Monday, December 29, 2014

Mankind had destroyed itself, and the survivors now felt as though they were suicides who had failed.

Eyes That Have Seen the Light of a Thousand Suns
Hiroshima, 1945 - source

This form of pointing to a historicity that can never he fully represented constitutes a kind of allegory in Benjamin's peculiar sense of the term. In Benjamin's understanding, allegory breaks up naturalized concepts of history and life, creating discontinuities through which other times and histories can emerge. Tom Cohen helpfully glosses the term "allography" or "other-writing," describing it as a practice of writing that, like translation, indicates a difference in language that corresponds to history's ongoing and infinitely singular alterity (Ideology 12). Although Borges rejects allegory as
an "aesthetic error," he also acknowledges that it merely exacerbates an abstract aspect of language that is impossible to avoid, even in such forms as the symbol or the novel, which purport to represent immediacy and particularity ("De las alegarias a las novelas," Otras inquisiciones 153-56). If the symbol, the novel, and allegory constitute "maps of the universe," the symbol and the novel are like Borges's famous imperial map that is spread over the colonized territory, and allegory is perhaps the same map, but ill-fitting and shredding with time, perforated by an otherness that it cannot keep covered. Allegory thus concerns a sense of life that cannot be fully represented, but rather gestures beyond itself to what both Benjamin and Borges describe as the "secrets of history" - that is, a conception of history that can never he appropriated by those who Benjamin calls history's victors. - 
- Reading Borges after Benjamin: Allegory, Afterlife, and the Writing of History by Kate Jenckes

In our times, unfortunately, Hirsohima is a forgotten allegory. As such, it has lost contemporary relevance. The word itself has become a metonomy for it's own destruction. Ask almost anyone what Hiroshima means and it will be typically be described as a bombing to end the war with Japan or as the one of the two occurrences in history that nuclear weapons have been used in warfare. What has been forgotten, relegated to the dustbin, is what Benjamin and Borges call the "the secrets of history": what actually happened on the ground to the 350,000 human beings living in the city. 

It has been estimated that 60,000 to 80,000 people were killed instantly - a number that in itself is difficult to imagine. Think of a football stadium filled to capacity - leaving an unsettling margin of error for 20,000 more. If this 20,000 indicated days, it would amount to over 55 years. This is the margin of error. 

In October of 1950, a national survey, counted 158,597 survivors in Hiroshima. Here is where Borges' claim that the allegory is an "aesthetic error" is terribly applicable, for the allegory breaks down in the first person testimonials of life in Hiroshima after the bomb. In the extraordinary case of Hirsoshima, the incomprehensible violent "otherness" of the survivor's traumatic accounts shreds the maps of historiography into obscene fragments disconnected from any meaning. Borges' error has become an imprecation of the highest order, an ontological curse. That we, "history's victors," have become blind to this is indicative of precisely how poisoned by our own "allography," "historiography" we have become. 

On December 10, 1950, William Faulker was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He chose the occasion to deliver these haunting words in his acceptance speech

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. 
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands. 
Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man

27 years later, Arthur Koestler wrote in his book Janus: A Summing Up:

If I were asked to name the most important date in the history of prehistory of the human race, I would answer without hesitation, 6 August 1945. The reason is simple. From the dawn of consciousness until 6 August 1945, man had to live with the prospect of his death as an individual; since the day when the first atomic bomb outshone the sun over Hiroshima, mankind as a while has had to live with the prospect of its extinction as a species.  
We have been taught to accept the transitoriness of personal existence, while taking the potential immortality of the human race for granted. This belief has ceased to be valid. We have to revise our axioms.  
It is not an easy task. There are periods of incubation before a new idea takes hold of the mind; the Copernican doctrine which so radically downgraded man's status in the universe took nearly a century until it penetrated European consciousness. The new downgrading of our species to the status of mortality is even more difficult to digest.  
It actually looks as if the novelty of this outlook had worn off before it had properly sunk in. Already the name Hiroshima has become a historical cliche like the Boston Tea Party. We have returned to a state of pseudo-normality. Only a small minority is conscious of the fact that ever since it unlocked the nuclear Pandora's Box, our species has been living on borrowed time. 

Of course, these days, it is not only destruction by nuclear weapons that poisons our hope, but that of global climate change. It seems that if we do not kill ourselves, the planet will do it for us. And the poisonous effects of digesting this pervasive sense of doom are only just beginning to be seen. All those "old verities and truths of the heart" that Faulkner hoped the next generations might "relearn" are losing all meaning. What remains is only the standing among and watching the end of man.

The journalist Robert Jungk spent three years documenting the post-bomb experience of Hiroshima, recounting many survivors' tales, in City of Ashes: The People of Hiroshima (PDF file). Here are those broken fragments of life in the aftermath. Language, thought itself, seems inadequate in the face of the atrocity. And yet, contra-Faulkner, here at the intimations of what any future "literature" might be.

The M. family also began to show the painful symptoms that revealed the radiation sickness. Setsuo M. complained that his eyesight had suddenly deteriorated, his wife began to lose her hair, while little Hideko vomited several times a day. Kazuo sat for hours each day in front of the entrance that led down to the air-raid shelter and stared out over the vast field of rubble. Later he attempted to recapture his mood as it had been, in a poem that he sent me: 
It rains and rains,
In the slanting rain I sit,
It drums upon my naked skull,
It drips across my singed eyebrows,
It runs into that bleeding hole, my mouth.
Rain on my wounded shoulders,
Rain in my lacerated heart. Rain, rain, rain,
Wherefore do I live on? 
Doctors practising in Hiroshima at that time have recorded that a second phase now set in, after the first period of desperate and confused activity that followed immediately upon the Pikadon; many survivors now gave an impression of utter apathy and showed no wish to go on living. This symptom they called Muyoku-ganbo, and when they noted in a very sick patient's face an expression of listlessness increasing with each passing day, then they knew that there was no longer any hope of saving this particular life. 
An eye-witness, the poetess Yoko Ohta, has described this condition: 'Each of us had for a time done everything possible, without knowing for sure what exactly it was that we were doing. Then we awoke, and now we wished to speak no more. Even the sheepdogs that roamed about ceased to bark. The trees, the plants all that lived seemed numb, without movement or colour. Hiroshima did not somehow resemble a city destroyed by war, but rather a fragment of a world that was ending. Mankind had destroyed itself, and the survivors now felt as though they were suicides who had failed. Thus the "expression of wanting nothing more" came to be seen upon our faces.' 
Children of the Ashes: The People of Hiroshima, Robert Jungk

Where to go from here? What follows the end of what is sayable? What is the future of hope? Obviously, without a future, there is no hope. The language either has to disconnect itself from the stark sheer face of the reality it barely clings to or lose itself in counter-truths, allegorical lies and fantastical maps that reference only imaginary worlds. Perhaps, we are already in the thick of it. Opium dreamers lost in the layers of deeper dreams and false awakening. Much of our media, especially film, is creating fictional critique of this view. If this is the case, the concern is not so much how to escape but why. What incentive is there to fully awaken from the beautiful dream into the horrible reality? Perhaps, there are potentialities for renewal. But these thoughts are plagued by doubt.

It is not that everything is a lie but the space for exodus is narrow, and we find it difficult to sense much of a navigable entanglement of humanity and world. Kafka's insistence that there is an abundance of hope but none for us seems only all the more pertinent to current conditions. [...]
Bloch's most interesting and challenging claim in relation to hope is that it involves danger and fundamental insecurity and that this is its dark ambivalence. At its most difficult, it approaches and resides in a zero-point of emptiness and darkness. But this is a place where fear creates yearning and longing against that which the darkness most obscures and depreciates. The tenebrous realities of death and tragic being can provide a motivating uncertainty in which a renewal might occur. 
- Frances Daly, The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia, edited by Peter Thompson, Slavoj Zizek

These men must today rear their sons and create their works in a world threatened by nuclear destruction. Nobody, I think, can ask them to be optimists. And I even think that we should understand - without ceasing to fight it - the error of those who in an excess of despair have asserted their right to dishonour and have rushed into the nihilism of the era. But the fact remains that most of us, in my country and in Europe, have refused this nihilism and have engaged upon a quest for legitimacy. They have had to forge for themselves an art of living in times of catastrophe in order to be born a second time and to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history. 
- Albert Camus, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 1957

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Alice Leora Briggs: "where nothing, when it happens, is never terrible enough"

Alice Leora Briggs
Santa Muerte - 2008

There are few living artists whose work is as compelling and as morbidly fascinating as that of Alice Leora Briggs. Even fewer who have the ability to artistically comment on contemporary social and political issues with as much insight, subtle irony and tragic humor. Her work consciously references Holbein's Dance of Death, Rembrandt's Flayed Ox, Gerard David's Flaying of Sisamnes and William Hogarth's ironic moral engravings to name just a few. Whether she is working in 13th century German sgrafitto etching techniques, woodcuts or woodburns, her essential illuminations into the black hollows of human nature are striking and unforgettable, their brutal meanings transcendent, resonant beauty shivering in the bones. 

When I first spoke to artist Alice Leora Briggs last spring, Juarez, Mexico, was under siege by rampant gang- and drug-related violence. Briggs had just completed an arts residency in southern New Mexico and frequently traveled the 30 minutes to witness the carnage and aftermath left by a recent spate of murders in and around the border town. 
She visited so called "death houses," sites of mass executions, and spent time studying the victims' remains in the city morgue. 
"One room is entirely full of bullets from the executions," Brigss said. "I saw an autopsy of a young man who was executed. There was a story in the New York Times about the morgue a day or so after I was there. The photos of the freezers had everything looking tidy. They must have cleaned for them. I was glad to get a different view....The bodies were all akimbo and not neatly wrapped up.... I see things on the news and compare it to what I saw and they do not always jive." 
In response to what she saw, Briggs picked up her etching knives and, using an old etching technique from the 13th century called sgraffito, cut through dark wood to reveal images of what was laid before her eyes. 
Alongside the graphic images, Briggs also incorporates medieval or renaissance scenes like an old-master draftsman. In a more recent conversation, Briggs explained what drew her to violent depictions: "The first time that I went to Italy, I realized that I was part of an extended tradition in Western art. I mean, you go to Italy, walk into any church, and the subject matter is about torture and death and human suffering. And these are things I think maybe are not entertaining, but certainly are worthy of our attention."

Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez
Words by Charles Bowden
Drawings by Alice Leora Briggs

In 2010, Briggs collaborated with Charles Bowden on the book, Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez:

What do you call a place where people are tortured and murdered and buried in the backyard of a nice, middle-class condo? Where police work for the drug cartels? Where the meanings of words such as "border" and "crime" and "justice" are emptying out into the streets and flowing down into the sewers? You call it Juárez or, better yet, Dreamland. 
Realizing that merely reporting the facts cannot capture the massive disintegration of society that is happening along the border, Charles Bowden and Alice Leora Briggs use nonfiction and sgraffito drawings to depict the surreality that is Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Starting from an incident in which a Mexican informant for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security murdered a man while U.S. agents listened in by cell phone—and did nothing to intervene—Bowden forcefully and poetically describes the breakdown of all order in Juárez as the power of the drug industry outstrips the power of the state. Alice Leora Briggs's drawings—reminiscent of Northern Renaissance engraving and profoundly disquieting—intensify the reality of this place where atrocities happen daily and no one, neither citizens nor governments, openly acknowledges them. 
With the feel of a graphic novel, the look of an illuminated medieval manuscript, and the harshness of a police blotter, Dreamland captures the routine brutality, resilient courage, and rapacious daily commerce along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Stamps for Dreamland series is stunning and evocative. The implicit authority of the stamp is sublimely subverted by the use of imagery associated with the hellish Narco-Terrorist world of Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. It is a modern day Dance of Death, narratively compelling as the woodcut prints of Hans Holbein, and yet something entirely new, utterly 21st century. And yet, a thing that has always haunted human beings. Desire and death. You imagine that when the lights of the world have been extinguished, these images of Alice Leora Briggs are what the desperate trembling survivors will look to for some insight into the nature of our current insanity. In her images are the omens, portents and signs of the sickness rotting inside the heart of our world.

Everyone knows the facts and yet the facts slip from everyone’s hands. Walk a hundred feet from a body on the pavement - the blood puddled around the skull - and it never happened, the young girls smile, the traffic zooms past without slowing, the city beats on and on, and the dead no longer exist and soon the memory of the dead will be a rare bit of fact polished and cherished by the family and ignored or forgotten by everyone else. This is a survival tactic and it crosses all class lines. This is the fruit of living without history. This is the result of amnesia in television, radio, and print. This is the sweet drug that comes from fantasy. The authorities are real. The police enforce the laws. The courts function. The army protects. The streetlights sweep evil from the night. There is a consensus here to believe the unbelievable, to insist that things are normal - the government is in charge, the incidents, should they even come to notice, are accidents, little imperfections in the tapestry that is life and this tapestry is sound and beautiful to both the eye and to the hand as it strokes the elaborate weave of lives that make up the city.

It took me a long time to accept that the present is always acceptable. Period.”
- Charles Bowdee, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields

Alice Leora Briggs
Twelve - 2008

“I don’t trust the answers or the people who give me the answers. I believe in dirt and bone and flowers and fresh pasta and salsa cruda and red wine. I don’t believe in white wine; I insist on color.”   
- Charles Bowden 

Alice Leora Briggs
Narcotraficante - 2008

Alice Leora Briggs
Decapitacion Humana - 2010

Disquiet has marked art since its beginnings: the success and failures of Paleolithic hunts, the tides of slaves who filled Egyptian tombs, the memento moris of Dutch stilled lives, the spears of Shakespearean wit. Likewise, occupation with human frailty and worldly conceits is integral to Alice Leora Briggs’ work. When she was seven years old, her brother fell to his death at Grand Teton National Park. And, perhaps as a result, Briggs probes with curiosity and intensity those facets of human life that we often seek to closet. The artist finds her subject in the narco-violence that plagues Ciudad Juárez and in an asylum built by a visionary on the outskirts of this Mexican border city. Briggs explores the daily adaptations made by the citizens of the narco-battered borderlands. She renders them in her native amalgam of classic and contemporary imagery and oblique narratives coaxed from European art history. 
In tandem a recent series of woodcuts explores a twelve-line universe, The Room, a poem by American poet laureate, Mark Strand. Each of her images conjures one line from the poem. The world she creates is brittle, tenuous, and furtive. The images glimpse into concealed longings and secrets, like looking into someone’s emotional closet. In her persistent way, all of Briggs’ work finds a way to link our contemporary anxieties, desires, and expectations with those of the art historical past. Her visual quotations from Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein, Hendrik Goltzius, and others meld seemingly incongruent worlds into the singular time and place of her drawings.

Alice Leora Briggs
where the farmer sits and stares - 2014

The Room by Mark Strand 
It is an old story, the way it happens
sometimes in winter, sometimes not.
The listener falls to sleep,
the doors to the closets of his unhappiness open 
and into his room the misfortunes come --
death by daybreak, death by nightfall,
their wooden wings bruising the air,
their shadows the spilled milk the world cries over. 
There is a need for surprise endings;
the green field where cows burn like newsprint,
where the farmer sits and stares,
where nothing, when it happens, is never terrible enough.

Alice Leora Briggs
Spit - 2007

O Fortuna,
velut Luna
statu variabilis,
semper crescis
aut decrescis;
vita detestabilis
nunc obdurat
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
dissolvit ut glaciem. 
Sors immanis
et inanis,
rota tu volubilis,
status malus,
vana salus
semper dissolubilis,
et velata
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
dorsum nudum
fero tui sceleris.

Sors salutis
et virtutis
michi nunc contraria.
est affectus
et defectus
semper in angaria.
Hac in hora
sine mora
corde pulsum tangite;
quod per sortem
sternit fortem,
mecum omnes plangite!

O Fortune!
Like the moon
rising first
then declining;
hateful life
treats us badly
then with kindness
making sport with our desires,
causing power
and poverty alike
to melt like ice. 
Dread destiny
and empty fate,
an ever-turning wheel,
who make adversity
and fickle health
alike turn to nothing,
in the dark
and secretly
you work against me;
how through your trickery
my naked back
is turned to you unarmed. 
Good fortune
and strength
now are turned from me.
and defeat
are always on duty.
Come now,
pluck the strings
without delay;
and since by fate
the strong are overthrown
weep ye all with me.
- Carmina Burana