June, 2011 Archives

American bread is like canvas – an essentially incomplete object. It’s light as air; its appearance nondescript, and its flavor, well, nonexistent. It exists only as a complement to something else. For a foreigner, tasting, seeing, or holding American bread is all about experiencing the various things it isn’t – absences. Individual preferences will flavor the absence. I, for example, think that the slice is missing butter and jam – and it may be peanut butter for you. The problem is that this is an art object, and modern art has been making conflicting claims about ordinary objects. One day we are to find wonder in the mundane. Then, wonder is declared pretentious and the ordinary is what it is – trite and ignored. Either way, as an art object, the seemingly incomplete bread is actually complete, and absence of jam or peanut butter is an erroneous projection of our minds. But my vision refuses to cooperate. I want the jam. Jasper Johns once said: “I’ve always considered myself a very literal artist.” Is absence of jam literal enough?

Jasper Johns “Bread”, 1969. Embossed lead relief.


Seeing absence of limbs is always a stark experience, and this image is no exception. But this very quality makes the image non-trivial. On one hand, what we know influences what we see, and this applies to absences. For example, your beliefs about how people ordinarily look activates certain concepts in your mind when you see this image (you see absence of arms). But there is something in your experience that cognition cannot penetrate. The photographer explains, “Peri was getting fed up with the cold, so she put her arms inside her shirt. It was a really great photographic moment, because it was visually confounding. People see the shot and think she doesn’t have any arms.” Eventually, you realize that Peri’s arms are merely hidden. Yet the experience persists: you still see the girl as if she is missing her arms. This shows that seeing absence, like ordinary seeing of objects, can be resilient to what we know or believe. (Contrast this with the image below, where the experience of absence dissolves once you understand what’s going on in the picture.)

Photograph: Amy Stein. Peri on Route 64, outside Lexington, Kentucky.

Route 64