Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Thinking With Portals

First things first, know that I cannot resist the opportunity for a pop culture reference or a quick pun. Is this a failure or an asset? Personal stuff, art.

Whilst the conceptual and verbal development of Vectis continues apace, one area where things just haven't been moving forward much is the visual sphere. The main reason for this is the tragic demise of my trusty old graphics tablet. Despite being knocking around the family for 11 years, it's only in the past year or so that I've really come to use and now, I realise, rely on the device. The particular style of illustration that I want to incorporate into Vectis (clean, bold yet also somewhat subtle) relies pretty much on the use of such a device. Thankfully, I will have saved up enough money to purchase a new one by...tomorrow. So that's alright then. 

In the mean-time, I have been laying the groundwork for the illustration by taking photographs and doing sketches along the walking routes I have planned (I haven't talked about these yet, I think, in any concrete detail, and should pencil that in as a topic for a post pretty soon). Looking through these photographs just now, I have begun to notice a small fascination developing with a particular visual theme (photographs after jump):

(Yes, I know that first one is blurry. I'm not the best photographer, nor do I have the best camera, and I need to go re-take some of those shots some other nice morning.)

So, what links these images? Well, it's obviously that they're all, in some sense, photographs of portals (doorways, gateways, entrances, exits, call them what you will). Why does this keep cropping up? Partly it's the nature of the circumstances under which I'm taking the photograph. I'm taking them on walks, as sketches towards ways of recording said walks, so obviously there is a natural inclication to focus the camera (which we can think of as an apparatus for extending the gaze) on the same place as the eye; that is to say, the path ahead. This path will inevitably pass through portals, and across thresholds. There are other images which show the view across bridges, down paths, roads etc. that fit into this mould. It is also worth noting that, since I am thinking about the book format, I am restricting myself largely to the portrait format. Doors and paths are seductive subject when framing a portrait photograph, in much the same way horizons are when framing a landscape photograph, because they echo the limits of the photographic frame. Art is, however, often about looking beyond the most obvious surface readings and explanations, so let's think a bit about the symbolism and meaning of portals and thresholds.

An entrance is, obviously, a place of transition; where states of being change*, and one thing becomes another thing. That is to say it is 'liminal'. The term liminal(ity) comes from the Latin 'limen', meaning threshold, and is popular in such fields as art criticism and anthropology because 'thresholdishness' sounds silly. In anthropology, it has a very specific meaning to do with a stage in a ritual, particularly a rite of passage, defined by ambiguity and disorientation, when one state of being has been cast off and the one that is to replace it has yet to be adopted. It has been expanded to refer to both other states of being as well as to situations, times and (most important for the matter at hand) places which either share some conceptual relation to this state or can be argued to induce this state. I personally relate the idea of a liminal place somewhat to the idea of 'non-places' expounded by Marc Augé in his book Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, in so much as one of the reasons Augé identifies for the lack of 'placeness' that characterises non-places is their transient nature. Non-places are passed through, rather than dwelled in, as are liminal places. You can interact with a door without passing through it of course, but it's either a suspicious action (you lurk or you skulk, possibly implying some sort of external force or internal failing that prevents you from passing through the gate) or a regulatory action (you guard the gate, deciding whether others can enter or exit). This rather implies that passing through doors, entering new places, is a positive, or at least necessary thing, though there are obvious situations in which a portal can become fearful.

One of my favourite artworks involving gates or portals is Mark Wallinger's 'Threshold to the Kingdom', a very simple yet powerful video piece that focuses on the ordinary made sublime. One (admittedly esoteric) reason I'm a fan of it is that its title employs the same allusion as the title of one of my favourite television series, Lars Von Trier's 'Riget', or in English, 'The Kingdom'. As the linked wikipedia article helpfully explains, 'riget' in this context is designed to make one thing of 'dødsriget', the kingdom of the dead. The threshold to the kingdom, thus, is the blue gate of death, the bardo, the pearly gates, the ferry across the styx, the portal to the underworld (choose your religious or occult symbolism now). Although the entrance to the afterlife may not, in religious terms, always be a fearful place, it certainly can be. Think of the Gates of Hell, so beautifully captured by Rodin. (As an aside, it has always intrigued me how few people know that the iconic and enigmatic Le Penseur originated as an element of this piece, which I always thought must be central to any discussion of it). It is clear, therefore, that passing through any portal can, potentially, be terrifying, and when we think the matter over we can see that this is only natural. When we pass from one state of being to another, the old state of being, and thus a form of ourself, ends. Even if we walk back through the door, we are only making another transition, rather than reverting to our previous state. To keep the analogy in the region of death and horror, think of the states of life, death and undeath. A thing that is undead has passed back through the gates of death, the final rite of passage, to re-enter the world of the living, but it is an implicitly terrifying and malign thing. We can see this negative assumption echoed in all the less terminal rites of passage as well, particularly in more traditional societies. Single -> Married -> Divorced, for example. or Childhood -> Adulthood -> Senescense. Even when we can pass back through these rites, we shouldn't. Why this should be, from a social perspective, is fairly obvious; if we can reverse our rites of passage, why have them? It implies an existential threat to the social system that people are invested in; look how impassioned the debates about marriage are still from this perspective, and you will understand at least the reason for the genesis of many apparently completely irrational fears. To an anarchist (and anartist) like myself, of course, such a prospect of fluidity, freedom and capacity for change is exhilarating. But I am beginning to seriously digress. I will return to some of the themes I have been opening up here in future posts on two subjects that relate to the third walk (and I will get on to those walks as well, I promise). Those two subjects are the underpass (shown in the third picture above) and its turgid murals; and that very real hell on Earth, Her Majesties Prison Isle of Wight, which is ominously marked on the tourist map I purchased at the start of this project by a featureless, unlabelled blank void. Ideas of liminality shall also become very important when we reach the farthest extent of geographical exploration, the Island's coastline.

*This can be as simple as going from 'being inside' to 'being outside'.

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