Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Wish Image in Moominvalley

Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll is prefaced with the falling of snow. Moomintroll, a child, watches the valley that is his world nestle beneath its winter blanket. ‘Tonight’ he thinks, ‘we shall settle down for our long winter’s sleep.’
‘Outside the snow fell, thick and soft. It already covered the steps and hung heavily from the roofs and eaves. Soon Moominhouse would be nothing but a big, round snowball. The clocks stopped ticking one by one. Winter had come.’ For now, winter is a prelude to awakening. Chapter One begins with the coming of spring, and the arrival of the first cuckoo in the valley, perching briefly on the roof of Moominhouse at four o’clock in the morning. ‘Moomintroll woke up and lay a long time looking at the ceiling before he realized where he was. He had slept a hundred nights and a hundred days, and his dreams still thronged about his head trying to coax him back to sleep.’ If I am to privilege a single work for attention here, or for the sake of convenience isolate one as definitive, it would be Finn Family Moomintroll. If anything, it establishes the normative routines, patterns and structures for Jansson’s world against which other stories might deviate.
There are nine Moomin books, all published originally in Swedish between 1945 and 1970. English translations appeared relative quickly. Finn Family Moomintroll, published originally in 1948, was the first to be translated into English in 1950, with its predecessor Comet in Moominland following soon after. The first book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was not translated until 2005 and then only as a limited edition. As well as these books, Tove Jansson produced a comic strip for the London Evening News published in the 1950s, and carried on by her brother Lars until the 70s. She also wrote and drew four Moomin picture books for children.
The characters and stories have subsequently been adapted for a number of animation projects – notably the Polish made series from the late 70s/early 80s, which in its English version was my own first encounter with the stories. This series retains a great deal from the books, adding its own considerable charm and resonance through the use of almost flat stop-motion characters and haunting theme tune. It was an adaptation that Jansson was reportedly close to, and pleased with. The stories have in recent years become immensely popular in Japan, a transition that has perhaps retained less of Jansson’s original work. Yet the rights and creative control of the Moomins as a franchise are retained by Jansson’s neice, Sophia, whose father Lars had worked on the comic strips for over a decade. In Finland, while there is a rather Disney-like Moominworld theme park, it is also possible to visit the more authentic Moomin Valley Museum, with its collection of Janssons drawings, models and tableux and a sense of entertainment that is more in line with the stories themselves.
And this is the quality that I would like to address here, which for now means returning to Moomintroll’s act of awakening, coaxed back towards sleep by one hundred nights’ worth of dreams. Just as he settles back into slumber, he sees that the bed next to his is empty. This had been occupied by his best friend Snufkin, who had already climbed out through a window and down a rope ladder. By tracking footprints in the wet soil, and following the music of a mouth organ, Moomintroll finds Snufkin sitting by a river. The river, we learn, has been the site of many adventures, through which they have befriended others into the extended family that congregates in and around the Moominhouse. Snufkin and Moomintroll are not related. They are not even of the same species. Yet Snufkin, like the others they befriend, is welcomed by Moominmamma and Moominpappa into their house, by means of, we are told, ‘just adding another bed and putting another leaf in the dining room table.’ This is further described. ‘And so Moominhouse was rather full – a place where everyone did what they liked and seldom worried about tomorrow. Very often unexpected and disturbing things used to happen, but nobody ever had time to be bored, and that is always a good thing.’
Around this house, and the form of open-family within, is a loosely suggested form of kinship, of cooperation and freedom which in the importance of responsibility to self contains an ethical commitment to the other. It is possible to draw parallels between life in Moominhouse, and the fictionalised account of Jansson’s own lifestyle given in her short novel Fair Play. But while this is a novel with protagonists that have less days ahead of them than behind, and are preoccupied with a sense of time running out, the Moomin books are rendered, generally, from the perspective of youth and childhood.
The narrative of the books is episodic in form, but these episodes constitute a diegetic and thematic whole. Finn Family Moomintrool is structured around the discovery of a hat by Moomintroll, Snufkin and their friend Sniff. It turns out that anything placed inside is magically transformed, randomly it seems, into something else: when used as a waste-paper bin, discarded eggshells are thrown into the hat, only to re-emerge as clouds upon which Moomintroll and his friend can ride. Afterwards Moomintroll, using the interior of the hat in a game of hide and seek, is temporarily transformed, all his fat parts having become thin, everything small grown big. When the hat is thrown into the river, it changes the water to raspberry juice.
The hat is in fact the property of the mysterious but ultimately misunderstood Hobgoblin, who is considered sinister, powerful and dangerous. Yet the narrative concludes with the arrival of the Hobgoblin during a party attended by all of Moominvalley’s residents. He comes not for his hat, but in search of a giant ruby he has sought for three hundred years. The ruby has come into the possession of Thingumy and Bob, two residents of the Moominhouse. The Hobgoblin refuses to take the ruby by force, and Thingumy and Bob refuse to exchange it, as it is as precious to them as it is to the Hobgoblin. To cheer himself up in what looks like an unresolvable situation, the Hobgoblin decides to perform some magic in the form of granting wishes. When it comes to Thingumy and Bob’s turn, they wish for a ruby as beautiful as the one in their possession, a gift for the Hobgoblin. Yearning, wishing and hope, are met and completed in a spirit of mutual generosity. It is the happiest of endings, but one that is still coloured by a seasonal transition to autumn, the knowledge that once again the snow will fall.
I want to think about these books for children in relation to utopia, as a form of utopian fiction. Doing this requires thinking about a recent edited collection that situates itself as the significant work in the field right now. – it is called Utopian and dystopian writing for Children and Young Adults, edited by Carrie Hintz and Elaine Ostry, published by Routledge in 2003. In the foreword, Jack Zipes – who has written extensively on fairy stories - suggests that while it would be misleading to argue that all writing for young people is utopian, there is, he says, ‘a utopian tendency present in stories for children.
He says this stems from a general sense of lack in one’s life, and a yearning for a better world. Of course, this as an idea that comes from Ernst Bloch. And Zipes, who is a Bloch scholar, evokes Bloch’s understanding of utopia here: ‘The utopian tendency of art is what propels us to reshape and reform our personal and social lives.
This paraphrasing of Bloch by Zipes sums up what I consider the relationship between art and utopia to be – it is a reshaping of things, an attempt to reshape them.
And Zipes brings up another side of utopia – that specifically described as dystopian, as of a bad place. He says that ‘As we all know, there is a real and strong “dystopian” tendency in our consumer society to make “better” consumers out of our children.”
So the role of utopian and dystopian fiction here is to allow children to question their social conditions and to be allowed to hope for more.
More generally, the editors of this book – Hintz and Ostry - link children’s literature with ideas of utopia. They put forward an ur-form, an origin of modern children’s literature. This is Sarah Fielding’s The Governess or, Little Female Academy from 1749. With this, “children’s literature” they say “begins with a utopian vision of an all-girls’ school that teaches ideal social organization. The history of children’s and young adult literature is entwined with that of utopian writing from that moment on.” What happens in utopian writing for young readers, they say, is that these readers must grapple with ideas of social organization.
They say that “utopian works propose to teach the young reader about governance, the possibility of improving society, the role of the individual and the limits of freedom.”
“These writings may be a young person’s first encounter with texts that systematically explore collective social organisation” They also consider the role of children as a utopian projection, as romantic myth of freedom from adult conformity, and seek to address the ways in which utopian writing might intervene in children’s development. And while on the one hand, they include a definition of utopia from Fredric Jameson as ‘a space of self conscious reflection’ , Hintz and Ostry go on emphasise fiction that is concerned with developing social setting to form utopia as genre. “An awareness of social organization” they argue “is necessary for a work to be called utopian.”
Therefore, the Moomin books are, in terms of predominant definitions, not eligible to be included in the category of utopian fiction for children. Specifically, the guidelines set by Hintz and Ostry are not sympathetic to Jansson’s world. These guideline emphasise works that develop their social settings in relation to an awareness of genre characteristics. The books are, not surprisingly, not included in Hintz and Ostry’s long bibliography of utopian works for children.
So, an awareness of social organisation is necessary for a work to be called utopian. But how far might it be possible to stretch the interpretation of this idea? My interest here is on a different aspect of utopia in fiction; it is in utopian impulse and sentiments rather than genre definitions. However, I would also like to suggest an expanded understanding of utopian form, that takes impulse more into account and might consider a looser sense of social organisation, particularly when the looseness of that social organisation is, I would argue, part of the book’s utopian quality. The books certainly incorporate a general projection of children as utopian, free from the conformity of adults, allowed to be imaginative, critical. There is also the sense of these books reflecting on and potentially intervening in the development of children, encouraging a critical eye in the young reader, perhaps sensitising them to action.
But does this reveal the social foundations of our own world, or the cracks that form in them? No. There is nothing so direct in Jansson’s books. Yet, on the issue of the limits of freedom, there does seem to be a quiet engagement. Similarly, the books consider ethics, responsibility, issues relating to property, ownership and communal forms of coexistence as much as they do emotional growth and the complexities of friendship. And on the issue of utopian and dystopian fiction as a productive place to address cultural anxieties, threats and to contemplate the ideal, Moominvalley functions, to greater and lesser degrees, to do just this. But here the social order is more familial. Neighbourly rather than legible as a structured form of governance.
But rather than suggest that these books should be included in a bibliography like the one compiled by Hintz and Ostry, I would rather emphasise the point that work that is excluded might well have produced some subtle and resonant variations on utopian fiction. This is best defined as a shift in attention from programme to impulse.
Utopian impulse is the subject of Ernst Bloch’s work The Principle of Hope. As Douglas Kelner suggests, ‘Bloch provides a method for discerning and criticizing ideological content in theories, philosophies, and cultural artifacts whose ideological nature and effects are often overlooked.’
‘Bloch's practice of ideological criticism discerns emancipatory utopian dimensions even in ideological products, ferreting out those aspects that might be useful for radical theory and practice. Bloch therefore provides exciting methods of cultural criticism, a new approach to cultural history, and novel perspectives on culture and ideology.’
And hope is important here. ‘For Bloch, hope permeates everyday consciousness and its articulation in cultural forms, ranging from the fairy tale to the great philosophical and political utopias. For Bloch, individuals are unfinished, they are animated by "dreams of a better life," and by utopian longings for fulfillment. The "something better" for which people yearn is precisely the subject-matter of Bloch's massive The Principle of Hope, which provides a systematic examination of the ways that daydreams, fairy tales and myths, popular culture, literature,’ and all forms of art contain emanicipatory moments. They project visions of a better life. This projection is enough, as it puts into question the organisation and structure of the social context in which it is made.
This impulse can also be found in philosophy, religion and also forms of social and political utopias – these utopian programmes contain within them utopian impulse.
And while much critical theory, particularly Marxist critique, will often dismiss both stories and utopian plans as nothing more than ideology, serving the needs of the ruling system, Bloch’s reading allows for the presence of something else, of a profound form of questioning, desire and emancipation.
So, utopian desire could be interpreted as a fundamental impulse. Rather than lapse into the everyday misuse of the word as a fantasized and unattainable ‘good place’, it is possible to l return the origins of the term utopia as ‘no place’.
Bloch, argues that utopia, or rather utopian impulse, exists in every future-orientated thought and action. For Bloch, utopia can be found in the overstepping of boundaries, in acts of hope and a desire for change, and is potentially inherent in any creative act.
Utopian impulse is certainly present in the comforting world of Moominvalley, there is yearning, hope, dreaming, wishing, longing, adventure, moments of fear, but ultimately protagonist and reader are comforted. In part, this is reinforced by a sense of distance, of nostalgia, an alterity that is perhaps temporal, perhaps evoking an imaginary past. So perhaps it is possible to think of Moominvalley as imbued with a loosely suggested sense of historical distance. More significantly, this is a world in miniature. And it is with temporal alterity, and the idea of a world in miniature in mind that I would like to start to consider Moominvalley in propinquity with Walter Benjamin.
Childhood was always near the surface of Benjamin’s thought. This can be detected in his explorations into the depths of his own childhood, retold as object lessons in hermeneutics, as well as in his fascination with children’s books, revealed in his essay Unpacking My Library and elsewhere. But it is his Arcades Project that I want to draw attention to here: an unfinished collection of fragments, functioning as a double text. Both history and political education, a kind of doubling that is common to children’s literature. The decaying arcades of Paris were Benjamin’s worlds in miniature, sites of a complex engagement with history, dream, wish and what was essentially an emancipatory philosophical practice. To him the world in miniature of the arcade was like a city, and this space of the city is for Benjamin the space of his own childhood, analogous to the interior domestic spaces of Proust. As Susan Buckmorss describes, for Benjamin, the covered shopping arcades of the nineteenth century were a central image because they were the material replica of the internal consciousness, or rather, the unconscious of the dreaming collective. The dreaming collective refers to an entire generation of subjects in nineteenth century Europe, Paris in particular, during the first half of the century. All of the errors of bourgeois consciousness could be found there (commodity fetishism, refication, the world as “inwardness”).
Moreover, the arcades were the first international style of modern architecture, hence part of the lived experience of a worldwide, metropolitan generation. Benjamin’s original conception for a study of the arcades was as a politicized version of Sleeping Beauty as a fairy tale of awakening”. Retold along Marxist lines, it was intended to “set free the huge powers of history that are asleep within the ‘once upon a time’ of classical historical narration.” Although he dropped the title “A Dialectical Fairy Scene” pretty quickly, he maintained his fascination with the motifs of “dreamworld” and dream image,” and the understanding of dialectics as” awakening” from a dream.
For Benjamin, childhood and dream experience are hard to separate. His is a dream theory that is divided by the childhood of an epoch, and of a generation. An individual is then placed at the intersection between collective history and personal history, society’s dream and childhood dream. And it is this intersection, I would like to suggest, that characterises the utopian forces at play in Moominvalley. It is a childlike history, a childlike dream, but Benjamin’s notion of childhood is not an inherently passive receptacle for the historical unconscious, but rather contains the possibility of awakening.
Susan Buckmorss’s reading of Benjamin here suggests that from the child’s position the whole span of history, from the most ancient to the most recent past, occurs in mythic time. No history recounts his or her lived experience. All of the past lies in an archaic realm.’ I’d like to think of Moominvalley as such an archaic realm, but what is made possible in this reading of Benjamin is that the cognitive experience of childhood reverses newness, progress and fashion: in short, the obfuscatory, ideological myths of capitalist modernity. The child can discover the new anew. ‘This discovery reinvests the objects with symbolic meaning and thus rescues for the collective memory their utopian signification.’
Benjamin was fascinated by myth, but adamant in his opposition to mythic thinking, to thought that is obscured by oppressive and illusory forms of ideology. One technique of resisting such illusion, or of breaking it, is the dialectical image, an interruptive crossing of two parts of a language code – namely text and image. It is akin to Benjamin’s call to politicise aesthetics in order to oppose fascism’s aestheticisation of politics. Jansson’s books seem happy to play with such an idea, to allow images to interrupt the text. The images are sometimes contained within an outlined rectangular frame, sometimes form a rectangle themselves through the deliniation of drawn marks within the image, or might just be comprised of one or more figures unaccompanied on the space of the page. It recalls a somewhat simplistic differentiation between passive spectatorship and active reading, but nevertheless Janssons’s illustrations suggest a generative entanglement between text and image.
These images have a quality of intimacy, or nearness. It is hard to place, but I would like to suggest this sense of nearness resonates with Ernst Bloch’s discussion of what he describes as ‘Still life composed of human beings (796). Bloch, whose accounts of utopia are shaped by a propinquity to Benjamin and the Arcades Project, evokes nearness in an image as an impression of being narrow, of the contraction of a small surface that makes a pleasantly comprehensible circle. An existence that could easily become musty in real life becomes strangely warm when presented as a painting, or in this case drawing. Bloch suggests that a content and pleasurable comfort can be found in this secure circle. Within this circle, maintained by our own efforts, life is not cramped but securely enclosed, exhibiting peaceful warmth. Bloch’s primary example is in Dutch interior painting. Nothing, he says, but everyday life is painted in the Dutch Genre picture, but for all its nearness it is also presented in just the same way as a sailor might see it from a distance when he thinks of home: as the small, sharp painting which bears homesickness within it.
I would like to suggest that Jansson’s imagery functions in the same way, and that the Moomin stories are quotidian narratives of an elsewhere, of a dreamworld, which despite its alterity still succeeds in evoking a yearning for this place. There is a homesickness for somewhere that is both outside of lived experience, but perhaps simultaneously a no-place that is intimately familiar. And both no-places, and children’s literature, allow for a metaphoric space in which escape and criticism co-exist. In an influential work on children’s literature - Alice to the Lighthouse: Children’s Books and Radical Experiments in Art - Juliet Dusinberre argues that some of the most radical ideas about the structures of society and forms of change might be in books written for a new generation. Dusinberre describes an absence of pointed moral, linear narrative direction, the abdication of author as preacher or pedagogue, and a making use of words as play, as medium. These are qualities that emerge in the latter half of the nineteenth century, from Lewis Carroll and E. Nesbit, to become a quality of Woolf’s generation of modernist writing. Cultural change was both reflected and pioneered in the books which children read. Radical experiments in modernist literature began in the books which Lewis Carroll and his successors wrote for children.’ And the role of authorship is particularly significant here. Lewis Carroll, when asked about the meaning of the Alice books, replied that meaning was to be decided by the reader. Dusinberre claims that in 1865 such an overtly spoken challenge to authorial mastery in the children’s book was unprecedented. The relocation of power in reader rather than in writer has since then become a central tenet of modern critical theory. So I’d like to place the Moomins in this tradition of radical experiment, as a form of ambiguous but ultimately liberating pedagogy. Dusinberre reminds us that Roland Barthes says the refusal to assign ‘an ultimate meaning to the text… liberates what may be called an anti theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is in the end, to refuse God and his logic – reason, science, law. This is an act of critical refusal that we might find in both Janssen and Benjamin.
But Ultimately, what I would like to put forward in discussing Benjamin and Jansson’s Moominvalley together is a resonant and generative affinity, rather than a convenient mapping of one upon the other. Jansson’s dreamworld is very much in the late-nineteenth century tradition described by Juliet Dusinberre, of radical experiment in which linear narrative direction, use of text and image as play emerge as medium. It is a tradition that, from a distance, Benjamin was also committed to. His is a philosophical, utopian form of discourse as experiment. Both were concerned with a concrete sense of pictorial and textual image as a tool for facilitating acts of awakening.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

How to judge a book by its cover: Christopher Priest, The Separation

Final Draft of Text Published in Financial Times Magazine 13/10/07

The aeroplanes on the cover of Christopher Priest’s The Separation resemble a formation of meticulously-assembled Airfix kits. The
triangular arrangement is striking, deliberately and boldly artificial. The shapes are debossed – the opposite of embossed - pressed into unadorned matt card. Behind the iconography is a graphic referent – that of aircraft recognition silhouettes. These simple but accurate renderings of fighters and bombers were essential tools designed to familiarise service personnel and civilians alike with the shapes in the sky during times of war. These particular outlines are Wellingtons - bombers used by the RAF to strike at targets across Europe in the early years of the second world war. They date the action of the novel, which focuses on identical twins Joe and Jack Sawyer. One is a Wellington Pilot, the other a conscientious objector. Their estrangement from one another mirrors another divergence as the novel traces paths of actual and alternative history. Priest suggests a route by which the peace offer delivered Rudolf Hess might have been realised, bringing about an end to hostilities between Britain and Germany in 1941. Events are dependent upon circumstances in which the twins play subtle but decisive parts. The fate of these brothers decides which parallel reality holds sway.
This new edition of The Separation, first published in 2002, is one of eight reissues of recent science fiction novels published by Gollancz. All have striking text free covers, the work of in-house designer Emma Wallace. Marketed under the heading of ‘Future Classics’, these editions set out to seduce readers who might be put off by some of the more garish and futuristic imagery normally associated with the genre.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Scientific fictions: On Narrative and Intertextuality

(Final Draft as published in Art Monthly March 2007)

Several artists have recently made work that can be read as forms of archival practice that are not dependent on mimicking the operations or appearances of institutional forms of archive. Rather, they are archival in the sense that Hal Foster – in his essay ‘An Archival Impulse’ – refers to as the will to connect what cannot be connected. The appearance of order, and its alliance with state apparatuses, is replaced by an unstable and personalised ordering of the world. The apparent antinomies of fiction and documentary are exploited as narrative possibilities. In the work, for instance, of Jamie Shovlin, Suzanne Treister and Heather & Ivan Morison. A copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire constitutes the dominant material of Heather & Ivan Morison’s work of the same name, 2003. Within the pages of the battered and somewhat dated-looking book, wild flowers collected from Mongolia jut out from the pages that have been used to press and preserve them. There is something familiar about this object. It is surely a homage to Richard Wentworth’s Tract (From Boost to Wham), 1993 – a Pocket Oxford Dictionary crammed full of chocolate bar wrappers. These are inserted into the appropriate pages, alphabetically ordered by the correlation of brand name and lexical definition. As a student I remember attending a talk given by Wentworth in which he anecdotally related the genesis of the work. A cheeky assistant had apparently placed wrappers in a copy of the dictionary kept in Wentworth’s studio and waited to see how long it would take for the act to be discovered, thus determining how often the dictionary was actually referred to.
Of course this story need not be true, but such a serendipitous origin still has the ability to animate the play of material semiotics. Perhaps Tract operates as a metonym for Wentworth’s practice. There is a sense of humorous wonder in the manner in which quotidian and accidental elements intersect with formal concerns of arrangement and making. The affinities between these two altered books can be extended to say that Foundation and Empire operates similarly. It also signifies the practice of which it is a part. In 2003 Heather and Ivan Morison wrote Divine Vessel, a 72,000-word science fiction novel, on a journey aboard a cargo ship travelling between Shanghai and Auckland. Asimov’s book was one that they had read in preparation for the task while photographing wild flowers in Mongolia. This whole period was encompassed by their pan-global voyage Global Survey. Like Russian matryoshka dolls, one work reveals another. As they travelled and engaged in an idiosyncratic programme of recordings and interventions, they sent messages. To those on mailing lists, emails would arrive throughout 2003. More formally, updates could be read on an LED display unit fitted with a SIM card. These were sent as SMS messages from wherever on the planet Heather and Ivan happened to be.
This in itself is a continuation of the dispatches from Ivan’s Birmingham allotment, reports of the progress of his horticultural endeavours, triumphs and disasters alike (see Emma Safe, ‘Ivan Morison: Flower Power’, AM258). Between 2000 and 2002, dramatic gardening narratives were presented as telegraphic but evocative texts printed on square cards measuring 13.5 x 13.5cm: ‘Ivan Morison is concerned by a powdery mildew that has appeared on his Green Bush marrows.’ These functioned as both gallery objects and as posted communications. This format has been assimilated into the transformation of Ivan Morison’s practice into that of Mr and Mrs or Heather & Ivan Morison. Six of these cards form part of the material generated from their Global Survey journey, and are continued as an ongoing activity. While their use of narrative messages retains On Kawara’s affirmation of presence, activity and existence, these reports also suggest their own instability as documentary evidence. This tension between actuality and fiction permeates everything done in the Morison name. Even to the point of needing to ask whether or not these two individuals exist, let alone whether they really do what they do.
‘Earthwalker’, their recent show at Danielle Arnaud, further extended the binding of the narrative discourses of science fiction to natural history understood as a discursive narrative. Outside, beehives had been converted into architectural towers that resembled minimalist sculptural objects. The titling of these objects, Crystal Worlds, correlates the internal workings of these once functional devices with JG Ballard’s hallucinatory novel, The Crystal World. That this novel haunted Robert Smithson’s practice is no coincidence. Smithson is certainly present here. His narrated slideshow, Hotel Palenque, 1969-72, makes an uncanny return in the form of Starmaker, a projected work using medium-format slides and a soundtrack here split over two floors. This work also aligns itself explicitly with science fiction. In part this is through the sounds culled from sci-fi cinema, but is also indicated in its named reference to Olaf Stapledon’s novel Star Maker, published in 1937. Stapledon’s meditation on creation and complexity perhaps illuminates the images of natural history dioramas, industrial-scale horticulture and the British coastline. Whereas Stapledon’s narrator travels out of his body on Earth to become an observer of other worlds, the Morisons present home as if to an alien. Science fiction needs to be recognised as more than a stylistic preference. Literary critic Darko Suvin asserts that science fiction can be usefully thought of as the literature of cognitive estrangement, as opposed to unbridled fantasy or the stock elements of folk tales in which anything is possible. Rather, a different, but believable world with an internal logic, a world that has undergone transformation from our own, makes the possibility of other, especially social and political, transformations possible in the imagination of a reader or viewer. Science fiction retains that critical impulse Theodor Adorno identified in forms of autonomous avant-garde artworks – the possibility that things might be otherwise.
In their 2004 work, Science Fiction Reference Bookcase (In Colour Order), a collection of novels that includes those mentioned so far, the Morisons describe the materials as ‘Books on Shelf (Only Partially Read)’. This admission must also apply to Jamie Shovlin’s Fontana Modern Masters, 2005. Shovlin produced 58 watercolours that returned the abstract covers of these edifying volumes, published between 1970 and 1983, to the realm of painting. The work in Shovlin’s currently touring exhibition ‘Aggregate’ is an expanded return to in In Search of Perfect Harmony, the work seen in the Art Now space at Tate Britain in early 2006. There are three broadly identifiable elements here. The pages of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species have been excised from personalised and annotated copies in which readers have marked certain lines and passages as worthy of attention. In a parallel model of selection, all text not indicated by these means has been blacked out. All the Birds in her Garden dramatises an ordering of the natural world as internal, psychic constitution. The work is orientated around Shovlin’s own mother, Valerie, and the integration of garden birdlife into her own sense of selfhood. Valerie is also at the centre of In Search of Perfect Harmony. Shovlin has composed wax crayon rubbings from sections of jigsaws, displayed in the boxes in which they were once contained. The jigsaws belonged to Valerie. After completing one, she would put it back in the box, dismantling the image into fragments. Shovlin has recovered the largest of these fragments as the indexical source of these works. Each rubbing is produced from a combination of crayons determined by a colour wheel and a theory that complementary colours will produce a neutral grey when overlaid. Practice differs greatly from theory. These combinations are anything but grey.
Like the Morisons, Shovlin is interested in an explicit use of natural history as discourse, imagery and material substance. At times, his use of the gathered material overlaps with territory already mapped out and claimed by Mark Dion. Dion and Shovlin share not only interests in obsessive methodology but also the articulation of archival forms as narrative. Dion often favours installation as a staged tableau vivant, employing spatial relationships as a theatrical fiction paired with phenomenal and material actuality. Shovlin tends more towards a formal approach to space, informed by critical and attentive readings of Minimalism. However, while narrative is often an integral element for both artists, there is a spectral presence of fiction in ‘Aggregate’, a polluting element of doubt. The source of this is detectable in two other projects by Shovlin: Naomi V Jelish, 2004, and more recently, Lustfaust: A Folk Anthology, 2006. Both are elaborately constructed fictional archives. The first is a tribute to a gifted teenage girl who disappeared along with her family, a girl whose unusual name is an anagram of the artist’s. Lustfaust is also a tribute, paid to an influential and experimental underground band that never existed but could have, and indeed possibly should have.
Despite their polluting influence on all Shovlin’s archival practices, these fictions are generally plausible. While the works in ‘Aggregate’ are narrative, and correspond to literary worldmaking, they are not of an explicitly dubious veracity. The paranoid conspiracies that Suzanne Treister conjures are more obviously fabricated, but no less appealing as fantasies. Shovlin offers personalised systems, both epistemological and numerical, while Treister revels in paranoiac conspiracies. One adopts pseudo-scientific forms, the other fantasises a breakdown between science and superstition in a web of espionage and post-Cold War neurosis. If Shovlin has infected all his archive-inflected representations with the possibility of fiction, then Treister seems to thrive on its overt presence. Presented as theory, it depends on the integration of fiction and reality, but is, of course, mostly fiction. It would also be nice to believe in the paranoid fantasy world of Treister’s Hexen 2039 (reviewed by David Barrett in AM302). Conspiracy theories, like fantasy worlds, offer accountable world views that need not be bogged down with even uglier and disturbing realities. Hexen 2039 is framed as the work of a fictional character, Rosalind Brodsky, who makes delusional claims to be a time traveller, and spins out an elaborate conspiracy theory that implicates, among other elements, Hollywood cinema, British and US armed forces and intelligence agencies, witchcraft and occultism in an intricate web of affinities and correspondences. The work is composed of different elements – pencil drawings based on photographs, a pseudo-documentary, and most poetically in a series of ink drawings that manage to be simultaneously cursive and diagrammatic.
The Morisons, Shovlin and Treister evoke suggestive and timely reminders of a relationship to text and narrative that transformed both art’s conditions of interpretation and its objects. I am referring here to a general intersection of literary theory, philosophy and psychoanalytical thought with artworks and art history in the last four decades of the 20th century. Rosalind Krauss’s short essay ‘Poststructuralism and the Paraliterary’, written in 1981, described forms of academic theory, writing by Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida in particular, as a perceived threat to literature. This threat, perceived within North American academia, was seen as an undermining and corrosive attack on traditional forms of close reading. Krauss counters these reactionary positions and reads this poststructuralist criticism as something that can no longer sustain a distinction between literature and criticism: ‘Rather, criticism finds itself caught in a dramatic web of many voices, citations, asides.’ What is created is instead a kind of paraliterature. Paraliterary space, she argues, is the space of debate, quotation, betrayal, reconciliation. Absent are qualities of unity, coherence and resolution that were the traits that were cited as in need of protection from the onslaught of this foreign theory. Similarly, the presence of fiction in these overtly narrative practices of the Morisons, Shovlin and Treister blurs distinctions between literary object and artwork. The presence of active and reflective criticism within paraliterary discourses is also detectable. This integration of criticism enables an inward- and outward-looking criticality. The tension between this criticality and an obsessive and indulgent solipsism is exploited in these practices as a set of destabilising intertextual operations. These works not only operate within a set of interpretative conditions that match Krauss’s account, but construct paraliterary space as practice. This space is ordered, but according to internalised logic, personalised universes in which one element informs another. These artists articulate the archival impulse as literary construction, putting on hold any previous hostilities between literary object and artwork. Alliances with fiction pass beyond citation and into a recognition that it is perhaps inevitably the character of all archival forms.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

End of the world

I recently came across a familiar sentence from Frederic Jameson, I cant remember where, which has been on my mind quite a bit. Frustratingly I couldn’t place it, so tried an interweb search. I typed in: easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. This turned up an endless list of hits, which generally seemed reluctant to actually cite the reference completely. One hit actually ascribed the term to Slavoj Zizek. If this is true, then the hairy fool has added plagiarism to his list of intellectual iniquities. Eventually I found a reference to a book of essays: The Seeds of Time. I don’t have this, so I checked my copy of another collection – The Cultural Turn. It turns out that the line comes from an essay called ‘The Antinomies of Postmodernism’, which is in both books. And it is slightly different in its actual configuration: “It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination.” (The Cultural Turn, Verso, London and New York 1998 .p50)