impure images: On Leslie Thornton’s The Great Invisible (2002 – ongoing)

Pujan Karambeigi for warehouse

Online from September 26th to October 10th on warehouse

If there is one great fear, or should we say anxiety, problem, antipode, Benjamin has in his seminal text Theses on the Philosophy of History, it is freezing the flow of time. Designated as the monumental history of “conformism,” this freezing implicates for Benjamin the accumulation of fixed coordinates on a given time-axis – what one ultimately may understand as a canon: A view of the past that is radically autonomous from the very perspective of the historian (read: The 100 Most Important Art Works of the 19th Century).

His proposal is an attempt to radically intermingle the past with the present: “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again” (Benjamin, Walter. Theses on the Philosophy of History. In Illuminations, ed. H. Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 2007, pp. 253-264, p. 255.). How could such a ‘flashing image’ look like? What kind of practice would it involve? And wouldn’t it have to constantly change, or become unintelligible, as every present moment would have its own image(s) of the past?

Leslie Thornton, The Great Invisible, 2002-ongoing, Film Still, Courtesy: The Artist

We follow the camera, at once too close, too shaky, too dark. VHS footage filmed with a 35 mm camera. Or rather, the washed-out mixing with the granular: An impure image. We see a forest, a little creek, a long-bearded man speaking to a red-haired woman. It is Isabelle Eberhardt speaking to her father, Alexandre Trophimowsky, a former Orthodox priest who turned to anarchism. We are witnessing a dialogue between Eberhardt and her patriarchal father shortly before she leaves Geneva for Algeria. It is the moment before she sets out to become the legendary adventurer/writer/explorer, before she fled to Algier, dressed as a man, converting to the Qadiriyya, a Sufi order of Islam. It is 1897.

Leslie Thornton, The Great Invisible, 2002-ongoing, Film Still, Courtesy: The Artist

The dialogue is staged as a silent film: We see them speaking but we cannot hear them. Instead we listen to a dramatic, even ‘exotic’ score while the images are being interrupted by intertitles, documentary footage of the French legion in Algeria, and a short Black and White scene where a woman runs vested only with a silken scarf through the woods. The dialogue itself is a re-enactment of how the dialogue could have looked like if there would have been a movie on Isabelle Eberhardt in the beginning of the 20th century.

However, as much as no such movie has ever existed, the forest the shooting takes place is in Upstate New York. Someone with a VHS camera looking at something that could have been represented in 35 mm. Or rather, Leslie Thornton chose to re-enact a representation that has never existed, explicitly shot in a location Isabelle Eberhardt has never seen. By mounting original footage of the French Legion in Algeria into this VHS scene, Thornton stages not only a dialogue that took place between Eberhardt and the socio-political situation of colonization. Moreover, she exhibits the very situation of herself looking from a specific spatio-temporal position, Upstate New York in the beginning of the 21st century.

In making her own positionality in time reflexive, both through her radical combination of different media and her dramatized re-enactments, Leslie Thornton creates a ‘flashing image’ of the past – or what we could call an impure image, its texture consisting simultaneously of the present and the past. There is one question that remains: If we watch The Great Invisible as one specific present looking at one of his pasts – Thornton relating her post-9/11 present to the histories of colonization – how may we relate to Thornton’s impure images today? And, most importantly, don’t we have to radically multiply? Every past has its own pasts, presents and futures.

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warehouse started off in June of this year, conducting an ethnographic study into technologies of distribution. Intended as a platform, it exhibits a multiplicity of artistic and theoretical practices engaging the peculiar era we are living in. Beyond mere criticism or affirmation, it offers a structure to consider the modes of observation while collecting its reflections and channeling them online. warehouse is a project that blends art and theory as discursive investigation of the array of platforms colonizing our everyday – which cannot be done by simple ponderings from outside, but only by entering the everyday to describe it, perhaps in a different way than we are used to?

 


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