Reflections on the Eternal Present

“Now, if some bold novelist, tearing aside the cleverly woven curtain of our conventional ego, shows us under this appearance of logic a fundamental absurdity … we commend him for having known us better than we knew ourselves. This is not the case, however, and the very fact that he spreads out our feeling in a homogenous time and expresses its elements by words, shows that he in his turn is only offering us its shadow: but he has arranged this shadow in such a way as to make us suspect the extraordinary and illogical nature of the object which projects it; he has made us reflect by giving outward expression to something of that contradiction … Encouraged by him, we have put aside for an instant the veil which we interposed between our consciousness and our selves. He has brought us back into our own presence.”
– Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will

By Daniel Kingery

We can only perceive the present. Yet, as soon as we become aware that what we are perceiving is “the present,” it has already become the past, shadowy and nebulous, subject to the machinations of memory and the distortions of time. When we remember we remember in the present. Memory is constructed in the moment from our hopes, fears and desires. It is a chain of associations, an infinite delay echoing back through time and space. Once a moment is over, our subjective experience of it can never be recalled in any “true” or “pure” form, its reverberations can only be felt and interpreted.

That is all we can do, interpret and associate. When we remember, we are interpreting and associating. Every memory is “repressed” until the moment a chain of associations sparks its recall, its re-interpretation. A photograph of our past is not a memory, but a projection screen for our associations. Often our mind anchors images and imagines a situation based on them such that we can no longer know if we are remembering an event or a scenario we’ve constructed from an image.

Our memory is not like a hard drive, where information can be instantly called to the surface. It is like a hall of mirrors reflecting outwards and distorting in every direction, or a photograph blurred to the point of non-recognition. When we post photos or videos of our lives to blogs or social networking sites, we are not creating more memories but more projection screens, more mirrors and surrogates for our emotional lives. We create content in the moment we see something, not seeing others or even ourselves in the past, but ourselves in the present.

Niklas Luhmann wrote that art, as an auto-poetic or self-generating system, has a function within society that perpetuates its continued existence. At moments when art seems to call its own existence into question it only strengthens this role, which is: to show an alternate way of seeing reality; or: to show the world within the world. Any number of an infinite number of ways of seeing any thing or any situation are within us at every moment, and every time we must, consciously or not, choose how to see any given situation, which will be reflected in our actions. It is like the quote from Heraclitus, that a man’s character (attitude) is his fate.

In a sense, we are always creating our own realities. There is a spectrum of choices within us and we are constantly picking points long this spectrum. There is no fixed reality or even identity, only choices or interpretations. The self is not a thing that can be known or fixed in place. Like the rest of reality, it is in a constant state of flux and continuous change, which we can consciously affect it if we choose.

A work or art isolates one possibility taken from the infinite spectrum of unfiltered reality. An artist is able to recognize the many latent possibilities within themselves and channel these into works. The artist selects from the endless stream of contradictions and paradoxes and isolates a few for further inspection, pointing back to the infinite chaos, the unfiltered stream of reality, commenting on the world from within. The job of the artist is to use her or his tools to manipulate the viewer to see themselves as if from the outside, to become aware of and reflect on their assumptions and their place within the world.

In his “A Guide to Berlin,” Nabokov suggests that the job of the artist is to see the present as if it were already obsolete, a kind of nostalgia for the present or, as Jack Goldstein put it, a trailer for the future. We have to recall the present as if it were already a distant memory, set loose a chain of associations in the mind of the viewer that says, of all of the ways of seeing the world, consider this one.

March - June 2012

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