Saturday, 5 October 2013

Terrifying Geometrical Men

Chris Johanson's "Geometric Figurative" and Theo van Doesburg's "Banister Post", 1917, Huis De Lange, Alkmaar.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Shroud of Turin

I don't know what I think about this. On the one hand I don't believe that Jesus was resurrected nor that the Shroud is real. I also don't believe that people 2000 years ago were more (or less) susceptible to optical illusions than we are today - I don't think cognition has changed that much (though there are, today, people who go and worship at sites where oil spills look like the Virgin Mary, so there's that). BUT I am in LOVE with this IDEA because it plays into my fear of flat things - how terrifying flat things are, especially in the dark. This idea of a paper-thin cloth Jesus as the thing that came back. Something that couldn't quite push through the membrane between worlds, but pressed its body up against the membrane like a monster against the picture plane - that is a wondrously terrifying thing.

"Art historian Thomas de Wesselow is convinced the Shroud is real and did touch Christ's body. But the Cambridge academic insists that the image on the cloth fooled the Apostles into believing Christ had come back to life, and the Resurrection was in fact an optical illusion.

His theory is that in the mind of a person 2,000 years ago, the image on the Shroud would have been astonishing - far beyond their normal experiences and truly unsettling. 'They saw the image on the cloth as the living double of Jesus,' he said. 'Back then images had a psychological presence, they were seen as part of a separate plain of existence, as having a life of their own.'

'If you think yourself into the whole experience of the apostles. Going into the tomb three days after the crucifixion, in the half-light, and seeing that image emerging from the burial cloth,' the 40-year-old academic told The Daily Telegraph."

Flatness Like a Film Negative

"wow, you know what? a friend of mine told me a nearly identical happening about 15 years ago. also two men in his bedroom as he awakened, or tried to awaken. geez. what's the probability of two people having the same bizarre experience. this was in california. he said as he started to awaken at about 4 am, the two men in his bedroom said, 'oh careful, he's waking up.' then they tried to shut his eyes, and put him back to sleep, but he fiercely resisted and tried to keep awake. he said he saw them for a second, but they were like a film negative. then he lost consciousness and woke up a few hours later and knew with absolute certainty that the event had taken place. he was an electrical engineer, very healthy and not to prone to any fantasy, with a sharp mathematical mind. this story always stuck with me, and now i read yours."

YouTube comment by sherhak in reply to terransage 10 months ago.

[I know the author means that the colors are inverse, but when I read it I see bendy bodies as if they have been cut out of a filmstrip. I find that more frightening]

Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Vile Ribbons of John Ruskin

"Ribands occur frequently in arabesques,--in some of a high order, too,--tying up flowers, or flitting in and out among the fixed forms. Is there anything like ribands in nature? It might be thought that grass and seaweed afforded apologetic types. They do not. There is a wide difference between their structure and that of a riband. They have a skeleton, an anatomy, a central rib, or fibre, or framework of some kind or another, which has a beginning and an end, a root and head, and whose make and strength affect every direction of their motion, and every line of their form. The loosest weed that drifts and waves under the heaving of the sea, or hangs heavily on the brown and slippery shore, has a marked strength, structure, elasticity, gradation of substance; its extremities are more finely fibred than its centre, its centre than its root: every fork of its ramification is measured and proportioned; every wave of its languid lines is lovely. It has its allotted size, and place, and function; it is a specific creature. What is there like this in a riband? It has no structure: it is a succession of cut threads all alike; it has no skeleton, no make, no form, no size, no will of its own. You cut it and crush it into what you will. It has no strength, no languor. It cannot fall into a single graceful form. It cannot wave, in the true sense, but only flutter: it cannot bend, in the true sense, but only turn and be wrinkled. It is a vile thing; it spoils all that is near its wretched film of an existence. Never use it."

(From: John Ruskin, "The Lamp of Beauty", The Seven Lamps of Architecture, (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1907), 155. (Reprint of the revised English 1880 edition).

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Triangle

js: See, I find this kind of frightening. It reminds me of some things I saw on Sesame Street as a kid that seemed really uncanny and disturbing.

jm: This is amazing. It's frightening because it's flat. I totally see what the fear is of, now.

js: jm is right. I have a terror of flat things, really. I am writing a whole essay on flatness.

lx: I have the opposite fear. Say, for example, suddenly the foetus papiricus (leaf-like foetus) filled with air, blood, nerves, innards, and tooled into dimensions we can understand . . . so, okay, mainly I am fearful of sudden animation. I do not like reliefs.

The Leaf Twin

India's first 'vanishing twin' born in Bengal hospital
Tuesday September 14 2004 18:30 IST

KOLKATA: In a rare occurrence, a young mother here has given birth to what is medically termed as the 'vanishing twin', a freak delivery in which one of the twins appears to be painted on a translucent leaf-like sheath.

The rare medical wonder, not yet reported in India, was witnessed by medicos last Friday when 24-year-old Amita Dutta delivered twin babies - one healthy boy and another 'flat' lifeless form that looked more like a fossilised baby.

After the delivery, Mukherjee and Jayati Bardhan of the North Bank Diagnostic Centre scanned medical literature from across the world to find out that the occurrence, variously described as 'vanishing twin', 'twin embolisation syndrome' or Foetus Papiricus (leaf-like foetus), had not been reported from this part of the world.

The Moon

This face of the Moon, found in the natural configuration of rocks on a shore, is an example of pareidolia - a phenomenon in which one mistakes random visual information for some kind of real object or person. When turned clockwise, the barnacle-covered sea-stone at the bottom edge of the picture becomes the terrifying visage of an Ancient One. His is the most frightening face I can imagine. The face transforms into a monument left by a giant race of Precursors - like the Watchers of Genesis: the Nephilim. I imagine this face on a distant planet or buried beneath Antarctic ice, waiting to be discovered. The full horror of our ancestry will confront us. All those things we perhaps thought we saw at night in the desert are Real.

When I was a child we lived in the desert. My parents had an old 1957 Plymouth Fury with a space behind the back seat--a shelf beneath the slanted rear window on which I would lie as a child, looking up at the starry sky on Moonlit nights. One night we were returning home across the desert. In the vast distant darkness still-darker silhouettes of cacti and looming tree shadows rotated past the windows of our car. The Moon followed our car as it raced across the desert. We drove for over an hour, over hills and around curves; turned to follow other desert roads and always the Moon hovered just over my head outside the back window of the car.

Later in life, in another desert, I noticed the moon in the sky. I drove for hours in the night and found that the moon had its own course and did not follow me at all. This realization foregrounded, suddenly, the strangeness of the Moon's behaviour that night when I was a child. That early Moon, so huge too, much larger than our satellite could ever be.

That childhood Moon, or Watcher and this Ancient Watcher of Stone are of two different species. My memories only clarify for me their very distinctness. I was never afeared of the following Moon, in fact it was a comforting protector, but this stone Moon, with its Void-eye is an annihilating Entity, something that is all-annihilating, that is as old as space itself and as brute and insentient.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Rilke and Morgellons Disease

Whenever I see these images of Morgellons Disease posted on the internet or on YouTube, I am reminded of Rilke's poem...


...I am lying in my bed five flights up, and my day, which nothing interrupts, is like a clock-face without hands. As something that has been lost for a long time reappears one morning in its old place, safe and sound, almost newer than when it vanished, just as if someone had been taking care of it--: so, here and there on my blanket, lost feelings out of my childhood lie and are like new. All the lost fears are here again.

...The fear that a small woolen thread sticking out of the hem of my blanket may be hard, hard and sharp as a steel needle; the fear that this little button on my night-shirt may be bigger than my head, bigger and heavier; the fear that the breadcrumb which just dropped off my bed may turn into glass, and shatter when it hits the floor, and the sickening worry that when it does, everything will be broken, for ever; the fear that the ragged edge of a letter which was torn open may be something forbidden, which no one ought to see, something indescribably precious, for which no place in the room is safe enough; the fear that if I fell asleep I might swallow the piece of coal lying in front of the stove; the fear that some number may begin to grow in my brain until there is no more room for it inside me; the fear that I may be lying on granite, on gray granite; the fear that I may start screaming, and people will come running to my door and finally force it open, the fear that I might betray myself and tell everything I dread, and the fear that I might not be able to say anything, because everything is unsayable,--and the other fears... the fears.

...I prayed to rediscover my childhood, and it has come back, and I feel that it is just as difficult as it used to be, and that growing older has served no purpose at all.

(From: The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell, Introduction by Robert Hass (Vintage; Reissue edition March 13, 1989)

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

The Narwhals of My Childhood

Image of Narwhals from the 1972 Edition of Time-Life’s “World Wildlife Encyclopedia”.

What was it about this image of Narwhals that held me spellbound as a child? I spent long hours looking at this picture trying to understand what I was seeing. Not knowing what Narwhals were exactly, I did not know if they were bound to the sea, or if they could lumpily heave themselves onto the land like walruses and seals. I couldn't imagine how they turned their rubbery bodies around on such a shore while holding their tusks aloft like clock-hands. I did not know that they were dead.

It was nevertheless, to me, a sad picture, full of longing and isolation and tragedy. These fish mammals did not seem to be for each other, or adapted to the rocky shore, or ready to return to that empty sea. The cold blues and distant continent put this scene at the bottom of a world. How long had they been there? What were they waiting for? Were they mythological?

I think though, that I must have had an inkling of their deadness, else why the tragedy I saw in every inch of this scene? But it's hard to tell when you don't know what a thing is supposed to do, if they are doing it or not.

Flatness and Metaphysical Liminality in Frances Griffiths’s “Elsie Wright and a Gnome/Fairy”

Frances Griffiths’s “Elsie Wright and a Gnome/Fairy” (26 August 1920) Gelatin silver print, copy print made before 1925.

Darwinism and Uncanny Movement Two : Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later...” (2002)

Film Still from Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later...” (2002)

Darwinism and Uncanny Movement One : William Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)

Still from William Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill” (1959).

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

The Angel Gabriel and The Virgin Annunciate

JJan van Eyck The Angel Gabriel and The Virgin Annunciate, oil on panel diptych, (1435/1437) Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

The Medium Eva C., Naked, with a “Complete Ghost”

Another image that unnerves is the French photographer Juliette Alexandre-Bisson's The medium Eva C., naked, with a “complete ghost” (1913) Gelatin silver print. Analysis to follow...

A Sheep Caught in the Brambles

Another painting I find frightening is A Sheep Caught in the Brambles by Rosa Bonheur, undated. Something about the head and forelegs...I will think about it.

A few days later... I happened to be reading Rilke and I found this passage:

"The woman sat up, frightened, she pulled out of herself, too quickly, too violently, so that her face was left in her two hands. I could see it lying there: its hollow form. It cost me an indescribable effort to stay with those two hands, not to look at what had been torn out of them. I shuddered to see a face from the inside, but I was much more afraid of that bare flayed head waiting there, faceless." (From The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York, 1983)

Something about this sheep is faceless. Clearly it has a face, eyes, nostrils, mouth that might even be making alarm noises. But it is also, already, something skinned alive, it's too smooth, the eye is not in it. The mouth is like the mouth of a ceramic vessel, the wool like talus at the base of a granite outcropping. Some part has been left off, or left out. It is a face unsheathed.

Balzac thought that in the process of taking a photograph, some outer layer or film was removed from the Being of the sitter and taken by the image -- a primitive fear. But something of this primitive fear attends here, in this thing stripped of its Being, but stripped of a Being which is not like an essence. It feels meat-like. Something material is lacking.

The front legs are horrifying. They are brittle and hollow like sticks, chalks, osteoporosic and insect-like. They could snap off at any moment leaving that bald blind head braying and immotile at the base of the brambles.

Yet at the same time there is something mawkishly sweet about the image that makes it nursery-like. At other moments a joyous ecstasy appears in that face as it turns heliotropically towards the light.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

The Uncanny Carrots of Willem van Mieris

Lately, my mind keeps returning to a painting entitled La Cuisinière by Willem Van Mieris – Leyde (Leiden), 1715. (Here I have only posted a detail).

Certainly it is far from the most astonishing work in the Louvre. In fact, the second time I returned to see it I almost didn’t find it again – it was so small and ordinary in its crowded room not so far from Rubens’s Marie de Médicis Cycle. There are, to me, tragedies in its display, especially that it is under glass, and under spotty glass at that, so that the surface and texture of the oil paint, as well as its application, are all bits of an unsolved mystery.

Willem van Mieris and his brother Jan van Mieris were the sons of Frans van Mieris, Sr. – all were painters in the 17th century; Willem into the 18th. Jan, despite being only two years older than Willem died in 1690 at the age of 30. He had apparently been sickly the whole of his life.

25 years after the death of his older brother, Willem painted La Cuisinière. When phrased that way it sounds sufficiently causal but I mean that only slightly.

I keep trying to come to terms with what I find so terrifying about the carrots and turnips and the head of lettuce/cabbage in the painting. I have posted the best picture I could take but even this image cannot convey the tinyness and sharpness of detail that attends these vegetables. In front of the painting you can see every single stitch in the blanket on which the carrots lay, all the wiry and wayward hair-roots waving out from the bodies of the tubers – they are sharp and crisp but seem animated in the way that one sees in a microscope sometimes when a fiber is taking on moisture and uncoiling. And every tag and indention of the tuber-skin seems embedded with soil. Glistening and entwined like snakes mating in a pit, but also fleshy like the thighs of women, some splayed, some crossing – the whole play of seduction and repulsion and spentness informs these carrots.

But what is horrifying are not these sexual or bodily readings-in but just the sheer animation of these carrots. It would be less frightening if I could attribute something like sexual desire to them, because that is a category of human understanding. But what could plant-desire even be like?

I remember reading something in Schopenhauer about plant locomotion – that a plant’s proto-will could be identified in its movement towards water. Darwin’s last work was on The Power of Movement in Plants. Popular culture gives us atrocities like Little Shop of Horrors or Roald Dahl’s fantasies of plants that scream when cut or plucked. People play music for their plants and talk to them, reporting that their plants respond favorably. But in attributing willing and mating, singing and screaming and responding to music or speaking we make plants into us – attaching culture to the most primitive forms of reproduction and response and motion. Like 18th century Montpellier physicians with their electrodes and sentimental hunks of flesh.

What is frightening about the vegetables of Willem van Mieris is that he gives us carrots and cabbages suggestive enough to read into, but then somehow manages to take it all away, leaving the viewer with the wholly-unknowable otherness of plants as types of things that cannot be thought into. The inclusion of erotic or sensual forms – of wounds and hairs and thighs – only highlights the uncanny emptiness of these projections of our consciousness into and onto things in the world, and the cold impenetrability of matter.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Jérôme Lalande: Eater of Live Spiders

I was reading Roland Barthes's "Sade Fourier Loyola" wherein he wrote:

"...society cannot rest until it has guaranteed (how? Fourier has clearly explained it, but it must be admitted that it hasn't worked) the exercise of my manias, whether "bizarre" or "minor," like those people who like old chickens, the eater of horrid things (like the astronomer Lalande, who liked to eat live spiders), the fanatics about butter, pears, bergamots, Ankles, or "Baby Dolls".

Later I began to think about this statement. How is it that one of the things that history remembers about Lalande is his penchant for eating live spiders? Did he perform this feat for colleagues or at astronomical functions? Or was it something he recorded in a diary filled with shameful secrets in an era only just discovering something like “privacy”? And why did he like to eat them? Did he like to eat the small spiders that one sometimes sees scurrying across the pages of a book or the top of a desk – just as an alternative to smashing them or catching them and releasing them elsewhere? Or did he actually prepare them – large meaty spiders fried or with spices like one sometimes finds in markets in other countries besides France? Did people admire his courage or where they merely repulsed by a fetish they could not understand. Did he resort to eating them only as an old man during the Terror when a spider was the least of one’s troubles? So much is left out of this record.

Lalande had been a friend of the astronomer the Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille (their years are 1732-1807 and 1713-1762 respectively). In the course of his lifetime the older Lacaille managed to catalogue some 10,000 southern stars as well as 42 nebulous objects. Among these nebulous objects was the Tarantula Nebula which Lacaille reclassified from a star in 1751. Lalande would have been 19 years old at the time.

If you have ever looked at a distant nebula through a simple telescope it appears as a faint and wispy luminosity ever trying to flee your sight and to re-submerge into the darkening cinders of space.

I imagine that there was a play of desire in Lalande’s joyful ingestion of spiders. Spiders weren’t ever-distant and ephemeral weightless glimmers visible only though the awkwardness of correctly aligned lenses, but in a way they were as fleeting and spindly and unknowable
as nebulae. In catching and ingesting such a thing Lalande could imagine that the distance between the visible and the material could be bridged in an instant, laid claim too, and incorporated into one’s own being. And maybe at the age of 19 this dream was born in the metonymy of “Tarantula”.

Raymond Roussel as a Child

There are so many images from the nineteenth century, of children posed with various taxidermy and plaster animals. Their childhoods aligned with an artifice of nature--the beginnings of Disney. Nature was something a boy or girl could hold to, safe enough to sit on in a white frock while gazing vacantly out into space. This, some forty years after the invention of photography.

Roussel grew up to create his own artificial worlds, writing for instance a whole book on Africa, to which he'd never been, while never leaving the residential hotel room in which he was living at the time.

One wonders if his poetical invention, "resurrectine" was not some latent reaction to a childhood desire to encounter something like life in the empty circumstances of this photograph.