We have reached a point that, owing to technology, the making and proliferating of images is about as effortless as words. Today both text and image each function as advanced sites of human interaction; vehicles for understanding our complex relations with society, politics and the environment. As these processes of communication have evolved, so have their varied principles, aspirations and interior logics.
Take images, for example: they do not hold meaning together in the same way that words do. Generally words are used as abstractions, compiled and aligned as an indirect form of expression. Images can have a much more direct, immediate impact. There are no straight lines as such; there is no clear beginning and end. Therefore the way we ‘read’ an image is certainly different from the way we read a text.
Is it this that can makes images sometimes so unnerving,or why they have been considered insufficient signs by linguists? How is it that text comes to step in as a kind of crutch or reassurance for the indeterminacy of images? Images are intuitive; they do not explain and yet they know. In this sense they are an end in themselves and not subordinate to the written word. Perhaps they are parallel with, but not the same as text in the production of knowledge. Both are equally entangled with social and cultural relations—and it is evident that a singular mode of representation is insufficient for understanding the world and its present conditions—but beyond their human, contextual relationship, what of the relation these two modes of communication have with each another?
The subject of Self Portrait of an Other is a difficult but symbiotic relationship. It is a collaborative project (actually referred to by Nooteboom as a ‘confrontation’) between the work of highly acclaimed Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom (b.1933) and that of the enigmatic German painter Max Neumann (b.1949). When he encountered the paintings of Neumann for the first time, Nooteboom noted just how they were in a world of their own. And yet, he writes, ‘I felt as if I knew the world I encountered in his work very well without being able to say why.’ As a writer he recognized these paintings as both strange and familiar; being of another world, and yet a common one.
Believing that literature in itself is an art of collaboration with others, Nooteboom’s enchantment with this painter’s works would culminate in the two artists making an ‘agreement’ to work together on a project, as Nooteboom explains:
Instead of trying to describe his work, I would draw on its atmosphere and my own arsenal of memories, dreams, fantasies, landscapes, stories and nightmares to write a series of textual images as an echo but unlinked, a mirror, but independent of the pictures he had given me. If we have succeeded, the title cuts both ways.
Nooteboom would receive Neuman’s paintings at his house in Spain. He would not describe the paintings, but write a response to them as a reply. These are therefore neither illustrated stories, nor captioned paintings. The images and the text to a reader/viewer resist a comfortable coherence, which illuminates something of the fragile and instable structures that somehow sustain our ability to communicate with others.
The paintings feature contorted and tortured figures, denied of any identifiable characteristics, as disposable and yet as proliferate as the paper bags on which they are produced, these figures are at once nobody and anybody. Suspended in a nightmarish atmosphere of orange abstraction, they resemble a primitive form of modernism. Neuman’s pictures affect viewers with a simultaneous array of affectations that are void of linear narrative, and in response there is something appropriately disorderly about Nooteboom’s literary style placed amongst these images. His prose offers no beginning, middle or end. Readers hit the ground running as they are introduced to narratives in mid-flow.
The subtitle to this work is Dreams of the Island and the Old City. These texts and paintings speak to their other from their own place. The two artists both seem to demonstrate a mutual belief in the courageous effort of language to grasp the essentials of human experiences, despite the fundamental differences that exist between us; long deemed irreconcilable since the fall of modernism. As on of Nooteboom’s texts reads,
Once he had thought that you could write the world with words: from the beginning. Speaking the words would turn them into things, obedient to their names. That made all languages holy. Now he no longer knew if that was true. The things that surrounded him and closed themselves off more and more as if knowing that they would lose their names again.
Our attempts to uncode and imagine the meaning of these stories comes despite knowing that such meaning is ultimately unattainable. In the waves of discord that emerge in this book, meaning is continually constructed and deflected. The experience is both disorientating and exhilarating. After all this activity, once both text and image have exhausted what together they have to offer, there remains a profound silence. As Nooteboom’s protagonist contemplates,
what would it be like when nothing was called anything, when everything was just itself … All things undone and robbed of their names, words erased until the first word too had never been said. Only then would it be silent again.
The scientist Francesco Maria Grimaldi, coined the term diffraction—meaning ‘to break into pieces’—when he observed how light breaks up into different directions as it comes into contact with an object of another substance. The collision of one against another causes a kind of breakdown that produces an unpredictable, marked change in atmosphere and appearance. It should be understood that Self Portrait of an Other is not merely an illustrated book, but more appropriately a kind of diffracted dialogue within a hall of mirrors. Aimed at confounding and surprising, as your eyes move from page to the next, to read it fluently is to discover a totally different approach to reading—as a process of ravelling and unravelling.
Self-Portrait of an Other is published in English by Seagull Books. For a conversation with the writer follow this link to the Bookworm podcast.