Walls and columns
Jackson Pollock was never the most forthcoming of men, but his extreme reluctance to discuss his art seems to me to be justified by something beyond his taciturn personality. Novelists and poets work with words, and it seems appropriate that their work is dissected and discussed in words, but visual artists, who struggle with marble or chalk or quick-drying enamel, sometimes seem to demand a different sort of appreciation.
There is a certain type of visual artist whose work seems almost to insist that it be appreciated with silence, rather than with the comparisons and categorisations and quibbles of the critic. Anybody who saw critics and cataloguists struggling to say something useful about last year's retrospective by New Zealand's monumental minimalist Milan Mrkusich will know what I mean. For more than a month, Mrkusich's glowing, fathomless reds, blues, and yellows made Shortland Street's Gus Fisher Gallery into a sanctified space, a sort of secular cathedral; instead of simply acknowledging the spell of the old magician, though, our art writers insisted on trying to explain him away with dusty adjectives like 'formalist', 'high-modernist' and 'Jungian'.
I was both delighted and disconcerted when Ellen Portch recently asked me to write an essay for the catalogue that accompanies Wall, the exhibition she will be holding next month at Elam Art School's projectspace B431. I am a long-time admirer of Ellen's art, not to mention her kickboxing, but I was slightly uneasy about the prospect of describing the enigmatic, carefully-worked images she is known for in something as mundane as an essay.
My unease only increased when Ellen showed me the two dozen pencil drawings which she had given the collective title Wall. Ellen's new images of empty corridors and grey voids were so spare and so mysterious that they seemed almost to refuse interpretation. What could I possibly say about them? Before I could turn down the job, though, Brett Cross did what he does best - he put the boot in. Shouting down a crackling line from his new home and office in the hinterland of the Kaipara, Brett, whose company Titus Books is publishing the catalogue for Wall, told me to stop being a 'lazy literalist'. According to Brett, I had become too accustomed to academic and political discourses that 'lay meaning out on a plate', and needed to think 'on more of a tangent'. Brett was distinctly unimpressed when I suggested that certain types of art demanded a silent response. 'Silence is bullshit', he crackled down the line. 'What mysticism! You've been reading too much Heidegger!'
In between the jibes, Brett did make one very good point. He noted that a work of art which is cryptic is by its very nature open to many different interpretations, and therefore ought to stimulate rather than befuddle the minds that contemplate it. 'Think of those presocratic writers Ted Jenner is always on about', Brett shouted. 'Everyone disagrees about what those Greeks meant, because all they left were little fragments. You have to reconstruct the whole in your own mind. Use your imagination!'
Cowed by Brett, I soon wrote a three thousand word essay inspired by Ellen's eerie series of drawings. When I turned the text over to the boss of Titus, though, my relief quickly disappeared. 'What's this?' Brett asked, as he flipped through the pages I'd printed out. 'EP Thompson, Marx, enclosures, the industrial revolution - all your usual obsessions...you haven't even talked about Ellen's work!' 'Well, the last thousand words are about her', I replied rather forlornly. 'And I thought you told me to let my mind run free...' 'Yes, but this is the sort of stuff you're always talking about' Brett grumped. 'Why are you so predictable?'
Ellen was less dismayed by the catalogue essay than Brett, but we all agreed, after a couple of beers and a couple of proofreading sessions, that there was a danger that my discussions of the drawings in Wall might get lost amidst disquisitions on subjects like industrialisation and the problems of Marxist theory. Our solution to the problem has been to split the essay into two columns. The left column, which is called 'Notes on Walls', is all history and sociology; the right column, which is called 'Notes on Wall', sticks to describing and analysing Ellen's drawings. Readers can choose which column to consult first. I can't reproduce the split column on this blog, but I thought I'd try alternating a few selected paragraphs from 'Notes on Walls' and 'Notes on Wall' to give an idea of the effect of the column (I've italicised the paragraphs from 'Notes on Wall'). To get the full texts, and to see Ellen's extraordinary new drawings, you'll have to come along to her exhibition next month.
Excerpts from 'Notes on Wall' and 'Notes on Walls'
...Ellen Portch’s new exhibition plays on the ambiguous response that the symbol of the wall evokes in many of us. The more than two dozen drawings which comprise Wall are not intended to be easy to interpret. These cool, untitled, mostly unpopulated works are highly detailed and carefully structured, and yet we cannot readily identify a setting for them. The sharp, straight lines of the simplified structures they depict may remind us of the utopian blueprints of Le Corbusier, or of antiseptic sci fi dystopias like Andrew Nicol’s movie Gattaca. There might even be one or two locations in the real world – the windswept monuments of North Korea, or the lower layers of the nuclear disposal plants buried under the American desert – that resemble the scenes Portch has depicted.
...The fact that walls haunt the thought of so many modern philosophers and social scientists might seem surprising. It is, after all, fashionable to suggest that the modern era, and the accelerating process known as globalisation which perhaps represents the terminus of the modern era, have broken down the barriers between groups of humans that were long isolated by culture and geography, as new strains of technology and new flows of capital develop and interlink national and regional economies. When the unctuous Mike Moore wrote a book celebrating his work at the head of the World Trade Organisation he called it A World Without Walls.
To treat the drawings in Wall simply as depictions of an actual or possible outer world, though, would be to miss the possibility that they show us the inside of a human mind. When we gaze at the blade-like edges of Portch’s walls and floors, at the torches that stand like giant Bunsen burners on many of her walls, and at the vacuum that opens around the edges of her buildings, we may decide that a strange emotional drama lurks in these drawings of sterile, almost empty environments. Like Giorgio de Chirico’s lonely avenues and towers, Portch’s platforms, walls, and windowless rooms are full of humanity, even when they appear abandoned by humans.
It can be argued, though, that the wall has always been an instrument and a symbol of the modern era. Historians usually associate the beginning of ‘modernity’ with the industrial revolution, an event that was made possible partly by the Inclosure Acts which walled off large areas of the British countryside that were previously used as common land by that nation’s peasantry. As walls shut them out of their pastures and their woods, peasants were forced into burgeoning industrial cities. Used to working in the open air, they were forced to spend their days between the walls of new factories. High walls separated their slum dwellings from the fine houses of their employers. The bleak walls of prisons and poorhouses warned them of the rules of their new world. The experience of Britain’s peasantry was to be repeated in most countries of the world.
...Do Portch’s walls represent confinement, or safety, or both? The walls often occur near the edge of the drawings, framing a grey void that seems to open and spread towards them. Our eyes travel towards the walls in horror at the void, in search of something solid and detailed to rest on. The walls allow us respite from the vacuum, but they often also block our gaze away from it. They seem to trap us inside the drawings they frame. We flee to them, and yet they imprison us.
The wall is even more ubiquitous in the wealthy, supposedly post-industrial cities of the twenty-first century West. In the nineteenth century, hundreds or even thousands of men and women might work together on one factory floor; today, in the office blocks of London or Sydney or Auckland, they labour in isolation from one another between the walls of air-conditioned cubicles. Modern life has created walls of more subtle kinds. In an essay called ‘Time, Work-discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’, the great English historian EP Thompson described how modern humans have learnt, or been forced, to create barriers between different parts of their lives. Where the artisans and farmers of the past might put down their tools whenever they felt like resting, the modern worker’s time is regulated by clocks and employment contracts. Lunch breaks and holidays cannot be taken at random. Work and rest are walled off; home and ‘the office’ represent two different worlds. In one of the books that record his walks across contemporary Britain, psychogeographer Iain Sinclair observes that humans have become so accustomed to the rhythms of modernity that is as though ‘the enclosures have been repeated under our skins’.
The figures that appear in Portch’s rooms add to our disquiet. Like the figures in the paintings Portch has exhibited over the years, they look both life-like and unreal. Although they have been drawn meticulously, the figures lack individuating aspects. Some of them are defined only by the fact that parts of their bodies are missing. Are they replicants, or part-replicants, of the same human? Are they even human? The peculiar, anxious ambiguity which all of the drawings in Wall stimulates becomes particularly intense when we consider the poses and expressions of the figures in Portch’s later drawings. We see them moving about their strange rooms, but we are unsure about the meaning, let alone the motivation, of their movements. Are they exercising, or perhaps performing strange rituals, or simply writhing in pain?
The internal walls Portch depicts near the end of her sequence are even more ambiguous. We may initially feel a certain relief when we enter them, and escape the vertiginous spaces that open so disconcertingly in the earlier drawings, but their apparent lack of doors or windows soon becomes disturbing. Are they refuges, or places of imprisonment?
...Yet the walls which are such a feature of the modern world need not be understood in an entirely negative light. It can certainly be argued that many of us have happily consented to the building and maintenance of these walls. In the West, the chaos and misery of industrialisation led, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to the rise of mass ameliorative movements, as workers organised trade unions and parties to put forward economic and political demands. Some of the more radical members of these movements dreamed of overturning capitalism and creating a society where a harmonious communal life replaced hierarchy and alienation.
In most countries, though, the vast majority of workers did not dream of knocking down the walls of industrial capitalism, but instead wanted to build new walls which might make their lives more pleasant. They did not want to live in communes, and share equally in the labour of maintaining society: they wanted to graduate from the crowded squalor of the slum to the tidy seclusion of the suburb, and from the noise of the factory floor to the calm cubicles of the office. When left-leaning governments attempted to ameliorate the worst features of capitalism in the twentieth century, they did so partly by building huge numbers of houses and apartments. For millions of workers, the walls of a council flat or low-mortgage house symbolised increased comfort and autonomy, not any sort of imprisonment.
The mental walls created by modernity have also been embraced by many of us. Devices like the cellphone, the blackberry, and the iPod have become popular because they increase rather than reduce the isolation of the twenty-first century human. Insulated aurally by our i pods and socially by the circles of acquaintances we commune with electronically via our cellphones or facebook, we can move through busy city streets or sit in a crowded bar without having to notice, let alone interact with, those who happen to share a piece of geography with us.
In one especially disturbing drawing, half a dozen of Portch's quasi-humans stand in a row on the edge of a burgeoning abyss. The artist does not make it clear whether the figures are preparing to leap into the spiralling grey vacuum, or whether they are guarding the approaches to the abyss, like ghostly versions of Salinger's catcher in the rye...