“Sound is the quality most detached from an object. Its relation with the substance from which it emanates is not inscribed in its quality.”[i]
When “sound” is replaced by “shadow”, in this citation from Levinas, it tells a lot about Anna White’s painting. In short, White’s painting is a shadow of the painterly surface. Her work inhabits a space in between painting and print. The substance of the surface emanated is not inscribed by the quality of the oil pigments, nor the physical condition of them. The substance of oil pigments is compressed to the closest to zero degree of flatness by the other surface. The appearance of the flattened pigments is a shadow independent of the pigments: it is the shadow itself. Rather, the property parent/owner is the other painterly surface, which is peeled off from the painting itself. It is a shadow without referent. This zero degree flattened matter is independent of the pigments of the other parent property (the peeled surface). Thus her painting is only one side of the twin surface. It is a shadow of the other side of the twin, which is destroyed, thus it gains reality as the status of a shadow.
Shadow is like the sound of an object. As the sound of an object is sound itself, likewise the shadow of an object is shadow itself. It is a reality without reference. White’s painting is an oxymoron of shadow and its object: it is mere effect but concrete. It resides in the world of matter as reality but in the negative field.
“Reality would not be only what it is, what it is disclosed to be in truth, but would be also its double, its shadow, its image.”[ii] Shadow can reach any material surface. It is an effect of a cause, but is emancipated from the bondage of it. It is namely quite independent of the cause and is an image itself most detached from the physical matter.
The prisoners in the allegory of “Plato’s cave” are at a two-fold distance from reality. The only images which the prisoners in the cave see are the shadows of the things. Deprived of the vision of actual things, they believe that those shadows are real. The shadows are caused by firelight, which is a bastard of sun light. If moon light is a direct daughter of the sun (the product of the marriage between the light and matter), the firelight is an indirect sibling of the sun light (the release of the imprisoned sun’s energy of matter).
So accustomed to the dark and the indirect light, when prisoners are taken out of the cave and exposed to direct sun light, they are not able to see the reality in actual matter. It is twice removed from the real matter: first, without the image of the matter, it is not the reality, and anyway their eyes are mesmerized by the sunlight. Ironically, he needs the detached image of the matter and the bastard light in order to behold reality.
Paint is physical matter, which is turned into images with specifically tinted colours, which are the property of the depicted forms, within illusionistic pictorial space (within European perspective). When it remains unformed, floating above the pictorial surface, it is coloured matter or a blob: thus the surface of the canvas covered by blobs without any intended pictorial space is not an organized space but inbetween physicality and pictorial image. The image on White’s surface is an answer to the chaos. A ground covered by blobs without any plasticity is like a topos inundated with noise in a sonic space, but it is still a milieu where image can reside: thus White’s canvas is still painting.
Paint as physical faculty and at the same time cause of image on the surface is like chora in Plato’s and Kristeva’s thought. Chora is akin to an abstract receptacle, which accommodates the possible (or fore-reasoning). It is the place where the dream-like image is given its reality. In an ontological sense, it is nothing at all, but according to the faculty of human cognition, it is presumed to exist. In this sense Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Stephen Parcell are right in saying, “Chora is both cosmic place and abstract space, and it is also the substance of the human crafts.”[iii] Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Stephen Parcellcontinue to argue:
Most importantly, it would point to an invisible ground that exists beyond the linguistic identity of Being and Becoming, while also making language and culture possible in the first place. It is the “region” of that which exists. The problem, as Plato emphasizes, is that its present reality can be grasped only with great difficulty — obliquely, so to speak — through a kind of “bastard reasoning".[iv]
Chora provides the ‘place’ in which the ‘shadow’ of the object is endowed with phenomenological existence, which Levinas explains in terms of 'reality', which, he says in the above citation, “would be also its double, its shadow, its image”.[v] For Levinas, an image differs from a symbol, a sign, or a word, but is nearer to ‘resemblance’, in the way it refers to its object.[vi] Such a ‘resemblance’ is not like the specular image that identifies the image with the original. Rather, resemblance is “the very movement that engenders the image”.[vii]Thus Levinas wrote: “We will say the thing is itself and is its image. And that this relationship between the thing and its image is resemblance”.[viii] Resemblance, then, is akin to allegory: “a way of rendering an abstraction concrete”.[ix]Allegory, though, has a particular relationship to reality which Levinas describes as “an ambiguous commerce", in which "reality does not refer to itself but to its reflection, its shadow”.[x]
Resemblance is an image of the original; an allegory of the object's being. We can call this resemblance ‘proto-resemblance’ to differentiate from ordinary resemblance between things in the more general sense. Chora is the ‘place’ or receptacle which gives this proto-resemblance reality, an imaginary place (graspable only through spurious reasoning, as Pérez-Gómez and Parcell suggest), where the allegory of the object has its reality in its image/shadow and resemblance.Kristeva contends that chora is also the place where rhythm takes place, and in Levinas’s thinking, the concept of rhythm closely relates to that of image/shadow/resemblance.
According to Levinas, sound is the shadow of the object and “its relation with the substance from which it emanates is not inscribed in its quality”.[xi]“Sound is the quality most detached from an object”, but “the image of sound is most akin to real sound.”[xii]Thus, “to insist on the musicality of every image is to see in an image its detachment from an object”.[xiii]Sound, or the timbre of an object is “submerged in its quality, and does not retain the structure of a relation”.[xiv]
The intentional image is not given to the viewer in White’s painting. It is the viewer’s mind that generates the image. The oil pigment of White’s painting is not an image separate from matter, but the skin, which has its surface, flesh, and structure underneath, covering the surface of the canvas. As Ellen Lupton writes, skin is “both living and dead, a self-repairing, self-replacing material whose exterior is senseless and inert while its inner layers are flush with nerves, glands, and capillaries.”[xv] Skin as surface does not generate image, it is rather like a message, which is generated by the condition of the skin.
When we see the details of the wrinkles and patches of skin of the paint, we start to hear the message: ‘cry’ for the old or fatigued. Through similarity of the skin they cry to each other and start to relate to each other. Thus each similarity organizes itself as a grouping. The groupings expand to the whole attendants of the collection of the skin. If the viewer sees an image in White’s painting, it is a specific way of organization caused by the groupings of similarity, dissimilarity and the messages from the skin. There is an aspect-dawning moment, when the viewer can see a pictorial scene ‘in’ the painting. It becomes an experience for the viewer, who intentionally participates in the process of image making. It becomes experience since the process involves skill, to convert the skin into illusionistic image and pictorial space. The skin and its groupings are turned into landscapes, people’s faces, flowers, caves, seas, mountains, fruits, clouds in the sky, and so forth. The viewer is the one to hear sound in the noise, see pictured form in the physical chaos.
It is a playful association unfolded in the skin of the oil pigments. When the skin is turned into image, it becomes a shadow again. The viewer is the one who releases the shadow into the pictorial space and loses it forever, until the skin becomes the flattened oil pigments by the other surface lost.
[i]Emmanuel Levinas, “Reality and Shadow”, The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand, Blackwell, Oxford, (1948) 1989, P. 133
[xv]Ellen Lupton, “Skin: New Design Organics”, in Skin: Surface, Substance and Design, ed. Ellen Lupton, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2002, pp. 28-41
By Eiichi Tosaki
Dr Eiichi Tosaki is a Melbourne based scholar and artist. He is an honorary fellow at the Philosophy Department of Melbourne University. He teaches at various universities, on philosophy, aesthetics, art history, practical art and Japanese culture. Eiichi exhibits artworks at various venues, and is currently developing a new approach to art therapy and practice at the National Aging Research Institute, Melbourne, and Faculty of Art and Design, Monash University.