Departing late afternoon, the flight from Toronto to Frankfurt is a journey from darkness into light—and on this occasion (6 May 1994), in more ways than one. On our route to two conferences, we make time for a visit to the MMK, the Museum Für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt Am Main, stumbling out of the Hauptbahnhof at what should be midnight to encounter market stalls already set up and morning coffee being served at tables that line the cobblestone street. Hans Hollein designed the MMK as a temple of light, one befitting a sun king: the museum’s triangular structure could pass on its exterior, for perspective’s “visual pyramid,” while in its intellectual interior, it features a complex layout of roof cuts, wall washers, and enormous, vaulting windows. Wandering through this dazzling house of display, the luminous white of its walls seeming to hide their own visibility in favour of the artworks on exhibit, we are drawn to one particular installation, James Turrell’s Twilight Arch, the only work held in a small room that, much unlike the rest of the museum, is dimly lit. Not a framed painting, we realize only after our eyes adjust to the darkness, but a rectangle of pure light set into a recess on the facing wall, Twilight Arch catches us gazing at an absent image, seeing ourselves seeing—and seeing seeing as misperceiving; a show of light that, in the MMK of all places, reminds us of the blindness that belongs inseparably to sight. [End Page v]
It can be no coincidence that, in his autobiographical long poem, The Hornbooks of Rita K, Robert Kroetsch recounts the disappearance in the MMK of the poet, Rita Kleinhart, whose life is here being narrated by her archivist and former lover, Raymond. “Kleinhart was invited, during the late spring of 1992, to visit Germany and lecture briefly to the Canadianists at Trier University,” Raymond tells us in Hornbook #99. “On her way back from Trier she paid a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt and while at the museum mailed a number of postcards to friends. She was not seen alive thereafter” (8). Several pages later, in Hornbook #53, Raymond explains that the moment of Rita’s disappearance was a moment of looking:
There in Frankfurt, on the occasion of Rita’s disappearance (and I was standing beside her in that darkened room where one believes one is looking at a framed painting only to discover, as one’s eyes adjust to the dark, that one is staring into a faintly lit recession set blankly into a blank wall), I turned to remark that I found James Turrell’s “Twilight Arch” compelling nevertheless, for all the absence of an image. I turned and she was not there.(37)
One of Canada’s foremost poets, novelists, and critics, RK, over some five decades, questioned how to inherit an old world tradition that, among other things, elevates the author-poet as a seer-creator whose vision is equated with knowing. Born in a homestead dwelling near Heisler, Alberta, on a prairie that is as vast as it is empty, RK asks in Seed Catalogue how one “grows a poet” in the absence of the heritage of the sovereign, all-seeing, self:
How do you grow a past / to live in
the absence of silkworms the absence of clay and wattles (whatever the hell they are) the absence of Lord Nelson the absence of kings and queens the absence of a bottle opener, and me with a vicious attack of the 26-ounce flu the absence of both Sartre and Heidegger(11–12, emph. Kroetsch’s)
Horse barns aplenty around Heisler, but no pyramids, “the absence of the Parthenon, not to mention the Cathédrale de Chartres” (12), and of course, the absence of Versailles, where the Sun King, Louis XIV, was wont to portray the indis-sociability, within the modern European tradition, of the concepts of seeing, knowing, and possessing. For example, in many well-known paintings of a scene that [End Page vi] Jacques Derrida discusses in the first volume of his final seminar on The Beast and the...