Monthly Archives: March 2007

Ontology

“Communication involves other people.”

I wrote this in a comments box of a Stylus review the other day, after another impenetrable tirade of banal linguistic trickery by one of our frequent commentors, who seems to take pleasure in a mean-spirited mockery of those around him by writing in such an obtuse and high-minded style.

Last night I spent two and a half hours parsing Rosalind Krauss’ densely-written A Voyage on the North Sea, in which she explains her vision of a “post-medium condition” in art theory. It involves several things, namely semantic discord over the term “medium”: the end of “the arts” as separatist disciplines, genres and techniques and the triumph of “art” as creative expression: conceptual art as anti-commodity-commodity: conceptual art as (critical) comment on both itself and its venue: and art as revealing the process of art rather than the object of art; that is art as “affect” rather then just “effect”. For instance Michelangelo’s David is not just a marble sculpture – it is the whole ontological process of the sculpture, from commission, planning, man with hammer, chisel and block of marble, to end result. The “art” is the whole process, not just the finished artefact.

I’m not an art historian and I’m not a post-modernist (maybe I am, though – who can say?), but the ideas struck me as essentially pretty simple. Conceptual art triumphs over “the arts” because it is not limited by technique, tradition, or tools; it is not separatist and it is not reductionist; it does not see painting as typified only by “flatness” at a base level. Take Magritte’s infamous pipe that is not a pipe; here it is;

The “art” in Magritte’s pipe is not that it is a painting, which is flat, and contains paints applied to canvas in a certain pattern; it is that it reveals explicitly the process of art. The phrase written beneath the image of the pipe makes you realise that you are looking at a painting and not a real object – we know this already, but like realist cinema imitates documentary which in turn imitates real life, the point of art is often to obscure its own process via mythology, to make you feel moved by something fake by making it appear not-fake, or real: this is what culture is; a system of mythologies which make the artificial (social, planned, cultural, man-made, representative) appear natural (evolved, spontaneous, spiritual, organic, real) – by encouraging you to ponder on the nature and origin (process) of the art.

Looked at as a simple material thing, as “just” paint on canvas, Magritte’s pipe is pretty dull – it’s a lifeless painting with drab colours, the proportions are odd, the lines unrealistic – but looked at as a conceptual whole in which you consider the process and reasoning that brought it into being, it is an enlightening marvel; “this is NOT a pipe!” one’s mind exclaims the moment you “get” it, and one feels a little smarter for having realised Magritte’s schtick, or joke, or deep metaphysical point (delete as appropriate). (Sad that so much conceptual art should be so rich in concept and so poor in sensual, tactile physicality – place a more equal emphasis on the idea and the object, please! I am sure more people would be better disposed towards conceptual art if it was as pleasant to look upon as it was stimulating to think about.)

The thing is that pretty much any art reveals its process if you look closely enough – the brushstrokes in a painting; the chisel marks in a sculpture – so Krauss’ fight against the modernists, who had reduced painting’s essence to “flatness”, perhaps rushes too far in the opposite direction, over-praising the concept in order to defeat the notion of “flatness” as the essence of a painting, or any specific physical characteristics and/or tool-sets as being the “essence” of any work of art, in any medium / genre / discipline. (One might argue that some conceptual art relies too much on the concept as its essence and that this kind of conceptual essentialism is just as reductive as materialist essentialism – Emin’s bed, perhaps; on a conceptual level it is her life, her emotional structure, her sexual history, her most vulnerable, sleeping self; but it is also just a bed, and painfully mundane to look at.)

These ideas are pretty simple; we all know them and our brains automatically process them a thousand times a day as we encounter magazine covers, billboards, televisions, etcetera. We (almost) all know the ontological ramifications of the Nike swoosh – sport, achievement, commerce, style, sweatshops, more – understanding that isn’t a post-modern trick; it’s common sense and awareness.

I had considered for a long time continuing my education past undergraduate level; if one thing turned me off, it was the fact that the area I’d have continued studying – pop music, pop culture, etcetera – would have meant necessarily having to deal with people like Deleuze, with post-modernism and the unnecessary density of post-modern prose which is self-destructive because it actively discourages communication of simple-yet-important ideas by alienating anyone unwilling to parse its lengthy hall-of-mirrors passages. I hate it. I hated it when a lecturer in my final year read out a passage of Deleuze and said “there; I don’t understand it, but it’s genius.” It’s not genius; it’s smoke and mirrors, obfuscation, ivory towers, gate-keeping, exclusivity, nasty intellectual egotism. The ideas beneath “God is a lobster; or a double-pincer; or a double-bind” may be genius, but “God is a lobster” is not; it is ridiculous. I delved into Sokal & Bricmont’s work; none of my lecturers had heard of them and I walked away from academia disgusted by the social irresponsibility of the culture it encourages in undergraduates as well as by the intellectual impostures, straight into a job at a university.

I’ve taken tomorrow off to parse some more Krauss.

Io Non Ho Paura

We watched Gabriele Salvatore’s excellent Io Non Ho Paura at the weekend (amongst other things – Motorcycle Diaries was another). I’d been meaning to watch it for an age – either Mark Kermode on the radio or Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian had raved about it when it was released in cinemas about three years ago, and we’ve had a copy (two, in fact) of the Italian release at work for a couple of years – but simply hadn’t got round to it until now.

The first thing it reminded me of was Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Malick, in theory, is one of my favourite directors, but the paucity of his material, and the overlong pretension of his later work (particularly The Thin Red Line) makes it difficult to be a serious fan. Badlands and Days of Heaven are both pretty-much perfect, though.

Visually Io Non Ho Paura echoes the lavish cornfield cinematography of Days of Heaven; but rather than the romantic twilight ambience of that film, it’s a childhood dream that takes place in broad daylight and strong washes of primary colours – the yellow corn, the blue sky, a boy’s red t-shirt. The southern Italian landscape is as much a member of the cast as the awesome Giuseppe Cristiano; in fact on one level you could see the film as a romance between Cristiano’s character (Michele) and the fields through which he rides his bike, the trees in which he lazes above the scorching earth, and the abandoned stone barns and outhouses where he finds adventure. Where Malick’s film is (visually) all about grieving for the closing of the day, about ruminations and remembrances, Salvatore’s is about the sensual joy of the present; the high sun, the cooling breeze. About being a boy in a summer with no cares.

Except, of course, that there are cares and there are worries, and there are also terrible, strange, senseless (to a child) crimes. Michele discovers a boy chained-up in a hole in the ground, half-starved, blinded by sunlight and so delirious he thinks he is dead…

Io Non Ho Paura is one-third beatific childhood escapism, one third grown-ups being assholes, and one third mystery in a deep, dank hole. So, in a roundabout way, is Pan’s Labyrinth, which is the other film that Io Non Ho Paura reminded me of. Except, of course, that it predates Del Toro’s Franco/fantasy film by about three years. Both films have wonderful child leads of around the same age, both are seen almost exclusively through that child’s eyes, both hinge on daydreaming and the way daydreams make terrible adult events and crimes seem almost banal… In fact, so similar are the films that both child leads are shot by their (real or assumed) fathers in the final moments of each, whether with cold-hearted deliberation or by panicked accident.

Io Non Ho Paura is certainly the less phantasmagorical of the two; the daydreams of the lead are of a Boy’s Own Adventure ilk, rooted in noirish kidnappings and ransom notes; while those of Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth are concerned with fairies, mystical tasks and magic spells, less absent-minded fantasy than desperate escapism. It’s also the less brutal; the crimes in Salvatore’s film are perpetrated by bumbling, jealous adults, victims of the system rather than its enforcers. Michele, we are led to think, or hope, does not die from the gunshot inflicted upon him by his father, who is not a torturer or fascist – just a poor man with half a brain who can think enough to dream himself out of poverty but not enough to do it by any means other than criminal. Ofelia, in the real world, has no hope but to die at the close of Pan’s Labyrinth, even if she is reborn a princess in her fading dream.

My instinct would have been to say that I preferred Del Toro’s film – fantastical realism being theoretical catnip to my cinema tastes – but I’m unsure. There was something in the gentle nature of Salvatore’s film that made the drama, when it came, seem almost more poignant than the desperate, unremitting nastiness of that in Pan’s Labyrinth. Even Ofelia’s daydreams are frightening – the giant toad, the Pale Man and even the ancient, rickety faun himself are all fearsome apparitions, less an escape from the unpleasantness of Captain Vidal than a displacement. Perhaps Io Non Ho Paura creates a better balance; perhaps its freshness to me is a boon. No matter – both are wonderful films, and so similar in so many ways that I’m surprised not to have seen mention of Io Non Ho Paura in relation to Pan’s Labyrinth.