Thus warmed up we went downstairs to the exhibition.
Enrique Vila-Matas is a writer interested in how identity is constructed almost like a shadow of the collections of otherness. 5 out of his 6 chosen artworks are photographic, and the attendant metaphors - snapshots, negatives, apparitions, proofs, superimposition – inform his own creative process. In his ‘oblique novel’, ‘Cabinet d’Amateur’, which accompanies the exhibition, he acknowledges and explains the influences from his literary biography by quoting authors such as Clarice Lispector:
‘I’m writing because I don’t know what to make of myself. No, it’s more that because I don’t know what to make of myself, I seek the negative of the photo of my life.’
He cites this aphorism of Kafka’s: ‘Our task is to do the negative, the positive has already been given to us.’ This is quite the opposite of allowing ourselves to be imprinted, rather journeying back to the source for our authentic ‘take’ on life.
And he hears Kafka’s words echoed by the French-Swiss film director, Jean-Luc Godard in his comment on what is lost when film negatives are thrown away and only the positive remains: ‘If we are left with no contradictions, how are we to go forward?’
In confronting uncertainty and instability, he draws on Montaigne’s observations about a creative conundrum. ‘Montaigne, in his essays, had noted this same impossibility when writing about his own daily shifts in mood. It’s the same impossibility that allows us today to have confidence in what we write, although none at all as regards our place in the world.’
Vila-Matas likes Raymond Queneau's existential question which contains a metaphor of journeying through the haze of existence to discover our deeper identities: ‘How to make sense of that mist full of shadows?’
What we don't know will always be greater than what we do. So a pursuit purely of 'knowledge' will always be inadequate - and suspect (whose knowledge is this anyway?).
So how do we help children navigate uncertainties and contradictions, and assume their proper authority for understanding and representing their lives? Collaborative, personal writing offers some ways to deal with the unknown and question things presented as certainties.
Through representing our world and ourselves, we can help learners focus on images previously in 'poor resolution' and read for reliability those things presented in 'high definition'. From what 'angle' is this image 'taken'? For what purpose? And what is not being shown?
These ideas of representation, power and provenance are explored by another artist and writer, James Bridle, in BBC 4's programme 'New Ways of Seeing'.
“The camera, by making the work of art transmittable, has multiplied its possible meanings and destroyed its unique original meaning.” (John Berger) In 1972, Berger’s seminal TV series and book changed perceptions of art and set out to reveal the language of images. Of course, that was before the internet, smartphones, and social media took hold. How do we see the world around us now? And, who are the artists urging us to look more closely?
Images from social media move beyond 'recording' events (often dubiously presented as 'facts' or 'knowledge') to creating and 'manipulating' lives and opinions. For the sake of children's strengthening agency, we need a new way of writing for a new way of seeing - for a new way of being.
A further Whitechapel writing workshop is planned for 5-7 p.m. on 11 July 2019. This will explore Maria Fusco’s ‘Nine Qwerty Bells’.www.whitechapelgallery.org
NWP outreach director