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Double Take
By Teju Cole
A blog on vision, visuality, and visual culture
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Fathers and Sons

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Do you love me? he asks one. If I want him to remain alive, what is that to you? he says of another, and then that other reveals himself as the author of the words we are reading. The twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John is strange (a succession struggle, like those in King Lear or in Kurosawa’s films). It is perhaps strangest when Christ prophesies Peter’s death, When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.

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A little over a century earlier, Virgil wrote, of Aeneas recounting to Dido his family’s escape from Troy, Come then, dear father, clasp my neck: I will carry you on my shoulders: that task won’t weigh on me. Whatever may happen, it will be for us both, the same shared risk, and the same salvation.

Anchises, the father, carried by the one he had once carried, was to die far from the battle, in his old age, in Sicily. The story of Aeneas carrying his father is a vital fiction of Western myth, and was useful to Shakespeare who wrote, of Cassius’ boast to Brutus that he’d once saved Caesar from drowning— Ere we could arrive the point proposed, Caesar cried, Help me, Cassius, or I sink! I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor, did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder the old Anchises bear, so from the waves of Tiber did I the tired Caesar.

And if war came, again, and a son were to carry a father, again?

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Of the painting by Raphael, or as now seems more likely, Giulio Romano, of the ancient fire in the Borgo, Vasari wrote, An infirm old man, distraught by his weakness and the flames of the fire, being carried (as Virgil describes Anchises being carried by Aeneas) by a young man.

Between the image made in Etruria around 500 BCE and the painting from Raphael’s workshop two thousand years later, there is hardly any change in the form (one does not carry a father the way one carries a child). The form is the same, as are the pathos and the horror, in this formula of a son carrying on his back his aged father from a crisis that imperils them both, the same shared risk, as Virgil wrote, the same salvation. May it not be you. May it not be your father.

Heimweh

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1. “In the Middle Ages, Jews were stigmatised as non-believers by having to wear a pointed yellow hat. This stigma prevented unprejudiced exchange between Jews and Christians.”

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2. “Jews were repeatedly accused of having murdered Christian children to make their Easter bread. The charge of carrying out such ritual murders led to all Jews being expelled from Berne in 1294.”

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3. “Until the eighteenth century, in addition to tolls for animals and goods, Basel levied a fee, only on Jews, for entering the town. Men paid a shilling, women and children paid six pence.”

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4. “In the eighteenth century, Jews had to purchase their right of domicile in the country of Baden every sixteen years with a letter of protection (Schirmbrief). Under the coats of arms of the reigning cantons, Helvetia accepts fealty from the Jews in Aargau.”

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5. “Jews were not accepted in guilds, and were prohibited from owning land. All that remained was trading cattle and horses. Poorer Jews peddled small items and odds and ends.”

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6. “From 1776 to 1866, Jews were only allowed to settle in Endingen and Lengnau. Because Jews and Christians were not allowed to live together there either, older blocks of flats had separate entrances for Christian and Jewish residents.”

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7. “Everywhere one goes in Palestine—even in rural areas—one finds oneself amongst rubble, picking a way through, round and over it. At a checkpoint, around some greenhouses which lorries can no longer reach, along any street, going to any rendezvous. The rubble is of houses, roads and the debris of daily lives. There’s scarcely a Palestinian family that has not been forced during the last half century to flee from somewhere, just as there’s scarcely a town in which buildings are not regularly bulldozed by the occupying army.”

Heimweh: Homesickness. Heimweh haben/bekommen to be/become homesick (nach for). The word is believed to have a Swiss origin, Schweizerheimweh, “Swiss homesickness,” because of its frequent occurrence in Swiss mercenaries who in the plains of lowlands of France or Italy were pining for their native mountain landscapes.

 

Text: 1-6: captions from the Landesmuseum Zürich (Swiss National Museum); 7: John Berger, Undefeated Despair, 2006.

Images: found postcards (Switzerland/Palestine).

Terror Painting

Barney

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“In the picture the face is terribly smashed with blows, swollen, covered with terrible, swollen, and blood-stained bruises, the eyes open and squinting; the large, open whites of the eyes have a sort of dead and glassy glint…Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, thought it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design, which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up—impassively and unfeelingly–a great and priceless Being…The picture seems to give expression to the idea of a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subordinated, and this idea is suggested to you unconsciously.”

—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 1869

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He lies in his grave
and I know not where
Though I keep asking people
Everywhere

Perhaps the poor child
Lies in a rough ditch
and instead he could have been
lying in his warm bed

—from a mid-15th-century Polish folk song of the Opole region

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“However, I stand for 8–10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”

—Donald Rumsfeld, handwritten note on torture memo, 2002
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“Why didn’t I know about this?”—George W. Bush, Decision Points, 2011

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“That is what Paul West, novelist, had written about, page after page after page, leaving nothing out; and that is what she read, sick with the spectacle, sick with herself, sick with a world in which such things took place, until at last she pushed the book away and sat with her head in her hands. Obscene! she wanted to cry but did not cry because she did not know at whom the word should be flung: at herself, at West, at the committee of angels that watches impassively over all that passess. Obscene because such things ought not to take place, and then obscene again because having taken place they ought not to be brought into the light but covered up and hidden forever in the bowels of the earth, like what goes on in the slaughterhouses of the world, if one wants to save one’s sanity.”

—J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello and the Problem of Evil in Salmagundi, 2003

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The Atlas of Affect

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Near the end of his life, Aby Warburg (1866-1929) found a form that began to answer his questions about images. The questions had centered on the relationship between memory and history. Somehow, the conventional practices of art history had left Warburg unsatisfied. There was a deeper logic, he believed, between certain classical images, and between classical images and the ones that came later.

This restless search led him to amass an idiosyncratic library on Renaissance scholarship (the library was transferred from Hamburg to London after his death, and became the core of the Warburg Institute). And it was what propelled him to travel to the United States and live for several months in the mid-1890s among Hopi and Zuni people. The great insight happened many years later, in 1924, when Warburg set up large black cloth screens, and began to pin newspaper and magazine cuttings of paintings, prints, and photographs on them. Each screen was organized around an idea, a complex theme, and the sequence of images was a matter of reiteration as well as of imaginative leaps. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, Panel 45 ("Superlatives of the language of gestures"), 1927-29

One panel was an exploration of the afterlife of classical gestures, centered around a painting by Ghirlandaio. Another looked at the iconological value of the figure of the hurrying nymph, and included paintings by Boticelli and Raphael, as well as a photograph of a young woman on an Italian street. The panels of Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas owe something to the systematic imagination inherited from the eighteenth century and to the atlases of that time. But there is something else going on in the Mnemosyne Atlas: it is neither systematic nor complete. It borrows the form of the atlas for something more surreal, more suggestive, and more affective.

Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, Panel 79 (“The Eucharist”), 1929

Scholars in the 1980s and 1990s began to pay more attention to Warburg in part because of Walter Benjamin’s interest in him, but also because, like Benjamin, his talent for montage-like effects was seen as emblematic of the twentieth century. In a way, the Mnemosyne Atlas had begun to do in images what Benjamin did a few years later in words with his Arcades Project. These projects, as Benjamin wrote, sought to “develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks.” The use of images in conversation with other images (in other words, the use of dialectical images) became one of the standard gestures of the art of the twentieth century. It found powerful expression in works like Tarkovsky’s Mirror and Gerhard Richter’s incessant collection of cut-outs, prints, photos, and fragments: the Atlas Micromega (1962-2013).

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Richter’s Atlas Micromega runs into hundreds of sheets, of faces, snapshots, mountains, cities, paintings, candles, nudes, landscapes: in short all the material that fed his large scale pieces. But the Atlas Micromega exists also for its own sake: as a testament to what the artist saw, and what he collected, and how he sequenced them. I see a through-line here, from Warburg to Benjamin to Richter and, finally, to Baltimore artist Dina Kelberman, who makes a long sequence of images and short films she has found on Google and on YouTube.

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But if one strand of the genealogy of Kelberman’s I’m Google is indebted to this high art lineage, another strand is about something else entirely: the kind of “atlasing” that only Google could make possible. This project is involved in the affective language of Warburg (Benjamin writes in the Arcades Project: “I needn’t say anything. Merely show.”). There’s a satisfaction for the eye in wordlessly accounting for the link between one image and the one that follows it. It also contains, as in Benjamin, a critique of commodity culture. But Kelberman’s project is, in addition, a visual world-building that explicitly sidesteps not only the language of antiquity and classicism, but also any suggestion of “artistic” image-making. Her choices are brightly colored, plasticky, almost naive, and straightforwardly vernacular, less Warburg than Walmart.

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Kelberman’s images are related to each other by a more transparent and less obviously intellectualized logic. By contrast, the deadpan affect of Richter’s Atlas Micromega is still freighted with a modernist melancholia. Kelberman’s images are all found images, discovered by trawling through Google and YouTube, mostly by use of keyword searches, and her selection process excludes images with an intentional artistic intent. In a sense, she has arrived at a goal Richter stated in his Notes 1964-65: “I like everything that has no style: dictionaries, photographs, nature, myself and my paintings.” But Richter has plenty of style; it is Kelberman whose hand-chosen images, with their impeccable timing and straight-faced absurdity, come close to being styleless.

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Indeed, viewers have sometimes assumed that I’m Google is simply the result of a very clever computer program, a bot set free on Google Image Search and directed to Tumblr, rather than the selective record of countless hours of looking and sifting. As Kelberman said in an interview, “The blog came out of my natural tendency to spend long hours obsessing over Google Image searches, collecting photos I found beautiful and sorting them by theme.” Anyone could do this. The deeper value here is in Kelberman’s notion of the beautiful: “the images that interest me are of industrial or municipal materials or everyday photo snapshots.” A more automated process—for instance, the one seen in Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz’s conceptually interesting Google-based Image Atlas (2012)—feels more limited and less suggestive, and more susceptible to distracting mistakes, in part because of the absence of the cunning curatorial hand. It is worth pointing out that Kelberman’s work exploits a strain in internet art that challenges the viewer to assume it was made by a bot, not an artist: a kind of reverse Turing test.

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I’m Google uses the possibilities of Google Image Search in a way quite distinct from what I considered in my essay about Google’s Search By Image. Kelberman has said that she does not find Search By Image particularly helpful for this project. And yet, even in its styleless style, I’m Google does explore color patch (macchia) theory, the impact of first impressions. But it goes farther in relying both on visual as well as semantic similarities, in addition to very careful (and occasionally comic) timing. If classical macchia theory is about the nouns of things, and therefore just the appearances, then Kelberman builds similarities also on the basis of verbs: what sprays, what proliferates, what curls or curves or gleams or effloresces in a particular way. She holds the challenge of similarity to a more stringent standard, and yet out of this stringency, which explores static as well as kinetic interests, one feels she could end up just about anywhere.

The bright color palette, flat affect, shadowless lighting, and industrial obsessions in Kelberman’s work—she also makes comic strips, animation, and gifs, and writes plays— emerge in part from her fascination with Looney Tunes‘ Chuck Jones and the epiphenomena of The Simpsons (how clouds or furniture are rendered in it; another Kelberman project consists of screenshots of such “nothing” moments from The Simpsons).

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Kelberman’s wonderfully named comic strips, Important Comics, are pared down in the extreme, often with simple shapes in place of people, but are emotionally anything but simple. In addition, she has an interest in synaesthesia and in the ways that the mind makes links and meaning out of apparently unrelated things. And perhaps, for all the disavowal of classicism, there is also strong classical idea at the heart of the I’m Google project: that of metamorphosis. As in the myths, there’s a little jolt of pleasure (or even fascinated horror) at the moment when something begins to turn into something else. Kelberman accomplishes all this by means of a language that contains the gestures of taxonomy without being taxonomic. She builds an ark of “types.”

In its list making, it is an update of the atlas of affect at the same time that it is a catalog of what one might call “catalog realism,” a sort of Sears Roebuck catalog stripped of labels and released into the wild, a sequence that includes logs, fencing, stadia, spray paint, tents, colored paper, sponges, mugs, dirt, houses on fire, geysers, hoses, phone cords, construction sites, molds, paint, tomato sauce, batter, bread, plastic lids, jungle gyms, balloons, Venetian blinds, table fans, scaffolding, greenhouses, kindergarten projects, messy bedrooms, televisions, explosions, lift-off, forest fires, forests, disabled parking signs, auditoriums, soldering, car washes, surf, sand, powdered paint, string cheese, hair, wigs, clouds, foam, yards, roller coasters, blizzards, squalls, tornadoes, lightbulbs, computer screens, windows, booths, ski lifts, zip lines, watchtowers, water slides, volcanic lakes, sand castles, team uniforms, group photographs, factory workers, crowds, balloons, mannequins, aquaria, window nets, mosquito nets, tents, canopies, piles, packing foam, gym mattresses, wildfire planes, desert rallies, dough, Play-Doh, hearing aids, earbuds, buoys, plastic bags, Ziploc bags, plastic gloves, palm prints, prosthetic hands, cut balloons, cut holders, painted bales of hay, silage wrapping, taffy machines, and more, because the world of things never ends.

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NOTES:

Dina Kelberman, I’m Google.
Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas.
Gerhard Richter, Atlas Micromega.
Teju Cole, Google’s Macchia.

Evening Walk

(from my journal, January 2013)

It is always strange to be out in Sunset Park at night and feel it so powerfully like a setting from Love in the Time of Cholera. There’s a “we” at work at such times that thrills and mystifies me. I am never prepared to see these peasant faces, dark and busy with worry, or to encounter at my doorstep this antique Latin American world in which one inhales the smoke from frying dough and root vegetables and overhears conversations that are opaque even when some of the words are familiar.

Tonight at the photo shop where I was picking up some rolls of film I’d had developed, there was a fast-talking grandmother with a cast on her arm, the cast like something pulling her back into childhood, and at the food vendor near the mobile phone merchant there was a woman with an angelic face who was dressed in black and was as short as a child.

They say García Márquez is “gone” now, no longer able to recognize anyone. To think that he’s out there, at this very moment, in this world, this man who is one of the minds of the age. I wonder if there’s ease and mercy in his senescence, I wonder if it is as soft as a second childhood, or whether it’s the case that some fierce small intelligence still avid in him rages against the dwindling of itself, an intelligence that daily and helplessly wishes itself already dead.