Pain-ting, Sebald & History

W.G.Sebald in Central Park, NYC, 2001 (photo credit: Chris Buck)

I like living on the margins. I guess everyone has a different way of focusing and establishing a necessary distance from things in order to see them more clearly and make sense of our place in the world. This distance is not always physical of course and besides, there is always the possibility of stepping back too far and tottering on the edge of an abyss. I work best on the periphery with the sensation that the far off centre is very much in focus. I suppose it could be a weakness of character or a fear of being sucked too quickly into the whirlwind of events and those cannibalising energies at the centre of human activities... I don’t know. The art world at least, or certain aspects of it, are best kept at a controlled distance.

There is no denying the accumulated mental anguish which collectively speaking is a symptom of history itself. For the likes of a painter conscious of this pressure, at least there is the possibility of consolation and even joy in the creative act – though the very mechanisms of the process entail a constant head-on struggle with and assimilation of such things as fragility, destruction and oblivion, all part of the working process which culminates in a final “holding still” - the paradoxical “fixed flow” which is a finished painting. In one way the paintings could be described as reverberating surfaces, meshes, lattices or webs where things are consumed and extinguished or brought into view and existence. The Hegelian phantom is always lurking in the dark: the idea that the art form (painting) is slowly cancelling itself out (Duchamp et al.) under the weight of history and in every work the question is raised of its own status and value. This is a given state of affairs now, something one has to accept, but one goes on marvelling at the still unfolding possibilities when engaged in the making of paintings once certain contextual conditions have been recognised.

In one way or another the work aspires to a poetic dimension in the sense that the very processes of its making as well as the nature of a finished painting itself is a layered realm which, however humbly, mirrors our own fragility within the onslaught of history.

Regarding the nature of human anguish, which history seems to pile up endlessly, I quote W.G. Sebald from a fascinating interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio recorded in April 1998:

“Of course we do see some of it (mental pain), but people usually suffer in silence or in privacy. And certainly when it’s a question of mental anguish, not all of it, only very little of it is ever revealed. We live, as it were, unaware, those of us who are spared this live unaware of the fact that there are these huge mental asylums everywhere and that there is a fluctuating part of the population which is forever wandering through them. It is a characteristic of our species, in evolutionary terms, that we are a species in despair, for a number of reasons. Because we have created an environment for us which isn’t what it should be. And we’re out of our depth all the time. We’re living exactly on the borderline between the natural world from which we are being driven out, or we’re driving ourselves out of it, and that other world which is generated by our brain cells. And so clearly that fault line runs right through our physical and emotional makeup. And probably where these tectonic plates rub up against each other is where the sources of pain are. Memory is one of these phenomena. It’s what qualifies us as emotional creatures, psychozootica or however one might describe them. And I think there is no way in which we can escape it. The only thing that you can do, and that most people seem to be able to do very successfully, is subdue it. And if you can do that by, I don’t know, playing baseball or watching football on television, then that’s probably a good thing, I don’t know.”

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