Ukraine: Dovzhenko’s Earth

Alexander Dovzhenko’s last silent film Earth (Zelmya) 1930 (third part of his Ukraine Trilogy which includes  Zvenyhora, 1928, and Arsenal, 1929) is a tragic and violent narrative of the Soviet collectivization is set within a lyrical Ukrainian landscape. The film features images of the cultivated Mammoth Sunflower which produces a single golden flower that grows up to 10″ across and is filled with edible seeds.

I bring up this imagery from nearly a century ago in response to the video making the rounds on social media and raising to the mainstream, that of a Ukranian woman confronting a Russian soldier in the early days of the invasion, symbolically offering him sunflower seeds so that flowers would grow where he died on Ukrainian soil, ‘Take these seeds and put them in your pockets” she seems to say, “so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.’

This powerful image raises, for me the difference I have with Andrei Tarkovsky’s premise that image can be separated from its symbols – Ukraine > Sunflower> Seeds > Death > Life > Ukraine.

Dovzhenko’s Mammoth Sunflowers

In Alexander Dovzhenko’s last silent film, his masterwork titled Earth (Zelmya) 1930, a tragic and violent narrative of the Soviet collectivization is set within a lyrical rural mise-en-scène and realized in profoundly poetic cinematography. In one of its many shots extolling the Ukrainian landscape, is featured the Mammoth (Russian) Sunflower. Apparently this glorious, or perhaps even monstrous, anomaly was cultivated in Russia and was brought into North America in 1880. It produces a single golden flower that grows up to 10″ across and is filled with edible seeds.

The Mammoth Sunflower is no innocent incident of nature. Being ‘man-made,’ it occupies the space between nature and culture. Despite its beauty, however, it is no mere vanity, it is a food crop. I suggest that, in Dovzhenko’s Earth, it is the perfect or complete symbol. It represents, the ethos of the narrative, at the same time, standing for nature per se as well as for its cultivation, its industrialization and even its collectivization, in the course of human civilization.

Incidentally, Dovzhenko is the only early Soviet era director whom the great Andrei Tarkovsky cites as a predecessor, “If one absolutely needs to compare me to someone (in Soviet cinema), it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important.” It must be said, in the context of this notion of ‘atmosphere’, that Tarkovsky himself eschewed the ‘symbol’ in cinema, and spoke instead of a more open and less intentional cinematic ‘image’ which he defined in terms of the notion of the metaphor, “A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite.’ (Interview Le noir coloris de la nostalgie with Hervé Guibert in “Le Monde”, 12 May 1983 )

In my own view, symbols are as malleable and as variable as the mind and worldview of a given viewer or community of viewers. As such Tarkovsky’s dichotomy, essential though it is to our understanding of art, is not an inevitable duality. An image must, in my understanding, contain many symbols that come forth as the viewer, or artist, determines, or designs. If, like Tarkovsky, the viewer finds that the ‘image’ satisfies in its latency, then it will be left unread and no symbol will arise. However, perhaps as a result of having more of an intellectual than a poetic inclination, I see symbols in all images. I see them even as I relish the ‘atmosphere’ of Tarkovsky’s own indefinite images! I suggest that, in art, the question – ‘image or symbol,’ is less about the essential quality or nature of the work and more about the perspective of the viewer or the approach of the artist.

This Sunflower was grown by Jane Frankish on our allotment in the plot shared by members of the Jonathan Rogers gardening collective in Mount Pleasant Vancouver, Summer 2021.

Early Internet Art in Malaysia 4

In the introduction to his profound work on the cinematic image, Signatures of the Visible, Fredric Jameson writes, “The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination.” Explicit pornography is thus the acknowledgement of the true nature of the filmic image, a “potentiation” of its call to “stare at the world as though it were a naked body.” There is no doubt in my mind that, from the perspective of the Traditional School (with Coomaraswamy and Guenon as exemplars), that the visual abjection that Jameson attributes to cinema is simply the culmination of what one might refer to as the ‘ocularization’ of human civilization in the course of Humanism, the Enlightenment and Modernism.

Exemplified by the entrenchment of single-point perspective as the representation of reality (indeed as reality itself!) in art of the European Renaissance, this ocularity has permeated all aspects of social, cultural and political life in the mainstream of our civilization. Jameson orients his critique towards the centrality of images in consumerist society, wherein our very sense of being in the world is first and foremost visual. He says, “our society has begun to offer us the world … as … a body, that you can possess visually, and collect the images of.” It is this very photographic and pornographic ontology that Marcel Duchamp had earlier articulated and developed through his oeuvre. In all his work, be it his readymades, the Large Glass and most profoundly, in Etant Donnes, this obscenity, inherent in the image is both indexed and exploited.

This critique of visuality and the nature of the image is the impetus for my own The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/ Japanese Fetish Even! (1996). According to Tyrus Miller, underlying the various senses of Duchamp’s use of the word ‘delay’ in connection of the work The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even is that the glass of the so called ‘ Large Glass’ is a medium in which and through which ‘delay’ is realized and manifested, “by virtue of its material properties of transparency, reflectiveness, and refraction of light, and hence, by implication, the splitting of a present act of seeing into temporally different streams, ranging from maximum to minimum delay in the passage of light.” Indeed, I saw the slow download speeds of the early WWW as a vivification of Duchampian ‘delay.’

Further, like Jameson, I saw that the fight about power and desire had to be brought to that place “between the mastery of the gaze and the illimitable richness of the visual object.” In making The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/ Japanese Fetish Even!, I took my own object to the site of Duchamp’s notorious diorama, Étant Donnés, and made an intervention and a photograph. My image was later digitally composited with a pornographic one appropriated from the internet and offered as an online presentation which was inaccessible without the conscious intention of the viewer. If the viewer chose ‘to proceed,’ this gave rise a slow download of the new image, delayed by the bandwidth of the Internet of the day! The first commercial modem, was introduced in 1962 by AT&T and had a download speed of 300 bits per second. By 1994 speeds had reached at 28.8 kilobits per second and in then 1996 the 56K modem was invented. Very slow in comparison to speeds we are familiar with today. For instance, my provider in Vancouver offers fiberoptic data plans with 75mega bits per second (MBPS), 940mbps and 1500mbps download rates.

Also of note is the fact that in January of 1996, 5 years after Tim Berners-Lee published the first ever website and also the year in which The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/ Japanese Fetish Even! premiered at ISEA, there were, according to one source, only 100,000 websites (unique hostnames) on the World Wide Web (an alternative figure for that year is 257,601 websites). Today (as of August 2021), there are well over 1.5 billion websites. Of these annual numbers, 75% are believed to be inactive sites or parked domains.

Early Internet Art in Malaysia 2

In 1996 I made a web work titled The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even! which is the first Internet art work in Malaysia and, as far as I know, also in Southeast Asia. This work was both an admiring tribute and a harsh parody of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) which is installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In this meticulously realized work, Duchamp cleaves from logos, an abyss of eros. I suggest that it represents the culmination of the humanist trajectory in the philosophy of being, as in its presentation, the visual perspective of the ‘eye’ is fused, or confused, with the ‘I’ of the anthropocentric worldview. In this hypostatization of the ontology underpinning photography, sculptural form and visual image are rendered indifferent, arguably heralding the end of the retinal orientation in the art of the West and the birth of conceptual art. Étant donnés is a paragon of visibility, a par ergon of reality, a hyperreality even!

My own work remixed an image appropriated from a Japanese bondage site, an erotic or pornographic element, within the photographic documentation of an intervention I made at the site of the Duchamp installation in 1993. The erotic element would have been unacceptable on Malaysian servers and so was isolated from the rest of the image and located, with the help of media artist Paul Sermon, on a server at the The Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst (Academy of Fine Arts) in Leipzig. Part of the aim of the work was to address territoriality and cultural difference in the Internet. The work underscored the fact that information that was then becoming globally accessible is not universally acceptable. Another aim of the work was to reify, in the context of what was in the mid 1990’s, the ‘slow download’ of the Internet, Fredric Jameson proposition that the visual Image is, in Itself, essentially pornographic. With the advent of the mass access to computer mediated communications brought about by the World Wide Web, Duchamp’s delayed image was no longer an esoteric encounter. It was becoming democratically accessible (Given:) as the slow download (The Waterfall?) on a personal illuminated screen (The Illuminating Gas!).

The The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even! was launched at a poster session at ISEA 1996. That presentation, from which this post has been developed, was titled Locating The Image In An Age Of Electronic Media .

Kaala … More or Less!

kaala look finalThe Koboi had been developing his look after the SUPERSTAR’s image in Kaala (to will be released worldwide on June 7th) for his performance at Courtyard Hiroo, Tokyo at 7 pm on 11th May 2018 I am a fan of Rajinikanth and, as such, I relish the simple pleasure of ‘being’ the Thalaiva. I am, however, also cognizant of the aesthetic and critical connotations of my play.  What is the measure of similitude – how much ‘looking like’ does it take to ‘look like’ or signify another person or persona? What is the threshold of sufficiency? Is such similitude founded on ethnic, even ethnocentric, notions of identity? What is the inner dimension of such a representation? How does one actually form a meaningful image of another? When does homage become piracy? Is this a pastiche or a parody, and if it is a parody – what is it a parody of?  What, is the difference between a popular and a fine art image in the contemporary taxonomy of the arts?

Most pertinently, Kaala may be the last of my easy and heartfelt appropriations of the SUPERSTAR’s image as, having launched into politics in Tamil Nadu, Rajinikanth has now placed himself in a different context of signification. Unlike his long-time colleague in the Movie business, and now political co-aspirant, Kamal Haasan, who has clear secular leanings, Rajinikanth’s avowed ‘spiritual politics’ seems to be taking on the pungent saffron hues of Hindutva (the Hindu Right)!.