Category: Absence

Is it future, or is it past? Is this the fate of the plate at the end of today, when the customers are gone, and the shop stands empty for the night? Or are we witnesses to the plate’s troubled past? Have new people filled the shop, and has the absence been deleted by a new cycle of eclairs?

Chocolate eclairs cycle, and so does the absence. Desires get quenched and then relaunched with a greater burn. This would all be silly, if this was just chocolate. But it never is just chocolate. Eclairs graduate to something bigger. The absences they bring grow grand and bold, and we see it all through the windshield. After all, we are all just passengers, stranded on a lost highway, chasing after chocolate dreams which never satisfy.

A flash of absence

Every person, every human life, said Lana Wachowski in her HRC Visibility acceptance speech, represents a negotiation between public and private identity: what will be presented to the public, and what will be kept secret.

Every image, similarly, represents a negotiation between presence and absence: what will live in the frame, and what will be left out. The absence manifest below takes skill. It requires a kind of blindness to the world, that, given the way the world is, cannot come for free. In that sense, it is art, and it unflinchingly establishes itself even through the last image. For the surprising presence in the last image is by no means a redemption. Its compensatory function is no more meaningful than that of an Instagram filter. It does not add; it merely decorates what is already there.

What a way to negotiate. Bravo, Delta. Bravo, ad art.

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Delta ONE ad, released 2015.

Sky High absence

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I wonder what Zvyaginstev’s The Return is a return to. The plot is simple: two boys go an adventure with their father. The father comes home after a long absence, makes love to their mother, and takes the boys on a trip. The trip is his return. He comes back to an island, and there is treasure involved. The frame above is what happens after the island. Ivan looks at the ocean and we see him observe his loss. No doubt, a perfectly executed picture of absence. I wonder about the return, though. I wonder if it is actually the boys who return: from one state of absence to another. The ocean image is followed by a less glamorous series of frames, but they are louder than previous formalism. The boys start the car and drive away, and we see car tracks in the sand. We look at the tracks for some time. The tracks lead to an adventure and depart from it – a foreshadowing of an absence and its completion. How Zvyagintsev manages to layer one invisible thing on another, past on future, seems inscrutible to me. He does it though, and the emotions that the overlapping tracks elicit are out of this world. Without this frame, this film is nothing.

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The Return

A Bigger Splash

Here is an absence that has no spectators. The disappearance – the dunk, the splash, o pulo – grabs hold of us, then lets go, freeing our gaze to travel the space around. And it is just that – space. There are vacated surfaces: the chair, the patio area, the diving board. They confirm that there is no one around. But are we underappreciating what’s going on here? Perhaps we should be seeing this instead: here is the chair where the diver sat, here is the patio where he stood or walked, and here is the diving board that held him a second ago – each absence nailing a moment in time, now past. Thank God for Pop Art. Hockney’s painting isn’t a sentimental “remembrance of the things past.” It isn’t about memory or personal identity; we shouldn’t be trying to dig up symbolism in the vacated chair, or read into the contrast between pristine absences in the background and the violent splash. The disappearance nails a moment in time – but it is just that – a disappearance, a dive, and a happy one. Moritz Schlick thought that the meaning of life lies in the act of play, and this dive is a play. This raises a question: is showing play in an absence pop-art enough?

David Hockney. A Bigger Splash. 1967. Acrylic on canvas.

Pop & Splash

This fall, ‘Seeing Absence’ will be inaugurated with a post that is not on seeing absence.

The man in the photograph is about to enter his house, and as you may guess, he is looking for his house keys. But looking is a wrong word. His eyes have nothing to do with what he currently perceives. The absence of keys is perceived not by sight but by touch. Compare this image with Henry Grant’s photograph in the previous post. In Grant’s photograph, we, the viewers, see the absence which the children are not seeing – of images on TV. In the current image, the situation is reverse: we do not perceive the absence which the man in the photograph is perceiving. He feels no keys in his pockets, but we have no corresponding sensation of absence. We only glean the fact of absence from certain cues. But the two images are importantly similar. Grant’s image strips the act of watching from its objects (faces, TV images) in order to reveal watching in itself. This photograph does the same for searching. We don’t know who the man is, and even his hands are not shown – all we know that he is feeling an absence. We can see people hear sounds. We can also see people touch absences.

Man Looking For House Keys; Kunming, China. By TravelPod Member Marjorieandpaul.

Pocketed Absence

You would think that this beautiful young woman is looking directly at us. In fact, Erica is staring at an absence. The black chair in the front is where her father usually sits during family dinners, but Erica has fallen in disfavor and her father is not attending. She is frozen with apprehension and, in a way, she is not really present at the table either. This is the first film frame I have seen that perspectivally establishes an absence so prominently in the foreground. The absence couldn’t possibly get closer to us! The image also establishes Erica’s guilt through her gaze at an absence. Sartre linked absences to anxiety through a long chain of ontological arguments in Being and Nothingness. But we can bypass the ontology here, and stare directly (and anxiously) at the face of absence.

Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (1937). More Hitchcock absences coming soon.

Guilt

I usually resist posting really obvious cases of absences, especially if they concern abandoned buildings, empty space, missing body parts and so on. I think that contemporary art is oversaturated with images of that sort. This Moscow Metro shot by a Romanian photographer Cristian Movila is a bit in that line: stylistically impeccable but too plain in its message (though that may be the intent). However, I think that the picture is brilliant for other reasons. A first glance at the scene will reveal absence of a crowd on the escalator. This should answer the question of how many absences you can see at once – lots! Then, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the empty escalator is supposed to be going down. Does this affect your subsequent experience of absence, that is, do you now see absence of people who are supposed to be going down? My experience remains vague and does not ascribe orientation to this absence. There is only a general sense that the people are missing and I can’t train myself to see this absence more determinately. So why is vision deaf to cognition here?

Oriented Absences

“Physically, it’s not a very demanding job. The only thing that can get a bit trying up here during the winter is, uh, a tremendous sense of isolation.” We (together with Wendy) witness the product of Jack’s isolation – a pivotal point in Kubrick’s The Shining, when Wendy becomes convinced that her husband has gone insane. Picking up a baseball bat, she wanders into the large hall in the Overlook Hotel and finds Jack’s manuscript. She flips through hundreds of pages he has typed over the winter, only to discover absence of any coherent text. Interestingly, Wendy did not have specific expectations about the novel: she knew nothing about Jacks’ work and so was not imagining particular words or a plot. This shows that we often see absences without having concrete expectations (or detailed visualizations) of the things we are looking for. In this case, all Wendy expects is a kind of a meaningful variation in the text. Instead, she sees a horrifying absence.

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I always thought that puppeteers are supposed to be (or at least aim to be) invisible during the performance. Even though you may see their arms, or get a glimpse of their feet, they stay largely hidden behind the screen. They are out of sight in order to be out of mind. When I saw this picture, I was taken by surprise. My friend Vida, who is Chinese-Canadian, said that Chinese puppeteers are usually very obvious. She said that there isn’t the attempt to hide them like there is in some kinds of western puppeteering, so, “you just ignore them and it’s no big deal if you see them by accident.” This image is of Bunraku, Japanese puppet performance. While these puppeteers are noticeable, the guy on the right is less so. So, when I first glanced at the picture, I immediately saw absence of his face. Why is he nearly invisible? It turns out that visibility (i.e., exposing the face) is a form of honor to the skill of Master puppeteers, whose character is major in a play. Invisibility here is both literal and metaphorical. Absence is an indicator of insignificance.

Insignificant face

In ordinary life, virtually all objects we encounter are occluded. For example, I am in a cafe now and not a single chair I am observing is in full view. Moreover, a lot of large objects are cut off by my visual field. None of this, however, is particularly attention-grabbing. In art, occlusion and what is outside the field of view is confrontational, loaded with meaning. Sometimes, abrupt cut offs direct our eyes to what is in the field of view – what is truly salient. Sometimes, they offer an analysis of what is not seen, endorsing the invisible.

This picture does both. Much of Roy DeCarava’s work was driven by his sense of injustice that the black Americans “should go through life unseen.” However, his way of making them seen was not relying on references to stigma or trauma. He wanted to show “a life force that each of us has, a will to live and a will to be here.” Paradoxically, by letting the edge of the frame cut off human parts (bodies, heads) in this picture, DeCarava made that life force and humanity most visible.

PS The empirical prediction here is that most people will report seeing absence of the baby’s head and not absence of the body of the person who is holding the baby.

Bill and Son