PHOTOGRAPHS AND COMMENTARY

 

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The sophistication of self-consciousness, or self-reflection, was not acquired by looking into a pool of water, as in the myth of Narcissus, but because the mirror neurons of a recently evolved larger brain began to effectively function.1 Then, seeing the light leave another's eyes, and intuiting the consequences to themselves, our ancestors were faced, for the first time, with the mystery of death.

The problem of self-consciousness led Gotama Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, to his great realization; after which he didn't teach transcendence, or salvation. While a religion in form, Buddhism is actually a collection of meditation practices to reconcile one's self-consciousness, which creates separation, with the world.

Murray Stein wrote that this first picture exemplifies the "unio oppositorum (the unity of opposites): the bustle of city life and the repose of the Buddha." He goes on to say that he "sent the image to a neighbor here. Her take on it was 'the commercialization of spirituality in the modern world'." 2 Repose and bustle, spirituality's call to let go of it all, and capitalism's sonnet to greed, this symbiosis sits at the heart of modernism's existential dilemma.

I received this letter from Susan Rowland: "I see this as an invitation to many mindedness. For immediately my thinking self draws loops into the image and thinks of the seated one as a container of mortal time and modernity. Yet it also invites a dreaming way of being. The light in the photograph does the dreaming in its fractured substance, becoming the object of the gaze. And the image also speaks to me of speed and rest, eternity and a breath taken just once-and-never-to-be-repeated-just-the-same in the city." 3

Here the unio oppositorum is set into motion, and the mind resumes its original mission as creator, as the newly evolved big-brained species struggled to survive on a planet of muscular predators. Creativity as innovation pumps up the pages of our history that still give us the possibility of a future.

This picture, as I see it, reflects inward, with liminal circles interfacing with the mystery of death, it envisions our daily life as illusion. The cast of the Buddha, too, is a collective dream. “The equivocation of space is intriguing," Talan Memmott wrote, "and the collage, or bricolage [funny Mozilla's spell check underlines this word with the suggestions Agricola and varicolored] , of place(s), spaces, [inter]faces [is architecture, the shopwindow, the buddha not interface?] is beyond poetic.” 4



Margaret Penfold wrote, "The second picture I am still trying to work out. I can see what is happening with the dark bricks but why the road surface and part of the car should make the top of the figure so 3D I can't understand. The road doesn't appear a particularly dark area, even if it is darker than the pavement (sorry, sidewalk to you)." 5 I can't work this out either. Although I know that the figure was in a storefront display, how he or she got onto the sidewalk, I don't know.

We have an imaginal symbiosis with the supermaterial world because we created it. If humans ever reach maturity, they would assume a responsibility for whatever they create before it is introduced into the environment. Hindsight is the yellow brick road to wisdom.

"Are you standing in a street looking at a plate-glass window with some cars and things reflected in it, and seeing the interior of the shop through the reflection? Or are you inside the shop, looking through a reflection of its interior at the street outside?" 6 Someone walks through a window and into the street as if into another dimension, an environment strangling the forest for which the figure is expensively outfitted to visit. The projection is the Uroboros, "the serpent with a head like a dragon and a scaly body, biting its tail. The whole metamorphosis, this growth and passing, this eternal cycle, is the first great lesson..." 7

We are not taught that consciousness is not found in the separation we imagine between the object observed and the subject that's observing it. To paraphrase Japan’s great poet, Matsuo Bashō (1644-94), to write about a tree one must first become the tree. But it is not the tree out there Bashō was talking about. It is the tree the brain creates from its storehouse of "trees," or what neuroscientist Joe Z. Tsien calls "neural cliques." 8 Thus, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus begins, “A tree sprang up. O sheer transcendence! / O Orpheus sings!/ O tall tree in the ear! / And all was all. But even in that silence / a new beginning, hint, and change appeared.” 9

 



"In the third one," Margaret Penfold continued, "the clarity of the building makes one hardly notice the peculiarity of the reflections at its base and I would have put them down to reflection errors from the camera lens if I had thought about them at all."
This reminds me of C.G. Jung's pivotal dream of a basement in his (psychological) house. The deeper he went, the further back in time he found himself, until he was in a room whose walls "dated from Roman times." On the floor he found a stone slab with a ring. When he lifted it, there were narrow stone steps which descended to "a low cave cut into the rock." There, amidst scattered bones and broken pottery, he discovered "two human skulls, obviously very old and half disintegrated." Then he woke up.10

In an essay titled "Psychological Projection and the Magic Lantern," Lee Worth Baily wrote: "Everyday familiarity with cameras and movies has veiled the influence of photographic projection on psychological theory," describing then a show in an abandoned Capuchin monastery, in which "the lights flickered out and, in the darkness, images of skulls, demons, skeletons, and dead heroes appeared, undulating in the smoke-screen," and how "'phantoms and terrible apparitions' came to be seen as 'projections.'" 11

Dreams, photographs, projections. The cellar of my childhood house described a circle, a temenos in which friends and I would play hide and seek, hunkering in its various dark & dusty spiderwebbed rooms. One room stored discarded baby carriages, another mountains of coal to feed three huge boilers bolted down in their overheated cavernous tomb.

Indeed, construction sites fascinate me for what may be buried beneath them. How many times has excavation for a foundation uncovered ancestral graves, artifacts, walls of cities found in myth? The shards of ancient cultures may turn up every place on which we build anew.

 


"I think that what is most interesting, seen within contemporary art, is the overlapping of meanings that come through," wrote Anny Ballardini, who also feels that many of these pictures "are obscure and terrifying. Especially the one with the red hands. I would not be surprised if you showed another image connected with this one of a dead chicken (voodoo) or similar." 12

When some primal people first saw what a camera is for, they were terrified that it would capture their souls. A sort of sacrifice, then, be it chicken, goat, or the human imagination, "It is only acceptable to the god (or anthropologist) if it suits his tastes and if it embodies some of his own qualities." 13 The god here is caught "red-handed," his enormous dexterous hands the color of blood.14 Akin to Michelangelo's iconic painting, "Creation of Man," in this picture the god is a puppet master and Man his fantoccino, so unimportant he is out of the picture. Only God is visible, and the religare, the ties.

 


Anny Ballardini goes on to say: "The white patina of the windows is almost suffocating, I am speaking of the one with the red brick wall and the trees, it is as if nature was screaming." I, too, began to experience these pictures as visual poems, spanning the breach the invention of the alphabet opened between image and word, picture and sound. The photographs are seen as ideograms, in terms of connective meaning and memories that our emotions stir. I thought of an essay Thomas Lamarre wrote on the 'grass' or 'cursive' style of Heian calligraphy, and how it "unfurls lines that the eye often can barely follow. Traits or elements are amplified or diminished, elongated or foreshortened; sizes of characters become veritable, as is the relations between centres of motion. These are the 'gothic' or 'nomadic' lines that pass between points." 15 Lamarre is referring to the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who "writes of two poles, two ways of dealing with the catastrophe in modern art." The gothic and nomadic blur into this picture into a Munchian scream, a silent catastrophe of the soul that reaches out to where "we are not sure of 'the conditions of time and space that govern it.'" 16

Returning to the former image, John Craig Freeman wrote, "I am sure you know Eugène Atget's work on window reflections?" 17 Roaming the downtown section of any city, one is tempted to take at least a few pictures that echo Atget's "Shop Window: Tailor Dummies" (1910). 18 But I felt that pictures of shop window manikins, no matter how ingenious they may be, no longer bare enough psychological meaning. However, in 1995, thirty-nine previously unknown photographs Atget had taken of trees in a Parisian park were discovered. It is Atget's love of trees, not dummies, that returns us to the hypnopompic warping of these uncanny arboreal shadows.

 


When I decided to photograph the city, of course it was architecture that my camera found most attractive. However, the building didn't welcome me, as the forest had. Walls remained silent facades. Porches looked down at me xenophobically. Then I began to see windows of homes that reflected trees, which led me to see how both what's inside and outside must be considered. From there, it was the array of objects displayed by various businesses, and how they reflected the street's abstract patterns of line and color, that began to interest me.

Confusion may arise because our conditioned mind is not programmed to accept relationships first. Instead, we scan a scene for recognizable images, then hierarchically delegate how they relate to us, if at all. "The important point is that societies typically define a set of possible phases of consciousness for their members, who are then socialized to recognize the appropriate attributes as definitive of their own and others’ states of mind." 19 But what if we were to see without assigning more weight to one image than to another, no matter how weird or out-of-place the image may seem to be? And what if, somehow, we were able to relate them to each other without the censor that is our self?

While studying this picture, I was reminded of Picasso's cart, into which he had painted whatever came to mind. When told that it was an impossible mix of things, he remarked that they'd just have to learn to live together. In this picture, too, there is no discrimination as to what belongs in the picture and what doesn't. There is no subterfuge. We can see which objects are reflections literally by the signs. It is synchronicity, but not in time. Instead, every thing joins in an aesthetic space that Michael Szpakowski sees as "a kind of restrained, considered, almost austere, sumptuousness." 20

 


“It is an effect of light that the Impressionists overlooked along with light through…like light through a flower pedal.” 21 This insight by Barry Smylie opens a path to the photographic image that reveals "an intrinsic, unexamined equivalence between the technology of illusion and supernatural phenomena." 22 Doomed as the dinosaurs who roamed the planet when hydrocarbons burned today were being formed, carbon-belching motor vehicles intrude everywhere into the landscape. While in the background, a painting, the oldest illusionary art, is lighted with wattage that balks the eye.

When I first saw this photograph a palimpsest came to mind, with its dimensions through time building a spectacle that "creates an eternal present of immediate expectation: memory ceases to be necessary or desirable." 23 Art critic John Berger goes on to say that the camera "surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget." Like with Meister Eckhart's God, the eye with which we see the Eternal is the eye with which the Eternal sees us as ephemeral.

 


As I prepared to take what may have been the eighth picture of this series, while removing the camera from its protective pouch its door slid open and its two batteries fell through a grading like a hen dropping her eggs to where she can't brood over them. In the Mithraic mysteries there’s a staircase "with seven doors and an eighth door at the top…The stairway represents the ‘passage of the soul’ (animae transitus). The eighth door corresponds to the sphere of the fixed stars." 24 Does the eight door open to death, through which one's soul falls into its final transition? This, too, is why I stopped at seven, or why the camera stopped me.

 




1: Speculating on Giaccamo Rizzollati's recent discovery of "mirror neurons" in the ventral premotor area of monkeys, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran wrote that “the astonishing truth is that any given mirror neuron will also fire when the monkey in question observes another monkey (or even the experimenter) performing the same action, e.g. tasting a peanut! With knowledge of these neurons, you have the basis for understanding a host of very enigmatic aspects of the human mind: 'mind reading' empathy, imitation learning, and even the evolution of language. Anytime you watch someone else doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might fire in your brain, thereby allowing you to 'read' and understand another's intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated 'theory of other minds.'" “Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning as the Driving Force Behind 'The Great Leap Forward' in Human Evolution.” http://www.edge.org/discourse/mirror_neurons.html
2: Murray Stein is an analyst and prolific author. Dr. Stein is a past president of the International Association of Analytical Psychology. He lives in Zurich.
3: Susan Rowland is the author of C.G. Jung and Literary Theory (1999), Jung: A Feminist Revision (2002), and Jung as a Writer (2005). She teaches at The University of Greenwich, London, and is a founder of The International Association for Jungian Studies.
4: New Media artist Talan Memmott is currently a Visiting Professor at Blekinge Tekniska Hogskola, Karlskrona, Sweden.
5: Margaret Penfold is the author of Struggling Free (2006). She lives in London.
6: Edward Picot lives in Kent, England. Dr. Picot is the Editor of the Hyperliterature Exchange: http://hyperex.co.uk.
7: R. Bernoulli, "Spiritual Development as Reflected in Alchemy and Related Disciplines." In, J. Campbell, Editor, Spiritual Disciplines: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks. Princeton, 1985.
8: J.Z. Tsien, "The Memory Code." Scientific American, July 2007.
9: R.M. Rilke, Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. A. Poulin, Jr.,Translator. New York, 2005.
10: C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York, 1973.
11: L.W. Bailey, "Skull's Lantern: Psychological Projection and the Magic Lantern." Spring. Dallas, 1986.
12: The poet Anny Ballardini lives in Bolzano, Italy, where she's a teacher and translator.
13: A. Métraux, Voodoo in Haiti. New York, 1972.
14: "'To be taken with red hand' in ancient times was to be caught in the act, like a murderer, his hands red with his victim's blood. The use of 'red hand' in this sense goes back to 15th century Scotland and Scottish law. Scott's 'Ivanhoe' has the first recorded use of 'taken red-handed' for someone apprehended in the act of committing a crime. Not long after, the expression became more common as 'caught red-handed.'" R. Hendrickson, Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. New York, 1997.
15: Japan: 794-1185. T. Lamarre, Diagram, Inscription, Sensation." In, B. Massumi, Editor, A Shock to Thought. London, 2002.
16: Letter from William L. Tilson, Professor, School of Architecture, University of Florida, Gainesville. He is quoting French film critic André Bazin.
17: John Craig Freeman is Associate Professor of New Media,
Department of Visual and Media Arts, Emerson College, Boston, MA.
18: Walter Benjamin wrote of Atget's photographs: "They demand a specific kind of reception. Free-floating contemplation is no longer appropriate to them. They unsettle the viewer; he feels challenged to find a particular way to approach them." Selected Writing,Vol. 4. 1938-1940. Cambridge, MA., 2003.
19: G.F. MacDonald, et al., "Mirrors, Portals, and Multiple Realities." Zygon. March, 1989.
20: Michael Szpakowski is a composer, filmmaker, and educator. Born in Sheffield, England, in a 2006 interview he said, "It's always struck me as deeply absurd that one should feel allegiance to the particular lump of earth on which one happens to have been born." (http://rhizome.org/thread.rhiz?thread=20795&page=1).
21: Painter and master printer Barry Smylie lives in Toronto.
22: M. Warner, Phantasmagoria. Oxford, 2006.
23: J. Berger, "Uses of Photography (for Susan Sontag)." In, About Looking. New York, 1980.
24: C.G. Jung, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Vol. 14. Princeton, 1976.


To Millie Niss, whose agile and erudite mind always adds to my knowledge. Thank you to everyone who participated in this project, and to the Department of English, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, for its kind support.