Kour and Me and the Continuum
Above him, the tall palms leaned into the dim air like the symbols of a cryptic alphabet; the landscape of the island was covered by strange ciphers.
- J.G. Ballard, “The Terminal Beach” (1964)
For reasons yet to be determined, when I first stood in front of the new series of paintings by Kour Pour in his Inglewood studio—staring at that intriguing jungle of camels and demons, sailors and dragons—I was immediately reminded of the far-out incipit of Ballard’s “The Terminal Beach”, quoted above. Later, on my way driving back across Los Angeles towards the Depart Foundation, the palm trees lining the roads reverberated that previous vision. Things got even funkier when, as a traffic light imposed its routine stop on Sunset Boulevard, the car paused in front of a shop window packed with books and magazines. The neon sign above the door read “Book Soup”. Enthralled, I took a left turn and parked, after which two odd things happened: the first was that I was fined $23 for parking with my wheels straight on a sloped road (perhaps only odd to me, an out-of-towner born and raised in a city as flat as a pancake); the second was more Ballardian odd, and ended up profoundly influencing my reading, understanding, and handling of “Samsara”—the exhibition by Kour Pour that I’ve since curated. The instant I entered the bookstore, on this day of coincidence, my eyes fell on the acid colors and gigantic lettering on the cover of Simon Sellars’ “Extreme Metaphors,” the (incredibly good) complete collection of interviews that Ballard himself granted between 1967 and 2008. Probably in an attempt to come to terms with the previous “Terminal Beach” epiphany—but also secretly hoping it could somehow help me decipher Pour’s “cryptic alphabet”—I started reading straightaway. Shortly my eyes stopped on a particular passage, from a 1967 interview with George MacBeth:
MACBETH: I think this element of layers also comes out in the density of some of the stories — the way you seem to link together references from a wide variety of fields. I quote if I may, as an interesting example, one passage from “You and Me and the Continuum,” which is the kind of passage that recurs in a number of these stories:
BALLARD: Exactly. They make up a composite portrait of this man’s identity.
Exactly! —I echoed, thinking of the Persian motives, the Greek symbolism and the Japanese iconography (to name just a few such elements), which make up one of Pour’s paintings. The more I kept reading, the more I noticed several points of contact between the artist’s work and the ideas shared by the writer: the landscape as a formalization of space and time, the incumbent information overload, the death of the authority of both the past and future, the idea of escaping or cheating time. Now, 6 weeks and 650,000 words of “Extreme Metaphors” later, I’m sitting at my desk with the ambition of demonstrating that reading Ballard, and science fiction in general, might be an unusual yet extremely useful tool with which to unpack Kour Pour’s practice—even if it wasn’t at all his intention to begin with. But that’s part of the game, I suppose.
Let’s start with the exhibition at Depart Foundation. “Samsara”, which is Kour Pour’s first solo show in Los Angeles, comprises a series of paintings and related installation works that continue the artist’s well-known “carpet series”. In the first iteration of the series, historic examples of carpets were appropriated directly from auction and museum catalogues and then meticulously reproduced on large canvases; in the new works the artist has created original compositions that juxtapose sets of imagery—hunters and gatherers, religious icons and mystical creatures—which are stripped from their own temporal context by the use of today’s technology. Exploiting Google Images, clip art CD-ROMS, and Photoshop, Pour re-contextualizes the images onto canvas, through months of painstaking labor and the use of tools form the past including broomsticks and paint. Cue: first Ballardian moment—it is hard to deny the visual echo of Ballard’s claim that the future and the past are by now inevitably rolled into the present; to quote his 1970 (!) interview with Lynn Barber in Penthouse magazine (!!), “People have annexed the future into the present just as they have annexed the past into the present.” Nonetheless, Pour’s operation is more nuanced, and in fact (from one science-fiction reference to another), the works in “Samsara” are much closer to what William Gibson called a “pre-distressed antique futurity.” I first heard this term from a younger colleague of Ballard and Gibson, Bruce Sterling, during one of his famous keynote speeches on atemporality, this one at Transmediale in 2010, which could be loosely summarized as follows: if you have a genuinely avant-garde idea, you should write about it as if it were being read twenty years from now. Or, in Sterling’s own words: “You have to strip away the sci-fi chrome, the sense of wonder. You want it to be antique before it hits the page or the screen…No longer allow yourself to be hypnotized by the sense of technical novelty.”
So what is Kour Pour’s “avant-garde idea”? It is my opinion that, if many artists of his generation are posing questions about the information overload of our society in the present day, Pour’s more concerned about its future consequence: the effect of such an overload on the writing of History. To paraphrase Sterling again, “History is a story,” and there’s a huge difference between writing down the story of, say, the fourteenth century—“to just ask yourself ‘what happened in the fourteenth century?’”— and asking the atemporal question: “What does Google do when I input the search term ‘fourteenth century?’” Pour seems to take this even further to ask: “how does Google affect the way the fourteenth century will be read about 50 years from now?” Instead of focusing on the futurity of a possible answer, the artist “strips away the sci-fi chrome”: he takes Google out of the picture and articulates his thoughts with an antique vocabulary. Paradoxically, in order to peer into the near future, Pour’s research starts from the present—that is, in front of a computer screen—and slowly moves backward: first, he obtains silkscreen prints from a Photoshop file, which he meticulously hand paints over, before applying an electrical sander to mimic the passing of time (a process that resembles the “aging” method used by forgers of antiquities). The final result is a work of art that, from a distance at least, looks like it may be a couple of centuries old. It’s like reading a passage from Philip K. Dick’s “Ubik”, where time collapses on itself and objects of the future (as it was imagined in 1969) regress into objects from the (writer’s) past: videophones turn into Bakelite phones, space rockets become propeller planes.
It is worth pointing out that this time-shift within the paintings is not uni-directional: when the artificially-aged works are shown in a gallery, photographed and posted on Instagram, the same re-contextualized imagery is once again within the online realm, viewed on a computer screen, returned somehow to its beginning and yet not quite as it was before. This temporal back-and-forth—this circularity—has been another key aspect of Pour’s work from its very first iterations: his original “carpet series” was sourced from images found in a Sotheby’s catalogue; today, the designs of those Persian rugs can be seen once again in auction catalogs, but this time within the “Contemporary Art” section—and so the circle is closed. Also of note is the fact that the transition from the original references to their painted likenesses is not merely a process of facsimile; this is no “Frankenstein mashup” where elements of past, present, and future collide together in a sort of semi-random collage: there’s a hidden pattern. As Pour admitted, talking about his selection process, “new elements keep entering, one thing often leads into another and it’s hard to choose in what order it arrives; but there’s a specific progress in it.” Cue: second Ballardian moment—similar to the writer’s words on his early short stories, the individual elements in Pour’s paintings are as chapters in a much longer narrative that is evolving at its own pace. To quote Ballard, “they do not evolve in a sequential sense, in the sense that the events of, say Moby-Dick evolve one after another; they’re evolving in an apparently random sense, but all the images [the fragments of the story] relate to one another…. they reinforce one another and produce something larger than the sum of their parts.” As the eyes of the viewer move across the surface of Pour’s paintings, they meet with those of a Chinese dragon, striding beside a Roman soldier, then move onto the smile of a Ganesh beneath the grim glance of Osiris. But here, the sum of these twos is five.
So whose narrative is this? Just as the Sanskrit word Samsara has subtly different meanings in different belief systems, Pour’s work is purposefully left open to interpretation depending on the cultural entry point of the viewer. Actually, the by-stander “collaborates” in the creation of meaning (which is precisely what I’m doing right now); the work creates its own story from someone else’s history. The question remains: does the current surplus of information mean that in the future it will be impossible to conceive of History as a dominant narrative that claims to possess universality? By sourcing material from different locations, traditions and time periods, the large canvasses, with their warp and wefts, act as nets gathering information without an apparent hierarchy. As in any classic science-fiction novel from the late Sixties, the plot of the paintings is non-linear, often switching abruptly from the future to the past to the present. Take Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”, for example: it might seem as if the disarray of events in the book is taking place not at the level of fabula (the raw material of a story: the chronological order of events as they actually occur in the time-space of the narrative universe) but at the level of syuzhet (the way a story is organized: the order of events as they are selected, arranged, and manipulated by the narrator). But that’s okay, because “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a science-fiction novel. Thus the narrator faithfully represents the events in the (dis-)order in which they occur: the same is seen in Pour’s paintings. Another canonic example of non-linear science fiction is Ballard’s seminal “Atrocity Exhibition,” and if can throw in a third Ballardian moment here, it could be interesting to revisit the words of the author when he explained the reason behind that book: “We live in quantified non-linear terms—we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone, read magazines, dream and so forth. We don’t live our lives in linear terms in the sense that the Victorians did.” Ballard made these observations in 1967; fifty years after, we’re still living that same present. The (digital) clock has effectively stopped. The post-Internet paradigm—so in vogue amongst artists from Pour’s generation—was buzzing way before the Internet itself spread; the social structures it altered were transformed in both psychological and physical spaces even before the Internet as we know it had been created. And this is why Pour’s use of bygone tools and aesthetic is absurdly timely: because the paradigm itself belongs to the past, which is also why Ballard matters in this context. If, as a writer of science fiction, Ballard’s ostensible line of work was to collate the future, he seriously undermined the job description by telling Carol Orr in 1974 (in one of the most striking interviews included in “Extreme Metaphor”) that there is actually no future, that “the present is throwing up so many options, so many alternatives, that it contains the possibilities of any future right now.” He concludes by saying: “You can have tomorrow today”. Kour Pour’s paintings are a gentle reminder that Ballard’s today is actually our past.
This brief text is packed with a number of quotes in a modest attempt to mirror the operation at play in Pour’s paintings; the choice to focus on science fiction writers alone is likewise calculated. If one reads just three of the books mentioned above—Ballard’s “Atrocity Exhibition,” Dick’s “Ubik”, Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”—one would find represented precisely the three dimensions that I believe are fundamental to understanding and appreciating Pour’s practice: atemporality, circularity, and a non-linear narrative. Interestingly, those three books were all published in 1969—the same year the first two nodes of the ARPANET (which would become the first network to use the Internet Protocol) were interconnected in Menlo Park, California, which is just a five-hour drive north from Sunset Boulevard. As a matter of fact, Samsara, in one of its many different meanings, stands for a continual, repetitive cycle.
Link to publication page.