Sanne Kabalt

capturing dissolving

Sanne Kabalt

When describing what photography does, the verb often used is capturing - to capture a moment, to capture a person, to capture a feeling - though, problematically, it suggests the imprisonment of the subject matter. Once something is captured it is no longer out there, no longer wild, no longer free. It is contained and that’s when you should begin doubting its reality. 

I work mainly with the medium of photography. Thematically, I am engaged in the realm of illness, madness, loss and death. This is where life shows its teeth. Working with themes like these requires delicacy and sensitivity. You don’t capture people who are ill. You don’t seize them by force, you can’t throw them in a bag and over your shoulder to take home. I believe there is a need for nuance, for a way of creating and sharing in which neither the subject nor the viewer is contained, captured, imprisoned. 

Distinctions supposedly exist between the real and the imaginary, between waking and sleeping, between self and other. What if, in between one and the other, there is no line, no margin, no boundary? There is a blur, an indistinguishability. In an essay by the French philosopher Roger Caillois he introduces a sensation of displacement that blurs the boundaries of the individual and the surrounding world. Space pursues them, encircles them, digests them.According to him schizophrenics invariably give the same answer to the question: where are you? I know where I am, but I do not feel as though I’m at the spot where I find myself.Caillois uses the word psychasthenia for the condition in which the subject lacks a sense of distinction from its surroundings and lacks a connection between its consciousness and a particular point in space. Caillois hints that the origin of the widespread fear of the dark also has its roots at the peril in which it puts the opposition between the organism and the milieu. Though one may think of the fear of the dark as originating from not seeing what is around you, it might rather originate from not seeing your own self: not seeing where you end and something else begins.

A fictional character known both as Lina and Lila in the series of Naepolitan novels by Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym for an anonymous writer) suffers from dissolving margins. In Italian the word used here is smarginatura, which bears the word margins within itself, while in the English translation the phenomenon is alternately described as dissolving margins, dissolving boundaries or dissolving outlines. She said that on those occasions the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared.The phenomenon is physical, material and real to her. This sensation was accompanied by nausea, and she had had the impression that something absolutely material, which had been present around her and around everyone and everything forever, but imperceptible, was breaking down the outlines of persons and things and revealing itself. (…) How poorly made we are, she had thought, how insufficient.Episodes of dissolving boundaries keep on occurring in Lila’s life throughout four books. She fears it. It is to her as if she sees the world coming apart, people falling apart and breaking and this is not just happening at that moment, it is happening all the time, usually unseen. 

While both Caillois and Ferrante describe dissolving as a mental illness and as something fundamentally frightening, the more I think about it, the more I like the word. Perhaps dissolving is the verb that can oppose and unsettle capturing. I imagine photographs that dissolve their own margins. And there I recall a comment that a curator once made about my work, he said ‘it is happening in between the images, rather than in the images themselves’. 

And then I think of William James, who insisted, long ago, upon the reinstatement of the vague and inarticulate to its proper place in our mental life. According to James there is no thought or feeling that is solely limited to the present moment for even into our awareness of the thunder the awareness of the previous silence creeps and continues; for what we hear when the thunder crashes is not thunder pure, but thunder-breaking-upon-silence-and-contrasting-with-it.Therefore even the strong, clear moment of crashing thunder does not have clear-cut boundaries, the preceding silence and receding of the sound exceed the moment. Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead.James is a defender of nuance and believes we should honor the vagueness and complexity of our thoughts and feelings and express them as such: We ought to say a feeling of and,a feeling of if,a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold. 

A form of this vagueness happens to us every night. Falling asleep is a sinking, a dropping, a sagging, a succumbing and a dissolving. Everything becomes indistinct. Jean-Luc Nancy writes of sleep as a fall, as a place where the “I” dissolves. With the fall of sleep comes a second fall, a fall of distinctions, he argues. I fall to where I am no longer separated from the world by a demarcation that still belongs to me all through my waking state and that I myself am, just as I am my skin and all my sense organs. I pass that line of distinction, I slip entirely into the innermost and outermost part of myself, erasing the division between these two putative regions. The sleeper cannot say she sleeps. The sleeper cannot say where she ends and the night begins, where her head ends and the pillow begins, where her skin ends and the blanket begins, where sleep ends and death begins. I fall asleep and at the same time I vanish as “I”.Sleep is the closest we get to death. Temporary nonbeing. Sleep is the closest we get to dissolving. 

The question is how can I use photography to dissolve margins as opposed to capturing anything or anyone?