Recently I've become aware of the immense popularity of Joseph Cornell in the US (in the most diverse camps), as well as that direction within conceptual art (especially in the UK) that "addresses" the natural cabinet in order to "pose questions" about the nature of collecting and knowledge. Based on that I am growing eager to make certain distinctions regarding my own boxes, especially with an exhibition coming up. This triggered a discussion about poetic phenomenology of objects in general, and about poetic phenomenology in general, two of the favourite subjects of the Icecrawler, and some initial contributions are therefore cited at some length here.
My boxes investigate a poetic phenomenon and are intended to have a poetic effect or none at all.
Thus, I'd like to emphasise that to begin with, they are not aesthetical object in some utterly narrow sense, intended to please the eye. But they are also not primarily intended to arouse some amazement in a simple sense, as the old natural cabinets and Kunstkammern were; I am not picking the most spectacular or unique objects, there are no artisan skills, I am not aiming to impress.
They also don't have a primarily anecdotal or rhetorical purpose. I do not want (here, I do want that elsewhere) to teach and demonstrate the diversity and its implications through a combination of systematisation, sensory concretion and arousal of amazement mixed with afterthought and speculation. I couldn't care less about the concept of art, and I don't think it is exciting, necessarily productive, or even particularly interesting, to raise questions about game theory, play, collecting and systematics in an artistic framework. In no way do I want to "question" "highlight" "thematise" "address" the fascination before diversity.
Furthermore, it is not primarily about microcosms systematically mapping a personal mythology. And finally, it is not at all anecdotal objects in some sentimental, autobiographical meaning, it is not souvernirs and not diary pages.
However, all these possible aims or functions that I am here fending off, may actually be present in single boxes. But the point is that to the extent that they are, this is because they appear to be orchestrated by the poetic ambition and to orchestrate the poetic phenomenon, nothing else. It is all about an irreducible appropriation of the extended field of possibilities manifested in a poetical constellation of single more or less auratic objects released from utilistic functions including the aesthetical and privately signifying, nothing more, nothing less.
"The interesting things turn up in the last paragraph. This is something I'd like to know more about, even though it's not necessary. But you may very well examplify, the poetic phenomenon surfaces when Tintin blows his nose in the thrown glove falling in a bottle in the whale's stomach. When Maldoror suddenly turns, terrified, etc. /.../ As it now stands I get the impression that the polemics is the point of the text as if you wanted to exhibit the boxes polemically or perhaps are embarrassed by possibly being mixed up with cultural careerists."
"While reading the text I see primarily a negative constructivity emerging, since the poetic effect is in a theoretically self-effacing way connected with as well as relieved from those of its adjacent signifyings and constitutings that surrealism has made itself acquainted with in its historical oppositional role. Riyota may be right that this via negativa feels, from a worldly standpoint, stylistically oppositional and clumsy. But that poetry which we are encouraged to look out for is actually characterised like a negation of the negation in the manner of the mystic, the dialectician or the charlatan. It is not its utilistic forms (including the aesthetical ones) or reifications but also doesn't necessarily exist independently of them, and instead it lives right there exiled in thought or in the "concept" in order for everyone to rediscover in the temporarily actualised field of possibilities?"
"It sounds very interesting /.../ Poetry is the breathing of the soul. It is not about something but out of something. It is like stock which has been boiling for very long, that essence collected at the bottom. One finds poetry in simplicity, silence, nature. /.../ Snails growing out of the body."
An ambitious interpretation
"I think it was clarifying/.../ it addresses a few ways to look at objects or phenomena in the context of an exhibition, to suggest what concerns the present ones rather than judge others. The movement passes through some negative definitions into a positive one, and the text presents several types of signs, or of functions of signs, where the last one is the poetical.
I was most surprised by the distinction between simple amazament and that which concerns the poetic sign. If we try to distinguish the signs through their structure or diagram then both have launch pads for the soul, but that sign which brings "amazement in a simple sense" has a fixed cosmic referent (nature as larger objectively existing reality behind the object, in the relief of which the mystical, religious, terrifying or romantical of the object trickles or pours forth) while the diagram of the poetic sign appears sketched as entirely, and necessarily, separated from the world (the referent, denotation, directness-towards-the-world of interest and intentionality) and the subject (with its collective as well as individual psychology I suppose). The positioning of the poetic sign against the aesthetical I assume tries to separate those emotions or "Gefühl" which are actualised in connection with dimensions of the expression such as hue choice, geometry, brush stroke width, line curvature intensity, lighting, etc etc, dimensions which often cross-pollinate synaesthetically, but I suppose that what MF is trying to say is that it's not about it being a radical separation between those dimensions within the poetic sign, but rather that they are not essential for it. But then there remains two non-signifying and one signifying dimension, the way I see it. First the concepts, which I suppose it is crucial for the poetic sign to have an exchange or linking with (such as the concept of Tintin, the concept of the cigar, etc), and then the purely material intensities of the expression (which if detached from the aesthetical and the signifying becomes void, empty form) and finally, if this dimension isn't already covered by, and incarnating, the aesthetical; the transcendentally symbolic. I reversed the order here but I hope it will be obvious that the presence of the signs in the objects shows that there is a relationship of signifying within it, while the transcendentally symbolic is, just like pure material intensities, elements of the sign which have a positive reality in themselves before they are related to subjects, objects/cosmos, or concepts.
I would like to see some elaborations.
Is that the way the signs of simple amazement are distinguished from your poetic sign through maintaining an essential relationship to the world?
Why fence off the relationship to world and subject but not to concepts?
Does the enjoyment of the poetic sign demand a kind of surrealist epoché in relation to a natural utilistic attitude? An epoché that has to be taught to the spectator for the exhibition to have the intended effect? (As 3d-glasses for a 3d-film)
It seems very nuanced to want to "empty" only certain dimensions of the sign, or characterise different signs as different cheeses characterised only by their distributions of cavities.
Especially in relation to Dogen Zenji or Madrid. The "zen-signs" or "zen-machine" of Dogen had emptiness at the subject's place, emptiness at the object's or the world's place, emptiness at the relation's place, and emptiness at emptiness's place. Now Dogen "empties" places, but keeps the places (which creates a generative void), while MF seems based on his idea to want to remove some places and keep some, empty some and fill some."
"I am initially grateful that you (CA) elaborate on the distinction between simple amazement and poetic. There is a lot in what you say. Simple amazement puts itself in a simple relation to a big, by a certain necessity somehow abstract, generalised magnitude of the background: nature, god, or whatever. It always become something of stage props, somehow homogenised. It is a gothic amazement. And even though reactions are rarely simple, I believe it is somehow characteristic for this amazement that it primarily arouses a passive emotionality which often isn't even emotional: one smiles, puts the thumb up and says "awesome". No, that was not what people did in the natural cabinets. O, I really like these simple movements of emotion too. Because when strong they are also necessarily less simple, will always harbour an uncanny ambivalence, a fascination and fear and longing for the unknown, this immense threshold chafing the arch of the foot. Ok no waterproof shots here either. It may be true that the "poetic sign" is distinguished from that of simple amazement "by maintaining an essential relation to the world" in the sense that all ambivalences, accidentals and particularities are an important part of the whole, mainting its essential amazingness by not resisting being reduced, while this can be contrasted against the essentiality of simple amazement – on the one hand logically risking to empty the world of essence by idealising and rhetorically reducing it to a selected rhetorical function, a "major point", an "essential meaning", but on the other hand also places its faith in the same world as something in principle accessible beyond the speech it gives rise to, an "unio mystica" that isn't integrating the potential directions of its dynamic but instead autotomises them as crimes against the unity.
I also completely agree, and I am grateful for your claiming it, that any polemical edge is a secondary thing; the aim is to relativise all the girders that common rationalisations often get stuck at, and typically wishes to have as fundamental bolts that the whole structure can be reduced to. If I am excused for seeming stuck in architectural metaphors, it is the space that is created which is the raison d'etre of the building, not any of its girders... And in that case I am connecting metonymically to the space created in a box, where the coincidence and the potential interactions of the objects play. And intertextually to another draft I've been circulating, about the concept of "atmosphere", which is also about generating space. The spaces created by the holes in a cheese, it's a little bit like those classical plasticine models of anatomical structures, single organs and entire bodies, like trees of coral, filigree-works making up jungles of petrified worms. The structure is constituted by the possible routes throught it, not by the scaffolding, not by the allegedly structural elements that are actually just scaffolding for the really possible routes...
What type of epoché the appropriation of poetic pleasure demands I also wonder how to understand or describe. Let's continue the discussion."
concretisation in terms of objects
Of course, boxes are an arena for surrealist objects to meet, to play, to develop relationships. The "night at the museum" fantasy lies at base, animated film is one of the nearest responses; what are in fact the chosen objects doing – when relieved of utilitarian purpose, when allowed to develop hidden urges and potentialities, and various relationships to other such objects.
And this is one of the factors that make it important to distinguish between the poetic dynamism of the objects in a surrealist box, and the dynamism of pure marvel of objects in the cabinet framework: in the cabinet it is till the amazing, exotic and impressive purpose or original connections of the object that counts, the objects are still defined by their original framework (still "doing their job") and have not entered the poetic state of vacancy-availability-freedom.
But far worse is of course the framework of conceptual art, where the work is reduced to the very question that spawned it, which it is intended to express, and which therefore makes it completely redundant as a work of art. The objects are here again hired to do a onedimensional work, to stand as mere signs, as preconceived hints of a particular statement.
Though of course both works of pure marvel and conceptual works might have specifically poetic dynamics in spite of the intentions of the artist...
concretisation in art history terms
Surrealists started to investigate boxes in connection with the "object craze" in the mid-30s, when the fetishistic vigilance towards found or odd items were solidly connected with the overall goals of the movement through Hegelian notions of "objectivity" (objective chance, objective humor, found objects etc).
Of course it had an immediate historical precursor in dada and constructivist assemblage as well as "readymades", but significantly further back into popular forms of wonderboxes, from commercial viewing-boxes over classical natural cabinets or kunstkammern to all kinds of fetishistic shrines for ritual purposes.
Now with the new sense given to this activity in surrealism, Joseph Cornell stood out as the foremost surrealist artist specialising in boxes, but important early examples are also to be found in several of the poems-objects of André Breton. Partly very different yet in the same area were Kurt Schwitters' and then Louise Nevelson's sculpture.
Certain artists kept experimenting with boxes through the 40s and 50s, but in the 60s it became more widespread and has in fact been one of the common genres of surrealist art since. Mimi Parent, Robert Guyon, Tom Gutt, Josette Exandier, Peter Wood, Ragnar von Holten, Milan Napravnik, Jan Svankmajer, Gilles Ghez, Dominique Paul, Kathleen Fox, etc...
And of course artists outside an explicit surrealist framework make boxes that are perfectly surrealist in the sense of superordinating their purely poetic content, even in Sweden.
rehabilitation of marvel
There should be no attempt to belittle the importance of the sense of marvel though. It is clearly of one the things that characterise many of the things important in life, and it is a crucial component in art. Yet it alone does not art make.
Marvel, from electrified fascination to highly emotional astonishment, may be a proper basic response to abundance and beauty, and specifically be the appropriate recognition of psychic dynamism that has been great enough to go too far. But in art it will have to be employed by other spiritual agencies to become a specifically poetic vehicle; it will have to abandon massive impressiveness as a trope (which easily become a paradoxically homogenous screen), it will have to assume specific mechanisms of attaching to the most ambiguous and far-reaching aspects of the phenomenology of spirit.
Not the least by focusing on the elusive or even enigmatic little areas emerging, sometimes as surprisingly frozen spots in vast interspaces, sometimes as fine leaks from increasingly ambiguous relationships, leaks eventually forming lattices and streambeds, in both these images specifically creating an arena for unexpected, soft and sweet or jerking as well as awkward gymnastics of the spirit.
As manifestations of beauty or marvel, art (well at least good art) will be enjoyable anytime. As manifestation of poetry it can even contribute to make life worth living and reminding us what to focus on and demand of it. But what can make art actually particularly interesting on the other hand is specifically its capacity as a vast field of the phenomenology of spirit. It can lay bare and will examplify and illuminate specifically these mechanisms through which poetry works its magic.