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Learning to See

Lahore, 2007.
I had recently returned to Pakistan, after I passed over a PhD degree in English Literature. Two major reasons contributed to leaving my program at the point of dissertation-writing. I could no longer work with language-intensive materials. And, I finally began reading a book I had carried with me for over 13 years – Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, by Henri Corbin.

My academic vocation had stemmed from a sense that I had inherited a deeply and historically haunted world. My dissertation was titled “Writing Home” and it was meant in a way to construct something solid of all this spectral sense. But then this. Ibn Arabi spoke of a theophanic imagination at whose core was the idea of reciprocity. This seemed at once so strange, and intuitively near, so densely fragrant a thought that my academic work came to pause. Since I could only attend in small portions, I very slowly read the book over two years. It carried through my shift from New York to Lahore, and through my turning gaze towards art.

Set as a series of notations, this essay acknowledges authors from a range of disciplines who have written about art and have served as personal mentors. It also draws to center stage the nature of aesthetic process. Finally, a personal lens provides the piece its pivot: a sense of the elemental nature of images, image-making, and the possibilities in language responsive to such.

Islamabad, 1990s.
Rilke is walking through the crowded arcades of Paris. It is a bright fall evening in 1907. The poet moves through the city in the manner of a flaneur, then returning later to write or again, to battle with writing. He is working on the latter half of an essay on Rodin, and his exalting perspective is beginning to shift. He is also in the midst of imagining The Notebooks of Malte Laud-Brigges, a fictional account of the young poet’s coming of age. “I am learning to see,”[i] he acknowledges, in a letter from the time. It is the “incessant and innermost” work.Rilke had just discovered Cezanne at a memorial exhibition for the artist, who passed the previous year. And his excitement is palpable. Posthumously published, the book Letters on Cezanne reads as a collection of aesthetic observations interspersed with passages of rapt description. It is a kind of personal note-taking, for some future monograph on the artist. “Here was a man” suggests Rilke, “who remained at the innermost center of his work for forty years.” Fascinated by the equivalences between art and writing, the poet found manifest in Cezanne’s life a statement of pure expressive vocation. Above all, Rilke has discovered for himself an exemplary guide.

“…Works of art are always the result of one’s having been in danger…of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible definitive utterance of this singularity.”

In studying the artist’s canvases, Rilke found occasion to deeply intuit the nature and meaning of creative process. This insight conveyed his lyric perspective on both art as well as poetry. And it marked a move from considering art objects per se to the modalities of creation. But travelling still further, The Letters proffer a special gift upon the poet. Rilke receives, through Cezanne’s painting, the idea of a “possessionless gaze”. Drawing on traditions of ascesis, eastern meditation, and the language of abstraction, he writes later of this discovery: “…a gaze so genuinely [without possession]…that it did not even yearn for you: holy”. Inspired by the artist, he would spend years attempting to compose such a manner of seeing, and reverence, in his poetry.

New York, 2003.
“Let the human world cease to be a metaphor.”[ii] At the outset of 1945, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in the language of offering. He suggests that the constitution of the body, as an object, furnishes a key moment in the conception of a separable world that exists “out there.” In working the (subject-object) division, he critiques systems of reflective thought such as empiricism and pure rationality. In turn, he reposits meaning as the matter of a bodily inherence in the world.

Writing in the shadows of the Second World War, Merleau-Ponty devoted himself to this singular project. His aim, “to transform perception [or bodily presence] into an original knowledge.”[iii] In 1945, he wrote a treatise titled The Phenomenology of Perception. Later that same year, he wrote a much smaller piece, titled “Cezanne’s Doubt”.

For Merleau-Ponty, phenomenological description of human experience corresponded with the task of modern European painters. According to him, they shared the same “attentiveness and wonder, the same demand for awareness”[iv] for that which is existent: phenomenon in flux. In another place in the essay he writes, “The world is a mass without gaps… And if the painter is to express the world, [then] the arrangement of his colors must carry with it this indivisible whole.”

Phenomenologist exemplar par excellence, Cezanne painted with what Merleau-Ponty termed “the lived perspective.” The artist made his way on canvas through slow gestural brushwork, small dabs placed together after great pondering, patient hatchings, and a seemingly eccentric color logic. “He did not separate the stable things which we see and the shifting way in which they appear. He depicted matter as it takes on form.” The lived perspective – a refusal of outline and classical, planimetric conventions of seeing – allowed thus for the rendering of a visually emergent, weighty, primordial world. Cezanne spoke of his own practice in terms of a central tenant of modern art. “They created pictures; we are attempting a piece of nature.”

Registering the artist beyond intentional fallacy and biography, beyond a seeming defect in sight (his doubt), Merleau-Ponty attempts a veritable theory of artistic creation. He discusses expression as the moment of contact, or fusion, between self and world. Therein, he suggests, lies the force of image-making. On a minor note in the essay, he adds: “Distinctions between touch and sight are unknown in [pre-scientific] perception.” He is, here, theorizing the non-visual aspects of vision itself; that is, he refers to the phenomena of seeing, felt in a non-visual. Such that Cezanne’s canvases present him with a paradigm for kinesthetic perceptual experience. And he is returned to the character of an original, non-dualist knowledge form. For the philosopher, as for early visual theory, this essay generated a transformational thesis.

Lahore, 2009 – 2010

“If animals appeared…they were horses of a heavenly blue or red cows that, even in their objective reality, had to carry us beyond what we could experience on earth. If a painter wanted to sing the exuberance of a landscape, he came up with…an extraterrestrial world where men of our race burned like piles of paper under dry flames of color.”[v]

In 1925, in a kind of brilliant and fevered pitch, German art critic Franz Roh presents the world with the term “magical realism”. Proposing a new orientation in European art, he describes the period’s exceptional feature: a departure from Expressionism’s more abstracted style. “It seems to us that this dreamscape has completely vanished and that our real world re-emerges before our eyes, bathed in the clarity of a new day… We look on it with new eyes.”

Roh develops his essay based on the work of artists including Otto Dix, George Grosz, Christian Schad, Georg Schrimpf, and Giorgio de Chirico, among others. He is concerned with the re-emergence on canvas of mundane objects, visual weight and gravity, a kind of meticulous lucidity, and envigored sense of completion in the work. “In conceiving of the whole world as a chromatic veil, what [Impressionists] actually achieved was a flattening space.”

Roh goes on to speak of depth, and the experience of duration, as elemental aesthetic criteria. His urgency conveys a particular kind of danger: that it is not art alone that is at stake. Reality itself is under duress, if mispresented. And he continues: “Art tries over and over again to picture the whole volume of space… With [this] word ‘magic’ I wish to indicate that the mystery does not descend to the represented world, but rather…palpitates behind it.”

Roh’s thesis may be interpreted in a number of ways. It was however my first formal art historical read, and the experience was startling. It was as though I was suddenly privy to a critically rich language field. I was teaching a course on magical realism at the time, at LUMS University. And the essay helped trace the term’s cross-over origins, from art to contemporary fiction. In particular, we were looking at author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s contribution to the genre.

“I always start with an image,”[vi] Marquez states, in an interview with fellow-author Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza. His master work, he agrees, was also inspired by a real image. A first image and the first sentence serve as a means for testing the style, the structure and sometimes even the length of his books. “When I was a very small boy in Aracataca [Colombia], my grandfather took me to the circus to see a dromedary. Another day…he took me to the banana company’s settlement, asked them to open a crate of frozen mullet and made me put my hand in. The whole of One Hundred Years of Solitude began with that one image.” Its first chapter opens and concludes with this image.

And the description itself is noteworthy: “When it was opened…the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars. Disconcerted, knowing that the children were waiting for an immediate explanation, Jose Arcadio Buendia ventured a murmur:

“It’s the largest diamond in the world.”

“No, the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”[vii]

Conceptually similar to Roh’s thesis, in terms of a materialist gravity, Marquez was however working through an altogether different intellectual project. A catalogue essay by the author, on Nicaraguan artist Armando Morales, carries with it his signature flourish. Morales is placed within the prodigious and wide-ranging history of Latin American art. But Marquez’s stakes remain constant. Countering European models of narrative and social knowledge, the author speaks of Morales in terms of historical excess and ambivalence; unusual proximities based on the region’s “irruption” into modernity; true belief worlds; and, significantly, with reference to the category of land.

For my own purposes, and much inspired, I decided to investigate the provenance of magical realist art in Pakistan. I had no previous writing experience, save a personal response to Shahzia Sikander’s 2003 exhibition, “51 Ways of Looking” in New York, and a piece on Ali Kazim’s “New Works”, at VM Gallery, Karachi, in 2008. Sustained art writing was not as yet a consideration. And the research essay never happened. But by default process, I began a remarkable apprenticeship with artist Afshar Malik.

During the summer of 2009, Malik was working on a large, mural-sized painting titled “Suitcase to a Soul.” Week after week, at his studio, I found myself guided in terms of the craft of painting, as well as a hands-on social history of art. The work of seeing had begun all over again. I read Salima Hashmi’s book on women artists, Unveiling the Visible. Texts by Niilofer Furrukh, Marjorie Hussain, and Quddus Mirza came my way. I discovered a second, growing constellation of art writers in Iftikhar Dadi, Hammad Nasar, Simone Wille, Nada Raza, Sumbul Khan, and Aasim Akhtar, among others. Critic Geeta Kapur’s essay on Nasreen Mohamedi, “Elegy for an Unclaimed Beloved” felt tantamount to model art writing.

During this period, the power of image-making was brought home. And it led to a more personal quest. There was, in the proverbial native’s return, the desire to write so that “the land beyond becomes the land itself.”[viii] My own practice had found its enduring subject, and its point of meditation. Subsequent essays, and an exhibition curated in early 2013, draw on the subject of inhabitance. By this term I suggest a dialectical concern: that of dwelling intimately in our times, and in privation, on this land, in solitude, in relation. Binary oppositions are excised. Inside and out grow fluid. The category of sensual perception itself becomes a conceptual tool – a historically valid concern for contemporary art practice.


[i] Letters on Cezanne. Rainer Maria Rilke. Translated by Joel Agee. North Point Press, New York: 1985. Subsequent citations in this section.

[ii] Phenomenology of Perception. Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Translated by Colin Smith. Routledge, New York: 2002.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv]“Cezanne’s Doubt.” The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting. Edited by Galen A. Johnson. Northwestern University Press. 1993.

[v] “Magic Realism: Post-Impressionism,” by Franz Roh. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris. Duke University Press, Durham: 1995.

[vi] The Fragrance of Guava. Conversations with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Plinio Auleyo Mendoza. faber and faber, London: 1982.

[vii] One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Translated by Gregory Rabassa. Perennial Classics, New York: 1998.

[viii] The Poetics of Relation. Edouard Glissant. Translated by Betsy Wing. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbour: 1997

 

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