Friday, June 12, 2009

Endless Begettings Of Mythologies And Apocalypses

Fig. 1. Nalini Malani - Listening to the Shades no. 7, 2008

Visions at Nightfall

How will we be told the worst? Who will tell us? Who will pay heed?

These questions are not being asked for the first time. They are being asked for our time - urgently. It is one in which there is every sign that they may be being asked for the last time, or, at best, the next to last time. If so we are at the tipping point when the worst still hangs in the balance, but after which we will be fully in its grip. From then on we will be left to watch the inevitable process unfold with only the suspense and mystery of irreversible devolution and the intimations of its final marvellous completeness to take our minds off the approaching conclusion of all that life depends on. And, in the unravelling, cutting and breaking off the bundled strands of cultures, communities and individual lives, the conclusion of all narratives.

Being the end of stories the Apocalypse has also been among the first of stories. From the start civilisation has been mesmerised by its own demise - has imagined it, contemplated it, waited for it, dreaded it, longed for it. In some cases the suspense has actually killed societies, or drove them to spiritual if not physical suicide with conquests destroying mighty empires that had launched them, or, conversely, withdrawal from the wider world crippling their means of survival.

But our epoch is from previous ones because annihilation will not be a whim of the Gods, or a punishment meted out by any avenging power on high, but instead the consequence of our own actions and inaction. We will drop the bombs - we are dropping them now. We will pollute the waters - with every toxin available we poison them now. Negligently or intentionally we will let masses of people starve - out of sight or in the open, they are starving now. Possessed of treatments we do not use, means of prevention we do not put into effect, scientific insights we choose not to pursue because money is spent on other things, we will let disease run rampant - crossing continents, going to ground in villages and cities, and leapfrogging oceans in first, business and economy class, it is doing so right now. To the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse we have added outriders capable of heretofore unimagined destruction. They are our creatures and they wield our inventions. In due course, they will prevail, leaving the world a tabula rasa with no one to tell the tale of last days, and no one to read it.

For the present there are several ways of describing the cataclysm that appears to be in progress - since the modern concept of 'progress' is so deeply embedded in the fate about to befall us, we might as well retain the term with all its compound ironies - and several modes of posting a warning. The most common, and, arguably, the most direct and reasonable one, if, by appealing to reason one hopes to halt and even reverse our dire trajectory, is documentation. It is the format of the news media and of agit-prop art, which, in our era, has merged in the grain of printed texts and photographs as well as in the haze of pixels. This poses problems not just because editors editorialise and propagandists doctor facts, but because the 'look' of reportage has so permeated visual culture that it almost seems as if there is nothing to contrast it to, no aesthetic foil except another as yet unfamiliar deployment of mechanically recorded and reproduced imagery.

The further difficulty is that like everything that becomes familiar, images meant to shock the viewer into a new understanding sooner or later lose their immediacy and so declare the opposite. For in line with Roland Barthes' dictum that 'Death is the eidos of [the] Photograph,' in that what happens in it has happened only once and can never happen again, a photograph is intrinsically about a closed chapter rather than an impending event. Indeed, the harsh realities or quasi-realities portrayed in the news or in agit-prop exist at a doubled remove from viewers, the first is spatial and the second, more crucial to representations of the Apocalypse, is temporal. For not only are viewers spared having to witness the actual ruination or extinction of something or someone - it is not here but there - they can take comfort in the awareness that they are survivors of the precise pictorial moment that was the subject's last.

The Apocalypse leaves no survivors, no witnesses. It is a perfect crime committed against being. Unlike the death and destruction which precede it, but only once for each victim and, in their appalling aggregate, nevertheless occur seem puny by comparison, 'the End' is that which has never happened. Seeing it arrive, feeling its immensity, and conceiving of the vastness and variousness of everyone and everything it nullifies, cannot be documented. Moreover, documentary style fundamentally betrays 'the End' as a subject inasmuch as any given piece of information that might be thought to presage it simultaneously recalls - but with ever-growing vagueness - disasters past, 'the worst' we have transcended or simply forgotten. And what is 'the End'? Whimper or bang, it is a coming undone, a coming apart. Whether that disintegration occurs gradually or instantaneously, there is an interval in which the myriad fragments of formerly realities can be seen, as never before and after, in uncanny states of flux. It is an interval when ostensibly contradictory and incommensurable things miraculously coexist. The prophet is she or he who sees their intermingling and suspension first, and, recognising this weird syncretism for what it is, already cohesive never best measures their gathering (combustible) or dispersing (spent) energies.

As we know, prophets are without honour in their own land because their words and their images spell out what is unthinkable to all around them. Inasmuch as a vision is not a fact - though facts may enter into them and assume their true significance - dismissing in the name of common sense is the path of least resistance for those unable to assimilate the future foretold. Dismissing prophets as mad is easier still, and more categorical. Madness is an offense against rationality; it is Reason's untouchable 'Other'. That women are 'Other' to men in societies where men have traditionally ruled - and it is hard to name an example where that, in the long run, has not been the case - then female prophets are the definitive 'Other', madness itself in the gendered body of those already suspected of being deficient in higher orders of thought.

Cassandra is the archetype of such seers, and in Nalini Malani's eponymous series prophets of paintings she is the woman of the hour. Which, if reckoned on the Doomsday Clock created in 1947 by the Directors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, currently stands at five minutes to midnight. In the fraction of that hour remaining to us, Malani has had a vision of her own. The form it takes is paintings of the utmost fluidity, befitting the vertiginous contingency of the world around her - and around us. Thus figures from different times and different cultures, figures giving substance to the principle of difference in its essential polymorphousness are awash in tides and currents of evanescent colour. Some we will recognise without difficulty, reminiscent as they are of ancient deities and monsters. Others will be familiar from their dress or gestures as belonging to our own era. All the while that the clock ticks with agonising slowness toward a more agonising future without aftermath, the compass spins; East West, North meets South, but also East meets the other East - has Malani not spoken of 'Splitting the Other' - and West meets woman distinctly times meets the other West and so on North and South.

No wonder the Apocalypse is wonderment pure, the climactic paradox of issuing from deformation and disembodiment, from an irrevocable denaturing of the natural in which humanity's power is consummated and then consumed leaving only a Confronted by this prospect the artist's license is correspondingly unlimited, but, as history shows, virtually inexhaustible as well. at any rate, Malani's work indicates that she has tapped into fathomless reserves of imagery, reference and metaphor. And from those depths arise painterly effects that invite us to luxuriate in colours, strokes and textures of disorienting but arresting strangeness. Her iconography is equally captivating. Not only does she conjure with as we experience it daily - though less so than in previous work - in a disenchanted period she reaches back to myth, but not in order to re-enchant the world - we are well past the point where anachronistic symbolism will heal the wounds of modernity - but in order to draw attention to the fact that in the war between Eros and Thanatos, the antagonists have not changed their essential characters but only their aspects. And only to the extent that we can no longer escape a collective awareness that the seeds of our own destruction were not divinely but sown by ourselves.

That Malani is not alone among wakeful soothsayers and tough-minded doomsayers in taking recourse to myth to articulate the full magnitude of their vision, nor alone in crossing cultural divides in choosing a particular myth for that purpose, is demonstrated by the fascination that J. Robert Oppenheimer had with the Bhagavad Gita. Observing the detonation of the first atom bomb, Oppenheimer reportedly paraphrased lines from that sacred text saying: 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' Later, in an attempt to describe the experience, he again resorted to scripture saying: 'If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one.'

However, for all that he could logically predict its terminal phase, Oppenheimer could not stop the advent of the Nuclear Age his genius ushered in, any more than Cassandra could prevent the levelling of Troy by foreseeing it.

Still, before the radiance of a thousand suns and the absolute darkness that follows, it seems that there is a kind of brilliant dusk in which spectres of human consciousness and traces of human history coalesce with inexplicable vividness. That transitional space and time are Malani's element.

We would do well to pay heed to the luminous figments she has brought back from that twilight zone.'

Robert Storr (from Nalini Malani: Listening to the Shades, 2008)