Writing: Incompleteness

By Robert Harbison


As a student I always started writing essays so late at night there wasn't much hope of finishing them properly. They began in a leisurely way but became more telescoped as they went on until they read like sketches with connective tissue left out. And they didn't end, but came to an edge, which they simply fell off.

At the time I thought I'd been defeated by circumstances and that if I'd had more time I would have produced well rounded pieces of work. Now I'm not so sure. By now I've learned that there are those who find a deep fascination in incompleteness and will go to enormous lengths to undermine easy sensations of wholeness. In many realms of art and thought Modernism put bombs under certainties and rejoiced in the fragmented confusion that resulted. Picasso, Schoenberg, Wittgenstein and Joyce seemed to some observers to achieve little else. Artists like Duchamp went even further, at least conceptually; he proclaimed The Large Glass 'definitively unfinished.'

Francis Alÿs fits into this uneasy company. His work doesn't stay in one place or one mode. Instead of hanging them safely on the wall, he takes paintings out for a walk. This is something which physically happens, but also seems tied to a verbal formulation. Paul Klee's definition of a drawing: taking a line for a walk. Many of his works refer to rehearsals or trials, forms in the process of being made where the final resolution can be indefinitely deferred. This isn't to say that Alÿs' individual works are necessarily incomplete - but they are open to being revisited by the artist at another time in another place.

What completeness would be in a given situation isn't always easy to specify. In the case of detective stories it's relatively easy; with Wall ace Stevens poems, less so. Some works look incomplete because we don't understand the principles on which they're constructed. I wonder if the Zen sand garden at Ryoanji can ever be as exciting to a Japanese as to an ignorant Westerner to whom it represents a much greater violation. Perhaps this one seems a puzzle without a solution to everyone who encounters it, which draws them back to have another go at resolving it. That makes it sound like a deception, which looks simple but then defeats all efforts to work it out. That doesn't sound all that remote from the process to which Zen masters repeatedly subject their disciples.

Does art and does incompleteness always depend on some sense of a puzzle to be grappled with? Many grown-ups regard jigsaw puzzles as absurd and nothing more, an invented incompleteness which then has to be tediously solved by reuniting senselessly separated parts with each other. For their devotees jigsaws exert a metaphysical fascination, to find meaning in bits which look like nothing, to interpret the uninterpretable.

When I was 14, I read Joyce's Ulysses from start to finish. Attracted at first by the weird typography of the American edition, I think I probably understood about ten per cent of it. But that was enough. I liked it for all that I didn't understand it, just as these days it is my imperfect knowledge of German that gives me pleasure. I know I've seen all these words before and ought to remember them, but some of the most familiar are the most mysterious. I get the same kind of pleasure from an ordinary architectural guidebook in German that the Egyptologist gets from a damaged papyrus. (This isn't a good comparison because the holes in my knowledge could with persistence be filled, but the gaps in the papyrus are not down to the reader's shortcomings.)

The incompleteness of Gilgamesh and the incompleteness of Wallace Stevens' 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird are crucially different in some literal way, yet circumstance can make old damaged things into something like modernist works. Missing chunks of clay tablet can play with the reader's synapses in very much the way that Pound does in the Cantos. So we set out on a search for compositions made enigmatic by decay, that we then treat like riddles by Mallarmé.

In all these cases we assume that there's a hidden integrity here if only we can scent it out. Does that mean that incompleteness in art is more often than not a temporary effect, which will disappear as soon as we understand what the artist is getting at? Which may be open-ended, but this is different from incomplete, if by that you mean missing something.

Unfinished is not the same as incomplete, though perhaps things unfinished because unfinishable should be allowed to join the other category. Dickens had every intention of finishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood; he died before he could do it. Michelangelo came to feel, I'm not sure how articulately, that works he had begun optimistically could not be brought to a conclusion that would satisfy him, so he left them in a germ-like state, or rather with some undeveloped potential and parts that were less fully worked out than others. My knowledge is incomplete here, and a clearer answer is undoubtedly possible to the question of what Michelangelo did or didn't mean by these strange procedures. The works remain however, and speak obscurely themselves, whatever their maker wrote down about them. Scholars have traced as completely as they could the effect of these suspensions on later sculpture and other arts as well.

There's a whole history of responses to fragments and ruins, as stimulants to thought or romantic fantasy. Now it's fashionable to be impatient or worse with picturesque attitudes to ruins. Myself, I think modernism owes more to the taste for the fragment brought in by the ruin craze in the eighteenth century than it is ever likely to admit. It is morbid, dwelling on what is missing if it has been removed by death and decay, but not if there's a less weighty cause. Perhaps we should face the morbidity in much Minimalism which from far enough away looks a lot like neo-classical emptiness, a winter in which most of life has disappeared because it has died back and gone under the soil.

At the other extreme is the incompleteness resulting from over-large ambitions, projects so large and so lengthy in the execution that the end will not recognise the beginning, if it ever comes. I'm thinking of series of architectural catalogues like the Royal Commission inventories of the buildings of England which in a hundred years have managed to cover 20 per cent of the country at most, the earlier volumes being by now hopelessly out of date. But you could educe the Canterbury Tales, projected at many times their actual length, or most medieval cathedrals which ended with ill assorted bits assembled over a long drawn out period of construction.

The subject of incompleteness was first suggested to me by the porch on the north side of Strasbourg cathedral, where ribs of a complicated Gothic vault jump out from the building but find nothing to attach themselves to, and anyway have no infill of masonry which would constitute a roof. Most of these ribs are violently chopped off in midair. The result looks half built, as if a medieval architect had decided that the skeleton was more interesting than the completed building, and so he would leave it like that. Contemporary architects are always saying of course that the building site is more interesting than the finished building. So at Strasbourg we have one of the first Oeconstructionist works, a building with its clothes off. This all sounds very clinical, an intellectual game. But this porch also feels like a damaged organism; it jumps with figure sculpture and around the saints play elements like dangling tendons and surgically exposed bones, which sometimes constitute cages that contain the figures, sometimes over-elaborate pedestals on which they stand.

Another work from a few centuries later, another architect's aberration, was my second spur to think about incompleteness. This is a room in John Soane's house in London, a room like a ruin which has been cut out of or collapsed into a space that continues through three storeys. Walls and floors have been pared away into punctured screens and narrow gangways, so that sometimes the viewer must feel like a mote suspended in midair. Around him or her swarm an immense variety of separate objects or fragments. Some are complete but most are dramatically broken off from something larger. Many are pieces of famous or near-famous buildings, though when you look more closely they often turn out to be casts, or fakes. At the bottom of the well-like space over which we brood lies an empty sarcophagus covered in writing, from which all the blue infill that would let you read it has fallen out.

Like Francis Alÿs' work, Soane's house comes with words attached: its fabricator spun lots of stories about it, which purists will try at least initially to block out in order to consider it as a wordless piece of three dimensional design. But this is the quintessentially metaphorical space, a cave or a tomb, the interior of a skull, or an attempt to give a human memory graspable shape. Which is to say that extraneous things just naturally attach themselves to it. There's a musty old formula for art or architecture which operates this way: it's called association ai, which has a weak-minded sound these days.

One of my favorite works by Francis Alÿs is called, mysteriously, The Collector. It consists of a construction in magnetized metal on wheels, about the size of a small dog, which is then dragged through the streets on a string, picking up bits and pieces as it goes until it has the much more interesting aspect of some primitive totem bristling with assorted human leavings. The books which arise from his projects have something of this quality; disparate foreign objects - texts and images - have been attracted, sponsored or generated by the original idea until we arrive at a result which isn't much like a dog but more interesting than many artefacts arrived at by more straightforwardly intentional processes. Alÿs' work often originates in one place and may involve a protracted period of negotiation. I'm thinking of the project in Lima where Alÿs took an indeterminate natural object - a sand dune - and with the help of 500 volunteers - moved it four inches. But it isn't really located in one place. It encourages and incorporates lots of rumination on itself by a wide variety of people over an extended period.

One of his books, The Prophet and the Fly, which accompanied or came out of or superseded an exhibition in three European cities in 2002-3, exemplifies this open-endedness. This is not a book to read exactly, but to guess the form of, by a combination of reading and looking. I did it in a drifting manner which I think I picked up from the work itself. Francis Alÿs' thinking about art finds one of its fullest forms in this book which collages paintings and drawings by him and other artists including Giotto and Lorenzetti with popular postcards and illustrations, and texts culled from D. H. Lawrence, Plato and Jean de Brunhoff amongst many others to form a meditation that is usually gentle but occasionally more hard-edged. It is a volume full of material that also suggests a kind of incompleteness. This is not unlike the notational nature of his drawings on tracing paper, which appear to be subject to adjustments and additions over time.

Walter Benjamin collected material over many years for a magnum opus that as far as I'm aware never got beyond the note-stage. Its subject was modernity, but it was at the same time focused on Paris and not only on Paris, but on a particular and especially limited architectural form perfected there, the commercial arcade. Long after his death the surviving fragments have been assembled into a grand jamboree of bits, with interlarded commentary which may expand them to twice their own size or more. I say 'may' because I prefer to contemplate this magma from a safe distance and to build from rumours rather than attested facts.

Benjamin's work is now known as the Arcades Project, perhaps a coinage of the modern editor, perhaps a phrase used by him. I prefer to know it as 'Paris Capital of the Nineteenth Century' which I think, rightly or wrongly, was one of his names for it. It is the quintessential work that can never be finished, neither the whole nor the part. Nothing could be further from this than the ordinary detective story, except that there are moments near the end, or perhaps in almost every moment except the end, when detective stories feel as if they cannot conclude. In fact the very best moments are those when one feels near but not actually on top of the solution.

I believe that the history of art and architecture is littered with works which refuse to conclude and revel in indeterminacy but that we can't see this aspect of them any more, distracted by surface detail in which we detect historical flavours. My two examples, the Gothic porch and the neo-classical museum, are radical works which no longer look radical, where the disruption hides behind a patina that obscures it completely from modern eyes.

Dr Watson sometimes tempts the reader by listing various adventures of Sherlock Holmes which he may someday lay before the public. I think there are dozens that never got any further than being named. Incompleteness is much too big a subject, but a list of what I couldn't include, items for which the reader might like to come back at a later date to see what could be made of them, would not be much good in the really raw and incomplete form I would have to serve them up. And it is too late to lament that fully worked out sentences and paragraphs are not the right forms even to begin to address this subject in. Being fascinated by incompleteness and being able to practice it in any meaningful way will not necessarily coincide. But ending with a regret that I could not make this writing incomplete may be the next best thing. Maybe next time.

This essay originally appeared in the publication Seven Walks, published by Artangel in 2005.