Sunday, March 18, 2012

Liquid Courage

A camera is fixed on the beach, pointing out to sea where a small fleet of cargo ships sits at anchor in the middle distance. From the left-hand side of the frame, a man enters dressed in dark clothes. He iscarrying a red plastic bucket. Barefoot, he wades into the shallow, lapping surf, fills his bucket and walks back out of the picture-plane. So low is the camera's line of sight that we cannot see his head as he makes this exit. The screen then cuts to black, where we see the title of the work, Watercolor, reading in white text; a moment later, we see a textual blurb glossing the conceit unfolding before us. That is, the Belgian-born conceptual artist Francis Alÿs is creating his "watercolor" by mixing waters from the Black Sea gathered at Trabzon in Turkey with those of the Red Sea. And so, in the next shot, we seem to see the same male figure in his dark clothes, red bucket now entering the picture plane from the right and tossing his liquid load into what is identified as the Red Sea at Aqaba, Jordan. 

Alÿs's video is little more than minute long. The conceit, though, is that time and distance have been so compressed into filmic space that the water lifted from the Black Sea at the beginning is deposited into the Red Sea seconds later. The journey across Turkey, Syria and the length of Jordan—a route that Google maps refuses to compute, at least by my reckoning—is thus completely elided. Now, whatever playful, political or other point Alÿs may be pursuing in this video, his elision of that central, liquidy transit is precisely that which art historian Jennifer Roberts has sought to restore to attention in her celebrated, recent studies of colonial American painters like John Singleton Copley. Without rehearsing Robert's now well-known readings, I wonder how her account of eighteenth century watery space stands in relation to period texts, which often place the ocean in the register of the sublime. More to the point, if Alÿs's video (vaguely) gestures to possibilities for rethinking the massively under-theorized medium of watercolor, how might we understand the affect of the medial space of the ocean, which Roberts's work has so compellingly forward?

In his 1986 volume, The English Atlantic 1675-1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community, historian Ian K. Steele published the diagram at left. It is a bewitching image. Where conventional maps typically flatten the earth's watery expanses into a demure, monochrome blue, Steele's figure prints the human-inhabited continental landmasses in uniform grey (rendered splotchy here, alas, by my crappy scanner). Reading white on the bare page, Steele's oceans become vortices of drifts, streams, and currents within now-nameable aquatic places. Cued by the legend in the figure's lower right corner, those swirling curls of line also become legible as notations of currents' direction and temperature. British imperial interests of the long eighteenth century had to learn the vicissitudes of the terrifyingly-violent oceanic force if it was to be their collaborator.

But, Steele stresses, once we recognize that fact—once we see the ocean as a (quasi-)known domain to be sailed through, rather than a blue non-space to be flown over, we can appreciate the skill and scale of period navigational accomplishments. Steele makes this point with a brilliant anecdote: "In 1745 ... Cooper Thornhill of Stilton, Huntingdonshire, wagered that he could ride a 213-mile course to London and back in 15 hours. After he accomplished the trip in less than 12.5 hours, a contemporary recorded the following in amazement: 'This is deservedly reckon'd the greatest performance of its kind ever known. Several thousand Pounds were laid on this affair; and the roads for many miles lined with people to see him pass and repass.' This breakneck pace, which must have exhausted a number of horses as well as innkeeper Thornhill, was run at an average speed of 17.3 mph. ... Unless we can share their surprise, we cannot appreciate the communications of the period that preceded that ride." (Steele, 5-6)

In our readings for this week, we're asked to consider various ways in which watery spaces, oceans, were imagined in the eighteenth century—or how early modern watery space has since been imagined in film. And one of the obvious points of introduction to this conversation is the eighteenth century discourse of the sublime.
For Edmund Burke, a view out over a liquid expanse of the ocean is well capable of generating sublime ideas: "A level plain of a vast extent on land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean; but can it ever fill the mind with any thing so great  as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes, but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror." (Burke, 97) 

Contrary to the oceanic pathways and currents of Steele's map, the terror and sublimity of the ocean for Burke depend on their resistance to intelligibility—on its incapacity to be wholly grasped. “It is our ignorance of things," so Burke puts it, "that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions.” (Burke, 105; see also, 106; 118) That which is merely useful or merely knowable (see 108) completely eliminates the effect of the sublime. (Burke, 113, esp. 114) Water thus factors into Burke’s thinking on the sublime in interesting ways. Beyond the prospect of its oceanic immensity, water when falling can generate a kind of overwhelming mental seriation: "After a long succession of noises, as the fall of waters, or the beating of forge hammers, the hammers beat and the waters roar in the imagination long after the first sounds have ceased to affect it." (Burke, 130) This aural "after-image," as it were, induces a contemplation of sublime infinitude. Further, hearing the sounds of these massive falling waters is so overwhelming an experience that the subject's sense are almost compelled by a kind of sympathetic resonance to join into the rhythm. (Burke, 151)

For Kant in the Critique of Judgment, however, it is entirely wrong to describe specific natural objects like the vast ocean heaving in storms as sublime. This is because the impression of that scene is merely horrible. But, the sublime is not in those sensations; instead, the effect of the sublime is a reflective judgment in the mind. (Kant, 99) So, the feeling of the sublime is initially unpleasant as the imagination struggles to present sensation to reason; but it becomes pleasurable as the reason generates a feeling of purposiveness out of conflict. (Kant, 116) The pleasure of the sublime lies not in nature or sensory presentations but in the subject’s recognition of power within himself, in the unlimited ability of reason. Kant makes this point by again evoking the sight of the seas thrown up in terrible storms: 

"Though the irresistibility of nature's might makes us ... recognize our impotence, it reveals in us at the same time an ability to judge ourselves independent of nature, and reveals in us a superiority over nature that is the basis of a self-preservation quite difference in kind from the one that can be assailed and endangered by nature outside us. ... Hence nature is here called sublime merely because it elevates our imagination, making it exhibit those cases where the mind can feel its own sublimity, which lies in its vocation and elevates it even above nature." (Kant, 121)

So, in the blast of mist thrown up by the ocean's storm, it is as if the subject is able to perceive not the power of nature, but of her own reason. There is very interesting room for comparison between the quasi-narcissistic image of the subject’s own powers grasped in the ocean storm and that (deadening) self-image perceived by Narcissus in Poussin’s Birth of Bacchus discussed here. However, the key point is that, rather than overwhelming and stupefying human intellectual capacities qua Burke, the sublime in Kant’s sense is pleasing as a glorification of intellection. While certainly, Kant allows, there are those rustic peasants who have no capacity for the reflective pleasure of the sublime at all (Kant, 124), contemplation of sublime and beautiful effects can serve as a propaeudeutic to higher realms of philosophy. He puts it this way: "The beautiful prepares us for loving something, even nature, without interest; the sublime, for esteeming it even against our interest (of sense)." (Kant, 127)

Some sense of this bleeding between natural and human power—maybe even of the beautiful and the sublime—is materialized in Kenneth Anger's Eaux D'Artifice (1953). Set in a sixteenth century space (that of the gardens of the Villa D'Este at Tivoli), the protagonist in Anger's film appears to be dressed in the high fashion of the 1780s-90s with elaborate ostrich feathers in her hair, which merge into the jetting plume of water in the films opening and closing sequences. So, with our human's animality clearly foregrounded, we see this character running through the gardens, her movements sometimes following the gravitational descent of the water as it trickles down through the garden's elaborately constructed eddies. Indeed, as is nicely captured in the frozen still above—where we see the parabolic arch of upward-projected water splintering at left into falling, liquid fragments—the film highlights tensions between natural directions of flow and the implicit artificial contrivances needed to control and to propel water. 

Thus, we might conclude, rather than docilely commanding nature like the cargo ships at anchor in Alÿs' film or upwelling within us in the face of nature's fury per the Kantian sublime, human power is dramatized in Anger's film as a fraught project. Beset from within by our own animal characteristics, human power requires a collaboration with nature that can be both beautiful but terrifying in its own right when—like the pulsing, jetting fountains—it seems to take on a life of its own.

No comments:

Post a Comment