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Ansuya Blom: Beyond the Individual

Ian Hunt

In: Touch on a hard surface, 2009

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Ansuya Blom's recent work develops her longstanding exploration of writing, which she has always incorporated within flexible modes and practices that explore voice, closeness, distance and touch. An early publication by the artist, War Songs (1984), used photographs, drawing and script – from Native American poems, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and others. These drawings and the accompanying writing, which floats free of attribution to authors, allow us to experience the social and racial conflicts evident in the photographs with the help of a voice that is intimate and reflective but also shot through with disquieting commands: 'Clear the way'; 'Put your feet down with pollen.' Stuart Morgan wrote of this: 'The principle is palimpsest not montage: instead of experiencing jarring contrasts between fragments, as so many modernist texts demand, the reader is free to make connections or appreciate tensions between images and voices . . .' 1

Newer work of Blom's shows a stronger leaning towards systematic procedures than before. I will principally investigate the procedures she adopts in relation to writing, and will explore visual factors that affect how we perceive and understand the written words. The three authors who feature in recent works are Ezra Pound, a modernist of jarringly contrasted fragments; Robert Walser, the tremulous and wonderfully funny author of short stories and monologues that are fragmentary in a different way, as though never claiming a mastery of experience; and Kierkegaard, a philosopher who did philosophy in different voices. Blom's approach to the authors and to the place of writing in her work has shifted from the method of the palimpsest to something more strongly organised.

Pound is represented by a letter from his period of madness, transcribed; and by large collages titled after a phrase from that letter, Absolute Anonyme. These works are the most consistent with Blom's previous strategy in their use of allusion, and a bringing together, within the act of drawing, of incommensurable modes and viewing positions. Their sense of body is unusually transparent, almost weightless. They present an overall ground of photocopied images of internal organs, a layer of coloured drawn strands that resemble insect or arachnid legs, separated (like those internal organs) from connection to an obvious bodily organisation, and views through to a drawn house and a drawn single bed in a cell-like room. Pound is present here as a legend, a troubling biographical rumour; a canonical aesthetic originator in a moment of breakdown. Shortly after his imprisonment and a period in a mental hospital, he wrote: 'Can you be interested in the work of a man who is blind to 80 per cent of the visible spectrum? to 30 per cent of the spectrum? Here the answer is, curiously enough, yes IF . . . if his perceptions are hypernormal in any part of the spectrum he can be of very great use as a writer – though perhaps not of great "weight"'.2

The series The Walk explores lightness, and a relation between drawing and script, in a more consistent way. It is a transcription of a Walser story in white gouache pen over photographically derived images of blurring dots, which form a shifting ground to support the script. These spots before the eyes are like the sunspots and flares seen in negative in a related film by Blom, Nervous, which uses a short monologue by Walser as its soundtrack. But in The Walk, while the photographic origin is clear, the image seems to exist in a shallow space, sometimes curved, beyond which is a blank. The words hover in clouds a shallow distance above the dark patches, which appear as their shadows. Script conglomerates and consolidates in small clumps, like particles held on the surface tension of water. The story, which concerns moments of breakdown, retains its original sequence and follows the law of left to right progression, is turned into something to be looked at or marvelled at. Walser's handwriting and microscripts were themselves very curious; his later writing after his own mental breakdown was not securely defined for him by the act of publication, and is still being deciphered. There is therefore some justification for thinking about his work's relation to script. But the weightlessness here, and the sense of touch that nevertheless fails fully to help us consistently grasp what the writing is saying, need not be considered in relation to Walser. In conversation with Stuart Morgan in 1999, Blom summed up what was important to her work as 'touching and words, maybe'.3 She also refers to Agnes Martin and Hanne Darboven, artists who use systematic procedures that nevertheless retain touch as a minimum requirement: the ruled line of a pencil, the cursiveness of handwriting. In The Walk the sense of 'touching' words coexists with a somewhat chilly, photographic and digitally rendered space, within which a disembodied eye or a camera lens is struggling to focus. The intimacy of address that Blom's work adopts has been recognised and celebrated over a long period, but in more recent years series such as The Walk and House of the Invertebrates (2001, drawn over negative images of an empty corridor) represent a shift to an aesthetic that allows us to measure warmth and intimacy against a surrounding drop in temperature.

The third writer addressed by Blom's recent works is Kierkegaard. Her The Concept of Anxiety (2008) is the revised text of his book The Concept of Anxiety (1844). It is a systematic work, but the method is quite unlike that of transcription, as used in The Walk. She displays a provocative antagonism to the philosopher's words: the entire printed text of Kierkegaard's book, arranged around two walls, has been edited by ants. The ants have cooperated on enforcing a distinct editorial policy: the words anxiety, guilt and sin, which occur with some regularity, have been covered up. This is 'touching and words' of a quite different kind. At the visual level, as in other works by the artist, there is a sense of incommensurate layers, which here appear as different levels of magnification. This is drawing made in a culture where picturing is predominantly defined by the mechanical eye of the lens; painting, in contrast, can define space by touch in relation to the human body and eye. The Concept of Anxiety presents an ensemble of drawn pages as tesserae, tangible units, while not allowing us a standard viewing distance from them. It confounds the wish to read (examine up close) and to organise what we see from a distance, and in this exploits a tension familiar in much abstract painting. But why has the text been subjected to 'disarmament' of this kind by successful social insects? To consider why, it may be necessary to read the book.          

Excursion into anxiety

There is an exchange in Theodor Dreyer's wonderful film Ordet about a troubled ex-theology student who thinks he is Jesus. 'Was it love?' 'No, Kierkegaard,' comes the reply. Reading Kierkegaard really can make a person very anxious, giddy and also annoyed, sometimes crazily so. Anxiety, in Kierkegaard's thinking, is a word that does not stay still: it is a 'qualitative leap'. His writing is pseudonymous and frequently facetious, which creates a special interpretative anxiety of its own. One struggles to grasp the movement of his thought, because the meaning resides to a worrying degree in the tone of the writing. The Concept of Anxiety has a subtitle: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. The name on the title page is Vigilius Haufniensis, 'Watchman of Copenhagen'. The book that follows is, of course, not simple and not content to rest within psychology.

To give an abbreviated account of its premise – for one has to start somewhere – anxiety, as a 'qualitative leap', operates in a gap in spiritual life, a gap given by law. (It is this exploration of freedom within the law, not against it, that brings some philosophers, for example Gillian Rose in The Broken Middle, back to Kierkegaard.) Anxiety is not simply a mental phenomenon, imagined or projected. It has a positive place in spiritual and ethical development ('the more profound the anxiety, the more profound the culture') and is even portrayed as 'dancing'. Paradoxically, anxiety is also that which gives rise to sin – not the other way round. This reversal of the expected order of events can give even non-Christian readers something to think about.

Kierkegaard's account of anxiety's unequal distribution between the sexes, which cannot be gone into here, is also provoking. The very term anxiety starts to fracture under the different issues, dogmatic and social, by which it is pulled, which is part of his philosophical strategy. Anxiety is multiplied into many reflections: as anxiety about evil, as anxiety about good, and in relation to what Kierkegaard names as 'the demonic'. The Concept of Anxiety does not let us rest with our familiar understandings. We are accustomed, following Freud, to define anxiety as an aspect of debilitating neurosis, and it is exciting to be reacquainted with the fact that those modern meanings were made; though for us they are, as it were, given. For Kierkegaard conscious anxiety (about evil and sin) is not so terrible as what he calls 'inclosing reserve', which comes from 'anxiety about the good'. This form of anxiety in his descriptions is perhaps closer to what we understand, in our crude modern way, as unconscious, unacknowledged anxiety: 'Thus, while the life of an individuality goes on to a certain degree in continuity with the rest of human life, inclosing reserve maintains itself in the person as an abracadabra of continuity that communicates only with itself . . . '.4 This is a nightmare of magically maintained non-relation with others: 'inclosing reserve' can communicate only by betraying itself in sudden and uncontrolled displays, acting out. ‘In common speech there is a very suggestive expression. It is said of a person, "He will not come out with it." Inclosing reserve is precisely muteness. Language, the word, is precisely what saves the individual from the empty abstraction of inclosing reserve.’

Kierkegaard's account of the dramas enacted by inclosing reserve is psychologically compelling. We can recognize the modern, Freudian understanding of anxiety and the operations of the unconscious, together with salvation (or 'cure') by speech and language. Kierkegaard's stress on the development of inwardness, which is distinguished from 'inclosing reserve', suggests by comparison a more attractive version of individuality. What's wrong with this picture? Like many readers, I want to tidy up Kierkegaard as I read: understand his thought in whatever secular or psychological scheme I can apply to it. I know as I do this that I am misreading; there are many sly attacks on the reader's wish to systematise within the book itself. But to ignore them, and make the attempt: Kierkegaard's over-arching emphasis on individuality forms part of a philosophically as well as psychologically problematic scenario. It also reveals the paucity of what his critique of the transcendental subject of idealist philosophy has left him with: a 'self-relating self'. According to Simon Jarvis, 'The insistence on the subject's irreducible subjectivity is intended to replace what Kierkegaard regards as the abstract subject of idealism, which nowhere exists, with a concrete and irreducible individual. But Adorno argues that its real effect in Kierkegaard's own work is to reduce the subject to "an empty and blind x" which is in the event more abstract than the transcendental subject itself'.5 In the determined attempt to circumvent abstraction by means of individuality, another kind of abstraction enters. Individuality – by which so much store is set – is rendered contentless.

This is not a straightforward philosophical mistake that could simply be rectified, but is itself a drama, and one that has historical and social as well as psychological content. The bourgeois individual who is isolated not just from others but from the knowledge of that which isolates him was (and is) correct to feel anxious: others without his leisure hours for drama were (and are) out to get him, if only to get him to understand for the first time what his advantages in life are. In other words, there are real social reasons for the anxiety Kierkegaard confronts.

Looking at how Kierkegaard was actually received by 20th-century thinkers – as a prototype existentialist – shows how vulnerable his complex drama of individuality is both to being secularised and to being seen as unconcerned with the social. Many aspects of his thought were readily absorbed into a modern philosophy which failed to challenge bourgeois assumptions about the pre-eminence of the individual – so exciting did the individual drama of freedom appear. Intersubjectivity was left on the shelf as a secondary issue.

All this has implications for art. Art as an institution still maintains and feeds on individuality. The artist's studio itself can have an annoyingly existential separation from normal social life. I am not suggesting that it is possible or desirable to eradicate individuality; but we could certainly do with more help to grasp what is implicitly social about great individual achievements, in art or elsewhere.

To recap:
  1. It is genuinely exciting and surprising to encounter understandings of anxiety that are not those sedimented ones of our culture, which we derive primarily from Freud.
  2. According to Kierkegaard, anxiety precedes sin. Whatever you think those words mean, this might be a useful way of looking at things.
  3. The emphasis on individuality, and the adjacent but distinct concept of individualism, really are problems, in Kierkegaard's philosophy and in our culture now, and not 'problems' that we can simply eliminate.

Consider the ant

The stage is now finally set for a reconsideration of Ansuya Blom's revisionist, iconoclastic version of The Concept of Anxiety. Blom's animus against the book is also evidence of strong interest in it; her acts of iconoclasm draw attention to symbols that cannot actually be destroyed: 'sin', 'guilt', 'anxiety'. This iconoclasm is enacted by ants – which are devices, representatives, like Kierkegaard's pseudonyms. Ants are a superb choice as the nominated copy editors of a book which both explores and enacts deep problems of individuality in our culture. The notion of individual life has no meaning for ants; as Blom explains, 'as soon as you see one, you know there must be others'. They play a part in this work in symbolising a mode of life that is all intersubjectivity, all cooperation. This vision of intersubjective life, a life that is all external, would be, if one could imagine it, another kind of nightmare, just as the life of the self-relating self would be. But it offers us a good device to think with. The antagonism between inwardness, individuality and society cannot be 'solved'; it runs right through political life. Art and thinking which deliberately set out that antagonism, rather than unconsciously inhabiting it, provide a good place to start.

1 Stuart Morgan, 'Ansuya Blom: The Secret Life of Belly and Bone', in What the Butler Saw ed. Ian Hunt, Durian, 1996, p.218.
2 Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, Faber, 1951, p.82.
3 Ansuya Blom, Let me see, if this be real, NAI, 1999, p.27.
4 The Concept of Anxiety, tr. R. Thomte & A. Andersen, Princeton, 1980, p.130.
5 Simon Jarvis, Adorno, Polity, 1998, p.195.
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