Cosmic Images and Inner Realities: P. Seth Thompson’s “The Last One”

December 26, 2013 · Print This Article

Images: An Abridged History

This past semester I taught an undergraduate class at Emory University titled “Visual Studies: The Image.” Some of the questions the course focused on were: what is an image? what does it mean to make an image? how should we look at images? what do these images do to the way we think about the world? In a world saturated with images, I thought it important to encourage students to consider the long and complicated history of the image.

Just a few broad strokes to contextualize, a brief, abridged, and very limited history, a few mile markers:

5th century BC: Zeuxis and Parhassius engage in a painting contest. Zeuxis painted a scene of grapes. Birds, attempting to feed on them, flew into and pecked at the painting. Next up was Parhassius. Zeuxis demanded to see the painting that was hidden behind a curtain, but Parhassius revealed that the painting was in fact the curtain.  Parhassius wins: his painting of a curtain fooled Zeuxis, a fellow artist, while Zeuxis’ painting of grapes only fooled the birds. [1]

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Book XII of his Republic tells a story of prisoners who are trapped in a cave and have only known a play of shadows on the cave wall, created by puppets backlit by the cave fire. These shadows are their only reality. In the event that one of the prisoners leaves the cave, his eyes, blinded by the sun’s light, can’t deal with actual reality. He chooses to go back to the cave unless he is encouraged to remain outside of its depths. However, in Plato’s Timaeus, the origins of the cosmos is attributed to its being the image of the eternal paradigm; this is a materialization that is divine. [2]

Sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions describe the function of the image. We find that man is made in God’s image, but we should not worship false images, idols. Fast forward to 8th and 9th century Byzantium and the clashes over the status of the icon; a debate that finds its roots in Greek philosophy along with Christian theology. The image is either sacred, or it is false and should be destroyed. [3]

Then, consider the birth of photography in the 19th century and the rise of cinematic propaganda. Now, reality television, Instagram, and the space program. Or, “Charlie Rules the World”: Episode 8, Season 8 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – the Gang gets sucked into an online game and their distinctions between reality and fantasy, actuality and virtuality, blur.

 

Outer Space and the Domestic Television

Atlanta-based artist P. Seth Thompson’s show The Last One, which closes on December 30, 2013 at {Poem 88} in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood, presents the viewer with the artist’s confrontations between reality and image, truth and fiction. Using science fiction as the portal, Thompson shows us the strange and close encounters we have with the images that in/form us.

The center piece of the show, the video An Event Cannot Have An End Time in the Past, is an exercise in memory, news media, scientific teleology, and disaster. Made using primarily the artist’s childhood home movies, the video’s layers reveal a space-scape that fill in the contours of the family’s bodies on screen. In an abrupt ending, we witness the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion; its footage become home movie, entering the family’s domestic space on a screen that serves as the centerpiece for a living room. The sound, composed by Jon Ciliberto, takes the viewer on an ambient journey up to a transformative climax. As I finish this article, the TV program “How the Universe Works” on the Science Channel plays in the background at my friend’s mother’s home. I am here for Christmas. The lights of the Christmas tree bounce off the digitally rendered stardust and animated theaters of comet crashes, planetary orbits, and blackhole consumption. The TV viewer is informed of the Earth’s pending catastrophe; the Earth occupies a precarious position in the universe that is always on the precipice of doom.

P. Seth Thompson. "An Event Cannot Have an End Time in the Past." 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “An Event Cannot Have an End Time in the Past.” 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Thompson’s statement accompanying the show claims that he is “co-opt[ing] and challeng[ing] the images to underscore our complicity in the suspension of belief in the digital era.” [4] What is the “challenge” he is posing to images? What does the rhetoric of challenge mean in the context of the Challenger’s explosion? What has our fascination with images of space done for our understanding of our position in the world? The American space program, more rigorously tended to after the launch of the Soviet’s Sputnik, serves as an entryway into the ways in which images – both physical and mental – inform policy and American everyday life. In America’s determination to win the space race during the Cold War, where two major nations became images of themselves, what gets covered over? How do these images of space and nation converge to influence everyday realities?

Thompson’s addition of his photograph Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass, points further to American policy and its way of navigating science. Bohr, a Danish physicist who received a Nobel Prize for his contributions to the research on the structure of atoms and quantum mechanics, was also involved with the Manhattan Project, the project that developed the atomic bomb during the Second World War. Not only is Bohr an interesting figure to include here, an important scientist and public presence, but it is also his theories of light – that is, the discovery that light behaves as both a particle and a wave – that are important to the show. Light, the essential factor in the production of photographs, is itself unstable.

P. Seth Thompson. "Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass." 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass.” 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Reality’s Virtuality

Thompson states that “all we have is the world we create in our head, and if that’s not reality, then nothing is reality. We are left in a world of our own making and that is perfectly fine with me.” [5] Part of this statement may be a re-investment in the simulacrum, a concept made famously negative by Baudrillard [6]; a re-investment that I think needs to be seriously considered. In its Latin origins, the term “simulacrum” means merely similarity or likeness. This likeness, however, evolved to describe a likeness that is inferior, without substance. It is a likeness that does not have a model to fashion itself after. This substance-less image has the potential to open imaginative space, but in terms of a reality that only exists in our heads, I hesitate to fully jump into this spaceship. What does it mean to claim that all we have is what’s in our head? Going back further in time, is this a reclamation of philosopher René Descartes’ doubting of all things?

Descartes’ project, which was an attempt to discover the truly certain, rejected sensory experience because of its capability to deceive; the only certainty we have exists in the mind. This rejection of the corporeal led him, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, to reject physics (important to the premise of this particular exhibition), since it is a science based on corporeal nature; he turned instead to geometry. [7] Descartes’ dismissal of the body and the sensorial serves as the starting point for its own deconstruction in the project of phenomenology. For Edmund Husserl, the appearance is all we have and we must bracket out any notions of an underlying reality of the object. These appearances, taken as phenomenon, are images experienced in perception. They are both there for me as existing in my perception, but they also transcend my perception and are apart from me. These images can’t merely exist in my head; they have to have their own sort of actuality. [8]

 

Disintegrating Images

As I’ve mentioned above and in a previous article, [9] the image has been historically regarded as a dangerous falsity. It is not only not truth, but it is a danger to truth itself; it is only a shadow on the wall. Chris Marker’s short film that uses text from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave shows the potential danger of our fascination with cinema, a stance that Walter Benjamin writes of in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” [10] Benjamin describes the way in which the film actor, in acting for the camera, uses “his whole living person, yet forgo[es] his aura” (229). This “self-alienation” opens the door for Fascism to render politics as an aesthetics (242).

Thompson’s layering and pixelation of the cinematic image exhibits a gesture of disintegration, not necessarily incorporation. What is the image disintegrating/dissolving into? Our collective imaginary? His photograph The Spaceman’s Disappearing Act, presents the viewer with an almost illegible image when viewed up close. However, when viewed from the side, the image reveals a person clad in a spacesuit. It is only from an oblique view that the spaceman reveals himself. In the Lacanian sense of anamorphosis, the viewer gazes upon the distorted image which conceals the Real and thus recognizes herself as the annihilated subject; she can’t be the privileged center. [11] She becomes aware of how she is seeing and therefore aware that she can be seen from such an angle. She is an image that can be perceived.

P. Seth Thompson. "The Spaceman's Disappearing Act." 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “The Spaceman’s Disappearing Act.” 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Outer Space, as the final frontier, serves as an extreme example of our fantasies. However, more “mundane” images fill in our memories and bodies. As I wrote about in a previous article, [12] Jill Frank’s photographs, comprising her series Romance, approach similar issues Thompson addresses, of the ways in which cinema inhabits our everyday lives. However, what we find in Frank’s work is the bodily mimicry of the viewed. The cinematic image, not registered itself on film, is instead registered through the bodies of the photographed subjects. The image has been acted out, performed, incorporated into everyday bodies.

The Last One offers actual and virtual disaster with sentimentality. Thompson references the hero’s journey, a theory proposed by Joseph Campbell that organizes quintessential heroic journey stories into a definitive structure. The structure, formulated for the traveling male, is a formalization of the relationship between constructed narrative, everyday life, and mythology. This constructed narrative enables the space program and therefore constituted the situation in which the Challenger catastrophe, witnessed through the media, could occur. What happens when disaster is sentimentalized in the domestic sphere? The images in The Last One may occupy an oppositional pole to Warhol’s works on disaster, car crashes, and American violence. Warhol shows the viewer news media coverage of American disasters without sentimentality. They are cold and alienating. In a sense, Thompson’s works invite the viewer to engage with them in a way that bring her into the narrative fold. However, the danger here is that she can get too comfortable. The question becomes: in our everyday lives lived in the midst of disaster and violence, how do we navigate these images surrounding us in a way that simultaneously connects to and disengages from them?

 

Notes:

[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 35, Chapter 36

[2] Plato, Republic; and Plato, Timaeus 

[3] See for example, Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, translated by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000); Gerhart B. Ladner, “The Concept of the Image in the Greek Fathers and the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 7 (1953): 1 – 34; and Marie-José Mondzain, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary, translated by Rico Franses (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[4] Statement for The Last One, http://www.poem88.net/p_seth_thompson_slide-2013.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

[7] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy [1641], translated by Donald Cress, in Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, edited by Roger Ariew (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2000): 97 – 141.

[8] Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology [1931], translated by Dorion Cairns (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999).

[8] Meredith Kooi, “James Turrell’s Cave and the Unveiling Truth,” Bad at Sports (October 24, 2013), http://badatsports.com/2013/james-turrells-cave-and-the-unveiling-truth/.

[9] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1977): 217 – 252.

[10] Jacques Lacan, “Anamorphosis,” in The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Vol. XI, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998): 79 – 90.

[11] Meredith Kooi, “The ‘Celluloid Self’ and Spaces of Feminine Performativity,” Bad at Sports (Sept 26, 2013), http://badatsports.com/2013/the-celluloid-self-and-spaces-of-feminine-performativity/.

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