ART IN THE FUTURE TENSE, by David Reason
I am writing these words at the turn of the year 1991: there is a full moon. Nearing the threshold of another millennium, with each swing of the moon I seem to sense a crisis not of our times, but of our sense of time itself. The recent past - flecked with hope, scarred with catastrophe - abandons us to a present which the future threatens to crush. The dead stay dead, their hoarse whispered secrets growing faint to our ears. “The past becomes more and more unlike the present, and as it recedes even more quickly in developing countries than it does in advanced industrialized ones, more and more we need to know who we were in greater and greater detail in order to surmise who we might be’ writes Angela Carter’ in the course of plumping up a place for fairytales in our contemporary lives. Her desire to make such an argument intensifies the sense of a chronic dislocation, as though a deep tremor had disturbed the clarity of our image of our world, and we will not know for some time yet who or what is our contemporary.
The world changes, and will change; and humanity will change with it. Recognizing this brings a peculiar opportunity (perhaps, indeed, an obligation) to the artist. Any celebration of evanescence must avoid the temptation to pander to pathos, and a sense of transience must be invoked without the awesome impress - the seal - of the Sublime. Waldo Bien, whose work has prompted this essay, is committed to a sculpture that will prepare us for the future: “what is the value of present understandings
- egocentric, limited – to future worlds?‘ he has asked me in conversation. His artistic practice strives to go beyond accenting our human short-sightedness and vulnerability to an emphasis upon a commitment to preparedness - and this implies a kind of hope, for it keeps alive the possibility that we can find a home in the future world. In a way, this aspiration can be seen as endorsing “ecological” precepts: it does not favor the feverish search for certainties in the rightness of particular knowledge, but is content to rely upon an ability to appropriately to whatever unfolds; and it celebrates variation and plurality, keeping options open and trusting in collective conversation and debate rather than hierarchy and authority.
Contemporary geology claims two great revolutions in its history to establish its warrant to being a modern science, freed of moral preconceptions and predispositions. In 1788 James Hutton had pitted his notion of a ‘deep time ‘against the primacy of those vast processes of sedimentation and erosion, which are so redolent of decay and so accommodating to a metaphysics of decline and corruption. “Deep time “ recognized the existence of processes of regeneration and repair in the earth c history: the river’s flushing of mountains into the sea was balanced by the submarine up life of ranges formed from folds of deeper stuff Together with the principles of ‘ceaseless motion most recently fleshed out in theories of plate tectonics which conceive the earth substantial surface as an aggregation, compaction and separation of drifting floes of rock, the concept of deep time establishes an independence of disinterested geological time - measuring the pulse of the processes of formation and deformation of this material world -from historical time. Yet Hutton himself does not regard the separation as total, as effecting a rupture between human beings and their world. Rather he regards his sketch of the ‘world machine’ as both describing the physical causes of the structure of the world, and as accounting for its fitness for its purpose the sustaining of human life.
Hutton’s world still courses through a cosmological space that allows him to write of ‘this mechanism of the globe, by which it is adapted to the purpose of being a habitable globe’ Ours is ‘a world contrived in consummate wisdom for the growth and habitation of a great diversity of plants and animals; and a world peculiarly adapted to the purpose of man, who inhabits all its climates, who measures its extent, and determines its productions at his pleasure’2
My response to these words is sharply ambivalent, a sweet-sour thrill of anxiety. In some respects, Hutton’s ‘world machine’ although clearly to be valued by him as the juggernaut ensuring Man’s domination of creation, nonetheless anticipates a nowadays fashionable faith in the benign indifference of the biosphere, sometimes personified as Gaia. Without doubt, Hutton takes his place amongst the apologists for the anthropocentric wrecking of the earth. Yet he is also amongst the first to provide an understanding which stresses the inevitability of change without the necessity of progress, and which puts aside the demand for an account of privileged origins. “If the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.“3
In Bien’s view, sculpture - he could as well have said art, or understanding more generally - is different from the currency of science, in that science is “the result of a vision which does not include the transformability of man ‘ Psychoanalysts have become almost habituated to the credo that our anxieties about the future may be the trace of things which have already occurred, but which, happening before the crystallization of a fully developed ego-consciousness, were denied the possibility of formulation as memories. Fake forgettings and the misplacements of the past provide the surest fuel for presentiment, whose long shadows stretch before us to false finger and obscure the furthest horizon. The transformation of man requires a work of therapy, as it were, a work which re-embeds human being in an epic of cosmic proportions, but not as hero, and with the fresh vision that comes with the readiness to face up to a world as it is, and not as we would wish it to be.
Undoubtedly, it is the premiss of the real possibility of such a vision that enchants me in reading commentaries of the ways of fife of peoples who seem refreshingly un modern. Marco Pallis’s reflections on the key values of traditional Tibetan culture and consciousness are typical. ‘Every Tibetan seems to have a nomadic streak in him and is never happier than when moving, on pony back or, if he is a poor man, on foot through an unpeopled countryside in close communion with untamed Nature; rapid travel would be no travel, as far as this quality of experience is concerned. Here again, one sees how a certain kind of life helps to foster the habit of inward recollection as well as that sense of kinship with animals, birds and trees which is so deeply rooted in the Tibetan soul.“4 A sure sense of warm kinship with our fellow inhabitants of this world is a characteristic Of the modern vision of a pre-modern world, and it leads easily into the thought that perhaps there are forms of participation in nature which precede even the pre-modern sensibility (precede because the concept of modernity is a concept which conflates a style of consciousness and an awareness of historical succession).
Maybe there are memories which exist before culture, which exist in a pre-cultural form: Waldo Bien assures me there are. Retracing my steps can prompt recall of where laid down my missing pen, as though this body itself recollected my past actions. But I find it difficult to suppose that this lends support to a belief which must insist on the possibility of human beings existing with- out (before) a human culture. To believe otherwise is to believe that one can invent a script for writing before one has developed a means of reading. The Hmong who once inhabited the hills on the borders of Thailand and Cambodia asserted exactly that: but only after they had been displaced and dispossessed as a consequence of the Cambodian war. Their understanding of the loss of their power and prestige as a consequence of the loss of their written texts is understandable and touching but false. To claim otherwise is to be patronizing and viciously indulgent.
“Wer viel glaubt, /Dem widerfährt viel.’5 The passions of belief are seductive, of ten fatally so, and a craving for a surrogate richness to experience can never console us in our failure to achieve an accuracy of experience. We can no longer afford to have any truck with neo-primitivism and the pseudo-raptures of immediate and authentic perception for which such notions reach. So long as we hope for things to be other than they are - and the assurance that they can be is a drone with which all potent art resonates - then we will be subject to the desolate certainty that our best efforts will fall short of our aim. “It is because of the inadequacy of our step upon the earth that bears it that we are fascinated by ‘the step that isn’t there” writes Tim Robinson , and I agree with his judgment that the refusal to be tempted by that step - in the vain hope of making some death-defying leap of faith - is both the more honorable and, strictly, the more demanding course.
‘No vestige of a beginning - no prospect of an end . . .“ Reality is distinct from our fantasies at least in this: we are never wholly at home in the real world of potentiality and actualization because reality resists the fulfillment of our desires and eludes our grasp. The real world is unheimlich (uncanny).
The stories to which Waldo Bien’s art invites us to listen begin, as Armenian tales are reported to do, “There was a time and no time ...““ If it is true that Time began, it is clear that nothing else has begun since, that every apparent origin is a stage in an older process ‘ remarks Robinson dramatizing the idea that the factual reality of a thing its identity, is marked and marked out by an inner horizon of possibility, by its complicity in the unfolding of a general cosmology. Intricate lives, sediments, evolution, process : this is the stuff of Bien sculpture. He stages the evidences of process, of discontinuity and interconnection, in the world that he inhabits: and we with him. The materials of this art are corrosion, erosion, reaction and extinction as much as they are wood and stone and oil, yet rarely has the sculptural banner of ‘truth to materials’ more splendidly set the standard. Objects and installations which reveal the traces of intransigent alteration are not only touched by a glow of nostalgia, they stand for us as emblems of vanitas, and as memento mori, both remembrances of the things past and memoranda: don‘t forget to die! We will die, this is humanity’s chronic condition. But more importantly, we must die: we must recognize this imperative, for it is only the temporary nature of our occupation of the globe that can secure hope for the world.
Waldo Bien makes of sculpture a deep art, working with materials that span “the gamut from saint to stone” 8 They have more than a history: they are possessed of an age, and are seemingly brought back from a chthonic sphere of subterranean intimations and premonitions. Generally, objects which strike us as charged with presence ‘court the danger of colluding in the spectator’s desire to be hoodwinked by magic, for they seem to become invested with a limitless power that derives from the audience’s desire for the object to have power over them. If this should result in being involved in humiliation or danger, then that all too often simply adds a frisson to the experience, titillating their fancy all the more. Bien sculpture sidesteps the charge of fetishism, which inhabits the dark domain of displaced powers, by its generous helping of wit and caprice. We are confronted with neither ideology nor protest; but with a critical, disconcerting, and productively unsettling art which throws our preconceptions and false comforts into relief Without being po-faced or sentimental, Bien adopts - and offers us - a perspective from which we can see our- selves and our concerns already as fossils, and as earth- stains.
Since beginning this writing the massacre at Wounded Knee has been widely remembered, and tanks have gathered at the border of Kuwait, and at the border of Lithuania. Jam writing these words by the dark of the moon. The bright moon will come, leaving no tracks in its passing from rim to rim of the hoop of my horizon.
1)Angela Carter: The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, Virago Press, l99O:p. x.
2) Quotations are from James Hutton (1788): Theory of the Earth. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1; pp. 209-305. Stephen Jay Gould provides an illuminating revisionist discussion of Hutton in Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time, Harvard University Press, 1987
3) This is the conclusion of The Theory of the Earth (1788).
4) Marco Pallis: “Foreword” to Chogyam Trungpa: Born in Tibet (1966), Unwin Hyman Ltd. London, 1987
5) ‘He who believes a lot, /experiences a lot’ A saying attributed to a peasant woman from the Mark, and quoted in Hans PeterDuerr:
Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilisation (1978), (trans. Felicitas Goodman), Blackwell, l985;p. 105.
6) Tim Robinson: The Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986), Penguin Books, 1990; p. 100.
7) ibid, p. 1.
8) ibid p. 281.