I wrote the following paper for something or other awhile ago, which is why it's a bit more academic than what I normally write here. Anyway, after the recent piece about the Chambers show at Museum London, it seemed appropriate. It's not a great essay by any means, and it's scope in dealing with the notoriously complex and esoteric film is decidedly limited, but it may offer some interest. The full film can be found below, but if you ever have the good fortune to see it on the big screen, for the love of God, do it.
The complex and often paradoxical artistic vision of Jack Chambers (1931–1978) was something that the artist attempted to give context and intellectual clarity to in his essay "Perceptual Realism." This difficult, rather esoteric, text documents his relationship to contemporary art praxis in North America. Although it is often cited in discussions of Chambers' work to explicate his intentions, what has received scant examination has been the penultimate section of the essay and the specific implications which it has for his work.
In this paper I will examine Chambers' understanding of the legacy of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in terms of his spiritual beliefs and the formal strategies he deploys in the film "Hart of London" (1970). There is a close connection between these elements. He regarded Duchamp's work as an illustration of the relationship between the different planes of aesthetic experience and interpreted it as a fundamentally metaphysical gesture. For Chambers, the Spirit, which is 'indistinct' because universal and a parcel of God, is mirrored by what Duchamp would call the 'indifferent' object, the material which, for Chambers, is also made of, and by, God. These two things do not function in a dualistic manner. As R. Bruce Elder argues in his extensive documentation of the quasi-Hegelian aesthetic attitude which Chambers developed(1), the notion of a dichotomy between subject and object is constantly under attack in his work. There is only one substance, though this can readily become distorted and degraded by subjectivity, and then turned over to illusion.
The penultimate section of Chambers' text contains a brief discussion of the impact of Duchamp on modern art and what it means for the art practices of North America. He identified the art of this continent as 'impoverished' (Chambers, 36) precisely because it was actually a technology, not an art; that is, it dealt purely with appearances, or the secondary processes of nature. This was an inevitable result of the fact that most of the arts only had an imported history, one which was dislocated from its organic development in Europe. For Chambers, a work of art had to engage with what he regarded as the two fundamental animating processes of life. The continuity of these two processes, their interpenetration, is what could best be understood by the term 'artifice'. The notion that nature is an artificial system working as an artificer under God (the primary artificer) is common to theology and seems to be essential to Chambers' understanding of the nature of art.
Although Elder goes to some lengths to note the Romantic tendencies inherent in this line of Chambers' thought (2), specifically in his concern with synthetic perception revealing the truth of a numinous nature, a process which is isomorphically related to the primary processes of nature (Elder, 227), and even wrote an essay explicitly placing Chambers within the verist tendencies of Surrealism (3), he doesn't pay heed to Chambers' remarks concerning Duchamp. This is even more surprising given the fact that the one work which Chambers cited as embodying Perceptual Realism was actually Duchamp's "New Piece" later known as the "Étant donnés" (1969), which had been widely publicized in arts magazines at the time.
Chambers set out a theory which was explicitly spiritual, even if his Catholicism was not exactly doctrinaire. There is an overt neo-Platonic tendency manifest in his Catholicism and the insistence that the material, or fallen world, is somehow the degenerate version of primary forms, although this is tempered by the insistence on the presence of God in all material aspects of life. The Spirit manifests as the body, a corporeality. Art has to be as material as the body of Christ was, otherwise it simply becomes an Imago and a myth: it cannot be art because it cannot participate in Divinity but only in the even more degenerate form of subjectivity. The latter is precisely what he attacks North American art, specifically the art of his time, for succumbing to. "Art... is not art when having only the mind-system to work with," (Chambers, 42) for "[i]ts image is not found outside itself." (Chambers, 42)
Chambers compares the art scene (pop art, neo-Dada, early land art) with Duchamp's readymade. The North American has a visual language from Europe which doesn't belong to this continent and a material language from the industrial production of this continent that communicates nothing because it is cut off from history. To crudely paraphrase: North American art is a urinal in a desert. (This is a polemical statement, but given the anti-American climate at the time, an appropriate one.) While Chambers recognized that his contemporaries were utilizing Duchamp in various ways, something had gone seriously wrong. What was lost in North America was synthetic unity and this unity no longer existed because the continent's art had no body, only machinery, and a detached metaphysics that seemed to be operating unilaterally. To rectify this problem, Chambers turned to filmmaking as a means to synthesize the two processes. Much like Duchamp's experiments with cinema, as exemplified in his "Anemic Cinema" (1926), the use of film is to a large degree for its biological value, for the intense encounter it can have with the nervous system. It wasn't for nothing that cinema was known in its early days as the 'bioscope'. Chambers summarized what this procedure involved in this way: "Everything begins and everything happens through contact with matter." (Elder 1989, 363)
Chambers outlines the operation of the two key processes of life and art according to the following model(4). The primary process that undergirds the world is the fluctuation of energy. This passes through circuits which allow for the transfer of matter and sensations between elements as they are gridded together and through each other. This dynamic process of energy transmission is what he calls 'perception'. Experience is a circuit which constellates the senses so that they can communicate the energy which passes between organisms. Perceptual realism is the intention to imitate the superimposition of these processes: to create an artifice which is capable of synthesizing the two active processes of the general economy of matter. The successful occurrence of such a phenomenon is what Chambers calls the 'WOW' (Chambers, 43) experience, one closely akin to the more traditional notion of epiphany and what the Surrealists would call the 'marvellous'.
Duchamp had infamously introduced the readymade with the claim that he was searching for an object of indifference, for work which had no subjective value. The Surrealists would extend this notion in certain respects. André Breton (1896-1966) explicitly spelled out Surrealist aesthetics in Hegelian terms as the attempt to overcome the subject-object divide and arrive at objective truth. This same ambition for Chambers was manifest in his interest in photography and essential to perceptual realism. As Elder explains, the photo "...renders the time-bound timeless..." and can "...afford knowledge of something that is beyond the self and higher than the self: it is almost a religious conception of photography..." (Elder 2002, 100)
One of the purposes of perceptual realism had been to rid painting of lyricism and mannerism, to finally establish an objective art. Film was ideal for this because it made the material dominant over the creator and insisted on the physical experience of the viewer's body and the cardinal importance of light. Ross Woodman suggests that Chambers also moved into film because of his dismay that his paintings were too easy to consume with their basis in 'descriptive space' (Woodman, 46). Descriptive realism provided the audience with an easy escape from facing things. "He was determined to destroy the image as a spatial form seducing the viewer into certain illusory notions about the nature of reality." (Woodman, 46-47)
In Chambers' paintings prior to the period he was working on "Hart of London," the influence of photography had taught him to move further away from a united depth of field. Instead, there were areas of his canvas which had a splintered series of nearly hyperrealist depths which were then synthesized into a frame that was held together by its nearly monochromatic colour scheme. "Some of Chambers' works of this period (like Daffs, 1964-1965) even resemble a photographic negative or bas-relief; the colour is handled in such a way that forms appear to be modulated by light, and forms are sometimes visible from one angle though not from another." (Elder 1989, 219) The collapsing of depth and layering of surfaces also served to break down the temporal relations between things. As Chambers puts it, "It's a different realism: space has become time." (Elder 1989, 221) An image is put together through an amalgam of particles, each of which contains the light of Being. God is not deep, just as the soul of things is not in their depths or their recesses, which are only degradations of the original process. Instead, Divine aspects are always on the surface. They are spatial issues; light can only exist there.
"Hart of London" explicitly plays out what is at stake in the play of light on the surface. It takes apart the distinction between forms, often functioning as a force to annihilate difference and negate clichéd dichotomies like inner and outer, life and death, or public and private experiences. Bart Testa attempted to contrast the personal and the social in the work, but this distinction doesn't seem applicable. The public and private are always simultaneously within each other and ultimately negated as distinct forms. The actual distinction is chromatic, which is something that Testa later seems to realize. "By piling up motifs and distributing redundancies around the assembled core figure... Chambers creates masses of images that through his use of superimposition, constantly vary in tone and rhythm but rarely in meaning." (Testa, 150) I would go further and insist that the meaning is not that coherent at all, or at least not that simple. Much of what frames Testa's analysis of the work is the insistence on its simple sentimentality, but the fissures in this argument open up as his essay progresses. While Testa asserts that "[w]hat we do see oscillates wildly... between clarity and fuzzy indistinction" (Testa, 155), making the montage of the film reject an analytical reading, he doesn't recognize that the push to and from indistinction is actually essential to the significance of the film. Giving distinctions the force of actuality is something which is agonizingly frustrated.
In fact, in spite of the oft claimed assertion that the film is about the principle of generation (in the various senses of the term), it seems more accurate to say that it is about the relationship between indistinction and generation, or about the indifferent object and the accession of a synthetic vision. It is precisely this process which the film enacts, explicitly calling up distinct images (personal photos and collective public memories) which are eroded and synthesized within the indifference of light. The distinct object is burned in a mass, something which is quite literally played out in the film. Likewise, one of the film's guiding formal qualities is that of a catalogue. It calls up one image after another, one narrative after another, but always stripping away the context and stripping away its subjective character, leaving the tiny events with an overriding sense of oddness. This oddness is thanks both to their juxtaposition (for example: sorting through photos placed next to digging holes which is next to posing with foxes) and their frequent return, never as repetitions, but as variations using the same footage.
"Hart of London" is divided into relatively succinct sections, each of which demonstrates a substantially different style, both in terms of its chromatic values and its variation in editing, but which operate together to engage the nervous system into a space where it can experience perceptual realism. The bulk of the film is made of black and white footage which was culled from local television stations. This is interspersed with newsreel footage from other archives and the home photos which residents of London sent to him. These are all woven together in a highly textural way. Much like Duchamp, he is creating an assemblage through found objects which can be set up to resonate (or not) as he tries to set the two processes of artifice (real-object and mental-object) into play through superimpositions. "As in any other mosaic, the third dimension is alien to TV, but it can be superimposed." (McLuhan, 273)
The opening of the film is dominated by a harsh whiteness which is accentuated by the minimal soundtrack. It slowly develops, layering images over one another at varying states of exposure. Even more specifically, Chambers was appropriating footage from television, which McLuhan would note is "...not the isolated moment or aspect, but the contour, the iconic profile and the transparency" (McLuhan, 169). White always predominates though figures gradually start to break through. Since he frequently uses negative inversions of footage in superimposition, the figure changes from black to white. This both creates a kind of bas relief effect to the figure and breaks down the solidity of the foreground and background. There is a reversibility between the two at points. Light is explicitly the predicate and the source of decomposition for the figure.
The centre of the film, concentrating on birth and the the slaughter of lambs, was largely shot by Chambers. It is filled with chiaroscuro and suffused with the aesthetics of traditional academic painting, only used now as a set of readymade forms. These are then hacked up through montage to be re-presented as an inextricable oddness, as '"odd" objects in the "right" place' (Chambers, 42). The static shots of dying lambs is harshly contrasted with the often frantic and fragmentary cuts of the childbirth. Unlike so much of the film, which works through a conjunctive cataloging of disparate images which are rendered indistinct by light and their spatial relation to each other, these images are cut to penetrate each other, looping and negating even the extreme distinction of black and white from colour. It is their highly aestheticized character that Chambers undercuts through this process, refusing the distinctions which would allow for the 'because'(5) of aesthetic judgment.
The articulation of the figure is also complicated by the frequent return of the images. Their return does not allow them to function like leitmotivs because they are never quite the same; they are always in variance and re-contextualized and therefore destabilized. This is necessary to constantly undermine the conversion of the images into simple information which can be used to articulate a subjectively consumable content. One should point out, however, that while there are no characters, there are certainly reiterated forms, albeit fairly abstract ones(6). The opening section of the film which shows the deer running around London and the piling of deer corpses by the townspeople is continually undermined by overexposure of film stock, illogical superimposition and reiterations of footage which destabilize the coherency of what it could be documenting. This is essentially played as a battle of pure light and vying transparencies, a battle between forms of 'mind-systems' and 'container-bodies' (Chambers, 42). This light, the light of God or the primary process, both of matter and explicitly of photography, is simultaneously the force of annihilation and the force of birth, simultaneously that which can fashion the figure by artifice and erase it in the same process. As has been observed of the Duchamp work which Chamber cited, it is "...an allegory staging the desire of figuration." (Buchloh, 157) An allegory of the union of the two processes through figuration.
The purpose of the figure, its excitation of the 'WOW' moment that Chambers speaks of, has another similarity with the work of Duchamp and the unusual kind of bioscope that the "Étant donnés" creates with its specific structure of viewing. In that work, the moment of astonishment arises from searching through a peephole at a mysterious object, the exact significance, location and even gender of which are highly ambiguous. There is an insistent mystery or sense of absence which only fuels the intense experience of one's own presence as an aspect of the piece, as a conduit in the creation of the figure. This is precisely what Chambers sought as well. "In short, everything and anything that one sees is in its actual presence also more than we can in any one way understand it to be." (Chambers, 43) In Chambers, however, it is more complexly spelled out.
The importance of perception is its shock to what passes for the natural or everyday, its break from the subjective world of memory. Once it becomes something remembered, it becomes no more than 'a "forgotten" awareness' (Chambers, 43) and is degraded into the wold of subjective illusion. The greater ramifications of this are played out throughout the film. While the film's final sequence, featuring Chamber's wife chanting to his children to be careful as they approach deer in a petting zoo, can readily be interpreted as the encouragement of compassion, there is another side to it. In the trajectory of the film, the world that emerged following the sacrificial one (both of the lambs and birth) is a domestic world, a world of colour and harsh contrasts. A world where God is diffused into everything, refracted in the spectrum of light into differentiated circuits. This falls away again as things break into further differentiations and various absurd narratives appear as so many parodies of the sacrificial form at the heart of the film. A boy swims in frozen water and is arrested; bushes are trimmed and domesticated, held under umbrellas; and a handicapped child is given a bird in a cage. These are all is rendered as a kind of parody of the original sacrifice, domestications of the initial violence once the power of shock has passed into memory. In this respect, we can see Duchamp's "Fountain" (1917) as enacting the same process, introducing the domestic (toilet) into an elevated public space (the gallery) and returning the violence of the corporeal to it.
Figuratively, at the centre of both Duchamp and Chambers' works, in the middle of all of the readymade and reworked found objects that constitute their limits, is a vagina. In both cases, it is correlated to the eye as a double of sight. In Duchamp, it provides the vanishing point of the image and insists on the carnal nature of visuality. In Chambers, it is equally carnal, though less in the sexual sense of the term. The vagina appears with a shift away from the stillness of carnage (slaughter of lambs) to rapidly cut footage which is an intense patchwork of dark film grain and harsh light as it documents childbirth and the excretion of multiple bodily floods. But this gory passage, which articulates the coming of vision, of light, is also an allegory of the desire for figuration, one which is explicitly mirrored in the scene of slaughter which presages it. The lamb is never simply a lamb, but always simultaneously the container of a metaphysical weight and a material instance of the primary process – the force of generation and destruction. As such, the figures are intended to work against the distinct identity of elements. As was the case for Duchamp, a figure is not a sign or a communicative device but a kind of visceral attack intended to force the body to think. As Gilles Deleuze would put it in a statement applicable to Chambers: "It is through the body (and no longer through the intermediary of the body) that cinema forms its alliance with the spirit, with thought." (Deleuze, 189)
1.See Elder 1989, 344-354
2.See Elder 1989, 225-230
3.See Elder 2002
5."Because is the mental process of aesthetics, at whatever level of sophistication, where appearances trigger conditioned aesthetic responses to fade out an otherwise potential perceptual impact. The impact on the perceiver looking through the visible to a general vision-awareness of the whole will register impartially an experience because it is not intercepted by the mind. The aesthetic concern converts and manipulates its own energy according to its particular needs. The spontaneous and primary nature of perception cannot speculate in values." (Chambers quoted in Elder 2002, 101)
6.In a very real manner, events or objects are actually focal points where highly charged psychic impulses are transformed into something that can be physically perceived: a breakthrough into matter. When such highly charged impulses intersect or coincide, matter is formed. (Chambers quoted in Elder 2002, 109)
Buchloh, Benjamin. Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000. Print.
David Burnett and Marilyn Schiff. Contemporary Canadian Art, Edmonton: Hurtig, 1983. Print.
Chambers, Jack. "Perceptual Realism." The Films of Jack Chambers. Ed. Kathryn Elder. Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 2002. 33-43. Print.
Chambers, Jack. Hart of London. 1970. Film.
Deleuze, Gilles. Translated by High Tomlinson and Robert Galets. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. Print.
Elder, R. Bruce. Image And Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989. Print.
Elder, R. Bruce. "Jack Chambers' Surrealism." The Films of Jack Chambers. Ed. Kathryn Elder. Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 2002. 87-115. Print.
Masheck, Joseph. Duchamp In Perspective. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975. Print.
McInnes, Val Ambrose. To Rise With The Light: The Spiritual Odyssey of Jack Chambers. Toronto: Ontario College of Art, 1989. Print.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Print.
Taylor, Michael R. et al. Marcel Duchamp : Étant donnés. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009. Print.
Testa, Bart. "Chambers' Epic: The Hart of London, History's Protagonist." The Films of Jack Chambers. Ed. Kathryn Elder. Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 2002. 141-173. Print.
Woodman, Russ. "Jack Chambers as Filmmaker." The Films of Jack Chambers. Ed. Kathryn Elder. Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 2002. 45-57. Print.
The Visual Arts in Canada: The Twentieth Century, edited by Anne Whitelaw, Brian Foss and Sandra Paikowsky. Don Mills: University of Oxford Press, 2010. Print.
The film can also be seen in two pieces on UbuWeb.