The Canadian Art Database

Arni Runar Haraldsson

In-Quest of Folly: Reading Rodney Graham's LENZ (1985)

C Magazine #5, Spring 1985
[ 4,113 words ]

We know, captives of an absolute formula that, of course, there is nothing but what is. However, incontinent(ly) to put aside, under a pretext, the lure, would point up our inconsequence, denying the pleasure that we wish to take: for that beyond is its agent, and its motor might I say were I not loath to operate, in public, the impious dismantling of (the) fiction and consequently of the literary mechanism, so as to display the principal part of nothing. But, I venerate how, by some flimflam, we project, toward a height both forbidden and thunderous! the conscious lacks in us (of) what, above, bursts out.
What is that for?
For play.

Mallarmé, 'La Musique et les Lettres'

Repetition cannot be analyzed without using it, in forms of language which inevitably turn back on themselves and lose their lucid and logical transparency.

J. Hillis Miller, 'Fiction and Repetition'

Rodney Graham is a Vancouver artist who has been working within the realm of conceptual art since the mid-seventies. Relative to his past output, his work bears a notable consistency. Each piece employs a related theme; namely 'a cycle of works all concerned, in one way or another, with culturally swept-out or depopulated landscapes, and with images of nature construed from the perspective of Romanticism and its critique' (Graham). (1)  That said, the work seems to occupy a paradox between nature (the forest) and the work of art — especially its mechanical aspects. Considering the mediums he deploys — photography, artificial lighting, sound recording, and more recently, the text — I think that his primary concern is with the inability of art to represent the real of nature.

75 Polaroids (1976) was an installation formalizing the botany of the landscape and erected within a miniature museum of natural history. The work consisted of 75 random Polaroid flash photos exposed in the darkness of the forest then subsequently matted, framed and mounted at eye level in a continuous line around three of the four walls of an all-black room (museum) measuring 12 by 12 feet. For Graham the most interesting aspect of this work was 'the "subjective" experience of the photographer  — the flash of light and the retinal after-image of the site in which he (the viewer) was otherwise lost.'

Similarily, Illuminated Ravine (1979) had the forest at night, during 'theatre hours', as its setting. Graham contrived to amplify the moment of subjectivity he had experienced during the event of making 75 Polaroids, and to violently spectacularize that moment by transforming the intermittent flash from the Polaroid camera into a continuous, stressful, pulsation. Here, artificial lights pointed towards a ravine (two powerful 1500 watt mercury vapour lamps mounted atop of 15 foot telescopic tower powered by a portable two stroke gasoline generator). The generator transmitted a pulse whereby the faint, but detectable, flicker of the lights bathed the landscape. The audience, invited to observe the piece from the lip of a minor precipice leading into the natural cavity of the ravine, found themselves amidst a type of 'theatre of alienation', viewing a monstrous apparatus violently disrupting an otherwise serene setting. The artificial lights and generator could be seen as 'found objects'. They were of the type one finds in logging camps throughout B.C. The final effect, as one observer noted, was that 'the throbbing noise of the generator deterred most conversation and the two-and-a-half hour duration of the piece tended to isolate individuals.' (2)  Yet, 'the overall visual effect was as integral to the piece as its conceptual context.' (3) 

Camera Obscura (also 1979) further enabled Graham to explore the dialectic between nature and its representation. Camera Obscura was constructed out of pre-fabricated materials and located on a farm in Abbotsford, B.C. The structure itself, large enough to accommodate three or four people at a time, resembled a functional tool-shed. A pin-hole camera housed within the structure was operational. On one of the four black walls a white screen displayed an upside-down, reversed, image of a tree — slightly out of focus, in colour, in constant motion, and about eight feet high. The image of the tree in its rural landscape setting was, in subsequent exhibitions, documented by a 40 x 48 inch Cibachrome print — hung inverted. (4)  'The pin-hole camera was deployed as a surveying device to determine the location of the building which, built off-site, was subsequently lowered into place by crane. The building's pinhole was brought into precise alignment with that of the view camera in order that the photo and the inverted, reversed, and centred image of the tree realized on the building's interior screen wall might be absolutely identical.' Camera Obscura ('the world's largest camera'), like so many of Graham's other undertakings, is an object of folly: the camera obscura itself is a thing of the past; to resurrect it in the present and in such gross proportions is, at best, to build an architecture of pure eccentricity —  operational, but of no particular significance. 'There is no novelty here, and the process should be seen as merely isolating natural phenomenon.' (5)  Yet, for Graham, the real significance of Camera Obscura lies within the image of the tree, produced through the phenomenon of natural optics, whereby the realized image — albeit upside-down and reversed — symbolizes the conundrum between nature and its mechanical depiction.

Lenz (1983) is a book project which, like Camera Obscura, hinges on a matter of scrupulous alignment. It is, in my opinion, an exemplary project in that it best realizes Graham's nature-art conundrum, and is perhaps a key work to an understanding of the hermetic aspects inherent in his work. Lenz is, in Graham's words, about 'exploiting a happy accident in the Mueller translation of the Buchner novella in which I found it possible to loop the story by having the text from the 241st word ('the forest') to the 1434th word ('through') set so that it occupies exactly four full pages, i.e. one folio sheet. The sheets, then folded alternately one way then the other, could be endlessly interfolded into gatherings (signatures) of any size and thus sewn and bound into a book-like form . . . The piece is, again, about orientation — in the landscape — and being lost in the text.' An elegantly printed brochure was also produced consisting of the beginning 16 pages of Lenz, having the effect of being independent from and yet integral to the completed book. 210 of these editions were offered as a prelude to the limited edition of 10 books. In the brochure Graham describes his procedure further:

Each 336 page book comprises a first page and 83 subsequent 4 page narrative cycles: a continuous sequence of loop-like repetitions broken only by a blank leaf constituting — with the leaf bearing the first page of the text — the outermost enfoldment of the first signature.

Before proceeding with Graham's book, and in an effort to further understand the subtle intricacies his alteration of the text presents, it is necessary to, so to say, 'flip through' the pages of Buchner's Lenz.

Although known primarily as a German dramatist, Georg Buchner (1813-1837) wrote 'Lenz' in 1835 during the final years of his life (he was still in his early twenties). It was his single effort in the realm of a non-dramatic narrative prose format. The events described by Buchner were based on facts drawn from a diary kept by Oberlin, in whose care Lenz had been placed. 'I have obtained all sorts of notes,' writes Buchner, 'concerning a friend of Goethe's, an unhappy poet named Lenz, who lived here at the time of Goethe and became somewhat mad.' (6)  Its style is unique, with its strange repetitions, its colloquial expressions, and its maddening compressions. In Lenz events and characters constitute moments, however brief, only to dissolve again as quickly and effortlessly as they formed. Buchner's novella concerns one Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792), who was one of many young authors belonging to the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) group that surrounded Goethe at Strasbourg. The group evolved out of a reaction to the rationalism of the European Enlightenment which had dominated literature and philosophy in Germany since the beginning of the 18th century. The dramatic experiments of the Sturm und Drang were, in turn, adopted by Buchner and later by Bertolt Brecht, who aligned its theories with his Marxist ideology.

The character of Lenz in his mature life bears the sign of an Oedipal rivalry compelled by ambition and admiration. Lenz began to compete with Goethe to the extent of mimicking him, not only as a writer but in his private life as well (hence, mimicry suggests repetition, i.e. repeating the gestures or mannerisms of another person). Desiring a more direct confrontation, Lenz followed Goethe to Weimar where he attempted to interfere in Goethe's life by persuading a female companion of Goethe's to depart with him. Due to his behaviour, Goethe expelled Lenz from his circle of artist friends. It was primarily this rupture in his relationship with Goethe that brought about Lenz's mental collapse. In his novella Buchner depicts the symptoms and development of a mental disorder that had yet to be defined by psychiatry. In fact, 'Lenz' has since become recognized by professional psychiatrists for its validity and importance as the first classical study of schizophrenia. Suffice it to say that schizophrenia, a form of disoriented personality, is reflected by Graham's treatment of Buchner's Lenz — his multiple restructuring of the narrative.

The text begins succinctly with detached objectivity of who, what, when and where — followed by a brief impressionistic description of setting: 'On the twentieth of January Lenz went through the mountains. The summits and high slopes were in snow, the valleys below were in grey stone, green meadows, rocks and firs.' Buchner then positions himself in the mind of his subject, whereby setting is described as seen and experienced by the subject. He indicates with matter-of-factness the aberrant state of Lenz's psyche: 'He felt no sense of fatigue, except that at times he grew irritated at not being able to walk on his hands.' The disjunction between internal experience and external reality contributes to Lenz's disorientation with respect to time and physical space. Lenz desires that the congruence between his inner world and nature be restored by a complete reversal of relationships: 'Everything was so small to him, so close, so damp; he'd have liked to set the earth behind the stove to dry.' By escaping the oppressive feeling of being confined and limited Lenz subjects himself to the danger of losing his own sense of identity. Yet the attempt to resist one threat exposes him to another. By shutting out the world and withdrawing into himself, the feeling of extreme expansion is contrasted by one of extreme contraction. In either case his relationship to the world is disoriented: 'he stretched himself out and lay across the earth, he burrowed himself into the universe, as though it were a joy that caused him pain.' Disorientation does not disturb Lenz as much as does the anguish of being alone. Although he had previously been disturbed by the presence of motion around him, he is now more disturbed by its absence. Lenz needs to be constantly aware of his surroundings in order to justify his own existence: 'He wanted to talk with himself, but he couldn't, he scarcely dared breathe, the bending of his feet cracked like thunder beneath him, he had to sit down. He was gripped by a nameless fear in this nothingness: he was in a void!' Lenz benefits from being in contact with others but only as long as the contact is maintained. Experience itself has no duration for him: he cannot draw from past memories or further hopes and anticipations to sustain him; his condition is solely determined by the circumstances of the moment. So as to concentrate and sustain his inner self, Lenz resorts to repeating random thoughts that enter into his mind. However, this cannot help him to establish contact with the outside world. Relief is achieved by way of strong physical sensations. Lenz's inner existence and the existence of the world are affirmed by his own body's response to self-inflicted pain: 'It seemed he should always be repeating the Lord's Prayer. He was lost; an obscure instinct drove him to save himself. He thrust himself against the stones, he tore himself with his nails; the pain began, bringing him to his senses.' Ultimately, Lenz has a secret desire to get extremely sick; sickness means suffering and to suffer, as Lenz has come to know, means to exist — thus saving himself from himself. The frantic quality of the language used to describe Lenz's continuing flight from madness is expressed by an increasing of tempo, the words become generally shorter, the accents stronger, and the rhythm almost iambic.

Graham's role, with regard to his treatment of Buchner's Lenz, is that of a reader as opposed to a writer; a reader who, by his alteration of the text, is reflecting on, and attempting to transform, the way in which we read a book. But what led Graham to the conception of a project like Lenz? What other, pre-existing, text(s) does Lenz transform?

ON the twentieth of January Lenz went through the mountains. The summits and high slopes were in snow, the valleys below were gray stone, green meadows, rocks, and firs.

It was cold and damp; the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the road. The branches of the firs hung down heavily in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but quite close together — and then the mist rose up and swept heavily and damply through the foliage, languidly, awkwardly.

He continued on his way unconcerned; up one hill, down another, nothing to hinder his progress. He felt no sense of fatigue, except that at times he grew irritated at not being able to walk on his hands.

At first he felt oppressed as the rocks opened in front of him, the gray forest below shivered and the mist one minute enveloped the shapes of the mountains and the next half disclosed their powerful reaches; it oppressed him, he was searching for something, as though for lost dreams, but he found nothing. Everything was so small to him, so close, so damp; he'd have liked to set the earth behind the stove to dry. He couldn't understand why it required so much time to descend a slope and reach a distant point; he thought he should be able to arrive there in a couple of steps. Sometimes the storm hurled clouds into the valleys and they swept through

Opening page of Rodney Graham's LENZ

In 1969, while interested in the work of Duchamp, Graham became aware, for the first time, of the importance that Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) held for Duchamp. Indeed, as Duchamp himself said 'It was fundamentally Roussel who was responsible for my Large Glass.' (7)  The obscure literary productions of Roussel have since had a significant influence upon Graham's work, particularly with reference to Lenz. In fact, I doubt whether Graham could have conceived of his book project without having been familiar with Roussel. In his entire oeuvre 'Roussel almost seems to have "nothing to say". No transcendence, no humanist metamorphosis can be applied to the series of objects, and events which constitute, at first glance, his universe.' (8) 

A reoccurring theme for Roussel was the mystifying function of various machinery. His overly elaborate and exhaustive descriptions of the way in which these 'invented' machines operate are as banal as the actual function of the machines themselves. The text becomes a 'useless duplication of the machinery.' (9)  The famous pile driver, described by Roussel in Locus Solus, which serves to compose mosaics with human teeth by using the energy of the sun and wind is a spectacle of an object — functional, yet deprived of meaning.

Similarily, Graham's book is nothing but a mechanism gone completely out of whack. What takes place in his Lenz can best be described as the turning 'on' of a type of writing-machine (10)  in which presence is never present, instead it is forever deferred by being multiplied. Although we, as readers, remain attentive to what a text in general presents, in Lenz we are unable to detect precisely what is presented since its 'meaning'seems to disappear in the very act of reappearing.

Upon first impressions, the reader is led to think that some white virgin space is about to be uncovered, only to discover that the privilege normally accorded to words has been violated repeatedly. The book, handsome in its appearance, has a plain, hard-cover; no name appears accountable for its strange obsessive practice. Words follow one another slowly, progressing across the white pages, none of which are numbered, making it impossible to return — to begin again this meticulous re-reading that demands to be completed to the finite-infinite page where suddenly it stops of its own accord having neither begun nor ended.

A fragment from 'Lenz' such as, 'into the valley through the forest,' — which is the basis of Graham's 'happy accident', as he puts it — when followed through to the end of the book, when read eighty-four times in all, will have assumed the significance of something other than what it may have meant originally. It is as though one is forever going 'into the valley through the forest' of the text. The reader is lead to understand, that, for example, a single meeting is constantly in progress:

You are welcome in this house, even though I do not know you.

I am a friend of Kaufman's; he asked me to give you his greeting.

May I know your name?


Why, yes, yes, haven't I seen it in print? Haven't I read some plays by a gentleman of that name?

Yes, but you mustn't judge me by that

Finally, the reader turns away from this meeting only to return again vis à vis a detour — a loop. In the end, nothing in Lenz escapes this play of recurrences.

However, prior to detecting the formation of a loop, Lenz proclaims itself as if everything in the text were taking place only once. Like an actor entering onto a stage after countless performances conveying the illusion of appearing as if for the first time, Lenz is similarly always beginning again. And just as a sign — in order to function as a sign — becomes what it is only through the possibility of its reissue (the definition is Roland Barthes's), a suspended signification is constituted in silence — half visible if one looks through the loop. Graham's alteration of the text applies a certain distance between the sign (language) and its referent (meaning), whereby words no longer represent meaning — instead, repetition signifies it. By way of repetition he is metaphorically describing a mirror device of sorts: the process of writing and its mechanical aspects are reflected by the multiple restructuring of Lenz.

It is as if Graham is presenting us with an imaginary mirror capturing in its citation a universal characteristic, which he might sum up as repetition. The mirror, to quote Derrida, is a device 'without which there would be no writing.' (11)  Referring variously, I suppose, to writing as the re-presentation or theatre stage of spoken language, and the self-conscious, self-referential aspects so characteristic to the practice of writing. For example, certain modem literary procedures (other arts having their equivalents) provide one with a complexity of narratives within the same narrative.

The theme of repetition is not new. J. Hillis Miller, for example, in Fiction and Repetition(12)  has traced the history of Western ideas concerning repetition beginning with Plato and the Bible (whereby the New Testament repeats the Old), on down to Kierkegaard, to Nietzsche's 'eternal return', to Freud's notion of the compulsion to repeat, and other present-day theorists of repetition. Repetition like appropriation, contaminates the body proper of what was once an original work. It contaminates Buchner's narrative to the extent that the text is deposited outside its original context. Neither is the 'death of the author' (which Graham's strategy raises) new; it has been an endless progression initiated by penetrating an author's own commentary and accompanied with that author's re-presentation. A process involving the application of an exhausted sign, which is, in sum simply the very limitations imposed upon us by our use of written language. Due to its always having already begun, repetition has no ending. There is no closure to repetition; closure is a circular limit within which repetition infinitely repeats itself.

So just who is it then that is addressing the reader? As an author at least in the traditional sense, it certainly isn't Rodney Graham; he has merely repeated a fragment from Buchner's Lenz. Graham is an author but only with reference to a limited strategy. Limited, in the sense of having discovered a 'happy accident', as he had put it, which is unique as applied to one particular text.

It would seem that the textual repetitions provided in Lenz do not serve simply to complete or 'fill up' the book by giving it the appearance of being a book. Nevertheless, the reader may be inclined to conclude that something has not been said, and what has been said has been said once too often — to the point of meaning nothing. Yet, Graham does not pretend to account for what is disguised as a book and its reading. However, his pretence is in part a writing technique of de-presentation and appropriation. Here appropriation functions, not as a device for putting 'in quotation' or 'silencing' an author's voice, but only to the extent that thought and language belong from the beginning to no one, just as any given text never really begins. Not that the identity of the text is disguised nor are its ruptures the result of a single, unique identity — they always transform another pre-existing text. Graham's Lenz transforms certain of the literary works of Roussel.

What can we, as readers, derive from Graham's strategy? It certainly wouldn't be any one conclusive answer as to the text's meaning, but rather a series of questions that, for the most part, remain unanswered. One such question the reader might arrive at is whether we read to 'close off' rather than open a text. And the question, 'Is an accurate reading of a text possible?' might turn out to be identical to, 'Is it always possible to write exactly what we mean?' Until quite recently criticism tended towards a de-radicalization of the literary text, operating on the assumption that all texts are intrinsically transparent. By performing an elucidation as to the subject of art, criticism penetrates the text and rescues it from its own otherwise ambiguous density. Recently the relation between criticism and literature has been significantly reversed by much of contemporary criticism. Instead of de-radicalizing the text, the unlocatability of meaning in literary language is emphasized. Instead of solving the ambiguity of literature, recent criticism (i.e. deconstructionist), in an attempt to demonstrate the unreadability of the text, views literary language as performing the deferral of its own meaning.

Thus we come back full circle to Graham's nature / art conundrum as outlined earlier, but with a slightly different emphasis. It would seem that as a result of his strategy, Graham is calling our attention to the failure or inability of literature to refer to anything other than what it consists of — namely, language itself; hence the circularity of Lenz as continuously referring to itself as a text. Lenz is purposely ambiguous so as to elicit the reader's attention as focused upon its textual structure, in this sense it represents an aesthetic achievement. It is the physical appearance of the actual book that produces, upon the reader, its uncanny effect. Graham's strategy is one of temporality: time is conveyed as a process without synthesis, repetitive, unreconciling, leading to death rather than permanence. Graham prefers a position of non-understanding rather than manipulate the screen of received ideas. The final effect is that of an original, but precariously impersonal work.

The main difficulty with Graham's work is his hermetic obsession, which is as much the result of alienation as inalienation. It is both the work and the absence of the work: just as the literary producer has to confront the non-producer in an exchange of roles whereby one produces a work on paper while the other carries a work in the recess of his imagination. In the final estimate, Graham, it would seem, is verifying for us that there is no single narrative but, rather, a play of reflections in which each word is like an echo without a cause.

C Magazine #5, Spring 1985

Text: © Arni Runar Haraldsson. All rights reserved.

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