Edinburgh Book Festival
13th August 2017
Teju Cole is hard to pin down into a category, and I expect he likes it that way. An award-laden Nigerian-American author, photographer, art historian and critic, including for the New York Times, Teju was talking with Chicagoan Elizabeth Reeder, currently Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Glasgow University. The hour began with photographs from his new book displayed on the screen, as he read the poetic and intriguing text that accompanied each one. It’s a huge, 300-page tome of both photographs and accompanying text, which takes longer to read than a novel of similar length due to the time taken to study and reflect on each image. He’s the author of four books, seemingly unrelated, but actually forming a loose quartet of themes. Reeder talked about Cole’s circular technique of ‘return’, looking at something again and again to explore it in a different or deeper way, similar to the spiral-like structure of Toni Morrison’s more complex novels.
The images ranged from a young boy in sea water wearing a black glove, eerie simple wooden crosses at the US-Mexican border, a potentially ominous water standpipe in Brooklyn, scenes in London, Lagos and the French countryside. He lets us see these snaps of life through his personal lens, anchoring each one with a snippet of story, history and meaning; the pathos of the the disabled daughter like ‘an astronaut far away from home’, and the beauty of ‘the bunting of vintners’ blue nets’. The name Blind Spot plays on several ideas. The lack of meaningful reference points, our blind spots when looking at unfamiliar peoples and places that are barely, superficially or falsely represented in the mainstream. Cole’s own brush with temporary blindness in 2011, which no doubt spawned a renewed appreciation for the gift of sight, and a sense of double vision; looking outward and inward at the same time. Because he is a multi-media artist, when his work is in a gallery, he is able to play with form, structure and logic to different effects, and may just compress his show into just 7 chosen slides. He’s open to new forms, including live performance, depending on whatever channel the work needs to express itself through, and has been inspired greatly by film.
Cole regularly revisits, in his own words, several particular themes. Human fragility and the uncertainty of the body, issues of faith and religion, and thirdly, political tension, and quotes the enduring influence of Homer’s Iliad on his world view and art. Because he is both a photography critic and photographer, one set of skills and knowledge intimately affects the other. He admits that the text can both explicate and complicate, which provoked of the audience members to ask for more explanation. “I don’t know,” he said with a smile, “I could just make something up.” He suggests that having words with pictures forces the viewer to slow down and gaze at the pictures for longer, even though he humbly suggests that the images themselves are “aggressively banal”.
Reeder wondered about travel and how it informs his work. He said the work was never about travel per se, but more “how to go to places and be completely depressed”, making his the anti-travel memoir. He explained that although certain symbols have become instantly recognisable symbols of a place, acting to supposedly differentiate it from other places was often actually false representation, being only espoused by a tiny minority. Scottish men in kilts, for instance. He prefers to look under the surface and find the essential differences in the history of what created the peculiarities of that particular place, precisely because each place has a vested interest in suppressing its own history.
Yet the love for the art forms themselves is strong. As well as to make people think in new ways, his goal is also creating pleasure. His satisfaction comes from the fact he is able to shape and prepare an experience for the reader/viewer. Just like a pianist playing legato, where the flow of the notes creates the beauty and the feeling of pleasure, good writing does exactly the same. His metaphors and worldview lean to his Nigerian background and culturally holistic patterns of thought and debate, such as allowing ‘windows for spirits to get in and out’. We’re keenly aware that we are just being allowed a peep into his vast, hidden depths and wish he could continue in his humble and softly-spoken way, with what he finds most difficult and we find so wildly compelling; ‘making his vulnerability formal’.
Reviewed by: Lisa Williams