Click the link above to download the zine I made to accompany the show. Exhibition essay after the jump.
“I See You” – Graphic Poetry at The Arts House: “Dense and Transparent”
There is a tendency to overcomplicate things. This exhibition is simple: I wrote some poems during my time here as writer-in-residence, then asked five other artists I’d met or heard of to create work in response. My intentions were simple: bring something genre bending into the Arts House, present my poetry in a different way to how I usually do it, and have fun in the process. The artists at the top of my list were, thankfully, compliant: Desmond Kon, Kelly Reedy, The Spacer.gif collective, Tania De Rozario and Seelan Palay all agreed and their response to my poems was diverse – some more literal than others, all stylistically strong and all satisfying a desire I’ve had for some time: to see poetry presented in ways that go beyond the reading or the booklet. This is not only because visuals are the future (and characterise the past) but because opaque, rhizomatic modes of thought a) do not have to be dark and serious and b) are being eclipsed to the detriment of everyone because we no longer see why they’re useful.
Most of us are familiar with ekphrasis, which is typically defined as words being used to describe a piece of visual art. Reverse-ekphrasis is the less ceremonious name for what you see before you, though the proliferation of images in our culture means that the specific relationship of words describing images or vice versa is no longer the sole or even the most prominent definition of ekphrasis; it is now the description of any form by any other. The kind we are dealing with here is art describing poetry. There have been many forays into this area, ranging from Laura Dockrill’s Mistakes in the Background (a hand-drawn, hand-written collection of poems) to Scroobius Pip’s Poetry in (E)motion (the product of his fans drawing cartoon responses to his songs) but there are fewer examples of art describing poems hanging vertically, on the walls of a gallery – or any space – where the viewer has to re-orient their approach. The poems are secondary to the images, yet the poems came first. Then again, there is the chance that the advent of this exhibition was a good opportunity for the artists to create a work they’d been thinking about for some time, possibly before I’d written any of the poems. Moreover, what about the concrete images contained in the texts? Where, for example, are “the cataracts of lace” from Yes, they hate each other in Desmond Kon’s series “This is not Tracey Emin’s bed, but…” Which is it proper to look at first? We’ll admit to being attracted to the colours of an image, but less attention is paid when we are attracted to the shape of a poem. Wait. Are these autobiographical?
To describe something is not the same as explaining it. A useful (if loaded) medieval term is haecceity (heck-sy-ah-tee), or thisness, because of its relationship to quiddity, or whatness, which is more about the relationship between a thing and other things like it. A poem that describes the flower does not explain the flower, though it gives us some insight into what it is – the poem is powerful only if the flower retains its thisness, the haecceity we recognise in life, which is irreducible because of its manifold quiddity – its fundamental connections to everything else. A seasoned philosopher, say, Plato, might pick this apart, but in the context of ekphrastic art these terms illuminate the density of the stuff around us without trying to reduce it.
These questions of art and (the) reality (of looking at art) are similar to those asked by Plato – “Which is the art of painting designed to be– an imitation of things as they are, or as they appear?” – and are pertinent to an image saturated culture: what are those adverts? Is that skin whitening cream appearance or reality? Which comes first supply or demand? Those danger signs, spray painted in red in four languages, and which characterise every building site, and therefore this city in general, strike me as descriptions of what is going on just beyond: what does it mean that migrant construction workers are always seen with BAHAYA beside them? What does it mean that in one of the safest, richest and infrastructurally sound cities in Asia, there are DANGER – KEEP OUT signs everywhere? What does it mean to maintain that the city surfaces must never show any trace of its inhabitants? No markings, no writing, no stickers, no stencils. No dirt. Where are the layers? And if there are no layers, where is the meaning?
“I See You” doesn’t answer any of those questions directly (no-one can) but it does testify that ekphrasis – the description of one art by another – is a method for making sense of what we see, because it circumvents the traditional academic reduction of everything to explanatory prose. Instead, as the Mexican poet Octavio Paz has written, “Your thoughts are transparent. In them I see my image confused with yours a thousand times a thousand to the point of incandescence.” I see you clearly precisely because you are dense, mingled, complex. We want to know what things mean and, somehow, an explanation in another art form doesn’t cut it. Why, when the absence of a fixed meaning in art was established long ago? Why, when centuries of rhetorical study show that ostensibly transparent statements can mislead and obscure? Why, when hundreds of educationalists have shown that we have different ways of processing information – for example kinaesthetic, aural and visual? Why, when we’ve already discovered that poking around the physical brain tells us very little about the the mind?
This idea of exploring dense connections rather than explaining the result of those connections is making headway in neuroscience – the human connectome project, which aims to map all the connections in the brain – but we artists have always known it to be true. Indeed, we experience this truth everyday when we connect to the net. We imagine that these billions of images exist in a mystical cloud created by Apple, when in fact the internet is a physical object – you can visit the servers, hold the wires – and we are interacting with its highly complex, interconnected consciousness. We dedicate hours each day to describing what we’ve seen, but we can never reduce the net . A tweet is a kind of ekphrastic expression. A hyperlink is a description of another page. It’s a hall of mirrors that seems a far cry from the simplicity I claimed at the beginning. Maybe I lied.
“I See You” is a microcosm of these larger ideas; the physical link between the writing and the work is there because I personally blue-tacked the poems to the wall. But the rest is up to the viewer – to be critical of what is in front of them. The world does not present itself in academic essays, seemingly transparent, tinkling with the way, the key and the life. Art is part of the world. We have infinite use for the results of making excellent connections, but the method to get them in the first place is harder to identify. Or, rather, is overlooked. Hopefully “I See You” goes beyond being “graphic nutrition” as I’ve often described it, and emphasises the function of ekphrasis; descriptions that are the interaction between different forms and lead not only to new connections, but the appreciation of value in the density of those connections: they cannot be penetrated. They are intimate, private, absolutely ours, and, happily, they continue to mystify those who prefer statistics, sales and submission. It’s worth stating explicitly.