Monday, August 27, 2007

This is my body which is given for you

What are the metaphysics of Antony Gormley’s bodyforms, the lead cases cast from plaster moulds of his body that he has described as "three-dimensional photographs"?

Like photographs, they are films, hollow skins containing a pause that their stillness recalls. They do not move. These are not Giacometti’s walkers, so urgently kinetic that they have no time to bend their knees, but standing, lying, upright, bent, immobile.

They are houses, places in which to live, "intimate architecture." The comparison is made explicit in Gormley’s most recent exhibition:
The body is our first habitation, the building our second.
In Allotment, buildings are shrunk to the scale of bodies, with apertures for mouth, ears, anus and genitals. Space Station magnifies the crouching form of the artist into a perforated mass of balanced crates that echo the brutalist architecture of the Hayward itself.

The tendency is disturbing. It hints at a kind of immaterialism even Descartes disavowed:
I am not merely present in my body as a pilot in his ship, but […] as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and my body form a unit.
Gormley writes that "architecture is another kind of body, another container." But the body is not a container, and our relation to it is not instrumental. We do not use our bodies as tools with which test our view of the world. Or perhaps only Gormley does. When it is not alienated from itself, action is a form of practical knowledge: knowing what one is doing by doing it, and thereby knowing one’s own materiality. This knowledge is misplaced in the ineluctable stasis of the bodyforms.

I love them anyway. As beings at rest. As performances, their incarnation of everyman at odds with their palpable origin in the artist’s particular body. Most simply, there is the physical graffiti of Event Horizon, attentive and demanding our attention, like the blurred bodies of other people in Blind Light, the most impressive work in the present collection.

Gormley once wrote: "I am tired of art about art. I am now trying to deal with what it feels like to be a human being." A feeling is not a worldview. Like some critics, we may tire of the demand for art to be about anything, tire of interpretation, feeling its presence in the presence of others.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Rousseau Bites

In Rousseau's Dog David Edmonds and John Eidinow embark upon an impossible task. They aspire to make Hume seem less than a saint. Their strategy is equally quixotic: to find Hume guilty in the affair with Rousseau. Their book is exhaustively researched, but its argument pivots on innuendo. On conflicting accounts of their first quarrel:
Another discrepancy is over the nature of Rousseau's apology. In Hume's version, Rousseau is apologizing for his folly and ill behaviour; in Rousseau's version, the apology concerns Hume's character. Unquestionably, Rousseau's record of Hume's stilted reaction – so reminiscent of the Scotsman's embarrassing inarticulateness when playing the sultan in Paris to the two slaves – has the ring of veracity.
One need not be as sceptical as Hume to question an inference from his awkward reaction to the prospect of a public seduction to the cold reception of a private apology. The authors cite no other evidence.

They are willing to speculate elsewhere, too, always on behalf of Rousseau. When Madame de Boufflers ignores his letter vilifying Hume, they wonder whether "[perhaps] she recognized that some of his remarks about Hume were justified"; and they all but endorse the unprovable allegation that Hume was responsible for the nastiest quip in a fabricated letter from the King of Prussia written by Horace Walpole:
If you persist in perplexing your brains to find out new misfortunes, choose such as you like best; I am a king and can make you as miserable as you wish.
Rousseau was mad: neurotic, paranoid, aggressive, leaving a trail of broken friendships across Europe on his way to England. But it is Hume who is described in lunatic terms, writing "berserk letters to d'Holbach" – these have been conveniently destroyed; there is no evidence for claims about the "extraordinary violence" of their language – and exhibiting signs of "mania":
Perhaps the moral of the whole sad encounter is that while sane men cannot make madmen sane, madmen can make sane men mad. In his momentary madness, fury, and panic, Hume never grasped the root of Rousseau's complaint: that though Hume had carried out the obligations of a friend in practice, he was constitutionally incapable of doing so in spirit.
This is savage to Hume, who was loved by so many, and insanely generous to Rousseau. Do our authors forget the true cause of Rousseau's suspicions, which they carefully document? By his own account, Rousseau was terrified on the journey to Calais by Hume's muttering to himself, "Je tiens, Jean-Jacques Rousseau" and terrified again by his stare after dinner, "a frightening look that no honest man would ever have encountered." He suspected the domestic staff at a château in Normandy of being Hume's agents.

Rousseau was pursued by phantoms, not by the failure of others to conform to his demand for spiritual friendship. And Hume was rightly afraid that his reputation would be harmed by the brilliant, vindictive rhetoric of his accuser. With the appearance of this book, Hume's fear is finally justified.