Lannan Foundation Announces a Public Exhibition and Lecture
Contact: Christie Davis
Teju Cole: Blind Spot
19 May – 1 July 2018
Opening reception Saturday 19 May from 5 to 7pm
Artist talk Sunday 20 May at 4pm at SITE Santa Fe: Teju Cole in conversation with Sasha Weiss, culture editor of the New York Times Magazine. Free and open to the public. SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, NM Tel. 505.989.1199 www.sitesantafe.org.
Gallery hours: Saturdays and Sundays noon to 5pm or by appointment
309 Read Street, Santa Fe, NM
About the Exhibition
Teju Cole’s Blind Spot is a combination of lyrical essay, travel journal, and philosophical reverie presented in stunning, formal color photographs paired with the artist’s texts, joining voice and vision within one frame. In the course of nearly nonstop global travel, Cole’s camera has captured ships in Capri, a park in Berlin, a collection of globes in Zurich, graffiti in Beirut, and a young boy’s hidden gaze in Brazzaville, of which he writes, “There is that which is carried, like a cross. There is that which drapes over, like a funeral sheath. Everywhere, I begin to see as I am carried along by my eyes, are these two energies.”
In his extensive travels, Cole initially began “using my camera as an extension of my memory. The images are a tourist’s pictures in this sense.” I witnessed this memory-making firsthand when Cole was in Santa Fe to read for Lannan Foundation’s Readings & Conversations series in February 2016. As I drove him through the City Different’s winding, hilly roads, Cole could barely contain his excitement, asking to stop the car several times to make an image — and notably not of our extraordinary southwestern views but of mundane subjects I might never have noticed. He makes the ordinary sublime, elevating common objects like scissors, globes, fences, and tarpaulins. His is a genre of photography that makes the viewer cognizant of seeing — no easy task. As photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper writes, “If we are sighted, we tend not to notice the differentiated acts of looking and seeing. The given is that looking and seeing are central, but distinct to the process of picture-making.”
Each image is named for the city in which it was made and is accompanied by an original piece of writing from Cole. Sometimes the text describes the moment or place. Other times, the image serves merely as an inspiration or pathway to another memory, as with Cole’s image Beirut, May 2016, of a concrete apartment block in Lebanon. Leading with a reprint of an Emily Dickenson poem, his text begins:
Poets die. They must. But the poems, if vital, give a light that each future age refracts in its particular lens. No, not “give a light”; they “light in here”; contain themselves a light from which they cannot be separated. Like the sun, they illuminate and yet remain perpetually illuminant.
The exhibition presents 32 images with text, a grouping selected by the artist himself. The entire series, numbering more than 150 images, is presented in a book published by Random House in 2017. A reviewer for the Guardian said, “On encountering a collection of Teju Cole’s photographs and writing, I began to wonder about the mind behind the camera, the eye giving such careful attention to, for instance, a pair of scissors; then a dirt hill; folding chairs; mesh; a siding; part of a brick wall; imitation Gucci bags; crushed plastic bottles. . . . With few exceptions, the photos here memorialize such items, ostensibly common things made radiant by the quality of Cole’s looking.”
We are so pleased about Teju Cole’s visits to Santa Fe — first as author, now as photographer, forever as witness.
—Christie Davis, Program Director for Art
View Exhibition Images
There is that which is carried, like a cross. There is that which drapes over, like a funeral sheath. Everywhere, I begin to see as I am carried along by my eyes, are these two energies, which, with water as the third, together begin to constitute an interpretive program: the solid (like wood, iron, or stone), the solid-fluid (clothlike), and the fluid (water). On the banks of the Congo River one afternoon, a boy plays on a railing. He wears a white shirt and black gloves. Ahead of him is the cross on which he is supported, reinterpreted as red elements of iron and painted on concrete. On the boy's body is the infant Christ's towel, the condemned Christ's loincloth, the Sudarium of Saint Veronica, the linen shroud of burial: white cloth on a body, the solid-fluid that mediates between the cross and the river. Behind him, the river rushes. Is he a type of Christ, or is he an angel (that glove is as intense and uncanny as a pair of wings), or is he a Saint Christopher, the Christ bearer at the river's lip? But all three are carriers, and types of one another too. Like them, the boy moves between metaphors. Suddenly, he lowers his head, his eyes disappear.
The first time our ancestors climbed a tall tree, or came in a migrating band to the edge of a cliff, they experienced vertigo. Only hundreds of thousands of years later did we experience jet lag, which is to chronological displacement as vertigo is to spatial displacement. Finally we had figured out how to move across time faster than time moves across us. In epiphany, you are neither here nor there. In jet lag, you’re in duple meter, both here and there at the same time.
I pray to Tarkovsky, Marker, and Hitchcock. I acknowledge the dumb skull, the verso of the face, the local globe from which all thinking originates. I pray to Ojeikere and Richter, in whose works someone is always turning away. In certain pictures, we can verify a character’s presence, but, without the clues of the confessional face, not what the character thinks. What has turned away contains itself. A stone contemplates a stone. Stalker, The Mirror, Sans Soleil, Vertigo. Multa pinxit, hic Brugelius, quae pingi non possunt, wrote Ortelius. He painted many things, this Bruegel, which cannot be painted. What cannot be painted?
On tram No. 15 to Bucheggplatz, a woman sat in the seat in front of mine. She was in her late twenties or early thirties. Late afternoon light. Her hair was pulled up, and I could see her neck tattoo clearly. It was in two lines: a woman’s name, a date. I wrote both down. Later, when I looked up the name, I found an old newspaper article: a woman of that name had died in a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, in 2007, and it had happened on the date in the tattoo. In the car that night, the article said, had been two other people, both of whom survived the crash, and both of whom, at that time, like the woman who died, were in their early twenties, a man, the article said, and another woman.
I follow her for one city block. Thirty seconds after the first photograph, I take a second. Against my will, and oblivious to hers. Then I lose her to the crowd—the mutual danger is defused. On Instagram, the ones who see what you saw are called your followers. The word has a disquieting air.
The Greek fleet was ready for war, but there were no winds, and they could not set sail. Why were there no winds? The goddess Artemis’s anger was turned against them. Agamemnon had killed a doe sacred to her, in her sacred grove in Aulis. There would be no winds, and no sailing, and no war, and no destruction of Troy, until she had her satisfaction. Agamemnon agreed to give away his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis as a sacrifice. (Men are always giving women away.) In the scene the great painter Timanthes painted of Iphigenia’s departure, Calchas was sorrowful, Odysseus was more sorrowful, and Menelaos was overcome with sorrow, all of which Timanthes portrayed with stunning accuracy. But the father Agamemnon’s grief was greatest of all, a shattering extreme of grief, and Timanthes could not, or would not, go beyond the limit of what he had already shown. And so he depicted Agamemnon without depicting him: turned away, with a veil over his head.
I last walked in there on September 9, 2001. Since then, I’ve gone near it many times—in taxis on West Street, on foot on Greenwich Street, by Trinity Church—but have been unable or unwilling to go into the plaza. Thirteen years pass. I finally return, in May 2015, with the camera as a mask. The fusion of dream and reality into a single reality. Painters like Hammershøi and Vermeer know the power of this gesture. One turns away to show what cannot otherwise be shown. The sense in turning away. The power of a gesture that speaks without being spoken to.
What is he saying? To whom is he talking? He is secret in public. The hood is extra secrecy, like the veil Timanthes puts over Agamemnon. The phone box frames him in a way that makes me think of a prisoner whose singular lifeline is the telephone that reaches the outside world. Minutes later I will encounter the blond women in the green. But I don't know that yet, she's still in the future. Who in these days still uses a pay phone? There are still pay phones? Is he calling someone collect? (Again, I think of imprisonment.) The one to whom he speaks cannot see him: speech without a face. Why do I feel I have seen him before? Marker says remembering is not the opposite of forgetting but rather its lining. Imagine, for a moment, that every face you cannot see is your own face, but years later. The future is lined with your future face.
Color is the sound an object makes in response to light. Objects don’t speak unless spoken to. An object does not have a color, it makes a color (the way a bell makes a sound). Sound is molecular motion. Color, too, is molecular motion. Color is the selective absorption and emission of light on the surface of an object. As an untouched drum makes no sound, an object in total darkness has no color.
A photograph full of muted but complicated color is similar to a full orchestra playing a quiet passage: powerful resources used to create a subtle effect. With my eyes I begin to hear what I see.
My darling. They said we wouldn’t cross tonight. Now they say we must. My phone is dying. There is a pregnant woman here and she won’t stop crying. I will send you a Facebook message tomorrow, inshallah.
The Poets light but Lamps—
The wicks they stimulate—
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns—
Each Age a Lens
Poets die. They must. But the poems, if vital, give a light that each future age refracts in its particular lens. No, not “give a light”: they “light inhere”: contain in themselves a light from which they cannot be separated. Like the sun, they illuminate and yet remain perpetually illuminant.
Another poem of Dickinson’s, “The Tint I cannot take—is best”—which I didn’t know or don’t remember—cut me to the quick in part because, a couple of weeks ago, I developed a roll and found it empty: thirty-six lost shots. I had failed to engage the sprockets in one of my manual cameras. And so each time I framed a shot and clicked the shutter and advanced the film, I was fooling myself. Well there it was, an anxiety dream come true.
But Dickinson’s poem, luxuriating in optics, also contains the line “The fine—impalpable Array—That swaggers on the eye.” I take this as a reminder that what is seen is greater than what the camera can capture of it, what is known is finer than writing can touch. My eye was swaggered upon. I wasn’t fooled.
I opened my eyes. What lay before me looked like the sound of the alphorn at the beginning of the final movement of Brahms’s First Symphony. This was the sound, this was the sound I saw.
The stage is set. Things seem to be prepared in advance for cameos, and even the sun is rigged like the expert lighting of a technician. The boundary between things and props is now dissolved, and the images of things have become things themselves. Perhaps the artificer’s gold paint is still wet on such scenes in which we play at kings. Wandering around, I find this theatricality of city life especially visible at the edges: the sleeping docks, the decrepit industries, the disused railroads: at such places, the city is shorn of all superfluity and reduced to its essentials, as in a play by Beckett. Flutes! Drums! Let the players in.
Later on, I thought of the catalogue of ships in the Iliad. "I could not tell over the multitude of them nor name them, / not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths, not if I had / a voice never to be broken and a heart of bronze within me, / not unless the Muses of Olympia, daughters / of Zeus of the aegis, remembered all those who came beneath Ilion." But that was literary, that came later. On the day itself, on the evening of the morning in which I opened up the window of my room to see the apparition of a shining fleet on the Mediterranean, what I thought of was what Edna O'Brian said to those of us in the audience: "We know about these beautiful waters that have death in them."
A woman with red hair and a man in a purple sweater paused, for the briefest of moments, in front of Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day. The painting was on loan to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. The couple were in their late seventies or early eighties, and they had an easy manner with each other: not only were they together, they liked being together. They were the same as the elegant couple huddled under a black umbrella in Caillebotte’s monumental painting. In fact they were that couple precisely, I swear it, only they were a little older now. They glanced at their painted doubles without really saying “Yes, it’s us” or “No, it’s not.”
Later that day, outside the museum, I was given a shadow and its ladder crossing each other on the way to heaven, confirmation of what I had seen.
In February 1930, a man and a woman were involved in a car accident, the man died instantly. The woman, his wife, not long after. She'd been pregnant. Their son, raised in an orphanage, became an industrialist, founded an aviation company, and died at age eighty-four in 2014.
In March 1995, a former fighter pilot died in a car accident before his thirtieth birthday. His grieving father, who had founded an aviation company and was to die many years later at the age of eighty-four, in 2014, was said by locals to have been CIA, a charge he never confirmed or denied, saying only that it was better than being KGB.
It holds its violence in reserve. It is symmetrical, as are most vertebrates. It is in fact bipedal, like the animal that stands up, the animal that can mourn strangers. This suggestiveness is the key to surrealism. Suddenly coming up for air, a whale breaking the sea’s surface, the surreal object is beyond or over (sur) a reality it might have been expected to stay below. The scissors is a mask without a face.
In the spring, I twice watched Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, in which a woman (Maria Enders, as played by Juliette Binoche) said: “I had a dream. We were already rehearsing, and past and present were blending together.” And I really did not know in that moment if I was dreaming, or remembering a dream, or watching a film, or remembering the first time I watched the film and heard Juliette Binoche say those words. In the summer, I went to the Engadin and Sils Maria for the first time, half in pursuit of this dream. In the fall, looking at the photograph I had made on the mountain and writing about that visit, I could not say for sure whether on that cloudless evening on Muottas Muragl, overlooking the Engadin all the way to Sils Maria, I had remembered the dream by Maria Enders, or whether I had only later dreamed that I had remembered it there.
The meaning of the ladder for Jacob was positive. But he took fright, for he knew that a ladder can take you up and bring you down. That day in Pitasch, I walked down the steep alpine slope to the river Glenner, perhaps the most beautiful river I have ever known. The green of the evergreens that bordered it was of a profuse variety within a narrow chromatic range. There were gray and white rocks and stones along the bank. The air was still. The world was peace. The Glenner joins the Vorderrhein a few miles down, at Ilanz, and the Vorderrhein leads to the Rhein, which flows to the North Sea; but here, in the heart of the continent and near the Rhine’s origin, the young fast shallow mountain river was slate blue with flashes of turquoise, and serried wavelets that crested white when the wind gusted. I got on my knees and drank directly from the cold river, then climbed back up the slope into the woods, and returned by the farmer’s abandoned shed I’d passed on the way down. I was full of happiness, and was afraid, because I know a ladder can take you up and bring you down.
I had an interview on Rai Radio 3. M was to be my translator. She was wearing a purple coat that day. We sat in the studio, the host and M and me, and when the host asked me a question in Italian, M whispered the translation into my ear. When I gave my answer, which was usually a few sentences long, she translated it into Italian. The questions were about the book. Which had come first, the words or the images? Why were there so few people in the images? I tried to give thoughtful answers. When M, in her cool and attentive way, translated them, they sounded even more thoughtful.
She was listening to me while I spoke, closely enough to convey what I had said concept for concept, if not word for word. But what surprised me was that I was listening to her too. In the necessary silence (on my part) between my giving an answer and its relay to the audience, I had the opportunity to consider carefully what I’d just said, and what I might say next. And when I spoke, I became aware of M’s attention as an active silence, like a page on which I was writing my words. I was having a conversation with the host: her questions, my answers. But the deeper conversation was between M and me, because we were translating each other’s silences.
Movement in the peripheral vision is easy to observe. Even when you fixate on a central static point, that peripheral observation continues. However, if the peripheral stimulus is regular, it soon fades away, and becomes invisible. The effect, known as Troxler’s fading, is easy to demonstrate. It is so named for its discoverer, Ignaz Paul Troxler, born in Switzerland in 1780. Let us say Troxler’s fading has consequences, by analogy, for political thought. Movement in the margins is not enough. Regularity becomes invisible. You switch up the moves, you introduce irregularity, in order to maintain visibility.
Troxler was a politician in addition to being a physician and neuropsychologist. He played a leading role in the Swiss adoption of a more liberal constitution in 1848, a constitution deeply influenced by the American one and its language of equal rights.
The neurons in the visual system adapt to the stimulus, and redirect their attention.
Far from the city. Through narrow darkness, through scrub forests and rocky cliffs, our Elder Brother brought us across, his name was I’itoi. On our setting out from the other side, he turned us into ants. He brought us through narrow darkness and out at Baboquivari Peak into this land. Here we became human again, and our Elder Brother rested in a cave on Baboquivari, and there he rests till this day, helping us. The land is a maze. You have to be guided through, right from the beginning you had to be guided. The first story in the world is about safe passage. An iron fence spirals into the distance, enforcing on the land a separation in the mind. In the grass near the inspection post at Sasabe, on the Mexican side, someone has planted two white crosses. The large one lists at a sixty-degree angle. On the smaller one, you can see the word “mujeres.” The code is made of wounds.
Plane and almond trees have mottled bark, but the patterning on poplar trees is particularly loud, almost like military camouflage.
To deceive his father-in-law, Laban, with whom he is living in Syria, Jacob makes a deal that Laban will keep the pure-colored animals, and Jacob will keep for himself only the speckled goats and sheep. “Only,” but if you know Jacob, you know something’s afoot.
Near the end of the twentieth century, scientists experimenting on primates described a new class of brain cells. Mirror neurons, as they came to be called, are fired both when people perform an action and when they watch it being performed. For these neurons, seeing and doing are identical. Their imitative function is thought to be key to empathy, language acquisition, and human self-awareness.
Jacob makes sure the more vigorous animals in the unspeckled flocks mate in front of an arrangement of plane, almond, and poplar branches. When these flocks lamb, the lambs come out mottled and spotted, and Jacob’s share of the flock increases. Laban is furious, but God is against him.
Glory be to God for dappled things. All things counter, original, spare, strange; whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)—But Jacob, contender and deceiver, knows how. He knows how streaked we are by what we see.
How are things? These are the objects of and around a bus stop: amorphous banks of snow, a metal drum, a bus shelter, the pole of a sign, a wooden post, the trunk of a tree, patterns printed on Plexiglas. Brought together by the rectangular organization of the viewfinder, they move from being objects into being things. They are no longer what they were made for. Now they are functional equals on the picture plane: blue construction anchored on a rectangle, green line, gray-brown broad vertical, scatter of white and off-white here and there, chatter of pale yellow dots, red cylinder topped by dark brown oval, and so on. Each element is as insistent and necessary as the shapes and colors in a suprematist painting. Meaning comes from the collective tension and balance of these individuated elements. But this dreamwork bricolage comes by an arrangement of the eye, not of the hands. An object is used. A thing is seen.
Look down. Geology defeats geometry. A walk in town in spring, when everything is a mess, and different states of matter are in flux, is a walk through probability and chance. Euclid cannot help us here. The same logic governing continents, islands, and bays governs the puddle with its gravel, ice, sand, mud, and melting snow. All are in that family of shapes and complex hierarchical rules that Mandelbrot called “fractals.” And what sees is as what it sees: the vascular tree of the retina is fractal (the last scan of my left retina showed this complex web, with what looked like a number of small explosions).
They kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
A length, a loop, a line. Faraway wave seen from the deck of the ship. I think the Annunciation must have happened on a day like this one. Stillness. In the interior, she reads with lowered eyes, unaware of what comes next. A presence made of absence, the crossbar, the cloth, the wound in his side.
Kitchen to living room. Bedroom to bathroom. Downstairs to get the mail. House to subway. An evening stroll. You take around 7500 steps each day. If you live to eighty, inshallah, that comes to 200 million steps over the course of your life, a hundred thousand miles. You don’t consider yourself a great walker, but you will have circumnavigated the globe on foot four times over. Downstairs to get the mail. Basement for laundry. Living room to bedroom. Up in the middle of the night for a glass of water. Walking through the darkened house, you suddenly pause.
If you walk along the northern lip of Lac Léman, between Montreux and Lausanne, you will see before you the lake’s flat shine all across to Évian-les-Bains in France.
On steep slopes you wend your way past the wine-growing villages of Corseaux, Saint-Saphorin, Rivaz, and Chexbres, feeling in your legs the pleasure of a long walk along narrow old roads some of which have new surfaces. We are a small group, we walk in solitude. There are people working in the vineyards. In one grove, a man harvests by hand, onerous-looking work. Farther along, in about half an hour, we will taste the white wines of Lavaux. Our mouths will be explored by the nectar of the landscape we have crossed. For now, below us are brown-roofed hamlets, and a pair of twin boys, around ten years old, come laughing up the road. “Do you live here?” “We have always lived here!” “Do you like it?” “We love it!” Their answers are in unison.
I rest at a concrete outcrop with a bunting of vintners’ blue nets, a blue the same color as the lake. It is as though something long awaited has come to fruition. A gust of wind sweeps in from across the lake. The curtain shifts, and suddenly everything can be seen. The scales fall from our eyes. The landscape opens. No longer are we alone: they are with us now, have been all along, all our living and all our dead.
I sat there for hours and watched the sun slip across the landscape. Anything can happen. The point is to shatter serenity; the absurdity of contrast between before and after is the very point. It could be in a shopping mall, a café, a public square. It could be in a restaurant or at a concert, in the places where people gather and are happy. I am haunted especially by the innocuous phrase I saw in a news article —“in hotels popular with Westerners”—for these are the most frequent targets, and these are the places where I spend my days and do my work. (I write these words in yet another hotel in yet another city.) But in the places I don’t live, in other cities, in remote borderlands, on farms, what happens also happens there, and it happens just as suddenly, just as grievously; but less visibly. I remember this: against the impassioned claims of the nascent Black Power movement in 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr., driven to exasperation, said to a Mississippi gathering: “I’m sick and tired of violence. I’m tired of the war in Vietnam. I’m tired of war and conflict in the world. I’m tired of shooting. I’m tired of hatred. I’m tired of selfishness. I’m tired of evil. I’m not going to use violence no matter who says it!” I sat there for hours, in one of those hotels popular with Westerners, and watched what Roethke called “the deepening shade.”
I associate Switzerland with ease and calm. With some war, but only in the long-ago mercenary past. Switzerland is neutral now, serene, safe. But I begin to think of those new Swiss weapons, and all the places and bodies that had been blown apart by the hundreds of millions of dollars of annual Swiss arms sales. Bombs, torpedoes, rockets: to the United Arab Emirates, to Saudi Arabia, to Botswana. The blasted buildings of Beirut. Sig Sauer rifles and handguns find their way to the American street. I associate Switzerland with calm and ease. What then is not visible? The death merchants busy at their precision work. And I begin to worry that my search for information about these handguns and weapons of war would flag my activity as suspicious to the all-seeing eye of the government. What then is visible?
Darkness is not empty. While preparing this book, I rescanned the negative of the boy by the Congo. "His eyes disappear." I had written. But all of a sudden, with slightly altered settings, I could now see his face, his eyes. Darkness is not empty. It is information at rest. Late in the nineteenth century, after hundreds of years of pressure by the European colonists, the villages in the interior, along the Congo River, began to succumb to the invaders. In response to this civilizational crisis, Mangaaka power figures were sculpted ever-larger, growing from their miniature sizes to the height of a man.
In each village, the Mangaaka was a sentry to ward off the oncoming collapse, "poised to spring into action," as scholars said, and "intensely reflective." The Mangaaka was full of potent medicine, with eyes of white metal enamel, irises of iron ore. This boy is double-visioned. He is looking out, looking outward, but here, poised at the edge of the crisis, he is also looking inward, looking in.