Like a Wave - Names Writ In Water - Wave
by Åsmund Thorkildsen
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Later on you'll have doubts about how it
Actually was, and certain greetings will remain totally forgotten,
As water forgets a dam once it's over it
- John Ashbery, title poem, A Wave, 1984
Water is the metaphor in this excerpt from Ashbery's poem, and water is a recurring image in the work of the poet, who also makes use of the river and currents as leitmotifs. The excerpt ties loss of memory and problems of recalling actual events to the notion of the water forgetting the dam as soon as it has passed over the edge. The writer uses poetic license to give the water human qualities - the water has forgotten. This is a clear example of what John Ruskin in his Modern Painters (1856) referred to as "Pathetic Fallacy." To him the term was derogatory. It implied a distorted representation of the true nature of things. Since then much water has flowed in both poetry and painting. As a postmodern writer Ashbery is free to draw on the enormous verbal treasures in both literature and life. He employs this, as one of several literary modes, to give voice to what is otherwise no longer expressible. In this poem he connects the unavoidable flow of the water, and the problems of memory and its loss, to writing. Memories flow like water; the memory disappears in the current of language. Like water, language has a fluid motion, in rows of letters and intervals that turn words into sentences. Words and letters follow one another like figures, they carry their memories and threaten to disappear into oblivion; just like "certain greetings" they may remain totally forgotten.
Water, current, wind, camera movement - including breaks and distortions - are some of the stock ingredients in video art, precisely because it is a medium that works in the course of time. Video art produces images consisting of electronically laden fleeting dots of light. The flow shows camera-recorded images, but the row of images can also be synthetically manipulated by the artist. Video techniques allow a merging of several images, and the video may be given an electronic memory that creates a dislocation or a flow within the finished product. The result is a merging of the time lapse in the camera recording (the "simultaneous" live video) and the reintroduction as images recalled of something already seen by the viewer. These visual memories can be reinserted to influence and change the new images, the ones that are fresh in terms of the time lapse of the recording. This lateral shuttle, moving with time, can be influenced in various ways. This is possible through the programming of change patterns and repeat sequences; or the music sequence may be programmed to formulate or affect the development of images. Music can also be used to bring out memories in the video film, as it may evoke recollections in the mind. Music may appear as noise, that is, be experienced as noise. Noise may also be visible. The course of the video may be sensitized to the encounter with body movements within the room where it is projected: experience being influenced by confrontation. Video images can be formed in such a way that they flow like water over the dam.
The previous paragraph is no theoretical introduction to the basics of video art. It is a description of the structure in Kjell Bjørgeengen's video work Phase #1 TRUE BLANKING. The installation is being shown in two rooms and is based on several sources: on video recordings done at the Jewish cemetery(1) in Warsaw and in the South Bronx area of New York City, and also in more neutral recordings. The music used has been specially composed and performed by the American guitarist Marc Ribot. The Jewish cemetery in Warsaw and the South Bronx neighborhoods are both associated with forgetting - with amnesia as a historical phenomenon and as a personal reality. Both locations are tied to human life stories and to the impact of place in people's lives. People move, places stay behind. But change also affects places. Time passes through them and leaves physical traces, and their traces are carried within those who have moved.
Human identity is tied to places. Thus we refer to people who have been moved as "displaced." Remembering and forgetting, but also the problems of memory and amnesia, are elements in the formation of identity and in the crises that often accompany displacement. Recall is important, even if we tend to alter our recollections. The memory always differs from what was. Subdued whispers in the Jewish Museum in New York speak of things to be remembered ("Do you remember ..."). And it may be necessary to forget. In his autobiography The Facts (1988), written after a breakdown, Philip Roth speaks about the need to forget: "We knew very well that our grandparents had not torn themselves away from their shtetl families, had not left behind parents whom they would never see again, because back home everybody had gone around the village singing show tunes that brought tears to your eyes. They'd left because life was awful; so awful, in fact, so menacing or impoverished or hopelessly obstructed, that it was best forgotten. The willful amnesia that I generally came up against whenever I tried as a child to establish the details of our pre-American existence was not unique to our family" (pp. 122-123). [In the same book Roth disputes the notion that autobiography - and perhaps especially when written by a novelist - should be accepted as an authentic account, undisguised and unaffected in relation to the facts as they were. He says of the autobiography that "It's probably the most manipulative of all literary forms." (p. 172)]
This was the amnesia of Jews who had left the Old World before the Nazis annihilated Warsaw's Jewish community. The people in this early wave of Jewish immigration to the U.S. could hope to forget. The black people brought as slaves to the same continent had no choice. Their displacement happened in stages: first from Africa, then from the South, where they had lived for generations. The great black migration to the large cities in the Midwest and the Northeast took place well into this century, when regional and international economic forces impelled them to move in search of a better life. Malcolm Little was among those who travelled this route. He adopted the name X, as a temporary measure until he found his African and true last name. This X is writing. The X becomes an index entry for every black face. The people of the South Bronx make a line of X's. Every black hole in the row of windows on the buildings becomes part of a regiment, as in a list of missing persons. [A semiotic flow from a striped prisoner's outfit (bars) to the lines in archives of missing persons form the structure in Barbara Kruger's photo collage "We Construct the Chorus of Missing Persons" from 1982.] In Kjell Bjørgeengen's installation the highrise and the X become signifiers - memorials.
This reading of Bjørgeengen's use of recordings from the South Bronx is elicited by the recollection of the Hebrew letters carved into the headstones in the Warsaw graveyard. These are displayed as lines above the video image, time moving ahead in the reading direction - from right to left. Even in this heavily manipulated form the letters can sometimes be identified (retrieved). An aleph or a yod emerges. The line of Hebrew letters stand straight as a regiment. As silent witnesses, demanding to be heard, wandering past, in danger of disappearing in the course of time, and being hidden behind the noise, but reappearing, drawn into awareness by the music. There is precedence for the reading of Hebrew letters as figures, as images of human beings, in Jewish mysticism, within Kabbala, the tradition of secret knowledge. Aleph, the first letter of the alphabet can be drawn as an image of Adam Qadmon. The four letters of the divinity, JHWH (Yod, He, Waw, He) can also be connected as black and white fire to form the image of the first man, Adam Qadmon. [Yes, that is right - the image of Adam is the image of God.] The name of the divinity in writing appears as a human figure ahead of the bodily creation of man. The name on the gravestone takes the form of a figure after the death of the body.
The gravestones in Warsaw are becoming overgrown. The video images must be read - or recovered - as in a palimpsest(2). Nature reclaims the place, as it does in the all too lush vegetation of the American South. In the South Bronx the buildings stand as gravestones, silent witnesses, traces of habitation, traces of human lives. Also here nature - through arson and wear - performs its act of amnesia. Nature, like Ashbery's water, is incapable of memory. Nature demands new life, seeks to eradicate traces, absorb them and reuse them. Nature is hard on the memory.
In Kjell Bjørgeengen's meditation over abandoned places and the possibility of remembering, it is precisely this possibility that is exposed to the danger of a total loss of memory. The music sends memory waves, sometimes seen as rolling horizontal fields across the video image. But the noise may so dissolve the information from the recordings that the Hebrew letter regiments, carved in Polish stone to recall the names of dissolved bodies, or the burnt-out buildings and worn-down South Bronx neighborhoods, disappear in an unrecoverable gray, flickering electronic entropy. Gray is the color of amnesia in Kjell Bjørgeengen's installation.
Is it possible to see churchyards and urban neighborhoods without a concept of "landscape?"
John Ashbery writes about the one idea that can organize a life and give it a direction so that the compelling scheme of the landscape is revealed, so that "It is no more a landscape than a golf course is" (A Wave). The golf course is a continuous, clean surface; it hides something without revealing what it is. A golf course remembers nothing. Its holes - promises of access to something inside, an opening into the underlying, and thus earlier, truth - are diversionary tactics. The eighteen holes make up an equal number of reminders that this is all a surface. You put the ball into the hole, retrieve it - and move on to the next one.
Kjell Bjørgeengen's memories are visualized as surfaces, as large, luminous, moving projections on a wall. The subconscious is out there, the language is out there. The image of the memory is out there. The amnesia we are reminded of is out there. The body-and-soul dichotomy has dissolved. The mind is no mere inner reflection of nature revealed. All is out there, like words ejected, words (Mind) made flesh (Body). Ashbery: "But for the tender blur / Of the setting to mean something, words must be ejected bodily" (A Wave).
Kjell Bjørgeengen's video is a pathetic(3) rendering of the workings of consciousness, of how it is subject to the course of the world, of its possibilities and difficulties with the past, of the impact of the present on the future. In Bjørgeengen's work time moves ahead, stops, resumes. There is no narrative structure, however, no plot with a beginning developing towards a dramatic resolution. Like the earth and human consciousness it turns; time flows continuously.
This text has offered an interpretation of Kjell Bjørgeengen's reading of places. The interpretation has made use of pathetic fallacy, and the goal has been the same as for painters, video artists, and poets - to say something, which is the alternative to saying nothing. To interpret is to consciously examine perceptions. To interpret is an active experience that always says something new about something. Interpretations are always in flux, even if we may erroneously refer to the capturing or freezing of a moment when we in fact mean the duration of a brief instant. A moment's perception or consciousness always takes a bit of time. A moment in video art always takes time. It is because the moment passes in time that we speak of making it last. Silence in music and silence in language occur between before and after.
Leaving it all unsaid is to yield to the final amnesia.
End of Story.
Translated by Inger Fluge Mæland
1. The title phrase "names writ in water" refers to another "dislocated" cemetery, the Protestant one in the capital of Catholicism, Rome. The romantic English poet John Keats (1795-1821) is buried there. His short life is commemorated in a stone marker bearing no name, but the following inscription: "Here lies he whose name was writ in water" - a grave not yet forgotten.
2. Palimpsest, a manuscript in roll or codex form carrying a text erased, or partly erased, underneath an additional text ... the older text is recoverable in the modern laboratory ..." (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed.)
3. Pathetic ... 2 a: evoking tenderness, pity, sympathy, or sorrow ... b: marked by sorrow, suffering or melancholy ... pathetic fallacy n the ascription of human traits or feelings to inanimate nature (as in cruel sea, pitiless storm, devouring flame). (Webster's Third New International Dictionary, 1971)