Beyond Representation

Art Beyond Representation is a book that I could say changed my life. It prompted me to change my PhD discipline from Art History to Gender and Cultural Studies, and the ramifications are still rippling through my life now.

It’s something I’ve been returning to mentally recently. Barb Bolt’s elegant exegesis of Heidegger, Derrida and Deleuze and her articulation of her own creative praxis, facilitates a critical examination of image making as profoundly performative and material.

OK – I’m going to ‘fess up that the paragraph is empty bumph that says little. I’m trying to describe what it is to no longer see images as icons or semiotic elements alone, but to see them as aggregations of stuff: matter, and material (sensory) emanations (light, vibration, affect, etc.), and to see semiosis (ie the generation of meaning) as a process; one that is constantly in flux, oscillating between sensibility and sensation. Intelligibility slips in and out of our register, and scoops up manifold aspects of memory, preconception, and stuff in the process.

Jacques Derrida’s elliptical writings evoke the slipperiness of meaning so, so well. His cracking apart of words and meanings is so much more than the jeu du mot (word play/punning) for which he has been derrided (hah! couldn’t resist).

So for representation, which that beguiling Nazi sympathiser Martin Heidegger urged us to refute, as a form of violence to the real (ok – oversimplifying there….), Derrida encouraged us to sit with and sense as something in flux….. the re as a return, the present as a present, and also both a pre to the present, and something that is sent from the past (pre-sent), to the present, to which there is a return, in the act of representing. Maybe if I write it as re-pre-sending it makes a little more sense? or maybe less.

Bolt articulates how this feels in observational drawing – that most overlauded act of allegedly representing vision, ‘the pure eye’, the ‘objective view’ and other such modernist claptrap (hee hee love that term) – and how in the process and mess of dragging matter into a visible relation with what we see, we become acutely aware of the flux of time, moving forward, moving back, shifting into and out of the present time, as trained habits take over and then depart.

I’ve been returning to a contemplation of this through the re-reading of my thesis, and pretzelising myself into imagining it as a saleable product of the information economy. There are damn fine bits in there, that I’d like a lot more people to read. *sigh* because the pretzelising is painful and tortuous only in the torting bending branches kind of sense.

I’ve also been provoked by my own very tentative and peripetatic return to a drawing practice of sorts. Following the cliche of ‘those that can’t, teach’, I’ve been making tentative steps to establish an a Melbourne version of this wonderful project in Sydney.

So far, this has just involved me getting lifts or getting trains out to Broadmeadows – on the northern outskirts of Melbourne, and bussing or walking up the exquisitely named ‘Camp Road’ (without a mince in sight) to the army barracks, and then in to the low MITA building. It’s not as much as a gaol as I feared. More like an airport crossed with a palliative care ward.

I’ve brought food and books and met with some of the guys there who often look young enough to be my sons. I try very very very hard not to remember my ex from 20 years ago, who spent his twenties briefly in Villawood when it was a refugee hostel, not a hell hole gaol of shame. I try very hard not to think of his descriptions of how incredibly hard it was to ‘settle’, after what he’d been through, and that was without the appalling mental torture of being detained indefinitely while compiling a credible dossier for DIMIA staff, who are under pressure to decline your claim if they can.

I also try very hard not to think of my own rage and exasperation with my government. How I’ve rallied, marched, painted, drawn, petitioned, rallied, marched, marched to the desert FERFUCKSAKE, blogged, painted, wept, yelled, written, and danced in the streets 5 years ago because I thought this would end with Howard, but instead it has gotten worse. My own desperate impotence, and the impotence of the ‘democratic system’ in changing things for the better. I try not to think of this.

So many returns, mental returns, shifting backwards and away. I try so so briefly to remember but not to return to where I learnt the practice of hope, of desperate hope that clings to life in the face of despair and misery and death. Bedside palliative care moments, of mad colour and life, create, make, make, sing, create, create and colour fuck you all fuck death this is life, life, LIFE! and I’ll always sing share laugh with it as long as I can because this is the practice of hope and that is the only thing I can offer anyone really.

Desperate immanence. Or the immanence of desperation? I am unsure.

The palliative care analogy is not completely misplaced. I (and thank fecking christ for it) cannot imagine what detainees are going through. It is a space of horror that is profoundly outside of and beyond what I know, or would ever want to know. Like C or D. Hard core alterity. Abject otherness. Not what I can understand.

If I step into a space of encounter with this otherness, then what happens, and what am I doing in embarking on an ‘art process’?

My pithy throwaway line about Heidegger, above, wasn’t intended to be so flippant. I feel that representation often does perform a form of violence. I’ll never forget the rebuke of a dear friend who I’d frequently drawn as a model, reacting with horror when I (compulsive scribbler than I am) brought out my sketchbook while waiting by his bedside in hospital. He was not presenting himself for representation at all. Nothing in that room wanted to be drawn or recorded. It was too to dreadful already, and he was losing whatever that bodily thing is that we know as life to want anything more material to be taken from him. I’d just started my PhD, and hadn’t yet read Bolt, and maybe it was the crisis that provoked me to question what the point of representation was, and if it was a form of violence.

And I’ve been musing on my words yesterday with Hillary, another MITA visitor, who keeps this blog of sketches done with, of or by the detainees in Broadmeadows. I told her that I couldn’t imagine drawing ‘the guys’ as we call them, because it would require a form of emotional presence that I couldn’t bear. Having said that, I love her sketch of the view outside of the visitors room window. We look into a courtyard where we can see rooms along one side, and bushland, and a kind of grassy lawn where the guys play cricket sometimes. Cameras are not allowed, and I’m not sure if we’re even meant to do drawings of the centre, so, my sketches are done from memory, or as hasty scribbles.

The detainees have no interest in drawing what they see around them, and what is in their endless present of anxious limbo. They draw images from their head, or copy photographs and paintings from books. So much for my years of still-life and landscape painting! This is not a place to teach perspective at all.

If I can’t teach what I have learnt (perspective, objective drawing) then what can I do? My own sketches dance around the perimeter of MITA – silly cartoons made during the train journey, or the occasional graphite study copy made during tandem ‘draw offs’ with one very shy but incredibly talented artist. I don’t want to re-present these people, who spend their lives trusting advocates to speak on behalf of them. I’d like for them to learn a way to represent themselves that slips outside of the stranglehold of DIMA doublespeak and mass media soundbyte bullshit that surrounds the simple daily horror of what detainees are enduring as they wait and hope to start a life that is liveable.

And the place itself remains invisible, unseen, unrecorded. It is not particularly monstrous looking, and yet the monstrous circumstances make it unwatchable. I’m trying right now not to segue into Jean Luc Nancy’s meditation on the monstrosity of showing (montre), or into what it is about looking, watching, seeing and recording that is so incredibly strange and awful and miraculous. Because I am hoping miracles will happen. That it this space where any sane person wants to close their eyes and sleep the months away and not see anything and not remember it, that witnessing becomes something that is not a burden, but a space where a practice of hope may emerge – somewhere in these spaces where hope has been felt and sent from somewhere else, and can be returned to and remembered in the present, creating a pattern of remembering and hoping that may make the awful present bearable.

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