An Oral Compulsion: The Image

25 09 2009

The following is a copy of the talk I’ve been compelled into delivering for one of my  coursework subjects this semester.

Hello everyone.

Cicero (Who was a kick ass orator, just ask him.)

Cicero (Who was a kick ass orator, just ask him.)

 I’m from the English, Media and Performing Arts school of UNSW and I’m going to talk to you very quickly about what is the central notion of my Masters Thesis.  We’ll look at two ideas that I’ll be considering further in the full thesis project, and we’ll also have a look at some examples that illustrate these concepts.

 The thesis itself is an examination of the ability of poetic language to make us see visually, or at least to make us experience poetic meaning through visual metaphor.

I tend to approach this idea as a cognitive, phenomenological concept, so that’s the filter I’ll be using for this particular discussion

 1

 There are, ostensibly, two types of ways that images can operate on a basic level, which I refer to as internal and external genesis.  The internal genesis is where, rather than describing a visual sensation, the poet conjures a sense of seeing and experiencing by suggesting the arrangement of elements that are already within the reader’s understanding.

 A regular user of this type of imager was Wordsworth, and a couple of verses pulled from his much longer poem ‘The idiot Boy’ make a good example.

But Betty’s bent on her intent,
For her good neighbour, Susan Gale,
Old Susan, she who dwells alone,
Is sick, and makes a piteous moan,
As if her very life would fail.

There’s not a house within a mile,
No hand to help them in distress;
Old Susan lies a bed in pain,
And sorely puzzled are the twain,
For what she ails they cannot guess.

Wordsworth doesn’t draw the image for you, instead, in the way the Romantics adored, the image comes filtered through human experience, and so we are told ‘there’s not a house within a mile’ leaving us to conjure the lonely pastoral house from our own conceptions. Similarly, are told that Susan ‘is sick’, and ‘lies a bed in pain’ but the image of an ill woman isn’t painted for us, it comes from inside and presses outwards on the experience of the poem, the meaning moving from our knowledge towards the poem.

 The External genesis is where the image is ‘painted’ for us by the poet. This is a more easily understood form of image and has been readily described by the poets and critics for thousands of years. 

William Carlos Williams (kick ass poet)

William Carlos Williams (kick ass poet)

The Roman poet ‘Horace’ called this ‘ut picture poesis’, paraphrased as ‘poetry is like painting’.  This form of imagery has been a favourite to many of the poetry movements over the years, the neo-classicists, romantics and modern poets had a lot of fun with it. It is probably most famous for its deliberate centralisation by the Imagists of the early 1900s. A number of very good examples can be found for this style, but I think William Carlos Williams is probably the most sophisticated but accessible poets of this type.  One simple example is his poem ‘The red Wheelbarrow’:

 The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

beaded with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

 Rather than asking us to conjure the image internally, the objects are painted for us by the poem. They are painted in minimalist, modernist terms certainly, but they are painted. This was Williams’ intent. He wanted us to see the objects, with the aim of breaking down the distance between the word and the thing.  In this way the meaning of the image is directed from its external existence into the reader and the meaning moves from poem to knowledge.

 2

 The second point I wish to make about the cognitive operation of the image is the idea that the image as a figurative unit can be broken down into two halves. I call these the physical half and the symbolic half of an image. As I was casting my mind around for examples I passed a kebab shop and I thought that its name would make a fine example, so well go with that. It was ‘The Golden Kebab.’

 When something is being described as golden, how does it operate in terms of the dual existence of the image?

  The physical half of an image operates by referring to a real physical thing that could be seen and touched. A golden kebab, then, in this shop name would be a physical kebab made out of gold. Yellow, heavy, hard yet pliable and completely unappetising.  

Kebab (just ass)

Kebab (just ass)

But the name ‘the golden kebab’ isn’t operating on the physical level the way ‘The red wheelbarrow’ was. That was literally a red wheel barrow, and it’s the physical nature of the image that is being used in that poem.  With ‘the golden kebab’ the metaphor comes from the conceptual side of the image.

 In the conceptual sense refers to the symbolic connotations that are suggested by the physical thing, or the idea of the physical thing. Something golden is precious and valuable.  Something is golden if it is the best of its class, a golden boy, the golden child, the golden crown of a king. It implies authority, value, purity and supremacy. So ‘the golden kebab’ uses transference of the conceptual elements of gold for their metaphor, rather than the physical.

 Conclusion.

  Poetry is one of the ways a culture talks about itself, questions itself, its actions and its values. The image is the way in which experience is brought into the poetry and directed either from the reader into the poem, or from the poem towards a new understanding in the reader.  You can tell a lot about a society by looking at how they used the image in their poetry, it’s like a handshake. Everyone uses it, but always a little differently.

 ~Chris

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Anne Landa exhibition AGNSW

3 08 2009

In the recent Double Take: Anne Landa exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, there were a number of works which caught the imagination of humanists and technologists alike.

Mari Velonaki’s interactive cube installations are a particular wonder of light and movement. These little robotics react to the viewer’s touch: as you pick them up and move them around they ‘speak’ to each other by emitting sounds and slowly revealling handwriting across their lighted faces. Entitled ‘Circle D: Fragile Balances’ 2008, each of these mysterious messages was comprised of fragments from personal letters donated by Velonaki’s peers and friends, along with verse by Anna Akhmatova. Each of the cubes has a name, Bird and Fish, construsting characters in a relationship that is both loving and strained. Using bluetooth wireless connections, the spatial relation that Bird and Fish have to one another at any one time determines their ‘communication’ and thus their expression of emotion. The viewer (or perhaps user is a more appropriate term) is able to have some control over this relationship, and increasingly so, as Velonaki invites suggestions for future letters to be included in the work’s futher development. The comment here on our relationships, and our lives within the technological age, achieve both contemporaniety and timelessness. In this version however, the slowness of the media perhaps hampers the full realisation of the concept, I eagerly await Velonaki’s next instalment on the project.

The following is a video of Velonaki speaking about the project as it has developed since working with the curator’s at the Art Gallery of NSW:

Click here to see an student interview with Mari Velonaki.

Cao Fei’s film ‘What Are They Doing Here?’ 2005 uses perhaps a more traditional form of mediabut is not less touching in its ability to reach both the personal and the universal. As a commission of the Siemens Arts Program, Fei chose to intervene directly in Siemens’ OSRAM lighting factory in Foshan, Guangdong province. She entered the factory and encouraged the employees there to express their dreams, fantasies, and desires in the form of dance, song and performance. Her resulting film is separated into three parts, drawing out the reality of present day life in the factory, in contrast to dreams and hopes of the future. Fei’s greatest skill is in her ability to capture the monotony of manual labour in the same frames as lie her highly detailed and empathetic portraits of the workers. She has intimately brought both everyday experience and psychological reality to the screen.

The Double Take exhibition featured a number of artists, more that I have noted here. Check out the Art Gallery’s archived page for Double Take here.

In the recent Double Take: Anne Landa exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, there were a number of works which caught the imagination of humanists and technologists alike.

Mari Velonaki’s interactive cube installations are a particular wonder of light and movement. These little robotics react to the viewer’s touch: as you pick them up and move them around they ‘speak’ to each other by emitting sounds and slowly revealling handwriting across their lighted faces. Entitled Circle D: Fragile Balances 2008, each of these mysterious messages was comprised of fragments from personal letters donated by Velonaki’s peers and friends, along with verse by Anna Akhmatova. Each of the cubes has a name, Bird and Fish, construsting characters in a relationship that is both loving and strained. Using bluetooth wireless connections, the spatial relation that Bird and Fish have to one another at any one time determines their ‘communication’ and thus their expression of emotion. The viewer (or perhaps user is a more appropriate term) is able to have some control over this relationship, and increasingly so, as Velonaki invites suggestions for future letters to be included in the work’s futher development. The comment here on our relationships, and our lives within the technological age, achieve both contemporaniety and timelessness. In this version however, the slowness of the media perhaps hampers the full realisation of the concept, I eagerly await Velonaki’s next instalment on the project.

Cao Fei’s

Check out the Art Gallery’s archived page for Double Take here.

http://www.artnet.com/artist/156397/cao-fei.html

http://artnews.com.au/details.php?e=1561

http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/archived/2009/double_take

http://www.csr.acfr.usyd.edu.au/people/MariVelonaki.htmAs a commission of the Siemens Arts Program What are they doing here? in 2005, Cao Fei chose to intervene directly in Siemens’ OSRAM lighting factory in Foshan, Guangdong province. She encouraged the factory workers to express their dreams, fantasies, and desires in the form of dance, song and performance.





The Image and Bachelard

10 07 2009
Cherry Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms

I have been reading a lot lately in preparation for an application to a research degree here in Sydney, Australia. That application has been lodged now, thankfully, but I’ve continued reading, mostly for my own interest, and partly because I know that if I get accepted I’m going to have to back up my proposal ‘talk’ with a serious and studious amount of ‘walk’. As part of this reading I’ve picked up a copy of Gaston Bachelard’s ‘On Poetic Imagination and Reverie’, which is available from Amazon.com. I’m still working my way through Collete Gaudin’s well thought out and interesting introduction to the work, and already it has me questioning some of the basic assumptions of our language.

 The one I want to write about at the moment is the idea and concepts surrounding the word ‘image’, as understood by our culture, and as understood by Bachelard. This will by no means be a definitive examination, but my first gentle foray into playing with this area of thinking, so take from it what you will.

 The first thing I think we should look at is: what do we mean when we use the word ‘image’? In English speaking cultures the word image has come to predominately mean a visual representation. This is not to say that the meaning of the word has degraded from a broader concept in recent, more technological times. Quite the contrary. A definition given in 1707 gives the meaning as ‘an artificial resemblance, either in painting or sculpture. However, the word, etymologically, runs:

 c.1225, “artificial representation that looks like a person or thing,” from O.Fr. image, earlier imagene (11c.), from L. imaginem (nom. imago) “copy, statue, picture, idea, appearance,” from stem of imitari “to copy, imitate” (see imitate). Meaning “reflection in a mirror” is c.1315. The mental sense was in L., and appears in Eng. c.1374. Sense of “public impression” is attested in isolated cases from 1908 but not in common use until its rise in the jargon of advertising and public relations, c.1958. Imagism as the name of a movement in poetry that sought clarity of expression through use of precise visual images, “hard light, clear edges,” was coined 1912 by Ezra Pound.

So the word has its roots in ‘copying, imitating’ rather that superficially resembling. And this, I think it key to the difference between how our current culture uses the word ‘image’ colloquially, and how we actually employ images, especially poetically.

 When we say ‘Image’ these days too often we mean ‘picture’, whereas what image means is ‘an artificial representation’, which needn’t be entirely visual. It is interesting to note that the French for image, funnily enough, is image (I put it in italics to help you imagine the accent), and the meaning translates not just to ‘visual’ image, but also to ‘idea’. It’s easy to over-read this sort of effect. However, what I hope to emphasise is that an image, as commonly understood, tends to under-emphasise the non-visual elements of the image.

 What Bachelard emphasises in his writing is the ‘material’ nature of the image. There is a complicated thought process behind this idea, but what it boils down to in my mind is that the material image, as understood by Bachelard, encompases the entire experience, conceptual, physical and referential, of a thing, not just the sight of it. In fact, Gaudin’s exegesis quotes as “Images are ‘lived’, ‘experienced,’ ‘reimagined’ in an act of consciousness …” In this way he downplays Sartre’s use of symbols:

Bachelard challenges Sartre’s choice of softness, viscosity, and shapelessness as direct symbols of the apprehension of the concrete world by human consciousness. … these are perjorative qualities, fixed in the moment of their material becoming.

 The point of Bachelard’s challenge is that softness, viscosity, shapelessness are not well chosen as symbols because there is no material experience to be found in them. They are immaterial and abstract, and as such do not relate back to an image, as such, but to a suggestion of one. As Gaudin explains, they are ‘fixed’ in place before they have become real.  However, an image that does adequately symbolise ‘the apprehension of the concrete world by human consciousness’ could itself conjure sensations/connotations of softness, viscosity, shapelessness.

 I think that an image must suggest the materiality of the thing being imagined. In this sense, then, the Poundian/Imagist idea of the image as an experience comes more into focus as the attempt, not just to describe visually, but to present the imagined materialisation of time, place, object etc. I’ll end with a famous example of Poundian Imagism. The haiku-esqu:

 IN A STATION OF THE METRO

 The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

 The poem is strongly visual, there’s no denying this. But the poem is not just attempting to superimpose one image on another in order to point out similarities. There is a definite, materialism to the imagery. The faces of the people, above their dark clothes, do not just resemble the bough visually, they are also wet, and fragile as petals. Pound attempts to convey not just an image that may be considered beautiful, but also his own sense of experiencing beauty. Suddenly, succinctly, at a glance. The image as an experience.

~Chris