In 1985, the American photographer, William Gedney, copied out a passage in his notebook from the English writer on landscape, Nan Fairbrother: “The shapes we make for ourselves are geometrical, and the background of civilised life is more or less rectangular. Our rooms and houses are arrangements of cubes, our doors and windows, furniture and rugs, books and boxes – all their angles are right angles and all their sides are straight.”
Gedney’s eye and mind chimed with this vision of the griddedness of civilized life, and he noted that there are cities, in ancient Egypt for instance, that had been arranged, like New York, along the lines of a grid. Yet, for Gedney, just as a book or photograph arranged what was in it within the geometric regularity and repetitiveness of a square or rectangle, there was something, a simultaneous perception of the randomness, uncertainty and chaos of life, which, in both good writing and good photography, complicates and opens up this enclosing geometry (to enclose is not necessarily to close).
If the grids of art are about arrangement, synchronic vision, connections and knowledge, a standing back to grasp a pattern, then the grids of life are just as much about chance, disconnections among the connections, and the inability of the elements within the grid to perceive, and know, the larger patterns of which they are a part, so that it is only a ‘higher’ consciousness standing outside the grid that will be able to see it all (with or without understanding it). How you know and form a grid depends on whether you are inside or outside it. You can ‘form’ a grid both actively and passively, wittingly and unwittingly – either by simply being part of a grid or by actually assembling one.
Like Hitchcock’s photojournalist sitting at his rear window with a broken leg, Gedney records in his notebook and on film, from his high urban window, the silent, sinister yet satisfying, everyday drama of “Chance Relationships”: “the inter-relation of strangers [we’re back to promiscuity again!], beings unaware of their relationship to one another (example: the people on the elevator unaware of the man standing on the curb of the street, yet both appear within the frame of the camera, both exist in the same space and time… Distance: the objectivity of distance – the ant hill – the masses viewed from afar, from above.”
So, the grid becomes a potentially totalizing system with which reality (the real of experience as well as the real of the mind), another totalizing system, must endlessly play its games of elusiveness and containment, chaos and order, freedom and necessity. And this could, in fact, be a way of understanding and presenting the relationship between art and life in literature, photography or cinema, those three principal domains of the incomplete logic of squares and rectangles.
Recently, while curating, and actually hanging, the work of a photographer whose subject is the chaotic, fluid, terrifying yet mysteriously still worlds of sleep, dreams and hallucination, I was made to think of the grid again – and at a resolutely practical, non-theoretical level. What I found myself reflecting on, repeatedly, was the strange lack of a comfortable fit between the classical tidiness of the grids, sequences and clouds that I was composing on the walls with framed photographs, and the supreme untidiness and unpredictability of the photographer’s imagination, the fruits of which I was compulsively ordering into my curated cosmos. The contradictions did not stop there. I would step out of the silent, darkened and minimal little gallery straight into the chaos of Calcutta, its architectural grids continually forming and unforming into the mid-day flow of third-world life and death. That language of the minimal, gridded hanging of photographs (or ‘art’) inside the gallery has now become global, accepted more-or-less unthinkingly as the best way of showing art indoors. Yet, how one looks at, feels about, and tries to understand the history (and hegemony) of, that uncluttered, antiseptic orderliness depends on where one is located (within and without), and what is happening outside and around that world of measured, spirit-levelled and centred, or artfully disordered, arrangements. Thomas Hirschhorn’s brilliantly violent Swiss pavilion in Venice last year, its jagged little world of brutal images, masking tape, plastic and broken glass, has one kind of impact in the giardini of art suffused with the summertime fragrance of linden blossom, but quite another in the everyday spaces of those other worlds where most of those terrifying photographs were taken and where the look and décor of a roadside eatery wouldn’t be that far from Hirschhorn’s ‘disturbing’ aesthetic of the disposable and the distressed.
My thoughts on the grid, and my restlessness with it, took me to Rosalind Krauss’s 1978 article on the subject. My restlessness deepened when I read, “the grid announces, among other things, modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse. As such, the grid has done its job with striking efficiency. The barrier it has lowered between the arts of vision and those of language has been totally successful in walling the visual arts into a realm of exclusive visuality and defending them against the intrusion of speech. The arts, of course, have paid dearly for this success, because the fortress they constructed on the foundation of the grid has increasingly become a ghetto.”
Although Krauss does go on to talk about windows and structuralism, her understanding and critique of the modernist grid is drawn almost exclusively from the closed worlds of art, criticism and theory. Yet, the grid, more than any other structure in art – as Fairbrother, Gedney and the Bauhaus artists, designers, textile-makers, typographers and urban planners understood – places art within the physical matrices, and ways of seeing, of the everyday worlds of making, buying and selling around us. It is because we look out the windows of our houses at other houses with windows and at the people inside and outside them that those framed images arranged neatly on gallery walls resonate with what our eyes, minds and bodies look at, think about and experience after we step outside.
How different would Krauss’s article have been, I also wondered, if she had written it after the cyber revolution, if she had to take into account how grids confront and contain us not only in the actual world but also in the virtual world – in Facebook, Flickr, Picasa and YouTube, to name only a few? Click on ‘Profile Pictures’ on any of your friends’ Facebook page, and the horizontal and vertical rows of portraits, each different yet all of the same person, have similar things to tell us about human identity, sameness, difference and time as, say, Roni Horn’s grids, pairs and sequences of the faces of clowns, nieces, actors, Icelanders and the artist herself, or – to give a more familiar example – those by Warhol of Marilyn’s face.
Ultimately, it was not Krauss, but the Oxford English Dictionary, which made me wonder most interestingly about the history of the grid. I looked the word up, and the OED told me that it was an early-medieval back-formation from gridiron and griddle, “an arrangement of parallel bars with openings between them… for putting something on the fire”. That something could be food or a human being, for the grid goes back not only to early methods of cooking but also to the origins of torture: “parallel bars of iron…in a frame…used for broiling flesh or fish over a fire”. These are the contexts in which the word first appears in English, and the OED’s illustrations bring together the wheel, the gridiron, the rack and faggot and prison bars. To be “on the gridiron”, we are told, is to be “in a state of torment, persecution, or great uneasiness”.
I looked up from the book and stared at the grid of four postcards I had made on the wall in front of me, and, in the white ‘negative’ spaces between the postcards, the verticals and horizontals came together to form before my eyes that universally recognized abstraction of human suffering into pure shape, of pain into picture – the cross.
Wallace Stevens, “The Poem of our Climate”
Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations – one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.