You wouldn’t expect the last of the Caravaggisti to be an abstract painter, but then James Nares is more than an abstract painter. He has been investigating nature for 40 years, pursuing the science of aesthetics. Most of Nares’s works are experiments with physics, light and form that follow nature – not so much the day-to-day view, but depictions of macrocosmic and microcosmic detail. Every once in a while, however, Nares looks at humanity as it is and the results are extraordinarily revelatory.
Some years ago, after his doctor ordered him to stop painting for a while – and you should understand that his painting process at the time involved suspending himself over the canvas in an acrobat’s rig – Nares turned to photographic motion studies that brought the inquiries of Eadweard Muybridge and Harold Edgerton to the frontier of contemporary lenscraft and lighting.
The association with Caravaggio never occurred to me until I saw Nares’s film Street (2011) at the Metropolitan Museum, where it plays more or less hourly. Art’s most powerful role, at least to some observers, is its enhancement of vision, both literally and figuratively. I can’t think of any contemporary work that provides a more powerful and revelatory perspective than this film.
In discussing Street, Caravaggio’s name came up again and again. It seems odd, but I think it’s because the work extends realism into an enhanced arena, through a trick of time. All photography stops time, but slowing it down changes our perspective on motion in a dramatic and illuminating way. The popular and melodramatic television show Da Vinci’s Demons (2013–ongoing) explains Leonardo’s genius, in part, as being his ability to slow down time, and we see him, again and again, in gimmicky ‘a-ha’ moments, buying birds in the market place, releasing them and then – as we go to the slo-mo cam in his brain – he sketches how flight is achieved. He goes slow-motion and then, of course, he goes out and builds the ornithopter. Nares doesn’t need that magical mental gift. He used a very good camera. A high-definition, high-speed camera. After seeing the film several times I realized that Caravaggio was the first HD painter – that hi-def is 21st century for chiaroscuro.
Just as early motion-study photography revolutionized our understanding of the physical world (as the auxiliary exhibition curated by Nares from the Met’s own collection quietly points out), and influenced artists such as the Vorticists and Futurists (Nares cites Umberto Boccioni in particular), the artist’s own rich motion study conducted on the streets of New York, with a high-speed camera from a moving car, transforms our perceptions of humanity through the simple but profound alteration of the time frame.
In the 1960s, psychedelia explored certain techniques of altering perception, from strobe lights to animated forms of globular Abstract Expressionism made to accompany rock music in such displays as the Joshua Light Show, apparently as a synergistic enhancement to music already abetted by the use of psychedelic or theogenic drugs. When the disco strobe was deployed, we suddenly saw dancers in a whole new light, catching individual frames of their freak outs.
Compared to such Dionysian displays of mind-alteration, Street is a serene, Apollonian contemplation of the real world dramatically slowed down. This is a temporal microcosm, where we see that every human seems to walk differently while every pigeon seems to fly in the same way. We begin to see humanity as a species of profound variety.
James Nares, Street, 2011, video stills
Throughout his career, Nares has been interested in the interface between art and science, and many of his early works deal with a kind of aesthetic physics and the relationship between the human body and the material world. Nares loves equipment and he is a relentless inventor of art-making tools. His famous brushstroke paintings are made with the use of a device he invented to suspend himself over the canvas and move in mid-air. He has long made his own brushes and these are works of art in their own right. Lately, he has been working with a rotary drawing machine of his own invention, a sort of graphic lathe, and his latest batch of paintings was created using the kind of heavy-duty machine normally used to paint the lines on roads and that same fluorescent white line paint.
Some years ago, Nares learned that the University of Tennessee was selling a lot of equipment from its photography department, including specialized cameras that were used for aerial photography or for photographing the high-speed motion of objects such as bullets. This led him to the high-definition Phantom Flex, which can shoot at speeds up to 10,750 frames per second. The camera was set in a van that was driven through the streets of Manhattan at speeds ranging from 30 to 40 miles per hour. The result, Street, is literally a new vision of humanity. Here humans move at the pace of lava or ketchup, oozing forward, sometimes seeming frozen in place – virtually inanimate. Light-bulbs blink like lighthouses, the 60 cycles per second of the New York electrical grid slow to a quickened heartbeat.
The alternate consciousness we dip into watching Street seems to transport us to the perceptive realm of another species. I kept think that this is an ‘angel’s eye view’ of humanity. Observing the variegated parade of humanity on Manhattan’s kerbside, we see a diversity that is almost astonishing. Imagine closely inspecting herds of deer, or schools of dolphins. How much variation would we observe? But among humans, in their extraordinary range of clothing, their cultural stylings, their tremendously varied physiques (including many which, except for the intervention of science, would no longer be animated), it’s hard to see that we’re cut from the same cloth. What you see here might make you reconsider the question posed by the 1932 film The Island of Lost Souls or the 1970s band Devo: ‘Are we not men?’
How do other life forms perceive the world? The bee, its lifetime six weeks, its wings beating 250 times per second; the Galapagos tortoise, its lifetime 180 years, its hearbeat six times per minute. We see life as an incarnate electromagnetic spectrum, from the microscopic creature live for a matter of seconds to the slow-moving, long-living and relatively massive tortoise or elephant. Even humans seem to encompass a vast spectrum of energies that range from the infra to the ultra.
Everyone we pass in Street is alive, but some seem far more alive than others. Individuals have different speeds, different pitches – some seem to move at 33rpm, some at 45rpm, some at 78rpm. We sense death lurking behind some slow-moving seniors, while children cavort at relatively high speeds, keen and effervescent. People seem to range between tortoise and butterfly, between a crawl and a flutter. Some appear to be evolving to a higher pitch, those attuned enough to connect with the racing shutter.
While most of the passing parade seems mired in thought, minds and attention elsewhere, individuals cut through the fog of time to focus their attention on the camera, making a mysterious, almost psychic eye contact with the lens. Rare individuals cut through the crowd with their gaze, more like focused predators than one of the grazing herd. Some of those who catch the eye elicit a sixth sense or a seventh, their consciousness preceding them, their eyes on the horizon. Alertness belongs to a tiny minority, in touch with their animality.
James Nares, Street, 2011, video stills
Concupiscence is suddenly detectable. Some men check out passing women; some check out the trash cans they are passing. Some women check themselves in the glass that they pass. A man looks to the sky, as if for a sign. A sudden thought registers visibly on a face. Legions walk without looking ahead, staring at small idols that turn out to be telephones, while others hold them to their heads as if for comfort. They are neither here nor there.
An apocalyptic mood hangs over the street – a nameless inevitability that confronts the nameless assembly, an entropic hum of lowering expectation. We pass an antique store with a 19th-century clock for sale on the sidewalk, and time itself seems antique.
We move past a tiny four year old, apparently lost in prayer. A man in a New York Giants shirt has a stump for an arm, the end of the stump resembling a nipple. The blind move about with white canes and minders, yet in a way not terribly different from those with the option to see. We see the slap on the back as more intimate than before, and the embracing couple as literally attempting to occupy the same space, the same flesh.
We pass gaggles of teenage girls, self-conscious, group-conscious, all in very short shorts. We pass a knot of cops. One salutes another. One peers at the crowd in displeasure. One hold his hand on his pistol.
An athletic black man walks alone down the sidewalk in running shoes. Two blonde daughters of a blonde catch the camera easily and signal at it with weird expressions and hand gestures as bizarre as those used by baseball coaches. We pass the Naked Cowboy in his underpants, holding a guitar on Times Square and he doesn’t look any stranger than anyone else. Two young women walk quickly, the fingers of the one with the boy haircut press into the soft flesh of the more feminine girl’s arm. A tourist points to a fuzzy Mickey Mouse impersonator like he’s a long-lost friend. A tattooed man in a bandana glares as if felonies are passing through his imagination. An old black man inhales the last pull on his filter cigarette and flicks the butt in perfect stride, a little meteor in the shadows.
A family stands outside a synagogue. Little children torque their elders by full body yanks of the hand. A dignified old man raises his palm rabinically. Is he saying: ‘Behold!’? No, it’s starting to rain. Suddenly in the crowd are people dressed in bin bags. Umbrellas erect. The pace quickens. A woman hails a taxi. A bearded Coptic priest wearing a large cross strides ahead with a handful of money and, catching the camera, shows alarm. A sick man rubs his liver. A boy runs, holding a Pokémon, delighted to match the van in stride. A street vendor sells little plastic guns that shoot soap bubbles. We follow the bubbles in the breeze as they float past the people, and then we realize that we are the bubbles.
Sometimes a perfect specimen passes by in this freak show, reminding us that our species was once sound and whole, like the pigeons. What happened? Must be … evolution? And here we see evolution is a two-way street.
In a funny way, Street is akin to John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live, in which the hero, a construction worker played by the wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, accidentally discovers a cache of sunglasses that enable him to see that the earth is actually occupied by humans and by an alien overlord species whose horrible appearance and messages of control hidden in advertising cannot be conventionally seen.
In Street, a feeling of doom seems to hang over the city, but there is no despair. Everyone is too busy going or thinking of going. Everyone is too in the future or too in the past. Is it the music, or the languid light or the terrible scarcity of beauty that evokes a misquoting of T.S. Eliot? ‘I had not thought life had undone so many.’ Still the feeling Street sparks is empathy – empathy in the face of entropy. How can we save them? Us? Slowed-down life seems more fleeting, yet persists. If it ends, perhaps it ends like this, all together, in a crowd on a street, slowly.
Throughout the parade, Thurston Moore’s acoustic guitar strums a changing tapestry of chords, moving major to minor and back, catching the rhythm of light-bulb, rain, shutter, brainwave. A crowd swarms the TKTS booth in Times Square. Little do they know time has been squared and they are in it. What do they want tickets for? Where is there to go?
Brion Gysin said: ‘We are here to go.’ Where is not the issue, it seems. Nor is why. But how.