Exhibition Essay | (un)Known Realities

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There are many films, whether it’s The Blockbuster or the more ‘experimentally’ inclined, that negotiate memory and fantasy by setting their (non)narrative around various ontological instabilities. Characters fail to distinguish fantasy from reality, or are kept from the knowledge of reality and, by implication, the knowledge of themselves. Think Vanilla SkyMulholland DriveMementoSynecdoche New YorkThe Bourne series, The WolverineBrazilEternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindInland EmpireSolaris… It’s as if our shared cultural memory revolves upon the very instability of memory, alongside a reality that is perpetually unverifiable.

Yet it’s not particularly interesting to say there are diegetic realities present. We can easily see how Neo in The Matrix gains the ability to tell the ‘false’ reality, the world we live in, from the ‘real’ reality. Neo’s ability to see the infamous green code is a visualization of the world’s truth. Or how in Mulholland Drive, Betty Elms creates an initially sensical fantasy (new girl in town, aspiring actress, love story) to battle with her less desirable realities and failures, the later of which continuously invade her more promising fantasy. Both characters are caught in their own ontological instability but whereas Neo’s imperative is to solve this instability, or to recognise the difference between fantasy and reality, Betty Elms has no such prerogative. Her subjectivity is tied too much to fantasy; to try and gain a sense of ontological stability, separating the layers of reality, is impossible.

What becomes interesting then, is that in the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, the desire for true knowledge of the world and the self is often presented in mainstream film as an ethical battle. For the story to end properly—for the moral to conclude—Jason Bourne and Wolverine must defeat their enemies by recovering the truth of their past, regaining memory and winning the knowledge of reality. Directors like Terry Gilliam or David Lynch do not give their characters such easy luxuries or such clearly defined lines between the reality and the phantasm. We can’t choose between reality and non-reality as both are equally essential to self-narrative. Instead, we begin to work with realities.

While The Blockbuster sees the reality/fantasy divide as an issue to be solved, it simultaneously ignores its status as a film; it does not problematise its ontological status as a reproduction of reality. Conversely, many experimental films enjoy the blur of reality and fantasy and are excited by the promise of multiple realities, and unlike The Blockbuster, they seek to actively problematise their status as a reproduction of reality by making a (often subtle) meta-criticism on their own ontological status.

For the experimental filmmaker it seems that the ontological instability of form is related to the ontological instability of content and this preoccupation is apparent in Georgia Mill and Giordano Biondi’s Facsimile.

Biondi’s work is the repetition of a single image that degrades through a process of printing, scanning and re-printing over numerous successions. All that’s left after multiple scans and prints is a sheet of monochrome that has no resemblance to the first print. The image itself, a black and white photograph, contains a young boy who is Biondi’s great-grandfather’s son, who died at age thirteen. Upon his son’s death, the great-grandfather had a diary made in which his son’s photo was re-printed in the upper-left corner of each page. The great-grandfather used the diary to write to his son, forming an imaginary dialogue and, in one revealing entry, tells us that he could no longer recall his son’s face.

The relentlessly printed image was consequently no substitute for the lost mental image. The great-grandfather, while creating a phantasmic narrative and dialogue, cannot access the memory of his son’s image and cannot find anything recognisable in the reality of the portrait that exists in front of him; the image makes no sense to the experience. This is mimicked by Biondi’s reproduction, where the act of repetition has destroyed the clarity of the original photographic image. While the reprints look like a linear narrative progression, their narrative is built on displacement and this displacement is done for the sake of the content and history that underlies the image.

At a formal level Biondi’s work brings to mind Hito Steyerl’s well-known ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’ which defines the ‘poor image’ as one of low resolution and subject to appropriation and easy sharing, with these final features aligning the poor image with the deterritorialisation of contemporary capitalism. While its formal properties may mimic contemporary capital’s structures, Steyerl sees positivity in how the poor image escapes being a work of national culture, of commercial circulation and adherence to modernist notions of originality and aura. The claim to originality is rendered a non-claim as Steyerl tells us, “The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence…”

For Steyerl, the process of reproduction and dissemination de-centralises the primacy of the original to focus on the here-and-now of the images’ conditions, whereas for Facsimile the undoing of the primacy of the original is bought about by memory and fantasy, which destabilises our notion of the ‘original’ person or the original event in favour of what the mind experiences as ‘the real’.

This brings us to Mill’s contribution to Facsimile in which a series of interview subjects discuss a memory that some subjects believe to be real, despite the recollection containing elements of the fantastic. The ontological strangeness exists in the knowledge that their memory can be proven false, but the feeling or intuition of its reality still persists. These snippets of memory border into the realm of the phantasmic and include recollections of a thick, vivid pink fog in which a foal is born, a teddy bear tied to helium balloons floating into the sky and a ball of fire driving Earth-ward like the coming of Armageddon.

In contrast to these memories the subjects tell us how various documentation of the scene disproves their recollection, or that their memory does not align with another’s recollection of events. Even though nothing can confirm the memory, its vividness is not altered and no one is quite prepared to relinquish the experience of the fantasy. Like Biondi’s great-grandfather, a loss has taken place that will not be fully admitted to. Mill’s work exists within the thought of Lacan and Žižek where fantasy cannot be rejected in favour of reality, but must be understood as its own motivating and sustaining force. Likewise for philosopher Lauren Berlant, the creation and sustaining of fantasy is not about the scene, the memory or the desired object; it is about how fantasy gives narrative and provides the very foundation of our subjectivity. As narcissistic as it seems, it is about the self.

In many ways Mill and Biondi’s two contributions work as complimentary inversions. Mill’s interview subjects have gained memories that they know to be phantasms and yet cannot be fully discarded, while Biondi’s work revolves upon the loss of memory and the creation of a fantasy dialogue to make sense of this loss. While Mill’s subjects speak of memories, scenes and images, these are linguistic entities until Mill populates the space with visual objects representing the memories, and Biondi’s work presents us with an image, even though it ultimately speaks about the loss of a visual image.

How strange that we are so equally capable of remembering a false memory as we are of forgetting the truth of a loved one’s face. Memory is not a storage device available for accurate playback, but a collection of mis-matched narrative strands where the truth is of little consequence, even though we paradoxically acknowledge truth’s relevance.

Above all Facsimile serves to complicate our experiences of the world: does experience come to us in the occurrence, the image or the personal recollection?

This exhibition essay accompanied Giordano Biondi and Georgia Mill’s exhibition Facsimile at Seventh Gallery. It was originally published by the gallery.