Preface to a Reading of Rodney Graham: The System of Landor’s Cottage and other works (1987-88)

The 1987 The System of Landor's Cottage was Rodney Graham's first exhibition in a public gallery. The artist's book of this title was co-published by the Art Gallery of Ontario and Yves Gevaert, Brussels. I intended, as well, eventually to publish a separate catalogue, but these unpublished notes were as far as I got.


Preface to a Reading of Rodney Graham


I am for—no illustration; everything a book evokes should happen in the reader’s mind: but if you replace photography, why not go straight to cinematography, whose successive unrolling will replace, in both pictures and text, many a volume, advantageously.

—Stéphane Mallarmé, “Sur le livre illustre”




If among the huge colonies of the present century, new literature might develop, there will certainly occur spiritual accidents of a nature baffling to the academic mind.

—Charles Baudelaire, “New Notes on Edgar Poe”

I believe that Literature, recaptured at its source which is Art and Science, will provide us with a Theatre, whose shows will be the true modern cult; a Book, an explication of man, adequate to our loveliest dreams.

—Mallarmé, Sur la Théâtre, 875-876

If Rodney Graham’s The System of Landor’s Cottage could be said to be an annex to, as much as an interpolation into, Poe’s story“Landor’s Cottage,” this essay takes on the characteristics of a vestibule, a preface to the “nature” of that production. It knocks upon the door of this edifice much as the traveller in Poe’s story, or in any other knocking or knowing, to sound the nature of its “unnatural” construction.

In place of an introduction, would it not be better to reproduce a preface, to repeat the gesture of a falsifying signature, that of A. G. Pym to the Preface of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (itself the fictional reverse to Poe’s signature in the story)? For are not all the strategies of Rodney Graham’s The System of Landor’s Cottage, as exorbitant as they are, mere “duplications” of what is enunciated in that preface? That preface pertains to the question of the author and to the status of the appearance of truth in the garb of fiction as much as it does to the convention and apparatus of publishing and to the value and function of description.

In the preface that the fictional author A. G. Pym signs, which precedes the tale in which he is a narrator, he tells of acquaintances, gentlemen from Richmond, Virginia, who prevailed upon him to publish his fantastic tale. He feared that he would“not be able to write, from mere memory, a statement so minute and connected as to have the appearance of that truth it would really possess.” A Mr. Poe proposed that Pym:

… allow him to draw up, in his own words, a narrative ofthe earlier portion of my adventures, from factsafforded by myself, publishing it in the SouthernMessenger under the garb of fiction. To this, perceiving no objection, I consented, stipulating only that my real name should be retained. Two numbers of the pretended fiction appeared, consequently, in the Messenger for January and February (1837), and, in order that it might certainly be regarded as fiction, the name of Mr. Poe was affixed to the articles in the table of contents of the magazine.
    The manner in which this ruse was received has induced me at length to undertake a regular compilation and publication of the adventures in question .... I thence concluded that the facts of my narrative would prove of such a nature as to carry with them sufficient evidence of their own authenticity, and that I had consequently little to fear on the score of public incredulity.
    This exposé being made, it will be seen at once how much of what follows I claim to be my own writing; and it will also be understood that no fact is misrepresented in the first few pages that were written by Mr. Poe. Even to those readers who have not seen the Messenger, it will be unnecessary to point out where his portion ends and my own commences; the difference in point of style will be readily perceived.

This exposé having been made, it is not for me to claim what may be of Rodney Graham and of Edgar Allan Poe in The System of Landor’s Cottage, for that text is elaborately stitched within Poe’s story “Landor’s Cottage” to become a book. “Landor’s Cottage” is a somewhat atypical Poe story, being simply a description disguised as a story, a fictionalized description not a tale, of a cottage that is known to be based on Poe’s own last residence (1846-49) in Fordham, New York. Here he wrote “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee” as well as “Landor’s Cottage,” which was to be his last published work. The System of Landor’s Cottage is a growth upon or within Poe’s story (what Graham calls the host-text; and his own—the annex). The “discovery” of a “system” in Poe’s description is what allows the fictional projection of an extra room onto this fictional cottage, which, however, is not annexed to the model, which makes up half of the work, itself based on Poe’s existent cottage, but is elaborated, or rather enacted, within Graham’s fantastic text.

Neatly dovetailed, the product of the two texts [cf. Pym: “where his portion ends and my own commences”] is rather like the lake, of which “no crystal could be clearer,” which Poe describes in that story: “so perfectly, at times, did it reflect all objects above it, that where the true bank ended and the mimic one commenced, it was a point of difficulty to determine.” This confusion could be called a mis-en-abyme. As one of Jacques Derrida’s translator’s states: “We might think of what Derrida calls ‘the logic of the abyme’ as ‘the figurative ruination’ of logic as we know it, as for example when the distinction between the reflected and the reflecting falls apart.”  

If only we had the complex interlacing of these two texts to consider; Poe’s text, however, is only one appropriation. Graham’s own text is merely pastiche, at times wholesale liftings from other genre texts of the sublime, fantastic or orientalesque. And our consideration of Poe, or Graham on Poe, cannot be thought without a complex network of texts commenting on texts, all intersecting in Graham’s writing through the name of Poe: Baudelaire and Mallarmé on Poe, both translators of Poe, of the prose and poetry respectively; Lacan on Poe; Derrida on Lacan on Poe; etc. These are not so much a chain of commentaries as a network of crystallization, whose references, at the same time spiral off into a vertiginous depth. If one could inscribe the limits of this work between the figures of the crystal and spiral/arabesque, then one would have described the contour and structure of Graham’s work (and The System of Landor’s Cottage in particular). The hybrid product of Poe-Graham must be confronted, as well, with the compositional procedures of Raymond Roussel and the separate chain that that sets off. And in visual art, why not Broodthaer’s films and books, Dan Graham’s architectural models and pavilions and Robert Smithson’s landscape allegories. Hence the necessary construction of this catalogue as a nesting of citations, with its quotations a collection of cuttings from other sources brought together and pressed between the two covers of a book.  

1. Optical Machines and the Scene of Writing

As in the case of the mystic writing pad, I am asking in terms of the manual printing press the question of the writing machine which is to upset the active space of the proper body in the unlimited enmeshing of the machine-of-machines, hence of machine without hands. The question of the machine is asked one more time, between the pit and the pyramid, in the margins (of the Hegelian text).  

                    —Derrida, “Tympan”

Nothing fortuitous there, where chance seems to capture the idea, the machinery is the equal: not to judge, in consequence, these words—industrial or having to do with materiality: the manufacture of the book, as a whole about to issue forth, begins, as of one sentence. From time immemorial, the poet, concerned with the place for this line, in the sonnet that inscribes itself for the mind or upon pure space.


To start with a description—which will always be the description of a structure more than of a subject—of the ten years of works that precede The System of Landor’s Cottage or accompany its growth. Consisting of photographic works, the staging of a photographic apparatus, or an operation within a published text, Graham’s work has always taken landscape or some image of nature as its subject, whether its origin is natural (i.e., the world) or textual. This natural site in Graham’s work always already has a constructed order (or origin). These subjects are presented, on the one hand, in the intersection of the devices of lighting and framing that construct the apparatus of cinema or photography. That is to say, they are revealed by technique/technology and thereby brought to the condition of repetition. (Darkness functions as a condition of all these revelations.) On the other hand, an equivalent framing and apparatus is found for the texts as well, in which a pre-given text is the “ground” for a certain structural operation, as if nature to a construction. A particular text, through some fortuitous typographic coincidence, is interrupted and put into alteration with itself through the principle of repetition, an uncanny repetition. Or, a spacing is introduced into a text and a conjecture interpolated therein: a “tear” in the text leads to an unraveling and supplemental, seamless reweaving (Freud Supplement 170a-170d).    

Repetition is an enforced condition of the 1983 bookwork Lenz. Lenz takes advantage of a typographic setting to create a repetitive structure to Georg Buchner’s novella Lenz that loops through twenty-one sixteen-page signatures to make a 336-page book. The type is set so that after the first 1434 words—five pages—the second to fourth pages repeat themselves, although with no noticeable grammatical gap or initial seeming dislocation in meaning or context, until one finds oneself trapped in this loop structure. The semantic hinge that triggers the looping structure is the phrase “through the forest.”

The forest is the site of other Graham machine interventions into the landscape. 75 Polariods, 1976, consists of that number of polaroid flash photographs taken randomly at night in forests, parks and gardens and shown in a painted black room constructed for that purpose.  In Illuminated Ravine, 1979, a ravine is illuminated during “theatre hours” by industrial floodlights and “runs” for three nights. Two Generators, 1984, is an approximately four and one-half minute colour with sound 35 mm wide-screen featurette film described as: “A river illuminated by means of two self-sufficient commercial lighting systems for the duration fixed by the length of a single 400 ft. roll of 35 mm motion picture film.” To be viewed in commercial cinemas, the film is screened continuously for sixty to ninety minutes, the house lights being raised and dimmed, the curtain drawn and closed, for each film sequence/screening.

Respectively in these works, we have the random image, brought out from absolute darkness by the flash [arbitrary repetition]; the set-up of lighting, with emphasis on the framing of the event and presentation—two conditions that bring a subject into view; the same conditions of lighting and framing and presentation reinforced by and repeated in cinema screening. The subject brought into view does not seem as important as the conditions. The space of emergence is defined by light as well as by some institutional structuring: the studio, theatrical apparatus of lighting, the places of presentation. This emergence is no play of physis and techne, the revealing and unconcealment through technology. In these works, Graham creates conditions for emergence but then traps the viewer as much as the subject in repetition, a repetition no longer derived from an origin but sustained structurally.  In this, the loop structure of Lenz rehearses the repeated screenings of Two Generators (as well as the three “performances” of Illuminated Ravine).

Lenz marks a shift to writing in Graham’s work, even though that writing in this case was not penned by the artist. In Lenz a landscape scene becomes the scene of writing. But like all Graham works, Lenz is engendered through a certain framework, a framing device that is exaggerated and dispels itself at the same time. The framework of the looping structure that disappears in the text through the textual elision (“through the forest”) is much like the principle of film in its projection of a series of framed still images “enlivened” by the persistence of vision [Two Generators]. Repetition constitutes this writing as a machine. While a landscape scene takes place in and through writing, a machine is not absent, just as the landscape scene in Two Generators is made visible through the technology and apparatus of film.

The machine that is inscribed and elided in nature through repetition is made visible or rather actualized as architecture in two other complementary works, two camera obscura, one actualized, the other a project. The 1979 Camera Obscura was a 9 x 14 x 8 foot functioning camera obscura that recorded the image of an isolated tree in the countryside. The upside-down image of the tree and the model of the camera obscura are exhibited. If one experienced the original camera obscura, after stepping into the shed from full daylight an image slowly would emerge from the interior darkness.  Unlike the forceful intervention into the landscape of Illuminated Ravine and Two Generators the experience here is more passive in the reception of the image.  At the same time, though, the apparatus itself—a recording device—is installed architecturally in nature.[architecture as recording apparatus]. This work fulfils the third moment—of the emergence of the image (75 Polaroids); the conditions for bringing into view (Illuminated Ravine, Two Generators); finally, the installation of the apparatus itself (Camera Obscura).

The subject of landscape in Rodney Graham’s work is no return to an origin. Landscape is already text, and Graham’s operations “in nature” may be achieved through the conventions of publishing and bookmaking or through the apparatus for visual recording: lighting, etc. We have already noted that the operation may insert itself architecturally into the landscape, as in Camera Obscura. In this case architecture is also a machine: a camera that records its view. We shall see in The System of Landor’s Cottage that architecture in the landscape becomes another means of engendering--a descriptive model that takes place through text alone. Landscape and architecture both are subject to description; in The System of Landor’s Cottage, architecture also will become a machine that engenders narrative through description.

A landscape scene becomes the scene of writing through a framework (like Lenz), the framing of an apparatus that is writing, whose descriptions conform to a model, which may appear to come from elsewhere: the model of Landor’s cottage; or from language alone: the descriptive model that is the picturesque. A text that describes architecture may be defining itself and engendering its narrative at the same time. Such is The System of Landor’s Cottage. The work The System of Landor’s Cottage is composed of two elements: a book and an architectual model. The relations and referents of the two (text to model, model to real building, which we may diagram thus: <--model<-->text-->) are the not so simple subjects of this essay.

2. Narrative and Description

I despair of conveying to the reader any distinct conception of the marvels which my friend did actually accomplish. I wish to describe, but am disheartened by the difficulty of description, and hesitate between detail and generality. Perhaps the better course will be to unite the two in their extremes.

—Poe, “The Domain of Arnheim”

The parts to which phrenologists attribute the sense of the picturesque were nevertheless not lacking, but they seemed disturbed, oppressed, pushed aside by the haughty and usurping tyranny of comparison, of construction, and of causality.

—Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, His Life and Works

... [incomplete]

Catalogue of Exhibition

1. Lenz 1983
   hardcover book and brochure
   22.0 x 15.0 x 3.0 cm
   Art Gallery of Ontario, Purchase 1986
   (Collection of Ian Wallace, Vancouver)

2. Two Generators 1984
    35 mm film, edition 1 of 7
   canister 18.6 x 18.6 x 4.5 cm
   Art Gallery of Ontario, Purchase 1987

3. Freud Citation 1985
   photographic print and text, edition 7 of 10
   38.0 x 28.0 cm
   Collection of Kathleen Bryne, Vancouver

4. The System of Landor's Cottage 1986
   architectural model: paper, wood, mylar, organic materials, fabric, sawdust
   35.0 x 65.5 x 30.5 cm
   Art Gallery of Ontario, Purchase 1987

5. The System of Landor's Cottage 1987
   limited edition book, co-published by Yves Gevaert, Brussels and Art Gallery ofOntario
   24.2 x 16.4 x 3.0 cm
   Art Gallery of Ontario

6. Cyclamen Monograph 1987
   book dummy with printed cover, edition of 24
   25.2 x 17.0 x 1.8 cm
   Collection of Jeff Wall, Vancouver