The optical and its limits
“When Xenophon brougt the word paradise from the East, Praxitele put an emerald in Athena’s breastplate. Green brought wisdom”
Derek JARMAN, Croma, 1994
“An ego that, consequently, can’t know but be, in this ego for this very reason there can’t be anything but pure remission to the Other.” Rosalind E. KRAUSS, The Optic Unconcious, 1993
Let’s enter; being strangers in our own familiar surroundings, a step further, a moment more and the questions begin. A voyage into the distance is not worth it if we let ourselves be limited by what we have learnt; knowledge, knowing, is built on fears and prejudices. To oppose these, to be brave means knowing how to be vulnerable and to question ourselves, even if this produces the vertigo of feeling alive.
What surrounds us has never been a safe environment; we prefer to forget this and this forgetting comes back to us as a punch in our consciousness. We have always lived in paradise, but this habitat has never been as we have been told it was. It doesn’t stop being significant that the term has been brought into western culture by Xenophon after a military excursion in Persia. Its etymology, Pari Paera, around the wall, reminds us that what defines paradise was the presence of a limit, an obstacle to its contemplation and enjoyment.
The other side of its genesis was the word of the others, the foreigners, those who because of their non-belonging meant they were a danger. Not in vane did Alberto Cardin in Dialectics and Cannibalism (1994) point out that the meaning of cannibal was simply neighbour. Paradise was then a garden inhabited by others beginning with a limit. The Hortus locus or even Josa went on stressing this notion of property and exclusion. The fiction of a limit, the fiction of the other.
From the IV century BC the limit defines the garden, a century before that Anaxagoras and Democritus laid down geometric and perspective theories, which will make painting the one we know, defined by the frame. Through the renaissance this system of representation was defined as “legitimate construction”, the law that started again with the obstacle in vision and what had been proven. The fiction of the window mustn’t let us forget that this must be supported by a wall.
How do you paint a garden knowing that both systems are fed by exclusion?
It is significant that the history of gardening looks to classical Greece as an sphere without garden, when it is there where the term paradise first appears in Europe and where its mythology includes the garden of the Hesperides, Hera’s garden where the tree of golden apples grew, the apples which conceded immortality. The garden was named after the nymphs who lived there and made sure that no one could get to the fruit. Ladon, a hundred-headed dragon helped in the task.
The role of women in the garden has never been very nice, even when these have transformed it into a place of knowledge, conceiving the garden as a library: Digitalis Purpurea, Mandragora Autumnalis, Datura... but these efforts to stop paradise becoming a trap for women turned it into a sentence.
How can a woman paint in the garden?
Vicky Uslé (Santander, 1981) dares to look into the garden and claim it for herself. Innocence may be one of the motors of artistic production but it is far from being ingenious. The author not only recognized the depth of the history of art, but also knows that her analysis of the garden in painting questions the very notions that we have about it and the space as an environment, the fragmentation and the breaking up of surfaces, even in the choice of materials, a fiction of inheritors, not forgetting that representation (“capacity of vividly presenting a theme”) is the article of reality of art or, in the words of Cocteau, it is “a lie which always tells the truth”.
“The garden is barren, the grass is tall and reaches up the walls, (...) we only feel the look. We don’t know what to look is.”
Marguerite DURAS, The love, 1971
“The harshness of the world was tranquil. The murder was deep. And death was not the one we thought. (...) Because life was dangerous. She loved the world, loved it while creating, loved it with repugnance.”
Clarice LISPECTOR, Love, 1952
Another possible way into the garden; Clarice Lispector and Marguerite Duras have published two stories with almost the same title, Love and The love, in which the garden can be considered as just another character. Despite the titles, the narrations can’t be further from the idea of romantic love as conceived in the last century.
Ana, a housewife immersed in the daily routine, which Lispector give nearly vegetable qualities – “I had the need to feel the solid roots of the things” – is surprised by the look of a blind person being led through the botanic garden so bursting with life that it frightens her. Duras’s characters live in a garden as rocky and arid as their relationships without communication or contact. This absence of contact is something common in these tales, no one breaks through the bodily limits, no one touches the other, no one goes over the limits of their own body, redefining our perception of the other.
Nature not only is a metaphor of the setting or habitat, it is a emotional experience of the environment and the only thing that goes over these limits, that is broken through, invaded, in comparison to the protagonists, watching
When Rosalind E. Krauss analyses the perceptive apparatus of Étant Donnés by Duchamp (1945-1966) part of the optic analysis that Lyotard presents us with in this piece: not only does it insist on the mechanisms of perceptive, but also on the incorporation of the body of the spectator/voyeur into the mechanism of vision, making up the piece itself. Duchamp already had pleaded for the need of the spectator to complete the meaning of the artistic piece, but in this case the need is not only intellectual or visual, it’s physical: a body in the mirror with the body that lies, between nature, the other side of the door constructed as limit. Duchamp, in his criticism of the retinal, has been one of the arguments used to insult painting, ignoring the interest in Optics as a science and his knowledge that vision is constructed in our mind.
The pieces by Vicky Uslé invite us to ask ourselves which part of the garden we are looking at, we focus on a detail or a plant, or even an emotion that this garden transmits to us. The contemplation isn’t ingenious, our brain constructs it with its visual charge, but also with the weight of culture of our social learning and the information that the rest of our body lends to the experience. Our neutral knowledge interweaved in the architecture of the place itself where the pieces a displayed.
Donna Haraway or Juhani Pallasma vindicate this type of knowledge, that we should not consider as a directly opposed to vision, but as, in the words of Diego del Pozo, a “’soft space’ as space motivated by the constant reference to our direct environment”. This type of analysis connected to the pictorial experience of Leonora Tanning appears described by Alison Rowley in 1993 but maybe we should normalise them and apply them when enjoying the artistic production of other artists, more precisely the project that Uslé is presenting in our gallery.
“Shine the color
Cast him in violet
Curtain close my eyes
Take his light from mine”
Perfume Genius, Moonbend, 2020
Reading today about non-touching love in an inhospitable natural environment with human beings may have other implications, but we shouldn’t forget that when faced the zeitgeist there exists an eternal return, and that this fiction of limits at its base feeds on and is built from the function of the other.
Vicky Uslé’s work is constructed around an us in this ambiguous garden, in which geometry itself, evoking the limit is diluted and contaminated. We are living on a planet where animal life only makes up 0.3% compared to the vegetable, thus speaking of the garden of its history and implications, of it’s relation to women and the hegemonic domination of man over nature, means rethinking who lives where. The only thing that is left to us is to allow our bodies to keep on learning and that our consciousness allows us to identify the moments in which tiny fragments of life exist.
Eduardo García Nieto. Independent curator.