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dysekphrasis, heavenly art of the bubble, i’d like your help

with 2 comments

There’s an audience participation opportunity to come at the end of this post, so don’t skip the end if you want to play along at home and win great prizes! But to start, here’s a fantastic moment from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, not long after Marlow has reached the Outer Station:

“I had no idea why he wanted to be sociable, but as we chatted in there it suddenly occurred to me the fellow was trying to get at something — in fact, pumping me. He alluded constantly to Europe, to the people I was supposed to know there — putting leading questions as to my acquaintances in the sepulchral city, and so on. His little eyes glittered like mica discs — with curiosity — though he tried to keep up a bit of superciliousness. At first I was astonished, but very soon I became awfully curious to see what he would find out from me. I couldn’t possibly imagine what I had in me to make it worth his while. It was very pretty to see how he baffled himself, for in truth my body was full only of chills, and my head had nothing in it but that wretched steamboat business. It was evident he took me for a perfectly shameless prevaricator. At last he got angry, and, to conceal a movement of furious annoyance, he yawned. I rose. Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was sombre — almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister.

“It arrested me, and he stood by civilly, holding an empty half-pint champagne bottle (medical comforts) with the candle stuck in it. To my question he said Mr. Kurtz had painted this — in this very station more than a year ago — while waiting for means to go to his trading post. ‘Tell me, pray,’ said I, ‘who is this Mr. Kurtz?’

That painting! It’s the very definition of the grotesque, and mirror of the grotesqueness of the world of the novella, to condense two incompatable (but why should they be incompatable, justice and enlightenment, fairness and truth?) allegorical females into a single weird image. It’s moments like these where

When I teach, I explain to my students that best I can guess what we mean when we say the “Kafkaeseque” or “the uncanny in Kafka”  (after of course going through “heimlich” and “unheimlich” and the rest of the Freud stuff) is that is not just the weird thing, the thing out of place, but the weird thing inserted into a context that takes it as normal, everyday, that ignores it. It becomes compulsory, in a deep and strange sense: something’s out of place, everyone acts as if it isn’t, and then, as in a nightmare, you feel yourself pulled along by both by not wanting to make a scene and the fact that there’s time to stop and really think about all of this. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness works in much the same way. The compulsion of the unremarked grotesque is all over the place in the Outer Station section – you see things that are illogical, absurd, stupid, or that make you sick… But still: “I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life.” Or with this picture, this painting that doesn’t make any fucking sense, but which is left hanging there, a year after Kurtz painted it, a year after Kurtz, whom everyone in the station absolutely hates, left, never to return.

So, as far as ekphrastic moments go in modernist novels, I rate this one quite highly, as you can see. And I’d like to have something similar in something that I’m working on at the moment. Here’s what I’m looking for: I’d like to describe not one but two paintings (or photographs – or images that you can’t tell whether they are photographs or paintings) hanging on the wall of let’s say for simplicity’s sake a hotel room or nicely furnished apartment from the era of the bubble – the era in which we’re still lingering, at least in terms of hotel design. (Thinks can’t turn 1983 Bucharest fast enough for me, in terms of hotel aesthetics… But that’s another story…) I’d like them to be something like the one that Marlow sees at the Outer Station, though not nearly so obviously fucked up. I.e. if they are emblems of some sort of socio-individual brain damage, I’d like it to be the ambient brain-damage of the world in which we’ve lived or live. And their subject matter should be relatively upbeat, as the world in which they hang doesn’t have lots of time or really need for social critique, bad-conscience-bourgie-art, and the like.

I don’t care whether they form a clear diptych, an subtle diptych, or bear no clear relationship the one to the other. I’d love to hear a lot of them – first thought tries, or considered responses – as I might actually feature quite a few of these things in the thing that I’m doing.

If I’m not being clear, ask me questions. This is a little hard to describe. Not sure whether I should do this, as it primes the pump, but I’ll paste some notes that I’ve written and that I’m not at all satisfied with, so feel free to ignore the models.

On the left side is a photograph (it looks like a photograph, though it may well be a painting, there’s a certain subtle smudge and line to it that hints that it was made by human hands rather than a lens) that features four naked adolescents, late adolescents perhaps eighteen or nineteen years old hugging each other in a circle. Two males and two females, two whites and two blacks, and all four are fit and beautiful. Additionally, the genital area of each one is clearly visible. The models had to turn in a slightly awkward way in order for this to be so, which renders this image, which otherwise would seem to be more fine art than pornography, more erotically provocative than it might have been.

Its counterpart on the right side takes up an entirely different subject matter, yet somehow subtly seems to correspond with its partner across the wall. It is an aerial view of a section of some city – perhaps this one, you’re not familiar with it enough to say yet. Within the boundaries of the picture are perhaps thirty houses, of modern design and painted in bright colors, each one exactly identical to the next. Uncannily identical, same lift of the eaves, same blue shutters, same windowboxes planted with the same flowers. There are approximately ten or twelve human beings visible in the picture, and they are the only mark of distinction in what is otherwise a grid pattern of sameness. A man toward the bottom waters the flowers in his front garden, several are walking up or down the streets, and barely visible, half-cut off by the limits of the image, two naked people, a male and a female, lie on top of each other, naked, on the grass in the backyard of the house that fills the bottom left corner. The crop of the thing renders it unclear what they are doing – no faces are visible, all you see are two torsos, with the breasts and hair to indicate that they are the genders that they are.

Please, please, do me one – or twenty – better. IT always says she’ll send you something for your trouble at this point. If you provide something really helpful I’ll send you hmm, how about an autographed picture of a smiling American narcissist abroad? (You should see the ebay resale market for that shit!) What could be better than that? Or I’ll name a happy person after you in this thing that I’m doing. Or I’ll say the rosary for you, backward, and in esperanto or any other artificial language.

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 18, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Posted in conrad, kafka, uncanny

2 Responses

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  1. I might be totally off track here, but your descriptions put me very much in mind of Bill Henson: the painterly photographs, the naked adolescents dropped into twilit landscapes without explanation, the erotic provocation/complication, and the urban landscape shots that do indeed, somehow, subtly correspond with the bodies. Though Henson probably has a greater dollop of ye olde Sublime than you might be looking for. Worth checking out, anyway, for some possible triggers?

    http://www.tolarnogalleries.com/bill-henson/

    http://www.pavementmagazine.com/billhenson.html

    a_

    April 19, 2009 at 12:36 am

  2. Ha jesus! Yes, that’s very good. Seems like somehow I was channelling just that. And they are suitably utopianly dystopian, aren’t they?

    Thanks for that!

    Ads

    April 19, 2009 at 4:54 pm


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