Notes for a Theory of the Echo in Non-Linear Time
(Catalog, After the Rainbow, 2015)
What meaning does even the most insignificant movement have in a time when it is believed that things can change? What meaning does even the most unimaginable movement have in a time when it is believed that nothing will change?
Die Asteroiden. Marta Silher
Throughout its history as a form of artistic perception, the concept of landscape has constantly changed and evolved. Joachim Patinir’s vision of Charon Crossing the Styx (1520) features tiny figures, buildings engulfed in flames and exquisite glass architecture, all scattered across a heady, sprawling panorama. Each element is somehow threatened by the vast emptiness of the downward perspective, the sheer perceptive depth of the composition and the uncertainty of the linear narrative – on which side of the Styx will the soul end up? In one of his exterior photographs of Hotel Palenque (1969), Smithson chose not to include any human figures, either on the dirty sand, in the bus parked at the door, on the access road or in the ghostly architectural structure of the hotel’s unfinished second floor, where the bare metal rods of columns destined never to be built rise starkly skywards. Smithson’s landscape conveys almost no sense of swirling dynamism – or perhaps it just stands motionless in the very eye of the hurricane, in a kind of static whirlpool where any subjection to linear time is denied and where it is no longer possible to talk about dereliction, either before or after.
In this series of images, called After the Rainbow, the point of observation is high and there is an ever-present sense of empty space. A cloud of dust hangs over a field of architectural structures in which it is no longer possible to distinguish paradise from hell. In chronological terms, this is a version of a labyrinth that, even if it does not lead back to the point of departure, inevitably prevents any advance. There is not even the slightest, suppressed representation of a human body. Humans have disappeared from all the images, either because they are not large enough to be perceived or because they no longer inhabit their former habitats and are now engaged in an everyday exercise of uninhabiting.
For José Guerrero, the series is a sequence, driven and made meaningful by the imperfect reiteration of objects. One of the photographs shows a warehouse. The next shows the same warehouse slightly displaced. The second image is a dislocation of the first, and the first, at the same time, is a dislocation of the second. Despite the fragile – and therefore unchangeable – precision of the sequence, it has no focal point. None of the images can be said to constitute a clear starting point or to be more important than the others. The key central element is absent, presumably mislaid or just faded away. Lost. There is a feeling that these images were once subject to a set of rules that would have allowed us to understand them, but that those rules no longer exist. They linger on only as an echo, a sound.
This other series of images shows a concrete surface into which grooves appear to have been cut. The next image has a similar surface where a number of pebbles have been arranged, in a manner that is both totally random and totally unchangeable. Any attempt to alter their position would clearly involve an acts that goes beyond the unintentionality with which sound distributes objects. The fact that the two surfaces, both of them games tables, are different is irrelevant. All the photographs on display are of the same games table. What are relevant are the two patterns in which the objects have been positioned, out of the infinite number of possible arrangements, to create a unique, precarious sequence vulnerable to destruction by the slightest change.
The photographs we see have no origin and therefore no emitter of images. The important thing is the way they articulate the code, the way they shape the labyrinth established by the sequence: by that degraded – or improved – repetition of one image present in the other, that mutual absorption. The first - is there really a first? - is the echo of the second, and the second – is there really a second? - is the echo of the first. The difference between the two establishes an explicatory code, but the cipher for that code has been lost. When brought together the two images start to articulate part of the message, but the explanation grinds to a halt before it becomes really comprehensible. Both seem to contain the explanation for everything, but that everything is incomplete either because it has not yet begun or because it came to an end long along.
The sequence is the minimal, yet sufficient, unit for the stories told in this book. The sequence is the minimal unit because without such a sequential relationship, one image would no longer be the visual echo of the other, and vice versa. There are no solitary images. These apparently standalone images make up univocal, circular, self-chasing sequences. The individual images are echoes of themselves, labyrinths of themselves.
Like Guerrero’s earlier works, After the Rainbow is all echo geography. Echoes are its measure and its model. The relationship between the images, some of which are multiple – with 2, 4, or 7 pictures – exists at a level that has faded away, disappeared. Their mutual significance, the propagation of one in another and vice versa, may be considered exiguous, but it would be more accurate to say the link between them is so substantial that it is totally silent.
The images are arranged as a set of inaudible shifts. One follows another because it is a slightly altered version of the other. The slight visual difference might be expected to produce some kind of word or expression which would, after all, aid comprehension, but what is actually produced is a loss, or crystallization, of phonemes in the silence. It can quite reasonably be assumed that the only sense capable of establishing a vocabulary for silence is sight, that is to say, the visual image, and it is therefore equally reasonable to assume that visual perception also has an ability to hear. The sequencing of the images is governed by the very nature of this sound, a sound only audible in visual terms – in the shifts perceived between one image and another.
One image follows another not only because it is an altered version of the preceding one, but also because it more accurately pinpoints the preceding image's meaning. Unlike the notion of a degrading echo, in which the quality of the sound decreases with each repetition, the sequences in After the Rainbow show no deterioration: they are series of echoes and resonances where no weakening can be discerned in the sounds, where there is no sense of before and after. Both images mutually betray and correct each other; each one sees its own original objective, its own original light refracting body, in the other. Each image finds in the others a real reference to their common source, answering its own enigmas in a strange pattern of precision based on disorder. Its grammar is reminiscent of Chinese writing.
Chinese ideographic script is untranslatable: its rules of perception are inaccessible to an alphabetic script. It also incorporates a double logic which, contrary to the widely held belief, is actually more complex than the simple duality of its pictorial and semantic components, its plastic and symbolic dimensions. In Chinese writing one sign contains another, and one character contains a sequence of characters. An ideogram like the word magnolia includes the word face and also the word for “mouth” , which, literally translated, means that which speaks. The two terms are synchronically bound together in a visual etymology where neither of the two takes precedence over the other. In Chinese ideograms, past is present. Or, in other words, the Chinese script itself refutes the notion of linear chronology, because in it one word does not merely have its origin in another but actually contains the other, in all its plenitude. Two ideograms placed in sequence establish a resonance, a binding logic, a grammatical interface where one brings forth something from the other and where the synchronic components of each one establish synchronic links which do not necessarily agree with the apparent principal meaning. Chinese writing decomposes logocentrism, the univocal dominion of the voice in the transmission of the message, and its reading – but not its pronunciation – produces polyphony: a simultaneous polylogy. Seeing the sequence of signs makes it possible to read with different voices at the same time.
Ideographic poems are usually translated totally transparently: In the lotus garden, a fish lives in the pond. But this transparency is false. The translated version loses the underlying links, the horizontal etymology, between garden and lotus and fish, whereas the Chinese reader perceives them all at once as the shadow – or the light, since both categories are indistinguishable – of one falling on the others.
The placing of another ideogram next to the word magnolia is neither anecdotal nor simple. It means placing the new element alongside a word which already says something absolutely inconceivable to the western mind: magnolia-face-that which speaks.
From this perspective, a photograph can be seen as a kind of exacerbated ideogram, an overflowing abundance of more and more meaningful characters being added to the sequence; where the word magnolia simultaneously includes the word face, the term meaning what-speaks, and a never-ending accumulation of other signs that perfectly correspond to each and every one of the details in the photographed landscape - every strip of earth, every leaf in the middle of the desert and every speck of dust. The photograph then ceases to be an image and becomes an ideographically chaotic word integrating every etymological link, every infinitesimal bond of each and every particle captured on the photographic film. The pictorial surface would eventually be so cluttered that the image would seemingly represent the ruination and destruction of all symbols, both before their utterance and after their predominance.
The sequences of images match the logic of ideogrammatic script. They reproduce a form of writing that leads not to transparency but to inclusion and abbreviation, to a whole etymology and to a kind of archaeological analysis of the present perceived more as an underlying rhythm than as visible evidence: an archaeology exercised all at once, in which the different layers of chronological information do not disappear during excavation but remain in the form of a sound.
The sequences of images in this work are arranged in accordance with a simple syntactic system: part of each photograph is contained in the others: none of them suffices alone. Thanks to slight alterations in framing, each image expresses in the other a part which would have been imperceptible if viewed out of sequence. The sequence establishes a veiled grammatical structure. The first image casts a dark light on the next, which in turn casts a dark light on the first. Each sequence articulates a standalone period of time: that is to say, it articulates a labyrinth.
This device might be attributed to moviemaking techniques. The loss and fictitious creation of the whole, with momentarily interrupted scenes, the dizzying use of fragmentation and pretence. But these are not simply scenes tacked together. The spectator is accustomed to linear timelines and therefore deduces that the sequences must be the result of juxtaposing two photographs taken separately beforehand. That should have been the way the sequence was created, but it was not: This sequence was never intended to compose a previously inexistent narrative, and is not constrained by the logic of linear narrative. The positioning of the images one next to another, and thus the form in which they are to be read, was carefully planned – like the direct creation of a ruin. Or, conversely, the ruin itself was devised and planned as a means of building up the sequence. The consecutives images do not articulate a story. They do not even attempt to do that. The aim is to produce the ruination of a story - a story produced right from the start as a ruin.
The idea seems to adhere to the hypothesis Smithson set forth in A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, where the buildings “don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they built”. In Smithson’s work, however, a linear timeline, a sense of before and after, still survives. The fragmentary nature of After the Rainbow is not only due to its loss of unity of meaning, to the fact that its component parts were already ruins when they were incorporated. Its apparently piecemeal composition, the intense insularity of the images and their division into individual and collective sequences also indicate just the opposite, – that the sequence constitutes not an end (structural decomposition) but an attempt to create a beginning.
These sequences of images are babble. Babble can be the ruined remnants of a language or the primitive sounds from which a language evolved. Or it can be both at the same time. Babble is the grammatical framework that precedes and follows the ability to speak. It envelops the formal organization of language, although it is difficult to say whether it comes before or after language, because both hypotheses are equally applicable. It explains the logic of a world where time is no longer linear but accumulates on lake-like surfaces. These sequences of images are minimal narrative units bordering on babble: they come both before and after the story - at the same time.
Babble is a first or final link between sounds just as precise as a complete word. In medicine, it is considered part of what is known as the critical period in the evolution of speech. Babble is the place where a person has the option of not speaking. But it can just as well correspond to the moment immediately afterwards, the moment when, after having spoken, the linguistic code falls into a state of ruin, or of sequences in ruins. Babble can be considered an experimental or residual phase, the moment just before the beginning or the end – or both things at the same time. Babble links archaeology with the future, the present and indeed with any period in time, rendering a sense of the past unnecessary.
Topology of babble: what was destroyed before the beginning
One end-of-the-world scenario predicts that the last architecture, just before the final conflagration, will take the form of sound waves. The final ruin, the last thing remaining, more intangible even than dust, will be a field of voices wandering around an uninhabited planet, and it will be discovered as an archipelago – a strictly audible archipelago - is discovered. In it, you know you are surrounded by a language but you cannot understand anything. Amid the debris of a whole narrative in ruins, it will be possible to identify some of the words that have remained undamaged, as if they were necklace beads, fragments of vases, ivory needles – material babble – found on an archaeological site. It will then be necessary to establish a grammar for that cloud of voices, a grammar of babble, an archaeological analysis of what can be heard that will provide some clue as to its origin. Fragments of sound, emissions that have already fallen into ruin, will be examined as parts of a previously existing code.
All these sequences of images thus stem from an archaeological exercise in which no past exists, a paradoxical form of archaeology insofar that on the excavation site nothing has happened yet - or everything may already have happened. This archaeology lacking in past time produces standalone series of echoes: babble, or ruins. They are extremely uncomplicated labyrinths, silent etymologies of a static present that now multiplies itself not into fractions of time but into visual moments: shifts in frames, slight alterations in an all-embracing visual perception. Guerrero has built up a grammar from whispers, in which it is impossible to distinguish the beginning from the end.
Gilgamesh is about mudbricks, that prime example of how the inhabitants of the sandy banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates triumphed over dust.
“[…] look at their bricks: Are they not made of fired mud? […]”
In the Sand Box Monument in the Passaic series, Smithson contemplates the vanity of that triumph, with its inaudible disintegration and final loss of all form. In a world where its seems impossible to distinguish man-made features from Nature, Smithson’s sand box stands as an immobile, imperturbably serene hole that swallows up both fiction and reality alike. In the sequences in After the Rainbow, however, the mere compulsive act of looking and looking again seems to detect the babble of an insistent message. The contact between dust particles and the dust blowing against faces and roofs during the sandstorm is full of significance. Sand constitutes a kind of echo of itself, subversively undermining any ultimate state of tranquillity. The sandstorm – that is to say, dust from a demolition or from the desert itself - is babble, in which even one single grain of sand silently resounds against itself.
(1) Example taken from the book Chinese Poetic Writing (François Cheng).