Montreal, 3 February 2017
Dear Bartleby, and dear Bartlebys, I almost didn’t write to you.
This began as a letter to Roman Opałka. I had wanted to ask him questions about erasure in his project Détail 1965 / 1 – ∞, the work of a lifetime, begun in 1965, which consisted of painting successive numbers. His project started with the number one and continued until his death in 2011. Opałka added 1% more white to each new painting, and from canvas to canvas, as time went on, the numbers seemed to gradually be erased.
Beyond the astounding beauty of each Détail, the power of his work lies in the serial and diachronic nature of his undertaking, and not in just one painting. The meticulous execution of each number on a separate canvas is disconcerting, sure, but cannot rival how striking it is to see several Détails side by side, allowing us to “visualize time,” as the painter himself once said. Opałka uses space – he doesn’t have a choice – but at the same time he rejects it.
Opałka’s serial work self-destructs as the viewer looks at it, and recomposes itself in the eye of the next viewer, as he or she begins to read. Time is born through a programmed self-destruction of space that requires us to abandon the understated location of each number and also of each painting.
And all at once this far-fetched question occurs to me: is it in fact the numbers that refuse space? Of course not, they are well and truly there. But Opałka’s hand seems to refuse space, never coming back to the same place, sweeping across the canvas and carrying us along with it, moving ahead in time. We could say the same thing about every painter because once the line is placed on the canvas, it is not removed or redone – even if it’s reworked or covered over, it has been done. But Opałka makes this the subject that orients his entire work. He exacerbates linearity by painting the succession of numbers, and places the question of temporality at the centre of his project. From my point of view, this position highlights the central role of movement and temporality in the destruction of space.
The work situates us in the movement. By moving ahead of the 1% of white that accumulates from canvas to canvas, the pictorial space erases itself and the figurative world disappears further and further. The white that is first manifest pictorially becomes, little by little, sheer light. This makes me think of the biblical story of Saul moving forward on the road to Damascus, blinded by the light; this is what I mean by the destruction of space.
What would a dance look like in which the dancer never stepped in the same place twice? In which she or he never repeated the same movements? Would it be Samuel Beckett’s Quad (1981), but without the repeated trajectories? And would it end with the death of the last dancer?
This is the point at which I abandoned my letter, saying to myself, like you, “I would prefer not to.” I realize as I write to you now that refusal and abandonment have their own momentum, they always take us somewhere – maybe even towards a goal – but a goal that eludes us, one that even becomes more and more obscure, self-destructing, like Opałka’s work.
Rauschenberg’s painting Erased De Kooning (1953) comes to mind. I’m attaching a reproduction for your pleasure and reference.
Next I dived into Suite for Barbara Loden (2012), a strange book by Nathalie Léger about actress Barbara Loden and her character, Wanda, in the film by the same name that she directed in 1971. The story is sometimes confusing – the author of the book speaks simultaneously about herself, about the actress (Loden), and about the character of Wanda, and everything gets tangled together so that ultimately only an object remains: the bag. This stable object in the grip of the character of Wanda. This fragile material, white plastic, that Wanda drags around everywhere. This thing that gets filled and emptied throughout Wanda’s life. I remember a certain story Marguerite Duras tells a friend. Having watched the slow death of a fly over several minutes, she began to speak to it, and when she realized this, she knew it would be possible for her to go crazy, right there, in that moment.
I turn back to Suite for Barbara Loden and read an excerpt from an interview in Cahiers du cinéma with Claude Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert:
Les Cahiers du cinéma: what happens from now until filming starts?
Chabrol: We snooze.
Huppert: We sleep, to become absent. Go inside oneself. […] The more we are absent, the more chances we have to be present for the camera. And him: “I don’t believe the art of the actor consists in getting outside of oneself, it’s more the opposite: to go even deeper within.” And her: “What seems important to me in an actor is their passivity” (in Léger 2012, 84).
Wasn’t this the case for you, Bartleby?
I’m standing before my bookshelf again.
I examine the books one by one, hoping to find an echo to my questions about erasure in the process of creation. To my great pleasure, I discover your kinsfolk there: Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Maurice Blanchot, and several of their literary characters. These Bartlebys are different. They don’t necessarily refuse writing, but like Roman Opałka, they refuse space. Their characters are sometimes caught in a particular space. I’m thinking of Happy Days (1963) or Waiting for Godot (1952) by Beckett, or of the characters in Awaiting Oblivion (1962) by Blanchot – here’s an excerpt: “Since when had he begun to wait? Since he freed himself for waiting by losing the desire for particular things, even the desire for the end of things” (1962, 39).
I could tell you about my choreography 0101, in which the three parts are gradually erased. And I could speak to you about Edouard Levé and his book Œuvres, which makes me think of you because he describes works that don’t exist. I see an erasure in this, a certain withdrawal of expectations about production, an anti-productive process that’s very much in relation to your work, but I’ll stop here – I would prefer not to.
Finally, Bartleby, I wonder if, in writing to you, if in revisiting my works and those of others within the framework of my PhD, I’m not in the process of erasing myself as well. In getting involved in this doctoral line of inquiry, my goal was to concentrate on a single project, to do less and to distil, but it’s not that simple: how do you manage to lock yourself away?
During these four years of the PhD, I’ve chosen to be less productive, and I notice that not being productive requires, curiously, a great deal of courage. Beyond the personal questions it provokes, living as a recluse, “preferring not to” do, not producing, being desynchronized, means in some ways becoming transparent, even ignored, but I feel an incredible freedom and that in itself is priceless. Thank you, Bartleby, and all the Bartlebys – you give me courage.