What have you done to me lately?

Posted by Michael on May 21, 2013

By David Schleifer

From across the room, it looked like nothing.  Four black fluorescent tube light bulbs hung side by side, flanked by two plain white tubes. Each about six feet long, arranged vertically on a wall at the far end of the gallery.  I couldn’t tell if the black tubes were plugged in, let alone turned on, because the glass was so opaque.  As I moved towards them, the highly polished floor creaked. Suddenly, a spot of gold light flashed across one of the glossy black tubes.  As I walked closer, I saw spots of golden light moving in long lines up the left side of each black tube and simultaneously down the right.  And when I walked backwards, they reversed direction, up the right and down the left.  The lines of  golden spots moved faster when I sped up and barely vibrated in place when I stopped.

As I stepped forward and backward, watching the golden lights zip up and down, it was clear that the light was not emanating from within the tubes but dancing across their surfaces.  What was I seeing?  There were no video projectors or other machinery in the nearly empty gallery.  And then it became so obvious that I gasped out loud.  These magical golden lights were nothing but the gallery’s plain recessed light fixtures arranged in two rows along the ceiling.  They shone down and bounced off the reflective surfaces of the black fluorescent tubes.  Each line of lights was then reflected again from each tube to its neighbor, giving the appearance of a circuit of lights moving up one side and down the other as I moved back and forth in the space.  The room had come alive, but only if I moved and looked out from my own body.  I caught the young dark-haired woman at the gallery’s front desk smile as I stepped backwards and forwards again and again across the oak floor.

I was looking Black Raku 2012 by Robert Irwin in a retrospective at the Pace Gallery on East 57th Street in New York.  Irwin’s work evolved from abstract expressionist painting in the 1950s to increasingly minimalist painting in the 1960s and then on towards experiments with light and space since the 1970s.  Lawrence Weschler explains – or lets Irwin explain – this evolution in the brilliant book Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees

Irwin’s work is not about a lone genius expressing himself. It is designed to make viewers aware of themselves seeing.  It is not about telling the viewer something. Instead, it creates a space for a viewer to see his or her own place in space and time.  In other words, it acts upon the viewer.    Can writing achieve anything so transformative?

Two years ago, I started reading the first volume of seven volumes of Proust’s A Remembrance of Things Past.  Proust’s work is fiction, but it is hard to call it a novel. It follows the life of the narrator from childhood through adolescence and early adulthood, but it is hard to call it a story.  It is describes many people but there are no characters per se except the narrator’s own consciousness.  

Among the many things that I can say about reading nearly all of In Search of Lost Time over the past two years is that, like Irwin’s black fluorescent tubes, Proust’s work acts upon the reader.  It does so by making me – I won’t presume to speak for you – aware of the passage of time.  Proust’s narrator was a different self when the book began and so was I.  Two years ago I was reading Proust on my commute home from a different job. A year and a half ago, I was reading Proust while facing a different set of questions about my future.  Eight months ago I was reading Proust on a train to Washington DC to meet what was then a group of strangers who I now count as colleagues, collaborators and peers.  Now I am halfway through the seventh and final volume, Finding Time Again.  True to Proust’s narrator, I can already project myself into the future, when I will be remembering the time I passed with these seven long volumes.

Like the golden lights racing up and down as they are reflected from one of Irwin’s black fluorescent tubes to its neighbor, Proust’s narrator’s memories multiply and reflect my own.  In the seventh volume that I am currently reading, the narrator remembers his grandmother’s stroke, which occurred in the third volume, The Guermantes Way.  I remember my grandmother’s death, which occurred while I was reading the second volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.  True to the inward turning of the book, I remember shocking myself by gasping audibly on the subway when the narrator remembered finally felt the impact of his grandmother’s death only months afterwards, when he made his first trip to the seaside without her.  Proust’s work, like Irwin’s, allows me to see myself seeing myself.

Many people have said much smarter things about it than I have about A Remembrance of Things Past.  But both Proust and Irwin challenge writers and artists to do more than inform or  explain because both manage to change what we know about ourselves, about the world we move through, about and the time we pass.