January 19, 2008

On the Sixth Day, Without Reserve

"Anyone who says life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life. The whole of the being of the animal is thrown into that fight, without reserve. When you say that the fight lacks a dimension of intellectual or imaginative horror, I agree. It is not the mode of being of animals to have intellectual horror: their whole being is in the living flesh."

--J.M. Coetzee, "The Lives of Animals"

Alessandra Sanguinetti's photographs of Argentine ranch life go by the title, On the Sixth Day. They are images saturated with the culmination of Genesis: man given dominion over fish, fowl, and all creatures upon the earth.

The series of photographs begins with the lavish textures of farming and the hard rhythms of domestication. The grass is rich green, the dirt road well worn, and a dog, head dropped, peers into the lens. The title is "stray," but his muzzle suggests a sweet menace, a posture curious but trained for the protection of space, leaving the photography as the likely homeless interloper. Who then is making the territorial claim?

We know this. We have strayed into a strange world and perhaps will make a claim upon it, just as this dog might well have once been a stray only to become a guard dog, taken in as a family pet and a farmland tool of production. From the first photograph in the set there is the sense that the space behind this dog promises an experience at once anticipated and unpredictable.

The elements anticipated come from a nostalgia in the "free" form of the life and death. The farm may be commercial but it is not industrial. Sanguinetti strengthens this sense by shooting so much at day's dawn or close. Aesthetically, this is a standard photographic strategy. But ideologically the long shadows and cool tones seduce with a great sense of mixture: the house is a blurry backdrop for the yard full of roaming and mingling chickens, geese, turkeys; and they are just relief for the foregrounded duckling trying to escape its cardboard box in the back of a pickup.

Escape. The fight for life. And so while the images feed the mixture of outdoor and indoor, the screen-door slam marking of what makes one calloused--of ritual and routine, of the early morning and coming night toss of feed--the safe, homely familiarities are sliced through with the bloody realities.

At first the profile of the pig and the stare of the rooster close in the frame, as if in dialog. A cow's bellowing profile, the field play of horse, foal, emu. Then, only after this, a closer, more intimate portrait of a dead rabbit before a hunter's boots and the large, happy tongue of a panting dog, and there, like an afterthought that becomes the central sign, the signature of the cycle: two eggs out of focused, nestled in the grass.

After this we will encounter forms of killing and of that Genesis dominion. A wounded horse fights with wide, wild eyes against a tether. Like the hare it too will be stripped of its hide. Thus Sanguinetti exposes, without reserve.

January 2, 2008

Bursting on the broken backbone of an age

To describe the seeming connection of disparate expressions, to speak of a literature, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam called upon the language of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Comparing the unfolding fan of seamed phenomena to the lines that stitch together a literature, Mandelstam gave poetry the presence of a breathing, dying, remembering body.

He writes of language itself as a field of duration. Not as a medium of accumulation or the expression of progress, but words as both fighting to still the living flux of time and themselves the unhardened breath of being; elastic and ghosting in a commanding potency, while vulnerable to the forces that will, it is promised, diminish, deaden, and silence them:

"The age will cease its noise, culture will fall asleep, the people will be regenerated after having been given over their best energies . . . and all this current will draw after it the fragile ship of the human word into the open seas of the future, where there is no sympathetic understanding, where sad commentary replaces the fresh wind of the enmity and the sympathy of contemporaries."

Celan, in the wake of the Holocaust, described poetry as a message adrift, a bottled bundle battling to find its proper shoreline. With his ever acute sense of isolation, the analogy accentuates the islands of reception. For Mandelstam, writing before the Holocaust, but with a desperate sense of that age to come, poetry moves through those entropic waters polluted by history, linking the future to its past through the memory of what cannot be purified.

The words move with the waters, defined by their weakening and endurance, like an image flashing on the blood-sotted screen of a closed lid. They thus bind us to the most necessary expressions of the past, while the poison waters, like thinning or clotting blood, risks wrecking the reception:

My age, my beast -- who will be able
to look into your eyes
who will glue together with his blood
two centuries' vertebrae?
Blood the builder gushes
through the throat from earthly things,
the hanger-on is only trembling
on the sill of future days.

Blood the builder gushes
through the throat from earthly things
and like a burning fish it throws
warm sea-cartilage on the shore
and out of the high bird-net,
from the damp blocks of azure,
pours, pours indifferently
onto your mortal wound.

To liberate the captive age,
to make a start at the new world
the passages of knotted days
must be connected by a flute.
That's the age that rocks the wave
with human melancholy
and in the grass the adder breathes
to the age's golden measure.

And the buds will go on swelling
and the spirit of green will burst,
but your backbone has been shattered,
my beautiful, pitiful age.
Cruel and weak, you'll look back
smiling senselessly
like an animal that used to be supple
on the tracks of your own paws.

--O.M., "The Age" 1923 (Clarence Brown translation).