Caught between time: Pablo Bronstein at Nottingham Contemporary

Pablo Bronstein, part of Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth, at Nottingham Contemporary

Pablo Bronstein, part of Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth, at Nottingham Contemporary

Exhibition view of Pablo Bronstein's show at Nottingham Contemporary

Exhibition view of Pablo Bronstein’s show at Nottingham Contemporary

‘Never go back.’ This familiar chime is surely the most common piece of advice to be adhered by nobody ever. When the present suddenly feels unbearable, it happens that a thought occurs to us, a ‘memory’, perhaps, that there was a place where we were happy, or a time that felt like ‘our time’. An entire industry exists around this modern, human, impulse to retreat into an idea of the past, even (especially) when it is not your own.

It would be easy to be critical of it, if it were not for the fact that, like alcoholism or depression, it is an affliction that can and often does affect anyone at some point in their life. My fascination with the history of photography has always been a fascination with the origins of the human impulse to return to somewhere, to revive something; but what, exactly, and why?

And what happens when we do return? One could compile a list, an entire genre, of cultural production, from all corners of the globe, that has ruminated on these outcomes. Perhaps it is considered indulgent at best, fraught with danger at worst, but it is rarely encouraged and often cautioned against: never go back; you can never go back.

On the flip side of this is another modern phenomena, now commonly referred to as ‘ghosting’, whereby one ‘vanishes’ from a former intimate’s life without warning by basically ignoring their calls, blocking their profile, hiding when they come knocking at your door, etc. Anyone with a long-lost relative (hands up!) will know that this has been going on since before smart phones and social media (wars have a lot to do with it, or conflicts of any kind, or dreams — Shakespeare notably abandoned family in Stratford for a new life in London as a writer). The surprise revealed by these contemporary stories is not necessarily how easy it is to ‘disappear’ from another’s life, but now common it now is to meet and come close to, even intimate with another person, and then never go back.

To do otherwise, according to one of the testimonies in the New York Times article, ‘Exes Explain Ghosting: the Ultimate Silent Treatment,’ is a sign of weakness. People who do not simply let go of the past do so out of some desperate need to be loved, even in the face of irrevocable difference. But the phenomena of ghosting, concurrently, exposes an equally weak sign: an inability to face up to choices made and decisions acted upon, for whatever reason. What if sticking around, probing the past, brought new discovery and positive change for the future? The term ‘ghosting’ has a double-meaning to me in this context that suggests, to me at least, that the act of walking away, to never go back, is not always that simple. People may ‘vanish like a ghost’, but a ghost is a soul not at rest; it haunts.

I have moved around a lot over several years. I have made homes wherever I have ended up, and lifelong friends. I have often taken pride in my ability to do so. But for all that is gained from all the endless moving on, something is lost: something barely noticeable unless one returns to find that moving on is not merely a privilege of the one that does the actual moving. Time inevitably moves us all on, nobody is ever stuck in time, but perhaps only in the memory of others. Things ever grow while appearing stationary; wonderful things can occur through stillness, careful observation and patience. Perhaps, though, this discovery is the product of (or the reward for) leaving and returning.

I feel comfort when walking the streets of a town once common to me. I associate this place with comfort, nowadays, when a certain mood moves me, although I have, of course, also felt plenty of its opposite here. Alone, caught up only in my own thoughts, it is a warm feeling of escapism that grips me, a world of my own creation comprised of selective memory, but then something inevitably comes along to jar the fuzzy scene in my conscious mind and snaps me out of ‘yesterday’. In that instant I feel jetlagged, suddenly faced with the task of aclimatising to a peculiar timezone, neither present nor past. It makes me act strangely, in ways I find difficult to account for. I am forced into re-thinking my relationship to my past, present, and future. I have returned but have not made it back. Trying to interact with familiar faces in the streets, I wonder if they think I have become a real weirdo.

While occupied with these thoughts I wandered, appropriately, into the Nottingham Contemporary, where the current exhibition Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth is showing until 20 September. This exhibition effectively put all my mixed-up thoughts at that time into focus, dramatically enacting across the exhibition rooms what I was feeling: just like Bronstein’s work, I was caught between time, and it was not so much an affliction I felt as it was a sense of freedom. What a wonderful realisation!

There is a hackneyed saying from greetings cards that says that today is a gift; that’s whey they call it the present. For Bronstein the past is full of treasures. For this exhibition he has carefully selected objects from Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Works by Rembrandt and Franz Hals, Delft porcelain, the coronation chairs for William IV and Queen Adelaide, and a colossal Roman marble foot appear within and alongside original work by Pablo Bronstein, across the galleries of Nottingham Contemporary.

These objects and works have been deftly presented to impose an ambiguous but jarring atmosphere upon the space, inviting many possible reactions and interpretations from audiences. The strict order of time and period imposed by conventional narratives of historical interpretation have become flacid and pliable in the hands of Pablo Bronstein. On a monumental scale he has digitally recreated images of the palatial Chatsworth House and plastered them on the walls surrounding a central grouping of Louis XIV period furniture. It feels like a combination of reverence and playful mockery, leaving these once dominant architectures of power somewhat exposed and manipulated.

Elsewhere it is my own observations that send me spinning fancifully in and out of time. A William Kent chair from 1733 is displayed on a plinth in one of the galleries. William Kent is known for the leading role he took in establishing a new design aesthetic for the Georgian period, when Britain found itself newly ruled over by Germans and was subsequently defining itself as a new nation. I, however, am drawn in by the chair’s adornment of golden leaves and the face at the base that remarkably resembles the Green Man of English pagan tradition, which commonly adorned church buildings from as early as the eleventh century. Could it be that this chair represents a silent protest to the imposition of new foreign rulers? My heart flutters at the thought of this personal discovery.

Fellow gallery visitors admire the exquisite rendering from 1623 of Pope Urban VIII being carried reverently down the nave of St Peters. For me this pen and ink drawing brings sharply to my mind the infamous, haunting image of Bacon’s ‘screaming pope’; a painting that drew upon the past in the present. In what was such a defiant statement, Bacon’s image reverberates through me still today and haunts my interpretation of this almost 400-year-old drawing before me.

Pablo Bronstein’s own drawings revel in a time in part familiar yet wholly unknown. His ink and watercolour work, ‘Design for a large clock in the Louis XV style, representing The Sun Rising over the Dead’ (2012), recalls 18th-century aspirational design alongside 20th-century Surrealist fantasy, via. nineteenth-century steampunk. Bronstein paints with broad brushstrokes from a loaded temporal palette. The affect is a world pregnant with possibilities.

For me, art takes something real but apparently unthinkable and puts it into perspective, even if it is just to say that there are phenomena in this world we have no rational language to explain. Our feelings and impressions of this world can be in effect enough to topple even the strongest and highest notions of rational thought. Professor Boris Groys reminds us, from his essay ‘Comrades of Time’ (E-flux, 2009), that Descartes defined the present as a time of doubt—of doubt that is expected to eventually open a future full of clear and distinct, evident thoughts. Through his work, Bronstein frolicks in the undetermined space between received notions of past in the present, and invites us to join him.


Empathy: the ‘imaginative leap’ towards the other

Janet Etuk and Sean O’Callaghan in Beyond Caring at the Yard Theatre. Photograph by Mark Douet.

Janet Etuk and Sean O’Callaghan in Beyond Caring at the Yard Theatre. Photograph by Mark Douet.

Empathy is now acknowledged scientifically as an essential ingredient of human well-being, but it takes work. We can only appreciate the lives of others to the extent that we can establish a connection with them. We also have to be prepared to make an “imaginative leap”, into the lives of someone beyond our own. Once this is achieved, it can lead to the shedding of certain established prejudices about others in the process.

In his recent book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, Roman Krznaric argues that it is “outrospection”, the emotional capacity to empathise with others, that is “an antidote to the self-absorbed individualism that we have inherited from the last century”. The results of such an attitude could lead to significant social change.

Krznaric emphasizes the importance of art and of storytelling to the foundations of empathy. To this end he has established The Empathy Library for sharing books and films to inspire a global empathy revolution. Beyond Caring (pictured above), a piece of original theatre commissioned by The Yard in Hackey Wick in 2014, is my recommendation for this library, for the way it carefully lifts the lid on an otherwise rarely seen, much discussed but far-less-understood invisible working class. It challenges to confront the extent to which we are “beyond caring” about the lives of others. My review of the play is on the Litro website.

Empathy is a key component in the audience’s engagement with the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, where we witness varying degrees of empathy in the most unlikely of places, from inside a women’s prison in America. The script initially invites us to identify with the young blonde, whose freedom has seemingly been taken away from her by her unfortunate dealings with a drug cartel ten years ago. We are constantly reminded at the beginning of the first series that this is a woman who does not belong in a place like prison with these other women. However, as the series progresses, we are shown how to empathise with the inmates as we are shown glimpses of their past lives before they were in prison. The individuality of each characters’ suffering reminds us that we can all be drawn into difficult circumstances, no matter what our backgrounds. In its broadly generous and warm portrayal of all the characters, Piper Chapman does not ultimately demand our empathy any more than any of her fellow inmates. This is the ‘imaginative leap’ that eschews prejudice and opens our minds.

The aim may not be to make the ‘invisible’ visible, or give the ‘other’ a voice (for this only affirms a preconceived superiority or power imbalance), but to do away with such categories all together, and to understand that our perceived differences are as fleeting as anything else about us.

Exposed Intentions Meet Transformative Inventions: Maya Deren and Barbara Hammer

From within every scriptural economy of a given symbolic order there sometimes emerges a cry that disquiets. The effect of this, like the appearance of a rogue footprint on Robinson Crusoe’s island, can lead to profound consequences; disturbing or exciting, depending on your point of view.

It is in light of this that I can relate to the feelings that Barbara Hammer recalls she had when she first saw Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon” (1943). Hammer spoke of her subsequent excitement at a recent screening of her new film, “Maya Deren’s Sink” (2011) that marked the opening of a season of her films at Tate Modern this month. Here she is speaking at MOMA about the making of the same film:

I can similarly recall my own experiences of my first encounter with “Meshes of the Afternoon.” Before I had even known it was made by a woman I felt exhorted by a feeling of possibilities, that the tools of cinema could produce multiple transformations from within the symbolic order that it nonetheless upholds.

In “Meshes,” distinct and recognizable symbols have been utilised and manipulated that propel us towards being willfully seduced. The music has the quality of a snake charmer’s but as our gaze is conjured out of its sleeping hole it is at once struck by various lapses, cuts, unexpected juxtapositions and breaks (enhanced by the strikes in the soundtrack). The film creates numerous disruptions in the flow of language that in other circumstances stealthily and seamlessly produces the familiar images from which we make associations and judgments. A record spins silently and the telephone is off the hook- ‘I’m sorry it has not been possible to connect your call.’

The film is restless, but it is still possible to make out, in the film’s most elevated moments, enunciations that are detached from formal statements, that may wound or pleasure our senses (or both)- It is an elusive language-within-language that communicates with places in the body that do not respond to the language of reason nor possess a distinct language of their own. The experience for the spectator therefore corresponds to the experience of the filmmaker as Deren saw it, not merely an endless process of production but “an act of discovery,” that combines a creative act with things accidental or unknown.

In her book, Stillness in Motion in the Seventeenth Century Theatre (2003), PA Skantze distinguishes immediate perceptions of the world, as something wild, from comprehensive ideas that seek to stabilise those perceptions, closing the circle of knowledge in the process. These experiences do require some meeting place, a “material site,”[1] in order for this process to be realised and to prevent our sensations from languishing in the space (what Michel De Certeau called ‘the frontier,’ a kind of ‘void’[2]) that exists between them. Tools (like the film camera) therefore have an important role in preparing the ground and forging the relationship between what De Certeau calls our “natural” and “cultural” selves, our immediate and individualised emotions and our structured and organised bodies, which we are constantly engaged in negotiating with. Following this, Skantze appropriately asks, “When the apprehender full of the physical feel of a discovery finds herself no longer alone, how does she tell what has changed? How does she show…?” (Skantze 2003: 5)

Barbara Hammer’s own film, “X” (1973) characterizes the process of feeling such a new discovery from within the process of its articulation. Hammer herself describes the film as “A baroque ritualistic naming chant that points again and again with image and sound to make a self-determined statement out of despair.” During a panel discussion at Tate after the screening of the film last week. Hammer explained how “X” was made at a time in her life when she was only just making a transition from heterosexuality to homosexuality. The film captures this moment of becoming quite remarkably. It’s intoxicating kaleidoscope of images combined with repetitive chants are a constant affirmation of the artist’s deliberate self from within a new found uncertainty, “This is my exhibitionism… these are the children I’m glad I don’t have…” The film is partly funny and partly disquieting and charms the viewer through a humility of expression.

Like Deren’s, “Meshes…” the film never fully settles, but there is more at stake in Hammer’s “X,” than a witty play-within-a play of language that reveals its fabrications. A more appropriate equivalent may be Deren’s later film “At Land” (1944), which Deren described as reversing the dynamic of the Odyssey. The female protagonist, “Instead of taking the long voyage of search for adventure, finds instead that the universe itself has usurped the dynamic action which was once the prerogative of human will and confronts her with a volatile and relentless metamorphosis in which her personal identity is the sole constancy.”[3]

However, whereas Deren may consider the identity of her female protagonist a “sole constancy,” of an otherwise changing universe, what Hammer’s film illustrates is that even this identity is subject to and constituted by a “relentless metamorphosis” that usurps the idea of predictability. What constitutes our own ideas is at once a necessary promise and a threat.

[1] From Mitch Rose, [last accessed 21/ 08/ 11]

[2] De Certeau, M; The Practice of Everyday Life, Uni of California Press, California and London, 1984 pp. 128-129

[3] Maya Deren; Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality, in Daedalus, Vol. 89, No. 1, Winter, 1960

so far from you in fact, so near to you in love.

“This is a love letter to Diego, and this is not a love letter to Diego. It is universal and wholly personal. It is dated Right Now, and yet it is as old as the primordial. You, Diego, it is to you. ‘Diego is the name of love,’ I wrote. But I ask you to read it with many names, whatever your name is that you live by, and let me address myself to your soul, in the simplicity of love, in the generosity of life. To you, then, by all the names of man you ever took, before and before and before, pre-Columbian, pre-literacy, and yet readers too in the strange and unpredictable future, in tenses I am afraid to use. I know you by the flame in your heart, by the light in your eyes, and I write to tell you what I can see, so far from you in fact, so near to you in love. Diego is the name I use to knock on the door of your heart. Yet the door is not the door to his heart alone, but the door to any hearing heart. I take my guitar, and pick out the sound of his name by playing the strings which spell him. But I could play that tune in the key of any name.


The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

And I am Frida but also I am not Frida.I am her paintings and the nature of her love. I am her shadow. I am many women, I answer to many names, any know knows grief. I am all the phases of the moon, I am all her qualities. I am El Duende. I am the light of the psyche, writing from my soul, speaking to the psyche of humanity, the psyche which is shaped like the wings of a butterfly or a moth; fly closer, fly nearer to me. After the accident, I was caged in plaster casts for months and on this hard shell I drew butterflies as my first votive painting, encouraging the soul to crack the carapace one day and fly free to the moon.”

— Excerpt from the exquisite A Love Letter from a Stray Moon by Jay Griffiths.

Imagination: A Bridge Towards What Cannot Be

images“I am only a human being, but through my imagination…I can be a bridge,” declared Hannah Höch from the walls of her first solo exhibition in Germany. Hannah Höch was an important member of the Berlin Dada movement and a pioneer in collage. She took a disliking to the single-mindedness of society’s perceptions and developed an artistic style that challenged this attitude

Splicing together images taken from popular magazines, illustrated journals and fashion publications, she created a humorous and moving commentary on society during a time of tremendous social change. It may be an inevitable attribute of being human that we resort to single frames of reference to steady our way. Höch literally blew apart these frames of reference in her work leaving behind an absurd representation of our process of making meaning from what we perceive. Her work is a bridge to understanding how precarious our realities are.images-1

When the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who died this week, appeared on Desert Island Discs, he talked about his lifelong passion for Miles Davis. He said that the music of Miles Davies represented for him “the sound of what cannot be”. What is so important about believing in what cannot be, even if it is in the imagination? I think that through his intellectual and political work life Stuart Hall demonstrated a will to strive, against all odds, to keep “what cannot be” alive, in the imagination, so that it may be a possibility in an as yet undetermined future.

Cacophonies of Confrontation in Artur Żmijewski’s Democracies (2009)

‘Well, you can measure results, but you can’t measure what is causing them. You can do statistics, but how can you measure what is individual?’ asks Max in Nicholas Mosely’s Hopeful Monsters.

Artur Żmijewski (b. 1966 in Warsaw) has since 2009 been assembling video footage of people in giving their opinions in public spaces around the world for his Democracies. It was last shown earlier this year in its most substantial form yet at the Hartware MedienKunstVerein in Dortmund, Germany, consisting of 25 short video films documenting various manifestations of public opinion, shown simultaneously in the gallery space. Here is Dr Inke Arns, curator at Hartware MedienKunstVerein describing the installation:

And here is a sample of the work from when it was shown at the Cornerhouse in Manchester in 2009:

It is surely a more ‘realistic version of politics’, that Bruno Latour might approve of, but the installation is not exactly enjoyable; it is noisy, disorientating and even distressing at times to watch. It puts eloquent political rally speeches indiscriminately alongside acts of violence or expressions of uncomfortable opinions. It is both a representation and an enactment of struggle: the struggle to hear and to be heard, the struggle to see and to ignore what we don’t want to see. That would be democracies then: having once been a theoretical system of reasoned education, democracy is now an incoherent cacophony of chaos.

And what of the role of the camera in all of this? In Democracies the camera appears at once to be a helpful facilitator and an agent provocateur in political struggles. Determining which one it is would depend upon, among a number of things,the presence or absence of what Ariella Azoulay calls, a ‘discerning spectator’. In The Civil Contract of Photography, she surveys various photographs of Palestinians in Israel, reconsidering the political and ethical status of photography, asking, ‘what do these pictures want from me?’

All the video clips in Democracies are each of individual interest. Headphones are provided, inviting a discerning spectator to focus on each clip at their own discretion to see what’s going on more closely; to visit and revisit places; to compare without conflating the individual events in the exhibition. In addressing the expressions of others through these images, Azoulay argues that a spectator can become a citizen in a citizenry of photography. This requires the kind of time and patience that, even if the gallery allows for, everyday life perhaps doesn’t.

The hope that conflict and differences could be flattened out under modernization, or controlled by the power of civilizing projects, or wiped out by technological advancement has long been dashed. The problem that poses as the solution, proposed by Żmijewski ‘s Democracies, is to somehow create new institutions for nurturing new pluralisms, alternative citizenships, in an environment that might cope with the growth of the paradoxes that globalization confronts us with, and that we are increasingly forced to confront whether we would like to or not.

Still Looking: “the meaning and enigma of visibility itself.”

In 2011, a BBC program called, The Horizon Guide: Moon,[1] claimed to be a celebration of ‘man’s relationship with the Moon.’ It featured footage from the BBC’s first live television feed that recorded the first man to go to space and return safely to Russian soil. The blurred image of a man stepping out of a plane was accompanied by commentary from a news reporter in the studio. However, the reporter was more concerned with the giant propeller on the plane, moving right in front of his eyes, in real time, from thousands of miles away. The sensation of that moment seemed to have taken precedence over the man from space walking down the steps in front of the propeller.

The relationship that the presenter of The Horizon Guide, Brian Cox, enthused over as being, ‘man’s relationship with the Moon’, is an indirect one. A story about our direct relationship with the Moon should perhaps start by looking out of a window. However, even that would be a mediation of sorts, for windows also have frames and glass. What this program was really documenting was our direct relationship with pictures. It documents how millions of people around the world remember where they were when they saw the first man on the moon, looking at flickering pictures on the surface of a box, while their backs were turned to the night sky.

         This error on the part of the programme’s makers was not merely on account of naivety, but illustrative of the fact that the significance of pictures in the formation of our relationships with the world around us is as taken for granted today as it was when John Berger began writing on the subject in the 1960s. From the groundbreaking TV series Ways of Seeing to date, Berger has continued to challenge the way we perceive the world as it is in pictures through his passionate and intelligent essay writing. He transcends the disciplinary boundaries that ordinarily compartmentalize the visual aspect of culture and its affects in order to address, ‘the meaning and enigma of visibility itself.’

[1] [last accessed 24/ 08/ 11]