Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

‘Pictures at an Exhibition:’ Mussorgsky, painting and Virilio’s ‘grey ecology’

‘Gnome’. Oil on canvas. Rachelle Hugo

In my previous post, I pondered the work of Paul Virilio on the ‘accelerated’ lives we lead in the early 21st century, and tried to explain what this has to do with the never-ending stream of images bombarding one on a daily basis. What I did not have space to do, was to draw attention to ways in which one can resist this state of affairs – ways that are related to what Virilio calls ‘grey ecology’.

What is ‘grey ecology’? It is something that is peculiar to the accelerated world we live in, and has to do with the overcoming of distance, of slowness, and of a mode of living that allows you to ‘stop and smell the daisies’. In fact, it IS the ecology of distances, but in a peculiar way, as one can gather from what Virilio says in response to a question by Sylvere Lotringer in an interview (Virilio and Lotringer, Crepuscular Dawn, Semiotext(e), New York, 2002: 79):

For a long time now, I have had the feeling that we are heading toward an unbearable way of life. I’ll explain. The body proper of our habitat has become not only unhealthy due to the pollution of the substances that make it up — this is green ecology — but soon uninhabitable, or almost, due to the sudden pollution of temporal distances, these intervals that threaten the world’s geophysics. The world of green ecology is unhealthy, and the world of grey ecology is becoming uninhabitable. Because it’s too small. And because after a while, this interactivity becomes unbearable.

In other words, what Virilio is talking about (contrary to what might seem to be the case) is the shrinking of spatial distance because of the overcoming of ‘temporal distances’. And for him this leads, ultimately, to the world becoming uninhabitable because people are crowding one another, increasingly, and unbearably, through all the modes of interactivity that advanced electronic means of communication make possible.

But take heart — there are indeed ways and means to resist the effects of this ‘grey ecology’, such as artistic practices which are actually engendered as ‘alternatives’ or ‘correctives’ by it. One example of this is the work of Joy Garnett, both as an artist and as a thinker. In ‘Towards a new ecology of time’ (in Armitage and Bishop [eds]: Virilio and Visual Culture, Edinburgh University Press, 2013, pp. 37-45) she sets out a programme of painting that has a modest aim (2013: 38-39):

…how might the art of painting, despite its late, great, failed attempt at transcending representation and hence the limitations of flesh, insert itself now, and perhaps disrupt the hyper-accelerated, dematerialised electronic surfaces and information clouds that dominate our age? Can the outmoded notion of a gestural painting become useful in unexpected ways, as we attempt to make sense of our runaway will to accelerate beyond the boundaries of the human body and its ecosystems? Moreover, can we harness this renewed understanding of the painted physical gesture in a way that will point us to the humble preservation of what is left in our culture that remains fully human…?

She goes on to suggest that Virilio’s work on ‘grey ecology’ calls for a ‘renewal’; one that, recognising the ‘dogma of acceleration’, will turn to the ‘poetics’ of ephemeral processes in a manner that acknowledges that a sustainable culture needs such delicate things. Such ephemera would include the ‘slowness and imperfection of human nature and the animal organism’ (p. 40) – something that painting is capable of capturing in inimitable ways. Her own painting sets out to appropriate digital images of, among others, a military, scientific or documentary kind and ‘remake’ them through painting to be commensurate with natural human needs (p. 43; see images of her work).

In light of the above, an exhibition of (among other things) paintings, opening soon in Somerset West, assumes new importance. The background for this exhibition is the following music-oriented consideration. The Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky, is probably best known for his 10-part suite, Pictures at an Exhibition, which was composed in the course of three intensely creative weeks in 1874 as a tribute to the work of the architect, artist and designer, Viktor Hartmann, who had died suddenly and unexpectedly the previous year of an aneurysm at the age of 39. Each of the 10 parts of Mussorgsky’s suite corresponds, as musical ‘illustration’, with one of Hartmann’s works exhibited earlier in 1874 in St Petersburg at a retrospective exhibition of more than 400 of his watercolours and sketches.

Here already one encounters something special and worth taking note of in our age of relentless speed, namely the phenomenon — not unknown to artists with a receptivity for arts other than the one(s) in which she or he may be proficient – of an artistic interpretation of other artistic creations, where the former and latter sometimes belong to the same (for example literature) and sometimes to different artforms, as in the case of Mussorgsky offering musical interpretations of visual artworks.

The reason for my brief elaboration on this historical episode is contemporaneous, to wit, the exhibition, briefly alluded to above, opening on Friday, 7 December at the Liebrecht gallery in Somerset West near Cape Town, bearing the same title as Mussorgsky’s famous suite, namely Pictures at an Exhibition. The curator of the gallery, Avril Gardiner, has upped the ante, so to speak, with this exhibition, outdoing Mussorgsky, if not in sheer artistic inventiveness, then in terms of the multiplication of inter-artistic referentiality.

Let me explain. Whereas Mussorgsky’s decaphonic suite was an inter-artistic response to, and interpretation of, Hartman’s exhibited ‘pictures’, what Gardiner has curated at the Liebrecht takes this referentiality to a higher level. Responding to Mussorgsky’s response to Hartman, three promising young South African artists — Rachelle Hugo (27) of Strand, Ydi Coetsee (28) of Stellenbosch, and Sharon Moses (26) of Pretoria – have each produced 10 visual artworks as interpretations of Mussorgsky’s 10 musical components of his suite, Pictures at an Exhibition. In addition to these, each of these young artists has also prepared 10 uniquely numbered publications comprising their notes pertaining to the 10 visual artworks they have created. The publications are the literary counterparts of their visual artworks, so that one is therefore confronted by 10 visual artworks by contemporary artists, accompanied by the literary counterparts of these artworks, all of which which present themselves as artistic responses to Mussorgsky’s 10-part musical suite which, in its turn, was a creative musical response to the exhibition of visual artworks by the late Viktor Hartman.

It does not end there either. On Friday, 14 December, a week after the opening of the exhibition, the pianist, Tertia Visser Downie, will perform Mussorgsky’s entire suite-cycle on the piano at the Liebrecht gallery, together with the poet, Philip de Vos, whose poetry is also a response to Mussorgsky’s musical suite, and who will be acting as narrator during Downie’s performance. In 2009 Downie and De Vos toured South Africa with their dual performance of music and literature, and De Vos’s volume of poetry, titled ‘Prente by ‘n Uitstalling’ (‘Pictures at an Exhibition’) was later published by Protea Bookhouse, with illustrations (another instance of visual art) by Piet Grobler. Gardiner has indicated that this illustrated volume of poetry will be on sale on the evening of the piano and poetry performance.

Seen against the backdrop of my earlier elaboration on Virilio’s ‘grey ecology’ and Joy Garnett’s artistic appropriation of it, art exhibitions such as Pictures at an Exhibition, opening on Friday at the Liebrecht, must be understood as important elements in the ‘preservation’ of a sense of time that surpasses the hollow demands of the culture of accelerated time.

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