Saturday, 4 February 2012

Symbolism outside literature

I am conscious of going off-piste a little here, but in a previous post I have stated that imagery is central to how we use language and perhaps it is actually more central to how we perceive the world than I previously thought. The last few weeks have furnished me with two examples of where imagery seems to leap at me unbidden, where no language was involved.

The first was intentional. I saw Threshold to the Kingdom by Mark Wallinger at Tate Britain. I don't normally like arty video installations but this was strangely compelling and beautiful. Filmed from a static viewpoint and in ultra slow motion it shows a stream of people coming through the "International Arrivals" gate at Heathrow, over Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus. Because of the static viewpoint and slow motion you are compelled to look closely at and consider every element of the scene. Some elements are static and unchanging, like the shimmering reflective gates, the bold lettering above them and the strangely impassive man seated at the desk beside them. The changing elements are of course the passengers and while (nearly) all share common features- the way all stare beyond the camera and progress with flowing rhythm down the screen and out of shot to bottom right- each has individuality and these individualities seem suffused with meaning too. One waves shyly at someone unseen. Another yawns, covering his mouth and casting his eyes downwards. On one occasion a woman dressed in black steps into shot to embrace two others, also in black, and all three stand motionless in the centre of the shot. On another someone starts running, though the ultra slow motion makes her progress still painfully slow. On another occasion a man crosses the stream, holding a cup of coffee. Although only one other is passing at the time it is impossible not to feel tension as a collision seems inevitable and the man with the coffee seems transgressive, his direction of travel all wrong. On several occasions the piece is edited with dissolves, so that passengers slowly fade away whilst still walking. The piece ends with a man with an almost empty baggage trolley who stops centre screen. He consults a scrap of paper, looking concerned and hesitant. Finally he proceeds, but to the left instead of the bottom right.

I challenge anyone to sit through this piece and not see symbolism in it. Some will see the kingdom as the kingdom of Heaven, with a constant slow stream of the dead entering its pearly gates. Others will think of issues around immigration and how welcoming or otherwise our kingdom must appear to others. Others will see a depiction of our lives and the way places such as airports define and segment them. Still others might see the lurking menace of international terrorism- the film as the surveillance footage that catches the last sighting of a suicide bomber. What they see is not the point, and most viewers will not be consciously aware of thinking in such symbolic terms at all, but I am convinced they will.

In the second example the symbolism was certainly not intentional and maybe my wife and I were the only ones to see it. The wreck of the Costa Concordia was a tragedy, but for us it was also powerfully symbolic of the financial crises that have engulfed the world in recent times. Let me explain. Like all modern cruise liners, the Costa Concordia is an impossibly lavish and unreal-looking construction, vastly out of scale with normal human life. Its scale, lavishness and extravagance are very reminiscent to me of the great banks that now dominate our financial system. It was led by a man who seems to have made bombast, arrogance and hubris an art form. He claimed that the rock which sunk the boat was not on his charts and so totally unexpected. However surely anyone with any common sense who has seen the map of the ship's travel and the photos of the coastline of the island would have expected such rocks to be there, whether they were on the charts or not. Cruise liners such as this (like the financial system) are governed by hugely complex and powerful electronic systems and it seems that human common sense had no part to play.

When the ship (like the banks) hit the rocks the captain told the passengers nothing, clearly believing that he was best placed to handle a situation that he (equally clearly) did not understand. Shortly after the wreck we were repeatedly told that he had acted with great skill to bring the ship back to the coast, preventing more loss of life. Presumably we were supposed to be impressed. However when the ship (like the banks) started actually sinking the first response of the captain was to make sure his place in the lifeboat was secure, leaving others to drown. Whilst others were abandoned on the stricken vessel he was being interviewed by Italian TV, his beautiful hair hardly out of place.

Was it just us who saw in all this a powerful symbol for what has happened in the financial and banking sector since 2008? Is it only us who see in Francesco (Love Boat) Schettino a symbol for all those Fred (the Shred) Goodwins out there?

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