Sojourns in the Archive: Photographs of the Atlantic’s Edge

Allan Harkness

“It is not that the past throws light on the present, or the present on the past, but the (dialectical) image is that wherein the past comes together with the present in a constellation.” Susan Buck-Morss

An Indication Piece S,SE

What is it that attracts photographers to endless archival projects of witness? By witness I am invoking experiential truths rather than dogmatic realities, in a way more fitting to our less stable reckoning of the document, our problematised relation both to documentary work and to aesthetic experience. Sebastiao Salgado and his testaments of human labour as exploitation, August Sander’s inventories of status, power and social type; war, families, children, sublime landscapes, street-life, counter cultures, cities…each has had the ‘epic’ treatment with weighty repetitive encounters or approaches over years of the photographer’s working life. What dedication and purpose. Thomas Joshua Cooper’s on-going ‘sea pictures’ project, begun around 1990, running for approximately 20 years is one such to fathom, since we are with him now, living the strange witness on offer as the World’s Edge of the Atlantic unfolds through various books and exhibitions.

Witness, as I wish it to be understood, must involve the eye that sees and some other, inner eye, both brought together via the art work. Faced with such a spread of work, Cooper signalling that there will be around 200-250 images in the completed archive, it is likely that we ask whether its secret is fractured and dispersed  (so must be gathered in the arrangement or pattern) or intermittent (disclosed in only a few parts)? That we are confronted by a project of place and memory of some import and magnitude seems welcome in itself, yet it produces an uneasiness in me, as if something is obscured by the sight of it as much as that which is revealed. That may have to do with its harnessing of geographical to  historical and psychological experience in mapping the Atlantic Basin’s extremities, edges of rock and ocean which are linked to expeditions and forced migrations, our historical identities rooted, one might say, in hopes and fears.

Patience, planning, determination and fascination are insufficient in guessing Cooper’s aim, as if he was giving us a one-person, low-tech version of a Space exploration, a scientific project to send data to our own future: instead, no data, but enigmatic, dark, forbidding experience of the edge, end or limit. And delivered again and again, over and over, this image after that, on and on in a language of light and time…in what appears to be an archive.

The archive is not just the mounting display, the record house of documents. Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever : A Freudian Impression reminds us of the archive’s gathering together of signs, its consignation within division and our constant forgetting, its hiding away in order to remember. Each archive will offer a permanent dwelling for physical security, it will help interpretative right, its documents will speak the law, it will make private public:
“Consignation aims to coordinate a single corpus, in a system or synchrony in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration. In an archive, there should not be any absolute dissociation, any heterogeneity or secret which could separate (secernere), or partition, in an absolute manner. The archontic (law) principle of the archive is also a principle of consignation, that is, of gathering together.”

It is a putting in order, and this order is sequential as well as jussive (a form of command) for any interpreter of the archive. Yet, as Derrida reminds us, unities do not hold: “the limits, the borders, and the distinctions have been shaken by an earthquake from which no classificational concept and no implementation of the archive can be sheltered. Order is no longer assured.” Authority is no longer assured. Document is not Truth. An archive of Atlantic waves, “the breathing in and the breathing out”, slowly gathered and presented as work in progress, governed by the photographer’s concern for the process of gathering and of making such images, is also an archive of limits, of boundaries, as uncertainty. Looking out, looking back upon the ocean as one act producing uncertainty, perhaps? In addition, with Cooper’s images, it feels as though each one tells the same story, a myth of promontory, point and the vastness of the sea. Why repeat the story? Why archive it? Each time for different visualisation, for the différance of flickers of a long civilisation? The colonial and imperialist civilisations of the Atlantic Edge prior to their final eclipse? The narrative of the ocean disguising the time of the ocean? Why?

It is helpful to read Derrida on the archiviolithic force of impressions – in application to these photographs – on the forces of beauty and death drive. The latter is the unseen aesthetic of destruction or aggression which leaves only its trace as “lovely impressions”, the always unseen force hidden beyond or within such “lovely impressions” :  “These impressions are perhaps the very origin of what is so obscurely called the beauty of the beautiful. As memories of death.” Here is the very disturbance. “[If] there is no archive without consignation in an external place which assures the possibility of memorization, of repetition, of reproduction, or of reimpression, then we must also remember that repetition itself, the logic of repetition, indeed the repetition compulsion, remains, according to Freud, indissociable from the death drive.”

This pressing onwards of the archive of the Edge is for a spiritual reason in Cooper’s project, a psychic archive of some power, more to do with interiority than we admit, with our forgetting and our remembering of the human history of this voice -Atlantic- and the infinite touch of nature. The kind of spirituality it speaks is a form of non-anthropocentrism, I’d guess, breathing selflessness in a repetitive meditation, phrases superimposed and enveloping each other, photograph after photograph, rather than puncturing the finite in single sublime moments when the single image is a numinosum.

So, is it the  death drive which is producing the uneasiness for me, yet a warmth and understanding for the artist comes from the sense of Cooper pursuing a secret, whilst constructing the very archive of its forgetting? The secret repressed in the archival gathering together? The secret as a question, possibly of absolute division? Inevitably the best works draw us to an ethical question through visual means, feeling what is unseen in the visible. Dressed in the beautiful, an infinite threat disrupts our historical being, speaks to us in old ways of time. This seems most fitting for the photographer of the Atlantic’s edge. At work in a life fever, Cooper’s trial and major consignation is that of the artist and poet addressing finitude. Derrida unravels for us archive as command/commence, Cooper shows us in a constellation of photographs, the need to begin again, itself the principle of deconstruction, its poetic truth. In Archive Fever, Derrida muses upon the logic of finitude and, by extension, I suggest, a violence permitted to art:
“Above all, and this is the most serious, beyond or within this simple limit called finiteness or finitude, there is no archive fever without the threat of this death drive, this aggression or destruction drive. This threat is in-finite, it sweeps away the logic of finitude and the simple factual limits, the transcendental aesthetics, one might say, the spatial-temporal conditions of conservation. Let us rather say that it abuses them. Such an abuse opens the ethico-political dimension of the problem.”

The problem of the archive. The problem of these photographs. Even the problem of what it is to see / what is to see. I believe that this was the very sub-text of Rosalind Krauss’s essay on the originality-repetition doublet, when she unpacked the logic of the grid in modern painting, its desired anti-narrative imperviousness to language, time and incident, in the silence of work by such as Mondrian, André, Ryman and Martin. Grid / 0 / ‘discovery’ is my shorthand memory of that essay’s understanding of modernism’s in-built deconstruction principle, begin again, and Krauss’s exposure of the dilemma of the abyss of repetition, loss of the original, the out-of-reach quality of the originary moment. Thomas Joshua Cooper’s archive is a series of silences, and its myth is moment, moment as trance-pattern (translucent wave-water, sunlight/moonlight, running movements in the flat rectangle of ‘transparency’). The caption for each is really ‘See. Now. There’, the actual captions the noise of history nominally constrained, beaten flat, so that we might meet past and present together in a constellation or dialectical image.

The first modern serialist beholding the sea was probably Monet in the 1880s and 1890s, and Cooper’s viewpoints and compositions have some echo of those works. I wonder too about the emotional key of such photographic witness, thinking of this comparison, not just because of Cooper’s black and white work under selenium red tones and his gold toner’s subtle ultramarines: for instance, think of the psyche of Monet’s ‘Nymphéas’ cycle, made during the seven years after 1916, installed in the Orangerie, Paris. ‘Nymphéas’ as a gift from the painter to commemorate the dead of World War 1 was for the living memory: Consider how that is contradicted by its reception as ‘Painting of a Lilypond, Giverny, France 1923′. Psyche, emotional key…of course we mean lived experience as soul. In Cooper’s production, arrival, waiting, seeing ‘once only’ suggests not only slowing of time so that the Now may be encountered, but also the psyche of act: act as a coming together is lived out in the space-time encounter, division is overcome (or recovered from) and remembered in patterns and rhythms more chaotic than any geometric grid. The hope and fear of what the light announces or whispers in each cold expanse of sea is both vital and forbidding. It is the edge of turns, reversal itself. Exhilarated, one feels ‘the quality of dancing’ in physis – nature’s being, without beginning or end; saddened, one feels the weight of nightmarish history, the edge of every division.

Freedom Day

II
The monotonous, shining modernity and heavy psyche of  minimalist repetition – the changed field of perception we might say, after Robert Morris – is caught in Michael Govan’s responses to the ‘sea pictures’ project. Their historical-psychological axis is identified as a conceptual artist’s process-dominated slowing of time, closely akin to the task of an abstract painting.

For example, I like to think of Agnes Martin’s painting ‘The Sea at Night’, once attuned to Govan’s thinking on the legacy of American mid-20th century abstraction supporting Thomas Joshua Cooper’s visual language, technical means and physical journeys. Govan wrote a short piece for a 2003 exhibition of Cooper’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico, linking the physical, historical and psychological threads of  the ‘sea pictures’ from Lewis and Newfoundland. “Nearly every image describes this abstract edge of rocks and water, as if it is the same place again and again, each distinguished not by the recognizable marks of cultural topography as by varying natural qualities of light and dark, turbulence and calm, and the fixed and the fluid…In fact it is hard enough to consider Cooper’s often-shallow allover compositions, or the plane of the sea fixed in relation to his camera, his deliberate arrangement of flat contrasting geometries, or his almost entirely monochrome pictures, without reference to modern painting – to Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, or Agnes Martin.”

This, added to comments upon Cooper’s extended exposure times, how we view this unfolding project over years, and the “time-consuming tools and techniques of nineteenth century black and white photography and toned prints” is all ” a means of slowing time”, in Govan’s concise, perceptive essay. Like Hamish Fulton and On Kawara too, Cooper arrives, according to Govan, in the measured walk, or the marking out of his experience/existence – but in a different emotional key to the others, one suspects. That emotional key encompasses uncertainty, bewilderment, a sense of wonder, as well as the fear and danger felt before the miracle of the ocean, or “the vast amorphous sea” as Govan calls the sublime Atlantic Ocean. Shapeless immensity, vast formlessness, breathing before the water’s infinity, such is the stage of these encounters, this witnessing from each rocky ledge of land. ‘Behold, the Atlantic of the unknown from the edges of the known’ might be the message of the constellation, if I read Govan’s map of what is going on in these relics of the artist’s sojourns correctly. Command-commence…slow time, here-there, looking out, looking back.

III
When I first saw  ‘An Indication Piece South/Southeast – The Atlantic Ocean. Cape Pine. The Isle of Newfoundland, Canada 1998-1999′, I saw that its burdensome finitude of a caption did not exhaust its meanings nor name its mood. I wrongly ‘recognised’ that place without ever having stood there, thankful that this photographer had brought the ‘evidence’. The lower frame of the rectangle cutting the straight-edged blackest rocks, the blazing, greying whiteness of waves pounding a shattered coast, mostly suggestive of a white writing on a sheet of falling grey tones, the picture’s foreground with its centred explosion of wave and stone like a lava furnace, all seemed to announce the language of metaphor: an arising and a falling away of land civilizations; looking-down tilted-up; a sharp Nato Submarine caught in the history of surfacing; a geological noise; some wondrous unconcealment of time sprayed in the wind. Wandering amongst the giant ‘sea pictures’ – grand museum photographs – in the Marion Center for Photographic Arts, I sought out the corridor of small works from the artist’s formative years, when fleeting signs were brooded upon  as if from a lost book found, re-presented then as small contact prints. For a long time afterwards, I wondered why so many large photographs should be encountered all at once, in such an arranged, careful manner when each was impossible, speaking of voids or voided time in the photographic equivalent of pages of Ulysses.

Thinking about that show, I had little sense of colour in the toning process, only feeling things light and dark  but cold under artificial lights at night, inside but distanced by glass reflections, feeling a little spaced-out by words or speech beside such images. Silenced.

IV
Reading wind and wave patterns, Cooper states: “I call it the breathing in and the breathing out.” Obviously there is environmental mindfulness in his process art and intentionality: “I feel increasingly that we live in a world where touch is decreasing in its opportunity to become part of life, particularly in art. I want my work to have an emotional physicality that leads to the possibility of greater responses than just the observation of surface and preoccupation with style that is so prevalent now.” I think of Mark Tobey’s art when I read Cooper’s words: “I’m interested in the idea that you can use repetitive motifs thematically to build substantial and cumulative thought or emotional processes.”

Openness, non-enclosure, in existential-ontological terms, is part of his thinking on modernity’s technological being which speaks in today’s digital archive and corporate globalisation. Albert Camus swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, or Edmond Jabès in the book and the desert, sought the same mind: that endlessness in the world’s immensity which lets us feel truth in shared solitude, silence and care, across division (impossibly). Is that the task of the aesthetic, its implicit ethical project? That appears to be the secret of Cooper’s archive, and it appears significantly in the form of a question.

It is possible that rhythm of wave, light and water, line in physis, might be its worth: that which makes us contemplate, and so immerse ourselves in time, that delay which we live before or in the face of death. Cooper’s art is a between-time, a photographic stillness within which the urge to destruction moves. If, qualitatively, the image has temporal richness, it is partly because of a sense that we are on the edge of an interval ( the gap, expanse, chasm of ‘Atlantic’). The images which hold us, we remember. Though dark, subdued, they are not at all morbid, perhaps the opposite. Emmanuel Levinas, whom I think of as having been Derrida’s mentor, teaching him the thought of  humility and obligation in a lifeworld of historical suffering, dismantling and dispossession, writes this of time (as postponement), in a way which is relevant to the question of Cooper’s Atlantic archive:
“A being independent of and yet at the same time exposed to the other is a temporal being: to the inevitable violence of death it opposes its time, which is postponement itself. It is not finite freedom that makes the notion of time intelligible, it is time that gives a meaning to the notion of finite freedom. Time is precisely the fact that the whole existence of the mortal being – exposed to violence – is not being for death, but the “not yet” which is a way of being against death, a retreat before death in the very midst of its inexorable approach.”

V
Looking out, looking back. ‘Freedom Day’ is another image to recover (from) and remember (always). From the Point of No Return exhibition (2004), its full title is ‘Freedom Day – Southwest – Table Bay. Looking Towards Cape Town and Remembering Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa, 2004′. Morgan Falconer, writing in Portfolio, noted its qualities and characteristics as that of one of Cooper’s ‘interiors’ (the photographer’s term), one of those which “enfold the landscape inwards, into a psychological space.”

Freedom Day is April 27th in Nelson Mandela’s democratic post-apartheit South Africa, a commemoration of the first free elections, a day of celebration, thanks and hope (for egalitarian justice, especially). The non-literal readings of this image come from combined visual elements: the foreground shows a dark tangle of fucus seaweed, long entwined tubular forms, above which a vaporous wedge of water leads the eye up to a voided expanse. On either side, lines of metallic, silvery rocks encase us, cave-like, looking out to a sunlit sea in its hazy blankness. The lack of an horizon line, almost always absent in these works, and the dissolution of perceptible forms in the direction of our gaze and thought, signify an “entirely open yearning” for Falconer. That writer’s non-literal, imaginative engagement with the work is one in which “we might forget the language of landscape photography entirely, and describe a steep wall of white gas rising up from a writhing bundle of slick cables – something less earthy than other worldly.”

Others, myself included, will similarly anchor its mythological, archetypal shaping of light and dark to interiority, feeling, consciousness itself. This time, though, Cooper’s ethical aesthetic comes through in registering an act of remembrance as a form of recovery in the archive of ‘Atlantic’. And Atlantic (as slavery, prejudice, injustice) is a near void, the wave line of hope now a yearning to see what is obscured: the unmeasured space of infinity within – that which Levinas taught us is found in responsibility for the Other. This image fits the Benjaminesque idea of the dialectical gathering of past and present in order to illuminate our historical being; it may even please us for its mystical, transcendent erasure of the literal in speaking historically. The danger which is its keynote, is that the tangle of seaweed appears in the guise of cables, the conduits of our technological being as if seen from Plato’s cave. Freedom’s finitude : a photograph of the “not yet”?


Exhibitions have been held in Europe and America: at Haunch of Venison, London whose book Point of No Return has 75 photographs from around  150 in the as yet unfinished project, and at Pace Wildenstein Gallery, New York. Both gallery websites carry selected images from the exhibitions.

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