bernsehen bilder & texte
25 paintings by Roul Ris and 25 texts by different authors
Bern, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-3-033-02644-5

The Matter of Appearance

We are looking at a painting.

Sunlight dances off a glass partition at a tram stop. Reflections turn a window into a mirror, solid objects into apparitions, a simple picture into a puzzle. A conspiracy of photons disguises as much as it illuminates, inviting us to unravel a mystery. When our eyes deceive us, Reason has work to do. What is and what is not? This light, this paint, these surfaces, are the matter of these appearances. They are elements from which it is made. But in the matter of appearances – and, yes, the pun is intended – we have the error and the correction, the illusion and the actual, the genuine and the fake, the false and the true. There are monsters and there are messiahs, demagogues and liberators, snake oil salesmen and philosophers-each wears a mask, things are not what they appear to be. Besides, as Lenny Bruce once said, „Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.“

There is also this paradox. At the very moment the eye is deceived it also quite clearly sees a common, everyday occurrence. People are doing something. They are waiting. All their longings, all their discontents are gathered together at a point of embarkation. They might be waiting for a miracle but they’ll settle for a tram. The one thing the picture insists upon is location, this locality. Though it could be anywhere, it must be somewhere. And in this locality people are waiting. This waiting, suspended as it is in a static image, releases an immanent potential. Something is going to happen. This tableaux must dissolve, it cannot go on forever, it must change. But this the painting expresses by an inversion, even a subversion, of the formal presentation. A fixed image of a certain location tells a story of motion, of going from one place to another. No one waits at a tram stop to experience waiting. They have come to this place to leave it, not to stay.

Now this might be all there is to say and with perhaps a touch of melancholy we might depart this picture, these „small town blues“, thinking only of the pointless meandering of daily life. Trams, after all, just go round and round completing their circuits within the boundaries of a city. They never get anywhere but back to where they started. Except for one thing. A central figure commands our attention. This figure stands amongst the shadows and reflections, carrying a handbag full of something. Perhaps it’s blueprints for a building, perhaps it’s leaflets announcing a demonstration, perhaps it’s lunch. What concerns us most is that this figure might be the messenger.

In every situation, in every locality, in every waiting, there is a messenger. It is not necessary that we immediately know the message. What is necessary is that we are alive to the possibility. That we are alert to the unpredictable but inevitable event. That we pay attention. It could be Archimedes, it could be Galileo, it could be Einstein. It could be Arthur Rimbaud, Isadora Duncan or Berthold Brecht. It could be a man or a woman, a mathematician or a poet but the messenger will be there. There, where scientific discovery and creative imagination intersect. It has been called an epistemological break. It has been called a paradigm shift. But it will occur. „Everything we are taught is false“ – as Rimbaud once said – suddenly impresses itself on our minds transforming us instantly from passive observers into active participants. People must take sides. A rift has opened between before and after. The fabric of time is torn. The infinite shines through the orderly arrangement of illusions. In a universe of unlimited possibility, can our only hope be to avoid embarrassment? Is the only purpose of our miserable little lives escaping boredom?

Knowing is always preceded by a question. Every question marks a break in a continuity, to habits of thought, to the complacency of assumption. Every question interrupts the dull repetition of thoughtless motions we go through as if we were living. The messenger is the question.

Long ago it was observed that the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere. We belong here is thus the starting point for any inquiry, any attempt to penetrate the masks of appearance. No matter how it appears, all matter is forever in motion. But relativity is not relativism – Einstein’s discovery is true and it is a guide. We belong together is thus our compass for seeing through the mirage of the frozen, stationary object, of the statue, the monument, the tomb. Selfish possession of material things is the funhouse mirror that leads us in a desperate, frenzied chase after an empty vessel producing unquenchable thirst. It is the booby prize for a lonely life. Immersed in the infinite, traversed by the infinite, we finite beings are called upon to separate the false from the true. At the very least, we should equip ourselves with highly sensitive bullshit detectors. Happiness and health depend on it. Even more, any purpose we aspire to serve depends entirely on whether we undertake the task. Where might we find the tools to perform it?

I can suggest the Pythagorean axioms of equivalence, for example, that justice is friendship and friendship is mutuality and equality. I can suggest Badiou’s materialist dialectics. But these are only my suggestions. In any case we must choose. We may choose to ignore the question and hope it goes away. We may choose to heed it and embark on an adventure. We may even choose to resist it, to condemn it as madness or monstrosity. But we must choose. And to choose is to act. And for the act there is no alibi.

We know one thing: the painter. We know another, the painter has imagination. How else could the matter of appearance – the light, the paint, the surfaces – be composed into a painting? How else could there be any appearance at all? We must imagine or we are blind.

But that is not all. The painter reminds us of something we have known at least 17 000 years, since the paintings at Lascaux were made. What we see we must express. Even if the noun is dumb, the verb is a command: Paint!