Sunday, 11 December 2011

Me with Arbus in Paris

I recently mumbled through the rooms at Jeu de Paume, queuing to glimpse the pictures, whilst the rain hit the December of Paris outside. As everybody else I was walking and gazing and pondering and moving next. Small monochromatic frames on the wall dictated the rhythm, lines of people slid slowly along the walls, leaving the centre of the room empty . It was Diane Arbus’ hunting trophies we were observing, what her constant quest for difference brought to us.
That is what I love: the differentness, the uniqueness of all things and the importance of life... I see something that seems wonderful; I see the divineness in ordinary things[1]
Diana is the Roman goddess of hunting. Diane is a hunter of instants, collector of singularities, archaeologist of the unseen, chased in New York's dusty streets or existence’s dirty back-stages.
I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.
Diane, the hunting goddess, from dyeus, divine, and dies, day, she who hunts for the divine in the everyday, bringing to the world proof of the empty forest's falling trees, the
proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you[2]
She makes things exist as instants, instances of an impersonality which is no longer controlled by the will and consciousness of the photographer or the photographed, but rather emerges as a gap, at the
point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.
The difference from which this ‘gap’ emerges, through the repetition of the photographic act, is what you sought in the greasy dressing rooms of transvestites, or in the coldly distant images of nudists quietly lying on their sofas, the flaccid flesh blurring with the sofa’s skin, smoking a cigar just like the Mexican dwarf on the bed with hat and moustaches, looking at the camera with the involuntary comicalness of an African dictator. Instants, instances of the irreducible difference of life is what you were after in the dusty streets of New York where adults would look back at you with empty diffidence, in-diffidence, suspended between the atavistic fear of you stealing their soul, and the void which the camera lens was reflecting back to them.

Hopeless, more naked when dressed, the adult self-confidence would disappear in the hesitant defence of a flat mask, or an archaic smile. So were the kids,
who such masks willingly wore, smoking cigarettes, holding grenades, posing as adult couples, pretending to be adult, reproducing a self-confidence which - now fully true because explicitly false - did not let adulthood tragic opacity emerge, and yet unable to conceal youth's pulsating vibrancy.

Woman with veil on fifth avenue, New York, 1968
And what about those heavily made-up old women, them too pretending to be adult, shifting confident posing for the thickness of mascara, lipsticks so purple it can be seen through the monochrome, the artificial smoothness of the chalked skin at the service of aesthetic spontaneity, oxymoronic practices ineluctably uncovered in their home shots,  when their painted flesh is caught resting heavily in private armchairs, abandoned into them with that ancestral tiredness which only to old people belongs. So similar they are to those transvestites applying blusher on their cheeks in badly lit dressing rooms, or to the circus-performer showing his multiple needles piercing his skin, same exhaustion in the gaze, same no-longer concealed awareness that the masks are gone, showing nonetheless that behind a mask is only a new mask, that it is a relentless changing of masks what we are, that what we can ever open to is our own concealment:
A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.
A Jewish Giant at home with his parents, Bronx, 1970

Badly lit are also the interiors of those Russian dwarfs, whose sad dignity while cooking potatoes resonates in the gallery, or the living room where the giant is barely able to stand, whilst his mother looks at him in routinary amazement, or the faces of the American patriots standing for they no longer remember what. If you were looking through all these border-lines for the possibility to narrate the unseen, to let the difference emerge, this is not what you found. The gaze of the couple going for a Sunday picnic is the same of James Brown resting after a show, the same of the old nudist couple standing in front of you in the tiny bedroom, the same of this transvestite smoking with hair curlers on, the same of Susan Sontag thinking about something on the bed, the same of those twins shining in front of you, the same of yourself, half-naked and pregnant, staring at yourself at the mirror.

Self portrait pregnant NYC, 1945

Amedeo Modigliani, Head

Like an unwitting Modigliani it was an empty, archetypal gaze you managed to uncover, behind which, through which, the impersonal ground of a life can be glimpsed, in its eternal boredom, its infinite purposelessnes. Like an unwitting Mirò your repetitive series gradually dug away any residue of subjectivity, stripping the flesh off the bones of your sub-jects.
Looking for difference you found the incessant, differential repetition of an impersonal Being flashing through the empty orbits of your subjects’ eyes. No difference, then, between all of them and the blind couple gently hugging on the bed – or rather, the difference is that the same subterraneous Being flows freely out of the couples white bulbs, free to roam and pulsate, free from the self-conscious effort of the other subjects faces.
Blind Couple in their Bedroom, Queens, 1971

Then is no chance that the most powerful explosion of this impersonal life is in the series of joyous shots of adults and children affected by Downs' Syndrome playing in the park. Here, hopelessness is gone, the expression is finally liberated from the constraints of the face, the sheer vitality speaks again of the sheer force of the impersonal. No surprise then whether you chose to name those pictures, ‘Untitled’.

Their utter impersonality does not allow for a title to be imposed. No room for romanticising here though. No piety either. The sheer vitality of these playful shots is not opposite to the deep, existential boredom to which other shots seem consigned. They are both manifestation of the eternal plenitude of an impersonal Being, a life which in ‘Untitled’ sparks perhaps more vividly, since no longer sought to be tamed, and instead of finding its way only through the uncontrollable crack of the gaze. is now freely actualised in the gestures of the body. 

Perhaps you managed to glimpse 
that terrible line that shuffles all the diagrams ... a line of life ... that carries man beyond terror ... where Life exists par excellence [3] 
This is then what you were looking for, encountering all those freaks (you included). You were looking for ‘masters of their own speed, of their own molecules and singularities’, for aristocrats of Being...
Most people go through their life dreading they'll go through a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats.
Jorge Luis Borges in Central Park, 1969

[1] November 28, 1939, paper on Plato, senior English seminar, Fieldston School
[2] in response to request for a brief statement about photographs, March 15, 1971
[3] Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, p. 123