Thursday, June 27, 2013


 Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi: The Incredulity of Thomas, ca. 1603. 'Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither they hand, and thrust it into my side: be not faithless, but believing' (John 20).

"I think again of the portrait of William Casby, 'born a slave,' photographed by Avedon. The noeme  here is intense; for the man I see here has been a slave: he certifies that slavery has existed, not so far from us; and he certifies this not by historical testimony but by a new, some-how experiential order of proof, although though it is the past which is in question--a proof no longer merely induced: the-proof-according-to-St.-Thomas-seeking-to-touch-the-resurrected-Christ." Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: 33
"The mask is meaning, insofar as it is absolutely pure..." R. Avedon: William Casby, Born a Slave.  1963 

       The two images above seem quite disparate, although a close study of the marks of age on the faces of working men is a common feature to both. One is unique, hand-made from the earth (the colors are literally dug from the ground and mixed by hand), a passionate example of religious devotion. The other is infinitely reproducible, born from factory-milled metal and chemistry, the flat representation of an empirical fact. In his classic work Camera Lucida, Barthes has brought them together in metaphor to explain what he believes to be the nature of Photography (eidos), what makes a photograph powerful, even dangerous (punctum), and what makes Photography unique (noeme). This essay will use Barthes' Camera Lucida to analyze Caravaggio's The Incredulity of St. Thomas as a "photograph" in light of evidence presented in the Hockney-Falco Thesis and David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge that Caravaggio used optics to create his works. The purpose of this analysis is to test the hypothesis that Lucida can be used to prove that Thomas was created optically, as claimed by Hockney and Falco; and to initiate a personal study of iconophilic painting, photography, and computer simulation as a non-linear or rhizomatic continuum.
       Barthes, an author the scholar Margaret Iversen characterizes as a scholar "throwing off his academic robes" (Beyond Pleasure, 113), perhaps scuttles our endeavor at the docks by stating that it is "often said that it was the painters who invented Photography (by bequeathing it their framing, their Albertian perspective, and the optic of the camera obscura). I say: no, it was the chemists." (Lucida: 34) Possibly, we can evade this disaster by ascribing it to the highly subjective and speculative nature of Lucida, which Bruno Latour might describe as "very Gallic!" (We Have Never Been Modern, ix) The chemists in question were mostly French, maybe we can blame this fit of pique on national pride.
        If we are to press on from this initial pratfall, we must show that Thomas contains those endemic and essential elements of Photography which Barthes identifies by a closely related set of terms: eidos, punctum, noeme, and "that-has-been." Barthes links this set to "what Lacan calls the Tuché, the Occasion, The Encounter, the Real, in its indefatigable expression." (Lucida: 2) He also connects the set to death. "Death is the eidos of that Photograph." (Lucida: 5).
       Barthes uses these terms almost interchangeably, although there are subtle distinctions between them. The initial term eidos refers to the nature or essence of something, in this case Photography. Photography or the Photograph capitalized can be taken to mean the experience of photography in general, and includes all photographs everywhere. The eidos is "the universal without which there would be no Photography." (Lucida: 3)
        The second term, punctum,  must be understood as binary with the term studium. The studium can be defined as a voluntary, conscious, and culture-mediated appreciation of an image. "It is by the studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy the as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions." (Lucida: 10)
       The punctum, "this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow," is involuntary, unconscious, and grounded in the subjective experiences of the individual viewer. It is specific to a particular photograph when viewed by a particular individual. "This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call the punctum; for the punctum is also: sting, speck, cut little hole--and also a cast of the dice. A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)." (Lucida: 10) The punctum is (initially at least, as we shall see) a highly subjective reaction to a small detail in a particular photograph.
"I dismiss all knowledge, all culture... I see only the boy's huge Danton collar, the girl's finger bandage..." Lewis H. Hine: Idiot Children in an Institution. New Jersey, 1924
     In the photograph above, Barthes identifies the punctum as the boy's collar and the girl's finger bandage, rather than their physical deformities. This not to say that the collar and the bandage are also the punctum for us (if there is one), but for Barthes only. Describing the central talisman of the text, the image of his mother which he calls the "Winter Garden Photograph," Barthes says that for us, "it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the 'ordinary'; it cannot in any way constitute the visibility object of a science; it cannot establish any objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound." (Lucida: 30)
     The noeme should be understood as an expansion of the unique experience of the punctum to cover the universal experience of Photography in general. A particular photograph may not contain a punctum for us, but Photography does. This is what makes Photography distinct from other interpretations of reality such as Painting or Discourse. "Contrary to these imitations, in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography." (Lucida: 32)
      "That-has-been" is the term Barthes uses to describe the noeme: the indexical connection of a photograph to its referent, or subject. The burns made on film (and maybe the code produced by the light sensor of a digital camera, too) made by light bouncing off a person's skin is, for Barthes, irrefutable proof that the person once existed. Again spiting us from beyond the grave, hey says "for the noeme "That-has-been" was possible only on the day when a scientific circumstance (the discovery that silver halogens were sensitive to light) made it possible to recover and print directly the luminous rays emitted by a variously lighted object. The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star." (Lucida: 34) It is up to us to prove that ground earth and linseed oil are as suitable conduits for this transmission as silver gelatin.
        In this essay we will generally refer to the set of terms described above collectively as the punctum. We can see why Barthes was drawn to the metaphor of Christ's stigmata to describe "this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument." (Lucida: 10) The theme of Thomas can be understood as metaphor for Photography with the viewer as St. Thomas and the punctum as the wound in Christ's side. It is the wound that provides "a proof that is no longer merely induced," that compels us to "be not faithless, but believing." Mirroring Barthes' formula, it is the image, Christ, which bears the wound rather than the viewer, Thomas. The wound is what exerts on Thomas (and us) the strange power of the photographic image: "that-has-been."
          Therefore, in order to prove our hypothesis that Lucida can be used to confirm that Thomas was created optically, we must demonstrate that Thomas contains within it a punctum, or "that-has-been." Barthes, again invoking the theme of Thomas, says that "there exists another punctum (another "stigmatum") than the "detail." This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme ("that-has-been"), its pure representation." (Lucida: 39) It is this specific form of punctum that we will prove is present in Thomas.
Harold E. Edgerton: Milk Drop Coronet, ca. 1936
           Barthes' initial example of an image with this type of punctum is a portrait by Alexander Gardner from 1865 of the young Lincoln assassination conspirator Lewis Payne. He identifies the punctum of the image: "he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future." (Lucida: 39) Barthes says the pose is "what founds the nature of Photography. The physical duration of this pose is of little consequence; even in the interval of a millionth of a second (Edgerton's drop of milk)" there still has been a pose, for the pose is not, here, the attitude of the target or even a technique of the Operator [This term refers to the Photographer, not an individual but the concept of all photographers everywhere.], but the term of an "intention" of reading: looking at a photograph, I inevitably include in my scrutiny the thought of that instant, however brief, in which a real thing happened to be motionless in front of the eye." (Lucida: 33) It is this pose, "death in the future" which is the punctum in Thomas.
Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi: The Incredulity of Thomas (detail), ca. 1601-1602.
          In my personal, subjective experience of Thomas, the punctum (Here, I mean our first definition of punctum: the detail in a particular photograph that wounds us. I'll get to the second one, the "death in the future"-punctum, later.) is not the the wound in Christ's side, but the face of the unknown disciple in the rear of the group. This careworn face is what tells me, "this-has-been." I seem to have seen him before, where? Also, his expression arrests me. He is witnessing a miracle, the return of the dead; yet he seems somehow...bored? Above all, he seems real, perhaps even Real in the Lacanian sense.
        According to Andrew Graham-Dixon's Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, the painter often used the same individuals as models for different paintings. Fillide Melandroni modeled for Caravaggio in Martha and Mary Magdalen of 1598, Judith and Holofernes of 1598 or 1599, and St. Catherine of Alexandria from 1599. He painted her so faithfully that Graham-Dixon notes "the same slight deformity of the same finger: Fillide must have had a damaged hand." (177) His assistant, Francesco Boneri or "Cecco" modeled in various works, including St. John the Baptist from 1602, Omnia Vincet Amor from the same year, and The Sacrifice of Isaac from 1603.
        The bored disciple in Thomas bears reminds me of the
disciple on the right-hand side of The Supper at Emmaus, which Caravaggio was paid for by his patron Ciriaco Mattei in January 1602. We can see the same fold of the upper ear, the same forehead, the same nose, and the same impassive expression in both images. The fall of the hair seems very similar. Graham-Dixon states that the model for Abraham in The Sacrifice of Issac, completed some time before September of 1603, "strongly resembles the uppermost disciple in his Doubting Thomas." (274) Going back to The Crucifixion of St. Peter finished for Tiberio Cerasi sometime in 1601, we can perhaps see the same man as the central figure. The shape and color of where beard meets cheek is the same in all four images, the same placid squint. Is this recurrence evidence of "an emanation of the referent...From a real body, which was there." Is it evidence of the noeme: "that-has-been"?
        Graham-Dixon describes the old man at the rear of Thomas and the other apostles as "earnest, ordinary, with heavily lined brows and sunburned faces. Thomas's sleeve needs restitching at the shoulder." (240) These are not idealized figures. We can tell from the twisting muscular torso of St. Peter that this grey haired man is still employed in strenuous work. This frank depiction of weathered and wiry peasants was uncommon at the time. A comparison with Annibale Carracci's Assumption of the Virgin, the central panel in the Cerasi Chapel, flanked by Caravaggio's The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul, demonstrates the stark contrast between Caravaggio's work and that of his contemporaries.
        When I look at Assumption, there is no punctum. The brightly colored drapery creates an interesting abstract composition, and the head of the putto emerging from under the Virgin's foot is disturbingly surreal, but I am not assailed by a dart of "that-has-been". The older male figures in the foreground are conventionally similar to Caravaggio's apostles, but they are not Real in the same way. Their clothes are idealized forms of pure color, not the weather stained mantles of Italian peasants. They are more properly demonstrative of amazement, but their faces lack the authentic marks of care, the map of suffering that is present on the figures in Thomas (and the face of William Casby).
          When I look to the right of Assumption at The Conversion of St. Paul, I find a punctum. It is double-barreled: the nails showing though the hoof from the horse's metal shoes echoed by the broad toenail of the man holding the bridle. Then, the strong vein running up the man's other calf. The droop of the moustache, the creased forehead. Is this the same man (maybe the son of the older man?) who modeled for the doubting apostle in Thomas?
Caravaggio: The Conversion of St. Paul (detail), circa 1601.
           Graham-Dixon ascribes the rawness of the figures in Caravaggio's work to him "firmly allying himself with the pauperist wing of the Catholic Church." (233) The details of Caravaggio's personal life and his records in the criminal courts of Rome perhaps belie any interest on his part in the ascetic aspects of Counter-Reformation thought, however. Could the veracity of Caravaggio's images, their puncta, derive from his particular use of the optic techniques described in Hockney's Secret Knowledge?
           All of the images that show the older man were made in Rome, after Caravaggio had moved out of the household of his first great patron, the Medici-linked Cardinal Del Monte. This stay in the Cardinal's Palazzo Madama was pivotal for Caravaggio's career in many ways. The connection to the Cardinal del Monte is crucial to Hockney's theories about Caravaggios's use of optics as well. Caravaggio's work generally lacks the intricate oriental rugs (Although there is one in The Cardsharps, perhaps another picture for Falco to mine. Also, note that another example of such a rug in Caravaggio's work, from Supper at Emmaus, is covered by a white cloth; perhaps to avoid the problems of distortion it presented. [Secret Knowledge, 120]) that provide much of the hard mathematical data Falco uses to scientifically show the anamorphic effects of lenses and concave mirrors in the various papers of the Hockey-Falco thesis. Therefore, much of Hockney's proof of Caravaggio's work is based on purely visual analysis of the works and circumstantial evidence.
          Much of the circumstantial evidence surrounds Caravaggio's connection to the Cardinal del Monte, and is quite compelling. Del Monte purchased The Cardsharps, which is one the main Caravaggio paintings Hockney analyzes to support his theory. Graham-Dixon, who takes a moment in his book to dismiss the Hockney-Falco thesis indirectly, tells us that del Monte was "forever buying and selling works, of art, antiquities, precious stones, sculptures and curiosities," that he "knew alchemists, astronomers and others working on the ill-defined border between medieval belief and modern enquiry."

Caravaggio: Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto, 1597
         "Inspired by the researchers of his own brother, Guidobaldo, del Monte took a lively interest in scientific discovery. He was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Galileo, and played a crucial role in the astronomer's career by helping him to secure the patronage of the Medici. Without the powerful support and protection of Florence's ruling dynasty, some Galileo's most important work might never have been done. The Palazzo Madama contained a tangible symbol of the scientist's gratitude: the gift of a telescope." (Caravaggio, 119)
        So, we have placed Caravaggio in the same building with one of Galileo's telescopes, and probably a higher quality of lens than he had ever encountered before (his work before being employed by del Monte shows some signs of optics, according to Hockney). There is also the painting he did for the ceiling of del Monte's alchemcial laboratory in the Roman suburbs, Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, which seems to depict a lens. It may also depict the wheel of the zodiac, the iris of a highly dilated human eye, a model of a heliocentric universe, an atom; any, all, or none of those things.
           Barthes, of course, doesn't need to be convinced about the use of the camera obscura. He needs be convinced that a painting can deliver the same punctum that a photograph does mechanisticly, impersonally. Perhaps another of Hockney's pieces of evidence can shed some light on why Caravaggio was attracted to optics, and how that might help us understand how ground pigments can deliver the punctum as well as silver gelatin.
            According to Hockney, del Monte bought antiquities from the natural philosopher and target of the Inquisition Giambattista della Porta and his brothers, "and could not have been ignorant of Giambattista's celebrated optical demonstrations. There is, therefore, the distinct possibility that the young artist had the opportunity to learn from an expert."(SK, 236)
            Helpfully cited from the first English translation in 1658 by Hockney, Battista's Magiae Naturalis states, "If you can but onely make the colours. This an Art worth learning. Let the Sun beat upon the window, and there abut the hole, let there be Pictures of men, that it may light upon them, but not upon the hole. Put a white paper against the hole, and you shall so long sit the men by the light, bringing them neer, or setting them further, until the Sun cast a perfect representation upon the Table against it: one that is skill'd in painting, must lay on colours where they are in the Table, and shall describe the manner of the countenance; so the Image being removed, the Picture will remain on the Table, and in the superficies it will be seen an Image in Glass. If you will" (248)
              One who can "but onely make the colours" seems to describe Caravaggio well. From Graham-Dixon: " The Venetian tradition valued colore above disegno, emphasizing the primacy of color rather than design - whereas for the great painters of central Italy, the Tuscan-Roman axis of art for which Giorgio Vasari's work was such a vocal and persuasive spokesman, drawing was the foundation stone of all excellence. Caravaggio seems to have had almost no interest at all in theories of art. But he shared the Venetian preference for working on canvas, rather than in the medium of fresco. In the ages-old debate about the relative merits of disegno and colore he might have sided with the Venetians. Not a single independent drawing survives by Caravaggio's hand. Even the X-rays of his finished work have failed to yield anything resembling a conventional underdrawing." (Caravaggio, 118)
             Furthermore, Graham-Dixon states that Caravaggio was "probably a very bad" student of drawing. Graham-Dixon describes the outcome of the young and tempestuous artist's apprenticeship to the master Simone Peterzano: "It might be supposed - it is the conventional view - that he received a traditional grounding in the techniques of Renaissance painting. In other words, he learned to draw; and he learned how to paint in buon fresco, the 'true fresco' technique, like Peterzano himself. But Caravaggio never painted a fresco and no single drawing exists by his hand. X-rays of his oil paintings show that he did not even use preparatory drawings on the canvas, as a guide for the brush. In other words, there is almost no resemblance between his daringly improvisatory techniques and those that would have been taught in the studio of an artist such as the safe, dull and cautious Simone Peterzano."
             "It seems that something must have gone awry during Caravaggio's apprenticeship. He was a painter of extraordinary innate talent, a unique virtuoso when it came to conjuring the illusion of three-dimensional reality within the two dimensions of the painting. Yet his earliest known works, while forceful, are relatively gauche and crude. Those pictures were done after 1592 and they were done in Rome. If someone with his gifts really had applied himself to the study of art in Milan for four whole years from 1584 to 1588 - working 'day and night', as the contract says - he should have been far better than he actually was by then. The breakneck pace of Caravaggio's subsequent acceleration, from uncertain beginnings to full-blown mastery, begs further questions. Was it perhaps only in the early 1590s that he first took painting seriously? Is it possible that he began his career with the merest smattering of an education, and taught himself most of what he knew about painting on the job? Could it be presumed that he spent much of his presumed apprenticeship playing truant?"
              He continues: "His contemporaries described him as a difficult young man who liked to settle disagreements with violence and who was prone to disappear for days on end. There is no reason to believe that he was anything but an unruly teenager. Even if he did absorb some of the rudiments of art, he is unlikely to have been a model student." (Caravaggio, 55-56) Caravaggio never learned how to draw because he was a hot-blooded carouser.
              Caravaggio might have been able to deliver the impersonal chemical "turning" of the film required to deliver the punctum, the mechanized indexical connection to the referent, the irrefutable "that-has-been" of photography, because he was bad at drawing. A "bad" student, outfoxing his instructors. He did not learn the Albertian idealized space of his master, but could only trace the anamorphic forms projected by the lens or mirror and "lay on colours where they are in the Table, and shall describe the manner of the countenance; so the Image being removed, the Picture will remain on the Table, and in the superficies it will be seen an Image in Glass. If you will."
              The Italian scholar Roberta Lapucci has put forth a hypothesis based on Hockney-Falco that claims Caravaggio "treated the canvas with light-sensitive substances, including a luminescent powder made from crushed fireflies [perhaps supplied to him by someone he met through del Monte], in order to "fix" the image as 19th century photographers later would. He then used white lead mixed with chemicals such as mercury, to outline the image in greater clarity..." (The Telegraph). Although this seems somewhat fantastic, it would explain why Caravaggio's paintings do deliver the punctum (The use of mercury might explain his later acts of violence, as well.) that Barthes claims only Photography can: they can be considered early photographs.
            So, I have identified the detail-punctum in Thomas as the careworn and blasé face of the old man; now I will identify the "death-in-the-future"-punctum, which Barthes might consider an example of the noeme of Photography. This example of the noeme "that-has-been" is the awkward pose of central figure, the eponymous Thomas. Hockney tells us that the very shallow depth of focus inherent in Caravaggio's technique lead to a collage method for scenes with multiple figures: "As the 'camera' is room sized and cannot be turned towards each item in turn, the only option is to place each element in into the position in front of the lens where it will be in focus, and to move the canvas on the easel to put the projected image into the right place for the composition. That is the essence of the method: each figure, every prop, even an outstretched hand, is presented to the camera in turn." (SK, 226)
            That is to say that the models did not pose in a group, but one at a time in front of the immobile lens of the camera. This is why the man in the rear of The Cardsharps does not appear to be looking at the cards of the "mark", or "gull" to use Hockney's term. He had to assume the pose without the other model to refer to, so in the final composition he appears to be looking at the back of the mark's hat. This is also perhaps why Thomas does not seem to be looking at Christ's wound, but somewhere beyond it. He is not an actor, he is a peasant migrant to Rome earning some money on the side. He is looking at nothing, just the dime outlines of quotidian disorder in a rented house on a back street, holding an awkward pose while a ragged painter who has been in trouble with the law, who may or may not come through with payment, creaks around behind the partition of the camera. He is aware of being seen.
Thomas (detail).
           Barthes says, "once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of "posing," I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image." (CL, 10)We can see this transformation in the mawkish stoop assumed by Thomas. Iversen connects the pose to death via the audible sound of the shutter closing on the camera. "The shutter clicks and 'I then experience a micro-version of death,' the sound 'breaking through the mortifierous layer of the pose' [CL, 14-15]. Here is perhaps an example of an aural punctum finding a chink in the armor of the imaginary. If assuming the pose involves the negation of myself as unique subject, then this 'micro-version of death' is paradoxically revivifying" (BP, 126).
        For the man posing for Thomas, there would be no instantaneous click of the shutter, only the slower sounds of the painter scraping his image into in the canvas. It is the artifical nature of the pose which makes Thomas more Real to me, more of a proof that the arrangement of pigments delivers the noeme, the irrefutable connection to the referent, the emanation from a real body. This indexical relationship to a real person delivers the "death in the future"-punctum: "he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror the anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott's psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe" (CL, 96). The painting is indexical proof of man who has lived and died long ago in other time and place, and is forgotten; this breaks my gaze, decenters my ego and reminds me of my own mortality.
         Where has our analysis gotten us? Many scholars have marshaled evidence counter to the claims of the Hockney-Falco thesis, and Lucida is too subjective and fictional to be the basis of any kind of empirical efforts. Barthes himself would probably disagree with the conclusions we have drawn from his work. However, we can now imagine the Cardinal del Monte's Palazzo Madama in Rome as a birthing-house of modernisms; as a pivot, or site of exchange, between the premodern and the modern. We can, with the help of Iversen, go through Barthes to Jacques Lacan and make a connection between Caravaggio's work and one of Lacan's diagrams about the gaze from The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.

            Caravaggio's painting Martha and Mary Magdalen from around 1598 can perhaps be understood as metaphor for this diagram. On the right hand side of the painting we can see a convex mirror. In the mirror we can see the reflection of the high window which was the strong light source necessary to create the image using optics. The light from the window represents the gaze. It also represents the ego-centered world of Albertian perspective, the idealized imaginary. The square form of the window is reminiscent of the Cartesian grid. The concave mirror, which bounces back the image of the window, represents the anamorphic encounter with the Real. As Iversen clarifies, "only when the position of illusory mastery is vacated does the gaze come into full view. The positions are mutually exclusive: I gain the world of representation only when I sacrifice the immediacy of the real, and conversely, I glimpse the real only when I renounce the vanity of the world conceived as my representation... I may see objects but I am also enveloped by a light or gaze that unsettles the position I want to occupy as the source of the coordinates of sight." (BP, 123 and 127) The convex mirror is the floating sardine can which "photo-graphs" the student Lacan. (BP, 126)
            Although Caravaggio's works contain strong tones of homoeroticism, and he was rumored to have a sexual relationship with his assistant Cecco, Graham-Dixon asserts that he also had sexual liasons with women, particularly prostitutes. The woman modeling for Magdalen is Fillide Melandroni of the damaged finger, who Caravaggio painted numerous times. Graham-Dixon describes her as a prostitute, based on her appearances in Roman court records.  There is no written evidence of a sexual relationship between them, but Caravaggio would go on to murder Ranuccio Tomassoni, the man Graham-Dixon describes as Melandroni's pimp. A possible relationship between the painter and the model can open another avenue of analysis through feminist interpretations of Lacan's concept of the gaze.
The Conversion of the Magadalen, 1598
           In the painting she portrays Magdalen at the moment of her conversion. "The painter shows the moment when the Magdalen, urged on by her sister Martha, forswears her life of harlotry...Fillide as Mary Magdalen once again holds a flower to the bodice of her scarlet silk dress. This time it is not perfumed jasmine but orange blossom, symbol of purity." The object of the painter's desire rejects him symbolically, breaking the male gaze wherein she is part of an idealized imaginary. This painting and concept can therefore possibly be linked to Gerhard Richter's Betty from 1988.
An picture from Jeff Koon's recent show Gazing Ball at David Zwirner gallery.

Van Eyck: The Arnolfini (detail), 1434
Koons: Rabbit (detail), 1986
          Perhaps we can understand Jeff Koons' recent show Gazing Ball as a sculptural embodiment of this diagram. In some of the sculptures, plaster casts of classical sculpture are paired with reflective gazing balls commonly found in garden stores across the United States. Perhaps the classical statue represents fine art (although as a reproduction it is by definition kitsch), the ordered, ego-centered Albertian space, the idealized imaginary, the visible world as a reflection of the deluded ego. The gazing ball is kitsch (although as a readymade it is by definition fine art) and its reflection is the return of the anamorphic Real, or Death, breaking through the idealized imaginary of the gaze. The artist himself notes in the show's press release that "the realization of one’s mortality is abstract thought and from there, one is able to have a concept of the external world, one’s family, community, and a vaster dialogue with humankind beyond the present. The Gazing Ball series is based on the philosopher’s gaze, starting with transcendence through the senses, but directing one’s vision (the philosopher’s gaze) towards the eternal through pure form and ideas."
         Although we have not come to any concrete conclusions, we can use our analysis of Caravaggio's work through Barthes as a starting point for an investigation of how Lacan's concept of anamorphosis can relate to the works the Hockney-Falco thesis identifies as optics-based, particularly through Lacan's analysis of Holbein in FFC. The contrast between perspective-derived and optics-based paintings and the connection of that contrast to Lacan's conceptions of the Imaginary and the Real will be a rich vein for further study.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Be Free Floating

"For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception."--David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 1739.

The Samadhi isolation tank at Be Free Floating
          Planning to open July 4th, Be Free Floating is a new wellness destination in West Baltimore. Practitioners Twig Harper and Carly Ptak offer isolation tank services in a spa-like atmosphere at $50 an hour. They answered my questions about using isolation tanks and walked me through my first "float."
          Their isolation tank is a Samadhi Classic Model. The guest is suspended in ten inches of highly saline water inside a small light- and sound-proof plastic chamber. Ozone filtration keeps the water in the tank pure. Their brand-new facility also includes a private space for one guest with a bathroom and a beautiful gothic-arched shower area fully stocked with soap and shampoo, all in the same space as the tank. Clean towels are also provided.
         Not very familiar with holistic practices or meditation, I was a little apprehensive about what would happen inside the tank. Would I be bombarded by my anxieties without all my usual distractions? Would I find myself to be boring?
        "Everyone is different, I think, about their first experience," says Harper. Experienced meditators may not find the experience to be unfamiliar at first, "but the experience is somewhat different because it's this very unique environment. You're weightless, and your physical, auditory, and visual stimuli are radically changed. You may have phenomena, you may just relax. You may feel uncomfortable. Just go with whatever happens. If you have resistance that comes up, explore that. If you have tension that comes up, find a way to release it."
The accommodations in the tank room
             Ptak offers that "everybody's experience is completely their own, so sometimes hearing
about other people's experiences is detrimental. People can start to compare, and think they're doing it wrong. The most important thing is that there is no 'right' way to float. Most people like to talk about their mental experiences but my floats have been very physical. I like to be in the tank and be weightless and move my body. I can do, and notice, and sense different things than I normally notice. It's a way of experiencing that is not conducive to words and descriptions!"
            I wondered if I could possibly fall asleep. What if I had some kind of trouble readjusting after the float?
            Harper confirms to me that "some people can fall asleep in the tank. It's fine. You won't turn over, and if you ever did turn over, you would get salt in your eyes!"
            A spray bottle of fresh water and a clean towel is available right outside the entrance to the tank in case this happens. I did get a little salt in my eyes, but it was not very painful and went away on its own pretty quickly.
            "I'm here while someone's floating all the time. My position here is to prepare people before hand and help them integrate anything afterwards," Harper says.
            However, "you are responsible for your own float in every way," Ptak tells me.
           "It's basically just you inside the tank with no stimulation," adds Harper. "What are you going to do with it?"
The entry to the tank
            What was I going to do with it? I locked the door of the tank room, rinsed off, and stepped though the simple entry portal of the tank. I am 6' 2" and weigh 235 pounds, and I did not have any trouble getting into the tank and I had plenty of room once inside. The water and the inside of the tank are heated to body temperature, so there was no shock to the system as I entered the water. I was surprised by how buoyant I was, even more than when swimming in the ocean. Although the water was shallow, no part of me was touching the bottom of the tank. I could reach out and touch the sides of the tank if I wanted to, but I could easily avoid them even with my hands tucked behind my head like a sunbather.
               At first I held my body rigidly, but I soon found I could relax all my muscles through simple breathing techniques taught to me by Harper and Ptak before I entered the tank. It was a much different experience than lying in a bed. Ptak had counseled me that my neck would be a center of tension, and she was right. Gradually, I was able to relax my neck. I could hear my neck gently cracking as it stretched back into the water. My face stayed comfortably above the surface of the water without effort. Once I got situated, I was very comfortable.
               So, now that I was somewhat acclimated to the environment in the tank, what would I do? How much time had passed? A minute, or ten? I had no idea. My anxieties weren't showing up, and I didn't go looking for them. I tried to plan the rest of my week, but it all seemed kind of unimportant. I grind my teeth in my sleep like a lot of caffeine users, but my jaw was relaxed.
              I wasn't sure, but I thought I started seeing colors. Deep purple and maroon aurora borealis, like a late Rothko painting. Sometimes little wavelets of rainbow color. Maybe it was just what the inside of my eyelids look like. I became very aware of the sound of my heart, of the sound my breath going in and out of my nose. I felt them slow down. I felt like I was skimming along the surface of a deeper state, not yet ready to really dive into it. Almost before I knew it, my hour was up.
             I left the tank feeling like I had just had a really good stretch or massage. Ptak, who floats every other day, says she has "spent entire sessions just tightening and releasing, because I can really isolate" individual muscles.
          "We plan on building a practice room," says Ptak, "for any kind of therapy. If somebody knows they are going to want a massage, they can coordinate with their massage therapist. The massage therapist can book the room right after the float. Or if no one is using the room, you can just go in there and stretch."
            I definitely would like to float again, and I would recommend the experience at Be Free Floating. According to Ptak, "if a person is motivated to go in that environment and see how it feels, if they have the motivation, then it's going to do something."
           Following his reading of the work of John C. Lilly, the inventor of the isolation tank, Harper states, "this is just a tool. I want to give people tools to experience deeper states of consciousness. That's where I'm coming from."
           Less didactic than many meditation practices, floating is also unlike other forms of consciousness altering, "where you are chemically altering you consciousness and nervous system. With a tank, you step out of the tank and it just takes a few minutes to restabilize. The beauty of it is, it's so passive, yet so effective. You're in there with your eyes closed, your eyes open, there's no difference. I'm a horrible meditator. It's not my path. It's never appealed to me, it just doesn't click. For me it's always cool to do it yourself. Nobody teaching you how to do it except yourself."

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Cockey's Pit Beef in the Garden

         Right across the street from Hollins Market, Cockey's is a small bar/take out. They had a framed reproduction of Gauguin's Cruel Tales (Exotic Sayings) from 1902 on the wall. Make of it what you will.
         The grill is going in the side yard next door, which on our visit was sun-splashed and verdant. Cockey's serves beer, and it is possible to imagine spending a pleasant summer evening there. I ordered a rare Pit Beef sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and horseradish. The meat is smoky, totally black on the outside. Not quite as rare as I could wish, but certainly nice and soft. Thick sliced with an ashy layer of crisp mixed with hearty globs of fat. There were one or two dry well-done slices in there, but they actually seemed to add structure and balance. Any other quibbles I possibly could have had were overcome by pleasant service and the peaceful dining environs.