Catalog essay accompanying Archipelago exhibition at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art.
Figures of Ground
Preamble: Portrait as Landscape
The horizon, the separating circle, forms two kinds of boundaries. There is the perception of edge between the planet and its atmosphere, and then there is that vertical plane of your vision, the picture itself, that describes the limits of sight. The horizon is a notation that allows us to register space, an infinite series of vanishing points, a code of realism by which we align ourselves as beings on earth, standing at a particular height, with the frontal eyes of a predator. If a representation can be called perspectival, if I accept, in a flat image, the suggestion of distance, this is determined entirely by the position of that line, even if it has been obscured. And all the figures that make up that ground, if ordered convincingly within the frame, place me where I stand.
In a still image as in life, these figures consist of ground. Thus, they are consistent with it – and terribly similar in their predictable and unchanging patterns. Inside one, a crystal has seeded and is slowly resolving into an object of bright pain. Epicurus rubs his side as something swerves. Another is growing calculi in her tonsil crypt that fluoresce under black light. Otoliths jingle like chandelier earrings from within your labyrinth, and in a sudden reorientation you are turned on your side and vomiting, your horizon bisecting the sky. In caves and intestines, pearls are wrapped in inconstant silence.
Here’s a game. Are you maneuvering your neck at precise angles to reposition something you can only sense now that it has floated loose? I’ll hold your head for you – sometimes this helps. I’m going to hold it just here, where mine is. This is my view. (This was my view, for when you are here, I am not.) Are you choking on a piece of statuary? Let me reach in. Did a fleck you could not digest lodge in your body, and now, like something living, it has begun to eat and grow? I can dissolve it, but here is my warning. The irritant is still there, and still sharp. And something else that looked so solid will be gone.
The first eyes in the fossil record were a pair, but in that the trilobite looking out at the carbonate waters constituting its sky was peering through compounded facets of calcite crystals, the landscape it saw may have doubled and doubled again. Calcite crystals, rhombohedral polymorphs of calcium carbonate, display the optical quality of birefringence, meaning that light passing through their prism is split into two beams (the ordinary and extraordinary), and that what is seen through the crystal appears doubled. It was calcite through which the earth first saw itself, and calcite that revealed light too, as a wave that could be polarized, unraveling the minute ellipses traced by photons (of which lines and circles are merely special cases) within the parallelogram of its face. When I look through a calcite crystal I can no longer locate the word I read beyond in relation to its twin unless I rotate the lens to make the extraordinary ray orbit the ordinary. But the fixity of the other does not make it more true. Each word is legible, composed equally of light.
To see binocularly is to have a brain which, when offered conflicting images, resolves them into one. It is also through the synthesis of these two overlapping but distinct scenes that the creature perceives depth and distance. To see twice through so many doubling crystals, as the trilobite did, could be kaleidoscopic and jagged, or may similarly fuse into a seamless mental image from which complex maps of figures and spaces might be understood. Perhaps, with enough lenses, all the sides of a form could be apprehended, and parallel lines could extend indefinitely without collapse, always in the same relation, never touching.
In opposition to the perspectival drawing of horizon lines and vanishing points, alternate systems of representation such as axonometric projection attempt to remedy distortions created by the limits of our binocular vision. While, if I hope to imitate what the human eye sees from a particular point, I must render a distant face smaller and less distinct than a closer one, by the laws of axonometry the abstract “truth” of an object is preserved even at the expense of its realism. Parallel lines run only alongside each other, and equivalent objects that are nearer or farther in space are drawn at equal size. By perspectival drawing (in which I am already imagining I have only one eye), I am fixed where I stand as an individual subject by the gorgon face of the image, turned to stone. In an axonometric universe, the center of projection sits in infinity. I have no horizon, and neither have you, and we can see forever. We both inhabit the same non-place, without subjectivity, and I can be where you are while you can, too. The disorientation created by axonometric images allows for the seemingly impossible to be experienced as suddenly real – the waterfall flows backwards, I stand as tall and hale as the long dead – and one might call this experience an illusion. The senses, in their feast on truth, are deluded into a perception outside of reality – or, at least, outside of the understanding of the single eye.
Of that primordial solution in which calcium carbonate trilobites watched each other approaching and receding without, perhaps, a shift in size, the marine chemistry they looked through was preserved in their bodies long after the calcite seas receded. Compressed beneath time, their bodies and landscape formed limestones and marbles and chalks, and the water that eats them back up gnawed out caverns in the bedrock. With his eye to a few of these vistas, from a viewpoint not specified nor necessarily singular but likely rocky where he might sun himself like a lizard, poet W.H. Auden watches men stumbling over these bodies in twosomes and triangles. Some are made of flesh and some are made of stone. He sees them in the round.
It is a habit of certain writers to look axonometrically at history. This flattening allows a living reader, laying aside acknowledgement of the distance in time and space between her body and the body she ascribes to the figure who addresses her, to feel proximity and imagine contact. In expectation of this telescopic collapse, such writers invite such projection, embedding synchrony into their texts. They cast themselves in words and then walk away, leaving the reader to encounter their impression, evidence of their having lived but also something more, a kind of being carried forward, of but not constituting that original organism, having been materially replaced. Walt Whitman is now with you. Sappho is being remembered, she says, even in another time. Most eyes keep moving, but some are tripped up, stumbling over the significance like anything might have when you’re lonely and in love, that glow of hyper-signification condensing suddenly, druzily, on some object, a letter dropped from God into the street. They return, and read the incantation again. The utterance performs for the duration of its reading, conjuring that figure, obliterating distance. Who touches this book touches a man.
“This is no book / Who touches this, touches a man,” he says, but is it night? And are we alone? And is he dead? Because death facilitates this particular access to Whitman. The worst mistake is the conflation of the conjured figure with the writer who has since been walking, who has receded into his perspectival landscape, nearly vanished. Anne Gilchrist, one of Whitman’s early readers, was unlucky, too contemporary with the man whose recent fossil she loved, though after his rejection they enjoyed tea together and Whitman grew fond of her son. Allen Ginsberg’s posthumous romance was easier, with an acquiescent, bearded ghost to accompany him grocery shopping whenever he touched his book. Some ask to be touched and some do not, but I can reach for either. The dead do not have to hide, nor do they choose who looks at them. Auden, the watcher and unaccompanied, inconspicuously slips his dildo under a sunwashed stone.
The touch they invite, when they invite it, activates a reaching through the mechanism of desire. Where eros is lack, as it must always be, a triangulation is established between the lover, the beloved, and what comes between. What comes between is expansive, beginning at the skin, like the sky begins at the ground, and permeating all categories in which differentiation is possible. It describes edges, as a touch does, connecting via separation, and in doing so, establishes both subject and object. What comes between is the book, the letters, the characters, the distance, the exchange, the flesh of the body itself. Desire, dependent on absence, enacts a gesture of continual reaching, the product of which is never contact but the straining towards it. Such poses of effort, the lover’s discursive artifacts, have been called figures.
These figures, composed of everything except body, circulate as proxies of that body, with a different mode and length of life. They are deployed deliberately or traced inadvertently, and it is them we reach to when it is them we hope to reach through. Their transmission function is not reciprocal, due to their unfortunate capacity as objects to travel only forward in time. However, they offer the artist a seductive and axonometric image of an existence after death, a way, by reaching forward, to engender a future reaching back, thus summoning the artist’s figure into that moment. There is a story in Slavic folklore of a man called Koschei the Deathless, who, for some time, escaped death by hiding his soul inside of a needle inside of an egg inside of a duck inside of a rabbit inside of a chest buried under an oak tree on an island. Whitman claimed triumph over death by jumping between bodies, even into the reader’s own, if he should accept him as his lover. It is common to hope for recourse. Auden is not convinced of any, of lasting love or a life after death, but if such things are possible, he thinks they might have something to do with limestone.
So when the figure addresses me, when it solicits me for my love, my body, my coordinates in the landscape of time, to accept is to take into myself something of another. It is only a two-dimensional shadow, a fossil’s film of sooty carbon, barely expressing the edges of soft tissue, falling far short of a being. But, like the embalmed seed at the center of some pearls, it is also possibly a parasite. When it enters me I may digest and absorb it, but I may also find it something I can neither assimilate nor expel. And so it grows within me, wrapped in accumulating layers of my own material to protect it, to protect me, to build up that barrier that defines its separation from me, its host, its home. Few pearls form around the proverbial grain of sand. Instead, since they are desired, they are more commonly seeded by intention, the maker pried open for the insertion of a metal shard into its mantle, or even a rounded bead to give it shape, over which the mollusk deposits concentric layers of calcium carbonate with faithful desperation. In other animals, the bezoar’s center is willfully ingested, and the obstructing stone that grows in the gut incorporates whatever material might pass. That these stones might kill the ones who are building them only increases their value. “Death is nothing to us,” said Epicurus, with kidneys full of crystal.
When the right body is entered something begins to form. This is why, perhaps, the ones that most often catch on the words, who do not credit the easy distinction between the ordinary world and its virtual twin , more vulnerable than some to the power of language, are writers, too. Sappho entered Renée Vivien and the twentieth-century poet, hijacked, learned Greek in order to translate her solicitor’s words, then followed her to Lesbos to see the view from that island herself. Vivien, and Ginsberg too, who tried out his own claims to presence, with Carl Solomon in Rockland , found that as lovers, having accepted that seed (Whitman’s belabored insemination ), the only way to respond to their untouchable objects of desire was to produce. And so they crafted their incantations in turn and sent them forward, placing their figures in the axonometric landscape to be called up in the future by new partners, the bodiless offspring of a virtual love.
That first watcher with the crystals in its eyes vertically wrapped, seeing in every direction but below, can still be seen. Depending on the chemical composition of its grave, crystals of different materials filled the gaps in the trilobite’s soft cells or dissolved and replaced its rigid structures, the chitinous carbonate of its cuticle recrystallized into calcite, or brassy pyrite precipitated into its yielding interior. Bodies and their traces are preserved through transformation, which is no preservation at all. Fossilization instead forms something related but new, speaking of an absent body with a present figure, composed of and by the material landscape in which it has been embedded. That material might be a mineral, or an image, or a word. Harry Mathews offers a fossilization process by which one text can be replaced with another’s content, deposited homosyntactically into the original’s internal structure, creating a wholly new figure from the material of its predecessors. When the text is a poem, something peculiar happens. Mathews calls it a marriage. Auden snorts, and looks away, over the dispersing men and the marble statues, down into the blind spot beneath his piece of stone.
Do not look for me when I am here.
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