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.

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.

Restless Spaces

I shall soon be commencing research on a piece entitled ‘Upstairs Downstairs: Notes from the 168 Bus’ for the new Ideastap anthology, New Cartography. To get me started, some reading of other writings about the modern city:

From ‘Imaging’ in Restless Cities (Verso 2010):

I came to rely less and less on anything resembling the experiential phenomena of Surrealism and became increasingly uncertain about their political significance. Exceptional moments of natural light seemed to offer similar conceptual transformations, and produced better pictures; for many who work with photographic media, the weather is not merely analogous with a state of mind.”

Raoul Vaneigem’s Traité de savoir-vivre á l’usage des jeunes génerations (1983 translation by Nicolson-Smith):

Though not everything affects me with equal force, I am always faced with the same paradox: no sooner do I become aware of the alchemy worked by my imagination upon reality than I see what reality reclaimed and borne away by the uncontrollable river of things”.

The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre:

the fact is that the space that contains the realized preconditions of another life is the same one as prohibits what those preconditions make possible

Patrick Keiller again:

I wondered if the prohibition that Lefebvre identifies is something suspended within the spaces of a film, and, if so, whether this might explain some of the attraction, and the seemingly utopian quality, of so much film space, and why some people are willing to devote so much time and effort to making films.’

Henri Lefebvre, again:

‘The fact is that around 1910 a certain space was shattered. It was the space of common sense, of knowledge (savoir), or social practice, of political power, a space thitherto enshrined in everyday discourse, just as in abstract thought, as the environment of and channel for communications; the space, too, of classical perspective and geometry, developed from the Renaissance onwards on the basis of the Greek tradition (Euclid, logic) and bodied forth in Western art and philosophy, as in the form of the city and the town . . . Euclidean perspective space have disappeared as systems of reference, along with other former ‘commonplaces’ such as the town, history, paternity, the tonal system in music, traditional morality, and so forth. This was truly a crucial moment’

Finally, Patrick Keiller again:

In 2008, cycling along Harrow Road, I did not encounter any explosion of the ‘intense forces of atmosphere’ that are undoubtedly concealed there; but unexpected memories of earlier discoveries, at a time when it seemed possible that a dysfunctional economic orthodoxy was finally collapsing, suggested that such experiences still have some value.”

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.