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Thank You For Looking

Peter Nadas, Victor Erice, Photography, Words, Trees, and the Passages of Time —

At the corner of Calles Hernandez Macias and Quadrante in San Miguel de Allende is a craft shop where, on either side of its door, these words scroll across the windows: one side, Thank you for looking; on the other, Gracias Por Mirar.

Each time during the fourteen years I have been going to Mexico, I’ve gone back to photograph these words. What is this going back, I have been wondering, this returning to the same site in order to make different images?

I have been thinking about Hungarian writer and photographer Peter Nadas (most recently author of the novel Parallel Stories) who each day for a year photographed one wild pear tree in his garden, a ritual of recovery after his near death experience. He chose one hundred and sixty of those images to pair with a novella; together they make up the book, Own Death. On the left side of the page are photographs of the tree; on the right side is the autobiographical story of a man as he undergoes a heart attack, coming close to death but medically ‘reanimated’ (Nadas’ preferred word). Two kinds of time are laid side by side, two kinds of passages;  the tree’s slow process, the author’s urgent rescue.


 
However, Nadas is after bigger game than this somewhat rigid march of word and image. The text itself, while nominally a fiction, is a meditation on consciousness; what exactly happens to the body as it is leaving the world and how does this manifest itself in the mind. The design of the book occasionally departs from the either/or format; there are pages where two trees face one another, almost contrapuntally. White space abounds as do contrasts: a tree in the cycle of seasons ‘versus’ a body pierced and vanquished by a stealth attack;  the processes of natural life ‘versus’ electric shocks to get Nadas’ heart going after cardiac arrest. And then, because Nadas is a sly writer, these disunities fold into likenesses: death overrides all oppositions.

I have picked up the book many times, and for a long while it resisted me. It was too heavy, literally, to invite a reader to spend time with it. And it seemed too luxe, overdone for what it was on the surface, an experiment in juxtaposition. But the book rewards close reading and close looking, its complexity going well beyond that first impression. In its entirety, the book is the mind at work.

At the beginning Nadas sounds the note of parallels, of what soon will become a massive disjunction of mind and body: Gorgeous weather, I told myself, but my body dissented. I crossed to the shady side of the street whenever I could. Early on too he slips into metaphysics with a line whose ‘they’ has no antecedent: They roar and howl to prevent me from getting to the right sentences. Built into the book’s design is a cinematic breaking up of temporal sequence, a will to frustrate what should be coming next. We learn that a waiter is carrying soup but the reader turns the page to encounter a double spread of trees. Then, as in a jump cut:  A cup of piping hot soup is left on the table. The trees continue their procession while the text goes on describing the narrator’s revulsion at food and his increasing physical pain. Then a single line detonates: I sat here in the ice-cold failure of my upbringing.

In the Darkroom of Writing
This autumn at the Kunsthaus Zug in Switzerland, images from Own Death are part of an exhibition of Nadas’ photographs entitled  In the Darkroom of Writing;  Transitions between Text, Image and Thought.

Alongside his literary work, Nadas has always practiced photography, first as a photo-journalist, later as a maker of more internal and metaphoric images.

Peter Nadas: Selbstportrait (Self Portrait) with Rolleiflex) 1963   

Péter Nádas: Lichtprozesse (Light Process) 4, 2001

 

In an interview conducted for the exhibition, Nadas talks about the relationship between word and image.

Interviewer:  In Own Death,   . . . the author and photographer in you worked very closely together.

Nadas: The perception of texts and images takes place in different parts of the brain: something very different happens to me when I’m looking at a picture than when I’m reading a text. We have here two completely different but parallel chronologies. This led me to juxtapose in the book the pictures arranged in my own chronological order with the story of my own clinical death.     . . . The story of the tree and the story of my clinical death are not in synchrony, nor can they be synchronized. But while the reader, following his own inclinations and free decisions, keeps moving back and forth between the visual and the intellectual perception, he moves through an empty space. There is an empty space and an empty time. In planning the book, I wanted this empty space and empty time to stand for everything one doesn’t know about oneself and about the world, to stand for my own ignorance of these things. The elements of the overall structure should comprise not only that which I know, but also that which I don’t.

Taken together, the photographs of the trees seem at first to have an affirming presence: this is what it is to be alive, day after day after day. While this may seem celebratory in the context of the narrator’s survival, it isn’t. That’s not Nadas’ sensibility. Like everything else in his universe, his trees are paradoxical sentinels who pose the question of who is dying and who is resurrected? Could it be the reverse of what we’d thought? Has time elongated around the man who is taking a long long while to die, and then doesn’t but lives to write an account of his own death? Are these mute trees less staunch than they initially appear, fragile constructs of branches spread sideways to the edges of the frame, whether in starkness, or massed in leaf or bloom? Have they dwindled, become unnatural under the brunt of the photographer’s gaze? Unanswerable questions: but if you riffle your thumb at the edge of the pages, you have a flip book of time, going from one direction to the other so that time is conceptually reversible. As Nadas says to his interviewer: ‘For a whole year I photographed a tree. I stayed in the same spot; from one summer to the next I didn’t leave our wild pear tree. What I discovered was both hard and banal. Not only are there no seasons, there is no time. There are merely transitions in a powerful, omnipresent continuity.

Dream of Light
The act of going back, of steadily looking over time, has made me think too of director Victor Erice’s 1992 film, Dream of Light (El Sol del membrillo), which follows three months in the life of Spain’s great painter Antonio López Garcia as he attempts to paint a quince tree in his backyard.  For fifty years, López Garcia has been painting quinces. In a catalogue of  his work, Cheryl Brutvan has written “The sight of the tree in the fall, when its abundant fruit weighs down its branches, has become irresistible to López, who first painted the subject in 1961 depicted at night under a star-filled sky.”

Quince Tree, Membrillero, 1961

Time to stop and take note of just how ravishing that image is. Now time moves on. When the quince ripens during the sunny period in the fall, the time is known as el sol del membrillo (also the original title of the film, meaning ‘the quince tree sun’). In the autumn of 1990, López Garcia decided to the paint the quince tree in the garden outside his studio. But the quince tree sun has an effect: the fruit becomes heavy on the branch, the branches bend, and what the painter saw at first is no longer there. In this still from the film, the painter reminds me of Prospero in his sorcerer days, trying to stay time with his wand.

Day after day López Garcia attempts to recreate his first vision. He surrounds the tree with a cross-hatching of strings and weights to keep the composition fixed; he paints tiny marks on each piece of fruit to mark the progress of gravity; he drives metal stakes into the ground so that he can stand, see the tree from his original perspective, and paint.

He looks at the tree with the dedication of a monk celebrating the canonical hours, even as he converses with friends, with his wife who is working in the background as the radio broadcasts news of the Persian Gulf War. Each morning he begins again. His close observation reminds me of another great painter, Giorgio Morandi, who found something new throughout his life in the arrangement of bottles on a table, and of the poet Pablo Neruda who in his Elemental Odes traveled deep and far by means of concentrated looking.

ODE TO THE LEMON set to music in an improvisation by cellist Matt Haimovitz and soprano Eileen Clark  in the translation by Margaret Sayers Peden

So, when you hold/ the hemisphere /of a cut lemon/above your plate/ you spill/ a universe of gold,/ a/ yellow goblet/ of miracles/ a fragrant nipple/ of the earth’s breast,/a ray of light that was made fruit,/the minute fire of a planet.

One house, one garden, one small tree. As one critic notes, ‘ . . . it all happens over two hours. But watching this masterpiece you lose time.’ This losing time: is this the answer, the reason that returning to the same site over a long time is such a profound act? We all want to lose time, to lose our own death. And in losing time, to find the new emerging from the so-called same. In his mid-sixties at the time of the filming, López Garcia talks casually about his own mortality, relating the effort of art-making to death, although his devotion is his life.

This returning to look, year after year, day after day, from time to time, is more than striving. There is only this: a devotional act, an homage to time itself. And, finally, because it must, the return is paean to change. Three months into the filming, the tree had changed so much as the fruit fell that Garcia ended his daily study without having finished his painting.

*

I’d been wondering; it has been fourteen years: how long could Thank You For Looking remain before the store’s owners bowed to the pressure to change? This past August, I walked to that same corner as always and saw that the words were no longer on the window.  Fruit falls. Words are wiped off the glass. The heart stops. Pilgrimages end.

The image is the yield.
Then again, as Garcia has said, ‘The best part was being close to the tree.’

 

Comments

  1. Janet Sternburg’s enriching commentaries on images and words open up armoires of insight, treasure boxes of understanding, that often we would have missed had she not taken the time to bring them to us. A practitioner of both arts, she is the perfect medium to transmit the work of a Peter Nadas or Antonio Lopez Garcia, bringing to our attention just what we need to engage the work, inviting us to investigate further.

  2. Janet,

    Ah your way of looking at things is such a contemplative and philosophical gift. Gracias!.
    I am deeply touched by this “tale” of yours. I read you and you reminded me of the longing that we humans have for re-estoring a continuum to end the fragmented existence we experience and we carry in ourselves. I am not surprise that you juxtapose Victor Erice to Nadas and your fourteen year old gone window shop…

    For me, Erice’s relationship to time in his films is so inspiring because even though it is deeply helped by the visual, he transcends it. “El espiritu de la colmena” remains one of my most favorites films. He finds a way to dissolve space and time, transforming it into a palpable suspension eclipsing of our beings. Just like your writing.
    You are reminding us of the importance and profound value of intervals, interstices, in-betweenness. Thank you for introducing me to Nadas too.
    One thing is for sure: your piece brings me closer to the piecing together of the world I seek.
    Gracias,

    Rafael

  3. stuart frolick says:

    Janet,

    Another touching and poignant piece about all the right stuff.
    Beautifully done! You make me want to run out and get (who
    can wait for them to be shipped?) every one of the books you
    write about. And you help clarify the kind of impact I want my
    own text and image book to have–not just on me, but on any-
    one who ever happens upon it. Looking forward to reading
    about your future discoveries.

    With kind regards,

    s.

  4. I could feel time slow down as I read your piece.
    In this time of instant everything, it is lovely to
    spend time contemplating your beautiful words and images.

    Lori

    PS I also thought of Eeyore “thanks for noticing”.

  5. Jim Krusoe says:

    I love that line about the painter trying to stay time, like Prospero with his wand.

  6. A motion picture catches me up in its movement, and then it’s gone. A still picture stills me with its stillness, and then it stays. By comparison with the dramatically rapid movement from life to death and back in Nadas’s cardiac experience, his pear tree was slow to almost the point of stillness, though each individual photo brought even that slow movement to a halt. One could do such a photo-sequence of an actual photograph disintegrating over time, no? Photographs, too, are finally mortal. But what is the special call of the still photo’s illusion of stillness? Isn’t it somehow that the transfixed moment, if only for that moment, halt’s the viewer’s one-way motion toward death? It puts him in touch with the terror even as, for that moment, it liberates him from it. The sentiment is old. Keats captured it in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” But we will never be done losing it and finding our way back to it again. Sternburg’s shop window has been washed clean, but her photos are still there thanking us for looking.

  7. “..to find the new emerging from the so-called same.” Just so.

  8. I had played and re-played “ODE TO THE LEMON” many times, feeling myself slipping inside the haunting sound, before I realized the connection, Janet, to your 14 years of revisiting the shop
    window in San Miguel De Allende repeatedly to photograph the words “thank you for looking.” Similarly Peter Nadas photographed his pear tree 365 times, creating images as a counterpoint to his descriptive
    words investigating his heart attack. This intense “concentrated looking seems a path to searching
    for a muse. Or more to the point, the photographs, the words, the music–all bring us to what really counts in the end: peace of mind. You ask about “losing time” which is described in the book ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE as a calm that can happen when one goes fishing. I think of it as a way of meditating, doing nothing until inner tensions drain away. Perception miraculously sharpens. It sounds to me close to what you wrote about Pablo Neruda “who in his ELEMENTAL ODES,
    traveled deep and far.” I’ll bet his face shone during such moments.
    loved what you wrote about Pablo Neruda “who in his ELEMENTAL ODES, traveled deep and far by means of concentrated looking.”

  9. cecily kwon says:

    Thank you for provoking my thoughts and helping me to look within,
    not an easy thing to do at present with so much stimuli from without.

  10. Sabina Estrella Arias Rios says:

    As I read Janet´s words my mind drifts into the setting of the photographs, envisioning how the mere atmosphere of a backyard would enfold you and embrace you. The colors on their own evoke a mood, almost like if they brought up a memory of a past life or a place that in your childhood caused a similar feeling.

  11. Lewin Wertheimer says:

    Dear Janet, My procrastination and end of the year business put me off from reading your beautiful essay/article/review until this first weekend of the new year. But how timely for me to read/see/hear of these words and images that are about rebirth, cycles of change and no change and death or near death. Once again you have opened my eyes and ears to talents I have not been acquainted with before. How happy I am for your insightful introductions . Thank you and Happy New Year!

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