Sunday
Nov142010

The Glass Wall

Erik Anderson


 

October 14th

In spite of himself, Frost would have liked certain photographs of Dubai, in which the images of the present are filtered through the technologies of the past—a certain process pioneered by Gustave Le Gray, no less. In these photographs, taken by one Martin Becka, building sites take on a prophetic quality. Disaster appears in reverse. The empty avenues and promenades appear to be images from the fallout of some future catastrophe. Divorced from the bridges they have yet to support, girders and trusses stand like monuments of a demolished civilization. The construction cranes grieve over the buildings beneath them—as though, rather than their fabrication, the cranes were responsible for their complete disassembly. Here, architecture is little more than a ruse whereby one attaches reality to any number of the invisible wires that in turn connect to the machine we mistake for the world. Looking at these photos, one realizes that the world is far more tenuous, more contingent, than we had ever imagined. Here, to speak of structures would be to immediately dismantle them.          

But, then, every image is catastrophic. People will tell you that nothing like this has ever happened, but so unsettling is the coincidence of one disaster with another that I am sometimes ashamed at having made my living documenting them. I concede only this: each time catastrophe strikes—and if it hasn’t, it will—the way it refuses one’s gaze is different. Each prohibits in its own way. Legions of reporters and photographers (of whose number I have so often been a part) flock to the scene, and, even as they authenticate the crisis, each finds himself shut out in turn. Their documents become parts of a long, nightmarish century that has never really gone away, whose problems are our problems and whose propulsive force provides the fumes on which we are running. How is one to know this catastrophe when everything one knows is catastrophe? Over time, their importance—and this is their tragedy—diminishes exponentially, until it is only by the finest tuned of instruments that we can verify they existed to begin with. In this light, the document is almost an obscenity, and one is ashamed for having used, with too little care—and in connection with discussions of aesthetics—the word documentary.

In Frost’s imagined future, there would be no more documents, or else everything would be a document. The worst cockroaches, he said, will be those, like computer viruses, lurking in digital sinks, mucking up the works of your robot or interfering with your virtual family—and all of it, all of it, recorded for posterity by an empire whose expansion is measured not by borders but in bytes. Intelligence, so-called, will do away with the messy business of biology and, instead of limbs that break and veins that bleed, propagate itself instead. We will finally live as servants or slaves to our technologies and their indomitable will to record. The endless wave of extinctions, he said, is paving the way for the end of our era; evolution, which means next to nothing in a biological vacuum, will result in the termination of its own processes, and mad robots will roam the plains, herding humans.

In recent years, he said, I’ve heard scientists speak with a fervor more familiar to those awaiting the rapture than the laboratory, but their pious pronouncements may serve another master. Intelligence has come under the relentless logic of the marketplace: whatever cannot be quantified is either regarded with suspicion or discarded completely. What use does a robot have for poetry?

In the coming age of total automation, the market will turn intelligence itself into a product, but one severed from the body. Still, we will not have done away with humanity; we will have made it into a god. In the robot, Frost said, we see the perfect expression of man’s desire to divorce his brain from his body, to sever his intelligence from his sight. In the end we will perhaps have made a better more efficient version of the brain, but if the body disappears, all that will remain is a brain, disembodied. 

October 18th

I sometimes flatter myself by thinking Frost’s hatred of images was the least harmful of ways he enacted a fatherly power struggle with me, but it was in all likelihood an expression of his desire to extirpate from recorded history what was, by his own account, a vulgar existence. You might say that his suspicion of photography was the opposite of the one Edith describes, where women wear heavy shawls, even in the tropical heat, to hide themselves and, if they have them, their children. Faces, she writes, are sacrosanct, particularly those of the young. Frost’s wasn’t this sort of superstition: for him the face was nearly pornographic, an image that, severed from a body, could only be a wound.

In any case, what can you say about a man except that he died, and that, should circumstance permit, we might look out at his river? Sitting along the Guadalquivir, I read that it took more than a century to complete work on the nearby cathedral, designed, the book said, on a scale grand enough to impress upon posterity the notion that its architects had been totally out of their heads. The tower that rises above it dominates the city’s skyline, one of the few reminders that a mosque once stood on the spot. It boggles the mind to think that—and this in the most Christian of cities—muezzins once stood in that minaret.

The irony is completely lost on the Spaniards, who claim, superciliously, that Columbus’ bones lie in the gaudy monument within, while on the other side of the Atlantic, in Santo Domingo, the Dominicans have been saying for a century that he’s buried in the very cathedral behind the tall statue Edith and I passed Sunday mornings on our way to the café. Americans in Spain tell themselves they’ve come to see the Goya’s in the Prado, Gaudi’s unfinished church. I want to see the Alhambra before I die, they say, or the brown buildings of Salamanca or run with the bulls or take the pilgrim’s path to the "end of the world." Really they have this masochistic urge to see the place that shipped out suffering as though bodies were so much cured meat. History’s imprint is distinct, indelible. It leads, inevitably, to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome: we come to love our captors.

From Seville, I traveled to Palos and the silted bay where Columbus, the prototypical cowboy, launched his ships. The train ride to Huelva was unremarkable. I napped, mostly, and when I awoke we were crossing the Rio Tinto in Niebla. My thoughts ran toward images of large open pit mines whose concentric circles are visible from space. Spain is a scar. I walked out of the Moorish station with its bright blue doors and took an overpriced taxi to Palos. We drove south along the riverfront, passed the large monument to Columbus at the confluence of the Tinto and the Odiel, then turned north again. Palos didn’t turn out to be much of a town, but in the restaurant on the first floor of the hotel where I was staying I read in one of those rags put out by the local tourist board that the Rio Tinto had been useful in its contributions to the search for life on Mars.

A scar, I wrote in the margin of the torn out page, is sometimes shaped like a church, sometimes like a university, sometimes like the shadow cast in the late afternoon by an oversized bronze sculpture, which becomes, in that moment, hurrying home with arms piled full of newspapers and books, the whole world. As I sat there drinking my second or third glass of Jerez, I could almost limn a line of damage that ran from Puncak Jaya on Papua to the Meridiani Planum, just south of the Mars equator. Then the waiter came with a plate of miniature ham sandwiches, and I grew distracted by my dinner. 

A famous geneticist has said that the bones in Seville are authentic, but with a caveat: it might only be part of the body, the rest of which may still be lying in Santo Domingo. You hear it said, repeated like a mantra, that those who do not remember their history are condemned to repeat it. Lorca writes that "the graveyards, yes, the graveyards/ and the sorrow of the kitchens buried in sand,/ the dead, pheasants and apples of another era"—they’re "pushing into our throat." Who’s to say where all these dead will direct us? They may be a problem to solve, or the quantities in the equations of ourselves for which we must find solutions.

So one’s life amounts to a complicated emotional calculus, one in which all of the answers are dependent on others, themselves tenuously and hastily arrived at—a patched-together response to an interminably emergent crisis. Needless to say the only kind of math that interested Frost were the problems without solutions, problems folded into other problems. And imaginary numbers, he said, what a lovely idea, don’t you think? I have always wanted to see oblivion, he told me, as an inexorable, imaginary arithmetic. I have always wanted to watch hopelessness and failure push their way through the dramas of unproven theorems and improbable conjectures. You could say, he said, I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen.

I returned to Seville from Palos after a few days and spent a week or so there before traveling alone in a two-car train across the endless rows of olive trees and saffron fields to Granada. In a gift shop I bought a guide to the buildings and briefly considered a Spanish translation of Washington Irving’s Tales from the Alhambra. That night, I ate a lousy meal in a Moroccan restaurant. My hotel was a long walk up the winding, hillside streets of the old gypsy quarter. I wondered what to make of those beautiful cupolas with their thousands of stalactites—made, I read in my guidebook, "by joining together tiny prisms of plaster or wood to give a honeycomb effect—the most lovely of which, shaped like an eight-pointed star, is not unlike an image of the universe gyrating on the arches linking the square floor below to the polygonal heaven above." Mine has always been a more terrestrial work. A photograph might link, through some invisible umbilicus, the viewer with the view, but unlike that floor in which one sees the ceiling reflected, there will always be limits to how much of oneself one may see in an image.

Unless I’ve been wrong all along. In which case this will end up an inverted, unintended, self-portrait, and my grief little more than self-mourning.

October 21st

Several years ago in London I showed a number of portraits blown up to nearly 4 feet wide and a couple feet high. Parts of the photos had been cut out and were exhibited in a frame alongside the skeleton photo in an identical frame. Often, the missing pieces were geometrical shapes—squares, circles, triangles—but in many cases, including the few photographs in which I appeared, the shapes were asymmetrical, like clouds or stains. In the case of my self-portraits, some of the pieces resembled the branches of trees while others were shaped like the leaves they had shed. It disturbed me for some reason, seeing the way I’d mutilated my own image, but when, years later, I walked into that room at the Alhambra with the honeycomb ceiling, I understood my intentions.

At the time of the exhibition, however, I had no explanation for the shapes, and when pressed by the gallery owner, when he took me to Bunhill Fields to visit Defoe’s grave, I could only say that I had loved many people a great deal but that I was probably guilty of loving myself most of all. As we strolled silently through the small public garden, he told me how many of the graves had been destroyed by the German bombardment, and that the park was a result of the city’s failure, or unwillingness, to rehabilitate the grounds. He shrugged in a way that meant something like go figure.

Hounded by creditors and practically broke, Defoe died in hiding. The large obelisk that marks his grave was built with donations long after he’d been buried. For those who want to visit the nearby grave of William Blake, also paid for with borrowed money, an organization dedicated to the poet’s memory produces a small pamphlet listing the number of paces away from a certain grave and, in a different direction, from another. We walked our paces from the respective graves but could never quite get the coordinates right. Afterward we had a beer at a pub called the Artillery Arms, despite my plea that we find somewhere with a more appealing name. We spoke of trivial things. He asked about Madame Tussaud’s. Had I seen Diana? Saddam Hussein? What did I think of Bill Clinton? Of Lady Gaga? Of Johnny Cash? Before long, we were tired. He waited with me for a taxi near the Old Street station. A couple of days later I flew home without seeing him again.

In Granada, on the other hand, everyone asked whether I’d seen the monument erected in Isabel and Fernando’s honor. The question became such a consistent feature of conversations with bartenders and store clerks that I began to say that I had, that I had been bored by it, as I had been in Madame Tussaud’s. Strange though it may be for a photographer to say it, such verisimilitude bored me.

Instead of the tombs and tired of trains, I rented a car and drove to the desert around Tabernas to see the old sets where many of the Spaghetti westerns were filmed. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly had been shot there, with its iconic American actor but directed by an Italian who spoke French with the cast, the whole film dubbed poorly into English. Members of Franco’s army served as extras. Walking past the Yellow Rose Saloon in Tabernas’ Mini-Hollywood, I thought Frost would have appreciated the pageantry of it. And it came to me suddenly that perhaps this was what he had longed for in photography: men and women in outdated costumes holding parasols and fake pistols, staging shootouts in simulated streets. Pomp, in other words. Spectacle. And the promise they made, that any reality was only as good as the show it put on, so take a little extra time in the mirror, put a little extra powder on your nose. It’s going to be a long night, and the bleachers are packed.