On the right track?


Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images,
Barbara Maria Stafford
(281pp, University of Chicago Press)

The Evil,
ed. Raimar Strange/Galerie Gebr, Lehmann, Dresden
(118pp, DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag, Dresden)


Many years ago, when I was a newspaper theatre critic, I reviewed exhibitions occasionally as well, and all my life I have had (with poetry) these parallel ways, means and purposes, tormented by how they overlap or not, how they interconnect, which I'm sure they do.

In Barbara Maria Stafford's Introduction she sets out both her complaint and her purpose, that the "ongoing cognitive revolution continues to meet with the 'intense reluctance' of art, cultural, and literary historians to consider seriously the biological underpinnings of artificial marks and built surfaces." I suppose free will is at issue here, as is self-expression and the history of culture as sociologically and politically monitored.
  
It's all in the mix but this book brings an insistence. For instance, the first printed books - Bibles, manuals - began to mix words with illustration and even with oblique, not obviously related visual images, both figurative and as design. This was new for the brain, and with the discovery of new means - photography, sound reproduction - this cross-matching of sensory impression became our way of life.
 
This is a well and unexpectedly illustrated book. On one double page in colour, for instance, has Jeff Wall's 1993 'A sudden gust of win' (photograph from a transparency in a light box), a detail of Eduado Kac's 1999 'Transgenic work' - the mode of which I don't understand - along with a family portrait (c.1765-6) by Joshua Reynolds.
 
Ezra Pound and H.D.are mentioned in relation to Imagism; there isn't a though look at the relationship between the visual and the verbal, but anyone alert to the one would be alerted here to the other.

Important distinctions are worked through; chance operations, for instance, and the logic or logics of brain systems, of how personal artistic intent and practice connects with wider culture and why, with what has gone before and why.

Such a book makes one aware - and is no doubt written out of an awareness - that academia, publishers, booksellers and readers contrive a version of category and good order: where to put this maverick book? There is one chapter here - typically - that has a title and subtitles: PRIMAL VISIONS / The Geography of Interiority / HALLUCINATORY HAUNTS. Between the second and  third there is a quote on sleep, terror and brain function, along with an ancient Summerian poem.


The Evil is superficially simpler: the book of a Dresden exhibition, curated by Raimar Strange, featuring the work of some twenty artists, none of them traditional.

Any such catalogue is going to be fragmentary. For instance, an untitled work by Ohne Titel has some small illustrations and a single full page, a third of which vertically shows 'the starry heavens', while the rest of the pages is a close-up of a golf ball as if trying to decide between three close holes. The note tells us that the whole piece includes 'collaged lyrics of the band Tocotronic.'

Politics motivated the exhibition. One notion will show this, the question whether climate change is being accepted or responded to as favourable or not to Capitalist enterprise. Andy Warhol's Mao finds a place here, as does the also late Joseph Beuys's 'pop song' (words only and very faintly here) 'against Ronald Reagan's brand of US imperialism', No other artists here were previously known to me and none, I think, are British.

These two books came to me fortuitously, but they do set each other off, asking or implying the same questions. One opens as many tracks as possible, the other displays a wide variety of artistic experiments towards - at least when brought together - a single track's purpose.

          David Hart 2008