“Don’t look now” by Jean Fischer, 1996
What is the image of art? What kind of experience does it generate and what, fundamentally, do we ask of it? In Nicholas Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now, set in the grey translucence of a Venetian winter, the hero (Donald Sutherland) becomes obsessed by the image of a small figure dressed in a red coat that taunts and eludes him in the narrow alleys of the city. The figure is associated with memory and loss, premonition and death, not only death by accidental drowning of his child in England that forms the pretext of the film’s narrative, but also, as it transpires, his own. Moreover, the Venetian figure is revealed to be not an innocent child, but its terrible parody, a malicious adult dwarf. The red figure, we could say, represents the trace of the real that always remains to haunt the depths of the unconscious.
Perversely, perhaps, I am reminded of this film by one of Ria Pacquée’s Street Ram-blings – initially by the set of photographs of red ‘objects’ (1994), but the obscure feeling of dread comes to infect my response to almost all this body of work for like the recurrent figure in the film, there is something disturbing about these seemingly common objects. Pacquée’s set is not simply a catalogue of objets trouvés in the street, photographed for their formal, chromatic correspondences, as might have been assembled by the English artist Tony Cragg. To be sure, each frame presents a red object, but on prolonged looking they all turn out to be things – doorways or screens – that obstinately obstruct the gaze; or they show a huddled figure, its identity hidden from view by a red coat, which in another frame lies discarded on the ground.
Although rather less unnerving, the same is true for the set of ‘blue’ objects (1995); commonplace things that become enigmatic in their isolation, juxtaposed with blueclad figures executing, again, a commonplace and anonymous gesture. Or, yet again, the set composed of black, white and grey rectangles and figures lying prone in the street like corpses, or perhaps sleeping and homeless, but in any case, in a place that is impersonal and offers no real repose. Each, however, appears as a thing coiled into itself, withdrawn from and wholly indifferent to the photographer’s/our gaze.
What characterises the objects in Pacquée’s frames? Another set of photographs (1995) consists of images of bundles and knots of fabrics and fibres of one sort or another, a curled dog, another huddled figure. The objectness of the bundles alludes to sculpture – something handwrought, textured, deliberate – and, indeed, the photograph by its very nature works to concretise or give ideal shape to the formless. Yet here there persists a sense of indefiniteness, of tettering on the edge between some-thing and nothing; and a casualness and abandonment, as if the photographer ‘came upon’ the bundles by chance, arresting them in a form that would soon pass away into something else. In any case, fixed as a photograph, the sculptural thing loses its materiality to become an image or trace of itself; a making present of an absence.
But is this strictly true here? Ordinarily we would say that the image follows from the thing in nature to which it refers, but here a strange oscillation takes place where we seem to have conjured a form whose prior objective existence is by no means certain. Which is to say that perhaps the image resembles ‘nothing’. Pursuing this line of thought, we might consider Maurice Blanchot’s comment about the tool which, when damaged, becomes its image: ‘In this case the tool, no longer disappearing into its use, appears. This appearance of the object is that of resemblance and reflection: the object’s double, if you will. The category of art is linked to the possibility for objects to ‘appear’, to surrender, that is, to the pure and simple resemblance behind which there is nothing – but being. Only that which is abandoned to the image appears, and everything that appears is, in this sense, imaginary.’ (1) And further, in a statement that seems perfectly to express the ambivalence of Pacquée’s images: ‘The fixed image knows no repose, and this is above all because it poses nothing, establishes nothing. Its fixity, that of the corpse, is the position of what stays with us because it has no place’. (2)
Among the more recent of the artist’s images (which relates to a body of work executed in a cemetery in Rome of the eroded faces of statuary), is one that embodies the pathos of this haunting trace of absence. It is, in fact, the image of an image. It presents a grey stone surface bearing the headless shadow or stain of a crucifix; this, plus three holes by which – we imagine – in the typical pose of Christ on the Cross the hands and feet would have been bolted to its surface, are all that remains of the object. What is the difference between the stain and the object? Were we to see the latter we would undoubtedly be distracted by the kitschy sentiment typical of cheap religious icons; but with the disappearance of the object into its shadow, like Blanchot’s broken tool, what appears is the real significance of this image of death.
I realise suddenly that, in reference to Street Ramblings, I have used the word ‘frame’ rather than ‘shot’ as if I were speaking about film nor photography; as if, indeed, there were some coherent narrative to be extrapolated from Pacquée’s images, which, strictly speaking, there is not despite their accumulation. This thought really belongs to the earlier photographic scenarios featuring Pacquée’s invented and enacted persona ‘Madame’: Madame at Carnival in Cologne (1989); Madame going on pilgrimage to Lourdes (1989); Madame goes to see the horse racing show (1989); Madame visiting the National Garden Festival hoping to see the Princess (1990), and so on … ‘Madame’, a neatly dressed, if rather dowdy masquerade of a middle-aged, middle-class woman, is the essence of solitary anonymity; but maybe the pathos of the image lies less in any imaginary identification we might make with the figure than with how it speaks of the relation between image and experience.
Giorgio Agamben writes that the banality of the everyday now is such that experience is no longer accessible to us; not that today there are no more experiences but have that they are ‘enacted outside the individual’ (3). This is how I understand the role of ‘Madame’.
Madame ‘appears’, for the most part, at the ‘event’, something in excess of the everyday, where one might anticipate some echo of a transcendent experience. And yet, as Agamben says, ‘Standing face to face with one of the great wonders of the world (let us say the patio de los leones in the Alhatnbra), the overwhelming majority of people have no wish to experience it, preferring instead that the camera should.’ (4). Paradoxically, it seems, ‘transcendence’ must be sought obliquely through the banal snapshot not through the experience of the ‘event’ itself. Is it then the case that the power we invest in the image is that of an authority or truth that we ourselves have relinquished ? The ‘truth’ of the snapshots of ‘Madame’ is tantalisingly impossible to grasp: she is as ‘there’ as she is ‘not there’: a stain that interrupts the rhythm of life.
The demand that the image ‘reveal’ itself is a demand which Ria Pacquée’s work as a whole resists. This is not because the artist deliberately sets out to mystify or dissemble; but rather, because the work is a reflection on the power of the image itself Therefore, what materialises is the image’s fascination and inherent ambiguity. Speaking of the world but also of the ‘other’ of the world, the image of art carries no meaning that can be fixed or stabilised. In a sense, what the image reveals, like ‘Madame’ herself, is that it conceals nothing. And that nothing is none other than our own desire that knows no determinable object or resting place. For this reason, the image in its singularity cannot be looked at now, directly: the glance of art is oblique and rather furtive, perhaps, because it is, in the end, a glance at death. Like Donald Sutherland’s character, who finally comes face to face with the dwarf, to see the real is to interrupt the rhythm of life, and it may be fatal. As with all art that stands in opposition to the false security offered by our information-saturated culture, in which meaning is expected to be provided ‘at a glance’, the burden of interpretation in Ria Pacquée’s work is placed on the viewer; the experience may be unsettling, as is desire when it catches us unaware by a flash of memory, the flash of a red coat in a dimly-lit alley, but it is always infinitely rich in imaginative possibilities.
(I) The Two Versions of the Imaginary in The Space of Literature,
University of Nebraska Press, 1982, p. 258-259.
(2) Idem, p. 259.
(3) Infancy and History Essays on the Destruction of Experience trans Liz Heron, Verso, 1993, p14.
(4) Idem, p. 15.