Newcall Gallery

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

29-04-08 | Darkly minded lightly hearted | John Ward Knox writes for Fiona Gillmore

Oftentimes at twilight I find myself seated at a bus-stop awaiting carriage home. I generally frequent the same stop, where the seats are placed generously to afford a view of the city, though not from any great distance. Across the broad street from my position buildings rise – teeth, battlements or monoliths – thirty flights against the vaster reach of sky.
I have no pressing matters I can attend to whilst sitting there – no goals to achieve nor expectations to meet. Accomplishing little but witnessing the passage of time, I often get to wondering about the value of things, the way we think. For example there is a point where day becomes night, where a switch occurs between opposites. And yet as I sit there I find it difficult to tell with any conviction whether what I am experiencing is part of the period called day, or the period called night. If there is a switch that takes place between two opposing forces, say when black becomes white – one could be forgiven for expecting a violence to evidence itself, some moment of trauma to signal the inversion which turns one concrete existence into its opposite.
This moment somehow never arrives to announce itself, so I have to read the herald of night into inconspicuous details. My current system is somewhat clinical. In the office buildings facing me, there are invariably rooms or whole floors left fully lit, projecting their own approximation of daylight for the benefit of those working inside, the better to pursue daytime goals. This provides me with a standard measurement upon which to base my calculation. During actual daylight hours the light from the windows – being still an imperfect approximation – pales in comparison to the natural radiance of the sky, but as nighttime steadily approaches the artificially lit rooms acquire more impact. As the sky darkens I have come to believe that the transition between night and day happens at that point when the light from the windows seems to become more luminous than that from the sky.

And yet that point is infinitely reducible and infinitely escapable. To make use of such a definition is hardly possible within the fluid structure of language, where words are replaceable and their meaning alters according to their context. Because we have developed this flexible system of abstraction we are no longer required to make experiential judgements. By your definition we can only know when day turns to night by seeing it happen, by some system we devise and in relation to a given constant. But the only reason those buildings and that channelled electricity can exist is because of language, because we can reduce physical things down to concepts and vagaries, so we can use the knowledge of their existence without ever coming in contact with the thing itself.
The language we use is a system with an inbuilt schizophrenia, where the meanings of words overlap, so that the word ‘twilight’ includes both ‘night’ and ‘day’. In this way we make easier for ourselves our interaction with the world. By interacting with porous concepts, rather than concrete realities we can make these periods of transition less traumatic and be free to pursue activities that would otherwise be forbidden by our subservience to natural cycles.

Perhaps then let me offer another definition of change.
I was sitting on a pier facing the city one night recently, the harbour between us. The lights of the buildings and of the streets and the dock machinery glimmered over the horizon, a thin band made up of individual points. The night was overcast so the lights seemed to emerge in the distance from black depth. As I sat there a huge tanker entered the harbour, a slow and silent leviathan. The tanker carried few lights of its own, so appeared mainly as a giant moving shadow, a silhouette against the city. From left to right the tanker passed by, it’s presence causing an insidious eclipse swallowing the city lights in front, and depositing them behind.
I think this is perhaps a better way of understanding change. Where once a light can be said to exist in front of the ship, after the ship has past the light can be said to be behind. This is like the difference between night and day. Because things exist inside of a continuum the only thing that changes drastically is our way of classifying them. Behind the silhouette of the ship is the point that one thing changes to another. When looking, we can never see this happen, because for one thing to become another, at some point it has to be invisible, it has to be neither one nor the other.
What Fiona is offering to us is a chance to slow down our expectations for gratification, to relish time spent during periods of transition. What we encounter is not a transaction, we do not enter the gallery and leave having made a cultural purchase, an intellectual product akin to “I came, I saw, I conquered”, but the opportunity to witness a series of infinitely different scenarios, played out inside of a continuum that purposefully eludes classification. Like finding ourselves in the shadow of a passing ship.

Essay by John Ward Knox