Finding Henri Bergson’s theories of Matter and Memory in Guy Sherwin’s Man With Mirror (above) and Paper Landscape (below)
Bergson writes that “everything… must happen as if an independent memory gathered images as they successively occur along the course of time; and as if our body, together with its surroundings, was never more than one among these images, the last, that which we obtain at any moment by making an instantaneous section in the general stream of becoming. In this section our body occupies the centre. The things which surround it act upon it, and it reacts upon them. Its reactions are more or less complex, more or less varied, according to the number and nature of the apparatus which experience has set up within it… The past survives under two distinct forms: first, in motor mechanisms; secondly, in independent recollections.”
Looking at Guy Sherwin's Man With Mirror in the light of this statement, it is possible to observe the embodiment of Bergson’s theory of the two forms of memory. Sherwin holds a screen which is white on one side and mirrored on the other, and is used to either catch the projected image, or reflect it around the cinema space. The image on film is of the same activity happening in a sunlit landscape, some thirty years previous to the performance.
I would suggest that, in the 1970s, Sherwin committed to film “an instantaneous section in the general stream of becoming” (indeed, all photographic images could be described in this way) - with his “body occup(ying) the centre” - which he now projects onto his current “section”, creating a dialogue between these past and present representations, and supporting Bergson’s theory that the two forms, when considered together, create a paradox. Employing both Bergson’s “motor mechanisms” (holding the screen, standing in the space) and his “independent recollections” (the projected image is - after all - of himself, filmed by himself; and the artist must surely be mentally transported back to the original performance to camera while performing this work), Sherwin’s performance echoes Bergson’s idea that “the things which surround (the body) act upon it, and it reacts upon them”. In support of this theory, Sherwin appears both to age and grow younger, to be both inside the performance space and outside in the landscape: consciousness, in the sense of being aware of something for what it is, is brought into question, as the viewer is led to believe they see Sherwin in both his past and present “sections”.
Bergson has said of consciousness that it is present in feeling, in sensation, in affection, but then that it “fades and disappears as soon as (an) activity, by becoming automatic, shows that consciousness is no longer needed”. He remarks that “either all these appearances are deceptive, or the act in which the affective state issues is not one of those which might be rigorously deduced from antecedent phenomena, as a movement from a movement”. Indeed, in Man with Mirror, many appearances are deceptive, though it could certainly be argued that Sherwin uses “antecedent phenomena” (his 1970s film) to achieve this, and employs “movement from a movement” (his replication of his 1970s actions) to achieve what he describes as “an awareness by the viewer of the processes of viewing, while viewing”. So, Sherwin’s actions provide a visualisation of Bergson’s theories, through layering past and present to result in a wariness of both. Moreover, he also goes some way to answering this question of Bergson’s: “… how are we to imagine a relation between a thing and its image, between matter and thought, since each of these terms possesses, by definition, only that which is lacking to the other? Thus difficulties spring up beneath our feet; and every effort that you make to dispose of one of them does but resolve it into many more.” It seems to me that through Man with Mirror we can imagine this dichotomy, by being presented with “a thing and its image” simultaneously, not to mention being encouraged by Sherwin’s actions not to question which is which (though his actions could certainly be described as resolving each element “into many more”).
Indeed, this comment from Bergson seems, impossibly, to have been written with Man with Mirror in mind: “… everything happens as though your perception were a result of the internal motions of the brain… the (result of) external images which appear to return… in order to constitute perception… conscious perception and cerebral movement are in strict correspondence.”
Later readings of Bergson’s theories can also be applied to Sherwin. Frederic Worms writes that “the genuine opposition is not between body and soul, but between the external world and individual consciousness” Sherwin’s duality – both in Man With Mirror and Paper Landscape - in pairing his previous ‘section’ with his contemporary one, illustrates Worms’ point that Bergson makes “apparent the mediating role of the body: the theoretical and general analogy culminates in a practical and individual participation, the ‘relation of body towards mind’’’. Again, Man With Mirror seems to examine this. Sherwin lends his previous body the mind of his current one, he mediates with his body to provide the duality to which Bergson refers. In doing so, as Worms describes, he “escapes neither dualism nor union, but… transforms the meaning of both.”
Worms describes how Bergson achieved his aim in Matter and Memory, “which was to affirm and go beyond the thesis of dualism, starting from the principle of the action of the body: (which) must be thought as a mediation between two different orders of representation and of reality”, and indeed it is with this thesis in mind that we might first read Man With Mirror – the action of the body quite clearly mediating between the two representations of the artist. But I would argue that in fact a deeper comparison is possible, if we take Worms’ further observations as a starting point. He describes how Bergson, in attempting to affirm dualism, has arrived at “three distinct critical points” which Worms calls “triple displacement”, each starting with the action of the body.
The first of these to be identified is what Worms calls “a thesis relevant to the theory of knowledge: the action of the body would suffice to understand the distance and the agreement between ‘image’ and ‘reality’: what we would thus have gone beyond is the epistemological dualism between realism and idealism”. This first of the three theses identified by Worms is perhaps the most overt in Man with Mirror: as Sherwin tilts his mirror, he demonstrates both “distance” and “agreement”, as the projected image complements, disrupts and replaces the corporeal one. Worms comments that it is this thesis which would explain why “the entire book (Matter and Memory) is organised around the notion of image”, as Sherwin’s two works discussed here could also be said to be, considering that they both use a previously recorded image of the artist projected onto his current image.
Equally, Man with Mirror can be seen to illustrate Worms’ second theory, that of a “distinction between two types of representation, ‘perception’ and ‘memory’” which Worms terms a “psychological thesis”. He proposes that a Bergsonian psychology would therefore go against association (defined in psychology as a mental connection between concepts, events, or mental states that usually stems from specific experiences, especially with regard to the succession of memories in favour of the idea of “’planes of consciousness’, which allows it to go beyond its own dualism”. While it is clear that Sherwin is primarily apposing the experiences of viewing and of the perception of time and space, it is also possible to read the idea of planes of consciousness into his work. Paper Landscape, for example, can be read fairly simply as a layering of past and present, giving the illusion of a past “section” gradually expunging the present one. But if we consider how this is happening, how Sherwin’s contemporary body is painting itself out of the image, whilst also providing the white ground necessary for this illusion to manifest, then I suggest there is more to unravel than a simple tussle. Where Worms describes a Bergsonian psychology as being allowed to “go beyond its own dualism”, we have, in Sherwin’s work, a possible illustration of this idea - if we examine Sherwin’s action of painting the transparent screen white, for example. I would suggest that this action elevates the reading of the performance onto a psychological plane, partly due to its questioning of the artists’s motive. Does he want to revert to a previous time? Whereas in Man With Mirror we see Sherwin bouncing his former image away from his current one, then allowing it to be seen again, then pairing the two side by side, in Paper Landscape he reveals his previous self by methodically working to conceal his contemporary one, before cutting through the painted screen and revealing himself as he currently is once more. For me, this adds an extra layer of psychological intrigue.
We could argue, for example, that the work is questioning the idea of self-representation in the way that Guy Maddin does in My Winnipeg (below), by building layers of what could be perceived as memory and truth over layers of what must surely be fiction and figment, thus denying the viewer any certainty as to what, if anything, is ‘real’, but nonetheless leaving a strong impression of having met ‘Maddin’. (Sherwin, as far as is visible in Paper Landscape, has not added any ‘false’ representations of what he appears to portray. But, on the other hand, he does not allow the viewer a straight look at him in either time. In the present of the performance he is half-concealed by plastic and then fully concealed by paint, and the depiction of him in the 1970s footage is almost always partly obstructed, either by the lack of sufficient reflection of the image when the screen is unpainted, or the paper we see in the image once it is revealed).
We could, equally, imply in Sherwin’s actions a rejection of the idea of a single self, and rather posit that his current “section” is temporary, as was the one we see projected, and in some ways more so, as it is not being recorded and will, therefore, not be visible after the performance in the way the 1970s footage is and will continue to be. The psychological implications of this are, for me, in line with what Worms is suggesting; that rather than simply a dualism based on what is remembered and what is materially retained, that Sherwin is additionally providing an opportunity to question the perception of imagery based upon a psychological reaction to it, rather like Barthes describes in relation to a photograph of Lewis Payne: “he is going to die… This will be and this has been”. Sherwin describes himself as an artist who investigates time - indeed his entry on LUX’s website is subtitled “film changes our awareness of time” – and some of his short films, such as those he describes in the notes for his DVD released by LUX - Short Film Series 1975-2014 DVD examine this very clearly indeed. But for me, the psychological reading is no less evident, and not at all unconnected. Barthes describes how time can be considered a “punctum”, and I would argue that Sherwin’s Man with Mirror and Paper Landscape treat time in this way, giving it a psychological aspect which Barthes might describe as a “vertigo of time defeated”. Incidentally, when I saw Paper Landscape performed in Waterlow Park recently, Sherwin invited his children to assist him with some of the painting. Aside from the obvious charm, I found that this invitation lent the work another aspect, namely that in sharing the action with his offspring, Sherwin had contributed yet another “section” to it, so that the performance now included his 1970s image, his contemporary body, and the continuation of himself in the bodies of his children, who – in painting with their father – helped to reveal the 1970s image of him which predates their existence. A “vertigo” indeed.
Finally, Worms identifies “a metaphysical thesis: (in which) the action of the body would suffice to bring together and connect two types of reality, ‘matter’ and ‘mind’, opposing, therefore, both ‘materialism’ and… any simple ‘spiritualism’”. If we take metaphysics in its transcendent meaning, that “what really exists lies beyond the reach of ordinary experience (as in the picture of the world supplied by supernatural religion)”, then I would argue that we can find this in Sherwin’s Man with Mirror. Though I do not suggest that this work deals overtly with religious ideas, I do think it is possible to read it in the way that one might read Bill Viola’s The Crossing (1996), for example. In both works, an image of a man is disrupted by a numinous agent – fire and water in The Crossing, and (projected) light in Man with Mirror. In The Crossing, however, the image of the man is gradually consumed by the elements, whereas in Man With Mirror, Sherwin’s image is inverted, replicated, concealed, and revised, making a possible religious reading of Sherwin’s work result in a conclusion similar to the idea that man was made in the image of a creator. However, Worms’ statement in describing his third thesis (“it is indeed the notion of duration – because it simultaneously provides the criterion for all reality and allows us to establish differences between realities”), indicates that it is the idea of ontological metaphysics to which he refers. One issue of ontology is “the number of real existences there are”, and it is this which I believe we can best examine in Sherwin’s works, given his decision to overlap one ‘real existence’ with another.
“Bergson starts with a hypothesis that all we sense are images”, and it is for this reason that I find his writings to be well suited to a reading of Sherwin, whose two works analysed here also begin with an image - albeit one which was recorded, probably, for a different purpose than that for which it is used in these works - and use the placing, distorting and replicating of that pre-recorded image to create a duality which is reminiscent of the duality Bergson describes.
Henri Bergson’s theories in Matter and Memory are densely written and wide-reaching, and I have not aimed here to summarise them as a whole. But, in researching his writings, the work of Sherwin often occurred to me as a visualisation of some of what I was reading, and it is evidence of Bergson’s continued relevance as a thinker that this should be so.
Bergson, H., Matter and Memory, p.86-7
Mullarkey, J., The new Bergson, p.90
Barthes, R., Camera Lucida, p.96
He told me this when I met him, briefly, in London this April, and asked him if he would consider himself a psychological artist
Bullock, A., and Stallybrass, O., The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, p.386