“Boundaries of Being” catalogue essay
Dunlop Art Gallery 1995
Dear Ingrid Jenkner,
I just received your letter and packet, and was very pleased to be considered for your Critic‑in‑Residence programme with the opportunity it gives me to curate an exhibition. Here are some initial reactions, background info: though I am first and foremost a filmmaker, I have organized screenings of experimental film because I am committed to this type of film practice and because it has almost no critics/ curators who are not themselves filmmakers. I do not see myself as a theorist with a particular line of enquiry, though as a person and as a filmmaker I would say I have. My curating, therefore, would be informed by my own observing, thinking, and filming in areas of perception of reality and different ways of knowing/seeing the world: the body as know‑er; questions of boundaries, identity, inner/outer; movement between particularity and relatedness; time as it passes, rhythm, memory; and timelessness, a search for the present, presence. Many of these are intrinsic to film itself, a medium of light/vision and time.
" No work of art must be described or explained under the rubric of communication." T. Adorno
In 1986 I attended the ANNPAC conference in Vancouver, "Strategies for Survival". A Polish artist mentioned in his talk a sense he had in recent work of a return of the spiritual. That's all I remember of his talk, but that lodged itself away somewhere in my brain. Later, I recognized that the effects and significance of certain artworks were not contained by a description of their issues, formal devices, images or text. Work less to be 'read' than to be seen or experienced. I would like to show works that suggest, recall, hint at, give an experience of something larger. (Some things elude one, if turned to directly.)
"I find that raising my eyes slightly above what I am regarding so that the thing is a little out of focus seems to bring the spiritual into clearer vision..." E.Carr
I also would like to develop with you a method for presenting a filmmaker's work within the gallery context. It's an issue I have been pursuing with galleries: how to integrate film artists into the gallery art world. How to give a presence to filmwork over the three‑week exhibition period? These are ideas I could work out there in consultation with you and local filmmakers and curators, and bring one or another to fruition at least. OK?
I am a little concerned with all the attention of late in the popular media given to spirituality and death. I'm not concerned that there is attention - baby-boomer's parents are of an age now where their mortality has become all too real, and material security and a surfeit of products has brought questions of what is of value, or at least, what's next? My concern is with the type of attention these questions are receiving and the mind-set behind it. What does a mass gathering of teens in Denver to see the Pope indicate? Is this attending to soul or a desire for authority, for some semblance of control in an overwhelming world? What is the rationale behind a TV programme in which the possibility of an immaculate conception is used as a legal defense to prohibit an abortion? And the programme that featured the befriending of a space alien as an example of good old Christmas values - the alien's spaceship was turned into a lucrative tourist attraction which saved the recession-poor town's economy. Do films like "Ghost" represent our society's acknowledgement of death as part of life or are they one more example of our denial and our desire to control death, master it as we believe we master all else, not accept the finality, the silence of the grave?
" Cinema must represent, because it is stronger than ever, something that one does not encroach upon". J L. Godard
"Nothing can be taken for granted, least of all the conventions of the culture, which give us our embedded notions of reality. Especially not in an era where words and their meanings are slowly moving apart, leaving us in a kind of exile." (Vera Frenkel)
Words have been used up, their original meanings blurred, diluted, distorted, trivialized from over‑use and sloganism. Heidegger maintains that poetry can revitalize words. Poetic images make strange the familiar and so words speak anew. How can representational media function poetically? The artworks I am looking for are personal and leave the viewer room to speculate, interact, experience and wonder.
From Maureen Turim's Abstraction in the Avant-Garde, "...they [films] are enclosed in a tension, a struggle between the generation of force and the articulation of meaning. Operations on representation evoke the history of figural and narrative art, but these film images, in their difference from these traditions, expose what is habitually unseen in the act of seeing."
" As daily bread comes in contact with the mouth, cinema would have to bring the spectator into closer contact with his deep, everyday existence..." J.L. Godard
I have thought of a number of possible films which are more or less formal, more or less socio‑political in content, but all of which could be situated within a discussion of the 'spiritual'. I am using this word loosely. I do not intend to look for work that is about a belief in God. Rather, media works that concern themselves with how we are as humans in the world, or that allow us to see the world afresh, as if we were seeing it again for the first time - the mystery that is in the everyday. Difficult to explain... or maybe that's really it: the ineffable. I saw an Ernie Gehr film that was WONDER ‑ful. I am thinking about what is beyond words, is not susceptible to those limits, the unsayable. One cannot express the infinite in finite terms.
"How many colours are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'green'...Imagine the world before 'the beginning was the word'" S. Brakhage
On the other side of the coin is the impossibility of expression, and taboos against expression, of the horrific. Words fail us in the face of unimaginable, let alone unutterable, horror. It seems to me that there are three aspects to the question of this silence: the impossibility of speaking the unspeakable; the effect of trivializing and distorting if one attempts to do so (how to make a film about the Holocaust, for example, without turning the Holocaust into material for a film); and the problem of keeping things hidden and, thereby, unresolved (only by acknowledging the situation can the processes of mourning and healing begin). The danger of speaking is in losing the horror of the event that is behind the words. Words make familiar, commonplace - if it is spoken of it becomes acceptable, even to-be-expected. Namimg as betrayal. In other situations, however, to name is to have power. To leave unsaid, find euphemisms for, or censor, denies the existence of the situation. Naming as fidelity.
The question is not whether to forget or remember, but rather how to remember.
My own filmwork and preparation for this project have been on hold. My father died this summer. Realizations about life that come from an experience with death are finding echoes in my work - the uncertainty of life, the humility of not knowing. From the experience of our own powerlessness, we understand how life is not 'ours' but something that moves through us. The feeling germinates, perhaps was always there and is now acknowledged, of something so mightily beyond us, beyond our control, beyond even our comprehension. The mystery ‑awesome and awful- of it all.
"The unsayable can be given me only through the failure of my language. Only when the construct falters do I reach what it could not accomplish." C. Lispector
There is a tension between our need to articulate something of this power and mystery, something of love, and our experience that the highest expression is silence. The silence that is behind words, the state beyond words. The Jewish prayer of Remembrance for the dead, the 'Yiskor' service praises G‑d, then acknowledges that G‑d is beyond our words, then goes back to praising G‑d! Humans keep trying to give expression to the inexpressible.
"When we have been abandoned by meaning, the artist has a professional duty to bear witness that there is, to respond to the order to be." J.F. Lyotard
The sublime/horror seem not only linked but both to arise from an awareness of death. Death is the ultimate dissolution of boundaries. Julia Kristeva locates the power of horror in the dissolving of boundaries. She describes the abject as "that which does not respect borders, rules, positions; disturbs identity, system, order... the abject draws me toward the place where meaning collapses..." Perhaps our discomfort or revulsion around madness or physical deformities or bodily functions has to do with the blurring of borders that define us: rational, whole, intact, clean, contained, in control. However, viewed from a different perspective, when boundaries between 'I' and 'other', bewtween one's own life and Life dissolve, conflicts that arise from perceived duality disappear. For Kristeva, too, abjection is seen not only in destructive terms; there is a recuperative aspect. "Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death [of the ego]. It is alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance."
"The problem is to go into oneself...Go to the darkest parts and the brightest parts...Art is to embrace others whether to convey something difficult or talk about light." J. Wieland
“No man has ever witnessed the moment when life begins; it is in the moment of its ending that the limits of life, hence life itself, are manifest. Death, as the edge beyond which life does not extend, delineates a first boundary of being. Thus the ending is, for man, the beginning; the condition of his first consciousness of self as living.” Maya Deren, The Divine Horsemen
I am looking at points of crisis or breakdown as openings where we hold together in the same moment the impossibility of death and its inevitability, the longing after freedom and acceptance of our inability to control circumstances. Certain experiences allow, or force us to face the abyss, to return to the source - pre-verbal, speechless. "So many years, and nothing important settled. I realize I know nothing." (Vera Frenkel, "The Bar Report")
Coming to know that we know nothing, not as a regression to the innocence of childhood, but as life's progress. In the unanswered question, awe.
"Reason's last step is that there are a number of things beyond it." Pasca
"It was enough to exist, preferably still and silent, in order to feel its mark...the mark of existence." C. Lispector