In his essay on Andy Warhol’s 1964 film “Empire,” writer, critic, and public intellectual Brian Dillon turns what many would consider an invitation to deeply nap into an invitation to deeply look. Warhol’s filmic oeuvre, a screening of the Empire State Building at the hypnagogic pace of 16 frames per second, is, in essence, an eight-hour static shot of a building at night.
As is often the case, the richest slivers of beauty reside in what we decide merits our gaze, time, and attention, even — perhaps, especially — if that thing doesn’t initially catch our eye. To Dillon, “Empire” holds “a kind of promise: that looking will be worth your while … even if nothing should happen.” Throughout his essay, entitled “Andy Warhol’s Cinema of Happiness,” Dillon brings much of himself to his interpretation of Warhol’s artistic intentions: “Whatever the content, it was the ambiguous act of looking that mattered.”
This marriage of a hypersensitivity to the external world with a belief in the dignity of his own experience suffuses Dillon’s most recent essay collection, a little paper Wunderkammer entitled Objects in This Mirror, published by Sternberg Press. Objects is comprised of 23 essays written over the past decade, all of which have previously appeared in publications like frieze, the Dublin Review, and Cabinet, of which the erudite Dillon is an editor.
The cogent collection considers a monumental range of topics. We move with ease from a colorful history of cravat-tying, to a philosophical piece on coenaesthopathy (a sensitive “inner touch” that figures into hypochondria), to a detailed account of Dillon’s restaging of land artist Robert Smithson’s 1967 tour of Passaic, New Jersey, to an interview with conceptual artist Sophie Calle, written, unconventionally, from her perspective. And that’s just scratching the surface: in the book’s introduction, Dillon includes an abridged list of past essay topics that didn’t make it into Objects. This list is absurd in the best way possible. Think underground storage facilities and Susan Sontag’s smile.
There are motifs, of course, that pave a sort of wayward continuity amid the rampant miscellanea: ruins and fragments, the study of motion, lost or imagined futures that never transpired, classification methods, the casting of art as a psychic and intellectual event. But the undeniably wide net that the collection casts is mainly tied together by the curious tenderness and lucidity of Dillon’s voice.
As a critic, Dillon thinks about the things that mindful critics think about, which is to say: What is the task of the critic? How does one approach taste while accounting for its ideological weight (burden)? And as an essay writer and devotee, the things that essayists think about: What is the form and texture of the essay? What mode of attention does it require? Where does it fit in our litany of literary genres? The formal choice of the essay, and particularly the roving essay as it inhabits the arts & culture publication, has been a conscious one for Dillon. In the form’s open parameters, he has produced an uneven space to probe rather than regiment his intellectual inquiries as they percolate. For him, the turn from academia — after completing his PhD in English, Dillon realized he didn’t want a career in academia and that academia didn’t really “want him” either — toward cultural criticism represented a move toward something more experiential, material, and poetic that maintained an equivalent intellectual rigor.
And now to end with the beginning. In the book’s first essay, “Talk to the Hand,” Dillon considers the hand gesture manuals that once served as the bedrock of oratorical studies, with particular emphasis on Gilbert Austin’s 1806 Chironomia, or a Treatise on Rhetorical Delivery. Austin’s text features endless illustrations of tiny orators, many of whom appear within coordinate-ridden spheres that allow for the precise tracking and circumscription of their movement. (Courtesy of Austin’s “spherical method,” long-suffering 19th-century Harvard students were made to orate in bamboo replicas of the sphere.)
By the end of “Talk to the Hand,” though, Dillon has linguistically liberated one of the tiny figures from the constraints of the sphere, allowing the rebellious orator’s arm to “drift along a dotted line of his own choosing, through the air’s uncharted ways.” And so the digressive form of the essay becomes transgressive, through the emancipatory act of intellectual wandering at which Dillon is so gifted.
Objects in This Mirror is available from Sternberg Press.