Threshold of the Definite Certainty
On the photo a diffuse light illuminates the peaceful seascape. It could be dusk or dawn or just a brief veiling of the sun by a cloud. While not providing any clarity the light still occupies a central position. This is because from the centre it spreads out towards all four edges, thereby creating the impression of a second picture opening up within the main picture: on the one hand, the outer edge of the photo consisting of both the beach in the foreground (increasingly darkening on the two sides) and of the blue sky dotted with clouds that reign ominously over the stretch of sea. And, on the other, the square of light in the centre that creates the illusion of a picture within a picture – as if it were a canvas featuring the same seascape the canvas was set up in front of, without marked edges so that the beholder’s eye cannot separate the picture from the background. The diffuseness of the light thus creates a phantasmagoria. We are given the impression of the overlaying of two image levels, a material landscape and a segment rising above it which is cleansed or freed of the dark shadow covering the rest of the picture – thereby representing a part of the whole as well as seeming to be located elsewhere.
If one focuses solely on this brightly illuminated segment by excluding the clouds and the shadowy beach from view one sees an interplay of light with several horizons; dark and pale blue stripes dissolve in the upper half, dark and pale brown stripes in the lower half. It is really the juxtaposition of the frame fading into the darkness and the centre dissolving into bright whiteness that produces the striking visual contrast which makes the picture so uncanny. The beach and the sea are still divided into darker and paler stripes, the blue horizon stands out noticeably from the sky. At the same time, the illuminated centre creates a counter effect, one’s gaze is drawn into the depth, to an impossible point rivalling the horizon: that vanishing point one cannot visualise where sea and beach change in appearance; where the square of light, as the imagined canvas, detaches itself from this landscape and rises up as a formation of light. However, the photo captures a threshold situation not only because the seascape is pulled lengthways and is detached from the centre at the same time. For standing on the outer left-hand edge is a tiny dark figure which creates a second border with its body and thus visually stands out. The artist Leiko Ikemura stands at the threshold between the land and sea and, at the same time, she stands on the outer edge of the photo. As a figure representing a third party here she mediates between the horizon and the pale vanishing point in the centre of the picture – because she detracts our view from both once we notice her. She crosses the landscape, exposing the phantasmagoria and is simultaneously born within the picture as a result of the expectations her bodily movement triggers. We are confronted here with an original scene where space transforms into painting.
“The threshold is hard to situate,” notes the phenomenologist Bernhard Waldenfels, “in the strict sense it cannot be situated at all. It forms a place of transition, a no-man’s place, where one hesitates, lingers, ventures forward, which one leaves behind, though never totally. It is part of everyday life and yet it is more than something merely everyday. By crossing the threshold one is no longer “here”, but not yet “there” – place and time touch.” It is not by chance that the photo of a threshold discussed above – a threshold between sky, sea and the beach, between light and dark, between a place devoid of people and one where a figure appears – that this photo represents a central visual point of reference for Leiko Ikemura. For in her paintings she repeatedly picks up on the interplay of horizons – an interplay which helps to capture in painting situations of transition – from the empty canvas to the layer of colour applied, from one colour to another but also from abstract strokes to the mimetic figure – as threshold situations which cannot be situated: transformations of an eternal theme. In some pictures the segment highlighting the contrast between differently coloured shapes oriented towards the horizon defies spatial categorisation of that which is easy to recognise as a transformation into a faint seascape. Others capture a scene in which something might emerge on the horizon: a rabble of geese or a flock of swans, one girl alone amidst a herd of animals or surrounded by female companions. Standing upright these shapes form – like in the photo – a counter movement to the horizon and yet they are determined by it at the same time. Like the colour forms in her more abstract paintings these figures also remain in one place – a place which cannot be clearly situated except that it emerges from the interplay of dark and light along the horizon. Sometimes blue skin contrasts with blonde hair and at others brown skin with white hair or a totally dark grey torso with white arms and abdomen. The blurred contours of the figures have as little outline as the floor they stand on does – without them being delimited from this floor by any clear line – for they are still in their emergence phase. As shapes and designs of transition they are neither in a clearly marked “here” nor are they anywhere else. Their upright and illuminated shape merely implies that they contrast with a faint background and thereby appear on the canvas. In this no-man’s place they pause, rise like Aphrodite out of the water, strike poses, hesitate, wait, rest or are engrossed in each other. Thus, the threshold where they linger – between land and sea, between animal and human – also always illustrates the transition between shapeless darkness and the ensuing painting form through the addition of light: on the horizon between night and day.
One could certainly read Leiko Ikemura’s threshold pictures in an allegorical way. The daily creation of a picture, the daily struggle to create a form, not only creates a permanent threshold situation in the sense that the act of painting is part of everyday life and is nevertheless more than just something everyday. By making her diffuse shapes stand out against a dark background Leiko Ikemura picks up on thought patterns from ancient cosmogonies. While the Christian world started with God’s familiar phrase “And there was light!”, according to Hegel one must still keep hold of the originality of the night. “Absolute is the night and the light is younger than the night and the difference between the two as well as the emergence of the light from the night is an absolute difference -the void, the first thing preceding all existence, all diversity of finiteness.” Since electricity came to the world (whose aim has been to turn night into day) there has increasingly been a less clear separation between light and dark, this being replaced by a predominantly shifting zone between the darkness of night and totally illuminated night. However, this shows not only the successful implementation of the project of the Enlightenment. The blurred interface which arose from that original emergence of light from absolute night long served as thought patterns for the creation of pictures. As Hegel stresses, if both existence and nothingness can be ascribed to that which is not defined in the same way, then one can indeed assume that existence is an image of a pure light, a way of seeing that does not dull lucidity, while nothingness is preferably thought of in the image of pure night. The difference between existence and nothingness is thus seen to be made by these two mental images standing for sensual dissimilarity.
However, for Hegel it is a matter of clearly separating existence and nothingness and thus also to question pure light and pure night. If one imagines this “seeing” in a more precise way, he says “one can easily understand that in absolute clarity one sees as much or as little as one does in absolute darkness, that one “seeing” as well as the other is pure seeing, seeing nothing. Pure light and pure darkness are two voids, two sides of the same coin. It is only in defined light (and indeed light is defined by darkness – and therefore also in dulled light too) but also only in defined darkness (and darkness is indeed also defined by light, therefore in illuminated darkness) that something can be distinguished. This is because it is the dulled light and illuminated darkness which intrinsically characterise the differences between them and which are therefore definite being, existence.” In Leiko Ikemura’s work both pure light and pure darkness are the visual vanishing points from which shapes assume a definite form. The indistinctness of the lines implies that they can arise on this blurred threshold between light and dark, in the dulled light, in an illuminated darkness. A pure light and a pure darkness are the pre-conditions for any painted design yet only as its impossibility: that visual void which constitutes a radical contradiction to every picture because it would equate with the dissolution of all defined forms. However, the horizon in Leiko Ikemura’s work represents exactly the decisive cut which Hegel describes as “absolute difference”; a division of light from the pure night which can no longer be reversed even if every picture – in order for it to reach definite certainty of design – renegotiates the relationship between light and dark as an interplay between shading and illumination making this negotiation its theme at the same time.
The serial nature of the threshold pictures in Leiko Ikemura’s work takes Hegel’s proposal – namely that only a blurred interface between light and dark leads to the design of definite forms – one step further. If these shapes assuming definite, if rather blurred, illuminated form against a dark background represent a constant new beginning, this is possible because these shapes are so obviously in an emergence phase – always also a memory of the original boundary between pure night and light rising out of it; a border crossing which is experienced every day as a threshold between the darkness of night and bright daylight. Neither belong to that area of the void where pure light and pure darkness prove to be equal. Both daylight and darkness are perceivable precisely because the day is interspersed by shadow and the night by artificial light. While the absoluteness of pure night can thus never be caught up with in visual design it remains the vanishing point on which the form appearing through the light can arise; the condition for, and the limitation of, this design. The threshold to which Leiko Ikemura so stubbornly returns in her series of girls lingering on the horizon therefore consists of two expectations: on the one hand, she embodies the attempt to advance during the definite, locatable situation of painting towards the vanishing point of the absolute night. On the other hand, she realises within herself that this intention is doomed to fail. Therefore, as the artist representing us all, she may start over and over again.
The Other Night
One series of pictures shows a young girl wearing a red skirt and blue blouse playing along a horizon. Sometimes she runs broodingly or reverently along the horizon, at others she sits on it coquettishly, jumps off it, kneels down by it, uses it to lean on. stands right on top of it or just runs past it. Everything around her is white. Only this thin black line gives the area in which she moves space; this line alone allows us to situate the small girl. In actual fact, in the drawings (where the horizon can only faintly be seen) her shape is even in danger of disappearing. The counterpart to this series are those paintings where young girls also appear along the horizon – lying on it. flying over it, landing on it – only that the background here is reminiscent of that other indefinite which is equated by Hegel with the void of pure light: pure darkness. These girls are also at the threshold, they linger in a no-man’s place as if waiting for something. While we first encounter illuminated darkness whose source of light is apparently the illuminated horizon, unlike the pictures of upright-standing or sitting girls with the geese and swans in this sequence it is less the rising out of the darkness and more a return to it that is explored: penetration into that alien place where one can release oneself from the daily rules of space and time – even if only for the duration of the dream. The threshold created by the illuminated horizon corresponds to a mental threshold state although the other scene imagined by the girls is not illustrated in these paintings.
In order to understand philosophically this other place on whose threshold lying, flying and landing girls are found we must again briefly recall the Enlightenment i.e. the clarification of dark tendencies in search of the truth. Under the auspices of this “project” and since the beginning of the Modem Age we have cultivated, on the one hand, a counterpart to the coming of light and the cognitive process and have longed to make the nightly side of human knowledge and feeling coherent and controllable. On the other hand, however, we have also longed for the part of the night excluded from the light of reason, and its figments have indeed always been food for our imagination. In his work Gotterlehre (Handbook of the Gods, 1791) that picks up on Hesiod’s cosmogony Karl Philipp Moritz gives this other area whence the light has come an enigmatic power: “So there is something even the Gods are wary of. The nightly secret darkness still concealing something that even prevails over Gods and humans – something which transcends the concepts of mortals.» All births of the night, adds Moritz, «are things which either escape the eyes of mortals or things which the imagination itself likes to shroud in the darkness of night.» As a path of knowledge absolute night represents a challenge to any design process. It lies before the absolute difference through which the definite nature of forms can only be achieved, thus escaping our conceptualisation. Nevertheless, it is precisely its veiling that holds a promise – the inkling of that prevailing power which escapes all eyes and thus constitutes ex negativo the vanishing point in anyone’s eye.
Leiko Ikemura picks up on these thought patterns by making her girls lie, fly or land on the horizon and thus allows them to embody that absolute difference which produces the emergence of the light from the night. The blurred body contours of these girls are references to that longing which has haunted art again since the Romantic period: penetration into the threshold between night and light, as the philosopher Maurice Blanchot attempts to trace in his book on the literary sphere. He, too, differentiates between really experienced, everyday night where everything seems to have disappeared and which thus allows us to approach the absence, peace and quiet and another, no longer everyday night, outside the dialectics of day and night: “if everything has disappeared in the night ‘everything that has disappeared’ appears.” This other night is – like Hegel’s pure darkness – a void which dreams and phantasmagoria do refer to but whose abyss they also shield at the same time. In Blanchot’s philosophical theory this other night has no definite existence. However, one surrounds oneself with it and takes it in. While the first night is accessible and one can enter it and rest there, the other night cannot be understood like a clearly definable space. It does not open itself up to people. In his view it always remains outside but it does not close itself up either like an impenetrable secret place: “The other night is inaccessible because creating access to it means penetrating to the outside and losing forever the possibility of leaving this radical, other outside place.”
To heighten this contrast Blanchot reinterprets the issue raised of the cross-over between the secret concealed night and the limitations of mortal existence: “At night one finds death, one expects oblivion. But this other night is the death one does not find, it is the oblivion that gets forgotten, that occupies the place of inexorable memory at the bosom of oblivion.” While the first night is viewed from the daytime and – as its counterpart – contains that excluded area which the day appropriates and at the same time tries to disperse, the other night represents something different situated outside an everyday sequence of day and night. In the day one can long for this other area, one can imagine fathoming out its secret yet for Blanchot “the other night is something which one cannot reconcile oneself with, repetition that never stops, repletion that carries nothing within it, a gleaming without ground or depth.” In the everyday night one finds no clearly marked threshold which would permit entry into this other area. For Blanchot it is rather the fascination with the unfamiliar. the void, the outside which allows one to open the first night in relation to the other night. However, it is the visual design inspired by the other night that particularly makes access to a spiritual threshold state possible because it refers to its own mediality. The images triggered in the expectation of the other night escape a clearly locatable world as a mimetic reference point of the representation. Instead they lead us to that threshold where the subject is in danger of disappearing and where it re-emerges as something that has disappeared – similar to the void of the other night – like dematerialised existence out of the abyss opening itself up as a result of this disappearance.
Now this thought process which holds up the everyday, accessible night towards another one faces an irreconcilable contradiction. One and the same term describes both a clearly definable period of time and a mental state which goes beyond this period of time and one that has more darkness than the real night. While radically inaccessible, the other night described by Blanchot can be experienced – namely via the detour of abstract formalisation: in aesthetic figments which simulate an articulation of the outside by cutting back all references to the material world. Very much in this spirit Leiko Ikemura’s black threshold pictures deal with an ambiguous loosening of mimetic laws. The illuminated horizon marks the boundary between the definite and thus describable everyday night and that other night on whose threshold her lying, flying and landing girls are found. It is as if they are illuminated from within, the floating nature of their shapes a sign of the journey into that dematerialised space which, as the other night, also represents a counter force to the darkness surrounding them. At the same time, the light-giving horizon is a fundamental demarcation line where the bodies of the waiting girls sometimes become transparent or seem to totally merge with it. It does make it possible to visually design the experience of the other night as a lingering at a non-locatable threshold. However, we are forced to remain in the realm of the definite. It remains an interplay between illuminated darkness and dulled light running into darkness which penetrates right into the contrasts of the radiant colours. A nightly expectation is staged which also means that nothing will be achieved. The girls’ posture implies that everything hangs in the balance, everything remains undecided, the other night itself is not portrayed, only these human shapes undergoing an imaginary experience. Total disappearance in each of these black pictures is interrupted forever although the de-limitation of the body, the dissolution of its form, is intimated – also forever.
In one of the pictures the girl stands upright against the dark background and looks at us in a provocative manner as if she were inviting us to step into the phantasmagorical space of her illusions. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking she formed the transition to that sequence of images where the girl appears in her diversity- in a no-man’s place which, as a threshold, unites sky, earth and water within it. By means of a doppelganger or a number of variations of herself in this painting the girls divide up the nightly black space – in which several horizons flow into one another – so that one cannot be sure whether the shapes actually have solid ground below them at all. Like the girl dressed in red and blue in the sketches the duplicated girl assumes different poses along the colourfully illuminated horizon – poses which cannot be seen in sequence one after the other but all in one picture. Although the reduplicated girl can thus embody a variety of postures at the same time, these are not clearly separated from each other. The individual bodies run into or merge with the horizon. In some pictures we also see the girl as a pair of ghosts who float eerily through the space and are in danger of dissolving within it. None of the girls have feet, as if they had not quite fully stepped out of the dark nightly background. They, too, are caught within their emergence process in the picture.
According to Hegel human consciousness can be described as an interplay of pure night and the definite gained through the emergence of the light. The person entering the realm of his imagination, the place of nightly figments, explains Hegel, “is this night, this empty nothingness which contains everything in its simplicity, a wealth of endless ideas, images none of which occur to him at that moment or are ones present. This is the night, the inside of nature that exists here – pure self. In phantasmagorical ideas night is all around us. “For Leiko Ikemura inhabiting the threshold means experiencing the wealth of one’s own plurality in the duplication of oneself. However, like pure light and the absolute other night, pure self can only be represented implicitly. The dark room which allows this phantasmagorical realisation is merely a place of transition. When the lingering girls’ shapes are in danger of dissolving in front of the dark background or on the illuminated horizon, this can be seen as a sign that they are delimiting themselves in the nightly space in order to discover those concealed variations of their unconscious egos within their own night – namely as its special manifold expressions. Indeed, Hegel also claims: “Every person is a whole world of ideas which are buried in the night of the self.”
However, at the same time the blurred contours of these shapes indicate the inconstancy of their appearance in that an aspect of their emergence also means leaving the threshold experience of one’s own psychic night. One picture is entitled “Awakening”. Here, too, the girl is lying on the horizon, yet she has begun to move slightly to an upright position. Above her the sky is in the process of separating into a dark and illuminated half; signs of the everyday emergence of the light from the dark. Once again one could interpret the picture in an allegorical manner as the staging of that new beginning which is as inevitable as the daily arrival of nightfall. However, Wagner’s Brangane warns Tristan and Isolde in the garden of King Marke’s castle where the couple, the lovers doomed to the night, express a wish to never wake up so as to share an eternal night with each other: “Take care! The night is already retreating into day.” Very much in this spirit Leiko Ikemura’s threshold pictures are not only about advancing into the other night in order to experience the secrets of one’s own psyche concealed there with all its death-seeking desire for de-limitation. The pathos of expectation embodied by her girls floating on the horizon directs itself just as much towards the new beginning which is just as inevitable as one’s own mortality; enduring everyday existence.
While the definite appears only on the threshold – in illuminated darkness and in dulled light – in the picture “Awakening” the girl sitting upright appears against the background of an iridescent blue sky which contains neither pure light nor pure darkness but holds these in balance. It is not the wakefulness that is at stake here, with a clear separation between being awake and dreaming, but the act of continually waking up afresh. The girl looks towards the daylight but at the same time lies with her lower body in the dark. “Allegory,” says Walter Benjamin, “is located most lastingly where transitoriness and eternity come closest together.” In “Awakening” a contact of this kind is allowed to arise, yet space and time meet here. On the one hand, we recognise the period of transition of the ego’s phantasmagoria of the night into the day and these phantasmagoria indicate the inconstancy of human existence with every new awakening. On the other hand, the picture creates a space where this transition is captured forever and thus the fleeting nature of the daily passing of day to night in its aesthetic formalisation is halted forever. The awakening girl, one might think, embodies the epitome of the contrast in the allegory formulated by Benjamin. With her emergence into the light of day she is transient, eternal as a bodily image, thereby thus also referring to the contrast which is inherent to every act of painting. Yet Leiko Ikemura does start every new day from the beginning, working on her pictures, applying new layers of paint which conceal already formed shapes in the darkness of night or which highlight the addition of light against the darkness of the background. Trust as she does on a daily basis in the knowledge of her own disability she transfers this fleetingness of existence into the phantasmagoria of constant aesthetic formalisation; as she stops and maintains at the same time the night of one’s ego in the picture by lightening up this night with her illuminated horizon.