Angle of Inclination
Gregory Salzman, 2004
At first sight Karin Hanssen's inordinately small drawings that are presented collectively under the title Modern Living seem oddly and strikingly dated. They also appear quite straightforward and unselfconscious to the point of being ingenuous and this seeming absence of self-reflexiveness accentuates their anachronistic character. The drawings have the detailed and objective consistency of photographs; in fact, they are based on photographs found in old magazines, which they reproduce 'verbatim'. Their pedestrian character and neutral facture reflects this photographic basis. However, this factural blandness and anonymity is joined by textural roughness and procedural unmethodicalness, according to which the drawings are affiliated to an archaic mode of production that implicitly correlates handwork with the values of uniqueness and authenticity. The images thus contain a tension between their status as simulacra and as originals, as well as a tension between their generic and individualised identities.
The rubric 'Modern Living' does not tally with the look or the content of the drawings. Experience of them makes the title seem facetious. The title invokes the future and the promise of unlimited progress through technological innovation, while the drawings appear retrospective and vapid. They have none of the hyperbolic tone and optimistic, prospective outlook of 'Modern Living'.
The situations depicted in the drawings and certain details they contain remind us of the 1950's, the decade that discovered leisure and experienced the advent of consumerism. The locations and situations portrayed by the drawings (the beauty salon, the golf course, the beach party, the living room, the fashion show, the swimming pool, listening to pop music) typify the lifestyle, social milieu and pastimes of an era whose ethos revolves around domestic life. A number of the drawings have a distinctly stereotypical and clichéd character while others are less specific. Almost all portray people engaged in leisure activities or absorbed in idleness. Leisure as emblematic of a time and a reality which has come to condition and to permeate the production and consumption of culture presently is the common theme.
Not much seems to be happening in these drawings. Action is everywhere implied yet suspended. The drawings have an ambiguous temporality: time stands still but also is prolonged indefinitely. Translation of the photographs as drawings alters their temporality; whereas photographs index a specific past moment or event, drawing intrinsically is both image and process. It mediates between the mark as the enactment of a gesture or an event and as a deposited trace. It inherently implies duration, whereas photography rends the fabric of time.
The bland, somewhat featureless drawing style, besides referencing photographic anonymity, is reminiscent of journalistic and fashion illustration of the 1950s. In opposition to the neutral drawing style, the granular consistency of the drawings is assertive and obtrusive. Its effect is contradictory: it has deictic implications, yet, equally, desubstantialises the image.
The drawings are also contained in their own spatial envelope. They are intentionally lacking in kinaesthetic appeal and phenomenal vibrancy or acuteness. This augments their remote and withdrawn character. The granular consistency impedes clear reception of the image, as though a fog has settled on a landscape bringing silence and stillness. Abundance of particularising detail is implied but, through blurring, elision and formal indefinition, remains largely indiscernible. We feel this global formal imprecision and generalisation as mental torpor or vagueness, as befits a state of reverie. Pervasive tonal modulation contradicts the indexical precision of the photographic image and its intrinsic stoppage of action and insinuates a micrometrical internal movement that implies temporal persistence.
Two Seated Men illustrates this effect. It is unclear whether the two men in the drawing are having a conversation or whether they are each silent and absorbed by their own thoughts. Time is evidently frozen yet the implication of an ongoing action (the turn of one man's head suggests he may be listening to what the other man says), as well as the drawing's imprecision and its linear and tonal wavering, endow the image with a lingering, albeit insecure, presence. Although the drawing's contents appear somewhat anaesthetized, the inclusion of perceptual ambiguity and inconstancy makes it seem to inhabit the continuous present.
Although Hanssen's drawings incorporate certain typically photographic traits, in certain key respects they are more similar to tableaux. Normally, tableaux are scenic paintings whose views are articulated so that they fill the frame. They typically have an even distribution of descriptive detail throughout their field. In contrast to photographs which evince ephemerality, tableaux are durable constructions. They afford the experience of persistence through time by combining particularized and generalized features and through their compositional structure.
Axel Olrik in his article Epic Laws of Folk Narrative notes that as a rule in tableaux...
... scenes frequently convey not a sense of the ephemeral but rather a certain quality of persistence through time: Samson among the columns in the hall of the Philistines... Perseus holding out the head of Medusa. These lingering actions-which also play a large role in sculpture-possess the singular power of being able to etch themselves in one's memory. (1)
The same applies to the emblematic implication and mnemonic dimension of Hanssen's art. The capacity of her images to 'etch themselves in one's memory' is dependent on their coordination of general and particular, abstract and referential characteristics, and on their dual stoppage and prolongation of time.
Most of Hanssen's compositions are built around a central motif. The principal compositional elements (the massing of motifs, the disposition of the figures, the orientation of their gazes...) serve to focus attention inwards. Each of her compositions is both static and stable. It holds its contents in place. Space is consistent while spatiality, or the dimensional resonance of space and incorporation of flux, is missing.
These associated traits are evident in the drawing Beach with Mountains whose demarcation of a vast space with a panoramic sweep is curtailed by the general flattening and containment of space. Instead of impelling us into the distance, the composition holds us in the foreground and middleground. The landscape functions as a kind of scrim or scenic backdrop for a genre scene so that attention shifts from largeness of scale to the minute and the local.
Containment of space, compositional concentration and the immobilization of action all contribute to her drawings' quasi emblematic status. Exactly what they are emblems of is indeterminate but this much is certain: they transcend the unique instance and give the specific scene a more general implication. Detainment of the observer's gaze, which depends in turn on the insubstantial consistency and incomplete legibility of the image, plays a role in the drawings' capacitation of remembrance. Also, as occurs in certain drawings (as for instance in Picnic and People on a Yacht), individual figures and forms meld into larger formal aggregates or abstract gestalts. These irregular agglomerated shapes, like Leonardo's clouds, invite reverie and imaginative speculation.
Hanssen's drawings are strongly absorptive.(2) Absorptivity is a measure of an image's non-acknowledgement of the spectator and is thus an index of the absence of self-reflexiveness. Factors, already described, which equally concentrate and diffuse the gaze and detain it, contribute to these drawings' high degree of absorptivity. Other traits likewise draw us into the scene and summon an empathetic response and internal frame of mind: the fact that none of the protagonists looks at or toward the spectator; that they are either seen from the back, or if they face us, their gaze is abstracted or glancing or is screened, as in one instance, by sunglasses; and the fact that the people in the drawings are completely immersed in their own activities or wrapped in their own thoughts. Because of the drawings' ingenuous or unself-conscious mode of presentation, we succumb to their absorptive pull without recognising the rhetorical basis of our being entrapped.
The ingenuous charm of Hanssen's drawings, their pastoralization of the mundane, is checked and perplexed by their determination as simulacra. What is intriguing about the drawings is that their condition as simulacra, instead of detracting from their authenticity, in fact augments their enigmatic quality and vaguely emblematic identity.
Sailing, for instance, is largely bogus on the plane of phenomenal veridicality. The image contains certain inconsistencies that contradict phenomenal vibrancy and illusionism: the wave that passes along the hull of the boat is a purely conventional cipher, a simulacrum of the undulation of water. The boat lists but the sails give no indication of being caught by the wind, while the lone figure on the deck is borne along by the boat; he does not sail it - he is in the wrong spot (by the prow) and leans the wrong way. Also, the lighting of the scene is irrational and ambiguously dim and bright (and altogether lacking temporal specificity).
The viewpoint is lower than the boat's hull which idealises the image. The boat is rendered in partial perspective, which also idealises the image while, equally, naturalising it. The ambiguity between the partial idealisation of the image and its vapid naturalism is crucial to its enigmatic character. The figure's black, oversized silhouette is in sharp contrast to the whiteness of the boat and discordant compositionally. The shadowy human presence and bright figure of the boat together appear phantomlike against the grisaille background. Standing out from this ground the human figure and the boat are highlighted and vignetted. This lends the image a quasi-emblematic status and sense of deja-vu. What is disturbing about the image is its paradoxically enigmatic yet all too familiar identity. The image belongs to an entire tradition of hackneyed, conventional representations of sailing ships, images built around fantasies of freedom and adventure, yet it carries an imponderable significance that exceeds its meaning.
The surplus of significance without specifiable meaning present in this drawing extends throughout Hanssen's art and determines its mute expressivity. Eric Santner's perceptions regarding the traumatic inflection of Kafka's writing and the role of fantasy in it, summarised in the following passage, are pertinent to Hanssen's art:
What is at stake [in Kafka's universe] is a form of expressivity-'interpellation without identification' - that, in the absence of
any propositional content, nonetheless gets under the skin and has some sort of (hindered) revelatory force, [that] has, as [Gershom] Scholem puts it, validity without meaning. In psychoanalytic terms, the persistence of validity without meaning...tells us that a breakdown of meaning-a trauma-has left traces in the mind. The mind is left possessed or haunted, under the 'ban' of something that profoundly matters without being a full-fledged thought or emotion, that is, anything resembling an orientation in the world. To put it paradoxically, what matters most in a human life may in some sense be one's specific form of disorientation, the idiomatic way in which one's approach to and movement of the world is 'distorted.' The dilemma of the Kafkan subject-exposure to a surplus of validity without meaning-points, in other words, to the fundamental place of fantasy in human life. Fantasy organizes or 'binds' this surplus into a schema, a distinctive 'torsion' or spin that colors/distorts ...how the world is disclosed to us. (Paul Celan spoke of the Neigungswinkel, the singular angle of inclination proper to a human existence)...
If fantasy is the means by which we in some sense place ourselves 'out of this world', at the 'end of the world' it is also a means for securing our adaptation to it. (3)
The drawing, Car in A Landscape, is, like Sailing, strangely familiar. It describes a generic scene that is reminiscent of countless films. The image has an atmosphere of expectancy and irresolution. Not only are the identities of the human occupants of the car forever unknown, the blank identity of the car and its sudden yet persistent, familiar yet literally disturbing appearance in the landscape, are imagistic analogues for the persistent background awareness of our own self-estrangement, that carries a traumatic inflection or torsion. The latent drama of this drawing is conveyed through its association of suddenness and (eternal) stillness and is occasioned by the image's 'stormy', disorganized and almost violent graphic structure, in conjunction with its pastoral, intimate qualities (the manner in which the car is firmly held in the hammock of the landscape).
Stone Wall is another enigmatic, romantic/banal image with an emblematic character. Certain characteristics of the articulated stone wall in this drawing are reproduced in the dynamically textured, ambiguously massive and atmospheric background. The relation between the stone wall and the wall of bushes behind it is similar to the relation of the two figures who address each other via their mimetic, although slightly differentiated, contrapposti. The polarity and harmonisation of the two paired elements establishes the romantically inflected atmosphere of the scene. In addition, the drawing contains a pair of fairly inconspicuous though important details. Two small and soft highlights, one on the forehead of the woman, the other on the forehead of the man, have an equally formal and psychological agency. That these highlights are on the foreheads of the figures and not elsewhere is significant since they accentuate the introversion and expectancy of the image. They emphasise the image's mental configuration. Like a mantra they focus the mind and universalise it.
Scalar inconsistency between the two figures perplexes judgement of proximity and distance. The psychological impact of this perceptual ambiguity is reflected in the irresolute relationship of the two figures. Neither the structure of the image nor its enchanted atmosphere are explicable, while the raised gaze of the man and the woman's curious position on the wall - her stance beckoning the man's attention - have a thoroughly clichéd identity. The charm of the drawing derives from the tentative relationship of the figures and the corresponding coordination of fixity, hesitation, absorption and distantiation. The two figures resemble mannequins, which contributes to the ambiguous reality/irreality of the drawing and its tenuous enchantment.
There is a correlation between the status of Hanssen's images as simulacra and their configuration as miniatures. Both are conditioned by ideological framing and determination. The miniature, as an art form, affords the illusion of timeless order, but at the price of loss of connection to the world.
Modern Living depicts the rooftop terrace and swimming pool of a hotel. The setting has stereotypical overtones. It is a classic, clichéd site of leisure. True to its title, the setting refers to a once 'brave' utopic architectural vision of the future (the prospect of model cities suspended in the air) while the actual setting is the degraded avatar of a modernist fantasy.
This image consists of a multitude of embedded vignettes and thus in a certain way represents all the other drawings in the album. It is a scenic image that combines the fragmentary condition of a photographic snapshot and the miniature's identity as a microcosm. It is a drawing which, true to miniatures in general, is replete with descriptive detail. As Susan Stewart notes in her in-depth study of the miniature as a generic mode of narration, The depiction of the miniature moves away from hierarchy and narrative in that it is caught in an infinity of descriptive gestures. It is difficult for much to happen in such depiction, since each case of action multiplies in spatial significance in such a way as to fill the page with contextual information.(4)
In the immediate foreground of Modern Living are two figures, one of whom is looking through a telescope. The scene itself, to judge by the framing of it and by the way it combines exaggerated close-up and plummeting perspective (and according to its containment of prolix detail), is similarly telescopic.(5) The scene before us is presented from an elevated vantage point that locates us somewhere in mid-air outside the perimeter of the terrace. This vantage point contributes to the miniaturisation of the scene and to its semblance to a model. A panoramic view is implied (with the attendant illusion of freedom and omnipotence invariably associated with such unimpeded aerial views). But it is also denied. The drawing unfolds in space, yet is deprived of spatiality, the space being crammed and introverted. Each of the immobilised figures in the scene, as in a Seurat painting, is self-contained and immersed in his or her own mental space or activity.
Miniatures, typically, draw us into a world that is not reflexively present to itself:
The observer is offered a transcendent and simultaneous view of the miniature, yet is trapped outside the possibility of a lived reality of the miniature.(6)
In the embrace of the miniature connection with the world outside the frame is lost. The missing phenomenal vibrancy, immediacy and vital disorganisation of the real world declares itself in the miniature through its effective absence.
The (unattributable or indescribably) emblematic dimension of Hanssen's drawings is dependent on the fact that ...in the miniature we see spatial closure posited over temporal closure. The miniature offers a world clearly limited in space but frozen and thereby both particularized and generalized in time- particularized in that the miniature concentrates upon the specific instance and not upon the abstract rule, but generalized in that that instance comes to transcend, to stand for, a spectrum of other instances.(7)
Miniatures characteristically exclude an authorial voice and refrain from calling attention to their modus operandi. They present themselves as natural representations while in fact being permeated at all levels by ideological properties:
Minute description reduces the object to its signifying properties and this reduction of physical dimensions results in a multiplication of ideological properties.(8)
Miniaturisation, or reduction in physical scale and compression of space, is known to actually alter our perception of temporal duration.(9) Further, the miniature... tends to hypostatize the interiority of the subject that consumes in that it marks the invention of 'private time'. In other words, miniature time transcends the duration of everyday life in such a way as to create an interior temporality of the subject... The miniature always tends toward the tableau rather than toward narrative, toward silence and spatial boundaries rather than toward expository closure. Whereas speech unfolds in time the miniature unfolds in space. (10)
The miniature form, through its enchanted disconnection from the world, its conveyance of a semblance of naturalness, and its affordance of the illusion of mastery, has a bearing on the ideology of leisure, the underlying theme of Hanssen's set of drawings. The 'private time' which is the invention of the miniature, parallels the conception of leisure as 'free time' to be used ad libitum. Both preserve the myth of the autonomous subject, the cornerstone of bourgeois ideology. Both involve a kind of retreat or escape from the world.
From the privatized and domesticated world of the miniature, from its petite sincerity, arises an 'authentic' subject whose transcendence over personal property substitutes for a strongly chronological, and thus radically piecemeal, experience of temporality in everyday life. The narcissistic, even onanistic, view presented by the miniature, its abstraction of the mirror into microcosm, presents the desiring subject with an illusion of mastery, of time into space and heterogeneity into order...(11)
The universe of Hanssen's drawings is precisely the domesticated bourgeois world, one that naturalises its own schema of values and confuses truth with sincerity and authenticity. The false naiveté of Hanssen's miniatures represent this ethos. The illusion of mastery the miniature form typically affords depends on the miniature's exclusion of risk and contingency. Similarly, bourgeois mentality is governed by an obsessive need for security through avoidance and elimination, at all costs, of risk and contingency.
The narcissism that Stewart claims is implicit in the miniature's view of the world, is also implicit in the escapism of leisure. Leisure, in modern developed capitalistic states (the site of Modern Living), is regulated mainly through endless modes of consumption. As such it provides a convenient alibi for the deferral of meaningful social engagement. In other words the indulgent cult of leisure is fraught with narcissistic implications.
The boredom and anomie that haunts the pursuit of leisure is felt in Hanssen's drawings. The phenomenal blandness that pervades them represents a flagging of desire.
Through insinuation of a measure of irony Hanssen's art detaches itself from fatuous 'petite' sincerity of the world it describes. Exclusion of the world's vital disorganization and the degree of risk it encompasses is both the source of the drawings' poignancy and the basis of their disenchantment.
The domestic, localised purview of her art and its sociological slant are indicative of its bourgeois foundation. A sociological interpretation of the world requires the enunciation of an historical perspective and the elaboration of narratives. Instead the muteness and thematic vagueness of Hanssen's drawings, their suspension of narrative and their encapsulation and indetermination of time, invalidate any sociological inferences regarding their content. Postulated correlations between the Hanssen's world and that of the contemporary culture of leisure are tendentious. Ultimately her art resists the bourgeois propensity for naming the world, which can be understood as a token of its cult of rationality and fear of the unknown. What is vital about Hanssen's drawings is that, through their dual identity as simulacra and emblems, they equally inscribe significance and suspend meaning. The work has an idiosyncratic dimension. Its ambiguously sociological and existential framework, is reflected by its dual identity as simulacrum and as miniature and by its inclusion of signifiers that are anomalous to both these identities (for example, the partial eradication of detail which contradicts the norms of the miniature form). What is hard to comprehend or come to terms with about her art (and which is the source of its vitality) is whether it merely signals banalization of reality and loss of connection to the world or whether (as seems to be the case) it accesses that in the subject which is 'more' than the subject, the 'too much' of pressure, the excess of reality that is, in large measure, organized in the fantasies that bind us to social reality. (12)
1/ From Axel Olrik's article, Epic Laws of Folk Narrative, cited by Susan Stewart in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, (Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 1993), p.48. Stewart's study concerns the rhetorical use of exaggeration in literature, however many of the concepts she formulates and her related insights are applicable to visual art.
2/ The term 'absorption' is used in the sense given to it by Michael Fried in his book Absorption and Theatricality:Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980). 3/ Eric L. Santner, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life- Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig, (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2001), pp.39-40.
4/ ibid, pp.47-48
5/ The telescopic view deploys endless detail in the field of vision. It decontextualises these details and desubstantializes them. Telescopic images lack corporeal rapport since they also lack determinate physical scale, owing partly to the monocularity of telescopic vision, partly to their contextual disconnection. 6/ Stewart, p.66 7/ ibid, p.48
8/ ibid, p.47-48
9/ ibid, p.66. A psychological experiment conducted at the
School of Architecture of the University of Tennessee cited
by Susan Stewart indicates there is a direct correlation
between physical scale and the viewer's perception of duration. As the scale of an image or other perceptual stimulus decreases, experience of time is extended. Thus, five minutes of clocked time may seem like an half-hour.
10. ibid, p.66
11/ ibid, p.172
12/ Santner, p.71