T.S. Eliot tells us that when a new work of art is created, it affects all works that have come before it. The present transforms our understanding of the past as much as it shapes the future. This dynamic interaction lies at the core of Keren Benbenisty’s _a_a_o_ue. Eliot’s concept implies the existence of a canon that is continuously altered by the introduction of each new element. Benbenisty’s project animates this process, deconstructing several historical moments simultaneously, to form a synchronic and a diachronic view: an object in time and an object over time.
A “historical sense,” to borrow Eliot’s term, a sensitivity to the timeless and of the temporal, enables an artist to intervene in his moment in history. _a_a_o_ue moves representation, even documentation, into the realm of the abstract and the conceptual. Created by removing ink from the pages of a catalogue with an eraser and Scotch tape, the 256 images that comprise Benbenisty’s book appear as if ravaged purely by the effects of time and light. She renders images of familiar objects wholly undecipherable and flattens historical perspective, arresting the trajectory across time and space that the original catalogue delineates.
Disassembled and rebound for the purpose of the work, _a_a_o_ue began as an illustrated catalogue of the porcelain collection of Burghley, one of the great Elizabethan houses in England. The catalogue was compiled in 1986 for an exhibition based on the late seventeenth century inventories of the Collection. In the mid-sixteenth century, William Cecil, a close advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, initiated the design and construction of Burghley House and started the collection presented in the catalogue. In addition to boasting many rare and important works, it is a collection unique in both the survival of its pieces and the survival of its inventory. The Burghley collection constitutes the earliest documentation of Japanese porcelains in Europe and Britain in which one can confidently trace individual pieces that made this transcontinental journey. The photographs of these porcelains, as captured for the Burghley catalogue, serve as certificates of existence for these important ceramic works, which Benbenisty’s act of erasure then subverts. The images of the Burghley porcelains and the accompanying explanatory texts participate in framing a certain perception of the relationship between East and West. Benbenisty’s intervention with the record and analysis of these important wares destroys the catalogue’s attempt to preserve traditional narratives about East and West.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, East Asian porcelains were considered highly prestigious commodities in the West. Successive generations of the Cecil family added to this great collection, attained through means such as diplomatic appointments or travel on the Grand Tour of the Continent. From a contemporary perspective, the porcelains signify the very first points of contact through which oriental aesthetics permeated Western consciousness. While examples of this can be found much earlier, Japanese aesthetics would most famously become influential for many mid-nineteenth-century artists associated with the Impressionist and post-Impressionist circles, such as Monet, Degas, and Whistler. At the time of the Burghley Collection’s inception, Asian wares carried their own complicated history of political upheaval, cultural signification, and imitation that predate their export to the West. Many of the Japanese porcelains were in fact reproductions of Chinese originals, a practice that would later work in reverse as trade policies and aesthetic tastes shifted. As decorative display objects, the pieces in the Burghley Collection are vessels not in a functional sense, but rather symbolically, as repositories of cultural exchange and inspiration.
_a_a_o_ue can be viewed as an archeological project just as the Burghley House catalogue itself was an attempt at unearthing the immense holdings of the private collection, which had been unknown even to its owners for over a century. As we learn from the original catalogue essays, this latest effort to uncover the objects and their significance was aimed largely at correcting the process of forgetting fueled by nineteenth-century social values. Lady Victoria Leatham, beneficiary of the Burghley trust and current curator of its collection, explains that at that time it was thought to be vulgar to care for and be knowledgeable about the things one owned. Over the course of the twentieth century, cataloguing the collection and making accessible for economic reasons as well as for the sake of posterity became desirable once again.
Benbenisty’s technique mimics the laborious process of returning archeological fragments to their original form with one exception: she operates in reverse, carving parts from the whole. Using tape to block out and thus preserve sections of the page, she strips away layers of ink ultimately rendering each photographed object unrecognizable. In some instances, the intricate patterns on the porcelains are retained with almost surgical precision, whereas with others, her erasings create a ghost-like haze, as if the objects were evaporating from the page in real time. Certain pieces are left whole with only their surface wiped away and the background of the photograph virtually untouched. Images of peonies and chrysanthemums found on the characteristic blue and white porcelains of the Chinese Ming dynasty, or traditional Japanese Arita figurines, are reduced to clouded abstractions of shapes and residual pigment. While the visual results of her different approaches to fragmenting and erasing the images are varied, the three-dimensionality of most of the pieces is all but eliminated. Benbenisty therefore inverts the collective cultural efforts typically geared towards the discovery and preservation of remnants of the past. In her book, the artistic search for meaning is found in restoring the whiteness of the photographed porcelains by erasing the ink from the paper. The artist noted that in scratching the surface of the page, it was as if her gesture were guided by a desire to expose a true form underneath. In fact, what she exposes is not the whiteness of the porcelain, but the whiteness of the page: that blank slate on which artistic creation begins.
Benbenisty’s material fragmentation of the objects draws attention to the semiotic ambiguities of photographic representation in the first place. This is a question that consumed such thinkers of the twentieth century, as Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, who are particularly relevant to her work. The photographic element of the original catalogue adds a temporal aspect essential to the conceptual orientation of Benbenisty’s project. Photography’s initial magic as a medium was not simply its indexical quality, but its seeming ability to rescue its subjects from the destructiveness of time. Barthes refers to a defining property of photography as ça a été or that has been: the material evidence of a subject having been present in front of the lens at a certain moment, along with the certainty of its altered present. Still, the objectivity of the representation cannot be assumed; a photographic depiction always frames our perception of the object photographed. Benbenisty likens this to the way in which a map alters our view of the place it represents. A photograph implies an articulation of the past, the present and even the future. In breaking apart the whole porcelain, she suggests its future deterioration in the same way that for Barthes, the photograph simultaneously points to a presence in the past and an absence in the present. Benbenisty has accelerated the process to which the photographs hint. In Barthes’ terms, she shows us both that the porcelains are going to decay and that they already have decayed.
Presence and absence function as constituent materials of Benbenisty’s book not only in relation to images: her practice of fragmentation extends to the interpretative text that accompanies each of the porcelains in the original catalogue. She cuts up and composes poetic expressions from the dense didactic paragraphs that formerly detailed the dimensions, origin, historical context and key thematic subjects of the porcelains. As with the photographed ceramics, she has limited our access to the very knowledge and documentation that the catalogue seeks to preserve. The words and phrases that remain after much has been subtracted, cascade down and across the pages, and range from subtle and delicate to bold, factual or altogether nonsensical. The effect of her edited text recalls the important Symbolist poem by Mallarmé, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance, 1897), which has its verses sprawled across each two page spread in a pattern that seems to trace the random path of thrown dice. The blank spaces formed by the erased words are similar to what Mallarmé imagined as a necessary silence allowing for a measure of control over the movement of his verses. In Benbenisty’s book, the white of the page between the remaining words serves a related purpose of punctuating the rhythm between image and text. In some cases, she has rubbed away entire paragraphs, but the erasure is so slight that the words still seep through the page as if faded from overexposure to the sun. Here, _a_a_o_ue forms a dialogue with another important work within the genre of artists’ books. In homage to Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés, Belgian conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers made his own version of the poem in 1969. Introduced to Mallarmé’s work by the famous Surrealist painter Réné Magritte, Broodthaers famously blacked out every word in the original poem. As with Benbenisty’s erasings, Broodthaers’ black rectangles over Mallarmé’s carefully placed text accentuates the negative space surrounding the words and suggests the idea that meaning is conveyed through both form and language.
The nature of Benbenisty’s engagement with the Burghley collection shatters the timeline of history that the catalogue narrates from a number of isolated vantage points. _a_a_o_ue illuminates the notion that past, present and future are together bound up in what Walter Benjamin calls “cultural treasures.” In his Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), Benjamin contrasts historicism, which ignores the barbarism intrinsic to all cultural treasures, with historical materialism, which sees in every object the long and often veiled continuum of pain and injustice. A devoted collector in his own right, Benjamin identifies a contradictory facet of the collector’s passion as a destructive force that tears an object from its context in order to admire and care for it. With _a_a_o_ue, Benbenisty recognizes the image of the past but distances herself from it by destroying the specificity of the objects depicted. Hannah Arendt elegantly summarizes the perspective of the historical materialist in her introduction to a volume of Benjamin’s collected writings, “This thinking delves into the depths of the past—but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization.” The relation between decay and formation to which Benjamin and Arendt refer are embedded in the process of unbinding, fragmenting, and reassembling that Benbenisty’s book undertakes.
a_a_o_ue provides an alternative way of possessing the porcelains that defies the original catalogue’s attempt to document and preserve. The works within the book take on a new status that Benbenisty refers to as “contemporary relics,” evoking a paradox central to the project in that only time can produce a relic. As such, the artist stands in for time, releasing the images and by extension, the objects they portray from natural decay so as to place them in what she sees as the alternative temporal state of the “contemporary relic.” During the many months it took to complete the work, erasing became a ritualized practice for Benbenisty, and it is not only the book that testifies to this enormous effort. As reproduced in the pages here, we see dozens of glass jars filled with blue erasings that she collected over the course of making the book. While in this case Benbenisty may have obscured a coherent record of the Burghley porcelain collection, she is certainly poised to preserve the record of her own labors.
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A short film about Thornwillow Press made by Ian Sternthal.