Continuing to think about our habit of reading into facial expressions (see last post), brought to mind an experience I had once viewing an exhibit of visual art.
I was at MOMA a few years back, checking out the Chuck Close retrospective. In the room that housed his early works from the 60s, I came across the giant, photorealistic portraits for which he is well known.
I had an odd experience viewing these huge "heads" together in one place. Close has made it clear that his portraits are paintings of photographs -- not studies from "real life." Because of this fact, you'd think you were several steps away from attributing psychological presence to these works. In fact, I'm told that if you view them up close, you can actually see the grid of tiny boxes through which they're created; it's as if you're looking at a mosaic made of hundreds of tiles, each with a miniature abstract painting inside.
Yet, oddly, the paintings also seemed to carry symbolic messages. In the portrait of Philip Glass, for example, the swirling patterns of Glass's hair and skin rhymed, for me, with the epic, circular movement of his music. It seemed as if his face were some sort of medieval emblem, in which the spirit of his inner creativity manifested in the flesh.
What I found striking was how this inner spirit fought its way through the artificial quality that Close foregrounds. It was as if a certain presence would not be denied -- even if the artist telegraphed this was a simulation of a simulation; even if you knew the painting's effect was the result of Close's own "smoke and mirrors."
It was almost as if the artificial aspect of the work was precisely what made it more absorbing.
Charles Bernstein's "Artifice of Absorption"
An especially lucid analysis of the phenomena I've just described is found in a piece I alluded to in the last post: Charles Bernstein's essay-in-verse titled "Artifice of Absorption." Toward its end, Bernstein describes the experience of watching Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.
In this play, the character "Krapp" listens to autobiographical diary entries he made via tape recordings during earlier periods of his life. But just as he, and we, as audience, begin to be absorbed in these accounts, Krapp reminds himself and us of their artifice. He frequently switches off the tape, interupting the narrative flow, fast forwarding at times, stopping at others to make sarcastic comments on his own youthful naivete.
But our heightened awareness of the mechanical device through which Krapp's "heartfelt" confessions are communicated, rather than make us more distanced, draws us in. Bernstein comments:
"Indeed, the very jagged moments when the tape is
abruptly turned off -- moments in which the
listener's absorption may seem to be
ruptured -- only serve to heighten the dramatic power
of the play. Beckett's incisively spliced
dislocations have a spellbinding
The emotional content of the performance seems more real, then, precisely because the work refuses to become "absorbed" in the "vain hopes" of the stories the character once told himself. It's as if a higher degree of honesty -- and hence authenticity -- results from the very acknowledgement of the ephemeral quality of the stories Krapp tells himself.
And the presence of a tape machine in the play underlines the fact that even our most basic sense of our lives and identities is unavoidably mediated -- that an immaculate perception of ourselves is impossible.
Both Close and Beckett come from the realm of high art, but I've also seen forms of popular culture that achieve "realism effects" by doing something similar.
Recently I watched an indie horror film titled Alien Abduction (about so-called true events involving disappearances and "strange lights" that occurred in the Brown Mountains of North Carolina).
The story, of course, was far-fetched. But what made it gripping, nonetheless, was the technique through which it was told. As we watch this tale of alien abduction involving a small family, we are constantly reminded, by its shaky, hand-held quality (and occasional blackouts) that we are watching a homemade video (in this case, one filmed by an autistic boy). The camera, in fact, is as much a character in the movie as the people.
As such, the movie is the latest in a low-budget genre that began with the Blair Witch Project, in which outlandish tales gain a degree of realism by seeming to be filmed by "real" people on poor quality equipment.
All of which leads me to wonder whether if, today, in order to achieve a "suspension of disbelief," it helps to have a recording device somewhere nearby. Thoughts?
Also of Interest:
My new book of poems, The Cheapskates, from Lunar Chandelier Press, is now available from Small Press Distribution. Click here.
Review of The Cheapskates by David Lehman, click here, and another by Michael Lally (with my poem on Chuck Close), click here.