S i m r y n
G i l l
Utopia Art Sydney 30 october - 23 november 2019
Some Elements of a Kitchen Table Or An Ecosystem? 1. How are our sensibilities and preferences, our tastes, formed? How are our intuitions crafted? How do we become where we are from? What do we draw on to clothe and give form to our imaginations, to our daily, repetitive, mundane, prosaic work of figuring out how to make sense in our time? These are Simryn’s questions. She’s reading them to me as we sit at her kitchen table over tea and biscuits and images and books. They come at the end of a text she wrote in response to an invitation to speak at a seminar on the art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, and while reading she’s clicking through images that accompanied the talk. Later, she speaks to me about the way this invitation led to the photographs and prints that we’re looking at on her computer. How these images would never have existed had she not been asked to write something, and how nothing could be written until she worked on these images. 2. For some, the story of image and text takes place as a timeworn battle, or maybe a form of subterfuge: an image is a trick, and the text is there to expose it. For others it is the text that undermines the image, subtracting from its inexhaustible potential. On this point Roland Barthes referred to the “polysemy of the image” and the control (he also uses the word anchorage) of the linguistic message. For Barthes, this message acts like “a kind of vice,” he writes, “which holds the connoted meanings from proliferating.” Without such a linguistic message (a vice, an anchor) the image runs amok. Some may say (to the frustration of others) the artist’s job is to remove this vice; to throw away the anchor and let meanings drift on currents of interpretation. Fine. But what is this symbiotic relationship between text and image that Simryn seems to be suggesting? A relationship bound not by rules or arguments, it seems, but by finding attention in distraction, material in imagination, and discovering how image and text connect—live?—in more ways than one.
3. Perhaps it’s like the Brazil nut tree and that particular species of Amazonian bee that fertilises its flowers, the only creature capable of breaking into the heavy yellow hoods that hide the nectar. Portuguese colonisers, in their madness to maximise profits, were frustrated and perplexed when they cleared the forests in order to grow Brazil nut trees, along with rubber trees, and nothing came of it. For that particular species of bee also needs a particular orchid to feed its larvae, and this orchid doesn’t grow on Brazil nut trees; it needs a thriving understory to survive. Can we think about the relationship between image and text in a similar vein? A busy social affair, more populated, more complex, and with more at stake than is immediately apparent? 4. What do images and texts need to survive? The question seems absurd given the obvious abundance. Living as we are in an age of accelerated reproduction, there is no shortage of images to look at, no danger of messages going extinct. All of this is known, felt, and barely needs to be mentioned. Images and texts flash, buzz and ping at us all day long. But as Walter Benjamin worried, this very abundance warrants attention. It would be a mistake, he warned, to underestimate the powers of reproducibility, since it allows “factual material to be manipulated in the interests of fascism.” These words, written in 1935, live on today amidst “always-on” recommendation algorithms which, when paired with fortified databases, encoded procedures and manipulative aims, are constantly sorting the relevant from the irrelevant, what is worthy of our attention from what isn’t, and therefore what comes to be seen as knowledge and what remains unseen (as nonknowledge?). This daily harvesting and sorting of information that conditions our lives means that for every image seen and every message read there are countless others that are denied the warmth of our attention. But as Simryn speaks and I listen, as she clicks through images and I look, I realise I’m being led into an unfamiliar place (of nonknowledge?). At first I think we’re passing through an abandoned hospital, but this carefully tiled staircase, this crumbling passageway, and these holes and fissures left by
those who chipped away at tile and brick to remove valuable copper pipes, turn out to be an abandoned seaside motel in her hometown. Simryn tells me that this motel was built in the sixties, and was sold to foreign speculative buyers in the boom times of the eighties. Now it is overgrown and in ruins. The tourists have left. It has been reclaimed by thick vegetation, and its occupants are snakes, dogs and possibly ghosts. 5. Remembering (as I write) Simryn reading to me at her kitchen table brings to mind a passage in Benjamin’s essay on reproducibility: that elusive discussion of aura (that “here and now” of an image) which he saw as decaying under conditions brought about by mechanical reproduction and the immature use of technology for the purposes of war. What might Benjamin be getting at, I wonder, when he writes: “To follow with the eye—while resting on a summer afternoon—a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch.” Such an intriguing image! Breathing in what one is looking at, connecting the observer to the atmosphere of that which is being observed so that one becomes the other. 6. When I mention Benjamin’s idea of decaying aura to a friend she tells me aura also refers to perceptual disturbances that are experienced before migraines and seizures. Auras are warnings expressed as a hypersensitivity to light and smell, producing dizziness and even hallucinations. Simryn reading at her kitchen table makes me aware of the threads between the language of the text and the language of the image—the fragility but also the durability of these threads (a web?)—that in turn makes Benjamin’s concept of aura—“that strange tissue of space and time”—seem anything but dead. And as these two uses of aura comingle I wonder if Benjamin’s aura lives on as a warning; a hypersensitivity to our surrounds as we discover, again and again, the importance of image-text biodiversity, and the way the internal workings of the self and the external workings of the world are always permeable, swapping all kinds of information in a single breath.
7. As I write about what is taking place at Simryn’s kitchen table, I’ve remembered another from my childhood. It was a circular table, always covered in brightly coloured tablecloths that were scratchy to the touch, with a bowl of fruit usually placed in the middle, along with other bits and pieces. It belonged to a woman who offered classes in remedial reading from her home. Reluctantly, I would go to her house after school and it was there at this kitchen table that she would ask me to follow a line of images and circle what was different: a row of cats jumping to the left and one jumping to the right; a row of flowers with five petals and one with four. I would follow these lines of images, from left to right, circling the one cat jumping right instead of left or the single flower with four petals instead of five until these lines of pictures became letters: c c c c c e c c c c c n n n n n n m n n n u u u u u u y u u u b b b b b p b b b b These letters soon became words, then these words became sentences. Eventually (when I was getting the hang of it) she would dig around in her pantry for packets of pasta or biscuits, cans of beans or tomatoes, and we would sound out (that is, read aloud) the brands and then the miniscule list of ingredients printed on the packaging. After years of anxiety and embarrassment trying to read at school, it was in this ecosystem, with this woman, at this kitchen table, where I learnt to read. My first library. 8. Why does this come to mind now? And what am I getting at by thinking of kitchen tables as ecosystems? It has something to do, I think, with the process of making as a form of gathering and accumulation, an imaginative and material labour that defies the notion of a singular act of creation. The “finished piece” is just one possible arrangement of the pieces, one possible outcome of the different elements, but in the process of making something, whether it be a meal, an image or a text, those elements can take on surprising forms, patterns, and relations.
9. Although nothing about twigs, leaves or bits of rubbish suggests a birds nest, the bird transforms these pieces by flying back and forth between the mess of the world and the making and maintenance of its home in order to sustain it, and be sustained by it. Or to return to the Brazil nut tree, of vital importance to its ecosystem is the agouti, the only animal in the forest with teeth sharp enough to gnaw into the rock-hard balls that contain the heavily armored nuts inside. The agouti has an imperfect memory, which means that when the rodent has had its fill and buries the remaining nuts for later it is also planting Brazil nut trees. In other words, its imperfection ensures the tree’s survival, and by extension its own. The agouti is in conversation with the orchid, the bee, the nut and the understory. Or should we say the agouti is a part of the orchid, is a part of the bee, is a part of the nut, is a part of the understory. (Is this where the coloniser trips up? Trampling over such connections in pursuit of a solution to a problem that has already been solved? That is, a problem concerning survival as a series of entanglements? Of seeking to replace these entanglements with the cruel simplicity of profit?) The same goes, I’m suggesting, for the survival of texts and images. The kitchen table establishes this as a fact. 10. So having shown my hand let me go a little further. Foucault, thinking with Seneca, asked us to consider the ancient Greek practice of hupomnēmata. Technically: “account books, public registers, or individual notebooks serving as memory aids.” Foucault’s suggestion, though, is not to see hupomnēmata as mere memory supports, but rather as “a material and a framework for exercises to be carried out frequently: reading, rereading, mediating, conversing with oneself and with others.” Such notes to oneself therefore become “an equipment of helpful discourses” that one returns to, reads again, and begins to absorb and to live with. Texts and images become a part of oneself, a part of one’s sensations, a part of living in a world of unnecessary inequalities and cruelties, a part of caring for one’s self and others. Materials we read and look at soak into the self, or are “planted in it,” as Seneca writes. And the stakes are higher still, since reading, along with writing, looking, along with making, come to constitute one’s survival. As Seneca instructs:
Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day. This is my own custom; from the many things which I have read, I claim some part for myself. The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even to the enemy’s camp—not as a deserter, but as a scout. If my rereading of Seneca via Foucault holds water, there may be something to gain by making a daily practice of stepping outside of these recommendation algorithms and the constant flow of messages that are tuned and tinkered to “know” what we want to read and see. How might images and texts become vessels for what we do not know? Do not normally see? The survival of text and image is entwined with the ability to follow curiosity without purpose, even if it means trespassing into enemy territory, and even if it means entering places where nonknowledge lives. Hupomnēmata is not a practice of doctrines of the whole but a method for passing through a diversity of parts, gathering materials and digesting them—as one would a meal. It is the enactment of curiosity, a defiance of what one is meant to read, going where one is not expected to go, reading what the enemy is reading, constantly turning it over, refusing to play or playing differently or doing nothing, and in the process making it one’s own. 11. These are elusive thoughts, perhaps, not least because they double as methods for learning a language so as to reinvent it; discovering, over and over, the way in which what appears homogenous is in fact an explosion of diverse relations. But this game of claiming and reclaiming—should we call this a form of survival or play or both?—is, as Seneca and Foucault suggest, a daily practice. A prayer that remains terrestrial, enacted in the here and now. To do it requires returning to notes and images, rearranging them, adding and editing and sharing them, as one might share a meal (whereby a meal is made with whatever is at hand, just like a nest). It requires, according to Foucault and Seneca, getting inside the thing, under it, through it, so as to transform what is seen and heard “into tissue and blood.”
12. If I find myself in an ecosystem, which today takes the form of Simrynâ€™s kitchen table, I also find an understory of survival. Here is a table where images and texts live an entangled existence, and are rearranged according to lifeâ€™s passing tasks and events, mixed in with preparing and sharing meals, swapping stories, memories of homework, sorting receipts and figuring out budgets, telling secrets, arguing, mourning, worrying, laughing, breathing and scratching oneâ€™s head. And to leave this ecosystem is, then, to carry its questions with me: How are our sensibilities and preferences, our tastes, formed? How are our intuitions crafted? How do we become where we are from? What do we draw on to clothe and give form to our imaginations, to our daily, repetitive, mundane, prosaic work of figuring out how to make sense in our time? By returning to these questions I plant them elsewhere. I forget them. I find them again, but not as I remembered.
Tom Melick 2019
Bibliography Roland Barthes, “The Rhetoric of the Image” (1964), Image, Music, Text, London: Fontana Press, 1977. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, eds. Michael W. Jennings Brigid Doherty Thomas Y. Levin, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2008. Michel Foucault, “Self Writing”, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow, New York: The New Press, 1997. Thank you to Anneke Jaspers who read an earlier version of this text and undoubtedly improved it.
1. ‘Passing Through’, 2017, printed 2019, type C photograph, ed. 2, 160 x 110 cm (image)
2. ‘Passing Through’, 2017, printed 2019, type C photograph, ed. 2, 157 x 107.5 cm (image)
3. ‘Passing Through’, 2017, printed 2019, type C photograph, ed. 2, 146 x 100 cm (image)
* not on display *
4.* ‘Passing Through’, 2017, printed 2019, type C photograph, ed. 2, 94 x 64.5 cm (image)
* not on display *
5.* ‘Passing Through’, 2017, printed 2019, type C photograph, ed. 2, 55.5 x 55.5 cm (image)
6. ‘Passing Through’, 2017, printed 2019, type C photograph, ed. 2, 54.5 x 54.5 cm (image)
* not on display *
7.* ‘Passing Through’, 2017, printed 2019, type C photograph, ed. 2, 55.7 x 55.7 cm (image)
8. ‘Passing Through’, 2017, printed 2019, type C photograph, ed. 2, 56.7 x 56.7 cm (image)
9. ‘Passing Through’, 2017, printed 2019, type C photograph, ed. 2, 42 x 42 cm (image)
* not on display *
10.* ‘Passing Through’, 2017, printed 2019, type C photograph, ed. 2, 18.5 x 19 cm (image)
11. ‘Passing Through’, 2017, printed 2019, type C photograph, ed. 2, 21 x 21.5 cm (image)
12. ‘Passing Through’, 2018, relief print, 97 x 66 cm (paper)
13. ‘Passing Through’, 2018, relief print, 93 x 64 cm (paper)
14. ‘Passing Through’, 2018, relief print, 93 x 64 cm (paper)
15. ‘Passing Through’, 2018, relief print, 98 x 65 cm (paper)
16. ‘Passing Through’, 2018, relief print, 140 x 75 cm (paper)
17. ‘Passing Through’, 2018, relief print, 196 x 107 cm (paper)
18. ‘Passing Through’, 2018, relief print, 196 x 109 cm (paper)
* not on display * 19. ‘Passing Through’, 2018, relief print, 196 x 108 cm (paper)
* not on display * 20. ‘Passing Through’, 2018, relief print, 197 x 108 cm (paper)
* not on display * 21. ‘Passing Through’, 2018, relief print, 195 x 108 cm (paper)
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October 30 - November 23, 2019 Utopia Art Sydney