By Dag T. Andersson
When the child follows the father working at the carpenter’s bench or the mother at her sewing machine, the German Jewish philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin writes, it is not the finished products that the child is primarily interested in, but the remnants or “waste material”. The child’s attention is directed towards the wood shavings and scraps of fabric and threads that fall onto the floor, where they create a world of their own; an “underworld” having its own peculiar visual richness. This visual richness reminds us that the things belong to an order deprived of the logic of goal-oriented usefulness. Beyond the spheres of usefulness and defined goals, the child exists in a state of grace, according to Benjamin. The child’s gaze into an alternate world is both liberating and unifying. The childlike gaze is attentive to aspects of the things that allow the mutability they are subordinate to come into view. The things themselves are not compatible with the goal of usefulness. The state of grace that dominates the visual world of the child provides room for a multitude of meanings that the goal-oriented activities in our productive lives are forced to overlook. The visual world of childhood gives us access to meanings that exist on the “underside” of history, meanings that are shoved aside in the name of usefulness and are forgotten and repressed. Benjamin describes childhood as a primeval phenomenon. Childhood is not a stage in life that one leaves behind. It exists vertically in every phase of life, he claims. The potential significance that childhood’s visual world carries with it can come to the rescue in every one of life’s epochs. The “primeval images” can make a whole life readable – if we are capable of seeing ourselves in them.
The visual world of childhood is a world of dreams and fairytales. When wood shavings, bits of fabric or snatches of thread fall to the floor, they create a place, a topos, a look-out point that allows us to see far. We stand in front of places that are gateways to a hidden world of meaning, places that have their own “topology”. They can come into view where the path between everyday life and a secret fairytale world is short. The rabbit hole that Alice falls through is one such place, just as those places which according to Greek mythology lead us down to the underworld of images and dreams are. Under the surface of everyday life and history is a hidden treasure of images.
Our attention must be directed towards those images that show us what history could have, yet did not become. The childlike world gives us counter images to the “passing of history’, counter images that allow us to “read what has not yet been written”. That we can thread the things through an interplay between everyday enlightened reality and the enigmatic and impenetrable, Benjamin sees as the main characteristic of surrealism. Surrealist art allows the things to reveal their hidden and secret sides by lifting them out of the systematic and familiar pattern we normally encounter them through. It allows the things to come unto themselves by detaching and liberating them from the grasp that habit has on them. By taking the things out of what we often understand as the “real” world, surrealism sets them into motion so that they are brought back to themselves. They come into view for us via what Benjamin calls a “profane revelation”. One characteristic of this is that we experience the things in a dual state of obvious availability and secretive seclusion. No matter how near they are, how naturally they appear in our daily encounters with them; it is only through acknowledgement of their remoteness that we can gain access to their true significance. In other words, it is precisely through the remoteness that they manifest that fragments and remnants can disclose meanings to us which finished works conceal. In the ruin, Benjamin claims, the idea of the thing is more clearly visible than it is in a completed work.
The fundamental idea underlying this emphasis on the significance of fragments and remnants is also expressed in Benjamin’s view on language. If we see the essence of human language merely in its usefulness as a means of communication, we would be able to forget the kinship that our language has with the expressive capability of things; with their wordless speech. If we forget this kinship, we can come to lose our attentiveness to them and thereby relegate the things to silence. For art in particular, this form of forgetfulness would be fatal.
In his lyrical-philosophical book Traces Ernst Bloch, who like Benjamin belongs to the German Jewish intellectual tradition, points to the enigmatic quality that rests on the most common everyday objects. He turns this secretiveness into a gateway to understanding our relationship to reality. Everyday natural dealings with things have an unclear side as well, and in it Bloch finds traces of a reality that has not yet found its final clarified form. The profundities of things present themselves in an enigmatic way by the fact that they have not as yet shown us what they are in reality. In the as yet unclear light of reality’s form we can see far – beyond the consummation of our own tasks. Before they have existed in a clarified and fully recognisable form, the things can reveal themselves to us as reminders of a utopia. They are embodiments of hope. We can be struck by a message from them that appears to come from an as yet unknown future. The everyday object can thus appear as both alluring and disturbing, and yes, at times even frightening to us. We are struck by something that comes from a place beyond our perspective. Suddenly, in the middle of our everyday business, which we have conducted with utter predictability for a longest time, we can lose our footing, “fall out of step”, according to Bloch. We are transported to something far away and are confronted with the familiar in such a way that a sliver of something totally unknown and strange appears. We are reminded of a similar experience from our childhood, he says: We wonder what the objects are doing when they are beyond our sight and reach. What are the doll and bear doing while we sleep? What does our room look like after we have left it in the morning? We only know the front side of the objects. No human being can know the back sides or undersides of the objects, nor the sea that surrounds them. The front side of the objects reveal their technical service-mindedness, their good-natured assimilation to our world. No one can know whether the idyllic, alluring or natural beauty that emanates from them is really what it promises or pretends to be.
Art has the ability to create room for the objects. In this sense it can help us to see them in a world where to an increasing degree they have fallen into the ruthless grasp of usefulness, exposed to the threat of becoming standardised wares. We do not see anything more in the objects than our intended use for them. We do not hear their silent and wordless message of a way of being beyond usefulness. Art can allow them to be heard. It can give them room that can “rescue’ them. The artist can take on a task similar to what Walter Benjamin associates with the collector: rescue the things from the threat of being useful. In this rescuing of the objects lies an acknowledgement that they never impart themselves completely to us. Their way of speaking is not fully our way of speaking. The objects never allow us to penetrate to the bottom of them. They evade a gaze that seeks exhaustive insight.
The objects tell of the significance of incompleteness. Even our own works appear as unfinished sketches. Yet it is exactly in their incompleteness that they fall into place as concentrated expressions of the significance-bearing impressions we receive from the world. When all is said and done, we cannot do more than collect our many impressions. The sketch, the unfinished work, captures the transitory aspect of existence and maintains the impression as charged with meaning. Our works must demonstrate reserve when it comes to completeness. They cannot strive to tell a story from beginning to end. They must restrain themselves from filling the entire meaningful space, where the form we have given them can be played out. Reserve implies being attentive to the objects own language in that it also respects their silence, a silence that is not perceived as a lack of expression, but that in itself is an expression of how the order of incompleteness imparts itself to us.
What art reveals has the form of recollection. Our goal-oriented and purposeful lives carry oblivion within them. This must be so in order for us to function in the world. Our actions demand a finite space in order to implement them. In our active lives, what we often call “real” life as opposed to imagined life, we move about in a more constricted space. According to the Danish theologian and philosopher K.E. Løgstrup, in our real lives our understanding and emotions are isolated, caught up in the squeeze of concrete life. Yet just as the finite space is necessary for action, the aesthetical experience is essential as a reminder to us of a space beyond.
The active life’s form of recollection is memory. It helps us to realise our goals, to “move forward”. Recollection takes us in a different direction. It takes care of what our purposeful activity must overlook and forget. In its images, recollection embodies what is forgotten and overlooked. The images of recollections are salvaging images, according to Walter Benjamin. They are the carriers of as yet unredeemed potentials of meaning. Art is nourished by the images and transforms them into new ones. Rearranged into new constellations, the images allow us to see something we have never seen before. The images, which often come over us unexpectedly, can awaken something forgotten and overseen. Even if only in a flash, the images arise in our recollection. While memory reminds us of what has been, recollection reminds us of what could have been. According to Benjamin, the genuine images of recollection are images we have never seen before, before we recollected them.
The experience of recollection is an experience that exists within a world that knows and acknowledges its relationship with incompleteness. Memory, as the form of recollection of purposeful life, complies with the demands of goals, projects and completion. Its aim is directed towards the order that applies to the familiar world of purposeful life. Genuine recollection, on the other hand, is one that connects us to a world different from the goal-oriented or project-oriented world. It is a recollection that unwittingly imparts itself and provides us with images we have never seen before; a recollection that belongs to the order of incompleteness. The images of genuine recollection appear in fragments and remnants, and as fleeting flashes. As in a flash of lightning, Benjamin claims, they light up and disclose hidden and forgotten meaning, and then disappear again in the next second. The images of recollection are capable of wrenching us out of habitual and familiar modes of being and into a foreign state that takes us back to something from the past. It occurs in a dual atmosphere of something foreign and simultaneously recognisable. We often call this experience “déjà vu”. It is interesting, Benjamin says, that we have not taken the reverse motion seriously. A word or a thing can awaken a recollection in us that transports us into something from the future. A name mentioned, a sudden pause in the words that we are uttering, a forgotten garment on a chair, can open up to something that is now far from us, but that nevertheless announces its presence in an invisible remoteness: the future, the one which was left in our keeping.
This text was originally published in artist Kari Steihaug’s book Archive: The Unfinished Ones, Magicon Forlag, Oslo, 2011 (ISBN 9788292863183).
The book presents the artist’s work with a special kind of abandoned or ruined things: knitted garments that for different reasons never were completed (ended love affairs, ambitions that far exceeded the knitter’s actual skills, etc.). The incomplete garments were collected over a period of ten years and the publisher describes the Archive project as being about “the poetics of imperfection and redundancy, and about directing attention to something failed and lost. The knitted projects didn’t gain the role in someone’s everyday life that they were intended for and became carriers of time and thoughts, sorrows and joys, hope and dreams” (http://www.magikon.no/wp/forside/arkiv-de-ufullendte-kari-steihaug/)
Dag Andersson’s text is translated into English by Francesca Nichols.