MIRRORMINDED CURIOSITEASE"Ursula Zeller zu Verena Schindlers Joyce-Arbeiten"
VERENA SCHINDLER’S JOYCEAN ART
Looking at Verena Schindler’s paintings in “a retrospective kind of arrangement“, to use a recurring phrase from Ulysses, one is tempted to say: it was bound to happen. Even though this may be somewhat overstating it, the early works predating her en-counter with Joyce display features that anticipate Joyce, who was to trigger in the painter an overwhelming echo that continues to reverberate until today.
There is the textile medium, in which Verena Schindler set out as an artist, the motif of the cunning weaver she would take up in one of her first Joycean works, Penelope. There are the iridescent work titles such as Echonaut or Zeitechse (a pun on Echse, lizard, and Zeitachse, time axis), which sound as if garnered from Finnegans Wake. The fact that she came upon the former title in one of her dreams rather than the book of dreams called Finnegans Wake, more confirms than denies this associa-tion. Also, her pre-Joycean paintings address or enact Joycean themes like multiple and deceptive perception, simultanism, metamorphosis – or the mirror motif.
In that sense, one cannot speak of an artistic “conversion” after her discovery of Joyce’s texts, to put it in the language of identity, which often resonates in Schindler’s comments on her art. Perhaps it was rather a homecoming of sorts; once she began to paint by reading Joyce, to read Joyce by painting him, her aesthetics were increasingly falling into place. And indeed, her favourite quotation from Ulysses reads: “homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship”. The experience of Joyce, she claims, helped her move “upstream” to her sources, inspired her to transgress boundaries. The cita-tion is, coincidence or not?, the concluding sentence of the chapter which deals with the complexities of perception and sign systems. It opens with one of the protagonists walking along Dublin’s Sandymount Strand with his eyes closed, musing on the “in-eluctable modality of the visible … Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack …”
Verena Schindler’s artistic involvement in Joyce soon led her to the James Joyce Foun-dation in Zurich. Her dialogue with the writer extended into a dialogue also with the Joyce institution, which over the years developed into a fruitful collaboration and friendship. Joint events and projects concern for instance her Penelope or the installa-tion Anna Livia aiviL annA, and she has also presented her work in a Strauhof lecture at the Foundation. Among the audience were many members of the reading groups she had joined, one of the liveliest and most polyphonic forums of exchange. The Foundation also acted as intermediary on various occasions and introduced collec-tors and critics to Schindler’s work. Thus, in 2002 the former ZJJF scholar and art historian Mia Lerm Hayes invited her to the James Joyce Symposium in Trieste to present Ulysses Simultan to an international audience. Two years later, Lerm Hayes in- cluded Schindler’s work in her prestigious exhibition Joyce in Art at the Royal Hiber-nian Academy in Dublin, where it resonated in the context of other contemporary artists dealing with Joyce, such as Joseph Kossuth, James Coleman, or Patrick Ireland. Also, the Foundation brought her into contact with a Dutch collector, the late Leo J. M. Koenders, who commissioned and owned what is probably the largest collection of original artwork on Joyce: James Joyce Unique Books. Schindler contributed one of the livres d’artiste, which is a French genre denoting intermedial art objects rather than mere illustrated books. This private collection has so far been shown in three museums in Germany and Switzerland. Another exhibition combined her Joyce paint-ings with music by John Cage, a composer likewise inspired by the writer.
Joyce’s texts thus invite a continuous dialogue between the arts. Joyce himself was primarily an aurally rather than visually inspired writer: music had been his first ar-tistic ambition and remained his favourite art. Moreover, he suffered from poor and painful eyesight, and towards the end of his life went nearly blind – a physical condi-tion which no doubt had an effect on his aesthetics, too. And yet, Joyce stimulated at least as many visual artists as composers from very early on, Henri Matisse or Bran-cusi among them, as well as filmmakers, most famously Sergei Eisenstein. In 1932, even before Ulysses became legal in America, Warner Brothers tried to secure the film rights for the novel.
Joyce had quite a conservative taste both in art and music, which may be aston-ishing in a writer with so radical a technique, or rather techniques. While on one level, Ulysses is a hyperrealist universe with an almost documentary accuracy in material and psychological detail, the novel becomes increasingly experimental and pluralistic in style, technique and tonality. Hence there are, for instance, structural parallels to Cubism or Dada, and some of its language emulates avant-garde music. In fact, Joyce’s language has been called one of the “protagonists” of the novel, which in the course of the narrative is moving to the foreground besides the triad of protagonists, all of them round characters of flesh and blood.
It is this emphasis on form in Joyce, even more so in Finnegans Wake, which most of all attracts and challenges artists, and it is also what “prompted an earthquake” in her, as Verena Schindler puts it. Like most stimulating Joycean art, her work does not attempt to illustrate Joyce in any straightforward way, but rather responds to it on a more general aesthetic level, creating visual analogues to Joycean techniques – even where she focuses on the compelling female protagonists. With Joyce, then, one en-tirely new element begins to mark her paintings: language. From a subordinate posi-tion in the title and a neat separation between word and image Joyce’s language moves center stage and materializes on the canvas: it becomes “the thing itself”, as Samuel Beckett characterized Finnegans Wake (“It is not about something, it is that something itself”). The artist’s translation process from word to picture highlights this unstable and loosening relation between sign and meaning in the Wake.
Schindler’s acquaintance with Joyce began through Ulysses. The story of Leopold and Molly Bloom, an Irish Odysseus with his Penelope, as well as Stephen Dedalus, as-piring writer and Telemachus figure, is set on a single day, 16 June 1904, in Dublin, then a provincial capital under British rule, steeped in Catholicism, nationalism and a cultural “Irish Renaissance”. We follow them in their daily affairs as they meander through the city, visit a bath, a library, a newspaper office, a maternity hospital, a pub, attend a funeral, a church service, and walk along the beach, or, in Molly’s case, have a rendez-vous at home with a concert manager.
Banal as most of these events may be, they are the prism through which the archetypal themes of human life are viewed: love and faith, art and longing, as well as betrayal, xenophobia, and death. Ulysses combines the local and provincial with the universal, archetypal. The book is funny and irreverent, serious and deep, a fascinat-ing challenge and a playful pastime (especially in a group setting), all in one.
The novel’s thematic richness is surpassed only by the formal complexity already mentioned – the very fact that Joyce set such a long novel on a single day had its for-mal consequences, such as the zooming in on his protagonists’ inner life and memo-ries in the so-called stream of consciousness, which Schindler is taking up in one of her works.
Ulysses Simultan (1998–2001, pp. 70–77), Simultaneous Ulysses, is Verena Schindler’s first work on Joyce. It is her first also to employ mirror writing, a childhood skill she has retained and is applying to new artistic aims – another instance of “homing, up-stream” to one’s sources while embarking on an intermedial experiment.
This work, a customized book object, consists of a series of 86 overpaintings across double-page spreads, with a number of the artist’s favourite quotes from Ulysses, English or German, written in retrography with both hands simultaneously. “Mirror writing opens up a space, so that through the Nebeneinander the events of Bloomsday can be perceived simultaneously”, Schindler elucidates her technique. Moreover, with their dynamic of sameness and difference the mirroring scripts become an emblem of Joyce’s “Cubist” aesthetic of multiple, subjective representations of reality. Schindler’s ambidextrous art highlights another, related aspect of Joyce’s “Cubist” technique, the fragmentation of perspective, which also influences the reading process. At certain points in the narrative the reader needs to reverse the standard direction of reading and read backwards, in order to re-collect earlier fragments of information, which had seemed meaningless at the time. Take as a small example Bloom’s musings on gar-dening: “Still gardens have their drawbacks. That bee or bluebottle here Whitmonday.” What bee? Why disadvantage? The narrator lets us down, and only chapters later, to-wards the end of Bloomsday, Molly is thinking “Whit Monday is a cursed day too no wonder that bee bit him”. From the vantage point of the later passage the preceding fragment is making sense, and in conjunction with other textual “bee splinters” the reader can finally assemble Bloom’s petty adventure into a coherent mental image. Making sense of multiple fragmentary viewpoints thus requires an “ambidextrous” or “retroactive” flexibility of our brains.
In fact, among the Ulysses quotes Verena Schindler chose for this work are two playfully introduced palindromes, which is the supreme ambidextrous language: “Madam I’m Adam” and “Able was I ere I saw Elba”. The other citations, too, for a good part deal with language and other sign systems (“so that gesture, not music, not odours, would be a universal language”), or with the alphabet in its materiality that continues to fascinate Schindler. There is the procession of sandwichmen marching through Dublin, each carrying a letter of the advertising company’s name: H E L Y ’S, with “apostrophe S” crossing Bloom’s way, and “Y” munching a sandwich … The word become flesh, so to speak. Other quotes deal with intensely visual moments, such as Joyce’s detailed and colourful depiction of characters in the phantasmagoric “Circe” chapter.
Verena Schindler’s next book object, Ulysses im Spiegel (2003–2004), Ulysses through the Looking-Glass, which was commissioned by Leo Koenders, carries her technique a step further. This time she used a facsimile of the novel’s first edition of 1922, the pages of which she overpainted in a variety of intense watercolours. On this luminous and semitransparent surface she again wrote short passages from the novel in simul-taneous mirror writing. The quotations are thus reflected in two directions, both hori-zontally in their retrographic counterparts on the opposite page and vertically through the diaphanous layer, in the underlying typeset text, which also provides the context of the quotation. This new vertical dimension sets off both the difference and the interplay of type and hand, text and image. On the horizontal level, this piece puts a particular emphasis on retrography, as some double pages are written solely in the reverse direction, by which Schindler further challenges our reading habits and ques-tions mimetic conventions. If the slipcase of her livre d’artiste contains a mirror to help viewers and bring the script back to “normal”, this emblem of realism works as a double-edged gift that invites us to reflect on the seemingly objective truth of “realist” representation, as the artist had first used it as a means of alienation. A mirror also features in the very first sentence of Ulysses, an item of morning toilette, which later is varied into a “cracked lookingglass” or a concave mirror that presents Bloom as “love-lorn longlost lugubru Booloohoom”, likewise questioning the mode of representation that is still regarded as the “natural” one.
In her third work, Penelope (2004–05), Verena Schindler for the first time focuses on a specific figure, Molly Bloom. Late at night, between waking and sleeping, she has the final word (and chapter) in the book, adding a new, female perspective on things, while throughout Bloomsday, she has been present mainly in Bloom’s thoughts and some conversations. Her drowsiness (her typically female brain, some have argued …) is reflected in the personal, subjective, associative, seamlessly flowing interior mono-logue, which appropriately remains free of punctuation from beginning to end.
Schindler’s textual basis is the new translation of the “Penelope” chapter, which the two ZJJF curators co-translated with Harald Beck. She wrote the entire chapter, all in mirror writing, on long panels of cotton fabric, which were then bound to form a quasi-endless, overflowing “book”, when opened, it is nearly four metres long. Its “riverbed” format visualizes the reader’s experience of plunging into a stream when entering Molly Bloom’s mind. In using cotton rather than paper Schindler materially adds to the Penelope motif of the endlessly weaving weaver, and of text as texture, of Molly weaving her tale. Writing on the fabric is more laborious, Schindler notes, with her pen moving against the rough surface of grains, which made her physically experience Penelope’s strenuous nocturnal weaving. To mirror the textile structure of interweaving grains, she alternately wrote passages lengthwise and crosswise to form small squares. Some of them are black on white, suggesting a textual or paper universe, whereas others are in bright and warm colours reminiscent of indigenous (New Mexican) textiles, a medium which had come into play in her early work.
The Ulyssean night chapter of “Penelope” makes an ideal transition to the night book Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s last book. It is designed as one vast dream dreamt by its main character, HCE, who is a pubkeeper in Dublin and at the same time lives though the lives of numerous heroes of history, myth and literature, such as Finn MacCool, King Arthur, Napoleon, Humpty Dumpty, Adam or Ali Baba: a panorama of human experience, both past and present, east and west, high and low. If HCE is guilty of an indiscretion in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, this is also one of the book’s many variations on Original Sin. The other protagonists, HCE’s wife and their chil-dren have similar archetypal roles. As is the nature of dreams, events and charac-ters are fuzzy and overdetermined at the same time, and Joyce accordingly created its own dream language for the book, a language for the experience of the unconscious. In Beckett’s words, “when the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep”. Moving away from daylight-precision and logic, words become blurry, oscillating between multiple meanings, as in portmanteaus and puns. They are also swinging between languages, as scores of foreign languages are interwoven into Joyce’s English to correspond to the novel’s universal scope. Thus, “when they were yung and easily freudened” com-bines the English and the German for young and overlays erfreut (delighted) with frightened – and with Freud of course: at the same time it is an instance of the psy-choanalytical t heory of manifest vs. latent dream content, which are often opposites (as are Freud and his younger competitor Jung). For a good part, then, “Wakese” is a preverbal, visual and symbolic language put into words; a language perhaps that par-ticularly invites artists to translate it back into images.
While many readers are irritated by Joyce’s radical surrealism, Verena Schindler delights in what she calls verbal “Streicheleinheiten”, tender loving care for the brain. Joyce’s text, she feels, is a heightened reflection of her own mind’s chaos, its very opac-ity relieves her of the pressure to produce meaning from the Wake’s “chaosmos”, as the book describes itself. In an interview she compared reading Joyce’s night book to the Zen meditation technique of the koan, a puzzling, often paradoxical statement or question. The effort to solve a koan should eventually exhaust the analytic mind and evoke a more intuitive response. In this spirit, Schindler reads Finnegans Wake “like an abstract or informal painting, like a Sam Francis or a Jackson Pollock. … Since its plot is so encrypted and dreamlike, its music, rhythm and colour come to the fore instead.” She names them in that order, sound before hue, and in fact, her visual response to Joyce’s language is based on its intense musicality, which is probably the most con-spicuous quality of the Wake. “It is all so simple”, Joyce said to a friend and suggested, “if anyone doesn’t understand a passage, all he need do is read it aloud.” This is what Schindler does in her studio, read it aloud before she setting brush on canvas, thus taking a truly synesthetic approach: from text to sound to colour.
Finnegans Alphabet, (2009–, pp. 78–79), a beautiful series of etchings overpainted in ink, again focuses on single letters. Some pieces have a short quote from the Wake on their bottom layer, in a fragile, near-dissolving script quite unlike Schindler’s usual firm hand, an effect which evokes paleographic documents. The large ink letters dominate the pictures and as in classical Arabic calligraphy, their physical shape is heightened and transformed to a degree so as to render their signifying function un-recognizable. The generous brushstrokes on the etching’s subtext come to resemble Chinese calligraphy, thus celebrating their own strangeness and making us contem-plate the sheer beauty of the message. The series creates another emblem of the Wake’s encrypted language and is a step towards Verena Schindler’s most recent work, which introduces cryptography on a larger scale.
This new group of works from 2014 comprises 570 (p. 62) and 571 (p. 69), so named after the pages from Finnegans Wake which resonate in these paintings, as well as ALP, HCE and FW. Despite their titles, the multi-l ayered paintings have a textual stratum from Ulysses, written in fairly large black mirror writing: the canvas’s primary coat or “underpainting”, as Schindler calls it. The combination of visual “Wakese” with Ulysses may at first sight be surprising, but actually has its source in Finnegans Wake, which absorbed elements of its predecessor.
The bottom layer of these works was then painted over in semi-translucent white so as to blur the Ulyssean words, which are shimmering as if through foggy grey: reading Finnegans Wake has in fact been compared to driving in heavy fog. On the glaze surface Schindler painted characters in Indian ink with a wooden stick, or rather twig, erratically dancing signs from no fixed semiotic system. These cryptographic elements further comment on the difficulties in reading Joyce – “hieroglyphics”, as the artist prefers to call them, suggesting a metaphorical comparison with holy writ. If Joyce in his Wake aspired to create a perfect, Adamitic or quasi-divine language, Schindler’s cryptograms can be seen as emblems of this potentially pansemiotic, if partly indecipherable idiom.
The superimposition of several scripts illustrates another fundamental aspect of the Wake, its palimpsest-like quality. “Piously forged palimpsests”, as one of Finnegans Wake’s numerous self-characterizations reads. A palimpsest originally denoted an an-cient vellum document that for economic reasons was reused and written upon sever-al times, with earlier writings only imperfectly erased and thus shining through later layers – just like Schindler’s “underpaintings”. In literature the term is metaphori-cally used for the multi-layered character of a text, both its variety of sources, echoes, quotes, allusions, as well as its semantic overlays: words meaning several things at once (as in the pun “meandertale” for instance). Schindler’s use of different kinds of scripts stresses the multicultural and multilingual nature of the Joycean palimpsest.
Looking closer at the Ulyssean quotes, they reveal a central motto of Verena Schindler’s. The HCE and FW paintings are underlaid with an extract from the “Ithaca” chapter, the passage of Sinbad the Sailor, which in Schindler’s retro graphy is reversed into a return journey, so to speak. The same theme of (life’s) journey forms the basis of 570, 571 and ALP, where she resumes her favourite quote from the “Proteus” chapter she already used in Ulysses Simultan. “Moving through the air high spars of a three- master, her sails brailed up on the crosstrees, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship.” Both in her artistic and her personal life’s journey, she explains, moving against the (main)stream back to her origins often proved a source of creativity. Hence the “Proteus” line immediately hit home. However, I would argue, in Schindler’s work turning back is often a way of setting out, and her motto could be complemented by some “mirror” version. And indeed, by underlaying the ALP piece with that sentence, she combines the two opposite currents, moving upstream and flowing downstream into the open sea like Anna Liffey, ALP’s personification of the Dublin river Liffey. On the canvas, too, the bluish-grey colour emulating the Liffey water is applied generously in various directions so that it is running up and down and even across. This simulta-neous openness to various directions could not be expressed more beautifully than in Verena Schindler’s ambidextrous art.