The Absence of Myth
The incessant and light play of hesitation, the dull allure of language and the laughter of morning, or the excessive opacity of a hearse, does not change the transparency of universe: from the blind man to someone whom the light floods with joy the distance is nil; knowledge cannot be separated from ecstasy, nor can ecstasy be separated from the horror of non-knowledge... What I am saying has simultaneously distinct clarity and obscurity, meaning and absence of meaning, complete ecstasy and complete horror. (Georges Bataille, The Absence of Myth)
Our capacity to explore and discover is forever bound into turbulent histories and politics of land. The natural always intervenes with the human and its unending aspirations for expansion. So much so that, in the post-human times we inhabit, it would be accurate to identify the natural as politics of human and, in the absence of any true belief and conviction, use it to justify and explain away the overburdening histories that turned imperialism into globalization, the Crusades into radical Islamism and the politics of fear we are all privy to in the 21st century.
When Freeman Dyson discovered the chemical compounds that made the atomic bomb, the original purpose of his research was directed towards space exploration and the potential for space colonies and communities. The idea was ‘simple’: a large number of small hydrogen reactions in a form of explosions will propel the space vessel, producing the high velocity necessary for the vessel’s travel through Earths atmospheres. Dyson’s research was later adopted by Stanley Kubrick and used for the ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ film script. It was also used in Hiroshima.
What I am hoping to conjure up are the contradictions that, as knowledge goes, change from its original intentions towards something less predictable and unthought-of. This is the true nature of research, after all. The knowledge acquisition resides in our desire to affect its certainty, not confirm its stability. This process of mutation, even diversion, speaks also of a paradox of communication that allows for linguistic and representational ambiguities.
My point is simple, how can the aspiring, well-meant project as Dyson’s turn into the darkest chapter of human history? I will return to this point later on.
In Herbst’s painting “Magnetized Space”, an active volcano gushing smoke points to a geological tableaux whose function is compromised in the environment placed. It has no role to play in the overall scale of events. We are invited to reconstruct Herbst’s careful harmonizing of unrelated territories that are equally natural as they are fabricated. Strangely, they draw us to the Dysonian paradox; a chemical reaction so versatile, it can act on the most absurd of relations that are perhaps better contextualized through phenomenon of culture than nature.
The strength of Herbst’s work is, precisely, in drawing our attention to these relations. Taking the landscape format informed by the history paintings of William Hodges, the flotilla of painterly Modernism is placed in the context that marks not only its own end, but the end of history itself. Certainly the historical chronology that, in Herbst’s visual vocabulary considers its consequences and effects, marking a critical departure from the carefully constructed narratives a tradition of landscape painting is eager to adopt.
That is because, in Herbst’s paintings, there are no ulterior motives.What resonates at a point of urgency are clearly ‘misplaced’ signs, whose function is disguised through visual diagrams of the floating rafts. Follow these and you are heading for a crash of visual and national identities. Chameleon like, these structures have developed the adoptability that floats through murky waters of Modernism, changing colours and flags in order to secure its future and meaning. Herbst’s painterly precision is used critically to assign ‘otherness’ to the instructiveness of signs. There is a flip side to its address, just like the word ‘otherness’ no longer assigns the state of being the other. Herbst understands this more than most. After his relocation to Europe, the history of his native South Africa took on an altogether different identity that informed his painterly practice through different visual, iconographical and contextual histories and languages. The question of cultural tradition in relationship to otherness is a pertinent one to observe. The modernist ‘motifs’ that float the waters of Herbst’s paintings are familiar, even iconic. Malevich‘s gray and black compositions inform the structures of the rafts that teeter between cultural collapse and hegemony. The revolutionary ideas of the Avant Garde so brutally abstracted under the guise of newness and formal purity are now just a prototype for the theoretical musing about the revolutionary resistance. Malevich’s infatuations with the forms of ‘new’ propelled by the binary ideology of politics and religion, nature and culture, underline the rhetoric of Modernism that, in its progressive structuring of time and future, fails to extract the unified perspective in spite its claims to homogeneity.
As early as 1915 Malevich claimed “the artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature” (Malevich, From Cubism to Futurism to Suprematism, 1915). Herbst’s paintings pick up on this contradiction by representing a less formal side to his argument. Herbst confronts us with the nature of reproduction, the original and its copy Walter Benjamin so succinctly articulated in his essay on Mechanical Reproduction. For Malevich, the natural still functions within the aesthetic qualities of sublime that are dealt with formally through the language of abstraction. Hence the black square that only formally embodies the notion of purity, attainable through material functioning of painting. For Malevich, the commonalty with natural carries deeper political and cultural connotations that are, arguable, seen as less radical in relationship to formal and material qualities of painting. He takes a polarized view that is influenced by the cultural tradition of the torn out Russia, a view of the common land and the people that is un-grandiose in its daily routine for survival. There is something honorable and down to earth about his approach. So is the case with Herbst’s motives and references that point to the contemporary culture and society we all experience and are part of.
Malevich reminds us that there is a hard line between hope and a belief that is also informed by different political and individual representations, pending on the geographies and the locality we are placed within. Towards the end of his career, Malevich’s radical views on painting subsided. He experienced the change of ideological wind in the cruelest of ways and was subjected to Stalin’s Socialist Realism and the newly formed political direction of Russia. Malevich recoiled from the revolutionary purity of painterly signs into a visual landscape of representation and iconography. He returned to nature.
For Herbst, to import the iconography of Malevich’s radicalism into his work is important. It layers the readings of his intentions and informs the ‘otherness’ of his painterly language. Firstly, we can read it via the aforementioned reproduction, not only as mediations of signs and representations but as ideas and aspirations that come and go through histories of people and land. By mediating the original, Herbst is conscious of the shifts that occur in the hope of transgressing the stereotypes preformed. Hence the presence of Frank Stella’s stripes in the guise of floating flags and sails. The intention is to direct our
attention to the painterly language that, away from its original form, becomes a tool of communication adapted in a much broader cultural and visual contexts. It is interesting to note the reinforced features of painterly formalism and abstraction in Herbst’s paintings, that function as a shifting tool and a barometer of meaning from Abstract Expressionism through to Minimalism and Post-abstraction. Where once we were inclined to consider Stella’s object paintings on a level of painterly critique enforced by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, we are now free to rummage through painterly histories, seeking an unrestrained access to the categories given to painting.
In a conversation about the new paintings, Herbst points out that the way into the paintings is made through a landscape. For him, it functions as a formal tool, defined by the tradition of the figure-ground relationship, and a source of reference he uses in form of a collage or a photograph to structure the narrative around it. Herbst insists on the presence of landscape that triggers our relationship not only with the natural but also with the cultural and the political. The acid light in Raft 7 that emanates in the swampy polluted atmosphere of painterly effects, articulates our responsibilities even when none are taken – the omnipresent danger of the nuclear pollution Freeman Dyson so ambitiously conceived of at the start of this essay is now forever imprinted in the legacy of the human, from the nuclear plants of Chernobyl and Fukushima to the present political strategies of South Korea.
‘The Absence of Myth’ is, perhaps, the most apt of titles for this exhibition.
It is adopted from the book by one of the more radical philosophers and writers, Georges Bataille, whose thinking and writing on the notions of body, culture, society and community never falls short of controversies, the kinds the last two decades of the 21st century continue to experience. Bataille recognizes the contemporary society’s denial of ancient myth, “founded on a mediation between mankind and the natural world through which the cohesion (and the necessity) of the society would be affirmed. The myth of contemporary society, therefore, was an ‘absence of myth’, since that society had deluded itself into believing it was without myth by making a myth of its very denial. Furthermore, it believed that it no longer had a need for myth, that it had evolved beyond dependence upon a ritual to establish a mediation between mankind and the rest of creation, since man now had dominion over nature.” (Bataille, 2006, p.13).
One of the finest myths Modernism still imposes on us is the dominance of knowledge over experience and sensations, so constructed as to doubt everything that is not empirically sound or proven. If, as Bataille suggests, the idea of non-knowledge equals horror, the human experience is well adjusted to deal with such, as many a chapters of our history and presence testify. To assume the privilege of omnipresent control, the idea of knowledge is misrepresented as in order to oblige our desire for perpetual innovation and progress; the pact with horror is, than, the only real solution we are presented with. Freeman Dyson, I assume, in the end, understood the paradox, the most. If only in the language (if not in the contemporary society), are we fully furnished with the capacity to communicate this, the potential to think ourselves out of it still permeates in our consciousness and is perhaps not so far out of our site. Herbst brings it closer to us, if only to remind us that our aspirations are fragile constructs that, raft like, float the waters of our desires but need to be accounted for and safeguarded through both ecstasy and horror.
Andrea Medjesi-Jones, 2015
1. Bataille, G., 2006. The Absence of Myth: Writing on Surrealism. London and New York: Verso.
The Man Who Wasn't There
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away...
Antigonish, (1889) Hughes Mearns.
In the film The Man Who Wasn't There (Coen Brothers, 2001), the main protagonist Ed Crane, a small town barber, appears on trial for murder. In order to defend himself Crane hires the services of Freddy Riedenschneider, a highly charismatic and expensive attorney from Sacramento.
Freddy Riedenschneider - who is a cross between a showman, a philosopher and a preacher - begins Crane's defense by painting an emotive picture of the man on trial. He describes how Ed Crane has lost his place in the universe, how he is too 'ordinary' to be a criminal mastermind, and how, maybe there is a greater scheme at work that the state has yet to discover. Riedenschneider's opening is a performance using 'smoke and mirrors' to baffle the jury, asking them at the same time to take a closer look at Crane. To open their eyes. That the closer they looked, the less sense it would all make, "he is 'The Barber', for Christsake", just like them - "an ordinary man" - guilty of nothing except living in a world that had no place for him, and he called this man, 'modern man'.
Unlike classic Film Noir of the early 1940s and 1950s, Neo-Noir films, such as The Man Who Wasn't There, often acknowledge modern conditions and technological advancements of the time, and utilize details that are typically absent to the plot of classic Film Noir. Initially shot in colour, and later transferred to black and white, it has led to some Film Noir bloggers claiming they could actually see tinted dark green and pearl grey shadows in the film (after rumors that some versions of the film were accidentally released in colour), but it is the mention of 'modern man' in the courtroom scene that takes the movie into an all together different line of commentary to film noir.
The word ‘modern’ originates from the Latin ‘modo’ meaning 'just now'. It has travelled through history (much like Ed Crane travels through the plot of this movie) unassuming of its surroundings. The word was first spotted in 1585 to signify 'of present or recent times', and has moved slowly through the centuries as it is assigned to all manner of things that inevitably - and paradoxically - have become 'old-fashioned'. From the 16th century we see the word used in contrast with the word ‘ancient’ and aligned with the technology of modern and early modern times, but it is not until the 19th and 20th centuries that the word appears to find a new identity as a way of describing movements in art, philosophies and the new contemporary audiences that define our current times.
Like the main protagonist of The Man Who Wasn't There, the word ‘modern’ often sits in the shadows, showing only its outline and profile. A profile that is filled with whatever projection or interpretation we bring upon its encounter. The word, like Ed Crane, seems to have no identity of its own. It only seems to borrow from or reflect the circumstances it faces. Often uncommunicative and unresponsive, it is content to be adopted by every era, even when criticised and rejected by its era as a negative 'sign of our times', or its declining standards in education. Secondary Modern. Whether it be the pace of modern life that is critiqued in contrast to those times when things moved a little slower, the word ‘modern’ seems guilty after all. Guilty in a world that still has found no place for it, and blamed for the existential angst that envelops 'modern man'.
Its respite and pardon comes via a popular vote, as the word has been rapidly adopted by every aspect of our lives in modern times at an exponential rate; cloned at every opportunity to mean something else. From its use by TV chefs describing 'modern British cooking', to sport analysts describing the faster pace and more aggressive style of 'modern rugby'. The word is typically assigned to trends in fashion in an affirmative, empowering and liberating way, describing the wardrobe for the 'modern woman' or 'modern man', and it has been assimilated by interior design and 'trend forecasters' to repackage the seasonal look of the 'modern home': now available in matt blue and grey. Recent suffixes such as ‘Post’ or ‘Alter’, have given the word a new lease of life, but on the whole a continuing ambiguity, ambivalence and transmutability defines the word as it travels through time. We want to be modern, yet at the same time escape the modern world; its pressures and demands. In the words of Deep Patagonia Adventure Holidays: "In a world overwhelmed by modern life, Robinson Crusoe's experience can today be your own." To escape. To be free. To be the Anti-Modern.
The paintings by the artist Gunther Herbst employ facets of familiar modernists’ symbols, as the signifiers for our current times. From Bauhaus, to De Stijl, traces of these seminal movements' imagery appear and disappear in his work in the form of recognisable grids, colour schemes and checkered-boards; a fragmented Piet Mondrian transported into one of his own works (High Holborn 4/Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, 2012), like an unmanned raft left by modernism's drifting legacy. These emblems are the footprints of 'modern man'. They act like barcodes that can be scanned (or as a form of carbon dating), as these schematic signifiers are encoded into his practice. Placed within urban settings, they are unequivocally titled to reflect the synergy between these image's indexicality and the settings they inhabit: Tottenham Court Rd. 3/Black Blue Red, 2009, Whitfield St. Red Blue Yellow, 2010, and Waterloo Rd. 3/Red White Blue, 2009/12, to name a few of his works.
The world occupied by these paintings within paintings, points to corners of society inhabited by those who have been evicted, ousted or perhaps just forgotten. Those overwhelmed by modern life. We don't see these 'modern men', we only see the structures they inhabit, and the familiar brown card board boxes and delivery palettes used in this architecture. We don't see the reason or history or names of these modern dwellers, but we recognise these as an integral part of our lives as we pass by the homeless and dispossessed. However the paintings never descend into social commentary. They neither condone nor defend the circumstances surrounding these vistas, deliberately choosing not to exploit sentimental deviations and the loss of hope preceding these moments in an individual's life. Like The Man Who Wasn't There, they are about the meaning the observer brings to these images; the observed absorbing or reflecting the process of interpretation.
Recently I heard a story about a man who was living like a castaway in Glover's Island near Twickenham. I had heard how the man had built a makeshift raft and how he had defied the authorities staking a claim on this part of the River Thames. I also heard rumours that his raft had burned down and I decided to investigate. I found nothing about him, but discovered instead a BBC interview about a man who had been living on a small island in Chiswick Eyort, and I wondered whether perhaps this was the same man. The Caucasian well-educated man in his sixties had taken residency for six months in a diminutive island in the River Thames, not far from Glover's Island. He had apparently built a hut and sometimes also slept in a tree. When asked why, he simply said: "Because I have achieved freedom. Things are now simple and uncomplicated". Opinion was divided; with some local residents praising this modern day Robinson Crusoe, and some condemning his actions. Although some speculation followed as to what would happen and whether he would eventually be evicted, the story goes that when officials visited to discuss this matter, he could not be found. Inexplicably, he was no longer there.
 While waiting on death row, Ed Crane dreams of walking out to the prison courtyard. Seeing a flying saucer, he simply reacts with a nod.
 A Secondary Modern school, was a type of school in the U.K between 1944 and the early 70's, for students who had not reached scores in the top 25% during their eleven plus exams (final primary school year).