Author Archive

How to Look at Sculpture

Monday, September 6th, 2010

How to Look at Sculpture

David Schafer’s How to Look at Sculpture (2006) positions the sculptural artwork as a pivot through which the material experience of the artist is symmetrically transmitted to the beholder. The act of creating the form finds equivalence in the act of touching that created the form.

He goes on to describe the sculpted form as an echo or response to the world which is “not an imitation of nature but a creation inspired by nature”, and one that suggests we might look at nature in the same active way that we look at art: in a conscious exploration of its forms, as though nature were likewise created by design. His description identifies a separation between the product of nature and the product of the artist, implying that the latter is distinct from the former rather than a continuous part of it.

We understand sculpture as a deliberately generated thing, drawn apart from the continuum of natural forms in a way that a stone, a spiderweb, the curve of a cat is not. The will of the artist separates the artist from nature, we understand, and paradoxically the artwork – the very product of that separation – is an attempt to provoke the artist’s reincorporation into the undifferentiated natural world.

Schafer’s description implies that this separation might be folded back into the continuity of nature not so that the art might seem artless, but so that what is artless – nature itself – might be appreciated like a work of art. I wonder whether this folding could go the other way, with the sculptural form assimilated by the beholder in an undifferentiated continuity of sensual stimulus, indistinct from the natural forms around it – even, or especially, if it meant the sculpture went perfectly unnoticed.

Girl Chewing Gum

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

In Girl Chewing Gum (John Smith, 1976) a set of stage directions works as a pivot for the actions of the people, vehicles and camera operator in the film. It’s a straightforward conceit: the actions were filmed first and the descriptions added afterwards, but because they’re announced as directions the words appear to precede and cause the actions. Observer and observed approach one another and, in a fictional frame, appear to meet and superimpose themselves one over the other. The gestures of observer and observed direct one another entirely. One exists wholly to facilitate the other, which in turn exists wholly in the service of the first. In their reciprocal regard they fill one another to capacity.

The video brings the prospect of excess to the discourse of looking. If the look and the looked-at fulfill one another entirely – if they meet directly, eye to eye – they cancel one another out. If the director weren’t shouting directions the passers-by would have nothing to respond to, and if the passers-by weren't responding the director would have nothing to direct. The circle closes itself. We could call the whole thing off, and nothing would lack.

In Takahiko Iimura’s Observer/Observed/Observer the circle closes more tightly still. Quite unlike Girl Chewing Gum which tussles with the minutiae of everyday detail, Observer pares down represented matter to the very minimum, as though we are seeing behind the scenes of representation: we see the construction of the act of looking itself, and nothing besides. Matter – the stuff of everyday life – fogs the prospect of pure excess.

Encuestas Para Latinos


Sunday, July 25th, 2010

At a symposium the other day a sign language interpreter was translating the proceedings for a deaf attendee. One of the speakers gesticulated as he was presenting his paper, and after a short delay the very same gesture appeared at the hands of the interpreter. But in her hands the gesture was a kind of onomatopoeic citation: a perfectly identical physical replication differentiated from its original only by context. The first gesture was in the room, the second in language.

It is rare that a word and its object so closely meet. The look and the looked-at always approach one another up to a point, and always stop short. It is their distance from one another that allows their reciprocal act of naming to take place, and where there is perfect continuity between two things there is no relation: no subject-object, no name, no word, no look.

I want to think more about this instance of near meeting between the look and the looked-at. It seems to agitate a thinning in the membrane between word and world, and draw towards an articulation of the turning-out of language into the world: an impossible eventuality – “utopia, no doubt about it”* – but we cannot go about limiting ourselves to what is possible.

*Barthes, R. The Rustle of Language in “From Work to Text”, New York: Hill and Wang (1977: 78)