Numbers (A Sequence of Thoughts on Diana Michener Photography)
Basically, symbolism is about big issues (life, death, love, existence, etc...), and language.
And about the impossible relation we try to weave between the two of them.
Among all symbols, numbers are probably of the strongest ones.
One single object within a frame is, before it is the description or the representation of this object, a reflection about the signification of the number one.
The One is the smallest quanta of perfection.
Our understanding of the number One is linked to our understanding of existence and of its uniqueness.
I can figure out the signification of the number one when I shut myself off from the world. Then I have some kind of intuition of the uniqueness and the perfection of my own existence.
Above the turbulence of the world, there is a silent certainty where this presence still exists. Silence must be made for a perception of this oneness: "Me" should be silent. But how can it be silent and at the sime time express itself? How can the "One" say "I am one"?
A word spoken or even a thought thought is already a stranger: I am two. I am both that certainty I carry with me all the time, and that image of that stranger in the mirror.
* * *
How come this uniqueness I have in me, has so many faces. An infinite number of faces. Should I try, by multiplying those faces, to encircle, to define, to describe that oneness. To understand the meaning of the One, I must have a notion of Infinity.
Echoes surround Narcissus.
One is both the unique, the ultimate One; or a one, any one, one among others.
This decapitated head of a cow, is it just one head, a head, or, this very unique existence frozen by death.
* * *
The word Elohim, which means God, is the only Hebrew word which is simultaneously singular and plural.
The word Panim which means face, is always plural although it describes a single item.
So is the word Mayim which means water.
This grammatical structure exists only in those three words which are linked in a very obscure way and appear together on the same verse at the beginning of the Bible.
And the spirit of God glides on the face(s) of the water(s).
Somewhere, creation is linked to face and water.
The myth of Narcissus has nothing to do with self-love for the simple reason that at no phase of the story is the boy aware that this is his own image in the waters that he fell in love with. Until the end, he is convinced he is in love with a real person. The myth is a metaphor on the malfunctioning of language. Narcissus does not understand the difference between reality and the sign of reality. He cannot understand that life and language are divided by waters.
Narcissus in his incomprehension of language is a prisoner of reality. Echo (Narcissus's echo and double) is a prisoner of language, with no relation to reality.
Narcissus is the vision, Echo, the sound. Narcissus's image is the echo into the waters.
Narcissus's ambition is to make one out of two.
We, spectators of this tragedy, have a nostalgia for some anterior place where the word and the world were one.
The desire of reunifying the "me" with its image means death (kamikaze, extremists, totalitarians etc…) or art, where no barrier divides spirit and matter, world and language, life and death.
Art, as magic, is not a language which describes a world, outside or above it, but a part of the world.
Art is alive, because we become simultaneously a plant, a mannequin, and the reflection of a sculpture in a window. Art makes us identify ourselves with the framed subject. It is, then, the only true mirror which can reflect our perfect oneness.
* * *
Narcissus in his death becomes a flower. Echo becomes a rock.
(The rock and the flower are privileged objects of art.)
Does Narcissus just disappear in the waters, before he becomes a flower, or will his body rot and decay?
Can we mutilate the One? If we do, what kind of signification can a mutilated One have?
Is the One, the unity, the smallest part that composes the world? Or can we divide it in smaller and smaller parts over and over forever. This question which is a fundamental issue of modern physics is as disturbing as the questioning of the signification of death.
How far can the mutilation of that perfection go before it is not there anymore?
Is a mutilated corpse a "one"? If it is, what is the relation between one body and one corpse?
Is it the same word, "one", which should be used for both?
What part of a body is still present in the corpse? Is it just a remembrance?
What part of a body is still present in a portrait?
A dead body is not an abstract item, as well as a grave is not some abstract monument dedicated to the memory of the deceased.
A tomb is both the trace of "the real thing" and a symbol. It is both a fetish and a symbol.
While he is painting a self portrait, a painter has to face himself in a mirror. If he wants the nose in the painting a little higher, he has to raise his nose in the mirror.
A self portrait is always a performance.
The mirror and the canvas have a symmetrical role. He cannot paint himself otherwise than actually painting himself, for the reason that what he sees in the mirror is a man who is painting himself. Beyond the features of the visage, what is really implied is the act of painting. But for a photographer, making a self portrait demands a totally different approach. The subject is not facing a mirror but the black round hole of the camera, which resembles a Zero, incomprehensible like the stringless navel of an antique sculpture. The painter is really the director of his reflection in the mirror on the canvas. A photographer has no control of the final image, he is disarmed and mentally naked, concentrated only on his inner feeling.
What is really happening is the act of photography.
A photography is both the trace of a real performance and a symbol.
Is the beauty of death the testimony for the beauty of life or just the remembrance of it?
Or is beauty above both life and death?
Is a symbol a representation or an interrogation of reality?
Could we make art without believing in the existence of the soul?
The "two" is double. Is it about a fracture or a link?
It is about symmetry and asymmetry.
Is symmetry between the world and language, between the world and the spirit, a fracture, or a link? Somewhere we all believe that Narcissus and his image were one, just like physicists believe they will find some day the immemorial theory that will explain the universe.
Is symmetry inside the world, the dichotomy of the world, a fracture or a link? Somewhere we believe men and women were once androgynous.
The stone of the ten commandments was one stone, while it was close to God, but when it went down the mountain, reached men and became language, it was broken into two pieces.
We use two dices to play, but we bid on one number.
In a self portrait by Rembrandt, he looks at you in a strange way, in fact, he doesn't look really at you but at himself. Are you Rembrandt and the painting is just a mirror, or are you the mirror, and then the other guy is the real one? In both ways, it seems that this painting needs you in order to exist. There is a symmetry between the figure inside the frame and out toward the observer. (The hebrew word "P(a)nim" (face, exteriority) is written the same way as "Pnim" (inside).) But, on the surface of the canvas, the two eyes of this portrait are two holes of a fearful symmetry. In contrast, the two figures in an Annunciation look at each other with such an intense gaze, that it seems they will continue looking at each other long after you have left. They belong to a world you have no access to. The framed surface is impermeable to any kind of narcissism (nobody looks at the deadly pond).
("Panim" (face) should be "panaim", (dual) to emphasis the symmetry of the face.)
The image of Narcissus is twice symmetrical: from his face to its image in the waters, and between the right and the left side of his face.
The symmetry of the tomb: vertically from this world to the other, horizontally, a tombstone.
Is a couple a "one" or a "two"? A pair is not exactly two. A pair of pillows or puppets is not exactly one plus one.
The "two" is not yet the plural. In many languages there is a special attention given to the "two", there is a special form of declension for the dual (a couple of… a pair of…). It is a completely different issue to have two items within a frame than one or a multitude.
Degas had the obstinate ambition to paint a composition with two figures. He failed again and again until he did that couple of alcoholics in a bar (Les buveurs d'absinthe). The two stare at the emptiness, as a figure of a double loneliness. It's not exactly two figures, since they stick together as a whole, as one, or more precisely maybe they are three; a couple and the absinth. A couple is either one or three.
Between a man and a woman will always stand a snake or an apple.
A small gap between the two parts of a diptych is an abyss.
Most artists are challenged by the extremely difficult composition. The only patterns of symmetry that come up to my mind are two: Gemini (The double portrait) and the Annunciation.
Gemini is about the double facing us and the ceaseless, the restless energetic movement that takes our glance from one figure to the other. In that way a diptych is a much more dynamical and disturbing structure than a triptych.
It is about the energy of fracture. No rest is possible in this abyss.
The Annunciation is about a link, a tension between two profiles. (The small etching by Durer that shows a painter drawing the silhouette of a man through a grid glass materializes this link).
We can identify ourselves to that link, as we can rest on the central part of a triptych.
Could we have a blank link?
Symmetry reminds us of something inexorable like a tombstone, the Ten Commandments, or the two guardians or demons on both side of a gate. Life begins when symmetry is broken. Arab architects always introduce some asymmetrical detail against the bad eye.
If the black (Satan?), in a chess game, continues to play symmetrically until the end, he will loose. But he must make a move.
Chaos must be introduced in the world of God.
The devil has no reflection in a mirror.
Asymmetry is, with the expulsion from Paradise, the beginning of action.
The "two", when symmetry is thrown off balance, hides a verb.
The verb becomes the subject of the image instead of the substantive "me".
It makes sense that the first verb used should be the one which abolishes the too present subject.
Is the fire the subject of a picture or the house?
Are the wrestlers the subject of a picture, or the wrestling?
A profile is a "he", a full face is a "you" or an "I". A profile is not really human, a "he" is something of a stranger, an idol or a puppet.
Giacometti hated to paint profiles.
A few years ago, at the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo, I was present during the making of an x-ray of the last self portrait of Paul Gauguin. This is a portrait painted from three quarter with a whitish yellowish shirt. Usually Gauguin did not repent his first drawing, so there was very little expectation to find anything much different in the lower coats. What was our surprise to find two other self portraits beneath it. The first one was a rather conventional self portrait, a profile, a one like many others painted by Gauguin before. Then there was this incredibly strong full face ("en face") which did not look at all like Gauguin, but rather like an Antonin Artaud self portrait, and finally his compromise or this synthesis, (which is the final work) with a three quarter face. The three faces were extraordinarily strong together, and told an exemplary story. The rotation of the figure is a kind of performance.
It might be the intrusion of the verb in a world of substantives.
The three quarter is the trace of a struggle.
Kids learn how to count by using small sticks of wood, using one stick for one object. Matisse said that instead of painting all the leaves of one tree, he would paint repetitively the same leaf again and again and give, that way, the feeling of multiplicity.
Shall I be a part of that multiplicity, or shall I stay outside of it?
Can the group of all elements include itself? This mathematic paradox hides an existencialist one. It can make us think about the conceptual composition of a piece of art.
There is a fundamental difference between a concerto where the soloist on the center of the stage is surrounded by an orchestra, and a quartet, or between a novel telling the story of one personage on the background of many secondary characters and a play where all actors have the same weight.
I could stay ambiguously inside and outside that multiplicity being just the hand that counts. I could be myself the mirror which can reflect itself replicating the rhythm of the trees on my own body, painting rhythm of letters as an echo to the blades of the grass.
The shoulders of the women should be linked to the curves of the mountains, said Cezanne. Men and nature, the one and the multiple, should reconcile.
I could go further, make a total camouflage, and almost disappear. The landscape will be so perfectly reflected on my body that it will vanish.
Only the landscape remains. An image of the world with some rhythmic trace of the presence of men.
The body of a saint is hidden in the landscapes of the mount Sainte Victoire.
A landscape of mountains is the world of echoes.
Is the plural a pluralism? The addition of several items of the same substance gives us the feeling of the multiple. But the juxtaposition of items of different substance can give us a feeling of chaos.
The obscure force that holds together the different elements is not anymore a number, but a combination. Trying to find some logic to that grouping, our restless glance will weave an endless web of interrogations between the items.
When we face the sun, a landscape is a monochrome. The world has an architectural monumentality, and its perspective leads us to its vanishing point. We identify with it as our own reflection and the proof of our own individual existence.
But when the sun is at our back, it looks like a patchwork of colors shattering our oneness like a kaleidoscope.
A constellation is a poker hand.