“For Us Mortals”

Some thoughts on the still image and moving image

When we see an image, we think we own it. Maybe this is because it’s still and seems like it cannot get away. If the image portrays a person, then we feel like we own that person, we can study them and they cannot skate our view or avert our eyes. They are intransient, ossified before our gaze, contained. This gives us the illusion that we have access to them, that we can see inside their soul and know what makes their mind work. This is of course an illusion, an illusion of control and possession. Maybe this is behind the belief that a camera can capture your soul.

When we see a picture of a celebrity, we feel like we are intimate with them, that we know them and can judge them. As anyone who has met a celebrity can tell you, a celebrity is also an actual human being, one who is perhaps guarded precisely because so many people suppose to already “know” them, but a human being nonetheless, full of anger, love, joy, sadness: a fallible person. Their existence is split into two lives: one, which is their public self and the mass circulation of their image, the other is the private person with all of their hopes, fears and day to day struggles.

This is, however, not only true of images of celebrities. It can be applied to any image of a person, an anonymous fashion model or a family photograph. When we see an image of a human, they become a projection field for our own hopes, wants and desires. This is, of course, how advertising works. But when we see a picture of a relative, perhaps someone who has already passed away or a picture of a parent from a time before we were born, we project our feelings about that person onto the image, which we then mistake for an objective reality about them. Yet they remain for us just as removed as with any other image –the ghost of an idea. An image can of course call to mind certain memories, but even then the distortions of time come into play, leaving us a stranger even to our own image.

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We don’t believe that we “own” the moving image in the same way as we do of the still image simply because it is moving and therefor has the factor of time. But we do feel that we have a special access to what is portrayed, perhaps more so than with a still image because we seem to be “in” the same reality as the screen, giving us the feeling of intimacy or participation. It awakens our relationship to dreams, where we see actions that we are a part of and also not a part of at the same time. Through identification, we are both actor and observer. Often we mix up something we saw in a movie with something we dreamed or something we’ve actually done.

Because the moving image is seemingly infinitely repeatable through the artifice of the medium, this view of time is a contained one, and one that, again, gives us the illusion of control and perpetuity. Robert Smithson talks about the moving image as giving the illusion that we can revert entropy. He gives the example a sandbox full of white sand grains on one side and black on the other. If we move a stick through it mixing up the two sets of grains, we cannot undo this by simply moving the stick in the exact opposite direction. This would only get us further from the original state, creating more chaos. Not so in film. By playing a film backwards, we create the illusion that entropy can be reversed.

Perhaps this is why people talk about actors being “immortalized” in film. They are of course not immortalized but die just like the rest of us. Because every time we see a film the actor or actress has not aged, in our mind they will remain this way forever. Because they are moving, they seem to be “alive” and we are spies in their world, passive eyes on the wall. Yet in the reality of time they continue to age and then die, and this makes us sad when we are reminded of it. The moving image gives us the illusion that this process can be reversed, that time can be a controlled medium, segmented and cut to our will.

As Smithson points out, the celluloid image will also disintegrate. Even digital data will someday disappear as hardware fails. As Boris Groys also rightly tells us, digital data is not immaterial but is inextricably linked to the hardware that stores it. A worldwide power failure could plunge us back into the dark ages.

Many artists, however, like to maintain the illusion that their work will make them immortal. They buy into the illusions created by museums or collections of the lasting and eternal archive. Like the Roman emperors, they want to declare themselves gods by placing their likeness among the pantheon of other gods in the temples. Humanity has existed for such a short time in the history of the world. Creating something that can exist for several thousand years is certainly impressive, but in the grand scope of time is still irrelevant. Only one of the seven wonders of the world still exists. Almost no painting from Greek and Roman times still exists. If immortality is your goal, it’s better to be a writer, the main medium we have been able to preserve over thousands of years, although marble is also not a bad option. If fame is your goal, it’s better to be a film actor, since even a minor Hollywood actor is still far more famous than any artist alive.

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For the ancient Greeks, the gods often envied the mortals for the intensity of their experience. For an immortal, every banquet, every orgy, every act of revenge contains an element of ennui, because every action is not a singular incident but one point in an infinite succession. For us mortals, we often only have one chance to get it right, which adds a weight and an intensity to everything we do. Yet this very simple fact seems to escape most people.

When asked by an interviewer if he had any advice, my great great grandfather, who lived to be 111, replied that you can never stop learning. Perhaps this is similar in spirit to what Seneca writes in “On the Shortness of Life”: that through the life of the mind we have access to all the ages. I think it touches on an underlying curiosity about life and a hunger for knowledge. The more one’s artwork is informed by this, in my opinion, the stronger and more far-reaching it will be.

Oct. - Nov. 2011

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