Seeing What We (Do Not) Know, Or, The Need To Think Impossible Thoughts

Lawrence Chin

"The supplement adds to itself, it is a surplus, a plentitude enriching another plentitude, the fullest measure of presence. It cumulates and accumulates presence."
-- Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology

Approaching one of Rajinder Singh's latest series of paintings, Cause and Defects, one would probably be hard-pressed not to be overwhelmed, literally by the painting's size, as well as a sense of immediate visual disruption, made concrete by lines left unpainted on the primed canvas.  One is not quite sure how exactly the painting is made or is it indeed painted, or, whether it is meant for some purpose other than being hung in a gallery or a wall. There is a delayed recognition of the subject of the painting – or are they portraits?  And one can never be sure, even if these faces looked somewhat familiar.

One would likely experience an increasing sense of visual and cognitive estrangement as one continues to linger in front of each work, not really knowing how to see, perhaps – as the more one sees, the less one seems to know.  These divergent experiences are disturbing in the normal consideration of paintings, yet they are essential to an understanding of Rajinder Singh's approach to his art-making – by way of a constant and relentless search for visual ideas which resonates with his deeper philosophical drives and convictions.

Distracting Tropes

Life is often imagined to be lived with a sense of purpose or engagement, which generally seeks to make meaningful one's disparate experiences.  To merely have lived in a haphazard manner seems a waste of human potential, even if marginally tolerable.  These private expectations of purpose can often be projected onto external entities that we become enthralled with in some significant aspect that resonate with our personal belief – or is "ideology" now considered to be an outmoded reference point?  We follow and respond to ideas that we take as a stand-in for what we could be; should be.  One's life seems complete by acknowledging such external or additional supplements to one's own convictions – or the living of one's life by the gathering (and claiming) of fragments.

In the pursuit of life, does one then become more engrossed in fashioning it – hence, giving it coherence and purpose – rather than to live it – and run the risk and dead certainty of trivializing it?  The choice of prominent personalities and intellectuals being given prominence in Rajinder Singh's latest series seem to perform a double-bind on the viewer.  On the one hand, one gravitates to certain approaches as espoused by great thinkers and doers.  On the other, one is reminded of one's own gross inadequacy and lack of accomplishment in comparison.  Does our admiration, simplistic though it may seem, give away the game of living, in that we have always strive to live by way of postponing what we can achieve or do?

*   *   *

The optical treatment of the series of images presented by Rajinder Singh points to an intervention that belies its simplicity of execution.  Unassumingly disruptive, the choice of working with lines that incorporate breaks, gaps, inconsistencies and stains into the composition has managed to activate a duality in the act of seeing.

One is confronted with visual distractions that prevent a complete single instant reading of the presented image.  In response, one strives to re-double one's effort in re-reading and reviewing the image, almost liken to depositing layers of meaning, as one tries to construct (or guess at) a more coherent image than what is being initially afforded.  The more one sees, the more one appears to know.  But this delayed or deferred state of knowing points to an awareness of the uncertainty or instablility in the foundation of one's knowledge – one that is primarily accumulated through a sedimentation of incomplete fragments: How can we even be sure of what we know, then?

Lingering Impossibilities

A suspended state between knowing and not-knowing is one that challenges our common understanding of the world around us.  It is predicated upon the very processes and mechanisms of acquiring knowledge but stops short.  This stopping short is not one of irrationality or incomprehensibility but points to the limit of knowledge itself – a limit which is experienced both as necessary (in making sense) yet inadequate (in explaining completely).

In bringing the viewer to such a suspended and ambiguous state, Rajinder Singh is keen to question the very basis of our knowing – the beliefs that we mistook for certainties; the fragmentary ideas that we misrecognised as ideals.  Not that there are any definite certainties or ideals that exists independent of our discursive practices, but that in order to even communicate (or think) about life, one must suspend such uncertainties and imagine a temporary order.  It is to speak; think; understand; see; or know, provisionally.

*   *   *

Looking at the titles given to the individual paintings in Rajinder Singh's latest series, one is led to discern an attempt at order, or rather, an attempt at approaching order.  The designation of unassuming numbers hint at some underlying logic but which is presently not made apparent.  The lack of complete knowledge, in this case, does little to impede a sense of meaning, or its construction, almost suggesting that meaning and knowledge are mutually unencumbered.  It points to how labels – or more generally, of words, language and discourse – can often index meaning without needing to carry an accompanying intention.  What we meant to know is all there is to know.  It is, as if, knowledge is already (self-)contained in language, however limited or limiting.

(In)adequate Absence

The limit of knowledge could be understood as being entwined with the limit of language.  "What one cannot say, one cannot possibly know", to somewhat shamelessly misquote Wittgenstein. The very limit of language determines the limit of knowledge.  Or does it?  In the case of Rajinder Singh's Cause and Defects, one gets a sense of meaning, not through a singular instant of articulation or recognition but via a laboured sequence of layering and de-layering of what is unspoken: both on the part of the viewer, as well as through the practice of the artist in the actual making of these paintings.  It is a reflection of the unspoken, or more accurately the unspeakable, complexities of life and, possibly, of its limit.

Yet in thinking about the very limit of life – or, death, which can be considered as an impossible experience in that one would not be able to live to tell of the full experience of death – one can arguably approach it in an oblique manner that imagines a sense of what might be experienced at such a limit.  But such an approach would still fall short of full knowledge, never able to fully apprehend the total absence that is beyond words. Such an absence must in turn be momentarily grasped, however tenuously or inadequately, in order to understand and live one's life.

It is such a sense of purposeful inadequacy that Rajinder Singh's most recent suite of works attempt to evoke.  Not in a direct or didactic manner, but through the myriad forms of engagement with the paintings.  The multi-layered optical distractions employed in the paintings point to the inherent relationships between the portrayed subjects' lives and their own inevitable lived distractions, with the ultimate distraction being that of an approaching and definite death.  These overlapping concerns echo the intuited yet mutually reinforcing distractions of meaning-making and knowledge (or seeing) – which in turn brings into play a resolute return to our understanding as temporary, temporal and necessarily distracted.

*   *   *

As with death, life must also be approached obliquely, in order for a layered multiplicity of meanings to occur. This multiplicity could then fuel an openness that brings to awareness of breaks, gaps, lacunae and other general distractions of this imperfect world, which must be taken as nothing less than meaningful.  Perhaps, herein lies the unspoken, or unspeaking, presence in Rajinder Singh's latest addition to his oeuvre: we see and we must know, even if imperfectly or impossibly.

"Given that a trace is never present, then what does being-present, or the presence of present mean?"
-- Jacques Derrida, " A 'Madness' Must Watch Over Thinking" in Points ... Interviews, 1974-1994

Lawrence Chin teaches part-time at the LASALLE College of the Arts in the Fine Arts Faculty and School of Integrated Studies.  In his other full-time work, he conserves and restores easel paintings while writing on an occasional basis.

November 2010