Friday, June 23, 2017

Mind the Gap, Little Leaps, Book Art & Teju Cole's Blind Spot

When we read, we carry memories of what came before. To make sense of the book, we hold onto its information as we go. At the same time, we compare what we are reading to what we already know. If the book has both words and images, we search for a relationship between them, based on what the author gives us coupled with our own personal observations. The moment in time while we are searching is a little leap, like the gap between steppingstones. The reader doesn't give up after one stone, but keeps going, sensing a longer path ahead. This gap can occur between picture and title, or between image and text. We are primed to make connections. This is how we learn.

On one page (46) we have a paragraph about a secret mass murder; facing it we have a photo of a garage partly open with a covered object. We fill in one gap, assuming the covered object is a car. We fill in another one metaphorically by connecting the covered/masked/muted car with the words, "We are advised not to say." The cover itself becomes a shroud, representing the dead, the mass murder. On another page (36) we have a photo of a man in a wheelchair and a shadowed man, standing; on its facing page we have a musing on how we leave "echoes" everywhere. Each man is an unnoticed echo of the other. These are two examples from Teju Cole's newest book Blind Spot, where his photographs have a conversation with his writings. The tension between the words and the images is exactly what I think happens in the best artists' books.


In the foreword, Siri Hustvedt illuminates this very issue, trying to explain it to those who might want literal representations of the words in the pictures (which these pictures are not). Perhaps without realizing it, she is talking about a marvelous event that book artists understand, but is often too rare. Hustvedt writes:
Some of the mental "ties" are apparent, others are veiled or masked—there to be found if one cares to look, but if one doesn't look and doesn't read closely, if one doesn't take the time to uncover what lies in, between, and beyond the words and pictures, one will be blind to their meanings (xii).
You might notice in some book art that either the images are abstracted or the words speak abstractly. The maker is reckoning with that tension, the gap that will occur, eventually resolving it by emphasizing either the images or the words. The more specific of the two becomes the foreground, and by default, the more important. Even so, this method creates a kind of harmony: both images and words working together toward a common mood or feeling. 

Sometimes one of Cole's images appears abstract, but the subject comes into focus as you look again, read the text,  re-read the text, and look at the photograph again. What looks like lines of color is really a curtain on a track, the separation between it and the wall above. The gap between this image and the text, which contains the phrases, "Faraway wave seen from the deck of the ship" and "A presence made of absence," fills in slowly as you spend more time with the parts (71). Sometimes describing the picture out loud to yourself will provide the connection. Ask questions of what you are seeing: What is it? What is the mood? What else do you see? What is the light doing? What verbs would you use to describe its action? How do you feel about it? How does this relate to what you already know?

Teju Cole also takes the connecting process a step further, deeper, wider. Here, the photos and the texts are equals. Each can stand alone and needs no further explanation. Together, they spark and create a kind of poetry, another meaning. He asks you to step in, and sometimes he waits for the other shoe to drop, for the realization to occur, for you to see the transformation.  There is more here than what you see and what you might think. And once you read and look through the 332-page book carefully, you will understand his viewpoint, voice, and vision, what he is interested in, what he finds compelling and important and funny and heartbreaking, and how he engages with his memories and what he's read as he travels all over the world. 


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It may be helpful to read Known and Strange Things: Essays first. Then bring your memory of the essays to Blind Spot to help sketch in the gaps. 


More about Teju Cole and his book Open City: A Novel from a previous post here.

Teju Cole website

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