The Imagination of Matter

Part of “Parisiennes 3 (triptych)” by Carlye Birkenkrahe

All art is competition: to begin with there is the artist competing with her art’s own inner image. She imagined one thing and created another. Now the latter must be transformed into the former. She cannot win this battle against the infinitely, quick footed, invisible enemy: her own imagination. Still, this sweet contest is the original source of the human desire to create beauty.

As soon as the finished piece of art confronts the viewers there is more rivalry in the air. The viewers can’t help imagining themselves. Perhaps their imaginings came out of their fantasies about the artist, and out of their views of her abilities or the power of the medium.  Or perhaps these viewers have already seen a reproduction of the painting and wrestle with their own memory.

This reminds me of the Louvre, of battling with the tourist mob and its clicking cameras until we finally stand before the Mona Lisa, the worlds most discussed painting. At first we cannot see anything because our imagination has been fed so many impressions that the small, rather inconspicuous painting can hardly keep up. But just like every other painting it possesses the invaluable advantage of physical reality. This is why any dab of paint will always touch us more strongly than the fleeting word. And now I will return from the lofty to the ground.

“God at his creation” by Carlye Birkenkrahe

A few days ago I attended the opening of my wife’s art exhibition at a location which properly showed the contest between word vs. picture, between written vs. painted truth. The place of the exhibition was a library. From the viewpoint of the books that lived there already, it was an invasion. The books were used to competing amongst themselves, of course. As the toys in the nursery books buy into strict hierarchy: there are the oldest books whose position was undisputed and there were many others that still had to find their proper place. Age, relevance, binding, beauty and many other things to count when books determine their relative importance. There were the most recently published books enjoying the boost of youth but also carrying the curse of cursoriness which is the legacy of modernity. They all had a home in this library and suddenly a platoon of paintings pushed into that space.

To begin with, the books didn’t follow. Several among them, the illustrated books at least, had already encountered these alien beings made of color and lines and whatnot. The illustrated books eagerly pointed out that they stood between the purebreds  and the new arrivals. The non-illustrated books wrinkled their spines at this suggestion. We don’t need no pictures, they said. Everything we are comes out of the word itself. But their illustrated cousins were not listening any longer: they had begun to chat with the new pics on the block.

The time of the vernissage was approaching but it wasn’t here yet. The paintings had already been hung and were beginning to exchange small jealousies. A small picture complained that it was hung too close to the edge. A large one asked for more white space around itself. And another one, convinced it was the best ever created by the artist, ceased chatting  because it wished to gather strength for the decisive moment: the confrontation with the viewer. What kind of gallery is this anyway? asked some of the more recent paintings. They had been exhibited neither in private nor in public. They were squinting, trying to get used to the new lighting conditions. A more mature tableau declared that this was a library. But do we even belong here? asked one of them. The majority of the paintings thought they did. They felt the time was ripe. To the books on the shelves they suggested there should be peace between books and pictures. There was some muttering and scrambling until the elders on both sides reminded their fellow artifacts that all of them were serving humanity. Well put, said one of the paintings. It was one of the artist’s earliest creations and had never been seen by anyone but the artist: it had waited for this moment to come.

Reception area of the library, Berlin School of Economics and Law, Campus Schöneberg

By the way, neither books nor pictures in this space were ancient at all. The books weren’t novels, poetry or manuscripts. It was a technical library, which means that the spirit of science was alive here and what the books might have lacked in passion they made up for by their ability to make logical decisions and bow to rational considerations. At the same time they noticed how different the paintings were from them, not just with regards to material but also meaning.

“Chimaerazons” by Carlye Birkenkrahe (private collection)

The paintings were not scientific illustrations, nor were they icons, but they were filled with symbols from both, they were pieces of art that wanted to be deciphered (because symbols are created by the viewer in the viewing, and thus the picture is never as passive as we think).  The resistance to decoding and being decoded was not an intellectual one, but an emotional one, due to the inevitable struggle between the viewer and the picture.   It generated a different form of heat, if you like. Indeed, for reasons not easily explained by today’s science, the cohabitation of books and paintings led to a slightly raised room temperature. To us, however, who know everything, it is clear that the difference in temperature corresponded to the energy tied up in the contest between books and paintings.

Before either side could get lost in this dialogue, the first visitors arrived at the opening. Many of them had never been to this particular library, which flustered the books and agitated them not a little. The truth is that being looked at by a human and finally being picked from among others on its shelf is the highest honor for any book. It’s the book’s fulsome praise. (At least until the reading proper begins. This is like the difference between falling in love and learning to love one another.) Hence, although still feeling competitive, the books were not dissatisfied. I won’t even try to convey the excitement of the paintings. Several of them lost consciousness during the short speech of the president of the school where the exhibition was mounted. But once the agitation had subsided a little, all the paintings still stood in rank and file so that the visitors at the vernissage could have a closer look at them. And with that, let me return to my own opening thought about artistic competition.

There was a lot of talk. The interruption of routine library operations enabled squeaking, laughing, murmuring and other emanations of enterprise and enthusiasm. There were many different languages. It was an international audience. The last contest I would like to mention was taking place inside the viewers’ heads. For some of them, who always felt like making art themselves but couldn’t find the courage, this meant that they remarked with a shrug: “I could have done that.” Great, said the painting this person was looking at: have at it! Why don’t you! Talk is cheap! This painting was sure of its uniqueness. It considered the viewer’s woes to be personal weakness.

Those who had come to the opening event had come out of curiosity or out of friendship or because they were looking forward to absorb the warmth that art provides for free and without which we cannot live. This warmth also benefits all of those who “don’t know anything about art” and who will never acknowledge it (or perhaps they benefit even more than the others, the intimates and makers of art).

Hours later, when the last of the visitors left the library, when the heavy glass door clicked shut, the paintings began to whoop and cheer, and when the jubilation slowly went down, they heard the gentle but clearly audible applause coming from the bookshelves, which sounded as if thousands of leaves were rustling. And this was when the picture exhibition amidst the books, The Imagination of Matter, truly began:

«The imagination is not… the faculty for forming images of reality; it is the faculty for forming images which go beyond reality, which sing reality.»

Gaston Bachelard


[Published in Glow Magazine, 08/11/12][Now showing in the library of the Berlin School of Economics and Law: the exhibition "Die Fantasie der Materie" ("The Imagination of Matter", named after one of Gaston Bachelard's books, «L'Eau et les rêves. Essai sur l'imagination de la matière.»)  with paintings by Carlye Birkenkrahe runs from October 26 to February 23, 2013.][Original post in German]

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