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The Presence of Statues
Stone or marble: from the beneficence of emperors and the piety of saints to the sentimentality of the Victorian angel found waiting at the door of the tomb, the statue reaches though the mirror of the sublunary world to touch what lies beyond. A touch contagious for the believer. Conveyance by means of a stone intermediary. We look and are led. And now even for the secular watcher it is already too late. For in looking we have followed. Unaware of the leap we have made.
Statues. In origin, a public form for a public forum (totemic). In traditional criticism, a conduit for the survival of traditions from the past. The collective eye is turned to the past for life-lessons and moral guidance: all the better to ensure the insistence of continuity into a fast-approaching future. A repository for collective ideals, often also the idealisation of a community, statues not only bear the symbolic weight of the transmission of culture, but must act as the reminder of its ideals, its vision of its own ideal state; responsible not only the actuality of survival, but also the inspiration of what survives. For the world of the future must either be better; its inhabitants an improvement on those caught in the round of everyday existence: or statues must issue the call to a return to the mythic stature of those whose memory has survived to inspire. The gaze of the statue guides our intentionality onward; both in time and in value we are urged to move forward. Statues are repositories of striving.
The memory of statues. To remember (the past) is to continue to remember (in the future). Both in the future as future (deferred) and in the future practical, the immediate future. Just how immediate is the immediate future? The answer lies with the present.
The individual appropriation of statues or their meanings (by owners or patrons) also respects the three temporal flavours of human experience - each turning to serve a particular purpose. The glance into the past justifies the present stance of the owner (or institution). The eye of the present offers a self-statement of personal worth, a badge or membership of the most exclusive of clubs, the most powerful of secret societies - those possessing the secret of time. Whilst the head resolutely turned to the future promises the continuity of the self-same as only those beings made of stone are able. All statements made by statues are also statements of intent. All statues are promises in stone.
(The relief occasioned by the realisation that the appropriation of such symbolic forms as statues is ineluctably individual, and that those who do not own the symbol on display can nevertheless attach to it their own ideals, is quickly lost when we realise that the multiplication of this appropriation is in fact the ground of collectivity (and not its negation). And that this surprising generality is one of the sources of cohesion in our current social order - or in one of its subsets, the sense of community. Individual appropriation may express the aspirations of disparate communities, but does not escape the hierarchies in which the identity of these communities are caught - does not escape the logic of statues.)
The timelessness of statues. As if they were always already waiting in the deep cavernous folds that lie on either side, in the wings, before and after our experience of time. Exemplars of a survival beyond the temporal; a path set for us all to follow; a hyperbolic (and rhetorical) trajectory which would leave time itself far behind. All the better to satisfy the craving of belief for an unimpeachable ground. A belief in magic gifted into the present by the winds of eternity.
If the aura of eternity provides the horizon to the sense of the present, then, in an curious interdependence of opposites, it is the fabled instant in which we live that supports eternity - the pinhead upon which the angels dance. The sense of the presence of the present is continually and inescapably with us (the 'eternal present', the dogged persistence of the 'now'). It is where we are, 'now and forever'. Even the future is finally foreseeable; it is the all-too-familiar 'now', still there, up ahead, waiting for us, we only need to catch up with it, to catch up with ourselves. The infinite inpouring that is the self. (Present without end, given without end, an infinite gift). If the general deixis of 'forever' lies somewhere in the future, if it is the future, it is still implacably temporal (our fundamental sense of the future as waiting up ahead, as opposed to the past or present on one hand, and an a-temporal time-line on the other). Yet, extrapolated to the infinite, into the past and future beyond our experience, it crosses the chasm that borders all finitude to join the 'outside' of time. The greatest distance imaginable is always already implied in our most intimate experiences. The cause, the 'eternal now' in which we 'eternally' live ('eternally' because we cannot image our own mortality without assuming a position outside of ourselves) becomes the effect, an illusionistic eternity. The extrapolation to the infinite of the ineluctable 'now' experience is eternity. The door to the sublime is never far away. Our eyes have only to look up, and there it is ajar, with the light of the heavens edging existence's cold silhouette.
Backlit: the face on the figure disappears in its transfiguration.
It is in the perception of statuary that the two faces of the present (the dominant temporal frame of our perception) are most apparent, most clearly embodied, become object, become sign. 'Now' and 'forever' co-implicate, generating a variety of illusionistic effects; the aesthetics of statues. With the statue, the many modalities making up the relationship of the temporally present to the presencing of the extra-temporal (the outside of time) are at their most exposed. The profane is presented in all its fragile contingency, whilst the force of sacralisation, the eternal, is present in its absence. Yet both co-exist in the same material form, revealing themselves in different proportions. And the illusion of the otherworldly (the mimesis of the unrepresentable) remains dependant upon the illusion of mimesis - or rather in its limitations. Mimesis is permitted to the degree that it maintains the frozen aspect bestowed by the stare of the Medusa. It is the preservative force of this suspended animation that leaks eternity into this world. The portal is opened by its conjuror, presence, to be widened into a torrent at the behest of well-known signs. It is this strange potentiality and twin-faced interdependence that makes the statue so suited to its task. However, despite degrees and gradations, two basic types emerge (giving birth to the two key genres of mimetic sculpture). If the focus is upon the simple presence of the figure, then the result is secular sculpture: if the focus is upon the presence of the eternal, then what we find before us is the sculpture of the sacred.
Prosaic imitations of human form wait in public places and hover around the solar levels of important buildings. Yet even when presentness alone appears foremost, offering its secular face to the world, there still remains the aura provided by the touch of the outside of time (eternity).
And so it is with ordinary statues, the public sculpture of the everyday, of the central square or the market place, in secular art of cosmopolitan or municipal origin. For these, even these, leaden effigies may be found to emit the glow of a residual heat whose origin is otherworldly. Or the standing dead of our public spaces may bask in the stolen luminosity of neighbouring forms. The moon like water lives by reflected light and ghosts are identified by their resemblance to the living. For, if we focus down on the essentials of material and borrowed form, the degree zero of stone and likeness, we find brute matter enclosed in a faint but insistent envelope of light. A simile in stone. Matter marked by the uncanny nature of resemblance itself. If the gnarled and misshapen trunk of a tree suggests anything other than its species (enters the realm of figurative meaning): immediately there is a demon in the forest. Statuary is that which we perceive as self-framing; self-validating; material and code at once together; self-supporting rituals in stone. This is what differentiates the image and the statue: the image (like certain landscapes and views) carries its frame with it, distinct as material, as border, as non-mimetic edge or natural coincidence, ensuring its ritual setting apart and so its repetition as a distinct and significant experience. The statue acts as a vortex, drawing its support from the culture that surrounds it (foremost among which, that of the watcher).
It is here, where form bestows more than just resemblance, that Sculpture shares ground with Still Life. Statues join painted tableaux of fruit and fish. Plastic mimesis shares its residual a-temporal glow with illusionism in two-dimensions. Represented or modelled are things that are perishable in imperishable material; paint, stone, metal (fruit, flowers, people; silver apples, golden leaves, marble heroes). All use the trace of not-time to gild their mortality. Eternity: its illusionistic presence is found embedded in time itself, folded into a contingent and mutable temporality. Its presence in the present is as the trace of not-time in time. It is the ineffable invisible gift of this trace that fires everything in the transubstantiation that lies at the heart of the aesthetics of the mimetic in the plastic arts. The image too, the Icon, the Still Life, emits a music above the single beat of simple utility; frame, genre and topic combine to push the represented beyond the temporal prompting of the memento. The echo of the divine resounds in all reproduction; the grain of truth feeding the suspicions of the iconoclast. (Whence the argument of the philosopher Levinas, for whom the image is a decadent, second-hand divinity - the Word, as in psychoanalysis, is said to be nearer to the Truth. Rather, the image, simultaneously there and not-there, suggests otherworldliness, introducing divinity by the backdoor). It is the sea that sounds behind the white noise of representation.
(From aide memoire...) or the statue may be an aide to memory. It begins as an act of repetition, a promising of the future to a repeat performance, an occasional look cast over its shoulder to call up the ghosts of the past. Appearing as lodged in our everyday temporality; but sheathed in the bid for eternal memory. Which becomes in turn a reminder of our own mortality (...to memento mori).
The presence of presentness. The face of the present. Reduction to a mimesis evaporated of all metaphysics. Simplicity (unformalised even; formalisation as another trope of sublimity; Bernini). Yet simplicity is to be found even in the midst of detail (it is the realm of second meaning that must be avoided, or if not avoided, tamed, brought, quite literally, down to earth). The attributes of this effect are: the secular, the decorative, referential, but as with allegory, of a this-worldly sort (if there is an absence in the aim of the deixis it must be that due to death or distance). Such a statue is culturally and temporally contingent, datable therefore; it is made up of genre types, cliches even (but not religious ones). Prone to parody and pastiche. Garden gnomes are her meiotic brothers, the tomb-angel her anaemic sister.
When it is the other twin that confronts us, the face of the present that is turned to infinity, then the presence before us is that of the not-in-time. The presence of the divine (whatever it is in one's culture that emits the light of the double positive and so polices the gate leading to the place of the double negative; taboo, transgression; sacrilege). Deixis all the way to the outside of time; the trope of the sublime; the eternal. By these means we are offered the presence of not-time in the world. The otherworldly meets us at the crossroads. We witness the overlap, an intersection of a doubled realm; the temporal and the extra-temporal. The profane opens to give birth to the sacred: the sacred nests in the profane womb of everyday space. When mortals enter this shelter they become immortals (the body of the pharaoh, the bodies of kings, of the shaman, the paradox of the living saint). Personification of the abstract positive: prosopopoeia as the performative of incarnation. The word made flesh. Made stone. The anthropomorphic flesh and crystal of ritual time and space. A statue is such a site. This is the mode of representation of the sacred, of religion; of religious figures - and of the figures of the powerful. As in the history of early statuary (Naram Sin, Gudea): the pre-history of the image. Anointed with blood. The deictic finger; the sleight of hand: the deification of power (trailing its shadow, the unholy, the unwanted, the negative, the defecation of power).
Mimesis and power. Only the strong are imitated. This axiom is as true for art (art history as the representation of the forearm) as for the learnt behaviour that constitutes the human (identification with the aggressor). And what of the weak? The presence of statues; the absent history of the invisible. Representation effaces the unrepresented. To suffer one must deserve to suffer, one must be guilty (persecution becomes the apportionment of just punishment). The necessary guilt of the victims guarantees their nature as fallen, doubles their curse. In this way the strong (the bully, the lynch mob, the dictator) cleanse their conscience, justify their action, sharpen their swords: 'never give a sucker an even break'. All the way to the psychology of the sacrificial pogrom. Statuary as normative code. Mimesis leads to the dominance of the Same; the virus of mimetic replication creates homogenic communities. Fear of the Other (itself a convenient excuse) does the rest. The need to belong requires a pole around which to coalesce: an convenient opposite pole provides the catalyst. The presence of statues; the unmarked site of burial.
Statues: so many spiders spinning the web of symbolic exchange; sewers of the fabric of culture.
Statues: machines for generating gods. Sowers of the eternal field.
(In the shadow of the statue, the unholy, the unwanted, the negated, the defecation of power).
The presence of statues.
The sewers of culture.
Copyright © 2002, 2005 Peter Nesteruk