Writing on Jeremy Fernando’s 'writing skin'
writing skin, Ella Wee, 2020
by Joe Linker
Jeremy Fernando, with paintings by Pan Huiting, installations by Gaspar Acebo & Marcos Mangani, and charcoal drawings by Yanyun Chen
Singapore: Delere Press, 230 pp.
Our sentence does not sound severe. Whatever commandment the prisoner has disobeyed is written upon his body by the Harrow. This prisoner, for instance” – the officer indicated the man – “will have written on his body: HONOR THY SUPERIORS!
—Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony
Once upon a skin. To peel the skin from the bones. Giddy. The drum head. Adventures in the Skin Trade. Theory (dermis) as décor[i]um. Seemly. Style. Skin in the game. To amuse oneself. The muse of art. The one who swindles, trading skin, taking risks. The entrepreneur. The taker.
What does the taker take that you can’t live without? Your sources, origins, bibliography as time, your time. And sources drift with time. The teacher’s sources can never be the same sources as the student’s sources. But then you make up your own source, and that is art. And the artist, the true teacher, is the one aSKINing questions.
The layout is collage, montage. To mount, to mount the skin, and that becomes art. Jeremy Fernando’s writing skin is non-linear, anecdotal (i.e. practical pics) theory, its precursors John Cage (Silence, A Year from Monday, Diary), Marshall McLuhan (The Gutenburg Galaxy, The Medium is the Massage), Norman O. Brown (Love’s Body). Fragmented texts, full of references, quotes, lectures. Beforehand. But those are my teachers. We each bring our own sources to bear. They can become very heavy. Thick sauces. Sauces to bore, to slip through the Scylla and Charybdis of argument, wade through the crowd, skin rubbing skin.
At the risk of going to see. Artificial sea. Art official. In lines at the museum, to see, we are held in suspense. Suspended, like a mobile, our lines drifting, people drifting in and out of line, of sequence, of linear progression. The line hovers, doubtful, suspended, suspenseful. The show is about to begin. The lights go down. The white pages turn black, the print goes black to white. Spaces of silence create more anticipation. We are still held in suspense. Yet, there is room to move.
And precursor suggests antecedent. References. What is it? Where is it? Where did it go? The antecedent must be repeated. Pronouns won’t work. Too far from the antecedent. And we get lost.
from writing skin, page 16:
Where in asking a work, a painting, what
(s)he is attempting to say, all one can do is
attempt to listen, to respond, to her response
– or, to be more precise, its response – which
is always already a response even as it, even
as (s)he – bringing with it the impossibility
of attributing not just a gender, but a reference
to the object one is attempting to speak of,
react to, respond with – even as it might be
responding in ways that remain beyond one,
could well be offering a response to which
one remains deaf.
To anthropomorphize the it, its ambiguity, its genderlesness. To get under its skin.
The offense, in the shade of the skin, criticism, attempts to take the place of the art, to speak over the art (p. 17): “Where there is no longer even a Socrates,” who, after all, was Plato’s superior.
“Who are your influences?” Jimmy Rabbitte asks applicants for a position in his new band, to be called “The Commitments” (Roddy Doyle). Which is to ask, who are your teachers, what are your sources, what have you overheard? Who are you stealing from? And can you now play over them? The question is the only question on the test, and it tests one’s responsibilities.
From below ground, we hear a grunt, “abgrund” (p. 26, 40, 119, 143), a voice from the precursor abyss, from deep in the skin, a sliver. A cleave. The voice is our own, sleep apnea. We climb out, to see. Or we swim out, if water is our source, to land. To emerge. Emergent see. Turning pages, back and forth, working a fan on a hot day.
“writing skin” is a large book. 230 pages, but consider its size: 7” x 10” x ¾”. A heavy book, it contains color photos and other art images and a deep file of font and graphic variations, a book readers will spend quality time with, and every other kind of time. To date, it might be Fernando’s magnum opus. I carried it around with me for days, reading back and forth, in the coffee shop, kitchen, to bed, delighting in the ample space for my marginalia, reading with pen in hand.
As for magnum opus, consider, for example, the many references and sources, used and named throughout, that might keep a reader inclined to follow up on sources busy forevermore:
In order of first appearance: Anne Dufourmantelle, Sara Chong, Marguerite Duras, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Marie Benoist, Plato, Socrates, Pan Huiting, Roland Barthes, John Banville, Joy Division, Neil Young, Jean Baudrillard, Oscar Wilde, Jean Baudrilland, Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Nietzsche, Malraux, Chris Kraus, William Kentridge, Siegfried Zielinski, Gaspar Acebo & Marcos Mangani, Slavoj Zizek, Ana Gallardo – and that takes us only into page 37.
And a few more, in random order: Hubertus von Amelunxen, Yanyun Chen, Hélène Cixous, Édouard Manet, Tan Jingliang, Meera Lee Seethi, Nicole Ong. And, there being no bibliography or index, readers are free to create their own, as part of their marginalia, their own writing over.
Which opens, or perhaps leaves us with, the question:
does one choose what one writes, or does it come to one? (p. 148)
How do we choose our subject matter? Is it given, or taken? Subject to choice? Which opens the question, does one choose what one reads, or does it come to one? And of memories? What and how do we remember, forget? Does one choose what to remember, what to forget? What memories are we given or do we take?
as for me,
I copy (p. 152).
In debt to, to face the writing squad. Argument of definition: what is Art? That moment when you are seized by the work such that you forget yourself, forget to remember. Can the moment be remembered in an essay? Can art be reproduced, the moment of art? In a personal essay? Do we need all of the ingredients of the scholarly article? Around the room there are others, the peer review. Where you are forced to walk to the end of the pier, the “disappointed bridge,” Joyce called it. And your peers throw you off the end of the pier, and you swim or sink or get washed back ashore or swept out to sea. Maybe you’ll get picked up by a boat, a ship of fools.
Memory is the etymology of experience. But what happens when there is no experience? Or the experience goes awry? Amiss. Why we keep repeating what has already been said. What did we miss, alas?
“writing skin” is a gallery: contains essay, scholarly writing (i.e. claims, proofs, anticipation and handling of opposition, references – all cleverly disguised in conversational tone, wit, and engagement), anecdote, conversation, memoir, color photography and artwork (photos of paintings and drawings), poetry, philosophy, theory. Citations, quotes, translation, fragments, questions, cuts, breaks in text, strokes, puns.
Which is also the question of
what is the voice of a citation? (p. 105)
In theory, in theoria (104), “whom we have authorized as author?” (105)
Fernando is a reader. Reading is his art.
One of the themes of “writing skin” is friendship. The pages stack up like postcards to and from friends over the years. The space of the postcard is intimate, small, and encourages a compact or compressed language, as does poetry. Or the telegram, if the writing purpose is entirely practical, and there is no place for ambiguity. Another theme is death, and another writing form that is used is the eulogy. Anne Dufourmantelle has died (aged 53), drowning in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to save two children at risk in the water. Writing, the act of writing, becomes a metaphor for dying, disappearing, fading from view, fogged over. Falling through the skein of the sea. A Sargasso Sea skinned with seaweed.
She is lost. Lost at see.
Seemingly, a problem ongoing and developing with language concerns the use of the pronoun, which substitutes a more vague mark for an antecedent. The further the reader gets from the antecedent, the more chance of mistake. The pronoun works like an anti-noun – instead of naming a person, place, or thing, it points, usually to the past, and renames the antecedent, the more specific noun, the precursor. The pronoun removes, erases, makes things less clear, creates more risk. The pronoun is another taker. The pronoun is not the reader’s friend, is impersonal, covers over, erases, simplifies.
Another theme in “writing skin” is teaching, the teaching question. As well, alienation and isolation. The risks for teacher and student. The same risk inherent in most relationships that rely on a kind of symbiosis.
The themes thread through and sew “writing skin” together. “I don’t know the man,” Peter says, cowering from the crowd, disowning Jesus. Inherent in friendship is the possibility of betrayal, of writing over. Ink outs. Skin recoils, flakes. Returns to its original form.
Photography, cooking (mother, language, tongue), understanding the other. A grandfather with eczema, cut skin. Understanding other. What does theory do? Questions the meaning of meaning. Stroke as pun. Stranger, duel, black and white (129:141).
What if we have nothing to read? Take in / taken. When the pages go black, notes end (164). “Our skin” (167). Reading as “vampire,” 189. What’s one? (197).
Authority is embalmed in the citation. The laugh cuts best.
Other themes include light and love. There are 9 sections to the book (the 9th being “Contributors”). The longest is “writing yanyun chen,” 67 to 157, which includes numerous reproductions of Chen’s charcoal drawings. Sketches in white. Light sketches. What is light? Fernando “reads” Yanyun Chen, a way of reading, he tells us, he learned from his teacher Werner Hamacher: “a notion of reading that is not born of sight, of seeing, but of hearing, of listening” (ws, 72). Some of Chen’s drawings are like flowers at a funeral, but without color or odor, and those pictures are juxtaposed with thoughts (memories, reproductions) of Anne Dufourmantelle. And then, surprise, we get Saul and his conversion to Paul, the Acts of the Apostles. Amidst the metaphors for reading, writing, writhing. The “blind reading” of Saul, his fall into light. And that with friendship and love comes the risk of betrayal and loss. Thus the discussion of Judas, and the necessity of his betrayal. But it is the blind moment of Saul’s vision, Paul’s stroke (86; 99), that ironically suggests the act of reading as seeing. But what do we see? Marks, strokes. Squiggles. Skin is supple. Writing is supplement.
And we move on, wearing a verb. Light as what inscribes, inscriber, pencil, cuts into (110). Throw away the light, Wallace Stevens said, the definitions, and say of what you see in the dark. And time as theme. The fading of time, of light. Time’s wear and tear (cut and cry). Dark matter. “irrealism.” But what of the archetypes? Are they not born with us, the collective memory of experience. The dash, cut, break, touch (113). Melville at sea; Emily in her room – different, but the same, experience. Ex peers. Exuent.
Is there a secret we seek?
taking the life of the text:
sucking the life from the inscriptions
making it one’s own
for one’s self (p. 189)
A writer likely will have, like Jeremy Fernando’s grandfather apparently had, a skin condition, an itch. If so, writing is the only lotion that will solve, salve, the skin problem. Readers too itch, reach for the lotion, the book, the pages, a skin to rub on. Touch. In touch. Not to lose touch. And, as McLuhan said, touch is the most involving of all the senses.
About the Author:
Joe Linker is the author of five books, the most recent being Penina’s Letters. He is editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse and blogs at The Coming of the Toads.