Et tout ce qui tremble
et tout ce qui s’agite
aux confins de l’image.
There are memories. There are images and signs. There are works. These could be the last sentences of a talk. They could also be the only ones.
In the following I will briefly sail between two or three couples of Scylla and Charybdis that could take the name of painting and history, or image and memory, or body and sign.
First if all, let me affirm that without any doubts, as a painter, a European painter living in the twentieth-century I am a Greek. I am Greek, Latin, and also German. This is the problem: the legacy the images, the transmission.
We cannot think without images”, says Aristotle in his text On Memory and Recollection, and again: ‘memory, even the memory of concepts, cannot exist apart from imagery.”
Memory for the past, he suggests, perception for the present, hope for the future. We will say that none of the first terms of these pairs of words is independent from the other. They are, in their inadequateness, almost interchangeable. Or; at least, they live together; as in Augustine’s “I want to sing a song that I know already.” The object of memory is the absent one, is what no longer shares space with us, and is what is just an image. Memory is indeed the slave of the image; recollection, on the contrary, is precisely the activity of going behind images, of eliminating our dependence on them. Anamnesis, coming after and behind Mneme, sets together; in new orders, within “a sort of syllogistic process”, parts of the material that the latter is merely doomed to preserve. There is, indeed, the requirement of preserving and filing, and the imperative of attacking and questioning the inherited images. To accept the legacy and to let it fade away, leaving us scattered pieces of knowledge and consciousness.
It is clear, then, that for the advent of Anamnesis, a certain gap in time, a certain caesura or even obscurity is required: remembrance cannot happen without oblivion, and even without some unfaithfulness to one’s own past; and there is neither openness nor hope without betrayal. Even betrayal of the most beloved one, the absent one, the mere image.
Behind the picture, there is an absent body; behind the vision, there is the indistinguishable.
In an article published in 1932 in the French Révue de philologie (“Le sens du mot KOLOSSOS et les noms grecs de la statue”), Emile Benveniste quotes a text from the sacred laws of Cyrene: ‘A suppliant stranger. If he has been sent into a home, if the master of the home knows who has sent him, he will at first call the sender, by name, for three days. But if this one is dead in the region or has perished elsewhere… he will make two kolossoi, one male, the other female, of wood or of earth, and he will offer to them, in his home, a part of everything. The rite being accomplished, he will bring the kolossoi (the statues) and the offerings into a wild forest, to fix them there.”
Here then: there is an absent one; the “suppliant stranger” is the one who creates a relation between this absent one and the receiver. The absent one is either evoked by his name, if this name is known, or if it is unknown, the statue will take the place of the name, of what calls: what gives him his existence.
The kolossos is a double; it takes the place and continues the existence of the one who has disappeared. It literally re-presents, presents again, the absent one, either dead or distant.
Benveniste eventually suggests a near eastern etymology for his word that associates it with an “erected object”, a “standing image”. It is this thing, then, the statue or the stele, that is meant to establish a relation between this world and the beyond, between a self and the otherness. This thing-double is called photography.
Thirty years after Benveniste, Jean-Pierre Vernant struggles again with this word:
in “The Representation of the Invisible and the Psychological Category of the Double: The Colossos” (in Myth and Thought Among the Greeks, London 1983) he points out how “the Greeks gave a visible form to certain powers of the beyond belonging to the sphere of the invisible.”
Either buried in an empty tomb, at a place of an absent corpse, or stuck into the ground in some desert spot, the kolossos was not meant to be an image (in the sense of “reproduction”): “What is embodied in permanent form in stone is not the image of the dead man but his life in the beyond, the life that is opposed to that of living men as the world of night is opposed to the world of light.”
Let’s roughly say: the camera obscura is our metaphorical tomb: the photograph will survive us, as the gravestones or the steles survive the bodies they recall.
Photographs, then, are more than pictures: as doubles, they re-present. They present, again and again. They present us to others, others present them to us, and they are the other’s presents. More than images, they are calls. They recall, as Anamnesis does.
Roughly stated, the most evident analogy between photography and memory is the fact that both of them are originally mere reproduction machines; both of them are “receptive surfaces”, where some kinds of excitations remain, “for an unlimited time”, impressed, like a stick does on a wax tablet, for instance, or on a sheet of malleable lead, as in the tabulae defixionum (the lead rolls, etched with magic words and then transfixed with bronze nails, before being thrown in the tombs, that were used in ancient Greece and Rome to cast spells against one’s enemies or rivals).
We have to linger for a moment on this notion of written images, in this strait between grammata and phantasia. In another essay, “From the “presentification” of the invisible to the imitation of appearance” (Paris, 1985; English translation in Mortals and Immortals, Princeton, 1991), Vernant returns to the themes of the text I cited above. In particular, he stresses how “during the so-called Dark Ages, that is, broadly speaking, from the twelfth to the eighth centuries before our era, Greece, which as you know has no knowledge of writing, also has no knowledge of imagery in the proper sense of the term, nor does it use systems of figural representation. The same word, graphein, it should be noted, is used for writing, drawing and painting.”
Only later, and under the influence of the Eastern civilization, the Greeks will start both to organize the anthropomorphic canons of plastic art, and to fix the written records of history and thought.
But, for now, let’s cast a relation between this primitive sense of the word graphein – one that welcomes and comprehends “writing, drawing and painting” – and the gestures of a hand that traces signs, indicating the living together of different means of expression.
We know well how reproduced images and written words belong to irreducibly distinct system of language, and can never be read together – they can only be juxtaposed or superimposed. There will always be, between them, a lapse, a providential and fertile one, both in space or in time.
What is interesting is to respect this distance, without looking forward to fusional relations, to literal images or imagistic letters. I would like to imagine this lapse as a sort of petit mal, what the dictionaries define as “a brief blackout of consciousness without tonic or clonic movements”; this means, let’s say, a caesura. One could imagine a sort of piercing of visible space by the needles of time and language (this would be the contrary of what the photograph does to history, that is, piercing, fragmenting time with space).
But we can establish bridges, relations. We can exploit repetition itself (repetition that, as Aristotle says, “generates a nature”).
I will just take what I need from a text, in order to offer a sort of model of work: in this early treatise on aphasia (1891), Freud points out a few relations between words and things; it is, once again, a story of reproduction. “We learn to spell”, he says, “by linking the visual images of the letters with new sound-images, which, for their part, must remind us of verbal sounds which we already know. We at once ‘repeat’ the sound-image that denotes the letter,” etcetera, etcetera.
Our vision of History, if not its very nature, has changed. The writing of History has, consequently, and in a parallel way, also changed. The grammata is now no more than a fraction of the photogrammata. “History”, it has been said (E.Cadava, “Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History”, diacritics, fall-winter 1992), “happens with photography.” And the photograph, more than the trace of history is, to this day, a sort of double (psyche?) of history itself. Then, if I can stretch forward my previous metaphor; the absent one represented by the kolossos is nothing but “our” History.
What we hang on the walls, then, and exhibit, is nothing but hung and exhibited history. It is possible to hang history on walls, because it is no longer “ours”, it is no longer, I quite Jean-Luc Nancy, “the general program of a certain Humanity, a Subject, a Progress” (‘Our History,” diacritics, fall 1990). We all know this too well for me to linger on this issue. But what remains is a sort of heritage with no senders, or anonymous ones, a sort of “suppliant stranger” who knocks insistently and noisily at our door. What remains is a mass of noisy material, a saturated, excessive and obsessive memory. And, I quote G. Vattimo (“L’impossible oubli”, in Usages de l’oubli, Colloque de Royaumont, Paris 1988), we cannot deny that “this condition characterized by an excess of history, by the difficulty, even the impossibility, of forgetfulness, has become, in a very large sense, also ours.”
In this regard, every art that is meant to represent only itself, or even only itself within some tradition, is an expression of kitsch.
In fact, every self-recognized or self-affirming form of art, every form of art that -forgets for a moment the uncanny character of our present, is an art of forgetting, is the offspring of Amnesia. There is, I believe, even for those who work with, through and behind the picture, an “anamnestic and anesthetic responsibility”, which is neither the flat exaltation of memory, nor the pathos surrounding historical horror.
This responsibility begins in the saturation of the image, in the contaminated field where the distinction between apology and denegation, commemoration and refusal is unclear and undetermined.
What remains to be done is to collect and recollect the blurred noises around us, the sounds of what has disappeared, and to represent them. What remains is to collect the floating fragments of this history, to dig bones, documents, and to signal, to transmit them. What remains is the possibility of a gesture: to hand, to hold out, in the scattered testimony to which we are doomed, some vestigia, some expressions of a multiple Anamnesis.
New York 1995