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Karl Edward Johnson

Being is largely perceiving. The fact that one person can see life as a rare gift while another sees it as the ultimate pain demonstrates how varied our ways of perceiving things can be. Yet what one person embraces and another rejects in this context are objects, spaces, sensations, and situations existing simultaneously in a reality-building ensemble, whose vastness renders it virtually unknowable. The word ‘unknowable’ is crucial here. In spite of our existence being uniquely significant for us, no other topic could be more at the mercy of interpretation, more puzzling, and, in essence, more unknowable.

The expression ‘time heals all wounds’ seems invented for trying to handle the unknowable. It reminds us of the halfhearted sympathy offered the person in grief. At the same time, it brings to mind clichés, popular songs, and religious instincts. Ultimately, people who would never put stock in such an expression can end up believing it. While they insist that time never heals wounds, over the course of time they loose track of the limits of their pain. Whether their pain is caused by human loss, cruelty, or unforeseeable circumstances hardly matters here. In every case, as the limits of pain grow hazier and harder to locate with the passing of time, the so-called ‘unmapped’ pain detaches itself from the sufferer.

Since both the believer and disbeliever in time’s healing power benefit from this detachment, it seems almost possible to say that what separates people is sometimes the one thing that connects them. In fact, what might apply best is the original expression with a word changed: ‘time connects all wounds’. Artistically, in any case, ‘time connects all wounds’ implies a fantastic wholeness able to consciously enrich our everyday world with the higher worlds of science, history, and psychology. Of course, this is easier said than visualized.

While some images are of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get school, others defy conventional image-making by not being what they appear to be on principle. The latter image-type is no harder to focus on than its accommodating competition. It simply demands more of viewers. It might demand, for example, that the eye plays the image as though it were sheet music, or reads it like a book. In Mendings, James Higginson’s suite of pear photographs, the wound-healing and wound-connecting images seem to demand that the viewer calculates with the visible—insofar as the suite also functions like an equation, and the pear is more than a pear in this situation.

Photography in which the edible refers to everything except eating is not rare. Consider one of art history’s more unique examples, the German painter-photographer Wols (an abbreviation of Wolfgang Schulze), who significantly contributed to what might now be classified as contemporary ‘food photography’. His life and art, however, were undermined twice: once by periods of incarceration in French concentration camps during World War II, and a second time by a harrowing drinking habit.

In Fingers and Non-Fingers, Sartre’s insightful essay on Wols, the painter-photographer’s oeuvre is described as a symbol-ridden art derived from the art of Paul Klee, the same painter who said, “The more difficult the times, the more abstract the art.” Sartre would also have us believe that, in Wols’ black-and-white, still-life photography of edible things, the highly staged, photographic image is often meant as a depiction of the photographer himself—as a strange, touching, and untouchable ‘Other’ positioned before the camera. Also strange, food functions as a guinea pig here. With food, Wols performs so-called feats of dissection and placement. It can happen that entrails stretch down the pole of a photographer’s lamp; that the skinned head of a rabbit glistens in the middle of the frame like a jewel; or that paramecium-shaped pieces of meat echo the paisley pattern of the tablecloth underneath them.

By comparison, the visual feats in Higginson’s photography do more than merely produce a series of arresting studies. Besides suggesting an‘Other’ in the form of a descriptive object, they elevate the photographic moment from a stasis (a representational state of ‘one’ formed by the artist and the object) to an empathetic gaze (a projected, post-postmodern fusing of the artist and the object). By dissolving the distance between the artist and object, this empathetic gaze keeps what we perceive from becoming trapped in a stasis mode. In Mendings, it also allows the photograph to function at a conceptual height, which respects the dual notion of the artist and the object entering as well as becoming one another.

Without knowing whether the suite’s sequence draws us forward or backwards in time, we encounter whole pears, divided pears, and pears, so to speak, under repair. The displayed pieces of fruit suggest depictions of different ‘states of being,’ naturally human states. What we actually see, however, is an illogical act of mending without a human being. Sewing together a fruit’s segments could never mend its freshness or wholeness. It merely produces a sometimes whole, sometimes severed pear; a pear perhaps fallen from a tree painted by Bosch, and a pear struggling with its own wholeness. In a darker sense, this is a kind of Frankenstein’s pear—a composite entity composed of different living or once-living parts.

It helps to remain aware of the matrix quality imbedded in this type of photography. Rarely does an image exist solely as an image. More often, in a broader sense, it serves as a template for images and ideas not immediately addressed in the frame. Put differently, this type of photography is an analogy generator—it supplies the eye with the material needed to construct and calculate the meaning of its own imagery, and to compare it to the imagery of other photographs as well as related subject matter.

On the one hand, Higginson’s inspiration for Mendings, the 9/11 tragedy, creates the initial links to aspects of human nature and to a mending and/or regeneration process. On the other, perceiving the suite’s mending principle as a‘self-defending and bonding’ principle at the same time creates links to how we perceive human conflict, pain, and the notion of retrieving the pain-scattered parts of our soul in order to create a spiritual wholeness again. These two factors enable the viewer access to related examples (works) outside the art context, but also to examples found in other media. One simply has to recognize and connect them.

One of many related, literary examples arrived at in this way could be Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a 2005 book focused largely on the death of a single person. When considered alongside Mendings, Didion’s clearheaded study of her own grief and amazement following the sudden loss of her husband, who dies of cardiac arrest, has as much emotional ammunition as 9/11—the public rather than private tragedy, which also claimed the life of a member of Higginson’s family. In Didion’s book, shock, sadness and pain compose an ode to the narrator’s own disorientation. Later, though, this ode answers questions, and emphasizes the narrator’s renewed connection to others, to the living and to getting on with life, and less to the dead, to her husband and to petrifying recollections.

As the narrator leads us through a maze of changes in her thinking, she questions ‘what was’ and ‘what is’. Existence as perceived before and after her husband’s death is under observation here. And following her “magical year” of trying to make sense of her many lost, fixed ideas “...about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself,” she finally becomes reconstructed and, perhaps, spiritually rerouted by this grief report, which doubles as a ‘written’ healing process.

Where Higginson’s suite surpasses the art context and addresses a living as well as healing process, we sense neither a classic giving of form to the purely conceptual, nor an attempt to grant speech to subject matter lacking, as it were, a language of its own. Instead, we see a ‘performance for the eye’ created in part by the absence of a human situation in an image that refers to one.

At its core, Mendings visualizes a philosophical performance, which showcases a symbolic,
wounding and mending of our human capacities for nurturing completeness and a sense of hope. In Higginson’s reasoning, hope is clearly a precondition of freedom and therefore indispensable. At the same time, the suite’s visual qualities do something more sociopolitical than artistic: while they suggest how people live and should live, individually or collectively, they also suggest how people perceive themselves in any real or imaginary configuration.