Tuesday, 2 September 2008


Is that a rhinoceros in the cavern cinema? More particularly, is that the rhinoceros according to Albrecht Dürer? I was trying to practice an associative free-thinking in terms of the cavern cinema, looking at Smithson's drawing and trying to see where it lead me, and it led me to a rhinoceros.

The link isn't completely gratuitous. Dürer is, I suspect, an artist who has claimed a relevance for many generations of artists. To offer a somewhat random set of examples: when The Blue Rider Almanac was re-published in 1965 (first English edition 1974) it included an introduction that cited an early review of the almanac by Hans Tietze, who particularly admired the new publication for how:

it reminds us of the wonderful privilege that Albrecht Dürer claimed for the artist: to create a world out of himself which outside of himself would not exist. (44)

Mel Bochner, meanwhile - who collaborated with Smithson on The Domain of the Great Bear (1966) - reproduced Dürer's Melancholia I in his essay The Serial Attitude (1967), establshing Dürer's connection to the contemporary by observing: 

Perspective, almost universally dismissed as a concern in recent art, is a fascinating example of the application of prefabricated systems. In the work of artists like Ucello, Durer, Piero, Saendredam, Eakins ( especially their drawings) it can be seen to exist entirely as methodology. It demonstrates now how things appear but rather the workings of its own strict postulates. As it is, these postulates are serial. (Solar System & Rest Rooms: Writings and Interviews 1965-2007,45)

More recently, in Jack Pierson's Angel Youth (2008)- a collection of reprinted book works accompanying his recent show at IMMA, Dublin - I noted his own acknowledgement of a Dürer phase as he worked on his series of Self -Portraits: "At that time I was also at the height of that Dürer research, which means I had a couple of books and looked at them all the time." (434)

A Dürer phase. Every artist should have one. And every cavern cinema should have its own rhinoceros. Does it storm through? Does it appear on the walls, a combination of a projection and something emerging out of the walls itself? A simple matter of projector light working with the bumps and cavities of the cavern wall. 

Let's make Dürer's rhinoceros a trope for our explorations here. The entropic cancelling of Smithson's cinema - its film of its own creation - seems to be parallelled in the form of Dürer's rhinoceros. Let's look at it again:

Almost a conceptual piece itself, constructed by Durer from a letter and a sketch of an Indian rhinoceros that he had never seen. 

Actually, I think there may be another reason why my mind seems inexorably rhinoceros-bound. Thinking of the legacy of Smithson's cinema I've been led to consider many contemporary engagements with the space of the cinema - from Tobias Putrih's many invented cinemas to the Printed Cinema of Rosa Barba, or to non-specifically cinematic engagements with space, which nonetheless seem to reflect something of the way we respond to moving images, such as the installations of Monika Sosnowska. 

Powerful work all, much of it, as Francesco Manacorda observes in an article on Putrih in the current issue of Piktogram, "on the cusp between rigorous research and surrealist prototype." (79) Because central to all these artists is the level of participation, whereas  Smithson's project has a whole set of associations which are out of reach, beyond reach, unactivated, self-cancelling. If a work of Putrih's such Lost Cinema Lost (with Runa Islam, 2008) invites the participant into sensory engagement on numerous levels, then Smithson offers a future of mechanical breakdown and stony darkness. What is the legacy of the cavern cinema if we stay within this realm of associations, rather than seeing it as a vehicle for fantasy and imagination? It's no cinema at all, except as a memory, or a faint sense of something strange happening deep underground.

This is where, surprised, I encounter Dürer's rhinoceros, through whose enormous armored bulk the cavern cinema can be both fantasy and participation, both a distillation of our experiences and something almost unperceivably  strange and other. Like Smithson's heap of words the Pliny derived caption on Dürer's woodcut can be seen as the source both of the drawing and of a new kind of cinema:

On the first of May in the year 1513 AD, the powerful King of Portugal, Manuel of Lisbon, brought such a living animal from India, called the rhinoceros. This is an accurate representation. It is the colour of a speckled tortoise, and is almost entirely covered with thick scales. It is the size of an elephant but has shorter legs and is almost invulnerable. It has a strong pointed horn on the tip of its nose, which it sharpens on stones. It is the mortal enemy of the elephant. The elephant is afraid of the rhinoceros, for, when they meet, the rhinoceros charges with its head between its front legs and rips open the elephant's stomach, against which the elephant is unable to defend itself. The rhinoceros is so well-armed that he elephant cannot harm it. It is said that the rhinoceros is fast, impetuous and cunning.