We've never been so spoilt for images as we are now online, but what becomes of "older, more artisanal images" in such a context? The art of painting, for one, already ceded some of its power when photography was invented; what more now in the present era? Surely painterly images retain a special force, if only for those who remain open to them, and who haven't become aesthetically anaesthetised by our excessively visual culture. Can scrolling through an Instagram feed compare with strolling through an art gallery? Can the cheapened digital images available at a swipe or click be any kind of substitute for directly experiencing an artwork offline and in the flesh?
Coming face-to-face with the works of Wassily Kandinsky at the Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow was a landmark aesthetic experience for me, as was my visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Then there was Giorgio de Chirico's The uncertainty of the poet (1913) - my chosen focus for this post if only as a portal into existential conundrums of likely concern to anyone with a heartbeat. William Blake saw "a world in a grain of sand"; I suggest we can see the world in de Chirico's bananas.
The poetry of uncertainty
I first encountered The uncertainty of the poet at the Tate Modern in London almost ten years ago. There, it was presented as one of the first works of an exhibition on Surrealism, given that de Chirico was an early influence on its development. The Surrealists saw in the work an almost dreamlike setting: the overcast sky, the distorted shadows, the vacant building and peopleless public plaza. The train and industry in the background notwithstanding, one senses a strange kind of silence in all this - not a serene silence, but a pregnant, ominous one. A disquieting quietness shall we say. In 1913, when the work was painted, the full effects of the Industrial Revolution were being felt and the First World War was on the cusp of breaking out. Furthermore, in de Chirico's native Italy, the Far Right was on the rise and Mussolini would soon come to power. The resonances with the present era need hardly be mentioned.
Into this setting, de Chirico plonks a plaster sculpture and a bunch of bananas side-by-side, raising questions around durability and perishability; permanence and impermanence. The work also had me thinking about biological life. We see life represented in the bananas , but in the sculpture, we see only a representation of a representation of life: paint representing plaster representing a human being. The sculpture is one step further away from life, but much more in keeping with its surrounds. It's the bananas that seem out of place. What have we become when the civilisation that we've created makes nature a stranger?
Reading Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry some years later, I was intrigued with the scene in which bananas were being introduced into London for the very first time. An incredulous crowd had gathered on the banks of the Thames, marvelling at the wonky wonders from across the oceans and highly amused by their sexual appearance. It's hard to imagine now, but bananas were once strangers to most of us. They may become so again, with the commercial Cavendish variety anticipated to go extinct in the very near future. Since Cavendishes everywhere are genetic clones of each other, the world's Cavendish monoculture has been left extremely vulnerable to a single malign fungus.
Coincidentally, the Thames riverbank in London is precisely where the Tate Modern is located - the place where I saw and experienced The uncertainty of the poet for the first time. What a pleasant surprise it was to again encounter the painting just the other week - this time on the other side of the world in Sydney, Australia (specifically, at an exhibition entitled Nude, which I blogged about earlier here). I had never forgotten the work or its themes of im/permanence, nature/culture and life/death, ever-open and unresolvable like koans. Some old thoughts and feelings bubbled up, along with some new ones.
For starters, I found myself newly intrigued by the painting's title: Who was the poet and what was s/he uncertain about? Is it that poets and artists vacillate between striving for the eternal (symbolised by the sculpture) and synchronising with nature's flux (symbolised by the bananas)? Are we for abstraction or for life, right here and now, messy and ephemeral though it is?
Not that there's ever such a thing as a single, correct interpretation of a work of art. An artwork's power lies, not in any supposed "hidden meaning", but in its generativity: the sensations, feelings, thoughts and connections it sparks in its audience. It isn't an object to be decoded, but simply to be experienced as one experiences it, as with a piece of music. This work by de Chirico has become like a favourite song that I keep coming back to, with a range of personal meanings that I'll continue trying to elucidate here.
A matter of life and death
In the Enlightenment humanist tradition, nature is considered as the timeless, passive backdrop "against which the cultural elaborates itself". In this painting however, it's "civilisation" that forms the backdrop and nature that's brought to the fore. And if anything is atemporal in this image, it's certainly not the bananas. The fruits introduce life into the work, but at the same time, the black marks appearing on their skin indicate that they're past ripe and already on the way to a death of sorts. We are reminded, in the words of process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, that "there is no nature apart from transition".
All that lives must eventually die, which is a fact of life that the human species has gone extraordinary lengths to avoid, whether through religious notions of the afterlife, scientific research into the key to immortality, or artistic aspirations to the eternal. In contrast to the bananas, the sculpture in the painting speaks to the human species' abiding preoccupation with freezing time, so to speak, and capturing something permanent out of life's incessant flux. In seeking the eternal and refusing to accept the reality of impermanence, is it not culture rather than nature that's outside time?
Disconnected from nature's rhythms, including its cycles of birth and death, we become akin to the headless, limbless figure in the painting: incomplete and not fully alive. The knowledge that life is finite can help us to live it more fully. Mummification, cryogenics, and notions of heaven and reincarnation are all elaborate means we've developed to convince us that death is something other than what it is. But what more beautiful thing can there be than to return to the soil when we die - the generative matrix of all terrestrial life? We carry within us the atoms and molecules of dinosaurs from 65 million years ago, and in 65 million years' time, other as yet unimaginable lifeforms will carry ours.
Bios and zoe
The word "life" can mean two things in English: life in the sense of the lives we lead, and life in the sense of the totality of biological life on earth. The former is referred to in Greek as bios, and the latter as zoe. Perhaps there needs to be two equivalent terms for death: one for the death of an individual organism, and one for the dying off of the more-than-human world. In these times, however, it's not so much a "dying off" as a "killing off" of zoe. Not all humans willfully engage in zoecide, but the economic system we live under and participate in produces zoecidal results regardless.
The natural death of an individual organism is something to be accepted as a fact of life, but zoecide certainly is not. Death at the level of bios can ultimately contribute to zoe's flourishing, with decomposers performing the alchemy of transforming dead matter into the life-giving substance of soil. Death at the level of zoe, however, stymies life's impetus to proliferate and diversify, truncating evolution itself.
I fed banana peels to the African Nightcrawlers in my worm farm just this morning. Bananas for me, peels for the worms, and worm castings for my plants, which will again feed me in time. It's a win-win-win situation. We only get into trouble when we're cut adrift from nature's cycles. If my banana peel were to be thrown in the regular garbage and not composted, it would be cut adrift from nature's cycles as well. Not only would it be lost to the soil, but in the compacted, oxygen-deprived conditions of the landfill, its eventual breakdown by anaerobic microbes would produce methane: a greenhouse gas and major contributor to global warming.
Our soils depleted and our atmosphere polluted - is this what we call "civilisation"? We would do well to remember that pollution is a relatively recent concept: it only arose with the alienation of human beings from the natural environment, since in humanless nature, there's really no such thing. Pollution is the surplus generated by an anthropogenic process that can't be recycled or reabsorbed back into the system in a usable form. It accumulates over time, throwing everything askew.
Letting compostable materials go to landfill is just the tip of the iceberg: even more serious is the non-biodegradable junk that we continually consume and discard. Plastics and e-waste are all too permanent, and each time that the world upgrades to the latest iPhone is an ecological tragedy. Then there's the issue of nuclear waste, which can take literally millions of years to break down. We're up to our neck in surplus permanences, and it's all of zoe that suffers.
In search of a permanent impermanence
Given the incompatibility between permanent entities and ecological cycles, what could the "perma-" in permaculture possibly mean, particularly in light of its principle of working with, rather than against, nature? What kind of permanence do permaculturalists subscribe to, if not the permanence of non-biodegradable plastics and other throwaway consumer items?
When Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term "permaculture" (as a contraction of "permanent agriculture") in the 1970s, they more or less meant it to mean "sustainable agriculture". However, since the concept of "sustainability" was not in common usage at the time and didn't take off until the 1980s, it was the notion of "permanence" that prevailed in this instance. Crucially, though, the permanence that is sought isn't that of objects, but of nature's processes and cycles. All life, including us, is part of an ongoing process of creation, and our long-term task as permaculturists is to ensure that this process can continue on into the future without being stunted or destroyed by human folly. Bios is unavoidably fleeting and impermanent, but zoe must be permitted to endure indefinitely.
For zoe to endure does not mean it must stay the same, as often implied in notions of "preserving the balance of nature". When we over-emphasise balance and homeostasis, we gloss over nature's propensity to continuously change and evolve. More accurately, then, it's not zoe's permanence that we should uphold, but rather its permanent impermanence.
Let me illustrate this point with an example from the southwestern corner of Australia where I grew up. There, along the shorelines of Lake Clifton, one finds a thrombolite colony older than Christianity. Having first emerged over three billion years ago, thrombolites (along with stromatolites, their close relatives) are among the most ancient life-forms on Earth. They take the appearance of calcareous domed structures, formed in shallow water by communities of photosynthetic cyanobacteria. Thanks to the work of these microbes and their ancestors over millions of years, the oxygen content of the atmosphere increased, thereby creating the conditions for all other life-forms to flourish. Amazingly, the local Aboriginal people around Lake Clifton tell a similar story: The thrombolites are said to be the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent, and out of them hatched snakelets that went on to create the surrounding landscape and all other life-forms.
The thrombolites threw the Earth wildly off-balance, as did the meteorite strike that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. In each case, zoe adjusted accordingly. Consider the analogy of a group of ballet dancers: although supremely balanced, there are moments when they give themselves over to gravity, momentarily off-balance before catching themselves or their partners in a new position. "If you think about it", writes Eve Lawson, "balance must be off-balance for dancers to feel each other's weight and direction. It's a very physical dialogue and sensitivity is the key. It's the transfer of weight through the positions, off-balance and in relation to the music and to their partner, that makes an artist". Is it not a similar case with the ever-mutable relationships between members of an ecological community? Nature's flourishing is a dance; a succession of dynamic equilibria; a permanent impermanence.
None of this excuses the fact that we ourselves are throwing the Earth irreversibly off-balance through anthropogenic climate change. In questioning the mythical "balance of nature", all I wish to propose is that we allow space in our environmentalisms for ecological systems "to demonstrate their own evolutions", rather than consigning them to an endless reproduction of the same. Concomitantly, I contend that we'd do better to go "forward to nature", rather than "back to nature"; in other words, to re-orient ourselves towards the alternative, sustainable futures that we might co-create with the more-than-human world, as with a partnership between dancers, rather than trying to reclaim a sort of ecological Golden Age.
Is "still life" still life?
For all my critiques of our fixation on permanence, I could not have been moved by de Chirico's The uncertainty of the poet over one hundred years since its creation if not for its durability. Of course, I would want my writings to outlive me too. What is it in us that wants to create enduring works of art and "leave a legacy"? Is it a kind of consolation for the fact that we're all going to die?
Art conservation is now an art in itself, and we're all indebted to it. But in the long span of time, nothing can prevent an artwork's evanescence. At the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments in Moscow, I saw stone sculptures of Lenin and Stalin being eaten away by lichen - a kind of second death after first being felled with the fall of communism. And at the Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo, Philippines, I was shocked to see several paintings beginning to be consumed by mould. How ironic that the rich biological life of the museum's tropical environs would be so antithetical to its cultural life. I was mortified by the mould, but at the same time vivified by the idea of art as food for life, literally speaking.
It's usually life that's food for art. The artist takes inspiration from life, but all too often negates it in the process, despite his or her best intentions. In turning a live nude into a stone or plaster representation, the sculptor immortalises, but at the same time immobilises, his or her subject. And in capturing a snapshot of the present, the photographer immediately transforms it into a relic of the past, effectively transforming the audience in turn into backward-facing passengers on a forward-moving train. As Susan Sontag has written, "[p]hotography is the inventory of mortality... Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people" [Source]. Perhaps this is true of all representational artforms.
Consider, too, the Impressionists. Although their works were famously painted en plein air, they subsequently needed to be shut away in sterile, indoor environments so as to ensure their conservation. In each of the above examples, life is present initially, only to dissipate when the present-continuous tense of the doing passes over into the past-perfect tense of the done. The done deed then needs to defend itself from those entities still engaged in the doing if it's to "live on". Biologically speaking, however, "living on" would be inaccurate, since what an artwork's "longevity" would actually require would be for it to stay dead, and be prevented from being brought back to life by mould or any other organisms capable of such magic.
Humus not hubris
Some artworks want to live forever; others accept and revel in their impermanence. Those that go under the rubrics of Ephemeral Art, Earth Art and Live Art, for instance, have a lifespan: they are born, live, and then die. Consider Jun Gil Park's engraved banana series or Stefan Sagmeister's giant banana wall. These are two of the most recent instances in a growing lineage of banana-centred art, with seminal influences including, not only Giorgio de Chirico, but also Andy Warhol and Antônio Enrique Amaral. The difference now is that bananas are being used as the very medium for artmaking, not just its theme.
Stefan Sagmeister's aforementioned work was a mural-like installation comprising no less than 7,200 bananas stuck to a wall of the Deitch Gallery in New York. Green bananas were arranged amidst the yellow to spell out the words "Self-confidence produces fine results", raising questions (at least for me) about human hubris in relation to the more-than-human world. As the bananas ripened and decayed over the twenty-four days of the work's duration, the words gradually disappeared into a yellowy-brown mass. Each successive day would've presented a different visual experience for the audience - and a different olfactory experience at that. "Sagmeister's show stinks", wrote one attendee; "It smells like a banana milkshake-scented steam room. It's suffocating".
Aside from the bananas on the wall, more had been sent out as invitations to the exhibition launch. At least these could've been eaten. Indeed, the most common criticism of the installation was about the waste. When I learnt that Sagmesister volunteers at a soup kitchen for the homeless on a weekly basis , his decision to let all that perfectly good food go to waste for the sake of art became even more puzzling. I was almost willing to concede that perhaps the work was justified in that at least it got us thinking and talking about waste (among other things), but then I discovered that at the end of the show, the bananas weren't composted for future re-use, but simply thrown out.
The work's ephemerality may have put it in sync with bios, but its disavowal of cyclicity and reciprocity rendered it entirely at odds with zoe. I have some inkling of what it takes to grow bananas, and hence felt sorry, not so much for the farmers, who would've been paid regardless, but for the soil from which we take so much without giving nearly enough back in return. As a result, arable land is being irreversibly lost at an alarming rate, even as the demands we put on it are increasing. In such a situation, artists cannot be exempted from the responsibilities that all of us have to keep zoe alive and well. Not everyone can be a practicing permaculturist, but no matter our field or occupation, we can all learn to substitute degenerative for regenerative practices, and thereby to live life in the service of life.
On further reflection, I came to realise that Sagmeister's banana wall wasn't really in sync with bios either. Although impermanent at one level, it was rendered permanent through the medium of photography.
Permanence and impermanence, life and death, bios and zoe - all are notions that have swirled in my head since first experiencing de Chirico's seminal The uncertainty of the poet. I've tried to make some sense of them here, though more by way of questions rather than answers. This poet, if I can call myself that, remains uncertain, although I do know I'd rather have bananas than "go bananas" without them. Zoe, my beloved black labrador, had to be put down prematurely, and I miss her dearly; the imminent extinction of Cavendish bananas will be another great loss, but there's a lesson in it for the future of zoe if we care enough to heed it.
 Source: Click here.
 "Ce n'est pas une banane", with apologies to René Magritte.
 Grosz, E. 2005, Time travels, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p. 45.
 Whitehead, A.N. 1938, Modes of thought, Free Press, New York, p. 152.
 Incidentally, "A more permanent impermanence" is the title of a song by a former friend's band. Check it out here.
 Weldon, A. The lake's apprentice, UWA Press, Crawley.
 Lawson, E. 2016, "The tipping point: Physical dialogues in Symphony in C", Balletomane, Iss. 6, p. 15.
 Mollison, B. 1988, Permaculture: A designer's manual, Tagari, Sisters Creek, pp. ix-x.
 Source: Click here.
 Source: Same as Footnote 9.
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