Friday, 17 October 2014

The Magician

                   Hieronymus Bosch, The Magician (1475-80)

The universal fanaticism towards a certain magician is unaccountable to many. Including me, who is neither much of a devotee nor an espouser of the occult, the art of which, however, has been worming into our society so successfully these past few years that an expanding faction has been advocating the conviction that there is nothing too inimical in the occasional practice of magic. There have even been talks about the remedy of magic being more effectual than that of any potent medicine, though I’m also obliged to remind the readers that such anecdote is not yet verified.

A dogged sceptic notwithstanding, I found myself one day embarking on this by no means unexpected journey in quest of the illustrious magician, who was described as having the appearance of a youth, dressing himself in the manner of a priest, holding in his hand a wand which he pointed heavenward whenever he felt struck by sudden enlightenment. And that was the moment when the magic began.

Our meeting was arranged in the magician’s home, which was located in a remote hamlet; the house itself was grand but aged, the interior spartan but solemn. The magician was an engaging storyteller, but such charisma was obscured somewhat by his natural sotto voce and incurable bashfulness when the interview strayed into realms that were considered too personal to be responded with convincing details. “Unless I possess of the faculty of prophesying or psychoanalysing,” the magician said, “I can do none. I only play tricks, so what right have I to assert myself as if I were a preacher!”

The “tricks” that the magician considered his stock in trade were, as I later realised, not some underhand business or sleight of hand that we normally imputed to the mountebanks. I was astounded to discover that besides performing fantastical feats to bedazzle the passersby, he was, unbeknownst to most readers I believe, committing to something charitable that should be worth noting in minuteness here.

It wasn’t without reasons that the magician would purchase this house with such capaciousness. His tone was one akin to archness when he disclosed the secret of this house- he was not the only resident. I was totally flummoxed and ill-at-ease when he revealed that the house was replete with his most trusty companions, who were invisible to human eyes and increasing in number over years. They were called “hopes,” and yes, the magician was recreationally and surreptitiously storing hopes.

The “hopes” were essentially for the disheartened, the demoralised, or whoever that felt the pressing need of them in any particular periods of their lives. Of all the clients the magician had been granting the “hopes” with, many managed to extricate themselves finally from the pickle they’d been enmeshing in from time immemorial. It was, for the magician, an absolutly joyous sight to see that sweet smile finally reappeared from the faces of those who were once too stupefied with misery that their expressions were as insipid as blank papers. But, the magician also hesitated to add that there were also a number of unlucky cases, whose new-found “hopes” were like ripened fruits that started their inevitable process of staling and rotting away before they were utilised effectively to the desirable end. They continued flailing about in their lives with no remedies nor answers for their eternally doomed fortune.

“Those are the faces I cannot bear seeing for the rest of my life, for they are a reminder of my accursed incompetence in carrying out every task faultlessly so that every human being can reclaim that happiness that we were once all entitled to possessing,” the magician said, and heaved a long sigh. “Every time I sensed those unfortunate people approaching when I was doing magic on the street, I always halted abruptly the performance and pretended I was preoccupying with fixing my props until those people finally walked away. Even with their backs I could see their faces- a painful grimace masquerading as a nonchalant smile.”

“But do you believe in eternal happiness? Do you think those successful cases, with their renewed hopes, are immune from ever happening on afflictions in their lives again?” I asked. The magician thought for some time, then broodingly he said: “Hope is only a respite designed to forestall the next horrible storm.”

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Berenice Abbott

"What the human eye observes casually and incuriously, the eye of the camera notes with relentless fidelity."- Berenice Abbott

There are heads. The display window is teeming with heads; pretty heads. Heads adorned with feathers, fancy wigs, hats. Heads with egg-shaped faces. Faces that are painted with kohl eyes, twirled eyelashes, and rouge lips. Some of the faces are half-concealed with masks; masks that are borrowed from a Venetian masquerade, or an Italian opera. The heads and faces that are so peculiarly beautiful that they can only belong to the mannequins’. The mannequins whose torsos are truncated, who are without bodies. 

Berenice Abbott was reputed for her photographic documentation of New York city. In those photographs Abbott demonstrates her ingenuity in taming the immobile objects. Architecture and various urban constructions are unlike people; they are stubborn and hardened; their dogged immobility is a silent refusal to collaborate with whomever ill-advised enough to approach them like a hunter approaching his prey. But Abbott was a visionary. She detected the animal spirit stirring within the stony heart of every building, and provoked it to burst out of its fossilised shell. Buildings were stimulated into life like animals finally waken from their interminable hibernation. Abbott would approach each of them sometimes with caution, as she hid in the alleyway and only managed to capture a glimpse of its magnificent presence, or aim high her camera when she tackled the towering figure with more boldness. And once she finally conquered the formidable monster like Saint George triumphing over a dragon, she stood atop her conquest and proudly surveying the view beneath her; she would notice the mass of pedestrians that were once bustling her by as she ventured into the heart of the urban forest were now rendered tiny like ants. There is nothing more exhilarating than assuming superiority over those that were once our equivalents.

Abbott’s role as a photographer can be described as a fearless hunter on a mission to hunt down all the peculiar species. But the weapon she used- her camera- was not one designed to inspire fear in the objects she captured. Her intention never seemed to be that of imprisoning into her photographs the city of New York. She was documenting New York without asserting too much authority over her subject matters. Abbott exhibited through her photographs that a good street photographer should always be an unobtrusive observer, ceding lights to the urban vista that is the sole star of the show.

But when it comes to the mannequins, I suppose that even the most preeminent of photographers can be so easily baffled. There is no task more difficult than dealing with something that is constantly in a twilight zone: the mannequins are lifeless dolls with lifelike physiognomy, can appear to be either lifeless or lifelike depending on how one perceives them. Abbott opted for no particular angle in approaching the mannequins, but chose to give them a full-on shot. The moment she pressed her shutter was the moment the mannequins seemed to come alive. Those beautiful faces all decided to violate the demands of their instructor by defiantly turning their heads away from the lens, each of them looking at different directions, responding apathetically of having their pictures taken. Just as the photographer might be miffed at having such recalcitrant prima donnas as her sitters, she unexpectedly succeeded in producing a memorable photograph- eerie, unnerving, menacing.

And not just the line between life and lifelessness, photography unwittingly blurs many more: that between fact and fiction, past and present, subject and object. The disappearance of the line between the subject and the object was precisely the core of Abbott’s photography. Of anything on which we normally attach no more importance than merely a passing notice (an object), through Abbott’s camera it becomes something of a peculiar value (a subject). But once we cherish that photograph as an invaluable work of art, Abbott promptly reminds us that the subject matter can be the most banal of object, which invariably, yet not so astoundingly, fails to leave imprints in our memories. The photographer demonstrates that subject and object can be interchangeable, like mannequins, as well as everything else.