Somebody and Somebody and Somebody Else’s Elbow
THREE VERSIONS OF A RELATIONSHIP
by Ruth Buchanan
Which documents say what? What shapes our sense of history if we also acknowledge that history is not the past but the commons (live)?1
Sit. Sit here. Sit here in this darkened room, built into the hillside, made of cast textured cement. The wind blows a gale outside as is usual for this time of year. Forever autumn; that feeling of a teenager, so alive to the world, the stretch and chisel of the bones growing into the body. But also the stretch and chisel of that teenager-into-worldness. Sit. Sit here. Sitting here, in this darkened room, the click of the 35mm slide projector. Travelling through time through details of draping and pointed feet, arching across marble floors, bodies leaning into crossed swords, moons and suns, forests. Bodies cast in light, against darkness. Bodies from a distant time and place, those same bodies through which we—us—in that darkened room had been asked to read the world. The world order as we knew it then, 1996, as if western Europe, but Wellington. I never learned as much as I did in sixth-form art history: Power, oppression, arousal, control, limitation, prejudice, inequity, the seasons, explosiveness, rebellion, and pure and utter joy. It was there I understood that art, at least for me, offered the manifold answers to what I could see, even at sixteen, was the contradiction of human lived experience: The sensations of chains being wrapped around skin to control, the sensations of those same chains being used to adorn and seduce, those same chains being broken across the floor, rendered useless.
These darkened hours with the clicking of the slide show and the oratory skill of those teachers formed my understanding that history as a thing is also always a palimpsest of forms and interruptions. The slides often jamming in flow, one half of a painting and another half of another painting. While we could read these jams as accidental, to me it felt more invitational. The architecture around the painting was thrown into a sharp light. It was that light between the two works where I thought I might have room to move. This was then a formal experience, an aesthetic experience, a sensory experience, and also an intellectual experience. These things not separate from each but the whole that forms us. For example, how are certain things exported despite their senselessness (imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy) and other things are not (indigenous and situated knowledge, feminism, equity, imaginative politics)? Much of it—history—doesn’t make sense. One very precious moment in that darkened room was the point of contact between an image of a painting by Hans Hofmann (push/pull etc.) and Flora Scales (Still life with oranges). A woman! This stuck to me, and at me. At sixteen I was already exhausted by the male artists who took up so much space, shaping so much of what our world was grounded in and through. It was then notable, a woman painter from New Zealand who placed herself inside and on top and against that which we had been offered: One kind of centre.
Flora Scales: Still life with oranges [Still Life, London  [BC067]], c. 1970, oil on canvas, 251 x 322mm
Arriving into Europe to begin Masters studies was like arriving into a darkened room where all sensory knowledge was assumed to be emerging from the same paradigm, a foregone conclusion. In this room it was isolated and dead of air. In this room I was isolated and dead of air. In this moment I was instantly shot back to that hillside high school experience, the wind blowing a gale. Wishing a wind would blow a gale through that dead air as I recognised that most of my reference points—the way I understood the world—was almost entirely illegible for many others in that room, and in parallel, that my understanding of how to relate to that sense of history—at a ‘centre’—was almost entirely fictional. Surprised by this sensation, I recalled the split and jam of Scales and Hofmann. This split and jam of the production of a specific form of agency. A triangulation took place then—in that dark: An unfolding and undoing of the centre; the where and how of artistic agency; and the fundamental limitations within (art) history as it is most often encountered.
Unknown man looks for something. Is a limit and a question.
Setting a question to the agency that history may or may not provide us (me / young artist / you / them / we), I began to engage with Scales and her lived experience of leaving and coming and ultimately leaving again, all as she developed her artistic practice and generated her own form of artistic agency. This became my Masters project, a blowing of an individually scaled gale through that room of fixed paradigms, my own included. I spent time in the Alexander Turnbull Library. Boxes and folders and glowing oranges rendered in oil on canvas hanging on the gridded storage system in the basement of the library.
The grid, stacks of paper, oranges, the blowing gale.
Included in Scales’ notes in her boxes and folders: Things swing together in rhythm / a cylinder has one axis / This falls out because there is no line to bind it / Keeps together with the binding line.
While Scales’ notes, transported from her time in Munich and deposited in Alexander Turnbull Library, are documentation of her artistic exploration and development, while they also document that she constantly made life (artistic) decisions, they also offered me a departure point from which I could develop an ethic to consider artistic agency. This agency was shaped by meetings with meaning, that is, transformative encounters. This agency allowed documents such as her learning to draw a rotating cube to be just that—a drawing, an individual and profoundly impactful experience—but they were also a model. A line that binds us to the rhythms of swinging time. An ethic emerged that sought to let these documents become active agents in their own wild light. This impulse to reconsider ‘history’ was partly a response to the art world in which I was a participant at the time that was fixated on recouping and heroising missing narratives of artists. While the ‘recouped’ practices emerged out of often radically unjust dimensions and were absolutely powerful, the methods applied to their ‘rediscovery,’ ultimately, in my view, further re-entrenched western European standards: Value attached to the ‘rare’ or ‘other’ from which value could then be extracted. In these cases, what I observed was “history and the imperial becoming the agents”2 and little agency was left for the artists and artworks in question in their own right. Specifically, I wondered how one could develop a personalised agency rather than being an agent for a structure that is already profoundly embedded in modes of speaking as an artist.
The ethic I sought as I was confronted with what I was actually doing and how I was developing a relationship with Scales and her work required friction at the deepest level. The friction the process required was summed up for me in an exchange between Barbi de Lange and T. P. Garrity, Curator of Pictures at Hocken Library, Dunedin, dated June 1991. De Lange was trying to identify the year in which one of Scales’ paintings had been made as there was some doubt about the date. With some back and forth Garrity summarised that he believed the painting was indeed made in 1939 but that the date was hard to read, and finished with the comment: Magnification is no help.
Magnification is no help.
This was my process. Moving from biography, into a critique of art history, into the search for as many forms of artistic agency as I could fill a room with, to an understanding of history as limit, and limit also as a humour, a mood, a gale force wind, a demand for the embodied, the body that arches its foot across the floor but equally sweats, drips and slips.
Flora Scales: Untitled [Loose Leaf Pages] [BC112], 1930-1960, pencil on paper, 270 x 210mm. I made this photocopy while on research at Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, in 2006.
Artist Ian White has articulately noted that “limits are also a material.”3 Every ethic has its limitations, every ethic that is defined and made public is a risk. As we delineate one zone of acting exclusion of another is inevitable. An ethic is also defined in relation to what it is not placed in relation with. Arriving in Munich to set about ‘encounters’ with the experience of Scales and her time at Hofmann’s private English-speaking art academy I was faced absolutely with limit. Closures, demolitions, even deaths. Holding a box of Kodak film paper I noticed the warning on the box: Open In Total Darkness. History and plans is that: Open In Total Darkness. Magnification is no help. This falls out because there is no line to bind it / Keeps together with the binding line.
The binding line is then—could be—the imagination.
Writer Saidiya Hartman describes thinking into this space as critical fabulation.4 Poet Diane di Prima has written: The imagination is not only holy, it is precise / it is not only fierce, it is practical / men die every day for the lack of it, / it is vast & elegant intellectus means ‘light of the mind’ / it is not even language / the inner sun5
The space where the slides of two paintings jam and shine anew.
I didn’t know either the work of Hartman or di Prima at the time, but the impulse was similar: To rig up something to that inner sun, that possible, and that body. With the help of my mother I was able to get in touch with the then art history teacher at the high school I had attended in Wellington more than a decade prior, and ask if they could find those 35mm slides used in the syllabus in the 1990s. With 35mm slides long gone from daily use, we were able to convince them to climb up into the vast roof storage and pull them out. The syllabus 1840-1940 arrived in an envelope of slides by post to my artists’ residency in Munich. Setting up the slide projector and running through the selection in the gallery-cum-studio space I watched. Over and over again, painting after painting after painting meeting and turning away. Imagining—fabulating—what a conversation between Hofmann and Scales in response to these paintings, their worlds could be. Casting myself from what I had pieced together I developed a script to go with this slide show that was an imaginary studio visit. If the ‘archive’ is often described by now as violent, then this was an attempt to defuse that through conversation, through an embodied process. This became a film work, Older Lovers etc.
Older Lovers etc. is one more way to set the foot in motion, arching, draping, sweating, across and into the discipline of (art) history. Slip and jam.
Ruth Buchanan: still from Older Lovers etc., 2007, full colour digital video with audio and English subtitles
That the body feels like the least welcome component that is also necessary for an archive to function surprised me then as I worked on my Masters and continues to surprise me today. That the body and the human being as the key perpetrators of, and witnesses to, the shaping of systems that don’t work for most at best, and at worst, radically undermine our ability to experience life as a whole, as a formal, aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, that is to say a somatic experience. Nowhere was this more palpable than in Munich when I visited in 2007. Keeping the body out of the archive helps this radical sundering of our full capacity to be in joy, be in experimentation, be in time as a boundless thing. That is to say putting our body in places where it is not invited can hurt, but it can also scramble the standards and set evolving forms of agency loose.
As I navigated a section of the city library I found some travel journals that described Hofmann’s class going on a trip to Saint Tropez the same year Scales had made paintings of that location. Wading through pages of German, I found an image. A group of students clustered around an easel, Hofmann leading a discussion, everyone in the image was named except one person partly concealed, their elbow, a perfect triangle protruding from behind another body. Magnification is no help indeed, but in flipping the script, it was the moving through and beyond these standards where Scales was that agent of her own making, not of an (art) history applied to her, via me or anyone else. In his image of the elbow the protrusion is a hook and a jam. It is a hook to hold onto and also the jam that interrupts the image, the flow. History-making, art-making, writing, living, and undoing could be that, it could be that elbow of someone else, where the sense of an individual authority and control over a narrative, an epoch, a time, recedes and what remains then is this hook onto and through which the polyphony can be remade and remade, breathed in, again and again and again.
Unknown historical photo: Somebody else’s elbow. This is a photocopy of a photocopy made at Zentrale Bibliotheek, Munich, Germany, in July 2007. The caption to this image has been lost but what was key to me was the location—St Tropez. This visit took place while Scales was studying in Munich and later she painted this location.
What makes me work?
The wetness in my eye as it glances across its lid Is also to have no eyes, or one eye, or many eyes, or all the eyes
The way you know that your vertical height is 168cm and your horizontal height, boundless
The edge of a table, on it, sit two oranges Nestling into the inner sun A glow
1 See Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, Verso, 2019. 2 See Azoulay. 3 See Ian White, Here is Information. Mobilise., ed. Mike Sperlinger, Lux, 2016. 4 See Saidiya Hartman, ‘Venus in Two Acts’, in Small Axe, Volume 12, Issue 2, Duke University Press, 2008. 5 See Diane di Prima, Revolutionary Letters, Silver Press, 2022.