Thursday, June 28, 2012

Art, talisman, symbol

Three paragraphs from different parts of a review essay by Marina Warner on Damien Hirst:

The words tempus and temple share the same root; the connection suggests that the function of a sacred space is to make time stop or stretch, or render its passage palpable to the worshipper/visitor. Galleries and museums explicitly recall temples in their architecture, and they can also double as national mausoleums: they function socially in comparable ways (‘temples for atheists’), providing an occasion for assembly, for communal experiences, for finding meanings. Above all, it’s striking how crucial the idea of developing our sensitivity to time has become in contemporary artists’ work. ‘I do not think I am slowing down time,’ Tacita Dean, one of the most delicate time machinists of all, said recently, ‘but I am demanding people’s time. In a busy world, that is a big demand, but one of the many reasons why art matters is its ability to stop the rush. Art on film makes us conscious of the time and space we occupy, and gives us an insight into the nature of time itself.’
Some of the votive offerings of the past were highly wrought: their efficacy was bound up with the intricacy and technical complexity of the artefact. The anthropologist Alfred Gell, in his study Art and Agency (1998), took the prows of Papuan war canoes as his prime example of magical prophylaxis: the brain-teasing involutions of the carving were intended to bamboozle hostile forces. Gell argued that the approaches anthropologists use to understand the meaning of art and aesthetics in a culture that is not their/our own should be extended to explore contemporary art at home; and he showed that similar desires are in play when artists make objects as instruments that exert some kind of power on their surroundings, either to make things happen (to assure health, fertility, luck in love, wealth, cleanse a pollution), or to stop things happening (to prevent death, destroy enemies, ward off nightmares, avert revenge). Rather than inquiring into phenomena by representing them, as Monet magnificently struggled to do with the Nymphéas series or the façade of Rouen cathedral in different light and weather, surrealist artists and their kin – conceptualists, performers, language artists – began using mimesis according to the principles of magical thinking, as a talisman: you reproduce the horror to avert it. Hirst’s anatomies are closer to relics than to Rembrandt still lifes. His glittering medicine cabinets, now exhibiting dazzling zirconia crystals as well as pills, are tabernacles as lustrous as Counter-Reformation propaganda for the Eucharist. Even the spot paintings, which have a look of pretty minimalism (and have been much copied by packaging and fashion), reveal an allegorical higher purpose through their titles, while the reiteration, multiplicity and essential meaninglessness of the spots relate them to the processes of charms and spells – often nonsensical, always repeated.
The word ‘symbol’ has unexpected but revealing origins. It is derived from the Greek verb ballein, ‘to throw’, as in the geometrical figure of the hyperbola for a cone that’s extended far from its base: thrown wide, as it were, as in ‘hyberbole’. It persists in diabolus, Latin for ‘devil’, where it evokes the devilish work of throwing everything apart and athwart, scattering into disorder and cacophony. Symbol means ‘thrown together’, and it was first used to describe a tally, a coin, token or stick cut in half to solemnise an agreement, which would be concluded when the two parts were joined together again. ‘The one [part] in my possession,’ Eugenio Trias has explained,
is the ‘symbolising’ component of the symbol. The one elsewhere is needed to gain meaning … [and] the disjunction between these two parts … constitutes the horizon of meaning … The drama (of their conjunction) leads towards the final scene of reunion and reconciliation, in which both parts are ‘pitched’ into their desired coming together.
This site of conjunction is key to the effect of a work of art in the symbolic mode; what happens there gives the artefact a quality of presence, makes it radiate significance, sometimes quite softly, but still irresistibly and ultimately ungraspably. Then you want to go on looking, and looking again.

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