Spaces of Attention: Notes on places and time
by Rodrigo Silva
"Extreme attention is what constitutes the contemplative faculty in man
and the only kind of extreme attention is an already religious point of view.
What I call the religious element is first a form of attention."
Simone Weil, Cahiers
It could be said that tectonics is not an exclusive of geology, that it concerns a part of the action taken by the arts upon those volumes that seemingly refuse to be mere representatives of a sculptural theme, being rather what we might call tectonic presentations. All kinds of tectonics concern a duel between permanence and transitoriness. To build a dwelling-place, a restance*, though one assailed by signs of precariousness (known to us from the ageing body, that slows down its renewal, to the ruin that remains through the piling up of centuries), means to restore a connection between once and here, between the now that ceases not to drip away and the remaining, toward other times: as if, through the gesture that builds upon space, time, that always abandons us, was restored to us. The tectonic will founds itself upon the following conviction: that through space, time can be resisted. That in sedimentation (the strata made up of layers of slabs) something remains of what erosion (the worn out concrete, torn away from each slab) already stops from being. Something of our temporal nature reveals itself in that backwards and forwards movement; the duality of time: the temporal time of whatever moves from state to state, ceaselessly becoming the other, and the aion ("the relation between the identical and the other that can only be translated into a poetic law of time", in Hölderlin's words), a diaphanous image of eternity. Tectonic places or volumes seem to long for a manifest form of timelessness: they are regular, stable, patently fabricated, protected from the moods of interpretation and the fluctuations of sense. The repetition that animates their built condition presents itself as a restraint and reserve upon variation, as though the exuberance of connotation and emotion, enmeshed in the anthropomorphic delirium of figuration, would be too expressionistic or psychological. As though forms were invented who refused to be an image or simulacrum, simply presenting an efficacy without drama, a decanted quality: a presence. Derrida has the following to say about presence: "as a living presentation of exteriority it is also the most metaphysical form to indicate the minimum (…) this simple existence of an identity is always supplemented in a game of moving differences, the effect of a decentralization that does not want to reveal the logic of the supplement, Toth's infinite availability for the game of differences". All tectonics places us in the middle of a geometry of differences: that system of differences, that can be experienced here and only appear in the alterity of a piece, is art without supplements, a form of knowledge in homeopathic dosages (a little difference in the midst of the similar informs us that a system of differences is constituting itself). Here we surprise ourselves in our endless contention with difference, with the whirlpool that drags us to the fiction that wants to fixate itself: lucidity demands that the stream of sensations of the piece is interrupted, in order to attain a meaning, an identification that will separate the waters.
The sculptural gesture takes matter from the state of nature and into the state of culture. This century has been generous in diversifying the use of matter, trying to freely explore the formal vocation of each matter, whose physical behaviours and energetic reality now include the randomness of the materials in the creative process itself. That option has its counterpart in an uncertain sculptural drive, but on the other hand there is a new empiricism: the soft, the hanging, the compressed, the piled-up and other unstable states of matter have allowed a decomposition of the materials' internal logic. Is this a poetics proper to industrial structures? Have the arts, finally, gained or lost with that freedom of materials? Could it be that the obsession with material experimenting has given way to a lack of concern with formal research? Or have the possibilities for sensation increased? Have we abandoned an objectification of matter as instrument and embarked on a gradual immaterialization? Many of the questions in installation and sculpture demand a clarification of what happened in our relation with the materials, something decided in these problems: to know if the immaterialization in the arts had not to do with an incapacity to recognise the nobility of the materials, while progressively sinking into their density. This is why there is singular joy in seeing stone (even though industrially processed). As if plasticity was still animated by a desire to eternalise itself.
I never understood why some traditions wear black in mourning, while others use white; in spite of that I have always thought that both options were quite clearly legitimate, given the analogical and metaphysical qualities of both colours. However, a South American tradition uses violet. Here we find a perplexity that leads us to suspect that culture precedes (and founds) history and not the reverse. Ernst Jünger (L'auteur et l'écriture) says that individuals and even whole eras can be told from one another by their conception of death, that is to say, by the way how, through time, they recognise the transcendental. Ask a man how he feels about death and you will know his living self (I read this somewhere in the letters to Lucilius). Agamben (Enfance et histoire) says about time and the ways of shaping it: "every conception of history is invariably accompanied by a certain experience of time, that is inherent to it, that conditions it and that time will, precisely, reveal. Similarly, every culture is first and foremost a particular experience of time, and no new culture is possible without a transformation of that experience. The original task of a genuine revolution would never be to simply 'change the world'; it would be, above all, to 'change time'". It is only by changing the conception of time, that is to say, by changing our notions about the passages between living and dying, that we will be able to interrupt this asphyxiating continuum of immanent time to which we have been confined by all the secularisations we have been living through since the modern age. Surely, a strictly chronological temporality had before held sway upon human toiling: but it was known to be not the only one and could only measure part of our existence. If a task emerges from Agamben's words, it is the task of freeing time from a leaden history that does little in the way of elevation. When 20th century sculpture shook off the yoke of monumentality and celebration, there appeared also a possibility of finding again an archaic aim for building (one that the architecture of our cities is increasingly unable to attain, in spite of all the Gehrys and Eisenmans): to create places where a different time might be breathed in. This vast problem is again presented to us by this mode of sculpture.
To make the tectonic border upon the architectonic, to make natural landscapes border upon artificial ones. The passage that links what is mineral and geological to what is industrial shows how industrially processed matter is still part of the landscape, always a part of nature as storehouse of materials. To remember that the living do not interchange with their kingdom alone, that staying alive must always obey to mineral laws. To be notified by Lezama Lima's "la materia artizada" is to recognise the law whose awareness will be awakened by art in those who understand the reciprocal belonging of the artistic gesture and the many forms of the natural realm; into their voluptuousness, they receive the measure, ciphered in their irregularity. The precision of sculpture and its codas (inherited by some kinds of installation) is the human answer to nature, stating: I am recreating you.
An inspection of "night and white"'s volumes, even a most cursory one by a hasty viewer who thinks there is not much to see, may lead us to look at art as an experience that comes out of the more peaceful scope of the contemplative, of empathy. One could talk of an "active contemplation". Here, there is need for a kind of attention that demands a use of perceptive awareness in which body and physicality are implied in the way we "feel ourselves feeling ourselves" in space. It is in this duplication, of experimenting oneself while experimenting, that art reveals itself as a powerful way to self--knowledge. This awareness has the advantage of a privileged field of self-recognition in this kind of "complexity minimalism" (this is not a classification out of history's archives; it is just the juxtaposition of two concepts that, in spite of forming a kind of oxymoron--like concept, represent two properties that, in this instance, are born of each other: that is to say, the minimal element in these pieces offers a peculiar experience of complexity, the complexity of our spatial sense that is especially apprehended in these forms). This exhibit's formal depuration and the apparent rigorism in the symbolic economy of these volumes point towards a complex science through simplicity. Otherwise, consider the following: before an object, we may feel drawn towards experiencing the endless interpretative summoning of the signs of cultural codes, the narratives and stories they bring about, their dialogue with recent or ancient art history, the themes of our life they express and question, we may confront ourselves with the material variations of their textures and pregnancies, we may admire their technical execution, their formal self-organisation plan, and countless other aspects the work of art forces us into considering (sometimes driven by pleasure, others by a concept, others groping around blindly). However, in this particular kind of interventions, that we are able to recognise in countless artistic archaeologies, more ostensibly, at least, since the 1960s (with minimalism, land art, public art or other less obvious instances) we are confronted with a situation where we see these objects engender their own narrative spatiality (as in cinema): their weight and lightness, indicating the brittleness of their solidity, their suspended immobility, apparently almost keen on nullifying gravitation's pull, the contiguity of imaginary lines that disengage themselves from the piece that delineates them, the geometry of the piece and the larger, enveloping geometry of the building, the scale relation to the body, the balance and tension of the angles… as if changes in point of view would force us to establish a morphology every time we go from one zone to another. It is a tectonic acuity, which may be familiar to the geologist's meticulousness or to the analytical vision of an architect, but that can never be too exercised: it is from a wisdom of inhabiting places (this is not necessarily a case of invisible geometries; there are others, quite visible, regarding which we are but little awake) that human relationships also structure themselves. And that regards everyone.
Heidegger (I have never been able to read him properly, because his texts gave me the most bizarre headaches) gave, in 1951, a lecture entitled "Building, inhabiting, thinking". In this text by the old thinker who so enjoyed forest clearings, a clear concern emerges: according to him, our relationship to earth and nature had suffered a mutation, because the act of building had degenerated through the impoverishment of the inhabiting experience, causing a severance between the act of inhabiting and the act of building. Not all of today's buildings could receive that sense of inhabiting and, above all, the sense of inhabiting touched more primeval structures, which underwent serious disturbances. The places we build can still serve as lodging and shelter, make practical living easier and let the sunshine in, but they are no longer able to grant us a habitation. To inhabit means a primeval way of being a man: being a man means to inhabit this earth. To inhabit means also to care for, to cultivate: it lays us upon a responsibility. In his essay on monumentality, Alois Riegl also recognises how cultic gestures (the ways of caring for) that have, since modernity, secularised themselves into culture, are, first and foremost, pointers to the act of inhabiting a place, whose material, symbolic or imaginative management takes on the likeness of the place seen as a work of art: the place, due to the semiosis in its geometries, is already a sculpture where spatial coordinates open up, opening us to an embodiment, a telluric resonance. Out of this inhabiting as cultivation comes an almost ritualised forcible understanding of inhabiting as a sign of the mortality of those who inhabit the earth; however, such understanding projects them into something that transfigures that confinement, placing upon us a duty: to inhabit is to take responsibility for the forms we give to whatever we inhabit. This is echoed in the term "cosmos", when used not in the sense of an operating scientific notion but as an expression indicating a unisonant order of the world, a mutual belonging between all levels of reality, as in Leibniz's monad. Such is the task of building: to turn spaces into a place, to install, to order, to create a possibility of order, of opening up to new possibilities of existence.
White is the hardest colour to think about. Not even Malevich (who wrote admirably on light and colour; his texts would have been read by Goethe as one who finds a soul-mate) escaped the attracting vertigo of white: if white was a sound it would sound like a sylph, charming but fierce, pacifying but ravenous. White's power of absorption seems to want to gather all colours in itself, as if, in a conciliation of the circle of creatures, everything tended toward white. It is not just the solar spectrum that hides itself in light; the very world conceals itself in white. All things considered, white possesses every property black has, only in reverse: if it seems to reflect everything, it absorbs everything at the same time (this is particularly noticeable in that threshold where a polished black surface suddenly becomes a mirror, opening itself to light). Its immaculate sterility is also the uncertain way the phantoms that always populate our Sabbaths appear to us; its optical temperature may be a kind of blindness, but it can also be the mystical illumination (the "white night" of Elisabeth Kübler Ross, who knows well the existing passages between revealed panoramas of totality, between night and white). It can be the plastic silence of depuration, the condition of one who has stopped fighting against the complex restitution of the world through colour, but may also be that kind of crafty "not-yet" shrewdness almost exhausted by conceptual or minimal art. Is there any difference between the white that comes after colour and the one that comes before it?
And all this seems to come from drawing. That sensitive intelligence is, more than an anticipating vision, the very place of invention, as Valéry acknowledged in his text on Leonardo de Vinci's method: it is no mere projection of a mental representation, rather a spacing through traces, that constitutes an irreducible way of apprehending bodies and the elementariness of formation. The proof of the drawing comes from an impulse of the knowledge that is born in the work of drawing and only there, in a rare simultaneity of knowing and doing in a nascent state. The project is no mere condensing of intent; it is the initiatory process of a form of intelligence (take, for instance, LeCorbusier's notebook or Bill Viola's sketches).
The idea of sculptural work is currently undergoing a renewal of its notion of totality: it is no longer just the organic totality of the parts regarding the whole or the self-sustained synthesis of a composition: it is chiefly a totality that incorporates both place and the one experiencing it. Strictly speaking, sculpture has always been an art of disposing elements in space, which establish a form of -presence where the spectator finds himself integrated in an event where the passage of time is akin to the walking around a space. This is not only an art of the representation of a "transcendental space of the image"'s depth and perspective, but also a spacing that has integrated the spectator into itself: the real space. We could object here that the symptoms in the use of new media in art point towards an ever-growing fascination with the virtualizing of space, while here we precisely perceive an act of resistance to that new colonization.