Thinking about infinity, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges came to mind Known for his short stories depicting labyrinth-like worlds within worlds defying time and place, characters plagued with impossible absolute memories, and strangely terrifying endlessly paged books and roomed libraries, his writings exemplify a cosmic ambition to describe the destabilizing vastness and boundlessness of infinity and time itself.
Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941) starts out like a traditional spy story in the form of a statement written by a Dr. Yu Tsun, a Chinese English teacher and spy for the German Empire living in the United Kingdom during World War I. British Captain Richard Marden is hunting for Tsun and Tsun knows he will be arrested soon. He needs to convey the location of a secret British artillery park to the German Empire before he is captured. He avoids Marden by running to the house of Dr. Stephen Albert, a well-known Sinologist. Dr. Albert is excited to learn that Tsun is the descendent of Ts’ui Pen, a man he has been studying for a long time. Ts’ui was known for writing an intricate unbound manuscript, which no one could make sense of, and for making a labyrinth, which was never found. However, Dr. Albert has arrived at a solution to this puzzle and has realized the labyrinth and the manuscript are one in the same and that the manuscript is the labyrinth. Albert shows how Ts’ui’s manuscript “The Garden of Forking Paths” describes a world in which all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously with each diverging (and sometimes converging) into an infinite set of possibilities.
Daedalus’ creation, the labyrinth of Crete, is of course the most famous example of such an infinite maze, and one that was no doubt dear to Borges. Ovid suggested that Daedalus was so cunning in his design, not even he could not find his way out. A creator lost infinitely in his creation. Medieval Christianity, with its passion for allegory, imagined the labyrinth as a miniature Kingdom in which time and space—for instance, the stations of the cross—could be allegorized by the travel of souls back to their source. Their conception of a labyrinth of unicursal turns limited one’s movement, making the drive to complete the labyrinth more desirable. Differing from a maze, the labyrinth has no dead ends, only circuitous turns where the entrance is simultaneously also an exit.
As artists we are always engaged in our own private labyrinths, where exits are entrances implying an infinite striving to make the next piece better than the last, to surpass ourselves in the success of exhibitions, reviews, or recognition. Like Tsun, our labyrinths contain “both the past and the future… the living countryside, the moon, the remains of the day….” The material for our work is always “near, yet infinite” (Borges, 1998).
As Skowhegan Alliance curators, our work recalls another famous example of the infinite: Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. In this parable, Achilles is in a footrace with the tortoise but can never overtake the slower tortoise because once he reaches the point where the tortoise has started, the tortoise has already advanced ahead of him. Like Achilles, each year the Alliance programs work from our alumni, yet, every year, new residents attend, new alumni join our ranks, new or unseen works are submitted, and the infinite cycle continues.
From this well of talent, constantly in advance and ahead of us, we are pleased to present this retrospective, spanning some of our favorite video works from each of the last seven years of curated screenings. We do not, however, see this retrospective as an arrestment of infinity; rather, as a reminder that repetition, also, is a form of infinity, and the viewing of the work of art in a new context speaks to works’ infinite resources of meaning. In this sense, they resemble Heraclitus’ famous statement on the infinite: you cannot step into the same stream twice.
A final note: The Borges’ story, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” was perhaps also evocative for us for more personal reasons.
The central sentence of the story is delivered to Tsun by Dr. Albert while explaining the meaning of Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinthine work. It reads: “I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths.” (2) Albert clarifies that, although all previous interpreters had imagined the labyrinth only in terms of a physical space, the work of art that composed Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth was not physical, at all, but rather realized through a play of time and its variations, the outcomes, as composed in the book, gave the appearance of chaos. It was, as Albert notes, “a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.” (3)
Our friend and co-curator of the past seven years of Skowhegan Alliance video screenings, Noah Klersfeld, passed away one year ago, and we believe he would have enjoyed Ts’ui Pen’s insight. In particular, Noah’s series, Above Ground Work and Below Ground Work, resonates.
In Above Ground Work, Noah wrote, “Anonymous activity is tethered to the surface of the video plane, confined by the patterned structures of the built environment.” (4) Seen through the static spaces of a chain link fence, an infinite progression of people, cars, and their movements converge in finite space to transcend it. The anonymous comings and goings filmed over multiple periods in time blend into a rhythm of activity where localization of the physical gives way to an infinite number of happenings: like the city itself, irreducible to any singular instance. In Below Ground Work, a similar approach is taken: the tiling of subway stations frames countless comings and goings of subway cars and people, the pulsations and rumblings of the city, endless boardings, unboardings, on-time arrivals, and missed trains. In these works, Noah’s “anonymous activity” is like Ts’ui Pen’s “dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times—and perhaps suggestive, also, “of forking paths,” and “several futures (but not all).” (5)
In Borges’ story, the artist, Ts’ui Pen, believed that time contained infinite realities with infinite outcomes. We don’t know whether this is true, but we do know that, in this one, Noah will be deeply missed.
We dedicate this screening to the memory of Noah Klersfeld.