Friday, May 31, 2013

Mahouts on the Beach

He was 33 years old at the time, so the war was over, his time with the Merchant Marines had ended, he had graduated from college. This album, simply titled "1953; scènes de passage pendant la deuxième tournée de l'Extrême Orient," must have been during the early years at Citibank. I'm creasing back pages that are still stiff, seeking his handwriting, wishing I knew more about the world in 1953, more about the great machinery of capitalism at that time, more about these landscape photographs that seem isolated, sparsely populated, and may have been.  The first images are of Hong Kong (taken in March, which means he celebrated his birthday that year traveling between Japan and India, that's months' itinerary). Then, next page, Calcutta. My dear student Vishal recognizes a movie theater that's still there while nothing else in the photo remains the same. My dad's words (awkwardly translated by me): "Under a too-clear sky, a too-hot sun, this city pushes the traveler to quickly go somewhere else.  It is full of refugees, half of them sleeping in the streets or in train stations. They await deliverance." I type in "Calcutta 1953" then "Kolkata 1953" and find no major crises that have left their trace, instead this rather incredible video and an American film released that year and these photos which provide another explanation. I don't know who's right, probably both - I do think about India just six years after partition. Citibank didn't wait long. But then I look that up and find out that Citibank had been in Calcutta since 1902. I don't know anything. The past is savvier and more intricate than I can imagine. This 33-year old man, now ten years my junior, writing pithily, critically? For Bombay, he writes: "The white world turns upon itself, waiting its turn, but comfortably." Then, this is the next page:

He has several of these pages with no text, just images. I look at travel times, I realize that it's 27 hours by car from Calcutta to Bombay, how much more by train (plane?) in 1953? He's moving fast, being dropped into these places, time for a quick gin and tonic (good for the malaria, apparently invented by the British East India company), a sit in a wicker chair, a deal. I don't know what he was doing in the bank at the time - when we were born he was an inspections officer, finding fraud and gathering evidence for prosecution. This seems far from that. The more I look at the pictures, the more they amaze me: yes, the contrasts (the adults clothed, shod (though ties and jackets are off) while the kids, having left their shoes, splash in the pool); the composition (second photo: that relaxed hand draped over wicker in the foreground while kids mess with a chair in the middle ground and others swim in the background); the narrative (third: the birds eating what's left of tea after the chairs have been abandoned and the pool is cleared).  What's he thinking? Who does he have to talk to? What is he trying to live with when he says: "British overseas life is an existence at once free and regimented, held in the balance of good taste and violence, the latter most often carrying the day."

By the end of April he's in Ceylon (it will be called Sri Lanka as of 1972) on his way to Singapore. A single line of writing takes 20 minutes to realize: "After the heat of India, the itinerary leads to Singapore, with a first leg of the trip by Comet to Mount Lavinia." Did he fly on the first commercial jet liner, then? There's no declaration of wonder, no proclamation of firsts, but if he flew on a DeHavilland Comet, wow! (and whew!).  Mount Lavinia turns out to be a suburb of Colombo, deeply steeped in the kind of colonial romance that rechristens a local dancer with the name of an epic heroine, names a city after her, and makes a hotel out of the governor's mansion in 1947, one that is still thriving (and makes post-colonialism look like a pipe-dream). If he stayed there in 1953, he left for walks on the beach pretty quickly - those are the only pictures: catamarans pulling up to excited children, long stretches of ocean (thoughts of 1937-1948 in the Navy? maybe not at all), and then, the photograph above. No words on this page, just them, stopping me absolutely in my first flipping of this album two years ago. By the time I rushed in and asked him about them he had little to say about anything, but his eyes were mischievous and he was smiling when he said "They were just as surprised to see me as I was to see them." I pressed for more (why on the beach? where to? what for? the sounds? the movement?) but he had nothing more to say. Closed his eyes, kept smiling. I pull back now and I think of him standing on the beach, the surf coming in pretty loudly, those chains clinking, the elephants' heavy steps leaving eddies in the sand. He pulls out his beloved Leica and there's some kind of communication, the young men drawing their long elephant goads up, looking at him, he at them. If I know my dad (and I knew so little even though I know a lot), he would have thanked them by raising his right hand in greeting and tilting his head down and to the side with that wonderful smile that said "there's more to be said here than we can say." The camera would have fallen back on his chest, the strap pulling its weight against his neck. He would have breathed deeply and closed his eyes and maybe now thought of everything up until now. And then he would have walked on.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Approach, Approach

January page, Très Riches Heures, 1410 (BN)
"aproche, aproche" - so say the golden letters in their space and ours, on stone and parchment, for feast and fascination; painted of the same golden hue as the sparks flying up from behind the fire screen, a fellow sound to the crackle of the gathering; competing with the attendant's staff for representational presence. They are spoken by the Duc (sullen, gouty, ensconced) to the monk (accommodating, reaching, possibly simpering) - we'll leave them to curry each other's favors. Or, tendrils of a curvy "r" linger over the attendant's head, the "a" folding in on itself in a frisson at the touch of a courtier's so elegant fingers. Or, the manuscript repeats its invitation to its viewer: "Come, come - behold my salt cellar and my Crusades, marvel at my fat duke and my greyhound, linger over my furs and that guy's tights, ask about my spaces and my beauties and my powers. Approach, approach - we know you won't ever entirely get here, trapped as you are in your world of consequences and contingencies, whereas here multiple simultaneous universes glide atop each other seamlessly. But approach, approach, come closer, don't ever stop trying."

The table was laden with possibilities at this year's Kalamazoo. And the approaches were multiple - experimental, convivial, brave.  Words hovered in air, ideas un-settled, and I felt like a lot was happening all at once. It. Was. Wonderful. I'll be writing on the Material Collective blog about the Material Collective goings on (an incredible combination of Future, Time, and Blunder), so it's here that I'll start to think through "Eco-Critical Approaches to Medieval Art, East and West: I (Landscapes) and II (Objects)," two panels I organized with the marvelous Nancy Sevcenko. These are more responses than summaries - the papers were rich and full well beyond my fascinations. First, if you'll indulge me, an excerpt of my super brief introductory comments:


Conceptualizations of nature are anything but natural, and eco-criticism invites questions of the constructions of nature, the natural, and that amorphous place we have built for ourselves: the natural world. Medieval images mediate the category of the natural through their materiality (the very stuff that medieval images are made of hold agency and meaning) and their evocations (the anagogical invitation of medieval images to perceive beyond the material world). In doing so, medieval images activate the category of the natural, they frame the agency of nature – manufactured from the natural, they oscillate over and ultimately blur the built boundary between artifice and nature.

Our first set of papers are grouped around the idea of landscape: of nature as place, of nature as a built environment, manufactured by pilgrimage, patronage, and paint and re-presented to viewers questioning their place in the world. In one of his more enigmatic statements to his followers, Christ said: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (We have no natural home, no resting place). This restlessness of place (this need for place) is confronted by the medieval images you will hear about today, and the frameworks they constructed: the land-scapes that simultaneously created and became assemblages of place, real and imagined movement, and human bodies. 

I love that crazy quote, "the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" - (Luke 9:58 and Matthew 8:20). One of several from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that makes the break with nature that humanity seemingly celebrates and seeks to repair. So a first concern for the landscape papers was where and how the categories of "nature" and "art" met - for two of the three, it became where they blended imperceptibly (the stuff of the natural world being the stuff of art), for a third, it was where the two relied on each other for representation (the natural world signified in art, artistry signified by the natural world). I've only pulled one image from each talk, but I invite you to contact the speakers if you wish to know more - they are a generous and glad group, and it was an honor to think with them. IF YOU WANT TO THINK FURTHER ON THINGS ECOCRITICAL, Heide Estes has set up a Facebook group dubbed "Medieval Ecocriticisms" - find it and like it and join the conversation!

Pyrolusite from Sinai (from Anastasia Drandaki's talk)
Anastasia Drandaki made the audience gasp with this slide. She'd taken us to the Katholikon of the monastery at Mount Sinai, and we'd seen the Burning Bush (and pilgrims taking branches) and here, then, a bit of the stone from the site, pyrolusite whose dendritic crystals miraculously manifested (more than re-presented) the Burning Bush itself. Oh what Roger Caillois would have to say about this one! Nature making/being/encompassing/ Art, collapsing the two into the phenomenon of "natural beauty." Miraculous because it existed outside of human intervention, but miraculous also precisely because it could intervene in human lives, as stories of healing miracles proclaim. Independent of humans and yet deeply involved in their fate. An active land, a landscape full of possibilities. I love the problem of human perception here: it is our re-cognition of the crystals as tree branches that excite, suggest our wonder, make the miracle. Agency gets good and tricky here: the crystals are not an imprint of branches, they possess no mimicry, but they are wondrous to us in their ability to imitate elements of the natural that we have deemed as such.  Still, I interpret the audience's gasp as responding to the stone's independence from human presence: its ability to be complete, to trump and best our own representational efforts, and (simply) to be beautiful. Anastasia's talk made me want to think more about the aesthetic (miraculous?) agency of stone, about this wonderful problem of natural beauty.

Kaminaria donors and trees (from Barbara McNulty's talk)
Barbara McNulty took us to Cyprus, a place that has long held a fascination for me (no, never been there) because of its absolutely perfect liminality between East and West. I think of Richard the Lion-Hearted's obsession with it, the Lusignans!, the multiplicity of artistic endeavors, this stretch of land that makes the Holy Land almost yours, Venice certainly claiming so. This tiny church holds the remains of a fascinating fresco with a woman (a widow?) at the head of a donors' procession including three young men (her sons?). Precisely positioned between each one, at the level of their waists or the depth of a very large field, are tiny trees on sloping hills. Does a tree a landscape make? How minimal can the representation of nature be? Here, I'm fascinated with how nature is signified. I wondered out loud during the discussion afterwards about the minimalism of natural representation here, and Alexa Sand brilliantly noted the reductive power of allegory. With that, I can work in and out of representation (visual and textual). It's when a tree is not just a tree that it becomes part of a poem. The signification of the Kaminaria trees can range widely: from territorial signifier, to indicator of a mapping vision, to allegory of Paradise (the Virgin Mary is directly nearby, exerting her own aesthetic/semiotic pull).  Here again, I was confronted with the problem of human perception. The very act of seeing a landscape is an act of categorization, and Barbara's talk pushes me to try to articulate what is natural (anything? everything?) about the idea and presence of landscape. 

Terra Verde (from Amber McAlister's talk)
Amber McAlister made us prize the material experience of paint. The fantastic Summer Teachers Institute in Technical Art History, held at Yale, had brought her not only into contact with elemental art history (paints, pigments, varnishes, and more), but also into its actions (mixing, making, readying).  There are things forgotten in the age of oil paint in tubes: the tedium of grinding colors, the transformation of brute stuff into refined matter, the marvel of a representational form appearing beneath your brush. The Dominican monks of the Chiostro Verde of Santa Maria Novella in Florence made meaning when they made their choice to use terra verde to paint the Old Testament cycle of the cloister, the cheap and earthy pigment uniting Creation and creativity. Perception here oscillates between pigment and Paradise (not seeing the Paradise for the pigment? seeing the Paradise through the pigment?).  This is the rub, the challenge, the fundamental dilemma of an eco-critical art history for me, so well put forward by Amber's paper: art history has been the study of made things; alternately the study of the perception of made things. The things we are interested in thinking through are made by makers who didn't want to/couldn't leave stuff be: stone became statue, sand became glass, pigment became paradise. The transformation of matter was made, material was wrought, so that meaning could be wrought (overwrought?). I know that reading lots and lots of anthropologist Tim Ingold (and keep scrolling down his page for inspiration) will help here. Where I already see us putting a common eco-critical vocabulary into practice for objects, I find myself casting about for language with landscape. These papers push me to keep thinking beyond the representation and conceptualization of nature by art, to the materiality and agency of this actually quite strange category of human perception and physical presence called landscape.

And so, objects.

Our second set of papers gathers around objects: things made from stuff, announced by their agency, by their ability to shape (among other things) human behaviors and desires. Eco-criticism here seeks to move the conversation beyond animism and anthropomorphism, to speak of active objects, of objects that activate; to acknowledge the agency of objects unto themselves.  Our scale shifts from earlier today: from untouchable landscape to hand-held book or relic, from all-encompassing to all-engrossing.  Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter; the political ecology of things makes a consistent appeal to move from epistemology to ontology – from what we know to what is, from meaning to matter, from knowledge to experience. These are not mutually exclusive categories, but they do shift the conversation about objects, as you will see today. 

Quills with ink (from Heide Estes's talk)
If you recognize these quills from the Medieval Ecocriticisms Facebook page, then you'll know it was Heide Estes that set it up. (Many thanks, Heide!). Presenting an ecofeminist reading of the Old English Riddle 26 (the "book" riddle) meant rejecting dualistic thinking (which the riddle's moves and slippages from animal to skin to book, its oscillation between thing and object, rejoiced in); it meant bringing forth Val Plumwood's call to "nature as a political rather than as a descriptive category." A landscape is not a thing the way that an object is a thing: there are entirely different dynamics of participation and becoming. And the poem revels in the becoming, it fascinates us with the necessary (ordinary? mundane?) "centuries of slaughter that gave us medieval writing" (that's from Heide's paper - a phrase that's going to stay with me). Embedded in the poem was my very favorite thing: a kenning - why say quill when you can say that it was "a bird's joy/ made abundant tracks of ink over me." That's the animal skin speaking as it becomes manuscript page - the same voice, but a different ontology, as the poem progresses. I will confess to a deep yearning, when I hear this poem, for speaking objects. Art history's objects are not mute: I firmly believe we are the vehicles for their speech (through our rituals, our desires, our poems, our particularly evocative art history essays). But to hear a gilded book tell you of its animal origins, of being killed and cut and written upon, taken and covered with gold and read with fervor - that is a wonder that should course through my writing more often.

Inside the Protaton Reliquary (from Brad Hostetler's talk)
Brad Hostetler, I like to think, would find no stone mundane, let alone leave it unturned. The Protaton Reliquary gathered together four stones and aligned them into/as a Holy Land arrangement. There is no nature and/vs. art here, right? There is only presence and participation, Brad emphasizing the "EK" (from) of the inscriptions next to each stone: from the Tomb of Christ, from Golgotha, from Bethlehem, from Gethsemane.  One could start to make distinctions between the wrought metal and the raw stone, but, as Ben Tilghman pointed out during the discussion afterwards, the stone is made, too: both stone and metal are elemental, have the vibrant matter of things. The Protaton Reliquary gives me the opportunity to think about a seamless perception, one that works over the representational field without making a nature/art distinction, one that assembles matter partly for pleasure (there is something so wonderful about the careful quadrant positioning of stones from such places) and partly for salvation (the donor on the cover of the reliquary kneels in tight proskynesis).  There is a reason, here, to think of the act of assemblage, of putting these stones into this frame, as itself a devotional act, but also an act of becoming - of the vibrant matter of stone and metal and wood (the center of the reliquary, now visible through an 18th century intervention).

Ivory booklet now at the Cloisters (from Alexa Sand's talk)
Alexa Sand opened up the last object for us, an ivory booklet - a rare work whose inner leaves received, at one time, pliant wax upon which could be written prayers - and its resonances with the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux.  She explored the becoming of both: the five hundred (500!) sheep needed for a large codex; the "bark" that must be stripped from the dentine on its way to being ivory; the gestures and knowledge (which we ourselves can only gesture to knowing) that moved around the materials of ivory and parchment.  A key claim in the history of perception put forward the idea that "the origins of parchment and ivory were never entirely obscured by their processing"(Alexa's beautiful writing). The violence (think ivory and parchment procured) is "translated" (Alexa again) through our senses: the musk deposit that ivory leaves on our skins, a reminder of the animal from whom this was taken (and you can see how Heide's Riddle 26 was conjured up here); the weight and size assessed by a human perception that might well know how many animals were sacrificed. The states of being (dentine, pillaged object, luminous carving) are all simultaneous here. Alexa's work made me realize (and relish anew) that materiality does not precede and recede - it persists.

The conversations afterwards held one big surprise in the tension between queries asking for more theoretical engagements and others protesting the very presence of eco-critical theory. This wide spectrum made me realize that we are still in the process of building an interpretive community of eco-criticism within medieval art history. Ultimately, we will be post-disciplinary: we will all gather on Facebook and read each other's materials and hear each other out and meet again at future conferences. At Kalamazoo 2013, we wanted to test specific works of art/aesthetic scenarios within the ideas and challenges of eco-criticism, of the constructions of Harman's "nature [that] is not natural and can never be naturalized." As the conversation continues, and as we e-mail each other, and find each other on Facebook and, we'll develop that common vocabulary. This is what I have always liked about theory: its ability to create an interpretive community, a bunch of people eager to put ideas into practice - and the momentum that builds in that eagerness. I have put my "Ecology of Medieval Art" syllabus (where Jane Bennett, and Jeffrey Cohen, and Karl Steel and Alf Siewers and (the next time I teach the course) the entire cast of the "EcoMaterialism" issue of postmedieval feature prominently) up on and there will be more reading lists found in articles and talks put up on the site by the wonderful members of these panels, and the discussions on "Medieval Ecocriticisms" on Facebook. Another night, soon, I'll want to think through eco-criticism's revelry in literary studies and its relatively muted presence in art history. For now, bed: so as to think and write and grade another day. Materiality persists. And it insists, "aproche, aproche."