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Holes In The Net Of Time

Part One: Photography and Time in Observatory and Forest

Reflections on two recent books of photography and text: ‘From The Observatory’ by Julio Cortazar and ‘December’ by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter —

When I was in my twenties and making films, I read Eisenstein’s writings about the dynamic principle of montage — the ‘third thing’ that can happen if images are juxtaposed such that new meanings emerge, as in the classic example of Potemkin in which a statue of a lion seems to sleep, awaken, roar, the images together becoming  a metaphor for previously somnolent masses roused and rising up against oppression.

I thought then — and still do —  that this principle of tertius (Eisentstein’s term) explains something essential about artmaking:  the way that juxtaposition can create meanings that are neither inherent in a single image nor in the randomly coupled, but through an act of placement so finely tuned that the third thing leaps out.

In those same years I went to Arata Isozaki’s groundbreaking exhibition, ‘MA’: Space-Time in Japan, which helped to introduce the concept of MA to western minds: the idea that images, sounds, forms create between them an interval, an absence, a pause, an in-between space through which meanings emerge.

Two ways of making: the first, montage, through the artist’s precise control: in filmmaking with cuts, in Western Classical music with the way in which chords and movements follow one another; in poetry with metrical patterns, always with the artist’s intention to make the lion roar.

The second way, MA, lives in the liminal where multiple interpretations are welcome, and the order of the day is the paradoxical non-order of elusive forms combined with structure, together in the service of playfulness and possibility.

 An artist’s studio, used to illustrate MA

Two recent books of word and image relations have prompted me to speculate on the similarities and differences between these two ways of making and being: From The Observatory, for which writer Julio Cortazar is author of both photographs and  text (first published in 1972, now in an English translation, Archipelago Books, 2012); and December, (Seagull Books, also 2012) a collaboration between writer/ filmmaker Alexander Kluge and visual artist Gerhard Richter, here as photographer.

As I encountered both books, as I read and looked, I found that the relationship of text to photograph was by no means clear. Both raised a question: had the artists themselves designed the placement of words and images within the books — sometimes with an image on the opposite side of the text, at other times in a double spread or standing aloneor was the layout instead the work of a third person, a professional book designer? The question seemed briefly important because it corresponds to one of the core questions that an artist asks when making a foray into image/text territory.

Then I decided that I didn’t want to ask that question. These books are the manifestations of extraordinary minds at work. What can they tell us — beyond conventional explication of ‘who did what?’ — about deeper connections between the photograph and word?

Julio Cortázar’s ‘Prosa del observatorio,’ is described in the jacket copy as ‘perhaps the strangest of all his books,’ consisting visually of thirty six black-and-white photographs taken by Cortazar himself of the Maharajah Jai Singh’s 18th century observatory in Jaipur.The observatory was built to look outward and upward to the stars, but is instead (at least when I was there about fifteen years ago), in a cordoned-off park-like space, vestigial but still compelling, especially so in the magnification that Cortazar captures, as if its structures were punctuation, its rib-like arcs curving like enormous commas, its entirety a symphonic structure corresponding to no known astronomy, an analogue to Cortazar’s sense of the world, its mystery and uselessness, its defunct majesty, a monument to the attempt to understand even as it is equally a monument to that which is left behind, its stairs leading to nowhere — at least not to an anywhere that we, observers at the observatory, can see.

Through niches and openings, the text emerges as wriggling eels. Yes, eels: at roughly the same period in his life as his voyage to Jaipur, Cortazar read an article in Le Monde on the life cycle of eels. In time, marinating in Cortazar’s mind, the two — observatory and eels — converged into this book. I excerpt from Cortazar at my and your peril since his mind is as supple as eels and doesn’t stand still for the logical connection between previous and next.

‘. . . they  {eels} travel on toward fluvial sources, searching in innumerable stages for an arrival from which they can expect nothing; their force do not come from themselves, their reason palpitates in other tangles of energy that the sultan consulted in his way, from portents and hopes and the primordial terror of the firmament filled with eyes and pulses.’

‘Everything corresponds’, Cortazar writes. What is this mysterious correspondence between eels and the instruments of astronomy? One explanation is that the two represent different ways of knowing and not-knowing: eels live in the world of not knowing, a kind of analogue to the limbic system of the brain, sent by their biology to routes that defy comprehension. The observatory comes to us from the cerebral cortex, from the discourse of rational measurement. At one point Cortazar’s fever dream devolves into a diatribe against rationalist scientific thought, how it diminishes the freedom to wriggle, to search without conclusion, and instead collapses his beautiful suspended in-betweens into blacks and whites.

This reader doesn’t want Cortazar to come to a point, any point. I would say instead that the correspondence of eel and observatory is the sensation one feels while reading, that everything is pulling and being pulled through orifices  — the eels as they pass from river to river, heading without knowing toward an inevitable destination, pulled toward their spawning and into their demise even as the stars and planets are submitting to the pull of their gravitational orbits, never converging but subject to and being part of that endless pulling in which all beings partake: life and death.

‘. . . a verb’s migration: discourse, this course, the Atlantic eels and the eels words, the marble lightning of Jai Singh’s instruments, the one who looks at the stars and the eels, the Mobius  strip, turning round on itself, in the ocean, in Jaipur . . . ‘


The second book, December  is an anti-chronological glossary on the idea of  calendars: thirty nine brilliant, caustic, deadpan narratives by Kluge, each dated with days, each in the month of December although freed from numerical order, the years too journeying up and down the centuries,1991 near to 21,999 BC..  Accompanying the stories are an equivalent number of photographs of snow-covered branches, at first appearing black and white until one notices definite but ambiguous daubs of red, simultaneously suggesting bloody tracks, a wound under cover and a cherry tree’s blossoms latency behind a screen of snow.

Richter in his photographs implies a constant question: what is figure, what is ground? Which is branch, which is sky? Do the branches cross between the space of sky? Or are the branches themselves space? In December, an image covers the entire frame without any stabilizing horizon; it is as though transparent cloths have been draped over separate pieces of landscape and by means of this isolation, each image has been given its own rhythms of presence and absence.

Haunted by World War II, thumbing its nose in all seriousness at the specter of German order, December is a daybook in the process of becoming a nightbook. National specificity spirals outward until the book is haunted by time itself, its authors constructing a book that defies order in its crux of ancient and present (Pontius Pilate in the same Klugian scheme of things as Gorbachov).

Look at a calendar as I just did, with December in mind. Instead of seeing only little rectangles with numbers on whose accuracy we automatically depend, see them as miniature tricksters. Most of the time they remain opaque to us, serving as guideposts to what we must do, conveyors of information we choose to mark in them. However, if we see each rectangle as ‘a hole in the net of time’ (Cortazar’s phrase), it becomes a translucent gateway to the experiences that lie behind those marks. And if we blur the lines of demarcation between the rectangles, the calendar becomes one with the space-time continuum that Kluge and Richter make manifest.

I suggest that this playing with time and space is a necessary condition for word and text collaborations that are not illustrative but instead poetic and metaphorical. These books — From the Observatory and December —  are exemplars of MA in action; ‘everything corresponds,’ as Cortazar has written, but what exactly are the correspondences? Do not ask, these books say. Eels and observatory. History without chronology. Snow without context. Look for something else.

These books not only implicitly give us the something else; they also ask it of us as we think about and make our own work. Which is one’s path? The indicating one-way direction of tertius, of montage, of the third thing? Or the way of MA, of the interval, the space between that gives form to the whole? The first way is about striving, the heroic attempt not achieved but rather achieving heroism in the attempt. The second way is about not striving, about letting what comes through the space in between, letting being the artistic act as much as making.

‘This hour that can arrive sometimes outside of all hours, a hole in the net of time, this way of being between, not above or behind but between, this orifice hour to which we gain access in the lee of other hours . . . ‘ —From the Observatory

The differences are real; Do we make the orifice hour or do we let the orifice hour come into being? They are not only artistic choices; they are ways of being. As of this writing, I have an inkling that tertius and MA, rather than being parallel tracks, instead may meet at intersections as yet unknown to me. However, beyond these two paths I want to put forth a third way that I’ll call the way of placement. When I place my own photographs next to one another, I’m looking to see what resonances emerge. I’m thinking neither of a third thing they make by this juxtaposition, nor of the spaces between but am interested instead in slowly accreting revelations that shift and change with each new viewing. In this aesthetic, images are companionable in their side-by-sideness, the way that one sentence of prose ‘enjoys’ the company of the next, one line of poetry elides into the next, the turn gliding as though on skates, without insistence.

Be advised: approach these books only when you find yourself in that charged orifice hour of which Cortazar writes: this orifice hour to which we gain access in the lee of other hours . . . ,‘  because if you are not, if you remain in the divisions we call night or day, you will never swim in the same starry sea as Cortazar, never wander in the same dark forest as Richter and Kluge. It is grasp, not comprehension, that you want, a sudden o (itself an orifice word), and afterward a resonance that remains in the orifice hour of your being. Approach at a time when you find yourself with an interior spaciousness that makes room for another. On that day, these probes into time, these multiple ways of being, will be yours as they open to the infinite.

   STREAM,  Janet Sternburg (2002)                                  MOUNTAIN,  Janet Sternburg (2005)


Next: HOLES IN THE NET OF TIME Part Two: Photography and Time in the Telescope and the Mirror

Reflections on three films:  Patrice Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light with excursions to Tarkovsky’s The Mirror and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors 


  1. Your writing and images always make me feel like I am time traveling. Time as “miniature tricksters” will stay with me…

  2. Jamie Wolf says:

    Such a compelling discussion! And wonderfully written…

  3. Querida Janet,
    I love your insight and invitation to “grasp” permeable reality. Your way with thoughts into words is both poetic and educative (a sort of initiation of the “in between” which we so often discard under the excuse of practicality and survival. You love us, the reader, because you take the time to meander and display possibility. Thank you again for you and your spirit, Rafael

  4. Lewin Wertheimer says:

    Beautiful, dreamy and provocative. Thank you Janet.

  5. “As of this writing, I have an inkling that tertius and MA, rather than being parallel tracks, instead may meet at intersections as yet unknown to me.”

    This comment so invigorates my own path of inquiry, which is what happens either in conversation with you, or particularly in reading your comments on paper. The intersection, for me, is an invitation to “LET” intuition into the equation. Wow! I love this piece and will return to it. Great.

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