Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Great Within

The title of my blog, "The Great Within", is the literal translation of the Chinese characters for The Forbidden City in Beijing, China. This blog, however, is not going to be about the actual FC- its meaning, its architecture, its art. Rather, I am using photographs of the FC as a device, as a beginning, to talk about my own desire, my own great within and most importantly how these images function for me, give me meaning rather than solely the other way around.

Yet, my choice of The City is not simply arbitrary. It obviously has significant meaning for me in its actuality. Although I have never been there, I have experienced The City through documentaries, films and photographs and have gained a rudimentary knowledge of it. I have learned, for example, that when an emperor died, his concubines were destined to live out their lives in The Garden of Forgotten Favorites. There is a poignancy here that cuts me. The Garden and its function resonates for me in terms of the loneliness, the boredom, the pleasure, the indolence, the irrelevance, the loss and the nostalgia which I imagine was experienced by the women who languished there until death. This interest in The Garden is also about my own nostalgia, my own loneliness, my own loss and my own pleasure. It is and is not about the specific landscape of this Garden in this City, but rather the desire that this landscape awakens in me.

Unfortunately I have been unable to find a photograph of The Garden in order to fixate and display my desire. Instead, I will explore and reveal this desire through an exploration of 2 photographs of the FC, one from the 1920's and one from 2006, mediated through the theory of photography conceptualized by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida. Barthes provides me with the words to express this desire, how it goes beyond language and beyond the photograph as an expression of knowledge. He characterizes this desire as a return to the womb of the Mother, a place of certain existence without language or culture. Of course, this return is an impossibility and it evokes in me at least (who knows for Barthes, but the impetus for Camera Lucida was the death of his mother) feelings of loss, loneliness and nostalgia which circumscribe my life at this moment.


The Forbidden City circa 1920: I want to live there…

Not having an image of The Garden of Forgotten Favorites, I have instead chosen a circa 1920 photograph of one of the outer courtyards of the FC. I ha1922_Puyive chosen a vintage image of the City rather than a current one because in 1920 the last emperor of China, Pu Yi, at the age of 14 still lived there (until 1924) after having been deposed in 1912. I imagine that Pu Yi, like the concubines of The Garden, was relegated to a life of loss, loneliness, boredom, pleasure, indolence, nostalgia and irrelevance. Perhaps even concubines still withered in The Garden.

forbiddencity1a The 1920 photograph depicts The Gate of Supreme Harmony against a blank sky. This Gate is the second point of entry after one passes through The Meridian Gate, the main entrance to the FC. In the middle ground of the photograph a series of marble steps lead into the openings of the Gate, In front of these steps stands a metal sculpture on a marble plinth of a female guardian lion. She holds her cub under her left paw in an act of protection. Along with her male companion, the guardian lions were meant to ward off evil spirits from entering the FC. In the foreground of the image there are the cobblestones of the empty and desolate courtyard. Numerous weeds spring up from the cracks between the stones. These weeds signal the end of the FC as the center of China. The City has been relegated to history. The weeds attest to its decline, its irrelevance. A site once of ceremony, procession and the rites of empire is no longer used, no longer cared for and no longer needed just as concubines were relegated to The Garden of Forgotten Favorites upon the death of the emperor.

For me, however, the weeds go beyond just a testament to history. The weeds in the photograph embody what Barthes calls the photographic punctum. On one level, the punctum is understood as a formal detail, what he describes as a "cut" or "little hole", within the image which is the site of the disruption of what Barthes terms the studium, i.e. the historical, cultural and social meaning of the photograph. In the 1920 image of the FC, the studium is its art and religion (the guardian lion) as well as its architecture (The Gate of Supreme Harmony). While the punctum disturbs the studium of the image, it simultaneously unsettles me. The punctum, then, appears to be both a site of penetration in the cohesive skin of the photograph and also something that penetrates and affects me. forbiddencity1b The weeds distract me. I am overcome by their number. How many weeds are there? In other words, there is no way I can describe each and every weed even though there they are reproduced in the photograph. This inability to denote all the weeds adds to their punctal nature. They disrupt the art, the architecture, the history of the photograph, its studium and they "pierce" me as Barthes says; they are poignant to me. The weeds take me away from the studium to a place of loss, nostalgia and loneliness within me that goes beyond their embodiment of history.

The punctal nature of this image of the FC goes beyond just the formal detail of the weeds. In Camera Lucida Barthes looks at an image of the Alhambra by the photographer Charles Clifford and attempts to understand and delimit the desire which is awakened in him by the photograph. At first, he is decidedly unsure. He suggests perhaps his attraction is based upon warmth of climate, Mediterranean myth, Apollinism, defection, withdrawal, anonymity and nobility. Similarly, I could suggest that my attraction to the 1920 photo of the FC is a response to Eastern exoticism, architecture, ceremony, procession, nobility and religion. But none of these reasons are satisfying to Barthes or to me because they reside in the realm of the photograph’s knowledge. Instead, Barthes reduces his relationship to the Alhambra photograph with the simple phrase: I want to live there... Explaining further he states: This longing to inhabit, if I observe it in myself, is neither oneiric (I do not dream of some extravagant site) nor empirical (I do not intend to buy a house according to the views of a real estate agency); it is fantasmatic deriving from a kind of second site which seems to bear me forward to a utopian time, or to carry me back to somewhere in myself...Looking at these landscapes of predilection, it is as if I were certain of having been there or of going there. Now Freud says of the maternal body that "there is no other place of which one can say with so much certainty that one has already been there." Such then would be the essence of the landscape (chosen by desire): Heimlich, awakening in me the Mother (and never disturbing the Mother). (Camera Lucida, p. 40.)


I want to live my relationship to the 1920's image as well. It does not emerge out of dreams (The FC is now a diminished tourist site albeit a great one) or practical needs (I will never live there), but is related to the realm of the fantasmatic and more specifically the pre-Oedipal. This desire to live in the FC of the 1920 image precipitates the desire to return to the Mother and her body, specifically to the womb as one's first place of certain existence. The womb is the ultimate great within. Indeed, the Mother, embodied by the female guardian lion, stands within the photograph.

What I find compelling about this passage of Camera Lucida quoted above and its relationship to the 1920 FC photograph is the intersection of notions of exterior, interior and penetration between image, text and subject. As Barthes is presented with the exterior of the Alhambra, I am presented with the exterior of the FC or rather the exterior of one of its many interiors. The City is a series of gates and courts in which one progresses from the public to the private, ever further into the great within.

Forbidden_city_map_wp_0In viewing this photograph my desire is to move inside the structure to its photographically hidden interior. But what is the reason for this desire? This desire does not belong to culture, but rather it resides in the punctum first suggested to me as the weeds within the image. But the punctal nature of the 1920 photo goes beyond the madness of the weeds. Rather it is through the creation of what Barthes terms the blind field in that it "takes the spectator outside the frame, and it is there that I animate the picture and it animates me." (Camera Lucida, p. 59.) This animation for Barthes and for me resides in the maternal body and the desire, however impossible, to return to this body, not just to behold it, but rather to inhabit it, thereby returning to the site of one's origin. The blind field as a space outside the photographic frame suggests movement from the interior of the photograph to the exterior of the viewing subject or perhaps it is the reverse: a movement from the exterior of the photograph to the interior of the viewing subject.

07-02-2009 09;52;17AM (2) As Barthes states the Clifford photograph carries him "back to somewhere in myself." The 1920 photograph of the FC also carries me back to somewhere in myself, to a place of nostalgia, loss and loneliness, to the great within of the womb, to a place not bound by the limitations of the photograph's knowledge.

The Forbidden City 2006


In order to further discuss Barthes' dynamic of the punctum/studium, I want to look at a recent 2006 photograph of the FC which I found at random online. The photograph shows The Gate of Heavenly Purity which separates the outer court of the City from the inner residential court. Like the 1920 image, this photograph depicts another one of the City's guardian lions, but a male lion rather than a female one. In contrast to the emptiness of the earlier photograph, the 2006 image is populated with tourists visiting the site. The studium of the photograph is quite clear. There is a depiction of the art and architecture of the FC. It shows what type of people visit the site, what interests them, what they are wearing. Also on the level of the studium is the intention of the photographer. I believe he was attempting to take a humorous photograph by showing the little boy in the right foreground, vulnerable and alone, seemingly unaware of the ferocious lion looming behind him.


But for me all of this "knowledge" is fissured by the formal detail of the little boy, or more specifically his gaze. I am mesmerized by it to the exclusion of the rest of the image. I am not laughing. His gaze pricks me; it is poignant to me. It is the little "hole" in the surface of the photograph which disrupts the studium of the image- the other sightseers, the

me74 sculpture, the little boy's clothes. And more importantly, his gaze takes me, directs me literally outside the photograph to "the blind field" where I "animate" the image and it "animates" me. Within this animation is an evocation of the great within of the womb which fills me with a sense of loss, loneliness and nostalgia.


The Forbidden City, Imperialism and Me


I am aware that my use of images of the FC to talk about my own desire could be connected with imperialism. (For a discussion of Barthes and imperialism, see Reading Boyishly by Carol Mavor.) Throughout history white men have often psychically and more importantly physically used non-European places and peoples of the world to fulfill their own needs. What I think is important here is that I am deeply aware of this point. I am always reminded of Edward Said's statement in his book Orientalism that "...from 1815 to 1914 European direct colonial dominion expanded from about 35% of the earth's surface to about 85% of it." This is a sober and disturbing fact whose consequences we still live with today.


With this understanding, I am continually fascinated by the way the West depicts the Other (Asia). This fascination explains in part my interest in 19th century English transferware pottery which seeks to depict the Other (Asia) in terms of content, but also in terms of form, for

22_18A1example, in Aesthetic transferware inspired by Japanese art. These depictions in clay can arouse in me the very same desire I experience when I look at the 1920 photograph of the FC. They take me to somewhere in myself beyond their aesthetics, their meaning, their

cairoplatter2value, or their history to a place characterized by loss, loneliness and nostalgia.


  1. Intense post, Kelly -- I'll expect at least one of these per day! Srsly, lots to chew on here, and welcome to the blogosphere... <3 Matt G

  2. Thanks Matt. The individuality and may I say queerness of your own blog inspired me to go ahead with mine in that I could make it into whatever I wanted, no matter how esoteric or obtuse to a general audience.


  3. kelly, this is fascinating. thanks so much for letting me know about your blog. i had virtually no knowledge of the history of the forbidden city and this was a great start. i look forward to reading more.

    lisa church