on nearness to death.

“Be – and yet know the great void where all things begin” – Rilke

Death is an evental space.

An evental space is a site of Truth, which is to say, an experience of radical newness. By radical, I mean completely outside of language, unknowable, and wholly personal.

What better word do we have for the unspeakably unknown than death? Death is the abyss over which the precipice of life looks. It is the void at life’s very core. What better source could we have for radical newness than the most radical extreme of life itself: death?

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me ask, simply – What would it mean to posit death as an evental space?

Rilke encourages this approach to death in Letters: 1910-1926, “Death is the side of life averted from us, unshone upon by us… We must try to achieve the greatest consciousness of our existence which is at home in both unbounded realms, inexhaustibly nourished from both… The true figure of life extends through both spheres” (373).

As this quote reveals, we are not speaking about the experience of death after life, but rather what it might do for us, in life, to have a nearness to death. Thus, my project here is to draw an analogy between that productive unknown void at our core, that space we call evental, and this notion of death, in all of its obliterating power. For what does death obliterate in life if not the boundaries of identity?

Allow me another analogy: what is the most human attempt at destroying the boundaries between people? Or shall I say, destroying the boundaries between bodies. Sex. The erotic experience.

I will thus attempt to outline these many concepts below: death, creativity, sexuality, the void, Truth, radical newness, God, eroticism and the evental space. My analogy attempts to show that all these elements are saying the same thing: you don’t have to die to do what death does.

This outline will begin by looking at one of the most powerful analogies in western thought: the Sun as Truth, which later becomes linked to God. I will then discuss the best film I’ve ever seen to deal with this problematic: Pascal Laugier’s “Martyrs.” I will then trace the death drive from its source in Freud to its contemporary re-interpretations. I will then introduce the erotic by discussing Bataille’s thesis in Erotism, as well as revealing this analogy at work in the recent film “Black Swan” by Darren Aronofsky.

Derrida Dreams of Death

Plato, in The Republic, establishes one of the West’s most foundational analogies with his allegory of the cave. In this story, the “sun” outside of the “cave” is meant to stand in for the transcendental signified, which is to say, Truth. In his allegory, the philosophers are the ones who leave this cave, go outside and look at the light of the sun. Everyone else just sees shadows.

Thus was the origin of our metaphors for intelligence: enlightened, shed light upon, etc. Ever since Plato, the light of the sun has been an analogy for Truth. Since Christianity, this analogy has added the term “God” to the equation. Thus, today we have: Sun::Truth::God.

Yet, analogizing Truth/God to the sun also does something curious. In Spurs and in Of Grammatology, Derrida “illuminates” this problematic of light metaphors by writing, “The dream of death begins” (Spurs, 89). By this he means, that if humans were to be truly present with God, truly in possession of Truth, by association with this analogy, they would be looking directly at the sun. And anyone who’s been a kid knows, you’re not supposed to look directly at the sun. Why? Because it’s blinding.

Derrida writes, “Pure presence itself, if such a thing were possible, would be only another name for death” (Of Grammatology, 155). He goes on to show how language protects us from that pure, blinding presence of the sun, but we won’t touch upon that here. The point has been made: to access God/Truth means to look directly at the sun, a death by blindness.

But don’t let this deter you! This is not a warning against seeking Truth, but rather the introduction of a new element into our analogical string of terms: Sun::Truth::God::Death.

The introduction of this fourth term is exemplified in the film “Martyrs.”

Martyrs: Death as Access to God

Pascal Laugier introduces his film “Martyrs” by calling it “a response to ‘Funny Games’,” a film by Michael Haneke. He claims that “Funny Games” presents violence for no reason, while “Martyrs” engages violence for the greatest reason known to man. Without addressing the validity of dismissing “Funny Games,” I will go with his second point: the greatest reason.

 

"Martyrs" - a film by Pascal Laugier

Georges Bataille writes about religious sacrifice in his book Erotism, stating that “In sacrifice… the victim dies and the spectators share in what his death reveals. This is what religious historians call the element of sacredness. This sacredness is the revelation of continuity through the death of a discontinuous being to those who watch it as a solemn rite” (22).

Keep this quote in mind while I briefly outline the film’s second half. Anna, our new protagonist, stumbles across a basement dungeon in the house of her lover’s abusers. At once her lover is vindicated: she was not insane, but was truly abused as a child. Anna’s love is reborn, and she decides to explore the house for evidence. She is horrified to find the dungeon in pristine condition, expensively outfitted and sadistically utilitarian – not the work of amateurs. After rescuing another young woman, Anna is seized by the true owners of this dungeon: a religious cult. The Matriarch of the cult sits Anna down and explains everything to her.

They are an ancient cult made up of wealthy aristocrats. Their aim is simple, yet next to impossible to achieve: to recreate the religious experience of martyrdom. They believe, as the above Bataille quote suggests, that martyrdom leads to a sacred nearness to God. Their goal is to be near to that nearness, to witness this nearness to death::God::Truth. And then they tell her she’s next.

 

The cult.

Anna is broken down, and eventually martyred in the most horrifying, painful way possible: she is completely skinned alive. Yet, their hypothesis was true. She achieves a presence with God before dying. She gains access to the Truth, and is able to relate it all to the Matriarch. Anna passes away with a holy, cosmic look in her eyes.

What is Laugier analogizing here? He is synthesizing two opposite poles: the most horrible thing a human can experience, and the most beautifully transcendent. Anna achieves what the entire history of western philosophy and religion has sought – access to God/Truth. Yet, she is skinned alive. She can only get it via the most horrible bodily experience possible. Laugier is claiming that these two extremes are linked.

 

The Mademoiselle hears the Word.

He thus proves Derrida’s thesis, that the only access to God/Truth is death. This is exemplified in the film’s final moments. Immediately following Anna’s divine confession to the Matriarch, a cult-wide conference is held. All of the members are eager to hear her Truth, the word of God.

The Matriarch is in the bathroom, slowly taking off all her makeup, her fake eyelashes, her wig, etc. I read this as her exit from the Symbolic, a re-becoming of body. A cult member knocks on the door calling for her. She asks him, “Can you imagine what happens after death?” He responds, “No.” The Matriarch then puts a gun in her mouth, and before shooting herself, says, “Keep doubting.”

Now, the content of Anna’s confession doesn’t matter here. Does she reveal the glory of Heaven, or the void of nothingness? Is the Matriarch’s suicide a nihilistic gesture, or an eagerness to join God? The structural analogy is intact regardless of its content, since the crux of this thesis rests upon knowing: Truth::God::Death. All who see are blinded by the sun. The only way to live is to doubt.

Reinterpreting the Death Drive

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud defines the death drive in binary opposition with Eros (love, relatedness). He claims that the death drive is “man’s natural aggressive drive, the hostility of each against all… The death drive [is] found beside Eros and which rules the world jointly beside [it]” (58).

Today, even though this term has retained its name ‘death drive,’ it no longer connotes an irrational hostility, but rather the opposite. Contemporary psychoanalytic theory has completely reinterpreted the binary opposition of death drive/Eros, not just inverting it, but rather compressing both elements into a new term. This new term is still designated as the ‘death drive,’ but as Zizek states, it is now understood as “the return of the life force… What re-emerges in the ‘death drive’ is ultimately life itself, and the fact that the ego perceives this return as a death threat precisely confirms its perverted ‘repressive’ character. The ‘death drive’ means that life itself rebels against the ego” (Interrogating the Real, 159).

Allow me to unpack this passage. What Zizek is calling the ‘death drive’ is actually an excessiveness of life drive – this is raw life in the form of pure existence. We will later see Bataille refer to this pure existence as continuity. By linking the death drive to a return of pure existence, these authors are establishing a narrative. It goes like this: pure existence exists. It is then interrupted by the formation of the ego, which is to say – individuals arrive on the scene. Individuals are constituted by language. This entrance into the Symbolic, cuts us off from Things. The ego thus builds its walls of identity, and situates itself into a system of symbolic exchange. We then have the audacity to call living in a perpetual state of lack by the name ‘life.’

Thus, the “return of the life force” interrupts this lack, and in fact restores a sense of authentic continuity – the continuity of pure existence. This is the intrusion of pure life in all its radical potentiality, in all its undifferentiated multiplicity. Zizek states that this intrusion is perceived “as a death threat” by the ego because, quite violently, the ego’s constitutive limits are threatened by existence’s unboundedness. Pure life is called the ‘death drive’ since it breaks down all boundaries. This is an astute re-definition, since another name for pure existence is ‘God.’

The death drive is thus a creative force. Don’t be confused by its name – this is not a suicide-drive. But rather being in a living state of a “nearness to death,” a living with the understanding of what death does. And, as Rilke writes, it means being “at home in both unbounded realms.”

Unbounded Love: Salomé/Rilke

In Flesh of My Flesh, Kaja Silverman writes, “There is no getting outside of the unfathomable totality of which we are a part; not only is it spatially unbounded, but it also extends backward and forward in time. Most of us, though, are mentally estranged from this dimension of Being. We are unable to say ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’ to the existence of other creatures and other things because our ego has either incorporated them or excluded them. This will continue to be the case unless we allow the angel of death to graze us with his wing, because only finitude can teach us how to affirm” (28, emphasis added).

When Silverman writes that we must “allow the angel of death to graze us with his wing,” she is speaking about none other than the death drive. This is the same analogy we’ve been making, the great analogy, we might say – the intertwining of death with life. This passage essentially states that this nearness to death is the thing that allows us to affirm. Saying yes to what death means, means saying yes to everything.

The unboundedness that a nearness to death affirms also allows, via analogy, the sexual relationship to reach its full potential. By this I mean that the evaporation of the death/life boundary is analogous to the evaporation of the masculine/feminine boundary – both breaches allow for a profound identification with the reciprocal term. Unbounding each term thus dissolves their binary relationship, and establishes a new, synthesized term – a sort of multiplicitous totality.

Silverman addresses this potentiality within the sexual relationship by discussing Rilke’s love affair with Salomé. Salomé, a writer and psychoanalyst, had intense relationships with four men during her time: Nietzsche, Freud, Paul Rée, and Rilke. Yet, the only one of these relationships that was sexual was hers with Rilke. The radical reciprocity of this relationship allowed Salomé to come to an understanding of a term she called “identification.” I use the phrase “radical reciprocity” because Salomé was able to dissolve the opposition between the terms in her relationship: Salomé/Rilke, masculine/feminine, death/life. For her, love had to be unbounded.

Silverman writes, “To identify with someone or something in the Saloméan sense of the word is not to transform this other into an image of oneself, but rather to feel one’s togetherness with it in an ‘unfathomable totality.’ This totality is unfathomable because it has no limits, either temporally or spatially, and because it defies explanation. It can be affectively registered, but it cannot be thought” (26).

This “affectively registered but not thought” feeling of unfathomable totality is the evental space. This feeling is the radical potential of love, and the productive unboundedness brought about by a nearness to death.

Silverman concludes by stating, “Rilke came to see that there is ‘neither a here nor a beyond,’ but only one ‘realm whose depth and influence we share, everywhere unboundaried, with the dead and those to come.’ The only song that is commensurate with the world’s ‘longing’ is one that affirms this unity – that says ‘life-AND-death’” (80).

Eroticism as Event

“Eroticism, it may be said, is assenting to life up to the point of death,” writes Bataille in Erotism (11). With this first line, he is boldly introducing a new term in our analogical series: sex.

Above, we explored how the death drive qua pure existence restores a sense of authentic continuity. Bataille proposes that sex does the same thing. He picks up from psychoanalysis and states that individuals, because of their constitutive identities, are separate from one another. The moment the ego forms the boundaries of its identity, it is forever alone; which means, one being living separately amongst other separate beings. Life, then, is an experience of discontinuity.

The death drive is thus the force that leads us back to our original continuity. The word “force” is actually misleading here. Instead, one might even say: the death drive is the topology towards continuity. The same way in which gravity isn’t a force, but rather the curvature of space itself, so is the death drive the curvature of existence, leading us back to continuity.

As we have seen, a nearness to death wears many masks. Sex, too, is a profound experience of continuity. Physically, the boundaries between bodies break down during sex. Bodies enter one another, transgressing their surfaces. Psychologically, the experience of sex is one of union, of loss of identity to a new whole. Nakedness in itself is a symbolic gesture – the lowering of one’s defenses and the possibility of intimate openness.

Bataille writes, “Bodies open out to a state of continuity through secret channels that give us a feeling of obscenity.” And earlier, “The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives” (17).

Sex and eroticism, just like a nearness to death, aim to dissolve the boundaries between binaries, the boundaries we experience in our “normal lives.” This nakedness, which brings us skin to skin with our lover, has a chiasmic character. It is indeed the “flesh” written about by Merleau-Ponty, which says, “we become others and we become world” (The Visible and the Invisible, 160). We become unbounded, both self/other, both masculine/feminine, both alive/dead.

It comes as no surprise that the French word for “orgasm” is “la petit mort” – which translates as “the little death.” The same experience of continuity produced by sex is present in a nearness to death. The French language, and Bataille are thus making the same analogy: Sex::Death.

And perhaps this brings us to a larger analogy (since death is a form of violence) that sexuality and violence emerge from the same void within ourselves. Bataille writes, “The domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation… The most violent thing of all for us is death which jerks us out of a tenacious obsession with the lastingness of our discontinuous being” (16).

Mind you, I’m not talking about bringing physical violence into the sexual act. That would have the opposite effect we’re looking for. Physical violence would end up reifying the separation between individuals. Abuse, in this sense, isolates the individual within reactionary psychological walls, imprisoning the ego. I’m talking about is the opposite: destroying all walls of the ego. What I am talking about is a conceptualization of the sexual act as violence. A violence that comes from unleashing pure existence in all of its radical potentiality is a violence that is constituted by the unboundedness of authentic continuity.

Sex, in this sense, is an event. Eroticism is the evental space constituted by this nearness to death. Thus: Truth::God::Death::Sex.

Bataille elucidates, “Eroticism opens the way to death. Death opens the way to the denial of our individual lives. Without doing violence to our inner selves, are we able to bear a negation that carries us to the farthest bounds of possibility? (24).

What does Bataille mean by “the farthest bounds of possibility?” This is where art comes in. Death qua eroticism opens up the evental space of creativity. And no other film renders this space better than Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.”

Black Swan: The Evental Space Unbounded

Nina, played by Natalie Portman, is a ballet dancer of near perfect technique. Yet, her frigid personality and passionless control stifle her creativity, making her flawless, yet boring. She makes an ideal white swan, but since she lacks any element of the irrational, sensual passion of the black swan, her ballet director is hesitant to cast her as the lead (which has to play both parts).

The film’s narrative is essentially Nina’s journey to discover all of the “black swan” qualities she lacks. The point I’m making here doesn’t require the specifics of this story, but rather relies on the interconnectedness of all the qualities she releases once the fetters of her self-repression give way.

 

Natalie Portman as Nina in Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan"

Nina begins by turning her gaze inward, away from practicing technique and toward the unknown within herself. Her journey into her own unknown releases three things: her vibrant creativity, her passionate sexuality, and her insatiable violence. In the end, she succeeds and becomes the black swan. But, the point here has already been made, which is the analogy between these three elements: violence, sexuality and creativity.

Aronofsky’s profound thesis in this film is this analogy. He is incredibly astute to link these three elements to Nina’s unboundedness – because they are all indeed inexorably linked. The journey into the unspeakably unknown, into the void at the center of each of us, unleashes these three because they are all the exact same. Let me elaborate. The radical newness that is produced by access to the evental space is violent, because it destroys all limits of the ego, is erotic, because it produces an unbounded experience of continuity, and is artistic, because it releases the pure possibility of creativity.

 

The Black Swan emerges.

These three elements are each the same thing because all three do what death does. They are each an experience of Truth, in all of its radical potential and authentic continuity. The life force that streams out of Nina is nothing short of pure life itself, flowing forth without boundaries. It is the creative force.

 

Nina's unbounded sexuality.

Art, like love, is that which says yes to everything.

Thus, once the shackles restraining her evental space are thrown off, Nina violently explodes with sexuality and creativity. All boundaries in her world dissolve, thrusting her into a fantastic, unbounded world. This world is a work of art.

Truth::God::Death::Sex::Art

In conclusion, we have seen how the films “Martyrs” and “Black Swan” reveal a complex analogy linking the terms Truth, God, sex and art to the term death. Death, in this sense, occupies the ego’s empty center in the form of the death drive. This drive is best understood as a topological slope toward the continuity of pure existence. Read through Plato, Derrida, Freud, Zizek, Silverman, Salomé, Rilke, Neitzsche, Merleau-Ponty and Bataille, this experience of a “nearness to death” during life constitutes a productive evental space – creatively, erotically, and spiritually.

Bataille writes that the evental space allows us to “achieve the power to look death in the face and to perceive in death the pathway into unknowable and incomprehensible continuity – that path is the secret of eroticism” – and, I would add, the unspeakable power of art (24).

Art allows us to wander the precipice of our void and stare into its blinding abyss with wings outstretched. Art is sex, which is Truth, which is God, which is death. All these terms are structurally equivalent insofar as they all do the same thing: produce radical newness. Living a nearness to death thus means living this analogy, and achieving profound unboundedness during our lifetime.

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new work (building material).

Materiality is the body of sculpture.

But what constitutes materiality? It is: when things are themselves. It’s not about making something out of drywall, or rebar, but rather presenting each as such. “This is plaster,” it says. “It hardens. Now soak the linen in the plaster. Movement becomes frozen. Now wrap it around rebar. Gravity is defied.”

So what does it mean to posit building material as bodily? That our limbs are like rope? Our flesh, like cloth? Everything becomes colored, dyed, pigmented. The evental space itself fuses these contradictions, making syntheses. Body is building. Bone is plaster. Fragile. Impressive. Each is a monument. Each, sculpture. Not the container of a secret, but the secret itself.

And so our paths of fidelity ossify, our flesh becomes chiasm, and our bodies become the building material of Truth. Because things are exactly what they seem.

“Building Material”

“Building Material” is comprised of new sculptural work by Paul Wallace. The show opened at the 74 Market Street Gallery in Venice, CA on December 16th as part of a group show during the Venice Arts Crawl. The show debuted new work by Paul Wallace, Isabelle Alford-Lago, Bill Dambrova, and Manino Mendez.

Suspended Rebar

What becomes of these bodies, then? These bodies that defy gravity, that produce Truth from their fingertips? Perhaps they extend from walls. Effortlessly. Their iron simply floats. The movement of their linen skin moves while remaining still. They are chaos contained within a space. They are action paintings and minimalist objects. They are the very rules of OSSIFY – Truth emerges from the body. The body is a meaning machine.

Wallace's "Suspended Rebar" in gray, orange, green.

Suspended Rebar consists of three panels, 16x16x8in each. They are made from linen, plaster, stucco pigment, rebar, drywall, wood, and house paint. During the installation the three panels were mounted in a row on the center of the gallery’s loft wall. The sculptures reach out into the space.

"Suspended Rebar" (gray)

"Suspended Rebar" (green)

 

 

 

 

 

"Suspended Rebar" - installation view

The rebar, suspended in midair within the gallery, enunciates the synthesis of the bodily within the notion of building material: movement is frozen, mass becomes weightless, chaos is equivalent to symmetry, etc. This is to say, its transcendence is denoted by its very materiality, its immanence. It is the enunciation of Truth.

"Suspended Rebar" (orange)

Ossified Rope (gallows)

Death also ossifies the body, much like Truth. Nearness to death situates the body around its own evental void. Understanding death allows the body to live its truths in life.

"Ossified Rope (gallows)"

Across the room from Suspended Rebar sit four floor-mounted sculptures, Ossified Rope (gallows), which stand 30in off the ground. They are made out of rope, plaster, wire, concrete, and rebar.

"Ossified Rope (gallows)" - side view

Color Field (evental matheme)

The matheme for “evental space” (the rectangle within rectangle structure) is repeated six times within a primary/complementary color field in this set of sculptures. The field is two columns of three, wherein each primary color sits next to its complement panel.

"Color Field (evental matheme)" by Paul Wallace

Each 18x24in panel is made from dyed canvas, plaster, and stucco pigment.

"Color Field (evental matheme)" - yellow

"Color Field (evental matheme) - green

 

 

 

 

 

Dark-gray pigmented plaster (the center rectangle of each panel) is applied by hand, adding a tactile quality to the stark minimalism of this piece, which betrays the bodily core of its otherwise mechanically reproduced color field. This synthesis of body within machine reproduces the structure of the evental matheme (which is itself repeated in each panel). The abyss is not empty, but made up of movement. It is not colorless, but rather the un-selected – inconsistent multiplicity. The color field is not a cold abstraction, but rather a living process.

"Color Field (evental matheme) - red

Laurels and Descending Cloth (woman)

A cloth falls toward the floor, marking the end of work. But it does not hit the ground. It remains mid-flight, draping, descending but reaching upward like a stalagmite. It vaguely resembles a shrouded woman, yet is body-less. It is shroud as body. Cloth as material.

Descending Cloth (woman) stands 15in high, 7in across the base. It is linen, plaster, stucco pigment, wood and house paint.

"Descending Cloth (woman)"

Adorning the two open walls on either side of the gallery’s top floor are Laurels, 40x15in each, made from rope, linen, plaster and stucco pigment. They are material as celebration.

"Laurels"

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new work (OSSIFY).

Truth emerges from the body.

There is no division between materiality and transcendence. They are one, fused. Like bones reaching out from the void within us – paths of fidelity compress the heavens and the earth. We are Truth. Our very bodies are events; that is to say, meaning machines – tracing paths of radical newness.

Performed on November 5th at the Miah Studio in downtown Los Angeles, OSSIFY now stands as a permanent installation in the space. The following is an excerpt from the press release:

“OSSIFY fuses immanence with transcendence. A rope “umbilical cord” connects the animal realm with the heavens. The bodily and the transcendental become inexorably linked, compressed, even, into one. A bone is created, emerging from the void at the center of an animal skin. The athletic performance solidifies the field of Truth within the body. Its connection is ossified.

Continuing Wallace’s mythological narrative of the evental wanderer, OSSIFY works within similar themes of truth as event, trajectories of fidelity out of a void, and bodily extensions of the transcendental. Working loosely within a Butoh aesthetic, this new installation uses athleticism as material, as well as formally engaging rope, plaster, clay and skin.”

OSSIFY – performance

Wearing white pants and a black harness, “The Climber” is covered from head to toe in white kaolin clay. His partner, “The Belayer,” is dressed similarly in black.

Butoh Portrait

Paul Wallace as "The Climber"

A zebra skin rug lies on the floor. The rug is in the shape of Wallace’s matheme for “evental void” – a rectangular hole within a larger rectangle, 3 times the size. Here, the hole is raised from the ground forming a sloped box. A 14 foot woven rope stretches from an I-beam on the ceiling to the box, its slack curled within.

Beside the zebra skin rug are 3 buckets: one with plaster, one with water, and one for mixing.

zebra skin box - matheme for "evental void"

As the performance began, The Climber started mixing plaster.

pouring plaster

mixing plaster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 buckets

The Climber then attached the mixed-plaster bucket to his harness. Using only upper-body, he ascended the rope. Once at the top, The Belayer locked him off, freeing The Climber to use his arms.

ascending the rope

The Climber then worked the plaster onto the rope as it dried, working from the top down on multiple climbs, slowly ossifying the rope. Excess wet plaster dripped down the rope’s length, collecting in the zebra skin box below.

working the plaster

The Climber ossifying the rope

As The Climber neared the bottom, he began to work the plaster on foot.

Paul Wallace as "The Climber" applying dripping plaster to rope

The performance concluded once the rope was hardened.

OSSIFY – installation

The ossified rope stretched from the zebra skin rug to the I-beam on the ceiling. The box was filled with plaster. The rope was bone. The material remains of the performance, of the work done, was left along side the sculpture. The buckets were in a row; plaster and clay dust made the floor black and white, just like a zebra pattern. The top rope and belay device were left, and the harnesses were arranged on the floor. Together, these constituted the final installation.

OSSIFY - the installation

detail of OSSIFY

OSSIFY – new objects

A new series of sculptures will continue the themes explored in OSSIFY.

Ossified Rope - a new sculpture series

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decay narratives.

“Lighthouse” and “Bright White Underground”

We are attracted to decay.

It has something to do with time. Maybe it’s the death drive – as humans we are too aware of temporality. Living towards death – the living dead, perhaps? There is a human specificity to this stance. At once nostalgic and apocalyptic, we are the never-present.

This is to say, thinking means being related to time. Pure presence is the fleeting fruit tree to our Tantalus mediations – always just out of reach. We think. We reminisce about the past, bathed in the golden glow it casts. We plan for the future, sometimes with hope, sometimes with fear. Being present means seeing ourselves from above, abstracted through the imagined gaze of the other, our camera-framed existence, fantasy.

We are narratives. There is a story to everything. The very objects that surround us. The locations we inhabit. They, too, live. And just like us, they die. Their stories, open wounds. This is what’s specific about decay. They say the beautiful die young. Is this just naïve pop culture rubbish? Or is it not naïve enough? Perhaps beauty is always already death.

And that’s the point – beauty and decay are enigmatically intertwined. For me, personally, I find an almost romantic attraction to decay, to abandoned buildings and systems in decline. When I see pictures like these – my mind races.

Time, literally, inhabits these rooms. When we look at decay, we are looking at the movements of time itself, which is to say, narrativity. There is a story to be found here, in the objects themselves. The site is transformed from space to time. Suddenly there is a cast of characters. There is a beginning, middle and end. But compressed, happening all at once – the very way in which we experience time ourselves. This is what I find beautiful in decay: it’s simultaneously the indexical mark of time, of narrativity, and an idea, an entire story at once, non-temporally. Which means it’s both a story and an object, itself and its opposite. Just like art.

Michael C. McMillen – “Lighthouse”

On show at LA Louver until October 30th, McMillen’s sculptures exemplify what decay looks like as objects.

We see, arranged in the gallery as art objects, miniatures of decay. A decrepit submarine hugs a wall. An abandoned building sits alone on a pedestal. A broken section of a boat hangs from the ceiling. It is as if a model-ship collector started producing shipwrecks.

There is an important distinction to be made: these aren’t sets, locations or sites – but objects. They are isolated as such and stand solely as objects. McMillen materializes decay. At first I read this as a contradiction, that these miniatures seem like sets, but they are presented as objects.

For instance, the similar work of Juan Munoz creates a completely different effect by the way in which his objects are installed in the museum space. Munoz’s work engages the viewer structurally via the space itself, both enacting and speaking about intersubjectivity.

While McMillian’s world, on the other hand, is subject-less. It’s the world long after the apocalypse, after all people have died. But almost even further than that. It’s almost as if this show presents our post-apocalyptic world as a natural-history museum exhibition. We see these decaying locations not as sites to be engaged, but as relics, objects.

This might sound negative, but let me say – this show is strangely compelling. What do these boats mean? What does their decay mean? Is there a story, or are there only objects?

I’ve never understood model-boat collecting (something my father does). But maybe now, after McMillian’s “Lighthouse,” I do. There is a dialectical materialism at work in miniatures. It subtracts subjects from intersubjectivity. It takes the narrativity out of story. There is a form-centered gaze created by de-narrativizing these objects, and highlighting instead their materiality.

This form, it seems, is the real of time itself.

Jonah Freeman & Justin Lowe – “Bright White Underground”

On show at Country Club / Los Angeles until October 30th, Freeman and Lowe’s enormous, conceptual installation highlights the inherent plot line of decay.

Once on-site, the viewer instantly becomes part of a greater mythology. Something happened here, that much is obvious. But how is the story told? Through everything. Every peeling strip of wallpaper, crack in concrete or hole punched through drywall speaks.

Each box and can, each labeled consistently with the project’s mythos, enunciates the nature of decay. Yes, there is a story. It can either be pieced together experientially through navigating the installation, or directly during the artists’ nearly hour-long presentation.

Freeman and Lowe tell the story of a drug safe-house run by psychonaut Dr. Arthur Cook, inventor of LSD-like drug Marasa. Their rambling and reference-laden talk never failed to entertain, but most importantly, it succeeded in painting a vibrant picture. We were shown a world where psychiatrists cross the line from mystical shamen to stoned socialites to paranoid researchers and back again. We were shown a world where parties cause transcendence. Guests literally levitate. Everyone’s on the run, from one safe-house to the next. Their only escape is to be consumed by these very sites, and in turn, history itself.

The specifics of this narrative, however pleasurable, weren’t the point. The meaning, quite simply, was this: there is a mythology. That’s what was articulated. That there was a story. Every room and every object screamed it – “This is important.”

I have to say, Bright White Underground was one of the best shows I’ve seen in my lifetime. The space was seeped in story. Mythology was their art and destruction their medium.

A wall is just a wall. But what happens when you punch a hole in it? Burn it down? Tear it to shreds? You don’t just have a destroyed wall. You have an object-cause. You have an implied reason. You have meaning.

If Dr. Cook’s drug-fueled goal was spiritual alchemy, coal to gold, then Freeman and Lowe finished this project. They showed us that decay is alchemy.

The Meaning of Decay

McMillen demonstrates a materialist approach to decay – he fetishizes the objects themselves as such, as objects, as ideas of time. On the other hand, Freeman and Lowe revel in the mythology of decay. There are objects and sites left behind, of course, but there is always a reason, a story.

This is why it’s beautiful. Because we, as humans, have found our most meaningful relationship to time in the form of decay, collapse and apocalypse narratives. Why is this? Because decay is alchemy. Decay imbues everything with meaning. With a story, with a narrative. And this does something. It does the exact same thing art does.

Decay is an art-machine.

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new work (ascent).

Can there be a narrative that speaks to this process of radical newness? If so, what would such a performance look like? What would its mythology be, and what objects would it leave behind?

Who are these abyssal explorers, wandering the boarders of evental sites? Can we trace their paths of fidelity?

Let us say evental space borders the situation from within, and the void is the situated lack of the subject – its hole, the intrusion of the unspeakable Real. Suddenly we find lack itself void. The binary of desire/drive shatters from this force of fidelity, its fissures producing events, exploding outward from all points.

The subject itself becomes newness. The subject’s wandering, space travel.

Let us be astronauts, then; let us ascend newness.

ascent – performance

Wearing a harness and an afghan, covered head to toe with white kaolin clay, I ascended a three-story barn in Ontario, Canada via an industrial hoist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ascent – installation

After the performance I constructed a site-specific installation. The harness and the afghan are suspended from the hoist, and its chains are arranged into mathemes.

astronaut – performance

This character, the astronaut, was then photographed in four locations across Canada.

astronaut – installation

The astronaut’s helmet is a sheet of glass suspended between the astronaut’s hands via copper wire handles. Clay caked onto the twisted copper. The helmet is hung from a “come-along,” a bicycle chain-like hoist.

Across the room from the helmet is a hemp-rope pulley. Hanging from the pulley hook is a graphite-on-paper drawing mounted between two sheets of glass, bound by copper threading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

buoy – performance

Two more graphite on paper drawings, also mounted between glass via copper wire, were placed inside water-proof sailing pouches. One is a drawing of the void symbol, the other is the matheme for the object petit a. These pouches were connected by hemp rope and tied to an iron ball beneath Lake Superior.

 

 

 

 

 

buoy – installation

The drawings were removed from the pouches and hung above the mounted buoy.

ascent – show

The final show consists of the material remains of the ascent performance (white clay on the floor, a painting on birch bark affixed to the iron I-beam) and the installation ascent in the center of the space. intrusions 1 – 3 are three mounds of earth, rock and sand respectively, which lie just in front of ascent.

On the left wall hangs hoist (helmet), mathemes on birch (origin of the count) a series of white charcoal drawings on birch bark, and buoy.

On the right wall hangs hoist (outward movement), mathemes on birch (lack), and mirror, which is a sheet of glass suspended by wire and chain in front of a sheet of aluminum.

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on interstitial spaces.

I recently came across the work of Ivars Gravlejs, a Latvian artist and photojournalist. His project, entitled “My Newspaper,” chronicles his absurdist, subversive alterations made to contributions to the Czech newspaper “Denik.” Gravlejs writes, “The aim of this project was to make an absurd, ‘nonsense’ manipulation over the media manipulations.” Here are four of my favorites:

It’s curious. There isn’t any explicit revolutionary project to these manipulations. Gravlejs isn’t trying to bring down the system with any kind of overt violence. Of course there is an artistic message here regarding media manipulation, a subversive thesis on truth and objectivity in photojournalism, and we could even go so far to say he’s prying open a crack in capitalist ideology, allowing for a space of resistance, using the system against itself, so to speak.

All that being said, they’re not revolutionary images per say (save for the image that speaks to the police about death). But they do enunciate a very specific formal position. And in this regard (speaking from a structural standpoint), they become, we could say, utopian. By this I mean, the space created by his project highlights a hidden potential in form itself. We can ignore the content for a moment and simply observe the space opened up by this type of work: an ideological between-space.

The space he works in is part of the capitalist structure (his photojournalism is published on the front pages of major newspapers). Which is to say, he’s not working as if there were an outside to the system (making fringe art), nor is he resisting the system directly (political art). He has found a useless space, rather, a leftover space that exists only as a structural remainder. And by working there, in the in-between, he opens up incredible possibilities.

Analogically, we can look to architecture to better understand the significance of this kind of remainder space. In architecture, spandrels are the spaces left between arches and their rectangular enclosures. Spandrels represent a decorative kind of interstitial space. They are part of the system, but exist as a kind of accidental necessity. Not quite part of the wall, not quite part of the arch, spandrels are remainders, gaps in the structure.

Interstitial spaces like these are common in architecture, and can range from small spandrels to entire floor-between-floors, like those used to house machinery in laboratories. Zizek writes on the potentiality of such spaces, “Do spandrels not then open up the space for architectural exaptations? And does this procedure not expand to buildings themselves, such that a church or train station might be exapted into an art gallery, etc.?” He goes on to say, “The struggle is up for grabs here – the struggle over who will appropriate them. These “interstitial spaces” are thus the proper place for utopian dreaming” (Living in the End Times, 278, emphasis added).

Zizek is spot on. This, indeed, is the key to utilizing form. Our aim then, our project from here forward should be: utopian dreaming. Let’s explode this notion outward, and open the interstitial fissures of space that will allow the utopian light of potentiality to pour out. This shouldn’t be difficult, as our ideologico-symbolic world is full of such remainder spaces. Gravlejs opens up this space within media, while books like House of Leaves can be said to do the same with text (457-9):

merges inside a v
ery large room w

/

here everything about

the house

suddenly

/

changes

House of Leaves not only deals with the interstices of architecture, and the terrifying, god-like possibilities it opens up, but Danielewski also re-iterates the importance of this project by doing the same thing formally. His text literally occupies the interstices of the page:

These spaces are our dreaming spaces. The houses inside ourselves, the endless shifting hallways and spiral staircases that stretch down, down, down to our universal core. Let us occupy not rooms, but hallways! Let us be wanderers within the shifting labyrinths of our symbolic reality, let us find the ideological gaps in form and use them as our site, as our very homes. Revolution doesn’t have to be a reactionary project – it can be a positivist, utopian one. Interstitial spaces are the key.

So what would it mean to expand these spaces within music, film, dance, art and thought? What would interstitial sexuality look like? Interstitial politics? How can we make sure we’re always appropriating and evolving these interstitial spaces, allowing them to become evental spaces? Perhaps dreaming itself is our psychic interstitial space. Perhaps dreaming can only happen in between-spaces, only in the floors-between-floors, the spandrels of our symbolic world?

These are the spaces for radical beginning, for newness. Let me write you a message, then: meet me there. Meet me in interstitial space. Let us search out the interstices of our own hearts and use this space, formally, to change the world. Us, the utopian dreamers.

Inger Christensen writes on meeting (Butterfly Valley, 70),

with our backs to our meeting we go away from our meeting and farther and farther into our meeting, which is things’ meeting with things, which is times’ and places’ meeting with time and place, which is morning and evening in March, season and aftertime, opened and closed, at the same time you and strangers

let me here at the brink of the whiteness, the unknown, write a short message: to you, my love, neither life nor death, but this word we use so often, in our foreign language we have called it love.

And that’s what it takes to meet someone in interstitial space. That’s the fuel for utopian dreaming, for true, universal revolution. So let this labyrinthine house shift infinitely, I say, let a thousand combinations of hallways and rooms create a thousand openings for newness. Let us live in these spaces, build art in these spaces, make love in these spaces and find Truth in these spaces. Meet me there. And once we’re there, let me write a short message to you, then, my love: dream.

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on beginning.

“I guess this is how things start, some sort of beginning.”

I first wrote these words living in Prague, about 4 years ago. I was a foreigner in a new place, attempting to start fresh emotionally, attempting to start something new. Yet I was terrified by the abyss that stood before me. This abyss was my own. It was the abyss of freedom.

It was one of the last lines of “Something Like Sunrise,” a book I wrote there. The content of which I won’t touch upon now, the relevant point to us here is the formal gesture of ending with a beginning. In retrospect, maybe, this was my project all along­ – sketching out an economy of beginning.

Living as I was in Prague, the words of Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic’s first president, had become my guiding light. He had written about hope, a notion that, for me, had become something of a raw material, the foundation for my beginning. Havel writes, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out” (Disturbing the Peace, 181).

This awoke something in me. In the words of William Carlos Williams, “A curious force awakens. It is HOPE long asleep, aroused once more” (Collected Poems v1, 184-5). Yes, hope is the raw material of beginning, and I was building something new. Something radically new that approached from all sides. Williams goes on to say, “It is spring. That is to say, it is approaching THE BEGINNING” (Ibid, 182).

Hope, the certainty that following one’s heart makes sense. That, like Spring, it can create a space for newness. A beginning. My project, then, and now, is this: what does it mean to bring newness into the world? What type of radical space does beginning create? Is it violent? Certainly. But it is also beautiful and true. And maybe that’s the point; maybe that’s the only Truth, beginning.

As Rilke writes, “Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast” (Letters, 24).

There is a great becoming in beginning. It is a stepping forth, a stepping out of the known and into the new. Just as I am starting this first meditation very citation heavy, so too must beginning stem outward from sources. Not just to read, but to re-write, to make the familiar strange and new. For isn’t beginning unheimlich? Beginning, like living in Prague, like art, finds the usual unusual. Everything is new. Thus, as beginners, as artists, we must learn to feel at home in the not-known.

Badiou writes, “How will I, as some-one, continue to exceed my own being? How will I link the things I know, in a consistent fashion, via the effects of being seized by the not-known? (Ethics, 50).

What does he mean, “being seized by the not-known?” Is this not our project, beginning? Isn’t the new, by definition, that which we do not yet know? Our projects seem the same, then – this pursuit of newness. But where, you might ask, can one find such radical newness?

Newness, just maybe, can be found in the space that hope creates, as Havel so eloquently defined. It is the space created through a fidelity to one’s own heart, to that which wordlessly makes sense.

Havel, here, doesn’t refer to logic. When he speaks of the “certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out” he doesn’t mean knowing. He’s not talking about the encyclopedia, no. There is a distinction to be made between knowledge, what we can call the encyclopedic, and Truth, which we shall call evental. Knowledge is optimism, it’s playing it safe, betting on the winning team, it’s finance, it’s calculated. Truth, however, can be defined as the radical newness found in the space created by hope.

When a space for newness opens up, when something can finally begin, something happens. This something, then, becomes an event in our lives. By event, I simply mean the physical experience of this newness. There you are, living life as if everything makes sense, until suddenly something arrives. Something new that can’t be spoken, because it has no name, not yet. You cannot articulate it but you can feel it, and you know, as you gather up your hope and your upward beating heart, that nothing will ever be the same. This is what it means to fall in love. This is what it means to encounter art. This is what it means, politically, to bring change into the world. This is the definition of an event.

Truth, then, is not a thing. It isn’t some pure form sitting at the top of a hierarchy, but a process. The process of beginning. Truth is the process of being, quite literally, true to an event. Truth is evental fidelity, another word for beginning.

Thus the name for this blog. Badiou writes, “Even for those who wander on the borders of evental sites” (Being and Event, 294). Allow me to move quickly for a moment: there is no totalized meaning, no God in the logocentric sense, no pre-determined center to life. There is only an abyss. We circulate around this very centerlessness, as the poet Gustaf Sobin writes, “organized as we are about a certain naught” (Breaths’ Burials, 69). This abyss is the void. Ø. But despair not! The void is not an emptiness, but rather the form of the unnamed. An event, then, is when life collides with the void. This means, quite literally, that when the unnamed ruptures our symbolic world, newness is introduced. Truth is then created by being true to this event, by entering into a process of fidelity with this newness, and, simply put, beginning.

Thus, the evental space is our project of beginning. But what does it take? What does it require of us, this fidelity to newness? Badiou writes, “A fidelity is not a matter of knowledge. It is not the work of an expert: it is the work of a militant” (Being and Event, 329). So let us be revolutionaries.

Let us be the revolutionaries of unspeakable newness. Our fidelity will be pointed toward the unfathomable within ourselves, the pure precipice of our beginning. Let our laughter pour into its abyss!

Nietzsche seems to be in dialog with Hölderlin when he writes, “One must have wings, if one loves the abyss” (Amid Birds of Prey). For Hölderlin writes, “From the abyss, namely, we began” (FA Einleitung, 74-5). Let us grow wings, then, for we, as beginners, love the abyss.

For we, as artists, use our steady hands to trace the flight patterns of newness, as lovers we build evental spaces with the raw material of hope, as philosophers we enter into processes of fidelity to Truth, and as revolutionaries we stare fearlessly into the violence of the void, standing at the precipice of its terrifying beauty, the sublime, the nameless, the unspeakable, the foreign, the new: beginning.

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