I’m looking at a 100-year-old black and white photograph of a man riding a bicycle. It is on the cover of a biography of Alfred Jarry, author of Ubu Roi and one of the bright young literary lights of the turn-of-the-century avant garde. Both technologies, the photo and the bicycle, were new then. They had speed in common – light speed, ground speed, and the potential for fall.
In a ten-year-old colour photograph, a dark-haired woman floats on a cloud of white satin and lace. High above land, she stares straight into the lens of the camera, self-possessed, returning its unflinching gaze. Weightless, or perhaps poised at the moment just before her inevitable fall, she is the cover girl of a monograph on the artist Rosemary Laing. The man on the bicycle and the floating bride have speed and technology in common too.
Before George Eastman perfected his new-fangled film technology to replace plates, early photographs required up to eight hours of exposure, hence the earliest photos were mostly still-life, architecture or landscape subjects. Movement only registered as a blur, but thanks to George, exposure times shrank until stiff Victorians in their even stiffer collars gave way to subjects like Jarry, caught like Laing’s bride in the midst of action and preserved in a state of suspended animation. Jarry’s body, mechanically self-propelled, is imagined in ‘real’ space, whereas the bride, with only her body as the vehicle, is pictured in a reality we can only imagine as a dream.
All that has physically changed in all that time is the lag between the snapping of the image and its production. Jarry’s photographer took a couple of hours to develop the film and then, in the red light of the dark room, watched the photographic image emerge from nowhere onto the page. For Laing, the production is almost instantaneous. Making an image became faster than telling a story. Visual artists had the field all to themselves until the proliferation of photography saw the first stirring of the communication revolution that began our transformation from an aural to a visual culture.
It didn’t go unnoticed at the time. Time, speed, duration and memory were hot-button issues back in Jarry’s day. While Proust was yet to begin Remembrance of Things Past, and Jung was still thinking about the collective unconscious,Jarry,inresponse to translations of The Time Machine and other works of HG Wells, set about writing (under his pseudonym Dr Faustroll), his ‘Commentary and Instructions for the Practical Construction of a Time Machine’, a work of fiction, albeit one disguised as s scientific paper:
After a brief disquisition on the nature of time, in which Jarry refers to the difference between physical time and duration, he describes the actual construction of the machine in precise detail … The final section, ‘Time as Seen from the Machine’ concludes with a new definition of duration, which Jarry then paraphrases as ‘The Becoming of a Memory’. (Alistair Brotchie, Alfred Jarry; A Pataphysical Life, MIT, 2012)
In Jarry’s day collective memory was passed on to each new generation of children via the word, but now we sub out our cultural memory to professionals who reflect us back to ourselves in art, TV and cinema while we upload our own personal, cheap, faded Kodak memories to the web, without having the slightest idea how to retrieve them if the cloud ever bursts.
At the speed of light, it seems, in one lifetime we’ve come to communicate using predominantly visual information. In the blink of an eye, all information is now digital, and we can chat through time and space to the other side of the planet without a thought for the physical spatial impossibility of such a feat. We have arrived in Paul Virilio’s ‘tele-present’ where duration is sucked out of time, volume out of space, and reality can be Photoshopped into any possibility. Forty-five years ago in his Open Sky, Virilio observed that cyber-culture was in the process of fundamentally changing our human perceptions of self, society, and reality:
Already, the classic photograph is no more than a freeze frame. With the decline in volumes and in the expanse of landscapes, reality becomes sequential and cinematic unfolding finally gets the jump on whatever is static. (Paul Virilio, Open Sky, Trans Julie Rose, Verso 1977)
Running Laing’s work though that statement of Virilio’s provides a clue to one of her major themes. Cinematic unfolding is what happens in her work. The images of her flight research series set up anticipation by the suggestion of a narrative contained in the frozen-framed moment. As the bride dives and turns in a cerulean sky-field or plumps, cushioned by a pearly dawn, the mind immediately looks for visual cues – is she falling, floating, leaping, hanging? There is dissonance between what we see and what we know the body can physically do. Where Jarry’s potential fall might only result in cuts and bruises, Laing’s bride is suspended between terminal and escape velocity.
In greenwork, a 1995 series of landscapes taken at airports, streaks of misty blur appear in the frame, indicating past movement in an ironic attempt to pump duration back into the photographic medium.
Her groundspeed (2001) series offers intriguing images of forest floors carpeted in floral-patterned commercial broadlooms. The 2D repeat pattern of the carpet, juxtaposed with the randomness of the forest, creates an optical illusion of movement (speed). The carpet is real and it is interesting (but not essential) to note that Laing’s pictorial space, like that of cinema, is generally art-directed, constructed, rehearsed, performed and shot in physical time and space, and though it could easily be Photoshopped these days, that’s not the point. The art object is only the end product of the making of these images. Being able to see the many human hours devoted to their execution is also a way of building duration back into the photograph. For all their technical gloss, it is still possible to perceive the hand of an artist at work.
In 2002 Laing reprises her bride again, this time as the victim of a gunshot wound to the chest. The title bulletproofglass brings to mind Botticelli’s Venus, forever submerged beneath an inch of greenish plate glass since the 1993 car-bomb damage to the Uffizi gallery in Florence, as if Venus, too, would bleed if wounded. The mind knows the bride has to fall because of the wound, but then, miraculously the heart imagines her rising like an ascending Madonna, resurrected after death to the celestial realms. These images appear as half-remembered dreams, TV news horrors out of context, or the fleeting graphic violence of a murder mystery.
Art books are strange, conflicted beasts. Like scrapbooks of pressed flowers, they are visual compendia of things of beauty. There have been books of images since there have been books, but the glossy artist monograph is something more. It proclaims importance – a milestone in a career, the occasion of a major retrospective, or inclusion in a big-deal museum exhibition. Unlike the biography, which is as much a portrait of a time and place as its subject and his or her work, the artist monograph is not so much about the artist as the work itself and where it sits in within art history. It is a ‘signifier’ of status, a loud fanfare of glorious colour printing, spacious wide-format pages and sky-high production value.
There is much more to Laing’s oeuvre and all is revealed in this book, which also contains a lengthy essay by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, whose sturdy critique teases out the range of ideas and themes that emerge from the intersection of the artist’s philosophical and cultural influences. While her case for Laing’s elevation to major Australian artist is perhaps justified and reasonable and occasionally perceptive, it is heavy going for the general reader, as it requires a certain fluency in Postmodernese:
The title … perfectly encapsulates this disintegration of older paradigms of medium specificity, while wittily signalling the eclipse of formalist paradigms and the efflorescence of contemporary hybridised usages.
This kind of writing isn’t just flat, it’s roadkill. You can feel your brain being sucked off like a thong in mud. Is the text meant to elucidate or intimidate readers into accepting its rhetoric? And really, why make us look up uncommon words like ‘oneiric’, when ‘dreamlike’ will do just as well? Any other kind of historian has to submit to an editorial red pencil – why not art historians? It is possible to decipher the jargon, but it does leave the reader with the dull ache of being beaten about the head with a wet phone book.
Jargon implies a club of others who are in on the special language. Jarry parodied this beautifully in his ‘Commentary’. Most of the ‘physics’ is taken from the French translation of Lord Kelvin’s Popular Lectures and Addresses: The Constitution of Matter, published in 1893, with Jarry even quoting an English footnote for extra verisimilitude. In spite of his intention to write fiction, it managed to convince at least two eminent scientists that his paper was ‘hypothetically possible’. Perhaps it is the project of the essay to convince the art-history reader that it is hypothetically possible to fit Laing’s work into a snug critical-theory box.
In 2006, with weather, Laing returns to the motif of the rootless, tumbling woman but now she is depicted amid a maelstrom of cut paper – newsprint? money? tickertape? – being swept along, with all else not tied down, by the gusts of fate, as light and ephemeral as the litter of material existence against the biggest expanse we can observe – the firmament. She’s Dorothy, sucked up by the tornado, but minus the magic red shoes to take her home. There is nowhere safe on earth from the force of weather. We now even recognise and measure solar weather, which could, they say, take down all electronic information systems in one hit. When everything is turned upside down and all our stuff is scattered, all our digital information erased, how will we remember who we are?
In the aftermath, from the mouldy mess of baby photos and happy snaps and other cultural flotsam and jetsam, perhaps a handful of photographs will be retrieved; strange images of women floating in open sky. Will the hapless scavenger scratch her head and toss them away or keep them and wonder about the existence of angels?
Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Rosemary Laing, Piper Press (by arrangement with Prestel-Verlag, Munich), 2012, HB, 176pp, $69.95
Annette Hughes was once a bookseller specialising in art books and exhibition catalogues. Now she is an author, and published the memoir Art Life Chooks in 2008. She is also past director of the Reality Bites Literary Festival.
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