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Monday, September 19, 2011

Haunting Art

-Draft copy of my press release-

Haunting Art 

Susan Godsiff, a member of Blott Artist Studios in Blackpool has been asked to exhibit her paintings at the  annual Exploring the Extraordinary conference held at the Holiday Inn,  York from 23rd – 25th September.   

As autumn approaches and the evenings start to draw in, a walk in the woods as the golden light drops triggers sombre melancholy shadows. Logic states there is nothing to fear, but the human brain plays tricks and our memory suggests images, fact or fictional, of shapes in the descending light.

The work looks as the human connection with the wild wood and the changing seasonal light; triggering an instinctive fear of the unknown.

The paintings return to Blott Studios the following week and you can meet the artist on Saturday 1st October.  


Descending Light
150x90cm oil on canvas

Chapter 3 of my dissertation paper - Hauntology.

Chapter 3: Hauntology

An understanding of Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction is necessary in order to comprehend his development of deconstruction as hauntology.

Hauntology is a natural progression from deconstruction in the sense that Derrida connected the ‘close reading’ approach to an analysis of history. Hauntology describes the way the past is always in the present – the present is literally ‘haunted’ by the past. What is useful for our current study is that the term can be applied to both historical concepts and supernatural myths. It was in his work Spectres of Marx (Derrida 1994) that Derrida first discusses and examines hauntology. This book is derived from his reading of The Manifesto of the Communist Party written in 1848 by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Concerning the way the present is haunted by the past, Derrida writes:

“What manifests itself in the first place is a spectre, this first paternal character, as powerful as it is unreal, a hallucination or simulacrum that is virtually more actual than what is so blithely called a living presence.” (Derrida 1994, p.32)

Derrida picks up on the way the Communist manifesto begins with the famous phrase “A spectre is Haunting Europe –the spectre of Communism”. But when Marx and Engels made this statement it implied that the spectre was a power the democratic countries needed to be aware of. When Derrida wrote Spectres of Marx nearly 150 years later, he was conscious of the communist regimes having come and gone, so that the remnants of this ‘communist spectre’ had itself become ghostly. The traces of this past, however, were present in the material day-to-day lives of the Eastern bloc people. Explaining this process Marc Leverette writes that:
“With Spectres, [Derrida] argues that the past can never be fully exorcised from the present. Today we live in a world haunted by multiple spectres of Marx, for example, in terms of political and philosophical landscapes. From the spectres of communism and totalitarism to the articulation of class distinction and the consciousness, from the millennial tensions of evangelism to those standing against the rising tide of neoliberalism, these ghosts haunt continuously…” (Leverette 2007, pp.336+)

The term hauntology therefore described the in-between state of the spectre. Adding to the complexity of the term, however, it is important to know that the word is a play on the philosophical discipline of ontology. Ontology is the branch of philosophy concerned with what can be said to exist, but in Derrida’s native French hauntology and ontology sound almost identical. The relevance of this should be obvious: a spectre, by its very nature, is a paradoxical being:  there is no documented proof of existence, and it ‘is’ both present and absent.

Hauntology does not, therefore, confirm or deny that the supernatural (as depicted in popular culture) exists. Instead hauntology is a point for discussion which allows for the acknowledgement that our historical past influences our potential future.

Hauntology, as a critical term, also lends itself to the history of aesthetics and contemporary arts. For my purposes I would want to argue that we can apply the term as an interpretive tool instead of a definition: “Hauntology is not a genre of art or music….it arises from the real context that surrounds the work” (Rogue 2009, online)
For example, a hauntological interpretation can be applied to this postcard, [figure 1], from the late 1970s. We could suggest that the denotation of this postcard is of an idyllic scene: a young boy in clothing from the period lies in the grass on a brilliantly sunny day watching a hedgehog; it could almost be described as kitsch. But when we know that the postcard is from East Germany, the communist state prior to reunification in 1990, we become aware of different aspects of the image, and therefore the connotation or interpretation of the image changes. It now has a second underlying message. The postcard is no longer just a pretty picture; it is now government propaganda to hide the reality of life in communist East Germany.

Considering the blending of historical fact with fiction and the retelling of the ‘stories’ classified as history leads us back to Derrida’s idea of deconstruction: what is missing in the text? The majority of modern history has been written from a male white European voice, so are the events depicted truthful (Guardiola-Rivera 1983)? What (or who) is missing? It is only as recent as the 1970s and 1980s that the traditional view of history has been challenged (or deconstructed) and we, as a society, have started to consider the stories of other voices. As Ethan Kleinberg states:
“Deconstruction may reveal history’s darkest secret by bringing to light and in doing so provoking fear and anxiety of the uncanny that is typically met with repression” (Kleinberg 2008, p.118)
The stories of other voices, that of a country’s hidden cultural past, is not just recorded in written texts, though, it is also held within their objects and artefacts. Material and visual culture becomes, then, another site in which to use Derrida’s hauntological approach: the ghost or trace of the past is evident in the objects the society of the period has left behind. Discussing this issue, Ethan Kleinberg goes on to suggest that:

“..much like the spectre, history is a revenant brought back to the present by the historian. It visits us but does not belong to our time or place. This is to say it has no ontological properties of its own but exists through the mediation of the historian” (Kleinberg 2008, p.125)

Derrida’s notion of the hauntological and the spectral allows us to consider and explore the idea of the supernatural or magical. The realms of illusion or the supernatural can be explained as something that is outside the normal realms of logic, something that is neither alive nor dead.

Two recent exhibitions brought together work by many artists with the intention of focussing on the role of the supernatural unseen: Dark Monarch – Magic and Modernity in modern art (shown at the Tate St Ives October 2009–January 2010) and Magic Show (a Hayward touring exhibition recently shown at the Grundy, Blackpool, February – April 2010).

The link, here, between art and the unseen is made clear if we consider the artist is like a magician. The magician has the mastery of illusion: in front of her audience she performs tricks which confuse and amaze the audience, leading them to believe she has transformed one thing into another. It follows, then, that the artist (who is also an illusionist) transforms an idea or concept into another form through her chosen medium. The artist does this in order to convey her ideas to the audience in order that they may gain insight into her personal interpretation of the concept she is illustrating.

Historically, artists and writers used the supernatural as a common theme, but in the Victorian age science (in its many guises) started to provide factual answers that appeared to refute or deny the role of the supernatural. It was also at this time, however, that the emerging ‘science’ of psychoanalysis attempted to analyse the continued role of the ‘illogical’ supernatural as a sign of mental instability.

The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud attempted to define the supernatural (or, as he classified it, the uncanny) in his paper of the same name. Freud’s paper of 1919 ‘The Uncanny’ took the view that the uncanny is a class of phenomena that takes us back to what is forgotten and unfamiliar but in such a way that the uncanny thing (dream, object or person) has been manipulated so that it arouses dread and horror.  Freud also makes the connection:
“that an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality”. (Rohan 2010. online p.13)

This uncanny effect, when considered in psychiatric terms, clearly borders on what medical science might define as madness. For Freud, however, the uncanny was the key to a different form of problem: the traumatic and the hidden.

In 1922, a few years after Freud wrote his paper on the uncanny, the first vampire horror film was released in Germany Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (directed by F. W. Murnau). Nosferatu was an Expressionist horror film (and the forerunner of the cinematic Dracula) which reinforced the idea of the unnatural in the mind of the viewing public. This was at a time prior to the television or the internet, when information was gained via the radio (for a limited number of people) or through the local news.

The conjunction between the cinematic and the uncanny was not fortuitous: what Freud tried to define as the uncanny – the traumatic and hidden which would lead to madness – was mirrored in the filmed evocation of the supernatural. The cinematic journey into the supernatural had begun with Nosferatu, but would continue to register with audiences up to the present day (as we will see in later chapters). The uncanny, like the hauntological, names the gap between the present and the absent, a gap which contains everything history cannot think, but which art (and cinema) wants to show.

In this chapter, then, we have started to examine how Derrida developed the idea of deconstruction and, specifically, hauntology in relation to some specific political issues (for example, the history of Communism). The issues and ideas hauntology describes are not, however, unique to Derrida. As we have seen, the supernatural and the ghostly also link to Freud’s notion of the uncanny. In both cases, however, we become aware of how there is always a ghost of the past within the present, and (perhaps) by acknowledging the ghosts or spectres from our past society can move forward into the future.

In order to discover how the hauntological might introduce the new, or allow for something different to be created, we will, in the following chapter, look at examples of art works where the artist has incorporated the concept of the historical and supernatural ghost. In this way we might start to discover how the artist is an agent for the unseen.

Derrida's Deconstruction

Woodlands at Dusk
150x90cm Oil on canvas

Part 2 of the upload of my dissertation - Derrida's Deconstruction.

Chapter 2: Deconstruction

In this chapter I intend to examine how Jacques Derrida developed his idea of deconstruction and how it led him to his work on hauntology.

Jacques Derrida was one of the most well known thinkers and writers of the twentieth century. He was a prolific writer and developed a range of ideas, which led him away from the dominant philosophical schools of thought which he initially studied (for example phenomenology and hermeneutics).

He was born in 1930 into a Jewish family in Algiers. Significantly, he was subjected to discrimination during his early education, being forced out of school because he was Jewish and refused entry because the quota for Jewish pupils had already been met (Attridge & Baldwin, 2004). These events may have had some influence on his later work, which was always attentive to the importance of the marginal and unsaid.

Jacques Derrida was fascinated by the use of language and the variation of meanings which occur, just by the accent, because of localised (idiomatic) meaning or emphasis. His work revolves around analysing the binary oppositions which seem to ‘naturally’ occur in the use of language.  Examples of a binary opposition can be as simple as left/right, light/dark or, perhaps more profoundly, absent/present.  By exploring these binary oppositions, or polarities of thoughts, Derrida developed his ideas on deconstruction.

Derrida is most well known for his proposals on the method or project of deconstruction. This was a field of research which Derrida originally started to work on after studying the theories of German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) whose most influential book Being and Time is considered to be one of the most important works of the twentieth century.

“Heidegger’s notion of Destruktion suggested not simply a negative act of destruction, but a positive act, such as a clearing away of something no longer useful” (Richards 2008, p.12)

Derrida re-established the old French word ‘deconstruir’ (Richards, 2008) the translation to English being deconstruction, which allowed him to develop his own ideas from Heidegger’s starting point.

Defining deconstruction is not straightforward – Nicolas Royle, in his guide to Derrida of 2003, looks at the dictionary definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary to give the reader two answers:

                 “deconstruction [DE + CONSTRUCTION]
a.      the action of undoing the construction of a thing
b.      (Philos. And Lit. Theory) A strategy of critical analysis directed towards exposing unquestioned metaphysical assumptions and internal contradictions in philosophical and literal language.”    (Royle 2003, p.24)

This dictionary definition already relies on, or uses, a binary opposition. Royle expands on this definition in his essay ‘What is Deconstruction? in Deconstructions: A Users Guide:
“deconstruction. n. not what you think: the experience of the impossible: what remains to be thought: a logic of destabilisation always already on the move in things themselves’: what makes every identity at once itself and different from itself: a logic of spectrally: a theoretical and practical parasitism or virology what is happening today in what is called society, politics, diplomacy, economics, historical reality, and so on: the opening of future itself” (Royle 2000, p.11)

So is deconstruction creative or destructive? Does it analyse a subject in order to dismantle something, or does it look at the systems (the binary oppositions) that operate in order for meaning to be generated? In essence, Derrida’s deconstruction is not about destroying or tearing apart an original piece of work; it is about understanding what is missing in order to gain insight into what is actually present.

An author or originator of a piece of work, whether it is written or visual, chooses her subject matter and leaves out what does not tie in with her theme. Too much information, and the reader or viewer is bombarded with facts, ideas or visual signs to the point of confusion, which results in the theme being lost in the midst of all the other things going on around it. In order to present a ‘coherent’ or legible thing (a book, piece of writing, an art work), the author has to be selective. Even the survey ordered by William the Conqueror (later renamed as the Doomsday Book) does not provide a complete record.
The total population of England in 1086 cannot be calculated accurately from Domesday for several reasons: only the heads of households are listed; major cities like London and Winchester were omitted completely; there are no records of nuns, monks, or people in castles” (Doomsday Book Online 2011)
Therefore, by applying the methodology of deconstruction to the Domesday Book (by ‘close reading’ it) we can establish that the survey was not a complete and accurate record of everything or person in England in 1086, despite the aims of the authors to give the most comprehensive account of England possible.

In fact, Derrida deconstructed the works of writers as a mark of respect; it was not a method of providing negative criticism. His writing explores different variations on the same theme simultaneously, turning the critic into a juggler, whose job it is to keep the different ideas in the ‘air’ the same time; the challenge for the reader is to simultaneously follow the flow of the deconstructive reading, keeping all the ideas afloat in her mind whilst reading.

Derrida tackled the idea of the unseen and the supernatural in his texts on deconstruction and hauntology. Derrida took Heidegger’s original thoughts on deconstruction and expanded and redefined them. In essence, Derrida’s version of deconstruction was about determining what was omitted or missing then using what was absent (and remained absent – it was not the work of deconstruction to reinstate the ‘missing’) to present something new.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Extract - from my research on Hauntology and Art

'Dusk' 2011
oil on canvas 150cm x 90cm
from my Transience series which dealt with
how descending light can trigger our imagination
into stories from myths, legends and fiction.

[Artist as Agent of the Unseen. by Susan Godsiff  - Dissertation extract]

Chapter 1: Introduction

I have always been fascinated with mythology, legends, natural history and the supernatural. Combining this with contemporary art and theory, which also influences my studio practice, was a natural development for my on going practice based research. For this dissertation, my question is, simply: how and why is the unseen such an important subject for contemporary art?

Apart from the tangible aspect of natural history, all of my main interests are connected to the unseen, whether stories, ideas or non-material existence. The supernatural is an area often avoided by academic research as it can not be based on scientific fact or definite knowledge. However, metaphysical philosophy (the branch of philosophy concerned with issues ‘beyond’ the physical) attempts to give answers or thoughts on subjects which have no material substance (for example time, or theological belief). There is, therefore, an interesting link to make between abstract ideas and material reality, and the work of Jacques Derrida will allow me to explain how this might be made in relation to art.

Whilst the subject of this dissertation, ‘Artist as agent for the unseen’, could lead to an almost infinite number of lines of enquiry, for the purpose of this writing I will limit the focus of my research to an examination of the ideas of deconstruction and hauntology as proposed by the Algerian born philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004).  Explaining the significance of Derrida to contemporary culture, Nicholas Royle (in his introduction to Derrida from 2003) states that:
“Derrida’s texts have described and transformed the ways in which we think about the nature of language, speech and writing, life and death, culture, ethics, politics, religion, literature and philosophy. More than any other contemporary writer of thinker Jacques Derrida has defined our time.”  (Royle 2003, p.8)

Given my themes of the supernatural, art and theory, it’s important to acknowledge that philosophy always tried to deal with the metaphysical. The dictionary definition of what metaphysics is is two fold. Metaphysics is both:
the nature of abstract thought of subjects such as existence, causality, or truth; the first principles and ultimate grounds as being, time or substance
the incorporeal or supernatural, in that again it is an area relating to something non tangible, or having no physical body. (Dictionary 2011).
At this point it is worth noting that philosophical ideas are actually idioms – words which have a specific meaning in a specific context, but which often can’t easily be translated into another form. When applied to art, philosophical ideas do not always easily ‘translate’. Therefore the application or ‘translation’ of philosophical ideas to art (or the supernatural) should be carried out carefully and with caution, since ideas in one context may not apply ‘smoothly’ to another subject (so metaphysical philosophy may encounter resistance when it’s used to describe a physical or material practice like art).

In this thesis I will be looking at the work of artists using sculpture and two-dimensional mediums whose work actively incorporates the unseen. Given the scope of this dissertation, it’s important to acknowledge the areas and subjects which are beyond the range of my current enquiry, such as ruins and prosopopeia. Ruins act as a crossroads between the past and the present; although they hold many stories of inhabitation by various people, each with their own personal histories and worthy of being addressed as social and cultural history. Prosopopeia occurs when the author gives a voice to inanimate objects, for example when stones, trees or the landscape are given emotions or human features in order to convey a message in poetry, for example when William Wordsworth wrote in the fifth book of The Prelude :

While I was roving up and down alone,
Seeking I knew not what, I chanced to cross
One of those open fields, which, shaped like ears,
Make green peninsulas on Esthwaite's Lake
(Wordsworth, 1888)

Society and culture has always been influenced by the past, in that what has gone on before will have a direct or indirect impact on everything subsequently experienced. In this way the unseen can be described as an historical ‘fact’, mythological ‘story’, or a spiritual or religious belief. In a world where we are constantly being provided with answers by science, why is there an increasing interest, even obsession, with the unexplained, the unseen or the supernatural (seen, for example, in popular culture in the books and films of Harry Potter, Twilight and the television series Being Human which all deal with ordinary people with mythological or supernatural traits and abilities)?

In this context I want to suggest that the unseen, the unsubstantiated fact, or mythological act as a bridge between ‘factual’ history, the supernatural and the metaphysical. Mythology surrounds us; our culture has developed with the stories interwoven into the ‘fairy’ tales of our childhood: stories of dragons, heroes and mysterious beings (Eliot 1994). On a more fundamental level, our landscape in the United Kingdom holds many tales, still to be unraveled and some may never be told, for example Stonehenge or Glastonbury Tor. How many stories or legends surround these places?
As Alexander Eliot suggests:
“Myth is frustrating to the literal mind and inhospitable to the inhabited. Much of it stimulates and disturbs. All of it shades back to hearsay. There is no strictly accurate version of any legend” (Eliot 1994, p.20)

The myths and legends of the landscape are often dismissed as irrelevant superstitions by science because they cannot be easily explained. Art and mythology, however, both require an open mind as they dissolve the borders between reality and perception. They hold your attention with the same intensity as a good magician engaging her audience, committing the observer to return to the story or act in order to find out how ‘it’s done’; and with each return the observer learns something new about themselves.

[ full dissertation is published on Amazon Kindle - you don't need a Kindle to read it!  - search under Artist as Agent for the Unseen - Final year dissertation, should be available from 7.9.2011 ] 

Artist as agent for the unseen. - synopsis of research for my dissertation

[This was the synopsis of my dissertation for my BA in Fine Art and Professional Practice] 

Throughout history the underlying role of the artist has been to depict the unseen: the artist lets the viewer into his or her world of ideas and images. In this essay I will be examining how artists have depicted the unseen in their work, particularly in the context of work where the unseen remains unseen and is, often, just implied.

In order to do this I will be referring to the work of Jacques Derrida and his ideas concerning deconstruction and hauntology. I intend to make this link because Derrida’s account of deconstruction attempts to draw our attention to what is missing or absent; deconstruction helps us think about those things which cannot, for whatever reason, be fully reinstated or ‘seen’ in the present.  As a consequence of his work on deconstruction, Derrida has examined the role of the spectre which he analysed under the term, hauntology. By taking up this theme I will analyse the work of artists who have dealt with ghosts (deliberately ‘fictional’ or ‘real’) and those artists whose work delves into supernatural.

Two recent exhibitions have proved inspirational to my research because they brought together the work of many artists who have focused on the role of the supernatural unseen: Dark Monarch – Magic and Modernity in modern art (shown at the Tate St Ives October 2009–January 2010) and Magic Show (a Hayward touring exhibition recently shown at the Grundy, Blackpool, February – April 2010).
The sources for this research therefore include books and articles written by, and about, Jacques Derrida. I have, however, extended my research beyond the merely theoretical to include a range of research papers and books relating to the artists who I have referred to in order to discuss their creative visual ideas, images, objects and films.