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What We don't See

2006

Letter to the Sighted (Part 1): The Part of Light

 

‘Perhaps a positive-minded person will undertake to develop here a pyrotechnical interpretation. He will show us the brilliant flame from the zinc projecting the white and dazzling flakes of its oxide into the air. He will write down the oxidation formula. But this objective interpretation, while it discovers a chemical cause of the phenomenon that fills us with wonder, will never take us to the centre of the image, to the kernel of the Novalis complex.’

Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire[1]

 

The Novalis complex, as defined by Bachelard, ‘is characterized by a consciousness of inner heat which always takes precedence over a purely visual knowledge of light.’[2] For Bachelard light only works upon the surface of things, whereas it is heat which penetrates. Isidro Ramirez’ project is, for this reader, a potentially complex exploration of questions of the limits of the imagination within the Visual. Photographs of places which have been constructed for inhabitation by the blind cannot, it seems, be on the side of the blind. A world is proposed, however, from which the sighted must also be excluded. To look at these photographs is to be offered a place of ones own exclusion.

 

The title of Maurice Blanchot’s collection of writings, La Part du feu, has been translated as The Work of Fire[3]. In her introduction to the text, the translator, however, elaborates on the complexity of the French title and the ambiguities withheld therein in order to undermine the finality of the English translation. She explains that he French word, ‘Part’, in English, means the division of some whole, but also a role, as in a play. ‘Feu’ has a surfeit of possible meanings in French which translate as fire, light(s), warmth, frenzy, to name but a few. So the title, The Work of Fire, is offered as a choice, one option, one path taken. There could thus have been others. The translator proposes her choice negatively. Ambiguity for Blanchot is this possibility, this double point of view.

 

In his book on the work of Blanchot, The Dark Gaze, Kevin Hart shows how Blanchot ‘distances himself from the theology of light which runs through the Bible, the Church Fathers, the medieval scholastics, right down to his own days’[4]. His atheological approach can be understood as a form of religion without religion. The use of the ‘I’ for Blanchot is always to acknowledge a Divine subject and is thus to be avoided. There can be no such unity. Nevertheless the impossibility of this avoidance is also acknowledged. Thus ‘writing’ becomes the mode of distance which allows one to be detached from the world.[5]

 

This disappearance of the author seems to be central to much of Ramirez’ work. He has written about wanting his images to be covered in snow[6]. For him this is about erasing his presence in order to allow the viewer room to discover their own (ambiguous) meaning within the work. This is not, however, ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake as understood at a banal level. It is about the way Blanchot conceives it, as this double point of view which makes the act of reading an indistinct activity.

 

This series of photographs proposes a philosophy of darkness, manifested very precisely through both the metaphor of light and the play of light within specifically designated spaces. If the question of the blind works within it in any positive way, it is to allow the sighted a space to breathe, a moment, oddly, in which to imagine not being seen. These are photographs which do not see you. They stand in for the inhabitants, perhaps. The absented space – a common theme in Ramirez’ work – permits the viewer to imagine their own disappearance, the possibility of not being seen. For Blanchot this is death’s possibility. It is a gift. The signs for this interpretation are everywhere in the photographs: most obviously in the framing which is essentially a fragmenting of any possible view; more subtly in the dimmer (more archival) spaces (Museum, Hotel) as a mysterious, less information-laden series of interiors framed to accentuate an inner heat which cannot be seen; in the works of more light-drenched spaces, the light works like a kind of surface indicator, a potential but not real fire (School 6), negatively proposing a deeper reading at work beneath the surface; in objects which emanate light - the coloured beakers (School 2), the strangeness of the chandelier or the wonder-full-ness of the trees outside the window – where both the inside and outside are so too light (School 1). Light from above features a number of times and yet registers in a way that is not allowed to become Biblical. Ramirez has produced a parallel effect to Blanchot’s way of obscuring things phenomenologically, yet somehow still dealing with their surfaces.

 

Paul Strand’s famous photograph of the blind woman wearing a placard around her neck which reads ‘BLIND’ (1916) reveals something of the problems photography has encountered when it has attempted to deal with its bias towards sight. Ramirez’ project reveals an insight into that which cannot be shown through, into photography’s limitations and exclusions and, most potentially, the untapped potential of these weaknesses.[7] Photography’s dark gaze. A kind of atheology of photography is thus proposed.

 

©Becky Beasley 2006

 

[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire, Beacon Press, Boston, 1968 (1st published in French 1938), p41

[2] Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire, Beacon Press, Boston, 1968 (1st published in French 1938), p40

[3] Maurice Blanchot, The Work of Fire, Stanford University Press, California, 1995 (Originally published in French in 1949 as La Part du feu), Trans. Charlotte Mandell,

[4] Kevin Hart, The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004, p15

[5] For further reading see Maurice Blanchot, “The Essential Solitude”, The Space of Literature, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1989 (1st published in French in 1955)

[6] What We Don’t See (Photographing Spaces Inhabited by the Blind), artist’s statement by Isidro Ramirez, 2006

[7] For further reading on the question of ‘insight’ in the context of this essay, see Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, Routledge, Oxon, 2005.