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WHITE ON WHITE: a film noir — THE MONOLITH Jeff Wood
rufus corporation

THE MONOLITH

In 1915, two years before the Revolution, the renowned Russian national painter Kasimir Malevich abruptly stopped painting things. In their stead he painted a Black Square on a white canvas and demanded that painting and Western art in general be through with representation. Literally, be finished with representation, as in: cease to render things, real things, reality, or any way in which we imagine reality to be. Stop making pictures of things. This occurred, briefly, for two reasons. Painting, he deduced had already done everything that was possible for it to do. And second, the camera and the cinema could do it now better. Rather, he demanded, painters and artists must, without alternative, render fundamental form as it is, the Platonic metaphysique – eidos: paint Truth. And this expressed itself as a Black Square. While he was at it he leveled his dictum at filmmakers as well, accusing them already of the soap-operafication of everything. Sounding the alarm, warning of the simulacrum, the doppelganger, parallel reality, Reality TV. His manifesto was brilliant and insane and impossible, but somehow correct – that the end form of aesthetics would be the virtual reality. He found this as nauseating as space itself, and so he chose space. Which of course cannot be kept like a lizard in a jar. In failing to maintain the impossible vacuum of non-representation on Earth, he could not have been more prophetic. But before he failed, he painted the Black Square and hung it between the Earth and the Moon as a chameleonic reflecting device, perpetually shifting as an opaque mirror according to our projections of what we think anything is. Inspired in part by the abstract feeling of aerial photography he declared, “I am the Ambassador of Space.” Then he promptly went back to radical figurative portraiture like any good cosmonaut who makes it out alive.

In 1968, in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark reinvented the Black Square in four dimensions as the Monolith and planted it on the Moon. This was their solution to the problem of “imagining the unimaginable.” Marking and sparking each stage of human development from the dawn of tool-usage to our arrival at the outer reaches of the Galaxy, the Black Monolith catalyzes astronaut-Dave’s evolutionary leap from man to super-man. Again, as an opaque reflecting device, the monolith mutely culled from his consciousness projections of both collective memory and his most transcendent (psychedelic) aspirations. The possibility of mind is imagination. As Cosmonaut – absorbed in the unlimited possibility of his own mind, reflected by the nothingness of the Monolith – Dave is Star Child, cell, Earth, consciousness, idea-life-seed, omniscience, time-space, enfolding proto-hologram projected within his interior as everything. The monolithic black square is the imagined blackboard upon which we project our imagining of the existence of everything. A metaphor for the metaphor.

The Monolith is impressive and forbidding, if not perfect. But I prefer Sputnik. Sputnik I. A silver ball about the size of a middle-class television with four spidery punk-rock spindles extending back at wind-blown angles. The R-7 launch vehicle had previously been intended to carry nuclear warheads. Sputnik, alternately, means “traveling companion,” or, “satellite”. To behold Sputnik I is to feast your eyes on what I believe is the most beautiful object ever made. Rivaled perhaps only by the North American canoe. A design vision so elegant it must have seemed alive, sentient, hurling through orbit, communicating something. Peal back the skins of Sputnik’s hulking contemporaries and you will find piles of car batteries. Parts and glass tubes. Volkswagen-sized conductors that Tom Waits might have plugged something into and catapulted at the mountain just to hear the sound of it exploding. But Sputnik was a glistening jewel.

It is possible, reflecting on the torture that one must endure in the effortlessness of space, it is possible to imagine an inverse of Malevich’s all-reflecting and annihilating Black Square. That is, by annihilating oneself, and one’s attachments to the most fundamental elements of life: gravity, atmospheric pressure, endemic supply of oxygen and nitrogen… by annihilating oneself, we may attain the most iconic, aerial and representational vision possible: the Earth, real and abstract. Slaying all our warring demigods. Our horrendous biblical history mute and infantile. Earth-bound, for a brief time, Malevich sought the view, the supreme vista, by annihilating our perception of everything. In flight now, the view itself is life, illuminating everything we have destroyed.

by Jeff Wood