Pleasure, Measure, Treasure

We Tell Stories  was een project van De Kijkdoos waarvoor kunstenaars en schrijvers werden uitgenodigd samen een presentatie te maken. Voor We Tell Stories IV werd ik gekoppeld aan kunstenaar Michiel Hilbrink. Onderstaande tekst schreef ik in het kader van deze gezamenlijke presentatie.

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TRANSLATION OF JANOSCH’ THE TRIP TO
PANAMA BY DAVID LITCHFIELD.

One morning as they sat and spoke by the shore
Little Tiger looked up then spoke no more

For there was a box and it floated on by.
Fish it out of the stream Little Bear did try.

Little Tiger helped; they caught it together.
Little Bear then knew they’d be friends forever.

On the box was a stamp that did proudly declare:
“Produce of Panama”, read Little Bear.

Inside it was fruit, both yellow and ripe:
A bunch of bananas – his favourite type.

“What a wonderful place this Panama must be,
where the sun always shines and bananas are free!

I N  S E A R C H  O F  P A N A M A

The children’s book In Search of Panama by Janosch tells the story of Little Bear and Little Tiger, two friends on a quest to discover Panama after finding a banana box in a river that triggers a longing for this land of their dreams (“where it smells like bananas from top to bottom”). They pack their bags and embark on a journey that will eventually lead them back to their own home, unrecognizably overrun by plants and trees. Not realising they’ve ended up where they started, Bear and Tiger happily nest in their ‘Panama’, their ‘new’ home.

T H E  I M A G I N A T I O N  O F  T H E  ‘ O T H E R ’

Simply put, the moral of this story comes down to the concept that the grass is not always greener on the other side: Bear and Tiger already had everything they could have wished for. But the story also seems to be about the way in which we imagine far places and create fantasies about exotic destinations. Bear and Tiger’s idea of Panama was not based on facts, but the banana box stimulated a desire which resulted in a fantasy about this place. A banana box being a stereotypical example, objects and images tend to trigger a desire to be elsewhere. Think of paintings of wild waterfalls, the yellow coloured carpet at your local travel agency or a map of the unknown. These images and objects are archetypes of otherness; all charged with a symbolism that makes us dream of and long for the exotic or the other.
Whether our fantasies about the foreign are closely connected to reality is debatable. Our mind seems to create an idea[1] of the exotic, and images guide us in shaping and forming these ideals. The desire that results (or lies at the heart of its creation) is based on what we expect the exotic to be, feel, or look like, and not on what it actually constitutes.
When Paul Gauguin, one of the painters who introduced primitivism into art, painted Tahiti, he did not report on Tahiti as it actually was, but as he saw it. Tahitian writer Chantal Spitz claims that Tahitians do not identify themselves with the way in which Gauguin represented them and their country, but that the painter drew an image of the ‘exotic’ Tahiti as he desired it to be. Gauguin did not paint Tahiti, but his Tahitian dream. This might illustrate that the exotic is no more than a concept – its roots not tied to any actual geographical location – but that the desire of it constitutes a psychological longing for the ‘other’. For even as you reside in the ‘exotic’, the desire is still present.

A  C H A N G I N G  C O N C E P T  O F  T H E  E X O T I C

Due to globalisation’s acceleration, the experience of the faraway is changing. For-eign places, previously unknown, are now closer than ever. We are more familiar with these once mysterious destinations, since we ‘experience’ them through television and Internet or may have visited them personally. Today, former exotic arenas might even be changing into ultra-modern technological societies. Furthermore, by incorporating the ‘exotic’ into our daily envi-
ronment, we have made it increasingly our own. Exotic plants and animals nest in
our homes, and fruit from far away countries are sold around the corner.
But even though the reality of the concept exotic is changing, certain images and objects (as the ones mentioned above) remain exemplary for the exotic and otherness – and they might have more to do with an internal longing for all things different, for the ‘other’, than for the actual exotic places. They remain strong symbols for dreams and desire.

R E P R O D U C T I O N  O F  D E S I R E

Thus, even as the actuality of the exotic is changing, the psychological longing and desire for the exotic seem to remain the same. This psychological aspect leads us to Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytical concept of desire. According to Lacan, desire is entangled in a fantasy version of reality. As fantasies do not necessarily correspond with reality, desire relies on a lack, something that is missing. This lack, which is a fundamental part of desire, ensures that we continue to crave. If we come too close to our object of desire – to, in this context, our longing for the exotic – we are threatened with an uncovering of the lack. Never fully attaining our object of desire is crucial in order for our desire to persist. Therefore we must keep well away from the actual exotic. As philospher Slavoj Zizek puts it: “Desire’s raison d’être is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire.”
In the documentary The White Diamond by Werner Herzog this characteristic of desire is illustrated. The story focuses on an airship engineer who wishes to fly his zeppelin above the Guyanese jungle canopy. The film’s most magnificent and memorable shots are those of the Kaieteur Falls, in which we see an enormous flock of swifts dive into the caves behind the waterfall. The caves are inaccessible to humans, and the local villagers have been fantasizing for ages about what the secret kingdom of these swifts beholds. But as is pointed out by one of the villagers, they are eager to keep it a mystery. For what is left to desire once this ‘unknown’ is discovered?
Perhaps Bear and Tiger reached ‘Panama’, but it is their fantasy-Panama based on a desire for the exotic, and it remains a fictive image of what the exotic is and how it should be. Their desire for the exotic relies mainly on a curiosity for the ‘other’ and for being elsewhere. This desire is an important human drive, but if it is to keep us going, the object must remain at a safe distance and we must never actually reach our desired destination.

[1] Which is of course part of the larger debate about the stigmatizing of the East by the West and exotism.