Diffracted Dialogues in a Hall of Mirrors: Self Portrait of an Other.

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.

The Past as Persistent Promise and Threat: the Artist and the Archive

In the 1950s, filmmaker Alain Resnais documented the grounds of Auschwitz as they had been abandoned ten years previously during the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) was one of the first cinematic reflections on the horrors of the Holocaust, featuring a continuous sequence of original and archive footage to investigate the eternal return of human violence and atrocity. It is an effective meditation on the intimate and irreducible connections between the history of a place and its present. The film also traces the boundaries between visible and the hidden knowledge. The narrator methodically guides us through archive images and footage that confirm all the devastating and the mundane details of life and death in the Nazi’s constructed dystopian society of the concentration camps. Yet throughout the film he is also plagued with skepticism and doubt, aware of the inability that he shares with the viewer as indirect witness, consciously or unconsciously, to fully realise the horror as it must have been experienced.

Resnais’s first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, observed a similar complex of relationships and emotions related to traumatic events in history. A French actress and a Japanese architect engage in a brief and intense affair in Hiroshima, some time after the devastation of the atom bomb. The pair are compelled to share their memories of loss and suffering, delicately weaving past and present, personal anguish and public trauma in the process. As in Night and Fog, the limitations of our own comprehension as indirect witnesses of atrocity are again expressed: ‘You saw nothing in Hiroshima.’

Elle: Were you here in Hiroshima?
Lui: Of course not.
Elle: That’s right. How silly of me.
Lui: But my family was in Hiroshima.
Lui: I was off fighting the war.
Elle: Lucky for you, eh?
Lui: Yes.
Elle: Lucky for me, too.

Even as an authentic experience of the past is inaccessible to us, like every generation that has preceded us, we are endowed with the capacity to retrieve that past and establish its claim over us in the present. The artist can achieve this by seizing fleeting images from those opportune moments when the past is illuminated. In Night and Fog, Resnais juxtaposes archive footage of the railways lines that led the train carriages to the concentration camps with the same lines as they exist ten years since they ceased to be in use. ‘We go slowly along them,’ the narrator remarks dubiously, ‘looking for what?’ Past and present seems to coexist in parallel, in the manner of these railway tracks, but they can also converge, as they do in a chilling pan shot of the ceiling of a shower room, the details of which are affirmed by the narrative: ‘The only sign—but you have to know—is this ceiling, dug into by fingernails.’ These marks become unmistakable, haunting evidence of human presence: this was here, and it still is. The narrator’s demand, ‘you have to know’, possesses urgency in a dual sense: both the compulsion to reveal and the imperative to receive the knowledge from which there can be no escape.

‘Every image of the past,’ Walter Benjamin famously claimed, ‘that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.’ This threat is kept at bay by those who have the capacity to keep a fire burning, in the hope that our experiences of the past may be redeeming and the conviction that ‘even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.’ This is why the fire must not go out. Resnais’s narrator reminds us that the perpetrators of these crimes to humanity have been apparently absolved of any responsibility. The German companies who exploited labour from the concentration camp inmates are still familiar names to us today, even sixty years after this film was made. The immediacy we feel when faced with these distressing images of the past reveals a ‘state of emergency’ that is, far from the exception, the rule that holds over our lives in the present.

This interchangeability of time present and time past, which is possible through the imposition or suggestion of particular historical moments, takes on a powerful significance when the moment documented is the product of a collective experience. Kamal Boullata, an art historian from Palestine writing about the work of photographer Ahlam Shibli explains how she captures a moment in the present that simultaneously evokes the events of a distant past. He argues that, as the language of her mother tongue makes it possible to use the syntax of the past to articulate the future, her photographs are also orientated towards a time to come. Even if it is a future presented as an unending nightmare that nobody is willing or able to see, her pictures echo the words of Resnais’s narrator: ‘but you have to know.’

However, anyone who accepts a responsibility for the past in the present must also take care. ‘There is no document of civilization,’ Benjamin warned, ‘which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ This mark of barbarism persists in whichever form the document appears or whatever manner it is transmitted. How we treat it is subsequently very important. In recognition of this, Benjamin makes a key distinction between historicism and historiography. To historicise past events is to seek to fill an otherwise empty time with unquestionable fact. This is the fascist impulse that gives rise to the archive footage in Night and Fog in the first place, aestheticizing history into an overriding narrative. Historiography, on the other hand, is a practice of both constructing and arresting ideas of the past. Resnais recognizes the precarious nature of his task. Each interruption to the narrative, through his editing techniques and fragmented narrative, is experienced as a blockage or intrusion in our judgments. The subsequent alarm we feel is the beginning of a realization that coherent visions of history only give rise to a knowledge that such visions are no longer tenable. Night and Fog is quintessentially anti-documentary. The narrator dissociates himself from the retelling of history as far as possible whilst simultaneously maintaining the obligation and compulsion to record it.

Historic moments are experienced as a time filled with immediacy, what Benjamin referred to as Jetztzeit. We experience an occasion as momentous, he says, when a sense of the past is brought to bear on our present in some way. Resnais’s own insistence upon the persistence of the past in the present is both a promise and a threat to us. Benjamin’s meditations on Paul Klee’s Angel of History reflects our own experience of watching the archive footage of dead bodies piled up like ‘wreckage’ and hurled incessantly in front of the camera and our eyes:

The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. 

As the nightmares of the past haunt our mind, we are carried on regardless, incapacitated, unable to see the future. John Berger once remarked how our incapacity to effectively react to images of atrocity is a reflection of our fundamental lack of political agency when faced with traumatic events. Resnais’s film pioneered the medium of the film essay as a tool for reflection and critical engagement with the narratives of history that otherwise dictate our relations with places and things. His legacy is present in the work of many artists today. Duncan Campbell’s (b. 1972) unconventional film-portrait of the Irish dissident and political activist Bernadette Devlin, Bernadette (2008), utilizes archival material, found footage, animation, and scripted voice-over to upend the formal conventions of documentary filmmaking and questions the methods by which historical figure and events are represented and subsequently remembered publically. In the concluding moments of the film, the footage literally seems to disintegrate. Similarly, in his practice, the Belgian artist Angel Vergara (b.1958) applies a combination of both aggressive and tentative paint brushstrokes directly onto found and archived video footage, expressing the powerlessness he feels, as an artist and a citizen, when trying to apprehend or fix the flow of events.

Nevertheless, his acts are far from futile and he maintains the necessity of a constantly active and critical mind in his work. This persistent effort of analysis and reflection is one of the ways artists, as historiographers, can take up the demands the past impresses upon us. Even in its refusal to commit to the traditions of documentary filmmaking, Night and Fog remains ethically irreproachable in its insistence that, despite the short-fallings, we must continue trying to reflect, to ask questions and to examine the records, interrogating even our own responses to the events of the past for the sake of whatever is still to come.