Feature

The Vestige of Time: With Wylie and Deleuze in Carrara

Jae Emerling
William Wylie, 06-22, Riccardo Figaia, Carrara, 2008.

William Wylie, 06-22, Riccardo Figaia, Carrara, 2008. Pigment print, 24 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco.

To render Time sensible is itself the task.

-Gilles Deleuze1

What remains withdrawn from the image, or what remains in its withdrawal, as that withdrawal itself, is the vestige… We must therefore renounce naming and assigning being to the vestige. The vestigial is not an essence–and no doubt this is what puts us on track of the “essence of art.” That art is today its own vestige, this is what opens us to it…it presents what is not “Idea”: motion, coming, passage, the going-on of coming-to-presence.

-Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Vestige of Art”2

At the beginning of 2009, the contemporary photographer and filmmaker William Wylie published an exquisite book entitled Carrara. The book is the culmination of his multiyear artistic project at the famous Italian marble quarry, a project which included the awarding of a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Memorial Fellowship in Photography in 2005, the production of four films (Dust, Cavatori, Friction, and The Block) in 2008, and exhibitions in new York City, San Francisco, and Richmond.3 on first glance Wylie appears to be documenting a site whose name resounds in the history of art as the source of marble for Michelangelo or a refuge for John Singer Sargent, but in fact his Carrara project resists a documentary reading. Rather than documenting a cultural site and its laborers, Wylie’s aesthetic labor presents a series of singularities (elemental marble blocks, portraits of quarry workers at rest) that transmits not merely cultural, or even natural, history, but temporality as such. Each singularity, each time-image composed of intense focus and caesura, presents a “bloc of sensation” that renders visible the contested and open terrain of the history of photography.4

William Wylie, Dust, 2008.

William Wylie, Dust, 2008. Still from single-channel color video with sound. Duration: 2:21. Courtesy of the artist.

Wylie’s Carrara is divided into three sections. The first is comprised of ten photographs of elemental, rough-hewn marble blocks. It was these singular faces that compelled him to return time and again to the Cava di Gioia in Carrara. The second section presents portraits of cavatori (stonecutters and quarry workers) pausing from their labors, consciously posing, often in contrapposto, as they directly engage Wylie’s 8 x 10-inch, large format camera and, by extension, the viewer. The third section is a series of horizontally-oriented portraits of blocks, showing the tools and marks of the cavatori (for example, ladders and circular patterns from the diamond saw blades), which are presented as the end result of their work.5 This triadic structure is less the law of an archival project than a contingent conceptual framework that separates and yet binds together a distinct “distribution of the sensible,” that is, a conception of the image not as resemblance or document but as a “relationship between presence and absence, the material and the intelligible, exhibition and signification.”6

William Wylie, 06-26, Carrara, 2008.

William Wylie, 06-26, Carrara, 2008. Pigment print, 29 x 37 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco.

I will take a single example from Wylie’s project, one that closes the first third of the book, as symptomatic of how he creates an image. In 06-26, Carrara (2008), a rectangular block of dark blue-gray marble hovers above the ground. The floor of the quarry extends under the marble block to an obscured middle ground; the vertical walls leading up to the next level of the quarry on the left and right present themselves as potential blocks that Wylie may photograph in the future, images to come. But this block, this singularity, bears a baroque composition of natural and manmade marks, scars, lines, and drips, nearly all of which are vertices drawing the eye to the weightless illusion signaled by the bottom-edge as well as to the upper-edge of the block. The upper-edge is uneven and roughly hewn, at once contrasting with and scumbling the rectilinear, precisely cut sections of the quarry in the background, fitted as it is with rigs, saw blades, and heavy machinery. The diminutive, almost entirely silhouetted figure of a single cavatore–a quarry worker–just right of center emphasizes the upper-edge of the block, nearly indiscernible from the quarry ledge the man stands behind. Wylie builds his image from the edges toward the center, thereby minimizing the depth of the entire plane. Because the edges of the image are slightly out of focus, they construct a series of planes (structures) that prop-up and gesture towards what is in sharp focus: the face of the block.

However, Wylie surveys not only the face of the block, but also its context. Behind the block, two parallel diagonals frame the striated, reticulated surfaces of the hewn blocks in the middle. The diagonal on the right is formed by the path for heavy machinery against the smooth quarry walls, while the one on the left is formed by stone shards and fragments sliding and gathering on a slope. on the left, a second diagonal, perpendicular to the first, converges with the right-side diagonal outside of the frame. Regardless of which left-side diagonal is dominant, all the diagonals project outward, leading to the face of the block in sharp focus. Wylie orients these diagonals and aligns the edges of figure and ground to inscribe the context (the quarry and its proper name, Carrara) into the face of the block even as he pushes this context to the margins of the image (at times even out of the frame altogether). The tension between the ostensible figure of the image–the face of the block–and the larger context of the quarry is a productive one throughout Wylie’s Carrara images. Time and again, we are confronted with contending forces: face and milieu, specificity and context. The true power of these forces originates not with spatial or differential relationships,but with temporal ones. Art presents us with time-images only when a situation (context) dissolves into an event (an image); only then does art offer us, as Deleuze explains, “the explosion of the world…not a memory, but a block, an anonymous and infinite fragment, a becoming that is always contemporary.”7 Time is not exposed once and for all, but within the image, within its peculiar, virtual geography.

Wylie challenges us to be attentive to each individual image he creates–to the basic, sensible elements of what he refers to as “creating a geography.”8 However, the singularity of each image–each block, each face–complicates this description of his project. Artistic creation (poiesis) is variation and involution, an expression of an artistic will that gives shape to the world only to extract from it incoherence, a certain madness that opens any geography to temporality. non-chronological time is the law of the time-image, which Deleuze explains as “the powerful, non-organic Life which grips the world.”9 Temporality, in this sense, is far from subjective, anthropocentric, or chronological; rather, it presents itself as excessive and impoverished, preserving itself within its own realization in human time. Wylie’s attentiveness to this non-organic life is coupled with his choice of Carrara, a site overdetermined within the history of art. As a historiographic signifier, the site itself–in the present–is inscribed within each photograph as merely one aspect–one face–of a temporality that exposes the vestige of art, life as such.10 Art is an openness, that is, another temporality that opens only within human time. In the context of Wylie’s photographs, this aesthetic-temporality is figurable only in-between the solid block and its lightness and dust, in-between the opaqueness of the marble and the intensity of its lightness (whiteness).

In Wylie’s project, allusions construct a “line of flight” that extracts from the site its proper name, “Carrara.” This proper name is nothing less than a multiplicity of improbable encounters with Cezanne at the Bibemus quarries, Freud’s asking why we are “so powerfully affected” by art in his “The Moses of Michelangelo,” Henry Moore, the Grand Tour, Marcus Agrippa, John Nash’s Marble Arch, and others. Each photograph is a plane of composition comprised of seemingly (non)sensical allusions becoming of “Carrara.” As Deleuze often argues, sensations are “lines of flight” that compose a multiplicity, a unique combination. By creating an image, Wylie transmits a proper name via the allusions embodied in the face of each marble block: each image is a “bloc of sensation.” Sensation, Deleuze insists, is irreducible to logic and thought. An aesthetic-temporal experience of these images is thus one that recollects aisthesis as both “the great struggle to free sensation…from cliches or mere ‘probabilities'” and the task of coming to terms with the affects of imagery, including its allusive nature.11

William Wylie, 02-71, Carrara, 2008.

William Wylie, 02-71, Carrara, 2008. Pigment print, 29 x 37 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco.

To recollect aisthesis in this manner is to affirm the image as an image, that is, as non-knowledge. Recollection neither retrieves these allusions (people, ideas, etc.) in the present, nor merely connects them via the chain of signifiers that begins with a name (here Carrara); rather, it thinks the sensible and the legible as distinct and yet co-extensive. In terms familiar within the history of photography, recollection grasps the studia as an event of non-knowledge (a punctum).12 Images demand that we resituate ourselves in relation to the object of history. They insist that we reconsider “within the framework of the history of art, the very status of this object of knowledge with regard to which we will henceforth be required to think what we gain in the exercise of our discipline [art history, aesthetics, visual studies, whatever] in the face of what we thereby lose: in the face of a more obscure and no less sovereign constraint to not-knowledge.13 As Georges Didi-Huberman asserts, confronting images requires that we unravel “the nets of knowledge…to think the element of not-knowledge that dazzles us whenever we pose our gaze to an art image.”14 one element of non-knowledge is an experience of temporality as recollection, which bears within it the “power of the future.” only a discipline capable of recognizing and creating alongside the force of recollection that art requires is capable of doing justice to this type of experience and, thus, is worthy of the name.15

To rethink art history, or any discursive regime, so that it would be adequate to this element of non-knowledge inherent in artistic poiesis and aisthesis is to abandon the “problem of historical time” we have inherited from Kant via Panofsky so as to finally conceive of an immanent, affirmative pathos–event– of knowledge: “the history of art” in-between “on the one side, the danger of contemporary logocentrism… [and] on the other side, the danger of an empty totalitarianism in which the past–the supposed past, which is to say the ideal past–[acts] as absolute master of the interpretation.”16 To work with Wylie’s project is thus to discern the three elements of an image: poiesis (the producing of art), aisthesis (the sensation and affects of imagery), and a pathos of knowledge (criticism or theoretical discourse), each on its own and then as an ensemble that delimits the possibilities for how representation functions in contemporary discourse–an “aesthetic regime” that is coming undone before our eyes.17

To discern the traits of this aesthetic regime within Wylie’s project is to read it against the grain of contemporary discourse; instead of reading an image for some explicit or implicit meaning, we experience and create with an image an event of knowledge capable of conveying the untimeliness of Wylie’s neo-Romantic, stylistic photography. For instance, we would have to understand how and why Wylie’s project distances itself from documentary projects of workers by contemporary photographers like Sebastiao Salgado and Alfredo Jaar.18 Wylie does not stake expository and/or interventionist claims as Salgado does in his Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age. Wylie never photographs the cavatori at work; only the results of their labor are photographed. Nor is Wylie’s project focused on the larger socio-economic context of the quarry. Although his short films do show men working, it is fundamentally different from the representations of oppressive, punishing, unrelenting modern-medieval labor in Salgado. For example, in Cavatori (2008), while the men are certainly active–gesturing, shouting, and exerting themselves–a calm choreography that is directed by the workers is evident; nothing similar is present in Salgado’s work. Wylie’s project is an aesthetic one, which is not to say a formalist one. The intersection between art and politics enters only insofar as it is suggested by the corresponding labors of the photographer and the cavatori themselves. That is, a photograph is the outcome of Wylie’s artistic labor; the extraction and presentation of marble blocks is the manual, creative labor of the cavatori. Thus Wylie does not document labor conditions or the effects of globalization, which undoubtedly do enter into the habitus of the Carrara quarry; rather, he is concerned only with these corresponding labors and the aesthetic- temporal interest they pose.19 In other words, Wylie exchanges socio-political documentary and critique for an aesthetic belatedness that is best understood as one of the primary conditions of a work of art. As Deleuze posits, it is the condition of the work of art “to arrive too late in all other respects except precisely this one: time regained.”20 Each art image de-actualizes what remains within and inseparable from the image itself: a non-chronological, non-discursive temporality that underlies any geography, any writing on and of the earth.

The creative event of Carrara is an attentiveness beyond the landscape, to a recollection beyond signification. Wylie creates images of Carrara and its workers that do not reflect a preexistent reality as much as they present the quarry–as geography and proper name–as percept. The quarry as percept exceeds our expectations and perceptions of the landscape, which frame the portraits of marble blocks and cavatori. The quarry as percept renders visible forces that “populate the universe” of the quarry, which “affect us and make us become” because “the landscape is no longer an external reality, but has become the very element of a ‘passage of Life.'”21 This is the potentiality of art: to render and transmit an opening to “time as primary matter, immense and terrifying, like universal becoming.”22 Art is and opens us to such a becoming, such an experiment-experience that “goes beyond [anything] lived or livable” since “it exists only in thought and has no other result than the work of art.”23

This is not to abandon thought and art as ends-in- themselves, but rather to posit each as pure means because, as Deleuze reminds us, “thought and art are real, and disturb the reality, morality, and economy of the world.”24

William Wylie, 06-19, Carlo Morelli, Carrara, 2008.

William Wylie, 06-19, Carlo Morelli, Carrara, 2008. Pigment print, 24 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco.

As we leave the quarry, we take one last glance backward at a cavatore, whose clothes are dusted white; only a few spots of color (his green bootlaces) remain; dark glasses protect him from the blinding light of the white walls, as he stands in front of a flimsy rail protecting him from the abyss behind him (06-19, Carlo Morelli, Carrara, 2008). With confident impatience he stands still, a contraction of time in the quarry. This is the becoming-quarry (becoming-stone) of the worker, pietra viva (living stone, indeed). Thus he only appears still in the image, but in this becoming-quarry, the cavatore and the Cava di Gioia become something between them: the subject and the landscape; the latter will outlive the former; the former excavates the latter into “blocks of sensation.” But it is only the image, Wylie’s photography, that renders this becoming a “bloc of sensation,” an ensemble of percepts and affects. Ultimately, it is this becoming-quarry that is no longer a world, but an impersonal geography created as Cezanne desired: an “iridescent chaos” wherein an artist can “tear open the firmament itself, to let in a bit of free and windy chaos and to frame in a sudden light a vision that appears through the rent.”25 As with Deleuze, Wylie would rather not “patch over the rent with opinions: communications.” Instead, Wylie demands our time, our patient becoming, as he obscures himself behind the camera. In media res, chaos and composition, Wylie’s Carrara forces us to sense how and why the only creative geography, the only world (cosmos) opened by art is the one wherein we are each a chaosmos.26

Jae Emerling teaches art history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is the author of Theory for Art History and is currently at work on a book about photography and critical theory to be published by Routledge in 2011.

Footnotes

  1. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, translated by David W. Smith (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 54.
  2. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, translated by Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 94-98.
  3. William Wylie, Carrara (Chicago: The Center for American Places and University of Chicago Press, 2009). Wylie’s work has been reviewed by Johanna Drucker in “Making Space: Image Events in an Extreme State” (Cultural Politics, 2008) and Kenneth Baker in ARTnews (March 2009). In addition, Eric Scigliano’s preface to Carrara entitled “Pietra Viva” and Russell Lord’s “History in Stone: William Wylie and the Persistence of the Photograph” (published by Second Street Gallery in Charlottesville, VA, for an October 2006 exhibition) supplemented my reading here.
  4. The concept of a “bloc of sensation” is discussed by Deleuze and Felix Guattari in What Is Philosophy?, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994). Of course, I am playing with this phrase in relation to the blocks of marble that Wylie photographed.
  5. These photographs have elicited comments on Wylie’s project as contingent on a post-Minimalist aesthetic. As Kenneth Baker writes: “It is only now, a generation after Post-Minimalism, that he could so plainly take up an uncarved block of stone as a photographic subject and find admirers ready to see it as a sculpture in itself.”
  6. Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image, translated by Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2007), 111.
  7. Deleuze, “He Stuttered,” Essays Critical and Clinical, translated by Daniel W.Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 114.
  8. Wylie, “Creating a Geography,” Carrara, 71-2.
  9. Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 81.
  10. With this phrase “the vestige of art, life as such” I am resituating an argument by Jean-Luc Nancy in relation to Deleuze’s philosophy. See Nancy’s “the Vestige of Art,” in his text The Muses.
  11. John Rajchman, The Deleuze Connections (Cambridge, MA: The Mit Press, 2000), 9.
  12. As Geoffrey Batchen clarifies, many have “missed the complexity of Barthes’s overall argument. for what matters here is not the difference between studium and punctum, but the political economy of their relationship (what matters is precisely their post-structural inseparability).” Moreover, it is Barthes’s own words that open to a Deleuzian reading of the second part of Camera Lucida: “I now know that there exists another punctum…this new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is time.” see Batchen, “Camera Lucida: Another Little History of Photography” in Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson, eds., The Meaning of Photography (Williamstown: Sterling and Frances Clark Institute; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 85; Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), 96.
  13. Georges Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art, translated by John Goodman (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), 7.
  14. Ibid.
  15. As Elizabeth Grosz astutely states, we must come to grasp what our discipline shares with art, that is, the “ways they divide and organize chaos to create a plane of coherence, a field of consistency, a plane of composition on which to think and to create… How, in other words, do the arts and philosophy (‘theory’) create? …What can philosophy contribute to an understanding of art other than an aesthetics, that is, a theory of art, a reflection on art? Instead of supervening from above, taking art as its object, how can philosophy work with art or perhaps as and alongside art, a point of relay or connection with art?” See Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 4-5.
  16. Didi-Huberman, 39. See especially his third chapter “The History of Art Within the Limits of Its Simple Reason,” which provides an extended reading of Erwin Panofsky that deals in part with his 1931 essay “Zum Problem der historischen Zeit.”
  17. On the unraveling of a modern (and post-modern) “aesthetic regime” and the attendant eschatological discourse of the end, see my piece on Ranciere’s The Future of the Image in Journal of Visual Culture, 7, no. 3 (December, 2008), 376-381. Photography has certainly not avoided this discourse; see Geoffrey Batchen’s brilliant “Epitaph” to Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography (Cambridge, MA: The Mit Press, 1997) and Kelsey and Stimson, The Meaning of Photography.
  18. I am referring to the work by both Salgado and Jaar at the Serra Pelado goldmine in Brazil. Salgado’s work can be seen in his Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age (New York: Aperture, 2005). Jaar’s photography often factors into his mixed-media installations such as Gold in the Morning (1986). The distinction between these projects and Wylie’s can be seen in Wylie’s beautiful film Dust (2008). Projects closer to Wylie’s own include Lewis Baltz’s Park City (New York: Aperture, 1981), Mark Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), and Alan Cohen’s On European Ground (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001).
  19. This correspondence is reinforced in exhibitions of the project as well, where images from each section are arranged together, evincing Wylie’s desire to have us read across the tripartite arrangement of the book.
  20. Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, 97.
  21. Daniel W. Smith,”Introduction,” Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, xxxiv.
  22. Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, 115.
  23. Smith, xxviii.
  24. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, translated by Constantine Boundas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 60.
  25. Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 203.
  26. Deleuze discusses this concept in several texts; see The Logic of Sense and What Is Philosophy?
Further Reading