The music is repetitive, metronomic, occasionally punctuated by crescendo. It is a piano piece by Philip Glass, in a minor key: haunting, melancholy. The image of the wasp is big, magnified many times. It is disturbing, like something invented to scare. I know I am watching it die because the work at The Fridge Gallery, by Zatorski + Zatorski, is called ‘The Last 3600 Seconds of Wasp’, 2001-04. I don’t know how long it takes before I start to have coherent thoughts.
At first I wonder how far into the 3600 seconds we are, and how much longer I must watch this insect’s death throes. I have probably killed my fair share of wasps, but I don’t think about them actually dying. And I don’t want to watch the whole painful process. The wasp’s legs have stopped waving, and its abdomen is no longer twitching. It must be near the end.
My attention turns to the painted flowers on which it lies. I think of chintz, although this probably isn’t chintz. I think of kitsch, although I may be simplifying. Anyway: facile brushstrokes, heavy colour, cheap printing. These painted flowers embellish the wasp’s death, wrapping it in Sunday afternoon politeness. It’s a showery summer’s day, perhaps before WWII. In my head the piano’s relentless patterns are turning into a parody of emotion, a romantic gush, like something programmed to sadden. I start to feel emotionally manipulated.
The wasp’s legs begin to wave again. In any other context their movements might be described as graceful, but here they are almost comical. I realise I am experiencing this spectacle as if it were an old silent movie in which thought and emotion are crudely described through a limited repertoire of formulaic gestures. The death I am watching is not being documented; it is a theatrical performance, a melodrama. The wasp swoons elegantly, entering a new phase of spasm and writhing. Its abdomen bloats and swells, along with the music, in defiance of death, striped yellow and black as a desperate but empty warning to all. I am tempted to smile at my complicity in this carefully crafted sentimentality. But then a violent twitch in its body produces a jerk in my attention. Beneath the layers of irony, kitsch and editorial cunning, I am watching a creature dying, and feel uneasy again…
You know that this is not a real mad man because he has fangs, like Dracula, so it must be some kind of performance. It’s totally gripping. He is close to the camera that pokes around him, and is so agitated that his febrile movements sometimes push parts of his head beyond the frame. The whole thing takes place in front of an urban gap site, a scene of devastation. It’s a hole. The man’s voice swoops and soars, halfway between singing and talking, growling, barking, and shrieking across octaves. His arms jerk and his hands clench—you just know that he means everything he voices, it’s twisting his melon so bad.
The thing is: it’s impossible to understand a word. Because of all the frantic onscreen activity (a virtuoso performance by singer David Moss), and the nonsensical sounds spilling from his mouth, it’s hard to know if you are watching something ongoing, or a repeated loop. In fact, it is a loop so skillfully edited that you may not notice the join first off. I don’t know how many times I watched this loop—maybe only once or twice—before I thought I caught something. I was sure I heard him say, ‘God save’. Yes, he did. I think he said or sang ‘God Save our…’. He did.
And there was something else, as well. Another time through the loop confirms it: I heard, ‘by the dawn’s early light’. Here’s a possessed madman dispossessed, vampire, endlessly spitting, strangled and mangled words into a non-place, a wasteland. It could be anywhere because really it’s nowhere, just an ugly blank. National anthems. All these careering sounds, it transpires, are fragments wrenched from national anthems, all uttered in tortured versions of their original languages.
This is ‘Trust Me’, 2007, by Adel Abdessemed at The Common Guild. ‘My work’, Abdessemed has said, ‘lives on the border between different languages and identities. When I was a child, they taught me there were different nations and continents. I thought they were just stories. But when I started to travelling, I realised those stories were true.’ And travel he did. Raised in a Berber family in rural Algeria, Abdessemed left the country at 19 after the director of his art school was killed by Islamic fundamentalists. After completing his studies in the Fine Arts National School in Lyon, France, he eventually found himself in New York. But in the aftermath of 9/11 he felt compelled to leave, a victim of indiscriminate hostility and suspicion directed towards all arabs, muslims, and middle easterners.
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
A wasp’s pain? The pains and turmoil of the dispossessed, the persecuted, the exile, the outsider, the deranged? The agony and confusion of others? I know what it is like for me to experience physical and emotional pain, but I don’t know what other people’s pain is really like (let alone a wasp’s). The closest I can come to it is through its external signs and symptoms: falling tears, sobs and howls, winces and grimaces, cries of anguish, physical wounds, twitching limbs, verbal explanations.
Our own pain, as Elaine Scarry observes in her book The Body in Pain, 1987, ‘is “effortlessly” grasped… while for the person outside the sufferer’s body, what is “effortless” is not grasping it’. My pain is precise: that of others is vague and approximate. Pain is thus ‘unsharable’ and ‘at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed’. Pain, Scarry continues, ‘does not simply resist language, but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversal to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language.’ Challenged by pain, representation offers no resistance. It is over-run by cliché (melodrama, sentimentality, formulaic convention), or disintegrates into incoherence and fragmentary babble.
In 2007 Catherine Yass engaged Didier Pasquette, one of the world’s leading high wire artists, to walk a tightrope stretched high above ground between three 60s high rise buildings in Glasgow’s Red Road. The resultant work, ‘High Wire’, comprising six lightbox photographs and four projected films, is exhibited at CCA alongside a resource area containing documentary material relating to post-WWII urban planning in Glasgow.
This resource area has an ambiguous status: is it part of the work or not? It is necessary insofar as it contributes centrally to our understanding of ‘High Wire’s’ fundamental pretext (Modernism’s failure to deliver the promised utopia), and is thus a kind of Derridean supplement, a parergon. ‘The parergon’, Derrida tells us, ‘inscribes something which comes as an extra, exterior to the proper field… but whose transcendent exteriority comes to play, abut onto, brush against, rub, press against the limit itself and intervene in the inside only to the extent that the inside is lacking. It is lacking in something and it is lacking from itself.’ The material provided by the resource area thus allows us to understand Pasquette’s aerial walk as symbolising those hopes and dreams betrayed by history.
At the same time, Pasquette’s feat of skill and daring gains its power over the imagination from the presence of fear. The reality of this fear underwrites the symbolic evocation of freedom, reminding us that it is predicated upon risk. And we are invited to share this fear, if not the risk. The giddy perspectives filmed by the camera attached to Pasquette’s helmet might tempt us to believe that it was us, not him, on the wire. Symbolic and documentary modes are thus at work in the films, but surrounded by the four projected views of this event—bird’s eye, close-up, middle distance, long shot—it is the documentary aspect that ultimately defines the viewer’s experience. Fact dominates fiction; literal overwhelms figurative; fear and awe disable reflection.
In the six lightbox photographs, on the other hand, it is a figurative, associational register that prevails. Black and white negative images, these capture the high rise flats from different distances and angles, destabilising our spatial relation to them, abstracting them from grounded experience.
They are further alienated from literal, everyday experience by the effect of the negative colouration, making them appear hallucinatory and unearthly, or as if caught in the blinding flash of a nuclear explosion. A straight line joining the buildings’ roofs is scratched into each of these images: the high wire. These etched lines seem to belong to a level of representation different from any other offered by ‘High Wire’. They puncture the photographs’ dreamlike illusionism with their brittle sharpness. In disturbing the image they draw attention to its constructedness, and this disruption of illusion has a knock-on effect. One becomes alerted to the means of representation, and thus to the various representational codes mobilised throughout the exhibition as a whole (films, photographs, historical documents).
On reflection these appear incongruous. In each photograph the scratched lines connect the three separate buildings, transforming them into a unit—the visitor to ‘High Wire’ is invited to connect three different classes of information (factual, symbolic, motor sensory) into a coherent semantic unit. But in both cases the lines of connection appear forced, lacking a certain finesse, willfully imposed (literally in one case, figuratively in the other). Metaphorically speaking, the relation between the work’s various semiotic elements is a delicate balancing act. The conditions were too windy on that July day in 2007, and Pasquette was forced to retreat. This ‘failure’ of sorts provided an unanticipated metaphor not only for the work’s internal thematic (the unrealised hopes of the modernist utopian dream), but also, perhaps, for ‘High Wire’ itself.
John Calcutt is a lecturer at Glasgow School of Art