Today is the last day of the wonderful exhibition Fragments of an Unknowable Whole at the OSU Urban Arts Space, curated by Tim Smith.
This group show is not only a dizzying dose of eye-protein but it is also brain-tingling in its ambition, ostensibly exploring how artists actively engage in an ongoing questioning of the function of the image in their practice.With one dynamic curator bringing together over twenty artists, the majority of whom represented by multiple works, adding up to a total of seventy-four pieces (with each ‘piece’ either a ‘work’ in and of itself or comprising of a ‘part’ of a ‘work’), this exhibition cannot be taken in whole, let alone explained away with any simple, found ‘answer’.
As Tim wrote (rather poetically) in the catalog essay (beautifully designed by THE WORK WE DO
‘a certain state of unknowing for the artist creates the conditions for moving forward on an expanded path of exploration’.
He continues by (rather philosophically) extending this approach to the artists’ work to his exhibition as a whole:
‘The form that these inquires continue to take in the gallery space challenge our conventional models of thought about representation and reality as experienced through images.’
As I entered the gallery for the last time yesterday, a few minutes early for a scheduled meeting with Tim for him to give me the ‘curator’s tour’, I was determined to question the open-ended nature of the fragmentation paraded in individual works and the exhibition as a whole, armed (as I often am) with an exemplary model from Antiquity. We all know that many of our most revered and loved ancient Greek and Roman texts have come down to us as so-called fragments, but what exactly is a fragment? It could be a smattering of words across torn papyri (e.g. Sappho) or a phrase that was quoted (more likely misquoted and generally butchered) by later authors. The latter are more often than not accompanied by so-called testimonia – a supporting network of witness-texts that don’t claim to quote the ‘fragment’, but helpfully(!) paraphrase its content. Armed with this muddied image of the ancient fragment, I wanted to see what Tim had to say about his exhibition’s confident celebration of all these fragmentary photographic productions in the absence of any ‘knowable whole’? Unless we are dealing with the scrap of papyrus, an ancient fragment comes to us caked and drenched in plenty of claims to know – not only what was written (the fragment itself), but what it means (to those who quote it and use it). Given this context, I was especially interested to see if Tim, as the curator, would then occupy the position of the testimony or witness to the fragment (as artwork), and as such, make claims for the wonder of unknowing on behalf of the work and the artists in the exhibition. Before I report back on my findings in the gallery (in Part Two of this post), let me briefly offer an example that conveniently bridges ancient fragments and modern image-making.
In 1841 Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a lecture before the Society of the Adelphi in Waterville College, Maine called ‘The Method of Nature’. In this lecture, he announced that:
‘You cannot bathe twice in the same river, said Heraclitus; and I add, a man never sees the same object twice; with his own enlargement the object acquires new aspects.’
In his book Mediating American Autobiography: Photography in Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass and Whitman, Sean Ross Meehan discusses this reference to Heraclitus and comments on the use of the word ‘enlargement’, which, while perhaps not a direct reference, nevertheless invoked the new medium of photography and Emerson’s thoughts about it in his journal, written in the same year. Meehan writes:
‘Like daguerrean image that represents more than one aspect in its view – that is, in fact, unique as a form of photography precisely in the simultaneous doubleness of its image, its flickering juxtaposition of negative and positive representation – Emerson’s journal entry (“Were you ever Daguerreotyped?”) “acquires new aspects” when read back into this context of nature’s representative, inchoate identity.’
Meehan’s subtle ‘reading back’ of Emerson’s account of photography onto his description of nature (via Heraclitus), asking us to compare the image to the word, raises some vital issues for Tim Smith’s exhibition as well as Heraclitean philosophy. I will get to the former next time, but for now I want to dwell briefly on the issue of the Heraclitean image of the river used by Emerson and how we can appreciate how this metaphor of (photographic) enlargement intervenes not only in any attempt to recover its source but also in how it enacts the precise experience it was written to evoke.
The famous saying ‘you cannot step in the same river twice’, comes down to us both in a single fragment (F39) and also through testimonia by a range of authors, from Plato (in the Cratylus and Theaetetus), the later Heraclitus of the Homeric Problems and two passages by Plutarch. Yet a closer look at the fragment, we see that it too is mediated in a similar fashion to the testimonia. Here is Daniel Graham’s (initially perplexing) translation of F39:
On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.
These words are quoted by the 4th Century C.E. Christian apologist Eusebius in his Preparation for the Gospel as part of his discussion of the Hellenistic Stoic philosopher Cleanthes, as preserved in the work of summarizing handbook of the 1st Century BCE Stoic Arius Didymus. (Sometimes this complex genealogy of testimony is described simply as: ‘from Cleanthes, from Arius Didymus, from Eusebius). Now, if we expand to the context for the fragment in the Eusebius passage, we can actually find a fourth layer of transmission:
‘Concerning soul, Cleanthes as he is setting out the teachings of Zeno for comparison with those of other natural philosophers says that Zeno calls the soul sensation, or exhalation like Heraclitus. For wishing to show that souls being nourished by exhalations are always intelligent, he compares them to rivers: On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow. And souls too are nourished by moist exhalations.’
So it really is Zeno on Heraclitus, from Cleanthes, from Arius Didymus, from Eusebius! But aside from further muddying the transmission, what is intriguing about the full-text in which we find this oft-quoted saying of Heraclitus is that it is part of a discussion of the soul as a kind of vapor and, as such, the association between the human and the river is made tighter. Graham’s translation does justice to the ambiguous syntax wherein the term for ‘same’ can agree with both the ‘rivers’ and ‘those doing the stepping in’. Here this ambiguity allows for the epistemological point raised by Emerson whereby the same subject human/river has different experiences/waters. Further down this path, we can add the reading of the fragment that emphasizes the its sibilant and alliterative sound in the original Greek (potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei) mimics the flowing river! What excites me about looking closely at this fragment and its web of testimonies, is how it still manages to maintain an internal coherence, and like so much of Heraclitus’ fragmentary writing, it has an internal logic. It is this logic, I would claim, that helps to explain its misrepresentation in the testimonies of others, but at the same time, it gives the fragment its own sense of wholeness or coherence. In fact, it is this wholeness, I would argue, that transforms the fragment into an image – the image evoked by Emerson and others who recall the maxim as ‘you cannot step in the same river twice’. Emerson doesn’t quote the exact words of Heraclitus (who does?) but the core of the image – the fluidity and stability of both humans and rivers – is consistent and is consistent in spite of a flux of expression.
Well, all that remains is for me to bring to bear this Heraclitean discovery on the exhibition. In my experience of seeing the exhibition for the last time, with its curator, did I find the ‘whole’ that was claimed to be ‘unknowable? Or merely a series of fragments? Or perhaps something closer to the experience of the Heraclitean Fragment and Image Stream? Watch this space – Part Two will be posted shortly.
(In the meantime, you still have a few hours to go to the exhibition. Click on the image below for the details).