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Robert Beck’s “dust”
By Robert Hobbs

His face is turned toward the past. There we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. .
                                  Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, 1969

In trauma discourse, then, the subject is evacuated and elevated at once. And in this way it serves as a magical resolution of contradictory imperatives in contemporary culture: the imperative of deconstructive analyses on the one hand, and the imperative of multicultural histories on the other; the imperative to acknowledge the disrupted subjectivity that comes of a broken society on the one hand, and the imperative to affirm identity at all costs on the other.
                                 Hal Foster, “Obscene, Abject, Traumatic,” October, 1996

In his above statement critic Hal Foster observes trauma discourse’s ability to reconcile two distinctly different worldviews. First, this discourse acknowledges poststructuralists’ profound skepticism regarding humanistic values, coupled with their reluctance to accept empiricism as a valid means for understanding the self. And second, it permits disadvantaged minorities to communicate their suffering as authentic foundational experiences. Extending Foster’s idea, we can regard traumatic memory (as opposed to trauma discourse) as a personal rendition of history and a way of bridging these seemingly irreconcilable points of view. It does so by underscoring the primacy of an experience too numbing to be framed within one’s symbolic and imaginative outlook so that traumatic memory occurs later when related events catalyze a latent, yet pressing need to work through the challenges presented by this initial traumatic event. Lacan described the initial trauma as “an appointment . . . with the real that eludes us.” Although trauma studies emphasizes the legitimacy of the initial episode and also the sense of release and even excessive joy that occurs when fantasy as well as art-making round out the spaces left by these adverse experiences, this field of inquiry has also taken full advantage of deconstructionist concepts regarding language’s elusiveness and the persistent deferral of meaning memory necessitates as it enters into permutational play with this event, rewriting and reinterpreting it. Constituting unstable bases temporarily shored up by substitutions and displacements, traumas return, often revisiting themselves unexpectedly on their victims, and reinforce the need to perpetually rethink them in an effort to dissipate their force, thereby heightening a sense of joyous release when doing so.

Foster believes that “a magical resolution of contradictory imperatives” provides a way out of this critical impasse by characterizing subjects as contingent force fields responding to the demands of internal voids. But the act of working through these contradictions on a personal level is a complicated and never-ending Sisyphus-like task as indicated by Robert Beck’s exhibition “dust.” In both the works selected for this exhibition and Beck’s charged installation of them, a sense of self is anchored in a childhood traumatic breach that continues to interpellate him and the exhibition’s viewers, even as that type of unrepresentable psychological wound persists in forestalling any conclusive way of circumscribing it. Trauma, like allegory, is a doubling of texts; however, in trauma the primary text remains an open gap (allos=other, plus agoreuei=speak), which the second text – really an ongoing rewriting of the first – attempts to close by articulating it. While the pursuit of one’s subjectivity in terms of a major rift might result in a self that is “evacuated and elevated at once,” as Foster suggests, the quest for this dislocated subjectivity in Beck’s art can also be regarded as (1) tragic, because it can never adequately be circumscribed and stabilized, (2) heroic, because the search is continued, and (3) incredibly pleasurable, because tension is released.

Consisting of works dating from 2002 to 2006, Beck’s “dust” represents, among other things, a concerted effort to come to terms with both a traumatic episode that occurred on June 20, 1965 and its aftereffects as a way of interpellating people who have faced such untoward experiences and others who have come in close contact with them. Because its full affect can never be understood due to the profound dissociation that occurs during an initial event, Beck has chosen to keep the nature of the incident private. This decision is in part due to his awareness that “subjectivity itself is a mis-recognition (exemplified by the mirror stage and the acquisition of language) – we don’t speak, we are spoken,” and his desire to leave the installation open so that viewers can find spaces for themselves in it.

Viewing both the individual works making up “dust” and the exhibition itself as means for coming to terms with trauma’s void, Beck underscores the exhibition’s necessary contingency by covering with blackboard paint both the gallery housing his works and the walls leading up to it. Choreographing viewers as active participants in a pedagogical exercise represented by this exhibition, Beck provides them at the outset with a blackboard-like surface together with a tray for chalk and erasers, where they might write freely and erase with impunity. In addition to the chalk dust ensuing from their efforts, viewers are presented with the word “dust,” the exhibition’s title, which appears in white letters against the chalkboard-like background. Dust is also apparent throughout the installation’s walls on which Beck inscribed articles, classifieds, obituaries, and advertisements from the June 20, 1965 edition of the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, and Community Times, his hometown newspaper, before erasing them. He did so, he has said, because “the profound affect of any personal indelible event cannot be adequately addressed publicly, even if the story of such an event did appear in the media.” He characterizes the erased walls of chalk dust permeating this space as “sur rature” (under erasure), referring to Derrida’s approach to such debatable terms as “being,” which presuppose similar presences and absences to “trauma.” The resultant ghostly ambiance of chalk dust on the gallery’s walls, signaling past and present circumstances, serves as a vacillating perspective, enabling us to consider Beck’s discrete works as a palimpsest, which he has defined as a work capable of “being at two places at one time,” thus aligning it with trauma. The title “dust,” which the artist has connected with the phrase from Genesis 3:19, “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” is not only one key to this exhibition, pertaining to the rupture or symbolic death that is the trauma’s legacy, but also a literal component of the installation in terms of actual chalk dust. Moreover, “dust” seemed an appropriate title for the exhibition, Beck has emphasized, “because it accumulates.”

Either shown singly or in groups, the works Beck has chosen to include in this exhibition are organized like a series of meditative or devotional stops similar to the Christological Stations of the Cross familiar to him from his Catholic upbringing. The galleries are lit in a theatrical manner, with industrial lights clumped around two of the three columns supporting this space, to emphasize the fact that “the exhibition is contingent upon the context of the museum.” Beginning to the left of the entry, the exhibition moves in a counterclockwise direction, ending where it began, thereby underscoring its cyclical nature as well as traumatic memory’s repeated attempts to heal rifts in one’s subjectivity. Each work or group of works in this exhibition builds on the ideas of the preceding pieces; this intensification constitutes a narrative of revelation and masking that accumulates as one moves through the show like dust.

The exhibition commences with a group of psychoanalytic drawings that are re-drawings of published children’s artworks, which psychologists and art educators have used as diagnostic tools. In addition to rendering these prior works – an approach, emphasizing traumatic memory’s continual returns – Beck dramatizes a lack of closure in his art when he overlaps drawings made by two different children, together with their captions, so that disjunctions and confusion between images and their references ensue. He poetically reenacts these children’s drawings by extending them – drawing them out over time, so to speak – to underscore differences and similarities from his original sources in terms of the subtlety and refinement of his own work that differs markedly from the children’s directness and forthrightness. In Beck’s drawings this repetitive process analogizes and symbolizes the types of memories to which subjects are prone. It also references, according to Beck, “the insistence of childhood or originary experiences because one is never psychically present for the initial ‘impressive event.’” Both redrawings of drawings and drawings in themselves, these highly psychological works achieve a formal redundancy through superimposition and a tripling of forms that is apparent when we read the works in terms of first the children’s contributions, second clinicians’ diagnoses taken from such favored sources as personality assessment tests, and third the artist’s reworkings to ascertain how they screen out certain aspects of their original sources while affirming others. Beck’s liberal use of latent fingerprint powder in these works, which he employs to “bring something to light not always within the drawings,” is no doubt intended as both a literal and figurative replaying of the creative role latent memories play in recalling disturbing events.

The type of screening found in Beck’s psychoanalytic drawings, which parallel trauma’s elisions, is the subject of Chapter IV of Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life, which theorizes childhood memories as occurring with visual immediacy even though they are later displacements of events that they have been masked out due to their difficult or painful contents. Psychologists J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis provide the following succinct definition of screen memory as

A childhood memory characterized both by its unusual sharpness and by the apparent insignificance of its content. The analysis of such memories leads back to indelible childhood experiences and to unconscious phantasies. Like the symptom, the screen memory is a formation produced by a compromise between repressed elements and defence [sic.].


Fully aware of Freud’s two-fold approach to screen memory, which veils even as it provides occasions on which to project recollections of childhood events, Beck employs it in the exhibition as a “curatorial conceit” as well as a mise en abyme on which his earlier work and entire show can be projected, thus providing, in the artist’s words, “a puncture in the exhibition itself – its trauma, if you will.” Taking literally the form of a screen, which thereby enacts aspects of Freud’s screen memory, Beck’s mainly spray-painted stainless steel urinal partition in “dust” can be connected to a recurring process he noted during his eight years as a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan: at the school he witnessed the ongoing cycle of students’ drawing graffiti on such restroom panels followed by janitors’ attempts to eradicate them with paint and also by the more violent erasures of scratching through them or sanding them out.

Similarly, Apart from the Whole (Communion), referring to a Catholic child’s First Holy Communion, enacts a screen-memory-type selection of these highly cathected events occurring in Beck’s own family as well as those of family friends and relatives. This vignette of seemingly inconsequential gestures is arranged in an enlarged version of what Beck calls a “dime store frame,” even though such gestures would never have been highlighted in a domestic presentation. The ostensibly innocent details of adults caressing children or young boys clasping their own hands is undermined by the ominous shadow of a photographer – perhaps a family member or a friend – who supposedly made all the images and thus is responsible for them.

Screen memory’s ability to block even as it reveals is the subject of the next work in the exhibition Hidden Pictures (Between Two Deaths), an image appropriated from an instructional craft and activities workbook for children called Highlights in which children are instructed to find a series of objects, including a ladder, table, basket, flower, and boot. In this “hidden picture,” Beck notes,

While in the vernacular game the boy would be among those objects to be uncovered (in the drawing left un-erased and exposed), I have erased him, so he is effectively lost, subsumed by the background and because the word “boy” has been excised from the caption as well, in effect he is doubly occluded.


Following this characterization in trauma in Hidden Pictures is Private Zone (White), which similarly focuses on screen memory, only in this case the work assumes the form of a child’s shower curtain decorated with a repeating pattern of vinyl toy-like ducks over which the artist has superimposed images of a boy and girl dressed for the beach together with their dog and the words “private zone” emblazoned on the curtain. The source for these images is the instructional manual Private Zone, “a Read-Together Book to help parents help children deal with and prevent sexual assault.” “Private zone” underscores the fact that children’s genitals are to be kept solely under their jurisdiction, while the word “white,” included in parenthesis as part of Beck’s title, is there “to refer to body fluids: milk, cum, spit – and a kind of X-ray vision, revealing something beneath or structural that is being exposed.” Altogether this semi-transparent shower curtain reveals aspects of the erased blackboard beneath it, thus constituting a layering of screen images.

In Dust (Holy Family Cemetery, Holbrook, MD) Beck moves from the childhood concerns of Private Zone to human history. Dust is comprised of a framed Polaroid view of the back of an angel in the Holy Family cemetery, which adjoins the church of the same name that Beck and his family regularly attended. Viewing the angel’s back in this photograph, I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s figuration of history in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” a particularly appropriate connection for Beck’s since this author is no doubt key to understanding history metaphorically as a backward glance. In Thesis 9, cited as an epigraph to this essay, Benjamin describes the angel appearing in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus as history’s allegorical embodiment. In addition to referencing history’s modus operandi and alluding to trauma’s spoils, Benjamin’s passage correlates well with a statement from comparative literature specialist Peter Szondi’s analysis of Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900, which Beck emailed to me, no doubt because its ability “to provide hope itself, a kind of hope-in-knowing, an epistemology of reparation.” Szondi writes that Benjamin “is sent back into the past, a past, however, which is open, not completed, and which promises the future. Benjamin’s tense is not the perfect, but the future perfect in the fullness of its paradox: being future and past at the same time.”

Beck’s Cemetery, with its subject of history in general, is followed in the exhibition by an image we might regard as a displaced personal memory, which has taken the form of the illustration entitled Glove Skinning from The Modern Man’s Guide to Life, a book Beck’s parents gave to him when he was 33 years old. Although the book is intended to be a man’s how-to guide, including information on grooming, cooking, household and car repair, Beck focused on sections describing how to survive in the wilderness. Subtitling his work, “Manifesto,” he leaves open the implication that the violent coming-of-age act of glove skinning a rabbit with one’s bare hands can function as a screen memory, albeit a particularly violent one. Although Beck has not undertaken such a rite of passage, he equates it with the hunting rituals in which he has participated, and he has indicated that these activities are often followed by intense feelings of exhilaration because of the psychological release such veiled memories can create. A schematic of this procedure is presented in this drawing in terms of white conté crayon against a grey background comprised of remnants of paper sewn together to resemble animals’ skins. Beck heightens this work’s irony by employing a repeated “Crack’n Peel” pattern on the paper to suggest that it might be peeled away to reveal another, perhaps more significant surface beneath it. The death figured in this work is both literal in terms of the subject of a skinned rabbit and symbolic in the traumatic episode it potentially displaces, resulting in additional references to dust as decomposed matter as well as a placeholder for the Lancanian real, which by definition is inaccessible.

Up to this point in the exhibition, the term “screen memory” has been implicit in Beck’s work, even though the inclusion of re-drawings of children’s drawings, a urinal partition, details of family First Communions, a “ducky” shower curtain, a Polaroid of a cemetery sculpture, and a glove-skinning illustration all function literally and figuratively as masks. For the last segment of the exhibition, Beck invokes the phrase “screen memory” as the title for five photographs comprising a series of two-dimensional images associated with rooms occupied by various Beck family members. Not just straightforward photographs, these images contain partial reflections of these rooms, creating a series of poignantly blurred meditations on these metonymical displacements.

Completing the exhibition with these five photographs, one is once again faced with the show’s opening installation of childhood drawings, which attest to the preeminently visual character of early screen memories. Just as all the works in this exhibition reveal the artist’s concerns with a number of different screen memories, creating a series of nested recursive images, so do they also partially displace its ambient screen, consisting of a monumental erased blackboard. Because the affective content of Beck’s traumatic episode can never be adequately understood by either him or his audience, the profound visual noise, which his exhibition offers in terms of minute aerosols of dust, comprised of both actual and represented particles, plays with the trope of trauma’s unrepresentability, thus attempting in allegorical fashion to present what it intends to demonstrate is impossible to do. Assuming the form of chalk, latent fingerprint powder, spray-painted over graffiti, sifted memories, submerged imagery, covered private parts, transferences or displacements of imagery, and grainy photographs, Beck’s collection of dust begins to unravel significant contents even as it partially obscures them, leaving us all in a poignant limbo that is itself affecting and mysterious.

i Karyn Ball, “Introduction: Trauma and Its Institutional Destinies, “ Cultural Critique 46, Trauma and Its Cultural Aftereffects (Autumn 2000): 5, 8, and 23. Ball provides excellent insight into the working of traumatic memory vis-à-vis the her own work on Holocaust.
ii Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1978), p. 53.
iii Beck has requested that the title of the exhibition be written in lower case, no doubt, to analogize both trauma’s and this material’s ubiquity.
iv A number of writings on trauma view it in terms of allegory. My definition of allegory is predicated on Craig Owens’ useful analysis in “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” October 12 (Spring 1980): 68-69.
v Robert Beck, E-mail to Author, 6 February 2007.
vi Robert Beck, E-mail to Author, 7 February 2007.
vii Ibid.
viii Robert Beck, Interview with Author, 19 January 2007, New York City. Please note that, unless specified otherwise, all references to Beck’s ideas about “dust” come from this interview.
ix Robert Beck, E-mail to Author, 6 February 2007.
x Ibid.
xi Ibid.
xii Sigmund Freud, Psychopathology of Everyday Life, trans. A. A. Brill (New York: Macmillan Company, 1915).
xiii J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973), pp. 410-411.
xiv Robert Beck, E-mail to Author, 6 February 2007.
xv Ibid.
xvi Frances S. Dayee, Private Zone, ill. Marina Megale (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1984).
xvii Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History" in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), p. 151. The inspiration for Thesis 9 was Paul Klee's Angelus Novus, which Benjamin acquired in Munich in the spring of 1921. That same year Benjamin named his intellectual journal after this watercolor. Toward the end of his life, Benjamin asked Gerschom Scholem, his friend since 1916 and a major scholar of Jewish mysticism, to take the watercolor with him to Palestine.
xviii Robert Beck, E-mail to Author, 22 January 2007.
xix Robert Beck, E-mail to Author, 6 February 2007.
xxRobert Beck, E-mail to Author, 22 January 2007. In his e-mail Beck cites this statement by Szondi. Cf. Peter Szondi, “Hope in the Past: On Walter Benjamin,” trans. Harvey Mendelsohn in Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900 (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 19.
xxi Denis Boyles, Alan Rose, and Alan Wellikoff, The Modern Man’s Guide to Life (New York: Harper & Row, Perennial Library, 1987).
xxii Robert Beck, E-mail to Author, 6 February 2007.
xxiii Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 275

Written on the ocassion of the exhibition “dust” at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH, May 12 – August 12, 2007, and and published in the accompanying catalog.

© 2007 Robert Hobbs

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