Three new books have arrived in a short duration, and I thought I would mention them before putting together a list of the best books of 2018 for next month. Terribly excited to have all three of them here.
Ellie Ga’s “Square, Octagon, Circle” braids a narrative of the Pharos Lighthouse in Alexandria, using video stills, photographs, and archival materials. The book is about the ostensible simultaneity of the ancient world and present life in Egypt, and the layering of elements in the book doubles for the intrusion of the past into everyday life. I like how the book makes physical use of punch throughs to mine psycho-archaeological depths. The whole production gave me a sense of nostalgia for the coatings of memory and time in Peter Greenaway’s movies somehow, or Baroque art in general. Ga makes reference to Archimdedes’ Ostomachion, striking a blow against erasure; the reader/viewer is left or given hyperobjective remnants. It seems under object-oriented orthodoxy we are prey to a war of moving pieces, and altering affective states, making time and narrative bound to meaning, which is not the same thing as being bound to the truth. As with most epistemic questions, including how photography is used to depict history, erring on the side of accessibility is probably better than being too concerned with overmining.
But, there are extremes. Drifting more in the other direction is Matthew Craven’s bricolage in “Primer”. Constructed of unpredictable rhythms of time, Craven cuts-and-pastes imaginary sequences, deconstructing the correlation of concepts and objects. The artist himself makes no demand on the reader/viewer to accept any of this tearing-apart/melding together of time-periods and cultural mindsets as significant, or this is what I gathered in a recent interview. Which is good, because the book Craven has made is a joy to behold. Gatefolds, inserts, and punch-throughs punctuate the culture clash. If I was forced to believe that Craven had a larger point to make about art-history, I would not necessarily object, but I like keeping interpretive paths open, otherwise, I might see the work tending toward transcendental nihilism, a nonsensical position taken only for the benefit of a crazy aesthetic. But abrogation of art-history would be a sort of minor tragedy, as it is nice to know that Claude Lorrain “renovated the landscape of Romano-Campanian antiquity via Domenichino and Carraci”, or that a photo of a tree taken by Gustav Le Gray may seem “redolent” of Achille-Etna Michallon’s painting “Woman Struck By Lightning”. Language points to meaning, meaning correspondingly reaches towards truth, and ontology is, in reality, top down.
“Pompei Archive” presents the surface of the past. Made while William Wylie was staying for a time at Sol Le Witt’s home in Italy, this is the best book of the three. A lady I know who teaches Greek and Roman history, looking through this volume, told me she had never seen photographs of the moulds used to create the plaster cast bodies that are on display in Herculaneum, and we discussed the demise of Pliny the Elder. I begged the question; how old is Pompei? Is it as old as the re-discovery of it as an archaeological location, or is it best understood as a discrete event in time? Or is it only old as the duration of our gaze, looking at these terrifically detailed exposures? Is Pompei only as old as the tourism industry, or the cultural memory of paganism? It is merely that all of these durations exist coincidently? The introductory material in this book taught me the name Norman Douglas who I could have lived without knowing about, although I have to admit his London Street Games attracts me as much as Harold Mattingly’s “Man in The Roman Street” does.