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November 16, 2010

Everything That Has a History of Its Own

Three scientists in bright orange jackets and black hats take up positions on the Antarctica ice just above an area where seals are cavorting and loudly communing. The scientists each have a different pose -- one lays prone on the ice, on has his leg extended back and rests his head on one arm near the ice, the other is bent over as far as he can go, his face almost stuck to the frozen surface.

All three are absolutely still, and they are listening to some of the weirdest sounds in nature, Arctic seal sounds, as part of their ongoing research. They are being filmed while engaged in this act of intense listening by Werner Herzog, who is following these scientists as part of his research for his movie "Encounters at the End of the World."

And I am watching Herzog's film, which is primarily about watching intense people doing their own intense watching of surreal looking Antarctic life forms. The image of the three orange-coated scientists burns into my eyeballs and my brain.

Then I immediately translate this image into my own version of the image, morphing the colors of the snow, the jackets, the shadows, incorporating in color and form the pleasure and awe the scientists express about their seal subjects, incorporating too the odd feeling that Herzog's film gives me, a feeling that I am violating the privacy of the scientists, the seals, and even the frozen landscape somehow by watching a film like his from the warmth and comfort of my Northern California living room.

I am translating as I go. We all are. And as I translate, I am imbuing something with something that was not there at the creation, at the moment of origination. As we all do, with our own histories, our own stories, with other people, or with the art we encounter around us. I am deriving, but I am also giving something a kind of life beyond its own moment; my painting of that image from Antarctica is a record of what I saw and is simultaneously a translation of an image, incorporating context and emotion and my own distance. I'll never actually see Antarctica, but I can know my response to the image I was presented. And the "life" of that painting will have its own arc, its own trajectory, which will never overlap with those three scientists, or with Arctic seal research, or with Herzog.

This activity of translation and creation happens ceaselessly, no matter how constraining the current cultural conversations may be. For which I am truly thankful. As Walter Benjamin put it about 100 years ago, "Even in times of narrowly prejudiced thought there was an inkling that life was not limited to organic corporeality...The concept of life is given its due only if everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life...And indeed, is not the continued life of works of art far easier to recognize than the continual life of animal species?"

Recognition is connection. The Herzog film shows that some people will go all the way to Antarctica to be with their tribe (of eccentric cold-loving scientist-types) so that they may find themselves easily recognized, more easily translated, more connected than they may be elsewhere. I know that when I see a work of art that moves me in some way, it is moving me in part because something in the work is translatable, and therefore the work is alive to me. I think that people move us in a similar way; I am always awed by finding another person who is in my tribe. And sometimes, I paint about them.


1 comment:

Live Wire said...

I like that you mention finding people who are in your tribe, that's how I think of people I feel simpatico with. Like you.