“The carpet too is moving under you” - Bob Dylan
“The heart is a repository of vanished things…” -Mark Doty
I had a series of posts percolating, but life intervened, as it does, and summer passed like so many leaves blowing down the street in a Sirk film. Despite and because of the unforeseen, I had a series of effervescent encounters with objects, images, and artworks, which serendipitously converged with reading Jane Bennett’s wonderful book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Thus I’ve been thinking a lot about aesthetic forms that treat the contingency of matter and material, about the fragility of membranous objects, that only remind us of the skin of our seemingly more solidly protected bodies – a surface that illusorily shields us from a sense of our own porosity, from the harsh elements of a rupturing, polluting exterior conditions – both environmental and affective, political and relational. To risk describing the pull of the vital thing and what Bennett calls “impersonal affect” is as she suggests to risk a “willingness to appear naïve or foolish.” (xiii) So…onwards with a certain vulnerable imprudence.
In sum, I have become obsessed with bubbles.
That is to say, with delicate tissues, with ephemeral materials, which nevertheless persist, even after their death and evaporation, in a sphere of imagination and aspiration.
The first in this bouyant series of enchantments and revelations: Brazilian conceptualist Rivane Neuenschwander’s work in The New Museum, especially her moving image piece, made on high definition digital video, The Tenant (2010, inspired by Roman Polanski’s film of the same name.)
In it, we are presented with the movement of a soap bubble as it floats through an abandoned house under renovation. The translucence and refractory iridescence of the bubble, its perfect spherical shape, travels through spaces that are marked by a state of impermanence that look like ruins as they as much as they do developments – decay and progress have never seemed so dissimulative, so interchangeable. The mise-en-scene: a bubble floats ethereally through destructed space, past raggedly blotched partly painted walls, rooms laid bare and stripped, as if innards exposed, a potential home in a limbo state, a loosened, unfixed body of it own. This interior - a skeleton that muddles the line between building and tearing down - is filtered and lensed by the refraction and transparency of the bubble, constantly threatening the very real possibility and nascent predicament of the bubble bursting. What wall, what edge will collide with the path of this floating orb? The bubble may break at any point, yet it continues to move, a haunting and utterly mesmerizing presence, which in its rainbow edged luminescent opticality approaches a quality of fantasmatic science fiction. As I watched, its movement kept moving me. How could such a pure – circular, coherent, never punctured - yet fragile and permeable form, exist and persist? How could I have never thought about such a paradoxical entity, simultaneously organic, corporeal, otherworldly, transcendent in its sublime formal simplicity? The video seamlessly creates continuity across cuts (and very likely across the frangible life of many “stunt” bubbles, much like the hundreds of flies used to make Yoko Ono’s film Fly) through matches-on-action that affect the flow of a long take, even as the interiors and surroundings ceaselessly change, as the bubble, suspended, turns corners, and drifts through empty rooms. The hypnotic propulsion of the bubble is all – all that matters, all that absorbs, all that creates the lull and the draw of its weightless gravity-less motion. There seemed nothing more utopian and tender, nothing more momentary and moving, in many ways, at that moment, in that space of watching. The bubble never “died” – it continued to drift, to propel, to travel, through that seemingly hostile otherworld which was also a real world – a space of provisional yet unrealized habitation. A “bubble that never bursts:” a conceptual fantasy drawn from both our mortal longings, and from a palpable material urgency. I occupied a time outside of that reality of catastrophe, but still within a state of enthralled suspension, seen in the mirror of a frail membrane, through that unburst bubble.
So, to think of the bubble – a model for the in-betweenness that adjoins body and thing, of thing, brute substance, as body, moved me very far in a very short span of time – from the abstract to the concrete, and back again. It insisted on the tenuous hold we have on a kind of vitality, on the precariousness of a moment that may rupture and dissipate at any point, of a body defined by ephemerality and expansiveness, its glassy transparency a lens, camera, window, eye all at once. What could be simpler, more minimal, more meaningful? A bubble: created by breath and soap, and carried away by an invisible gust of air, made visible by the resilience of this uncanny, see-through skin. What was the creaturely ontology of this “thing” that so compelled me, a product of animal and vegetable? The vital life of this thing which is more than a thing, blowing, living and traveling in the wind.
An auratic, transformative, because suddenly mortal thing. What subtended its strange vitality led me to other objects of wonder. Other bubbles – Neuenschwander’s earlier piece An Inventory of Small Deaths (Blow) (2000) made on Super 8 and on show at the Walker Art Center in The Shot in the Dark exhibit, in which the bubble is a fleshier and more undulating and formless entity, less spherical and more organically malformed, full of curvy bumpy edges and movements floating through a more open verdant landscape.
Then to this amateur video later procured by my friend Lucas (indulging the perversity of my new obsession), in which huge untenably shaped tuber-like bubbles flow and evaporate in magical forms of almost Melies-infused disappearance, materializing the threat, the wish that underwrites the suspense of The Tenant.
But also other tenuously animated materialities. One among them, Robert Breer’s Rug (1968) - also on view at the Walker - mobilizes a sheet of aluminum placed on the floor into an imperceptibly animistic and uncanny substance.
A motor under the silvery sheet allows the “rug” to sliver, to tremble, to shake, and to move in such subtle motions that one feels the ground literally moving under one’s firmly planted feet, and one’s perspectival and peripheral vision to be scrambled, enervated. We can’t help but move around the tremulous object, but the object demands and beseeches that we stand still, in order to better see its infinitesimal movements and contingencies. Breer’s vibrant thing - a moving image, an animation, a sculptural form that requires our stillness, so as to maximize the uncanny effect of its performed motility. It refuses the fragmenting impatience of white box museum spectatorship, demanding the attentiveness of cinema (Breer was a filmmaker after all), as it quivers and envelops us in the apparency of its approach, towards and away from us, insect like, in ant time. This is a relationality that gently nudges our durational incontinence, and asks us to allow the space and temporality around us to unfold at the pace of the thing. In the manufacture of the shallow breaths of a light wind, from the interaction between our bodies, a minimalist material, foil, and the sounds and gestures of the inanimate animate, so much “body” brought to life.
This work reanimates, revivifies me, even when it encourages me to switch places with it, to become still, to become a deceptively mute thing. This is perhaps what Bennett means in her examination of the ethical entwinement between our human borders and meanings and the lives and loves of the vibrant, vibrating and luminous thing. This has not only a political dimension, but for me, the capacity for a poetic one. What kinds of associative kinships can be made, by no longer enforcing the boundary between subject and object, and between the subjectivated and that which we perceive to be without subjectivity? Perhaps it leads to a poetics of connectivity, in which our phenomenological entwinement with the world and with those overlooked things, in all their messiness, is what Bennett recognizes as a kind of transformative pollution and commingling, one that demands a different way of speaking, feeling and looking. A way that depends on the “shared materiality,” which binds the animate and inanimate, human and thing. It was Bataille who invoked the synthetic capaciousness of the poetic: "Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism - to the blending and fusion of separate objects. It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death, and through death to continuity. Poetry is eternity; the sun matched with the sea." (Erotism, 25) Bataille's radical, anarchic organicism may be a far cry from Bennett's ontic materialist ethics, but the investment in the rawness of matter, outside of hierarchical economies of interiority, opens out onto a reconfigured vantage point from which to channel feeling and being.
Like being pierced by a bubble.
[I now realize that this is partly an archive of things that break, fall away, that burst into thin air, and disappear.]