbygge) – and in this way trying to develop my sense of precisely this. And thereby moving towards a critique without ideology, if such a critique can be made to – ethically? – hold up in praxis. (The problems these last sentences raise will have to be developed, in and of themselves, in texts working with and dedicated to the specific problematics and perspectives).
Now; what does all this have to do with time? Everything. Kristian Sæderup greatly admired the work of Robert Adams together with – although doubting its value as something ‘real enough’, maybe due to the theatrical aspects of his approach? – Mark Rothko's work and praxis. I, for my part, am convinced that, while it also has to be investigated further, this is due to the upholding of a relational approach in these – the specific – time-based methods of all three praxes.
By saying this, I want to point out that these praxes, while I’ve here been focusing on Kristian Sæderup’s photographic work, all prompt the viewer to make oneself acquainted with the work through and as experience – in, and from, the sense of the German noun Erfahrung. First of all, the experience of time. And, implicitly in this, one's experience of ‘being’ – in time – for the time being. And through this the question of being, standing, in relation to… and again, being in relation to another being – physically present or not – somewhere. That is, something bigger than anything else. Which everything else then can be viewed in relation to. And so, if one is working with these themes, coming from a modernist approach, what kind of ‘physical’, and thereby visual, subject matter – besides that of seeking to demonstrate the no-thing of the image – can one choose to work with? My answer is: Nature, the landscape – or the cityscape – and thus, indirectly, light and sky. That which, actually, is bigger than anything else in one's view(-finder). This point is not pulled out of thin air. One, I believe, important reference is to be found in the work Kristian made for Sejerø Festival in 2013, titled “SPEJLET”.
Why not? Why not let some-thing show no-thing? And through this use of ‘it’, point to the durational movement or movements of time? So, in my analysis, to photograph the landscape – or cityscape – is an indirect way of dealing with one’s relation to nature, which is an indirect way of working with depicting the sky, which again is an indirect way of photographing – that which can hardly be photographed – the sun's ways of shining and lighting our surroundings. This thus comes to be a way of depicting, and indirectly representing, that which (in principle) cannot be portrayed. And so instead one can photograph the lighting and its changing ways – developing the differences it makes – which, again, is an indirect way of, photo-graphically, pointing towards the movement of time and our experience of ‘it’. While, working with it, being ‘out there’… under the more-or-less divine sky, with its ‘cloud’ (himlen og ‘skyen’), which used to be related to God’s work... now metaphors of the supposed knowledge contained in Big Tech’s datasets.
So what I’m proposing is that the making of art – when this is done in ways in which the process of making is not related to the execution of a project – can be understood as an interpretation, and thus a re-writing, of the past, through the reading of past artworks, and, in this way, the making use of art history. I acknowledge and fully recognize that my analysis is not yet clear in its formulation and that it needs to be properly worked out. For instance, one problem that the above largely phenomenological, and thus ontological, approach raises is that it might be diminishing the question of use value, leaving it basically unanalyzed. This leaves me, from my point of view, with no other choice, at the moment, than to consider the problem of defining the photo-graphical as something which – of course – requires further investigation. I will carry on with such investigations – using my Danish terms: foto- og -grafi – through studies into the ‘photo-’ and the ‘-graphic’ of the photo-graphic.
These studies have already begun. So I will now return to my fieldwork. Because the most important question to ask will continue to be, it seems, what it is that ‘actually’ happens, through our sensing of our realities – that field into which we living, relating and working come into – when we (photo-)graphically produce our surroundings, such as a cityscape or a garden – or even a private room – as a place taken into use. (This could very well also be the question related to the analysis of the experience(s) of the digitalization and virtualization of our environment(s) and milieu – and thus perhaps to be increasingly related to the making, and making sense, of the conditions for the formation of subjectivities in our contemporary times). That is: through making images of and thus, through a gesture of abstracting, drawing up interpretations, from abstractions, through a notational gesture, which again, through a mimesis-gesture is a conceptual gesture, noting abstractions. It is these kinds of images I – in this sense – claim can be understood as abstractions.
It can be argued that they are abstractivizations since what we may discover them to attain are the specific ‘things’ ‘outside’ the various fields we use. Fields we only occupy as long as we are making use of the space as a place, and which are generated by our relations to them, in one specific or another way.
I have, or have sought to, demonstrate that the ‘two’ praxes of making images and working with theory are entangled. To say the least. I will as a final note correct myself and say, rather, that they are one and the same – and thus to formulate that I’m sure we need to understand and read, meaning use, ‘one’ praxis (photography as the ‘reading’ of one’s own interpretations) in tandem with and on ‘the other’ (reading as the ‘writing’ of one’s interpretations).
To end, a final thought: I’d like to point out that in the above I’ve tried to do just this. Through the movement of my readings – and interpretation – I have sought to test my ideas, in praxis, together with those proposed by various colleagues and collaborators in the course of our conversations. In the past as much as in the present. I believe this is the proper way to proceed, through praxis: working it through, in language.
That is, through writing, reading, making interpretations of and speaking about ‘it’, that which shows itself able to be worked with, as a material, on the terms it’s ‘working out’ (bearbejdelse), reveals itself as demanding to be resolved in this way. As it now is. Only with this caveat: only now, we relate to ‘it’ as a trace. Albeit a significant trace which thus – as a significant X – keeps meaning attached to it, as long as it is in use, relatable and thus circulatable.
Jonas Georg Christensen, 2022
1 Foranlediget af at kunstværket således ikke kun har status som kulturelt objekt (»selvom det også er det, og altid har været det«), bemærker Lyotard at det »kan hævde sig som et løfte om en uendelighed af former og kommentarer« og rummer »en overflod, en henførelse, et potentiale af associationer, som overstiger alle bestemmelser af dets »reception« og »produktion««. Og denne agtelse på kunstens karakter af begivenhed har ødelæggende virkninger på bestræbelserne på at indskrive værkerne i en kunstens historie ... »[...] Løftets videreførelse hører ikke ind under kronologien: det åbner for en forventningernes og indfrielsens tid, som ikke lader sig kalkulere«. Carsten Madsen, “Art As Event. History, Time and Matter in Cézanne”, in Shapes of Time (1997).
2 www.en.wiktionary.org/wiki/educate: “... Etymology. From Latin educatus, past participle of educare (“to "bring up or rise up or train or mould or nourish" (a child, physically or mentally), rear, educate, train (a person in learning or art), nourish, support, or produce (plants or animals)”), frequentative of educere, past participle eductus (“to "bring out or lead out or draw out or rear" (a child, usually with reference to bodily nurture or support, while educare refers more frequently to the mind)”), from e (“out”) + ducere (“to lead, draw”) ...”
3 For an introduction to the concept of anti-mimesis, in Danish, see Anti-Mimesis (1970), Niels Egebak.
4 Here are some of my references: Laura Gilpin, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hiller Becher, Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, Cindy Sherman, Stephen Shore and Viviane Sassen.
5 As I understand it, my analysis, and the considerations made in this text, find support in Carsten Madsen’s article “Art As Event. History, Time and Matter in Cézanne”, in Shapes of Time (1997).
6 I owe this formulation to my friend and colleague Anders Riis.
7 This point is an elaboration of what Madsen concludes in “Art As Event”, on page 48 writing that: “Hvis man i meget kort sammentrængt form skulle resumere, forekommer en kunsthistorisk kommentar der betragter værker som begivenheder 1) at fremskrive en iscenesættelse af tidligere maleriske problemer som uafsluttelige idet de, for nutiden, fremstår som en intern problematisk enhed af det bestemmelige (aktualitet), det ubestemmelige (virtualitet) og bestemmelsen (reaktualisering), 2) at gøre en forståelse af stoflighed og tradition som sammenvævet gældende idet den, ud fra kommentarens egen historicitet, viser tilbage til tid som en heterogenitet af rene forskelle, og 3) at fremme parodien ikke blot som gyldig forståelsesform for den historiske forandring værkerne imellem, men også som et muligt våben mod den teleologisk fremadrettede historieskrivning.”