Catalogue text for Atlas of Encounters by John Calcutt, February 2009

Her name itself loosens fixings, floats unanchored towards the distant caller’s voice.  “Sam”. They often expect a man to answer.  It happens all the time.  Her office is now my office, and I occasionally still see mail for Mr Ainsley. A small snag in the reassuringly sturdy fabric of meaning, a slight folding of expectation: an easy mistake, a telling mistake.  The name precedes her, prepares her advance into the world, and the world at such moments becomes suddenly uncertain.  It must wait, extending the space and time of possibility beyond familiar limits.  “Sam” has the potential to defer that moment – that ordinarily instantaneous flash - when a sign and a significance become fused into an elemental unit.  “Sam”: a man or a woman?  As soon as you know, there is no doubt; but until you know, there is the possibility of both. Yet the possibility of both repels the mind, which, in the absence of circumstantial evidence, will supply information from its own reserves and make its choice.  “Sam” is a reminder that the possibility of ‘both’ persists as a silent doubt nestled within the heart of certainty.

A proper name, such as “Sam”, entails a person, and a person entails a body.  But might this body, apparently as singular to us as a name, have its own plurality and multi-valence?  And might the relations between this polymorphous body and the world be more fluid than those suggested by conventional thought? Could this body occupy several different locations simultaneously? In his essay Some Simple Reflections On the Body, Paul Valéry proposes that, "each of us in his thought has Three Bodies - at least."  Our First Body is the one we call My Body; "We speak of it to others as of a thing that belongs to us; but for us it is not entirely a thing; and it belongs to us a little less than we belong to it..." It is located in the world, but it also opposes the world. It either obeys or disobeys us, helps or hinders us, and has, for its ‘owner’, no fully graspable form.  I can only see those parts of My Body that My Body allows me to move into my zone of vision. Thus, “I have”, Valéry writes, “no idea of the spatial relations between ‘My Forehead’ and ‘My Foot’, between ‘My Knee’ and ‘My Back’....  My right hand is generally unaware of my left.  To take one hand in the other is to take hold of an object that is not-I.”And My Body has no past for it is made up wholly of events which are most obviously manifested as pleasure or pain in some of its parts or regions.

Our Second Body "is the one which others see, and an approximation of which confronts us in the mirror or in portraits.  It is the body which has a form and is apprehended by the arts."  It is located in the realm of imagery, and this body-as-image knows no pain, "for it reduces pain to a mere grimace", and "... our knowledge of our Second Body goes little farther than the view of a surface." Our Third Body, located in the mind, "has unity only in our thought, since we know it only for having dissected and dismembered it."  It is the invisible interior:  It consists of vessels, organs, cells, fibres, fluids, and so on, which we can scientifically identify and enumerate, but whose role in allowing us to transform the world through our movements and actions remains mysterious to us.  Scrutinising this Third Body under a microscope we find “corpuscular shapes that resemble nothing at all. We try to decipher these histological cryptograms. We wonder how this fibre produced motive force?  And in what way these little asterisms with their fine radicles could have been related to sensation and thought?”

From their complex relations these Three Bodies create “a Fourth Body which I might call the Real Body or equally well the Imaginary Body.” This Fourth Body is beyond knowledge and meaning, and its origin lies “far below or above the scope of our senses, our imagination and ultimately of our intellection itself.”  It has no location, and is “neither more nor less distinct than is a whirlpool from the liquid in which it is formed.”

Body, vision and location thus interact to produce complex states of being in the world. In their various alignments they constitute us as both subjects and objects in relation to experience, transformation, knowledge and power.  This is what I get when I look at Sam Ainsley’s art and think about it. I am no longer quite so certain about my location within the world and my relation to it. I feel that I am immersed in an environment whilst experiencing it simultaneously through a microscope, a telescope, and a stethoscope.  At the same time, however, I have doubts about what “it” – this world – may be: is it a geographical or an anatomical phenomenon?  I conclude that, like “Sam”, it is not only both, but more.  All those hand-me-down distinctions between here and there, inside and outside, self and world, knowledge and sensation, are suspended.  I am given permission to reconceptualise them, and in so doing I begin to realise that my compartmentalised thinking protects me from assuming a responsibility and admitting to a complicity.  These distinctions, I start to understand, are limits, and they are limits imposed upon knowledge and experience from without.  They are, in fact, ideological impositions serving to maintain a particular distribution of power within the world.  They serve to normalise certain relations, whilst disallowing others.  They provide monolithic definitions of the world and the self, and regulate the exchanges between these two.  In accepting the definitions, I assent to the power relations that they install.  Part of the “work” performed by Sam Ainsley’s works of art takes the form of a demonstration that everything might be otherwise.  In reconfiguring the aesthetic economy between body, vision and location, Sam Ainsley offers us a way to imagine new social relations in which a politics of location is key to a responsible and responsive mode of being in the world.


John Calcutt.