J.M. CALLEJA: Collage, Score, Music, Silence

Kevin Power
Art Critic

 

View Visual Poems

 

I feel that the main use of theory may well be that of concentrating the attention in a certain area -of providing a context which is favorable to the actual work. I like G.Vantongerloo's remark: "Things must be approached through sensitivity rather than understanding ...", this being especially acceptable from Vantongerloo since he is far from being against understanding (it seems to me) - his must" I take to mean "must" because the world is such and we are so.

Letter from Ian Hamilton Finlay to Pierre Garnier

 

It is hard to believe of the world that there should be music in it: these certainties against the all-uncertain, this ordered fairness beneath the tonelessness, the confusion of random noise.

William Bronk: Life Supports

 

Looking at this delicate and suggestive series of collages by J.M.Calleja we inevitably find ourselves wondering if they should be read as scores or as poems. They are perhaps both but in all events they are Iyrical presences. They create their own maxim! See silence: hear sound. Hear silence: see sound. I have just referred to them as a "lyrical presences" but a better term might well be lyrical "valuables" in the sense that these images clearly serve as vectors of desire or emotion. They carry that part of the individual that is always unfinished and unfinishable -a project that is always on the way to completion. These images are not only suffused with but depend upon their poetic power that I choose consequently to understand, paradoxically perhaps, as their failure to articulate the inner connection of their propositions. Once again I should perhaps nuance my use of the word "failure" in favor of "reluctance". In other words, this series of works might well be defined as lyrical intrusions.

What Calleja does in these collages is to leave logical, or even illogical, blanks in the spaces of his thought and it is precisely this absence that constitutes the poetic power of the series. Silence can, on occasion, be more important than utterance. The blanks of the score talk at one and the same time of immanence of meaning, of loss of meaning, and of impossibility of meaning. I recall those deeply moving words of the American poet, George Oppen, when he affirmed that poetry must be protean. It has "to write one's perception, not argue one's belief."

I am constantly quoting in my critical texts a remark by another American poet, Robert Duncan, who categorically affirmed that collage is the major language of the latter part of this century. And I am thinking here of collage as something produced more by the law of contiguity than by contrived modernist aesthetic devices. In other words, what I am inferring is that we live collage whether when walking through Times Square in New York or when zapping on our t.v. sets. I've just returned from Belgium where I saw an even more extreme case of collage on cable T.V. One of the images shows in miniature all that is going on in the thirty-four cable stations. You can stay with it suffering or enjoying the multiple bombardment or you can select any channel that appeals to you. Calleja's work only participates tangentially in the collage condition of postmodernism since in essence it is reductive, poetic, and discrete. The Iyrical, the intensely subjective, remains at the centre of his speech. He evidently prefers to exploit the ambiguity of suggestion rather than simply letting things happen. He does, however, see the vocabulary of philosophical wonderment as being the consequence of signs and occurrences. This sense of wonderment is not, of course, dependent upon the imperatives of logic and discourse. He creates a space where the known and the unknown can touch, thus orientating us towards a complex and even contradictory zone of thoughts and feelings. The use of the score could be seen metaphorically as the erecting of a kind of mental structure where the superposed collage element reveals that there is no way that thought and emotion can finally be maintained. In other words, the phenomenons of the world enter and change all.

The collage element, or elements, is the image that reacts and dances on the formal structuring ground. As such it becomes a place of tensions and resistances, of antipathies and sympathies. It floats in the midst of the score as a kind of metaphorical statement. Calleja may well be implying that just as the metaphorical statement captures its sense as metaphorical amidst the ruins of literal sense, so it also achieves its reference upon the ruins of what might be called its literal reference. These works are full of images that are both what they are and clearly otherwise: a Renfe ticket with what looks like a coffee stain on it; the image of a woman's face that rides above a monochrome rectangle; a camel pack with two playing cards; a fragment of a house set in a landscape; a list of musicians' names and a fragment of a city-map; the label from an "avecrem" pocket with the cockerel singing out a series of words whose syllable origin is the noun "bird"; a vertical slash ofascratched or embossed film that runs across the score; a traffic signal for somebody crossing the road runs up against another that seems to suggest we can only continue straight on -a forward drive that is held back, momentarily at least, by a question mark incorporated into the centre of the arrow [see]; schematic drawings of a caw, a sheep, and a pig with their bodies split up into numbered segments that define the cuts of meat set beneath a blood or mud stained rectangle; a paper doyle showing a gentleman doffing his hat juxtaposed with a sugar-lump wrapper from the Cafe Krumm that might well suggest the woman's cup of coffee; a cut up page from an english text with three black squares that instigate optical jumps making the eye dance around the image; a homage to Miro where the letters of the word itself are used to recall the artist's black graphism; a feather placed in the middle of a cut-up page of french -a page that maintains its regular rectangular form but where the elements have been changed or their order altered; a score covered by a hoard of ants;ba staircase of inverted camel-packet labels with only the presence of the animal itself -the stairs appearing, perhaps, as a series of humps; a pencil spilling out the word silence; an newspaper style image and caption (man reading newspaper in a hill above Sarajevo [see] ) inserted into a text about survivors fleeing the city after three years of bitter pointless waiting. The score becomes a playground for impulses and emotions --a fixed locus where they can be registered.

Some of these collages can be read with a quick smile, while others play with our cultural memory; some of them play with the nostalgia of travel and memory, while others move almost incongruously into a political context. But finally such efforts at categorization foil us and we return to the structure of the score as the frame for the play of ambiguity and a cultivated lightness of touch. It was Walter Benjamin who spoke of the "image" as the "final moment of semantic theory." He tells us that "when thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives the configuration a shock by which it crystallizes into a monad." In much the same terms George Oppen, the poet I have already mentioned, notes: "In meaning the world stops but is illumined." The poet in his poem-making, and visual collage is highly effective in precisely this sense, makes an "archangel of the moment". These collages collide surprise.

All poetry is, of course, an aggression: its syntax, its imaginative lulling to sleep of reason (Yeats' point), comprise a design upon us. Its lyric function is to break, to loosen, the sclerotic holds of our mind. The desire to give birth to a Lyric moment lies at the core of Calleja's work. I am referring specifically to that moment when there appears an exposure of the discontinuities of a thought-process trying to complete itself. The least interesting pieces are, to my mind, those that declare themselves at a rush and that leave no space for mind and eye to wander and participate in.what might loosely be called the creation of "meaning". We might recall here Derrida's use of Kant's luring formula for witnessing the imagination at work: "the freedom of the imagination consists precisely in the fact that it schematicizes without a concept." And more explicitly Derrida notes: the notion of an Idea or "interior design" as simply anterior to a work .. is a prejudice .. of the traditional criticism called idealist". In my opinion this statement provides us with not only a useful warning but also a useful point of access to understanding the processes and attitudes that lie behind these works. Nevertheless I would like to make one highly significant qualification that can be seen both as an addition and corrective to Derrida's view. These works represent not simply the play of difference but are intimately related to, even inaugurated by, Calleja's inscription of himself in the midst of visual turbulence.

Throughout the history of poststructural criticism the "I" has been under attack. Foucault even calls for the death of the author that would supposedly accompany the end of subjectivity and thus lead us towards the manifest reference for surface over depth in recent art. These changes of attitude towards the role and significance of the "I" are, I believe, one of the gains of postmodern criticism. They have brought about the recognition of new emerging subjectivities where the "I" is possibly seen not so much as an ego-driven cipher but rather as a figure of capaciousness or, at its most radical, as a nexus through which events pass. Calleja is a capacious "I"-singer who is well aware that we live in a world where "things" endlessly come together, brush up or lie against each other, enter momentarily into contact with one another, exchange information and sometimes pass on. He loves the jouissance of rubbing one idea, one image, one feeling, against another. He suspects what some of us call certainties. His collages play between and exploit the frontiers between abstraction and the real. He quite happily frames things in a space of not knowing - an unknowing that knowingly becomes generative.

Let me now move away from interpretation towards an attempt to contextualise. Historically Calleja's collages carry an evident indebtment and nostalgia towards avant-garde experimentalism. In the first instance towards Cubism and Futurism, but evidently more specifically to what some of us see as the final burst of experimentalism in the fifties and sixties through concrete Poetry, Sound Poetry, Visual Poetry and all the ramifications of Fluxus. The line between Fluxus and conceptual Art in the sixties may effectively provide us with the line between modernist and postmodernist attitudes. This is not a line that was cleanly broken but it remains one that is critically useful. Calleja's decision to work off against the image of a musical score immediately brings with it a host of memories that inevitably include Dick Higgins's "1000 Symphonies" or his "Symphony No. 48" , Emmet Williams' "Alphabet Symphony" , John Cage's "Etudes AustraIes" , Milan Knizak's "Destroyed Music" , and perhaps, above all, Takehiso Kosugi's "Score" that consisted simply of the grid itself without any notes.

There was in these years an evident search for what at root was a conceived idea of randomness. Boulez decided to totally serialize every parameter of a musical composition, not just the pitches as in the Schoenberg idea but the dynamics, the tempo everything. He made o piece that sounded as random as a Cage piece but was nevertheless totally determined. Schoenberg had in fact already told us that he would get images of a kind of structure that was not yet filled in by notes and thus a sense of seeing how the thing would look. Calleja's hommage to musicians such as Webern Berg and Schoenberg clearly acknowledges his indebtment to their search for new forms of composition.

Fluxus directly proposes a stance to reality where the author, or the sense of self and the investigation of its desire, is the pattern. At one extreme the writing is actually the event. The poem doesn't have any other existence except that of form occurring and maybe it doesn't have any other meaning aside from that. Calleja moves this more as I have suggested above towards the Lyric ground so that his images becomes sites of murmuring gatherers of connotations, meetings of tensions.

Poetry is in all events a sort of music. The first experience we have of the world is probably sound. Similarly it could be argued that algebraic formulas are also articulations of sound forms in time. You only have to read Rene Thom's work to sense this. According to him mathematics is a universal language. Numbers have sounds. So there are these forms in space and time, and in apparent chaos, formulas patterns even though he also seems to suggest that maybe it's all a game and that all we can do is to move the chips around and pretend there is some kind of order. Calleja constantly places his collage elements chaotically within the structure of the score. They are at ease amidst the uncertainty as if acknowledging as Chaos Theory now does, that chaos itself has its own order systems. His images are, however, never capriciously related but accrue around them a field of suggestions that rub against each other.

This period between the fifties and the seventies once again centered attention on the sound poetry of the avant garde. Text-sound art abounded in the seventies where texts had to be sounded and thus heard to be read in contrast to those that were printed and thus had to be seen. Text-sound art is distinct from sound-text art which comes closer to music and thus closer to the condition of music. To be precise it is by non-melodic auditory structures that language or verbal sounds are poetically charged with meanings or resonances they would not otherwise have. The most appropriate generic term for the initial materials would be "vocables" i.e. a word regarded as a unit of sounds or letters rather than as a unit of meaning. As text-sound is an intermedium located between language arts and musical arts its creators include artists who initially established themselves as "writers," "poets", "composers," and "painters". Many of them also do word-image art (or visual poetry) as part of their commitment to exploring the possibilities of literary intermedia.

The term text-sound Characterizes language whose principal means of coherence is sounds rather than syntax or semantics -where the sounds made by comprehensible words create their own coherence aport from denotative meanings. Though superficially playful, text-sound art embodies thinking about the possibilities of vocal expression and communication; it represents not a substitute for language but an expansion of our verbal powers. It both extends back to primitive chanting and draws upon an eccentric vocal tradition epitomized by Arnold Schoenberg's Sprechgesang , in which the singing voice touches a note but does not sustain the pitch in the course of enunciating the word. We might all recall here Kruchenyk's phrase just before the Russian revolution: "The word is broader than its meaning".

It is clear that I have slightly digressed here since Calleja's work is clearly much more concerned with Visual Poetry than with Sound Poetry. But I would however like to stress the fact that many of these artists are deeply engaged with the widening art of intermediary explorations -the terrain that lies between poetry and painting between poetry and music and between sculpture and music. Calleja's "Fugue", for example consists of a circle of sand, a reading desk, and a book full of empty scores. It thus plays with the connotations of both the musical form and of flight.

Concrete poetry is not of course simply the return to the poem as a picture as say in Apollinaire's Calligrammes or the mouse's tail in Alice in Wonderland , or the permutational poems of the cabalists or the pattern poems of the Babylonians. In the classic moment of concrete Poetry in the early fifties the visual element in the poem was above all structural -a consequence of the poem. Since then many of their followers have been more intrigued by the intermedium I have been referring to. For the founders of the movement the visual element was a "a picture" of the lines of force of the work itself, and not merely textural. It was a poetry far beyond paraphrase, a poetry that often asked to be completed or activated by the reader, a poetry1of direct presentation, using the semantic visual and phonetic elements of language as raw materials in a way that had seldom been used. As Emmet Williams said: "It was a kind of game, perhaps, but so is life. It was born of the times, as a way of knowing, and saying something about the world of now, with the techniques and insights of now." [1]

The geography of its beginnings reflects the universality of its roots. As we all know Eugen Gomringer, a Bolivian-born Swiss, is the acknowledged father of Concrete Poetry. He called his first poems in the new style written in 1951 "constellations". When Gomringer and the Noigandres poets of Sao Paulo agreed upon the name "Concrete" they were mutually unaware that Oyvind Fahlstrom (who spent the first three years of his life in Sao Paulo) had published the first manifesto of concrete poetry -manifest for konketpoesi- three years earlier in Stockholm. Similar manifestations were taking place in lceland, Austria, Japan, East Germany. In 1957, Daniel Spoeri (fluxus) leader of the Darmstad circle of Concrete poets (which included a german dramaturgist Claus Bremer and an American expatriate Emmett Williams) published the first international anthology of Concrete Poetry. In the sixties it flourished in England, Sweden, France, Spain, Czechoslovakia, and the United States. Jonathan Williams could even write "If there is such a thing as a worldwide movement in the art of poetry, concrete is it". Yet it is clearly an international movement with the most diverse range of interests -from militant social reformers, religious mystics, lyricists, engaged philosophers, disinterested philologists and poetypographers!

It would seem in the most general of terms that the preference of Spanish poets has been not so much for classic concrete poetry but for more visual poetry or, as they often simply prefer to call it, experimental poetry of multiple tendencies. These categories as I have said above are often utterly inadequate to the kind of intermedium work that is produced. Calleja's work clearly feels both the tremors of Conceptual Art and of Fluxus. He shows that things must be approached through sensitivity rather than understanding. I am thinking, for example, of his Symphony London 1979 where the slightly out of focus view of the park seems only to increase the sense of english grey drizzle, of a nostalgia for romantic green countryside. We can hear the tones of Delius or of Bax. The associations from the image drift over onto the score to create a loose kind of musical sense.

Garnier argues in the early sixties that man has entered space and become intrigued by new pattern of energy: "Poetry turns from art to action, from recitation to constellation, from phrase to structure, from song to the center of energy." This leads him to make the following useful set of distinctions:

 "Concrete poetry; working with language material creating structures with it, transmitting primarily aesthetic information.

 Phonetic poetry: based upon the phonemes, sound bodies of language and generally speaking upon all sounds emitted by the vocal organs of man, worked on the tape-recorder and tending towards the creation of spatial sound;

 Objective poetry: pictorial, graphic, sculptural and musical arrangement due to the collaboration of painters, sculptors, musicians and typographers;

2Visual poetry; the word or its elements taken as objects and centers of visual energy;

 Phonic Poetry: the poem composed directly on magnetic tape, words and sentences being taken as objects and centers of auditory energy; Cybernetic, serial, permutational, verbophonic, etc., poetry ." [2]

Or perhaps3even more precisely in Max Bense's statement that "Concrete poetry is a kind of poetry which produces neither the semantic nor the aesthetic sense of its elements, words for example, through the traditional formation of linear and grammatically ordered contexts, but which insists upon visual and surface connectives. So it is not the awareness of words following one after another that is its primary constructive principle, but the perception of their togetherness" [3]. It seems to me that it is precisely this sense of "loose" togetherness that calleja explores, not of words but of images, and how they can be tuned in a new kind of structural space.

He gives us a space-time structure, a spatial or visual syntax, a method of composition based partially on analogy rather than on any logical - discursive - juxtaposition of elements.

Mike Weaver argued in the early sixties for three types of concrete poetry: visual (or optic), phonetic (or sound) and kinetic (moving in a visual succession). He also sees individual poems as related to either constructivist or expressionist tradition in art. The first results from an arrangement of material according to a scheme or system set up by the poet which must be adhered to on its own terms; the second opts for intuitive structure. However useful these distinction appear, it is also obvious that the poets themselves have not respected them, but consistently mixed them together. Calleja is evidently closer to artists such as Kiatasoino Katué or Augusto de Campos who often use non-linguistic material and thus set up a new relationship to space and perhaps open up the possibility for a new spiritual dimension and ethical stance. (One recalls here Max Bill's production of aesthetic objects for spiritual use.) It is also clear that he further extends Gomringer's drive towards formal simplification and abbreviated statement at all levels of communication.

Calleja's "Elegy for an Anonymous Poet" shows a moon charged with a musical phrase lost in the darkness of the night sky. It speaks for most of his concerns: an element lost in space but intensely communicative, an energy charge capable of saturating silence, a nostalgia for a lost harmony, an insistence that a part can now effectively stand for the whole, and an awareness that the fragment is all that we have got. He makes the silence sound.

visual poems

Visual Poems

 

Música per als ulls

 

Ell?

Pasquí

Sense títol

Composició 7

Direcció única?

Géminis

 

 

Notes

[1]  Emmet Williams. Anthology of concrete poetry. (New York: Something Else Press, 1967) vi.

[2]  P.Garnier, quoted in Mary Ellen Solt, Concrete Poetry. (Indiana: Indiana U. P., 1971) 79.

[3]  Ibid.

 


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