Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Little Trapdoors

This is a text I was invited to write to accompany the show: a yellow rose by the artists
Owen Boss // Colin Martin // Tom O’Dea
Its on at: Freemasons’ Hall 
17 Molesworth Street Dublin 2
August 9th – August 24th, 2012
(opening 9th August at 6pm)

There are more details here.
The artists have used a short story by Borges as their starting point and I was responding in part to this and in part to the spaces of the Freemasons' Hall as well as their own works.
Little Trapdoors

 I’m generally reticent about the over-use of metaphor in aesthetics; particularly when it comes to talking about art. I’d not go so far as to call it a conspiracy but I do resent its hegemony on meaning. Let a yellow rose be a yellow rose. We have a responsibility to not always take out the spray can and stencil unwelcome associations over it. Objects can get left behind in the search for further correspondences and meanings. Oftentimes things don’t have any meaning beyond their particular place and time. Sometimes they are not a proxy and they don’t delegate for anything but themselves. The metaphorical risk is the temptation to move over the object and miss what’s important. But we shouldn’t only look beyond things but into them too. Beautiful things are not merely metaphors that point to their position in chains of meaning but little trapdoors that can be opened up to reveal hermetic dimensions lying within.

We live by metaphors, however. They are always convenient and ready to hand which is what makes them so hard to avoid. They are part of the very system by which our world is made not only meaningful but liveable. For the philosophers Lakoff and Johnson experience is an intricately constructed architecture of associative meanings. “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another,” they argue in Metaphors We Live By. This means that thought itself is metaphorical. Time is like money, it can be wasted or borrowed; words are like conduits or containers, they carry meaning or can be without sense. Consciousness has orientation, we can feel depressed, sink into a coma or be in low or high spirits.

But whilst thinking seems impossible without such associations the networks of metaphor are also inherently hierarchical constructions of sedimented tradition and authority. They thrum with power.

Metaphors produce meanings but they also lock them up. Metaphors work by taking a characteristic of an object as a stand in for its totality. A rose becomes another thing: a jewel, a “gem of the spring, April’s eye.” An act of ventriloquism takes place and the object is dubbed over with another voice. It starts speaking for something other than itself. What, then, happens if one takes a step beyond the threshold of this system once in a while? What would it mean to absent oneself from metaphor for a moment and rub up against the rough hewn surfaces of reality; to luxuriate in the grain of the masonry of the world?

Objects are not secret entities, more often than not they sit there dumbly and unembarrassed in plain view. But, whilst they are not secret they contain secrets; weird little esoteric elements which are concealed to all but those initiates who know how to look in the right places. When meeting an object we can use all our senses to rove its exterior searching for that flange or lip which anticipates a way inside. It’s the edge of a door. A wrinkle in the buckled surface of a thing can suggest a hinge upon which this door pivots and opens.

The classical philosopher-poet Lucretius also believed that the true nature of things (De rerum natura) lay hidden inside them. For him objects have to be opened up for use to peer into their turbid interiors. So:

And when we knock a stone with a toe, we touch
Just the outer surface of it and the surface colour,
But we do not feel this by our touch, but rather
The hardness of the stone deep down inside.
(Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, Bk. 4, 265ff.)

The poetry of philosophy crafts these thresholds which open up the unyielding and opaque surfaces of the world. It promises esoteric wisdom and occult knowledge of things as they really are. It offers up invitations to private gatherings of objects behaving in their own way as they are wont to do when we’re not paying particular attention to them.

Poetics (in all its multi-sensory forms) is the magickal art of finding and making these little trapdoors.  No one said this better than Wallace Stevens the poet laureate of “things as they are.” He realised that it is not the world that is alien to us, but us that are aliens in the world: 

It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.
It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass

Wallace Stevens, Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit

Poetics, then, is about discovering how we as aliens might recognise and grasp the concrete beauty of normal reality by probing beneath its surfaces:

Beauty is momentary in the mind -
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.”

Wallace Stevens, Peter Quince at the Clavier

However, if we are an interloper into what Bruno Latour calls the parliament of things then we shouldn’t be alarmed and treat this as a conspiracy or secret society that we’ve stumbled upon. It is, instead, an opportunity for us to rethink our place in the world. It means we should rise to the challenge in trying to work out the rites and rituals these things perform.

What I’m proposing then, is that there is an aesthetic attitude which is also a poetical-philosophical one. It recognises the significance of Borges’ insight that some things are not, “a mirror of the world, but rather one thing more added to the world.” In other words, it is often unhelpful to think that we are looking at the world as through a glass darkly. Sometimes the metaphor that art (and science for that matter) is a mirror of reality can obscure as much as illuminate. Truth is not limited to sight; it is not something reflected back at us through our own lenses. Instead it is revealed in parts, in different orders, as we move with our whole body through different thresholds into other spaces. The world becomes, then, not a shiny reflection of ourselves, but a tessellated surface composed of an intricate matrix of an infinite number of little trapdoors waiting to be discovered and opened up.

1 comment:

  1. I'm very grateful to Oisin Byrne [ ] for pointing out the connections to this poem.

    Louis MacNeice, "Snow"

    The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
    Spawning snow and pink roses against it
    Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
    World is suddener than we fancy it.

    World is crazier and more of it than we think,
    Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
    A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
    The drunkenness of things being various.

    And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
    Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
    On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands –
    There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.


    From Poems (1935)