On Seeing (an Imitation)

by Daniel Rourke

“Mimesis here is not the representation of one thing by another, the relation of resemblance or of identification between two beings, the reproduction of a product of nature by a product of art. It is not the relation of two products but of two productions. And of two freedoms… 'True' mimesis is between two producing subjects and not between two produced things.”

Jacques Derrida, Economimesis

Enlarged pupil (an eye with iritis)

As the day drew closer to its end so I strained my eyes to compensate. A milieu of symbols littered my computer screen, each connected to a staccato breach between breath and tongue. And in conjunction, fused one to another in a series, these symbols formed words and concepts, visions and ideas to which I felt an obligation.

I was designing a book, turning a text into a form through the processes of a computer design interface. The semblance of a page confronted each turn of my wrist or tap of finger, until the virtual book lay splayed open, its central fissure dilating as the words grew bigger or shrank to barely perceptible pricks of black. By manipulating the interface I could expand letters until they inked out the screen, or, in turn, spiral to infinite distance, turning definite symbols into the pixels of a cloud.

This process of making occurred at a virtual distance to me and yet, as the nights rolled onwards, this work was limiting my ability to see.

The doctor examined my right eye. I had iritis, a strain of the pupil with no particular cause, except perhaps for its over-use: for one's over-reliance on its mechanical operation. Being that my right eye was the strongest of the two it had over-compensated at each dimming of the day, allowing my left eye to relax as the symbols of my book whirled on. The strain resulted in a blood-shot appearance accompanied by a searing, throbbing pain. It hurt to see, and even more so to look. It hurt because looking was its cause.

Standing at the base of the Southern tower I arced my neck back as far as I dare. As the horizon descended into my stomach I could just about perceive the towers' tallest corners, pinching at sky. How many coins did it take to build these things? And how many steps was I expected to ascend in order to get to the 'observation deck'?

In exchange for my tiny coin I fathomed a giant network called 'New York'. From up here everything was horizon: the imaginary boundary between earth and sky that moves in respect of one's position.

In 2001 the two towers tumbled. How profane their figures seem now. How could it be that these prisms, designed and built in the 1960s, opened and occupied in the 1970s, witness of boom in the 80s and bust in the 90s, would come to stand for all the tumult and turmoil, striving and hope of our newest century?

The precision of the prism – flat, grey surfaces observed in isometric space – will forever be bound to these charismatic towers built of steel, concrete and capital. That they now stand as symbols effaces their identity in time or in space. They will always be contemporary, so long as cities are built and planes soar the skies above them. Looking back at them it is now I that stand on the horizon. Yet, howsoever I alter my vision, the towers stay solid and fixed to their position, being at one and the same time the landscape, the illumination and the roving eye.

'Office Block With Twin' by Koizumi Meiro, 2006

Idiopathic is an adjective used primarily in medicine meaning arising spontaneously or from an obscure or unknown cause. From Greek ἴδιος, idios (one's own) + πάθος, pathos (suffering), it means approximately “a disease of its own kind.”

extract from Wikipedia

In 2006 Koizumi Meiro tore pages from pornographic magazines. Over images composed of two erotically entwined women he painted tones of grey. The resulting collages speak of capture, of closure and the banal. They are severely a-erotic, displaying none of the titillation that their originary magazines wished upon their audience. The women's heads have been disembodied, or more precisely, have been relocated onto the bodies of twin prisms. Does Meiro's objectification of these women mirror the objectification they suffer under the guise of the erotic gaze? Perhaps. What draws me into the images though, and what emerges most strikingly as I look upon them, is a haunting sense of recognition. This simplified, perfect horizon, these strutting prisms of grey mirror the defining twin icons of our era. Captured, closed off and made banal to my mind by the passing of time, by their over admittance into the symbolic syntax of the new century.

My recognition is itself an imitation, such that seeing and looking are intertwined.

A focal point rushes to meet me, like a pupil contracting as the first band of sun breaches an ever distant imaginary line.

Cargo Cult

In the 1940s the Southwest Pacific Ocean became of fundamental strategic importance for both the Japanese and American forces. After establishing bases on a range of Melanesian and Micronesian islands the US Military settled into the routines of war.

To the native peoples of these islands the military presence signified a complete over-turning of the natural order. Within a few months the beaches and grasslands were transformed into encampments and runways, and as the war effort ensued the skies above must have seemed filled with the buzz of alien craft. The native people came to know American society through the exchange of commodities and the gestures of an unknown tongue. As planes soared overhead and countless ships descended over the horizon the islands became saturated with cargo of all kinds, from cans of coca cola to livestock the likeness of which the islanders had never seen.

Much has been written of the so called 'Cargo Cults' which later emerged on these islands. Strange rituals still carried out today seem to hark back to those informative years when Western civilisation first imposed itself on the native Micronesians. Islanders build imitation planes and runways from straw and dirt; act out military processions with bamboo guns slung over their shoulders. In order to bring back the abundance of cargo that used to land on their islands the native people appear to be imitating the conditions under which its arrival used to occur.

Ritual obtains a value at the meeting point between the thing imitated and the imitation. Ritual is action, but it is also object. It is natural because it is always a copy; repeated whilst never attaining perfect resemblance; repeated to bring into order the miasma of our visions.

With work there is always consequence, both intended and in excess. For the tribal communities of the cargo islands the dividing lines between nature and ritual, between alien technology and the routines of war must have seemed identical. A resemblance, a dividing line, that was worthy of imitation whether it brought cargo or not.

We cannot know what they saw. We can only imitate an idea of their seeing by analogy with the kind of seeing we consider in ourselves.

Upon the arrival of the American Military in the Southwestern Pacific there was a lot more to see than had been seen before.

“Why should we be at all interested in perceiving the obscurity that emanates from the epoch? Is darkness not precisely an anonymous experience that is by definition impenetrable; something that is not directed at us and thus cannot concern us? On the contrary, the contemporary is the person who perceives the darkness of his time as something that concerns him. Darkness is something that – more than any light – turns directly and singularly toward him. The contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time.”

Giorgio Agamben, What is The Contemporary?

The eye-drops soothed the burning pain, but they also gave me chronic photo-phobia, such that stepping out into daylight was excruciating. I needed to let my eye rest, and this meant shutting off its ability to work. Whether the light was dim or bright, whether the object of my attention was near or far, the muscles around my pupil lay dormant. I considered the world through a pupil locked at its fullest expanse. The light gushed in.

In place of depth, of shade and colour, there now existed a miasma which my left eye alone could not navigate. The physical frames of everyday life were impossible to attenuate. It was as if upon being freed from the shallow glare of the computer screen I had stumbled into a space between signified and signifier. Everything was flattened to the status of an interface, but an interface that lead nowhere and manipulated nothing.

My book had been printed and bound. I could hold it in my hands, flick through its pages. In real space I could consider it, scanning its lines and paragraphs with my working eye. Wearing a make-shift eye patch or a pair of sun glasses I was able to avoid headaches and spatial confusion. But upon holding the very object whose making had rendered my right eye useless I was overcome with a different kind of dislocation.

Was this the book I had designed on my computer? It bore a resemblance, there was even a sense that my fingers had observed it before, the memory of its movements surfacing as I turned it over in my hands. But this sense did not transfer to the content of the book, to the meaning that emerged when words were read in conjunction, and pages, phrases, paragraphs and footnotes came to meet each other in endless variation. I recognised the words themselves, but I did not recognise from where they had come. I saw the book's space, time and content, yet I could not see its work.

Between seeing and looking which paradigm was closest to this work: the roving eye or the mind engaged in making?

by Daniel Rourke

“To go beyond is to communicate with ideas, to understand. Does not the function of art lie in not understanding?… Art does not know a particular type of reality; it contrasts with knowledge. It is the very event of obscuring, a descent of the night, an invasion of shadow.”

Emmanuel Levinas, Reality and Its Shadow