Friday, October 19, 2012

Staying Single

“Purity of heart is to will one thing” – Kierkegaard

Although the telos of infinity in Roman Opalka’s project might seem to commit him to a single path, there is no real reason, other than the sheer impossibility of the task, to make this assumption, since there is no necessary connection between infinity and a commitment to it. After all, he might have painted numbers in the morning, every morning, while making some entirely different art work in the afternoon.

Since singleness is, therefore, not internal to this project, it must have come from elsewhere – no doubt, from a will to singleness or “purity of heart”. But already, if this is the case, Opalka is double ! There is the work, zero to infinity, which is one thing, and its uniqueness, or his tie to its uniqueness, which is another.

The work is thus inscribed with a double failure. In addition to the acknowledged failure to ever arrive at infinity, there is a fall from the purity or self-sufficiency of the work. Is commitment at the service of the work or is the work a mere occasion for commitment ? If not a doubleness, there is at least a doubt.

Maybe it is good to fail and to fail again. Like the impossibility of arriving at infinity, the distinct possibility of not keeping to the task is what gives the task its frisson. Perhaps Opalka’s success must be looked for elsewhere than in the rigour of his life-long project or his career-long fidelity to it. Perhaps it shines best in his acceptance of finitude, in the repeated exercise of volition.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ise Jingu

The wooden shrine at Ise, in Mie prefecture, Japan, the central site of the Shinto religion and an important focus for Japanese nationalism and dynastic authority, has been constantly rebuilt since the seventh century. Although there have been lapses in its long history, the preferred practice is for a ritual rebuilding every twenty years.

Beside the existing shrine, a space is left empty to provide a site for the new building. The old building is then taken down to leave an empty space in turn. Ise shrine thus continually alternates between these two spaces in an existential flicker-effect or instability of identity.

Unlike iconic Western buildings such as the pyramids or the Parthenon, which are massively material and enduring, Ise’s lighter structure summons an energy that must be constantly renewed in ritual practice. The gods are invited to take up a residence which is understood to be temporary, a flow of energy or power. While Western edifices are patched up or stand until they crumble, Ise’s ancient architecture is forever new, immediate and functional.

It is essential to the rebuilding process that no change, development or innovation is introduced into the fabric of the building. Each rebuilding imagines an origin to which it returns in the timeless acts of the ritual. Although small differences must occur over the centuries, the intention is always to return to the same.

You are neither there nor here. Like the vacant space beside the shrine which, far from being a pure negation, offers the possibility of the building’s renewal, a sense of identity must be constantly recovered from emptiness and repositioned in a vision of the same. Practice is not towards some final performance but a life long checking and affirming.

see “Japan-ness in Architecture”, Arata Isozaki, MIT Press 2011

photographs Eiji Watanabe