By WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ l The New Republic Dec.20, 2012
Never mind the writing, as superb as it so often is: as agile, as subtle, as witty, as funny, as brilliantly insightful. Never mind the breadth—a book about jazz, a book about photography, a book about a film, a book about D.H. Lawrence, a set of travel pieces, a study of John Berger, a book about the apparatus of memory that surrounds the Great War, four novels, and a couple of bushels of journalism. What I really admire about Geoff Dyer’s work is Geoff Dyer. Here is a man who decided a long time ago that he was going to follow the muse of his own curiosity, let the rest of the world be damned, and by God, he’s made it stick. No institutions, no apologies. A freelance, a vagabond, an aesthete, a latter-day bohemian and man of letters: I call that courage. I also call it culture.
Berger and Lawrence are obvious models. The former, the subject of Dyer’s first volume and the author of a long series of idiosyncratic works, many of them hybrids of criticism and personal reflection, showed him the kind of writer he wanted to be. “If something occurs that moves me deeply—the kind of experience that might provide inspiration for a poet—my instinct is to articulate and analyze it in an essay,” Dyer has written. With Lawrence, the kinship is a matter of background and temperament. Dyer also grew up working-class; his grandfathers were farm laborers, his father a sheet-metal worker, his mother a lunch lady at a local school. A scholarship boy at Oxford who has said that his real education began after graduation, when he was on the dole in Brixton and reading everything he could lay his hands on, Dyer has Lawrence’s restlessness, willfulness, truculence, and unapologetic sensuality. Not surprisingly, he also has the older writer’s rancor for their native country. England, to both, is a damp and hateful little rock to break the spirit on. Better to light out for more erotic latitudes, as Dyer, following Lawrence’s global trajectory, has done. Paris, Rome, North Africa, India, Southeast Asia—above all, as for Lawrence, America, especially the rawness and vastness of its western reaches.
But Dyer’s highest ideal can be found, I think, in a more obscure figure, the American photographer William Gedney, who died of AIDS in 1989. Gedney read incessantly, not only kept but physically produced his own notebooks, and exhibited relatively little of his work, even after he achieved success. In an introduction to a collection of his photographs and journals, Dyer writes of Gedney’s “program of intensely private, creative self-sufficiency,” which was driven by an autodidact’s appetite for illumination. “He lived out the ideal of the artist who produces—who works—for his or her own sake; more exactly, for the sake of the task itself.” Introducing a collection of his own work, Dyer echoes the sentiment: “I have always written without any regard for the presumed audience of a given publication.” His wandering career (a word he hates, by the way) is the itinerary of a mind moving freely through the world.
Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer’s book about Lawrence, takes a swipe at the yoga cult; a subsequent volume, the collection of travel pieces, was titled Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. But Beautiful, his book about jazz, is built as much from photographs as music; later he wrote The Ongoing Moment, which bushwhacks a path through the history of the former medium. Both Yoga and The Ongoing Moment mention Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker, the subject of Dyer’s latest volume, Zona. One book draws forth another; one thought brings on the next. “Increasingly at ease with the vagaries of my nature, I came to relish the way that getting interested in one thing led to my becoming very interested in something else,” he remarks. “I’ve done pretty much as I pleased, letting life find its own rhythm, working when I felt like it, not working when I didn’t.”
All this hads made for a great deal of very good criticism. Since he really doesn’t seem to care what people think, Dyer looks at the book or the photograph, not over his shoulder. There’s no pretense and no pretentiousness. He isn’t worried about having the right opinions or scoring points off the conventional wisdom. He confesses unabashedly to skimming, and doesn’t mind if we know that he has never seen The Wizard of Oz. He’s clever, but he’s never “clever.” His writing is dense with quotations and allusions—you sometimes feel them stacked above the argument, like planes waiting to land—but not because he is trying to impress us. It’s just the way he thinks: with and through the totality of everything he has read, heard, and seen. “It is not easy to be unpretentious, simple, direct, honest and yet intelligent,” he quotes from Gedney’s notebooks—but Dyer consistently manages it.
His irony tends the same way. Coming at last to Lawrence’s house in Sicily, he writes: “We had found it. We stood silently. I knew this moment well from previous literary pilgrimages: you look and look and try to summon up feelings which don’t exist.” Culture, he knows, must continuously push against the carapace of its own extrusions. One person’s fresh response becomes the mental reflex of the self-respecting millions. A few pages later, “We went out on to the balcony: a lovely view of the bay, the sea and the sky. We looked at the view. That is exactly what we did; we did not look at the sea and sky, we looked at the view.” Relieving us of the burden of “culture”—the received ideas, the approved emotions—he helps to make a genuine culture, which is nothing, after all, but the effort to see clearly and feel directly.
Freedom from conventional and institutional expectations—freedom even from his audience—means that Dyer is also free to make it up, like jazz, as he goes along. Every book is different, and every book is different from everybody else’s books. Zona is a running commentary, almost shot-by-shot, on a single film. But Beautiful consists of a series of quasi-imagined episodes—vivid, textured, saturated with feeling—from the lives of the jazz greats. Out of Sheer Rage is memoir, travelogue, criticism—“about” Lawrence in the physical sense of the word: spinning around and around him with a manic, comic, centrifugal energy. The Ongoing Moment makes a poem of the history of photography by considering not artists or schools, technics or techniques, but, improbably, subjects (hats, benches, stairs): a ridiculous idea, it seems, until you figure out that Dyer’s real quarry is the relationships we have with those quotidian objects, the way they can be made to stand for the lives that move among them. “Spare me the drudgery of systematic examinations,” he writes in Out of Sheer Rage, “and give me the lightning flashes of those wild books in which there is no attempt to cover the ground thoroughly or reasonably.”
He is passionate or giddy, lyrical or cheeky, he can don a docent’s coat or come to us in pj’s, but he always writes from the self, from the whole of the self. If, as he says in But Beautiful, “an artist is someone who turns everything that happens to him to advantage,” then that is what he is. It comes to this: Dyer refuses to unbraid in his writing what is braided together in life, to take sensations out of thoughts or stories out of arguments. Friends, movies, crotchets, cappuccinos; flickers of annoyance and of memory, old loves and new epiphanies: all pass together through his writing, as they pass through our consciousness in daily life.
As a public service, I hereby present my findings on physics seminars in convenient graph form. In each case, you will see the Understanding of an Audience Member (assumed to be a run-of-the-mill PhD physicist) graphed as a function of Time Elapsed during the seminar. All talks are normalized to be of length 1 hour, although this might not be the case in reality.
The “Typical” starts innocently enough: there are a few slides introducing the topic, and the speaker will talk clearly and generally about a field of physics you’re not really familiar with. Somewhere around the 15 minute mark, though, the wheels will come off the bus. Without you realizing it, the speaker will have crossed an invisible threshold and you will lose the thread entirely. Your understanding by the end of the talk will rarely ever recover past 10%.
The “Ideal” is what physicists strive for in a seminar talk. You have to start off easy, and only gradually ramp up the difficulty level. Never let any PhD in the audience fall below 50%. You do want their understanding to fall below 100%, though, since that makes you look smarter and justifies the work you’ve done. It’s always good to end with a few easy slides, bringing the audience up to 80%, say, since this tricks the audience into thinking they’ve learned something.
The “Unprepared Theorist” is a talk to avoid if you can. The theorist starts on slide 1 with a mass of jumbled equations, and the audience never climbs over 10% the entire time. There may very well be another theorist who understands the whole talk, but interestingly their understanding never climbs above 10% either because they’re not paying attention to the speaker’s mumbling.
The “Unprepared Experimentalist” is only superficially better. Baseline understanding is often a little higher (because it’s experimental physics) but still rarely exceeds 25%. Also, the standard deviation is much higher, and so (unlike the theorist) the experimentalist will quite often take you into 0% territory. The flip side is that there is often a slide or two that make perfect sense, such as “Here’s a picture of our laboratory facilities in Tennessee.”
You have to root for undergraduates who are willing to give a seminar in front of the faculty and grad student sharks. That’s why the “Well-meaning Undergrad” isn’t a bad talk to attend. Because the material is so easy, a PhD physicist in the audience will stay near 100% for most of the talk. However, there is most always a 10-20 minute stretch in the middle somewhere when the poor undergrad is in over his/her head. For example, their adviser may have told them to “briefly discuss renormalization group theory as it applies to your project” and gosh darn it, they try. This is a typical case of what Gary Larson referred to as “physics floundering”. In any case, if they’re a good student (and they usually are) they will press on and regain the thread before the end.
The “Guest From Another Department” is an unusual talk. Let’s say a mathematician from one building over decides to talk to the physics department about manifold theory. Invariably, an audience member will gradually lose understanding and, before reaching 0%, will start to daydream or doodle. Technically, the understanding variable U has entered the complex plane. Most of the time, the imaginary part of U goes back to zero right before the end and the guest speaker ends on a high note.
The “Nobel Prize Winner” is a talk to attend only for name-dropping purposes. For example, you might want to be able to say (as I do) that “I saw Hans Bethe give a talk a year before he died.” The talk itself is mostly forgettable; it starts off well but approaches 0% almost linearly. By the end you’ll wonder why you didn’t just go to the Aquarium instead.
The “Poetry” physics seminar is a rare beast. Only Feynman is known to have given such talks regularly. The talks starts off confusingly, and you may only understand 10% of what is being said, but gradually the light will come on in your head and you’ll “get it” more and more. By the end, you’ll understand everything, and you’ll get the sense that the speaker has solved a difficult Sudoku problem before your eyes. Good poetry often works this way; hence the name.
The less said about “The Politician”, the better. The hallmark of such a talk is that the relationship between understanding and time isn’t even a function. After the talk, no one will even agree about what the talk was about, or how good the talk was. Administrators specialize in this.
Adam Curtis: … My working theory is that we live in a managerial age, which doesn’t want to look to the future. It just wants to manage the present. A lot of art has become a way of looking back at the last sixty years of the modernist project, which we feel has failed. It’s almost like a lost world, and we are cataloging it, quoting it, reconfiguring it, filing it away into sliding drawers as though we were bureaucrats with no idea what any of it means. They’ve got nothing to say about it except that they know it didn’t work. It’s not moving onwards—we’re just like academic archaeologists. It’s terribly, terribly conservative and static, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe in a reactionary, conservative age, that’s what art finds itself doing. The problem is that it pretends to be experimental and forward-looking. But to be honest, in some ways I’m just as guilty. What I do is not so different—using all sorts of fragments from the past to examine the present. Maybe this is simply the iron cage of our time—we’re like archaeologists going back into the recent past, continually refiguring it, surrounding it with quotations. It’s a terrible, terrible prison, but we don’t know how to break out of it.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: But then, I think it was Erwin Panofsky, the great art historian, who said in the twentieth century that we can invent the future out of fragments of the past.
AC: Yes. But I actually see that most people are not doing that. They’re using the past to reinforce the present. It’s as if they’re shoring it up. I recently read an interview with a twenty-year-old musician who was saying how much he admired Roxy Music. Well, Roxy Music had their heyday in the early 1970s and it was one of the earlier examples in pop culture of reworking the past and re-cataloging it in a new way. But now Roxy Music themselves are being reworked and recataloged forty years later—so you see, you’re going round and round in these continual circles. Its a bit odd, but maybe that’s the only option available at the moment. Now, if I was going to be really ruthless, I would say that just as in the early 1980s, in the Soviet Union, not only was their politics trapped, but their culture was trapped. Russians called these last years of Brezhnev the years of stagnation. And I sort of wonder whether we are at the same stage now—our own years of stagnation, with an elite desperately trying to shore up a technocratic, economic system with an increasing number of contradictions, while no one can imagine an alternative. In response to that inability to see anything else, everything, including a lot of modern culture—music, TV, and avant-garde art—is being used to shore up the present, reconfigure the past to somehow give a foundation to the present that can’t imagine another kind of future. No one can see their way past the sort of financial version of the free market, and the culture reflects that. I do think we’re in the years of stagnation.
DazedDigital: Neue Welt captures images from a diversity of cities and landscapes. What drove you to undertake such an adventure?
Wolfgang Tillmans: After spending the decade from 1999 to 2009 working on abstract pictures and conceptual work, I felt really interested in looking at what the world looks like today, 20 years after I started making my pictures of it for the first time. I gradually began to look out into the world again, and it became more and more solidified to become this new project. Then I made deliberate travels for it and it became this four year project in the making.
DD: How did you go about choosing what kind of destinations you went to?
Wolfgang Tillmans: I choose mythical places from childhood memory like Papua New Guinea, or the furthest away fields like Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, the most southern city in the world. But then also there’s Nottingham, there’s New York, there’s London. It wasn’t about exotic places per se; it was about looking at everything in a new way.
DD: You picked up a digital camera for the first time in this series. What made you decide to start using digital technology?
Wolfgang Tillmans: It came about when I realised that there was a portable lightweight SLR, which had a sensor the size of 35mm film. Before, sensors were much smaller and it just looked different optically. When I realised that the lens that I had on my 35mm camera would perform exactly the same way on the new digital camera, I realised that it would be nostalgic to stay with the old. I thought: “Let’s learn on my own terms in my own time, how to speak this language.”
DD: Did your approach to photography change with the technology?
Wolfgang Tillmans: There isn’t a complete break – 15% of the photos in Neue Welt are still analogue. But I arrived at photography by first working with the first digital photocopier in 1986. Digital printing had always interested me, but film was always finer and sharper and so I never needed to change for that. It sounds weird to talk so much about technology, but it is a very exciting moment in history. New art and new music has happened because of technological developments, so it is actually needed for what is going on.
DD: One of the charges against conventional travel photographer per se is that it exotifies foreignness. How do you engage with that criticism?
Wolfgang Tillmans: By being honest about the superficiality of the position that I’m coming from. The word ‘superficiality’ is usually used in a negative way, but it is a reality. Some things we can only experience on the surface, and that still is an experience, it doesn’t make that nothing. There is no threshold when a critical depth can be achieved, you know? My next project at Maureen Paley, Central Nervous System, looks for five years at one person. It’s a whole exhibition looking at one person, but at the end, what are we looking at? We are still looking at the surface of the world.
DD: The new issue of Dazed & Confused is themed around #tripping. What was the trip that stuck out most for you?
Wolfgang Tillmans: I went to Tanzania; I had never felt any desire to go and see safari animals. But that was also part of the approach that I had, to go and challenge yourself and challenge your own clichés. I was surprised how good it was to like be in this African landscape! All these places, the Iguazu Waterfalls in Brazil or the Sydney Opera House or a lion in Kilimanjaro, they are all real when you’re there. They are not clichés. You have to leave your own jadedness at home, which is hard, but you just go and try not to frown at all the other tourists. It’s democracy. DD: So there’s not much different between you, and someone with a handheld camera…?
Wolfgang Tillmans: Well, we’re all humans, and we’re all guests on this planet, sometimes wandering about in wonder and amazement. That’s sort of democratic – well it’s not a democratic experience, not everybody can afford it – but looking at the world with open eyes, that is a democratic experience.
01. Open the imaginary 02. Operate in illusion 03. Dislodge the immobile 04. Think continuity 05. Surf on the surface 06. Live the obliqueness 07. Destabilize 08. Use the fall 09. Fracture 10. Practice inversion 11. Orchestrate conflict 12. Limit without closing