"Discourse, traceable for some back to the Greeks, problematised the experience of art as magic when it was called out as mimesis, imitation. Much of what is written about art is still caught up, in one way or another, with how to frame the experience of looking at an artwork, and therefore doubly caught up with problems posed by discourse. As it stands, it is easy to mistake the experience of discourse for the experience of art. This makes me sensitive to the fact that the most effective obstruction to experiencing images as a form of magic is an academic treatment of the subject. Breton said as much when he warned against magic becoming another ‘object of study’. To do so would be to join his ‘civilisation of professors’ who, ‘in order to explain to us the life of a tree, does not feel completely at ease until all the sap has been drawn from it’. Milledge’s paintings allow for magic by eluding discourse, escaping the categorising impulse of the academic gaze. Eluding, too, the researcher trying to organise the research."
If we really look at images with the intensity we bestow, say, on a lover’s face, they have a habit of revealing hidden histories and associative links. Looking at these paintings leaning against Milledge’s studio wall, I think of early icons, where the act of devotion is embedded in the practice of representation (to make something is to feel closer to it). I think of the nineteenth century German physician and poet Justinus Kerner who began, with failing eyesight, to turn inkblots that spilt onto his pages into fantastical creatures (which he called ’Klecksopgraphs’); or of Léopold Survage preparing, in the early twentieth century, watercolour after watercolour for an imagined abstract colour film, before the technology to make such a film was available (Colored Rhythm: Study for the Film, 1913.) That is, I think of images that, even if ‘finished’, hold a tension between the pre-rational and the planned, and the possibility of continuous animation and transformation. Milledge’s practice relies on this potential for images to continue to speak beyond the moment of their exhibition, and in excess of any discursive treatment. She believes, I think, in the psychic energy of images, and works hard to point to, and elude, the discursive burdens placed on art, purposively cultivating the mythopoeic and the magical in her paintings, sculptures and performances.
All of this reminds me of what the German art historian (or ‘cultural scientist’) Aby Warburg called a history of art ‘with no fear of border guards’. In Warburg’s weird, wonderful and unfinished project, BilderAtlas Mnemosyne, begun in 1927, Warburg arranged a vast collection of images in clusters on fabric-covered panels. At the time of his death in 1929, there were sixty-three panels in all, presenting a history of art without text; constellations of images that brought together ancient cosmology, medieval Arabic and European Renaissance astrology, Lutheran Reformation, Mannerist festivals, the sacred dances of Native Americans, as well as newspaper clippings, postcards and advertising. The depictive quality of an image prompted associations with other images that would otherwise never meet or have the chance to ‘talk’. These arrangements (which he rearranged obsessively) were a method for invoking the past in the present, and conjuring the ‘afterlife of antiquity’ (he described the project as ‘ghost stories for adults’).
Words were not exactly absent from Warburg’s project; they instead formed a sort of spell. He framed the project in fragments, creating a ‘thought space’ (Denkraum) with writing which he considered a form of ‘conceptual magic’. These aphoristic formulas were meant to activate the reading of the panels he had meticulously prepared, but not explain them. As he wrote, ‘These images and words are help for those who come after me in their attempt to achieve clarity, and thus to overcome the tragic tension between instinctive magic and discursive logic. They are the confessions of an (incurable) schizoid, deposited in the archives of mental healers’. Arguably, a skewed version of Warburg’s project is realised every time we search for images on Google, where a phrase or word is run through a heavily protected algorithm like a spell, producing an array of images that may relate to each other according to subject, name, colour, size and so on. Yet this is a form of madness presented as clarity, an irrational dumping ground offered as an ordered, rational engine. Is there not work to be done in revealing the madness to any claim of a natural ordering of the world? It is, in my mind, the same sort of work as seeing madness as a form of clarity."