Feeling Red and Blue
Beverly Buchanan, Blue Station Stones (1986). by the late artist Beverly Buchanan. Photo courtesy of Miami Dade County Art in Public Places
At the entrance to Earlington Heights Metrorail Station, a station in Brownsville in northern Miami, are a number of blue concrete forms gathered in informal clusters creating a ring around some foliage. There are ten large stones and eight small ones. The work is a public sculpture entitled Blue Station Stones (1986) by the late artist Beverly Buchanan, which resembles some kind of ruin, but it always did. Buchanan made many such concrete sculptures in public spaces, beginning with a group of works that she referred to as frustula, like fragments. They resembled a structure after its destruction and they mostly refer to the obscured or partial presences of the African American and indigenous histories. In the case of the Blue Station Stones, the forms evoke the underground vaults of nearby Lincoln Memorial Park, a historically black and Afro-Caribbean graveyard in Brownsville, 1 in which several important figures in the history of black culture of Miami are buried (Henry Reeves, who founded The Miami Times, and Dr. William Sawyer, the county’s first black physician). 2 The neighborhood is also one that has a history of racial tension, ghettoized in the mid 1960s during an era of so-called “white flight,” and the area around the station has a history of racially motivated conflict. 3 Buchanan’s sculptures stand in for bodies, but these forms are also like trail markers or guides. They seem embedded in the landscape in which they are installed—slightly sunken, in an overgrown area—but they also suggest a meeting place. And though they might echo an ancient ruin, they also announce their contemporariness by their connection with the Metrorail (they are, after all, Station Stones). They appear rough and damaged, though also somewhat serene; their blue is the color of a faded sky.
The term empathy, though it seems to be everywhere—and everywhere demanded—is a relatively recent one, coined at the end of the 19th century. Today’s rise in usage indicates an altered sense of the way emotions are expressed and understood and even perhaps a transformation in the terms of meaning. Hilton Als, for example, recently used Octavia Butler’s term of “hyper-empathy” to describe black music and performers such as Beyoncé, who summon the ability to identify with and feel the pain of others. 4 There has been much discussion on emotion-led politics in the US election race, while an anxiety around the human ability to empathize is expressed in the regularly reported studies suggesting we are becoming more narcissistic (CNN’s ‘Is the Internet Killing Empathy?’). 5 It seems clear that part of the current interest in empathy and narcissism comes from a fascination with the terms of the self, and the regard or disregard for the selves of others, witnessed in a return to the politics of identity, and in the empathetic failures that have arisen in response to movements such as Black Lives Matter. But how has this term wound its way through art history and transformed over the past decade? Though “feeling what someone else feels” may be impossible, the sense of a failed attempt remains valid. In the face of more immersive technologies and forms of entertainment, art offers a site in which empathy can be experienced as a form of uneasy struggle (rather than the overwhelming sentiments related to identification of which the playwright Bertolt Brecht was so suspicious). But something like the term empathy must be important in an era of confirmation bias, consensus bubbles, post-factual reportage, and emotion-led politics. Because a world in which we can look away from a reality that we don’t recognize, simply to be comforted by thoughts of people who agree with us, is a polarized world in which storms simply gather around the most intense poles of attraction. And in this case we are not sharing space at all.
Pain hangs over the concept of empathy, as well as trauma, in our current understandings of the term, which have mostly been developed through psychoanalysis. And the word, empathy, though culturally connected to pain (empatheia—in pathos), was developed through the realm of German aesthetics at the end of the nineteenth century, and so is chain-linked to art in its very inception. The German philosopher Theodor Lipps was investigating the viewer’s role in creating a work of art, and found in the work of a little-known aesthetics student named Robert Vischer the term einfühlung, literally “feeling into.” For Vischer, einfühlung was a word that described the way that art caused people to “move in and with the forms.” 6 As the writer Rachel Corbett has written in her biographical study of Auguste Rodin and Rainer Maria Rilke, this term explained to philosophers at the time why viewers described “losing themselves” in powerful works of art: it suggested that when “a work of art is effective, it draws the observer out into the world, while the observer draws the work back into his or her body. Empathy was what made red paint run like blood in the veins, or a blue sky fill the lungs with air.” 7 Red blood and blue skies. Lipps was a prominent teacher, and his ideas were important to Rilke, who drew on the philosopher’s vision of empathy or “in-feeling” to develop his own concept of conscious observation which he termed einsehen or “in-seeing.” As Corbett describes it:
If faced with a rock, for instance, one should stare deep into the place where its rockness begins to form. Then the observer should keep looking until his own center starts to sink with the stony weight of the rock forming inside him, too. It is a kind of perception that takes place within the body, and it requires the observer to be both the seer and the seen. To observe with empathy, one sees not only with the eyes but with the skin. 8
Two books were on display in a vitrine with a letter when I visited Miami’s De La Cruz collection in October, Passolini’s Roman Poems and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. “Dear Rosa and Carlos,” reads the letter. “Two of my favorite poets. One brings good memories of Rome and my friend Pasqualle, also memories of showing Julie Ault everything I knew of Rome – in one night! Rilke: his most accessible book, yet such a legacy for future conversations of artists. Books for ‘traveling.’ To a 1995 filled with joy, Felix.” It’s from Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Nearby are monochrome photographs
that Gonzalez-Torres took of clouds in the sky over Miami, Untitled (1994). Also nearby is Untitled (31 Days of Bloodworks) (1991), a graph in which the artist marked the declining T-cell count of his partner Ross Laycock, and the loss of his immune system due to AIDS. Red blood and Miami skies (gray).
Gonzalez-Torres took much from Rilke, and though he is right that Letters to a Young Poet has been inspiring to millions of aspiring artists and poets, we might also speculate that he himself is one of the visual artists who has carried Rilke’s embodied forms of treating memory the most powerfully to a generation of artists working today. There are several references to the poet embedded in the artist’s work, as well as an interest in similar myths. Nancy Spector extracted one of the richest connections, however, in her catalogue essay for the Guggenheim Museum’s Felix Gonzalez-Torres exhibition in 2007. Memory, believed Rilke, was not enough—it was not until those memories had entered into our body, and to define the shape of ourselves, that they could be transformed into poetry. “Not until they have turned to blood within us, to glance, to gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—
not until then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.” 9 As Spector writes, Gonzalez-Torres, sought to create artworks in which such embodied “blood memories” could be combined with a collective public history, to create a “multivalent narrative in which the intimate and the communal are fused.” 10 Gonzalez-Torres’s sculptures, such as his paper stacks of images of Miami skies, were, in essence, public sculptures. They are for a public who would disperse them into the world. They are also a ruin.
While both Buchanan and Gonzalez-Torres’s Miami works have a relationship to histories of pain and violence—and they also both create an arena in which an empathetic attempt is possible. One imagines that a rock or a sheet of paper is a fragment of a lost body, which is nonetheless present with your body. As you take a sheet of paper or a sweet, or sit on a rock, you too, are a fragment in a ruin. These works are radical presences, because they suggest the “hereness” of things that transcends our recognition of them. As Gonzalez-Torres said in response to the idea that his works can be taken away by visitors, but never removed: “We are everywhere. We will always be here no matter what they do.”11
1 Information taken from wall text at the exhibition Beverly Buchanan: Ruins and Rituals, organized by Jennifer Burris and Park McArthur at Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2016
2 Theo Karantsalis, ‘The History of Brownsville,” The Miami Herald August 30, 2012.
4 Hilton Als, “Prince, Cecil Taylor, and Beyoncé’s Shapeshifting Black Body,” The New Yorker, April 26, 2016.
5 Gary Small and Gigi Vornan, “Is the Internet Killing Empathy?”
CNN.com, February 18, 2011.
6 Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou, Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-1893 (1994), p.101.
7 Rachel Corbett, You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin (W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 2016).
8 Rachel Corbett, You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin (W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 2016).
9 Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebook of Malte Laurid Bridge (London, 1930), 19-20.
10 Nancy Spector, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, (Guggenheim, New York, 2007) p. 54.
11 Spector, p.88.