Sunday, 28 June 2020

Shōmei Tōmatsu (1930-2012)

Nagoya Smoking Prostitute (1958)

Bottle Melted and Deformed by Atomic Bomb Heat, Radiation, and Fire, Nagasaki, 1961

Untitled, from the series Screen (1969)

Atomic Bomb Damage: Wristwatch Stopped at 11:02, August 9, 1945, Nagasaki, 1961

Untitled, from the series Eros, Tokyo (1969)

Paris, Texas (1984)

The 1984 Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas is truly spectacular. It is exquisitely aesthetic/artistic/experimental yet highly relatable and accessible, slow and subtle yet suspenseful, unreal, sentimental and dramatic yet entirely vernacular and everyday. Completely beautiful.

The exploration of language is fascinating - particularly the need to eradicate language, communication and exchange when one cannot face themselves and what they've done, as a way to escape and continue to survive with the shame of one's actions: refuting and unlearning linguistic faculties as a mode of purification and purification as a survival tactic.

Daidō Moriyama (1938-)

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley

It has been a long time since I read a book as exceptional as Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley. 

The novel is so well-observed, following the lives of four friends—two married couples—throughout several decades. The characters are not defined by obvious tropes but are complex, multivalent, and with competing and conflicting motivations that drive their actions. Hadley brilliantly defines characters by what they do and what they choose not to do as well as how they choose to define themselves in contrast or opposition to their friends/spouses or their idea of them.

The book tackles issues around defining oneself through either theory and making vs. teaching and curating. These dichotomies are played out in different ways and are used by the characters to self-define: high/low brow, active/passive, brave artist/complacent, fiction/non-fiction, likeable/standoffish, charismatic/brooding. 

It also fleshes out issues around nostalgia and the way things were, modern vs. postmodern, action vs. reaction, creation vs. critique. The following passage beautifully articulates certain conundrums around writing today and how a writer is to follow 20th century literature, and the struggle to be original, pertinent, even revolutionary. 

Perhaps this is my own projective reading, but I wondered if the novel plays homage to a favourite book of mine, Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which also centres around four characters and their intertwined lives/interactions. In Late in the Day, Alex, one of the protagonists, moved to the UK as a boy leaving their home in Czechoslovakia. Alex's father is a successful writer, and presents for Alex an antagonistic figure in relation to his own (and subsequent abandonment of) writing. To complicate the relationship further, Alex's father, called Tomas, is a chronic adulterer, just like Kundera's Tomas, and eventually like Alex himself. Alex abandons his writing to become a primary school teacher, and is felt by himself and his friends to have chosen a career beneath his potential. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas loses his ability to continue his medial practice as a surgeon and takes work as a window cleaner. 

Simply 10/10 from me. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Chroma, John Divola

Recent interview of John Divola with David Campany in conjunction with the recent publication of JOHN DIVOLA: CHROMA. Photographs from the 1980s.

John Divola: "around 1980 I started a body of work about things you can’t photograph: Gravity, Magnetism, which way water drains, and the things I see when I press my eyes with the palms of my hands. All of these images required the construction of some kind of visual metaphor. One diptych was about temperature. There were two images, one with a fan blowing over a block of ice, which should be cool, and another with an electric heater with a block of ice, which would be neutral. So, for those images I decided to use colored gels. The fan and ice used a blue gel to represent cool while the electric heater and ice was magenta (which is red and blue) since it was both warm and cold."

JD: "Also, I was interested in the anthropomorphic impulse to read into the faces of animals and people. And finally, I have always been interested in the manner in which photographs operate in relation to abstraction and specificity. When you photograph a goat, especially if it is colored red, it is an emblem of ‘goatness’ – whatever you want that to be, evil, pastoral, a logo for cheese. However, photographs have a countervailing inertia in relation to the abstract since they are equally specific."

Citizens of Everywhere: Shami Chakrabarti, Tom McCarthy, Eloise Todd and Lauren Elkin

Yesterday I listened to a recording of a discussion hosted by the London Review of Books back in 2017 in the aftermath of Brexit called Citizens of Everywhere: Shami Chakrabarti, Tom McCarthy, Eloise Todd and Lauren Elkin, using the University of Liverpool project, Citizens of Everywhere as a springboard for discussion.

The title gets its name from a speech by Theresa May in which she said: “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

In the LRB discussion, I was particularly intrigued by Tom McCarthy's link to Aeschylus’s Oresteia which he has articulated in an article in the Guardian called Does Theresa May really know what citizenship means?

While the talk and article are 3 years old and centred around the immediate responses to Brexit, I found them to be still of considerable value. McCarthy discusses the Oresteia as reflecting he choice of democracy over tyranny and learning to listen to the dialogues of those we disagree with: Athena defers the opportunity of making a unilateral decision by calling upon the 12 wisest citizens to debate the issue at hand and reach a consensus. The point ultimately is that democracy is a structure that allows debate and enables voices and disagreement and that it has the capacity to endure and contain disagreement in the form of dialogue.

The presence of such a structure that exists within a polis (city), is what allows difference to co-exist. To advocate for democracy then is to consent to and approve of a nation that encourages the presence of difference and different views expressed through dialogue. For it is the bearability of disagreement and the survival despite it that enables the existence and maintenance of a democratic nation.

McCarthy writes: "one is a citizen not simply because of an internal relation to one’s community, although that’s part of the picture, but because of a relation to a complex, often troubled outside; through the acceptance of the outsider into your place and yourself into theirs... It turns out that May is not just wrong; she’s exactly wrong. If you’re not a citizen of the world you’re not a citizen of anywhere. You’re not even a citizen; you’re just a subject."

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

LRB Screen at Home: Kevin Barry on ‘Tim Robinson: Connemara’

Was great to reconnect with literary events again this evening listening to Kevin Barry discuss his work and writing process as well as Pat Collins's film ‘Tim Robinson: Connemara’ on Robinson's journey as a writer and cartographer mapping out Connemara.

(Film still)

Some notes from the talk:

- Happy/sad fields - a concept by philosopher John Moriarty
- How a place exudes a feeling that effects us
- How our surroundings and sounds places effect our moods and temperament and how our characters are formed by our landscape
- Isolation and remoteness and what we discover when we go out on our own
- How coronavirus has made us observe our surroundings
- Focus as making us more aware of place and the subtleties of our locations - paying attention to things we didn't previously
- When you think about place you have to think about time. The patience involved in certain projects that carefully attend to place
- Writing a novel over the course of a few years makes it very challenging to achieve a coherent voice as over that time, the author is changing consistently

Monday, 8 June 2020

Zadie Smith, Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction

I have been thinking lately about this later stage of dealing with and managing the social implications of coronavirus and isolation. I firmly believe that as individuals we grow and thrive most through our contact with the world, through exchange and communication with and experiences of the other, somehow discovering who and how we are most lucidly through these external encounters.

In this video interview, Sally Rooney explains how she first conceived of her protagonists in Normal People, Marianne and Connell, as a dynamic. Starting from the dynamic of their relationship, she could delve deeper into their individual experiences to make sense of why they behaved, responded and thought the way they did with each other.

In her essay, "Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction", Zadie Smith delineates her process of developing characters, having wondered since childhood what it would be like to be someone else, to live in their house, their era, or have their parents. She writes: "I’ve always been aware of being an inconsistent personality. Of having a lot of contradictory voices knocking around my head... The voices of characters joined the ranks of all the other voices inside me, serving to make the idea of my “own voice” indistinct. Or maybe it’s better to say: I’ve never believed myself to have a voice entirely separate from the many voices I hear, read, and internalize every day."

Smith proposes that this phenomenon is what distinguishes the schizophrenic or psychotic from the novelist. I like this idea very much, particularly if I am to think about myself as the author of my own life and how isolation as a result of Covid-19 results in less rich characters - in other words a version of myself I feel to be less complex, less multiple and a little lacklustre. It has led me to feel very strongly that we need contact with others to grow ourselves and by extension to like ourselves and find our own company interesting and stimulating. Without this sustained contact, we have are made up of less dimensions, and we don't benefit (as much) from our relationality to the world (though the internet helps a little).

Quoting Walt Whitman, "I am large, I contain multitudes", Zadie Smith argues that the word contain "share[s] some lexical territory with other troubling discourses", such as colonialism and prison ideology. This is particularly potent at this time not only as we live with coronavirus, but because we are also living at the pivotal moment of the Black Lives Matter movement with global protests following the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman in Minneapolis.

In this way, I wonder if seeing ourselves as the novelist or author of our own lives may act as a tool for empowerment to be multiple and relational as well as to grow as an individual as we consider how we need to change as citizens of the world. I propose acknowledging this colonial connotation to containment, and then implicating ourselves in it. A key role of the novelist is to put yourself in another's shoes, to try to describe the experience of their lives from their perspectives. This is useful for allies at this time not so we can claim we understand what it is like to bear the burden of systemic racism, but to stand alongside friends, neighbours, and colleagues, to appreciate their lives and experiences, to respect them and demand respect and justice for them.

We might think that relationality or interpersonal dynamics primarily help us to determine what/who we are and conversely, what/who we are not. Instead, I wish to argue that engaging with others and with the world makes us not more us, but rather, more in general - more aware, more empathetic, more interesting, more free.

Smith's thesis comes together when she introduces the role of presumption, claiming that "when I depicted the lives of a diverse collection of people in my first novel, that I was 'correct.'" She goes on: "But I was fascinated to presume that some of the feelings of these imaginary people—feelings of loss of homeland, the anxiety of assimilation, battles with faith and its opposite—had some passing relation to feelings I have had or could imagine." The point of this for Smith is that when imagining and thus when reading and writing, we realise there is much that is shared: what she calls "flimsy emotions", that is, human emotions like happiness, sadness, grief, fear, loss, confusion, etc.

As such, our contact with the world, our exchange with it and with those who inhabit it, as we enact our roles as both speaker and listener, render our lives richer, more interesting, more filled with love, and ultimately multiple.

To conclude, Zadie Smith:

"The accuracy of this fictionalization is never guaranteed, but without an ability to at least guess at what the other might be thinking, we could have no social lives at all. One of the things fiction did is make this process explicit—visible. All storytelling is the invitation to enter a parallel space, a hypothetical arena, in which you have imagined access to whatever is not you. And if fiction had a belief about itself, it was that fiction had empathy in its DNA, that it was the product of compassion."