I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
As we spiral, or skulk, toward the millennium, the sublime, that supreme mass before us, has become information. Confronted by this awe inspiring nexus, Matthew Ritchie shatters the hyperspace, splicing the world—and even more so ourselves—into all its conflicting elements. Like squashed cubes of to-be-recycled car parts, Matthew’s “project”—his paintings, sculptures, drawings and website—celebrates how complex it really is: myth, science, philosophy, history … all appear in Matthew’s work. A “thing” with six fingers, a self-aborted child, scientific formulae, fields of red and blue, arms, legs reaching out…. It’s impossible to catalogue Matthew’s work, other than to say it is a story, and a game. On the gallery wall of his most recent show read the title: “Seven earths. Seven characters. Forty-nine ways to die. There’s only one way out. The Hard Way.” I could imagine sitting on the floor, one of his Sintra sculptures glowing like a campfire, listening to Matthew spin his yarn. But the lesson—if there is one—is to decide the outcome for yourself. I’m continually amazed—every time we talk, by how much data he collects; every time I look at his work, by how much fun it is to figure out.
Jenifer Berman So what’s the historic background of this project? Let’s start with the character Mulciber, the builder.
Matthew Ritchie Mulciber began as the matrix of information for the whole system, an index. It is covered in plates of armor—a hermaphrodite with 49 chromosomes, two sets of both sex chromosomes and then one extra, the mystery chromosome. Mulciber is the only character who doesn’t come out of the Bible or have an historical precedent. It was invented by Milton, for whom I think it’s a surrogate in Paradise Lost. In Milton, Mulciber is the builder of heaven and subsequently of hell. In my project, it’s also the architect, but of the mind. As the cycle progressed it’s role receded and it became one of the seven characters called the Watchers who are an ancient legend, a pre-Christian version of the Prometheus myth. The Watchers are mentioned in the very beginning of Genesis as those “giants” who were thrown out of heaven for having sex with the children of Adam and Eve.
JB So the original base for your own mythology is grounded in Biblical myth?
MR What I was looking for was a team of characters—originally I was trying to make a visual symbology that could be used to describe the idea that painting is a language which fills 16 of the 17 criteria for an operating language. French and Mathematics have 17; painting has 16, so it’s like a language missing one gene.
JB What’s missing?
MR The idea that you can translate from one painting to another, a Goya to a Picasso, or even one Picasso to another Picasso; whereas you can go from French to Greek and get pretty close. Artists typically don’t work with an integrated symbolic language. But in the late Renaissance they invented a pictorial hieroglyphic language which they used to describe science and proto-science and alchemy, and the characters representing the metals were also celestial characters, like angels. So you had a situation where you had an “artistic” activity that was thoroughly translatable and had an internal integrity. This angelic hierarchy was hugely elaborated between the 11th and 16th centuries to include thousands of names, by the end there was one for everything: one for ink and color, for abortion, for the lottery… Every single aspect of human experience had a character looking after it. What I was looking for were parallels in this hierarchy of names to all the functions that were occurring inside a painting, and the visual language remained impenetrable until I started attaching characters to it. So the necessity for the characters came out of the functions of the painting rather than myth. Mulciber, the builder, is obviously the character for assembly. It wasn’t like I wanted to make a classical myth, but rather give people another language through which they can understand the interactions of a painting.
JB Have you retained that idea as you’ve continued working, because each of the characters, the seven Watchers, seem to embody a particular place on the path of a heroic myth.
MR That’s interesting. Because in my “working model” chart there’s a line of characteristics at the top that are the seven types of activity you can find in an equation—the principles of addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, the result, the beginning, and the medium through which these activities occur. An equation of activity will contain no more than these seven actions, though it might repeat. The first characters, who come before the Watchers, are the basic building blocks of the universe, and collectively they embody all the physical principles behind the universe. The first ones occur as a result of a negative contraction of space that Barnett Newman called the zim zum and is what we know as the Big Bang theory. Because we don’t have a conception of how things really began, we have an invention which can only be construed as a sort of absence. In my story, a family of characters evolve who all embody uncertainty, and behind them come many others. Collectively they go through a series of power struggles, unhappy relationships and incest and produce as their offspring the Watchers who represent the seven lobes of the human brain.
So really, in terms of a heroic myth, this is anti-heroic. No one’s the hero, everyone is just a participant. You are offered the choice of whom to root for, like the NBA with lots of teams, and you can choose your home team, but there’s no guarantee they’ll win; in fact, since all the characters have a really bad time, it’s more likely that they’ll lose.
JB In your first show, you had the abacus-like sculptures dispersed throughout the room. They were a way for the viewers to participate in the story and individually determine the projection of the narrative. A friend told me about this interactive film where everyone in the audience had a joystick, and at varying points in the film they could decide, Do you want the bicycle messenger to turn right? And everyone would vote, and the consensus said, Yes, turn right, and then again, maybe ten minutes later, there’d be another choice. You told me how excited people were about being able to participate in your art in that way.
MR People love that, and rightly so because it’s much closer to life. This is about constructing something that occupies a parallel mental space that’s similar to the space in your real brain where you make decisions based on inadequate information and belief. You operate with the possibility that every corner is a blind corner, you’re always wondering whether you should turn right or left, and time is an engine propelling you forward. With the game construct of the paintings and sculptures and the website, what I’m hoping to create is an environment that reflects life, but without the temporal elements, so you can reconfigure these events endlessly. That’s why that first piece with the abacus was called The God Game — you can play with the laws of the universe to your heart’s content.
JB Are you writing the narrative through the process of painting, or do you work it out beforehand, and then represent it formally?
MR It cross-pollinates all the time. It’s intended to have a sufficient number of elements so that it would be impossible for me to predict how they would come together. The multiplication of 7×7×7, the magic square, is basically infinity. And so the interrelationship of all the parts is constantly surprising me, because the rules, although they’re loose, are fairly specific. When the builder shows up it has to build something, and when the character who embodies temperature shows up it has to affect or record the temperatures of what’s around him.
JB Do these variables occur while you’re painting?
MR The paintings write the myth. So if I want to put some blue in, and blue is a character, you can’t just put blue next to red. If you could do that you’ve added another chapter. There was a point where everything was very simple, but as the story goes back in time, the paintings get more complicated. This newest painting, Time Novel, is getting incredibly complicated, because it has to explain all the new events that have occurred since the last time I thought about this.
JB The work seems to be fragmenting: it moves off the wall and onto the floor; there are these color fields, sculptural cross-sections of the universe. And Lamentation, a painting, is an explosion. It seems you focus at that moment of apocalypse, when the characters fall.
MR Well the central question of cognitive theory is the binding problem, which is the title of one of my new paintings. Only in human beings does every part of the brain cohere to make a conscious matrix, and a secondary consciousness overlaps all of this, but there’s no specific location for that, and it’s incredibly dubious whether it really tangibly exists. The missing ingredient is what these characters lack. Because they exist from the beginning of the story as fragments, puppets in the story, they don’t ever have a central god.
JB That’s you.
MR I’ve abandoned them, though. (laughter)
JB So you’re malevolent.
MR I’m indifferent. And that’s the question of consciousness generally, how do you know something is real? That’s David Hume’s question, and the answer is you don’t, you invent reality based on your sensory impressions, but your sensory impressions are being interpreted by something that is based on previous events. So when you meet somebody you decide all kinds of things about them based on what kind of shoes they wear.
JB Do you have an affinity for Gerhard Richter’s work? You use these cross-sections, snapshots as you call them, to convey the whole narrative picture.
MR Richter is truly indifferent, or proposes that he is, and he takes the photograph as a coincidence. In other words, he selects from this collection of snapshots all kinds of things and collates and edits, that’s where his subjectiveness comes in, but he posits himself almost as a non-creator, almost like this tape recorder. He’s showing you glimpses of the abyss. Richter’s work is not fathomable, because he’s showing you the real world just as he’s showing you a different place, temporally and emotionally, than the one you are in right now. But in my case, what I’m trying to do is give you something that’s more like a toy where you can legitimately assume that it will be fathomable, to a certain extent. What I’m doing is a continuum that’s alien and invented. It maps the real world, but is designed to be much simpler, childlike, in that it’s seven basic colors and they come together. There’re more limitations on it. But I would like to think we share a perverse faith in the possibilities of painting.
JB It’s interesting you say there are limitations. You have the basic elements, but in the combination of the elements—blue with yellow, Azazel together with Shemjaza—you have an infinite number of possibilities.
MR Well, this is like a collapsing order, explicitly ordered at the beginning and since then it has been deteriorating immensely fast. It’s much more like a laboratory experiment constructed to see if you could artificially simulate mystery. To which the answer is a guarded, yes. As soon as you push the first domino the whole thing begins to collapse. Even if you reduce all the parameters to seven basic colors and these very simple character constructs, it still immediately spirals completely out of control.
JB The permutations of these characters and the descendants of those permutations could continue indefinitely. Your imagination has moved far beyond the original myth of angels having sex with early humans.
MR The reason I chose the Watchers was that there was basically no myth surrounding them. In a sense, it’s the perfect palimpsest, a shaded memory of a myth that may or may not have even happened.
JB For me, the character Tamaii is the most mythically emblematic character, because in very simplistic terms, he is drawn in black and white: Apollo/Dionysus, good/evil, trying to slay the dragon but instead is slaying himself. He keeps dividing and falling into himself. He’s the hero in perpetual conflict, the snake who is biting his tail.
MR Well, he’s the angel of painting. (laughter) So, there you have it. No surprise that he would be the one most permanently conflicted. He’s the thief who steals light to make it into paintings.
JB Light archetypically being creation.
MR Yeah, and it’s inevitable that the characters come back, because they’re basically indestructible. They are archetypes. Some of them have died several times already, so it’s a relative construct.
JB As death is a completely relative construct—in mythology …
MR And indeed in life. To the millions of practicing Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. in America, it’s very problematic to believe in it as an absolute.
JB A year ago, we talked about the work capturing that sense of energy and chaos, what with so many narratives going on at once. At the time, you were working more within the frame of the canvas. And now, with The Hard Way, the work breaks that edge and crawls out onto the floor.
MR For the first show, the working model was a map. It was explicitly set up with charts and diagrams, lists of all the characters. It was organized to show you a schematic of the universe, because what I didn’t want to do was plunge people into yet another arbitrary mythological construct and then subsequently claim that their interpretations were planned by me all along. I wanted to first establish the game. For the second show it was like, you have the map, now let’s go on the journey. So everything that was static in the first show gets pushed into motion, and all the characters that were iconic and static are now active and have personalities and are arguing with each other, and it’s all falling apart, the whole thing is collapsing. But you can’t do that unless you have a map to begin with.
JB How necessary is it that your audience understand the narrative? Can the paintings and sculptures exist independently of that?
MR You have to be able to trust the maker. The writer or the creator doesn’t have to spell it all out to you. My work was partly presented as a reaction to a climate where a great deal of arbitrarily narrative work had been proposed—this was during the 1980s—and subsequently a number of these pseudo-narratives had instantaneously collapsed, leaving an audience extremely pissed off with the possibilities of narrative painting. Because what they were watching was just people in the treasury, ransacking the storeroom, and having a good time putting on the crowns and the swords. It’s not like you need to be culturally specific, but you have to be very rigorous about your own internal mythology or it collapses and people lose faith in it. So this was an attempt to be very explicit, probably as much for me as for any audience, to go, here are the rules up front, there are no secrets, so if I make a mistake or backtrack or start to manipulate this, you’ll be able to call me on it. And that goes back to this idea of inter-translatability. If you saw my first show and you recognized a character and then saw them later, you would be able to be assured that it was indeed the same character. It wasn’t just that I like doing funny-headed people made out of bricks, although I do.
JB That’s incredibly structured, proving to yourself that you must always work within the formula.
MR It’s like chaos theory. The weather is a closed system, but it’s a chaotic closed system. No one can predict what the weather’s going to do because it’s composed of a sufficient number of parts that are collectively indeterminate, even though individually they are very determinable.
JB But if I live in New York, I can bargain that it probably won’t snow in June. I’ll bundle up in March and take my fan out in May. And then there’s always the Farmer’s Almanac that has been predicting the weather for hundreds of years.
MR But you can’t guarantee it won’t flood in June. There’s always a random factor. This is the nature of any information system which is sufficiently complex. I was trying to make something that existed in a pseudo-state where you can say, yes, it’s so simple, it must be determinable, and then as soon as you push that first domino, it’s instantly obviously completely indeterminate. And that was supposed to be a metaphor for thought and for art making. The patterns are fixed, but the choices within it are yours. And because the characters have free will, the indeterminacy level is exaggerated massively.
JB But ultimately they don’t have free will, you’re making the decisions for them.
MR If we give credence to the idea that I follow the determinate part of the project, and then allow the accidents of the inter-relations to occur … I don’t really know what most of the characters are like. Or indeed any of them.
JB But aren’t they loosely based on parallels to the functions of painting? For instance, Tamaii is the painter, or Azazel is . .
MR The party animal.
JB Id. Unknowing, unselfconscious …
MR Although you’d be surprised at the number of people who choose Azazel as their character, grown adults, which is kind of scary.
JB He’s the guy with no humility, probably the high school superstar who flacks all the girls … but eventually everyone else moves on and he’s working at the gas station.
MR Or he could be President of the United States. He’s a creature of unbridled appetite.
JB Is he savvy?
MR Savvy in his way, just indiscriminate. As all the characters are very indiscriminate because they’ve been reduced to these hyper-active single activities. So in that sense, every time these characters do something, they become much more clearly defined, much more fanatic. And every time they are betrayed by another character or things don’t go their way, they become more entrenched in their position, or more disillusioned. Like Mulciber is incredibly disillusioned. It builds all these beautiful earths, and then these other wacky characters come in and trash them. So right now it’s completely jaded, pissed off at the whole thing.
JB Is there one character you feel more affection for than another?
MR No, obviously Mulciber was the first, it was intended to be the creative surrogate, but now I just play favorites. Whoever is the most fun at a given time becomes my particular avatar, and I’ll tend to allow them more latitude. And that drives the story because I might say, I’m going to investigate what Tamaii is doing at this point in the story—well Tamaii can only do certain things because he’s Tamaii: he’s two-faced, he prevaricates. So no matter how much I might want the story to go one way, if Tamaii has to hustle and he’s entered the story, it will in fact end up going a different way. And then there’s the third factor, which is that every part of the story has to correlate to physical events in what we call the scientific universe.
JB Right, the characters are all based on chemical, physical properties, in addition to their metaphorical properties. Do you ever feel that the work, the characters, are instructional? That by throwing in solitude and violence …
MR They are instructional to me. Yeah, it’s structured as a seven part scalar relationship, which goes from very big to very small, and that part of it was designed to show that everything is basically similar, this idea of fractal entities. A tiny bit of a landscape, a tiny rock, is usually an echo of the larger coastline from which you’ve extracted that rock, and in the same way, chemical interactions on a tiny scale become the hole in the ozone layer.
JB Are you ever accused of being pedantic?
MR We’ll strike this from the record.
JB You’ve not been asked that before?
MR With the first show, everyone was like, God, I can’t believe you’re making me learn all this crap. And with the second show it became obvious that what I was intending to do was give you enough information so that you could let go. This is supposed to be fun. This is not designed as a test. There are no questions later, this is art.
JB The raw information you’ve compiled is enormous, dense. I’m sure you’re asked this a lot, but were you into Dungeons and Dragons as a kid?
MR I wasn’t, but I’ve been asked this question enough times I’ve actually done some research, so there you have my whole universe in miniature: ask me a question and I’ll go find out what the answer is. Dungeons and Dragons is based on Lord of the Rings, which was an explicit attempt by Tolkien to incorporate all the mythic structures. And like Joseph Campbell or the Odyssey or Grimm’s fairy tales, they were all an attempt to produce an archetype to embody aspects of reality. They are a series of object lessons. You don’t fuck the woman who is going to turn everyone you know into pigs. You don’t talk to strangers, you keep your nose clean, come home to your wife … And if you don’t, look at the Iliad and you can see what happens to all those guys who dick around with slave girls. They all get killed. So it becomes a lesson. And like most of the ideological structures we have now, they’ve become a collating exercise, which I think has to do with approaching the millennium. There’s this effort to gather everything and reduce it to the same level, and this project definitely reflects that activity. We’re in a holding pattern, this vortex where we’re constantly gathering more and more stuff. The Internet is the most obvious example: Let’s get everything together in one place for maximum incoherence. Information at a sufficient level of complexity becomes invisible. The sky is like information if you look at it, all these atomic reactions, but you can’t see it.
JB As things are supposedly moving closer in the world, what now with the “information highway,” there’s no denying that we’ll never be able to raze that diversity. They scream that we’re entering this homogenous zone, but that’s ludicrous.
MR And absurd. You have the Freemen in Montana basically trying to establish a new culture, and thousands of these little enclaves or microphyles growing up all over the world. It’s the inevitable process. At the end of the 19th century people were saying, we’re losing touch with our cultural roots. And I’m sure in the Homeric era they were talking about this damn Persian influence spoiling everything. I don’t think that we’ve … stayed on the track. (laughter)
JB You have seven adventures/excavations planned, the first of which you just recently completed—to the black glaciers on the island of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle.
MR About 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole.
JB And that ties in to the narrative where the Watchers fall to Earth.
MR Yes, the Watchers flee heaven via The Hard Way, which causes their internal collapse, and when they hit the earth, they scatter across continents leaving concentrations of their body parts at various points. So the expeditions are research, relating to this idea that every part of the project has to be correlated with something real.
JB You feel very strongly about the project needing to correlate to something real.
MR Yes, very strongly. That’s another of the rules that was set up in the beginning. It has to work. Again, it’s all about this idea of trust. Trust for the viewer and trust for the artist that this thing has an internal integrity. It’s also about being responsible. Painting is this incredible technology that is so underused—like people using a Maserati as a wheelbarrow. And it’s just absurd to waste this thing that has been designed and worked on for 30,000 years to fulfill all kinds of spiritual and social needs. You can do whatever you want in a painting. And if all you want to do with your Maserati is inflate the tires every now and then in your shop then that’s fine, but it seems crazy to me. So one of the reasons for making a working activity is to see how complicated I can make it and how many platforms I can build in to make it even more complex, more ambitious. And one way to do that is to step outside the studio and see if these parts of the world remotely resemble this fictional narrative. And if they don’t, then the narrative has to shift to incorporate the reality of that place.
JB It’s Tamaii who falls to the black glacier, the Norwegian finds his residue in the form of a mineral deposit that covers the glacier’s walls.
MR Yes, in that case it’s coal. Svalbard is the most northerly coal mine.
JB And how did being in the glacier affect the work, or change the story? Could you rewrite the text now that you’ve been there? Will the rules let you backtrack in that way?
MR Uh, I haven’t had to yet.
JB But you still have six of these journeys to go.
MR That’s true. Fingers crossed, right.
JB So this leads back to the question of what comes first, because in a sense you’ve already determined what you’re going to perceive, or what you’re looking to ingest from an experience, as opposed to letting the experience inform you, and then writing that back into the project. Did you see what you wanted to see when you were there?
MR I saw something so much better than what I’d imagined being 300 meters underground, at the winter solstice where there are 24 hours of darkness. Because Tamaii’s the black character, he had to go to the definition of darkness, and being underground in a cave with absolutely no potential for natural light, with walls made out of black rock, there was no possibility for blackness as a physical experience to get more profound.
JB And psychically?
MR It was just incredible. It’s very different to go, this is a good idea, and then go, I’m in a glacier and it’s minus 30 degrees. There’s no substitute for subjecting yourself to an invented information system and finding out if it has a physical correlate. It’s like writing a movie of your life and then hoping your life actually turns out like the movie.
JB So the fact that you’d already written the story …
MR We’ve all written our stories, but we have no idea what will happen next. Everyone has some lame-brained notion of what they think the future is, and they’re all wrong. Everyone thinks it’s going to be a happy ending, or they think it’s going to be a terrible, sad ending, but they’ve all got some story cooking away and are taking what they think are the steps to make that story come true. But in fact, you go on the blind date or you go to the country or leave the town or have the argument or the affair, and it’s not quite exactly what you thought, but your brain swiftly adjusts to that and reflects a new reality and it can’t really remember how it was different. When I came to the States, I had no idea what would happen to me, but I was pretty sure it was going to be a happy ending, but in fact it wasn’t okay for a long time. But that didn’t stop me being convinced it was actually all working out according to plan, even when I was living on biscuits in a welfare hotel. You can only interpret reality in terms of your own experience, so you claim to understand the events that are happening to you even as they are stripping away all of the things you thought you understood. The tragedy of life is that you think you’re anticipating things, but your response is probably because those things have already happened to you. Your anticipation is usually too little too late. And so the point of going on these trips is to accelerate that process.
JB What’s up on the website?
MR There are a series of texts and images, games and puzzles that reveal various attributes or secrets about the characters’ natures. The next phase we’re working on is an interactive quiz, where based on your answer, you get to become one of the characters, and the form of the characters will determine the evolution of the story.
JB What are you working on for the Whitney?
MR A part of the story called Autogenesis, which is a family tree showing how the first five or six sets of characters relate to each other.
JB Assuming that the Biennial represents the current trends in the art world, do you see yourself working within a community or school of thought? You came to New York from Britain almost ten years ago, and you’ve said that at that time you didn’t see yourself working in kind with the British scene.
MR I’m not a conceptual artist. I feel very much that the work right now in Britain is about creating a kind of theater—like Rachel Whiteread and Damian Hirst and Georgina Starr. Theater is where English culture is very strong, and has always been. They traditionally don’t like art that’s purely visual, so this recent work hit a real core culturally. It deserves its success. But to answer your question, yes, there are a lot of artists here who are doing work that I feel close to, and it evolves around ideas of treating art as a language, and consequently inventing narratives that come out of that, and not in the 1960s sense of the Gombrich great narrative of art, but something that is a construct. There are all kinds of artists working within traditions, like Katy Schimert or Kara Walker, or Matthew Barney choosing to be the goat. The goat is the most loaded psycho-sexual symbol—it’s Pan, the devil … but he’s chosen to reinvent it as a contemporary, mutogenic form.
JB If you think of Barney or Laurie Simmons, they’ve chosen a particular image or symbol, often including themselves in the work. You’ve detached yourself, through such a complex narrative, divorced yourself of an affiliation.
MR Hum. Well, the argument of the work is that personality is constructed of competing impulses. This is what Gerald Edelman called neural-Darwinism: your brain is basically a democracy. And this project is built as a model for me to find out what’s going on. All you have to do is look at a map of the world to know that it’s full of competing interest groups. Look at the history of evolution, it’s filled with millions upon millions of bizarre competing species. Your brain is only another example of this, and the cells of your body are powered by mitochondria, which are individually independent life forms. They’re like slave labor. Your whole body runs off slave labor. It’s got this other species trapped inside it.
JB Go to the jungle. It’s the ultimate confrontation with an obvious, apparent symbiotic environment. Everything feeding off of everything else. And you won’t survive if you don’t embrace that collectivity.
MR And New York is the cultural equivalent of the jungle. You’re competing with everything else for space and time and energy, and that’s what’s happening inside your body, and also what’s happening inside your consciousness. So in a sense, this isn’t an attempt to distance myself, but an attempt to properly engage all of the disparate impulses instead of going for this Apollo/Dionysus split like, I get horny but I like to read. That’s Paglia’s basic dichotomy of life.
JB Or Neitzche’s or Conrad’s or any slew of others.
MR It’s much more that you’ve got hundreds of competing impulses—your skin is itching, you’re responding to pressures and thoughts of age, your body is deteriorating, you’re going to the gym. It’s a mess. This temple of activity. This hive. The heart’s beating, you can hear it ticking in the back of your mind. And your brain, god knows what’s going on there. No one’s even close to figuring that out. And so this is an attempt to try and map what it’s really like to be a person, in this simple, childish way. It has to be simple, because it keeps getting so complicated, which is what Time Novel is about. Different parts of the story, with the same characters—it’s like your body. You’ve got the same hand that you had when you were 12, the same scar, and you can remember how you filled up a cupful of blood, and now it’s just this laminated, fossilized fiction on your skin. Rather than show one aspect of myself, like I’m Mr. Cool or Mr. Upset, I’m trying to show you everything.
JB And collating all this information, you think that is a result of the end of the millennium?
MR Information has become sufficiently complex as to become a cultural sublime. Nature is no longer sublime because we control it, it’s polluted, tainted. But the place we do have, where you can disappear, is into the information nexus, because it’s too immense. It only offers corruption, and corruption to such an extent that you cannot step back and critique it because it’s such a tangled morass of conflicting positions that it doesn’t matter if you’re a student of Habermas or a student of Adam Smith. You’re going to be confronted with so many paradoxes of your own position, that you cannot make a definitive statement. It becomes sublime, you have to just sit here.
JB Sublime in that it is awe-inspiring, but overwhelming so that the tendency is to funnel, or compartmentalize one’s world?
MR Yeah, people compartmentalize. They don’t like to think of it as a continuum, because the continuum has become so vast. But at the same time, I’ve found people tremendously responsive to this idea of a synthetic structure, because they all know this weird symbolic language that litters the activities of everyday life. And this is arcane, there’s no point in pretending it isn’t, but if you become simplistic, you’re just underestimating your audience.
JB There’s just the tendency to be curious, to define, to know—who the characters are, where they’ve been, what’s their trajectory. For better or worse, that’s the tendency of the Western intellectual mind, to have that control. So it’s exciting to piece the puzzle together, and daunting at the same time to consider what happens when, say, chance and fever interact. Everyone has their own subjective interpretation, their own cultural cairns. So in giving us the map, and then letting us explore, it is a lot of fun. As long as there’s that openness. Because you can’t rewrite history, but you can reinterpret it based on what you know in the present.
MR I want people to feel that they are walking into a story. The temporal nature of art means that it has an infinite charge. You can go back to the beginning of the story as many times as you like, very unlike life where the movie progresses whether you have figured it out or not. Painting is timeless, giving the same charge again and again. It’s an infinite battery, it violates the laws of thermo-dynamics, it’s not entropic. A painter can laminate thousands of hours into one artifact, and it stays there and for hundreds of years radiates to every viewer. It’s an anti-time activity. Which is why you’ll often see the same character appearing several times in a painting as he or she or it evolves its way through a series of cycles and maybe returns back to the beginning. All those options are possible inside the same micro-second of absorption. I don’t think any other cultural activity has quite that bizarre potential.
Jenifer Berman is a writer and the Senior Editor of BOMB. She is currently working on her first novel.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.