Chinese-Western materialisms of time, writing and death

As argued by Norman Bryson, the still-life genre is sorely neglected by theorists and critics, largely because its concern with ‘low-plane reality’ (everyday items and acts) has obscured its genuine relevance to material thinking. By reappraising rather than abandoning the genre’s traditional themes of death and time—using a cross-cultural, Chinese-Western approach—it is possible to re-energise materialisms of time, writing and death within still life. Such a move depends above all on a re-evaluation of still life as ‘Vanitas’—the term which to date has unified, and more to the point limited, traditional still-life understandings of death and time. This article tracks a more explosive and creative materialism of still life simultaneously through the specifically Chinese approach to death (which includes the ‘Yin Yang’ 阴阳 as a sort of author of time) and via Gilles Deleuze’s cinematic philosophy of the time-image; what connects these is the very Deleuzean notion of time that subtends Chinese engagements with death. In this way, the still-life genre may be recovered from its current critical and theoretical malaise. Reconnecting with practice is a crucial aspect of this recovery, and so in its early stages this article analyses an example of still-life, creative non-fiction (authored by Cher Coad), and it concludes by establishing the value of this potentially ‘new chapter of the “still life” genre’ (in Matilde Marcolli’s terms) for the cross-artform analysis of the short story ‘Nhill’ (authored by Patrick West). Analysis, though, is only half the picture: a fully recovered still-life genre would see theory and practice endlessly circulating through each other, spurring on practice and impelling theory. Coad’s and West’s literary examples are introduced in the hope that they might trigger fresh theoretical and practice-based, still-life discoveries in prose and also in poetry.


Keywords: Chinese—cross-artform—materialist—Nhill—recovery—still life—time-image—Vanitas 

In her article ‘Still life as a model of spacetime’, mathematician Matilde Marcolli recently called for ‘practicing artists, to take up the challenge and paint a new chapter of the “still life” genre, suitable for the minds of the current century’ (2013: 3). If we pass over the question of whether artists should ever prioritise making art suitable to the minds of the century, Marcolli can be seen to usefully reverse engineer the preoccupation, in the literature of still life, with the genre’s recovery from its neglect at the hands of critics and theorists. It is almost axiomatic that the creative potential of any artform is held back when critical and theoretical reflection fails to keep pace with practice. As Estelle Barrett comments, ‘The interplay of ideas from disparate areas of knowledge in creative arts research creates conditions for the emergence of new analogies, metaphors and models for understanding objects of enquiry’ (2007: 7). Of course, this interplay of ideas can always take place within practice itself. However, criticism and theory are able to contribute creatively, from other perspectives, and with other voices, than those of practice.

Why has still life not enjoyed these advantages? For Norman Bryson, the genre’s neglect within the academy can be attributed, funnily enough, to the sheer magnitude of its presence within so many historical and cultural contexts:

Although the genre of still life is as obvious a piece of our basic cultural furniture as history painting or landscape—or Westerns, or thrillers—its inevitability and indispensability have not helped it generate much corresponding light (or heat) in critical discussion. It has always been the least theorised of the genres, and when the academies that launched the first theoretical accounts of painting came to mention it at all, they did so disparagingly (Bryson 1990: 8).

Bryson goes on to suggest that still life suffers from being ‘the genre at the furthest remove from narrative’ and thus ‘the hardest for critical discourse to reach’ (1990: 9). But he settles on the conclusion that the still-life preoccupation with everyday objects such as ‘bowls, jugs, pitchers and vases’ creates a dulling familiarity, and that this is what is mainly responsible for making the genre anathematic to the serious art historian (1990: 13). On this note, Bryson underscores the paradox whereby the everyday and ordinary—in a word, material—subjects of still life taint it with the appearance of not being material enough for critics and theorists of a materialist bent to be bothered with. That is, its sheer proliferation as a genre makes art seem, but only seem, to behave ‘in exactly the way the enemies of materialist thought always maintained it did: as timeless, universal, transcending local conditions, inhabiting a higher Platonic realm somewhere above and beyond the struggles of history’ (1990: 12).

Hoping to address this misapprehension through the notion of a non-atomistic, still-life ‘series’ (Bryson 1990: 11) that would calm the Platonic overtones of ‘genre’, Bryson signals his interest in still life as an arena of ‘low-plane reality’ (1990: 14). Conceived as the ‘slowest, most entropic level of material existence’ (1990: 13), this is the domain of ‘the small-scale, trivial, forgettable acts of bodily survival and self-maintenance’ (1990: 14). In this, Bryson finds materialist concerns writ large, for the everyday and the ordinary simply infiltrate cultures and historical periods more extensively than other expressions of materialism such as revolutions or wars. Still life is far from Platonic. To the contrary, it represents the relatively enduring vicissitudes of the material, within Bryson’s ‘low-plane’ of reality, across globalised circumstances of culture and history. The notion of still-life writing under development in this article incorporates this endurance of ordinary acts and things even as they are being irradiated by particles of time and death.

Due no doubt to its unpopularity with critics and theorists, as shown by Bryson, still life is often left undefined or ill-defined. Bryson asks at one point whether it even exists at all—‘there is still something unjustified about the term, in that it takes in so much’ (1990: 7). As a placing shot only, and with conscious reference to the title of Bryson’s study (Looking at the overlooked), we suggest a tentative definition of still life as the painterly expression of the overlooked, everyday and above all material elements of culture and history: table items; acts of etiquette; habits and mannerisms.

What this definition fails to capture completely, however, is the popular and crucial association of still life with the way its subjects, however menial, are brushed with the inevitable passage of time: in other words, ‘Vanitas’. Marcolli defines ‘Vanitas’, which she calls a technical term for still life, as the expression of ‘the transient nature of time, the fugitive instant, the brevity of life’ (2013: 4). Of course, the moral project of still life asserts itself here: ‘memento mori’; all is vanity; tomorrow you may die … To put this in the terms of our discussion so far, guided as it has been by Bryson’s (1990) seminal work, the relative luxury or indulgence of the ordinary, everyday preoccupations of the still-life genre (say, fresh fruit, a warm fireplace, or a gentlemanly act) carry a secondary charge that upbraids human vanity.

However, Bryson’s argument and his definition of still life actually catch up with ‘Vanitas’, we suggest, by a slightly different route. This is because Bryson’s materialist approach itself also makes allusion, albeit indirectly, to the notion of still life as ‘Vanitas’. That is, time’s presence is, of course, the most ubiquitous—the most material—of all human engagements. ‘What is curious about this level,’ Bryson writes ‘is that it is inescapable’ (1990: 13). Implicit in ‘the conditions of creaturality’ that Bryson cites as characteristic of still life (eating, drinking and so on) is that these are precisely how humans attempt, not only to stave off the inevitability of death, as ‘Vanitas’ would have it, but to survive in time (1990: 13). Bryson nuances ‘Vanitas’ materially with time. His notion of ‘low-plane reality’ (1990: 14), while it is bordered by, and interacts with, ‘the “higher” levels of culture’ in particular examples of still life, is also bordered by the operations of time, not only as ‘Vanitas’ (a species-specific understanding of death as time’s human limit), but as time in itself (1990: 13).

Thus, following Bryson (1990), it is through its intimacy with materiality that still life is woven into time. As Yannis Hamilakis and Jo Labanyi observe, alluding to Henri Bergson’s insights, ‘a fundamental property of material is its duration, its ability to defy linear, modernist conceptions of time, seen as irreversible movement and progression’ (Hamilakis & Labanyi 2008: 5). While ‘Vanitas’ tells us that the time of all human lives will, inevitably, end in death, the notion of the materiality of time that Bryson (1990), in effect, smuggles into his analysis, transcends the moralism of ‘Vanitas’. Still life may well be woven with death, but death is woven out of time. It is at this juncture that other modes of enquiry into the nature of time itself—in tandem with, if not triggered by, other understandings of death itself—start infiltrating the picture of still life.

As part of the recovery of the still-life genre that manifestly engages Marcolli (2013) and Bryson (1990), there appears to be a concomitant reappraisal, one especially evident in Bryson, into the relationship of the genre to death. Bryson lets the cat out of the bag when he links the still-life genre to explicitly materialist concerns because this opens the way to thinking both death and time—separately and together—in a more materialist fashion. (In a sense, while he criticises other theorists for not being materialist enough in their appreciation of still life, he does not fully own the still more fundamental level of materialist thinking, around death and time, that his own work points towards.) As for Marcolli, her presentation of still life as a series of scientific time/space formulations operates as a subtle dig at the notion of time as merely a passage towards death. Bryson initiates an analysis that permeates down into the lowest level of the material—materialist time—and, within that footing, opens up new ways of thinking about time beyond ‘Vanitas’; Marcolli comes in, from another direction, with her post-Einsteinian notions of time. In both cases though, we suggest, the challenge is to retain the connection(s) of still life to death (for this linkage is so fundamental to the genre historically and aesthetically) while liberating its time-based dimensions. Here then is not so much a gap in knowledge to be filled as a fuzzy patch in the theory and practice of still life, where issues of time and death endlessly re-coalesce, which might be repaired or, better still, re-stitched through further research. As practitioners and equally theorists, we see the examples of our own creative non-fiction and fiction writing included in this article as an integral part of such research.

In summary then, so far as still life is concerned, the notion of ‘Vanitas’ is not sufficient to the materialist complexities of death and time that will, we think, aid in the recovery of the genre (following the precedent established by Bryson [1990] and Marcolli [2013], we call it a genre, although we acknowledge that it may also be thought of as a mode within broader genres of writing). When death and time are allowed to flow through each other, in a more materialist way, each notion becomes more creative and productive. It is on this basis, therefore, that we propose a fresh examination of the notion of death—energised by a cross-cultural approach—as crucial to the project of the recovery of the still-life genre on both its critical/theoretical and practice-based fronts. Western theorists like Marcolli and Bryson may equivocate over the still-life link to a version of time that posits death as the fundamental brake on human time (‘Vanitas’), but they fail to fully re-evaluate the importance of death—in particular, what death might mean for a more complex understanding of time—to the critical reception and (most saliently for us as creative writers) the creation of the (literary) still-life genre.

To pursue this line of enquiry, however, we must bring in another theorist of still life (who has been waiting, as it were, in the frame for quite a while now) at the same time as we begin developing a cross-cultural engagement with Chinese and Western understandings of death. These cultures deal with death through a range of different technologies (by which we mainly mean burial and mourning practices) that shape it as an issue of time, space and movement. Gilles Deleuze’s (1989; 1992) value to the consideration of these spatio-temporal notions, and also how the features of Chinese and Western cultural traditions might fold into and problematise his various philosophical insights and positions, will become more evident as we unfold our argument around still life.

In fine, our sideways half-step of genre (from Bryson [1990] and Marcolli’s [2013] concern with painting to Deleuze’s [1989; 1992] cinematic focus) assists with the larger, cross-artform jump from visual arts theory into literary, still-life writing that this article attempts. Simultaneously, our cross-cultural approach allows us to make comparisons between Chinese and Western technologies of death, and to identify and exploit productive cross-cultural synergies, to further liberate the still-life genre. Meanwhile, subtending all of this is the idea that notions of both time and death need to be kept constantly in play if the future of the genre is going to keep touch with its past as ‘Vanitas’.

We should acknowledge at this point that China and the West are by no means homogeneous cultural categories, and nor can the boundaries between the two cultures ever be defined with absolute clarity. Our method has been to situate ourselves in the overlapping spaces of the cultures; although, as our starting point lies within the Western, mainly art-historical literature on still life, naturally we will focus more on how Chinese culture problematises this. The benefits of such a mode of cross-cultural analysis (within the relatively narrow framework of our concerns) have not, to our knowledge, been recognised until now, even though the traditional Chinese view of death always already involves time-space notions that very closely parallel certain Western theories of still life. To wit, Deleuze’s (1989; 1992) scholarship on still life is subtended by a philosophy of time that, especially in the concept of the time-image developed in his studies of cinema, converges with the Chinese theory of death.

We should also acknowledge, before going any further, that we are hardly the first to see the usefulness for creative-arts practice of Deleuzean philosophy. Still we are the first, we believe, to test the extent to which Deleuze’s (1989; 1992) work on the still life—especially when it is complemented by the Chinese approach to death and its implications for time—assists creative-writing practices of still life. Furthermore, looking down this road in the other direction, part of the process of the recovery of still life as a genre might depend upon its influence on artistic practices outside of painting and, indeed, outside of the visual arts more broadly. Putting the genre to work like this could conceivably aid in the recovery of the genre per se. Nevertheless, this is subsidiary to our primary aim in writing this article: that is, our conclusion will consider, and emphasise, how a cross-cultural understanding of (painterly) still life can reinvigorate both the practice and the critique of literary, still-life writing. To do this, we end by analysing in some detail Patrick West’s (2008) short story, ‘Nhill’.

To pave the way for this analysis, however, we need to notice initially that, for the Chinese, the treatment of death is based on a belief in two equally important worlds or spaces: the actual world of the living and the virtual world of the dead. The living world is ‘Yang Jian’ 阳间. ‘Jian’ means ‘World’ or ‘Space’. ‘Yang’ represents the sun, light and knowing, and includes the things we can see and touch with our everyday senses. ‘Yang Jian’ might be translated as ‘Living World Space, or Surroundings.’ Our term for this space is ‘Life’. The ‘other’ world is ‘Yin Jian’ 阴间. ‘Yin’ represents darkness and ignorance. This is the world of the dead, which is apprehended only through a prehension surpassing the five senses. ‘Yin Jian’ might be translated as ‘Dark World Space, or Surroundings.’ We term this space ‘Still Life’. The Chinese believe that the world of the dead not only mirrors but also potentially repossesses the living world. That’s why we use the term ‘Still Life’ for the virtual world of the dead. This world is life stilled, not death as the complete end of life.

To maintain a safe separation between the two worlds (that is, to avoid problems of the disruptive spatial/temporal movements of the virtual world in the actual world) cemeteries in China are usually located in remote regions, far from where the dead once lived among those who survive them in the actual world. (Indeed, at least until recently, the concept of a communal cemetery, as understood in the West, was virtually unknown in China.) As a cultural signifier of the potential havoc that the world of the dead can wreak on the world of the living, Chinese graves1 themselves are often haphazard and overgrown affairs—sequestered catastrophes of space—by contrast with the neat rows of white crosses in Western war cemeteries and the neatly demarcated sections for each different religion in Western civilian cemeteries. In his short story ‘Evermore’, Julian Barnes describes Western war cemeteries as ‘sanctuaries of orderliness, where everything was accounted for’ with the dead ‘present and correct, listed, tended’ (1996: 94). Because it understands death in this way, Western culture typically sees no need to copy the Chinese practice of maintaining a physical distance between the (past) dead and the (present) living.

Now, in the Chinese culture, when a person dies, the family calls upon a ‘Yin Yang’ 阴阳 to choose a place for the body to be buried. The ‘Yin Yang’ is a mediator between the two worlds of ‘Yin Jian’ and ‘Yang Jian’ and is someone who occupies the switching point of the present and the past. Ambiguously a magician, witch or artist, the ‘Yin Yang’ attempts control of—wrestles with—space, movement and time. As a mutating figure, we suggest that the ‘Yin Yang’ is open to deliberate cultural and cross-cultural mutations. Later on in this article, we propose that the ‘Yin Yang’ (or ‘death magician’) can usefully be mutated into a model of the creative writer.

In the following unpublished, creative non-fiction piece (modified from her PhD thesis), Cher Coad (2012) recalls how, as a child growing up by the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia, she had a terrifying if not life-ending encounter with death. This passage both reiterates our discussion about the Chinese approach to death, and exemplifies the mutability of the ‘Yin Yang’:

At school, all the students could talk about was the fishing accident, and the dead bodies found with the fish in a net. At lunchtime, some of the boys and girls decided to go to the morgue at the Workers Hospital to see the bodies of the fishermen.

At first, I refused to go. But in the end the lure of death was irresistible. Two boys who had seen the dead men promised that one of the three bodies was still moving. ‘It looked so extraordinary!’ the two boys shouted. Another two girls had never seen a dead body. They went off with the boys to have a look. When they returned, there was disagreement in the party. Two said that the body was still moving. Two said not. It was up to me to make a final judgement.

Now I was to be the ‘Yin Yang’ for my friends.

In the end, I had to be dragged up to the front of the morgue. The two rusty iron doors were closed. There was a gap for ventilation above the doors, which was covered by iron rails. The boys made a gap between the two doors for me to peer in. My girlfriends were staring at me. I brought my face up close to the gap. Everyone was waiting. My eyes adjusted to the dark. I felt a last slice of sunshine arc across the back of my neck.

I pushed harder at the gap and felt myself being squeezed inside the morgue. Dust floated slowly in the air. Several birds were crawling all over the bodies. They looked up at me. Wearing the clothes they had dressed in to go fishing, the men were laid out casually on the floor, almost carelessly positioned in their afterlife. One had his back towards me. His clothes were covered with blood and dirt. I recall that the other man’s face was bruised and swollen, so as to make him unrecognisable. The third one’s mouth was open.

‘Can you see it?’ One of the boys asked from outside.

The birds must have realised I was no threat to them. One continued to pick things from one of the bodies. Another jumped onto the face of one of the men. In a blink of an eye, I spotted one man’s arm moving. He seemed as if about to sit himself up. I screamed, and the other girls and boys outside the morgue screamed back at me. I pushed myself back through the iron doors of the morgue and we all ran away as if being chased by dead men. All the way to a busy intersection we ran, screaming our frightened verdict on the state of the dead and the living … juvenile ‘Yin Yangs’ (2012: 289-294).

Little wonder that, with all of the intensities of Chinese culture (regarding time, space, movement, the actual, and the virtual) bearing down on her as a youngster, Cher had imaginatively witnessed such an irregular image of movement … Even a child, it seems, can be a ‘Yin Yang’. Even, perhaps, a writer …

As mentioned above, Marcolli defines ‘Vanitas’ (her technical term for still life) as the expression of ‘the transient nature of time, the fugitive instant, the brevity of life’ (2013: 4). By this definition alone, Coad’s (2012) piece is itself an example of the still-life genre. Additionally though, this writing also partakes of Bryson’s understanding of still life as ‘low-plane reality’ (1990: 14). The reader might notice the ordinary, everyday, material objects of rural China in the 1970s: a net, dust, fishing clothes, birds, a decrepit morgue, even quotidian markers of time (lunchtime). But to see how an awareness of the (un-)timely ‘Yin Yang’ adds substantially to the still-life genre, we next need to investigate the intimacy of the idea of the ‘Yin Yang’ with the idea of the time-image.

In the irregular movement of the time-image as described by Gilles Deleuze (1989; 1992), it is possible to notice an equivalent to the way in which the Chinese regard death as a matter of space and irregular movement consequent on time in its so-called raw state. In acknowledging the confusion of past and present, Chinese death creates, directly from time’s rawness, spatial irregularities that the ‘Yin Yang’ alone can confront, and (perhaps) settle, through those sequestered catastrophes of space described above. No time is more materialised than Chinese (deathly) time, and Chinese death (in its ‘low-plane’ disorder) is like a still-life scenario in itself—with the ‘Yin Yang’ as its artist (Bryson 1990: 14).

According to Gilles Deleuze (1989; 1992), the innovations of postwar Modernist cinema give access to time in the raw state. As Constantin V. Boundas puts it, ‘around 1950, an older, “organic” cinema, in which temporality was governed by the movement of action and the linear development of the narrative, is separated from “crystalline” cinema, where time offers itself directly to thought’ (1997: 21). The pre-1950 movement-image expresses time as we commonly understand it: time linked to an ordered sense of movement (which recalls the ordered nature of the cemeteries Barnes [1996] describes in ‘Evermore’). As Claire Colebrook explains, the movement-image gives ‘time as the joining up of movement’ (2002: 40). Meanwhile, the time-image works the other way around. For Deleuze, writing in Cinema 2: the time-image, ‘“Time is out of joint”: it is off the hinges assigned to it by behaviour in the world, but also by movements of world. It is no longer time that depends on movement; it is aberrant movement that depends on time’ (1989: 41). In Colebrook’s words: ‘Time, far from being some sort of glue that holds distinct points of experience together, is an explosive force. Time is the power of life to move and become’ (2002: 40).

What Deleuze (1989; 1992), Boundas (1997) and Colebrook (2002) describe here connects to the time of death as understood in Chinese culture, whereby the wild movements of death (created by time ‘out of joint’) have the potential to unsettle life-death (present-past) relations, which must then be re-settled by the ‘Yin Yang’, if possible, in the spatial positioning of remote graves. Furthermore, the Deleuzean idea of time as ‘the power of life to move and become’ (Colebrook 2002: 40) reappears in, for example, the Qingming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day), when life is energised through a ritualised engagement with death. Settling relations with death does not mean shutting death off completely from life. The subtle genius of the Chinese tradition, as overseen by the ‘Yin Yang’, lies in creating and maintaining a balance whereby death is also a (Deleuzean) ‘power of life’.

In the following passage, Deleuze (1989) expresses how crystalline time, as mirrored in the exuberantly chaotic time of Chinese death, is both chaotic (splitting) and creative (life giving):

What constitutes the crystal-image is the most fundamental operation of time: since the past is constituted not after the present that it was but at the same time, time has to split itself in two at each moment as present and past, which differ from each other in nature … Time has to split at the same time as it sets itself out or unrolls itself: it splits in two dissymmetrical jets, one of which makes all the present pass on, while the other preserves all the past … What we see in the crystal is always the bursting forth of life, of time, in its dividing in two or differentiation (1989: 81, 91).

Death in Chinese is ‘si’ 死, a word without specific tense, which signifies death as conditioned by time in its raw state, and thus a trigger of aberrant movement. The ‘Yin Yang’ apportions movement and maps space around this split time (in Deleuze’s [1989; 1992] sense) or tense-less (splitting) time of death as ‘si’. Yet in ‘si’ there is also life. ‘Si’ ‘is’ … In the manifestation of the ‘Yin Yang’, which even a child can adopt, there seems to be an analogue to the process by which a writer might write the time-image as just such a (never-entirely-to-be-settled) settlement of past and present, of death and life: that is, as still life—life stilled. Like the ‘Yin Yang’, writers might be viewed as figures that invite chaotic expressions of time, place, movement and space into their process while, at the same time, trying to control these expressions within the boundaries, such as they are, of writing. Just as the Chinese technology of death can succeed or fail in any given instance of a person’s death, so too any given instance of writing can cohere or collapse around issues of time: texts can be ‘readable’ or ‘unreadable’. (The authors of this article travelled to Qing Tong Xia, NingXia, China, near the Yellow River, in March 2013, to re-bury the parents of Cher Coad after a change of circumstances made their original burial site, in cultural terms, ‘unreadable’.)

Furthermore, as we will now briefly argue, writing itself—for its unchanging material qualities—may be seen as still life. According to Deleuze, ‘[t]he still life is time, for everything that changes is in time, but time does not itself change, it could itself change only in another time, indefinitely’ (1989: 17). Put another way, the still life, as an instance of the time-image, ‘gives what changes the unchanging form in which the change is produced’ (Deleuze 1989: 17). With this theoretical framework to hand, Deleuze is able to read certain still-life texts as ‘defined by the presence and composition of objects which are wrapped up in themselves or become their own container’ (1989: 16). We suggest that, while Deleuze’s immediate focus is on the cinematic still life, his words in these passages imply that writing in and of itself may be regarded as still life. For all writing has an unchanging material form (what Julia Kristeva calls ‘uttered, written, or gestured materiality’ [1989: 6]) that nevertheless creates, through combinations of the material, ‘becoming, change, passage’ (Deleuze 1989: 17). To see or hear a word in a language one does not know is to encounter this materiality with a vengeance. In poststructuralist terms, within the unchanging form of writing, change (the creation of meaning and affect) is a product of difference, not of a one-to-one correspondence between the signifier and signified. What Deleuze enables us to see, in a sense, is the other side of this coin: that is, Western writing (no different in this sense from non-alphabetical Chinese hieroglyphic writing) is also a material thing—‘wrapped up in [itself]’ (1989: 16). Signifiers are things: like 死. ‘Death’ signifies through difference and also through how it is ‘still-life like’ in itself.

We add here that what the insistent materiality of Bryson’s (1990) analysis and definition of still life touches into may well be, in addition to time itself as materiality, language itself as a material stratum of the most humdrum aspects of human existence. At the base of the human is both time and language. Kristeva argues that ‘considering man as language and putting language in the place of man constitutes the demystifying gesture par excellence’ (4). Our material as writers is times and words; our materiality as humans is quite possibly one and the same. Ultimately however, the materiality of all writing may be time itself, which does not change—just as ‘si’ (the tense-less time of Chinese death) does not change. The unchanging virtual, across language and time, creates change in the actual. Nothing is ever really still—least of all, we say, still life.

Which leaves us where, precisely, with regard to our marking out of the territory of the still-life genre? It would appear that one could as well write anything at all as write still life. But doesn’t this risk making the genre of still-life writing meaningless?

In part to counter this risk, we will conclude by analysing an extract from Patrick West’s (2008) short story ‘Nhill’ as literary writing that, not solely through its brutal material form as writing, suggests still life as a formal and contentual matter of time and death. In doing this, we are also testing more rigorously the presumption of our article that visual-arts and Deleuzean cinema theory is useful to the practice and the critique of creative writing. If this syncretic approach proves viable, it will also allow us to gauge the value, more specifically, of thinking of the writer, on the model of the ‘Yin Yang’, as one who (going where Deleuze’s [1989] theory of the time-image does not go) (un-)settles affairs of time around the traumatic experience of death itself, in Chinese culture.

Written and re-written extensively over almost twenty years until its latest publication in The Penguin book of the road (2008), and based on an initial fieldtrip to the locations it takes as its primary settings, West’s ‘Nhill’ is a story of a couple experiencing relationship difficulties and their trek through Victoria’s Little Desert, on the outskirts of Nhill, to a salt lake. Here are some sections from the middle of the story:

Across the lake we could see three waterbirds still as statues, a little way in from the opposite shore. They did not disturb at all the few centimetres of water they were at rest in. It gave out almost nothing, that saltwater: without movement and shallow at every point. Reflections from the surface of the lake were mixed with the appearance of its bottom … Ridges of land that began well back in the desert around us continued out into the lake as thin fingers of earth, like the spokes of a gigantic wheel, which dropped beneath the surface only when almost to the middle. They were the ribs of the Little Desert, I had thought to myself, and this was its watery heart.

The ducks’ heads were nestled comfortably into the plumage of their napes. Nothing stirred. All between our words was without noise. For a moment, I almost believed that I could watch the silence that surrounded us. It had been as if the visible landscape—the few trees; the copper-coloured, needle-like grass—were listening to what we said, finding it eventually acceptable, and allowing our utterances to pass back into the quietness unhindered.

We had arrived. The two of us. At a heart of salt.

Water usually darkens whatever it touches, and I have read somewhere that this proves it is not really crystalline but pure black, which is to say that it makes things black by an invariable law of change and resemblance. Nowhere in even the immediate vicinity of the lake, however, did the colour of the sand vary from the salty whiteness presented by other parts of the Little Desert …

A million days of evaporation, my wife said through a mouthful of bread and mortadella, had done something to the Little Desert to make its surface impervious to the effects of water. An element in the rain was not taking on the sand, I had thought without saying.

When we made up our minds to go it was in sadness. A single duck’s cry carried to our ears with almost no volume at all, the smallest increment imaginable before deafness begins (West 2008: 66-68).

Patrick had not thought of his story as still life, over almost two decades of revisions, until a critic’s review appeared drawing attention to its ‘oddly attentive landscape’ (Falconer 2006: 44). The notion of ‘attentiveness’ suggested a connection to Deleuze’s notion of the still life as a ‘presence and composition of objects which are wrapped up in themselves or become their own container’ (1989: 16). Any ‘attentive’ object/landscape, it could be said, has such an extra, containing skin. Relatedly, the very idea, as announced by the narrator, of water as an element that ‘makes things black by an invariable law of change and resemblance’ (West 2008: 67) suggests Deleuze’s still-life notion of time giving ‘what changes the unchanging form in which the change is produced’ (Deleuze 1989: 17). Like time, water does not change, but it changes. (The fact that here water seems not to change other things—the sand remains white—is a creative variant on the philosophy of still life that we signal here as a little something for future investigation.)

With the benefit of hindsight, the ‘quasi-poetic’ quality of some of the very short sentences in West’s story also seems, to the author at least, to hint at still life in the way that poetry ‘is attentive to itself’—always already aware of itself as writing.

In any event, once an initial connection between ‘Nhill’ and still life had been made—thanks to a critic’s review—other connections, implications and teasing parallels began to tumble out.

Despite the undoubted way in which she livens up the literature of still life, mathematician Marcolli’s (2013) brisk enumerations of various of its sub-genres as examples of scientific concepts of space and time threaten, we feel, to become mere allegories of still life, with the one-to-one correspondence of instance to idea characteristic, at least in its traditional forms, of allegory (Jameson 1986: 73). In other words, they don’t stir things up much. This said, Marcolli’s reading of Giorgio Morandi’s still-life paintings, under the sub-heading ‘Existence as space without time,’ resonates strongly with our personal impressions of ‘Nhill’. Morandi, for Marcolli, exemplifies

an absolute stillness, which can only be defined as space in the absence of time … with usually no clear delimitation of surrounding space. It is an indefinite space, an aperion, as far as the background framing is concerned, while it is a tightly bound image of proximity relations in the cluster of objects occupying the centre stage of the painting. There is little room for both volume and color … where the depth of space is meagre … Space here is absolute stillness (2013: 26).

Marcolli’s (2013) Morandi and ‘Nhill’ (West 2008) do not resonate only through the use, for example, of the phrase ‘still as statues’ (2008: 66) in West’s story, but in the sense of things being, as well as clustered around themselves (akin to Deleuze’s extra skin of the thing) clustered around a certain centripetalism of the scene (as Marcolli says: ‘a tightly bound image of proximity relations’ at ‘centre stage’ [2013: 26]). The saltwater that constitutes this scene’s centre stage, as if bound by a centripetal energy field, gives out ‘almost nothing’ (West 2008: 66). Likewise, on the plane of hearing, the ‘visible’ anthropomorphised landscape holds onto the watchers’ words for a while—brings them to the centre of the scene—before releasing them out into the surrounding ‘quietness’ (2008: 67). Additionally, the surrounding landscape of the scene is, we suggest, unclearly de-limited, ‘indefinite space’ (Marcolli 2013: 26). What could be the boundary of ‘quietness’ (West 2008: 67) within the surrounding ‘silence’ (2008: 66-67)? Again, on the visible level, the ‘ridges of land that began well back in the desert around us …’ feel as if they are disappearing off centre stage into a horizon-less absence (2008: 66). To conclude with the comparison between Marcolli’s Morandi and ‘Nhill’, we might even hazard that ‘volume and colour’ (Marcolli 2013: 26) are absent from this still-life writing: the grass is almost volume-less—in fact ‘needle-like’ (West 2008: 67); the ‘duck’s cry’ has ‘almost no volume at all;’ and water, as mentioned above, does not instigate the change in colour it is said to (2008: 68).

Marcolli’s reading only seems to falter, for our comparative purposes, on the matter of whether West’s short story truly suggests a Morandi-like ‘space in the absence of time’ (Marcolli 2013: 26). Bryson’s linkage of still life to human ‘conditions of creaturality’ (1990: 13) like eating may be said to buttress the idea of ‘Nhill’ as still life in that eating is foregrounded in the line ‘my wife said through a mouthful of bread and mortadella’ (West 2008: 67). What we find more suggestive though is Bryson’s observation, cited already above, that still life is ‘the genre at the furthest remove from narrative’ (1990: 9). At the furthest remove from narrative but not completely without time … Pace Marcolli, what seems instead to be in evidence in ‘Nhill’ is a certain verticality (even para-indigenous notion) of time—especially in the line ‘a million days of evaporation’ (West 2008: 67). Time here is time spatialised, thickly layered into place, but still time for all that. To us, it seems—time-image like—to be ‘coiled-up’ time: energy stored for some explosive movement …

So much then, for the time being at least, for time, but what of death as the other major strand of our still-life investigations in this article? We think ‘Nhill’ can also be identified as still life—even, perhaps, as a story-telling exercise in death by a ‘Yin-Yang writer’—on the basis that its still-life (Deleuzean time-image) qualities of time parallel the theory of time essential to the Chinese approach to death. Interestingly, some say that the town of Nhill in Victoria’s Wimmera region gets its name from a corruption of the Aboriginal word ‘Nyell’ meaning ‘the abode of spirits.’ (There is a possible link here to the Chinese afterlife, ‘Yin Jian’.)

Furthermore, death also seems present in ‘Nhill’, if we follow the path opened up for us by the comparison with Chinese-time still life, in the almost preternatural notions of the sensations of the desert (like the ‘single duck’s cry’ at the boundary of deafness) (West 2008: 68). In fact, this is reminiscent of how the Chinese afterlife or ‘Still Life’ (‘Yin Jian’) can only be apprehended, as we described above, through a prehension surpassing the five senses. One could even venture that the waterbirds ‘still as statues’ are perhaps actual statues, dead instances of still life in this natural landscape (2008: 66). And certainly the notion of a heart that is ‘watery’ suggests some sort of (human) death transplanted into or onto the landscape (2008: 66). Death here, clearly, is not merely ‘Vanitas’.

In conclusion then, we suggest that Western still-life theory borrowed from the visual arts (including cinema), especially when it is complemented with Chinese notions of death and time, is potentially useful to both the theoretical/critical reception and the creative production of literary writing in the still-life genre. The example of ‘Nhill’ also shows, we hope, how the abstractions of theory/criticism may endlessly and recursively circulate through creative-arts practice, benefitting both of these. We suggest that the hoped-for recovery of the still-life genre as art-historical category and object of theoretical/critical reflection cannot be separated from a liberated practice of literary, still-life writing. (What this would mean for painterly still life per se is a research question best pursued another time.) Nevertheless, as creative writers in the fiction and creative non-fiction modes, Marcolli’s call for ‘a new chapter of the “still life” genre’ still rings in our ears (2013: 3)! Our engagement with our own creative work—including its tropes, themes and writing processes—has been just one element of our response to Marcolli’s address to artists. Constantly refreshed practice and constantly refreshed theory should ultimately nurture and sustain both each other and the genre.

We hope that this article has contributed, in some modest way, to the recovery of the neglected still-life genre as both theory and practice, within an increasingly globalised world of Asian-Western cultural, theoretical and artistic (especially cross-artform) synergies, as these are woven through materialisms of time, writing and death. We also hope that it may lead to new research and discoveries by other writers in a range of creative genres, of which poetry or ‘poetic prose’ might offer the greatest return.



End notes

  • 1. This link to ‘Chinese graves’ discusses but does not actually show an image of an unkempt Chinese grave. Such images are relatively rare, as traditional Chinese culture holds that even the dissemination of an image of a haphazardly located grave can upset the relations between life and death. Photographs can bring back something bad. In deference to traditional Chinese culture, we have omitted any direct links to images of wild graves.
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Barnes, J 1996 ‘Evermore’, in Cross channel, London: Jonathan Cape, 91-109

Barrett, E 2007 ‘Introduction’, in E Barrett and B Bolt (eds) Practice as research: approaches to creative arts enquiry, London: I B Tauris, 1-13

Boundas, C V 1997 ‘Deleuze on time and memory’, Antithesis 8: 2, 11-29

Bryson, N 1990 Looking at the overlooked: four essays on still life painting, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

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Deleuze, G 1992 Cinema 1: the movement-image, London: Athlone Press

Deleuze, G 1989 Cinema 2: the time-image, London: Athlone Press

Falconer, D 2006 ‘Radical Drewe’, Australian book review, rev. of The best Australian stories 2006, December 2006-January 2007, 43-44

Hamilakis, Y and J Labanyi 2008 ‘Introduction: time, materiality, and the work of memory’, History & memory 20: 2 Fall/Winter, 5-17

Jameson, F 1986 ‘Third-world literature in the era of multinational capitalism’, Social text 15 Autumn, 65-88

Kristeva, J 1989 Language: the unknown: an initiation into linguistics, New York: Columbia University Press

Marcolli, M 2013 ‘Still life as a model of spacetime’, at (accessed 14 January 2013)

West, P 2008 ‘Nhill’, in D Falconer (ed) The penguin book of the road, Melbourne: Viking-Penguin Books, 61-70

The authors wish to thank the anonymous referees of this article for their generous, detailed and instructive suggestions.