Projecting Arcana
Richard Neal

One makes work, builds up a body of it, writes papers, finds oneself with an amorphous archive. How do you then work with work that has been made, one’s own or someone else’s? Is it to be appraised as one would a fact, judged, weighed (feel the width), or to be used (and abused) as a muse, ephemeral grist to the thinking, and producing, mill.

And when looking at another sort of work, say painting this time, again in progress in one’s own studio or in the museum, how do we read it, use it? Do we see what is there, or what we want? Is projection justified through creation, or is it best avoided, as tending towards base narcissism? Do we mean what we do? And do we mean what we see?

Lastly, whither, and of what import, truth when one accepts one’s own involvement in what is front of one’s eyes.

This is an article about work, but not strictly artwork, about something I saw, but not an exhibition.

Bettina Vismann told me she had some tarot cards, and asked if I would be interested in having a reading. She had made her own 72-card deck, based on her dust research. Each card consists of a snippet – a text or image – taken from her archive of dust-research material, and together comprised major and minor arcana, the latter split into suits covering different aspects of the research. I am not witness to the full gamut of the cards or the work behind them; I saw only those cards that were revealed to me.

We discussed what form our reading would take, and settled on selecting four cards, a simple format. We continued to discuss how we were conducting the reading and the implications as we went along, shifting between different planes of action – theory and practice. There was no product here, and the focus was variously, alternately or simultaneously placed on a string of working spheres – the research on dust and Vismann’s background; the nature of tarot cards and the form of such readings per se; the actual content of the cards seen in a reading, which are exhibits in their own right, often records of actual works; and last the thoughts that the constellation of cards and the ensuing discussion provoke.

I have a friend who believes in the soothsaying powers of Kinder Surprise eggs. They must be taken in good faith, with a clear question in mind, chosen with the left hand. The toy will give you your answer. I myself must confess to being inconsistent with such faith – the head professes utter disbelief; and not the heart but the vanity of the ego nonetheless aches to believe, and I know not which wins out, ultimately, no matter how much the mind protests its adherence to rationality. Confession by way of disclosure: I once clung for some time to the image of a wind-up car that was diagnosed to predict great leaps forward after a major setback. But my own navel-gazing is only relevant here to the extent that it may illustrate the process of the work – it is integral to the process, but not the ultimate aim, which the content of the cards stubbornly keeps in the world (or worlds) beyond the subject. The subject of the reading is not, one hopes, the final subject of the work – this is what makes this other than a tarot card reading.

Nonetheless, Vismann told me that the four-card format revealed progressive levels of the self. One card would identify how the subject sees themselves and how others see them, the next what other’s see in them but they do not see themselves, then what they know of themselves that others do not see, then the blind spot, that which is in the subject but unseen by them or those around them. 

I must admit, I was surprised at how effectively one can read oneself into anything; just as one can see what one likes in a cloud, so one can use a cloud as a mirror. What is interesting here is the cloud – the cards of dust, and the opportunity they afford to consider things together in an impromptu selection, an exhibition of sorts that would otherwise never take place, let alone cohere, and, by placing oneself into the relation via the narcissism of fortune-telling, look at these things in an active way, producing new thoughts. The cards are no mere catalysts here, their concreteness and interest actually enable the self of the subject to be played down, kept in proper relation, present, active but secondary.

The preliminaries over with, the cards splayed out handsomely, I selected one. A card of impenetrable technical descriptions from the website of an air-conditioning dust filter manufacturer was revealed. The driest descriptions, which, I was assured, could be interpreted with the driest of humours, contained reference to total de-dusters and absolute filters otherwise known as police filters. Does this reflect me? Not in a particularly interesting way, lest that also go for me, which it may, and I do teach people deal with such equipment. Perhaps with my boringness and pedantry established, we moved on.

d6 me filter copy

The second card was also text. An excerpt from the memoires of one professor, quoting another, it tells of a flask filled with metallic dust bored out by the Soviets from 1714m under the Earth in Antarctica. Chemically it was said to be a mystery, similar in appearance to fool’s gold, yet lacking any neutrons. The sample was lost in military archives until the end of the cold war, when, upon rediscovery by a geologist, it was found to project frequency patterns onto computer screens in close proximity. Improbabilities in behaviour could not and cannot be plausibly explained away. The text as given on the card speculates as to the substance potentially functioning as a data storage device for an alien intelligence, unearthed from the pole region as the monolith on the moon was envisaged to have been by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. The supposed memoirs read most strongly as a scrap of a Borges story, where we are unsure if the interpolation into our world is that of the object we are reading about – the bottle of dust from the depth of the planet’s crust with signs of the life beyond – or the text we have in our grasp, fiction purporting to be fact. Vismann assured me of the veracity of the excerpt, I do not know what to believe.

d6 me flask copy

The third card, and another source of infinite origin and destiny was placed physically in an image. In a darkish room from a gallery or off-space from the 1970s, a light shines at us starkly. We are placed in its cone, it views us. The cone is made visible only through the dust particles in the room’s atmosphere, as we all know from the beams emanating out in front of the projection room at the back of the cinema. That is the work as a whole, save the fact that the beam starts as a pencil, then grows.

Here I was unable to resist fully entering into the reading, bringing myself into the process, associating my view of myself and what I have done with what I was looking at, viewing each one through the prism of the other.

The piece in the image hit me with its pure focus on physical phenomenon. It employs many properties to which I am partial – concrete phenomena in ephemeral constellations. Beyond seeing in its splash of light the yearning for boundlessness that I cannot deny, the tarot context allowed me to view it as an allegory on painting. 

d6 me coneAntony Mc Call, 
Line Describing a Cone‘ (1973), Artists Space, New York, February 15, 1974, the film‘s first showing in the US. 

Photo: Peter Moore © The Estate of Peter Moore/VAGA, NYC Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London

The light and dust sculpture offered a gamut of qualities embodied in clear, almost clichéd, familiar form: the formal reduced to the practically preordained, a pseudo-given; the visible matter given over to impervious and implacable physical phenomena – the dust particles in the air; the ephemeral sighting of which nonetheless encourages the most spectacular of subjective readings. People like to see what they want, to be given a beautiful opportunity to do so. And for the moment to pass, ungraspable. It makes you feel special.

Presented in this frame, I could not avoid the comparison to work I have made, also involving particles seen in ephemeral forms, produced with a degree of chance. This card was the crystalline embodiment of one line of criticism against some of my work. The reduction to the pure physical phenomena in the dust caught in the line contrasts unkindly, one may wish to say, with work that refuses to leave the confines of the painterly, beaux-arts soups of frames and composition and artist’s touch. If you want to look at a cloud, it is done better here.

That is the notation of an overly-sensitive mind perhaps, and it is not the end of the story. For one thing, work that sees itself as having so radically divested itself of the trappings of tradition to purely exhibit physical phenomena then runs the risk of courting the science museum exhibit or even, relying on sheer spectacle, the theme park. For another, deeper arcana are brought to mind.

In his Naturalis Historia, Pliny recorded the painter Protogenes having trouble painting the foam at the mouth of the figure of a dog:

The thing that displeased him was the evident traces of art in the execution of it, touches which did not admit of any diminution, and yet had all the appearance of being too laboured, the effect produced being far removed from his conception of the reality: the foam, in fact, bore the marks of being painted, and not of being the natural secretion of the animal’s mouth. Vexed and tormented by this dilemma, it being his wish to depict truth itself, and not something that only bore a semblance of truth, he effaced it again and again, changed his pencil for another, and yet by no possibility could satisfy himself. At last, quite out of temper with an art, which, in spite of him, would still obtrude itself, he dashed his sponge against the vexatious spot; when behold: the sponge replaced the colours that it had just removed, exactly in accordance with his utmost wishes, and thus did chance represent Nature in a painting. (Chapter 36)

For me, that cone of light in Vismann’s card is nothing but the trace of Protogenes’ sponge. Chance representing Nature sprung very much back into life in recent decades, and well beyond the frame of a painting.

It is, however, not always so welcome. A millennium and a half after Pliny, Leonardo knowingly references the flying, paint-spattering sponge:

He is not universal who does not love equally all the elements in painting, as when one who does not like landscapes holds them to be a subject for cursory and straightforward investigation—just as our Botticelli said such study was of no use because by merely throwing a sponge soaked in a variety of colours at a wall there would be left on the wall a stain in which could be seen a beautiful landscape. He was indeed right that in such a stain various inventions are to be seen. I say that a man may seek out in such a stain heads of men, various animals, battles, rocks, seas, clouds, woods and other similar things. It is like the sound of bells which can mean whatever you want it to. But although these stains may supply inventions they do not teach you how to finish any detail. And the painter in question makes very sorry landscapes. Treatise on Painting (emphasis mine)

Where Pliny records Protogenes as finding truth in the random splatter of a physical process, and projectile, beyond his control, Leonardo sees abdication of responsibility, lack of skill, and a mistrust of the mind’s wanderings as it seeks what it only thinks it knows in what is given by chance. The two versions of truth in making and seeing are not reconcilable.

Leonardo brings us back to Vismann’s deck of dust itself. Seeking truth in the uncontrollable, ungraspable movements of particles, one projects oneself, into the swirls of light and dusk just as much as into the cards themselves. The opposite ideology of looking was given to me by a teacher of art who advocated looking at a painting for no more than 30 seconds at a time, as beyond that point “all the shit starts to come”: the neuroses, the axes to grind, the wishes and fantasies – the projections – of the viewer. Once they got in the way, the view of the true form of the work was hopelessly lost. (For myself I can say that I know of no clearer method of diary keeping than visiting a much-loved, and much-visited, museum collection. I can trace my state of mind with great clarity in my response, and the time between visits vanishes, enabling stark comparison).

The cards, though, are a way of thinking, one that involves the self but puts it in relation with matters of greater import: other ideas, the world, work. The fourth card was an image of another image, one by Alexandra Hopf. Two rectangular planes obliquely floated in a black void, projected points of light suspended between and, impossibly, just beyond the space between them. Apparently they represented walls in a spatial reconstruction.

This, I was told, was my blind spot, what no-one knew about myself, least of all me. It is also certainly an image of what no-one knew or knows of a museum and from late 1940s New York. It is from a body of work purporting to recreate an exhibition called Future Show. It is work that again seems to play out on Borges stories from about the same time – it stubbornly withholds its status as fact or fiction. No matter what one thinks one knows, both pretence and transparent artifice insist. Faith refuses its logical expulsion, much as with my penchant for soothsaying, but disbelief cannot be banished either. This insistence on unconsummated suspicion refrains from directly seducing and ingratiating. By holding back, the painting is seen more clearly, if more coldly.

There was a supposed statement from the artist about the image being the only one that did or did not really in some way exist. When I later asked Hopf about this proposition (which has dusted over in my mind now), it was neither confirmed nor denied, the artist as mandarin.

Though it did not occur to me at the time, the rectangles in the image now appear as nothing but the tarot cards themselves, now revealed as the actual alien intelligence mooted by the Soviet Antarctic dust. Frames of unknown origin, utterly opaque, travelling through space providing an infinite screen on to which I, we, may throw our sponges, ideas, selves. Once they have been beamed or cast, we do not know what image will come back. 

d6 me hopfAlexandra Hopf,
Reconstruction of the walls,
Once having been uncovered, these images are retrojected onto the past in the guise of memory, 
in: Future Show, November -December 1948, Museum of Non-Objective Art, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York 
28,  SalonVerlag, Cologne, 2010, p. 19