Thursday, 21 November 2013

Berenice Abbott, Newsstand, 32nd Street and Third Avenue, New York (1935)

It is all about peopling the void. Crowdedness dispels the paranoia when one is puzzling over a blank canvas. Regardless of how the result will be it is often an accomplishment if every corner of the picture is filled. I can also hear music drifting out of the cluttered image I just finished: the music that is not too uproarious, but loud enough to warrant me a restful night of sleep. An open, empty space and a gaping chasm are enough to introduce disquietude into my otherwise orderly life. My orderly life mainly consists carrying out my role as a paltry nonentity, namely, “filling up the corner.” Every one of us is like a grain of sand who is always at the mercy of the ebbs and flows of sea. Crowdedness is peace, is stateliness, is life.

Architecture fuels Berenice Abbott’s passion for photography. Every building is a man-made monster- a monster that is impregnably armoured, a monster that is impossible to tame. At least, we can imagine Abbott thinking, I can pierce the skin of that monster, or chop off one of its limbs with my camera. Nothing better to face the invasion of Industrialism than arming yourself with the right weapons. In Abbott’s case it is to expose the magnificence and most of the times extreme ugliness of a bourgeoning city with her camera. This accounts for the reason why she favoured New York as her main prey.

Unlike Paul Strand’s photographs of the city, Abbott’s retain the unrelenting chaos New York is often associated with. People are rendered ant-like and running pell-mell. Ungainly but forbidding buildings, like swords in a tumultuous fight, sticking out here and there. I can now imagine Abbott as a paltry nonentity, trundling through the city like an innocuous animal in a hazardous forest, and every time when confronted by a fabulous beast, she defends it with her camera as if it is her white flag. A camera can be everything- it can be a dangerous weapon, it can be a desperate call of help.

But camera can never be an effective remedy. At least in the case of a crowd, the camera can only observe it from a distance but never possesses the power to scotch it from expanding. The anxiety is common with every inexperienced photographer whenever tackling the subject of a restive crowd. To try to encompass the entirety of the crowd with a panoramic view from afar is nothing but an example of unavowed cowardice. A seasoned photographer will approach the crowd audaciously, kill off as many objects as possible. The rest of the crowd he will let it flow away like the irrevocable departure of the migrating birds, because he knows there will be more entering from the other aside of the lens. The entering and the departing- this is the moment when the photographer makes time visible.

Today the void might be filled. Tomorrow, the collective intelligence drives the crowd to form its own void. What eventually emerges is a crying abyss, shrieking hideous curses and expletives that threaten away the sweet dreams. Still quite peacefully I sleep, when my dreams are no more than a continuous series of voids. How wonderful is the notion when you are something that is like everything else.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait Laughing (1907)

It is all about putting your best face forward. Photographer captures the fugitive moment before it flees. Painter, like an envious sister of Photograher’s, constantly resents the ephemeral existence of a mesmerising smile, which often freezes into a stiff, twitchy line even before she applies onto the canvas a tentative stroke. But one day as Painter is doing half-heartedly another portrait and racking her brain trying to recall what ingenious sparks of spirit that just seconds before flash across the sitter’s otherwise stoical face, her paintbrush takes a sudden and willful sweep over the canvas, leaving a faint but perceptible line on the person’s forehead. Disgruntled at first when Painter sees what a careless mistake she has compounded with her clumsy toil, but then, after assessing the screwed portrait at several different angles, a mischievous smile plays upon her lips.

The sitter remains the same throughout the process of painting but the authority belongs to the painter, who holds the destiny of the sitter’s effigy firmly in his hands. How joyful it is to paint an unappealing portrait of your nemesis! Painter savours the inexpressive elation when one day she does a portrait of her aloof sister, Photographer, on the sly and successfully renders her an unprepossessing snob. In the end of the day Painter has a fitful night of sleep, incessantly disturbed by her own uncontrollable laughter.

But it is hardly a laughing matter when you are doing your own portrait. The experience often leaves an uncanny effect, as though the painter was virtually creating his twin sibling. You are staring into the mirror at yourself when doing the portrait and afterward you will see your own creation staring back at you, solitary on a canvas still devoid of a background. The photographer will most likely associate the connection of the gazes, the painter’s and his creation’s, with some sights that never fail to incite his curiosity- room within room, door opening to yet another door, a maze of corridors promising no imminent exit. “I do not doubt interiors have their interiors, and exteriors have their exteriors, and that the eyesight has another eyesight,” so says Walt Whitman quite literally.

The painter, Richard Gerstl, was one of the many Austrian artists whose portraits are noted for their psychological insights and expressiveness. Psychology, like sociology, is all about engagement. But rather of a more intimate engagement, psychology plumps for a one-on-one conversation invariably conducted in a muted, wordless manner. Therefore even when there is an expanding throng of viewers standing before an Austrian painting, the figures in which deal with one at a time, broodingly and patiently. Their gaze, instead of emitting shafts of blinding light that intent on poking holes in the viewers’ eyes, breathe a cold air that envelopes the little innocent crowd, like a lion appraising his wounded and writhing prey from afar, before making the fatal spring.

The same coldness permeates Richard Gerstl’s Self-Portrait Laughing (1907), but a more expressive and menacing coldness, as the painter is shown having a laugh, a mad and hearty laugh. The background is composed by golden and brown daubs, as though the sky is ablaze with flying flints. There are fires, too, burning in the painter’s eyes, but those flames do not assume a confident ferocity. They are rather like the candles that intermittently gutter, and spew out wax that moisten the eyes like tears that refuse to drop.

The smile is certainly not victorious, nor does it seem to me glorious. If this is what Gerstl reckoned as his “best face,” or at least, the face that he found the most impressive, then he surely made no bones about his madness, or illness. But by no means is the painter trying to elicit the viewers’ empathy and kindness for his dismal situation. He is simply having his good, and possibly, last laugh- at the fortune he is futile to change, at his unstable mentality he is too disdained to seek any remedies, or at any unnamed enemies he is next bent on destroying. The smile as all there is.