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Poetic Thinking 2016 | January 24, 2020

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Shot dead

Shot dead
Vivian Lam

“would you still want to travel to that country if you could not take a camera with you.
– a question of appropriation”
― Nayyirah Waheed, salt.

The photograph allows us to possess space and time, compress it into a quadrilateral and submit this slice of Event to ravenously well-fed gaze.

While Didi-Huberman expresses the heroism of taking an image in spite of all, Sontag provides a disillusioned panorama of photography as a form of voyeurism that cannot supplant genuine emotion, experience, engagement. The photograph serves as proof—that we have captured reality, significance, profundity. We can mass produce an experience and memorialize it, protect it from forced obliteration, force ourselves to accept that this is not “beyond comprehension” or “unimaginable.” Sontag says something was irredeemably lost when she saw photos of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau.

Do these sanctified scenes of memento mori bring us nearer to Montaigne’s process of self-rationalization and self-comfort, or Didion’s liminal space of “magical thinking”? In “facing death open-eyedly,” are we privy to any “negative epiphanies,” moved to action, moved to pity, to gaze in strange fascination? To become anesthetized?

Can we say that we have been closer to that country, have stood at the edge of the sterile promontory? Or is this Event beyond our comprehension?

Can we call this beautiful?

The Most Beautiful Suicide, Robert Wiles

“On May Day, just after leaving her fiancé, 23-year-old Evelyn McHale wrote a note. “He is much better off without me. . . . I wouldn’t make a good wife for anybody,” she wrote. Then she crossed it out. She went to the observation platform of the Empire State Building. Through the mist she gazed at the street, 86 floors below. Then she jumped. In her desperate determination she leaped clear of the setbacks and hit a United Nations limousine parked at the curb. Across the street photography student Robert Wiles heard an explosive crash. Just four minutes after Evelyn McHale’s death Wiles got this picture of death’s violence and its composure.”

Suicide (Fallen Body), Andy Warhol

No Seconds, Henry Hargreaves

Life Before Death, Walter Shels

“The goal was to create two equal portraits of the subject; they wanted to preserve a sense of dignity after death.”

“I hoped to lose my fear (of death) by doing this project where I had to confront myself with death,” Schels wrote. “I am old enough to think about my own death so it was obvious for me to close the circle between birth and death by doing this project.”

About Dying, Cathrine Ertmann

“They also hoped the project, called “About Dying,” would break the taboo about death by viewing it up close. After all, there is nothing so scary as what happens behind closed doors. But by opening up the morgue, a place where few of the living have been, the mystery lifts. Death, although harsh and sad, is a natural state.”

Dachau sculpture

Drowned Syrian Boy


  1. Harry Desmond

    Thanks for this, Vivian — very interesting! As you anticipated, I found the Wiles photo beautiful and then was faintly disgusted at myself for it, and furthermore faintly horrified that anyone could take a picture of a dead woman and call it art. (I’m reminded of Poe’s (in)famous comment: “the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world”; poetic, note, not aesthetic!) What is this woman now beside a fictional character in an artistic construct? Has she been strictly reduced to an aesthetic object? So too with “The Year of Magical Thinking”: what is Didion’s husband (to us) now outside a sort of tenebrous make-believe realm, half “real” half “poetic”? It seems that the entire meaning of the deaths has been forcibly twisted; we’re made to react to or think about them in an entirely new way, and I’m not sure whether this is to do inappropriate violence to them. There barely even seems to be a death in the Wile photo. So too with the Dachau sculpture, which I might worry is characterised less by aestheticisation than trivialisation. If Dachau means this is somehow adequately expressed by it, then surely we have lost Dachau.

    I guess I’m suggesting that extraordinary events (and the most ordinary death is extraordinary) require extraordinary “art” to do them justice. In fact I find my chain of reasoning leading to a conclusion which itself makes me uneasy: Ought some things to be off limits to the aestheticising impulse? And to what realm do they then belong… the religious?

  2. Vivian Lam

    Thank you for your comment, Harry! I went through a very similar thought progress when I first saw the photo. (Among many other horrifyingly arresting images).

    The image can be seen as beautiful, and it’s interesting to think that some mixture of aestheticization, poeticization, and romanticization (terms that might be worthwhile to sort out) of horror or tragedy makes a travesty of the event. By making and installing a sculpture on the gates of Dachau, it implies some form of adequacy in bearing the full weight of the event. But can any work of art do so?

    What kind of “art” can do justice to extraordinary events? Granted that even this medium touted for its realism and facticity is not exempt from the “taint” of the creator (as expounded by Sontag), what means, then, do we have of capturing this slice of intense reality? Why does the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin seem to escape the criticism we level at photography, the Dachau sculpture?

    Is it possible to make art that is completely unbiased, that venerates without exploitation, that is “authentic”? What qualifies something as “authentic,” and who has the objective capacity to declare “authenticity” (apart from, perhaps, the Pulitzer Prize committee, among others)? If the subject could sanction the image, would our concerns be assuaged, or is the subject simply not able to comprehend the full ramifications of giving this “art” in their image to the public? What if Evelyn McHale had consented to this photograph, as did the subjects in other post-mortem photos, or the subjects of Tim Hetherington’s photos? Or is there yet a feeling of suspicion and wariness, as with Jonathan Harris’ Balloons of Bhutan, or Humans of New York?

    We are struck with awe, then recoil as if we have been tricked by the sheer audacity of the creator to make something in the image of something beyond full human comprehension. By our criticism and apprehension, it would seem that some things should be off limits from any form of translation and representation. But I am reminded of de Beauvoir, in The Ethics of Ambiguity: “Only, in the work of art the lack of being returns to the positive. Time is stopped, clear forms and finished meanings rise up. In this return, existence is confirmed and establishes its own justification.” “[N]othing is useful if it is not useful to man; nothing is useful to man if the latter is not in a position to define his own ends and values, if he is not free.” Nothing has meaning unless given by the human. Are we afraid that to interpret is to give it a fixed meaning? To leave it to the religious, or something beyond human, to “authentically” portray these extraordinary events seems to allow these events to overcome us—to make them become “unimaginable” (something Didi-Huberman would condemn).

    We cannot truly conquer death—but does the images we make in its name serve to give it sufficient meaning to enrich the present and honor the past? To burn its presence in our eyes for years to come? If we deny the need to “aestheticize,” then is the only way we can be moved is to see the event in its full horror? But what does that serve?

    Is it not better to gaze behind a veil, then to not gaze at all?

  3. Harry Desmond

    All great questions, and I don’t have many answers.

    I certainly think that poetic thinking is one of the best tools we have for transfiguring and coming to terms with various forms of horror, so I’m certainly not suggesting we steer clear of it altogether in these circumstances. Rather, there must be an appropriate and inappropriate form of poeticisation. (To make a first pass at disentangling your three terms: I would not want to say that there always exists an appropriate form of aestheticisation or romanticisation — I see the poetic encompassing these two, and the appropriate poetic response lying outside both.) I think perhaps the right response must recognise and manifest its inability to do full justice to the event; to glance off it as it were or provide a way in that explicitly refuses to become a totalising account.

    If I imagine the scenario in which Evelyn McHale killed herself in order for Wile to get the beautiful photograph that he did (or even if it was a factor in her suicide, on her mind at the time), then I have much less of a problem with the photo. In that case Wile wouldn’t be twisting or doing violence to the meaning of the event, since the meaning would in fact be adequately captured by the photo. As it is it’s a bit like getting someone really worked up about a deep and serious issue that’s very important to them, and then laughing at them or making a flippant joke. There’s something profoundly non-graspable in both suicide and Dachau, which is covered over and hidden by this art.

    In this sense then I would argue that these artworks aren’t acting as veils, through which we can see the event dimly. They’re more like masks, making us think simply something else about them. We’re rightly compelled to think poetically about them (realism isn’t really what we’re after — in fact in some sense it’s what we’re trying to deny), and the images we produce can serve to give them meaning (sufficient for some purpose). But they can’t be fully graspable: they need to have within them some spark of the forever unknown, the mysterious, the mystical.

    Actually I think the “for some purpose” is important. If one’s aim is to get information to outside authorities about the horrors of Auschwitz, then a photograph may be perfectly sufficient. But is it art in that case? (Poetic thinking is not intended to convey information or represent, we say.) Or the Dachau sculpture to inform you you’re in Dachau, or the photo of a suicide to document it. But the inner meaning of the events? I don’t think so.

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