Reflections on Outrenoir II: Appetitus

JULY 2019

 

The painter Pierre Soulages celebrates his 100th birthday this year. Gazing into his outrenoir canvases which range from large to gigantic at the Soulages Museum in Rodez, it is the movement of my eyes that governs how I see the light reflect off the textured black canvases, making them appear etched in white. It is where I choose to stand that allows me to see a particular variant of the image and it is my imagination that allows me to sense that the living heart of humanity, our mortality, natality, thirst for dominance and desperation for lasting significance are all reflected in these magnificent layers of blackness. These canvases point the finger back to the spectator whose naked eye these images, painted in light, would not exist without. ‘I don’t paint with black, I paint with the light reflected from the black’, says Pierres Soulages. The canvases feel timeless and I want to capture this sensation in my own work.

 

Perhaps it is not in the achievement of a goal but the process of trying and the discoveries made along the way that makes up a body of work over a life time, like a diary of our trial and errors? My perception of time is that the past and present are two entities which move side by side but the reality is perhaps more complex. For Hannah Arendt, ‘memory has the function of recalling the past and making it present again to the mind. In this process of re-presenting, the past not only takes its place among other things present but is transformed into a future possibility. In remembering past joy we can hope for its return in the future, just as the remembrance of past sorrow instills in us the fear of impending disaster’

 

Recalling the past through memory in order to make it present again is very much connected to the practise of re-playing musical repertoire which keeps the music of the past alive. In his lectures which were later published as Remembering the Future, the composer Luciano Berio spoke about conservation in relation to music: 

’The conservation of the past makes sense because even the most unprepared listener is aware that music cannot be hung on the wall. Music is performed, is constantly in motion, forever “in progress”… But the conservation of the past also makes sense in a negative way, becoming a way of forgetting music. It provides listeners with an illusion of continuity; it gives them the illusion of being free to select what appears to confirm that continuity, as well as the illusion of being free to censure everything that appears to upset it’. 

 

What does the music we have chosen to re-play time and time again and perhaps more importantly, chosen to forget, say about us? What does it say about the wider social political landscape which we have built and the humanitarian values which have underpinned both our conscious and unconscious choices? Berio continues, describing how the value of legacy evolved in the musical landscape and its implications on more recent times:

 

 ’The first public concert halls, built in Europe and England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, served as a confirmation of the astonishing fact that music was democratically available to everybody, but also that it had become a consumer good, available to anyone who could afford its price. The concert hall was already a museum: it allowed the accumulation of musical properties and catered to the desire for memory and immortality. Bach wrote, so to speak, “disposable” cantatas, whereas the musical works of the Romantics were fighting the passing time, expecting a guarantee of eternity. Maybe the need to remember and possess history is also the expression of an obscure cultural-perhaps we might call it a religious-conflict: between music as an expression of an immortal world inhabited by mortal individuals, and music in a society of immortal souls dwelling in a mortal world.”

 

Can a place born to serve the conservation of music of the past do more than entertain our desire for memory and immortality and champion new music created by the mere mortals living today? Yes. And it must. Music, as a living art, is capable of more than mere reflection when its creators and listeners are able to imagine beyond themselves and the limitation of the anthropocentric gaze. In a time when public discourse is fraught with identity politics which simultaneously segregates and integrates us, music as an expression of the immortal world inhabited by mortal individuals, is a reminder of the basic poetry that unites us all as members of one humanitarian community. In the eyes of death, we are all equal. We live once and die once in a world which will continue to exist far beyond us. Imagining and making new music is an expression of this poetry; not the need to be remembered but a reminder to remember the future.