– Spring/Summer 2000

It Must Be the Weather. Today's Forecast: Again, Mainly Capitalism

Shepherd Steiner

Jeff Wall, A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993, transparency in lightbox, 229 x 377. Courtesy of the artist.

Jeff Wall, A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993, transparency in lightbox, 229 x 377. Courtesy of the artist.

If ever there was something on the order of a universal thematic for linking disparate peoples, classes, genders, generations, etc., it would have to be the weather. Not for any deeply philosophical reason. No, simply because weather is the very stuff of small talk. It is the paradigmatic subject for idle chit-chat. How the weather has been, what the weather will do and how very inclement and perfectly sublime the weather now is, are all ideal subjects for light social dialogue. Striking up a conversation? Try the weather. At a loss for words or simply bored? Again, the weather. Bit of a stiff knee? Most certainly the weather.

In his Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues, Flaubert writes under the heading weather: 'Eternal topic of conversation. Universal cause of ailments. Always complain of the weather.' It seems what was true in the late 19th century is still true today. At an awkward moment in conversation, who among us has not greeted a turn to the weather like an old friend, and there in the midst of it - tension and anxiety dissipating - relaxed and breathed easy once again. If empty, superficial, and somewhat ignoble, the topic of weather seems to provide a locus of commonality between otherwise alien perspectives. Even if it only does forge the fiction of a social bond, the power of the weather to bridge the problem of difference seems undeniable. Via some undisclosed transition or turn, the weather normalises

  1. Gustave Flaubert, Flaubert's Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, London: Max Reinhardt, 1954, p.82

  2. Ibid., p.21

  3. Quoted in Richard Serra, Writings, Interviews, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, p.199

  4. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, J. Osborne (trans.), London; Verso, 1977, p.235

  5. See Paul Alpers, What is Pastoral, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p.35

  6. Quoted in Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art, New York: Zone Books, 1989, p.162

  7. M. Bakhtin, Problems in Dostoevsky's Poetics, op. cit., p.137/ For a further discussion of black humour, menippean satire, and allegory in Wall's work see Jean Francois Chevrier, Play, Drama, Enigma, in Jeff Wall, Paris: Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, 1995, pp.11–16.

  8. See, for instance, Madeleine Schuppli's reading of Beauty, attentive to precisely this problematic, Madeleine Schuppli, 'It is only when the flow of the expected is broken that we stand, awestruck, in the presence of the miraculous', in Olafur Eliasson, Kunsthalle Basel, 1997.

  9. See Jonathan Crary's insightful comments on Elliason's work which are similarly staged between these alternatives. Jonathan Crary, 'Olafur Eliason: Visionary Events', in Olafur Eliasson, Kunsthalle Basel, 1997.

  10. W. Benjamin, op. cit., p.173.

  11. Steven Knapp, Sublime Personification, in Personification and the Sublime, Milton to Coleridge, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985, pp.66–97.

  12. Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, London: Pan books, 1979, p.1

  13. Ibid., p.76.

  14. See Daniel Birnbaum, 'The Sun', in Olafur Eliasson, Users, Bienal de São Paulo, 1998.

  15. Immanuel Kant, 'Section 19', Critique of Judgment, W.S. Pluhar (trans.), Indianapolis; Hacked Publishing Co., 1987, p.270

  16. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, R. Hullot-Kentor (trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970 , p.72

  17. Mike Kelley and Julie Sylvester, 'Talking Failure', Parkett, no.31, 1992, p.103.

  18. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, H. Eiland and K. McLauglin (trans.), Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, p.106

  19. Ibid., p.101. I have benefited greatly from T.J. Clark's reading of the weather and its unpredictability. See especially his introduction and 'We Field Women' in Farewell to an Idea. Episodes from a History of Modernism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. For his specific passages quoting Bakhtin see 'The Unhappy Consciousness', also in Farewell to an Idea, p.305. Bakhtin's quotations are respectively: Mikhail Bakhtin and V.N. Volsinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, L. Matejka and I.R. Titunuk (trans.), London: Seminar Press, 1986, p.86; M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, C. Emerson and M. Holquist (trans.), Austin; University of Austin Press, 1981, p.293; M. Bakhtin and V.N. Volosinov, op.cit., p.86 and M. Bakhtin, op. cit., p. 276

  20. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems in Dostoievsky's Poetics, C. Emerson (ed. and trans.), Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1984, pp.184 and 203.

  21. Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall, Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994, pp.31-32