Turned Tangible to the Eye
Here I write out of my field of practice and expertise, out of my comfort zone, as it is called these days. I am an academic. I analyse literature—literature written in ancient languages and in surprising styles (Homeric Greek, Old English, Tristram Shandy, James Joyce). I experience language as an artefact that demands to be treated with freedom and with respect for its own freedom to resist illusions of immediacy and transparency.
With freedom: because the function of an artefact may vary considerably. A chair may be used to sit, to hit, to lift. It may serve as a sign of privilege or degradation; it may block a door open or shut. Language may be seen as an artefact, and we may obey its directions for use, or decide not to, or feel unable or reluctant to. A writing tool such as a pencil may become the sustaining implement of a hairdo; or a weapon—literally to stab, or functionally to express in writing or in drawing resistance to terror and censorship. Language is an artefact employed to interact, or manipulated to impede communication, to block knowledge.
Another way to deal with language is to leave it alone; to see what I can do without it and what I cannot do without it. I studied silent films by Keaton and Chaplin to find out how far artists concerned in human interactions could go without language: clearly, very far. Keaton and Chaplin’s kinesic discourse is outstandingly refined. Then I started a research project on kinesic knowledge in anthropology and literature with an ethnologist, Alain Müller, who practises ethnographic field immersion in relation to the urban movement called Street Workout. In the context of this project, I spent a year in a clay art studio to dispose of language and learn differently.
Why clay? Because I knew exactly what I didn’t know about it: everything. I simply trusted, at face value, that it could teach me about haptic reality. And it did. The truly demanding part was to block intellectual control (not thoughts: intellectual control) and to allow clays, silica and pigments to lead the way. First, by learning the rules of their game (their relation to air and fire, and to hand pressure); second, by paying attention to chains of actions and reactions—mine and theirs. An education of attention, as Thorsten Gieser calls it.
Attention to the fact that certain moments feel like crossing points between doing the right thing according to external standards and doing the right thing according to internal standards, which felt like extraordinarily strong imperatives. I was amazed by the power of these imperatives, truly taken by surprise. I had in fact very little choice, for something I could not formulate by means of concepts, but which felt excessively real and connected to the clay in front of me and to nothing else. Kinesic knowledge and linguistic construction were distinctly standing apart. I could only acknowledge that fact, that severance. It constituted a massive reality check, more powerful than any sleek analytical demonstration. I had to experience it first hand, before going back to language. My knowledge of it was at this uncompromising condition. I’m somewhat hard to convince. Clays and pigments did, with flying colours. The pictures below are my tribute to them, to the multimodal sensations (haptic, tactile, thermic, kinaesthetic, kinesic, visual) they led me to perceive by my shaping them.
Taking pictures of my works helped me see differently. I used to believe that the perceptual trajectory was going from the eye through the camera towards the object. But I experienced the reverse movement and a different type of agency: the camera (grammatical subject of the verb) was bringing another sight of the object to my eyes. My pictures are tokens of that relation. I realize now that the close focus I was systematically choosing corresponded to the force and spatial relation I was experiencing. The clay huge and I small, focused on its minerality, its way of mentioning in passing the traces of my gestures in soft cliffs; my attempts to mark it, by mixing different clays, to observe how their dissimilar ways of shrinking afforded slits, severances, but also resisted, determined on plastic continuity; its mass, its sheer glittering dimensionality, revealing, admitting its porcelain DNA through the glaze; its way of evoking and reflecting the kiln, the suspense, the secrecy of fire through heated lines; its willingness to make room for human threads of life, navel-like, embryonic aquatic Eve in the frailty of uplifted folds of faïence. Concretely abstracted. Turned tangible to the eye.