Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Caponigro's MEGALITHS - The Illusion of Immanence

Paul Caponigro's book length monograph Megaliths was published in 1986 [Boston: New York Graphic Society/Little, Brown and Company]. The images were printed matte, rather than on glossy stock, a temperamental choice which had been employed with Caponigro's earlier selected images book, The Wise Silence [Boston: New York Graphic Society/Little, Brown and Company, 1983]. This choice of presentation involves complex issues which I don't want to address here, but it remains controversial in some quarters.

Any discussion of megalithic (or "large stone") imagery involves aesthetic questions which range far from photographic adaptations. The megaliths which Caponigro addresses in this book are all in the British Isles. Archeological interpretations of the meaning of these sites and structures are changing all the time, but what seems most obvious about them, initially, is the ambition which must have accompanied their construction. Their prehistoric origin is shrouded in mystery, from before written records, so we have no firm reports of their purpose or meaning. Our fascination with the surviving physical evidence of our ancestors' monument building is not merely historical, or even scientific, but involves our curiosity about their religious significance. As examples of "pagan" or pre-Christian practice and phenomenology, they may suggest certain rituals and belief-systems which existed for long periods of time.

Immanence refers to the inhering quality of divine presence, which may be manifested in objects of the material world--specifically, in the mystical power of arrangements of earth, stones, or in natural totemic presences, like trees, or animal deities. Research and opinion favors an interpretation of the pre-historic British megaliths as representing immanent structures or objects (earthen mounds, caves; or stones erected or placed in positions or arrangements) intended to evoke or symbolize holy or sacred connections, sites, or religious technologies (such as astronomical devices). These aren't haphazard piles of rocks and soil; they're deliberate attempts to create lasting monuments to powerful pagan systems of worship.

From the perspective of photographic documentation, these sites present few problems. They come down to us pretty much in their original form, though occasionally concealed under the detritus of time and residue. For the purposes of archeological research, straightforward images can be done, and, since the advent of aviation, we are also able to see, and record, their larger shapes on the land with aerial photographs. All these sites have been measured and studied, and as much as can be deduced from the rock art, their positions and arrangements, at least in a preliminary or provisional way, has been accomplished.

Their potential as "artistic" subject matter is a different question. Visually, most of the sites are difficult. The "standing stones" for instance, have a certain obvious visual aspect which makes photographing them an exercise in monotony. The first question that naturally occurs is how pre-historic peoples, with technologies we know almost nothing about, were able to transport, and move such huge, massive stones around, and mount them into upright or stacked arrangements. Aside from the great difficulty in doing so--which in some cases rivals the construction of the great Egyptian monuments--with which some of them are roughly contemporary--there is the question of motivation. Simply scratching out a livelihood from the soil of Britain would have required considerable ingenuity. Organizing a primitive society into the complex tasks of moving great stones around would have required skill and planning on a scale that seems almost unimaginable to us. Time and effort. Commitment and dedication. Perhaps generations of drudgery. We know, for instance, from Mayan cultural artifacts in Central America, that rigid political and religious institutions were required for the mounting of such huge, glowering civic or religious projects.

Clearly, for a photographer of Caponigro's persuasion, mere documentation is not the priority. His work follows clearly in the tradition of the mystical expression of image-making initiated by Minor White, whose own images, and those he typically published in the periodical he co-founded, and edited for over 20 years, Aperture [1952-] are intended to express directly his ideas about transcendence and immanence--though Caponigro later repudiated this influence in his work by rejecting some of the New Age textuality which motivated White's efforts. Nevertheless, Caponigro's work on megaliths, as well as his Southwestern and Japanese explorations, have had a profoundly quasi-mystical or religious feeling about them. Preferring to characterize this as a purely personal process of the magical interaction of eye and object, does not vacate the essential spiritual focus of his inspiration.

There's a tension, then, in Caponigro's megalithic imagery, between concepts of the picturesque, and immanence, where the initial subject--say, a stone placed over a cave opening, or an arrangement of standing stones in a circular or semi-circular design--has minimal pictorial interest, but may simply serve as the occasion of a wide-field rural landscape study, as in these first five images. One might--certainly could have--made almost identically satisfying images, without including, in the foreground, the megalithic constructions which are their ostensible justification. The mute stones as documentation presences are in tension with the distraction of the wider, largely unspoiled country landscapes. Were the stones in the middle of a housing project, the potentialities for picturesque expression would of course be impossible. There's a romantic, almost 19th Century bias built into these kinds of big landscape shots, which no amount of talk about "mysterious power" or immanence is likely to trump.

Ultimately, big stones, especially when they aren't carved or inscribed, can't tell us much beyond our appraisal of how they may have come into the positions in which we find them. Any extra-rational appropriations are gratuitous at best, though we may be entertained by the aura of mystery they inspire. Is
mystery itself a basis for the imputation of power and significance in mere objects? Such questions may seem beside the point, except when aesthetic questions regarding the value of certain kinds of subject matter arise. In what sense do Caponigro's megalithic prints trade in this mystical hermetic/orphic/cryptic matter?

The best images in the book, it seems to me, derive their quality from the same landscape values we admire in non-immanent scenes: long, delicate grey-scale, heroic skies filled with operatic cloud formations, carefully focused fore-grounds contrasted against inspiring long horizon-lines, diverting shapes and angles, an "awesome" combination of elements in a natural setting.

Other photographers, such as Brett Weston, or Wynn Bullock exploit the same kind of qualities in "non-specific" scenes, to express a symbiotic relationship between effective or "responsive" subject matter, and the viewer (or photographer). The pretext of archeological or quasi-mystical sites seems an opportunistic application of the larger problem of making images that speak.

If I see the same qualities at work in these images, as I do in otherwise casual matter, I'm obliged to credit (or "privilege") the skill of the photographer, rather than some magical transmission occurring through the sacred presence of pre-historic deities, which in any case I don't believe in rationally. The record of man's presence on the earth through the deliberate creation of monuments or burials or garbage heaps, does not in any specific way determine the quality of imagery we may make out of media like painting, or sculpture or photography. We may have religious or quasi-religious feelings about life or the universe, and these are perfectly consistent with the evidence we have of our ancestors' passage through time. But as a basis for measuring the effectiveness of photographic imagery, they aren't of much help.

The stones have been here before us, and will doubtless be here after us. What does that tell us about stones? What does piling them up or lining the walls of caves with them tell us? Is the force of that effort a measure of the seriousness or intensity of our feelings and thoughts? We've been able through our modern technology to carve up the surface of the earth with considerably greater efficiency than our ancestors could have done. In fact, we've done so much harm to the planet, that we're in danger of destroying it as a home.

Though the stone monuments of our ancestors don't have much specific to tell us, we can see that they believed themselves to be a part of something much larger. The density and brittleness of the stones, as carriers of that mute message, contain the basic information. The book of the universe can be read, with difficulty. Higher physics penetrates to the farthest limits of our understanding about matter, and the riddle of existence. The further we go along the progression of knowledge and inquiry, the more we realize how big the riddle is.

In an image such as that above, the dialogue between the grasping intent of the sucker plant upon the big tree trunk, and the "closed" fist (or "smiling") rock seems to set up a timeless dialectic. Trees are alive. Amer-indian myth suggests that everything is alive, even rocks. Higher physics now tells us that everything is "light"--that all matter is "arrested light"--or light in some ephemeral disguise. All time is relative. A life happens in a split second, and may be replicated infinitely. Or it may take eons to occur. The flexibility between both senses of existence gives us pause. Why aren't things simple, and clear? Why all the mystery?

The forces which "hold" the matter of stone together in a crystalline stasis, the forces of gravity which hold the stones down, the shapes and seams and angles of the stones express forces which were the defining purposes of their formation. There's nothing accidental about any of this. Things may seem simply to happen. But the way a tree grows, the fascinating we have with certain arrangements may not be casual, or accidental, at all.

As descendants of beings who mutated from one form to another, we are the consequence of a process of selection whose laws may follow a larger formal design. The names we give to such designs may be expedient. But we also sense that some such riddle does govern the overall outcome. Our presence here is temporary. Whatever has caused us to appear, does not intend that we should be permanent additions to the universe. We are not eternal. But we have the privilege to wonder about it.


Craig said...

My favorite megaliths are at Nan Madol on the island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia, mainly because I paid them a personal visit about fifteen years ago. We were living in Tonga at the time and it wasn't yet certain if our move from Tonga would be to Pohnpei or to Fiji. We moved to Fiji as it turned out so instead of three or four years I only had a single afternoon to investigate the ruins at Nan Madol. It's amazing to me to consider that the megalithic city was actively in use up until contact with the Spanish during the 16th century.

1000 Names of Vishnu said...

ponderous-- more scary than inviting. Mayan-aztec glyphs may have a mysterious power, but the mysteries are...drenched in blood, (like an Aztec priest's obsidian heart-knife)--that doesn't bother bother romantics so much. Bloodsport generally appeals to Lawrences of Suburbia.

Or is Sir F. perhaps preparing for the big Mayan calendar event???? What is it, harmonic convergence or arrival or the jaguar gods, or the end of the earth.....