On Eggs

Jana Harper’s Interventions in Reality

Frauke Berndt

Translated by Brian Alkire

The engagement with objects has important implications for Jana Harper – above all with books, but also with toys or even with egg cartons. All material objects draw her attention. In her projects, she is always moving between material objects and their ontological structure. For it seems to me that these things acquire meaning not as objects but only through Harper’s allowing the structure of the objects – the ontological structure – to come into view. That happens specifically due to her treatment of medium, which I conceive of as interventions in the world of things or interventions in reality. My purpose here is not to present the entire body of work which has aroused such interest in Harper in the United States, particularly as a book artist. Instead, I would like to draw attention to the elements of several exemplary works which emphasize Harper’s realism, after which I will turn to her work on egg cartons between 2015 and 2017, selected images of which can be seen in this issue.


Things

We have, for example, the project You Call it a Cloud (2014), consisting of thousands of photos which her mother Joie Bourisseau took between 2000 and 2003 while living in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Crestone, Col­o­rado.[1] Clouds, visible but untouchable, have for ages fascinated the human imagination. Artists and writers devote themselves to clouds which, in their formlessness, invite us to an unlimited number of interpretations which can never be reduced to a final, conclusive symbol – think, for example, of the famous descriptions of clouds in Gottfried Keller’s major realist novel Der grüne Heinrich (1854/55, 1879/80).[2] Harper had this experience when she returned to San Luis Valley near Crestone in 2013 to speak with a highly diverse set of people about one of her mother’s breathtaking cloud pictures:

I spoke with pilots, flight mechanics, a meteorologist, an environmentalist, a rancher, a micro-climatologist, a historian, and a retired philosophy professor. Each of them provided a different ‚read‘ of Joie’s image, demonstrating that the truth of clouds always comes in the plural.[3]

One of the Six Gestures (2014) – namely, Stand|Touch containing one photograph and eight prints – was influenced by the cloud work, as the dots and lines of the prints were generated from a photo Harper took in the US Southwest. [4] The Indian philosopher and theosophist Jiddu Krishnamurti inspired her interest in the nature of freedom and the inward structure of the mind, through which she became aware of the principle of repetition which, since Sigmund Freud’s discovery (or invention) of the death drive, has been of central importance to modern philosophy and cultural theory. Harper, however, does not make reference to Freud but to the late Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue, who said that at any given time, we have six recurring thoughts roving through our minds:

These 6 Gestures represent my repetitive thought forms. I allowed myself to draw and re-draw, construct and re-construct the forms that my mind returns to again and again: dots and lines, spheres and planes, soft and sharp, bundled and stacked, connectivity and electricity, love and injustice.[5]

In a conversation she explained to me that Stand|Touch is based on her relationship with her mother Joie, expressing their differences and also their connection. Harper imagined what Joie would like to touch in the picture (the clouds) and where she would like to stand (the land) and these became the basis for the dots, which are connected with lines. As a result, at least that is how the work appeared to me, dots and lines visualize another ontological structure – the structure of a relationship in this case. Technologically, Six Gestures are realized with a letterpress printed from polymer plates. Harper made the prints during a short-term residency at the Penland School of Crafts.

Harper’s project The Other Side (2015) also concerns the ,other‘ of things.[6] This project was inspired by her work in different libraries: Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, the Elsewhere Museum, and the private library of her mentors Rose Shakinovsky and Claire Gavronsky. „The work explores the simple gesture of flipping something over to examine its non-dominant side. For me, these images of anonymous books ask questions about history and time and the unconscious.“ [7] One image from this project is particularly revealing and shows what is actually taking place on the ,other side‘ – i. e. the reality of the object – or as the title says: „the real“; we see papers with blurry surfaces in various indeterminate spaces. For these collages were made of photocopies of books – after the books had been removed. So they are literally made from the remains of the ,real‘.


Books

The Elsewhere Museum in Greensboro, NC has been a magical location for Harper’s art in recent years. The estate of Sylvia Gray forms the basis of the museum’s collection. Between 1939 and 1997, the collector ran a surplus store called Carolina Sales in Greensboro, where she gathered useless, superfluous things which she had brought to North Carolina from around the country:

When she died, she left thousands of skeins of fabric. Ribbon spilled through the halls, and stacks of dusty mirrors lined a staircase. Room upon room was piled with clothing. There were hats galore, parts for industrial appliances, store mannequins, dusty books and dish sets, glassy-eyed dolls, and children’s games. She organized jewelry in egg cartons. She hung clumps of beads along the walls, and filled hundreds of small bags with buttons, baubles, and castoffs of other things. At Carolina Sales, clutter reigned – much like the junk shops and flea markets so admired by the Surrealists.[8]

In the summer of 2015, Harper worked on a number of projects with the help of a Southern Constellations Fellowship: New Walks in an Old Field. Inkjet prints, Photocopies, and Installation.[9] During that summer, she was first of all an antiquarian and archivist. Standing in the library, she was initially amazed: „‚There are over one thousand books in the Elsewhere library and a hundred of them are wrapped in ribbon, stored in plastic bags, or both. Why?‘“[10] – as she told Jennie Carlisle, who was the curator of the Elsewhere Museum [11] back then, and who wrote the introductory essay to the monograph in which Harper documented her book project, published in January 2017: „Through Harper’s lens, Sylvia seems like a young Christo, knotting together stacks of cheap newsprint.“[12] Even the very title of her book was recycled from a book she had found in the library: Hugh Miller’s The Old Red Sandstone. Or New Walks in an Old Field (1841).[13]

In this project, too, Harper seeks to translate the material objects into their ontological structure by photographing the books and transferring the pictures into a series in which the photos replace the books and assert their aesthetic quality through seriality. No dust, no smell, no material – instead the attractive unity of the photo series as presented by the museum in a video.[14] Between 2015 and 2017, the artist was pursuing a fundamental idea which she summarizes as follows:


Jana Harper: The Underside of Things (2015)

It’s a simple gesture: flipping something over. But how often do we do it? When was the last time you actually looked underneath the seat of a chair or behind the frame of a painting? It is often assumed that objects are no more than dumb and numb matter. In my project, to look at the underside of things is to suspend how we have come to subject certain objects to narratives of human power, conquest, consumption, and pro­gress. Additionally, it hopes to investigate the obstinacy of matter – the way in which objects may have lives of their own and therefore rub against what we commonly associate with them. It is to do justice to the possible agency of things.
Exploring the vibrancy of inanimate objects, Jane Bennett asks how our understanding of history might change if we „were to take seriously the vitality of nonhuman bodies.“ The Underside of Things examines both the import and the obstinacy of objects in four key areas: material culture (objects and toys), knowledge (books), didactics (signs), and power (the monument). The project probes just how these objects in their very materiality may echo but also rub against the narratives that surround them. 
Over the last three decades, artists such as Lorna Simpson, Cornelia Parker, and Walid Raad have represented the backside of things to expose and subvert dominant discourses of power, race, gender, and nature. In my own practice I have employed similar aesthetic strategies, developing counter-narratives and non-dominant views of objects in select public and private collections. The Underside of Things continues these primarily metaphoric or discursive interventions. It flips things over to reveal and undo the visual hierarchies according to which we order the world. And yet, this project also aspires to move beyond this ambition. It wants to re-present the often overlooked undersides of things as sites that, in however enigmatic or even illegible form, may remind us of the obstinacy of matter. The point is not simply to invert or deconstruct discourses of power and subjugation, but to probe the extent to which we can see and think of the objects as vital, albeit nonhuman, agents in the world. For me, to explore the possibilities and limits of seeing objects as things that at once exceed and disturb human perspectives is to face the most central and often paradoxical challenge of the Anthropocene, namely the need to tell stories that no longer pivot centrally around the story of the human.[15]


Egg Cartons

The work is also among the projects started in 2015 at Elsewhere Museum.[16] It consists of forty egg cartons, which are inventoried, photo­copied, and digitally processed. I spoke to the artist about these uncommon objects:

FB: Why working with different media?
JH: I work across many media, but was trained as a printmaker and ran a letterpress studio for many years. These disciplines are centered around the multiple, notions of accessibility, and distribution so it is perhaps natural that these qualities are generally present in my work. 
FB: Why using industrial products/material?
JH: This project was done at the Elsewhere Museum, a former thrift and dry goods store that was converted into an artist residency. The store was in operation between 1939 and 1997 and when it closed the remaining inventory sat for 10 years gathering dust until the grandson of the owner converted it into an experimental arts space. One of the rules of the residency is that you can’t bring anything in or take anything out, but you can work with the material while you are there. The museum is an odd monument to material culture from the last almost hundred years. My project largely focused on three typologies: books, toys, and the egg cartons. I inventoried and catalogued 40 different egg cartons that the owner had repurposed into storage compartments for small objects like earrings and jewelry.
FB: Why egg cartons?
JH: The cartons are unique in small details including how they have aged, what they were used for, and the handwritten identifiers on each carton [see Fig. 6]. The egg cartons were mass produced; most were made of Styrofoam, but many were made of paper. It is hard to know how old these cartons are. The store closed in 1997, but some could have been from decades earlier.[17]

To translate material objects into their ontological structure, it is important not just to break things down into their distinctive features but above all to adapt them into other media. Harper does this by making photocopies of the inventoried egg cartons in Elsewhere Museum, which then replace the objects as such. These photocopies are the technical foundation of the images which Harper works with in her project, with the result that the same is true of the egg cartons which Carlisle identified about Gray’s books: „Harper gathers these images as materials from which to make new work. But she also celebrates them as objects of otherness“. She „explores their lives and afterlives, as […] altered things, as artifacts, as objects of witness, that create new wonders from old curiosities.“ [18] Harper completed the digital processing of the photocopies and their combination into a series in 2017.

All of the Greensboro Summer projects are based on seriality – one of the oldest aesthetic techniques. In the book and the video, the packaged books follow a linear order of similar elements. New Walks in an Old Field follows a temporal structure in which one book follows another. This confirms Umberto Eco’s claim about the aesthetics of seriality: „A good craftsman, as well as an industrial factory, produces many tokens, or occurrences, of the same type or model“.[19] But in Harper, it is not just the „distinction between arts and crafts“[20] which falls away. Indeed, with the egg cartons, Harper leads the series back to its aesthetic principle. For she presents the images as pairs, the micro double of every repetition on which seriality is based.

The distinction between origin and repetition is, however, very subtle in Harper’s work. On the one hand, the photocopy of each egg carton repeats the material object; the digitally-processed image repeats the photocopy. On the other hand, the paired images are in turn in a repetitive relationship with each other. Determining where the origin of this repetition is, what is type and what is token, is quite simply impossible. Harper’s egg cartons do more than just testify to an „enjoyment of variations“[21] – the dialectic of type and token tends towards myth. While Eco defines the content of the myth as repeated narrative[22], I conceive of the mythological structure of the series in a temporal way. Harper’s images do not follow a linear sequence, even though we decided on a specific order for this issue. Any of the images could be in any position in the series, as each is simultaneously the origin and repetition of the other.


No Eggs Where None Intended

„No symbols where none intended“[23] – with this sentence, Samuel Beckett concluded his 1953 novel Watt. The forty egg cartons which Harper meticulously takes inventory of seem to assert just that: they are not symbols, i. e. have no common sense meaning. The egg cartons might have no meaning – Harper’s photo-series confronts us with the production of meaning. As in her other projects, this work is positioned in the tension between material objects and their ontological structure (Fig. 7).

The point of her work with photos is not just the fact that Harper mechan­ically reproduces forty images: it is that she causes a change in the world through assembling a series. While the photocopies have an almost indexical relationship to the material objects, Harper cuts off the connection to reality with the digitally processed photocopies. The images thus do not represent the material objects as such but due to her treatment of medium, the ontological structure comes into view. We thus do not see egg cartons in the images, only visualizations of their ontological structure. The egg cartons acquire meaning not as material objects but only by way of the fact that their ontological structure appears in the series. However, this does not mean that the meaning potential of the project is exhausted. A glance at the inven­tory makes one thing especially clear: In her work, Harper positions herself against a major western tradition: The list promises Grade A Jumbo, Grade A Extra Large, Large White Eggs, Grade A Large Selected Eggs, Grade A Large Brown Eggs, Grade A Large White Eggs, Grade A Jumbo White Egg, A Extra Large Brown Eggs – but Harper does not keep this promise! The empty cartons instead confront us with a shocking senselessness: No eggs where none intended. Nevertheless, the inventory links the egg cartons to their original content – with the desired object, the eggs, which are, as the blank space of the project, its symbolic center. 

This method is simple and based – like Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s allegory in the 16th century – on a metonymy: the associative distance between egg carton and egg is short. In every individual egg carton, I almost automatically add the missing eggs, whether I want to or not – one, several, twelve. Metonymy functions as an intermedial relay into the cultural archive and cries out for significance. The egg is, of course, an archaic cultural symbol – in many religions it symbolizes the origin of life and the world (cosmic egg). The egg is even the quintessential paradigm of realistic art. There are hardly any notable artists who did not attempt to portray eggs;[24] Arne Jacobsen even designed a chair called Egg in 1958. It is beyond the scope of this essay to recount the history of the egg in culture and art (an encyclopedic undertaking). Instead, I wish to draw attention to what characterizes Harper’s realism – which appears so passionately anti-symbolic.

In his crazy triptych, painted at the end of the 15th century, Hieronymus Bosch does a huge variety of things with eggs: here is an egg with a knife stuck in it; there we see a small bird peeking out of an egg; over there, an entire orchestra is sitting in an egg; and there, a mass of copulating human beings pushes its way into the egg. We can no longer determine what exactly ,egg‘ signifies in this highly diverse and always grotesque use of the egg. On the other hand, this causes the pure egg as such to come to the foreground: its color but also above all its material, which provokes Bosch to represent the cracks in the white surface and the fissures in the shell. In short: In this excess, the egg evades symbolization. 

This resistance against symbolism characterizes the egg in the realistic genre par excellence in the history of art – the still life. Here, the egg is in its fixed position in the 17th and 18th century; artists like Paul Cézanne and others are also in this tradition with their modern egg still lives. In this 1618 painting, Diego Velázquez connects the tradition of the still life with a kitchen scene. The Biblical intertext provides the symbolic meanings, activated by the title of the painting: Christ visits Mary and Martha. This visiting scene takes place in the background of the painting, while in the foreground two women are portrayed during their work in the kitchen. While the two fishes, as symbols of Christ, frame this work in terms of eschatology, both eggs fall out of this frame: they are no symbols of anything; they are simply eggs.

Man Ray also takes part in this resistance to symbolization in his famous egg photographs, even in the simple act of repeatedly turning his attention to eggs. This gelatin silver print does not represent the egg – it reveals its ontological structure. The light reflections on the surface of the shell, the shadows the egg casts, etc., take up so much of our attention that we literally forget to look for the meaning of the egg. The visualization of the ontological struc­ture causes the egg to lose its symbolic significance.

By thinking of Harper’s realism in these terms, we can see that the medium she chose for her photo series and the way she treats that medium causes the material objects to disappear. The visualization of the ontological structure is, however, anti-symbolic. We could speak of a negativity of the egg cartons which is intensified between the inventory and the empty egg cartons in recalling images of the egg throughout the history of art – and thus those eggs which Harper does not depict. Several examples from this archive show that eggs, despite being so symbolically-charged culturally, do not function symbolically in art. Their ,eggness‘ unsettles us in these images.

Here, I would like to link this to some theoretical considerations which put in perspective both the double tension between material object and the structure of reality, as well as between the symbolic and the real. 


Between the Real and the Symbolic

While Dieter Mersch and Klaus Sachs-Hombach explore the philosophical aspects of the concept of realism, I would like to approach Harper’s realism from an aesthetic point of view. In doing this, I (somewhat cluelessly) assume that realism can be located, in traditional metaphysics, somewhere between skepticism and idealism. The common denominator of this kind of metaphysically-
anchored understanding of realism is that its representatives presume the existence of the world and that this world exists independently of human consciousness. This leads to three premises: (1) there is a world (reality); (2) this world has complex structures; and (3) the structures of the world are, as reality, recognizable and representable.[25] 
The term ,realism‘ regulates the relationship between the perceiving subject and the objective structures of reality.

The conjoining of perception and representation took place in 18th century aesthetics between Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten and Immanuel Kant. This form of aesthetics is less interested in art or even beauty than in the structure of sensual perception, i.e. a perception oriented towards experienceable reality. This concerns a mode of understanding the world which proceeds not logically and conceptually but visually or affectively. There is thus a model of experience (i.e. an aesthetic mode of perception or know­ledge) in which the complex structures of the world appear. Experience of this kind, if it is to be aesthetic experience, presupposes and requires giving attention to the phenomenon.

It is in this sense that a painting like Velázquez’s directs our attention to reality because it is precisely these two eggs which cannot be assigned to either the symbolic or imaginary orders (see Fig. 9). They are there not as signs of something and are also not in service of any imaginary identification which could place us in a relationship with the eggs. 

The real forms, with the imaginary and the symbolic, the third position in the triad that constitutes the foundation of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Like the other two concepts, the real also refers to a psychic structure, which, however, in relationship to the imaginary and the symbolic, does not represent a mere remainder even though it is incomprehensible, unthinkable, impossible, and, above all, unsayable. Instead, Lacan defines the real as something that eludes symbolization (and imagination), indeed, as something that represents a resistance to the symbolic and, to a certain extent, a cut (coupure) in the symbolic.[26] 

In their meaninglessness, Harper’s egg cartons are real and unsettling; in this way they resemble the photograph, which Harper entitles Remains of the Real (2015) (see Fig. 5). The project’s seriality links it to phenomena which have played a central role in aesthetics since Freud: compulsive repetition, dream and trauma, and death. While Velázquez is still handling his eggs theologically by placing them next to the fish and framing his painting with a religious scene, Harper demands of us an over-attentive contemplation which we sharpen and train from photograph to photograph throughout the series. She demands that we take the very attitude which Martin Seel calls the affirmation of phenomenal individuality.[27] Or in other words: for the affirmation of the ,egg-cartonness‘ of the egg cartons. This almost contemplative attention to an object is necessary to perceive the abundance of details in the individual photographs. With this attention, however, the possibility of taking the pictures as simple representations of photocopied egg cartons and filing them under ,egg carton‘ in our conceptual archive disappears. The affirmation of phenomenal individuality is only an aesthetic experience if it withstands the multiplicity of each photograph. With Mersch this involves the affirmation of existence.[28] 

In this sense, we can interpret Harper’s work as a mise-en-scène of the relationship between the real and the symbolic. The realism of the photos does not aim at the symbolic order. Rather, the photo series expresses the unsettling power of the real. Although Roland Barthes was concerned with literature rather than the visual arts, his observation about „‚useless details‘“[29] where the real appears is useful for locating Harper’s work in the tradition of realistic art. In his famous 1968 essay L’effet de réel, Barthes meditates on realistic semiotics. In contrast to mythological signs, which are always operating in the realm of significance, realistic signs produce a reality effect or „referential illusion“:[30] „Semiotically, the ‚concrete detail‘ is constituted by the direct collusion of a referent and a signifier; the signified is expelled from the sign, and with it, of course, the possibility of developing a form of the signified“.[30] Harper’s egg cartons produce precisely such a reality illusion – with the distinction that the technical methods of illusion generation are not concealed but rather made a central component of their enactment. Because, truth to be told, we do not believe for a second that we are looking at actual egg cartons in these photos. Instead, we recognize in the digitally processed photocopies which only appear at the cost of their disappearance – an illusion, but a beautiful illusion.

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland (1968): „The Reality Effect“. In: id.: The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986, 141-148. French Orig.: „L’effet de réel“. In: Communications 11, 84-89.

Beckett, Samuel (1953): Watt. Ed. C.J. Ackerley. London: Faber and Faber, 2009.

Berndt, Frauke (2017): „Das Reale“. In: id./Eckart Goebel (eds.): Handbuch Literatur & Psychoanalyse. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 638.

Carlisle, Jennie (2013–2015): Southern Constellations. http://jenniecarlisle.com/southernconstellations (last access: 19.1.19).

Carlisle, Jennie (2017): „Introduction“. In: Jana Harper: New Walks in an Old Field. A Southern Constellations Project. Nashville: Jana Harper, 1-4. 

Elsewhere Museum (2015): New Walks in an Old Field. http://www.goelsewhere.org/new-walks-in-an-old-field (last access: 19.1.19).

Eco, Umberto (1985): „Innovation and Repetition. Between Modern and Post-Modern Aesthetics“. In:Daedalus114.4, 161-184.

Harper, Jana (2014a): You Call it a Cloud. https://youcallitacloud.com (last access: 19.1.19).

Harper, Jana (2014b): Six Gestures. https://janaharper.com/section/424652-Six-Gestures.html (last access: 19.1.19).

Harper, Jana (2015): The Other Side. https://janaharper.com/section/424652-Six-Gestures.html (last access: 19.1.19).

Harper, Jana (2017): New Walks in an Old Field. A Southern Constellations Project. Nashville: Jana Harper.

Harper, Jana (2019): Unpublished manuscript. © Jana Harper.

Harper, Jana/Berndt, Frauke (2019): Unpublished interview. © Jana Harper.

Keller, Gottfried (1854/55, 1879/80): Der grüne Heinrich. In: id.: Sämtliche Werke. Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe. Vol. 1-3 (1879/80) and Vol. 11-12 (1854/55). Ed. Stiftung Historisch-Kritische Gottfried Keller-Ausgabe. Basel etal.: Stroemfeld/Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 2006, 2005.

Miller, Hugh (1841): The Old Red Sandstone. Or New Walks in an Old Field. Edinburgh: J.Johnstone. 

Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt (2016): Das Ei in der Kunst. https://www.schirn.de/magazin/antsy/das_ei_in_der_kunst (last access: 19.1.19).

Seel, Martin (2000): Aesthetics of Appearing. Trans. John Farrell. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005. German Orig.: Ästhetik des Erscheinens. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.


 

Endnotes

1 See Harper (2014a).

2 See Keller (1854/55, 1879/80).

3 Harper (2014a).

4 See Harper (2014b).

5 Harper (2014b).

6 See Harper (2015).

7 Harper (2015).

8 Carlisle (2017), 1-2.

9 See Harper (2017).

10 Carlisle (2017), 1.

11 See Carlisle (2013–2015).

12 Carlisle (2017), 3.

13 See Miller (1841).

14 See Elsewhere Museum (2015).

15 Harper (2019).

16 See Harper (2015).

17 Harper/Berndt (2019). FB: Frauke Berndt. JH: Jana Harper.

18 Carlisle (2017), 4.

19 Eco (1985), 161.

20Eco (1985), 162.

21 Eco (1985), 174.

22 See Eco (1985), 182-184.

23 Beckett (1953), 223.

24 See Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt (2016).

25 See Klaus Sachs-Hombach in this issue.

26 Berndt (2017), 638; trans. Anthony Mahler.

27 See Seel (2000), 26-29.

28 See Dieter Mersch in this issue.

29 Barthes (1968), 143.

30 Barthes (1968), 148.

31 Barthes (1968), 147.

Fig1NEU
Fig. 1: Joie Bourisseau: Cloud (between 2000 and 2003). © Jana Harper.
Fig2HarperStand Touch01photo
Fig. 2: Jana Harper: Stand | Touch (2014). © Jana Harper.
Fig3HaperStand Touch02
Fig. 3: Jana Harper: Stand | Touch (2014). © Jana Harper.
Fig4HarperStand Touch03
Fig. 4: Jana Harper: Stand | Touch (2014). © Jana Harper.
Fig5NEUsw
Fig. 5: Jana Harper: Remains of the Real (2015). © Jana Harper.
Fig6HarperEggCartonsInventory
Fig. 6: Jana Harper: Inventory (2015). © Jana Harper.
Fig7HarperEggCartonsComposition
Fig. 7: Jana Harper: Egg Cartons (2015). © Jana Harper.
Fig8BoschGardenDetial
Fig. 8: Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1500; detail). Madrid, Museo de Prado.
Fig9VelasquezChristMariaMarha
Fig. 9: Diego de Silva y Velázquez: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1618). London, National Gallery.
Fig10NEU
Fig. 10: Man Ray: Ostrich Egg (1940). © Man Ray Trust.