Sunday, 12 April 2009

Tamil protest; Picasso, repetition, and being-in-the-world

On my way to see the Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery yesterday (more on that below) I stumbled on the Tamil protest against the Sri Lankan government. As I was cycling down from Bloomsbury the car traffic was stalled for miles all the way up Charing Cross Road, at an almost complete standstill. Just as I was scanning the columns of cars weaving my way around lanes of traffic reciting my cyclist mantra - 'you fucking idiots, you fucking idiots, you fucking idiots...' - I reached Trafalgar square and noticed some commotion along the southern rim. At first it looked like there were a lot of English and British flags; and I thought this must be some BNP or UKIP follow-up to the G20 protests. As I got closer it became clear that something very different was afoot.

There were quite a few Tamil flags, but perhaps because there were so many, they were less conspicuous than the larger and more ominous Union Jacks and St George's crosses, which at first stood out against the sea of red and yellow.

There were men, women, young and old, children, even parents pushing prams...

The whole thing was pretty well orchestrated, with official march coordinators in bright yellow vests (not fluorescent, as that might offend the bobbies) reading 'FREE TAMIL EELAM' on the front and 'STOP Genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka' on the back.

The Sri Lankan government has kept foreign journalists and aid workers out of the war zone, and made a comprehensive effort to ensure that, if the conflict is reported in foreign media at all, only its own side of the story is heard.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, the government has indiscriminately shelled civilian "no-fire" zones. Some investigators did get in, apparently. Read more about it in Arundhati Roy's piece for the Guardian.

Bobbies looking inconspicuous as always.

Back on Trafalgar Square, the current incarnation of the Fourth Plinth, Thomas Schütte's Model for a Hotel 2007 , a 5-m by 4.5 m by 5 m architectural model made of coloured glass. It was originally titled Hotel for the Birds (presumably before the artist got wind of Ken's ban on pigeons in the square).

I did eventually make it to the Picasso exhibition, which was also well organized.

Most refreshing and thought-stimulating were some of the perhaps less well-known or at least less clichéd works, such as the late variations on Velazquez, Monet, Van Gogh, and others.

'Imitation as the source of creativity' - it occurred to me - is only the art historian's clichéd sublimation of Deleuze's far more subversive proposition: that the truly new only ever emerges in repetition. Newness is by definition an effect of repetition, of return, of grasping an 'old' thing from a different angle: which is why only repetition produces the truly singular, and no two grains of sand are ever the 'same', cannot be reduced to the same thing - this one is this one and that one is that one - even if their molecular structure is identical.

Rather than being a return to the classical tradition (as suggested by some of the accompanying material), Picasso's explorations of his later years are only a more explicit way of stating what the underlying message was all along: neither a break with the past nor simply a continuation of it, but an incessant search for the new - the excess of innovation - through more and more radical forms of repetition.

It is not enough to say that if we do not know history, we are doomed to repeat it; or the inverse, 'you can't repeat the past'. Nor is it simply the opposite, the ancient wisdom of repetitio est mater studiorum. Each of these propositions falls short. Much more subversively, one must repeat in order not simply to learn but to transform and overcome the existing. One must repeat, in order to avoid replication: repetition is never repetition of the same. To repeat is always to repeat a problem, a possibility, a fork in the road. No wonder the most original artists and improvisers in any discipline are also the greatest imitators.

Some of Picasso's morbid imagery (cubist or otherwise) throws up a related problem: what Heidegger calls the 'hiddenness' of things. The cut-up and mix of objects and perspectives - the simultaneous presentation of profile and frontal views of faces, the back and front of a torso - is an index of the impossibility of seeing things in their completeness; not a 'cubist' or 'abstract' representation of reality but the marker of a representational void.

A part of things always remains hidden from view; and even the multiplication by a mirror remains only that - a multiplication of two-dimensional perspectives which never merge in a single perspective.

What makes these images morbid is their emphasis on the tension between a three-dimensional space and the impossibility not only of representing it, but of even seeing more than two dimensions; the suggestion being that the world would probably look very different, morbid even, in three dimensions. As Picasso himself put it, "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth."

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