Saturday, 6 October 2007

The Revelation of Erasure

After almost two consecutive weeks of retiring for the evening to the accompaniment of Thomas Koner or Steve Roach on headphones, I had a disturbing epiphany: what if Derridata's previous posting, which wondered"where have all the people gone?" in the discussions of hauntology, and by extension "isolationism", could be extended to consideration of violence, and hence, the active exclusion, or rather, the erasure of people. Without question the first intrusive thought in my mind was the powerful [mute] testimony I experienced when visiting the empty camps as a European "thanatourist" in 2002. I say "mute" because we all agreed there was an immediacy to these encounters which began before any of us had made contact with any of the work done by historians on the site to situate this terrible period of history.
But beyond the exceptionalism, and even the unspeakability of such encounters, an intimation of erasure arises more frequently at the quotidian level situating Derridata's posting. If this becomes an intimation of horror to those bearing witiness to it, this occurs in exact accordance with admissions of indifference on the part of those for whom this is the most capable they are of offering any form of self-analysis. To pick two prominent examples, which greatly disturbed me during my adolescent years, what does it really mean for Lou Reed to proclaim, "I don't really have a personality", or for Gary Numan in "This Wreckage" to solicit his own "erasure"? What form of alienation is attestified to by such casual admissions in the context of a postindustrial society, where the circulations of communication, of bodies and information, indicate each other at every point? What else are workplaces such as offices or factories if not this? In these terms, a stranger is not so much "a friend one hasn't yet met", but rather "a blank", perhaps waiting to be filled in via the gathering of more data...
In his fascinating description of the Tate Gallery's "Erasure" exhibition, Brian Dillon almost speaks directly to these points. Consider how he describes one of the ultimate fantasies of modernist art as that of "a world without memory....a tabula rasa from which all styles of the past had been erased." Small wonder then that postmodernization is regarded by critics as the realisation of this tendency, to the extent that a de-differentiation of "culture" and every other societal sphere has taken place. Hence all those attempts to "fill in the blanks" by evoking some notion of "the Real", absence as in actuality articulated to politics, to the stubborn, enduring materiality of "the body", and so forth. Could it be then that "holy minimalism" is also a paradoxical attempt at re-enchantment? The spirit, the ghost, is an inactual presence...thank you Brian Dillon for helping to spur these reflections:
"More than any other image, an erased human face remains horribly eloquent. In fact, a face cannot be made to vanish completely: it stays sufficiently human to horrify by its exact lack of humanity. Hence the unnerving effect of Georges Franju's film Eyes Without a Face (1959), in which a young woman, disfigured in a car crash, is subjected to her father's insane and murderous plan to give her a new face. We never see the daughter's ravaged face, but the featureless white mask she wears for most of the film is enough to suggest her uncanny oscillation between human and inhuman. Something of that enigma is captured too in the digitally manipulated photographic portraits of Anthony Aziz and Sammy Cucher, from whose Dystopia series (1994-1995) the features have been removed, leaving a smooth, affectless but somehow tragic surface.

In his book Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages (2004), the Swiss historian Valentin Groebner links this double valence of the disfigured face to the term ungestalt: a word used to describe the literally formless features of those lying dead on battlefields: "Violence was shown in and with pictures, but the pictures showed only a terrifying void." Similarly, in the collection of doctored or defaced Soviet-era photographs amassed by David King for the book The Commissar Vanishes and the exhibition of the same name, the most affecting images are not those in which individuals have been entirely removed by the retoucher's art, but the photographs from which, in private, the faces of the victims of Stalin's regime have simply been rubbed out.

If the erased face always conjures the image of some primal violence, the expunged word inevitably attests to a repression of some kind, whether psychological or political. In the coy ellipses with which, in the novels of the eighteenth century, readers were invited to imagine undescribed erotic adventures, on the blacked-out pages of classified documents, or in the cancelled lines of a prisoner's censored letter, the lost word denotes the intercession of authority.
In an essay entitled A Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad (1925), Sigmund Freud proposed a deceptively simple image of the relation of the conscious and unconscious mind. The object in question is a child's toy, a resin or wax tablet over which is laid a thin transparent sheet: "One writes upon the celluloid portion of the covering sheet which rests upon the wax slab. For this purpose no pencil or chalk is necessary, since the writing does not depend on material being deposited upon the receptive surface. If one wishes to destroy what has been written, all that is necessary is to raise the double covering-sheet from the wax slab by a light pull, starting from the free lower end." Conscious thought or feeling, in other words, is made to vanish into the unconscious. But as anyone who has played with such a toy as a child will recall, the words survive as faint impressions; hold your Etch A Sketch at the right angle to the light, and all your previous inscriptions are still visible.
A work by Joseph Kosuth, entitled Zero & Not (1986), points out both the psychoanalytic attitude to language and the tendency of Freud's words to assert their authority despite our efforts to wipe them out. A Freudian text is printed on the gallery wall, then struck through with black tape, so that it is erased but still insists. It remains more or less readable: its lesson - the lesson of psychoanalysis; a lesson, after all, about the impossibility of erasure - simply won't go away.

The fondest, least plausible dream of Modernist art and literature was of a world without memory: a cultural tabula rasa from which all trace of the styles of the past had been erased. The arts of evacuation imagined by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Yves Klein and John Cage aspired to a deliberate vacuity: a vacant stage, an empty gallery, a silent orchestra. But in each case the project is impossible: some sound, image or word will intervene to recall the world left behind. The point is made, belatedly and in the most banal way, in Michel Gondry's film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which takes French artist Pierre Bismuth's elegant and witty idea - writing to friends to inform them that they had been erased from his memory - and turns it into a predictable tale of love's mnemonic power: there will be no real forgetting of the crossed-out lover, and erasure, after all, will be just like starting over.

"What we require is silence, but what silence requires is that I go on talking," declared Cage in his "Lecture on Nothing": the silence dreamed of by the art of the last century is always expectant, about to be spoken into. In 1996 the artist, writer and curator Jeremy Millar interviewed the novelist J G Ballard, began to duplicate the tape before he transcribed it, and accidentally erased hours of the great man's thoughts. The ruined cassette, one long pregnant pause, could only become an artwork: Erased Ballard Interview (1996-2001). You listen, heart in mouth, just as Millar must have done, hoping that Ballard's cultivated tones will, any second now, interrupt the hiss. And at the same time you hear everything in this piece: the whole history of the avant-garde affair with emptiness, the dematerialisation of the work of art, its evanescence into pure idea or gesture, up to and including Rauschenberg's erasure of de Kooning's drawing - all of it, suggests Millar's blank tape, is merely an absurd error.
Maybe the total erasure of a work of art, or the making of a work that had an utter absence at its heart, was never possible to begin with, or maybe it's simply a fantasy to which contemporary art is no longer willing to give itself over, except playfully. Ignasi Aballí's Big Mistake (1998- 2005), in which the artist painted a Modernist black square on the gallery wall, then overpainted it with Tipp-Ex, or Correction (2001), which does the same thing to a mirror, are reminders that something is always left behind, like the Cheshire Cat's grin in Through the Looking Glass: "'I wish you wouldn't keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make me quite giddy.' 'All right,' said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone."

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine, and author of the memoir In the Dark Room. He is working on Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives, to be published in 2008.

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