FIT TO STAND THE GAZE OF MILLIONS
ORIEL 31 Powys & Gardens Gallery Cardiff U.K. 1997
Play it again – First View
The materials for this work include: a story by kleist, Earthquake in Chili; a children’s toy called a spirograph; a film still showing Cary Grant smiling, playing Jerry Warriner in Leo McCarey’s Hollywood comedy The Awful Truth.
I rewrote the story from memory. Then I submitted the spirograph to a factory asking them to rebuild it on a huge scale so that I could literally wear it over my body to regulate its movement and force my hand to produce perfectly symmetrical shapes. The photographic image was reproduced five times, painted with a knife and a squeegee. The process of such a work involves chance and accident; one can never tell what new information the next erasure will bring.
A text, a toy, a photograph – three ready-mades remade. Later I would want to say – three ready- mades remembered, bodily remembered.
Cary Grant’s smile is a black and white cinema smile, fantastically uncomplicated, dearly belonging to all of us. It struck perfection, success, glamour… and it is a ‘Master Smile’ in which
the first class artist, the expert, lord and sovereign, guide and instructor, all unite. It is an ‘Old Smile’ as well. The idea to reproduce it is a visual play upon these connotations.
A similar feeling influenced the choice to retell a story as perfect as Kleist’s Earthquake in Chili. In doing so, however, a literary ambition was hardly my claim. To retell was more an attempt to grasp a form, an effort to recall, much like the effort to recapture that ‘Master Smile’, or arrest my hand mechanically.
To be ‘dictated’, mime the Masters, is the key performance in this work. I wish to let myself be the satellite or marionette of Masters. Better; let painting be a puppet dance pulled by the objects carrying the light, hand signature of ‘others’ and the indifferent easiness of a machine.
Little is it an issue of ‘memorizing a lesson’. What made me attentive to these objects was in fact the very contrary for the magic, and magic irony with Grant’s smile and Kleist’s story lies in an awful truth known to its authors to have been repeated over countless times. And it was the automatic rotation resulting in a perfect shape drawing me to the children’s toy. I chose to ‘play it all again’.
To play it again – it locates your own questions well. I trust such basic projections. It is perhaps an act of belief, putting faith in continuity.
However, as Kleist’s story relates events so disastrous, hopeless and terminal, I am not sure what faith and what
continuity I declare. I know that his story has put a bullet through my head. Is then to be swaying on and on with a bullet in you to be read as ‘putting faith in continuity’?
‘Kleist’, said Thomas Mann so accurately, ‘is at times insane in his zeal to reform the world by terroristic methods’. When you lovingly report of such zeal, involuntarily you seem to be working against it. That was my feeling while I was trying to recall his text. It is an absurdity; merely to echo a mad desire. Then, there is the echo itself to look at -–a useless shadow serving as a frame locating that zeal within sanity. Perhaps even presenting it as sanity itself. By introducing your own desire as a mechanism, simple, childish, universal, there you might have found a way to bear a tragedy.
Play It Again – An Extra View
The mordant joke is that Kleist’s story itself is motivated by such a perspective – Play it Again. There is no conflict to be disentangled, no lesson to teach, no conclusions. The ways of the world are the ways of the world. Josepha and Jeronimo have no chances. His point, I believe, was to construct a design totally artificial, fantastic, fairytale like, in order to exemplify the already well established, the unshakable awful state of things. So it is necessarily what you know by heart, that Kleist fires off at you taking enormous pleasure in the acceleration, indeed ‘automatization’ of his narrative. In altering slightly a renowned interpretation I would say that what Kleist does is to ‘shock back the logic of extravagant violence into life’.
Many readers felt it, including me; what you don’t recover from when you read this story is less its brutal content, and much more its mode of telling.
In the essay On the Puppet Theatre, Kleist wonders at having seen a certain accomplished Opera dancer paying frequent visits to the puppet theatre. This dancer explains the reason saying there is a lot a dancer can learn from puppets who are more capable of expressing grace and beauty than human dancers because their motions obey mechanical principles and can not be falsified or distorted unlike the human dancer who is bound and tied by his being human, his reflectiveness, his consciousness. The dancer fights with bodily limits whilst the puppet is limit in itself. Gracefulness is displayed at its purest in those human frames which possess either no consciousness at all, or which possess an infinite one, i/e in a puppet or in God. Kleist says; ‘In that case, I said without really thinking, must we eat of the Tree of Knowledge a second time in order to fall back into the state of innocence?’ The dancer replies: ’Exactly, and that is the last chapter of the history of the world.’