Well, look at that

On Monday, Response to a Request will go online. It is minor, admittedly, but I hope that doesn’t mean it’s anticlimactic. As you can see from the short text on the website, the aim with the publication, or maybe platform, is to publish one new short piece of writing every two weeks. Each of these texts is in response to an individual image. But even though I’m not trying to change the world with the project, I am excited to get started.

The spaces for this particular kind of writing to take place in Ireland, and particularly within an art-writing context, are few and far between. Sites of comparison exist, of course, most notably Critical Bastards and, in some instances, Paper Visual Art Journal. But nonetheless art writing is typically commissioned towards an end, whether this be factual/reportage/review (the VAN, Enclave Review, Paper Visual Art, etc.) or representative, for example with catalogue or artist texts. I have of course done both, and there is a value in each: namely enjoyment and learning, but also – more practically – getting paid every once in a while.

The rest of writing about art in Ireland is carried out online, most typically on blogs like this one. And the value of these, too, is inarguable, inasmuch as they keep the debate current and lively, sometimes even fractious. But – and this is a big ‘but’ – the problem with blogs is simply that there is generally no editorial control or consideration. They are personal. At least for myself, I find a real value in directing a text towards a person, an editor or simply a valued reader. If you find a good editor or reader, and they’re hard to come by, the final text is always the richer for it.

Response to a Request is, by contrast, a space for curiosity, without any particular end in mind. Its only rationale is to get to the bottom of this curiosity, to explore the particular draw of an image. Regrettably, there is no financial end in mind either: no one, including myself, is getting paid, and have all kindly given their time – in some cases, a massive amount of it – for free. But as someone who writes about art, I seem to have images that ask a lot of me. Unspecified, they seem to drag me into their orbit and hold me there. What I’ve asked of its contributors is to tease out and articulate this phenomenon, confident in the knowledge that they experience it too. As an editor, I don’t want to shape these responses too much, but only to make them more tangible to the reader.

I’ll give you an example: the image you see above, which I’ve used a lot, perhaps tastelessly, in the run-up to publication.

This is a photograph of the writer Robert Walser, dead in the snow. It was taken in 1956. A few months back, I started reading his work, specifically the short stories and prose work collected in The Walk. His writing was unlike anything I had read before. You might compare him to Kafka, a lot of people have, but the idiosyncrasy of his ‘I’ is truly astounding: self-deprecating, fallible, hilarious, just plain odd, but always with a sense of containment, hermeticism even. When I read Walser, I feel enclosed by a personality. His writing, despite the circumstances of his life, is an utter joy. He was found in the snow near the sanatorium where he had lived for nearly thirty years.

In the course of researching him, I inevitably came across this image. I immediately regretted seeing it, but at the same time was interested in it as an encapsulation of a writer; that, after all this incredible work, a person can be surmised in one hideous image. It is an image-punctum, but in the sense that Barthes described it, as a punctuation mark: in this case, a full stop.

But, is it a full stop? It is a tragic image, sure, but at the same time there’s something fitting in Walser’s end. It’s tragicomedy, if anything – he died on a long walk, his most favoured pastime. And, if you read Walser, you certainly wouldn’t find it difficult to imagine this scenario as strange resolution to one of his stories. There’s a tender absurdity in his death that seems almost anticipated in his writing. A quick look at Wikipedia confirms my hunch: this striking image – his own death – does in fact appear in an earlier work, Geschwister Tanner (The Tanners; 1907). 

For these reasons, the above image has become one of those that latches on and demands. Hopefully I can return to it at some point and work out its particular draw. In the meantime, though, Response to a Request (titled after a short prose piece by Walser) will be publishing some truly fantastic responses to other, generally less morbid, images. Hope you enjoy.

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