The art of seeing
During the first week of our economy going into hibernation, city life became disconcertingly hollow, like a postcard, only without the gloss of tourism. In that moment of abrupt change I felt my relationship to art shift. As my body and mind adapted, interpreted and found reassurance through historical examples, art became a filter for this new world.
Starting in 1968 and for 11 years after, the Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara made a series of works titled I Got Up. In these works, Kawara sent postcards of blandly depicted monuments and urban environments to his friends and associates, with no information beyond the stamped address and the time he got out of bed that morning. The most personal thing about these cards was their ritual: documenting, sharing and paying homage to a single moment of one’s life.
In a related series of telegrams, the artist declared I Am Still Alive, leaving his recipients to affirm their own existence while pondering the outcome of their friend’s. Another work, titled I Went, charted his movements on photocopied maps.
Kawara’s best-known work, however, is his Today series, or “date paintings”. On small canvases he painted the date of the day on which he was working neatly in white against a solid ground, sometimes accompanied by news clippings. If the work was not completed by midnight, it was destroyed.
On Kawara’s recordings predate and pre-empt text messages and social media and all the other technological devices and systems that now keep us both overinformed and hypersurveilled. Gestures that might once have appeared minimal and a bit detached now seem conspicuously measured, material and warm. With the news so narrowly focused on data relating to places and lives, and the way these places and lives are threatened, impacted and stripped back in response to a virus, I consider these works as affirmations of freedom, above all else.
While walking to my restoration job at a natural history museum one morning, during a time once known as peak, I was confronted with a scene so startling it had me questioning whether I was awake.
Having turned into a narrow lane I found a man picking up an ibis. I initially interpreted his action to be familiar and friendly; perhaps he knew the bird or cared for injured birds. The mood suddenly shifted when he caught sight of me. He was squashing the hapless creature’s head against his chest to silence it.
Arresting any instinct I might have had for saving the bird was the look of panic the man shot me. The desperation in those eyes, I reflected while striding up the laneway, was exactly like Joy Hester’s Girl with hen (1956). Hester’s small ink and watercolour painting shows a girl clutching her pet, her eyeballs shooting out of their sockets towards a threat we cannot see.
As a society we know we must respond to the threat of Covid-19 with a high level of caution and co-operation, and yet the response delivers a separate fear – that of dystopias and environments where all of one’s movements are closely monitored and controlled. It’s that second fear that has made me think recently about some of the art that was made in Poland and other Eastern Bloc countries during the Soviet occupation. These weren’t the official works, created by “professional” artists who were effectively painting for the state, but more avant-garde examples, made by a group of thinkers and artists who declared themselves “amateurs” to avoid scrutiny from the authorities.
Józef Robakowski’s From My Window (1978-1999) is a black-and-white film-and-video work that recorded the view from the artist’s window over a period of 22 years. The unvarnished views of daily life show dogs peeing, old men musing, children heading off to school, a caretaker sweeping and the occasional Soviet car raid. The streets are mostly quiet.
After seeing this work in Paris a number of years ago, I visited Robakowski, in the same flat in Łódź, on the ninth floor of a typically brutal Communist apartment block. It was an open invitation: Robakowski called his home the Exchange Gallery, which harked back to the way he and other artists used to furtively gather in each other’s smoke-filled rooms during martial law, to view and discuss their work.
Robakowski showed me the windows through which he had filmed, their views familiar though colourful and animated. We conversed in broken English and Polish; little was understood and yet it didn’t really matter. I was satisfied just being there, in somebody’s home, drinking my tea with lemon while being stared at by an enormous cat, sitting sphinx-like in its own armchair.
Another image I have from that period of Polish art is captured in a black-and-white photo of Krzysztof Wodiczko. The artist wears a trench coat and black cap; with hands behind his back, he is out for a stroll, albeit on top of a strange-looking three-metre-long platform with wheels. Constructed at the height of the Soviet occupation, Vehicle (1973) would only move forward as its user-driver walked back and forth. It was entirely useless, this walking machine, and subtly attuned to the rhetoric of progress and the iron fist of authority.
Vehicle talks to our own dizzying moment of transmogrification, from a society in which freedom was increasingly defined by the “free” flow of markets, to one where a sudden and necessary restoration of the power apparatus has us appreciating far simpler things, such as walking.
The dynamic between inside and out, highlighted within the context of a societal lockdown, also brings to mind a number of films. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), James Stewart plays a news photographer recovering from a broken leg. Through his apartment window and telephoto lens he witnesses a man murdering his wife in a neighbouring apartment, but this is only possible because he is suddenly awake to his immediate surroundings.
In This Is Not a Film (2011), Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker who was at that time banned from making movies and remains under house arrest, turned the camera on himself. We follow the artist around his apartment as he nervously awaits a judge’s ruling on his appeal against a 20-year sentence. The result is a compelling self-portrait, characterised by restlessness, anxiety and a growing affection for his daughter’s pet iguana. The film is a celebration of artistic freedom at its moment of limit and loss.
Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), which I saw for the first time last week, initially seduced me with its interiority. The patience of the camera in this film, as it arranges a mother and son among their furniture and wallpaper, spoke to paintings, some made more than a century earlier. I was reminded of James McNeill Whistler’s famous depiction of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), and the muted interiors with sister and mother painted by Édouard Vuillard.
Akerman’s kitchen scenes, involving the preparation of meat – thin slices of veal coated with egg and flour, a pile of mince sculpted into a round loaf – are among the most enthralling moments of cinema I have seen. They take place as the film transitions from cosy scenes of the widowed sex worker and her son going about their daily rituals towards a climax highlighting the violence underpinning these routines.
Perhaps it’s the close attention this film pays to touch, that which we are being told to fear most, that added to its power. As our brains are drawn into a matrix of scientific data and online social frameworks – our bodies tethered to that which we cannot sense – touch is rediscovered and celebrated. Against a backdrop of new distancing norms, people knead dough, sink their hands into soil and cut the hair of loved ones. Like a pandemic, great art stops us in our tracks. It both colours our view and brings elemental things into sharper focus. Each day we are reminded not only to notice but to feel the things that might soon be gone.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2020 as "Seeing afresh".
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