”Eternity's Lost Property Office” The Ideal Death and Akasha paintings of Keti Kapanadze, Essay and interview
Sometime, I'd like to write a book,
A book all about time,
About how it doesn't exist,
How the past and future
Are one continuous present.
I think that all people - those living, those who have lived
And those who are still to live - are alive now.
I should like to take that subject to pieces,
Like a soldier dismantling his rifle.
If eternity had a lost property office,
You might find there Savanorola's galosh,
Shakespeare's foot binding, Homer's pince-nez.
- Yevgeny Vinokurov
A drawing can be complete in itself, the result of eye, brain and hand working together, with no aim except to capture reality or the contents of the imagination—or to make a drawing. Or it can be a plan, a preparation for a bigger, imagined thing. Drawing is like speech, in some respects. Keti Kapanadze's Ideal Death and Akasha paintings are conscious of these two modes and this clarity about drawing's nature gives the paintings a conceptual aspect. The paintings rely on Kapanadze's sketchbook drawings, and are drawings themselves, made with a brush. The way the drawings go off the edges, in particular the left and right hand sides, adds to the effect of an unfinished, or ongoing idea. The paintings might be sections of a frieze. Like maps they have no borders: one can imagine them wrapped round a globe. In this way they evoke time. For the most part they also have no horizon, and no ground, no floor. Figures float or fly.
'I draw like the Surrealists, without too much conscious thought, automatically. It is what is in my head.' In my conversations with Kapanadze she has stuck resolutely to this idea—with that pointed plainness artists often use when speaking of the making of their art. But she is not a Surrealist. Nevertheless she wants not to concentrate on what the drawing is going to look like, but on the action of making it. She fills sketchbooks, and uses the results, combining drawings onto one large canvas to make a composition. 'Putting drawings together made sense.' In the translation of the drawing on paper to drawings on canvas, the speed of the original drawing is indicated. We do not know what the comparative speeds of execution are—but the new version on canvas does not let us forget the original. 'Drawings are one per page, but in your mind the images are together—so together on the canvas they acquire a centrifugal, an expansive force.'
2. Akasha, time and death
19th century Baptists used 'akasha' to render 'heaven' in translations of Genesis. J.R. Ballentine, 'the sponsor and organiser of the study of Indian philosophy' criticised this as inaccurate. It was an idea Hegel, Schelling and Schopenhauer were interested in. 'The holy abyss from which everything proceeds and into which everything returns,' Schelling called Akasha. A concept of unity then.
Artist Vaishali Prazmari: 'Hinduism is about different manifestations of the same thing. Any emotion, or art, can be one of these aspects. But there is only one supreme being, one grand divine design.'
'The ultimate energy is called the akasa [sic],' writes Surendranath Dasgupta. 'Akasa is bliss (ananda).' It is consciousness, and 'the creation of the universe; life force and pleasures are based on Cicchakti or Akasa.' Cicchakti is defined in the Sanskrit dictionary I looked at as 'thinking power'. Akasha is also space, and pervades all things: it is immanent, then.
'Akasha...is associated with the quality of sound,' says Dasgupta—and therefore with hearing and speech. 'Sabda is regarded as the specific quality of akasa.' Sabda is 'the recognition that "sound" has levels of meaning'. It has 'illuminating power,' can be 'perceptible only to a poet'; can be thought itself. I am put in mind of MP Shiel's Gothic story Vaila, a tale haunted by sound. It describes a shadow of these ideas, a negative image of it, an anti-something.
Artist and teacher Samir Malik tells me, 'for Europeans, it might be helpful to think about concepts like Gaia. Akasha is the whole spirit of the earth. People say clairvoyants get their knowledge from the Akashic Record. Or you might think of Jung's collective unconscious. We come from one source—Akasha is the collective consciousness of that source. In Akashic reality, you might say, there is one dimension of space and three of time. You can go backwards or forwards. You may be able to access other realities. In the "Chronicle" all memories are stored.' 'In the Akasha everything is saved,' says Kapanadze, 'so it is all near to us now; all possibilities are present at once.'
The concept was brought to prominence in Europe by Rudolf Steiner. But Kapanadze is at pains to say, 'I am not interested in Steiner or the Anthroposophists. Some people see my work as esoteric, but I am not interested in the esoteric, I find those kinds of books a waste of time. Although some of the imagery relating to alchemy is very interesting.'
What she is interested in is theoretical physics. She directs me to the mathematicians Srinivasa Ramanujan, Bernhard Riemann, ('all is geometry') and Nathan Rosen. Diagrams of the Einstein-Rosen bridge and Riemann's 'minimal surface' have something in common with some of her drawings, including some in the 'Black and White' Drowings. 'There is poetry involved in the work of all great mathematicians,' says Jacques Maritain.
'I was always interested in death—but the idea of it should be something positive. It is with us.' The juxtaposition of images on a Kapanadze canvas suggests the simultaneity of all things. There is another world, or this one is part of another.
'The Akasha series started out with the title, "Ideal Death," which came instinctively. While making those paintings it occurred to me that this was really the Akasha Chronika idea. With the Akasha, there is no time. So is there also no death? A question too big to answer, of course.' But the paintings have no didacticism about them. Sigrid Schade, (in an essay on the Dance of Death works of Birgit Jürgenssen) says that in the West paintings about death have traditionally been associated with self-portraits. 'I don't believe in God, or heaven, or Satan, or any of this stuff,' says Kapanadze, 'but I'm interested in what death is. I am interested in what happens to us. Who knows, maybe we know more.' I am reminded Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift, in which the writer dreams he meets Humboldt after he has died. 'Now I understand everything,' Humboldt says. Humboldt is Bellow's portrait of Delmore Schwartz. Kapanadze continues: 'but it's theoretical. And theoretical physics can only be theoretical—it can't be experimentally proved—and I like this. It is like art.' Different ideas of time have been looked at by many thinkers. Plotinus, Bergson, who influenced Deleuze, many others. Comparisons of Western and Eastern ideas about time may not always be helpful or accurate.
In Another Father 2 the central figure is nature—'our father'. He has roots and is eating a man. 'Nature eats us,' Kapanadze says. In Another Father 1 the central figure 'is a king.' He is transparent and made up of other elements, so that he is at first hard to make out. Such paintings put me in mind of a literary character—Rabelais' Quarêmeprenant, who is made up of objects and actions, like an abstract Archimboldo. He is Lent—an event, an institution: an abstract personified.
Kapil Jariwala, gallerist: 'in Hinduism abstracts are personified, everything has a face.' With death, 'personifications become narratives', writes Sigrid Schade, 'moral instructions for leading the virtuous life and dying artfully.' But while Kapanadze's interest in Hinduism and Buddhism can be aligned with her use of personifications of life, death and nature, her treatment of them avoids moral narrative.
'As children we are more sensitive to the subject of death, we take it more seriously,' says Kapanadze. 'At 25 I decided that "we are born in order to learn how to die." I hadn't read it anywhere, it came from me. My opinion hasn't changed. It is through the subject of death that Hinduism and Tibetan religions began to interest me. I think in this there is a difference between East and West.' Kapanadze turned her eye Eastward, and is interested in a comparison between West and East—however irresolvable. Part of the idea and the humour of the work lies in how a drawing might express such big things—as physicists' drawings try to do. For this very reason the drawings can be quite rough—the humour lies in the awareness of the difficulty. Kapanadze's interest in the Akasha concerns death, time, simultaneity, and a way of seeing 'the world of appearances', in the Platonic sense. 'I suppose it's optimistic.'
From her teenage years until the age of 30 Kapanadze wrote poetry. She also wrote a play. Her parents were both actors, and her mother in particular was very successful. 'In 1997 I wrote a film script for a competition in Tbilisi, in which only film directors were taking part, and won a commendation. Recently I thought this script could be a basis for a series of photographs.' When I met her she was about to embark on this project. She was also thinking about making photographs of actors' dressing rooms.
'I am a painter of solitude in a way, like a religious painter, to an extent, although I am not religious.' Here we might make a connection with Romanticism. 'Artists are born into a time but deal with timeless issues. I feel I am in communion with other artists alive or dead.' The list of artists she admires is enlightening. Max Ernst, Polke and de Chirico; Goya, Picabia, Tzara, Duchamp, Meret Oppenheim. Of younger artists, Laura Owens. Accurate if comic versions of scenes from Goya turn up in her sketchbooks, and she says working in series might have to do with his influence. Morandi's way of handling light particularly impresses her. There is a dialogue in her work with artists past and present. Of 20th century Georgian painters she mentions David Kakabadze, Alexander Bandzeladze, Gia Edzgveradze and Karlo Kacharava.
4. Methods and motifs
Umberto Eco says the visual is used to connect the learned and the popular. Humour is vital to Kapanadze's work, with its allusions to cartoons, diagrams, past artists' work. Humour has always had a relationship with conceptual art, which often uses the structure of the joke—two things juxtaposed to make a third unexpected thing. The comic believes the world to be unfathomable and ridiculous, even though he or she would like to explain it.
Paintings like Crazy Head or The Critic's Gaze (2009) seem to be about language—whatever else they are about. Since her compositions have no edges to them, the composition lies in the lines and shapes. In Ideal Death 3, the motifs arrive stage left, move across the canvas and disappear stage right. This way of composing also has to do with the transparency of the motifs—where they overlap, the motif on top does not obscure the one beneath. The figures are a little like X-rays—a medium that sees through things, which is photographic, but makes us think of diagrams—and seems to have something to do with shadows. As for the purpose of X-rays—in Kapanadze biology is never far away.
There is also a collage effect. Pages from the sketchbook are, so to speak, cut and pasted to make a composition. The motifs, the themes, are from the same well. It is like a poem series which goes over the artist's interests in variations. For more recent paintings Kapanadze has also used cut-out templates. The tension between the composition as a whole and the separate drawings that make it up, allows for play with ideas of coherence and incoherence, which can be comic—or sometimes Gothic.
'Living things—figures, animals, plants are shown in an almost ornamental way. They represent everything in the world that we see.' The animals include dogs, bears and birds: ostriches, parrots, owls. They are frequently symmetrical, or positioned symmetrically in relation to one another. 'They might be heraldic animals,' she says, 'and I like the fact that heraldic devices are also like Rorschachs.' Heraldry also has to do with time, being about genealogy. 'I lay out the images, the narrative if you like, which is in my head. The story is up to you.'
The 'candle-people' in the paintings represent life: 'a person burns like a candle.' And the cakes, 'because a person's life is like a cake'—made to be consumed. 'Time is the fire in which we burn' as Delmore Schwartz says. There are lot of spirals in the paintings—things apparently in motion, or in flame. Are the paintings about energy and matter? Or these and art? Between energy and matter, energy has primacy, Kapanadze says. They are not allegorical. They might be in a line from Symbolism. They are 'against limits' as Kapanadze says. 'Dreams are important. Maybe the drawings made by 'automatic drawing' come from dreams. Also it's important to realise that our brain conceives in images and without them we cannot communicate.'
The background colour is always monochrome. It is made by mixing wood glue with pigment. This background—which is really no background, just a base, or sky—enables her to compose scenes which are neither interior nor landscape. Direction is defined by the motifs. If anything they are landscapes—like the fantastic landscapes of the Romantics, and the Surrealist ones influenced by them. There is not much that you would call sunlight. It is the light of, say, John Martin's Belshazzar's Feast of 1820—the light of storms and visions. Are Kapanadze's paintings apocalyptic? 'Yes.'
'I always want to find new ways to think and to approach things. That's why I learnt German. And in art the language you're using is never enough.' Dealing with time involves dealing with identity. Things in her pictures have opposites or partners, or are linked by chords. 'All are male and female, all double.' What kind of a division is this? Energy and matter? Perhaps the binary itself, indicated then questioned. Of course symmetry indicates the body, which has always been important in her work. Here bodies are on fire, are hybrids, or feature in cameos in corners. In Akasha Chronika 5 there is a cape on a stand. 'The cape looks like a person, a body, and even has eyes, but it is an empty shell, a mould, like the shell in which the mussel once lived. A person was inside it.'
The motifs are painted over the finished background. The base colour of each painting consists of up to fifteen layers of wood glue mixed with pigment. She can put motifs between the translucent layers—drawings or geometrical patterns. Then these rather emblematic drawings or patterns are definitely 'background', and importantly create a depth which affects the whole painting, which might otherwise look too flat and diagrammatic. The floating effect is important. In 'Another Father 2’ depth is created with the pale forest of trees (with added wind effects) but enhanced by layers of almost transparent paint: motifs seem to move toward you from background to foreground. The effect is added to by glitter in layers near the surface. Her methods result in paintings with a tactile, thick surface, a waxy eggshell finish. The backgrounds provide something fixed for the nervous and informal drawing to come.
Kapanadze points out that there are two kinds of light in the works—in the translucent monochrome and in the luminous filigree of the drawings on top. The meeting of these two brings another kind of light. The colour is luminous, like sparks, embers; phosphorescent like Coleridge's water snakes. (Or, for example, like the colours in Theodor von Holst's Fantasy based on Goethe's Faust, of 1834.) Kapanadze says it is a question of having 'enough light to see the idea.' It is not the 'real world' we are dealing with, the world of appearances. 'Each painting is lit internally,'—as if from phosphorescent sources. 'When background and foreground work together the painting works.'
5. Forests, Romanticism
'One theme that runs through Ernst's entire oeuvre is the forest—the epitome and atmospheric space of German Romanticism,' writes Ingo Borges. Perhaps via Surrealism—and Goya—Kapanadze's Akasha paintings show the influence of the Romantics. Of all the Surrealists, Ernst was the one the most influenced by the Romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries. 'Ernst felt intensely drawn all his life to the art of the German Romantics,' says Borges. It is worth pointing out that Hinduism was brought into the Gothic in the 19th century, especially into literature.
The issues addressed by Kapanadze have, arguably, much in common with those addressed by the Romantics and by the Gothic—the idea of the inner vision, of the subjective as a starting point for philosophical analysis, of the imagination as a force unifying everything. Possibly even the idea of an identity built around a sense of loss, defined or undefined.
The sense of being in a forest is felt in a number of pieces—sometimes a literal forest, as in Another Father 2. Sometimes it is conjured by the lack of horizon, the darkness, the animals and plants. Of the owls in her paintings, Kapanadze says, 'owls are beautiful, intelligent, and active at night: that is, mysterious.' The light often suggests the night: as in Ideal Death 1, Another Father 1, Ideal Death 5 and Akasha Chronicle 2.
Roland Borgards writes, 'the Romantics conceived of night as the space of a different and better cognition.' And in Ludwig Tieck's writings, for example, 'Darkness has become an emotional state, the "black infinity." The outer night has become an inner one and also a metaphor for the soul.'
6. The Black and White drawings
Romanticism and the Gothic also featured the meeting of science and mysticism. The black drawings—the 'Black and White' drawings, a series spanning a period from 1983 to 2006—are in many ways the precursors to the Akasha works. They are like blueprints, as if the artist were an inventor. Sometimes they seem to show pathways or levels. But these pictures seem also out amongst the stars of the night sky. The black is the black 'a better cognition'. There are often large amounts of text, apparently adapted from scientific diagrams. Humour reigns throughout. The drawings consist of white lines applied to a black ground of ink or gouache. In one there are diagrams of what might be a physicist's analysis of space, alongside the Latin names of parrots and parakeets. It represents both an idea of nature, and a way of making art: an important pairing.
What is Kapanadze's view of nature, in the traditional meaning of the word? 'We are all the same in one way. Humans ask questions but apart from that—we don't know what kind of consciousness a bear has, for example. It may be substantially the same as ours.'
'In the past I often—not always—used as sources books on medicine and other technical books. Or, for example, the instructions on how to get on a horse. They then lost their function in the absurd context of my drawings. They were transformed—just the idea of a purpose remained. I started using books on theoretical physics—in which there are in the end no answers, only more questions—like in art.'
The 'Black and White Drawings' seem to show processes of thought. There are squares within squares and numbers suggesting different possibilities, semi-scientific drawings combining physics, animals and instructions. Kapanadze's 'favorite' shows what looks like a tool for grasping things, which is also like a person. In her work people and things are often hybridised. These drawings also bear a comparison with photography, with their sense of being in negative, and the feeling they give of an attempt to record and define.
It would be a mistake to connect her motifs, here or in the paintings, with 'folk' imagery. Kapanadze's work shows an idea of international, art-historical motifs. Hers are not Georgian folk motifs, even if the situation here is complex. When for example I ask her if there she was influenced by the Georgian tradition of carpet and rug-making, she says no, at least not directly. She allows that there might be some influence of these and other forms of applied art, and that her paintings do have a similar form, to an extent. These rugs belong to a long tradition and feature elaborate motifs, with arabesques, figures, animals, plants. She also says she is not influenced by Georgian ecclesiastical imagery. Again, 'certainly not directly. The influence of Hindu imagery is clear.'
Perhaps the theatre is a more important influence than many others. There is something of the stage set about the paintings, and an emphasis on movement, with one or two characters dominating the stage of the canvas. Her 'internal light, enough light to see the idea', might be theatrical lighting. In a short text published in the catalogue 'Not Only Hands but Shoulders', Kapanadze describes her experience of being in an empty theatre and gazing at the stage, which appears to her as 'the gate into a cosmos where an endless world begins, a world where mega- and micro-galaxies are created, a world extracting life from empty space and re-dispersing it like dust into darkness.'
7. 'The earth is evil'
In André Malraux's discussion of East and West, and of where the West finds itself, he writes, 'what is being called into question again [by modern Western art] is the value of the world of appearances.' Appearances meaning what we see: reality as it appears, the world, nature. This fact of Modern art, and its relation to the question of the nature of the world in Hindu and Buddhist thinking and art, is something Kapanadze understands. This, I think, is something of a key to her work.
'Nature is death,' says Kapanadze, 'the earth is evil.' Malraux says that 'in India and the Far East appearance is identified with illusion—in other words, with evil—"evil" in the metaphysical, not the Christian sense—and all Eastern art is a victory over the lie of the cosmos.' Kapanadze's 'evil' is I think meant in this sense—although it may not be simple, both senses might be mixed in. She is something of a Platonist, although the style of the drawing has the effect of earthing the work. But in terms of Malraux on Eastern art, and 'the world is evil,' we can think that there is a little of Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia—'the world is evil, no one will miss it' (really a Christian idea of evil) and a large dose of 'the world of appearances is illusory' (the Eastern view).
8. 'The world of the imagination is greater than real world'
'The world of the imagination is greater than real world,' Kapanadze says. In The Kingdom of Poetry Delmore Schwartz says that,
'. . . . Poetry is certainly/More interesting, more valuable,/.../Than Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Atlantic Ocean/And other much admired natural phenomena./It is useful as light, and as beautiful./.../For poetry magnifies and heightens reality:/.../For poetry is, in a way, omnipotent;/.../For without poetry, reality is speechless or incoherent...'
For poetry we can read art, of course. Maritain: 'by Poetry I mean not the particular art which consists in writing verses, but...that intercommunication between the inner being of things and the inner being of the human Self.'
In Schwartz's story The Statues, snow falls in New York to form sculptures on the streets and sidewalks. Schwartz found here a new way of expressing, in his typical comic-serious mode, his belief in the importance of art. The effect of the statues on the populace is profound:
'... they looked about as if they were dream struck or abstracted or profoundly in love...It seemed to Faber Gottschalk [the story's hero] that the statues had an inexhaustible nature.'
'Some for a time spoke of the fecundity of nature; some...thought that this was indeed the way that the haunted and hunted lives of human beings took shape by an unpredictable and continuous fall to which little or no designing agency could be attributed.'
So art—in an apparently unusual aesthetic—is seen here as both natural phenomenon and something greater than nature. People are seen in the same way. They are formed as if by the falling snow, subject to the backgrounds of their parents, the place they are born, their genes, and so on. But although a person's personality happens, it is also hers. (The question of choice in Schwartz is a vexed one. He is, as Alex Runchman says, 'the poet of uncertainty.')
People, natural phenomena and art are contemplated according to the same philosophical rules. There is more than a nod to Plato and his ideal forms. It is as if reality had fallen from heaven. Schwartz studied under AN Whitehead who taught that an artist's ability to perceive with pure sense perceptions may be a higher form of perception than that using causal relations to perceive things. The chair is more than a chair.
Faber Gottschalk says of the statues, 'who knows what relationship they may not have to our lives? What natural or supernatural powers may not, through them, be signing to us?'
Art is creation—perhaps Schwartz believed not that 'nothing is new under the sun' but the reverse, that we are 'sub-creators', as some theologians say, and that artists are all the time making genuinely new things, being made in God's image. Kapanadze has something of this faith in the powers of the artist, who produces new and meaningful things as if from nowhere, who draws on mystery. 'In some ways I think the artist is a medium, a clairvoyant.' And paintings are not things to be translated—the painting is the thing, not its interpretation. Art is a thing with a power and nature of its own, a will of its own.
If Kapanadze's 'automatism' is not really such in the Surrealist sense, it may be the idea of a relationship between the artist and nature—nature in the broadest sense—and not a relationship with the unconscious, as in Surrealism. Rabelais speaks of 'monsters deformed and distorted from contempt for Nature.' Nature may be 'evil', or 'illusory', but at the same time a sense of nature—to include the world as understood by theoretical physics—is vital to Kapanadze's art and thinking. She is not really against nature, or reality, any more than Schwartz is. But reality is nothing without art. The 'story' of her drawings, and the paintings they flower into, is ours to interpret, she says. All of this points to this: that nature and reality are impossible to fathom. And that art, in Jacques Maritain's words, 'is a kind of divination (as was realised in ancient times...)'