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ANDREI MONASTYRSKI

THE OBSERVATION OF SEALS

Chinese scrolls have, in addition to a complicated and multilayered passe-partout, another “subsidiary” visual row, or rather a field located, as it were, “above” the central picture. I am referring to a sequence of seals which mark the scroll as belonging to an artist, to a collector, etc. Some scrolls bear so many seals that they amount to a pictorial strip in its own right, particularly considering the graphic complexity and expressiveness of these seals. This pictorial strip can be seen either as ornament or as the history of the scroll’s ownership. In the latter case, we are dealing with another, temporal horizon of the image, not only unrelated to the “central” picture but directly opposed to it in its “sense of time.” The picture is dominated by the spatial, by such features as “expanse,” “size,” etc. For instance, a landscape points to a particular moment in time: fall, winter, summer, etc. By contrast, the ornament of seals tells the story of the picture’s ownership; moreover, this story’s duration in time (“multi-episodicity”) can be quite substantial.

Let us examine two easily uncovered meanings of the sequence of seals: namely, the signifying function of time during which the picture exists as the primary material object in relation to the layer of seals (for the picture itself, that object was provided by the real-life landscape, the view captured in the picture), and the thematic certainty of the story being told: possession, ownership.

First of all, one may say that the inclusion in the discourse, and the significance, of the picture’s “object field” in relation to the “seal layer” allows us to speak of the intensified effect of “art as reality” that consists of “hidden places,” unknown functions and possibilities. However, if reality as such is to some extent the “possibility of a hidden place” in the direct (spatial) sense of the word, the “reality of the picture” examined here is revealed through its concealment not in space but in time.

The space of the picture is originally given to us with exact dimensions, weight and other physical measurements; however, the physical coordinates and fillings of the space of the “from to seal” storyline, the specificity of the storyline of these gaps between moments of change in ownership (discovery, acquisition, etc.) remain hidden; therefore, the time of the picture (the time of its “object field”) is in fact the actual possibility in which the “process of reality” is revealed, the horizon where the storyline of the seals unfolds.

It is important to note that the appearance of this storyline of the seals is legitimate and conventional, since it is backed by the tradition of signatures under (or on) a picture. Here, tradition is both the guarantee and the analogue of the naturalness of the emergence, existence, and development of this “world of seals,” of its validity and generative ability.

The seals indicate the fact of a picture’s relocation from one place to another (from one collection to another, for example). Both the picture and the seal are signs. But in this case, one sign – “the seal” -- indicates only the relocation of another sign – “the picture.” However, this indication of the sign’s relocation is extremely fundamental and total in its nature. After all, within the discourse and the relationships posited here, the picture is defined as “reality”; therefore, it is a question of the “relocation of reality,” an exceptionally grandiose event. Here, one can presume certain fundamental relocations in the space-time horizons, thereby realizing the metaphysical possibility of such relocations (after all, the process of relocation itself is hidden, and only its sign -- the seal -- remains).

Various kinds of art can also be viewed, albeit inexactly and crudely, from the standpoint of the “relocation” of signs. When we watch a play or a film, we are essentially watching signs (actors, objects, etc.) moving before us, on stage or on screen. Of course, we ourselves, with our vision and our interpretive consciousness, can “move” across these already moving signs; however, the fact that, unlike a picture or a written text, cinematic signs are already “relocating” themselves by their very nature can hardly be denied. When one views written text or a traditional picture, the signs that constitute them are stationary, and it is our vision that has to “move.” When viewing a film, as I have said, we have a dual motion, although the signs of the film have an absolute advantage over the “mobile” capacities of the viewer: the movement of our eyes, of the “ray of vision,” across the screen does not affect the storyline of the “signs in motion”; that is to say, we as the viewers have no possibility of controlling the story, though we are left plenty of interpretive possibilities on the level of “stationary signs” (written text, etc.).

There is, however, a form of art that allows us to “stick our hand” into the fabric of the storyline -- not to interpret it through our consciousness but to interfere physically, to control one or several elements of the artwork. I am referring to computer games in which we can, by using our hand to control the keyboard, the joystick or the mouse and thus moving the cursor on the display screen, move the signs of the game -- characters, objects, landscapes -- and change their various characteristics. It seems to me that there is no point here in recalling chess and other games of that type, since their aesthetic reality is located in a different systematic (but not in a different system!) of rules and techniques.

In my view, the “layer of seals” discussed above, and the nature and principle of its unique temporal horizon, offers us just such a possibility of metaphysical “control.” In the computer image, we are dealing with a transformed ornament of seals of possession (transformed into a landscape, a scene, etc.); by the very essence of possession, we naturally “move the signs,” just as a scroll on which the seals were made was moved from one collection to another. However, in the computer game we act and “possess,” as it were, “inside” this layer of seals; it is for us a “reality of the possibility of hidden places” -- an analogue of the “outer” reality that actuality (“nature”) represented for the scroll itself, for its “central image” which bears the layer of seals, an ornament made of seals of possession.

Thus, one may suppose that in computer games, we are dealing with the “opening” storylines of seals in changed and altered forms. One may also suggest a possibility that, at first glance, seems even stranger: the concreteness of the computer image is a transformation of the pictography and the hieroglyphics of the seals of possession, while its “reality” arises from the “hidden places” in the relationship between the picture’s “object field” and the sequences of seals -- the “hidden places” previously mentioned in connection with the effect of “art as reality.”

It is interesting to note, albeit more in the tradition of schizo-analytical observation, that the technical “transformer,” the agent of these amazing transformations is the micro-script that is the foundation of the computer processor. It is curious that in Russian, this micro-script is called a “printing scheme” (pechatnaya schema) or a “printing plateau” (pechatnoe plato), and outwardly it looks very much like the hieroglyphics and the pictography on the seals of possession that cover the scrolls. In addition, the storylines of computer games are overwhelmingly based on the principle of possession: one has to find an object and then use it in order to find another object or obtain some kind of advantage, etc. This is also true of art collectors. In both cases, there is a struggle for the possession of a treasure. In other words, the significance of ownership, power of an object (the scroll) thematically indicated by the layer of seals, and the heroic/archaic content of this significance, is directly expressed in the subject matter of computer games.

What is most significant here, however, is that the computer image is based on other time (or more precisely, on the “derivative of time”), since the foundation of this image is the instrumentality of dominant time as a priori contemplation, possessing an operational advantage over the other component of a priori contemplation -- space. After all, the “layer of seals” that we have been discussing inherently deals with the accumulation of “hidden places” of time, not space. These “hidden places” of time then generate its spatial reality, and “realized time” (its “first spatial derivative”) becomes the basis for the concrete time (derivative spatial multiplicity) of the computer game. In computer games, our cursor “creeps” over “solidified time,” as it were, over a solid layer of time represented to us in the form of landscapes, figures, objects, etc.

Finally, one could say that the resulting space of the game arises as the product of the localization of time through several transformative stages: the landscape (so-called “nature”) transgressing through pictorial technique into the picture where the spatial-temporal balance of “nature” shifts toward the spatial; then, the “layer of seals” with its actualized temporality and the totality of its “hidden places,” which allows it to be seen as being practically on the same level as the “reality” of the primary “landscape”; and the subsequent transgression of this “layer of seals” through the technique of the microprocessor’s digital code into the computerized image with its externally “restored” spatial meaning. The final stage -- the computerized image -- is analogous (as it were) to “nature” in its spatial and temporal characteristics and in their balance. However, the important point is that, in discoursing on the phenomenon of nature, we cannot decide which one of the two kinds of a priori contemplation is dominant or foundational; indeed, even posing such a question about which is “primary” and which is “secondary” seems metaphysically inappropriate and illiterate. Yet when we are dealing with the computerized imagery, one can assert that its nature and its principle is dominated by time: it is the constructing material (for the computerized image) to form its spatial limitations and possibilities.

August 1992

THE OBSERVATION OF SEALS

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